/Why did he leave me?/ Natalie Lambert's hands shook as she turned the key in the lock. The door opened to reveal her obnoxiously orange apartment. Her empty apartment. Though she pretended not to act it in front of her friends, she knew that she was desperately alone.

"Sydney?" she called out as she flipped the lights on. An answering meow came back through the quiet apartment as a small furry creature padded into the living room area and proceeded to rub against Natalie's legs.

Natalie absently brushed a stray tear from her face as her cat's funny antics finally brought a hint of a smile to her face. She never seemed to smile anymore... Glancing over, she noticed that her answering machine light was blinking furiously and she absently reached over to press the play button. With the slight pressure she applied via her index finger, the machine clicked and rewound. Voices immediately penetrated the loneliness of the room as she sat down in a nearby chair.

"BEEP! Yeah, this is Schanke. You're still coming to dinner tomorrow night right? Myra is cooking up a storm and to be honest with you... I'm not quite sure if I want to hazard this stuff without a certified doctor..."

Natalie smiled again, this time a bit wider than before. Schanke had been wonderful since Nick had left. Who'd have thought that the souvlake-fanatic cop lovingly nicknamed 'Donut Don' was a saint in disguise? With a blink, Natalie shook herself out of her thoughts and continued to listen.

"... anyway you know how Jenny is. She always likes dinner guests, especially you. So anyway, call me, ok? And don't you dare back out again or I'm gonna have to come and take you away from your office by force."

"BEEP! Hi Natalie, it's Grace. I just wanted to let you know that we got the DNA results back for that test you wanted done. I left them in the top drawer of your desk like you told me to. Listen, we should get together sometime this weekend. You need a day off and so do I. Call me."

Natalie stared at the machine blankly. So. That was basically her life. She got home, listened to her messages and fed the cat. That was about as active as her social life got. She had even spent last Christmas alone, the time you were supposed to spend with friends and family. Christmas used to be fun and special, especially when she and Nick got together, but not anymore. Nick's presence in her life had been filled only by an empty void, despite the efforts of her friendly coworkers. She snorted angrily, realizing how much of an idiot she had been for building her whole life around Nick.

She knew that she had to get over him. She knew it more than any of the number of people who kept telling her to get on with her life. But she couldn't. That was the simple truth of the matter. Natalie had known she loved Nick from the moment he had gotten up off her autopsy table, but she hadn't known the extent of her feelings until he was gone.

Everything she saw reminded her of him. She couldn't escape it no matter how hard she tried. Often she would break into tears at the mere sight of a familiar object and she knew that her friends were very concerned. Schanke and Grace had both played matchmaker above and beyond the call of duty, despite her stern protests. In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if Schanke's invitation to dinner also included meeting yet another male relative. /He's probably out of cousins now... maybe he's moved on to distant friends./ She sighed.

She didn't want another guy. She wanted Nick. To this day, she still didn't know where he had gone, or if he was even still alive. He had mentioned once that it was always best to move on without saying goodbye. She hadn't thought that this would've included her.

Natalie brushed a stray auburn curl from her face as she began to shake. She didn't want to relive the events of that night once again, but the memories rushed over her anyway.


"Nick? Nick, are you here?" There was no answer. Natalie looked worriedly around the loft for any signs of her angsty blond vampire. Absently, she noticed the rays of sunlight penetrating the windows and bathing the loft in light. It was a rare occasion that she saw the loft in natural light like this. The rays made it look big, airy, and almost welcoming, which was a far contrast to the stark, 'high tech dungeon of doom', as Schanke had termed it.

But she didn't dwell on that for long. She pattered up the stairs, growing only slightly anxious. Just because he wasn't there didn't mean anything. On her way in she had noticed that his car wasn't here, so he had very likely gotten caught somewhere and was spending the day in the trunk. He'd done it many times before...

"Nick?" she called softly as she knocked and eased open the door to his bedroom. There was no one there, although she had half expected him to be sleeping in his bed for once, pale and still like he always slept.

After making a cursory once-over of the room, she went back downstairs and plopped herself down on Nick's black leather sofa. She picked up the phone and quickly dialed Nick's beeper number. She waited anxiously, silently cursing herself for getting so worried. Nick was a grown man with 800 years of experience, he could take care of himself. Usually...

Fifteen minutes later, he still had not called, so she tried directly dialing his cellular. She grew more apprehensive as the ringing stopped and an automated voice picked up telling her that the user was either out of range or had his phone turned off.

Now, she was getting really worried. Even if he had been stuck in the trunk his phone still would've worked... In a last ditch effort she dialed Schanke's number and was greeted with a rather gruff, "Hello?"

"Hi, Schanke? It's Natalie, have you heard from Nick, by any chance?"

"Nope, can't say I have. Last time I saw him he was headed for the Raven. I wouldn't worry Nat, you know how he disappears without a trace." Schanke sounded fairly unconcerned. As Nick's partner, he had grown very used to Nick going off on his own without telling him anything only to come back with the criminal bagged and tagged.

"Yeah, Schanke, I guess you're right, thanks." She hung up the phone as a lump started to form in her throat.

Nick had gone to the Raven. To Janette. She didn't know whether she should be angry, jealous, or nervous. Nick had gone to Janette in the past when he needed information or when something was troubling him. Hell, it wasn't like he'd sworn allegiance to her or anything... But yet, it still bugged her. A small part of her recognized it as jealousy, though she refused to admit it to herself. Nick had even told her that he couldn't fall in love, so why was she getting so bent out of shape? She guessed that it didn't matter. She loved him and there was nothing she could do about it. Her jealousy flared again despite her efforts to contain it. She snorted and rose from the couch, leaving hastily as she grabbed her keys off the table. If he wanted to go play with Janette, then that was his business.


Natalie shifted in her chair. Nick had never come home. When she had visited the loft again the next day there were white drop sheets covering all of the furniture. The police had put out an APB on him when he hadn't shown for work that night, but she knew the truth. He wasn't coming back.

Nick hadn't even said goodbye. There was no note, no sign, no nothing. And it broke her heart that he had left so abruptly. In retrospect, she still didn't see any signs that he was leaving. No hints, nothing. He had just up and left.

Although it struck her as a little odd, what else was she supposed to think? She had gone to the Raven, but she was unceremoniously kicked out. Now that Nick was gone, there had been no reason for the vampire community to accept her presence. And so they had acted as if she hadn't existed. Janette had merely stared blankly at her when the bouncer had refused her entry into the establishment.

And that was that. The closing chapter of her 'vampire years', or so she termed them. But that didn't mean that it hurt any less. She still hoped that some day, he would come back, or at least send her some acknowledgement that he was alive and well. She was willing to accept anything at this point.

She picked up Sydney and placed him gently on her lap. Natalie silently hoped that she would have the strength to continue in her lonely existence. Little had she realized how much her world revolved around her errant friend until it was too late. True, she was slowly picking up the pieces of her life that still remained intact, but it still hurt.

Given time, she knew he would become just a memory, a faded picture on a desk that only she would know the significance of. But now... even a year later he was still bright in her mind, more so than the sun he had never been able to walk in.

She assumed that what hurt most was not knowing. Not knowing what had happened, not knowing the details behind his sudden departure, not knowing the mystery behind it all. Shivering, she thought that it was probably best that she didn't know any of that.

What she wanted was a reason. He had been in Toronto for less than a decade, hardly enough time for people to realize that he wasn't aging. That couldn't have been it, and she simply refused to consider the chance that he was dead. That only left the possibility that he had been fleeing from something. It could have been another vampire, it could have been their relationship, but he had retreated in the worst way.

And not only did it hurt more than any physical pain imaginable, but it angered her. Some small part of her still thought that if there had been some closure, she would have been able to continue with her life a lot faster than she was now. Natalie slammed a fist down into the soft cushion of the chair and curse herself once again for allowing herself to fall in love with him. Somehow, she would deal with it. She had to.

He flew as fast as he could, straining hard to get a little bit more speed, which wasn't much to begin with. The exhaustion tearing at him was beginning to win, but he wouldn't, he couldn't let it. It wasn't much farther to her apartment. He needed to get there.

A sharp pain in his chest where the stake had been forced him to land. He sat down against the brick wall of a dark alley and clenched his teeth. Holding his knees to his chest as if it would hold him together, he counted to ten slowly and tried to breathe. The agony of it all would've killed a mortal man.

He felt his fangs descend and clenched his mouth shut, desperately trying to deny the inevitable appearance of the vampire. Looking down at his chest through glowing, amber eyes, he noted that the jagged wound that had been there wasn't nearly as pronounced as before. However, it was still quite serious and it still felt like someone had stabbed him with the sun. Although the bleeding had stopped, the pain in his chest and the burning sensation within his gut had not once let up in their intensity. He was hungry and he hurt. A lot.

He tried to focus, but trying to think through the pain was like trying to put a dent in an iron wall with a toothpick. He wasn't quite sure who this 'her' was, nor did he know why he needed to get to her apartment, he just knew that he did. Strangely... he could almost grasp the woman's name only to lose it again in the morass of mass confusion that presently made up his mind. But his instincts were just screaming at him to go to her. And now was not the time to stop and question his instincts. If he got there, he knew that he would be helped, that the pain would stop. But not before then.

He heard a rustling noise as a homeless person walked by the mouth of the alley. With his vampire senses, the scrape of the man's shoes against the pavement resonated through his acute eardrums like thunder. The sing-song drumming of the mortal's heart was astoundingly deafening and he couldn't drown it out despite his best efforts. Yet somehow, he knew that this was not his food. He knew that he couldn't and that he wouldn't take the man's life, no matter how enticing.

Snarling briefly, showing a hint of his razor-sharp canines to the observing dark alley, he slowly got to his feet while at the same time trying to ignore the pain that it caused. He had gotten this far, he would make it the rest of the way. And then he would be ok. He would be at the safe place, the apartment.

Leaning back against the wall taking shallow, labored breaths, he battled the waves of dizziness that struck him like no physical object ever could. If he could just get to his destination... When he tried to stand up completely and stop leaning on the wall, he realized what a terrible predicament he was in. The sun was due to rise in a few short hours, and he could barely stay upright on his own.

The hunger was growing steadily, and he feared that he would soon be too weak to even attempt movement. Almost subconsciously, he thought how strange it was that fate turns things in your favor only to whip right around and turn the tables again. If he had had the breath for it, he would've laughed. The worst had already occurred...


He was weak and he couldn't get up, the chains prevented that. And the hunger... He had been without nourishment for so long that he had fallen into that lethargic, half- awake, half-asleep state that he was in now. The worst part, however, was the place of his captivity itself. The small, dark cellar that he was being kept in was barely adequate, but it served the purpose of keeping out the sun's deadly rays as it had for the past year.

When he heard a soft rumbling in his ear, he wondered if perhaps it was God's angels, finally come to take his soul to death's gate for judgment. It wasn't. Someone was saying something, and words slowly began to assemble in his brain. The voice slowly resonated through his head and took a strangely soothing shape, yet he realized that the source of that very same voice was the cause of his current predicament.

"Come now Nicholas, why can't you accept your nature? For a whole year I've kept you, and you've not given in once. But then, I'm not one to give up. It annoys me that you've resisted for so long, and I DON'T LIKE being annoyed," LaCroix said as he stepped over his crumpled protege, mindfully avoiding the weak attempt to trip him.

Somehow, despite the growing hunger that burned within, Nick managed to find a voice he didn't know he still had. "Go to Hell, LaCroix," he said weakly, his voice cracking from lack of use. After a year of near starvation and little movement, he was surprised he managed to say anything at all.

"Nicholas, Nicholas, we both know that's already the case," LaCroix stooped next to Nick with a canteen. He calmly opened the lid and wafted it in front of Nick's nose, pleased at the violent and very vampiric reaction he received in return. Ignoring the resounding echo of the chains as his son strained against them, LaCroix dipped his finger into the small mouth of the canteen. He quickly withdrew his finger and placed it on Nick's lips, carefully leaving a few small drops there.

The human blood made Nick shudder as his eyes uncontrollably turned gold and his fangs descended. He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, denying his nature as he had in the past. LaCroix would have to force feed him if he expected him to drink it. It wouldn't surprise Nick if that's what LaCroix did, since that's what he'd been doing throughout his imprisonment. None of the blood he had consumed during his captivity, which was decidedly very little, had been drunk voluntarily.

His sire had cruelly kept him at near starvation levels in hopes that he would eventually give in. But he wouldn't. He wouldn't let LaCroix win this round, not by a long shot. In an effort to resist temptation, he shifted his thoughts elsewhere, to another time, when he had been happy. Or at least as happy as his dark life permitted. His memories of Nat's smiling face had kept him sane, thankfully. His picture of her in his mind had kept him alive. If he closed his eyes and thought hard enough, he could remember every subtle curve of her face and every wild auburn curl of her hair. Nat was his savior even when she wasn't there.

"Get away from me, LaCroix..." he struggled to say it without sounding too desperate. He knew that with the presence of the blood, the tones in his voice were more than indicative of his current physical state of starvation.

"Nicholas, I won't have this. You will drink!" LaCroix grabbed Nick's jaw and forcefully pried it open, not that it took much effort for the 2000 year old vampire to do so. He poured the blood down Nick's throat and clamped his mouth shut with his fingers.

The blood burned like fire in his mouth, and he so desperately wanted to drink... A taste, perhaps. Just a taste... Nick choked and sputtered, but didn't swallow. LaCroix's vice-like grip wasn't letting up and he didn't know how much longer he could withstand this delectable assault on his taste buds. He stopped struggling in LaCroix's grip and was silent.

LaCroix assumed that this was submission and slowly released Nick's jaw, only to have the blood immediately spit back in his face. Disgusted, he wiped the sticky red liquid from his brow. He was outraged, never had Nick been so defiant as now. "You little wretch!" LaCroix's eyes turned blood red in rage and Nick winced when he saw his sire's very pronounced fangs descend into place. He braced himself for what he knew would be a very violent retaliation.

Nick vaguely saw LaCroix reaching behind his back in the midst of his hungered haze, but nothing prepared him for the shocking pain that lanced through his chest. He let out a surprised gasp as the wind was knocked out of his lungs from the force of the blow. A burning sensation exploded in his body, starting in his torso and moving outward. He cried out in agony only to be silenced by a hand over his mouth from his sire.

Through his haze of surprise he finally realized that LaCroix had staked him and he incoherently grasped at the offending piece of wood in a futile effort to remove it. He remembered vaguely wondering why the damn Roman hadn't just staked him in the heart and ended it then and there.

"You pathetic fool! You always have to make me do things the hard way!" LaCroix bent over Nick and ripped the stake that he had placed there only moments before out of his chest, eliciting a loud cry of agony from the injured vampire. The pain of being staked was nothing compared to that of having the stake ripped out.

LaCroix slapped Nick across the check and forcefully grabbed his son's jaws again, prying them open with little effort. Once again he poured blood down his throat, only to go through the same ritual as before. This time he was smart enough not to let go of Nick's mouth.

Nick felt dizzy from the waves of pain that had overtaken his body and he could barely think straight. His only remaining thought was that he mustn't swallow. He moved his arm to support himself against the onslaught when his hand struck something rough and wet. It was the stake that LaCroix had just pulled from his body. Reflexively, he moved to protect himself, swinging upward as powerfully as he could manage. The stake buried itself in LaCroix's chest with a sick thud, and Nick watched silently as his sire fell gasping to the floor.

Unlike LaCroix, Nick had aimed true, and he saw LaCroix suddenly go still and silent after several moments of thrashing about. That was his last conscious observation as he slipped to the cold floor and let the darkness take him into a state of healing.


He couldn't remember exactly what had happened after that, his stupor from the pain had been his main focus. Nick didn't know how he had gotten loose from the chains or how he had even made it this far. He didn't even know if LaCroix was really dead, he'd proven exceptionally hard to kill via a stake in the past and he couldn't remember if he'd stopped to check or not... But that didn't matter now.

Another wave of dizziness overwhelmed him and he placed a hand on the brick wall again to prevent himself from falling. The rough, cool brick felt almost like a beacon, yanking him away from the unconsciousness that was so insistently threatening him. Clutching his abdomen with his other hand, he breathed deeply, somewhat diminishing the pain. As the dizziness passed, he released his hand from the wall again and waited to see if he would be able to stay standing for any length of time. His head was still swimming, and he felt as if that familiar sense of vertigo would claim him once again. It didn't.

When he finally decided that it was okay to move further away from the wall, Nick steadied himself as he took a step into the alley and took off into the air. It was a very conscious effort, and it took most of his strength. But he would get to her. He would let her know that he was alright, that he hadn't left her. But... who was her? A small voice in his head finally clued him in. Natalie... Through the haze of pain, the name shot forth like a ray of sunlight into a darkened room. With new resolve, he pressed himself for even more speed.

Nick flew on through the darkened night and vaguely noticed that it had begun to rain. The wet sheets of water buffeted him, soaking him to the bone. As the water drenched his already ruined clothing, the numbing cold began to set it. He flew on, now battling the cold as well as fatigue and pain. Not much longer now. His tortured body shuddered as he drove onward, barely noting the lights of the city below him.

But finally, he was there. Right in front of him was her small apartment building. Entering via the door of the roof, he stumbled down the steps and walked through dimly lighted hallways until he was there, right in front of her door. He reached up to knock, but the hunger chose this precise moment to finally win the raging battle he had waged with it and he fell against the door with a loud thud. His last conscious thought as he slid down to the floor was that he hoped she still lived there...

Natalie started when she had heard the sound. She had been reading one of her medical newsletters trying to take her mind off things when she had heard a hollow thud outside the door. Nervously, she shooed Sydney away and waited.

A brief silence ensued and Natalie almost assumed that she had been hearing things. The rough, distinct sound of something hitting against the door that replaced the blessed silence immediately told her otherwise. Whatever it was paused for a second, as if wondering what to do, and then slowly slid down the other side of the door. Then it was gone. She was greeted with silence once again.

Almost panicky, Natalie began to have visions of some crazy wacko sizing up her door. True, it could have been any number of things, but she doubted any of the 'number of things' would happen at four in the morning. Unless of course her landlady had become a vampire and this was the only time that she could collect rent now... Despite the tense situation she gave a little 'humphf' at her poorly constructed joke.

Natalie got up from the chair and went to the door, hesitantly looking out the peephole. An empty hallway of gray carpeting and shell-white walls stared back at her. No one was there. After waiting for a good ten minutes as a precaution, she opened the door with a sudden sureness that was only proven ungenuine by the look in her eyes. She gasped and jumped backward several feet as a body fell into her apartment, the door no longer supporting it.

/Nick!/ His tattered black silk shirt, frayed jeans, and sickly appearance did nothing to disguise him, she recognized him immediately. Her breathing came in short gasps as the shock of it all threatened to make her faint. Her knees felt weak, and she stepped over so she could use the doorframe for support as her legs turned to Jell-O and nearly gave out. Blood rushed through her ears and she could feel her heart rate double. The pounding in her chest only served to prove that she was not exaggerating. /Ohmygod! What do I do?!/ She wanted to scream, but she somehow restrained herself, clasping her hands over her mouth as if her life depended on it.

She kept her hands at her mouth as she began to shake uncontrollably and then let them fall to her sides to grip the doorframe behind her. Her chest heaved as waves of shock flooded through her. Not knowing what to do, she simply stared at Nick as he lay there, silent and unmoving. She knew that she needed to calm down, and that breathing normally would probably be beneficial to her at the moment. But she was confused. Hell, she was shocked out of her right mind!

Suddenly, the suppressed emotions of the past year came to the surface of her shocked mind like a riptide. /What the Hell?! He left me and now he just randomly shows up a year later?/ Her face turned red as she fought the urge to kick his crumpled form. The anger coursed through her briefly until she was finally able to rationalize with herself that she hadn't heard his side of it and that judgment was to be reserved for a later date. /He's hurt, for crying out loud! Do something, you idiot!/

The immediate shock of the moment finally passed and with shaky hands she gained some composure. Taking the initiative, she grabbed hold of his arms and pulled him inside as gently as she could manage. She brought his arms back to his sides, taking care to avoid hurting him. Hopping over him, she reached out and shut the door with a loud slam. If his arrival hadn't woken the neighbors, that certainly would have. She shrugged and sat down beside him.

He was now splayed on the floor, chest down, with his head turned to the side. She reached out to touch him as she softly whispered his name, but at the last minute she pulled back. What if this wasn't real? She couldn't take that... Reaching out again, she placed a hand on his shoulder, originally intending to give him a shake in hopes that he'd wake up. Her hand, however, had other plans, and it slowly migrated up to his face and then to his flaxen locks.

Even as she ran her hands through his soft, blond hair, she could barely believe that he was real. But he was, he was lying right there in her apartment. /He's really come back to me.../ She touched a hand to his white face and drew it back in shock. He was freezing, even for a vampire. And he was hurt. The blood stain that covered his shirt was not a small one by any measurement. Shaking her head at her stupidity, she immediately went into 'doctor-mode'.

With some effort, Natalie gently rolled Nick's prone form onto his back. He didn't so much as stir. Even looking at him in the flesh, she still couldn't believe he was actually here. Momentarily distracted by her thoughts, she suddenly became engrossed with his face. His pale complexion was even paler than normal, and his features gaunt. Sighing, she remembered how beautiful he used to look when he slept, like a sleeping angel, but now... /He's not sleeping! Get with it!/

Frowning, she removed his shirt and gasped. There was a hideous, gaping wound on his chest not far from his heart. She recognized the wound without a second thought, she'd seen it before. /My God, he's been staked.../ She jumped up and ran to the bathroom.

Luckily, she still had all her supplies in medicine cabinet. When Nick had left, she hadn't bothered to take them out. She thought it funny that her emotional stubbornness over admitting that Nick was gone had finally turned out to be a good thing. Grabbing some gauze, alcohol, and other necessary items, she raced back to his silent form.

Natalie examined the wound carefully, not encouraged by the small groan her simple probing had elicited. Thankfully, there were no splinters and the wound looked reasonably clean, all things considered. She shakily cleaned out his wound and bandaged it securely, hoping against all hope that it wasn't too late. Glancing at her watch, she noticed worriedly that he'd been silent for quite awhile. He was so still that he appeared to be dead, or at least very close to it. But... He couldn't be dead, since he hadn't turned to ash. At least she hoped that was true.

Nick hadn't exactly been forthcoming with any information about vampire physiology that he had thought wasn't necessary for her to have and make a cure with. Come to think of it, he hadn't even been forthcoming about the necessary stuff either. But Richard... Natalie let out a small sob just thinking of his name. Richard had turned to ash when he had died, so it seemed logical to assume that it was a normal occurrence.

After she finished with the chest wound, she examined the rest of him. Nick seemed to have no other injuries, but there were signs that he hadn't been treated very well wherever he had been. His hair was shoulder length and slightly matted from lack of care, but that was the least of his problems. She bit back a sob when she took note of how painfully thin he was. His alabaster white skin had the thickness of paper, and his ribs were quite visible. Their prominent ripples gave his torso a skeletal appearance and she noticed with a grim sense of reality that his limbs were not in any better shape. He looked so fragile, so harmless...

Natalie sighed and grabbed him as she had before to get him out of the doorway. After about ten minutes she had managed to drag him as far as the bedroom door before she had to rest, huffing and puffing at the exertion. Even as thin as he was, Nick was still much larger than her. After another ten minute battle with gravity and friction, she managed to get him next to her bed. /Great, Lambert. Now how do you think you're going to get him on the bed? You can barely drag him twenty feet./

She decided to put off the inevitable by taking time out to change the sheets and put fresh blankets on the bed. When that was done, she went back to the problem at hand, trying to determine how she was going to lift him. Normally she would've just heaved with all her might, but his chest wound meant that that was out of the question. She'd probably done more than enough damage just dragging him through her apartment. She wouldn't be surprised if carpet burns killed him instead of the stake. No, she was NOT going to lift him.

And then there was the question of food. She sat down heavily on a nearby chair to ponder that one... He needed blood very badly, there was no doubt about that, but she had nowhere to get it. The vampire community had shunned her and it would look strange if she went in to the office just to grab a few expired packs of O-negative...


She froze at the sound. It was quiet, barely recognizable as speech. Nick's voice was something she hadn't heard in a long, long time, but she remembered it as clearly as her most sacred memories. The weak, hoarse voice that she heard emanating from him now was a fanfare of pain, suffering, and longing. Never before had she heard such a hopeless sound. Not even from him.

"Nat..." The single syllable wavering on his tongue, he uttered her name once again, this time with more desperation as his eyes searched blindly for her.

"Nick! It's alright, I'm here," she said, almost crying. Finally regaining her senses, she raced to his side to show him that she was indeed there. Natalie noted with dismay that the clear blue of his eyes that she admired so much had been completely erased by the glittering, hypnotic gold of the vampire.

His head turned to look at her. Despite his obvious pain his eyes softened instantly as they found her. "Hi."

Natalie felt the grief and emotional pain of the past year melt away into oblivion as if it had never existed. In that instant, that one joyous moment where everything seems right in the world, she realized that didn't care how, she didn't care why, but he was back. The smile that spread across her lips was liberating, and it felt damn good. "Hi, yourself. How do you feel?"

Nick looked at her silently for a few moments and she wondered what he was thinking behind that expressive gaze. She noticed with growing alarm that his breathing had started to come in ragged gasps. His face grew steadily more troubled as the sweet sanctuary of unconsciousness that had masked the pain slowly melted away. "I hurt," he said simply, before a wave of pain cut him off.

She placed a hand gently on his face in an attempt to comfort him. "Nick, you've got to breathe evenly, it'll hurt less."

His response to her touch was frightening, yet not surprising. The growl that her soft fingers elicited caused her to immediately withdraw them. She got a good view of his fangs before he was able to calm himself, but as usual, she was not afraid of his vampiric visage, she was merely concerned for him. "Nick, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."

Nick shook his head. "No! It's alright, that was my fault... I'm... I'm okay now." He was lying through his teeth and both of them knew it. His discomfort with her close proximity was obvious and she saw him fiercely clamp his mouth shut to suppress another growl.

"Nick, shhhh," she said softly, placing her index finger to her lips for emphasis. "I know you're hungry. Let's get you on the bed, and then I'll run to the morgue and swipe a few expired blood packs." /To Hell with how it will look, this is more important./

He nodded, miserably. The man was in a lot more pain than he was letting on, that much she knew, if not from the stake wound, from the hunger. She'd seen the effects of starvation on him, and his current situation was much more dire than anything she'd ever witnessed.

She needed to get him some blood. Now. Worriedly, she watched as he made an unsuccessful attempt to get up. He panted from the exertion, but flopped back down to the floor with a grimace of pain before he could even get his torso 45 degrees off the floor. She couldn't just leave him on the floor like this, and at this rate he'd be lying there for a century.

"Can you handle it if I help you up?" she asked, cautiously. She did NOT want to push him beyond his limits. That presented a certain fatal element for her, and he would most likely never forgive himself if he was still as angsty as he had been a year ago.

Nick closed his eyes tightly and nodded an affirmative. He made another weak attempt to sit up. She shot her hands under his back and held him up when his torso refused to elevate itself any higher. He let out a cry of pain, and she was about to withdraw her hands, but he nodded for her to continue. She responded quickly, pushing him the rest of the way to the upright position.

Once he was sitting up, it was a little bit easier, and she managed to get him standing all the way up. His eyes had become glassy, and she worriedly noticed that he was leaning most of his weight on her. She brought him closer to her, and he groaned as he collapsed into her arms. Rubbing his back, she softly reassured him as his head fell to the side of hers. With his face resting on her shoulder, his hands clutching her hips as if he expected her to disappear at any moment, and her arms wrapped around his waist, she almost felt like she was participating in a slightly more than platonic embrace.

It felt so very good to be in his arms again. She felt him trembling as they stood, his body beginning to shake like a leaf, and she longed to hold him and to comfort him as he had never allowed before. She wished that she could tell him that nothing would ever hurt him again, but a small part groan part growl erupted from his lips and the mood was lost. Shaking herself from her own selfish thoughts, she began pivoting so that Nick was in an angle to lie back on the bed.

After a few minutes of shifting around, Nick was finally on the bed. Tears of blood were streaming down his face from the effort it took on his part, and Natalie noticed as he lay back gasping, that her own white blouse had red stains on the shoulder where his face had been. "Thank... thank you," he said through closed eyes. "I'm s... sorry about your shirt..."

Natalie shushed him with a flit of her hand and she brushed the tears from his face with a tissue that she had grabbed from her nightstand. "Don't worry about that, I can buy a new one later, you're more important," she hastily reassured him. Covering him with the soft blankets, she leaned as close to him as she dared. "I'll be back really soon. Just hang in there," she said with a slight crack in her voice.

With that, she left his side. Almost as an afterthought, she closed the blinds, shuddering when she realized how close she had come to forgetting that little detail, and left. If she could get to the morgue before the dayshift, it would be easier to avoid notice.

Nick lay there, staring at the ceiling. He couldn't believe that he was really here. Gasping, he winced when he felt another wave of pain surge through him. Despite his weakness and his injury, he felt like everything was going to be okay. He almost laughed when he realized how deluded he had become.

When he had woken up to Nat's lovely heartbeat, it had felt more wonderful than anything he'd ever experienced in his life. The euphoria he had felt when he had seen her face had topped even that. It was selfish to have come back though, he could only do her harm. He knew it and she knew it, despite her protests to the contrary. He sank deeper into the warm blankets, as if they could warm his cold heart. The pain in his chest and abdomen was growing, and he hoped that Nat would return soon with the blood.

/What am I DOING here anyway?/ He didn't know. He'd been gone for a year. Natalie was probably mad as Hell that he hadn't said anything, even though there was no way that he could have. True, she had looked quite overjoyed when he had woken up and said hi, but he was certain that would wear off after this little situation was cleared up and he was healed.

And his job. What was he going to do about that? He would need a damn good explanation for his disappearance. Schanke probably thought he was dead. Nick doubted that he would even get a chance to continue working with him again.

Why had he come back, anyway? There was nothing left for him here. Except her. He knew that Natalie was his entire reason for living through LaCroix's torture. Despite the number of times he tried to deny it, both to himself and to her, he knew that he loved her more than his own life.

Another wave of pain racked his body, and he shook as he tried to contain a growl. It was getting worse. Much worse. He took in a shaky breath and squeezed his eyes shut, longing for the taste of blood on his tongue. The blood would take away the terrible pain in his chest and in his gut. But at the same time, he felt guilty that he wanted it so much. He had tried so hard not to drink it.

/Give in to your nature.../ LaCroix's voice echoed through his mind, waging war with his inner moral standards. He shook his head, he would NOT let LaCroix win now. Not after all he had gone through. No, he would take only what he needed and he would NOT indulge himself. He wouldn't give LaCroix the satisfaction, even in death. If he was dead...

He'd thought LaCroix to be dead once before, after that mess with Alyce Hunter. But a year later, his master and tormentor had returned once again. Nick still hated himself for making the choice to return as a vampire that fateful night. It seemed that fate simply determined that he was to deal with himself and with LaCroix for all time. At least he had saved Fleur...

Nick shuddered, the war within him between the human and the vampire had pushed the waves of hunger and pain beyond his acceptable limits. He gripped the covers tightly, trying to ride through the uncomfortable sensations he was getting. But he couldn't, and he graciously accepted the darkness over the light. Had he been awake, he would have thought it very ironic.

Natalie raced into the Coroners' Building as fast as her legs could carry her, but as soon as she had gotten inside the door, she slowed. It would do no good to draw attention to herself. She slipped through the hallways, thanking God that there was no one there to intercept her.

Her coworkers had been worried enough about her sanity when she had buried herself in her work after Nick had left. They would most certainly think her crazy if she ran in here like a crazed lunatic, especially since it was her day off.

She arrived at the elevator only too soon, and pushed the button while quickly glancing to her left and to her right. Still not a soul to be seen. "C'mon, C'mon!" Natalie watched the light above the elevator door impatiently, and was about ready to just take the stairs when she finally heard the elevator slowly lumber into place. The bell dinged and the door opened. She barreled in, only to run straight into "Grace!" Grace must've just gotten off her shift.

Grace looked up startled and stepped out of the way in time to avoid being run over. "Natalie! What are you doing here? You're supposed to be taking a day off," she said suspiciously.

"Uh, well, I have to pick up some files. Not to worry, I'll be out of here and relaxing at home ASAP," Natalie said, hoping her anxiousness didn't bleed through her poorly conceived lie. Thankfully, the elevator doors began to close. "Oops, gotta go!" She leaned back against the elevator wall, letting out a sigh of relief.

Poor Grace. /She must think I've gone off the deep end.../ Natalie remembered the vague, confused look Grace had given her as the doors shut in her face. Oh well. No time to dwell on that now.

As the elevator doors opened, Natalie was off at a run. Luckily, hers was the only office on the basement floor. The only people who might see her now were the custodial staff. She didn't know them well enough to need to worry about them.

She quickly opened her door, her shaky hand twisting the key in the lock. Racing in, she stayed only long enough to grab five packs of expired blood from the refrigerator and stuff them in a small duffel bag she had brought with her. Almost as an afterthought, she grabbed some equipment for hooking up an IV. Nick had been quite lucid when she'd left, but she didn't know how long that would last.

No one would think the strangely stuffed bag was odd, at least she hoped. She carried enough stuff between her office and her apartment that she didn't think it would be a problem. /Well, here's hoping./ She almost laughed. With her luck there would be some new security guard just itching to get his feet wet by pulling over a suspiciously acting coroner... Natalie shook her head, still not believing what she was doing, and left at a dead run.

Natalie opened the door to her apartment only to be greeted with a deafening silence, save for Sydney. He was meowing defiantly as she entered, but she would have to worry about that later. Perhaps Nick had fallen asleep? "Nick? Nick, I'm back..." she said as she walked into the bedroom.

She gasped when she went back into the room. Nick was even paler than he had been when she'd left, although she hadn't thought achieving such a sickly pallor was possible. Although his breathing was even, it was incredibly shallow, and she could see the droplets of blood sweat that had begun to cover his pale skin.

Natalie quickly grabbed the IV equipment out of her bag and set up the transfusion. When she took hold of his arm gently to stick the needle in, its limpness frightened her. "C'mon, Nick. Stay with me. You'll be alright soon." She could only hope that she was correct in that assumption.

She anxiously watched the blood flow out of the pack and into the tube, and after awhile, she could see his painfully still body begin to respond to the much needed nourishment. The first two bags of blood were already drained, his body had absorbed them alarmingly fast. She sat beside him watching hopefully for any sign of wakefulness.

After the fourth bag, she felt herself drifting off from lack of sleep. However, she was jerked back to the world of wakefulness by a soft "Hello again." She smiled when she saw Nick, awake and watching her.

"Nick! I was so worried! How do you feel?" she asked, somewhat worried that she hadn't brought home enough blood.

"Tired. Weak. But I'll live," Nick smiled. His eyes looked much more relaxed than they had before, and they were their normal pale blue. He raised his hand to her face and brushed her check gently, as if checking to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him and that she really was there.

Natalie felt herself blush and silently hoped that Nick wouldn't noticed the rosy pigment spreading across her cheeks. "I missed you," she stated simply, trying not to reveal the hurt he had caused her. She might have tried to hide it, but it was obvious to her that he saw it clearly.

Nick sat up slowly, it obviously took an effort, and looked at her directly. He took her hands in his and stared at her with a look that did nothing to hide the centuries of pain he had endured. His guilt and his hurt almost had a life force of their own, and she could feel the turmoil that his mind suffered. He took a slow breath and prepared to speak.

"Nat, I didn't leave by my own choice. If there had been any way for me to contact you, I would've. Just thinking of you is what has kept me alive long enough to see you. I'm sorry I caused you so much pain. I would give anything to take it away, but I can't and if you want me to leave I will go and never look back. I guess... I guess I just wanted to see you one last time," Nick said, with a sincerity that Nat believed instantly.

She choked on her own words. "I... I don't want you to leave again..."

Nick smiled at that. "Then I won't. I'll stay as long as you want me."

"Forever, Nick. I want you forever," Natalie said earnestly, looking deep into his eyes for a response.

He laughed, coughing slightly. Despite his look of 'wellness', he was still far from it. "Nat, that's an awfully long time." When he saw her face fall, he rushed to complete his thought. He cursed himself that he had paused too soon. "But... I've been told I have an eternity."

Natalie looked at him, somewhat annoyed. "Oh, you!" she growled as she playfully batted him, careful to avoid his wound from the stake. She vaguely wondered if it had healed yet, but was distracted when she noticed the grim look that had set into his face.

"Nick? Where... where did you go when you... when you left?" Natalie said, hesitantly. She did not want to upset him. When she saw his look of horror in response to her question, she quickly moved to correct her error. "I'm sorry. You don't have to tell me. You came back, that's all that matters..." Natalie was rushing through excuses. She didn't want to lose him now that she'd found him again, but she was abruptly cut off.

"He took me away... and he starved me," Nick said, softly. His eyes got a far off look, and she could tell he was remembering.


The pounding beat of the music was already giving him a headache. Following the headache was the dizziness that accompanied the whirling colored lights. Normally he wouldn't have minded, but right now, he was just too tired. He shouldn't have come. He knew that.

As usual he had used the excuse of needing information for a case to go to the Raven. Unusual though, was the fact that LaCroix was there instead of Janette. Nick thought it odd, but was stopped from continuing that train of thought when LaCroix began to respond to his inquiry. "Nicholas, why must you come to me and ask such questions? Your mortal games are getting quite annoying if I do say so myself, and believe me, I do."

Nick merely looked at his master with daggers. He ran his hands through his hair, a sign of annoyance that LaCroix was sure to recognize even though he usually chose to ignore it. Sighing, he still couldn't believe that he had come here. He felt strangely drawn to the mysterious atmosphere and the closeness of his kind despite his general attitude about staying as far away from the vampire community as possible.

He was really starting to wish that Janette was there instead of LaCroix, but she had gone out. And so now he had to deal with LaCroix, who for some reason was there instead. Why, he had no clue. But he was. It was funny. He didn't realize how much he had preferred Janette's teasing over LaCroix's ridicule until now...

"LaCroix, just ONCE, do you think you could help me out? Schanke and I are completely stuck. If you don't know anything then say so and I'll leave. But please, at least tell me that much." Nick bit off any further comments that he felt lurking in his mind. It would be no good to anger LaCroix now.

"Ah yes, Schanke. I remember him. An intriguing mortal, most gullible though..." LaCroix said, reminiscing over his recent encounter with Schanke when he had thought Nick was a vampire.

"LaCroix... Please?" Nick interrupted, becoming more annoyed with every passing moment.

LaCroix relieved himself of his flashback and looked at Nick with slight amusement. "Nicholas, why can't you ever learn? I won't help you with your silly information hunt. You're the detective. If you can't even solve a simple murder case, perhaps you should change professions. Aristotle would be more than happy to set up an appointment with you."

"Damnit, LaCroix..." Nick growled, his temper getting the better of him. He shouldn't have come here. But he had, and now he was stuck.

"Nicholas, I'll not have you losing your temper at me." LaCroix said the words calmly, with not a hint of malice. He meant them only as a warning.

Nick did not take the time to wonder how on earth LaCroix managed to sound so menacing even when he was speaking nicely. He merely narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice to nearly imperceptible levels. "LaCroix, I like my life the way it is. I enjoy my job, despite your constant ridicule. Don't push me."

LaCroix raised his eyebrows slightly, but otherwise his face betrayed no emotion. "Is that a threat Nicholas? I don't take kindly to threats. Even if they are from you..."

Nick couldn't believe what he was saying. Did he want to die tonight? Yet he couldn't stop the words before they came out of his mouth, "Yes, LaCroix. That is a threat. Stay away from my life." He wasn't sure if his eyes betrayed his surprise. How could he have said that?

LaCroix slapped him across the face, taking no notice of the curious stares coming from the Raven's patrons. "And here I thought it was you who came to me..." LaCroix's voice was full of rage. Nick could see he was seething with it and he was afraid. LaCroix's temper was seldom provoked, but it was generally very bad when it was.

LaCroix grabbed Nick by the coat and yanked him into a side room. Surprised by the sudden action, Nick didn't have time to react when LaCroix threw him to the floor. The crack that followed as his head hit the hardwood baseboards was enough to make most people cringe.

Nick felt a shock of pain as he hit the floor. He blinked furiously, trying to keep the involuntary tears from flowing as he attempted to shake the sudden wooziness from his brain. His head must've hit harder than even he had thought.

He didn't have enough time to concentrate on even that as he heard LaCroix speaking over the roar in his ears. "You will NEVER, EVER, tell me what I can and cannot do. I've tolerated this insubordinance long enough." Nick gasped as he felt LaCroix's foot connect with his stomach. Hard.

Nick wanted to retaliate, but everything was moving in slow motion. He couldn't think straight and he couldn't get his limbs to cooperate with him. That hit to his head had done a lot of damage. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it..." he attempted to say. Although he really truly did mean it, even if he normally wouldn't have been daring enough to say it. However, it came out more like a concatenation of completely unrelated syllables. His tongue felt thick in his mouth and he couldn't get it to behave.

He wanted desperately to stop the waves of nausea and pain that threatened to overtake him as LaCroix continued to beat him. As he began to lose consciousness, he could vaguely hear LaCroix speaking again, "Perhaps more extreme methods will ensure your continued cooperation..." But he heard nothing after that except the roar of the blood through his ears and the loud cracks as LaCroix hit him. Thankfully, he had gone numb well before he lost consciousness.


"Oh Nick..." Natalie wanted to say something sympathetic. But words failed her. Granted Nick had provoked LaCroix, but that small outburst of self-identity had not deserved a year of confinement and starvation.

Nick looked at her, blood tears streaming down his face. The look of pain in his eyes made her want to cry. How did he live with it? If this was any indication, this was not the first time LaCroix had resorted to such methods of control.

"Nat... Nat, it's alright. I'm ok now. Please don't cry," he said softly as he blinked away his own tears. Here he was, recovering from a near fatal discipline session from LaCroix and he was worried about her. She couldn't believe it.

She smiled. "Nick... I'm just... I'm glad that you're back. You'll never know how glad, I was devastated without you," Natalie said, her own blunt honesty surprising even herself.

"I'm glad that I'm back too..." he said, a certain longing overcoming the soft tones he was using to speak with. Nick looked like he was about to enter another angst session as it was, so Natalie quickly moved to save the situation.

"Nick, don't worry about it. It wasn't your fault. You came back as soon as you could. What matters is that you're here now." Natalie got the response she wanted when she saw him reluctantly smile. "Now, though," she accentuated her pause with a kiss to his cheek, "you need to recuperate."

"But Nat..."

Natalie placed a hand over his mouth before he could continue. "Not with me more than twenty four hours and you're already being stubborn. Now be quiet and go to sleep. You need it."

He smiled briefly and hesitantly closed his eyes. Within minutes he was breathing evenly and a peaceful look had encompassed his face. Nat smiled and got up to leave. She knew that this was just the beginning. The emotional trauma they could deal with eventually. She hoped. The problem was that she had no idea how.

"Nicholas... stop tormenting yourself. Drink..." Nick resisted as the human blood flowed over his tongue. He wouldn't drink it. He couldn't.

Hands wrenched his neck around at an impossible angle. It was there. The blood... So accessible. All he needed was a small sip and maybe he could escape... The hunger finally was too much and he swallowed. Once. Twice. Again. It tasted soooo wonderful. "That's it, Nicholas. Embrace your nature."

Those words chilled him to the bone. He spit the blood out of his mouth and curled his lips up in disgust. "Never."

The hands were at his mouth again, forcing his jaws open. The warm blood was poured into his mouth and he jerked backwards, only to be restrained by the same strong hands. He had to get away. How could he get away? He struggled with all his might, but the hands just held him more forcefully in his place.

"You will drink Nicholas... DRINK!"

Nick snapped his eyes open in terror, breathing heavily. His fear was slowly replaced by relief as he realized that he was at Natalie's apartment and not that terrible, dark cellar which had been his home for a year... He sighed in obvious relief and sank back into the pillow.

"Nick? Are you alright? I heard you yelling..." Natalie came racing into the room as if on cue.

Nick, still slightly shaken, sat up fully. "No, it's ok Nat. It was just a nightmare, you get used to them after 800 years..." he tried to sound nonchalant, but his voice trailed off when he saw her look of concern.

"Nick..." Natalie stopped short as she gave him a once over. He was covered with blood sweat and his hands were visibly shaking. Whatever he had had was definitely more than just a nightmare... But she wouldn't push it. He would talk to her when he was ready. She ignored the small voice in her head saying that Nick had never confided with her before...

Obviously, a quick change of subject was needed, because it was clear to her that Nick was getting more and more uncomfortable with her extended silence. "Well, um, Nick, why don't you let me make sure your wound is closed and then you can take a shower."

He smiled. "Am I to take that as an ever subtle hint?"

Nat smiled back, knowing he was trying to lighten the air between them. "Well... no offense, but..." she said with a teasing tone as he gave her an indignant look. Bending over she placed her hands over the bandage and gently removed it. Not surprisingly, the wound was completely healed.

"So, do I pass?" Nick looked at her with a childish hopefulness.

"Yup. Although, someday, you're gonna have to tell me how you manage to get yourself into such messes... Seriously. I think you have proven that cats aren't the only creatures with more than one life..." Natalie gave him a pat on the shoulder as he stood up and headed for the bathroom.

"Uh, yeah." Nick tried to eliminate the harsh, tortured tone from his voice as images of his imprisonment flashed before his eyes. Natalie had been joking, he knew, but for some reason he felt that odd, tight feeling in his chest. He knew he would break down right there if he couldn't get away.

Natalie looked at Nick with concern as she saw him blink back tears. How could she have been so stupid as to remind him of his recent predicament? She mentally slapped herself as she changed the subject again, almost smiling when she realized how good she was getting at that.

"Well, the fresh towels are where they've always been. And some of your clothes are still in the bottom drawer of my dresser, so take your pick," she said as she pointed to the location of his clothes.

"You still have some of my clothes?" he said, surprised. His earlier distress was forgotten when he heard her say that. Granted, he had stayed over a lot a year ago, he wouldn't have thought she would've saved his spare clothes...

Natalie felt slightly embarrassed at his utter amazement. "Well, yeah. I couldn't bring myself to get rid of them," she said quietly as she looked at the floor. He was silent and she felt his arms wrap around her shoulders.

Nick was amazed. He had never seen someone who cared that much about him. "Thanks, Nat. Thanks for everything." He lightly kissed her ear.

She turned, laughing, and lightly batted his shoulder. "That tickles! Now go take a shower!"

Nick looked at her with a feigned look of dejection. "Oh, alright. I can take a hint," he said as he went and got a pair of jeans and a T-shirt out of her drawer. Natalie merely smiled and went back out into the living room.

Nick let the warm spray of the shower relax him. He tried not to pay attention to the red tinted water that was flowing down the drain, a small reminder of his nature. Softly, he placed a hand on the cool tiles of the wall, leaning on it slightly. He was still very tired, despite the fact that the physical evidence of his injuries was completely gone.

Shaking his head, he sighed. Nick knew he had to either rebuild his life here or move on. He couldn't stay here indefinitely, no matter how appealing the option did in fact seem.

He knew that he would die if he had to leave Natalie. The pain at having to leave her a second time would tear him apart. Just these past few hours had rekindled his dormant feelings for her.

With a firm determination, he made up his mind. No matter what, no matter how, he would stay here. He had no idea how he would convince the police department why he had left for a whole year. But he would think of something.

Nick finished his shower quickly, dried himself off, and dressed. He had to talk with Nat about this now. Before they let their relationship go any further than it had previously been. At least LaCroix wasn't around to stop him now, he thought, recalling the painful events of his last Valentine's Day with Nat.

Natalie turned as Nick entered the room in his old jeans and shirt. She hadn't seen him in that in a long time and it pained her to see that he barely filled it. He really had lost a lot of weight. "Nat, we've got to talk."

Nat looked at him seriously. "I thought that's what we've been doing since you got here," she said as she felt a lump forming in her throat. This was where he was going to say he had to move on. She knew it. Logically speaking, he really couldn't have stayed, not after a year's absence. Even after what he had said, she was stupid to believe that he would stay.

"Yes, we have. But that's not what I meant. We need to talk about this, about us," Nick said softly, hoping that she would understand why.

Natalie sat down on the couch, tears glistening in her eyes. "You're leaving again, aren't you?" It wasn't really a question, but rather a statement conceding defeat.

Nick was honestly surprised at her response. "Nat, no, that's not what I meant!" he said, almost frightened, as he raced to her side and wrapped his arms around her. "Nat, I could NEVER leave you, not again. I will not say another word until you understand that. Nat, even if I did have to move on, I'd do everything in my power to take you with me," he whispered in a hoarse voice, as fiercely as his churning emotions would allow.

Natalie looked at him with relief. "Oh, Nick. I'm sorry, I assumed too much..."

"It's alright... It's my fault that you feel this way anyway. I should've never provoked LaCroix like that, I should've..." he stopped as Natalie placed a finger over his lips, silencing him.

"Nick, that was NOT your fault. It wasn't. I will not have you feeling guilty about this. You already have enough guilt for the world and then some. At least spare yourself this," she said passionately. She had seen the results of his excessive guilt before, and it pained her to see him giving into them again.

Nick averted his eyes, suddenly finding the carpet a very interesting color and texture. "Nick, I want you to say it. Say it wasn't your fault."

Nick looked up at her, slightly surprised. He opened his mouth and closed it just as quickly. He averted his eyes again, not able to comply with her request.

"Nick, say it."

Nick looked at her and her silently pleading expression and tried again, finding his voice for the first time. "It wasn't my fault," he mumbled, barely loud enough for Natalie to hear, as he averted his eyes once again.

"Say it again. I want you to believe it."

"It wasn't my fault," he said, louder this time, surprised that just that small act made him feel infinitely better.

"Good. And I want you to keep that in mind, always," she said with an encouraging smile.

"Thanks, Nat," he said softly. "Thanks for understanding."

"Well next time you think something is your fault, you should try that. It might save you some emotional pain in the future. Now let's talk, that is what you wanted to do, right?"

He smiled at that. "Yes. I want to start my life here again, I really do. But if that's not possible, there's no way I can safely stay in Toronto. I want you to realize that straight out..." he looked at her, searching her face for a reaction.

"I know that, Nick. Let's jump that hurdle when we get to it though, alright?" she said hopefully as she looked into his wonderful blue eyes. She still found it amazing how beautiful they were, despite the ages of pain that they almost always reflected.

"Nat, I need to know..." he paused, biting back on the surge of emotions that was coursing through him. "I need to know what happened after I left," he said, the last two words nearly coming out in a growl of anger. /Damn LaCroix for this!/ he thought harshly as he felt his hunger slowly start to push it's way to the surface. /NOT NOW!/ He shoved it back into the pit of his stomach, ignoring the stern protest his body was giving him.

Natalie looked at him, and waited for him to end his private battle. "Nick, are you hungry? There's still one more pack of blood if you need it..." she said, concerned.

Nick shook his head. He would NOT give in. Not now. "No, I'm alright for now. Please, answer my question."

"Ok... If you're sure..." Natalie said, slightly curious at his strange behavior. He was obviously hungry... "Well, Schanke went out on a crusade trying to find you, but after about two months, even he gave up and they put the case in with the unsolveds where it has remained ever since. He misses you, you know. Every once in awhile he digs his files out and reads them, as if he expects to find something he missed earlier," she said and Nick urged her to continue.

"Schanke has worked solo since then, you know... he's... OH! Nick! I'm supposed to go have dinner at his house in," she paused as she looked at her watch, "an hour!"

Nick smiled at her sudden outburst. "Well why don't you go get dressed while I try and figure out what to do about reentering my life."

"You're sure? I could call him and pretend to be sick..."

"Nat, go and have fun. We can finish this later, I have enough information to digest for awhile," he said, trying to reassure her. The mention of Schanke had brought up even more painful memories. Despite Schanke's annoying tendencies, Nick really did miss him. He was probably one of the only mortals he had run across in his many travels that he actually liked and felt he could confide in, with the exception of Nat.

She nodded reluctantly and went into the bedroom to get ready. This was the first time in a long time that she actually wasn't looking forward to spending the evening with Schanke. She actually felt kind of guilty.

Nick looked on as she left the room. Suddenly he was very weary. He thought it was hard enough moving to a new life. Now he had to figure out how to reinsert himself. Great.

A pang of hunger snapped himself out of his thoughts. Shaking his head and squeezing his eyes shut, he denied it once more and sank heavily into the couch he was sitting on. He raised his hands above his face and stared in disgust. His wrists and arms were bony, as was the rest of him. That was the primary cause for his hunger. He had been without proper nourishment for a year and his body had shown the signs rather obviously.

But every time he thought about how hungry he was, he could only remember LaCroix voice, urging him to drink. It frightened him very much. For some reason, he felt that giving in and drinking would be like letting his master win. And he couldn't let that happen, not even if LaCroix was dead.

He yawned briefly as he placed his hands back at his side. A short while later, he had drifted off into sleep.

Nat carefully set her hair and finished getting ready. She slipped herself out of the lilac-colored sweats she had put on earlier and into a nicer but still casual knee-length baby-blue skirt and matching blouse. Smiling as she looked in the mirror, she couldn't quite get over the fact that Nick was really there, and in her living room at that. She couldn't remember the last time she had been this happy.

There was so much they hadn't said before she left, so much they hadn't done. Nick had never said it, but she knew he loved her. Natalie sighed, thinking about how much they needed to discuss. They had had some serious talks since he had literally fallen into her apartment, but there was still so much they needed to cover.

They would have to deal with those issues as they came about, however. Despite her overwhelming need to resolve such things what she wanted to do was to take him in her arms and hold him forever.

But Nick was still emotionally unstable at this point, though he tried to hide it. Well who wouldn't be after an ordeal like that, it was a wonder he hadn't gone mad already.

Then there was the question of reentering the police force. She honestly didn't know how he was going to pull that off. Whatever he said would end up being very implausible or impossible to prove or both. Nick would figure out a way though. At least... she hoped he would.

If he couldn't... well then she would deal with that when the time came. And now there was Schanke to deal with. How she was going to get through tonight without letting anything slip was going to be interesting. She was so giddy that she doubted she could contain herself even if she wasn't asked. But she would have to.

Natalie glanced at her appearance again in the mirror. Satisfied with the results, she went into the living room to grab her purse. She laughed when she saw that Nick had fallen asleep on the couch, despite the uncomfortable position he was in. He was sitting up straight with his neck bent backward over the back of the sofa as if it had just fallen that way.

With a snicker, Natalie realized that was probably precisely what had happened. She approached him and with a careful once over, determined that he was completely dead to the world and wouldn't mind any disturbances. Shifting herself so that she was in front him, she took hold of his sides, noticing with some sadness the small bulges where his skin was barely stretched around his ribcage. She pulled him forward slightly and laid him down on the couch. She grabbed his legs and pulled them up onto the couch as well, so that he was completely in the horizontal position.

Nick didn't stir once during all this movement, and she couldn't help but giggle at his utter dead-to-the-worldness. Satisfied that he would be comfortable that way, she smiled and left, grabbing her coat and purse on the way out the door.


Nick started awake at the sound of that old familiar voice ringing through his ears. He didn't even have time to fully realize what was going on before he was grabbed and harshly flung to the floor, his head hitting the coffee table with a crack as he made the unplanned trip onto the carpet.

He rolled over, stunned on the floor. Blood was flowing freely down his forehead and he wiped it away as best he could.

"You didn't think you'd actually killed me, did you? Honestly Nicholas..."

Nick looked at his master, slowly overcoming the lethargicness that accompanied a severe head trauma. "LaCroix, please just leave me alone," he said. His tongue felt like lead but he struggled to continue. "I don't want this, can't you see?"

Nick got up off the floor slowly, trying not to take notice of the earsplitting headache that had replaced the wooziness. His metabolism still hadn't recovered all that well since he had escaped, so injuries were all the more serious. Not to mention the fact that his earlier hunger was returning with a vengeance.

He allowed himself to release the vampire for a brief instant to emphasize his point as he gestured to himself. "I don't want this, LaCroix," he said as his sad golden eyes watched and waited for a reaction from his master.

LaCroix had watched Nick, amused at his plea. He walked around Nicholas in a predatory circle as he spoke. "You can't even pretend to believe you know what you want, Nicholas. And I've come to realize that as long as our dear coroner is still alive, you will continue to follow this ridiculous pursuit."

Nick felt his anger swelling as his sire spoke and he struggled to keep it at bay. Already injured and hungry, he wouldn't last long against the obviously completely healed 2000 year old vampire. "LaCroix," he pleaded, "Don't harm her or I swear I'll kill you myself."

LaCroix raised an eyebrow in reaction, but his face was otherwise an emotionless mask. "You didn't seem to do a very good job the last two times you've tried... Really, Nicholas, you honestly amuse me sometimes. We had a deal. This is for Fleur as much as it is for your well-being."

Nick started to speak, only to have the wind knocked out of him as LaCroix switched from talkative to violent. He felt the bones in his ribcage snap as he was slammed up against a nearby wall. A firm hand kept him from sliding down the wall to the floor. As he struggled to breathe he felt LaCroix's hot breath on his neck behind him and a sharp fang scraped his skin. "You should be thankful that I'm only asking for her death and not yours."

"Please don't..." Nick pleaded, gasping at the pain those two simple words brought to his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut and silently prayed for the first time in centuries. He prayed for himself, but most of all he prayed for Nat.

All at once Nick heard a ripping sound and felt a searing pain that started in his neck and spread down into the tips of his limbs. A scream escaped his lips as he felt himself get lightheaded. The roaring pain of being drained was incredible and he felt himself weaken to the point that the only thing keeping him standing was LaCroix's iron grip.

He waited for unconsciousness to take him away from the pain, but it did not. A numbness was spreading through out his body, and he realized that LaCroix had stopped just soon enough to prevent such a blessing from coming about.

"You will watch her die, that will be your punishment for your transgressions." LaCroix whispered in his ear. As if on cue, a click sounded as a key was placed in the lock and it began to turn.

Nick tried to warn Natalie before she came in, but his attempted yell came out as a slurred, unintelligible whisper. He stared in horror as the door opened and Natalie entered.

"Nick, are you awake? Schanke's..." her voice trailed off as she saw Nick and LaCroix up against the wall. "What are you doing here?" she said evenly as her eyes came to rest on LaCroix.

LaCroix released his hold on Nick and barely paid it mind as his protege slipped to the floor, unable to support himself. Natalie tried to remain calm as LaCroix stared at her with a look of utter malice. "I'm here to reclaim my son," he said as he advanced upon her.

Natalie tried desperately not to show her fear. She noticed that Nick was awake and she tried to gauge the damage while keeping tabs on LaCroix. Gasping, she realized that LaCroix had drained him, although not completely. "Don't you realize that he won't come back to you?" she said, angrily.

"Not with you around anyway..." Nat gasped as LaCroix moved behind her, faster than she could see. "I will give you the same treatment as poor Nicholas. However, I'm sure you know that you're much less resilient than him..."

Natalie opened her mouth to defend herself but Nick spoke before she had the chance. He had managed somehow to sit up, despite the obvious trauma to his body. "LaCroix, if you hurt her I will never, EVER, come back to you. I'd rather die." His voice was weak and slightly slurred, but it caught LaCroix's attention.

The master vampire's anger and frustration were evident despite his attempts to hide it. "How unfortunate," he said flatly. He merely looked calmly back and forth between Nick and Nat as if he couldn't decide quite what to do. Suddenly his eyes narrowed and his face changed to that of pure rage as he came to his final decision. "Then I guess I will have to kill you both. If I can't have you, then no one can."

This really surprised Nick. LaCroix had to be bluffing... Nick of all people knew how much LaCroix wished to possess him and make him return to the fold... Nick swallowed hard when he realized LaCroix was probably going to beat him some more before he went any further in this discussion.

Sure enough, LaCroix pushed Natalie aside with a hard shove raced to Nick's hunched form. "I will kill you and let you die with the knowledge that all of your pathetic mortal friends are next." Grabbing Nick's shoulders, he pinned him once again to the wall. Nick's eyes opened wide. Perhaps LaCroix was serious... "Now..." LaCroix paused as he let his hot breath waft over the nape of Nick's neck, "You will pay for your defiance." Nick once again felt his master's fangs in his neck, but he didn't have the strength to struggle. So this was how it was going to end...

Nick let out one last soft plea, "Please, LaCroix..." But his sire paid no attention. He felt the draining feeling once again and his vision grew fuzzy.

And all at once, LaCroix stopped as if surprised. Nick let out a pained gasp as LaCroix's body was rammed into his by some unseen force. Both he and LaCroix fell to the floor in a heap and he could vaguely make out Nat's frightened voice as he lost consciousness. And... Schanke's?

"Nick? Nick, c'mon. Wake up."

He struggled to open his eyes as he heard Nat's voice calling him. Surprisingly, eyelids were very heavy things. Suddenly he became aware of another voice in addition to Nat's.

"I don't think he's awake, Nat."

"Yes he is, he's twitching."

"People twitch when they're asleep..."

"Yes, but not Nick."

"Are you sure he's ok?"

"Yes, I gave him a transfusion."

"I dunno, he looks pale..."

"Schanke... he's always pale. Now c'mon, Nick. Open your eyes."

Nick once again attempted to open his eyes. He succeeded, only to get a very blurry image of Natalie and Schanke staring down over him. That couldn't be Schanke, could it? What the... Blinking a few times, things finally came into focus. How could Schanke be here? "Schanke? Wh... What?"

"Is that any way to greet your partner?" Schanke said, amused.

"Huh?" Nick said, extremely confused.

Natalie took this moment to step in, realizing that Schanke wasn't going to make any move to explain the situation. "Schanke came home with me, I told him you were back, I couldn't help myself. He was out parking the car when I came in..."

Schanke looked at Nick sheepishly. "We tried to call ahead but you sleep like the dead, you know?"

Nick sat bolt upright. "But... but..."

Schanke smiled. "Relax, Nick. I know about what you are. When I came through the door and saw what was going on, I just reacted. Let's just say that Nat's one broom handle short of a bunch and LaCroix's plus one. Ok?"

"LaCroix's dead? Wait... You KNOW?" Schanke's words finally caught on and Nick was absolutely stunned. And all at once he grew frightened at the prospect of another mortal knowing his secret.

"Well, awhile before you left I grew suspicious and I started questioning who you really were. LaCroix took me off the trail, but after you left I got to thinking and well... when Nat said you were back it kinda clicked."

Nick turned to Nat, slightly angry. "Nat..."

Natalie looked at him with a slightly guilty look. "I didn't tell him anything, Nick, I swear to God. Well, except that you were back."

Nick opened his mouth to speak when Schanke chimed in. "Look, Nick. Don't blame Natalie for this. When she showed up at my door looking more peppy than my wife on a shopping spree I knew something was up. Myra and I pried it out of her. I swear I'll never tell a soul, Nick. I'm just glad you're alive."

Nick was so overwhelmed that he couldn't speak. But one thought did strike him in his stupor. Nervously he got up off the bed where he had been placed on and proceeded to walk into the living room, followed silently by Natalie and Schanke. Although he had to stop once to gain his equilibrium, he made it in a few seconds.

LaCroix's body lay still on the floor in a puddle of blood, the jagged edge of a broken off broom handle sticking out of his back. Nick stared in disbelief. Rage washed over him and he started to shake as the disbelief was replaced by anger. "DAMN YOU!" he said as he kicked the still body in uncensored fury. His eyes blazed red and he snarled, kicking LaCroix again.

Surprisingly, it was Schanke's voice that broke through his rage. "Woah! Nick, calm down, he's dead! I know he hurt you, but this is not the way to have a family reunion..."

Nick stopped and let his vampire visage fade only to be replaced by a look of guilt. Schanke was right, but that didn't mean it didn't hurt. "He has been the cause of 800 years of torment..." he said, his voice sounding so low that it was obvious the vampire was not far from the surface.

Nick turned to Natalie. "Nat, what time is it?" He asked, but he didn't need an answer. He could feel by instinct that the sun had risen.

"It's 7:14 A.M., why?" Natalie looked at Nick curiously.

Nick looked at Schanke and then to her. "Open the blinds, Nat," he said flatly as he stepped back to the front door.


"Just do it, Nat. I'll be ok," Nick said, his eyes coming to rest upon LaCroix's body.

She nodded, still worried, and opened the blinds. Rays of sunlight penetrated the room. Natalie observed Nick's fear as the natural light flooded the room, but he quickly hid it away beneath that emotional mask he was so good at keeping once he had established that he was indeed out of harm's way.

LaCroix's body started to smoke and burn almost violently and Schanke jumped back in surprise. Nick merely watched silently as his master was reduced to mere ashes.

When the body finally disintegrated, Nick shook with relief. "It's over... It's really over," he said in disbelief as he sank to the floor.

Natalie moved to clean up the remains, finally understanding why Nick had wanted the blinds to be open. Staking his master had not worked in the past, and Nick had every right to want to be sure. But he was right, it was finally over.

Schanke broke the silence that had ensued. "Well, Nick. Obviously you two want to be alone. Whatever story you come up with, I'll go along with it, just lemme know. I guess I should be leaving now..."

Nick got up and smiled. "Thanks, Schanke. Thanks for everything."

Schanke grinned and slapped Nick on the back in a friendly-like way. "Anytime, pardner..." he said, letting voice slip into that familiar drawl that Nick hadn't heard in a year. "Lemme know when I can expect to be best man at your wedding, by the way..." Schanke smiled as he left, shaking his head as he went.

Nick turned to Natalie as the door shut. Silence hovered in the air and time stretched into what seemed like hours. He merely stared blankly at her.

It was then that the pent up emotions of the last few hours finally hit him and Nick did something he never thought he would do. He laughed. Of all the things he had ever considered he would do if LaCroix died, laughing was certainly not high on his list.

"Nick? Are you ok?" Nat said, concernedly.

"Nat, don't you see? I'm free! I'm finally free! He'll never be there to threaten you or me or anyone again. I can search for a cure without interruption." /And I can finally say how I feel without fear.../

Natalie didn't know what to say. She merely listened as Nick continued to ramble on.

"Natalie, do you hear what I'm saying? We're free! I can go back to being a detective and he'll never bother me about it again!"

Nat smiled, but suddenly turned serious. "Nick, how are we going to explain your disappearance?"

He looked at her. "Honestly... I don't know. But there's something I really must take care of before we even begin to think of that."

Nat looked at Nick, questioningly. "And what is that?"

Nick grabbed her and she gave a startled gasp as he began to kiss her passionately and with utter abandon. He stopped after a minute or so, allowing her to catch her breath. "That," he said with a smile, noticing her flushed face.

Natalie looked at him, completely surprised by his sudden action. "Nick... I..." she tried to speak, but was at a total loss for words.

"Natalie, I am completely and totally head-over-heels in love with you," Nick said, his eyes sparkling. When he saw her surprise, he added in a soft voice, "Just thought you'd like to know."

Nat looked at him in amazement. He was absolutely serious. Nick had never been very open about his feelings. She felt a warm fuzzy feeling slowly envelope her and she smiled. "You don't know how long I've waited to hear that, Nick..."

"Yes I do. I'm sorry I didn't say it sooner," Nick told her seriously.

She gazed at him with her eyes glistening. Her elated look was slowly replaced with a mischievous one. "Well I can help you make up for it if you want..."

He grinned. "Absolutely."

"Kiss me again!" she ordered sternly.

"Ok," Nick said softly, slowly taking her into a close embrace and doing exactly as she bid.