Home  |  Fiction  |  Poetry  |  References  |  Essays  |  Links  |  Recommendations  |  New

Fleur and Lacroix

an alternate universe Forever Knight fanfiction

December 1998
(last modified March 19, 2003)

by Amy R.

Preface   |   Endnote

01: Janette, Toronto 1996  |  02: Lacroix, Brabant 1229  |  03: Natalie, Toronto 1996  |  04: Fleur, Brabant 1229  |  05: Nick, Toronto 1996  |  06: Nick, Brabant 1229  |  07: Natalie, Toronto 1996  |  08: Fleur, Brabant 1229  |  09: Janette, Toronto 1996  |  10: Henry, Brabant 1229  |  11: Lacroix, Toronto 1996  |  12: Nick, Toronto 1996 


Chapter 01  --  1996 Toronto


    "May I have this dance?"  The blond, mortal man laid his hand on Janette's gloved left arm where it rested on the bar, his traditional phrasing and polite smile somehow incongruous with the driving beat of the music on the Raven's sound system.

    Even more incongruous, however, was Janette's reaction, as she ripped her arm away and snarled, all but baring the fangs that had dropped into place at his touch.  Luckily, consciousness overcame instinct before her eyes could blaze or her lips part, before the man could see anything that would require either his mesmerism or his death -- luckily, because the Raven was currently the center of far too much official attention as it was, with mortal gawkers and reporters inevitably following the police on the Kharam decapitation case, and vampire Enforcers waiting none-too-subtly in the wings.  Janette could not afford to have any of her patrons disappear under any circumstances for at least the rest of the year, and with all the effort she had spent drilling that into the fledglings, she could hardly believe she had very nearly brought it on herself.  With an effort of will, she retracted her fangs, shook her head gently, bestowed a dazzling smile on the confused mortal who had had the temerity to ask her to dance, and strode out of the public areas of the club as fast as she could without lifting both feet from the ground.

    Locking the doors behind her with an audible sigh of relief, Janette sunk onto the antique crimson davenport dominating her small parlor, and poured herself a goblet of undiluted blood from the bottle on the end-table.  Outwardly, the man's offense had been light enough.  Indeed, it had been no offense at all.  She might have liked to dance . . . .  Things had been tense -- very tense -- in the Toronto vampire community in general, and in the Raven in particular, for the past few nights, but that was no excuse.  Shocked by her own unaccountable edginess, Janette made herself breathe deeply after every sip, a discipline that helped her focus on the sources of her feelings rather than their bubbling surface.  She had been like this for a time after she had given up cigarettes for social reasons in January -- a purely psychosomatic withdrawal, given her vampiric constitution, though withdrawal all the same.  But that had been over and done for months.  And if the troubles Divia had brought down on them all were going to overwhelm her, either in herself or in overflow from Lacroix, they would surely have done so the night before last . . . wouldn't they?  Janette shivered slightly, absently rubbing her left arm and deliberately not thinking about Urs and Vachon and the others who had died so horribly in the demon child's wake.

    Quickly pouring herself another goblet of blood, Janette took it by its rim and climbed the stairs to the roof of the Raven.  Feeling oddly trapped, pressured and pulled in two directions, like a rope being climbed and spooled at the same time, or a bit of metal caught between magnets, she was almost claustrophobic with the need to find some emotional space for herself.  Once out in the cool night air, however, the sight of the unending sky soothed the threads vibrating so inharmoniously in her mind.  Sipping from her goblet and staring out at the lights of Toronto, she briefly considered going up for a flight.  It was an inviting thought, compelling and even insistent once it arose, as if she were not in quite the right place relative to something else.  But she shook her head and decided against it, even so.  She had made it a practice not to leave the club during business hours ever since Miklos moved on last summer, and besides . . .

    Lacroix might need her.

    Oh, he had said he did not need anything, when it had become impossible for him to remain silent.  But they knew he lied.  Even Nicolas -- mortality-obsessed Nicolas who, under most circumstances, would rather remove one of his own limbs than give the appearance of obeying their master -- had sat by him through the day.  A small smile flitted across Janette's face at the thought of Nicolas's attitude that morning: an equal mix of the open compassion that was all his own, and the second-hand distress that she, too, was receiving as Lacroix's turmoil prevented him from maintaining his impenetrable lock on that side of their links.  Ironically, Janette thought, the muted flow of images from Lacroix to his children was doing more to keep Nicolas at his side than any of his conscious efforts in past centuries, when he had kept that flow firmly dammed and Nicolas's rebellion had proceeded apace.  Finishing the last dregs of blood in her goblet, Janette wondered briefly whether she would understand Lacroix as well as she did if she had never made a convert, a child.  But Nicolas had done that more than once himself, and either understood their master not at all, or far better than she did -- a possibility that hardly bore thinking about, to Janette's mind.  Perhaps some things are simply unavoidable, she thought, and from Divia on down no choice or decision could ever have made the family other than what it was.

    The family.

    Suddenly able to put a name and a face and, indeed, a blood scent to her odd mood of the past hour, Janette smiled in pleased satisfaction and started back down the stairs.  Of course.  Even vampire senses dulled with distance and disuse, apparently, and it had been so long since they had all four been together, but -- of course.  Of course she was coming.

    And of course she was upset.

    With purpose but without haste, Janette returned to the club and ensconced herself in her favorite booth, subtly avoiding the mortal patrons to forestall any further incidents.  Her long black dress and long black gloves left only her face and shoulders visible, floating ghostlike in the shadows beyond the swirling lights of the dance floor.  She waited, watching, deliberately dampening the mixed emotions these reunions inevitably brought, until finally the door's opening made her features soften slightly, in a way only those few who could bring on that expression would ever be able to interpret.

    That other irrevocable bond in her life, the one of her own making, the counterbalance to her master, her father, had just arrived.

    Her convert.

    Her daughter.


    Appearing more than a little out of place, her cable-knit, gray sweater tucked into belted, khaki slacks, with a practical canvas pack slung over her shoulder, the young-looking blonde paused on the stairs of the Raven to allow her vampiric senses to adjust to the heightened volumes of information pressing in on every level.  The voices, the music, the scents of blood and wine and sweat: Janette knew that while Fleur understood, intellectually, why she always created these sensual cocoons for herself, the younger vampire had never been able to identify.  These places where Janette invited the human and vampire worlds to swirl briefly together held no appeal for her daughter, who preferred always to keep them separate.  Like Lacroix, Fleur preferred individuals to societies; like Nicolas, she could rarely be made to stay still when there was yet a mountain of which she had not seen the other side; like her own, irrepressible self, Fleur was always ready to trade old knowledge for new with the reverence of an acolyte and the enthusiasm of a child -- but Janette did not see that trait in Fleur's eyes just then, as she descended the stairs and crossed to the bar.  Instead, Janette saw weariness and worry, and she unconsciously cradled her left arm as she wondered if Fleur had been feeding properly.

    Janette recalled herself from her distraction as she heard the mortal bartender ask Fleur, "Do you have any other ID, miss?"

    "What?" the seven-hundred-eighty-five year-old teenager demanded, giving the man a look she had learned from Lacroix during the Inquisition.  The huge mortal blanched visibly and returned her apparently-unconvincing license with a trembling hand, but still refused to serve her a drink.  Janette heard her sigh, and knew that Fleur was not in the mood for smoothing it over either by batting her eyes or baring her fangs tonight.  Fleur knew that something important had happened, something far more important than petty, mortal rules.

    Something important enough to bring her home.

    Fleur just did not yet know what that something was, Janette reminded herself, and rose to join her daughter at the bar.

    "Look," Fleur rubbed her eyes wearily before attuning herself to the mortal’s beating heart, the British accent she had adopted for most of this century slipping through the cracks of her attempt to sound Canadian.  She always had been better with written languages than spoken ones, Janette recalled with amusement.  "You will bring me a glass of the house special."

    "It is hardly polite to tamper with the help," Janette murmured in her ear, appearing at her shoulder as if from nowhere.  "And since Don Constantine and your brother the homicide detective have both kindly sent down word that the police are instituting a crackdown on underage drinking . . . ?"

    Fleur stared at Janette for a long moment.  Uncountable emotions flickered across her face as she took in her maker's proximity, and a certain tension drained almost visibly from her slender form.  Then she smiled, fishing her wallet back out of her pack and placing it in Janette's familiar hand.  For some things, there are no words.

    "Ah, 'Daisy Miller' again, I see.  And here I had been hoping for 'Lily Bart,'" Janette teased lightly -- the century-old, age-related, literary barb going right over the bartender's head -- before showing him "Rose Clark's" impeccably-forged license and gesturing for him to fetch two drinks.  "It is fine, Louis."  In fact, the only possible problem with the identification was the extra decade unconvincingly added to her mortal tally; Fleur routinely resented her diminishing relative age, because of the diminishing respect it brought.  By the time society had allowed women to openly do the things Fleur wanted to do, it had begun forbidding things to people who looked as young as she did.  Janette had been much the same age when she had come across herself, but those years, more harshly lived, weighed more heavily on her appearance than they did on her daughter's.  Snapping the wallet shut and returning it to Fleur, Janette wondered how she had convinced Aristotle to distort the number, or if she had simply done the job herself.  "If it soothes your ruffled petals, 'Rose,'" the elder vampire cocked her head, "Louis's instructions do not usually include pressing those who properly request the house special, but we are already being watched rather heavily after some recent . . . irregularities."

    Gratefully taking a goblet from Louis, Fleur echoed, "'Irregularities'?"

    Janette shook her head, and gestured for Fleur to follow her back into the living quarters beyond the club.  This explanation was something to be kept not merely from the ears of mortals, but even from vampires outside the family.  Knowledge was power, and Janette had never been one to make herself vulnerable.  Locking the doors behind them, Janette turned to find herself in her daughter's arms, and though she would not have initiated the display of emotion, it was several moments before she could bring herself to break the embrace.

    "It's been too long," Fleur said, naturally lapsing into French while they were alone.  As Janette stepped back, the brunette vampire thought she saw the faintest, moist shimmer of red in the corners of Fleur's eyes.

    "You do not have to stay away, you know," Janette returned almost sternly, also in French, pushing a stray curl back behind Fleur's ear before walking across the room and seating herself on the crimson-cushioned davenport next to the empty fireplace.

    "From you, no," Fleur agreed, seating herself in the opposite corner.  "But they do make it difficult, you know.  Where is he, Janette?"  When her master did not answer immediately, Fleur added, "Please.  What has been happening the last two nights? I've been feeling it, Janette -- from you both. If you do not need me, then it is Lucien, and he needs me very much indeed."

    "Most weeknights, he would have been here.  He began broadcasting his radio program from the club last autumn -- part of some plan to 'reclaim' Nicolas, I think.  I did not ask."

    "You never do," Fleur said quietly, biting back her impatience.

    Janette inclined her head in acknowledgment, and sipped contemplatively at her drink, sorting thoughts of things long past and things recently past.  Finally, she set her goblet carefully on the end-table and slowly peeled off her left evening glove.  She offered her hand to Fleur, and the younger vampire gasped as Janette rotated her arm to expose the underside of her wrist, and the puckered, pink scar running from it to her elbow.  It would have been the well-healed mark of a years' old wound, had a mortal borne it, but on Janette's milky, vampiric flesh it seemed almost to pulse with unnatural horror.  Fleur put her forefinger in her mouth, bit it open, and then gently traced the length of Janette's scar in her own blood; but though Fleur's finger healed completely almost before she lifted it from Janette's skin, and that skin immediately absorbed every drop of the blood, both as all vampire injuries should, there was no change whatsoever in the scar.

    "What . . ." Fleur began, her huge eyes wide with both fascination and sympathy.  "How . . . ?"

    Janette pulled back her hand and replaced her glove, not meeting Fleur's gaze.  "Divia."

    Fleur gagged slightly at the name, and, Janette thought, perhaps also at hearing it from lips other than Lacroix's.  There were parts of his past that he had chosen to share only with Fleur, no doubt, but certainly others which Fleur merely chose to believe he had shared only with her.  That there was little Fleur knew that Janette did not eventually discern was a fact politely ignored among the family when times were good, and too often wielded like a blazing torch when times were not.  Being the master of her master's lover could sometimes be trying on its own, but dealing as well with Nicolas's shallowly-buried resentment at his unavoidable exclusion from that cycle . . . .

    Divia's appearance, though, had forced from Lacroix something Janette believed he had tried to bury with her in Egypt all those centuries ago, something she doubted even Fleur had known.

    "Divia is dead," Fleur stated firmly, nevertheless moving to the door with a haste that betrayed her agitated desire to be somewhere else -- with Lacroix, Janette knew, and though she had been pondering it since the moment she identified her edginess as the arrival of Fleur's plane in Toronto, she still was unsure what affect that reunion would have on either of them.

    It was impossible to be absolutely certain, of course, but Janette believed that Fleur and Lacroix had not seen each other since they had quarreled over his burning of the Abbarrat -- the ancient "book of miracles" -- in 1966.  It was the closest Fleur and Nicolas had been in the four centuries since he gave up killing and withdrew from the family, and the most bitterly Fleur and Lacroix had disagreed in the same period, though sometimes, long ago, it had seemed as if every decision in their lives pivoted on that immortal sibling rivalry.  It was as if Fleur were the walking flashpoint of Nicolas's struggle with Lacroix -- and no wonder, as she had been the very first thing they contested . . . and an intensifier of every confrontation since.  Would things be different between Nicolas and Lacroix if they did not have Fleur to fight over?  Would things be different between Nicolas and Janette if they did not have Fleur between them?  Fleur certainly thought so, claiming that as one of the primary reasons for her prolonged disappearances from the family.

    Janette shook off the memories and musings, and gestured for Fleur to sit back down.  "Divia is dead . . . now.  Lacroix is alive, as are Nicolas and I.  Others," she tugged at her glove, "were not so lucky."  Fleur settled herself again on the davenport, and nodded for Janette to continue.  "You knew, I take it, that Lacroix's mortal daughter, Divia, brought him across the night Pompeii erupted, and that he decapitated her some twenty years later?  Good.  Thus it was rather a shock when she arrived in Toronto two nights ago, left a decapitated body at the bar, murdered several young vampires, and attempted to murder Nicolas and me before doing the same to her father.  She . . . injured . . . me, but chose to pursue Nicolas rather than finish me off, and was so eager to reach Lacroix that she made the same mistake a second time."  It briefly flashed through Janette's mind to be grateful that Fleur had been in Edinburgh; Divia would no doubt have seen this young-looking, blond, female vampire of her own bloodline as doubly a rival, and would never have made that error a third time.

    With that particularly in mind, Janette completed her relation of the story of Divia's rampage and its aftermath, holding back only one thing, the thing she suspected not even Fleur had known: the reason Lacroix had attempted to kill his own mortal daughter in the first place.

    "Your arm?" Fleur prompted.

    "Was cleansed and stitched and bound like a mortal's," Janette acknowledged.  "Nicolas is . . . very good friends . . . with a mortal doctor, who cared for my wound.  She is competent and discreet, and has taken care of various problems for the community, from time to time.  And of course she is working on a 'cure' for him."  Janette sighed resignedly.  "It is inevitable that the Enforcers know about her, but I leave it to her to manage coming across before they kill her.  Nicolas will not do it, of course.  Although, interestingly, the last time he had human blood was at her behest, three years ago, to bring across her dying brother . . . a disaster, naturally, and it has only reaffirmed his self-denial."

    "Nicolas is a zealot," Fleur noted shortly.  "No, I mean, why hasn't it healed?"

    Janette replenished the blood in her goblet and examined its color as if it were the most fascinating thing in the room.  "How are things at the laboratory?" she asked disingenuously.  "I know you prefer not to work so closely with mortals."

    Fleur blinked at the bizarre change of topic, and answered impatiently.  "It is difficult to be around them, of course, and no, I don't like it, but they are doing the cutting-edge biogenetics work that is behind my own projects at the moment.  If I'm careful, and stay one step ahead of the university's computers, I should be able to remain up to another five years.  Now -- your arm?"

    "Nicolas has scars on his neck, now, where Divia bit him," Janette remarked conversationally, feeling out the subject by evading it.  Subtlety had never been Fleur's strong suit.

    "I've heard about the so-called 'Ontario plague' this winter," Fleur pressed.  "The fever cases all seem to have been confined to North America, if rumor can be trusted, but no one is admitting to having had it, or even knowing anyone who had it.  Did you catch it?  Did Nicolas?  Divia's other victims?  Do you suppose this vulnerability is an aftereffect?"

    Janette looked at her impassively, her face a perfect, porcelain mask of indifference.  "Why do you suppose someone would not admit to such a thing?"

    "I'm not an Enforcer, Janette."

    "No."  Fleur's master cocked her head to the side, and permitted herself a slight smile.  "I am sure I would have noticed at some point if you had become one.  But you considered it."

    Fleur dropped her eyes, and a sharp shiver ran through her frame.  "It was not worth it.  I wanted to know what they knew, but it just was not worth it."  Janette watched her fight down an unpleasant memory, and then look up.  "They suppress knowledge.  Fear of them suppresses knowledge.  It is abominable."

    Janette nodded; this was the Fleur she knew, the woman who had left Lacroix over the burning of an irreplaceable book, and finally driven Nicolas to animal blood by her eagerness to explore her vampirism.  "I do not know why it has not healed, Fleur.  I do not know.  But I saw what Divia's poison could do; I saw a young vampire named Urs lying dead without sun or stake or decapitation.  I am grateful to be here . . ."  Janette paused for a moment, and tilted her head as she met Fleur's eyes.  "And, I must admit, I am hoping that it will yet heal.  After all, it has barely been forty-eight hours."  Fleur nodded reassuringly, but Janette was not deceived for a second.  She knew Fleur was humoring her, but as she was in a mood to be humored on that front, she did not question it.  Natalie had promised to make a house call before the sun set and the club opened the next night, and perhaps the doctor would be able to tell her something more.

    In tandem with Janette's thoughts, Fleur asked, "Is Nicolas's doctor friend working on this?  Does she have a theory?  Were any samples taken from Divia before she was burned?"

    "I assume Doctor Lambert is working as best she can, yes," Janette answered.  "My own supposition is that as Nicolas and I are Divia's descendants, so to speak, we had some resistance the others lacked.  But that is only a supposition, and there is nothing left of the demon child but ashes."

    Fleur set down her goblet, and pulled her legs up onto the cushion on which she sat, slipping out of her high-heeled shoes and hugging her knees to her chest.  She looked very still all of a sudden, the impatience that had previously characterized her demeanor coalescing into a quiet intensity.  She rested her chin on her knees.  "And so, that is what has been happening."


    A moment of silence stretched out in the wake of Janette's answer.  Anticipating the end of Fleur's reflections, Janette stood, drained the last of her drink, and stepped back into the club proper to have a word with her staff.  When she returned, she found Fleur sitting exactly as she had left her, but with the sound of the lock clicking shut, Fleur turned her gaze up to Janette's eyes and whispered, her voice as firm as it was soft, "Take me to him.  Please."

    Janette nodded, and led her up to the roof.  The flight to Lacroix's townhouse was brief and direct, but the very speed with which it was necessary to rush over the lighted streets to avoid mortal detection suddenly made Janette wistful for the unencumbered dark they had taken for granted for so long: the nights lit only by stars and the skies inhabited only by bats and owls.  Then, it had been so easy to float and play and drift, swimming through the air as through water.  Today, under the ever-present fear of exposure and termination by Enforcers, she knew most of the younger vampires had never even imagined there was more to flying than moving at top speed in a straight line.  She sighed as they alighted on Lacroix's fourth-floor balcony.  In response, Fleur cocked her head and smiled at her master, sharing an equally-nostalgic image of the first night the family had attempted to teach her to fly -- Nicolas, ridiculously concerned that she would be hurt; Janette, nervous about her own ability to guide her first convert and hiding it under a mask of impatience; Lacroix, absorbed in concerns Janette had never been able to unravel, and which had all but disappeared in the following years of Fleur's companionship.

    Fleur kissed her on the cheek, then moved immediately to the glass doors standing open to the night air, while the thick, ivory, outermost layer of curtains still billowed from the sudden wind of their arrival.  Following Fleur, Janette grasped one side of the hangings and held them apart in the center.  She stood on the threshold of the long room, which was lit only by the lamp on Lacroix's oak desk and the glow of his computer screen.  He had been working, Janette supposed, or at least making the appearance of it, and despite the contemporary furnishings, the lengthy approach from the balcony to where he sat, with his plush, high-backed chair turned away from them, reminded her of nothing so much as the reception chambers of the thousand petty princes in which Lacroix had held his own kind of court through the centuries.

    Janette remained at the entrance as Fleur advanced into the den.

    The Brabantian vampire stopped only when she reached the side of the desk, near enough to touch him, but not to see him unless he turned.  "Lucien?" she asked, though Janette knew Fleur was no more in doubt about Lacroix's presence than she was; no, it was an entirely different question contained in the name that, in this era, only she called him.

    And when Lacroix swiveled around in answer to that question; when he exposed his damp, red-tinged eyes to the light and whispered, "My Fleur . . . ;" when she threw herself into his arms as if he were the very air she breathed and she had been suffocating for lack of him; when that happened, then Janette stepped back out on the balcony and let the curtains fall between her and them.

    It was not that turning her back afforded them any significant privacy, she reflected, carefully resting her weight on her right arm rather than her left as she leaned on the wrought-iron railing and deliberately fastened her eyes on the view of the lake over the nearby houses.  Janette sensed Lacroix as Fleur did her, and she sensed Fleur as Lacroix did her; it was at times like this, when those threads pulled taut, that she most missed Nicolas.  If Fleur were going to comfort Lacroix's loss of Divia, then Janette would prefer the buffer of Nicolas's arms to any other . . . but the times in which he had been willing to play that role unconditionally were long, long gone, as tantalizing and ephemeral as the starlight reflected off the dark water.

    She might have returned to the Raven immediately, but lingered instead as the moon set, the persistent darkness indicating that clouds had begun rolling in, stalling the first rays of dawn.  Eventually, Lacroix emerged onto the balcony, as commanding and self-possessed as ever.

    "I always forget how tiny she really is until I see her with you," Janette noted for no apparent reason, and knew an answering smile had flickered across his lips, too quickly to see even had she been looking.  No one knew better than they how completely out of proportion Fleur's spirit was with her body.

    "You wish to tell me something," Lacroix observed, joining her at the railing and fixing his gaze on the water as well.

    "I did not tell her why you killed Divia in Egypt."

    "Ah," Lacroix returned.  "I see."  His voice was low and smooth, his words presented with the slight hesitation that had become the Nightcrawler's trademark, the indefinable pause declaring each word specially selected for what he wished it to convey.  "That is very . . . considerate . . . of you, Janette.  But though I had withheld that from you and Nicholas, Fleur knows.  She has . . . always . . . known."

    Almost as inscrutable as her master, Janette did not alter her expression, saying merely, "Of course," before leaping into the air and racing the sun to the Raven.  She knew that Fleur stepped out onto the balcony as she left; she knew Fleur would draw Lacroix's arms around her, and the two of them would watch the world around them like hawks -- like vampires -- until the dawn drove them inside.  Beyond that, she turned her thoughts instead to when, exactly, Fleur had learned that Lacroix had killed his young daughter, his master, for attempting to force him to become her lover, and when, exactly, Fleur had realized what that might have meant for her, had Lacroix been the one to bring her across . . . had he ever seen her as one of his children.

    In fact, Janette thought, perhaps that even explained a few things, after all.

Chapter 02  --  Brabant, 1229

[ Please note that all dialogue prior to the overt continuity divergence is quoted from "Be My Valentine" by Diane Cary, in a synthesis of the broadcast version and the 11/02/94 script.  Lacroix's narrative interpretation of that dialogue is my own, as are the punctuation and spelling. ]


    "Lucien, please, take me," Fleur asked, her voice full of suppressed anguish.  "Take me with you.  I cannot live without you."  The mortal girl craned her neck to look up into his face as she made that admission, and Lacroix found himself drowning, once again, in her huge blue eyes, even as she innocently bared the throat so enticingly unprotected by her low-cut, blue gown.  "Take me with you, or I may never see you again.  I could not bear that."

    Lacroix brought his hands up to her shoulders reflexively, and momentarily diverted his gaze to the torch burning at the castle wall, several lengths behind her.  "It appears to be affecting me as well," he said stiffly, attempting to smother, with innocuous, formulaic words, the powerful, unfamiliar emotions taking hold of him at the thought of leaving her behind.  The bond he had felt with her since the first time she touched him was unlike anything he had ever experienced as a vampire with a mortal; he had attempted to dismiss it, at first, as the similarity between her blood and her brother's, but when he had tasted her essence from the rose thorn's cut the previous night -- when he had known her as only a vampire could -- he had realized that the resonance was not with Nicholas, but with himself, and that to sever this connection would pain him as had nothing in centuries.

    "I thought I was used to the pain of separation," Fleur continued, and he pulled her close as he heard her struggling to maintain control of her feelings, just as he was.  She pressed her cheek to his chest, running her hands lightly over the black velvet of his tunic; he rested his chin on her hair and closed his eyes, almost unable to follow her words in the sensations of how perfectly her body fit along his, of how her vibrant mortal heart fluttered so close to his own sluggish one.  "There have been so many from my family . . . my father . . . Nicolas to the Crusades once, and now again.  But I have never felt such overwhelming sorrow. . . ."

    "My only comfort is a vision I have," he began soothingly, welcoming the sensation of his fangs descending.  "A fantasy that keeps playing in my mind . . . ."

    "I think I know," she whispered back.  "I dream that we will be together until our deaths."

    "No, no.  More exciting . . . much more satisfying than that," he promised, kissing her hair with his lips tightly closed.  Was this decision only because he had tasted her blood once, and had to have the rest? he demanded of himself.  Was this emotion mere sophistry masking simple physical needs?  He rejected the thought.  He had not bitten her; no predatory compulsion drove him to this.  Oh, he did want her blood, but, even more, he wanted her companionship.  There were so many things that he could share with her, which he had been able to share with no other.  "I imagine . . . that you and I will never die . . . that we will have each other for all eternity."

    "As if Jupiter had made us stars," Fleur responded wistfully, her self-sought education a link to the world of his mortality, almost as if she had been formed by the gods to understand him.  "To live forever!  What an impossible dream."

    "There is a way," he said, opening his eyes to a golden haze and brushing Fleur's equally-golden hair away from her neck as he lowered his fangs to her pulsing vein, the arousing honey-and-peach scent of her blood making further thought impossible.  "My precious flower."

    "Don't touch her!" Nicholas growled, suddenly hurtling out of nowhere and grabbing Lacroix's shoulder.  The ancient vampire spun on him, snarling: a predator challenged for his prey.  He had known his son was nearby, but had been too absorbed in Fleur to care just where or why. Master and convert faced each other, eyes glowing and fangs extended; Nicholas quickly seized Lacroix by his tunic and flew them both into the nearest stone wall.  "This is what he is, Fleur," the knight yelled roughly, holding Lacroix against the side of the building.  "Look at him!"  Nicholas kept his back to his sister as he exposed Lacroix's transformed visage to her, but finally turned to let Fleur see his own feral eyes and fangs as well.  "This is what I've become."

    Fleur looked from one to the other, her eyes wide, and Lacroix dropped his head to hide the unmistakable signs of his state.  He had not planned for his.  He knew that Nicholas expected her to see them as monsters; any woman -- any mortal -- would.  But when she spoke, it was, amazingly, not with fear and repulsion, but wonder and fascination.  "I understand now!  The odd sensations, the pallor of your faces, the strange behavior: I have heard of this -- the vampire!"

    "He will make you one of us," Nicholas informed her, "whether you desire it or not."

    "My only wish is to be with the one I love," Fleur declared, and Lacroix raised his face.  "Love."  It was the first time she had applied the word to him, and her straightforward sincerity made even its passing use a coveted thing.  "I am interested in so many things that are of another world.  Why should this be so different?"

    "Please, Fleur," Nicholas began, his features returning to normal as he crossed to her and took her hands.  "Listen to me.  I do not regret what I am.  But if you do this, who will remain in time?  No children.  No grandchildren.  No mortal soul.  When I chose this, the future of our family fell to you."

    "There is no future without Lucien!" Lacroix saw Fleur attempt to come to him as she made her objection, but Nicholas shifted his grip to her arms and held her firmly where she was.

    "This is not right for you, Fleur!  Or for our mother . . . to lose not only a son, but her daughter as well."  Lacroix wondered if Nicholas even recognized the hypocrisy behind his earnest demands.  It was not as if the Lady Marie would not be well-cared-for by the current Duke Henry -- her own children's older half-brother, whom Lacroix gathered she had raised from earliest infancy -- even away on a border patrol as he presently was.

    "She will lose me to grieving, if not to Lucien," Fleur declared firmly, and wrenched free of Nicholas, her blue dress swirling around her ankles and her blond hair around her neck as she defiantly positioned herself in front of the ancient Roman general, almost as if to protect him from her brother.  Lacroix settled his hands on her shoulders; she raised her right hand to cover his, and he looked at Nicholas with triumph.  Fleur's decision was made.  Neither the revelation of their vampirism, nor responsibility for the continuation of the family line, nor even appeals to her filial piety had swayed her in the least.  She would do anything to be with the one she loved.  He had won.

    "Whose heart do you choose to break, Nicholas?" Lacroix inquired rhetorically.  "Your mother's?  Your sister's?  Mine?"

    "For you, this is just another conquest, another death to satisfy your craving!"

    Lacroix looked down for a moment to keep from rolling his eyes.  For all the man's good qualities -- and there were a great many -- perceptiveness was not among them.  "Aren't you a bit confused, Nicholas?  She is mortal.  Therefore she will die, and all her beauty will die with her.  I can preserve that.  Forever."

    "Bring her over and she becomes a killer," Nicholas insisted, pacing across the court in disgust.  The fair-haired Crusader could almost have spat in his frustration at Fleur's stubbornness, Lacroix knew, but instead controlled his voice and directed his argument to his master.  "Cold-blooded -- her purity annihilated."

    Flexing his hands lightly on Fleur's shoulders, Lacroix dropped his face to her hair and briefly closed his eyes as she arched up into his touch.  The intensity of her personality, of her response to him, was like only one other he had ever known, and yet so completely unlike.  As pure in curiosity and compassion as the other had been in selfishness and evil.  So fierce, but so generous.  So . . . perfect.  Opening his eyes to Nicholas, Lacroix asked, "You would rather see this beauty wither to old age, and die?"

    Nicholas hesitated and shook his head slightly, groping for words.  "It is the beauty of her innocence that you love."  Lacroix might have laughed at the depth of misunderstanding inherent in that charge, but Nicholas continued with a quiet surety, "And that you will kill, with the first taste of her blood."  For the first time, one of Nicholas's verbal thrusts had struck home, however mistakenly it had been aimed.  In the light of experience rather than instinct, it burst on Lacroix what it would make her -- make him -- if he took her blood and then took her, and that shook him to the core.  Lacroix knew that the knight could see his defeat in his face, and that Fleur had only the dawning satisfaction in her brother's expression by which to judge the course of the argument determining her fate.  "If you truly love Fleur, Lacroix," Nicholas concluded with confidence, an infuriating, condescending misapprehension, "you will not destroy that.  You will not."

    In the infinite moment in which Lacroix made his decision, he knew Nicholas would never be able to understand the true reason for it, the choice he had made, the secret that one dare not share.  Fleur would, of course -- it was in the essence of her -- but she would remain mortal and he would never have the relief of her understanding, the release of her exoneration, on the chance Nicholas's prediction should ever be borne out.  Lacroix would not be able to bear it if the evil that ran deeper than his vampirism should be inherited by her through his bite; even less could he live with himself if she were to feel from him the compulsion he had felt from Divia.  No: he would rather let her live and die as she was than risk becoming to her as his master had been to him.  If he made her his daughter, he would not be able to allow himself to . . . no more than he would any of his children.  The urgency to have her with him had blinded him to the nature of the bond he had thought to forge: an eternal torment of desire to be denied, rather than the comfort she had been born to offer.  Bitterly ironic as it was, the only way to keep her was to let her go.

    Her innocence?  No.  But her purity?  Truly love Fleur?  More than Nicholas might ever comprehend.

    Fleur turned slowly to face him, her huge blue eyes questioning the way he stiffened and withdrew at her brother's words.  Her mortal body was warm, so warm in his arms, and it took an act of will to remove his hands even as far as her delicate, determined chin.  He looked down at her as if he hoped to drown in her eyes and thus never have to say the words.  "It is a great irony, is it not?" he whispered.  "That such a cold, still heart can feel such pain?"

    "Lucien . . . ."

    He kissed her then, one last time, pressing his cool lips lingeringly to her forehead, and turning away.  It was all he could manage to raise a mask of dignified indifference; surely it would crack if he were to watch her go.

    Nicholas took his sister gently by the shoulders, turning her face toward him and attuning himself to the beating of her heart.  "You need to rest, Fleur," he said, his fledgling hypnotic powers blunt and his attempt to disguise them unsubtle, at best.

    "No, Nicolas," Fleur shook her head, attempting to look back at Lacroix.  "I don't want to go."  Her attempt to struggle, expected though it was, made Lacroix's heart seem to leap into his throat.  What if she were a resistor?  What if, this time, there truly were no choice for him to make?  What if . . . ?

    But Nicholas grasped the sides of her head and made her look into his eyes.  Bringing all his concentration to the task, believing he was doing what was best for her, he carefully prepared her mind to misplace all the things mortals could not know, and Lacroix gritted his teeth.  "You mustn't worry.  I promise that, after we leave, your life will be good again.  Sleep now, Fleur.  Sleep . . ."

    "Sleep," Fleur echoed drowsily, her will overcome by her brother's raw power.  "Yes, I need to . . ."

    She began walking across the garden, to the entrance nearest the stairs leading to her own chamber.  Nicholas watched her go as he tenderly delivered the final, key, hypnotic imperative: ". . . and forget."

    As Fleur sleepwalked through the arched doorway, Nicholas slowly turned back to Lacroix, his expression not without compassion.  "We will leave as soon as possible."

    "Yes," Lacroix agreed at last, after a bitter, prolonged silence in which he lashed down emotion to rationalization once again.  But vengeance . . . ah, revenge, the only emotion he dared hold to him, as before Fleur, so after.  The very necessity of giving her up cut like a vengeance of Divia's from beyond the grave.

    It would never end, now.

    "You've probably done me a favor," Lacroix snarled at his interfering son.  "But you must realize . . . I will demand retribution.  One day, when I see that you have fallen in love . . ."

    But the rest of the threat was left unspoken when a soft, woman's cry cut through the night air from just beyond the door Fleur had entered.  It was a kind of cry familiar to them both, an inarticulate expression of pain and pleasure in almost equal measure, the last conscious sound that might be made as mortal life was drained away.  Equally commonplace and unremarkable had been Lacroix's sense that Janette was feeding nearby, until he heard, in that cry, the voice of her prey.


    Not caring if there were any mortals to see, Lacroix flew the distance across the garden into the castle, sweeping around the foyer corner with the strength of a winter storm.  He found Janette and Fleur sitting on the staircase, their red and blue skirts spilling down from the landing like twin rivers of blood and water.  Fleur's eyes were closed, her head slumped on Janette's breast, her bloodless pallor almost matching that of the vampire's skin beneath her cheek.  Janette leaned her head back against the stone wall and trailed her fingers lightly over the two tiny punctures marking Fleur's neck; as Lacroix arrived, Janette opened her eyes, and he saw in them the dreamy languor that followed a satisfying feeding.

    "What have you done?" he asked in a voice as hollow as death, ignoring the feeling of Nicholas stepping up behind him.

    "What you ought to have done," Janette answered calmly, bending her head to kiss Fleur's neck, and then brushing the girl's hair back so that he could see, unmistakably, the neat holes left by Janette's fangs closing and disappearing.  "I offered her the choice, instead of making it for her."

    "Janette!" Nicholas began, outrage and betrayal unmistakable in his tone, but Lacroix cut him off.

    "Hush, Nicholas," he said sternly, and began climbing the stairs at a mortal pace.  Completely sated on Fleur's hot blood, and thoroughly enervated from her first attempt to bring a mortal across, Janette willingly allowed him to take the newborn vampire's body into his arms as he sat down beside them.  Cradling Fleur to him, Lacroix settled his left hand over her cooling heart, and waited, waited, waited for its single pulse.  When it came at last, he let out a breath he did not realize he had been holding.

    "Nicholas, we will require a . . . meal for Fleur when she wakes.  Fetch one."

    "Not any of the household dependents," Janette instructed quietly.  "She cares about them.  If you can, Nicolas, find someone she does not know -- try the stables, perhaps, or, better yet, outside the castle and village."

    "And do at least look for healthy, if not intelligent and attractive," Lacroix added, staring at Fleur while speaking to her brother.  "It is her first time, after all."

    Nicholas, displaced by Fleur as the "baby" of his family for the second time in his life, nodded stiffly and did as he was bid.

    Lacroix left his hand on Fleur's breast through another pulse of her heart, now as cold and still as his, and kissed her forehead again, lingeringly, as if to take back into himself the farewell that now never need be.  She would be a vampire, and not his child; he could love her.  And she . . . she could choose whether to love him.

    "Should she not wake?" Janette asked.

    "Soon," Lacroix answered.  "Soon.  There is no question but that she is coming back to us."  'Us,' he repeated to himself.  It passed unspoken between Lacroix and Janette that as far as he had brought over Nicholas for her, so far had she brought over Fleur for him.  Just so far, and no further, for as far as he had made Nicholas for his own sake, so had she made Fleur for hers.  It was understood.  "Perhaps you should go see what is keeping Nicholas."

    Janette nodded, gently freed her skirt from where it was trapped under Fleur's ankle, gave the sleeping girl in her master's arms a look inscrutable to him, and then all but floated down the stairs, so light was her step.  It was far from the first time that Janette's motivations had been less than transparent to Lacroix, despite their familial bond, so the look was nothing new in that line, but it made him wonder, with a start, exactly what it would mean that Fleur was now Janette's daughter.  It was all happening so fast, he thought, and then smirked internally at himself: as if his entire acquaintance with Fleur had not been a mere three nights, less than a blink in his long, long life!  He was behaving foolishly, he knew, and yet could not help himself; every man passed through an adolescence, so perhaps a vampire passed through a second, and this could all be blamed on a stage of immortal maturation.  Love at first sight, indeed.

    But what of the connection he had felt with Fleur, the feeling that they had known each other since the beginning of time, the bond they had seemed to have from the moment she reached out to him and he first looked into her bottomless eyes?  Did that belong to Janette now, or would it still be there when Fleur woke?

    When Fleur's heart beat a third time without her stirring, Lacroix carefully shifted her in his embrace, and then ripped open his left wrist with his teeth.  The scent of his blood reached beyond consciousness to Fleur's new instincts, causing her to suckle at his wrist with a ferocious, unthinking appetite.  It felt wonderful.  Her fangs had not yet manifested, so he was in no fear of her First Hunger draining him before his wound healed; as long as it lasted, he simply held her to him, and reveled in the joy of Fleur taking his blood into her, his body shuddering at the unique pleasure of her tongue, lips, and blunt, still-mortal teeth pulling at the edges of his wound in a futile attempt to keep it open.  Closing his eyes and willing the sensation to continue, Lacroix recalled the opposite but almost equally sensuous feel of her healer's touch, when she had boldly entered his chamber while he slept his first day in her home; with a competence belying her years, she had laid her hands on his sun-inflicted wounds, and with a resonance belying her mortality, he had felt every touch even in the depths of vampiric repose.  Surely this proved there was no justice in this world, for he could not deserve this happiness.

    As the gash sealed itself, denying her access to his blood, Fleur whimpered softly and began to fight her way back to consciousness from the depths of her transformative sleep.  Lacroix smiled in pleased anticipation as instincts yet-unexplored caused her to nuzzle the base of his neck, where the veins ran closest to the surface.  "Mnmm," she murmured, her eyes roaming under her closed lids as she dreamed the images in his blood.  "Lucius . . . father . . ."

    Lacroix froze.  He had not heard her correctly.  He could not have heard her correctly.  No.  He could not already have passed on Divia's taint.  He had not remade Fleur in his own, flawed image.  There was so much he still did not know about what he was, Lacroix thought, and cursed Divia's shade yet again; but he had not made Fleur his fledgling by giving her his blood -- had he?  No!

    Nevertheless, he held Fleur's body perhaps somewhat less closely as he rose and carried her to the chamber that had been assigned Janette, depositing her quickly in the center of the red-draped bed, though not so quickly that he did not place a pillow under her head, or draw up the quilt to hold in the last of her mortal warmth.  Having seen efficiently to Fleur's physical comfort, Lacroix withdrew to the farthest corner of the room and disciplined his exterior to a silence and stillness that no mortal sense could have discerned from a statue, even while his mind heaved on waves of guilt and fear.  That was the one part of his past he tried to keep even from himself, and she had touched it with her first taste of his blood.  The question tormenting him, however, was whether she had touched it as his child or another's, because only the child of another could be his equal; only the child of another could be free . . . could free him.

    It was one more beat of Fleur's vampiric heart before Nicholas and Janette entered the room, a dazed-looking male mortal between them.  Lacroix inspected him briefly: roughly clothed, well-fed, not much older than Fleur, his face and neck freshly scrubbed -- no doubt at Janette's order.  Really, it was the best that could be asked on such short notice.  Nodding gravely to Janette, Lacroix strode out of the room and pulled the wooden door shut behind him.

Chapter 03  --  Toronto, 1996

    It had been a long day in room 106 of the Metro Coroner's Building, a long day following a long night, and an even longer day and night before that. Natalie was fairly sure she was suffering from sleep deprivation.  But the anxiety that had propelled her through the twenty-four hours of her unintended vigil over Urs's body had been replaced last night, shortly after the girl's corpse had been sent for incineration, by a fascinated diligence, and since just before sunrise, a mounting excitement.

    Natalie leaned back from her microscope and rubbed her eyes wearily, unable to suppress the smile that quirked at the edges of her mouth even when looking at her slides unaided.  She was fairly sure she had taken a nap somewhere around eleven that morning, in the middle of her hurried completion of the Baker report -- if falling asleep on one's keyboard can be counted as a nap -- and the candy wrappers and pop cans overflowing her wastebasket testified to her many trips to the snack machines; so even if she had been too occupied to so much as make coffee, she had not been running entirely on empty.  For every time her rational good sense had urged her to pack it all in for the moment, book off, go home, and make a fresh start in the next shift, her love of the puzzle and her love of Nick had combined to plead for just one more hour, just one more cycle of tests.

    And, oh, it had been worth it! Divia's rampage had brought its own silver lining, indeed -- a silver bullet, even.  Nat wondered suddenly if Nick had ever ingested mercury in his search for a cure, given all the things mercury had been supposed to treat in its day.  What?  Mercury was quicksilver, and she had been thinking metaphorically of silver -- boy, was she tired!  She laughed at her inability to think straight.  She laughed at her own laughter.  She laughed at the world.  In two nights, she had been all but handed on a silver platter something she had not been able to discover or create in six years of trying.  Ever since Nick's narrowly-averted flight after Schanke and Cohen's tragic deaths, a creeping despair had been steadily suffocating her heart; since dawn, that choking gloom had been completely uprooted.  In its place, almost-abandoned hopes were budding anew.

    There was every indication that that two-thousand-year-old little girl had been better equipped for vengeance than even she had known.  Her poisoned bite had not, in itself, been death.

    It had been mortality.

    Natalie raised her arms over her head and shook out her hands' cramped postures.  How long had she been bent over her microscope?  She stood, stretched and replaced the green scrunchie that had been slipping down her hair, before walking over to her desk and pulling out the center drawer, fishing around for another package of stick-on labels, some more graph paper, and her favorite pen -- a black ball-point with "Metro Toronto Police" emblazoned in gold on its side.  Returning to her workspace under the cabinets, Natalie pulled her chair a few feet to the left of her microscope, over to a rack of full test tubes, and sat down, staring at them with a reverence that she slowly, embarrassedly, realized was tinged with a kind of greed.  In one of them, yes, there was the cure for vampirism: freedom and even salvation for Nick and any others who thought as he did, not to mention a pinnacle of scientific discovery.  But there, as well, was her hope for a future with the man she loved, a future of full days rather than empty, empty nights.

    Guiltily, Natalie looked over her shoulder at the now-empty examining table, her expression clouding.  She had long since become accustomed -- too accustomed, she often thought -- to creating plausible lies to cover deaths caused by vampires, to shuffling paperwork to disguise blood loss and making strategic incisions to destroy fang marks, but this was the first time it had been necessary to tamper with an identity.  Oh, she had stalled identification of the Rebecca back-up singer who had been shot on stage, and signed a fake death-certificate for poor Bridgett as she had done for her brother Richard, but passing off Urs as a Jane Doe, fudging the date and sending her body unclaimed to the incinerator, the modern equivalent of an unmarked pauper's grave, was much harder for Natalie to excuse to herself.

    She had only ever spoken a few words to Urs, and those words were only what she had said to the half-dozen vampires Nick had had Janette assemble for her to instruct on administering the ironically-lifesaving HIV injections during the vampire fever epidemic -- thus preventing the massacre of AIDS patients he had feared if rumor ran unchecked -- but, even so, it felt like a betrayal.  It was only natural that a race whose members rarely died, and generally turned to ashes instantly upon doing so, had never developed a cultural response to death, but Natalie would have felt much better turning Urs over to a friend or family member -- a fledgling, a master, whatever the heck constituted family to a vampire.

    That Nick had solemnly assured her that none of Urs's family had survived her only made Natalie feel worse.

    Attempting to banish those thoughts from her mind, Natalie bent to work again, carefully labeling each one of the vials with the elaborate code she had developed over her years of combining her research on Nick's behalf with her work for the citizens of Toronto, and neatly recording more disguised data on the graph paper for each completed test-tube.

    She had taken samples from Urs's corpse, of course: fluid, tissue, bone, everything she could manage.  She had been delighted as well as mystified at her first chance to autopsy a vampire -- something Nick had continued to insist should not be possible throughout the examination.  In the end, it had turned out that he had been right.

    Urs had no longer been a vampire.

    The body that had lain on Natalie's table a mere forty-eight hours ago had been that of an eighteen-year-old human girl who had died of a severe beating -- or perhaps a wild animal attack -- one which had broken her neck and included slashing and biting and blood loss.  Nothing more, and nothing less.  Urs had been human.  It was a miracle.  A hideous, horrible, twisted, perverted miracle.  And as the full impact of it had dawned on Natalie two nights ago, alone in the morgue in the last hours of darkness, knowing that Nick and his family were even then being hunted by the psychotic demon who had murdered Urs, she had done something she had not really done since her parents' deaths when she was a child.

    She had prayed.

    Not merely mouthing words as she had long done twice a year, accompanying her brother's family on Christmas and Easter: not merely meditating on the world of her senses and how to decipher it: but sincerely and unquestioningly, Natalie had prayed with a faith she had never suspected she harbored, all the barriers built up so carefully throughout her life vanishing in that moment as if they had never been, all the puzzles coalescing into a few clear truths.

    "Not like this," she had whispered then, unconsciously falling to her knees in the same helpless manner in which tears fell from her eyes.  "Please, God, not like this.  Don't make Nick mortal like this.  Please, God, not like this.  Not like this."  After a while, words had failed her, and she had just rocked herself in time with her silent, mantra-like pleading as she sobbed.  She had lost so many, many people in her scant thirty-three years, but she had always believed Nick safe behind his vampiric powers, if not his gun.  Not even the deaths of Urs and Vachon had truly shaken that reckless confidence until she had understood what caused them.  They had not died in fair contest, vampire against vampire; they had died mortal, utterly vulnerable, for all that Nick supposed Vachon had made Tracy stake him . . . .

    Tracy.  Remembering the young detective, Natalie had been able to get herself under control.  Nick might be . . . was . . . still alive, she had thought, but Tracy had already lost Vachon.  The coroner had taken a deep breath and begun to plan what could and could not be done for Nick's bereaved partner.  Standing up and reaching for her outdoor coat, Natalie had resolved that if Nick did not come back from this, she would tell Tracy everything she knew about vampires.  It had flashed through Natalie's mind that if no one in Toronto stopped the demon child, the Enforcers would soon come, in force, in her wake -- and that wake might extend around the world, wherever there was a descendent of Lacroix.  There would be nowhere to run.  Natalie had hastily shrugged into her coat and checked her pocket for her car-keys.

    Before she had been able to leave, however, Janette had appeared in the entranceway, looking pale, even for her, and slumping against the door-frame.  "Natalie, I am afraid I require your assistance," the leather-clad proprietor of the Raven had managed before collapsing on the floor of the lab, her exposed left arm torn open to the bone in bloody strips.

    Quickly examining Janette where she had fallen, Natalie had determined with relief that despite whatever she had been through, the vampire's supernatural healing factor was still functional -- a thought that had later made her stomach heave when she imagined how the gruesome wound must have looked when first inflicted.  By the time the coroner had washed Janette's arm and was in the process of wrapping it in a temporary bandage to prevent further damage, the vampire had woken and hissed out a request for blood.

    "No," Natalie had refused, boldly defying Janette's glowing eyes, and then patting her arm and efficiently moving Urs's body into the freezer.  "Trust me, Janette, I haven't figured out exactly what this poison is yet, but it's like the fever virus; it may depend on the concentration of your blood to do its work.  Don't help it!  I didn't see any fang marks," she had continued, assisting Janette up to sit on the examining table.  "You weren't bitten, were you?"

    "No," Janette had whispered through clenched teeth, obviously fighting the urge to drain the coroner there and then.

    "Thank goodness," Natalie had responded, reminding herself to suppress her fear as she might have when facing a wild animal.  Look like a doctor, not a dinner, she had quipped lamely to herself in the back of her mind, as she had applied more antiseptic to Janette's arm and investigated the unusually-slow progress of her vampiric healing.  "I suspect that the anti-coagulant that accompanies a vampire's bite is the medium of this poison in Divia.  I don't know whether her system is damaged, or whether it mutated, or if maybe it's a competitive response to extreme malnutrition, a way of transforming potential rivals into a food source . . ."  Janette had hissed impatiently, and Natalie had looked up into her still-golden eyes.  "Point being, if you don't have any of that venom in your system, you should be fine as long as you 'stay out of the sun and avoid sharp sticks.'"

    "And if I do have it in my system?" the vampire had asked, looking down at her unhealed arm.  "Will I end as Urs and Vachon have?"

    "You don't seem to have been bitten," Natalie had repeated, ducking the question.  "But this central gash doesn't look as if it's going to seal on its own any time soon.  I want to stitch it up for you."

    Janette had blinked, her eyes suddenly going wide and blue, and had then nodded sharply.  It had occurred to Natalie that the thousand-year-old woman had very likely never had stitches before, and certainly had not often felt pain in the past nine and a half centuries.  The vampire had remained silent as Natalie had done her work, and the coroner had looked up to find that Janette's gaze had apparently been fixed on the needle the entire time.

    "It's done," the human woman had said softly.

    "Why am I not healing, Natalie?" the vampire had asked, just as softly.

    "I don't know," Natalie had admitted, and then paused.  Her patient cared for to the best of her ability, she had been unable to continue swallowing the question on the tip of her tongue.  "What happened, Janette?  Is Nick . . . ?"

    "He is alive," Janette had answered, looking sadly into Natalie's eyes as the coroner sighed in relief.  "But that is all I am sure of.  I was not strong enough to fight Divia.  I played 'possum' and she left me for dead.  I was lucky.  Nicolas is next on her list."

    "Where is he?" Natalie had demanded, immediately striding toward the door.  "At the loft?  The Raven?  CERK?"

    Despite her condition, Janette had moved in front of Natalie faster than mortal eyes could follow and blocked the exit.  "Were you not listening?" the vampire had hissed.  "I am not strong enough to fight her; I would have been killed; you are less than nothing.  Would you go and give her a hostage to use against Nicolas?  Would you let him see you dead, so that in his first grief he would not care to live?"  Natalie had felt the blood drain out of her face at the scenarios Janette described, and Janette had then dropped her voice and continued cajolingly.  "His strength is no longer the vampire's.  Tonight his strategy, his strength, must be what he has become these last six years -- what he has been becoming the last several hundred.  We cannot do him any good out there.  But surely there must be something here" -- she had gestured vaguely around the lab -- "that will explain what he and Lacroix are facing!  Something they can use!"

    Swallowing hard, Natalie had said decisively, "I'll need a sample of your blood."

    Two days after that, finishing the labels and applying them carefully to the test-tubes, Natalie shook her head as if to dislodge those memories.  There was no reason to relive those tense efforts to beat an unknown time-table.  Nick had survived.  That he had been bitten and survived had thrown her initial deductions into chaos, but the important thing was that Nick had survived.  Lacroix had survived.  Janette's stitches had been removed before she returned home to the Raven for the day.  And though Natalie would have dearly loved to autopsy Divia, Nick had informed her of Lacroix's firm intention to reduce the child's body to ashes and scatter them on the wind.  She had not asked for more details, and he had not offered them, but he had held her close for as long as she would let him before sending him home to rest, with bandages around his neck and zip-lock bags of protein-shake mix in his pocket.  She had stayed in the morgue and worked, and if she had not been able to counteract Divia's tainted anti-coagulant when she had been thinking of it as a poison, she was almost able to do something even more miraculous now that she knew it was an antibody for the vampire virus itself.


    If she dared.

    Natalie pushed back her chair from the counter and strolled contemplatively over to her desk with the sheet of graph paper.  Yawning hugely and rubbing her tired eyes, she went over the columns again and again.  There was no mistake.  The . . . the . . . the "antivirus," she decided to call it . . . was a picky little thing, and outside, apparently, the vector of Divia's own body, only truly viable in living, human blood.  The farther from that medium, the more it shut down, becoming sluggish and incapable of reproduction in human blood more than an hour old, until in animal blood -- well, pig, monkey, rat, cat and cow, anyway; everything she had been able to test -- it was completely dormant, and in synthetic blood and non-blood mediums it simply disappeared.  Something in Divia had generated the antigens that triggered antivirus production in her victims, but all Natalie had was the antivirus itself, and it simply could not be reproduced in vitro.

    It showed every indication, however, that it would grow in vivo, in the human bloodstream.  And it showed every indication that, when transferred from human to vampire blood, it would neutralize and reverse the vampire virus, bringing the vampire back across as a human.

    If it could be grown, and transferred alive, of course.

    There were sterile hypodermics in the glass cabinet, Natalie finally allowed herself to think, and then bit her lip.  Hard.  She tasted blood.  She knew better than that.  Of course she did.  What had she told Cal, just last winter?  First trials?  And that was for carefully-researched drugs already tested in animals!  No reputable scientist -- no sane person -- would just go injecting some unknown foreign substance into herself, much less a mysterious vampire antibody discovered only the day before yesterday!

    Natalie sighed, and laid down her head on her desk, folding her arms under her chin.  This brought her face to face with her favorite photo of Nick, from that one wonderful, terrible day last spring when the lydovuterine had held the sun at bay.  It was of him leaning against the caddy in the morning light, smiling as if his joy were as big and bright as the long-missed sun above.  God, she loved him.  She loved his laugh, and his hands, and his wicked sense of humor, and his inability to tell the difference between proper toast and singed bread; she loved his nose, and his predilection for remote controls, and the way he was willing to argue all day about the immutable questions that would outlast them both; she loved the way he loved life.  More than anything, she wanted him to have the joy of that day in the sun every day.  But at what cost had it come then? she thought, remembering how that supposed freedom had revealed itself to be a lie, one enslavement traded for another.  She had not dared propose another cure since then. Instead, she had carefully, obsessively, phrased every tentative advance as a "treatment," or a "step," ruthlessly squashing his tendency to take them for more.  She had even stopped building castles in the air aloud for fear of breaking his heart when the foundation stones proved too heavy for the clouds.

    Turning her head on her arms, Natalie wondered if that had not been a mistake in itself.  Had she just been contributing to his loneliness and unhappiness by refusing to feed his hopes?  She looked at the ring on her right hand that he had given her on Valentine's Day 1995 -- like a silly, high-school, "promise" ring when she had tried to explain it to others, but worth everything between the two of them -- when they had decided to stop pretending that platonic friendship was enough, and start pretending that unconsummatable love was enough.  Hope was the very essence of Nick, the lifeblood of his soul, and to make him live sedately, day to day, without anticipation in order to avoid disappointment . . . no wonder he had been so restless and discontent these past several months.  On the other hand, could she bear to see him crash again, to fall into the hopeless self-hatred of the times he had nearly been driven back to human blood?

    If she told him about the antivirus, he would spend all his fortune and the rest of her life looking for a way to activate it outside the human body.

    If she did not tell him . . . or did not tell him until after it was done . . . .

    "Are you asleep, Nat?" Nick whispered suddenly, directly behind her.  She shrieked and all but jumped out of her skin.  "Apparently not," the vampire detective grinned under his sunglasses, and then sobered.  "But you look like you should be.  You haven't been here all day, have you?"

    "All day?" Natalie repeated, looking at the wall clock and then her wristwatch.  "All day?  Nick, the sun can't have set already, can it?  What are you doing here?"

    He shrugged.  "Glasses, hat, gloves, thick cloud cover -- and the sun will be all the way down in minutes.  I'm fine.  How are you?"

    "Exhausted," she admitted, yawning behind her hand.  "I've found out what killed Urs and Vachon, and I'm pretty sure that it spared you because of your miracle diet of protein shakes and ketchup."

    "The ketchup makes all the difference, of course," he said solemnly, seating himself on the edge of her desk.

    Natalie swatted him.  "I'm serious, Nick.  You got through the fever because you had no human blood in your system; same for this.  Your attempts to save yourself saved you.  Although," she paused, "if we want to cure you this way, we're going to have to unsave you a bit somewhere along the road."  She yawned again.

    Nick looked at her, and then at the contents of her wastebasket.  "Is that you talking, or the massive overdose of gummi bears and Diet Coke?"

    "A little of both," she acknowledged.  "You're off tonight, right?"

    "Right," Nick agreed, suddenly sweeping her up into his arms and smiling as if this were quite the best use he could think of for vampiric strength.  "So I can take you home, and fix you some decent food -- no coffee -- and put you right to bed."

    "Mmmm.  Sounds good," Natalie said, leaning her head against his chest and carefully arranging her hands on his shoulder to avoid the bandage at his neck.  "You'll stay there with me?"

    Nick kissed her forehead.  "I'll stay on the couch," he said softly, his light tone almost completely hiding the pain that admission cost him.  No matter how careful he was, no matter how close to humanity he had come, he did not dare tempt the beast within, the irresistible hunger that was the vampire, by physical intimacy; he had told her so a dozen times, and apologized for it a hundred.  Natalie winced.  If she were not so tired, if she could think straight, she would never have been so careless as to scratch the scab off that scar . . . .


    "Janette!" she gasped.  "I promised Janette I'd come look at the scar on her arm before the club opened tonight!  Put me down, Nick.  What time is it?"

    Setting her securely back in her chair, Nick picked up the phone from her desk and began to dial the Raven.  "Relax, Nat.  We can stop by on the way to your apartment.  Believe me, if anything had changed for the worse, she would have made it known."  Natalie opened her mouth to respond, but quickly shut it again when Nick signaled that the phone had been picked up on the other end.  "Yes, is Janette available?  Tell her it's Nick Knight. . . .  Yes, she's here, Janette.  We're just on our way over. . . .  No. . . .  No, I didn't realize; I suppose I should have expected it. . . .  Of course I won't. . . .  Right."  He replaced the receiver on its hooks.

    "What is it?"

    "Nothing much," he replied with a studied carelessness.  "My sister is in town."

    Natalie squeezed his hand reassuringly, quickly beginning to clean up the remains of her experiments and gather some things she might need when she saw Janette.  She did not know much about Fleur, except that she was Nick's mortal sister as well as vampiric . . . niece, Natalie supposed . . . and that he always had a certain sad catch in his voice when he mentioned her, and a way of closing off the subject.  Natalie hesitated for a moment over the contents of the crocheted, drawstring sack that she had begun using in place of her old-fashioned black bag -- less conspicuous, less likely to be stolen -- since Joey had found his way into her car outside the wrestling stadium.  Finally, she gave in to the impulse to include one of her samples of the antivirus.  She already had hypodermics.  Guiltily tying the bag shut, Natalie gestured for Nick to precede her out of the lab, and asked lightly, "So what is Fleur like?"

    "I haven't seen her in about thirty years," Nick said almost wistfully, shutting off the light and holding the door open for her.  "But a long, long time ago, she was a lot like you."


Chapter 04  --  Brabant, 1229

    Fleur woke slowly, drifting for a while between dream and sensation before she became able to tell the difference.  When she could, sensation prompted her to open her eyes and try to sit up.  She was hungry.

    She could not sit up, however; something was gently pressing down on her shoulders.  "Careful," she heard her brother say quietly, and then he leaned over her face from where he was sitting on the bed behind her.  Nicolas looked odd, as if she were seeing him through a sheet of golden flame.  He also looked . . . sad? . . . she could not tell.  She could not seem to hold a thought except for how hungry she was, though she knew she had had a veritable feast at supper, and that could not have been so very many hours ago.  "You've been through a lot.  How are you feeling?"

    "Hungry!" she almost laughed.  How could there be any other answer?  But Nicolas did not smile back at her.

    "Of course she is," Janette said, appearing next to the bed inside the enfolding, red curtains.  At least, Fleur thought the curtains were red; like everything in her sight, they appeared through a strange, gold haze.  Nicolas released Fleur's shoulders as Janette neared, and the young woman sat up, almost surprised to find that she was still wearing the same blue gown.  Surely she would have changed it before going to sleep?  No, that was not right.  If only she could think about something other than the gnawing ache inside her.

    "Where is Lucien?" she finally managed, and was unable to interpret the glance that passed between her brother and Janette at her question.  "I want Lucien!" she demanded.  "I want . . ."

    "What do you want?" Janette asked patiently, leaning close to examine Fleur's neck.

    "I . . ."  In a sudden rush of memory, the newborn vampire raised her hands to her throat; the holes were gone, completely healed.  "I . . . what is that sound?  That pounding?"  She looked wildly from Janette to her brother, and Nicolas gravely tied back the bed-hangings, revealing a peasant apparently sleeping in a chair across the room.

    The volume of the regular beat increased in Fleur's ears, pounding as if in time with her steadily rising hunger, and almost without conscious volition she slipped off the bed and began to cross the chamber to the young man.  He smelled so good, so enticing . . . no, it was not him.  It was his blood, the hot, wet river she could sense just under the surface of his skin.  She needed that river like she had never needed anything in her life.  Fleur reached out for him -- and then suddenly stopped, crying out in anguish at a spurt of pain.  She looked back at Janette and Nicolas in confusion, and raised her right hand to feel her upper jaw.  Her fangs had emerged for the first time, her canines tearing through her gums as they lengthened and found their proper places.

    "It will not hurt again," Janette murmured reassuringly, unnecessarily, as Fleur had already turned back to the man, her newly-emerged fangs having become the aching, pulsing center of her hunger.  Drink.  Drink.  Drink, his blood seemed to call her.  And so she did, yielding entirely to instinct as she bent over his neck, sweeping his dusty-brown hair out of her way and plunging her fangs into the soft flesh of his throat.

    It was over all too soon.  Almost before she knew it, the pounding that she now understood to have been the peasant's heart ceased, and with it the ecstatic flow of his living essence into her mouth, the eruption of pleasure that had come as each beat of his heart forced his blood into her body.  Sighing in wistful satisfaction, Fleur rose from his neck and turned toward Janette and Nicolas at the bed, perching herself on the arm of the chair.  She realized with a start that her vision had returned to normal in the candlelight, and her fangs had retracted into her jaw.  Reaching up to feel the sharp points of her reformed canines, she trailed her fingers across her face and discovered that blood had spilled down her chin, neck, and breasts, leaking wastefully from her inexperienced bite.  Eagerly scooping up the thick liquid with her fingers, she learned that though not nearly as affecting as live blood, it, too, tasted better than anything she had ever imagined as a mortal, and it, too, went straight to the hunger she could still feel coiled deep within her, rippling throughout her body like . . . like . . . like Lucien's kiss.  Fleur briefly closed her eyes as the thought of him combined with the blood she was sucking from her fingers to make another, milder wave of pleasure roll through her.

    "I shouldn't have stayed for this," Nicolas choked, and moved quickly toward the door.  Fleur looked up at her brother in surprise.  His wide, blue eyes, so like her own, held an expression she could not ever remember seeing in them before, much less directed at her.  It was . . . guilt, yes . . . and . . . disgust?

    "What?" she asked in confusion, trying not to see herself as she was reflected in her brother's eyes: wanton, degraded, savage, a fallen woman, a murderess, a carnal demon dripping with innocent blood.

    "I shouldn't have been here," the knight repeated, dropping his gaze and reaching for the door handle.

    "If you are going to go, Nicolas," Janette said, placing herself between them, "take the body with you and dispose of it."  The brunette vampire turned to her convert and placed her arm around her shoulders, urging her to stand and then guiding her to the bed.  Fleur heard the heavy door swing shut as Janette let down the bed curtains and blew out the last of the candles.

    "I can still see," she noted dully as Janette settled herself beside her, one part of her mind still seizing on all the wonders rising up before her, while the rest sank into what had been in her brother's eyes.

    "Of course," Janette replied softly, reaching up to undo the ribbon that kept Fleur's hair back.  "You are a vampire now, and vampires are the people of the night, the darkness.  You have heard this, of course," Janette continued, loosening Fleur's thick, undisciplined tresses and beginning to smooth them with a brush she had produced seemingly out of nowhere, "but you must know it to be true.  You may live forever, but you are not without vulnerabilities.  Wood through your heart will kill you, as will a blade severing your neck.  You may drink wine and ale in time, if you like, but other foods are simply no longer edible to you, and garlic -- even the smell will make you exceedingly ill.  The sun will rise soon, as it rises every day, but you must never go out in the daylight again.  It would burn you to ashes in an instant, as would the touch of Christ's cross.  And you are far too important, to Lacroix, to Nicolas . . . and now to me . . . to be traded for ashes."

    "I killed him," Fleur said, just as dully as before.  "His name was Denis.  I saw it in his blood.  He was a farmer.  Recently brought in to train as a groom.  Even more recently wed to a brown-eyed girl named Adele, who is going to bear a 'seven-month' baby around Epiphany --"

    Fleur stopped her recital at the feeling of Janette's nails digging deep into her shoulder, and turned to look at her.  "Yes," her master agreed coldly.  "He was mortal, and you fed from him.  How did it feel?"

    Staring into Janette's pale, blue eyes, Fleur admitted, her voice low and desperate, "Wonderful.  It felt wonderful!"  She collapsed into the older vampire's lap, sobbing blood tears.

    Janette allowed her to cry for a while, gently rubbing her back and murmuring soothing, ageless nothings.  Finally, her tone still soft as her words turned exceedingly practical, she said, "Come, dear one, you do not want to put all that blood into tears.  Here."  She handed Fleur the brush and began removing the combs holding her own hair.

    Wiping her eyes, Fleur set the brush in her lap and moved behind Janette, helping unpin the shiny, black locks before lifting the brush to them, and she wondered if Janette knew that combing her hair one hundred strokes was her own nightly habit as she prepared for sleep, her way of settling herself among the cares of the day.  The familiarity of the ritual comforted Fleur at first, until it occurred to her strongly that Janette did know -- but how?  Fleur had believed that she had chosen this existence -- Lucien's existence -- with her eyes open, but he was not there just then, and her hands began to shake slightly as she strove to rein in the doubts Nicolas had ignited like Greek fire.

    "It is all right," Janette said serenely, and Fleur started again at the uncanny sense that the woman was responding directly to her thoughts.  "It is what you are now.  It is what you are becoming.  This turmoil will leave you as you leave your mortal bonds."  She paused a moment, as if planning her words, and then continued, "Consider: the mortal you fed on this morning is no different than the deer you fed on when your cooks prepared it last night.  And what you felt, you will feel again, and again, and again, forever.  Their rules are not ours.  Their limits are not ours.  We are not like them; we are more than mere nobility, more than royalty.  You will learn to fly, Fleur.  You will see and do things of which even you have never dreamt.  And you will never be completely alone."

    Fleur set down the brush, leaned her face against Janette's shoulder, threaded her arms loosely around her master's waist, and was silent for a moment.  Then she asked, again, "Where is Lucien?"

    "He will come," Janette evaded, and though Fleur somehow knew it was an evasion, it did not bother her because she also knew, somehow, that it was true; he was nearby, and he was thinking of her.

    "When he does come . . ." Fleur began, and then discarded that question.  First things first.  "Janette, what are we?"


    "No, I mean, you and me."

    "I know, dear one, but that question is much more difficult than the other," Janette said, and Fleur could all but hear the faint smile in her voice.  Then the older woman sighed, and disentangled herself from Fleur's embrace as she turned to face her.  "And the answer does begin in our vampirism.  Lacroix explains it like this: you are my student, and I am your teacher -- eternally."

    "Lucien considers you and Nicolas his children," Fleur noted, and wondered how she knew that.

    "Yes, he does.  Very much so."  Janette looked at her strangely for a moment.  "But I do not perceive the relationship quite in the way that he does, and you will have to see, as time passes, how you look at it yourself.  Encourage them to believe what pleases them about what you think, but always decide what you think for yourself, Fleur.  Do not ever let them decide for you."  Janette's expression had been almost fierce as she said this, like nothing Fleur had seen from her since her final moments of mortality, but in a blink the emotion was gone and the unreadable mask restored.  "We cannot have children as mortals do, so this is the basis of our . . . families.  The relationship is irrevocable this side of the grave.  The usual term for a new vampire is 'convert.'  One metaphor is of child and parent; another is of slave and master; another--" Janette cocked her head and allowed the corners of her mouth to creep up, if ever so slightly "-- is of fledgling and bird."

    Fleur smiled, and allowed the final comparison to soften the quickly-glossed-over second one for the moment, as she knew Janette meant it to, but she kept it in mind, nevertheless; she would consider it later, when her understanding of the world had ceased to melt and remold with every word.  The same consideration prevented her from asking aloud why Janette had brought her across, until she could make sense of the clues in what her -- maker? -- had already said so fervently.  Setting those no-less-serious concerns aside, Fleur returned hesitantly to Lucien's anticipated reappearance. Staring intently at her hands as she picked diligently at the quilt covering the bed, she asked, "If we cannot have children as mortals do, can we . . . that is, how do we . . ."  She looked up hopefully at Janette, but saw no hint that the other woman intended to supply the words for her.  She sighed, and forged ahead.  "Can Lucien and I make love?"

    "As mortals do?  If you like."  Janette paused, pursing her lips.  "And no doubt, you will like.  But our release is in the flow of blood -- equally in biting and being bitten -- and the ultimate union is the circle of the two at once."  Janette did not laugh, hedge or condescend, and Fleur was immensely relieved.  She had the modesty of her inexperience, she would admit.  But she had been what passed for a physician for her people for two years, ever since Henry had appropriated dear old Father Condes, the leech, for his roving ducal entourage, and any interest she had ever had in the storied modesty expected of noble maidens had worn away in poultices and stitches and midwifery.  Good and bad, she had learned a great deal about men and women in those years.  And in the last three days, she had learned a great deal about herself.

    She was unsure of what the vampire in her wanted, but the woman wanted Lucien.

    And if that was as frightening as it was thrilling, well . . . it was her choice, was it not?

    "The sun is up, and we both need sleep," Janette observed firmly, breaking deliberately into Fleur's troubled reverie.  Janette leaned back on the pillows, and draped her arms loosely around her fledgling as Fleur lay down close, her back to her maker.  The silence did its best to soothe them both into slumber, but though Fleur willed herself to rest, the life she had chosen and the death she had caused continued to chase each other through her mind until they collided.

    "It is just that I'd never seen that in Nicolas's eyes before," Fleur whispered.

    "Neither have I, dear one," Janette whispered back.  "I suspect no one has.  I suspect he has never looked at anyone that way, because never before has anyone been his baby sister, and become a vampire before his eyes.  He would have given anything to keep you mortal, and innocent."

    "It is unfair!" Fleur burst out.  "Why is it all right for him, for you -- he does not look at you that way -- but not for me?"

    Janette was silent for long moments, and Fleur began to wonder if she would respond.  Finally, Janette said, "My brother abandoned me in the gutters of Paris after our father's death, because I was not worth paying to feed.  Nicolas would starve himself rather than do that to you."

    That silenced Fleur, if it did not seem to answer her, and she raised Janette's right hand to her lips, hoping that her maker -- mother?  That was a "mortal bond" with which she had yet to deal -- could feel her sympathy, and gratitude.  They fell asleep in that expression, and Fleur's repose was deep and dreamless as her body completed its metamorphosis into vampiric immortality, preparing her mind and beliefs to follow.


    Fleur woke late in the afternoon.  Though the chamber was still sealed in darkness, something told her precisely where the sun she would never see again was in the sky, and with that instinctive awareness came others, less simple to identify.  Slipping carefully away from Janette so as not to disturb her, Fleur crossed to the chair where she had made her first kill -- and realized that she no longer thought of it that way.  She could not afford to think of it that way.  She had fed, as she had needed to feed, and she would do so again; she would do anything to satisfy the overwhelming hunger she could feel clawing at her insides -- again, already, almost as strong as before -- and she wished the sun would set so that she could do something about it.

    Settling herself in the chair, Fleur hugged her knees to her chest, as if she could reduce the intensity of her hunger by reducing her relative size, and tried to concentrate on her other senses.  She could see in the dark, as she had noticed before; she could distinguish one color from another as clearly as daylight would reveal them, although . . . differently.  She could hear anything she wished, apparently, focusing her hearing first near -- to Janette's breathing -- and then far -- to a room below, where her maid Therese was explaining to her mother, apparently for the third time, that Fleur had stayed up all night with Sir Nicolas and his companions, that the Lady Janette had asked they not be disturbed until dark, and that Sir Nicolas had agreed.  And she could smell -- oh, could she smell!  It was no wonder that Janette and the others bathed so unusually often -- twice since they had arrived at the castle -- if this was what assaulted their noses on a regular basis.  But under the intensified odors she had known before, Fleur also found some to which she could put no names, and some for things that she had not previously realized had scents at all -- like that which she instinctively knew was Janette's blood, its strangely tart and sweet, raspberry-like essence propelled sluggishly through her body as her heart pulsed once in the time it would take to read five pages of text aloud . . . .

    Her heart propelled her blood.

    The heart propelled the blood!  Through the veins, it went away from the heart clean and strong, and returned back to it thin and weak, in a cycle!  Fleur had understood that instinctively when she fed, but it was only when her body had stabilized and she could again focus her mind beyond its demands that she realized the implications of that instinct to pierce one set of blood-bearing vessels rather than the other -- new knowledge, something she had never read or heard, something that it might yet take ten mortal lifetimes for humans to discover!  Oh, it was too wonderful!  And Lucien's sharp mind would appreciate the significance, for anatomy, for physic; she could not wait to discuss it with him.  Indeed, she realized, putting together her new understanding with Janette's explanation, it was because the heart propelled the blood that a mortal could be so easily emptied, and yet a bite was as little a death to a vampire as sex to a mortal; the rare, slow pulses of the vampiric heart would make a bite an experience of savoring, not draining.  Fleur laughed aloud, and then clapped her hand over her mouth.  She did not want to wake Janette.

    But Janette had barely stirred at the sound; her lips turned up slightly, more as if she were aware of her fledgling's delight somewhere in her dreams than as if she had consciously heard the expression of it.  Fleur concentrated on the other vampire's presence, and realized that must indeed be the case, if this connection went both ways, as she could stretch out without sight, sound, smell, taste or touch, and still somehow discern Janette's nearness, and feel her untroubled sleep.  She closed her eyes, and tried to ignore all her intensified mortal senses in favor of this faint, new vampiric one.  She reached first into herself, and came face to face with a new stillness she did not yet wish to confront; a price of eternal life was barrenness, it seemed, as Janette had said.  Skirting the edges of that void, Fleur wrapped herself in her instinctive awareness of the woman who had brought her across; it was like being touched without touching, she thought, and as she explored the metaphysical threads binding her to Janette, she found another set -- like, but not alike; not as tightly wound, but somehow grown rather than tied; familiar . . .


    It was Lucien she felt when she reached out deliberately to follow those strains of awareness to their source -- Lucien, her beloved, who had promised, with Nicolas as a witness, that they would have each other forever, pledging his troth in a way no authority could make more binding.

    The supernatural realization of his presence shattered her concentration, her longing for him becoming one with the driving hunger she was trying so hard to ignore.  Fleur laid her head on her knees and held her breath, trying to endure the hunger like a headache; she could not imagine that anything could be done until the sun set and released them from the sheltering, imprisoning walls, but if it became any worse she would not be able to avoid waking Janette in the desperate hope she was wrong.  If only she dared step out into the hall and pass the few doors down to the chamber given Lucien!  She did not know what he could do, but . . . .  It did not matter.  She could not.  A window-slit on the far wall faced out into the forest, and at this time of day there would be a low, yellow rectangle of light stretching down past this room, a shaft of sun that had once seemed to echo all the soft promise of the turning year in its progress across the floor, but which would now pierce her like an unchanging, un-dulling blade.  She was beginning to feel the threat of the sun, instinctively, beyond the logic of Janette's warning--

    The door to the room opened, breaking off Fleur's haphazard chain of attempted self-distraction.  She did not stir from her position on the chair as Lucien stepped in, draped from head to toe in an immense, black cloak, securing the door behind him before she could so much as glimpse the dust motes no doubt drifting through the daylight.  He put back the hood from his face and looked at her silently, for a long moment.  Whether from this new vampiric link, or from the bond they had seemed to share even when she was mortal, she could sense that he was in some kind of pain despite his stony expression, and it was only the intensity of his restraint that kept her from rushing to him.  Finally, shrugging almost self-deprecatingly, he whispered, "You wanted me."

    He met her eyes then, his gaze searching, and Fleur saw that, whatever the source of his distress, it was not entirely unlike what she had seen in Nicolas, and that bid fair to break her heart.  Feeling confused and alone, she blinked hard to hold on to her dignity and hold back the blood she dared not waste on tears.

    "Fleur?" Janette asked.  "Lacroix?"  She rose and pushed the bed curtains aside, apparently awakened more by the tension filling the room like a fog than by the few, soft words.

    "Fleur has been . . . upset . . . and awake for the past hour and more," he noted curtly, turning his probing gaze on Janette.  "This did not wake you?"

    "She did not want to wake me," Janette replied calmly, almost shrugging.

    "Careless!" Lucien hissed.  "She came over less than a day ago!  And how often has she fed?  And on what?  A fledgling needs--"

    "My fledgling," Janette interrupted smoothly, "will receive what she needs, as I see fit.  Is that not the Code as you have taught it to me?"

    Lucien seemed taken aback, though whether by Janette's words or her attitude Fleur could not tell; she could feel that Janette's bold-faced assertion was a tactic she had never before used on her own master, and the weights and measures of power were shifting all around them in ways neither of the elder vampires had expected.  "Lucien," Fleur began, uncurling her legs but not rising from the chair, "Please allow me to speak for myself.  Whatever you have found wrong, I could have woken Janette easily if I had wanted to.  I feel as if I could have touched her, somehow, even from across the room."

    "Could you?  Good.  I am . . . glad." His sharp expression softened slightly, and he came over to her chair and picked up her hands.  "But -- can you touch . . . me . . . like that, with your mind?"

    Puzzled, Fleur attempted to reach out to him again across the intangible threads that defined her vampiric senses, closing her eyes in concentration.  It took a slight effort -- much more than it had with Janette -- but she found him, his intensity and intelligence and possessiveness and need and . . . fear.  He was afraid of something -- in himself, in her: a memory of someone he had once loved, and hated . . . .  Her eyes snapped open, and she brought his hands to her lips, kissing his palms.  She did not know any other gesture to make; she did not know any way to invite him back through that link and reassure him.  His vulnerability was almost shocking, most especially in her sure conviction that she was the only one he had willingly allowed to see it.  The guilt and disgust she had sensed in him were not directed at her, but at himself.

    "Well?" Janette inquired.

    "It is not the same," Fleur replied, her gaze fastened on Lucien's even as she addressed Janette.  "It is not like my sense of you -- that comes from you, somehow, and I cannot do anything but bend and submit to it.  It is in my blood.  My sense of Lucien is . . . my own, I think.  It is in my . . . soul."

    That distinction seemed to make an impression on him far out of proportion with Fleur's sense of its complete lack of novelty.  He knelt beside the chair to bring his face even with hers, and asked intently, "As when you were mortal?"

    She nodded, pulling one hand from his grasp so she could trail her fingers along his jaw.  She was still so very hungry, which made it hard to think, but this was obviously important to him.  "Just as yesterday, only more clear."

    "And Janette is your . . . mother?" he insisted in a low voice, watching her expression closely.

    Fleur looked at Janette, and saw the older, but eternally youthful, vampire tilt her head mockingly at that, answering Fleur's unarticulated question.  Her mother was Lady Marie, second wife and surviving widow of Duke Henry I.  Janette would not ask that title; but neither would she reject it, the fledgling realized, if that was how Fleur finally chose to see their relationship.  A child has more than one parent, and a vampire more than one birth.  "Janette is my maker," Fleur agreed gravely, and watched some of the tension drain out of Lucien at that affirmation.  He brought her hand to his lips, and then rose and removed his cloak, handing it to Janette with a look Fleur could not translate.

    Unsure what had just occurred, Fleur rose as well.  "Lucien, Janette . . ."  Her maker swirled the cloak around her shoulders, and Fleur helped her arrange it to hide her hands and face deep in its folds, as she searched fruitlessly for a natural segue from the obscure and intense discourse of a moment before to the most mundane of concerns.  Securing Janette's hair under the hood, Fleur gave up and simply blurted out, "I'm terribly hungry."

    "I know, dear one," Janette said, laying her hand on Fleur's shoulder and turning her back to Lacroix.  "But you are too young to risk any sun at all.  When it is dark, we will hunt, I promise.  It will be all right."  She trailed a finger down the side of Fleur's neck and smiled.  "If you need me, which you will not, I will be with Nicolas."  Janette kissed her fledgling on the forehead and was gone in a sweep of trailing, black fabric, Lucien stepping between them to block any stray light from the swiftly-shut door.

    "Well," he said, uncharacteristically at a loss for words, as he had been when he handed her the rose whose thorn had pricked her finger in the garden.  He stretched out his hand.  She took it eagerly, crossing the space between them in two swift steps.  Fleur embraced him and lay her head on his chest, knowing now why she had not been able to hear the beating of his heart the last time he held her so.

    She tried to keep her mind on all the things she wanted to tell him, to ask him, but the rich, bittersweet, walnut-like tang of his blood teased her fledgling hunger from just below his skin.  As she felt him slide his hands down her back, she saw the world again obscured by the filmy, golden haze that she had learned to associate with one kind of desire the night before.  She turned her face up to him hesitantly at first, but when she saw that his blue eyes reflected her yellow gaze with acceptance and even anticipation, she immediately laced her hands around his neck, the position both holding her up on her toes and urging his lips down to meet hers.  She kissed him hungrily, trusting love to make up for inexperience for the present, and reveled in her right to do so; he had pledged himself to her, and she to him.  Only nobles marked unions with Church ceremony, and that was only a matter of state; vampires were beyond states, beyond nobility, and Lucien had promised that they would have each other forever.

    But that had been when he had intended to bring her across himself . . . .

    "Lucien?" Fleur murmured against his ear, suddenly putting her hands on his chest and rocking back on her heels.  Her mixed hunger and desire screamed at her not to stop for this, but she pushed her way through them to form coherent words.  "Lucien, does it matter to you that you were not the one to bring me across?"

    He had his eyes closed, she discovered as she looked up into his face, and he kept them so for a moment as he shifted his hands to her forearms.  When Lucien opened his ice-blue eyes, his gaze was steady and clear, and she could feel the truth of his words resonate across their bond.  "I am eternally indebted to Janette for bringing you across," he said firmly.  "And I am thankful that Nicholas prevented me from doing so myself."  Fleur raised a hand to his cheek, which he caught and brought to his lips.  "This is the way it should be.  Always."  Keeping his eyes locked on hers, Lucien kissed her palm, and then the ball of her hand, and then her wrist, bending her hand gently back in order to expose the veins.

    Fleur gasped as her fangs emerged in unison with Lucien's touch.  He smiled slightly before returning his attention to her wrist. Lacing her free hand with his, she rose again on her toes to kiss him.  But she stopped at his neck.  His neck.  Whimpering, she froze.  She clutched his tunic for balance.  This was making the hunger worse.  Much, much worse.  And it had already been almost beyond bearing.  "Lucien, I . . . need blood.  I cannot wait until sunset."

    "You do not have to," he said.  Suddenly, Fleur found herself swept up in his arms and deposited on the bed.  "Much easier to reach this way, is it not?"  Lucien's eyebrows arched expressively as he sat down beside her, the significant difference in their heights suddenly made meaningless.  He brought his face even with hers, his mouth moving deliberately along the line of her lips.  Then her jaw.  Her throat.  The low neckline of her dress.  Warmed by his cold touch, Fleur rubbed the back of his neck.  She unlaced the front of his tunic by touch.  She attempted to imitate his actions -- until her oversensitized hearing picked up the sound of his heart's single beat pushing his blood on its slow course through his body.  Oh!  She whimpered again with the demands of her hunger.  Lucien stilled his attentions to look up at her, his eyes now yellow as hers began to turn red.

    "No -- don't stop," she said instinctively, and then changed her mind, pulling back and sliding off the bed.  "Or, rather, I mean --"  Only the lack of blood in her system kept her from blushing fiercely, she knew, and she appreciated the gravity Lucien was able to maintain while she groped for words.  For several moments, even as her hunger tore away at her control -- having long since demolished her sense of propriety -- she stood next to the bed and looked everywhere but at him: the blankets, the curtains, her own hands.

    Finally, Lucien took her left hand in his, first bringing it to his lips and then simply lacing his fingers tightly with hers.  In a voice so low that she would not have heard it as a mortal, he declared that which he had never put in so many words to her before, but on which she had staked everything: "I love you."  He repeated himself, more intensely, in his own native tongue, "Amo tu . . . animus."

    "I have never done this before, you know," she admitted wildly.  Her anxiety not to disappoint him at last outbalanced her embarrassment on the strength of his statement, even as she lisped awkwardly around her unfamiliar fangs.  "I always thought, as a mortal, that I knew what to expect . . . but everything is different now, and I am so hungry --"

    He leaned forward and silenced her with a deep kiss, deliberately caressing each of her fangs with his tongue.  She shuddered.  "You are perfect," he said.  "Hunger is perfect."  He trailed his fingers along her throat.  "You fed, last night.  Feed again."

    Fleur allowed herself to be pulled gently back to the bed.  And when Lucien's slow, still heart beat again, she sank her fangs into his throat for the first time and was overwhelmed as his thick blood, rich with lust and love and the memories of ages, flowed between them.  Unlike when she had drained the mortal the previous night, her pleasure did not crest and recede in one swift, crashing wave.  Instead, it lasted until his blood all but stilled in his veins, the pulse spent.  Throughout, though his memories were a tangled briar of emotions and images, his pleasure was clearly readable in his blood, as palpably intense and satisfying as hers.

    Because his fulfillment was so inescapably evident, it did not occur to Fleur until much later -- after his blood had become a part of her own and her blood-borne knowledge of him had faded, taking the answers to her questions with it -- to wonder why he had not completed the circuit, and matched her bite with his.


Chapter 05  --  Toronto, 1996

    "You delayed opening just for us?" Nick asked Janette, the only person visible in the unusually bright and empty Raven, as he shut the main door firmly behind him and Nat and followed her down the stairs into the club.  The sealing of the door cut off the noise of the crowd outside like a thrown switch, leaving only the noise coming from the speakers over the dance floor -- CERK, Nick noted with some surprise, still playing the same, bizarre, techno-operatic selection with which Lacroix had opened his nightly program, and which Nat had asked Nick to turn off in the caddy on the ride over.  It was not like Janette to play something as unpredictable as the Nightcrawler's show in her establishment, despite Lacroix's broadcasting booth in the back; in fact, it was not like Janette to vary routine and put off opening, either.

    "The line out there isn't exactly thrilled, you know," Nat observed as they approached Janette at the bar.  "Your bouncer is having a tough time."

    "Durant is a professional," the club owner nonchalantly informed the two civil servants.  "It is a business strategy.  This is good for them.  These bottle-fed youngsters need to be reminded what it might be like to have to fend for themselves, every now and again.  They are always the more appreciative of . . . civilization and community afterward.  As long as it does not rain."  She returned Nick's quick kiss on her cheek, and then shrugged slightly, the ripple across her shoulders easily visible under the spaghetti straps of her black gown.  "Besides which, this business does not go beyond the family.  C'est la verite?  We do not need any more Enforcer attention."

    Nick appreciated that Janette had just implicitly included Nat in "the family" with that comment, a subtle gesture simultaneously generous and ominous -- Janette's specialty.

    "Natalie," Janette addressed the coroner, who had apparently rejected the bar as a place to examine her patient and was looking intently around the rest of the club.  "We can go into my living quarters, if you like."

    "That would be fine," Nat replied.  "Or even a booth, since the lights are all on in here, if there isn't anything other than your arm.  There isn't, is there?  How are you feeling?"

    "As well as can be expected," the black-haired vampire replied, tossing back the last of the contents of her wine glass before leading the two over to her customary booth.  While Nick did not see any practical reason why Nat did not simply examine Janette's arm there at the bar, he was just as glad to be heading away from the open bottle of blood on the counter.  He had built emotional barriers to the constant temptation of the humans among whom he worked and lived, but the casual accessibility of the superficially morally-innocuous blood in the club always made the Raven a trial of his resolve.  Maybe Nat understands that, he thought gratefully, though he had never articulated that particular struggle to her.

    Janette slid in to the back of the booth and began to peel off her long, black, left glove as the coroner joined her.  "There is no physical distress," Janette informed the mortal woman, "but the scar has not altered since you removed the stitches.  I will admit I find that somewhat mentally distressing."

    Leaning against the wall and looking at the tinted glass of Lacroix's broadcasting booth, Nick remained standing as Natalie commenced her examination of Janette.  He would have known his master was there, of course, beyond the obvious evidence of the live broadcast; at this close range, Lacroix would have had to actively suppress their link in order to disguise his presence, and even then Nick would have had to have his attention elsewhere not to notice the sensation.

    What took effort was discerning if Fleur were also present.  Nick had never had much metaphysical awareness of her, beyond the subtle instinct that identified kin, and with his vampiric abilities waning as he grew closer -- he hoped -- to humanity, he could no longer find a sense of her at all.  It was a bittersweet realization, his loss of that link: sweet, because it was a sign that he had made one more step, however slight, up and out of this eternal underworld: and bitter, because she was his little sister, after all, and it haunted him that the fulfillment of his hopes would mean leaving her, of all vampires, behind in this hell -- whether she saw it as such or not.

    ". . . will you, Nick?  Nick?"  Nat was speaking to him, he realized with a start.  "Nick!  Pay just a little attention, please?"

    "He cannot help it, Natalie," Janette smiled in mock-confidentiality.  "He has never been able to think of more than one thing at a time.  No doubt his single-mindedness is the trait that makes him such a remarkably good--" Janette cocked her head and paused significantly, looking him up and down as she pretended to search for the word.  Nick saw Nat roll her eyes as Janette finally supplied, "detective."

    "And such a remarkably poor . . . driver," Nat agreed solemnly, sharing a strange look with the owner of the Raven that made Nick decide, once again, that he really did not want to know what was going on behind their comments when these two discussed him.  Whether the truce between the woman who now held his heart and the woman who had handed it back when it had been in her keeping was one of actual friendship or simple necessity, he would take what he could get and be grateful.  "Nick," Nat admonished, "you and Janette are the only survivors of Divia's venom, and if you want to keep it that way, you need to pay attention.  I know you're used to ignoring injuries and letting them heal on their own, but that's not going to happen this time, by all appearances."

    She interrupted herself with an immense yawn, and Nick suddenly remembered the exhausted state in which he had found her at her desk, running on nothing but sugar, caffeine and habit.  He needed to get her home to sleep -- soon.

    "What is going to happen, then, Natalie?"  Janette asked, her tone carefully pitched with the blank, uninterested neutrality Nick had learned, over centuries, masked anxiety for herself.

    "Your guess is as good as mine," Nat admitted in frustration, sliding slowly out of the booth and standing in front of the table.  "If you were human, that would be a harmless old scar, and with your resources, I'd say you were in a position to deal with it through plastic surgery if it bothered you that much.  But you're not human.  The best I can say is, whatever it is, it still shows no signs of spreading -- perhaps because we cleaned the wound in time."

    "If anyone can handle this, Nat, you can," Nick said, trying to reassure both women's concerns at once.  He wondered whether it was his faith in Nat's skill or the fatalistic side of his quest that kept him from sharing Janette's anxiety.  He did not want death, of course, but he had lost the vampire's desperation to avoid it at any cost -- he had spent eight centuries paying on his debt for an existence which had been irrevocably revealed as a swindle the first night he saw his sister shed her humanity.  Some prices were just too high.

    "So are you going to take off your coat so I can get to the bandages?" Nat asked with a kind of resigned patience, stepping up in front of him.  Nick stared at her blankly for a moment, and then realized that that must have been what she had asked him in the first place.

    "Oh -- right."  He peeled off his leather jacket, sat down at the outer edge of the booth, and studiously ignored yet another unreadable look passing between Nat and Janette as the coroner leaned over him and began to unbutton his collar.  "Hey!  I felt that," Nick yelped when Nat stripped away the adhesive tape that had secured the gauze pad on his neck.

    "And you don't know whether you should be delighted or annoyed?" Nat asked, tipping his chin up and out of her line of sight.  "I recommend you choose 'delighted,' Detective Knight.  The sting of removing a band-aid is one of the less appreciated manifestations of a healthy human nervous system.  Hmmm.  The scarring hasn't progressed as far as it has in Janette, but that may or may not mean anything.  The wounds are much smaller and less invasive, for one thing.  And we already knew that you heal less quickly than the average vampire--"

    "It is a nutritional disorder."

    Nick froze at the familiar, long-unheard voice coming from behind Nat.  The coroner turned around and stepped back at the newcomer's comment, giving Nick a clear view of the small, blond woman standing a few paces away, casually holding a half-empty goblet of red liquid -- human blood, his vampiric senses rushed to inform him, urging him to take a drink.  He swallowed hard, placed his hand over Nat's and squeezed it, though whether to reassure her or himself, Nick was not certain.  The young-looking vampire continued, "His steady diet of animal blood cut his healing speed in half for the first hundred years or so -- say, most of the seventeenth century -- though he regained some ground when his body finally acclimated to the deprivation."  She paused for a moment, shrugging slightly as she addressed them all, and then finally allowing her gaze to rest on her brother.  "Lucien is preparing for his monologue, and I thought I would come out here rather than distract him.  Hello, Nicolas."

    When he had last seen her, in 1966, in the catacombs below Berlin, Nick had been too hurt to even hate her.  After all they had been through in the years they had searched for the Abbarrat together, rediscovering the devoted sibling camaraderie that only seemed to surface when both Lacroix and Janette were absent, Nick had allowed himself to believe that he had finally made her see their condition as the destructive, damning addiction it was; he had allowed himself to believe that she would at last reject vampirism and all its evils.  He had allowed himself to believe that he would no longer be alone in his quest.  That fervent hope had made the betrayal cut all the deeper when she had drained, without a second thought, the two East German guards who were pursuing them and the Toeffler family, and then brought down the tunnel roof between her and Nick.  Bitterly certain that she and Lacroix had planned it all, that she had been a double-agent to deny him the Abbarrat from the very beginning, and that mortal lives had been endangered and lost because he had trusted her, Nick had told the Toefflers that his sister had died in the cave-in.  And when Lacroix had burned the archive, shock that Fleur could permit such a thing had cost Nick a precious second in diving after the doomed "book of miracles."  He had never spoken of it since.

    "Fleur," Nick acknowledged quietly, without moving.

    "Oh, Nicolas," Fleur responded, crossing to him and taking his free hand gently in hers, as if she was afraid he might break from an embrace.  "Mon cherMon frere."  Her soft voice was full of affectionate regret, but Nick was not so foolish as to suppose the regret was for what she had done.  No, it was pity.  It was the vampire's perception of his struggle to recover from that curse, and she was as much a vampire as ever.  Damn Lacroix.

    "You look good," he offered, sadly; with so many broken hopes still invested in her, it was the only neutral thing he could think to say.  And she did look good.  She wore a crisp, white blouse with a tailored, brown vest, matching slacks and high-heeled boots; her thick hair was gathered in a professional twist at the back of her head; and her pale complexion all but glowed with the unnatural warmth of recent feeding.  In her own way, she looked as dignified as Lacroix and as stylish as Janette.

    "I wish I could return the compliment, Nicolas," she said gravely, leaning close to kiss him on the cheek.  "But you look haggard and hungry and even older.  I wish you would come back to us."

    He raised her hand to his lips and met her eyes.  "I wish you would come with me, instead."

    "Touché."  She smiled tightly and withdrew her hand.

    "It's really the eyes, isn't it?" Nat asked in a kind of wonder, and when Nick looked up at her, he realized she was speaking to Janette.

    "Indeed," Fleur's master replied languidly from across the table.  "She has been his sister, cousin, niece, daughter -- but in eight centuries we have rarely been able to get past the de Brabant eyes and convince anyone they were not somehow related."

    "He even posed as my son, once," Fleur said.  "Briefly.  For legal reasons.  Primogeniture is a truly revolting custom, wouldn't you say?"  She extended her hand to the human woman; Nat had to drop Nick's grasp to accept it.  "Forgive me.  We have not been properly introduced.  If you were an average mortal, I would say I am Rose Clark of Edinburgh.  If you were an average vampire, I would say that I am Fleur de Brabant.  As it is, I rather think you require both."

    "Doctor Natalie Lambert, coroner for the city of Toronto," Nat smiled.  "And quite content to have only the one identity."  Nick worried at the lack of wariness in her expression; his sister's customary demeanor of frank honesty masked death as surely as Janette's seductiveness and Lacroix's aura of power.  As much as he wished that were not true, it had become one of the central facts of his existence.  He and Nat needed to have a talk, as soon as she had a good day's sleep from which to consider it.

    "Nat, if you've done everything you can for Janette, we need to get you home."

    "If I may ask," Fleur began, setting her goblet on the table and sliding in next to Janette.  "What have you done for her?  I have not had the credentials to practice as a mortal physician in quite some time, but I have never seen a non-fatal wound in a vampire that would not heal when given adequate blood."

    "For whatever it's worth, neither have I." Natalie sighed, and gestured for Nick to scoot in so she could sit down beside him.  "I've been working with what little we have since -- well, since it happened.  It's more like Linda Wyatt's --" Nat cut herself off and glanced at Nick.  He shrugged.  He was relieved that she had thought to hesitate, but even if there had been a good reason to be reticent with his sister, it would be pointless trying to conceal from her something both Janette and Lacroix knew.  Nat nodded understandingly, and looked at Fleur.  "Do you know about the vampire fever?"

    "Until yesterday, I had only rumor.  Did you know that rumor has named it 'the Ontario plague'?  But that is the extent of rumor's knowledge," Fleur said.  "I have the facts from Lucien, now.  Your deduction of the cure was very astute -- and very lucky.  I do not know whether to thank or congratulate you first."

    "Umm, thanks," Nat said uncomfortably.  Nick knew she was thinking of Screed and the other fever victims she had been unable to save, and that she would never picture herself as the heroine he saw in her every day.  She had become a coroner to provide explanation and resolution -- what she had not been given, as a child, when her own parents had died -- and her early helplessness to explain and resolve the epidemic still weighed heavily on her.

    "You were going to tell us how the fever relates to Divia's venom?" Janette prompted.

    "Yes," Nat picked up.  "Well, it's more like the fever virus than anything else, but it's much more complicated, delicate, and unpredictable than the artificial one.  And it isn't contagious -- not accidentally, anyway.  The key is the substance that accompanied Divia's bite, and somehow got on her nails as well.  Instead of being the basic anti-coagulant that I've always found in vampire bites, it seems to have been a medium for conveying antibodies hostile to the presence of the rogue RNA marker, the, well, 'vampire virus,' as Nick called it the first time I explained it to him."  Nat looked around the table.  "Is this making sense?"

    "'Vampire virus'?" Janette repeated.

    "The tie that binds," Fleur murmured, obviously impressed.  "It is the pseudo-genetic inheritance that makes us what we are -- vampires, and family.  I am surprised you had the means to discover that, Doctor Lambert.  It took me a tunneling electron microscope, and I hazard the guess that I had a better idea what I was looking for in the first place."

    Nat's eyes widened, and Nick could see the scientific questions begin to bubble up.  He winced internally; he had never seen her react to any other vampire with such incautious enthusiasm, and the more charmingly compatible his sister was, the more painful the memories he would have to lay bare in order to give Nat a perspective balanced enough to restore that vital streak of fear.  A vampire was a vampire, and his sister . . . his sister liked what she was.  Eager to head off a bonding experience between the two scientists, Nick asked quickly, "And this means what about Divia's victims?"

    Hauled up short, it took Nat a moment to re-collect her thoughts.  She met his eyes as she said, carefully, "It means that Urs was mortal when she died.  I presume Vachon was, too."

    "Mortal?" Nick repeated, instinctively raising his hand to the scabs on his neck.  He heard Janette suppress a gasp, and suspected that Fleur would take her hand reassuringly under the table.  "Human?  Nat, are we . . . ?"

    "No."  Her beautiful, owl-like eyes, so dear to him, were infinitely sad as she suffocated his newborn hope.  She dropped her gaze as she continued, avoiding him and looking instead at Janette and Fleur.  "The 'antivirus,' the substance that accompanied Divia's bite instead of the normal anti-coagulant, was apparently unique to her system.  Outside her body, it goes dormant and then dies, unless spread through fresh, human blood.  Urs and Vachon must have fed well soon before they were attacked, allowing the antivirus to race through their systems and bring them back across.  The wounds Divia inflicted on Urs must have killed her the instant she became mortal.  From what Nick says, Vachon might have survived as a mortal, but became suicidal during the transition.  He left a corpse, so he must have finished crossing back over as he died."

    "But Nicolas," Fleur realized, "with no human blood in his system, was never even infected.  It was all but an inoculation.  Oh, Nicolas--" her tone was full of compassion for the irony that his determination to become human had cost him this avenue to humanity, but Nick only shook his head.  He did not want to think about that just yet.  It was too huge.  Fleur took the hint and continued, "Janette was not bitten, so what antivirus there was in her wound must have been negligible, and perhaps already impaired.  But are you sure, Doctor Lambert, that it did not spread through her system, and is simply dormant now?"

    "As sure as I can be without that tunneling electron microscope," Nat answered, yawning again.  "Excuse me.  Sorry.  You can't see the RNA markers without it, of course, but you don't have to see something to know it's there.  You've probably never experimented with this yourself, for obvious reasons, but I've discovered that in vampire tissue, garlic draws fluid out of the cells, causing dehydration -- not unlike what salt does to human cells.  I used to expose samples to daylight, but while that showed what was and wasn't vampiric, it also destroyed the specimen.  With the garlic solution, a tissue sample can be more or less restored to its original state by simply rinsing it in distilled water.  Point being, the mere presence of the antivirus has been enough to prevent this reaction in the lab, but the samples I've been taking from both Nick and Janette continue to register as vampiric."  Nat hesitated for a moment, as if she had something to add, and then simply sighed and dropped her eyes.  Nick put his left arm around her shoulders; he could not yet even think of the questions that needed asking.

    Fleur, however, took in the mortal woman's hesitation and sigh with a calculatingly-arched eyebrow that made Nick nervous.  Nodding slightly, Fleur asked, "And the solution is just garlic and water?  What concentration?"

    "Actually, while normal water works fine when tested against a control, the level of reaction varies enough from vampire to vampire -- for example, Nick's cells hardly react at all anymore -- that, for reinforcement, ummm . . . .  It's holy water."  Nat coughed and grinned sheepishly.  "Oh! Janette," she turned to the Raven proprietor.  "I just realized, about your scar tissue -- I can't believe I didn't put this together before!  I'm sorry; I--"

    "It is apparent that you've had a rather long day, Natalie," Fleur broke in smoothly.  "Now that we have established why no one is in immediate danger of . . . mortality . . . perhaps we should simply plan to continue this tomorrow night?"

    Nick shot Fleur a surprised look, but gratefully agreed.  "Yes, Nat, let me take you home."

    "No," Nat protested.  "Wait.  I know I'm not making a lot of sense, and I am very tired, but this is the key.  You need to understand the mechanism--"  She broke off when Fleur suddenly knocked over her goblet, somehow sending the liquid flowing right across the table and into Nat's lap.

    In the conventional bustle of exclamations, apologies and clean-up that always follow such a spill, Nick found himself sent behind the bar for some paper towels while Nat allowed Fleur, at her insistence, to accompany her to the restroom and help deal with the stain.  Nick heard his sister say, her tone forbidding, "Do not do this, Natalie--" just before the door swung shut behind them and a faucet turned on, smothering their voices.

    Returning to the booth with the towels and a spray bottle, Nick demanded, "She did that on purpose, didn't she?"

    "What?" Janette took the cleaning implements and efficiently tidied the mess.

    "Spilled her . . . wine.  Deliberately got Nat out of my hearing."

    The brunette vampire shrugged.  "So what if she did?"

    "What is she hiding from me this time, Janette?" Nick demanded.  "Why did she really come here?"

    "Tsk-tsk. So self-centered, Nicholas," Lacroix said, emerging from his broadcasting booth while an extended version of the love theme from Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet played over the Raven's speakers.  Nick wondered briefly what message that selection was supposed to send, but quickly let it go; attempting to interpret the Nightcrawler was an express ticket to madness.  Lacroix shut the door carefully behind him, and his voice turned steely.  "One would think that my daughter's death was not a sufficient reason for Fleur's . . . return."

    "Is it?" Nick snapped.  "It's too much of a coincidence, Lacroix.  To miss a cure by so little -- again -- and for her to be here just as it happens -- again.  You may have pledged not to invade my life in Toronto with your killing, but she hasn't, and I've just begun to see the danger of that loophole!"

    Lacroix arched one eyebrow.  "I do not know what you are talking about, Nicholas.  I am not entirely sure that you do, either."

    "Your Natalie is in no danger, if that is what you are implying," Janette said, seating herself at the bar and pouring Lacroix and herself goblets of wine-mixed blood.

    "'Danger' is a relative term," Nick murmured.  "Look, Lacroix, I know Fleur betrayed me to you over the Abbarrat."

    "You do, do you?" his master asked impassively, lifting his drink.

    "By her lights, she was saving me from myself. So were you. I understand that -- I've even come to accept it -- though I still find it hard to believe that she, of all people, let you burn the book."

    "Nicolas--" Janette began, but Lacroix stopped her.

    "No, Janette.  This is very interesting.  Continue, Nicholas; what does what happened in Berlin have to do with all this?"

    "Good question," Fleur said, returning with Nat.  "Who brought up as distasteful a subject as that?"  She gave Lacroix a harsh look, but then, even so, stepped into the circle of his arm like a stream returning to its own channel.  In nearly eight centuries, on and off, they had never tired of one another, and among all the other emotions they made him feel, Nick would admit that their bond had always inspired envy.  Nat, who had circled the bar to join him, took his hand, and Nick smiled at her with a sudden rush of gratitude and awe; with her, he believed, he had received something superior even to what Fleur and Lacroix had, a living, human love beyond any that vampires could know.

    "What happened in Berlin?" Nat asked.

    Shaking his head as he delayed the question, Nick looked at Fleur.  "What did you tell her not to do?"

    "I think Natalie's query comes first," Janette said.

    "Actually," Lacroix asserted.  "I believe mine does: what does what happened in Berlin thirty years ago have to do with anything here and now?"

    "It is a piece of the past I trust we all would prefer to leave buried," Fleur said, glancing up at Lacroix with a stern expression Nick did not understand.

    "Nat," Nick quietly filled her in. "There was once a book called the Abbarrat, an ancient, unique text known to legend as 'the book of miracles.'  It included a cure for vampirism, or so the legends said.  After years of searching all over the world, Fleur and I found it, in East Berlin, in 1966.  Human lives were endangered, some lost, and the book . . . burned, at Lacroix's hands, after Fleur led him to it."  Sighing, Nick addressed his sister.  "I know that you want me to remain a vampire."

    "That is hardly a secret.  No one who cares about you--" she shot a glance at Nat, "--wishes to see you pursue suicide."

    "And you consider my quest for redemption suicidal.  So, as you gave up the Abbarrat to Lacroix to burn, are you trying to keep a cure from me now?"

    "As I what?" Fleur repeated.  "Me?  You think I allowed Lucien to destroy an irreplaceable font of knowledge like the Abbarrat, or even the archive in which it was held?  Nicolas!"  She sounded deeply offended, and sputtered inaudibly for several moments.  Finally, she gave up trying to articulate a response herself, and instructed, "Lucien, Janette, you tell him."

    "She came to me in New York immediately after your altercation in Berlin," Janette said placatingly.  "She was seething about the book's loss, and refused to see Lacroix for at least the rest of that decade, until I moved here."  She shrugged.

    "That decade, and the next, and the next," Lacroix supplied.  "Believe me, Nicholas, I have been adequately . . . punished . . . for my wastefulness."

    Taking this in, Nick asked Fleur, "Where were you while the archive burned?"

    "Fetching the fire brigade, of course.  As soon as he started the flames in the basement of the building, I knew there was nothing I could do alone.  Stupid, stupid way to deal with the situation, Lucien!  Uh."  She shook her head violently, as if she still could not believe what had happened.

    Lacroix dropped a kiss on the top of her hair.  "Il n'y a pas arriver plus.  There are other ways to save Nicholas from himself."

    "You did not help destroy the Abbarrat," Nick said, slowly accepting the others' interpretation of events.  "But you did kill the guards in the catacombs."

    "Yes," Fleur shrugged.

    "You did not try to divert or delay them, to hypnotize them, or knock them unconscious, or trap them behind a beam.  Together, we could easily have knocked them out and left them behind.  Instead, you murdered them -- and you enjoyed it."

    She looked at him blankly.  "Of course I enjoyed it, Nicolas.  Feeding is exceedingly pleasurable; you know that."

    Nat clasped his hand more tightly, and Nick was grateful for her support.  He always found it easier to remind his family of this fact when there was someone else present who found it admirable rather than laughable: "I have not killed a human being in four-hundred years."

    "You really should, Nicholas," Lacroix smirked.  "It would do wonders for this attitude of yours."

    Ignoring him, Nick pressed Fleur.  "You killed two men that night, without mercy, without remorse, and yet you spent thirty years mourning a book?"

    "There are billions of mortals, and those were a distinct inconvenience," she explained patiently.  "The Abbarrat was unique and irreplaceable."

    "Every human life is unique and irreplaceable!" Nick burst out.

    "Nicolas!" Janette warned sharply, and then sighed.  "Fleur, you cannot argue with him.  The past three decades -- especially the past six years -- have made him, shall we say, more committed than ever before.  Nicolas, no one is plotting against you.  Natalie, I believe you had something to say about my wound?"

    The coroner seemed relieved at the change of topic; Nick did not blame her.  "I had a sudden flash of inspiration," Nat said.  "But all things considered, I do think I should sleep on it, if you don't mind.  If I'm right, time will only help.  If I'm wrong, we're back at square one anyway."

    "Tomorrow night, then?" Janette asked.

    Nat nodded.  "Be sure to call if anything changes."

    Fleur extended her hand over the bar.  "It has been a pleasure meeting you, Natalie.  Perhaps we can speak at more length soon."

    "I'd like that," Nat replied, smiling as they shook hands.

    Nick looked up from that gesture to find Lacroix smirking in satisfaction; the ancient vampire had Fleur at his side again, and, through her, a new access to Nick's human love that in no way violated their truce.  The detective pointedly met his master's gaze, and then walked calmly back to the booth to retrieve his coat and Nat's bag.  Whatever Lacroix hoped to gain, Nick trusted Nat without reservation.  They might deceive her, but unlike them, she would never knowingly betray him.  As painful as it had been, he had finally laid his sordid past bare before her when Lacroix had returned to Toronto, his most bitter memories of his master given her as an armor and weapon against the one-time general's cruel snares.  As painful as it would be, he would tell her about Fleur, now, as well.

    Having returned to the bar and handed Nat her bag, Nick shrugged into his coat and asked Janette, "Are you going to open tonight?"

    "Of course," she replied, settled again on her stool with a fresh goblet of blood and extracting a cellular phone from a previously-invisible pocket in the skirt of her gown.  "When you leave, tell Durant that I am calling Louis, Brianna and the others, that they are to come in immediately, and that we will open in fifteen minutes."

    He nodded obediently, and smiled as she peremptorily waved him away and devoted her attention to the tiny phone in her hand.  Looking for Nat, he found that she had already crossed the dance floor and was waiting for him on the stairs.  Turning back to the vampires at the bar, Nick found himself at a loss in leave-taking.  Conventionally, it was as casual between them as Janette's dismissive wave, but the emotional weight of seeing Fleur again, of reinterpreting the events of Berlin which had haunted him so long, of passing through the same old, old argument over the life he chose to lead, and of that argument being minted anew in Nat's presence -- it all seemed to demand some acknowledgment.

    Nick saw Fleur squeeze Lacroix's hand, at which the ancient Roman spared Nick a deliberate, evaluative glance, and then disappeared back behind the tinted windows of his broadcasting booth.

    "Mon cher, mon frere," she said, stepping up to him and taking his hands.  In her high heels, her eyes came almost even with his nose, and that prosaic realization made him smile.  He had seen this woman revel in human death, and he had seen her coo over newborn kittens.  He had known her to betray him to her lover's whims, and to defend him from his master's rages.  He would never forget . . . he could never forget anything . . . but as he wanted to be forgiven, did he not have to forgive?

    "I do love you, you know." And in spite of everything, he did. That's what made it hurt so much.

    "I know," she whispered back.  "We all know.  And believe it or not, we all love you, too.  In our own ways, of course."

    Stepping back, he grinned wryly.  "Of course."

    "It is good to be home, Nicolas."  She inclined her head gravely, and then returned his grin.  "Now, go.  Your lady is waiting."  With that, the young-looking vampire turned and strolled back to the Nightcrawler's sanctum, leaving Nick to join Nat and slip out through the waiting crowd to where the caddy was parked down the street, its convertible top closed in case of rain.

    Fastening his seat-belt and preparing to pull out, Nick looked over at Nat.  She had her eyes closed and her head lolled back against the seat.  "All set?"

    "All set," she responded tiredly, and neither of them said anything for the time it took to come to the Bloor street intersection.  While they were stopped at the light, Nat said dryly, "Your sister is a very nice vampire."

    Glancing up from the road, Nick discovered that Nat had opened her eyes, and was smiling ironically at her own deliberate word-choice.  He swiftly reached out from the steering wheel with his right hand, picked up her left, and kissed it appreciatively, before returning his grip to the wheel as they crossed the intersection.  "Yes, she is a very nice vampire.  Nat, what is it that she asked you not to do?"

    "Oh, she thought I had a cure, and that I'd bring down the Enforcers -- give it to you prematurely, get your hopes up, cause a confrontation with Lacroix, and bring down the Enforcers."  Out of the corner of his eye, Nick saw Nat shift uneasily and reach up to pinch the bridge of her nose, her telltale gesture of anxiety and frustration.  "She's wrong.  We learned better from the lydovuterine, didn't we?  She's very quick, though; I hadn't realized how much I'd really said until she gave most of my own deductions back to me.  Most."  Nat paused for a long interval as several dark blocks dotted with electrically-lit windows passed by, and Nick wondered if perhaps she had closed her eyes and given in to sleep.  Finally, though, she asked, "Nick, I know it's been a hard night for you already, and don't think I wasn't paying attention -- I heard her terrible valuation of human life -- but why are things so much more strained between you and Fleur than the others?  I mean, her value system doesn't seem to differ from Janette's . . . or Lacroix's."

    "No, it doesn't differ much," Nick agreed quietly, turning the caddy on to the road leading past Nat's apartment.

    "And she was very friendly to me . . . ?"

    Nick answered slowly, carefully, choosing his words for the greatest possible impact -- for Nat's own protection.  "Fleur would no more hurt you than Richard would have hurt Sidney."

    Pulling the car into her building's lot, Nick dashed a glance at Nat's face to see if the parallel with her dead brother and her cat had been too harsh.  It had been exactly what he meant, however.  Fleur regarded humankind as a lesser species with an appropriately lower place on the food chain, and her appreciation of the occasional mortal had never yet so much as moved her to bring one across.  Not without reason, Nick admitted, Fleur had utterly severed all connections with humanity early in her vampiric life, developing an ambivalent loathing for humankind in general that rivaled Lacroix's.  Given Nick's attachment, Fleur might possibly see in Nat a potential sister, but that was as dangerous as the first view -- for Fleur would only perceive Nat's humanity as an obstacle to that union.

    "That's pointed enough," Nat said after a moment, her tone lightly laced with sarcasm.  "But I'm sure the same is true of every other vampire I've encountered . . . since the asteroid scare, anyway.  I'm your 'pet,' so I'm out of bounds."  She softened her tone before continuing, "But why your sister, Nick?  Why is it like that between you?"

    "Because she is my sister?" he asked rhetorically, moving the caddy into a parking spot and switching off the engine.  They sat silently for a moment, letting the sound of the motor die into the night without putting anything in its place.  Finally, Nick asked, his gaze fixed on the steering wheel, "Nat, do you remember what finally made Schanke give up cigarettes once and for all?"

    "Of course.  It was when he caught Jenny smoking."

    "I told you, once," Nick said slowly, meeting Nat's eyes, "that it was during the Spanish Inquisition that I realized I could no longer live with myself as a killer, a vampire, that it was then I realized that I was in no position to judge one person worthy of death and another of life.  I told you that a man named Sancho saved my life in an Inquisition dungeon, and was murdered in front of me, and that though I had followed a code to kill only the 'guilty' since the year after I came across, that it was this good man's death that made me give up killing altogether."

    Nat nodded, unfastening her seat-belt and turning to face him.  "I remember."

    "What I didn't tell you," Nick continued, his voice low and guilt-ridden, "was what crystallized those realizations, those codes, both times.  I didn't tell you what brought it home to me, the way seeing his daughter pick up his addiction did for Schanke."  Nick paused again, staring off into the past and wondering at the great epiphanies of his life, drenched in blood and horror rather than light and glory.  He came back to himself, startled, when he heard Nat open her door.

    "This is probably something we should continue upstairs," she said calmly.

    "Right."  He stared at her for a moment, awed again at the casual ease with which she accepted his need to merge the distant past with the present.  Then he exited his own side of the car, and moved around to hers in time to close her door behind her.  Nick watched Nat collect her mail and sort through the advertisements as they quietly climbed the stairs, hoping not to disturb those who kept more conventional hours and had probably only recently gotten to sleep.  Pondering, Nick remembered that when Schanke had first been assigned as his partner, Nat had still been overwhelmed by things like St. Joan's cross -- part of his life, part of history -- but in the last year and a half, since that Valentine's Day when so many barriers had come down between them, she had accepted his frame of reference as unblinkingly as if she were immortal herself, just because it was a part of him.  Perhaps he would be able to explain this to her so that she would understand; no one else ever really had.

    Once inside the apartment, Nick lingered at the entrance to Nat's kitchen, watching bemusedly as she proceeded straight into the living room, promptly dumped her mail and her bag next to her computer, draped her coat over her desk chair, dropped into a corner of her couch, and pulled her favorite pillow into her lap.  He saw her gesture toward the opposite end of the couch, and shook his head.  "Aren't I supposed to be getting you some dinner?  Or would it be breakfast?"

    Nat looked surprised.  "You know what? I'm so tired, and so wired, that I forgot I was hungry!  But that can wait, Nick--"

    "No, it can't."  He took off his jacket and nodded his head toward the kitchen.  Nick had rarely paid attention to the various pieces of culinary lore washing over him in his long life: rarely, that is, until last year, when he had begun learning to cook, just for her.  The smells of food still made him feel physically ill sometimes, but they always made him feel emotionally whole; taking care of her needs in that quintessentially mortal manner helped make up for many other expressions of love in which he could not indulge.  "Come on. I can talk while I cook.  How do crepes sound?"

    "Wonderful," Nat's eyebrows arched, "but you'll drift off into the past, burn them, and have to explain yourself to the neighbors again when the smoke detector goes off like it did last month.  How about --?"  She strode across the room, ducked past him into the kitchen, and opened her freezer.  "Ta-da!  Instant breakfast.  Marvel of the modern age."

    Nick grinned fondly as she peeled back the plastic cover just so, slid the cardboard tray into her microwave, and activated it.  Natalie Lambert was a woman of many talents, but a gourmet taste in food would never rank among them; all irrationally, he loved that about her.  Her no-nonsense approach to life -- from the moment she had refused to be hypnotized, insisting her science could help him -- had shaken him out of a lonely resignation and given him humanity to strive for, rather than just vampirism to strive against.  Nick's expression sobered, however, as she sat down at the kitchen table and pushed out a chair for him to take.  Her voice was soft and serious as she asked, "So it was not only this man's murder that inspired you?"

    "No," Nick said, turning the chair around and straddling it.  He crossed his arms over the chair's high back, and allowed his chin to sink slowly onto them as he lost himself in his story.  "No, there was more to it than that.  Sancho was a landowner from Barcelona, with a family, and -- faith.  For a few hours in 1578, he, Lacroix, a madman and I all shared an Inquisition cell.  Betrayed by one of our household servants, Lacroix, Fleur, Janette and I had been taken as we slept; the prison was segregated by sex, so the soldiers split us up as soon as they had us . . . .  Sancho risked his life, his freedom, and probably his soul, to save Lacroix and me from death by fire and exorcism.  I told him I was in his debt -- and for so much more than the physical rescue, Nat!  He made me hope, for the first time since Joan, that maybe my soul wasn't past saving -- and we parted, following different ways out of the prison maze."

    Nick paused for a moment, trying to find the words to translate the images rising up before his mind's eye: the fire, the lamb's blood, the stairs, the guards, the other prisoners calling out not to be left behind, the deadly afternoon light streaming through the rare window slits.  "Lacroix and I tried to find Janette and Fleur.  But they had already escaped from their guards -- careless, lustful men who came too close, and found themselves suddenly turned from predator to prey.  They were looking for us, and when we met up in a corridor--"

    The microwave beeped. Nick halted again, and Nat grasped his hand apologetically before retrieving her meal.  As he watched her situate her food and utensils -- so mortal, so modern -- Nick was overcome by the vivid memories.  How could he describe this to Nat?  How, really?  The straw-covered, flagstone floor, the narrow hall, the wide-spaced torches just at the level of his shoulder, the daylight coming through the chinks in the wooden door at the top of the stairs: those would all be easy enough to share, but the rest?  Two soldiers had already been lying broken and drained on the floor when he and Lacroix had turned the corner, and, burned into his mind's eye, he remembered especially how it had looked as the uneven mounds that were the corpses had interfered with the sweep of Janette and Fleur's ample skirts, black and green respectively that day.  His first sight, however, had been Sancho, standing transfixed as Fleur gently tilted his head aside, a beatific smile on her face, and then plunged her fangs into his neck.  When she had finished, she had let him fall where he had stood, and had stepped eagerly into Lacroix's embrace to share the last of the fresh blood on her lips.  Nick had seen that embrace with new eyes, and was repulsed beyond bearing.  His pledge to Sancho fresh on his lips, he had seen not only the death of an innocent, and not only the immortalization of a debt that he could now never repay, but the death of a man who had been wrongly condemned.  And if one condemnation could be wrong, how many more could be, and had been, with a penalty that could never be rescinded?

    Instead of sitting down to her food, Nat circled the table and took his hands.  Nick squeezed them gratefully, and reminded himself that this reminiscence, however bitter, was for a purpose: the safety of the woman he loved.  "Sancho ran into Fleur and Janette," he announced, "and Fleur drained him, with no pretense of a reason.  That showed me how impossible it was for me to judge a 'guilty' or 'innocent' human; had I been in her place, I would have seen only an escaping criminal.  I might even have done the same thing, as we had to make a run through the sun if we were going to get out ourselves.  That moment changed everything."

    "You said 'both times,'" Nat reminded him gently.  "What was it the year after you came across that made you start your first code?"

    "The same thing," Nick admitted somberly.  "Fleur."


Chapter 06  --  Brabant, 1229

    Nicolas had been deeply asleep, his earlier restlessness and recriminations finally buried in dreamless oblivion, when Janette had come to his room some hours before.  He had roused, however, to her touch, her hands and lips more urgent than he had yet known her; her hunger had been overwhelming, and his own, never very deep, had roared to the surface.  For a time, the oblivion of sensation had been as consuming as that of sleep.  Later, sated in body and blood, he would gladly have returned to his repose with her in his embrace, but she had kissed him quickly and rolled away, out of bed.

    He looked at her appreciatively as she stood and stretched, and found himself much less interested in sleep than he had been a moment before.  But when he reached out for her, she merely shook her head and began gathering up her clothes, her eyes and smile bright and sharp.  "It is time to get out of bed, Nicolas; it is time to hunt!"

    Slightly bemused, he pushed himself up on one arm and watched her dress.  When she returned to the bed, holding her hair out of the way and sitting with her back to him so that he could lace up first her underthings and then her gown, the fascinating curve of her spine where it disappeared into her skirt tempted him to do exactly the opposite.  But he secured her clothing as she desired, and then began to caress her shoulders where the neckline left them exposed.

    She sighed contentedly, unconsciously relaxing into his touch, but then pushed firmly away and began vigorously employing a brush she retrieved from a pocket of her cloak.  "But we cannot stay here; we must leave for the hunt. Fledgling hunger has no patience."

    "I just fed," he reminded her, kissing her neck.  Oh, it was not quite the same thing as feeding, he knew, and soon they would both be even hungrier than before, but for the moment she was his world, and he could not imagine why she wanted to disrupt his orbit.

    "Not you, my love."  Janette's hands fell gracefully into her lap, and she cocked her head to the side as she looked back at him.  "Though we will both be ravenous by and by.  I meant Fleur."

    Nicolas's expression did not change at that comment, but, inside, it was as if she had struck a him blow.  Somehow, he had managed to submerge the previous night's events while he slept.  He had been so disturbed by what he had witnessed in Fleur's first kill that he had smothered awareness of it out of his conscious mind.  As Janette returned her attention to her hair, humming lightly, he grappled with the logic of it: yes, of course Fleur would be starving.  He remembered that relentless early hunger all too well himself; it lurked mere months behind him, the instinct that pushed past any restraint, any caution, any sense, until one either embraced it or went mad.  And he had chosen not to go mad.

    He would bring someone back for Fleur, he thought, and slid out of bed to get dressed.  He would bring her a vampire's meal, as he had before dawn, so she would not have to choose death as well as deal it; as much as he could, he would spare her that monstrous compulsion, that drover's lash of the bloodlust that was their common master.  Pulling on his boots, he realized grimly that he had not thought of himself as a slave, or a monster, since shortly after he came across.  He had not thought much at all, in fact, giving himself over instead to the demands of his body and absorbing Lacroix's praise for it.  His master's standards and expectations had overwritten his own, scraping away the remaining ideals of his youth and re-inscribing the palimpsest with the jaded, despairing bitterness he had brought back from the decadent, Crusader-ruled kingdoms in the holy land.  What might have been a passing chapter in Nicholas's life, drowned in ale, Lacroix had made the entire story, drowned in blood.  It was only by the piercing light with which his sister reflected his experience back at him that he was driven to confront his vampirism again.  Seeing her, for whom he had had such bright hopes, binding herself to darkness, he was forced to see that in coming back to this half-life, he had surrendered his invaluable honor and freedom for a worthless bauble that was melting into the night like water on sand.

    What was he, then, a renegade knight with a demon as his liege lord?  It had been easier when he had not thought, and could not see.  Unable to remain still, he leapt to his feet and began prowling the chamber restlessly, as if he could outpace his renewed understanding of his situation.

    "What is troubling you, Nicolas?" Janette asked as she placed the last comb in her hair, securing an elegant cascade of waves over her left shoulder.

    "Nothing," he answered automatically, though not honestly.  "Where are they?"

    "In the chamber that was assigned to me."  She shrugged, and then reached up to take her hair down again.

    He watched her for several moments as each comb fell neatly into her lap.  Curious, he asked, "Why are you doing that?  It looked fine the way it was."

    "Fine?" Janette arched an eyebrow.

    "Magnificent," Nicolas corrected himself.

    "But not the most appropriate for this hunt, no?  And Lacroix and Fleur are not yet ready to leave.  It passes the time."

    "Where are they?" he demanded again, as if of the back of the chamber door.

    "The same place they were the last time you asked," Janette answered calmly, and he turned to look at her again.  Without benefit of mirror or maid, she had swiftly and smoothly coiled her long, glossy hair around her head and secured it in place.

    "The sun has been down for some time," he pointed out.  "She hasn't fed since before dawn; she must be famished!  Why don't we hunt for her?  Why is he keeping her?"

    "Perhaps she is keeping him," Janette suggested.  When he opened his mouth to object, Janette rose and laid a finger on his lips.  "Three things, Nicolas.  First, her hunger is temporarily allayed for the same reason that ours is."  She paused, apparently waiting to see if he could accept that, but he merely nodded.  It did not bear thinking about too closely, and for all he had seen and heard of the life of vampires in the last year, Nicolas was still mortal enough to fully intend, should his master ever dishonor Fleur by abandoning or replacing her, to rip out Lacroix's still-beating heart and stake it ten feet from his body on the same pike spitting his decapitated head.  But until then, the second son of the first Duke of Brabant would consider his sister as much as married.  Seeing this in his eyes, or perhaps recalling it from his blood, Janette slipped her arms around his waist and continued, "Secondly, if you are upset with me for bringing her across--"

    "You?" he asked blankly, staring down into her clear blue eyes.  The idea had simply not occurred to him.  His outrage had been directed at Lacroix, the seducer, and then himself, the failed protector.  In Nicolas's eyes, that Janette was as culpable in Fleur's condition as was Lacroix in his own did more to exonerate Lacroix than condemn Janette; Lacroix was his commanding officer, obeyed with all his skill, but Janette was his lady, honored with all his soul.  "I do not blame you," he told her firmly, holding her gaze as he slowly bent his lips to hers.  "My love, I never could."

    The kiss was tender and chaste, and Janette clung to him fiercely, as if that gentle respect were a thing she desperately needed, but for which she could not ask.  There had been an intense and mysterious fascination between them from the moment he first saw her, less than a week before the fateful night Lacroix made him what he was.  Janette had been appraising goods in the stall of a cloth-seller who lingered open after dusk; passing by, Nicolas had caught a bolt of lace she had dislodged before it could fall to the ground.  Thus met, the fascination had been enough for her to have Lacroix bring him across after only a few nights, a smattering of conversation, a handful of gazes over the heads of a crowd, and that which had followed her question: "How badly do you want me?"  More than his soul, as it had turned out.  And though the fascination had lost some of its mystery as he began to understand it, its intensity only grew.  They fit; upending the natural order as it was taught, she needed his tenderness, and he needed her strength.  She was the reason he did not regret this existence, and she was reason enough.

    But as Nicolas rested his cheek on her hair, he imagined another world, another homecoming, where he could have presented Janette to his mother and sister as his betrothed, rather than his "travel companion."  He could have introduced her to all the people and places of his boyhood, and his brother Henry would have sent them to superintend some small estate where they would have been part of the community, part of life . . . .

    Blinking hard, Nicolas put away that line of thought.  "What was the third thing?" he asked quietly.  "You said, 'three things.'  Fleur is with Lacroix, was I upset with you, and . . . ?"

    "Oh." Janette reluctantly released her embrace.  "Well, you suggested we hunt for Fleur, as we did last night.  No.  That is out of the question.  I will not permit it."

    "What?" he asked, startled.  "Why?"

    "Would you have her starve, Nicholas?" Lacroix asked, opening the chamber door and gesturing for them to join him and Fleur in the corridor.  "Or will you so serve her all her life?  If one does not learn what it takes to survive when the hunger is great enough to consume all mortal qualms, one . . . dies.  Or exists as a carouche."  He pronounced the last word with a sneer and pulled the door shut behind them.

    "What is a 'carouche,' Lucien?" Fleur asked, boldly taking his arm as they started toward the stairs.  Nicolas dropped his gaze from her glowing, confident expression; evidently, she shared none of his reservations about her metamorphosis.  But, then, neither had he after his first day in Janette's embrace.

    "A lower, degraded form of our kind," Lacroix answered, his reticent wording reminding them all that servant ears were certainly about.  "As an ape is a mockery of a man."

    "Ah," Fleur inclined her head, no doubt filing the information away for later discussion.  Nicolas reminded himself to ask about it, as well; he had never heard of a carouche before, either.  "So, Nicolas," his sister addressed him, "where would you like to hunt?"

    She had asked so eagerly that, for a moment, he heard the same question as she had asked it years ago, a little girl wheedling her way into accompanying him and Henry and their hawks.  Startled, he met her eyes, and saw that same light; her first hunt as a vampire was, to her, as yet no different than flying a falcon at a rabbit or sending dogs at a deer.  'How healthy,' Nicolas knew Lacroix was thinking with delight, and Janette with complacency.  His mind agreed with them completely, but this was his sister -- and something tightened around his heart.

    "Nicolas?" Fleur prompted, cocking her head and deliberately stepping on his foot from under the sweep of her gown, where Lacroix and Janette could not see.  Oh! -- Nicolas suddenly grasped that her question had actually been a reminder that playing host was his duty.  Absent for years, he was still the only male family member present at the moment, and convention insisted he take up the role.

    "Well, hmm," he fumbled.  Until now, he had always hunted in cities and towns, taverns and inns: strangers, easily dehumanized and dismissed.  He could not reconcile that with this.  "Perhaps the outskirts of the village?"

    "Perfect," Fleur smiled, no doubt relieved that he had named something -- anything.  It was not as if there were any other choice, really, but Nicolas understood that appearances demanded a decision from him before she could proceed.  "I believe I know a good place to start."

    As they reached the foot of the stairway, Fleur's maid Therese bustled up.  "My lords, ladies, supper is laid in the hall," she addressed the four, curtseying, and then drew Nicolas aside as the others started for the doorway.  "If I may be so bold, my lord, your lady mother is very perplexed at your behavior," Therese whispered earnestly.  "All this sleeping through the day, barely eating, and so improperly!  She's gone to bed with a headache, Sir Nicolas, and while I certainly haven't told her about the company your sister is keeping, I would think you --!"

    "Therese," Fleur called back over her shoulder.  "Please come into the hall with us."

    Giving Nicolas a stern look, the mortal woman followed her mistress to where the food sat cooling on the long table.  Normally, of course, everything would be served immediately as it came from the stove, with servants slipping in and out throughout the meal; normally, the main meal of the day was eaten at noon, since everyone woke before dawn.  Nicolas's instructions that his guests were to be served in their own foreign style, left alone while eating and with no meal until dusk, had no doubt worried the castle population far more than their sleeping arrangements.  Custom was custom, and not to be trifled with.

    "Has all the kitchen staff gone to bed, Therese?" Fleur asked, looking from the food to her maid, who nodded.  "Good. Lucien, I do not hear anyone near . . . ?"

    "No one is close," Lacroix confirmed correctly, as Nicolas knew when he stretched his own senses.

    Fleur sat down on the bench, called some dogs to her from where they lay in a corner, and began feeding them the sauce-drenched beef and bread trenchers.  Cully, Caesar, Spot: all had been whelped since Nicolas set out for Wales almost ten years ago, and he realized with a start that he had not even inquired after his own dog.  Roland had been old already when Nicolas left with Lord Delabar, and certainly had died long since.  It was on the tip of his tongue to ask, when Fleur looked up.  "Janette, will you speak with Therese, please?"

    "Of course, dear," Janette responded, placing her hands on the servant's shoulders and looking straight into her eyes.  Nicolas sensed the mesmerizing power as the brunette vampire carefully paced her words to the beat of the mortal woman's heart, saying, "I will explain this to you, Therese, and you will accept the explanation.  We ate this delicious meal, and Fleur is now giving the dogs the bones.  Our habits are not distressing to you.  Lacroix's intentions toward Fleur are . . . honorable.  You cannot understand why anyone would be worried about our behavior, and you are not worried."

    "I am not worried," the maid repeated, blankly accepting.

    "You are not worried, but you are tired," Janette continued.  "Your lady has given you leave to go."  Therese nodded vacantly, curtseyed, and left the hall.

    "Nicely done," Lacroix congratulated Janette, who inclined her head gracefully.  "Now, Fleur, if your dogs are sufficiently gorged . . . ?"

    "Yes," Fleur smiled, jumping to her feet and returning to his side.  "They are no longer hungry, but oh!  I am!"  She swallowed hard, closing her eyes; Nicolas suspected that she was, even then, fighting back her vampire self, the self he had seen last night, the naked blood-lust and wanton surrender that had been his existence since Lacroix brought him across.  He did not want to see this -- in her, in himself.

    For he hungered, too.

    Nicolas strode out in front of the others.  "Follow me."

    As they left the keep, Janette took his arm again, and he was grateful for her closeness.  She kept him grounded, centered, as his rising need for blood and his deep instinct to defend his home threatened to rip him in half.  The peasants were the property of the manor, of course -- mere property -- but this was his brother's manor, his ancestral seat, and wide-eyed boy that he had been, Nicolas had learned his duties to his people as well as theirs to him.  Every stone, every puddle, was as familiar as the heft of his sword in his hand . . . as familiar as the vampire's lust pulsing through his body.

    Fleur and Lacroix lingered behind until the group passed the cluster of buildings nearest the castle; then, unobtrusively, Fleur took the lead, guiding them down the empty slope, past a fold full of sheep awaiting the summer shearing, and around a wheat field, to where two lonely cabins crouched over a patch of rocky ground, as close as possible to the crop without occupying any arable land.  Fleur indicated that she wished them all to remain silent, and pointed to the older of the two huts, a few paces behind its neighbor.  Nicolas recognized it as Etienne and Haumette's, farmers as old as his father would have been if he had lived.  Surely they were not still alive, he wondered as the four vampires entered the one-room dwelling.  Once inside, though, he did not need the dying embers of the fire to tell him they were; older and less well -- he could hear it in their labored breathing, smell it on their moist breath -- it was the same couple he had known years before.

    Nicolas watched Fleur circle the tight perimeter of the room and kneel beside the elderly man, waking him with a gentle touch.  Sleepy at first, he still recognized her; startled, confused, and seeing others, he recoiled in fear.  "My lady?"

    "Do not be afraid, Etienne," Fleur soothed in a whisper and took his hand.  "Look: it is my brother, come back from Crusade."

    "Sir Nicolas?" he asked, squinting.  Nicolas moved as near the fire as he dared, letting its light play over his features.  "Oh, you are like the old Duke's very self!  Welcome home, my lord.  But -- excuse me, forgive me, you honor my home, but . . . ?"

    "Shhhh," Fleur hushed the old man, for whom this was all evidently more strange than any dream.  Etienne was dealing with it admirably well, Nicolas thought as his sister continued her soft talk, leaning ever closer to the mortal.  "It will be all right.  You know, one does not slaughter a ewe bearing kids, nor a ram until after it has rutted its full seasons, and when I fly Aspasia, my goshawk, I look for grown rabbits, not kits.  But Aspasia knows she has to feed more than just herself, and when she strikes at last, she does so suddenly . . . unhesitatingly . . . utterly!"

    Nicolas winced at the last words, and Haumette screamed, for Fleur had gradually lost control, her persuasive whisper increasing to a yell as her fangs dropped and her eyes glowed, waking Etienne's wife just in time for the mortal woman to see Fleur plunge her long teeth into the elderly peasant's neck and drain away his life.  Janette was at the old woman's side almost instantly, but Haumette managed to scream a second time, more in anguished grief than fear, before the brunette vampire's hunger silenced her forever.

    "Mama?!" a woman's voice shrieked from the neighboring structure.  Lacroix looked at Nicolas and raised an eyebrow, then opened the door from the shadows.  A strong young man whom Nicolas did not recognize, his brow creased with worry, ran in, straight into Lacroix's deadly embrace.  The auburn-haired woman who came close on his heels Nicolas knew as Catherine, Etienne and Haumette's youngest daughter: the prettiest girl in the world, he had thought when he was a boy just becoming a man.  His first kiss, his first love, his first dalliance.  And as he caught her up, she recognized him, too.

    "Sir Nicolas?" she cried, and even as he instinctively began to dip his fangs to her neck, he tried to turn her face away from the horrors his family was acting upon hers.  She was sobbing in panicked fright.  She did not need to see this.  But he did need her blood.  Heaven help him, he needed her blood.  "What are you?  Why?  Please," she begged, tears streaming down her face.  "Please, Nicolas, we haven't done anything wrong!  Merciful Christ, we haven't done anything to deserve this!"  He stared down at her terrified expression, his eyes blazing, frozen between his bloodlust and her righteous plea.

    "Oh, Catherine," Fleur lisped sadly through her fangs, appearing suddenly at the human woman's shoulder.  "We are not justice.  We are death."

    Briefly catching her brother's eyes, as if to confirm his disinclination, Fleur pulled back Catherine's head and plunged her fangs into the peasant's throat.  Nicolas watched his sister shudder ecstatically as Catherine's dying heart pumped its blood into her body, filling her; he knew exactly how it felt -- the rush, the pleasure, the power.  He still needed it.  More than anything.  But not like this.

    Backing out of Etienne and Haumette's home, Nicolas staggered blindly to the wall of the other hut, and fought to get himself under control.  The beast within him raged for blood, but, slowly, he fought it down, mastering it . . . for the moment.  He could all but feel its smugness, knowing that he was still its slave, that this moment of denial would only mean more indulgence later.  He knew it was right, and he despised himself for it.  Catherine's assertion of innocence echoed in his mind; Lacroix taught that there was no guilty or innocent, only strong and weak, but when he had received his knighthood, he had pledged to defend the weak.  Since then, he had seen innumerable men rape and pillage through such promises, until they had seemed without meaning, without worth, a coin made of gilded wood.  His oaths had seemed less than nothing -- but Catherine had been innocent.

    A child was crying, Nicolas realized as his breathing ceased to ring loud in his own ears.  Inside the cabin, one child was crying, and another was trying to hush it.  Slowly, Nicolas pushed open the door; a fair-haired little boy, perhaps nine years old, stepped in front of an even littler girl as the blond vampire entered.  Very bravely, the boy asked, "Who are you?  Where are our mama and papa?"  Observing Nicolas's rich clothing, he added, "My lord."

    "I . . . I am Nicolas de Brabant, the Duke's brother," he explained slowly, dropping to one knee to bring his face more level with the boy's.  "Who are you?"

    "I'm Small Martin.  This is Lily.  Our parents are Big Martin and Catherine."

    "Martin, I'm afraid . . . I'm afraid something bad has happened.  You'll have to be very brave.  Some . . . brigands . . . happened by, and attacked your family."

    Lily buried her face in the back of her brother's shirt and started crying again.  Martin sniffed and bit his lip, his tearful blue eyes boring through Nicolas's.  "Are they dead, my lord?"

    Nicolas nodded.  "I’m sorry.  I am so sorry."

    Small Martin sat down where he was then, and began crying with his sister.  Helplessly, Nicolas reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder.  He had been almost twenty when his own father had died, a man grown, and he had still had his mother and siblings and an entire network of cousins of varying degrees; he was noble, and had always known he would be taken care of, no matter what.  But it had ripped at his heart, nevertheless, and he could barely grasp how much worse it must be for these two orphans, who had just been thrown on the charity of the parish; only God knew what would become of them.

    This had been one meal for his family.  Just one meal.  And there was nothing he could do about it.  It was going to drive him mad.

    "Martin?" Nicolas asked.  "I need you to do something for me.  I need you to stay in here, and keep Lily with you.  When it's safe to come out, someone will come fetch you, all right?"

    The boy nodded, still crying, and hugged his sister to him.

    Exiting the dwelling, Nicolas found Janette waiting, but Fleur and Lacroix were nowhere in sight.  He looked across to Etienne and Haumette's home, but before he could ask, Janette informed him, "They are not finished just yet."

    "Ah." He inclined his head.  "Janette, there are children."

    "And you told them 'brigands' got their family.  I heard.  I do not know, Nicolas; in situations like this, we usually either hide the bodies so that they are never found, or make it look as if wolves did the work.  These peasants are hardly the sort outlaws usually attack, especially before the crops are gathered in.  And the children can place you here."

    Slowly realizing what lay behind her calm appraisal, Nicolas shook his head, looking around the small clearing as if looking for a way out.  "You knew, didn't you?  Both you and Lacroix.  You knew it would be more conspicuous here than in the city, that Fleur wouldn't be able to control herself, that there'd be a . . . mess.  Why did you let it happen?  Janette, why didn't you stop her?"

    "What, and refuse her hospitality?" Janette mocked lightly, tilting her head to one side.  He stiffened, and she sighed.  "Your sister has lessons to learn, Nicolas: about hunger, about witnesses, about consequences.  Just as you did.  This was one lesson.  I . . . regret the children, for you, but it will drive the lesson firmly home, yes?"

    "We can take their memories away," Nicolas insisted.  "Can't we?"

    "How old are they?" Lacroix asked, offering his arm to Fleur as they stepped into the open.  Nicolas tried not to look at Fleur's neck, tried not to look for the bite marks he assumed must be there; when he did look, he did not see any, and was relieved -- until he recalled that they might already have healed.  Crossing the short space between them, Lacroix continued, "And how much do they know?"

    "What difference does it make?"

    "Children are more resilient than adults, more frequently resistant to memory manipulation," Lacroix explained.  "Sometimes the events you wipe away will surface later. It is usually best to kill them outright."


    "Certainly we will try the alternative first, Nicolas," Fleur assured him practically.  "Here: let me.  They know who I am, and I can at least determine whether they are resistors.  We can proceed from there."

    Nicolas was about to object again, but Janette laid her hand on his arm.  "It is the best plan," she said, her pale eyes holding his.  "He showed her how."  Nicolas acquiesced nervously as Fleur entered the structure.

    When she emerged, several minutes later, she carried little Lily balanced on one hip and held Martin's hand.  "You have nothing to worry about, Nicolas.  Janette, if you would, please, take the children into the field and have a little talk with them while we tidy up here.  Martin, Lily, I want you to go with the Lady Janette."

    Dropping Nicolas's arm, Janette smiled at her fledgling and crossed to Fleur as the youngest vampire set down the little girl.  Janette took each child by a hand and led them out into a break in the rows of wheat.

    "It is most pleasant this way, of course," Fleur said thoughtfully.  "But if they had been resistors, at least you could have fed, Nicolas."

    "What?" he asked incredulously.  Was she serious?  "They're only children!  They're innocents!"

    "They are witnesses," Lacroix corrected, stepping up behind her and laying his hands on her shoulders.  "And probably over the age of discretion for sin, if you are still clinging to that superstitious mortal qualm.  Really, Nicholas.  You are a vampire!  Embrace it, as your sister is.  The Code makes no allowance for age or alibi."

    "No allowance for justice," Nicolas interpreted bitterly, looking at Fleur.  "Or mercy."  That was what she had said, in the depths of her hunger.  No justice, only death.

    "We have to survive, Nicolas," Fleur reminded him.

    "Do we?"  It was a sincere question, in its way.  At that moment, Nicolas felt it would be far simpler to blink out of existence than to face the questions of the past two nights.  Not that ceasing to exist was an option; having once turned his back on the afterlife, he found it impossible to disbelieve in it.

    Suddenly jumping into the air, he flew away from Fleur and Lacroix as far and fast as he could, leaving them to deal with the remains of the family they had slaughtered.  Speeding over fields and forests, he tried to outfly his turmoil, but succeeded only in using up his energy and intensifying his need for blood.  Excepting what he had shared with Janette, he had not fed since well before Fleur came across, and he was still young enough that this left him on the edge of delirium from hunger.  He had to have blood, but the thought of feeding brought back Catherine's plea.  Certainly, she had been only a mortal, only a peasant -- but she had been an innocent appealing to him for justice, and the simple truth of it cut straight to what was left of his soul.  None of his previous victims had made such a plea; most had never had a chance, he admitted, slowing his flight near a lakeshore, as they were taken either by stealth or in the act of love.  But who was he, if not someone who would stand up for that plea?

    Worse yet, Nicolas thought, his mind returning again to Catherine's family, they had been farmers.  The vows of a knight bound him to respect not only the clergy, cloistered religious, pilgrims and hermits, but those who cultivate the soil, for everyone lived by their labor.  Of course, all callings suffered in war, but this was not war; he was no better than a member of a "free company," pillaging randomly across Europe because he could not break the habit on his return from the Holy Land.  What had he become?

    He heard a dog barking below him, outside a shack by the lake.  As low as he was flying now, the dog was probably responding to him, and Nicolas prepared to move higher, too high for his presence to trouble even the sharpest-nosed hound.  Instead, he heard the dog's barks turn into a squeal, and then a low whimpering; at least as sensitive as the hound, Nicolas had heard and smelled the dog's owner stagger outside, cursing, and kick it.

    The presence of human blood and the pulse of outrage were enough to shatter his fragile control.  Nicolas swooped down on the man, yanked him away from the dog, and drained him dry.

    During the feeding itself, as he took the man's blood into the deep, aching emptiness of his need, Nicolas thought -- to the extent he was capable of thought -- that he had never experienced anything so exquisite.  Afterward, staring at the cooling corpse, he wondered if vampires could retch.

    Nicolas sat down with his back against the man's home and stared blankly out at the lake.  Eventually, the dog came up to him, sniffing.  "Pleased to make your acquaintance, too," he said solemnly, holding out his hands, and the dog whuffed companionably.  He scratched it behind the ears for a few moments, then, as it settled down beside him, tears slowly began to escape down his cheeks.  His world had been turned upside down -- again.  All the accommodations he had made to this existence, all the little bargains with himself, were uprooted.  Fleur was now closer to Janette than she would ever be to him; Janette was now close to Fleur in a way she could never be with him; and Lacroix . . . he did not even know what to think about Lacroix.  They would have to leave Castle Brabant very soon, and he would never see his home, or his mother, again.  A childhood playmate . . . no: much more . . . had died before his eyes, brutally, at his sister's fangs.  His sister was a vampire.  And his hunger -- his irresistible, unholy hunger -- was his master.

    A man who had been to the edges of the known world and back again, overcome lost love and betrayed trust since Wales, survived the extremes of the earth's inhospitality and man's inhumanity since Jerusalem, known the hubris of both faith and despair -- a strong man with more behind him already than most could even dream, Nicolas felt himself now confused and helpless: very small, very young, very alone.

    The dog turned up its head and politely licked away his tears, giving no sign it had noticed that they were blood instead of water.  Stroking the dog's coat gently down its back, Nicolas noticed the marks that said it had not had an easy life; whoever the man had been -- and hadn't he known just a bit ago? -- he had been a harsh owner.  "Why did you stay, boy?" he asked.  "You're not tied or penned: why did you stay?"  The dog's tail thumped against the ground.  No other answer came.

    Sighing, Nicolas stood, and looked at the body once again.  He considered various ways of disguising its end, but he doubted anyone would even miss the man, and, somehow, the thought of leaving the corpse as it lay, fang marks and all, soothed him.  It seemed . . . honest.  The opposite of what Fleur and Lacroix were doing, even then.  Strolling slowly down the rocky shore to the water, Nicolas laughed at himself.  Honest!  An honest murder.  As if there could be any such thing.

    Or could there?

    He stopped and looked down at the dog, which had been trotting steadily behind him since he began walking.  It wagged its tail and dared a single bark.  "Good boy," Nicolas said, patting its head and eagerly grasping the rationalization it prompted.  At least this murder had freed the world of a man who would kick his own dog.  Hardly a capitol offense, but the underlying concept could be his saving grace.  Thus far, he could answer Catherine's plea.  No more innocents would die to feed his hunger.  No more who did not deserve the fate would be sacrificed to his immortality.  Ever.  He stepped up to the quiet lake and was able to look into his own eyes without flinching.  "We are not justice.  We are death," Fleur had said, and the words burned like a brand behind his eyes.  But if he must be death, he would also be justice.

    He could live with that.

    He would have to.


Chapter 07  --  Toronto, 1996

    "What have you done?" Natalie demanded of the reflection in her bathroom mirror, her deathly-serious expression underlined by its incongruity with her fluffy pink robe.  She gestured emphatically at the used hypodermic and empty antivirus sample from early that morning, as if indicting her reflection on the physical evidence.  "How could you be so stupid?"

    When she had first awakened shortly after sunset, Natalie had been peacefully oblivious to the last thing she had done before falling asleep.  Waking up in her own, familiar bed, under her own, familiar blankets, with the incredible sense of serenity that came from knowing Nick had been watching over her, she had been in the shower and ready to shampoo her hair before the tiny, out-of-place puncture mark on her arm had caught her attention, and her memory.

    She had done it.

    She had actually done it.  She had injected herself with the antivirus in hopes of culturing enough to bring Nick back across.  They had talked well past midnight, until finally Nick, concerned for her, had called an end and all but ordered her to brush her teeth and get to bed.  She had already been exhausted when they began, and the conversation had passed through her second wind into a third.  But after his intense revelations about the hypocrisies to which vampires clung for survival and sanity -- the hypocrisies to which he had clung -- and how much of himself that had cost him over the centuries, and how much it continued to cost through his family . . . the tests had all been so promising.  She had been so tired.  And the freedom of the man she loved had seemed so close.  So very close.  No farther than the vial in her bag.

    She must have been out of her mind.

    Staring at herself in the mirror and noting distractedly that she looked a little wild around the eyes, Natalie tugged a wide-toothed comb through her still-wet hair as she once again reviewed every plan she could conjure for reversing her over-emotional, sleep-deprived decision.  Transfusion?  Wouldn't change anything.  Bleeding?  Just speed it up.  Purgative?  Nada.  Eat whole cloves of raw garlic for dinner?  Disgusting, she noted, but with potential.  What was she going to do?

    Damn it, Fleur had warned her last night not to do this, as far as the vampire had understood the possibility.  The ancient-eyed teenager had ruined Natalie's favorite peach suit with that indelible wine-blood mixture in order to contrive an opportunity to sternly lecture the coroner on the Enforcers, Lacroix's vengeance, and Nick's emotional vulnerabilities.  Natalie wondered if her subconscious had thought that it was laying some primal territorial claim to Nick by defying his sister.  She felt like decking her subconscious.

    "Nat?" Nick tapped on the door.  "You okay?  You've been in there a long time."

    "I'm fine," Natalie replied, and it was only as she said it that she realized it was true -- physically, at least.  After her meal and full day's rest, she felt good, even great; whatever the antivirus was doing, it seemed to have no side-effects.  And isn't that exactly what you predicted? she asked herself.  After all, you're only the host body, the carrier; its business is re-coding aberrant RNA, and all your genes are normal.

    "Tracy called while you had the water running," Nick informed her from outside the door.  "A patrolman found a body, and Reese wants us on it.  Look, I hate to run, Nat, but I can't book off again, and Tracy . . ."

    "Tracy needs her partner," Natalie said, remembering what Nick had told her about Vachon's ungentle end at Tracy's hands.  The coroner winced at the thought of what the mortal detective had been forced to do; she shuddered at the knowledge that the same demon that Divia's poison had released in Vachon still lurked inside Nick, all against his will.  Meeting her own eyes in the mirror, she came to a decision, put away the hypodermic and sample vial, and opened the door.  She would carry this experiment through.  For him.  For them.  Face to face with Nick, Natalie continued, "With what she's probably going through, she shouldn't even be at work tonight; we both know that."

    "Or maybe work is the best thing for her," Nick countered, pulling on his leather jacket.  "It's been three days since Vachon's death.  Trace is . . . hyper-responsible, you know, and she likes things best when they're orderly and controlled.  Some old-fashioned detective work might be the best way for her to disperse some of that responsibility -- the best way to bring some order and control back into her life."  He paused for a moment, but then added, "I almost wish someone could spare her the hurt by sparing her the memory, but . . . I tried that once, long ago, and it's haunted me ever since.  I know better now.  The pain bears witness to the joy, and the joy is worth its weight in grief."

    Natalie raised her hand to his cheek and thought, fondly and sadly, that he had far too much experience with mourning.  "How's your neck?" she asked, trailing her hand down along his collar, over where his shirt covered the new bandage he had applied to hide the fang punctures from accidental discovery.

    "No pain: still scarred."  He shrugged, and checked his pockets for his keys and cellular phone.  "You're off tonight, right?"

    Following him to the front door, Natalie nodded.  "I'll probably go in later, though, to check on the samples . . . .  I'm running an experiment."

    "This morning you said you had an idea about Janette's arm," Nick prompted.

    "And your neck?  Yeah.  I do.  I think that the affected areas have been 'mortal-ized' and reflect a human life cycle.  Eventually, they'll die and be supplanted; on the other hand, if we cut away the damaged tissue now -- but this can wait.  You and Tracy have a case to solve."  Natalie hesitated.  "If you figure out a way around the subject, tell her I'm sorry.  About Vachon."

    "You know I will."  Nick dropped a quick kiss on her forehead and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, before striding purposefully down the hall and out of her sight.

    Natalie leaned against the door for a moment after she shut it, pondering the way the mundane and bizarre had intertwined in their lives in the past few days.  Not that much in her life had been completely normal since the day Nick climbed out of a body bag on her examining table almost six years ago, but here she stood, in a pink robe and damp hair, seeing her boyfriend off to work, as she coincidentally used her own body to incubate a vaccine to his vampirism.

    That thought, no longer mediated by Nick's presence, brought with it a sudden wave of anxiety.  Was she doing the right thing?  Natalie began a dash for the bathroom as her body inexplicably translated that fear into nausea, but realizing she would not make it that far, she diverted to the kitchen sink.  Bleah, she thought as she turned on the faucet to wash the remains of her last meal into the disposal.  No amount of clinical detachment or experience could make one's own stomach contents a particularly pleasant thing to observe, least of all in the kitchen, where food was intended as a strictly one-way deal.  If Natalie had been at all hungry before, she was not now.

    Sidney jumped up on the counter and meowed questioningly.  "Oh, there you are," Natalie responded, reaching out to scratch the gray cat behind his ears.  "I haven't seen you since Nick and I came in last night.  You've really got to stop hiding from him, Sids; he's a permanent addition."  Instead of rubbing up against her possessively as usual, though, Sidney cocked his head to one side and sniffed suspiciously in her general direction.  Natalie laughed and withdrew her hand, reaching instead for the soap pump behind the faucet.  "Yeah, I most definitely smell awful, and I've certainly ruined my own taste for breakfast," she noted as she washed her hands and gave the sink another quick rinse.  "How about you, Sidney?  You hungry?"

    The cat sat down on his haunches and began cleaning his left front paw.  Uncertain whether she was being answered or ignored, Natalie stepped over to the far side of the refrigerator where she kept Sidney's bowls: both nearly full.  "Oh, so Nick fed you already?  Or 'overfed,' I should say.  Now if that doesn't win your heart, Sids, I don't know what will."  The cat continued calmly washing his paws, dashing the occasional furtive glance toward her from between his toes.

    Natalie stared back at him, puzzled, but was distracted as the single-size coffee-maker switched itself on and began filling her favorite mug; evidently, Nick had started that, too, before he left, and she had been too preoccupied to register the familiar scent.  Well, mostly familiar.  Actually, it smelled awfully strong, and Natalie wondered if Nick had mistaken the coffee to water ratio.  Switching off the machine after it emptied itself, she raised the cup to her lips automatically -- and almost dropped it in shock as she nearly burned herself on the ceramic.  It shouldn't be that hot!

    Grumbling, Natalie left the blistering mug on the counter and went to get dressed.  She wondered if she still had the warranty for the coffee-maker, and if it was still good.  Pulling on her purple suit and a white blouse, she wondered if perhaps she had missed a recall on the machine; she liked her coffee hot, but liquid that scalding was dangerous.  Nah: probably the cheap mug had just worn thin through too many dishwasher cycles, and she had overreacted.  If she'd really been burned, it would have been painful as well as hot.  Moving into the bathroom, she brushed her teeth, coiled her hair into a neat bun at the back of her neck, and picked up her medical bag.

    "Sidney?" Natalie called when she was ready to leave.  But her cat was nowhere to be found, and she sighed and said good-bye to the empty air.  "Be good, Sids.  I'll be back by morning."

    The drive to the Coroner's Building was uneventful, with even less traffic on the roads than usual.  That was no doubt a very good thing, Natalie thought in embarrassed relief when she got out of her car in the parking lot, suddenly realizing that she had never turned her headlights on.  She could have caused an accident, driving in the dark, and she had not even noticed.  Thank goodness for streetlights!  Shaking her head at her inattention, she resolved to get some coffee, first thing, as soon as she got inside; she was obviously in no condition to face the world without it, however well-rested she felt.  Instead, though, the first thing Natalie did as she pushed through the door was bump into Grace -- literally, knocking two boxes of toe-tags and evidence cards out of the larger woman's hands as Grace strode up the hall from the store-room.

    "What are you doing here on your night off, Natalie Lambert?"  Grace demanded with a smile, cutting off the coroner's apologies as they both stooped to retrieve the little cards.  "And the answer had better be, 'a secret tryst with a certain detective whose initials are NK,' or I'm sending you right home.  You've done two double shifts this week alone!"

    "I'm fine, Grace.  Really," Natalie insisted, standing up and handing over the last of the tags.  "What are all these for?"

    "Day-shift used up the last of them in Arkle's lab today and didn't bother to restock," Grace shook her head as they both turned to continue up the hall.  "I don't think any of the cases have come your way, yet, but you must have heard about the wild dog attacks?  Or beating victims: no one is sure yet.  It's all over the news.  They've been trickling in for three days now: six . . . no, seven.  They come in almost like that Kharam guy, ripped to shreds, only they've all had their heads so far.  And not one of them matches a missing-person report."

    Natalie's mind raced.  One of the cases had come her way, of course, though Grace could not know it: Urs.  How many had Divia killed before Nick stopped her?  How could she keep it from getting back to the Enforcers?  "Arkle's lab, you said?"

    Grace nodded.  "They've all been found on day-shift, and none of them within your precinct, so they've been routed to him and Weaver."

    "Do you mind if I come along and have a look?" the hazel-eyed coroner asked.

    "If you want to," Grace raised an eyebrow, her tone implying that she could not imagine why Natalie would.  She pushed the "up" button with her elbow as they reached the elevator.  "But I wouldn't poke around too much if I were you.  You know how territorial Weaver gets."

    "Yeah, I know," Natalie confirmed, though her mind was anywhere but on Weaver's persnickety personality.  If this were big news . . . if the Enforcers came . . . .

    After Grace casually deposited her load and left to continue her shift -- "One of us has to work," she had said pointedly -- Natalie began a survey of the seven John and Jane Does.  It was not a pretty sight, but, then, she had not expected it to be.  All seven bodies were horribly beaten and slashed, but, thankfully, only two of them were bitten -- at least, anywhere she could still find under the other extensive wounds.  Overcome with relief, Natalie sank down in Arkle's desk chair.  That was what she had most feared: a pattern leading inevitably back to vampires.  But not only had she been spared another wrestle with her conscience over tampering with fang-mark evidence, she knew, from her autopsy of Urs and her examinations of Nick and Janette, that every one of those bodies was completely human.  There was nothing to get back to the Enforcers.  There was no way to solve the cases.  They were safe.

    If you could call this "safe."

    She wondered how many of Divia's victims had left people behind, people like her, like Tracy -- or like Fleur, for that matter.  Despite Nick's complex feelings toward his sister, Natalie was unable to resist a certain sensation of camaraderie toward the woman, not least because she had so nearly lost Lacroix, as Natalie had nearly lost Nick, and Tracy had truly lost Vachon.

    Checking the lab to be sure everything was as she had found it, Natalie met with a troubling new angle on Tracy's situation.  Thus far, she had been thinking of the young detective's loss as that of a friend, perhaps a very special friend.  But, in brutally practical fact, Vachon had been something even more important to Tracy: he had stood between her and the rest of the vampire community.  Specifically, Natalie thought as she slowly descended the stairs to her own ground-floor office, Vachon had stood between Tracy and the Enforcers.  Nick had made sure of that, and though Nick would of course defend his partner against anything that threatened, how many in the vampire community would know that?  How many even knew of the connection between the two blond detectives?  Nick spent most of his time among humans.  Among vampires, Vachon had been a highly visible symbol of Tracy's protected status.  Did his death make her . . . free game?

    Natalie strode straight from the door of her empty office to the phone on her desk, then paused, her hand on the receiver.  What could she say, couched in a vocabulary suited to be overheard?  Surely Nick grasped the situation much better than she did, and Tracy could not be safer than at his side.

    Pulling back her hand and reaching for her lab coat instead, Natalie returned her mind to her own situation.  In a way, it was only fair that the experiment be on her this time; dosing Nick with lydovuterine last spring had been no peak of medical restraint, either, and that incident still haunted her.  She hoped fervently that the parallel had ended with the initial injection of a diverted substance, and there would be no unexpected side-effects from the antivirus.  After reassembling the samples and paraphernalia she had locked away when Nick had arrived the previous evening, she sat down and rolled up her left sleeve, looking for the puncture mark that was the only visible evidence of what she had undertaken.

    It wasn't there.

    Startled, Natalie rolled up her other sleeve.  No, she had not mistaken which arm: there was nothing on her right either.  She had seen the minute mark only a few hours ago; it could not possibly have finished healing so fast.  Could it?  Evidently, it had, the doctor observed firmly, and then reminded herself that it had been a tiny, tiny puncture, and it would not be unusual if it had blended into one of the perfectly normal imperfections in her skin.  Nevertheless, as Natalie prepared a sample of her own blood, she mentally filed that away for further consideration, and went so far as to pen a mark next to where she pierced her skin this time.

    That specimen ready, Natalie momentarily set it aside while she reviewed her notes and confirmed the status of her tests from the day before. There was nothing to make her reconsider her conclusions.  Indisputably, Urs had been mortal, and the probability that the antivirus communicated through Divia's bite had caused that transformation was so high as to leave no reasonable doubt.  Something had undeniably altered the vector of vampiric reproduction in the demon child; where a normal -- "normal"! -- exchange of blood between vampires produced no lasting effect, Divia's had demonstrably turned fellow predators into prey.  Similarly, there was no room to evade the fact that while the antivirus had been a remarkably hardy and effective thing when contracted from Divia herself, it became capricious and fragile outside her apparently-unique system, sustained in vitro only in human blood -- and even there, not multiplying.  The cure for vampirism sat on the counter in front of Natalie: dormant, non-viable . . . useless.

    Inside her, on the other hand . . . ?

    Natalie eagerly inserted a slide of her own blood under her microscope.  It took a moment of adjusting the focus to discern the steadily-slowing movement that differentiated the antivirus in the relatively fresh sample from that in the cold vials before her, but once she had isolated an active spot, Natalie found herself simply staring in fascination as the uncanny component of Divia's venom replicated itself from cell to cell without causing any detectable damage.  Even with the cutting-edge capabilities Nick had paid to have inconspicuously built into her apparently standard-issue microscope, Natalie had not expected to see anything near this level of detail.  The antivirus must be larger than she had previously thought; it was almost as if she had suddenly been granted new levels of visual augmentation.  For several moments, Natalie did not even think to take notes on the process, so entranced was she.  But the movement became harder and harder to follow as time passed, until finally it was no longer a matter of magnification, but of viability.  It was not precisely loss of oxygen or the heat of the lamp that terminated the motion, as Natalie would normally expect; instead, almost as if repelled by the dying cells, the antivirus slid into a mysterious dormancy as some undefined factor of life faded from the blood around it.

    Sighing, Natalie sat back from her microscope and rubbed her eyes.  At least she knew that the antivirus must be more active inside her own body than she could witness in any sample; she hoped fervently that this meant that it would be active enough to overwhelm Nick's system through a transfusion.  Unfortunately, she still had no idea how to calculate the appropriate ratio.  Urs and Vachon had each succumbed to the amount in Divia's bite, while Nick had not.  What if he required more antivirus-positive blood than she could safely spare?  What Natalie would like best of all, of course, would be to run these samples through her friend Whittaker's electron microscope at the Institute, but since it had ceased being a ten-million dollar toy and become a regular research tool, she knew she would have to wait until she could muster a plausible, case-related reason for requesting time on the machine.

    Switching off her microscope, Natalie took her notepad back to her desk and began to analyze her data, carefully transferring the scrawled numbers and sketches into one of her coded black binders.  Several calculations into a table comparing the estimated body mass, age and presumed diet of Divia's victims, Natalie was suddenly yanked back to awareness of the surrounding world when the lab was unexpectedly flooded with light.

    "Nat?" Tracy asked, her hand on the light switch by the door.  "What are you doing sitting in the dark?"

    "I was, um, uh," Natalie groped for an explanation, but came up empty.  Hadn't the lights been on?  She had been able to see perfectly.  This did not make any sense.  Obviously, the microscope's lights had been on, and . . . .  Realizing all at once that the binder containing her disguised notes on the vampire situation sat open on her desk, Natalie hastily closed it, using the action to stall another second, and then said, "I was just resting my eyes, Tracy.  What can I do for you?"

    "Are you sure you're all right?" Tracy pressed, but when Natalie waved away the concern and faked what she hoped was a reassuringly cocky smile, the young detective let it go.  "I came to run off some copies of your records on Hamid Kharam, actually.  Tonight's Jane Doe also looks like she was attacked by a wild animal -- they'll be bringing her in here later, but I thought Nick said you were off tonight?"

    "I am."  Natalie shrugged noncommittally and walked over to her file cabinet, pulling out the record of the Kharam autopsy.  She wondered if Tracy knew how these murders connected; she wondered how much Vachon had been able to reveal before he died.  Did the younger woman even know about Divia?  "Here you go.  Do you want me to go over anything with you?"

    "No.  Thanks, Nat," Tracy said, scanning the contents of the folder the coroner had handed her.  "But I really just want to go over it myself and see if anything clicks.  Obviously, it looks like we've got some sort of serial-killing maniac out there, with this making number nine, counting Kharam.  Half the force is mobilized on this case in our precinct alone; the sooner it gets solved, the happier everyone will be."

    "What's the TOD on the bodies?  All recent?"  Natalie asked cautiously, attempting to feel out whether Tracy had linked these cases to Vachon's.  She felt more uncomfortable than ever holding out on Tracy with this information, but she had promised Nick early on that unless a life depended on it, she would not tell his partner that she, too, knew about vampires. Natalie knew Nick had extracted the promise out of fear for her -- so that if the Enforcers caught up with Tracy they would not find out about Natalie from the mortal detective -- but she felt like a hypocrite, nevertheless, and edged as close to the truth as she could.

    "None before Kharam," Tracy informed her, closing the file.  "And none more recent than about three days ago.  Knock on wood."

    "What does Nick think?"

    Tracy shrugged.  "We all believe that the killer came here from Egypt, or at least by way of Egypt.  Nick and I were investigating the transportation possibilities earlier, and he's taking that to Reese right now.  The victims have been found all over the city, with totally different vital stats.  The only connection so far is that not one of them was reported missing; no one contacted the authorities on behalf of any of them.  Nick thinks, given Kharam was a red-handed grave robber, maybe they're all criminals."

    "A vigilante?" Natalie asked incredulously.  Surely Tracy "good cop" Vetter did not think of her friend Vachon as a criminal?  No, of course not.  But that would mean . . . .

    "It's not that unusual, actually, and it's the best theory we have so far.  There was a similar case in '93, remember?  'Bloody Wednesday,' or whatever the media dubbed it?"  Natalie winced.  The case Tracy invoked had been the last night of Richard Lambert's life, her brother's good intentions perverted horribly by his vampirism.  Yes, Natalie could see how the cases might look similar.  Tracy nodded, apparently taking the coroner's stricken expression as an appropriate reaction to the crimes.  "I've already pulled those files, Nat.  We're on it; I promise.  Besides -- I've learned not to go against Nick's instincts when things get really weird."  The detective smiled, and Natalie could detect no reservation in her tone or expression.

    She doesn't know, the coroner concluded, and tried a different tack.  Settling back into her chair, Natalie crossed her legs and gestured at the little television on the back corner of her desk.  "Speaking of psychotic vigilantism, remember Charley of The Jerry Show?"

    "How could I forget?" Tracy raised an ironic eyebrow.  "It's not every day -- quite --that someone tries to kill me.  Twice."  The young woman paused, her gaze suddenly focused somewhere beyond Natalie, as if the coroner had faded from sight.  "She tried to kill me, and she did kill two other people, so she doesn't get a lot of my sympathy, of course . . . but there's something . . . horrific . . . about watching a mind break like that."

    Sure she was getting closer, Natalie prodded, "It was lucky that your snitch was so quick when she sent that guy after you.  I remember Nick used to use him sometimes.  What was his name, again?"

    "Javier Vachon," Tracy answered, smiling fondly.  "Yeah -- really lucky.  He was an amazing guy."

    "Was?" Natalie pounced.

    "He left town a bit ago," Tracy said, blandly meeting the coroner's eyes.  Appalled, Natalie realized that this was the truth as the young detective knew it.  She had seen Tracy lie about Vachon before, and this was not that.  "Stuff like The Jerry Show incident -- he was a good friend."  Tracy paused for a moment, a puzzled expression flickering across her face and a tinge of hurt, of bitterness, entering her voice as she continued.  "But he moved on.  Young slacker, no roots, no commitments: you know the type."

    Natalie nodded slowly.  Was Tracy in some sort of shock?  Denial?  Or . . . oh, no.  "You've been back to the Raven.  After the last time Nick spoke with you before tonight."

    "Yeah, just last night.  I had more questions for Ducharme and Lacroix when the other bodies began turning up.  How did you know?"

    "I'm a good guesser," Natalie said grimly, deeply angered and slightly frightened that some vampire had invaded and rearranged the other woman's memories.  Nick had told her that Tracy was a resistor, and she had understood that "resistor" was not a relative thing.  Apparently, she had been mistaken.  Natalie forced a smile for the mortal detective's benefit.  "Just curious, Trace.  That's all.  Find anything?"

    "No.  Met the Nightcrawler's girlfriend, though," the young detective offered, arching her eyebrows.  "She's just in from the UK -- I traced her travel to be sure she hadn't come through Egypt.  Anyway, she looks younger than me, yet she's hanging all over a creepy old guy like Lacroix -- yuck.  Celebrities," Tracy snorted dismissively.

    There was nothing Natalie could say to that.  Instead, the coroner stood, returned to the counter, and quickly put away the samples still out around her microscope.

    "I'm keeping you from your work," Tracy apologized, quickly rolling up the file, sliding it into one of the deep pockets of her leather coat, and heading out of the room.

    "No, not at all," Natalie insisted, locking a drawer and taking off her lab smock.  "Actually, I'm just leaving.  There's someone I need to talk to."  The corner thought she was managing to keep her voice and expression free of her dismay over what had been done to Tracy's memory, but she knew she could not maintain the facade forever; it struck too close to home.  Someone at the Raven had a lot to answer for.

    "Nat, are you forgetting your coat?" Tracy asked, holding the door for Natalie and accompanying her across the street to the parking deck.

    "I didn't bring it in from my car," the coroner realized in surprise, looking down at her suit.  "I guess I wasn't that cold."

    "You're the only on in Toronto, then," Tracy laughed into the spring darkness, and then waved as she moved off toward her own car.  "Good night."

    Natalie waved back limply and opened her car's door.  Out of Tracy's presence, as she started the engine and pulled out into traffic, the coroner allowed herself to fully feel her rage at the injustice of that unnecessary invasion of the young detective's mind.  The anger felt good, and Natalie encouraged it in herself.  Subconsciously, she knew it masked the fear.  Logically, of course, she had no stock of righteousness from which to object to this employment of vampiric mesmerism; she had been complicit far too many times in the past to find a conscience on the matter now.  She had developed a casual arrogance about being a resistor, as if she deserved her knowledge of vampires where the rest of humanity did not -- an arrogance of her own special status, which had blinded her, led her to sympathize too much with the special behavioral considerations vampires claimed for themselves.  Nick had known better, of course, but she had not always understood his cautions.

    If they could take Vachon away from Tracy, could they take Nick away from her?

    But that fear stayed buried under the anger, and, as Natalie entered the Raven, her outrage helped her cut a wide swath across the dance floor as she strode swiftly up to Janette and Fleur at the bar.  "Who whammied Tracy?" she demanded fiercely, crossing her arms and lifting her chin aggressively.

    "Natalie . . . your eyes!"  Janette's evident shock was mirrored on Fleur's face as well, and as the brunette vampire reached out to lay her fingers along Natalie's neck, the blonde refilled her goblet from the bottle on the counter.

    "What?" Natalie started, becoming oddly disoriented as the sounds and smells of the full club pressed in on her.  Suddenly she couldn't breathe, couldn't think.

    Fleur sighed, and held out the goblet.  A slow, oddly sympathetic smile tugging at her lips, Nick's sister said, "You look like you could use a drink, Doctor Lambert."

    "I . . ."  It was blood, Natalie had to remind herself, for it seemed to smell of everything inviting.  Blood!  It did not matter how many hours it had been since she'd had anything to eat or drink; it did not matter how achingly empty she suddenly realized she felt; she certainly did not want that!  Oh, but she did.  And her distorted reflection in the goblet Fleur held stared up at her with golden eyes.

    "She still has a pulse," Janette announced, pushing the drink back toward Fleur and scrutinizing the human woman intently.  "Faint for a mortal, but present.  And her skin is slightly warmer than the air.  Natalie, were you . . . Nicolas did not . . . ?"

    Natalie barely heard and made no response.  The proximity of the blood had triggered something within her, and it occupied her every sense.  Madly, she thought she could even hear it, calling her to drink.

    "No," Fleur said, raising her goblet as if in salute.  "Nicolas is not responsible for this.  She did it herself.  I hope, Doctor Lambert, that you will tell my brother of my attempt last night to dissuade you from this.  He will be looking for a scapegoat, and I'm not eager to take on the role again so soon."  The deceptively young-looking vampire drained her drink and set it on the counter.  She looked from Natalie to Janette, and her expression turned distant as she said, "Ah, what we do to be with them.  If only they understood . . . it is our choice, too."


Chapter 08  --  Brabant, 1229

    It felt good to be out in the open, Fleur thought, lightly patting her mare's shoulder as she pulled back to ride behind the other members of her vampiric "family."  Actually, of course, the forest stood thick around them for several miles in every direction except the old road itself, but without the scent and sound of human blood pounding away at her, the vault of the star-studded sky seemed endless once again.  For all the hardships involved in travel, she could already tell that she would willingly endure far worse for this precious silence -- well, as close to silence as her senses would ever allow her, now.  For the first time since she came across, Fleur was able to think clearly, and she had a great deal to think about.

    She tried not to sully the sense of peace by pondering the gnawing hunger again constricting her vitals.  They had fed on a small group of peddlers returning from Paris with whom they had met shortly after sundown, already too many hours past.  Stopping at the strangers' camp, they had exchanged information about the roads behind them, information of which the other travelers did not live to make use.  Fleur had wanted -- needed -- to tear into them even before the conversation around their fire had satisfied Lucien's desire for news, but Janette's will had continued sternly holding the infant vampire in check long after that point, while Nicolas talked on and on and on: an eternity to Fleur's hunger-distorted perceptions.  Finally, his conversation partner had proven himself a thorough cheat at dice, and as Fleur's brother at last chose his prey, her master had released her to find her own.  They had all fed well.  But, in a running tally never far from her conscious mind, some instinct kept Fleur constantly apprised of the state of the ravenous beast that had become overlord of her being, leaving her no longer a creature of mind, emotion, and flesh intermixed, but of hunger, over all and all powerful.  The deeds of the beast existed in a place the rest of her must not touch, she knew instinctively, if she were to preserve any existence beyond the hunger.  And the beast never slept for long.

    For the moment, though, its demands were faint, lost in the stillness of the forest and the infinity of the night sky.  For the moment, Fleur could strive to satisfy her mind and emotions, rather than her hunger.

    Nicolas and Lucien rode in front, intensely absorbed in a tale of a failed assault on some Saracen stronghold, the knight gesturing widely to help illustrate an innovative fortification that the ancient Roman had never encountered.  Janette followed slightly behind them, riding evenly with the two pack animals trailing after the men.  By and large, they traveled very lightly, but one beast carried the thick robes and tenting which would protect them from the sun if no better shelter could be found, while the other carried a portable token of Fleur's dowry, which Lady Marie had pressed on Lucien in her mesmerism-induced misunderstanding of the situation as they left Castle Brabant.

    Fleur knew it had been the only explanation that would leave her mother's mind at ease, and neither Fleur nor Nicolas were willing to leave Lady Marie any more concerned about them than necessary, but the lie nagged at Fleur unpleasantly, worming its way even into her hunger.  At first, she had thought it was worry that Henry would be angry at losing the opportunity to dispose of her.  A skinny, willful, clerkish half-sister out of the line of inheritance was not much with which to cement an alliance, and though fond of her in his way, Henry realized she was no prize as a bride.  Nevertheless, Henry was Duke of Brabant, and someday he might have needed to hand her off to some French or Flemish lord to protect his interests.  That was the destiny for which she had been raised.  That was the reason, after all, she had never been allowed to enter a convent, the only place where she could have legitimately furthered her education.

    But the story Lucien had told of himself as a Roman noble had the ring of truth -- as well it might, since Lady Marie need never know he meant the empire, not the city, nor that his connections had all perished a thousand years before -- and should placate even Henry once some rich token arrived in their wake.  Her rebellious boldness in choosing for herself would surely become a tale for long winter nights whether or not it ever recoiled negatively on Henry, and she knew her eldest brother well enough to predict that she would receive more attention from him as a tale for regaling his drinking companions than she ever did in person.  That could not be what kept this inflamed splinter lodged in her heart.  And Fleur hardly considered it a deception, after all; Lucien had promised her more than any mortal husband could.  Besides, once Lady Marie had gathered that her daughter had surrendered her virtue, the practical matron had apparently accepted it all as a foregone conclusion.

    Of course, Fleur had not surrendered any virtue her mother would comprehend.  In fact, the young vampire mused dispiritedly as she stared at Lucien's strong back, arrow-straight under the black traveling cloak they all wore, whatever virtue there was in maidenhood, she still had far more of it than she wanted.  She had given everything to be with the one she loved, and had received in return power and opportunity beyond the dreams of her mortality.  What she had not received was the one thing she wanted: him.  That part of Lucien she had sensed from the first time they touched, that core of pain and need that had forged the outer man: that part, he held back, held away, until she had begun to wonder if she had been wrong.

    Even beyond the inexplicable, irresistible bond of attraction and understanding that had sprung up between them while she was still human, Lucien had seemed the answer to her every dream: a teacher, a guide, an adventurer who would take her with him into the world.  A man who would value rather than suppress her skills and assertiveness, because he was too far beyond them to be threatened by them.  Most importantly, however, she had sensed how profoundly he needed her, and she desperately wanted to be needed by one stronger than her. It was a contradictory impulse at the center of her existence.  The late-life child of a second wife was useless enough under Brabantine succession law, but born of a former commoner, and born a girl, at that.  What a waste, everyone had always said.  Everyone but Nicolas . . . until Lucien.  Over the years, Fleur had cajoled Father Condes -- physician, scholar, priest, advisor to the Duke -- into tutoring her as he once had her brothers, eventually expanding that training into the healing arts he had learned in Salerno, long before being assigned to her father's court.  She had made him make her useful, and she had thrived on being needed.  But the needs were transitory, the role she earned as precarious as that to which she had been born.  Lucien, though, needed her at the center of an existence that would be eternal.  He would always need her; she could always belong with him.  And she wanted to belong.  More than anything, she wanted to belong to him.  In his need, he would possess her, and his need would prevent the possession from obliterating her.

    Or so she had thought.  Since she had come across, his distant behavior had begun to make her doubt.  That the doubts washed away in his blood only confused her further.  He pulled her to him in her hunger, and she knew, at those times, his desires, his loves, his fears; she knew he needed her as much as she wanted him; she knew he derived as much satisfaction from the contact as she.  But he would never finish it.  He encouraged her to bring him her hunger, but he refused to bring her his.  He would not feed from her.  And the frustration and rejection tormented Fleur to the limits of her understanding.

    You fool, she accused herself bitterly.  Love at first sight, indeed.

    By the heavens, though, she wanted him to . . . .


    Staring down at where her hands rested on her saddle, Fleur did not see the sharp glance Janette directed back over her shoulder, but she did not have to see it to know she had caught her maker's attention.  She had not meant to distract Janette, but despite Fleur's best efforts, any peak or valley in her own feelings seemed to jolt her maker's.

    "Lacroix, Nicolas," Janette slipped into a lull in their conversation.  "Perhaps you should fly ahead and scout out some shelter the horses can reach before morning.  We fed so well, surely it would not be an injudicious effort."

    "Dawn is several hours away," Nicolas objected, apparently bemused by the suggestion.

    "Nevertheless," Lucien allowed coldly after Janette pointedly met his eyes.  "I would prefer not to spend another day in the dubious shelter of the tents unnecessarily.  And perhaps I feel like flying."  As he stopped his horse and dismounted, Fleur waited for him to invite her along.  Instead, he handed her his horse's reins, bowed, and stepped into the woods so the animals would not be distracted as he took to the air.  Nicolas followed.

    Angrily, Fleur clenched her fists and watched them go.

    "Fury is preferable to melancholy," Janette said softly as Fleur's horse walked up next to hers.  "But it could be better directed."  The brunette vampire leaned over and pried her convert's hand from the edge of her saddle; Fleur was startled to see the deep grooves her fingers had twisted into the stiff leather, and she met Janette's eyes in surprise.  The older woman did not release Fleur's hand until the girl had consciously relaxed its muscles, and then Janette gestured that they should continue on.  Urging her horse forward, she said calmly, "You do not yet know your own strength.  You should be more careful with items you wish to last."

    "I am very tired of being told that," Fleur complained after a long moment.  She had almost swallowed the retort, but somehow it crept out on its own.  Perhaps she could not articulate her frustration with Lucien, but she knew exactly how the others were contributing to it.  "I am not a child, Janette!"

    Janette pursed her lips, and Fleur dropped her eyes in embarrassment as she recalled the things she had broken, the mistakes she had made, the dangers to which she had subjected them all through her ignorance and inability to control herself.  Still, she was doing the best she could.  That her best was frequently not good enough was frightening, and the seemingly constant corrections from Nicolas and Janette intensified her perception of the terrible lack she thought Lucien must have found in her, to hold her so at arm's length.  If they all continued to treat her like a pane of flawed glass, she was going to shatter like one.

    "You are no more a child than I am a parent," Janette said, a strangely assertive concession.  "And no less."  They rode for some time with that hanging between them before Janette spoke again, this time with the oft-hidden understanding that Fleur was coming to adore in her.  "We have been on the move since nearly the night you came across.  It has been very difficult for you, more difficult than it would need to be under other circumstances.  We would have done better for you, if it could have been otherwise."

    "What is wrong with me, Janette?"  Fleur suddenly begged, pouring all the levels of her confused anxiety into the single question.

    Janette pulled up her mount, expertly brought the horse next to Fleur's, and stretched her arm out full length to cup the side of the young woman's face.  Holding Fleur's gaze with a ferocity the fledgling could not have avoided even if she had wished to, Janette declared, "There is nothing wrong with you.  This will pass.  You will adapt.  Adjust.  Survive."  Janette dropped her hand and allowed the horses to step apart and move forward, her tightly-closed lips quirking up as if she were losing the fight to suppress a smile.  "You will thrive.  Believe me, Fleur, I am glad you are with us."

    "But is he?"  The truth of Janette's words had washed reassuringly through their bond, giving Fleur the confidence to pose the terse question.

    "Nicolas will not admit it, but, yes, your presence makes him more happy than not.  He loves you."

    "I did not mean Nicolas."

    "I know.  But does it help to hear?"

    Oddly, it did.  Adventurer, Crusader: the only other surviving child of their mother, Nicolas had been Fleur's hero as she grew up, striding across the world as she never could.  Her brother's initial reaction to her vampirism had deeply shaken Fleur's confidence in her choice, and confidence had been one thing she had never lacked.  Of course, that was the opposite of her problem with Lucien, wasn't it?  Too much strength, too much control, when what she really wanted was to . . . .  Sternly, Fleur chastised herself for her ingratitude.  Nicolas still loved her, Janette had said, and Janette herself was glad of Fleur's presence.  Someday, Janette would love her too.  Did it matter that Lucien was less enthusiastic?

    Of course it matters, the answer came.  A mortal life without him had seemed too hard to bear, but an immortal existence without him was beyond imagining.

    Abruptly, Fleur asked, "How long did you know Lucien before he brought you over?"

    "I did not know him."

    "Tell me," Fleur appealed.  "Please."  To her surprise, Janette did.

    The scant few pieces of her life to which Janette had alluded in the weeks Fleur had known her were fragmentary at best, half-seen glimpses through doors quickly shut.  For someone approaching her two-hundredth year, memory played a surprisingly small role in Janette's life, Fleur had observed.  The brunette vampire seemed to live for the present and the future, never the past.  The tale came without context, without background, more akin to a cramped description of a year's events in a chronicle than an embroidered result of a bard's art.  It was as if Janette were straining the story through a fine cloth, keeping back the circumstances of her own existence and offering up the pure distillation of Lucien's actions.  Fleur noticed, and wondered, and set it aside to ponder, but that Janette shared this story at all was a gift, she knew -- and, she was sure, a lesson.

    "Did he keep his promise?" Fleur inquired softly when Janette was finished.  "Has any mortal man since . . . without your permission?

    "None." Janette pronounced the word mildly, and her eyes seemed to be fixed on something much farther than Fleur could see.

    Feeling Janette drifting away from her and unsure how to respond, Fleur impishly broke the mood.  "What about with your permission?"  She did not think such a thing was possible, of course: not such that the mortal would live to appreciate the favor shown him.  Even though -- or, perhaps, because -- Lucien had so far refused to indulge that side of her hunger, Fleur was all too aware of how the two needs intertwined, and which of the two was master.

    Recalled from the place she stored her past, Janette winked.  "Your brother."

    "What -- when he was mortal?  How?"

    "Let us just say that it is not an experience I would wish to repeat, even if I could.  There was no blood."  Janette gravely met her fledgling's eyes.  "Fleur, I cannot give you the answers for which you are fishing. I never wanted from Lacroix what you do, so that he never offered it . . . made up for much.  You do not know him as well as you think, dear one.  You have not seen what he is capable of."  Janette dropped her eyes and paused briefly, as if turning something over in her mind.  "But, then, neither had I.  In two centuries, I had never seen him as he has been since the moment you met.  He would have left you behind, mortal."  She shook her head in still-fresh amazement.  "That is why I wanted you with us."

    "He would have left me, rather than bite me," Fleur paraphrased in a whisper.  "But Janette, I want him to.  I . . . cannot reach him, outside the blood.  He's pushed me out.  I do not understand--"

    Suddenly, the sound of a twig snapping somewhere ahead yanked the two women's attention back to their surroundings, cutting off their softly-spoken conversation.  A muffled curse followed the sound; evidently, he who had stepped on it felt betrayed by its dry crackle in this lush summer season.  Fleur darted a wide-eyed, frightened glance at Janette.  She had been too absorbed in her own inner turmoil to catch the sounds and smells that now flowed over her all at once: three mortal men, not far ahead, the twig-snapper the closest; a cook-fire, burning some distance to the northeast, below a ridge that hid its light; other mortals, near that fire; a stiffening wind, blowing at Fleur's back, sweeping these scents and sounds away from her and the clouds away from the horizon.  The dawn would be clear and unimpeded.  And it would be soon.

    Flight would mean abandoning the horses, Fleur reminded herself as the one who had broken the twig stepped up onto the road several lengths in front of them, waiting for the horses' steady plodding to bring them near.  His two compatriots followed, one skillfully using flint and steel to ignite the torch he carried.  As the torch flared to life and restored the mortal tincture of the scene, Fleur recognized her brother's colors in the men's tunics.  That their faces were unfamiliar was no real surprise, given the shifting constituency of the band Henry gathered around himself as he wandered from manor to manor over his lands, imposing on each minor noble or warder in turn.  Fleur tried to send Janette the knowledge that these were her brother's men.  Fleur fervently hoped Janette would know what to do with that knowledge, because she certainly did not.  Would it help or hurt to encounter her eldest brother?

    "Ho, there!"  The twig-breaker shouted at last.  "We're the Duke Henry's men, and this is his grace's road.  Where're you traveling on it?"

    "From where it began to where it ends," Janette said calmly, sidling her horse closer to the man.  Fleur could see that she was attempting to catch his eyes and the beat of his heart, to pull him into the mesmerizing trance where he would be malleable to her wishes, but for some reason it was not working.

    "Aren't we all, Lady?" he grinned wolfishly.  "But I think we'd best take in and, uh, extend the Duke's . . . hospitality . . . to two runaw-- beautiful women traveling alone with a king's ransom in horseflesh.  Why don't you just dismount here," he instructed, stepping up between the two animals and sliding a too-familiar hand up Fleur's calf, over her riding boot and under her skirt.

    Janette, still trying to catch his eyes, had begun a reasoned explanation that the rest of their party would be along any moment, and no "hospitality" would be required, but she was cut off by the man's scream as Fleur's eyes glowed gold, her fangs bared, and she ripped his hand off at the wrist.  The action had been pure instinct, beyond Fleur's volition and beyond Janette's ability to anticipate and restrain.

    Between the man's screams and the scent of his blood, Janette's horse bolted, taking Nicolas's mount along with it.  In the moment it took the brunette vampire to disentangle herself from the stirrups and return, Fleur found herself surrounded by a sparse ring of torches and swords and the occasional brandished cross as other men raced to the scene from their encampment.  A dispassionate corner of her mind counted a mere seven, but the beast within could tell only that it was attacked; it snarled defiantly at them, a cornered predator.  She sensed Janette urging her take to the air, but even as she tried to obey, she found herself pulled to the ground by too many hands, with no leverage from which to push them away.  Hissing, she plunged her fangs into a human wrist, then, distantly, heard a sickening, spreading crack as the heavy pommel of a sword collided deliberately with her forehead.  As the world wavered and faded away, she thought she saw one of them lean close and make the sign of the cross, exclaiming in his shock, "Mother of God, it's the Duke's own sister!"

    Coming slowly to her senses, Fleur winced back from the too-bright firelight all around her.  Her head ached, and her wrists burned to the bone; she could not seem to pull her hands apart.  Raising her arms limply, Fleur saw that she was bound by a string of rosary beads.  Her movement must have garnered some attention, because suddenly a face swam into view above her, a brown-eyed, broader-shouldered shadow of Nicolas: Henry.  She smiled, she thought, then fuzzily realized there were tears in his eyes.  But Henry never cried.  Never.  Puzzled, Fleur tried to think, but the effort pushed her head into an explosion of pain, and the pain was followed by the hunger.  She needed blood.  More than ever, she needed blood.  Opening her eyes again, she found her vision distorted by the now-familiar golden haze.

    Father Condes stood at Henry's shoulder, Fleur saw now, with a sad, serious expression she could not recall seeing on him before, whispering urgently in Henry's ear.  It must be his rosary, she thought irrelevantly.  He knelt beside Fleur and softly asked her a question, but with the sound of his blood pounding so close to her ears, and some sort of commotion seemingly all around them, Fleur could not understand him.  She tried to read his lips: something about confession.

    "What?" she asked in confusion, only to see both men recoil in fear and revulsion as speaking revealed her fangs.  Her brother dropped his head in defeat as Condes reluctantly pressed a pointed branch into his hand and solemnly made the sign of the cross over Fleur, as he had uncounted times through her life.  This time, though, she flinched and gasped as if stung.  If her eyes had not utterly convinced them she was a demon, her teeth had apparently tipped the scales, and her reaction to the holy symbol was the final weight.  How long had she been unconscious?  How could it possibly have been long enough for things to come to this?  Where was Janette?  How could her own brother be doing this to her?  "Father Condes?  Henry?!"

    "For my sister's soul," he said, blinking the tears out of his eyes and placing the tip of the stake over her heart.  "Forgive me."

    Henry hesitated; then, his eye apparently caught by something Fleur could not see, his expression hardened and he pulled back his arms in preparation for plunging the branch through her.  Instead, he continued back bodily as Nicolas plowed into him from somewhere beyond the fire.  All at once, Lucien was at the priest's throat, and Janette was removing Fleur's bonds and helping her stand.  Shakily, Fleur noticed a nasty welt across Janette's right temple, but as she reached out to brush back her maker's hair and gauge the extent, Janette shook her head.  "Later.  I need blood; you, even more.  And there is not much time."

    The brunette vampire helped the blonde over to an unconscious soldier.  Having drained his oblivion into eternity, Fleur found her mind clearing and the pain in her head receding to a dull throb.  Carefully getting her bearings, she saw Janette and Lucien efficiently finishing off those who still lingered on this side of the grave.  It was a slaughter.  Every one of Henry's men had perished, without a chance.  Ten?  As many as fifteen?  All around, Fleur witnessed a kind of carnage she had never seen outside Lucien's blood, but it did not dismay her.  To her, that night, it felt like justice.  For what she was, merely -- not for what she had done, which was beside the point as they could not even know about it -- they would have murdered her.  Her teacher had intended to kill her.  Her own brother had intended to kill her.

    These . . . mortals . . . had intended to kill her.

    No reason, no motivation, could absolve that in her eyes.

    On the other side of the fire, Fleur saw Nicolas and Henry struggling.  Nicolas should have been able to finish him by now, Fleur thought, with his vampiric strength and speed, but the Crusader was not even baring his fangs.  He was grappling with their brother like a mortal, trying to restrain rather than hurt.  Her head throbbed and her hunger screamed, and Fleur rose to go to them.

    Before she could take more than a few steps, however, Janette had seized her shoulders.  "No."

    "He was going to kill me!" Fleur hissed at her, trying to wrench free of her maker's grip.

    "He is your brother."

    "No!" Fleur objected violently, noting that the horrible bruise that had been on Janette's face was entirely gone.  "He was going to kill me.  He is one of themYou are my family now, not him!"

    "Let Nicholas take care of him," Lucien said, appearing behind her and waving Janette away as he picked up Fleur in his arms.  "Let me take care of you.  It is almost dawn, and you still dare not risk any sun."

    As he launched them into the air, Fleur protested, "I can fly myself."

    "Actually, my love, I seriously doubt you can."  His expression was darkly serious as he met her eyes.  "Do you have no idea how injured you are?"

    Fleur tried to shake her head, but the movement restarted the throbbing ache behind her eyes, and she bit back a pained moan.  It felt like her head was broken.  Weakly, Fleur reached up to wrap her arms around Lucien's neck, only then noticing the pitted burns the beads had left around her wrists.  In detached fascination, Fleur raised her left hand in front of her eyes and examined the brand the holy medal had burned into her palm.  She could discern three separate layers of skin around where the blood had boiled and scorched.  She wondered if she were in that state in which a dying soldier felt nothing until he finally lay down his sword and saw his wound.  "No," she whispered.  "No, I suppose I don't know how injured I am.  Will I heal?"

    Lucien kissed her forehead, opposite where she now supposed a welt even worse than Janette's must be, and began a descent into the forest above some rocky hills.  "Yes, you will heal."  He landed without jarring her -- a flight skill Janette said took decades to learn -- at the entrance to a cave, stooping his tall frame as he carried her inside.  "Nicolas and Janette are following, now.  They will out-race the rising sun to another cave," he informed her, no doubt knowing she was too weak to feel Janette.  Moving to the far side of an interior boulder, into a nook where no light could penetrate, he sat down himself before he set her down, and even then kept her injured head pillowed on his leg.  "You have everything you need to heal," he said quietly, meticulously brushing her wind-tangled hair off her forehead.  "You have me."

    He was offering her his blood, she knew.  The thick, rich, walnut-tinged, power-steeped blood that had been their only intimacy since she became a vampire.  She wanted it, as always.  She needed it, as never.  Without it, perhaps her injuries would not heal.  He had fed well on those who would have hurt her; he could more than spare the blood.  The beast within screamed for her to take what he offered, without question.  Her hunger needed his blood, but her heart needed something more.  To know him while his blood was with her and lose him even as it became a part of her was unacceptable.  She was not going to take for an hour what she wanted for eternity.

    Slowly pulling herself into a sitting position, Fleur stretched out her scorched hands, palms up.  Lucien folded them gently between his own, and kissed her fingers.  She closed her eyes briefly at the sensation, fighting down the wound-maddened beast that read blood in every caress.  "In the garden at home, Lucien, you handed me a rose.  A thorn pricked my finger."  She opened her eyes and captured his gaze in the darkness, taking a deep breath before posing the most important question in her world.  "You tasted my blood, then.  You haven't, since.  Why?"

    He pulled her to him, settling her body into his embrace, and her face against his throat.  "Take what you need," he urged.  "You will know, then."

    "No."  He looked stunned at her refusal, and he felt hurt.  She could sense his hurt, deeply-buried as it was, and the unique connection of that ability encouraged her.  "It isn't real, is it?  The blood-knowledge?  It is a phantom, a shadow, a taunt--"

    "It is . . . real."

    "Then why does it not last?  And why . . ."  Ah, here was the crux of it, she thought, gathering herself to force her deepest fear into words at last.  "Why do you not want it of me?"

    "No," he gasped.  "No, Fleur, that is not . . ."  He trailed off, apparently unable to muster the words, for he settled for holding her even closer to him instead.  After a moment, he laughed bitterly, and she knew the mockery was directed at himself.  "I did not know that was what you thought.  If I had done as you ask, I would have known.  But if I had done as you ask, Fleur, I might have hurt you beyond healing.  If I take your blood out while you take mine in, if the balance within you tips . . . .  You do not know . . ."

    "Tell me," she directed softly, wrapping her arms around him as she had when they were flying, trying to bring his body as close as his words.

    "You need blood now," he admonished.

    "Yes," Fleur agreed.  "But I need you more.  Do you expect me to waste the only bargaining piece that has come my way?  Tell me, and then we will both feed.  As one."

    Lucien looked at her for a long time, a kind of wonder seeping around his emotional blocks as he slowly realized he did not need to protect her from this.  This was what he had needed all along, Fleur suddenly understood.  This was what they both needed.  What burdened him, in her keeping, would free them both.  She slipped down against her Lucien, leaning her ear against his chest so she could hear each rare beat, and sunk her weakened vampiric senses as far as they would go . . . into him.

    "Her name was Divia," he finally began.


Chapter 09  --  Toronto, 1996

    Janette had considered waiting outside the Raven for Nicolas to arrive, but decided instead to intercept him as he came through the door.  It would be difficult enough to keep him from rushing in half-cocked once he heard, without having alarmed him beforehand by deviating so obviously from her custom.  He would expect to find her inside, so she would wait inside.

    But even as she stood at the top of the stairs and consciously cultivated an appearance of serene boredom, Janette fidgeted mentally, all too aware of what was progressing down at the bar as Lacroix and Fleur conversed with the bizarrely half-vampire Natalie.  The brunette vampire's right hand twitched instinctively toward her still-scarred left arm, and she smoothly absorbed the motion into an inconspicuous adjustment of the long, black evening gloves that had become her constant uniform since Divia's attack.  The very air seemed heavy with the beginnings of an avalanche so huge that Janette found it necessary to try to stop the slide, rather then stepping prudently out of the way.

    Janette had wanted to pack the coroner off into a back room immediately, safely isolating her in her unique state, but as Lacroix had slipped in a taped re-run of his radio program and joined Fleur at the bar, Janette had realized that leaving the coroner alone was not an option.  Lacroix's interest in Natalie's condition was too intense, and Fleur's grasp of the woman's role in their current family drama too new.  Bluntly put, Janette dared not let Nicolas's mortal love out of her sight if she intended her to remain mortal -- or whatever semblance thereof her current state approximated.  Lacroix had long believed that a vampiric Natalie would be a priceless lure to his wayward son, with only the letter of their truce barring him from putting that belief to the test; no doubt Fleur had picked up that conviction, and the young-looking vampire was not similarly bound to restrain herself from interfering in Nicolas's mortal affairs.  The two of them must feel they had heard opportunity's knock, and were only sizing up the situation before answering the door to Lacroix's dearest ambition: Nicolas, willingly returned to the bosom of his family.

    Janette knew better, of course.  While Nicolas's devotion to those he loved had been proven more than once to transcend vampirism and mortality, for better and for worse, his adoration of what humanity represented to him had become greater than his affection for any one human, even the good Doctor Lambert.  He would grieve for Natalie if she were to embrace vampirism, but he would never join her.  Janette knew this to the depths of the soul she pretended not to have, in a way neither Lacroix nor Fleur ever could.  She knew, because she had tried to lure Nicolas back on the strength of her own love, and failed.  As intense as was his passion for her, as much as they had shared through the centuries, as close to Nicolas as only she could ever be -- the attachment of ages had slowly smoldered down to ashes in the light of his quest for his humanity.  Only one who would share that quest could hold Nicolas's love now.  Janette could not.  And as she had come to accept his relentlessly mortal ambitions, she had begun slowly, carefully, renegotiating her place in his life, for each had grown a part of the other in ways only immortals comprehend; she harbored no wish to begin facing eternity without him any sooner than she must -- any sooner than the death that must eventually crown success in his quest.  Aided and abetted by Fleur, though, Lacroix's machinations now threatened to destroy all that, and drive Nicolas further away than ever, in a useless repetition of the time when, a century ago, Lacroix had brought across that blonde Parisian ballerina with whom Nicolas had been infatuated.  It had not worked then, and, Janette knew, it would not work now.

    But even aside from the personal impact, she found the situation irritating.  The Raven's proprietor considered everyone who came into her club and obeyed her rules to be under her protection, mortal and vampire alike.  Within her walls, without her whim, no one died, and no one came across.  That Natalie had apparently initiated the process herself certainly complicated the matter, but Janette understood, as she had when the coroner had drunken herself stupid during the asteroid scare, that vampirism could never be the sober intention of Richard Lambert's sister.

    In the first moments after the coroner's altered state had revealed itself, Natalie had appeared dazed -- and hungry.  Seating the still-human woman at the bar, Janette had sternly forbidden Fleur and the staff to give her any but mortal-safe drinks, and then whipped out her cellular phone.  While Janette called Nicolas and told him to come to the Raven as soon as he could, Fleur had managed to get the coroner to confirm, by nodding her head, at least the rudiments of Fleur's hypothesis on her condition: a misfired attempt at curing Nicolas.  The two scientists had continued to discuss the process -- with slowly-increasing participation on Natalie's part after Brianna provided her a mug of coffee -- as Janette considered her options. The coroner had clutched the mug like a talisman, Janette had seen, but had not drunk from it. More concerned than she would admit, the club owner had lain a warning hand on Lacroix's arm as she turned toward the door. "Remember Sylvaine."

    "This is completely different, Janette," her master had asserted complacently.

    She had cocked her head to the side and held his gaze for a moment -- challenging, but calculated just short of provocation -- before proceeding up the steps to the main entrance, her vampiric senses allowing her to monitor Natalie's condition even at that distance.  But before her wait had a chance to turn either too anxious or too boring, the vampire detective himself strode through the door -- clearly coming straight from work, judging by the blue blazer he wore under his black duster and the holster she could feel at his shoulder as she moved close to him.  "What is it, Janette?" he asked, removing his sunglasses and sliding them into a pocket even as he returned her perfunctory kiss.  "What's happened?"

    Janette's kiss was more than the habitual greeting it appeared, however.  It had allowed her close enough to get a solid grip on his arms, a grip he could not break without hurting her -- and Nicolas would never hurt her.  Well . . . not against her inclinations, anyway.  "Natalie is here," she carefully informed him.

    "What's going on, Janette?" he demanded again, his concern suddenly magnified many times over.  "Has something happened to Nat?"

    "She is at the bar."  Janette watched his face as he searched for the mortal woman, at first doubtful, then incredulous, then . . . despairing.  Under normal circumstances, of course, Nicolas would have known his human love's whereabouts the moment he entered the club.  The unique scent of her blood, the distinct rhythm of her heart: even more than her form and voice, Nicolas's vampiric senses must be familiar with those traits that proclaimed his Natalie.  But those signs were missing now, and Janette knew what he must be seeing as it slowly dawned on him that the tawny-haired "vampire" conversing with Lacroix and Fleur did not merely resemble Natalie, but was Natalie.

    "No!"  He lunged immediately toward the stairs, his gasped denial as sharp and jagged as a shattered dream.

    Janette threw all her slight weight into pushing him back, staring up into his well-known blue eyes with every shard of compelling force she could muster from their waning family connection.  "Listen first, Nicolas," she ordered, and was at first pleasantly surprised when he obeyed, stilling under her grasp and reluctantly wrenching his gaze back to hers.  At first.  But as she faced the hollowness of his gaze, the defeat of his posture, a part of her screamed frantically for him to do something -- anything!  To leap over the railing, to fly to Natalie's side, to attack Lacroix bodily: anything but this dead shock.  He looked . . . hopeless . . . and Nicolas without hope was no one at all.

    Resisting an illogical urge to shake him into the more-expected fury, Janette spoke smoothly, urgently: "It is not what you think.  No one did this but Natalie herself, in her laboratory, in a botched attempt at a cure for you.  She is still mortal -- mostly."  Nicolas again stepped toward the stairs, as if waking from his stupor at the news it was not yet too late.  Janette immediately tightened her grip and pushed him back; though she was relieved at his renewed animation, she could not tell whether his expression was more outraged or distraught, and that inability to predict his actions unsettled her.  The moment she lost control of Nicolas, she would lose control of the situation.  That was no doubt inevitable, but she was determined to prevent it as long as she could.

    Grasping instinctively that only the constant flow of information was holding the detective in place, Janette continued rapidly, "She has a mortal pulse, though very faint.  Her skin is still almost warm.  But she came in with golden eyes, and all but drooled over a goblet of human blood.  No," Janette immediately corrected the conclusion to which she knew Nicolas had jumped, "she did not drink any.  We tried to give her coffee, but she has not consumed that, either.  It is as if she is half-way between mortal and vampire.  Nicolas, we all know how to bridge that gap from this side, but before you go to her, you must face the fact that there may not be a way to bridge it from the other!  She cannot continue indefinitely this way -- too much a vampire to take in mortal sustenance, but too human for her hunger to overcome her moral qualms and allow her to consume blood."

    Janette paused, as if to catch her breath.  They both knew what she was going to say next, and how he would answer; he was only waiting for his cue.  She wished futilely that he could hear it as a new idea rather than an old temptation.  Gathering together all the remaining threads of their vampiric bond, she looked into Nicolas's eyes and said firmly, "You have to consider bringing her across."


    The denial was flat, cold, habitual. Janette had known he would refuse, but she also knew that she had to plant the possibility.  Better her than Lacroix, whom Nicolas would feel compelled to resist no matter what.  Watching his gaze flicker slightly, Janette glanced over her shoulder to where Lacroix and Fleur stood at the bar just beyond Natalie, the sturdy Roman general embracing the slight Brabantian girl from behind.  It was their favorite posture, both watching the world from the same silent vantage, and Janette had seen it preside over gatherings of scholars, thieves and monarchs alike with no more or less aplomb than the motley Raven community.  With a trace of envy, she noted that the two were as aware of each other as if they were perpetually in blood contact, and she firmly dampened down her link with Fleur.  If she still wished to find that kind of connection for herself, she would have to look to someone other than Nicolas.  Knowing he was thinking along the same lines, Janette suggested, "You could have that have that with Natalie, you know, if that is what you want."


    "Why is it different for you and Natalie?  Why are you and she different than you and I, or Lacroix and Fleur, or Erica and Michael --"

    Nicolas winced visibly at that last, the name of Erica's one convert, the mortal for whom the playwright had finally left him when their philosophies proved too incompatible.  When Erica committed suicide in 1992, Janette was only surprised that she had waited that long to follow Michael into the sun -- long enough to write one last play.  But when it had first happened, late in the Renaissance, it was all anyone could do to keep the affronted Nicolas from challenging the hapless fledgling to some sort of duel.  Curious, Janette asked, "Does that still bother you, even at this end of history?"

    "It’s not that," he replied distantly, his eyes still fixed on the trio at the bar.

    "What, then?" Janette sighed, suddenly realizing that his reaction came not from long-gone jealousy, but from his interpretation of the proper bounds of a master/convert relationship, which he still perceived as parental, filial.  And if he were the one to bring Natalie across . . . .  No wonder he would never consider it.  Circumvent one wall of his moral scruples, and crash headlong into another.  "I hope that was not the only reason you encouraged poor Urs to disentangle herself from Vachon.  Nicolas, mortal laws serve a good purpose for mortals, but the situations are incomparable.  The connection is what one makes of it.  That mortal rule simply does not apply to us."

    "He thinks it does," Nicolas replied, meeting her gaze and nodding his head toward Lacroix.

    "Oh," Janette breathed, suddenly enlightened.  "Of course."  Of course Lacroix clung to that one mortal stricture, giving it all the more authority in Nicolas's eyes because it was truly the only one the ancient vampire honored.  Accumulating the pieces slowly over the centuries, Janette had never before been able to assemble the puzzle whole, but with Lacroix's recent revelations about Divia's perversion of both her mortal and vampiric relationships with him, she was suddenly able to see what Nicolas must have deduced before.  So that was the why of it, the psychological motivation behind Lacroix's one restraint toward all of his vampiric "children," even those who would have been more than willing to pursue a less-familial intimacy.  But to have branded him so deeply, even Divia's transgression had to have been reinforced somewhere along the way.  Janette wondered when and what that had been.

    "Are you ready to let me go?"  Nicolas asked softly, calling her out of her sudden reverie.  He stood straight now, conviction and purpose surrounding him again, an intangible, impermeable latter-day armor.  "I appreciate what you're trying to do, Janette, but I'm not willing to give up just yet.  And neither is she, I know."

    Nodding resignedly, Janette released him, apologetically patting the fabric of his sleeves back into place before stepping aside.  She followed him down the stairs and across the dance floor, walking at a normal pace that seemed conspicuously slow in his wake.

    By the time Janette reached the bar, Nicolas had long since taken Natalie into his arms, giving her that familiar refuge for her turbulent emotions, and making it clear that, mortal or vampire, he stood with her.  Janette knew them well enough to know that Natalie must have doubted his reception of her condition, that Nicolas must have wondered if she blamed that condition on him, and that the unreserved embrace must have reassured them both.  Janette stepped up to make the center point of the triangle of their family, the two couples slightly in front of her, and to either side.

    "Do you want to tell me how it happened?" Nicolas asked Natalie softly, but she just shook her head miserably against his chest, not meeting his eyes.  Janette averted her gaze from the unsteady mortal, whose attention was no doubt focused completely inward, on subduing the instincts of the vampiric transformation; there was an uncomfortable intimacy in the publicness of Natalie's situation, an intimacy Janette would have spared her if she could.

    "Allow me," Fleur offered.  Janette saw Nicolas's eyes flash with resentment at his sister's voice, and knew that her daughter had seen that flash as well.  "This is not my doing, Nicolas.  N'ose pas m'accusee!"  Fleur snapped, then took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment.  Opening them, the vampire scientist placated, "She can correct me if I make an error, but she is as confused as a new fledgling just now, and I think perhaps I understand the situation better than any of you.  Both the mechanism, and . . . ."  Fleur's gaze slid to Natalie.  "The motivation."

    The puzzled frown tugging at Nicolas's lips told Janette that he had still not guessed Fleur's true identification with the coroner: not like minds, but like hearts.  Janette knew that Fleur saw her early relationship with Lacroix in Natalie's with Nicolas, mortals in love with vampires afraid to take them.  Janette wondered if it indicated suspicious realization or continued confusion, the delay before his sharp nod finally indicated his willingness to listen.

    "As you know, she has samples of Divia's venom," Fleur began.  "Provided by that autopsy she performed so soon after -- who was the girl?"

    "Urs," Janette and Nicolas supplied almost simultaneously.

    Fleur inclined her head in acknowledgement.  "Because Urs was brought to Doctor Lambert so quickly, the samples taken were dormant, but viable.  Another hour and there would have been nothing left to find.  Correct me if I am wrong, Natalie, but I -- ahem! -- saw last night that you had deduced that Divia carried a kind of reverse vampire virus, making immortals mortal -- but only through living human blood."  Fleur paused a moment, and when she resumed speaking her tone was less analytical than sympathetic.  "You must have injected yourself, intending to culture enough to . . . cure . . . my brother.  You had no way of anticipating the affect on a living, human host.  And even if you had," Fleur's eyes challenged Nicolas's, "you would have done it gladly, to be with him."

    "No!  That's not --" Natalie flared angrily for a fleeting moment, and then suddenly silenced herself, clamping her eyes closed. Janette had seen the still-mortal eyes flame, and knew the coroner must have shut them in denial of the hungry golden haze obscuring her perceptions.  Not human, not vampire, but enduring the demands of both: Janette felt an unaccustomed burst of sympathy for the woman in Nicolas's arms, but promptly smothered that dangerous emotion under a sense of irony -- it was Nicolas's lady who suffered so, after all, and if anyone knew what it was to stand between the worlds, to be neither vampire nor human, it was Nicolas de Brabant.  Truly, she had become like him.

    "I'm sorry, Nick," Natalie whispered without opening her eyes, her words increasingly muffled as she turned her face against his chest.  "It should have worked -- I should have told you -- the tests were all -- I don't understand! -- I'm so sorry, Nick . . ."

    "Nonsense," Lacroix cut her off.  "Really, Doctor Lambert, what have you to be sorry for?  With the best of intentions, you attempted a . . . reversal . . . of Nicholas's basic nature, a project for which he, you must admit, bears at least as much responsibility as you.  Instead, you have managed to bring yourself half-way into our world, bypassing my son's notorious conscience and giving him a guilt-free way to consummate your relationship.  Not only that, you have straightened out the . . . mess . . . he had made of you before the Enforcers came for you both.  Rather than you apologizing to him, my dear doctor, he ought to be thanking you."

    "Enforcers," Natalie repeated, as if she did not quite understand the word.  "Enforcers."

    Her mind flitting back across a number of First Hungers, Janette was impressed that the coroner was still as coherent as she was.  The brunette vampire tried to catch Nicolas's gaze to convey her mounting concern, but before she could, Natalie's eyes snapped open, still gold.

    "You.  It was you, wasn't it, Lacroix?  You did that to Tracy.  Who else would have the power?  The gall?"  There was an incredulous accent to the mortal woman's words as she spit out, "You bastard!"

    "Did what to Tracy?" Nicolas demanded, staring at his master.  Janette all but shivered at the glacial cold in his voice.

    "Took her memories," Natalie supplied, stepping forward to press her accusation against the ancient vampire.  As the coroner's rage mounted, Janette saw tinges of red begin to swirl around her eyes -- tinges that Nicolas could not see from where he stood behind her.  "Took Vachon from her," Natalie continued.  "Took her knowledge of vampires, her feelings for Vachon, her place by his side as he died, and God only knows what else.  He . . . raped her mind."

    Janette thought Lacroix looked amused at Natalie's ferocity, and as Nicolas balled his fists, the Parisian vampire stepped back, wondering first if she could clear the club before they destroyed the place, and then, at the look in Nicolas's eyes, deciding that she would be lucky if she could get Natalie and Fleur out of the way before the father and son pitched into the most time-honored and least-useful manifestation of their differences.  Reaching out for Natalie's arm and casting her mind toward her daughter, Janette stopped cold at what she found on the surface of Fleur's awareness.  Dropping her hand, Janette stepped back and pulled her cellular remote out of her pocket, immediately keying into the Raven's sound system and politely announcing that the club was closing.  Now. Luckily, it was almost dawn, and her staff would be able to herd out the stragglers with a minimum of fuss.

    "I gave you my word, Nicholas," Lacroix said, arching one eyebrow, "that I would not interfere with any of your mortal playmates as long as you maintained this incarnation, in this place.  Not unasked, in any case, and of course you did not ask.  Do you question my word?"

    "I saw her, Lacroix," Natalie hissed.  "I spoke to her.  Who else could have done that to her?"

    "Actually, I could."  Fleur's flat assertion dropped though the tension like a too-heavy weight let loose over a too-taut net.  Silence gaped under them all as the two civil servants redirected their outrage.

    "You?" Natalie asked, sounding shocked.  "How?  Why?"

    "How?  I am very good at it, actually; I believe I inherited the talent from Janette, and I have worked to cultivate it for . . . well, a very long time.  And Lucien had told me about Detective Vetter, so when she came poking around last night, I took care of her.  Why?"  Fleur sighed regretfully.  "Mortals never understand.  But you, Nicolas -- I would have expected better of you.  After all, you did it to me."

    Score one for Fleur, Janette thought, though casting up the eight-century-old incident in the garden of Castle Brabant should really have been beneath her.  It was always a sure shot at Nicolas's vulnerabilities: too sure, in fact, to consider the weapon fair.  Fleur did not even hold his mesmerisation of her against him, Janette knew; her convert embraced it as the most merciful way to deal with a mortal who had learned of vampires.  But Nicolas had come to hold it against himself, and that was enough.

    Nicolas bowed his head briefly, but then met his sister's eyes unabashed.  "I am sorry for that.  I've said so before, Fleur.  I will always be sorry for that.  It was wrong.  But precisely because of what I did to you, you should know that better than anyone."

    Fleur waved away his imprecation.  "It was the responsible thing to do.  You would have allowed her to continue, unfettered, going about knowing we exist.  It was one thing to let it go while she belonged to the Spaniard, but--"

    "She is human.  She belongs only to herself."  Nicolas's words were old to Janette, older than the woman about whom they argued, older than the country in which they stood, older, perhaps, than the language in which they spoke.  Reluctant vampires like Nicolas were always among the first people to reject the institution of slavery; satisfied vampires like Fleur were usually among the last.  And yet the argument would go on, Janette expected, as it always had.

    Instead, Natalie spun around, revealing a stricken expression and eyes now totally red.  "I can't stay here.  I have to go home.  I have to get home!"  The panicked mortal, half-vamped, ran toward the entrance of the now-empty club.  Janette and Nicolas both dashed after Natalie, and Nicolas managed to prevent her from opening the door only by flying between her and the handle.

    "The sun is rising," Janette observed softly from behind the distraught coroner.

    Nicolas nodded his comprehension.  "Nat, the vampire knows it has to be someplace safe when the sun rises.  That's why you want to go home.  It's the second instinct after the hunger.  You've fought that; fight this!"

    But Natalie only shook her head from side to side, her protests becoming more frantic and less coherent.

    "There is no mortal instinct opposing this one," Fleur offered, coming to the steps below the door.  "In fact, it probably keyed into her mortal safety instincts.  That is why she can't resist it, the way she has resisted the hunger.  We'll have to sedate her somehow."  She hesitated.  "Doctor Lambert is still mortal, Nicolas.  With your permission, I'll hypnotize her."

    "No!" Natalie objected emphatically, and as she did, Janette saw a stunned expression come over Nicolas's face.  Somehow, the coroner broke his grip in that instant, and Janette saw her lunge through the doorway, only to hear a cry of pain as she met the light.  It was the briefest of cries, because Nicolas was right behind Natalie, picking her up and carrying her back into the sheltering darkness of the Raven.

    But even that brief moment of pre-dawn light was almost too much for a fledgling's vulnerabilities, and the woman in Nicolas's arms bore burns on her hands and nose and chin -- and her hair, her glorious hair, had evidently ignited, put out only by the swiftness with which Nicolas moved as he rescued her from the burning sun.  As Nicolas passed grimly by with Natalie in his arms, apparently on his way to Janette's own rooms, Janette saw the once-mortal woman's face, and was grateful, for Natalie's sake, that the coroner had passed out from the shock and pain.  It was not the wounds that would have distressed her; no, it was the fangs -- the sight of which must have caused the shock that relaxed Nicolas's grip enough for her to get by.

    Janette followed Nicolas into her bedchamber, and knew that Lacroix and Fleur followed her in their turn.  All were silent, solemn; Janette shied away from her awareness of Nicolas, because that awareness now conveyed nothing but pain.  Every rock of experience and wisp of myth declared together that fangs manifested only on the other side of mortal life.  Hunters like that pathetic Liam O'Neill might shy from the sun; their eyes might even glow, perhaps, a reflection of the beast they once saw and almost became.  But fangs?  No.  If Nicolas did not bring Natalie across and complete her transition, she would languish in hunger and agony until she died of starvation, a mortal soul in a vampire's body.  If he did bring her across, Janette knew he believed he would be damning her to Hell.  Two choices, neither of which Nicolas would call a "choice" at all.

    "I can't," Nicolas said finally, kneeling at the side of the red-covered bed on which he had set his lady, holding her burned right hand in both of his.  He had watched silently, immobile, as Natalie's blistered skin began to repair itself.  Slowly -- oh, so slowly without more blood in her system -- the indisputably vampiric healing crept across her body, leaving, in its wake, Natalie's wounds soothed, and Nicolas's heart broken.  As it became clear that the bridge to mortality was burning behind Natalie, something unfamiliar and somehow horrific was apparently igniting in the Crusader.  "I can't," he repeated.  "I won't."  His tone was serene, and that bizarre serenity frightened Janette as he continued.  "I won't make her what we are.  And I can't let her suffer."  He paused for a moment, lifted her hand to his lips, and stood.  "When I was human, it was rarely spoken of in less than veiled terms, never condoned by the Church, but still quietly, tacitly, employed wherever only agony stood between life and death.  It was thought that God understood.  And even if He doesn't," Nicolas shrugged and drew his gun, "the sin would be on my head, not hers."

    The coup-de-grace.  Euthanasia?  The vampire who had not killed a mortal in four centuries stood, by all appearances, preparing to dispatch the woman he loved.  Janette felt as if she were suspended in a thick liquid, everything around her slowed, muffled and distorted.  Madness!  His mind must have snapped.  Would it even work -- a bullet to free a mortal soul from an immortal body?  And surely, Janette thought, if he killed Natalie, he would then kill himself, most probably carrying her body into the morning sun.  Fighting the surreal restraint of the moment, Janette shot a panicked look at Lacroix, only to see him already moving to Nicolas's side and reaching for the gun.

    "No," Lacroix commanded, apparently coming to the same conclusions.  "I forbid it."

    "You?" Nicolas asked, almost laughing.  "Forbid?  This?"

    "If I have to strike you senseless and bring her across myself, Nicholas, I will not let you do this.  I will not lose you!"

    "You lost me a long, long time ago, Lacroix."

    The exchange sounded eerily familiar to Janette, but, then, what pattern of words had they not exchanged at some point in their interminable lives?  She reached for some stability in the deja vu sensation, but found only dizziness, a whirlpool of memory mocking her sense of time and place.  Perhaps it was time and past for the story to come to an end, if this were the only end that offered.  She sat down heavily in an armchair and stared at Natalie's body, barely able to hear the faint beating of the semi-human heart.

    "There is another way."

    Fleur's soft pronouncement came from the threshold of the room; she had not entered.  Three pairs of eyes turned to her, and she continued standing just beyond the molding of the door, as if making a physical distinction between herself and the four Toronto residents.

    "A human way?" Nicolas asked, hope flaring in his eyes so brightly that Janette felt almost burned by the sight alone.  So far down, and then so far up -- that was Nicolas, her Nicolas, and oh! she had loved him.  Once.

    Fleur nodded her answer to her brother's question.  "You won't like it."

    "It doesn't matter whether I like it."  Nicolas quickly crossed the little space to the doorway, held out his hand, and drew her into the room.  "Save her body and mind without damning her soul -- and you can have me in exchange."

    "I won't ask that of you.  I'd much rather convince you than force you, you know."

    "I know," the knight smiled briefly.  "But that's how serious this is.  Any boon, Fleur: just save her."

    Fleur nodded, then glanced at the coroner's comatose form.  "She doesn't hide her notes as well as she thinks she does.  As for security around her office building -- no vampire would have difficulty breaking in.  And after Vetter came by, while you two were at Natalie's apartment last night -- well, I knew what I was looking for."  Fleur paused, and turned a strangely pleading gaze first to her brother, and then Janette.  "I didn't think she'd go so far, so soon.  I really didn't.  I thought there would be time to talk --"

    "It's all right, cherie," Janette said softly.  "We understand.  But now there is no time.  What can we do for her, but bring her across?"

    "She had samples from the two of you, so I don't know why she didn't see this -- except that she surely did not wish to see that which her preliminary research hints, that the catalyst to the venom was a separate factor, no doubt unique to Divia's living system.  That's why everything she examined was dormant and induplicable.  Without that catalyst, the venom is necessarily harmless to vampires.  We can purge her system of the contaminant.  We can --" Fleur looked anywhere but at her brother, and rushed her words so that each tumbled on the heels of the last "-- drain her, just a little.  The 'antivirus' venom will be attracted to the anticoagulant of a normal vampire bite!  The 'vampire virus' in a healthy immortal -- the rogue RNA pattern -- should re-code the venom factor as it is extracted, neutralizing it and leaving her mortal."  She took a deep breath and looked up at Nicolas.  "All you have to do . . . is sip."

    "'All,'" Nicolas repeated helplessly.  "All."  He sat on the bed at Natalie's side, and Janette fancied she could actually see him sliding back into the pit out of which Fleur's words had lifted him only seconds before.  "Sipping" was a myth, a legend, a persistent part of the tiny cultural lore that vampires had preserved separate from their human contemporaries, but Janette had never known anyone who even claimed to have met a survivor, though she had sent her share of mortals to their deaths believing they would be such.  Sipping made a good story, told under the covers on a sunny day, but if Janette had not intimately known her convert's sincerity at the moment, she would have thought Fleur's suggestion the cruelest of mockeries.  Make Natalie a zombie, a thrall to the bite, just to gain a few days -- at most -- of mortal life?

    "He cannot," Janette reminded her.  "You cannot.  And I have never even managed to bring anyone but you across, much less stopping while someone is still completely mortal!  True 'sipping' cannot be done, Fleur; you must have something else in mind."

    The young-looking vampire raised her eyes, but not to her master.  Instead, she looked at her lover, who had made neither move nor sound since she began to speak.

    "She does have . . . something else . . . in mind," Lacroix agreed slowly.  "Someone else, rather.  It is a generous thought, mon amour, but it will never work.  It is . . . difficult and unpredictable, always.  Frequently it does not succeed.  And he will not trust me."

    "You?" Nicolas's head snapped up.  "You wish me to let you bite her, when you have just threatened to make her one of us?  On the fantasy of sipping, of all things?  What kind of fool do you take me for?"  Overwrought, he gathered Natalie into his arms and buried his face in her singed hair.  Janette suspected he was hiding tears, and wished he were still vampire enough for her to share with him what she knew from her convert; Fleur, at least, sincerely believed Lacroix could and would restore Natalie's humanity.  Janette hoped she was right.

    Fleur spared her brother a compassionate glance.  "He has no choice, Lucien.  He loves her; he must let you try.  And you love him; you must succeed.  I love you both, and I would take this trial from you, if I could."  She shrugged her shoulders emphatically then, as if dislodging the brief fit of sentimentality, and continued.  "Practically speaking, there are three of us here to 'haul you off her,' as it were, the instant anything goes wrong.  Let Nicolas put his hands around your throat, if he likes; that should restrain you both."

    "Nicholas?" Lacroix asked.

    "Why can't we just inject her with vampire anti-coagulant?" the stricken detective ignored him.  "Fleur?  You said that the two substances would neutralize each other and wipe all this away."

    "Actually, I said they would be attracted to each other and re-coded . . . .  But how would you extract that substance for injection, Nicolas?  It is only secreted in the act of draining.  And how would you keep the factor vital outside the vector?  Our healthy fluids are no less fragile than Divia's damaged ones.  Indeed, how would you manually drain Natalie just enough to skim off the corruption, simulating the automatic rise of the venom to the anticoagulant?  We do not have the equipment here.  It might take as long as twenty-four hours to assemble the components, and more to work out the procedure.  I cannot answer for how her transformation will progress in the interim.  She is your lady, Nicolas.  It's your choice.  Do we take that time?"

    "No."  Gently releasing Natalie, Nicolas stood and nodded to Lacroix.  "Please try," he said, and of all those conscious in the room, Janette believed only she truly suspected what that deceptively-simple request cost him.

    Given permission, Fleur began bustling around, treating Natalie as half project, half patient, as she examined angles and assigned the players their places.  Janette was to sit behind Natalie and hold her in a sitting position at the edge of the bed.  Lacroix was to sit to their left, nearer the pillows.  Nicolas was to stand in front of the three, his hands on Lacroix's shoulders.  And Fleur herself, the smallest and weakest of the family, would simply stand to the side and do what no one else could: monitor Lacroix through their unique bond.  She would know if he went too far.

    "Shall we begin?" Fleur asked.

    Nicolas looked at Natalie, kissed her cheek, and whispered something that was probably "forgive me," but they all pretended not to hear.  Finally, he stepped back and gestured for Lacroix to proceed.

    Feeding always seems a much longer process when you watch someone else do it, Janette mused.  When she was feeding herself, it seemed like mere seconds, but she knew from immeasurable experience that it took long minutes, at least, and could take almost an hour, if one were very careful and very determined.  She was rarely that restrained, herself, but she knew --

    "Stop!" Fleur screamed suddenly, frantically, jolting Janette out of her reflections.  Startled, the brunette vampire just stared at her daughter; it had barely been long enough for Lacroix to take the amount of a standard blood donation.  Nicolas, however, reacted immediately, jerking Lacroix bodily away from the still-unconscious Natalie, only to find the ancient vampire slumping back against him, now as comatose as the woman he had bitten.

    As confusion swirled all around, Janette drew Natalie back onto the bed and cradled the fragile body in her arms.  In an instant, Janette realized that the coroner's fangs were gone, and her skin was warming as her heart beat out a strong, mortal rhythm.  Relieved at the evidence of their success, Janette looked up, and felt that instant stretch out into eternity, for under the sound of Fleur's wracking sobs, Natalie's was not the only mortal heartbeat she heard.

    Humanity had claimed Lacroix, as well.


Chapter 10  --  Brabant, 1229

    "How hard did you hit him?" a low voice, not unlike his father's, pushed that stern question into the Duke of Brabant's pain-hazed dreams, raising memories of childhood scoldings.  Neither awake nor asleep, Henry saw himself a small boy trying to justify some training-yard accident to the old Duke.  Then, suddenly, the cobbled square filled with corpses drained of blood, every pair of hollow eyes staring at him in eternal accusation . . . or was it invitation?

    "Not hard enough to kill him," a woman's voice floated down from somewhere above him, the waking part of Henry's mind reported, vaguely aware that her voice was too far away to own the gentle hand hesitantly stroking his hair.  He could not open his eyes to see the owner of that hand; in fact, he could not move at all.  Perhaps he had become one of the accusing corpses that seemed to surround him, with this to be his Purgatory.  After a moment, the woman's voice drifted down again, and as he clawed closer to the surface of his dreams, Henry realized that her faraway tone was as much a matter of attitude as distance.  Her attention was not entirely on her words.  "I am sorry, Nicolas, but I did not have time to judge more closely than that.  The sun was rising, and you showed no signs of bringing the struggle to an end on your own."

    "He's my brother," the first voice returned resignedly.  My brother, Henry's dazed thoughts echoed.  I have a brother.  Nicolas has gotten us in trouble again -- the old conviction rose from a lifetime of exasperation, but without any comprehension.  Nicolas was not here; he was in the holy land.  Impressions stumbled around the inside of Henry's skull like drunken acrobats, crashing where they meant to connect.  A little too daring, a little too stubborn, Nicolas had never grown out of getting into trouble and bringing his big brother with him.  Then he had gone to Wales, and gotten in trouble again.  And how was Henry supposed to look out for him all the way beyond the sea?  Nicolas should come home and help him determine to whom to marry Fleur, Henry's jumbled thoughts demanded, make her at least as happy as a woman could be . . . their sister should have been a boy . . . .

    But thoughts of Fleur pulled him back down into the black pain, distorting her face with a beast's fangs and devil's eyes.  It must be Hell or Purgatory, Henry thought, for he recalled demons attacking him out of a haunted forest, and as his men fell in agony around him, two of the fallen angels donned his family's faces.  Then, suddenly, the memory flickered, sucking Henry back into a semblance of the ten-year-old he had once been, wrestling with his nine-year-old brother on the stones of the practice yard.  But this time, he was the shorter, and immeasurably the weaker.  Nicolas could break him like a dry twig, and Henry seemed to see something in this Nicolas's eyes as jarring as the demon Fleur's.  This was not the way it had happened.

    "It seemed like an appropriate solution at the time," the woman's voice intruded once again, offering Henry a rope with which to haul himself out of his twisted memories.  He clung to the voices.  "Tempered for his mortality, that is very like how his men struck me.  Had I done to him what his men did to Fleur . . . ."

    "There would have been only the body to bury," the man acknowledged.  It was an almost familiar voice, Henry thought again.  There was a sigh, and the hand that had been stroking Henry's hair dropped away.  "Fleur is trained as a healer now.  Can you -- sense what she would recommend?"

    "Ah -- no," the woman admitted.  "Not just now."

    "Is she all right?" the other demanded immediately.  "Is she not recovering?"

    "She is not recovering yet," the woman emphasized.  "She has not had blood yet.  She will soon enough; they are both broadcasting that sense fairly intensely, and from not too far away . . . ?"  The statement sounded more like a question to Henry, but for several long moments only silence followed it, and as it began to seem that the voices had abandoned him, he started to panic.  He did not even know if he were alive or dead.  The thought of being left in doubt on that score for all eternity terrified him more than any fate he had previously imagined.

    Eventually, though, strong hands tilted his head and brought water to his mouth.  Somehow, he was able to drink, and the cold liquid cleared his head of the fractured dreams, though it left the pain behind.

    "Nicolas," Henry placidly registered his brother's presence as he came to himself, but then his automatic reaction wrenched around.  The first sight of this Nicolas was a curved blade's stab -- in smoothly on one breath, snagging guts on the next.  Remembering the night before, Henry flinched back, and Nicolas made no move to stop him.

    "You shouldn't move much, Harry," the demon with Nicolas's face said softly, calling him by the boyhood nickname that had helped distinguish him from their father, the first Duke Henry.  "You've been hit on the head."

    Defiantly, the current Duke of Brabant sat up, and then stifled a moan at how the motion intensified the pain.  Nicolas -- could it be him?  No! -- brought more water from the spring that dominated the dark grotto in which they sat, but Henry refused to touch the cursed, outstretched hands . "What are you?" Henry demanded, attempting to temper his revulsion and terror with aristocratic composure.  "What demons have taken my family?"

    Grimacing, this Nicolas withdrew to what Henry would consider almost a safe distance if he were facing a mortal man, and sat down.  It -- he? -- sighed.  "Harry, I'm still me.  I am the only Nicolas de Brabant who has ever been, the only brother you have.  Living, that is," the one with Nicolas's face amended solemnly, meeting Henry's eyes as if sharing a memory of Sebastian and Marius, dead in their cradles in the years between Nicolas's birth and Fleur's.

    "Are you living, then?" Henry asked doubtfully.  His voice sounded grief-soaked even to his own ears.  Despite himself, he felt compelled to believe that this was his brother.  But what he had seen the night before . . . .  "Are you alive?  Is Fleur?  Oh, Nicolas, what have you become?"

    Nicolas opened his mouth to answer, and then shut it.  He dropped his eyes, and then his gaze flickered, as if instinctively, to a point above the small pool.  Following his brother's line of sight, Henry's jaw dropped as he spotted the beautiful, black-haired woman perched on a deeply-shadowed ledge evidently inaccessible from the ground.  Swallowing hard, Henry quickly disciplined his expression and took stock of his surroundings, inwardly berating himself for his failure to have done that immediately on awakening.  A crack in the rock overhead must have been their entrance, over which someone had since dragged leafy branches that almost entirely blocked out the sun.  Even so, dancing threads of light slipped through here and there, stretching from water to sky in a narrow column between where the woman sat and where Henry had lain next to the pool.

    "What he has become is called a 'vampire,' your Grace," the woman informed him with immense composure.  "Whether he is alive or dead is a matter of opinion, but he is most certainly your brother -- if no longer precisely your flesh and blood."

    Henry inclined his head noncommittally, his mind racing to generate an appropriate response.  There was no polite formula for demanding that someone whose bearing so obviously indicated high rank tell him just how she had gotten up on that rock.

    "Harry, it is my honor to present Janette DuCharme, my . . . Lady."  Henry watched their eyes lock over that designation, and his strict scrutiny allowed him to witness Madame DuCharme's expression soften, just slightly.  As well it might, Henry thought, given all the chivalric dreams his brother had packed into that designation over the years.  If his definitions had remained the same.  If this were even truly his brother.  God in Heaven!  What had happened to them?

    Shaking his head in disbelief, Henry demanded, "My men.  Are they all dead?"

    Dragging his gaze away from Janette, Nicolas nodded sharply, his expression unreadable.

    "And Condes?"  When that, too, elicited a grim nod, Henry slumped toward the rocky ground, his face sinking slowly into his hands.  All dead.  His friends, his men, had fought, and died, and yet he lived.  Only he lived.  "Why did you not kill me, too?"

    "No, Harry --" Nicolas jumped on the words, but then broke off.  "I know that feeling.  Please believe, I never intended to inflict it."  Henry could see his brother's anguish as clearly as his own, but what he saw went only as far as his brain, nowhere near where he was suffering.

    Eventually, Janette's measured tones cut the heavy silence.  "The injury that finally put Nicolas on a ship back to France from Utremere was incurred in an ambush only he survived.  Ransomed from a Saracen dungeon relatively soon, his soul still festered more deeply than his wound.  He would not wish that festering on you, your Grace."

    Slowly raising his head, Henry saw Janette nod regally at his brother, as if her words had been a dispensation.  And so Nicolas apparently took them.

    "I thought at first I was a demon, and I hated it," the Crusader turned to his brother.  "Then I thought it didn't matter, and I embraced it.  Now I take everything by the moment, but there are so many moments . . ."  Seemingly determined that Henry should place the blame for this disaster on Nicolas's shoulders rather than his own, Nicolas began a tale the like of which Henry had never imagined.  Before Nicolas began his explanation -- all the more fantastic for its ring of truth -- Henry would have said that all mankind was meant to know was long since known, and the works of God and the Devil were not difficult to distinguish for a man of good intent.  Now, his brother's revelations drug him into a briar, for the Duke of Brabant could not see the penitent damned with the unredeemable.  And which, then, had his brother become?

    Henry heard of the vampire, of what it could do and what it demanded.  He heard of Lacroix and Janette and the year in Paris, of Fleur and the week at Castle Brabant, of the happenstance meeting on the road the previous night and the slaughter that followed.  He heard, in a rush, of the doubt and fear that stalked Nicolas now, and of his brother's surety that if he doubted and feared too much, the hunger would break what was left of his soul and leave his body nothing but the demon-inhabited shell Henry had believed it.

    Finally, as the sun's path began to withdraw the afternoon light from their bolt-hole, Nicolas said, "I won't kill another innocent, Harry.  What I have become will only cost the guilty -- and think of all I could do, in time.  Is that such a bad bargain?"

    "Only the guilty," Henry repeated.  "Were my men guilty, Nicolas?  Was Condes?  Who are you to judge?"

    "You judged Fleur," Madame DuCharme reminded him.

    "I was attempting to save her, my lady," Henry inclined his head in acknowledgment.  "It seems that I was . . . misinstructed on the nature of demonic possession.  If you have indeed freely chosen your submission to this devil Lacroix, no act of mine can unchoose it for you.  Or her."

    "You do not have to remember any of this," Nicolas offered.  "Not about me and Fleur, not about what happened last night.  We can spare you that much, at least."

    Slowly, Henry rose and walked to the edge of the underground spring.  Stretching out his arm over the water, his hand intercepted the narrow fountain of light.  Dropping to his knees, his cupped hand brought water to his mouth.  Rocking back on his heels, he raised a hand to his throat and felt the rhythm of his own life.  Looking over at Nicolas, Henry found himself able -- for the moment, in any case, if just for the one moment -- to separate his brother from what he had done, and the waves of overwhelming pity for what Nicolas had lost began to smooth the rough beach of Henry's anger and confusion.  What good was it to fly, but never feel the sun?  To see and learn much, but never have sons to whom to teach it?  To live a very long time, fearing always that when the world finally ended you would have no chance of Heaven?  To never share the deepest core of your existence under this vampire Code, and so never, ever to have mortal friendships . . . that would be the worst, Henry thought, to be trapped outside the truth of the most valuable relationships this life offered.  A woman was a fine thing, of course, but a friend . . . .

    "Allow me to remember, Nico," Henry asked, using Nicolas's boyhood nickname for the first time that day.  Whatever else he became, Nicolas was his brother.  Henry would grieve later, he knew, and rail and rant and loathe, but for now, he carried too many involuntary losses to willfully cast off this relationship as well.  "Let me remember what you have shared with me.  As long as I live, then, you will know the truth is borne between us."  Striding to his brother, Henry clasped his arm.  "Your night is too dark already.  Let me give what little light I can -- and if that light is sharp with the memory of my men's deaths, so much the better for both of us."

    Nicolas wavered for a moment, and Henry fancied him caught between jagged rocks human eyes could not see.  Then the Crusader nodded firmly, briefly embracing his brother before turning to his lady.  "Janette," Nicolas began, but she merely shrugged, shaking her head enigmatically, re-wrapping her cloak around her and curling up on the ledge as if asleep, her back to them.  A faint smile stole over Nicolas's face at that, a hint of the happier expressions Henry had been accustomed to see there, but it faded as the Crusader looked up at the shaft of light charting the progress of the day.  "You have to get away from here before dark, Harry, in case . . .  Lacroix will probably be too distracted to pursue your escape, if he even notices it, but . . .  And it is better if I do not know what you plan . . ."

    "Lift me up?"  The Duke interrupted his brother, his wry expression the permission he knew Nicolas had been requesting.  The Crusader smiled, and in a flash of speed Henry could not quite register, he found himself clambering through the mat of boughs into the dappled afternoon light.  "Are you all right?" Henry uncomfortably asked the empty air as he replaced the branches he had dislodged.  "Did the sun . . . hurt you?"

    "No," Nicolas's voice floated up from the grotto below.  "Be well, Harry."

    "Be well, Nico.  Take care of our sister."  The Duke of Brabant solemnly made the sign of the Cross as he sent up a prayer for his siblings' souls, then turned and began his grim homeward journey.


Chapter 11  --  Toronto, 1996

    Nicholas and Fleur argued ferociously over Lacroix's fate not three paces from the davenport on which he sat, and yet they spoke as if he were not even in the room.  Tempted almost beyond his frayed patience to bellow that he was mortal, not imbecile, the newly-human man instead stood up and stalked down the hall from Janette's parlor to her bedroom, desperately clutching what felt like the last shred of his dignity.  This ludicrous incident had stripped him of his immortality, his power, his identity, his rank; pride was all that kept him on the living side of despair.

    Pride, and the certainty that this state of affairs would not be allowed to stand.

    "Are you all right?" Janette asked automatically as he closed the door behind him, looking up from her chair beside the sleeping Doctor Lambert.  At least, Lacroix assumed from the tone and rapidity of her words that it was an automatic response; having lost his vampiric link with her, she could have been deliberately ridiculing him for all he would know to the contrary.  With his metaphysical senses stunted and cut away like any common mortal's, Lacroix found himself jumping at shadows, second-guessing instincts, surprised by others' movements -- and haunted by vague notions of a sculptor whose eyes he had once caused to be put out.  What had the man been named?  How had he looked?  Lacroix could not recall.  His vampiric memory had abandoned him as well.

    Nearly two-thousand years out of practice at it, Lacroix was human, and every rapid beat of his thawed mortal heart nudged him closer to a precipice he had barely glimpsed in the nineteen centuries since Divia's decapitation: terror.  He felt his pulse reeling in the scant duration -- decades? years? -- left to the mortal body dying cell by cell all around him, and he desperately scorned the thought that if his life's thread were cut again before he found a vampire to brave Divia's taint and bring him back across, nothing could postpone the judgment of the Light beyond death's door.

    "Yes, Janette, I am 'all right,'" he lied haughtily.  "But I believe Nicholas and Fleur could use your mediation in their dispute.  They are making no progress alone.  Allow me to take over monitoring Doctor Lambert for a time."

    Janette cocked her head and gave him a speculative look, but withdrew from the room without questioning him.  Only as the door clicked shut behind her did Lacroix gasp for air and sink into the chair she had vacated.  He had not taken a breath since delivering his order, a mannerism first adopted two centuries ago for its unsettling effect on -- now who had it been?  But that negligible habit of his vampiric existence mocked him now, forcing onto his awareness yet another weakness in the seemingly endless parade of infirmities his condition demanded he relearn.  He had been human, once.  He had been human for over forty years -- a ripe age in that era!  However had he managed?

    Short, brutish lives, little better than cattle.  How did any of them manage?

    Turning his attention to where Natalie Lambert slumbered under Janette's sheets, her shorn hair a tawny halo on the pillow, Lacroix wondered what answer the coroner could give to that question, were he willing to bare his humiliating debility enough to ask.  No doubt, she simply would not understand.  He would not have, when he had first been alive, knowing nothing of the vampire.  He had survived that, Lacroix reminded himself with a sneer at his own doubt; he would survive this as well.  He had conquered death, and more than once.  Fleur would discover the cause of this "life," and, together, surely they would conquer that as well.

    Surely they would.

    Lacroix let his eyes slide from Natalie's face and its mostly-healed burns to the still-raw scabs on her neck.  The final evidence of what he had been, as impermanent as he had become.  Life always finds a way to cheat death, Divia had promised him -- threatened him.  My beautiful daughter, he thought.  My demon spawn.  My . . . master.  Is this then the revenge of which you dreamed all those centuries?  Do you look up from the arms of Satan and gloat, even now?  Or has Nicholas's God forgiven you, as I would have, had either of us allowed me to be the one wronged . . . .

    "Good afternoon, Lacroix," Natalie's voice -- quite self-possessed for someone just waking, a detached corner of his mind noted sardonically -- pulled him back from the precipice of that reflection, bringing him to himself before he drowned in the long-denied human emotions crashing against the now-hollow rocks of his vampiric composure.  Refocusing on the coroner, he saw that she was sitting against the headboard, her knees and most of the blankets pulled up to her chest.  "Or is it night already?  Impossible to tell down here."

    "It is morning, actually, Doctor Lambert, though the sun should still lurk just below the horizon," Lacroix informed her, suppressing the urge to look at his watch and confirm the information vampiric instincts no longer supplied him.  "It was late afternoon when last we spoke, when you finally woke and were able to assure us of your full recovery, and to confirm . . . my condition. I can see Janette must have tended to your coiffure, and then you must have slumbered away the rest of the night. Nicholas would not leave your side until you slept, and Fleur has monopolized him every time he has emerged from this room."

    Natalie raised her hand to her hair at his reference, and Lacroix arched an appraising eyebrow at her involuntary jerk as she had to keep raising it, well above the point where she was accustomed to find the soft brown waves.  Vampiric healing had smoothed her burns into near obscurity while her body had still flirted with immortality the previous morning, but -- mortal or vampire -- the only thing that could have been done for such charred hair was to cut it off.  The coroner grimaced as she caught sight of herself in one of Janette's mirrors; Lacroix was surprised to see the expression more wry than sad.  "Actually, Nick cut it for me.  Not bad, eh?  But this was the first I'd heard of his career as a barber!"

    "Ah, yes.  The skills he offered the nineteenth-century American west.  Hair-cutting and surgery, all in one occupation.  And human blood, of course.  That was the original basis of his medical career, naturally -- the profession's belief in the efficacy of letting blood."  Lacroix waited for her reaction to that, but the coroner simply nodded, as if the logic were apparent to her.  He had tried at various times in the past to shock and tempt Natalie with tales of his son's . . . less-restrained days, memories of which Lacroix knew made Nicholas himself writhe in guilt and horror, and yet she consistently responded as casually as now, her attention fixed entirely on the man Nicholas had become, as if that wiped away the man he had been.  Fascinating, Lacroix always found it, that though his son somehow believed he had found his soulmate in this woman, she truly was far less like the defensively idealistic Nicholas than the ever-pragmatic Janette.  Uncomfortable in the unfamiliar silence, his human ears and mortal mind bringing him no evidence of Natalie's emotions, Lacroix returned awkwardly to small talk.  "So how will you explain your radical change of style to your coworkers, Doctor Lambert?"

    "This?  I might say I caught it in the paper shredder.  Grace has been warning me about that for years."  She grinned. "Probably, though, I'll just tell them the truth: Nick cut it.  It'll grow out again before he lives that down!  Or, he might find a whole new career in a salon."

    "How can you be so casual about it?" Lacroix demanded, and then wished he had not.  It must be obvious that his true concern was not with her hair, and yet he preferred even that mortal minutia to wading though the bog humanity had made of his psyche.

    Natalie's eyes narrowed and the grin disappeared.  "It's a very small price to pay, Lacroix, to still be alive and human.  I know that--"

    "You know?  You know nothing!" he hissed, leaping up from the chair and pacing the length of the chamber, finding it too few strides from wall to wall.  He wanted to rend -- break -- tear -- lose himself in the motiveless malignancy of the vampire within . . . but the vampire was gone, and the psychological balance that had vined around its weight for twenty centuries now left him almost too unstable to stand.  The vampire had usurped many skills from his mortal self as its birthright, skills exposed now as mere husks, withered by such long dependence on the beast.  "You were almost a vampire -- you felt it -- you nearly had it all -- and now you spout gratitude for being reduced again to this pile of decaying flesh?"  He spun to face her, still and cold as he pronounced, "I did that to you, Doctor Lambert, and you -- you did this to me!"

    Apparently unfazed by his verbal attack, Natalie simply raised her brows in an expression of calm incredulity before breaking eye contact and slipping out of bed toward the bureau on which sat her suit and personal items from the night before, neatly folded.  She was wearing a black fleece sweatsuit, he noted in puzzlement, certainly something that could not have come out of Janette or Fleur's stock of sleeping apparel -- but, then, neither of them were distressed by cold, he realized, looking down at his chapped hands in sudden comprehension.  Some of his discomfort might be simple chill; it was early spring, and even in the depths of winter the Raven's living quarters were minimally heated.

    Natalie glanced at her watch before strapping it onto her wrist, then swung her purse over her shoulder and resignedly wedged her sock-clad feet into her purple pumps.  "Come on, Nightcrawler," she instructed purposefully, opening the door and gesturing for him to follow her.  "I have something to show you."

    At first annoyed by her apparent dismissal of the threat his very presence should pose, Lacroix found that impression subsiding into amusement as her brusque and bold demand echoed in his memory an infinite string of such impetuosity by those few -- very few -- from whom he tolerated that insubordination.  Nicholas had not chosen unwisely in this one.  When he stepped up behind her, however, she strode down the hallway in the direction opposite the parlor.  "They are the other way," he informed her.

    "I know.  I said I have something to show you, not them."  She stepped confidently past several closed doors, and as she took a turn into a stairwell, Lacroix followed. Natalie's manner had managed to arouse his interest, and at his age that was something not lightly sacrificed.  Besides which, Lacroix found himself reluctant to spend any more time than absolutely necessary with his family in his current state.  A mortal among vampires, reminded every instant of what he had been and what he had lost, made alien to his most intimate . . . he would have to remember the efficacy of that torture should an appropriate situation ever arise.

    Doctor Lambert's path soon brought them to a landing on the main floor, through an exit of which Lacroix had been unaware.  With her hand on a door marked "Deliveries," Natalie paused, her expression evaluative.  "I found this route during the asteroid scare last spring.  Haven't you ever snuck out of the Raven before?"

    "'Snuck'?" he repeated, snorting at the evidence of another spreading Americanism.  "My dear doctor, I do not recall ever having sneaked anywhere.  Now, stalked, on the other hand . . ."  He allowed the insinuation to trail off suggestively, and then continued with a shrug of dismissal.  "It would be pointless, in any case.  My family always knows . . . that is, they always knew . . . where I was."

    She nodded as if she thought she understood.  "Advantage number one of humanity, Lacroix: autonomy.  Independence.  Freedom.  And -- here's number two."

    Natalie pushed open the door, and nearly two-thousand years of vampirism made Lacroix recoil from the sharp, white light of early morning.  Standing at the edge of the shadow, shielding his eyes, he half-expected the coroner to attempt to pull him into the alley.  Instead, however, Natalie waited quietly, holding the door wide, as he slowly discovered that the sun pained nothing but his dilated eyes.  Paintings, photographs, films, television: it was not as if he had forgotten what a sunrise looked like, Lacroix reminded himself.  Nicholas was the wild romantic who endowed the dawn with some sort of pantheistic transcendence, not him.  The world waiting outside the Raven now was no different than the world he had always known -- just better lit.

    And so Lacroix stepped out into the light of day.

    He felt the faint warmth of the sun on his face as he turned toward it, even before he fully opened his eyes, and he could tell it was pleasantly warm because the wind at his back was unpleasantly chill.  Smells lurked just beyond his comprehension, teasing his memory and triggering emotions -- oh, these insistent human emotions!  And though he could not hear Natalie's heart beat or lungs breathe, it was all the better to hear her voice asking if he were all right.

    Then, having waited for his eyes to adjust, Lacroix opened them.  And he found, bathed in the morning sun of a northern latitude in early spring, that the alley behind the Raven, with its dumpsters and rubbish and lingering crusts of dirty snow, was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

    "Lacroix?" Natalie asked again.

    He held up his hand to silence her.  He did not wish to find this impressive.  He required that it not affect him.  He demanded that the long-repressed human reactions battering his composure desist immediately.  Immediately.

    After a pause of many moments, he turned to his son's lady love and stated, "I will not remain this way, you know.  I will become a vampire again."

    "That's up to you," she said succinctly.  "Ready to walk?"

    "Walk?  Where?"

    "Breakfast!  There's nothing we can eat in the Raven, and I don't know about you, but I'm starved."  Natalie turned her back and strode out of the alley onto the sidewalk.

    For the same reasons as before, Lacroix followed her.  Truly new experiences were fewer and fewer as the centuries wore on, until finally they came only from the sparks between minds.  No, seeking to calm his everpresent hunger with mortal sustenance had not occurred to him, and if it had occurred to the others, they had not brought themselves to mention it.  His son, daughter and lover were unwilling to treat him -- quite -- as vampires treat humans; he was at least equally reluctant to treat them as humans treat vampires.  But the gulf that had opened between them gaped ever wider, isolating Lacroix in his mortal vulnerability.  The possibility of seeing pity in their eyes revolted him. Better to stay away until Fleur's scrutiny of this . . . mischance . . . determined a means by which he could return in the state to which they all were accustomed.

    Better to witness, once, this sunlit world that their eyes would never know . . . .

    "I should have had you borrow Nick's jacket," the coroner noted, stopping at her car and extracting her own coat before continuing briskly down the road.  "Do you want mine?"

    "Uh -- no," the first-century general refused, though his black moleskin shirt was not nearly as warm as he would have liked.  "Thank you just the same."

    "Suit yourself. It's over a few blocks -- a twenty-four-hour diner.  Nick likes their fries.  Or, rather, their ketchup.  And they have great omelettes."  Natalie fell silent as she put on her coat one arm at a time to keep hold of her purse, then buttoned it up and swung her bag over her shoulder again.  "We could have driven, I suppose, but frankly I'm feeling exceedingly grateful to be alive this morning, and that always makes me feel like walking.  Always!" she laughed.  "It's not something for which most people develop a habit, is it? Life since Nick showed up has been eventful, to say the least."

    "Yes, he does tend to make things . . . interesting," Lacroix concurred, raising one eyebrow and holding out a hand as if catching the sunlight in his palm.

    Natalie laughed again.  It occurred to Lacroix that he had never heard her laugh before this morning.  It was a good sound -- but such a mortal sound.  The exuberance of desperation, the enthusiasm of time running quickly out, the flame that burns so hot that it consumes all its fuel in a few scant decades: those were the vampire's descriptions of this intangible trait humanity alone possessed, the self-condoling denial of those who had left it behind.

    And though the implications of that laugh lashed at him like a windstorm, violent and uncontrollable, the humanity of which it was the sound . . . was now Lacroix's.  If he could not escape it.

    If he could bear it.

    Seated snugly in a sunny window booth of the well-heated diner, Natalie ordered for them both: ham and cheese omelettes, wheat toast, hash-browned potatoes, apple juice and coffee.  When she asked him if he wanted anything else, Lacroix just shook his head.  The bread, ham, eggs and cheese he remembered, but apples, potatoes and coffee?  No, this was more than enough to start. Covertly imitating Natalie as she cut, spread, mixed, and chewed, Lacroix stoically swallowed everything put before him.  It was a challenge, for he found that none of these mortal eating skills came instinctively, but in the end he triumphed, and relaxed back into the booth while Natalie was still toying with her coffee and the crust of her toast.

    Eating was, indeed, pleasurable, he allowed, though it in no way resembled the ecstasy of vampiric consumption.  But as he reviewed the unaccustomed tastes and textures, pondering how he could present the experience so Fleur would understand, a new sensation slowly overcame Lacroix, a sensation unlike anything he could recall.  Totally in it grip, frozen in his seat, the newly-human man closed his eyes and wallowed in a bliss he had never dared let himself imagine.  For imagining it without possessing it would ever verge on insanity.  But Nicholas had imagined it.  Oh, yes, it was this for which Nicholas sought.  And, giving himself up to the pure, unadulterated contentment of his first rush of this new feeling, Lacroix thought his son might be right.  Nothing vampirism offered could ever compare.

    For the hunger . . . had stopped.

    "Lacroix?" Natalie asked in a tone indicating it was not the first time she had tried to get his attention.  "Lacroix, are you all right?"

    "I . . . have never felt better."  Lacroix focused slowly on the woman across the table from him, and felt himself smile.  A ludicrous response, but, uncharacteristically, he did not care.  He found himself at a loss for words, something he was vaguely aware had happened only a handful of times in his entire existence.  But he found he did not care about that, either.  For the first time since Pompeii fell, the hunger had completely, utterly, wholly stopped!  Finally, invoking a turn of phrase he had heard but never had occasion to employ, Lacroix said, "I find, Doctor Lambert, that I am . . . full."

    "Hmm.  Well, I just ordered us two pieces of chocolate cake.  You might try it anyway."

    "No, you do not understand --" Lacroix began, but was interrupted by the sound of her cellular phone.

    The coroner gestured apologetically as she pulled it out of her purse.  "Natalie Lambert," she answered.  "Yes, Nick, we're having breakfast . . . No . . . Of course!  Nick . . ."  Nicholas evidently had a great deal to say, Lacroix thought; Natalie offered nothing but the occasional nod or inarticulate murmur as the waiter took away their dishes and served the cake.  "Yes, but . . . . Look, can we talk about that later?  Fine. . . I love you, too.  Bye."  She sighed and replaced the phone in her bag.

    "They are not pleased that we 'snuck' out?" Lacroix inquired satirically.

    "They are not pleased that they're stuck in the club for the day and we're not," Natalie answered with a trace of conspiratorial smugness.  "When it gets dark, Fleur and Nick will meet us at my lab.  She wants to go over my materials again and determine what went wrong with her interpretation, what . . . changed your condition in this way she didn't expect, before attempting to reverse it."  Natalie looked around the diner as she offered the carefully-bland phrasing.  Then she shrugged, picked up her fork, and began on her piece of cake.  "Until then, we have the day to ourselves.  I want to stop by my apartment to feed my cat and get cleaned up, but other than that, I'm clear until my shift starts tonight.  Is there anything under the sun you'd like to see?"

    Lacroix sat back and contemplated the coroner suspiciously, half-consciously drumming the fingers of his right hand against the tabletop.  Admittedly, he had never spent much time with any of Nicholas's mortal pets, but his experience of Natalie Lambert had led him to expect a rather different demeanor than she was showing him today.  In fact, open rivalry had been closer to the core of their previous interaction than this . . . comradeship.  The sense of suppressed excitement she was exuding might be attributable to what she saw as her recent brush with death -- indeed, had she not made that excuse on the street? -- but Lacroix found that explanation unsatisfying.  There was something more to it.  Suddenly stilling his fingers, he demanded coolly, "Does it make you so cheerful, then, this disastrous result of your unprofessional self-experimentation?"

    Natalie's smile tightened, but her brief retort carried only a tinge of sarcasm.  "I regret your suffering Lacroix, but this is merely a temporary setback, I assure you."

    "Are you not . . . embarrassed . . . by your error?"

    "I made a mistake.  Fleur made a worse one by dismissing my reasoning.  You're here; clearly my deductions were not wrong . . . as far as they went."

    Lacroix inclined his head.  "Indeed.  Still, you are far too smug.  What is it you think you know that I do not?"

    "Other than how chocolate tastes?  Isn't it obvious?  Lacroix -- I know how to cure Nick!"

    "Of course," the one-time master-vampire managed, blaming his weak human condition for his failure to see that before.  Of course.  It would take more planning, more time, the equipment Fleur had mentioned, but Doctor Lambert had indeed discovered a "cure" for vampirism. Nicholas now ran within sight of his goal.  Deliberately thinking of his own mortality as a temporary handicap, an inconvenience to be rectified, Lacroix had not allowed the concept to suggest permanent change . . . permanent loss.  He had had six years -- no, four centuries -- in which to absorb that implication of Nicholas's quest, but somehow it had simply never sunk in, never penetrated the vampire's view.  And it was well so, for the sanity of the vampire depended on that certainty.  As he had never allowed himself to imagine freedom from the hunger, he had never permitted himself to conceive that Nicholas could truly succeed.  For if Nicholas were right, would that not, a priori, prove everything for which Lacroix stood . . . wrong?

    But Nicholas's search had borne fruit at last -- in Lacroix.  It was as if the Holy Grail had been delivered to Mordred instead of Galahad by mistake.  How would that change the tale? Lacroix wondered.  What affect had the means of salvation on the instrument of destruction?  But no -- the paradigm was inapt.  Stories, by definition, end.  He had been eternal, and would be so again.

    To even think otherwise would crush him under the detritus of two millennia of waste.  And so he would not allow the thought.

    "Congratulations, Doctor," Lacroix said at last, intending his derisive tone to cut her as deeply as her triumphant one had him.  "I commend you -- and him.  But even so, why are you giving me this . . . guided tour of my mortality?"

    Natalie lay down her fork and steepled her hands under her chin.  Her hazel-blue eyes sought and held his gaze, as she spoke softly-wrapped words of steel.  "I could say it's because it's what Nick would do, if he could.  I could say it's because Nick doesn't like uninformed choices, so I'm providing information on humanity to prevent you from choosing . . . your former state . . . blindly.  I could say those things, but in all honesty I wouldn't spend ten minutes with you just for your own sake.  I'm doing this because the better you understand the life Nick is choosing, the more likely you are to let him live it.  And if I have to break your nose as I rub it in the realities of human existence, I will do it.  Do you understand me?"

    Lacroix shocked them both by laughing at her absurdly earnest threat, a sudden human reaction beyond his control.  Now this was the woman he had met before.  And this was a companion strong enough to hold the void of isolation at bay until he could rejoin his family -- a service worthy of its hire, whatever currency of time or attention she might ask.  "Yes, Doctor Lambert, I understand perfectly."

    "Good. Now eat your cake."


    When Lacroix and Natalie stepped out of her car in the parking structure across from the Coroners' Building late that afternoon and headed for her office, a casual observer might have noticed that he had donned a leather coat since morning, and she had exchanged the mismatched sweatsuit and pumps for a high-necked blouse, jeans and Keds, but not even the most acute observer could have discerned from their placid exteriors the internal tumult Lacroix felt was ill payment for his endurance of this day of dilettante humanity.

    They had eaten Thai food for lunch, Mexican for supper, and chocolate ice cream for dessert -- in fact, no matter where they went, Natalie had seemed to find something chocolate to offer him.  The woman had a positive fixation, Lacroix noted, but she also had a point.  They had gone to the top of the CN Tower, and out on the lake.  They had walked past office buildings as people rushed to work, and sat still in a park through an impromptu children's soccer game.  Natalie had made him purchase stamps at the Post Office and check the balance on one of his accounts from inside a bank, despite his protests that he had most certainly done those things before -- in the middle of winter, when the sun set before businesses closed.  They had stopped to listen to live music wherever they encountered it, and given money to every street-person who asked until Natalie ran out of cash.  She had even found a downtown church that held its daily Mass at noon, and Lacroix had found himself too intrigued to refuse to attend; for centuries, that ceremony had dominated half his world, but never once had he witnessed it.

    So single-minded was the coroner's determination to reacquaint him with the salient points of human life from a mortal perspective that Lacroix entertained himself with the thought that if he had suggested an interest in sex, she would have pointed the car in an appropriate direction and asked what physical type he preferred.  He had not suggested that, of course, time being short and mortals being . . . mortal . . . but the scenario amused him nevertheless. Instead, he had intimated part-way through the afternoon that he was tired, and perhaps needed sleep.  Natalie was all in favor of a nap -- natural human sleep inspired strictly by fatigue, not the position of the sun -- until she saw the furnishings of his townhouse.  Too cold, too thin, too hard, she had pronounced everything.  Not to mention too dark.  Bowing to her expertise, Lacroix had allowed himself to be taken back to her apartment and installed on the fold-out bed in her couch.  He had found mortal sleep -- and mortal dreams -- refreshing and . . . instructive.

    In fact, that had been his single pronouncement on the day: "instructive."

    Beyond that, Lacroix kept his own counsel, and neither did Natalie share her thoughts.  But as she escorted him through this human parade, a second inexplicably remarkable realization had slowly grown up next to the absence of the vampire's hunger: he was no longer what his daughter had made of him.  Divia was truly dead, and not by his hand.  Suddenly, concepts he had never but mocked into prostration had demanded his acknowledgement.  Like nothing so much as the cliché of collapsing dominos, uninvited possibilities of his situation insisted on falling before him as fast as they appeared, obscuring his accustomed preferences and arranging themselves in a line racing far beyond his conscious volition.  Mortal, he could pick up his life's progression where Divia and Vesuvius had interrupted it.  Mortal, he was not only out from under the hunger that had ridden, dominated, mastered him from the moment he came across, but he had also been released from Divia's deliberate perversion of the natural order of their relationship.

    Mortal, he was free.

    But mortal, he was also . . . alone.

    And if there was one thing Lacroix could not bear, it was lack of companionship.

    "In here," Natalie informed him when he would have continued past her station.  She flipped on the lights and changed her outdoor coat for a lab smock before moving to switch on her computer and check her phone.

    Waiting patiently, Lacroix wandered around the room, his hands clasped carefully behind his back.  To his now-human perceptions, the morgue conveyed a much different impression than it had the last time he had been there, at the height of the vampire fever.  Had he simply not noticed the depressing green tile, or had colors somehow meant less?  Had the claustrophobic lack of windows not registered, or had the solidity of the walls comforted vampiric vulnerabilities?

    "Well, that's good," Natalie said as she finished listening to her voice-mail and closed out her e-mail.  "There's nothing officially on my card for tonight.  Yet.  Here's hoping that God and Toronto's finest keep it that way.  In the meantime, Lacroix, there is one last stop on that guided tour of human life, if you're up to it."

    "What do you have in mind?"

    "Here?  What else?  Death."  She paused then, waiting silently until he gestured for her to continue.  "Specifically, though, I'm hoping you can identify at least some of the bodies of Divia's victims upstairs.  It can't go on the official reports, of course, but it would help my peace of mind to solve the puzzle . . . and I can't help but think, vampires or no, they must all have left someone behind, people who should be told so they can grieve and move on, rather than waiting -- forever -- never knowing.  If you knew them, maybe you'll know who to notify."

    Divia's victims.  Lacroix nodded shortly, reluctantly taking up the responsibility.  Perhaps he had been mistaken; his obligations to her stretched beyond death, beyond vampirism.  But, then, it was duty, not compulsion -- family, not force.  He was mortal, and no longer her creature.  No one held his life by a leash; no other's innate command tainted his free desires.  He was no longer anyone's possession, or slave, or child.  What would he become, though, if -- when! -- he went back across?

    Stepping off the elevator on the fourth floor, Lacroix paused at the windowed end of the hallway.  Looking down from that height, he felt, as he had from the top of the CN Tower that Natalie had insisted they visit, the inevitable slight vertigo of a mortal who could not fly.  Were he somehow to fall, that concrete would break his fragile mortal body into a lumpy mash, and he would die.  Forever. Looking out straight into the city, though, he found the height familiar but for the glorious afternoon glow, and he grappled with an illogical urge to break the glass, throw himself into the sunlit wind, and soar.  Flight belonged only to the night, as this fantasy of humanity belonged to day.

    And dusk was coming.

    Infuriated at the doubt he found clinging to his human incarnation like a second skin, Lacroix pitted his pride against his inclination and finally turned his back on the soft orange sunlight, unable to deny that the thought of returning to eternal darkness was no longer entirely a joy.  He followed Natalie into another florescent-lit examining room, not unlike hers except that the drably tiled walls were blue rather than green.

    The coroner waited for him at the door to the freezer room, her hand on the lever.  "You don't have to do this, you know."

    Lacroix looked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, belatedly realizing she was trying to spare him pain.  "How many bodies do you have?"

    "Eight, now.  That doesn't include Urs and Vachon, of course."

    "Doctor Lambert, in the past week, fifteen that we know of have . . . gone missing.  Do you have any idea what percentage of the population that makes, since the fever?  I will . . . number my dead."

    Natalie widened her eyes and nodded, then pulled open the door and ushered him through.  The small room had not exceeded its capacity, Lacroix observed, but even so, it felt far too full of loss for the compact space to contain the emotion without bursting.  Alexandra of the twisted conscience: she would never find her revenge now.  Urbane Feliks, his plants no doubt withering to mourning colors.  The brilliant Sofia, all that talent and erudition spilled and wasted.  Sylvaine, her long-awaited re-entry into the world of dance canceled before her first performance.  Alma, the designer.  Young Mira, one of Janette's Raven flock.  Anthony, beautiful and passionate . . . .  All dead.

    Some were of his line, some were not, but every one had been more than passingly known to him.  Every one he must have betrayed, somehow, for Divia to have descended on them.  Every one -- he discovered now that his daughter had ripped them away -- had possessed some portion of his heart, for that heart now bled and ached in seven new spots, and could never heal properly, infected as it was with human grief.  He had felt his loss of Divia, even as a vampire.  But as a human, he felt every loss a diminishment, and every death a portrait of his own eventual fate.  Every being he knew who ceased to walk this earth reminded him that he, too, as a human, was destined for a final journey that could only be taken alone.

    If he were a vampire, his perfect memory would present him with the means by which he had coped with the awful inevitability of mortality in his first life.  But he was only a human man, and he must learn that skill anew -- or go mad -- or go back across.

    Natalie did not uncover the final face, and when he reached for it himself she stilled his hand.  "There's no need.  This one -- the most recent -- they were able to identify by dental records, and though it's left them with a mess, it's one that need not concern . . . your community."  The coroner hesitated a moment, then looked up to meet his eyes.  "She's human, now.  They all died completely human."

    Fatalistically persistent, Lacroix shook off the corner's hand and jerked down the sheet covering the eighth body.  Nearly two millennia of blood and gore could not keep his gorge from rising as he looked down on the shredded pieces of his youngest daughter, the archeologist, Alyce Hunter.  Apparently least willing to surrender the immortality she had so recently acquired, she must have fought Divia harder than any of the others, for Alyce had not died easily or well.

    Leaving Natalie to cover the corpse, turn off the lights, and pull the door shut behind them, Lacroix strode quickly out of the freezer room, then out of the office and down the hall to the window, where orange light had mellowed into pink as the sun sank under the horizon.  He was no fool, and certainly no child; he had been under no illusions about the nature of death.  But this day, with mortal blood pumping through his veins and the sun gentle on his skin, humanity's siren call had seduced him into seeing an almost-tempting trade: a short life without the hunger, versus an eternal life driven by the beast; an interlude of growth and harvest, versus an eternity of moldering stagnation.  Asinine illogic, he snarled at himself.  What are these hazy abstractions against the tangible strength, power and ecstasy of vampirism?

    The physical immediacy of the corpses he had just seen slammed down one side of the scale . . . but after a moment even that weight was not enough to keep the favored side indisputable.  The world had been simple when he had first been mortal.  It had been simple again when he was a vampire.  Now, he could see two points of view, and found the world more complex than was tenable.  He could not maintain them both, nor could he deny both their holds on him.  The center, as that Irishman put it, cannot hold, Lacroix thought, and no matter what new birth I am slouching toward, it cannot stem the blood-dimmed tide of this world.

    Not alone.  Never, alone.

    The colors of the sunset streaked and puffed across the sky, as if the day were blotting its brushes.  No camera yet invented could convey that true light, and though Lacroix knew Natalie had come to stand behind him, he did not turn to her until the purple clouds had shaded into night.  "So that, too, is humanity," he gestured up the hall with a thrust of his chin.

    "Yes," Natalie agreed softly.

    "And you wish me to choose that?"

    The coroner raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms.  "I don't recall asking you to choose anything.  I asked that you accept Nick's choice."

    Lacroix blinked, and retrenched. "You expect me to allow him to choose that?"

    "I expect you to allow him to choose sunshine, food, community, children, prayer, freedom, maturity, and, yes, eventual death.  And peace.  He's a big boy, Lacroix.  He knows what he wants."  Natalie looked speculatively at the one-time general.  "And though he won't ask for it, I will.  Please, just leave him in peace."  With that, she turned and descended the stairwell.

    Some moments later, his unruly human emotions and undisciplined mortal thoughts tolerably suppressed, Lacroix followed in the elevator.  Approaching Natalie's office, he heard voices -- the coroner's, Nicholas's, and above all, Fleur's, angrily demanding to know where he was.  Stepping inside, he captured her eyes from across the room, and recognized that the anger masked fear, a rare indulgence indeed for his Fleur, who normally feared nothing man or vampire could send against her.

    Cutting herself off in the middle of a sentence, Fleur shot Natalie a look as venomous as Divia's bite, and then all but flew to Lacroix's side.  Once there, though, she hovered as if afraid to touch him.  Her huge blue eyes raced over his body, no doubt looking for all the injuries a mortal could have incurred in the course of a day outside her protection.  "How are you?" she asked, tentatively taking his hands in hers.

    "I am . . . not unwell," he replied, half-smirking at himself.  He drew her close, then, and found such comfort in her proximity that the confusions of the day momentarily faded beyond perception.  With her, nothing haunted him.  His regard for her registered no differently through these frantic human emotions.  And to hold her now, to smell her hair and skin without her blood, to stroke the side of her long neck with no inclination to --

    She pushed him away.  Suddenly, and with such force that he stumbled as he stepped back.  "Je regrette," he said immediately, for he saw that her eyes and lips were tightly closed as she fought to suppress her transformation.  In eight centuries, she had never had to control herself with him, and now there must be nothing but control between them.  If he had been able to sip, Fleur certainly could not, and neither of them would risk an accident that might put Fleur in Divia's place and sunder them permanently.  For who could ever trust that a vampire's desire for the one who made him came purely from within?  Not even the truest love relationship, such as he and Fleur had, could survive that disparity in power.  Interdependence would turn to domination, and love to hate.  Inevitably.

    Before Fleur, he had struggled to maintain a self distinct from Divia's vision of him, and what he had done to his daughter, mother, master.  Fleur had stood between him and those demons for many a century, believing his justification into being for him.  Fully the vampire with her, what he would have been without her was too depraved to imagine.

    What he would become if he lost her as an equal only to suffer her his master . . . .  What she would become if she lost her partner only to gain a son . . . .  It must not be.

    Lacroix wanted to reach out to comfort her, but he knew any touch of his would have the opposite effect.  Helpless, he stood by until Fleur mastered her hunger, and then, a length apart, they exchanged a look of humiliated frustration.  That Natalie and Nicholas had witnessed the incident only increased its insult.

    Swallowing visibly, Fleur shoved her hands into the deep pockets of her brown leather jacket and turned back to the two civil servants.  "Clearly, Natalie, even though you failed to predict the affect of Divia's venom on the human system, you were correct about that on the vampiric system," she admitted.  "But I don't understand how I could have been wrong about the catalyst!  The entire series of data that you labeled 'U21' is off by a factor of three --"

    Natalie snorted, and extracted a black notebook from her desk.  As the two scientists bent over the sheets of numbers, Nicholas crossed to Lacroix and leaned against the counter.  "So how does it feel?" the detective asked in a low voice.

    "It is . . . difficult to describe," Lacroix answered, just as quietly.  "But . . . I do not think you will be disappointed with tomorrow's sunrise."

    Nicholas shook his head grimly.  "No.  There's no way I'll let Nat go through that again.  I can wait.  We have the cure; we just need a safe means of administration.  I'm not risking her."

    Lacroix raised one eyebrow mockingly.  "I doubt she will give you the choice, Nicholas."

    The vampire smirked back in perfect comprehension.  "So how did your day with her go?"

    "With all the mortals in the world, could you not find any more . . . docile . . . woman?"

    "Look who's talking."

    Lacroix inclined his head.  "And how was your day with Fleur?"

    "Once she figures out what went wrong, she wants me to bring you back across, you know."

    "I expected that.  Would you?"

    "No."  It was the smallest of words, simply said, but it carried eight centuries of pain and joy, hate and love, more profoundly than any more eloquent statement.  If Nicholas truly cared for someone, he would not damn them to the vampire's Hell, as he saw it.  Lacroix briefly grasped his son's shoulder in acknowledgement, but was released from the awkward necessity of changing the subject by the ring of Nicholas's cellular phone.

    "Nick Knight," he answered.  "Sure, Trace . . . .  We'll meet you outside with the caddy."  Collapsing the phone's antenna and returning it to his pocket, Nicholas said, "Nat, there's a body -- probable suicide.  Reese said to be sure to bring you, specifically.  He didn't tell Tracy why."

    The coroner looked uncomfortable about leaving her materials in Fleur's hands, but apparently resigned herself to it by recalling that the vampire had been through everything unsupervised once already.  The two civil servants were on their way almost immediately, lingering only long enough to extract Lacroix's word that neither he nor Fleur would leave the morgue.  And then, they were alone.

    For several long moments, Fleur continued examining numbers and making notations without raising her gaze from the desk.  Finally, Lacroix walked up behind her and set his hands gently on her shoulders.  "Is there anything with which I can assist?"

    Fleur shivered, a tremor that traveled through her entire body.  Then she sighed.  Her eyes were gold as she threw back her head to look up at him.  "Lucien, my heart, if you and your enticing mortal blood would go stand on the far side of the room, it would greatly assist me."

    Lacroix dropped his hands immediately, chilled through, but before he could back away, Fleur turned in the chair and clasped his left hand, raising it apologetically to her cheek -- palm side, with its tempting veins, carefully away from her face.  "I'm sorry, Lucien; I am sorry.  I just don't know how Nicolas manages it -- working with her, spending time with her, night after night.  I do not have that kind of control!"  Her eyes flared red, and she shut them before continuing, but did not release his hand.  "I want you as I can never have you . . . your mortal blood, walnut and pine . . . I cannot think for wanting you.  And I have to think, Lucien.  I have to solve this puzzle!"

    He understood.  And he knew she knew that.  Mortals who had attracted Fleur's rare infatuations over the centuries had always ended up drained and discarded in short order; how could he have forgotten?  But it had never seemed important.  It had never affected him.  Lacroix trailed his thumb lightly across her cheek, pulled her arm out to its full length, and kissed the back of her hand.  Then he released her and moved to the furthest corner of the room.

    When Fleur opened her eyes, once again fathoms of blue, she asked placatingly, "Will you tell me about your day in the sun?"

    And so he did.  From the corner by the door, while she worked first with paper and a calculator, then with test tubes and the microscope, Lacroix told Fleur where he had been, what he had done, and how it had felt.  He ransacked quotations from the literature of a dozen languages, and still knew he had not managed to adequately convey sight, sound, taste or touch.  Fleur would nod encouragingly, and continue with her experiment unfazed.  She thought, no doubt, that she remembered what it had been like to be human.  Lacroix had thought he remembered, too, but the glory of the light is best seen by one who has lived entirely in the dark.  Nothing had been as he remembered.

    He saved the best for last.  At length, he related what it was like not only to have no master, but to have been released entirely from Divia's long shadow.  He was no longer his daughter's creation, and Fleur seemed to rejoice in his release as much as he.  Then he told her about the hunger, and how mortality slew the beast.

    Having apparently finished her work some time before, Fleur had been meticulously washing glassware while his story rose to its climax.  As Lacroix attempted to explain the blissful feeling that was no feeling -- no demand, no desire, no hunger -- she turned away from the sink, clutching the one remaining unemptied test-tube to her chest.

    "Lucien," she began, but then paused, seeming not to have the words she wanted at her command.  Like a phantom limb after amputation, Lacroix felt the place where their bond had been, the severed metaphysical strings that had once played the harmony of their minds and hearts.  Even cut, those strings still vibrated with Lacroix's inexplicable connection to Fleur, but he could no longer interpret the notes.  He did not know what she was feeling.  And that . . . hurt.  Fleur took a deep breath, wrapped both hands around the test-tube, and firmly began again. "Lucien, do you . . . want . . . to stay mortal?"

    If he had never left the Raven that morning, he would never have doubted that the vampire's life was the only true life -- life eternal.  But he had left.  And he did doubt.  The scales swung wildly from moment to moment.  He could have sunlight, with death.  He could have immortality, with hunger.  He could be free of the beast, and alone.  He could be with Fleur . . . .

    "Would you join me?"

    The question hung in the air between them as Fleur's face contracted into anguished puzzlement that he had asked at all.  The man he had been last night would never have asked -- would never have needed to ask.  But both men needed her.

    "No," she said, and her "no" was as simple and profound as Nicholas's, for her embrace of vampirism came from as deep within her as Nicholas's rejection did him.

    No, she would not join him.  She was immortal, eternal, inalterable in her convictions as well as her features.  But he was human, now, and human nature was change.  Did he want to stay mortal?  Her question still hung between them.  Lunacy!  But -- "I . . . do not know.  Perhaps, for a time."

    "By all the stars of our galaxy, Lucien!  Have you lost your mind?"  Fleur burst out in the same fear-ridden anger he had heard from the hall.  "Yes, the sun is a bright bauble, but don't let it blind you!  Everything you have been, and done, and learned, would vanish like a raindrop into an ocean -- and you receive what in return?  Pain, illness, age and death?"

    "It is not that simple, Fleur."

    "You sound like Nicolas.  Next you'll start moaning about your sins or the equality of all sentient beings or some such nonsense."  Fleur unclasped her hands and gestured earnestly with the one not holding the test-tube.  "Lucien, we have been so much more than any of them can ever dream.  And we will be more yet -- and yet again!  You are confused.  I understand.  Divia's return -- and loss.  This hideous accident.  Humanity is a beautiful toy, mon amour, but you will tire of it, and what if it is then too late?  I know you, Lucien.  I know how you revel in your power.  I know how the hunt and the hunger complete you.  When you come to yourself you will scoff at this folly."

    "Perhaps," he admitted stiffly, immobilized between habit and hope, fear and fortitude.  That he lacked the courage to face heat and cold, pain and illness, aging and death without her at his side was something he knew she would find in his blood, later, if . . . when . . . they restored his vampirism.  And he knew she would laugh lightly at his humanity-induced self-recrimination, for moral courage was her contribution to their joint front, not his -- and her morality was ever the vampire's.  Yet there was something to which he clung in the waking face of the world, and how it had felt to move within it.  Doomed to death, he felt more alive than . . . his mortal memory could not even produce a comparison.  Self-mockingly, he offered, "I am not entirely myself today."

    "Then let me be for you!" Fleur insisted, a familiar light coming into her eyes, the shine of a plan in progress.  "Though I do not understand the temptation, I will protect you from it. I will stand between you and this infection of Nicolas's quest!  We will bring you back across, and you will be whole again.  We will be whole again."  Fleur crossed the room and kissed him possessively, her lips sliding up the line of his jaw before murmuring confidently against his ear, "I need you Lucien, and you need me."  But before he could even gather himself to place his arms around her, she returned to the sink in a flash of vampiric speed.  Swabbing something from the last test-tube into a kind of lidded plastic dish, she snapped the container shut, tucked it carefully into her jacket pocket, and returned to diligently washing the last of the glassware and wiping down the counters.

    As she checked the implements on the drying racks, Lacroix asked the question that had been his bedrock through this day of quakes: "So what, then, are your thoughts on restoring my immortality?"

    Fleur straightened the drying rack, replaced the scrubbing implements, and turned to face him with the examining table between them.  "Nicolas will bring you across."

    "No," Lacroix corrected.  "You know him better than that."

    "Oh, he will do it," Fleur stated confidently.  "And it is the perfect solution.  I must not, even if I could. Janette cannot, even if she would.  And to give you over to a stranger!  No, that is not an option.  But Nicolas has the control.  He has a record -- Gerald, Elizabeth, Natalie's brother.  And when he becomes mortal again himself, you will have no master -- no vampire parent -- just as you desire."


Chapter 12  --  Toronto, 1996

    "But those are no reasons for him --"

    Nick heard Lacroix's voice cut off as he opened the door to Nat's lab, holding it as she passed slowly in front of him, her expression still the numb shock that had descended as the Forensics representative at the crime scene had reluctantly handed over her friend Lora Haynes's suicide note.  When they had finally been able to break away from all their obligations, Nick would have preferred to take Nat almost anywhere other than back into the fray with Fleur and Lacroix.  But she had insisted, and so he complied, watching her intently every step of the way.  No loss rips at you like one you believe you should have been able to prevent, as he knew all too well.  Gwyneth . . . Alyssa . . . Matthew . . . Erica . . . so many, many dead.  Grief was the unavoidable burden of a warm heart, but Nick prayed Nat could at least be spared the guilt that weighed down the letter now inflicting it.

    "Nicholas.  Doctor Lambert."

    "Lacroix," Nick returned the greeting absently as he escorted Nat to her chair, barely registering that his sister stood in front of the sink, almost a room away from her lover.  At her desk, Nat gently brushed his overly-helpful hands away and carefully positioned the notebook she carried in the center of her desk.  As the coroner stared unseeingly at her dead friend's journal, Nick dropped his gaze to his hands.  For some reason, they seemed suddenly outsized, gawky and useless, epitomizing his solemn awkwardness in attempting to accompany a grief he did not share.  It was always like that.  And in eight centuries, there had been a lot of "always." Nick shoved his hands into his pockets.

    "I suppose I should tell you," Nat said after a long moment, looking somberly from Lacroix to Fleur, then shaking her head at Nick.  "Shouldn't Janette be here? I mean, if we do something?"

    "She doesn't often leave the club during business hours," he shrugged.  "Especially not since Miklos left."

    "Even if she did normally," Fleur offered smoothly, "she would not tonight.  I convinced her to allow me to excise the 'mortalized' scar tissue on her arm.  With enough hot blood, she will heal completely by morning.  But she is presently . . . occupied."

    Nick winced, then reminded himself that there was no reason to jump to the most objectionable conclusion.  Fleur's tone might well be calculated more to affect him than to reveal the source of Janette's meal.

    "Ah," Nat nodded slowly.  "Yes.  You're right.  If that's what she wants, that's the prescription to follow.  You did use sterilized--"

    "Even had I been inclined to carelessness in years past, the fever epidemic proclaims that not even we are totally invulnerable."  Fleur inclined her head.  "Much less, what we face now."

    Nat nodded again.  "Of course.  Look, um . . . the suicide.  It turns out I knew her.  We were friends . . . years ago.  We lost touch.  I would ask that we postpone this, but . . . I feel responsible for your condition, Lacroix, and the only thing I can do for poor Lora now is to be better about being there for others than I was for her."

    "Starting with Tracy," Nick added quietly, stepping closer and placing a hand on Nat's shoulder.  It had been the coroner's suggestion to take Tracy aside and see what could be done for her, and Nick wanted to be sure the woman he loved was not able to dismiss her own generosity this time, not when she most needed to believe in herself and the good she did.  "We -- I -- had a long 'talk' with her, releasing the blocks you inserted into her memory, Fleur.  She booked off early so she could go visit Vachon's grave and begin to take it all in.  I'll cover for her with the captain, and do our paperwork at the precinct tonight."

    "I am sorry for your loss, Natalie," Fleur said, pointedly ignoring him.  She sounded sincere to Nick's ear, as far as regret held meaning for a vampire.  For a moment, he envied his sister her undiluted vampirism; the human perspective he had struggled to approximate divided his world into temptation and denial, while Fleur had only pure and undifferentiated possession.  But as her stance had come apparently without cost, he had paid in guilt and pain for every bit of ground he had gained, and he believed in their worth accordingly. Fleur's eyes challenged him as she continued, "I have never understood how anyone could willfully surrender his own life."

    "I understand how," Nick gravely met her gaze.  The despairing need for escape that had drowned friends like Matthew and Erica had shadowed his quest from the first step; oh, yes, he understood it all too well.  But even when he would have most welcomed an end, there had always been just enough hope to stave off his own hand -- just enough love not to grieve others as he had been grieved.  "And I've long wondered if it isn't those who don't understand who most often stumble into it at last."

    Before Fleur could parry that verbal counter-thrust, Nat gasped and jumped to her feet, pushing recklessly past first one vampire and then the other to get to the drying rack near the sink.  "What have you done?"  Her voice dropped an octave in the breathless demand, Nick noted with surprise, a surprise that grew as she accompanied her frantic survey of her lab with mutterings from a vocabulary far more colorful than Nick had realized she possessed -- most of them directed at Fleur.

    "What is it, Nat?" he asked, even as Lacroix inquired, "Doctor Lambert?"  Nick glanced at the man who had been his master; Lacroix had to have witnessed Fleur's every move for the last several hours, but he looked as if he had no better an idea of what had so infuriated the coroner than did Nick himself.

    Nat ignored them both and bore down on Fleur.  "You did this deliberately, didn't you?  You . . ."  Colorful though her vocabulary was, it apparently held no term condemnatory enough for how the coroner now saw the female vampire.  Shaking in her fury, Nat half raised a hand to strike the young-looking immortal, but then seemed to stare at her own arm as if it did not belong to her.  Deliberately lowering her hand, Nat clenched her teeth.  "Get.  Out."

    "Nat!" Nick exclaimed.  "What did she do?"

    Fleur shrugged, her hands in her jacket's deep pockets.  "I have limited your options, Nicolas."

    "Limited!" Nat hissed incredulously. "She destroyed the samples, Nick.  The samples -- irreplaceable samples of the anti-virus, taken so soon after Urs's death.  They're gone -- all gone!  And . . . I can't make you human without them."

    Shocked, Nick simply froze.  He did not know what to think.  That Fleur did not want him to escape vampirism, he knew, of course, but this was beyond his ability to take in all at once. So close. They had been so close. He gathered Nat to him as stray tears of fury and frustration began to escape down her face.

    Lacroix stared at Fleur; Nick thought the other man's expression looked almost as puzzled as he felt.  "Why?  To keep him from becoming mortal?"

    "To keep you from staying mortal."  Fleur crossed to Lacroix's side and took his hands.  "In my investigation this evening, I found it -- the catalyst Doctor Lambert did not suspect with the anti-virus, and which I did not suspect . . . in you.  The trigger factor was released by a trait in Divia's unique system when she attacked, oh yes, but it was a trait she passed on . . . to her descendents.  Us."  Turning back to the human coroner in Nick's arms, the vampire geneticist continued, "Don't you see?  No vampire outside our family would have become mortal by biting you yesterday, because you don't carry the catalyst, and neither would they.  But we -- and all your healthy samples have ever come from us, yes? -- we carry it just as Divia did.  That which activates her uniquely-damaged conversion virus lurks in me, in Janette, in Nicolas.  And the antivirus itself, Natalie, that was in you, is now in Lucien."

    "And only in me," Lacroix noted.  Nick's gaze slid to intercept the human man's as realization dawned on them both.  Fleur had destroyed all the other samples, leaving Nick no clear route to mortality but through Lacroix.  To become human, he had to attempt to make Lacroix a vampire.  Fleur played the game well.  It was a masterly check, without doubt.  But from below the shock and betrayal, Nick felt the conviction surface that his sister and he simply were no longer playing the same game.

    "Well, Nicholas?" Lacroix asked his son.

    "If I take your blood -- bring you across -- I will become human, escaping all vampiric bonds," the knight articulated slowly, weighing his heart's desire against the moral code that had made him desire it in the first place.  "But you'd be a vampire.  I can't do that to you, Lacroix.  I won't find salvation by stealing it."

    "You can and you will," Fleur commanded.  "On your honor, Nicolas.  'Any boon, Fleur' -- is that not what you said?  'Any boon'?  I saved your love for you.  Now save mine for me!"

    Check, again, Nick thought faintly.  She was striking too close to home.  It was probably impossible to outmaneuver Fleur while carrying as broad a target as his sense of honor.  He ached for what she was offering him -- his humanity, for the taking.  All his dreams, wrapped up neatly in eye-for-an-eye against Lacroix.  And he had promised her.  Even so, the line between the virtue of honor and the sin of pride was notoriously thin; how could he know where it lay?  Nick hesitated, looking down at Nat's head resting against his chest.  Dropping a kiss on the so-short curls, he made up his mind to the inevitable and laid aside his fresh hopes in wrappings meant to preserve them even to the last days of this world, if that were the only end true honor could give his quest.  It took several moments more to force the words to follow the conviction, but at last he spoke, and he did not waver.  "No.  I do not violate humanity like that any more -- not in anyone.  I will not steal a soul, or a life.  The answer is no."

    Nat was crying again, but he could feel in her embrace that these tears were for him -- the tears he could not shed for himself.  He knew she would never ask him to compromise his most essential beliefs, not even if this were the closest they ever came; he hoped she understood that it was for her sake, too.  His heart was tarnished enough; chip any more away, and there would be nothing left to give her.  She deserved better than that.  And so did all those who had ever trusted him and his quest.  It was their memory that gave him the strength to refuse Fleur and Lacroix now.

    "It would not be theft, but . . . reparation."  Lacroix stepped away from Fleur and quietly addressed the Crusader.  "I took your mortality eight centuries ago.  Allow me to return it now."

    "I can't take your humanity, Lacroix," Nick objected, nevertheless disengaging from Nat to face his one-time mentor directly.

    "No, you cannot," Lacroix agreed.  "Just as I could not truly take yours.  You had to choose to give it up -- or not.  Bring me to the point of that choice, Nicholas.  All I ask is the choice."  The mortal man stepped closer to Nick, and locked eyes with him.  His mouth worked for a moment as if he could not quite speak, but finally Lacroix whispered, "I cannot be this . . . alone.  Nicholas . . . please."

    "Are you sure?" Nick inquired very softly and earnestly, placing one hand on Lacroix's shoulder and staring intently into his eyes.  Unswayed by temptation or threat, his resistance melted with pity.  He could not withhold something so desperately needed; he would not inflict suffering where he could succor it.  No doubt Nick had heard the word "please" from Lacroix's lips many times in eight-hundred years, but for some reason he could remember nary an instance, and certainly none were ever like this.  Nick knew the look on Lacroix's face, for he had felt it on his own times beyond counting -- the desperation of one imprisoned on the wrong side of life and death.

    And as he recognized the expression, Nick recognized something more in the wavering mortal heart.  Intensely, though almost too low to hear, the knight asked the question Fleur would not realize was in doubt: "Which will you choose?"

    "Death or vampirism?  The outcome is irrelevant," Lacroix assured him, just as quietly.  "You know that.  All that ever really matters is making the choice."

    They drew together then, and as Nick's fangs pierced Lacroix's skin, before the metaphysical bonds between them began to fade, they shared intimately Nick's eight-hundred years of preparation for humanity.  And as Nick's heart sped and Lacroix's slowed, the final thought to flare across their link could have come from either of them: "It's never too late to start."




"He has placed fire and water before you; reach out and take whichever you wantYou have a choice between life and death; you will get whichever you choose." -- Sirach 15:16-17

Home  |  Fiction  |  Poetry  |  References  |  Essays  |  Links  |  Recommendations  |  New   |   Small Print  |  A