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7K Illustration, Nick drinking in front of sun painting

That Ain't Love
a song-challenge story

May 1999
last modified January 11, 2008

by Amy R.

PG-13.  The song quoted is REO Speedwagon's.  Please see the endnote for the origin of the song challenge and further disclaimers, citations and credits for this Forever Knight fanfiction.


    It had been two years since Nick killed Lacroix.

    Two years since Nick had watched his master, the one who made him a vampire, reduced to a charred blotch on the back of his loft's steel door -- two of the most difficult, wonderful years in his long existence.  Bit by bit, unimpeded by Lacroix, the one-time Crusader's battle to reclaim his soul had gained ground.  Two years had been long enough for Nick to see his humanity begin to rise on the horizon, to embrace this place and its people as a home and a family, to cease fearing demons outside himself and turn his struggle instead on the demons within.

    It had been long enough to begin to live.

    It had even been long enough to suppress the conviction -- bought dearly by hard experience -- that Lacroix lurked in every shadow, outside every window, behind every stray diseased thought or inclination.  Thus, the first few times Lacroix had intruded into Nick’s life since the old demon’s inexplicable return from the dead, Lacroix’s presence had taken Nick all but unawares.

    Not this time.

    When Nick, his arms and thoughts full of research for his and Schanke's current murder investigation, moved from his caddy to his elevator's door early one morning only to sense Lacroix waiting upstairs, the detective felt many emotions flicker quickly past.  More than anything, though, he felt saddened that he was not surprised.  Slowly punching his code into the keypad, Nick marveled bitterly over how little contact it had taken to reestablish that connection.  Just a fight in a warehouse, a few words on a rooftop, a flash of moral defiance and a forced compromise, and already Nick could sense his maker’s presence and all the vampiric indulgence it radiated.  The intimate awareness repulsed him.  He strode quickly into the elevator and tried to leave the insidious knowledge that it also enticed him on the other side of the metal door.  Lacroix's way and the right way were mutually exclusive.  Nick had made his decision long before.

    Steeling himself for the expected confrontation as the elevator rose, Nick wondered why Lacroix had chosen the loft for whatever he had in mind.  Social visits were out, of course, he noted ironically.  Some pointed reference to the incident there two years before?  But after their encounter in the pottery warehouse, the detective had deduced that the pride-bound old soldier had no intention of revisiting his defeat in word or deed.  Because of the tone of that meeting, in fact, Nick had begun to suspect that Lacroix's memory of the staking was somewhat less than whole.  Still, this was blind speculation.  His metaphysical awareness of Lacroix fed his darkest vampiric instincts, but it said nothing useful, like whether the ancient demon were awaiting Nick with a sharp stake in hand and a torturous object lesson in mind.

    Shifting his load of papers, Nick pictured how desperately sweet it had been, so long ago, to be free -- when his world had begun and ended in his own senses, not his master's.  How precious it had been, and how little he had known it.  Now, it would be sweet to be even as unaware as he had been only a month or two before, when his ignorance of Lacroix's survival had prolonged the illusion of autonomy a few precious weeks, through the ordeal of being framed for murder.

    Now he would have to declare his independence again.

    And again.

    Until Lacroix accepted it.

    Or until one of them died.


    Nick slid the metal door open and stepped into the breach.  He felt a grim smile flicker across his face at the almost-startled expression on Lacroix's.  Black-suited as a shadow in the lightless loft, Lacroix stood just feet away, as if he had been staring at the door.  Remarkably, it seemed he had registered Nick's approach much less than Nick had sensed his presence.  The ancient vampire who claimed to have taught Genghis Kahn strategy and Nero decadence must have lost the present in contemplation of what should have been his own long-delayed end, staked against this very door.

    "Lacroix." Nick broke the silence, endeavoring to keep the name just a name -- endeavoring to pronounce two syllables, not eight centuries.  He thought he succeeded rather well.

    "Nicholas.  Do come in."

    Still standing on the threshold of his home, holding the door open with one arm while the other braced a stack of papers against his chest, Nick glanced pointedly at the unshuttered skylight through which Lacroix must have entered -- unless he had forced one of the locks.  "Shouldn't that be my line?"

    "Since when have I needed an invitation?"

    "To get in?  Never."  Finally meeting the pale eyes of the man who had made him a vampire, Nick girded himself against a gaze in which burning and freezing became one.  As long centuries had taught Nick, attempts to meet Lacroix in either fire or ice alone eventually -- inevitably -- disintegrated in the other, because Lacroix could not grasp differences in state, only intensity.  "But to be freely welcome?  It's been just about nine-score and nine years, as I recall."

    "You are being tiresome, Nicholas."

    "I'm being civil," Nick corrected.  He shifted forward into the loft and let the steel door bang shut behind him, knowing that the stained and dented backdrop would emphasize his point.  He could be other than civil, should the occasion demand.  "Hardly polite, perhaps, but painfully civil.  I told you, Lacroix; you're not wanted.  Last month, you contributed to a string of murders and endangered my friends and the community -- both communities -- by framing me for it.  Last week, you murdered one person and forced me to invade the mind of another to save her life from you -- someone I cared about, and might have loved.  Excuse me if my welcome isn't all you would wish."

    "'Loved'?  That insipid little authoress?"  Lacroix arched his eyebrows in apparent amusement, then turned and seated himself on the bench of Nick's piano.  "Not that leaving her to grow old and die without her memories of you would not have been the appropriate resolution to such a situation, of course, had it arisen.  But really, Nicholas!  This continued mortal posturing is hardly necessary."

    Nick suddenly flashed on a mandatory "stress management" session he and Schanke had attended during orientation at their new precinct.  Somehow, he did not think this was precisely what the facilitator had had in mind when she coached them on those skills.  Nevertheless, Nick ran down that rote mental list as he struggled to set aside his grief and outrage over the loss of what he and Emily Weiss had been beginning to share together, and most of all over what had been taken from her alone -- not only her memory and her love, but her faith in herself and her gift.  At least she was alive.  Down the years, that was a comfort he had rarely possessed after a human friend encountered his vampiric maker.

    Nick managed to keep his voice calm and his tone even.  "What do you want, Lacroix?"

    "You, of course.  As I said that night in the ceramic works, I am willing to take you back.  I realize my magnanimity was initially a shock, but you have since had adequate time to absorb .  .  . the inevitable.  You do not have to do .  .  . this .  .  . any longer."  Lacroix swept his hand in a languid gesture encompassing the loft, a dwelling no doubt somewhat shabby by his standards -- indeed, by standards they had shared through many centuries.

    Though Nick had taken increasing pride in maintaining his home strictly on what he earned as a civil servant -- excepting a few personal mementos, here and there -- he suddenly saw it through the eyes of the wealth and power he possessed and could wield as he wished .  .  . if he wished.  If.  That clause reoriented him.  It was a matter of choice, and he had made his choice.  He'd had all that.  Now he wanted something else.

    Sighing tolerantly, Lacroix concluded, "You should be more demonstrative with your gratitude."

    "Oh?"  Nick knew that though Lacroix's tone was smoothly mocking, his reproach was sincere.  The detective could not tell which urge came first: to laugh, to sigh, or to remove that condescending smirk with blows.  He suppressed them all, instead walking slowly into the kitchen area, depositing his paperwork on the table, and shrugging out of the coat he wore over his blue blazer in deference to the calendar.

You tell me what you think I'm feeling,
[You say] you know why I do what I do.
Why should you listen to a word I'm saying,
When it's already so clear to you?

    Mechanically pulling out his blender, Nick asked quietly, "My 'gratitude' for what?"

    "For my overlooking our little .  .  . disagreement .  .  . of two years ago, and not requiting your debt in kind."  Lacroix's voice never lost its smooth, insinuating timbre, but a bestial snarl, half-heard, seared a more familiar emphasis into the words.  Lacroix never "overlooked" anything, Nick knew all too well.  Somehow, someday, he would be made to pay -- as if Lacroix's return were not itself punishment enough.  It was not that he did not want Lacroix around, Nick reflected as he systematically accumulated and measured out various items from his cupboards and refrigerator.  It was that he did.  Lacroix was worse than a mirror, reflecting back at him not only all he was as a vampire and yearned not to be, but all he still yearned for yet had chosen to refuse.  Out of sight, out of mind?  Never.  But, somehow, it was a little easier to fight the hunger for blood when the ecstasy of it was not constantly thrown in his face .  .  . his mind .  .  . his soul .  .  . the temptation to embrace the illusion of completion by being just what Lacroix had created him to be.  It would be so simple.  It would feel so good.

    It would be so wrong.

    "I have neglected you shockingly these past several decades," the ancient vampire reflected after a long pause.  "It is quite understandable that your .  .  . deviancies .  .  . would have run so sadly amok.  And then there is your need for guidance, of course, and acknowledgement.  I might say 'attention,' but that does seem rather crass .  .  ."  Lacroix stopped suddenly when Nick switched on the blender, and the smooth insinuation of his words ticked over into a clinical curiosity.  "What on earth are you doing?"

    "Mixing a drink," Nick answered neutrally.  Milk, eggs, apple slices, ground meat, a zip-lock baggie of Natalie's chalky powder, and the unauthorized tablespoon of steer's blood that he invoked like a charm against regurgitating the lot: Nick had poured them into the blender methodically, one by one, meticulously following his morning routine in the most minute detail.  He would do nothing deliberately to provoke Lacroix, but he would do nothing to mollify the man, either.  This was his life.  His master must make of it what he could.  Switching off the machine, Nick asked, "Would you care to try one?"

    Silence bulged after the question, Lacroix's dismay and disapproval filling the high-ceilinged room to bursting.

    Determinedly unruffled, Nick finished preparing the protein shake before facing his uninvited guest.  The revulsion in Lacroix's expression was uncharacteristically clear, and reminded Nick of his own reaction to a dreadful herbal concoction Lord Delabar's leech had forced down his throat when he took sick in Wales all those years ago, piously insisting that the worse medicine tasted, the faster patients recovered; Nick wondered briefly if that long-dead physician's belief had somehow survived into Natalie's medical-school curriculum.  "I don't wish to be inhospitable, if I must be a host, but this" -- he gestured with the oversized plastic cup -- "and instant coffee and cow blood really are all I have to offer."

    "Yes, I know." Lacroix drummed his fingers on the edge of the piano.  "I admit some surprise at the complete absence of the smell of human blood from your abode, Nicholas.  You really have taken this pose to an intemperate extreme this time.  You might have done yourself damage if I had decided to abandon you to your own devices as you deserved -- and then what would this strategy have gained you?"  Standing suddenly, he gestured toward the still-open skylight.  "Now put down that .  .  . substance .  .  . and come to Janette's with me before the sun rises.  If we move quickly, we can establish the terms of your reinstatement over a decent vintage through the day, and then hunt together tonight."



    Nick took a sip of his protein drink and repeated, "No."  As always, the thick liquid was almost completely unlike blood, and every centimeter of his digestive track protested vociferously against the disgusting glop.  Keeping his expression unaffected, he took another sip.

    "What do you mean, 'no'?"

    Lacroix was giving him a chance to back down, Nick knew, and suddenly he understood why Lacroix had come this morning, in this way.  His maker's otherwise unaccountable survival demonstrated how difficult it is to kill evil.  But love is even more enduring, and it was arrogant to think he could have ended in one incident and two years what Lacroix had failed to completely eradicate after so many lifetimes of effort.  Joy and fear surged within Nick equally at this realization, tearing through an overgrown thicket of mismatched emotions as they rose.

    Nick had chosen his actions.  He wished he could choose his feelings as well.

    This entire visit was an opportunity, Nick grasped -- and certainly a generous one, from his maker's perspective -- to retract the position he had maintained upon learning of Lacroix's survival; an opening to return to the fold of vampiric indulgence with its incomparable pleasure and power; an excuse to renounce freedom of conscience and surrender the burdens it brought.  It was an opportunity to submit quietly, to smother his defiance under obedience, to latch the collar around his own neck and hand the whip to the drover that it might be used against him later rather than sooner.  More, Nick knew, in every line of Lacroix's imperious stance, that the old Roman still believed this not only the natural order, but the ideal order.

    A wave of intense frustration with Lacroix's genuine inability to understand broke over Nick, a tide if destructive, at least familiar.  The detective harbored the suspicion that bashing his head against a stone wall would have been considerably less painful than attempting to explain himself to the ancient vampire yet again, and he would eventually have made an impression on the wall.  It might even have been amusing, if he had not so desperately wanted Lacroix's understanding.  But Nick did -- still -- and he knew that desire for his Achilles heel.  This illogical yearning for Lacroix's approval which persisted through all he knew of Lacroix's depravity -- the need to please this man who had made him, despite all he suffered at those hands -- was completely at odds with everything else Nick valued.  He had decided almost four centuries ago that his soul was worth more than Lacroix's regard.

    Still, always raw, sometimes overwhelming, the longing endured.

    Closing his eyes briefly, Nick took a third sip of the protein shake, then met his maker's gaze.  Slowly, stacking each statement with deliberate care, Nick said, "By 'no,' Lacroix, I mean that this is not a pose, and not a phase.  Preying only on criminals was not an exhibition of bad taste, and ceasing to take human life entirely has not been a cry for your attention.  My quest for my humanity is not a game.  This is as real as it gets."  Alert for even the smallest sign of acceptance in the so-familiar face, Nick found none.  A twinge of disappointment rose and subsided far at the back of his mind as the detective instinctively braced for the blows, physical and emotional, which he expected to follow his statement of simple fact.  Unwavering, Nick said, "This is who I am."

    "This," Lacroix hissed, moving in front of Nick more quickly than a human eye could have followed, then wrenching the plastic cup from Nick's grasp and pouring it down the sink, "is a pathetic jest designed to irritate and embarrass me.  The only thing more pathetic is that you almost think you believe it."

    Nick stared impassively over Lacroix's shoulder, studying the bright yellow sun sitting half-finished on his easel, now framed by a hazy pink glow dawning through the loft's unshaded windows.  He would have Lacroix see life in that rosy awakening; Lacroix would have him see only death.

You tell me 'bout my bad intentions;
you doubt the very things I hold true.

    Almost imperceptibly, the detective shrugged.  "I do believe it.  It's the truth."

    "Truth!" Lacroix snarled, his beast roaring to the surface as he grabbed Nick around the neck and lifted him the few inches necessary to exactly meet Lacroix's flaming eyes.  "Truth is the preference of he who holds power, and I hold power over you.  I am your 'truth,' Nicholas, and you will have none before me!  What, do you think your self-denial is buying you 'redemption'?  That because you could cross two sticks of wood and hold them long enough to repel me before your own hands burned, you are 'saved'?"

    Lacroix spat out the concepts he rejected as if the words tasted of the discarded protein shake, his grip tightening convulsively until Nick wondered if the old vampire would snap his neck.  Instead, Lacroix threw him against the cabinets, the impact forcing the wind from his lungs.  Gasping as he breathed in enough air to speak aloud, Nick raised his chin and met his maker's eyes, working to embrace the pain he would not have felt had he fed on human blood -- had he traded someone else's suffering for his own, as he had once done, as Lacroix still did and would have him do.

    "Not 'saved'," Nick finally managed.  "But I did hold the cross; it did repel you."  And that, Nick firmly believed, meant something.  He did not presume to know exactly what, and he had lived through far too many variations of the prevailing religious mythography to take any of them at face value, but that symbol of Good had made a distinction between the two vampires which even Lacroix should not be able to ignore.

    "Bah," the ancient general sneered, even as the beast receded from his features and a hesitation wavered briefly behind his eyes.  Nick almost sighed his relief and surprise as Lacroix strode out to the living room and seated himself in the leather armchair.  His maker really had come with more than a fight in mind -- though conversation was an even greater danger, in its own way.  "It is time you stopped believing in fairy tales, Nicholas.  You .  .  . distracted .  .  . me, and the nature of your insubordination demonstrated that there was nothing to gain by further physical conflict at that time, so I left.  Nothing more."

    Nick knew Lacroix was lying.  He wondered if Lacroix knew.  Standing slowly, Nick toyed with pointing out that the old demon had deliberately seated himself as far as possible within the living-room area from the low wooden box containing Joan of Arc's cross.  In the five centuries since her execution at Rouen, Nick had never shared the origin of the relic with his master, and the brief impulse to break that silence subsided by the time he regained his balance.  It was not that he feared Lacroix would destroy the medieval assemblage of sticks and string, though that was of course a possibility; rather, Nick simply felt reluctant to expose to Lacroix's derision the brave girl who had first ignited the long-burning fuses of both French nationhood and his own humanity.  There was something very private about the moment his soul first stirred in its vampiric sleep, that first forbidden attraction to mortality.

    Instead, Nick said nothing at all as he found his universal remote on his kitchen table and sent one set of shutters after another whirring down.  Cold electric light replaced the distant pinks and purples of the infant sunrise, and Nick knew Lacroix was relieved, for all he had not condescended to ask.  Replacing the control on the table, Nick placidly retrieved and rinsed the cup Lacroix had discarded.  Opening his refrigerator, he began making another protein shake.  Bull-headedness, he acknowledged wryly to himself, apparently took more than eight-hundred years to outgrow.

    "You have turned quite callous in your 'humanity,' mon protege," Lacroix sighed wearily, and Nick's gaze snapped around to his maker more in perplexity over the tired tone than over the taunt he barely registered.  This was not an affectation in which Lacroix often indulged; in fact, the last time Nick had seen his maker this apparently-vulnerable, a Russian soldier's dying aim had missed the demon heart by mere centimeters.  And yet this must be affectation, Nick reminded himself; this was Lacroix.  Unless there were lingering effects of the staking .  .  . ?  If only he had stayed dead! Nick thought.  That simple guilt and grief had tormented him less than the tumult -- the angry relief and hopeful fear -- of Lacroix's return.  The old vampire steepled his fingers contemplatively against his lips.  "I suppose I would approve, were your cruelty directed against any but myself.  Why, Nicholas?  Why do you torment me?  I matched your youth and beauty with eternal power and pleasure beyond mortal ken.  I showed you the world.  I gave you guidance, discipline and love!"

    "Love!" Nick repeated, almost choking over the word.

I can no longer live with your misconceptions.
Baby, all I can say to you, is:
That ain't love.

    Once, certainly, Nick had made himself believe it was love in truth, because his reality offered only that anchor on the rough sea of fledgling vampirism.  Later, that anchor would have drowned him under the flood of his own sins if he had not at last cut free.  Taking the half-mixed container of protein shake, Nick crossed to his couch and planted it on the coffee table like a gauntlet between them.  "What you gave were hypocrisy, enslavement and damnation!"

I believe you've got the wrong emotion.
That ain't love;
At least it doesn't feel like love to me

    "You did not use to think so," Lacroix observed quietly.  "The Nicholas who fit so well into the court of Charles le Fou; the Nicholas who had three generations of Visconti women throwing themselves at him in Milan; the Nicholas who plotted with and then against a Dauphin -- he did not think so."

    "He was wrong."

    "We were happy then," Lacroix continued as if Nick had not said anything.  "You and I .  .  . and Janette.  We were together.  We hunted -- and fed -- and killed -- and left no desire unsatisfied."  As Lacroix surely intended, each carefully-enunciated word evoked a rush of memory in Nick.  Scents, sights and tastes long buried in time surfaced with demands that never faded.  The detective closed his eyes and fought down physical inclinations he refused to indulge any longer.  Worse, he found himself fighting emotional cravings as well.  The comradeship, the affection .  .  . and Janette .  .  .  .  Gently insinuating, Lacroix said, "Tell me, mon protege, that you do not want that again, that your mouth does not water even now for the power, the pleasure .  .  . the blood.  I gave it all to you once; I can give it again.  It can be that way again.  Oh, Nicholas!  It wounds me to see you deny yourself so.  Give up these foolish pretensions of humanity, and return to my protection -- to my love."

As long as I say what you want to hear,
Do what you want to do,
Be who you want me to be:
You think that's love.
Well, baby, that ain't love to me.

    "I don't want your protection, Lacroix."  Nick opened his eyes only when he was sure the beast, expertly roused by Lacroix's sensual reminiscence, had submerged.  The effort left him shaken, but success left him sure.  "You hold out subjugation, not respect; you demand submission, not companionship.  You say you offer that which can only come of free choice, but you employ coercion --"

    "This is pointless," Lacroix interrupted, a flicker too fast for his bored expression to be convincing.  "Leave it.  This vituperation on your part is not new --"

    "Agreed," Nick interrupted back.  "This disagreement is very, very old.  And cutting it off -- with words, or blows, or by walking out -- just lets it get older.  It's not improving with age, Lacroix."

We've got to talk it over sometime;
these feelings won't just disappear.

    Nick moved around the couch and perched himself on the arm furthest from his maker, one foot on the cushion and the other on the floor.  "Do you think that ignoring my feelings will make them go away?  Do you imagine that if you pretend I'm a vampire like any other, I will be?  Well, I'm not, Lacroix!  I don't drink human blood; I don't kill!  I live among humans as one of them, and I like it.  I want it.  Yes, I have to fight our hungers, but I am closer than --"


    "No," Nick snapped in response to Lacroix's shout, astonished to find himself shaking with the intensity of speaking out.  Words, simple, familiar words, yet never actually said to the one who had made him: they poured forth as if of their own volition, and Nick had no intention of stopping them.  "No, Lacroix, it is not 'enough.'  It's barely a beginning."

I'm just gonna keep telling you what's on my mind
Even if it's not what you want to hear.

    Resentments, joys, accomplishments, failures -- the pieces of the identity Nick had forged tumbled from his lips into a bottomless well of lost time.  As much as he had avoided his maker since inaugurating his quest for humanity and freedom four centuries ago, so had Lacroix avoided him since he ceased killing, happier to mock or rebuke Nick's choices in surprise attacks, launched in the midst of mortals Nick would feel obligated to protect, thus stifling his ability to respond and assuring the impenetrability of Lacroix's easy, bigoted superiority.  For the first time since murdering Sylvaine pushed him off the fence and finalized his rejection of the vampiric life, Nick felt he had Lacroix's ear -- and there was so much to say.

    Rising as he reached his conclusion, Nick gestured around the walls of the loft, dotted with framed originals.  "I'm painting again.  Do you know how long it's been?  Do you even care?  I'm making things, not destroying them.  I composed a sonata last summer.  All my jobs this century -- I put things together, rather than ripping them apart.  It's been hard, Lacroix, but it's been real.  Can you even remember what that feels like?  The rush of creation?  Every moment since I gave up human blood, it's been me -- my talent, my skill, my emotions.  Nothing stolen, nothing faked.  The vampire is a masquerade of which I no longer want any part."

    "It is not a mask you can remove, Nicholas," Lacroix whispered.  "You are a vampire, blood of my blood.  You are one being, not two, and that being is a vampire.  Our physical nature is physical fact; surely your little forays into science must have confirmed that by now.  You must submit to your nature.  You have no choice."

    "Wrong," Nick whispered back, at first incredulous that Lacroix would even try that tack.  The one-time general was deliberately inciting him, but he did it so expertly it was impossible to resist.  Lacroix knew him too well, and yet not at all.  "Wrong!" Nick repeated in a shout.  "That's the lie that kept me by your side so many years.  I have a choice.  And I've made it.  I choose not to kill."

    "You are still a vampire."

    "I don't have to behave like one."

    "But you are a vampire," Lacroix prompted, a subtle burr in his voice revealing frustrated incomprehension to an ear as familiar as Nick's.  Had the old demon truly never thought this through, in all the years since Nick's fateful decision to pursue humanity?  But even during their tenuous truce of the second World War, Lacroix had never permitted a conversation like this -- much less allowed himself to be trapped by the rising sun.  Why now? Nick asked himself again, his search for clues in his memory of their last extended confrontation stilled only as Lacroix continued to speak.  "You closed your shades against the light.  That .  .  . goo .  .  . turns your stomach.  The face in your mirror has not aged in eight centuries.  Come, you cannot say you do not want to fulfill your needs as a vampire; your hunger and isolation radiate for miles!  Why resist that which you are?"

    "'Thou shalt not kill'?" Nick offered ironically.  He had never found a similarly simple answer for that deceptively-simple question, but the commandment came close.  Admonishing against any excuse for murder, it rejected artificial distinctions between thinking beings -- no group, including vampires, had a special right to exemption -- and its enduring context reminded that an offender's worst victim was, finally, himself.  There was a higher law.

    "Of course," Lacroix nodded agreeably, arching one eyebrow.  "Except heathens, and blasphemers, and fellow believers of a different sect, and opponents in a 'just' war, and as a result of the rule of unintended consequences .  .  . have I omitted any?"  The old demon almost chuckled as Nick refused to rise to the bait.  "Let us say that I allow that your ethical stance gives you something you desire.  But it is 1994, Nicholas; who needs to kill?  Blood banks, blood donors, blood preservatives, an ever-expanding international black market.  Why do you not take advantage of it?"

    Another simple question.  They rolled off Lacroix's guileful tongue so glibly, and Nick could only take refuge in the certainty that he knew the answers, for all he could not argue them in Lacroix's context.  The world had changed a great deal in this strange, hurried, modern age, but Nick had changed more.  The analogy that he would no more purchase human blood than he would purchase sex would be utterly lost on Lacroix; the old Roman would infer a matter of pride, unable to see that it was not the supply but the demand which degraded and disrespected humanity.  That purchasing blood was substantially less evil than taking it by force did not make it other than evil.  The concepts of "right" and "wrong" had largely resettled for Nick since his life-changing decisions following Sylvaine's death.  If, before he turned to humanity, he had ever truly understood the intangible fluidity of those concepts in Lacroix's mind, he could not retrieve that comprehension.

Oooh, right now your world and mine
are such different places.
Through yours I wander lost and confused.

    "I gave up human blood for many reasons, Lacroix," Nick said at last.  "But only one you might understand.  It's a means to an end."  Yes, Lacroix would understand that concept, though Nick despaired that he would ever understand the goal.  Perhaps Lacroix had been born to be a vampire, if there were such a destiny, but Nick knew he himself had not.  He had always known, deep in the foundation of his being.  He had tried, at times desperately, to deny it, to throw himself completely into vampirism, but as voracious as the demands of his beast yet were, as elating as the communion with Janette and Lacroix had ever been, there was something he needed at least as much -- something which felt right, something which fit him, in a way vampirism never had.  Whatever it was, Courage, called Joan, had given him his first taste, and his hunger for it had grown through all the ages since.  "Abstaining from blood is a means to an end," Nick repeated.  "I'm counting on it to help make me human."

    Lacroix closed his eyes as if pained, his skin fading even paler above his black collar.  "You turn your back on your own kind, you shame your family, you corrupt others who would never have thought to question their vampirism if you had not waved this .  .  . perversion .  .  . in front of them.  And for what?" Lacroix's eyes snapped open and he strode the few paces to Nick, holding the detective's gaze with an icy fire.  "No one would believe that age, disease and death could bring more satisfaction than eternal youth and power.  Do not be an imbecile!  End this failed experiment now."  The old vampire spread his hands in a gesture of supplication, though the flame never left his eyes.  "I am only saying this, my Nicholas, because I love you."

    Caught between the urge to recoil and the desire to reach out, Nick wrestled for a timeless instant with that part of himself that so desperately wanted those words to be true it would willingly take them out of context, out of experience, out of sense.  If only the one who had made him could indeed love him with an authentic love -- could see him as an independent being, could accept him for what he truly was.  But no matter how eloquently that corner of his mind pleaded, the definitions did not match.  When Nick said "humanity," meaning freedom, emotion, creation, sunlight, the possibility of redemption and the end of the hunger, Lacroix heard only "death."  When Lacroix said "love," Nick registered a translation of "enslavement."

And I feel like I'm speaking in a different language,
And the only words I haven't used, are
"That ain't love."

    "When have you ever loved anyone or anything but yourself?" Nick asked sadly, reprimanding his own illusions more than Lacroix's.  In different ways, Lacroix had seen Janette, Nick, Fleur and others each as an extension of himself; that had ever been what the old Roman understood of love -- a consuming emotional hunger, an aching spiritual emptiness, not unlike the beast's rapacity for blood.  Nick felt a surge of pity, but pushed it away.  "You love your own image, and my refusal to conform to it wounds your vanity."

    The blow with which Lacroix responded was quick and forceful, and it smashed many of Nick's bones as effectively as it did the console table through which it hurled him.

    "I made you," the ancient vampire hissed through his fangs, eyes blazing as he looked down on Nick over the sofa.  "Reject me and you reject existence.  You are mine.  What I do is for your own good."

    Unable to respond until his jaw set and his punctured lung sealed, Nick just closed his eyes and let darkness overtake him.

I believe you've got the wrong emotion.
That ain't love;
At least it doesn't feel like love to me

    Nick woke to the smell of blood -- close, warm -- and before he knew it a mug had been placed in his hands and he was being helped to drink.  With consciousness, however, came the realization that the blood was human, and though he could not stop himself draining every glorious drop from the mug in his hands, he managed to get to his feet and out of reach before Lacroix could refill it.

    "It is not fresh," the ancient vampire reassured him tolerantly.  "I warmed it in your kitchen."

    "Where did it come from?"

    "Rejected donations.  I brought it with me."  Rising, Lacroix offered a bottle over the remains of Nick's table.  "Would you rather argue its provenance or drink it?"

    Drink it.  Oh!  There was no question.  Nick wanted to drink it.  To feel the thick, rich liquid flowing down his throat, throughout his body, into his mind.  To heal his broken bones and tissues in one sure surge of indulgent sensation.  To feel the exquisite fire play over him in the too-long-missed pleasures his body could feel so powerfully.  Oh, yes, Nick wanted it.  And he wanted it so badly the hunger overwhelmed every other thought.

    But, somehow, he went to his refrigerator and drank cold cow instead.

    "I know you think you're helping," Nick hissed when half a bottle of bitterly bland steer had washed away the ecstatic tang of human blood.  "But don't you ever do that again."

    "It is what I would wish done for me, should I ever be in that position," Lacroix noted mildly.

    "I'm not you!"

As long as I say what you want to hear,
do what you want to do,
be who you want me to be,
you think that's love.
Well, baby, that ain't love to me.

    Nick looked from his bottle of cow blood to the protein shake still sitting on his coffee table.  Shake to cow to human: human to cow to shake.  He could probably make it to the table and pick up the non-blood beverage.  He would probably heal, in time, without more blood.  Probably.  He tried to walk away from the refrigerator, but found his legs unresponsive.  Looking up, Nick saw Lacroix watching him with an amused expression, bottle of human blood in hand.  Oh, the blood!  Despondently, his eyes on that bottle, Nick slid down against the refrigerator and continued drinking cow.  "The last thing I want," he whispered, "is to be anything like you."

    Lacroix walked over and set the bottle of human blood on the floor next to Nick.  "What you want is irrelevant," he said, almost compassionately.  "All that matters is what you are.  You are a vampire.  You are mine, and you always will be."

    The ancient Roman placed his hand on Nick's head, and the younger vampire hunched forward over his knees in defeat.  He had consumed human blood.  In this first wild paroxysm of guilt, decades of struggle seemed blotted out by a single egregious lapse.  He could still feel it pulsing through his veins, smell it in the bottle at his side.  Oh, it was good!  He wanted it so much it hurt.  Long suppressed, fantasies of the hunt, the kill -- the blood -- made a carnival of his mind and physical responses.  He wanted to run away and hide .  .  . from himself.  How could he begin all over, yet again?

    How could he not?

    Lacroix stepped back to lean against the stairwell and crossed his arms.  "You see now how thin this mortal pretense is."  His voice was again smooth and inviting.  "You've brought this suffering on yourself.  I want you to come away with me, Nicholas.  Rediscover yourself with me.  When did you last swim in a warm ocean?  When were you last in China?  Africa?  India?  No, do not answer now.  The day wears on, and it is increasingly difficult to remain awake as the sun climbs in the sky."  He paused expectantly, then continued when Nick made no response.  "I assume you have a bed somewhere upstairs.  As you seem disinclined to move, I will take that and leave you your couch.  Think about what I have said.  I will see you this evening."

    After Lacroix had been gone several minutes, Nick uncurled and slowly rose to his feet.  Leaving the bottle of human blood where his maker had placed it, the detective took the bottle of cow with him as he picked through the debris from his table.  The lamp was a total loss, as was the table itself, but at least the leather couch had escaped gouging, and the phone and answering machine seemed intact, even plugged in.  As to the crack in the floor .  .  . well, Natalie was always saying he needed more rugs to keep out the chill.

    Sighing, Nick set the bottle of cow blood next to the plastic cup of protein shake on his coffee table, then shrugged out of his torn blazer, unbuckled his holster and sank onto his couch.  Unfastening his watch, Nick discovered that over an hour still remained before his usual bedtime.  He could have sworn the day was half gone.  Utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally, he set his watch on the table and curled up in the corner of his couch as if the leather back and arm were some kind of protective fortification.  Tense and confused, Nick felt pelted by his own mind, half with the blood-drenched fantasies -- memories -- evoked by Lacroix's little demonstration, and half with the impending need to explain to Schanke why he had not read even one of the files he had brought home.

    Beyond both, he sank into a mire of guilt over that cup of human blood.  It was only a cup -- but it was human.  He could feel it weakening his control, and he feared its damage to the progress he had made with Natalie's help.  Most of all, he could not prevent his imagination constructing the chain of events that might have taken it from human veins to his.  That the original owner did not know where it had ended made it no less a violation, a liquid soul poured out to pleasure strangers.  He had striven so hard to put those acts behind him!  For all intents and purposes, it had been forced on him.  Nick knew that, but reproached himself anyway.  If he had made Lacroix leave .  .  .  If he had not provoked him .  .  .  If he had gone to Janette's with him .  .  .  .

    Eventually, Nick drifted to sleep on waves of regret.  In his dreams, Lacroix's invitation to begin a new -- vampiric -- life played out, over and over again, in scenes from old lives, old "fresh starts," long since turned and rotted.  With Lacroix, they always ended the same way.

You keep telling me you know a place
where your life would be better;
you're making plans long-range.
But I don't know how you expect to get there
when you refuse to change.

    No, there could be no compromise with Lacroix's plans for him, and this setback was merely a detour, not a derailment.  If there were a way to have Lacroix in his life and still have a life -- a human life -- Nick would take it in an instant.  But there was not.  The pattern was long set.  They always hurt, these graphic demonstrations that Lacroix was incapable of giving what Nick needed, or receiving what Nick had to give.  But over and again Nick had made the same choice.  There would be no turning back, no matter the cost.  When Nick's unconscious reached that oddly-comforting conclusion -- as it had many times before -- his sleep eased, and he did not stir again until late afternoon.

    Waking with the feeling of the sun's descent, Nick had one blissful moment of sheer habit -- sleeping on his couch was far from unusual -- before all the events of the morning crashed in on his awareness.  Pushing into a sitting position, he found himself again face to face with the cow blood and the protein shake, and his nose as well as his memory told him there was human blood not too far behind him.  For a long moment, he simply stared.  In front of him sat who he was and who he wanted to be; behind, who he had been.  When he heard the shower turn on upstairs, Nick picked up the three beverages and poured them all down the sink.

    Turning back toward his living room, Nick saw the answering-machine light blinking from the ground where he had left it.  Leaning down to push "play," Nick wondered if he should replace the console table with a duplicate, or go for something entirely new.

    *beep*  "Nick Knight.  I'm either in bed or incommunicado.  Don't take it personally."

    *beep*  "Nick?  You awake?" Natalie's voice played back.  "This is volume one of two, Nick.  When you said you couldn't believe I'd never read Wuthering Heights and you'd loan it to me .  .  .  !  Stupid nineteenth-century binding," she grumbled cheerfully.  "Anyway, I'm just calling to remind you it's the second Wednesday of the month, and I therefore require your appearance as my lovely assistant on 'Tissue Samples of the Undead and Famous' tonight.  Don't forget.  And Nick?  Bring me the rest of the story."  *click*

    *beep*  "Nicolas?" Janette's voice, unimpeachably neutral to any other ear, sounded concerned to Nick's.  "Call me."  *click*

    *beep*  "You have got to change that answering machine message, partner," Schanke's voice declared in a whisper.  "What if Captain Cohen calls you?  Is that what you want her to hear?  Remember: new precinct, new attitude, just like we agreed, right?  So, hey," the human detective's volume increased to normal.  "Castle Frank Vice busted one Trey Johnson for drugs this afternoon, and he says he's got a line on that Spencer drive-by from last month.  The Crown's willing to deal some, but we have to check it out.  It's, uh, about four-forty-five, and I'm on my way over there now.  Meet me as soon as you can.  Hasta-la-bye-bye."  *click*

    Nick smiled, and let the machine rewind.  Despite Lacroix's charge, he was not really isolated -- no more than any human, to whom the voice of a friend had to be as blood to a vampire.  Picking up the remote from his kitchen table, the detective moved to the far corner of his loft and cracked the blinds a few paces in front of him, watching from a safe distance as the last rays of the setting sun moved across his floor.

    His expression stony, Lacroix appeared on the balcony opposite Nick, the shaft of orange sun between them.  "I take it you are not going to be reasonable about this after all," the ancient vampire noted.

    "I'm not leaving," Nick answered, half prepared to repeat the morning's events.  "Not this place, not my life."

    "You are so young, and so foolish.  Still, I am more and more .  .  . intrigued .  .  . by your fascination with this time and place, Nicholas.  You have never failed to move on at my .  .  . prompting .  .  . before.  The bloodmobile, the mug and the archeologist, then that mewling lab assistant and being imprisoned by your own fellow officers, finally your dilemma over your perceptive little authoress -- and yet you stay.  What is it here and now which so attracts you?"

    "Long winter nights," Nick deadpanned.

    "An advantage," Lacroix agreed, pursing his lips, "until summer.  No, there is more to uncover.  I think, Nicholas, that I will join you here in Toronto, observe this mortal facade you have constructed, its interactions, its playmates .  .  . until you decide to leave it, of course."

    "Is that a threat?  Someday, yes, the Dorian Grey effect may push me elsewhere, but this life -- this manner of living -- will go with me.  You can't force me out of it, Lacroix.  I am it."

    The old vampire crossed his arms and leaned back against the concrete wall.  "Perhaps, Nicholas.  Perhaps not.  Do you really think you are the only one whom events have changed?  I found being dead .  .  . unsettling, to say the least.  It has left me .  .  . tired, and .  .  . evaluative.  Tactics on which I have relied for two millennia now fail to move you.  New tactics must be tried."

    "How new?"

    Lacroix spread his hands.  "What would you have of me?"

    "I would have you completely out of my life forever."  It was not, strictly speaking, true, but Nick wished it were.  He wished everything Lacroix represented out of his life, even while he desperately desired to embrace it.  He wanted it both ways.  But he needed it one way.  His soul depended on it.

    "That is a bit much, Nicholas, especially given that my primary goal is to draw you back into my life -- and my kind of life."

Oooh baby --
That ain't love.

    "I'm a homicide detective.  I jail people for your kind of life."

    "A valid point, I concede.  Perhaps it is there we can accommodate one another.  I do not wish to make your .  .  . job .  .  . more difficult."  Lacroix's tone was gently mocking.  "Investigating family members is a conflict of interest, after all, is it not?  Shall I kill only outside your jurisdiction?"

I believe you've got the wrong emotion.
That ain't love;
At least it doesn't feel like love to me.

    "I will not be dragged into naming your victims for you, Lacroix.  I will not authorize, even by default, your taking of a single human life."  Nick glanced at the back of his loft's steel door.  In the scorched stain, he saw his own breaking point.  Alyce, Daniel, Helen Ruskin-Slater, Mai Chong, Sister Marise -- all those who had ever died for inadvertently stepping between Lacroix and his prize obsession: no more.  "If you want to stay in Toronto, I can't stop you.  But I won't aid you, or shelter you, or cover for you.  If you want to watch my life, fine.  It's nothing new.  But do it from a distance.  Keep away from me and mine, and keep your mindless killing out of my life!"

    After a long moment, Lacroix nodded sharply, and his lips twisted into a smirk.  "Agreed.  It is a bargain, then.  I will keep my .  .  . distance.  Unless you come to me.  And I will not .  .  . invade .  .  . this life of yours with my 'mindless killing.'  Yes, that is quite adequate for the moment."  Glancing pointedly at the sealed skylight, the old vampire hinted, "If you would, Nicholas .  .  .  ?"

    The last dusky purples were fading into night, so Nick pointed his remote at the skylight and opened it all the way.

    Lacroix nodded, braced himself to jump into flight, but then paused, and shot one final comment at the would-be human before departing.  "It is adequate for the present, and, in time, you will come around the rest of the way to embrace my wisdom and attachment, and your place at my side.  I have no doubts of that, Nicholas.  No doubts at all."

As long as I say what you want to hear,
do what you want to do,
be who you want me to be,
you think that's love.
Well, baby, that ain't love to me.

    Staring after his old enemy, his old friend, for several minutes, Nick left the skylight open to a night wind blowing memories like pelting raindrops.  Eventually, the sounds of the city brought him back to the present.  Dropping the remote, he raced through a shower and a change of clothes, and when a hasty perusal of his shelves failed to yield the second half of Wuthering Heights, he promised himself he would buy Natalie a proper new edition at the first bookstore he saw after he caught up with Schanke.

    Before rushing off to join his partner at Castle Frank, though, Nick paused to pick up his phone from behind his couch.  He dialed Janette.

    "Raven," Brianna's voice sang out over the receiver.

    "This is Nick Knight.  Is Janette around?"

    "Hold on."  Nick heard the sound of Brianna's hand covering the receiver only slightly more clearly than he heard her say, "It's him."

    Janette's voice came over the line without preliminaries.  "How are you?"

    "Fine.  Lacroix and I had a .  .  . an old argument.  Apparently we now have a new agreement."

    She was silent for a moment.  Finally, she offered, "In his own way, he does love us, you know."

Ooh, baby, that ain't love.

    "I know, Janette," Nick said.  "In his own way, as much as he is capable of it, he loves us."

That ain't love.

    "Yes," Janette agreed.

That ain't love.

    And Nick knew they understood each other, as no one else could.



Prequel: "Whence the Truce"



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