EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Standard disclaimers apply. Nick, Nat, and the FK gang
don't belong to me, except for the characters of Alihra and
Elohr, both of which are the creations of my own, warped
little mind. Any similarities to other stories or real
life occurrences are coincidental/unintentional. Permission
is granted to archive on fkfanfic.com and the ftp site. All
others please ask so that I can keep track of it.

This fanfic is fourth in my Darkness series, which started
with When Darkness Falls, and was followed by The Light Must
Follow, and And So I Walk Into The Fire. Although it is not
necessary to have read those previous stories in order to
understand what is going on in this one, you may find this
more enjoyable if you have read them. In any case, all
stories in this series are available at my web site, at
http://filebox.vt.edu/users/diharris/Homepage.htm

This is a NNPacker story, although Janette, Schanke, and
my own characters make many appearances. This is likely to
be the last story in this series, I think I've finally come
to a good stopping point :)

I would like to profusely thank my beta reader, Lois
Frankel, for all the patience she's had with my bad grammar
and interesting typos :) I'd also like to thank Laurie and
Neil for their aid in my French translations, they were a
big help even if it was just a small part!

Thanks for all the feedback I've received on the previous
stories in this series, it's kept me writing fervently on
what's become my longest story ever. All comments,
questions, flames, and whatnot may be sent to me, at
aria5@vt.edu. Flames, however, will be promptly
discarded :)

Anyhoo, you can read now :)

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

The pale, full moon drifted overhead in the murky black sky,
its silver halo crowning it with a ring of icy mist. As its
cold light fell in a soft blanket over the cave-like alley,
a medium-height, stocky man stood in the darkness looking
upwards towards it, the embers of his slowly dying cigarette
glowing like hot glass in a fire. After taking one last
puff, he threw the thin white cancer stick to the ground and
snuffed it out with a leather booted foot.

He could hear carolers in the distance, faintly singing
Carol of the Bells and he shook his head. How they could
stand out there for so long was beyond him. It was cold,
damnit! And as far as he was concerned, he was just not in
the Christmas spirit. He glanced around fruitlessly in the
darkness. This, was a frozen Hell. That's what it was.
Stomping his feet lightly, he jumped up and down a bit to
increase his circulation, debating whether he wanted to stay
outside long enough to smoke another cigarette.

Drawing his hands to his mouth in two tightly clenched
fists, he blew his smoky breath onto to his heavily
callused fingers in a last ditch attempt to warm them. He
cursed to himself softly. It was so damn cold out! Why'd
they have to make him take his smoking breaks outside?
Stomping his foot, he turned towards the door with all
intents of going back to work, but something stopped him,
and he turned back to peer into the frigid, tenebrous alley.

He shivered, more out of coldness than of nervousness. His
thick black parka was not serving its function at all. In
all his years in the city of Toronto, he'd not once
experienced such nipping cold. The chill was seeping in
through his bones and at once it made him feel desperately
lonely. Cold... Too much like death for his liking.

He shook his mane of flame-red hair as if he half-expected
it to be frozen solid. It wasn't, but if he'd had the
unfortunate chance of getting wet he would've found himself
with a head full of pointy red icicles. Something the
teenagers of today would've probably made into a cool new
fashion. Literally cool...

Shrugging off the biting air as if it were a caustic insult,
he turned once again towards the inviting brown door.
Inviting him to warmth and security. Its arms were
beckoning. Come inside, Harry. It's warm. Come on, you're
done with your cigarette... He placed his frozen hand on
the handle and pulled the door open a couple inches. Time
to go in, he'd had enough of contemplating the bitter
coldness.

EEEEIIIII

It echoed through the alley like a screeching bird of prey,
the high pitched scream assaulting the brick walls and his
ears until he felt that his fragile eardrums were about to
melt. His hands immediately flew from the door handle and
clapped over his cherry-red, frostbitten ears. "Who...
who's there?" he cried, terrified at what specter could make
such an ungodly noise.

Only the wafting chill of soft northern wind greeted him.
He would've passed it off as his own overactive imagination
if it weren't for his ringing, throbbing ears.

CLICK CLICK CLICK

It sounded like the spiked heal of a woman's pump on the
pavement and he threw his glance wildly about trying to
pinpoint the sound, but the echoes provided by the alley
walls made it next to impossible. "Hello???" he called
again, his voice wavering nervously like a runaway seesaw
as he fought to keep his calm.

Something flew past his face, the cool whiplash of air
shocking his already flushed, frozen cheeks. That was it...
He turned to dash inside, he wasn't up for these games. It
must be someone from the office trying to play tricks on
him. Tricks. That was it.

But he was stopped as a pair of bony thin arms snaked around
him and pushed the air out of his lungs with a sharp
squeeze. The exhalation of breath was like a pitiful yelp,
and he slowly started to panic when the crushing grip would
not let him inhale again. Standing there in quiet terror,
he felt the world begin to dim as his oxygen-deprived brain
began to shut down. But just when he thought it was the
end, the arms loosened, and he drew in a desperate breath,
his lungs whistling as they spasmodically sucked in as much
air as they could. He felt warm, moist breath on the nape
of his neck slowly move around to his ear as he panted
wildly in terror, his breath escaping from his chapped lips
into heavy clouds of twisting vapor.

"Don't say a word..." the whisper came like a tinkle of
heavenly bells, as if an angel itself had come to speak with
him. It was a woman, that he was sure of, and for some
reason he felt his fear siphoning out of him. He became
relaxed and yet somehow exhilarated at the same time as an
acrylic nailed finger traced patterns in the short, soft,
fuzzy hair that littered the back of his neck.

He shuddered and he felt himself becoming strangely
aroused. The danger, the passion. It was all so
enticing... He was ripped from his fantasies, however, when
the mysterious woman roughly turned him around and planted a
wet kiss on his lips. Deep and fulfilling, he was shivering
in ecstasy before he even had a chance to look her in the
eyes. His brain felt like it was about to explode and he
grabbed at her, kissing her back wildly and wondering at the
same time what the Hell he was doing. Kissing a complete
stranger in the freezing, darkened alley? This was not the
thing he would've imagined himself spending his night doing.

But he somehow didn't care. He was in the arms of a goddess
to behold. A goddess. He didn't care. It felt too damn
good for him to care, and as he groped at her deliriously
unrestrained, he felt a fiery warmth replace the bitter
cold that had inhabited him only minutes before.

Finally, in desperate need of air, he pulled back and took a
deep breath. "Who..." he started to ask breathlessly, but
she clapped her hand over his lips before he could utter
another word.

"It doesn't matter..." she stated quietly, her deathly pale
skin gauntly stretched across her face to the point that she
looked unnatural. Like some creature not of this earth. He
sighed dreamily. Not a creature of this earth... An
angel...

Her eyes even seemed to glow a glittery golden hue, shining
forth like two suns in a blackened sky, their brilliant
fires blinding all those who dared to look. "Close your
eyes..." she commanded.

He could hear his own heart thundering in his ears, and as
he stared at those beautiful eyes, the rest of his world
became black. All he saw were the eyes. Two floating orbs
of sunlight in the abyss, calling to him longingly to obey.
Without even consciously willing them to do so, he felt his
eyes lazily droop shut as he took in another breath,
anticipating the further ecstasy that was to come.

A bestial growl rumbled through the alley, but he was too
lost to care. Lost in his own drumming heartbeat, thumping
wildly. Cold, gnarly fingers unzipped his parka and drew
the confining fabric away from his pulsing jugular. His
mind began to drift to a far away place as he felt a sharp
prick in his neck.

Now... You are mine...

He didn't hear it really. He just knew it. And that was
when he felt his consciousness slipping away through the
cracks, into the dim shadows that suffocated the alley.

Mine.

His body slipped to the ground of the alley with an echoing
thud, the mysterious woman already long gone. True darkness
slid forth over the cool pavement as the clouds finally
overtook the weeping, defeated moon. And as the cold wind
began to blow more fervently, glittering snowflakes, like
facets of a crystal in a gleaming sunrise, fell softly to
the ground and coated the still corpse with a light dusting
of winter frost.

*****

Natalie stared at the vial of liquid on the table in quiet
anticipation. Lyzatrex. An experimental drug, very similar
to Lidovuterine B in chemical components except that unlike
Lidovuterine, it was meant to stimulate red blood cell
growth in anemics. Lidovuterine had been the closest she'd
every gotten Nick to a cure. If she could just find some
derivative of it that worked without the addictive and other
psychological effects, she'd have a great start as long as
the vampire element in Nick's blood didn't keep regenerating
like it had for the Lidovuterine.

Staring hard at the tiny vial, she sighed. She desperately
wanted to test it, but... if she did, was she prepared for
yet another failure? She glanced down to her outstretched
hand, simply frozen in midair as if it were inanimate. The
muscles ached, but for some reason, she simply couldn't
bring herself to advance.

With her free hand, she brushed a stray brown curl out of
her face, away from her wide eyes. Taking a deep breath,
she laughed heartily when she noticed that the rubber
dropper in her hand was getting slightly damp from her own
perspiration. Why was she so nervous? It wasn't like this
test would have any real bearing on anything...

Well, yes, actually, it would... If it worked, Nick would
be the happiest man alive. And if it worked, it would be
the happiest day of her life since Nick had returned to her.
Because it would mean that he could become mortal. Nick,
her angsty vampire lover, her _best friend_, would have his
one great wish. The most precious wish in his entire life.
One that had never truly been granted. The Lidovuterine had
given him a taste of what was to come, but its psychotropic
effects had ruined any enjoyment he would've gotten out of
it.

She brushed a tear away from her eye. There were so many
ways they could've spent that one day in the sun... and
she'd chosen to be the scientific one and act skeptic. It
pained her to realize that even if he'd suggested a simple
thing like a picnic or a walk in the park, she probably
would've told him that it wasn't a good idea and that he
should stay inside. True, they hadn't been romantically
involved at the time, but they could've done _something_
special... Like, she'd always wanted to see what he thought
of chocolate, and she hadn't even forced him to sample a
Milky Way, or double fudge ice-cream. What a crime!

But enough of that. If the test worked... She sighed,
trying to ignore the little voice in her head asking her
doubting mind what would happen if it didn't work, even
though she already realized that the odds against this were
nearly insurmountable. Nick had developed a pretty
reasonable immunity to the Lidovuterine. It was doubtful
that this Lyzatrex serum was different enough to work to its
full capacity, if at all.

Nat realized with a laugh, that unintentionally, she had
shifted her thoughts to the negative side once again.
Enough! This was the first possible cure she'd managed to
research since Nick had returned. She had to be positive!
It wasn't like Nick would know if it didn't work. She
hadn't even told him that she was getting close to something
yet. She didn't want to get his hopes up. But what about
her hopes? She realized it was too late to save them from
their trip into the rafters.

Nat shook her head. This would work. It _would_ work.
Yeah, that was right, be an optimist... With a firm new
resolve, she took the dropper still waiting patiently in her
clammy hand and dipped it into the vial of pale blue liquid,
loosening her grip on the rubber end of the dropper to suck
some of the Lyzatrex into it.

Lifting the dropper from the vial, she glanced at it only
briefly before sweeping her hand across the table towards
the slide that held a small sample of Nick's blood. With
one final deep breath of anticipation, she squeezed the
rubber lightly, slowly dripping out a few drops of the
liquid onto the slide.

Like a flash she was at her new microscope, gasping slightly
as she saw what was happening on that small slide. The
Lyzatrex was overwhelming the extra nucleotides in Nick's
blood, completely obliterating them. It was as if they were
just exploding. And then nothing. She was suddenly staring
at a very normal looking, human blood sample. Woah...

She smiled as she stared at the slide. That had happened
really fast. And it appeared to be working. The only
problem was that a violent reaction like that probably meant
it was going to hurt if she injected Nick with it.
Obviously, there were a few more things she'd have to look
into, but... She bit her lower lip, already starting to
worry a bit. How to bring this up with Nick?

The results of the last drug test she'd tried with Nick had
been very disturbing for her. For Nick it must've been a
nightmare. She still remembered what she'd walked in on in
the loft. Nick had gone home after giving his statement
regarding Vinetti, and she'd gone over a few hours late to
check on him. Nothing had prepared her what she saw.

FLASHBACK - TORONTO 1995

She entered the loft to find him huddled in the corner by
the steps, shaking like a leaf caught in a breeze. His arms
were clasped around his knees with a vice-like, white-
knuckled grip as if he were afraid he'd fall apart if he let
them go. And slightly threatening, she couldn't tell if he
was vamped out or not because his forehead was resting on
his forearm, safely tucking his face away from view.
"Nick?" she said with worry, afraid that he was wallowing in
their failure to cure him. The Lidovuterine had been a
terrible mistake. A terrible mistake...

He looked up in her direction, but it appeared as if he
wasn't actually seeing her. His glassy golden eyes wandered
back and forth minutely as if they couldn't focus and she
felt her heart quicken slightly in fear. He was obviously
in the grips of his vampiric side, and she briefly found
herself contemplating the danger she was in but when she
heard him moan as if in some discomfort she forgot all about
it. "Nick?" she called again hesitantly as she walked over
to him.

He still said nothing, only continuing to stare blankly in
her general direction. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
His breathing was ragged, and she could hear it rasping in
his throat as if it were causing him pain. Very concerned,
she sat beside him and placed her hand on his trembling
shoulder, only now noticing that his silky blue shirt was
ruined with the red wetness of his sweat. Her touch
finally registered with him, and he practically leapt out of
his skin, growling wildly with his fangs extended.

"Woah! Nick, it's me! Nat!" He flailed blindly and let
out a small sob, blood tears trickling down his pale face.
Nat hugged him to her tightly. "Nick, what's wrong?" she
asked quietly as his sob became sobs, and then full blown
crying. It was shocking, and she was at a complete loss as
to what to do. She'd never _ever_ seen him cry. Never.
He was not one to show his emotions so unchecked...

"Nat..." he gasped as he pulled himself out of her embrace.
The look in his eyes was enough to make her want to cry
right along with him. It wasn't so much the pain evident
in his sullen eyes, but more the look of being utterly lost.
"I can't... I can't stop my hands from shaking..." he said
pitifully, holding up his hands for her to see as if that
was the worst of his troubles. True to his word though,
his hands were trembling despite his obvious attempts to
hold them still.

As Nick groaned in frustration, staring at his hands with a
look of utter consternation, Nat finally realized what was
going on. It was withdrawal. The Lidovuterine had had
addictive properties, and now he'd come crashing down off
the high of the past night when he'd caught Vinetti. He'd
seemed all right then, but he'd gone home almost immediately
after they'd taken his statement. She hadn't thought
anything of it. But she should have...

She looked at his trembling hands for only a second before
she clasped them warmly in-between her own. Even then, she
could still feel them shaking in her grasp. "Nick, shhh,
it'll be all right," she said softly. It felt fake telling
him that he'd be all right. She knew that some addicts
never got over their cravings, and that they went through
life constantly reminding themselves not to give in... What
had she done?

"Need some more... lido... vu... te... rine," he said
woefully as his teeth began to chatter.

She was shocked, her eyes widening in response. "Nick, you
can't be serious..." she exclaimed, looking at his withered
form in alarm, but it appeared that he hadn't even heard
what she'd said. With her heart in her throat, she watched
as he clutched his abdomen and cried out in pain. He leaned
forward slightly and she saw his torso spasm as if he were
about to vomit, but nothing came up.

He gasped and ground his molars together. "Stop... stop the
pain..." he whispered as he looked forlornly in her
direction, off into some void of space only he could see.
She'd never seem him look so incredibly disoriented. So
defenseless...

"Can't stop my hands... from shaking..." he said again, as
if he didn't realize he'd already said it. Suddenly, he
cocked his head to the side and stared at her with a strange
look in his eye. "Nat? What're you doing here?" he asked
with a sniff, his look of confusion turning into one of
nausea.

Good lord, he was really out of it... Nat wanted to cry.
She should've done more tests before giving that awful
stuff to him... And it was all her fault. She'd done this
to him...

She enfolded him again in a tight embrace. "Nick, I'm so
sorry..." she said sincerely as he started to sob in her
arms again, not caring about what his tears must be doing to
her white silk blouse.

THE PRESENT

"Oh, Nick..." Nat sighed as she was brought back to the
present. Tears were streaming down her face at the horrible
memory, falling softly onto the slide that had so recently
been the bearer of good news. It was all her fault that
things had gotten so incredibly out of hand. She
should've...

"Natalie? Why are you crying, sweetheart?" Grace
Balthazar's soothing voice interrupted her thoughts, nearly
startling Nat out of her skin. When had she snuck in? How
much of that episode had she seen?

Natalie quickly wiped away the tears and turned to face her
worried friend. "It's nothing, Grace. I must've gotten
something caught in my eye..." Natalie quickly rushed to
make an excuse, and for emphasis she raised her left hand,
rubbing her eye as if something were bothering it. But
judging from Grace's worried frown, her impromptu acting
wasn't all that believable.

"Nat, dear, you were crying your eyes out. Don't even think
about telling me that was just an eye bug..." Grace said,
crossing her arms in front of her chest in a classic
'Superman' pose.

"I... I was just remembering something from a long time ago.
Nothing important..." Natalie hedged, hoping her friend
would leave it be, but from the look on Grace's face, she
knew that she wouldn't. Definitely not.

"Nat, it wasn't unimportant if it's making you feel so sad.
Come on, it'll make you feel better to talk about it..."
Grace said quietly, guiding Natalie to the chair by her
cluttered desk and sitting her down in it with a light
shove.

Natalie looked down at the floor. She was trapped. There
was no way that Grace was going to let her out of this one.
She sighed. "Grace..." she began, "Do you remember how Nick
has a skin condition that makes it so that he can't go out
in the sunlight?" she asked hesitantly. Of _course_ Grace
would remember... She doubted anyone who knew Nick could
ever forget that little detail, it was just a little too
unusual to forget.

Grace nodded. "How could I not? Why, is this about Nick?"
she asked curiously.

Nat sniffled a little bit and before she knew it a tissue
had magically appeared in front of her eyes. Graciously
accepting the proffered item, she continued. "Sort of.
It's just that... I've been trying to find a cure for him
for years, and now I think I may have found one..."

Grace's face brightened up like a hundred watt light bulb.
"Nat, honey, that's wonderful! But then why..." her voice
trailed off again as Natalie gave a little sob.

"But see, Grace... I just..." Nat sighed. How to explain
this without going into too many details? Without revealing
Nick's secret? "Last time I thought I had found a cure it
ended in a big disappointment, and Nick really got hurt..."

Grace got a serious look on her face. "How so?" she
questioned.

"The drug I tried had some unforeseen side effects. Nick
got incredibly paranoid, and pretty soon he was shooting
the stuff up hourly. He was addicted, Grace..." her voice
involuntarily trailed off until she saw Grace's nod of
encouragement that simply seemed to say, 'keep going, Nat,
you need to talk about this'.

Natalie continued. "And when I discovered that the
so-called cure I had found was just masking the symptoms
of his disease instead of actually curing him, he went off
the deep end... I... I don't know if I could put him
through that again..." Nat couldn't take it any more. She
started to sob, not caring that Grace was here to see her
in probably one of her weakest moments.

"Oh, honey!" Grace exclaimed softly. "Shhh, don't cry.
Maybe I can help you work through this..."

Nat's tears briefly subsided and she nodded. Any help
would be great. Anything at all. She didn't really have
anyone to talk to about Nick, except Schanke. And well, it
just wasn't the same as having a girlfriend to discuss
things with. This was as close as she'd ever get to having
a really open conversation.

"Does Nick know you've started working on a cure again?"
Grace asked.

Nat shook her head. "We've sort of talked about trying to
cure him again. He's been trying all our old plans like
dietary supplements and vitamin pills... But... I haven't
told him I've been researching more drugs for him to try."

"And you're not sure you want to tell him about this one,
even if it may work, because you don't want another
failure?" Grace summarized, making sure that she knew all
the details.

Nat nodded mutely, almost ashamed that she was getting so
worked up over a seemingly easy to solve problem.

"Oh, Natalie..." Grace exclaimed, compassion filling her
voice. "Don't you think that's his decision to make
though? He can always say no, but if you don't give him
that choice, you'll spend your life wondering 'What if that
_had_ worked?'"

"Yeah, Grace... I suppose your right. But... It's
just... so..." she paused while searching for the right
word, "complicated." Complicated was probably
oversimplifying matters a bit, but it served as an adequate
generalization.

"Nat, with guys like Nick, it always is," Grace said with a
teasing smile and Nat couldn't help but smile back. Nick
was an enigma, even to her sometimes. And with the
exception of herself, and possibly Schanke, she doubted
anyone would ever truly understand him. Not in a million
years.

Nat smiled again, surprised at how much better she felt,
simply from relating her problem to someone else. "Thanks,
Grace. Thanks for making me talk. I think I'll discuss
this with him tonight after work," she commented softly.

"Anytime, Nat. Free of charge!" Grace said with a wink as
she gestured with a quick flit of her hand and sauntered out
of the office.

Nat grinned at her friend's joking manner, but as Grace
quietly shut the door behind her, her grin fell into a tiny
frown as she thought about her decision. After work. After
work, she would drop the bombshell.

*****

//His power and glory ever more proclaim.

Clapping flooded through the precinct as the last strains of
O Holy Night died into the background. "Bravo!" Schanke
screamed, and then he started clapping furiously as other
fellow officers stood up to join him. The Christmas carols
had been a welcome relief by practically everyone in the
precinct, those who celebrated Christmas and those who
didn't. The cheer they provided transcended specific
religious sects.

Nick gave a reluctant, wry smile as Schanke stood and gave
his daughter's choir group a standing ovation. Cohen had
reluctantly allowed them to sing two songs for the precinct,
knowing that it would brighten up the very gloomy in-the-
proximity-of-a-holiday night shift. Jenny, standing in the
front row in her heavy red parka and woolen mittens, blushed
enough to match her coat. Schanke wisely sat down and
turned his eyes towards a suddenly very interesting paper on
his desk.

Nick placed his head in his hands and sighed. Christmas.
This time of year had always been so... painful. It had
always reminded him that he was alone. But now, things
were different. He had Natalie. And he wanted it to be
special this year. But how?

"So, Nick," Schanke began, apparently finally noticing that
his partner didn't look as happy as everyone else did.
"What's wrong? The carols... They didn't..." Schanke
glanced left and right as if he were checking to make sure
no one was watching, "hurt you, did they?" he asked
seriously.

"Huh?" Nick asked before he finally realized what on Earth
Schanke was talking about. "No! Nononono, only crosses,
Schank. And blessed objects. Churches, holy water... But
the day a Christmas carol kills me will be the day I drink
one of Nat's protein shakes and like it," he assured his
worried partner, chuckling in spite of himself.

He had to admire Schanke. He was really trying to get
everything straight. It had been two months since that
awful mess with Infaustus, a little over three since he'd
come back from his year with LaCroix, and ever since then,
Schanke had been drilling him about every little aspect
of his vampirism. Schanke wanted to know everything, from
how fast he could fly, to if he _really_ could turn into
a bat. _That_, had sent Nick into rolls of laughter, but it
touched him that Schank had cared enough to ask.

He knew there was a constant effort by Schanke to make him
feel accepted, and he couldn't thank him more for it. No
one had ever made him feel so... so... normal.

Nick was broken from his musings when Schanke finally
responded. "I don't see what's so funny about it... Here
you coulda been dying a slow death by Christmas carols, and
you're sitting here laughing about it," Schanke said with
a smile on his face. Although he was joking Nick could
detect a small hint of something more underneath... Like
maybe something like that could actually happen and Schanke
was afraid...

"Schanke, will you relax? I'm practically indestructible,
you really don't need to worry..." Nick assured him,
leaning back into his chair with a complacent grin, but
practically flying over backwards when the wheels of his
chair slipped and sent his arms reeling to maintain his
balance. When he finally regained his equilibrium, Schanke
was laughing heartily.

"That wasn't funny, Schanke..." he said, feeling a strange
heat on the skin of his cheeks. If he was capable of
blushing, which he really wasn't sure of one way or another,
he was certain that this would be a good indicator.

"Oh, Nick," Schanke stopped as he broke into more gales of
laughter. "The look on your face..." he managed to get out
between wheezes. "I'm pretty indestructible," Schanke said
and thumped his chest, mimicking Nick in his best 'I'm Mr.
Nick Knight. Supercop extraordinaire' impression.

Nick felt a growl forming in his throat, but he was stopped
as Jenny came bounding up to them, like her feet were made
of pogo-sticks and tensely coiled springs. "Daddy!!!" she
cried gleefully, skidding to a stop just in front of her
chortling father.

Schanke sat up, finally stopping his monstrous laughter.
"Hi, pumpkin. Wonderful job, Jenny," he said
enthusiastically as he gave his daughter a hearty hug. "The
precinct loved you!"

Jenny's eyes got wide at her dad's sincere compliments.
"Really?"

Nick took that moment to break in to the conversation. He
reached over and patted Jenny on the shoulder
affectionately. "Absolutely! I haven't heard a better
rendition of O Holy Night since 1872!"

Jenny playfully batted him on the arm. "Awwww, Nick, you
are _so_ lying! You weren't alive then..." she said with a
very serious, matter-of-fact tone. It was as if she felt
herself a teacher on the subject.

"Shoot, you got me..." Nick conceded defeat, even though
he'd actually been serious. He hadn't thought she'd really
pay attention to that. "Well at least not since I was a
kid. And that was in... uh... um... the 1960s. I
think..." Nick said, scratching his head. When was his
birthday in this life supposed to be again? So much
switching around got him pretty mixed up when he tried to
remember fake dates. He had enough trouble with the real
ones.

Jenny gave him a big grin and kissed him on the cheek.
"Well, thanks for the compliment anyway," she said as she
glanced passed them towards where the others were all
standing, bundled in their heavy winter coats. "Oops, I've
gotta go," she said. "Bye, Nick. Bye, Dad!" she cried,
and then she bounded off towards her friends in what seemed
like hyperspeed.

Nick all at once felt incredibly old. Had he been that
hyper when he was a child? He hoped not. It was a wonder
his mother hadn't killed him if it were so.

He glanced up at Schanke, who was staring at him with a
smirk. "What?" he asked innocently, but he already had a
pretty good idea where this was going...

"Oh, come on, Nick! 1872?" Schanke asked sarcastically,
rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, it was in France..." Nick said, his voice
subconsciously reverting to his native accent, sighing as he
began to remember...

"WOAH! Nick! Back the flashback trolley up there. I don't
need the gory details," Schanke commented as he thwapped
Nick on the head with a hand roll of papers. He had learned
that procedure as an almost fail-proof flashback
annihilator.

Nick shook himself slightly, briefly disoriented by the
quickly changing centuries. "Sorry," he mumbled
apologetically. He knew his little habit of flashing back
to the past was more than just a little annoying. Luckily
most people just thought he was spacey, rather than
suffering from perfect recall.

"Seriously, Nick. What was bothering you earlier?" his
partner questioned him, this time more seriously.

It took Nick a moment to get back to the original subject of
their conversation. "Oh, I don't know. I was kinda trying
to figure out how I'm going to make this Christmas special
for me and Nat..." he glanced over at Schanke only to see
his partner staring at him with a wicked gleam in his eye.
"Schank... That's not what I meant..." Nick hastily
explained.

"Sure, partner... Sure..." Schanke assured him, albeit with
the most scheming tone Nick had ever heard. "Seriously
though? You've got two weeks. Fourteen whole days, and at
least you don't have a nine-year-old to shop for. I'm sure
you'll think of something."

"Yeah, well, I'm sure coming up blank right now..." Nick
sighed wistfully as he wracked his brain for ideas.
Anything would suffice at this point.

"I'd suggest that you volunteer to do the laundry and the
dishes for a week. Women always like that," Captain Cohen
said seriously as she walked up, only her slight smile
betraying the fact that she was amused by her star
detectives' discussion.

Nick and Schanke sat up straight and at attention the moment
their superior officer interrupted the conversation.
"Sorry, Captain. We really were working on paperwork..."
Schanke began an actually reasonable sounding excuse, wildly
searching his desk for _any_ partially filled out form that
would back him up, but Cohen raised her hand to shut him up.

"Boys, relax. I just came to let you know that you'll be
getting an associate to work with for the next few days.
She just arrived and is sitting in my office as we speak,"
Cohen told them, waiting for the explosion. This had the
potential to not go over well.

"Associate?" Nick questioned somewhat suspiciously at the
same time that Schanke squeaked, "She?!"

"She's here from higher up. Consider it an evaluation of
our police department. I decided to stick her with my best
pair of detectives," Cohen tried to assure them, hoping
that this wasn't a mistake. They already looked plenty
apprehensive.

"Yes, consider me that, if you will..."

Nick and Schanke both turned at the interruption, and upon
a quick glance, Nick couldn't help but wonder if Schanke's
mouth could drop any farther. It already looked like he'd
disconnected his jaw from his skull. "Schanke, close your
mouth," he whispered out of the side of his mouth, trying
not to make it appear obvious that he'd said anything.

"Gentlemen, meet Alihra Dale," the Captain gestured to the
stunning woman who had just appeared before them. Stunning.
That was an understatement.

She was about 5'9", clothed in a rather striking black
business suit. Her waist-length, jet-black hair was pulled
back into a smooth black ponytail, pulled so tightly that it
looked like a skull-cap. She was thin, but not too thin
like the sickly looking models that frequented the fashion
runways. This was a healthy-looking thin. And her skin, it
was the color of smooth, milk-chocolate. Very tan, almost
Indian-looking. But not quite.

Nick couldn't help but stare. Her eyes, though, they were
the most striking he'd ever seen. The irises were a deep
emerald green, with streaks of gold clawing outward from
the pupils, all of which were framed by the fullest looking
set of eyelashes he'd ever seen. They looked... almost
feline. Animal...

He looked in those eyes... and he was lost. Lost in the
depths. He swallowed hard as he felt himself drowning in
those endless pools of green. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
The sound of her deliciously mortal heart was drumming in
his ears like a raging thunder, and all he could think
about was her warm blood running down his throat.
Delicious... He licked his lips in anticipation.

And suddenly, he was back in the precinct. He shook his
head, disoriented. What on Earth had happened? That had
been downright strange... He looked at Alihra after
regaining some equilibrium. Something... There was
something... wrong... about her... He squinted his eyes
lightly as he tried to analyze her on sight alone.

"Alihra, this is Detective Nick Knight, and this is
Detective Don Schanke. You'll be working with them for the
next few weeks," Cohen said, gesturing in turn to each Nick
and Schanke with her thin, crisply tanned hand. "I just got
a call, we've got a bad one. Here are the specifics," Cohen
said as she handed them a thick manila folder. "Now," she
added, "I'll just leave you three to get acquainted, and
then you can all head down to the crime scene. Forensics is
already there."

With that, Cohen walked off, and Nick almost regretted that
she had to go. For some reason, he felt like he didn't want
to be left alone with this mysterious woman... He shook his
head. He was probably just imagining things. Yes,
imagining things. That was it.

Alihra gave a wide smile as Cohen departed, showing her
gorgeous pearly white teeth with no shame. "Uh-LEAR-uh..."
Schanke tested out her name carefully, shaking her hand as
she proffered it.

"Yes, Detective, that is correct..." she confirmed with a
slight accent. Although for the life of him, Nick couldn't
quite place its origin. Definitely middle-eastern, or
thereabouts.

Schanke swallowed heard. "Don... You can call me Don," he
squeaked, sounding as if someone was forcing all the air
out his lungs like an accordion, nearly dropping the manila
folder that he had been so desperately clinging to since
Cohen had given it to him.

Alihra smiled again. "All right then," she paused and then
spit his name out as if it was a difficult thing to say,
"Don." She then turned to him, and he could feel his throat
constricting wildly. "And should I call you, Nick?" she
asked, turning her glance towards Nick.

Nick felt a lump forming steadily in his throat. "Uh, yes,
that'll be fine," he managed to utter before his voice
abandoned him. The woman's presence was overwhelming, even
though it looked like she didn't even notice the effect she
was having on both him and Schanke.

"So, uh, Alihra, can we call you Ali?" Schanke questioned
jokingly, trying to lighten the tense mood. Two males on
testosterone overdrive and one gorgeous woman did not make
for good conversation.

Her smile faded and her somewhat friendly glance turned to
a cold stare, her deliciously green eyes on fire. "No, you
may call me Alihra." And with that, she turned and headed
towards the door of the precinct, her heels clicking loudly
on the floor.

Schanke stared at Nick. Nick stared at Schanke. Woah...
"I didn't think that was such a controversial question, did
you?" Schanke asked, completely confused. Nick just
shrugged. That had been the most bizarre encounter he'd
ever had...

Shaking their heads slightly, they both quickly grabbed
their coats and raced out the door after Ms. Dale, hoping to
catch her before she actually left without them. This was
going to be an interesting night. An interesting one
indeed.

*****

The Caddy was deafeningly quiet as the three drove to the
crime scene. Oozing trails of pale vapor trailed out of
Nick's mouth as he sighed, and hearing Schanke's subtly
chattering teeth behind him, he cursed himself for not
remembering to fix the stupid heater. Schanke had been
complaining about it nonstop since he'd come back, and he
was sure to hear more of it as soon as Alihra was gone if he
didn't get it repaired.

Alihra... Nick glanced out of the corner of his eye to
Alihra, who was sitting in Schanke's usual spot, seemingly
unaffected by the bitter chill. Despite the nervousness
instilled in him by the situation, he smiled. She'd usurped
Schanke's supreme reign of 'shotgun' and Schanke hadn't had
the guts to tell her that she should sit in the back.

"So why exactly _are_ you here?" Schanke asked innocently
from the backseat, apparently trying to get a conversation
started. Nick chose to remain silent and not join in. He
didn't want to talk with this woman if he could help it.
There was something that just didn't rub right about her.
Not at all. And it bothered him immensely.

"I believe Captain Cohen said I was here to observe..."
Alihra said absently, never tearing her catlike eyes from
the road passing by beneath them. It was as if she felt
above them in some way, like they had no business
questioning her motives.

"Uhhh, can you be a tad more specific?" Schanke prodded,
gesturing with his thumb and index finger to indicate a
small amount, but to no avail.

"No," she said tersely, smiling arrogantly when she looked
in the rearview mirror to see Schanke's stunned expression.
Nick felt himself growing angry at her rudeness, and his lip
began to quiver slightly from the effort it took to
suppress a growl. Even if she was their superior, she had
no right to treat them the way she was. No right!

He found himself taking several deep breaths just to control
himself. His fingers clenched the steering wheel
desperately, his knuckles turning white from the intense
pressure. With great effort, he loosened his hold so as to
save his precious steering wheel. And despite the rage
gnawing at his mind, he wisely remained silent.

"Well... So where are you from? You have a most unusual
accent..." Nick raised an eyebrow, surprised that Schanke
had even noticed that, it was very subtle.

Alihra ignored his question and turned to Nick with a face
of stone. No emotion. It was if she wasn't human. "Tell
me, Nick," she paused at his name, saying it
condescendingly with a slight curl of her lip, "How do you
feel right now?" Her voice was sickly sweet, like an
overripe nectarine, and it almost made him nauseous.

"Pardon?" Nick asked, unsure as to what on Earth this
mysterious woman was getting at. This was disconcerting,
not being in control of the conversation for once. With
mortals, he'd always felt safe from their prying, and yet,
with this woman, he not only felt compelled to answer, he
found himself actually getting fearful.

Alihra attempted to clarify, sighing slightly before she
began again, "How do you feel, knowing that you are about
to start a murder case?"

That was an odd question... "Sad, I guess... That people
are terrible enough sometimes that they wind up killing
each other..." he answered, somewhat truthfully. He could
see Schanke nodding minutely in agreement through the
rearview mirror, but the look on Alihra's face was not one
of agreement at all.

"Do you not feel exhilarated, knowing that a hunt is about
to begin?" she asked seriously, his previous answer not
satisfying her for some reason.

At the undercurrent of passion in her voice, Nick felt his
heart freeze in his chest. God, yes. That's how he always
felt, not that he ever told anyone about it. And here, this
exotic woman who had walked into his life not an hour before
had hit him right on the mark. It was as if this woman knew
him from the inside out, more so than he knew himself, and
his mind began clawing wildly for answers. Who was she? "I
don't..." he struggled to speak, "I don't see what you're
driving at..." he lied weakly.

And she knew. She knew he was lying. The look on her face
confirmed it. He swallowed hard, trying to shrink back into
the seat and out of her wicked gaze. "Yes, you do," Alihra
whispered, her voice deep and rich. Threatening. "That is
why you do this job. You like the power you feel when you
catch your offender. It gives you a rush... A thrill..."
Her voice grew a strained edge to it, and it sounded almost
like she was commanding him to feel that way, not that he
needed her prodding.

Oh, yes... The rush... The adrenaline... The power...
That was what it was about. That was always what it was
about. If he could atone at the same time as feeding his
desires, all the better, but they were always there, under
the surface, no matter how he tried to equate it with making
up for his past sins.

Nick clenched his teeth as he felt himself start to pant,
not able to stop himself from licking his lips. He thought
in detail about what was to come, the chase, the tracking,
like a game of hide-and-seek with deliciously exhilarating
consequences. The vampire screamed inside him for release.
Let the hunt begin NOW! Closing his eyes briefly, although
not long enough to jeopardize his passengers, he inhaled as
fully as he could. "No..." he denied her words hoarsely,
suddenly becoming very hungry.

She raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow, but thankfully,
they had arrived at their destination before she could
respond to his blatant lie. "Oh, look... We're here," he
sighed, his voice dripping with relief. God, anything to
get away from this woman. This woman who had basically
sifted through his entire soul in mere minutes.

All three got out of the car and into the bitter cold
simultaneously, resounding thuds following in quick
succession as three car doors harshly slammed shut. Schanke
was looking at the two of them strangely, but Nick chose to
ignore it in favor of beginning the investigation as quickly
as possible. The faster it began, the faster it would be
over, and the faster Alihra would be gone.

The alley was teaming with forensics crews. Nick walked
deliberately through the crowd, not caring that he'd left
his partner adrift behind with _her_. Finally free of her
strange arrogance and eerie gaze, he looked around and took
in his surroundings.

The alley was small, probably only about six feet wide,
maybe seven. Red brick walls rose above the white concrete,
making it cave-like and claustrophobic. No streetlights
graced the walkway at all, the only illumination being
provided by the forensics crews so that the alley could be
thoroughly searched and whatnot. Luckily, even though the
alley was still dim by mortal standards, he was quite at
home and able to see from the alley's mouth all the way to
where it ended about fifteen yards down in a heaping pile of
trash.

He searched the crowd, sweeping his eyes over the dozen or
so people milling about. Smiling when he caught sight of
her, he strode towards his favorite coroner with a sudden
purpose. "Natalie!" he called, not caring that people saw
him acting so informal with her. He wasn't hiding anymore.
Everyone from here to Timbuktu knew about their
relationship, and he wasn't going to do anything to hide it.
He was through hiding, at least with this...

She turned slightly upon hearing her name called, but the
look on her face was filled with a quiet tension, not the
pleasure he would've expected. Worry lines creased her
delicate forehead as she tried to bury herself further in
the warmth of he brown, ankle length coat and he immediately
rushed over. "Nat, what is it?" he questioned her, his
tone betraying his sudden worry.

"Nick, you'd better take a look at this," she gestured
towards the body, her voice tired, wavering slightly as she
pointed downwards. No hi, no hello, just a gesture towards
the cold, very dead man on the ground.

"Nat?" he questioned as he snapped on some rubber gloves
automatically and looked down. And then he froze. The
body was splayed on the ground like a rag doll, the head
turned towards the pavement and the right shoulder pointing
skyward, in a perfect angle for him to view the pale neck
of the victim.

There were two neat little puncture marks right on top of
the jugular where the base of the neck met the shoulder.
He gasped. "And I can't tell when it happened either.
It's too damn cold out, and it's screwing with my
calculations. Nick, what should I do? I haven't seen one
of these since... well since before you left!" she sighed,
obviously frustrated.

"Just say it was a wild animal, Nat. I'll find the one who
did this, just leave that to me..." he started to say, his
mind filling with rage all over again. Stupid fledglings.
That's who left bodies out carelessly like this. It
sickened him. He was almost into a tirade when he noticed
that Nat was not really saying anything.

"Nat?" He hugged her tightly and kissed her forehead,
ignoring the smiles from several nearby peoples who were
_obviously_ not watching them... "Nat, what's the matter?
Don't worry, I _will_ take care of this..." he assured her,
confused as to what had upset her so.

"I need to talk with you, Nick. After work, come back to
the loft right away, ok?" He felt himself practically melt
as he saw Nat's large blue eyes searching his own hopefully.

"Sure, Nat," he said, slightly confused. What could
possibly be so important? He was about to ask her why when
Schanke and Alihra walked up.

"Jeez, Nick. You could've waited for us, you know!"
Schanke said with a murderous glare. He'd apparently felt
the same way about Alihra that Nick did. "Anyway, I checked
around while you were courting our dear coroner. Harry
McKenzie. 32. Single. No witnesses to the actual murder,
but we know that he left to go on a smoking break at around
two A.M. He left quite alive. And now, he's very dead..."
Schanke trailed off under Nick's glare of death. "What?"
he asked, slightly miffed.

Nick just pointed to the neck of the victim. Luckily,
Schanke got it immediately and no clarifying was necessary,
not that he could've said anything with Alihra standing
right there. "Oh," Schanke said quietly, looking slightly
worried at the direction this case was taking. This was
the first vampire kill he'd ever seen with the prior
knowledge that vampires existed.

Alihra looked down at the victim as well. "What, I don't
see anything..." she commented while she stared at the body
curiously, her voice losing all previous hint of arrogance
and being replaced by utter inquisitiveness... "What's
that, did a dog bite the guy or something?" she asked, with
all the innocence of a two year old.

Natalie took this moment to step in, clearing her throat.
"Animal attack. Probably a rabid dog, we should notify
animal control... But I can't guarantee anything until I've
done the autopsy. Which won't be until... tomorrow, since
the shift is almost over..." she said absently, glancing
down at her watch.

Nick was stunned. She wasn't going to stay overtime to do
the autopsy? Not that she really needed to do one, the
cause of death was obvious, at least to three out of four
members of the party. Whatever she had to talk about back
at the loft must be pretty damned important... Oh God, what
if she was ill? Dying? What if she was going to break up
with him... His mind started playing through all sorts of
terrible news when Nat's voice brought him back to the
present.

"Nick, hellooooo?" Her hand was waving in front of his
face. She hadn't the heart to thwap him with stuff like
Schanke did... He blinked as she continued. "Are you going
to introduce me to your new friend?" Nat said, looking at
Alihra with a slight look of... What, was it curiosity?

Friend!? That was a laugh... He recovered himself from his
musings to issue a rather reluctant introduction. "Uh,
Natalie, meet Alihra Dale. She's observing us. Alihra,
meet Dr. Natalie Lambert," Nick said, sweeping his hands
between the two.

"Hello, Dr. Lambert," Alihra said sweetly as she took her
hand into a firm grasp. "It's good to meet Nick's
significant other."

Nick nearly choked. Significant other? It was true... but
he hadn't told her. He looked at Schanke, who just
shrugged. He was as in the dark as Nick was.

Natalie's eyes darted back and forth between Alihra and
Nick suspiciously, and then to Schanke. "Hi..." she said
warily, but her voice trailed off as she stared into
Alihra's eyes. It was like she was being hypnotized, and
Nick watched in astonishment as she just kind of froze there
for a second before quickly withdrawing her hand. "Well,
uh, Alihra. Nice to meet you... Nick, it's almost sunrise.
You should get going..." she said distractedly, prodding him
slightly with her hands, but more with the worried look in
her eyes.

"Yes. Yes I should..." he confirmed. Now that he was
paying attention to it, Nick could feel the tingling
sensation in his head that meant the sun was sure to rise
shortly. He looked at Nat. "You'll catch up to me?" he
asked quietly. Upon receiving her nod, he looked to
Schanke. "C'mon Schanke, Alihra. Unless you have something
else that you need to do here, I'll drive you back to the
precinct."

Schanke nodded. "Sure, Nick. That won't be cutting it too
close will it?"

Alihra looked at him quizzically and started before Nick
could answer, "It's still an hour until sunrise. Unless his
allergy kicks in in indirect light, it shouldn't be a
problem," she stated matter-of-factly, looking over to him
with a gaze that simply screamed, 'just try and prove me
wrong!'

Nick was dumbfounded. He'd never told her about his
'allergy'. Again he looked to Schanke and again he received
a shrug. This woman... She knew things that she wasn't
supposed to know... He looked at her strangely, but was
nearly knocked flat when she returned his gaze dead on with
a smile.

His blood went cold. She knew. Somehow, she knew about
him. No, her reaction to the body that'd been found was too
naive. She couldn't know. Could she?

He would have to look into this. But now was not the time.

*****

Natalie tapped her foot anxiously as the lift engaged and
began its slow trek up to the second floor of Nick's
building. Why did this thing have to be so slow? She was
practically ready to jump out of her skin by the time the
thing finally lumbered into place.

With a mighty heave, she slid the lift door aside only to
be greeted by the sight of Nick, pacing restlessly by the
stairs like a impatient lion. "Nat!" he cried as she came
into the bleak expanse of the loft. "I've been waiting
since the sun came up, what took you so long?" he asked
rather harshly, looking irritated that she'd not arrived
as promptly as he obviously had.

Nat, surprised, glanced at her watch. "Nick, it's only
fifteen minutes after sunrise... I had some quick
paperwork to fill out on the body. You know standard
procedure," she answered defensively. She'd come home as
quickly as she could, and that would have to be good enough
for him.

Nick sighed, and she saw his tense shoulders give way into
a slump as he brought his pained eyes to look into hers. "I
know, I'm sorry," he apologized quickly, but the strain in
his voice was still very evident. "I just got worried when
you told me that you really needed to talk. Please, what is
it?" he pleaded, walking up to her and giving her a quick
hug and a kiss.

She chuckled. "Nick, I'm sorry, it's not anything bad. At
least, I didn't think it would be," she commented softly,
returning his hug and guiding him towards his big, black
leather couch. They needed to sit for this talk. She
lightly shoved him down onto the sofa and then sat herself
down next to him.

Taking a deep breath, she looked at him only to find him
watching her expectantly. "Nick, I think I may have found
a possible cure," she stated bluntly, knowing that it would
be no use to slowly build up to the news.

His jaw dropped open. "Nat, I didn't know you were working
on a cure, aside from the protein shakes I mean..." he
exclaimed, slightly suspicious.

She stopped him and attempted to explain before he thought
too much about her secrecy and got angry at it. They had a
very open relationship, and she knew it would bug him
immensely that she'd kept this from him, especially since it
wasn't just a little tiny secret. "I didn't want to get
your hopes up," she admitted softly. "I _still_ don't, but
the only way I can go any further with this is to try it out
on you."

"But... I'm not sure if I'm really up to being guinea pig
again..." he said cautiously. Normally he would've jumped
at the chance, but lately, Nat had found that he was getting
more and more wary as each cure was tried and failed. He'd
tried drugs like Lidovuterine and ended with disastrous
results, he'd tried supernatural cures and ended with the
same. The more he tried, the more he doubted. And the more
he doubted, the less he was willing to try. It was as if
his hope was slowly being crushed.

"Nick, this is a lot like the Lidovuterine," she paused when
she saw his wince. That was still a sore spot with him.
For months after taking the Lidovuterine, he still had
little withdrawal attacks. Cold sweats, stomach pain, the
works. Like an ex-smoker who had to deal with the
occasional urge to light up and take a drag, except to the
point that it made him occasionally ill. And although she
hadn't seen anything like it since he'd come back from
LaCroix, she suspected the addiction was still there, lying
under the surface, waiting for the right moment to pop up.

"It's different though. The Lidovuterine wasn't nearly as
effective on your blood samples as this stuff, and it's
lacking in the psychotropic chemicals that the Lidovuterine
had. I don't think it'll have the same effect mentally, but
physically it looks like it'll pack much more of a bang."

"More bang?" Nick questioned cautiously. He was obviously
getting more interested in this as time went on, but he was
still in no way ready to commit.

"Well, when I added the Lidovuterine to your blood samples,
the vampire element was kind of... well it just
disappeared. It was dormant. Hidden. The Lyzatrex, that's
the drug I've found, seems to actually attack your extra
nucleotides and it destroys them. That way, you won't have
to worry about dormant nucleotides becoming active again,"
she explained, trying desperately not to lapse into her
erudite 'medical-speak' that always left him clueless and
completely confused.

"Attacks them? That sounds like it would hurt..." he
whispered with a slightly fearful edge. Nat could tell that
he still remembered painful application of the Lidovuterine
all too well.

"I can't say that it won't hurt, but we can try it in small
doses at first until we're sure of how much you can safely
tolerate. I would suggest using it in conjunction with
curare, but if we kill the vampire element in your blood,
the curare would kill you the second you became mortal," she
said bluntly, only realizing how blunt when she saw him
cringe.

She rushed to continue. "But Nick, I won't make the same
mistakes I did last time. I'll monitor you much more
closely, and I certainly won't let you take the Lyzatrex
with you this time... I really think this might work if we
give it a try and we're careful about it. Lord knows I
don't want a repeat of the last time any more than you
do..."

"Ok."

"And now that Schanke's in on your secret, we can have him
help. At the first sign of any trouble we can..." she found
her voice trailing off as she processed what he had just
said. "Wait. Did you just say ok?" she asked, completely
surprised by his sudden acquiescence.

Nick smiled, giving her a goofy, lopsided grin. "Nat, I
trust you. If you think it's worth a try, then I'll do it,"
he said seriously and then he added, "I don't blame you for
the Lidovuterine, and despite the disastrous results, that
was as close as I've ever gotten to being mortal. Doesn't
that saying go something like, 'try, try again?'" he asked
her playfully.

"But..." she felt herself starting to protest.

"Or was that, 'no pain, no gain...'" he said, looking up as
though he were deep in thought, grasping for more cliched
quotes.

"But..." she said like a broken record.

"Nat, I said yes. That's what you wanted, right?" She
nodded slowly in response. "Well then quite arguing with
me!" he stated, giving her a playful punch in the arm.

"Ok," Nat said dreamily. He'd actually said yes. This had
been easier than she had first thought. "If we leave early
for work tomorrow, I can administer the first dose
tomorrow..." her voice trailed off as Nick took her into an
abrupt, yet very passionate kiss.

"Nat..." he mumbled between kisses as he pulled away from
her lips and started trailing his lips down her pale neck,
"Why don't you explain the details later. I can think of
much better ways to spend the morning..."

She moaned softly as he caressed her, and her skin felt like
it was on fire. "Hmmm-mmm," she agreed quietly as he began
to remove her shirt gently. There was a very light thud as
her garment leapt from his fingers and onto the floor, but
she didn't really notice. She was too enraptured to care.

*****

Nick sat down heavily into Nat's chair, wrinkling his nose
as the smell of formaldehyde wafted through his sensitive
nostrils. He sighed, trying to ignore his growing sense of
unease. Nat was tapping a syringe lightly with her index
finger to get the air bubbles out, and he watched with a
leery gaze as the dim fluorescent lighting transformed Nat's
office into something out of a mad scientist's laboratory.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Nick?" Nat asked
doubtfully, her questioning eyes noticing that he'd begun to
tremble a little bit.

He nodded mutely, but the sense of unease grew from a mere
nagging sensation in the back of his mind, to a panic of
sorts. He felt an increasing sensation of being trapped, a
cold feeling enveloping his heart like the walls were
closing in around him and he had no way to escape. True,
he'd agreed quite readily last night, but now he wasn't so
sure. Not at all. Was he really ready to try this again?
Was he really ready for the pain? The disappointment? The
failure?

The last time hadn't worked, except to give him a bunch of
unnecessary pain and heartache. The last time... His chest
giving a mighty heave, he sighed restlessly as he began to
remember...

FLASHBACK - TORONTO 1995

The pain was incredible. Explosions of color flooded his
vision like a flamboyant bouquet of fireworks, and all at
once he was so hot he was freezing. Sweat dripped down his
brow as the agony raced through his tortured nerves and he
began to shake spasmodically. This was worse than any time
before, and yet he wanted it more than anything. He needed
it to the point his very being was screaming for it. For
sanctuary from his explosive bloodlust.

More. His lip twitched in readiness. He needed more, the
vampire was still alive within him, quivering in his chest
as it protested weakly against the onslaught of the drug.

With trembling hand and panting breath, he drew up another
syringe from the vial of Lidovuterine and closed his eyes.
Pain, sweet pain. All over again he collapsed to the floor
and screamed as the toxic serum saturated his system.
Muscles tensing, nerves rapidly firing, he felt his stomach
begin to object and flutter about crazily, but he was too
wild with delirious agony to care.

Peace. Calm.

He began to laugh as the euphoria swept over him and took
him into its clutches, the pain washing away on a receding
riptide. He sighed as his body went limp and relaxed. So
completely spent, he couldn't even lift himself off his
cold, wooden floor and into a suitable chair.

"Nick!" The roll of thunder peeled through his head, and
it felt like his innards were being ripped to pieces.

He rolled his head over towards the sound invading his
private nirvana. The room was so incredibly bright, like
staring into an eclipse. Squinting, he tried to identify
the blurry form standing above him like a weeping angel.
"Nat?" he mumbled as she placed a cold hand on his sweat-
slicked forehead.

"Nick... You've got a fever. You took it again, didn't
you..." It was a statement more than a question. One that
carried great disappointment as well as guilt. She blamed
herself...

Laughing, he looked around at the kaleidoscope of colors.
"I... I guess I did..." he said, not quite sure if he had
or not. Although that would explain why he felt so relaxed
and yet so deliciously awful at the same time. "I needed
it," he stated with a snide curl of his lip, a cruel inhuman
tone in his voice. And yet, at the same time, he knew that
what he'd said wasn't true. It was only causing him pain...

"Nick! This is a psychotropic drug! You do _not_ need it!"
she cried, the sound ringing through his ears along with the
racing beat of his own laboring heart.

He blinked. And then the nausea raced up from behind and
claimed him without any warning at all. He rolled over
slightly and vomited blood all over himself until he was
trembling. Until he had nothing left. No strength, no
dignity, nothing. What had he become? How had he
allowed this to happen?

He let out a sob as Nat began to cry. But he was too weak
to do much else.

THE PRESENT

Nick shook himself from the awful memory, gasping at the
horrid nightmare that had become his life. God, he didn't
want to be like that again. He didn't. Not in a million
years.

"Nick? Are you ready?" Nat asked for his confirmation, the
syringe ready for its intended use. The silence broken, he
looked down and noticed for the first time that she'd
already tied off his arm with a piece of latex tubing.

He stared at the needle, which was dripping slightly, and he
couldn't help but swallow hard. A small bead of bloodsweat
trailed down the side of his forehead in a lazy, winding
path, and Nat saw it almost instantly, hastily wiping it
away with a latex gloved hand.

"Nick, if you have any doubts, I don't want to do this," Nat
stated, placing the dripping syringe on the desk beside him
for emphasis. He stared at the small needle sitting
silently on the desk, briefly weighing his options.

"No, Nat. I need to do this. I need to. If not for the
cure, for my own peace of mind," he responded quietly,
assuring her that she was doing the right thing. What he
said _was_ true. This fear needed to be overcome if he and
Nat were ever going to get anywhere on a cure. It was
obvious, however, that she was not entirely convinced.

Nat picked up the syringe again, but still looked at him
doubtfully. "Really, Nat. I'm sure. Just do it," he
commanded her and then he closed his eyes, not able to
watch.

He felt the prick of the needle, but everything else was
a blur. "Well?" Nat was saying anxiously, but he couldn't
bring himself to respond. There was already a dull ache
in his veins and he felt it escalating with alarming
swiftness. An ache. A twang. A shooting pain. And then
it was unadulterated agony.

Through the intensifying roar, he heard himself cry out, and
he could feel Nat's arms enclose him in a safe cocoon, but
the rest was waterfalls of sensation. Skin crawling, rapid
panting, sweating brow... Trying to ride it out, he
clenched his teeth and rested his head against Nat's
supportive shoulder, her soothing hand running through his
dampened hair, combing out his mussy blond mane as he
writhed painfully in her grip.

Help... Help me! He wanted to scream through the abyss and
the chasms of blackness that bit at his consciousness. Stop
it! And amazingly, it did. Taking a deep breath as the
pain went fleeting away as quickly as it had come, he
realized he was quaking. Only Nat's strong grasp had kept
him upright. "Nat?" he asked shakily, making sure that he
wasn't just imagining things. That she _was_ there.

"Nick... How do you feel?" she asked, her voice strained.
As painful as that had been for him, he was certain it had
been worse for her to watch, knowing that he was inflicting
such pain upon himself at her suggestion.

He lifted his head up and immediately regretted it, the
dizziness completely disorienting him until he barely knew
which way was up. "I feel... weird..." he said weakly,
biting back a light wave of nausea. He didn't really know
how he felt, except that whatever it was, it most certainly
wasn't right.

"Define weird..." she stated cautiously, her eyes narrowing
slightly at his lacking description..

How was he supposed to define weird? That was a good
question. "I feel... not mortal. But not vampire... I...
I don't know..." he struggled for the correct words to
describe how he felt, still confused as to what was going
on. Trying to call up the vampire, he found that his fangs
would not descend. And yet... he could still feel the beast
slumbering within him, a quiet raging monster just waiting
to be released. He was startled from his thoughts felt
something cold sneaking between the buttons of his black
silk shirt and onto his chest. Looking down, he saw Nat
gently placing a stethoscope on his left pectoral muscle.

"Well, your heart is beating really slow, but much faster
than it should be. Take a deep breath and let it out
slowly..." He complied, growing worried when she said
nothing.

"Again." He did so and again was greeted with silence.
Opening his mouth to ask what was up, he was quite startled
when a thermometer was relentlessly shoved into his mouth
and all that he managed to utter was a smothered "hmmpff!"

He sighed frustratedly and repositioned it more carefully
underneath his tongue. After several moments, Nat pulled
the confounded device out of his mouth and read the liquid
crystal display with a look of such dire seriousness that he
almost felt like laughing. She was treating this like some
monumental experiment that the fate of the entire world was
riding upon. "Your temperature is up quite a bit, still not
human norm. How do you feel now?" she asked, concerned at
the readings she was getting.

Nick stood up experimentally and tested his balance,
relieved to find that the ground was still indeed the
ground, and that he wasn't going to be joining it anytime
soon due to a misplaced step. "I feel fine, I think," he
commented absently as he checked himself over.

"You _think_?" Natalie questioned doubtfully.

"Well, I don't feel sick or anything, and I'm definitely
not as... well... high as I was with the Lidovuterine...
But I'm not a good person to ask, seeing as how I haven't
even caught a measly little cold in over seven hundred
years..." he responded, slightly annoyed that she was
grilling him like this, although he couldn't blame her.
She was being careful to avoid a repeat of least time.

"Look, Nat," he said, glancing at his watch, "It's getting
late. Why don't I go to work? I'll have Schanke keep an
eye on me if it'll make you feel better. I need to follow
up on this vampire kill before it gets out of hand."

Nat smiled wryly and reluctantly agreed . "I guess you can,
but you have to _promise_ me that you'll go home if you feel
_anything_ wrong and call me _immediately_. I do _not_ want
a repeat of last time," she stated warily, tapping his lips
with her index finger for emphasis.

"Neither do I, Nat." He sighed, kissing her softly on the
lips and then repeating, "Neither do I."

Nat parted from his comforting embrace and gave him a wide
grin. "Well fine, but don't leave before I take a blood
sample..." She said, a wicked smile invading her face as
her alter-ego evil Dr. Nat took over.

He grimaced and hastily backed away from her possessive
gaze. "Another needle?" he whined, knowing that he was
sounding like a child, but not caring.

"Absolutely. How else are you going to earn the nickname
Mr. Pincushion?" she asked, advancing upon him and virtually
pinning him to the door of the nearby fridge.

He laughed as Nat yanked on the lapels of his shirt and
pulled him into a mind-blowing kiss, knowing that pincushion
was soon to be an understatement.

*****

Schanke stared at the desk twiddling his thumbs impatiently,
tapping his pencil furiously, shuffling back and forth
between incomplete reports, doing whatever he could think of
to pass the time. For once, it was Nick, and not him who
was late. He looked across the room to see Cohen glaring at
him, but all he could do was shrug helplessly and smile.
Nick hadn't told him anything was up, so for all intents and
purposes, he _should_ be there. Nick just didn't keep
secrets about his whereabouts anymore, it was much easier
for Nick to just let him know where he was going, rather
than get all mysterious-like.

He impatiently glanced once again at his watch.
Thirty minutes late now. Glancing at his Captain standing
in silent vigil across the bullpen, he grimaced. Cohen
would be on the warpath soon. And he just knew that he
would be caught in the middle of the battle zone, drowning
in the blood-soaked trenches right along with Nick.

Well, at least Alihra wasn't due in for another half-hour.
Damn, but that woman was creepy. Like Nick in the sense
that she had a certain air of power about her. Alihra was
definitely not a woman he would ever want to cross. She
took things very seriously, and her sense of humor was
nonexistent at best, almost like pre-disappearance Nick,
who had at least loosened up once he no longer had a secret
to hide. But where she lacked in endearing personality, she
was quite well endowed in looks.

She was probably the finest specimen of woman that he'd
seen in a long, long time. A _long_ time. When he had
first looked into her beautiful face, he'd thought he was
looking into the eyes of an angel. The deep, crystal pools
of jade were endless. And the oddest thing that he'd
noticed was that they didn't seem to reflect anything, even
when he'd gone up to shake her hand he'd thought there was
something missing, only later realizing that he hadn't been
able to see himself reflected in them. They were just an
infinite sea of emerald. And her blond hair... so golden it
looked like it had been kissed by the sun.

Stop it! Myra will kill you! Schanke sighed, trying to rip
his mind away from the memory of Alihra's supermodel figure
and gorgeous looks. Thankfully, Nick chose that moment to
arrive. His partner came in through the main doors,
mumbling a quick apology to Cohen as he passed, and then
head straight for his desk.

He looked at his approaching partner somewhat suspiciously.
His partner looked... flushed? Definitely not wonderfully
so, but a lot more alive than he usually looked. "Nick?" he
called, his eyes following Nick as he snuck through a crowd
of officers standing in the aisle.

Nick sat down with a slight grimace, wrapping his coat
around his chair and placing his keys in his desk drawer.
"Hi, Schanke. Is _she_ here?"

Nick didn't mention Alihra by name, but Schanke knew exactly
who he was talking about. "No, Alihra's not going to get
here for another twenty minutes or so," he assured his
worried partner. Whatever bad vibes he'd gotten from
Alihra, it was obvious that Nick had gotten the same or
worse. "Nick, why were you late? And is that a hint of
color I detect in your cheeks?" he asked with somewhat of a
teasing tone. What if he and Nat had... And that was
why... Woah, better not go there, Schanke admonished
himself.

"Nat tried a new drug on me. It kinda worked, but it kinda
didn't. Which reminds me, if I start acting weird you have
to make me go home," Nick commented absently as he placed
his head in his hands.

"Nat tried a what? You mean she cured you?!" Schanke cried,
ready to leap out of his chair and congratulate his partner.
The sharp look Nick gave him made him realize how loud he
was being, and he sat down. "Sorry..." he apologized,
slightly embarrassed at his own outburst. He knew Nick
didn't like being singled out, and he especially didn't like
reminding his fellow officers about his little problem with
sunlight.

Nick sighed tiredly. "She tried something similar to the
Lidovuterine but..."

"Wait, Nick. Isn't the Lidovuterine the stuff that made you
go all psycho?" Schanke interrupted, suddenly wary. He
raised his hands and wiggled his fingers like claws for
emphasis, putting a little sadistic curl to his lip. He
didn't want to have to deal with that all over again.

"Yeah, but this stuff is different. Nat says that it
shouldn't have the mind altering effects that the
Lidovuterine had. But you're supposed to keep an eye on me
just in case," Nick said, sounding somewhat embarrassed that
he was asking his friend to watch him.

Schanke could understand that, he'd never been comfortable
asking for favors like that either. "Sure I can do that,"
he assured his partner quickly and then he dropped the
subject as if it had never been brought up. "So did it work
or not?" he asked anxiously, hoping desperately that maybe
his friend had finally found the mortality that he had
sought for for so long.

"Kind of," Nick commented, turning his hand palm up and then
palm down in a repeated motion. "I'm about half-and-half
right now. I don't know if or when it'll wear off," Nick
said somewhat worriedly.

It was obvious to Schanke that Nick preferred being one of
the extremes, and not halfway between mortal and vampire.
Although, to Schanke, half-and-half sounded like it would be
much better. If it was an ideal combo, with the strengths
of both and none of the weaknesses. But then it occurred to
him that maybe the reason Nick was looking so worried was
that it was the unideal combo. The weaknesses of both and
practically none of the strengths...

"Well, hey, Nick. It's a start. Maybe it'll work with the
second dose..." he tried to assure him.

Nick only groaned, running his hands through his soft blond
hair and shaking his head. "If the second dose is anywhere
near as unpleasant as the first one, then it had better
work..."

Schanke didn't really know what to say to that. It hadn't
occurred to him that the drugs his partner was trying could
be potentially harmful to him. Jeez, to be that desperate
for a cure... It was a scary thought. One that he didn't
particularly want to entertain.

"Well, I suppose we'll just have to wait and see... So...
What are we going to do about the case?" he questioned,
switching to a more work related topic. Seeing that blatant
vampire kill had been very scary. He'd not seen once since
he'd found out about Nick, and now that he had the
knowledge of vampires it was very frightening. Especially
when he knew how well vampires could camouflage themselves
amongst mortal society. Hell, his partner was one and he
hadn't known for quite awhile.

He supposed it was even scarier knowing that Nick was
capable of doing that if he chose to, although Schanke
doubted that Nick would ever do that now. There had been
the past, which Nick had reluctantly related bits and
fragments about, but Nick was too good of a person now to
even think about it.

"I figured we'd go over to the Raven and ask around. If
there's a new vampire in town, Janette will probably know,"
Nick interrupted Schanke's musings quietly.

The Raven. That's where Nick always went for tips on his
cases, or at least to see Janette under the guise of
getting tips... He chuckled at the thought. "Sure Nick,
although I'm not entirely sure what Alihra will think of
that... The Raven's got pretty weird clientele," he
commented.

Finally! Schanke wanted to shout and point, for there on
Nick's face appeared the most reluctant of smiles. "Yeah,
well, what can I say other than stay away from the ones who
look hungry," Nick said good-humoredly.

"Who looks hungry?" a rich feminine voice asked innocently
from behind Schanke. Nick looked up, surprised, and sat up
board straight from his former relaxed slouch, all joking
manner vanishing from his persona.

Schanke felt himself turning a deep shade of crimson.
Hopefully she hadn't heard the remark about the weird
clientele. "And trust me, Don. I can handle myself quite
well in the presence of less than civilized people..." she
said reproachfully. Inwardly, Schanke groaned. Well there
went that hope down the drain...

He turned and cleared his throat purposefully. "Alihra..."
was all he could manage to say before his voice inexplicably
cracked and forced him silent. She was standing there with
her arms crossed, tapping her foot somewhat impatiently.
Schanke looked at her hard. Something was different. She
looked flushed? Almost as flushed as Nick had looked when
he'd first come in. There was a pinkish tone to her smooth
skin now, where before it had only been a uniform shade of
pale peach.

"Well, shall we visit this, what did you call it, Raven, and
ask around?" Alihra questioned doubtfully, her thinly
pencilled eyebrow raised in question. Schanke was the first
to find himself nod, completely sidetracked from his
previous train of thought.

"Uh, yeah..." Nick said weakly from beside him as he
reached for his coat, obviously as flustered by this woman
as he was.

Alihra smiled an alluring, sensuous smile, her pale face
looking all the more angelic. "Well, let's go then," she
commented sweetly, huffing slightly in her black leather
coat. It was obvious that she wanted to move things along.
She certainly didn't waste any time.

Nick stared at her blankly for a second, and then shook his
head. "Yeah, sure," he commented absently as he put his
coat on and walked out the door, followed shortly by Alihra.
Schanke was unsure whether his odd behavior was being
caused by the cure or by Alihra. Deciding it was the
latter, he shrugged, grabbed his own trench coat, and was
quick to join them.

*****

The Raven. Nick stared at the door warily. The energetic
beat of the Raven's gothic music was missing, as was the
usual muscle-clad bouncer standing vigil. Funny, he didn't
think it was a holiday or anything. And even then, that had
never stopped Janette from keeping the club open. Even on
Christmas, the bass was pounding and the dance floor was
writhing with vampires. But then, most vampires didn't have
much use for Christmas anyway.

No, for Janette, the club was an amusement, a way to pass
the years. She liked to watch the people as they conversed.
As they danced... When she was forced from her haven to
perform some mundane task she always felt excessively bored.
The club... well... it gave her life. It was funny. No
matter how much she denied it, Nick felt that The Raven was
her way to participate in the mortal world. To have a
mortal life. It was an interesting concept. To have the
lives of her patrons on loan, simply by watching them as she
sat regally at her usual spot by the bar.

"Nick? What's up, why's this place closed?" Schanke asked
curiously from behind him, his voice interrupting his
thoughts. He looked back only to find both Schanke and
Alihra watching him expectantly, waiting for an answer to
Schanke's perfectly reasonable question.

"I'm not sure. Let me open the door..." he answered
truthfully, whipping out his key from his left breast
pocket.

Alihra smiled. "You have a key? I thought you and Dr.
Lambert were a thing... Isn't she jealous?" she prodded
with a teasing grin, as if she were deliberately trying to
provoke Nick's rather wild temper.

Nick looked at her in shock, taken aback by her boldness.
"Of course not! Janette is a good friend, nothing more..."
he said angrily in his own defense, wondering who this woman
thought she was, asking him a personal question like that
when she wouldn't even tell them specifically why she was
there. It also bothered him a bit that Alihra seemed to
think him capable of cheating on Natalie. That wouldn't
happen in a million years. He'd worked too damn hard to get
things the way the were now, and he wasn't going to mess it
up by having some fling with Janette, or anyone else for
that matter.

"But she used to be more..." Alihra hedged, either unaware
of his anger, or apathetic towards it. Whichever it was, it
was still quite disconcerting.

Nick felt fear growing in the pit of his stomach. How did
this woman know so much about him? How did she know things
that he'd never told her, that she wouldn't be able to find
by simple information digging. "Not for a long, long
time..." he whispered wistfully, a pained tone entering his
voice. For some reason he found himself unable to lie to
her.

Alihra smiled in triumph as he shakily turned the key in the
lock. "Was it serious? Major commitment?" she asked.

Thankfully, Schanke finally chose that moment to break into
the conversation. "Alihra, pardon me for saying this, but
it's obvious that Nick doesn't want to talk about this...
why don't you just let it be?" he asked her in an annoyed
tone, stepping between the two of them

Nick sighed in relief as Alihra gave Schanke a hateful glare
but remained silent. Thank you, Schanke. What a
lifesaver. He'd felt like he'd been backed into a hole
and that the only escape would be to confess his innermost
soul and secrets.

The door opened slowly with a creak and Nick peered inside.
The expanse was completely empty, encased in the darkness
except by the bar where a lone vampire stood mutely, wiping
glasses off with a towel. Miklos.

Nick turned to both Alihra and Schanke as soon as he
recognized the man at the bar. "Guys, you might want to
wait here," he said, motioning to the stoop inside the door.
Alihra nodded mutely, although slightly reluctantly, as
Schanke walked in and planted himself on the top step by the
railing, obviously prepared to sit for a long while.

Nick descended the short staircase and approached the bar
where the dark, European Miklos was standing, watching him
cautiously. "Nick. What brings you here?" he asked, his
voice somewhat strained.

"I need to see Janette. It's very important. Is she in
the back?" he questioned, glancing towards the backrooms
for emphasis.

"The last I saw yes, but I would not disturb her. She was
accompanied by a man..." Miklos said mysteriously.

Nick nodded, surprised that he found himself feeling a
little jealous upon hearing that the fact. "That's ok. I
promise to knock..." he said, faking a light-hearted
chuckle, wondering just what exactly he _would_ do if
Janette were with a man. He respected her privacy, but he
also desperately needed to talk to her about the kill. This
needed to be stopped before it happened again, when perhaps
he and Nat wouldn't be there to cover for it.

Miklos nodded slowly and went back to cleaning the glasses,
looking rather warily towards Alihra and Schanke, who were
conversing quietly by the door. At least Schanke hadn't
come down and asked for a drink or anything just to peeve
him. That would be _just_ like him, Nick thought with a
smile.

With that, Nick turned and went through a cascading
waterfall of multi-colored decorative beads and into the
dark back hallway that ran along the side of the public part
of the Raven. His feet hit the lush, blood red carpeting
almost silently as he progressed up the old wooden staircase
and down the dim walkway towards the third door on the left.
The door to Janette's private apartment. He hesitated only
slightly when he arrived at Janette's closed door. He heard
a muffled sound coming from within her private chambers. He
strained to listen with his slightly dulled sense of
hearing. It sounded like... crying.

He knocked loudly, his knuckles rapping on the cold oak wood
of the door in quick succession.. "Janette?" he called,
suddenly very concerned.

"Nichola... go away!" came Janette's voice back through
the door. She sounded panicked, but when she followed her
request with a cry of pain, he couldn't bring himself to do
as she asked.

He forced open the brass doorknob with a little bit of
applied strength. "Janette!" he cried, running into the
apartment as swiftly as he could upon hearing another sob
emanate from her lips.

She was lying curled up on the floor between her large,
king-sized bed and her antique writing desk, fully clothed
in a black satin dress and very much alone. He ran to her
side across the plush carpet, sweeping up her body in his
arms. "Janette, what's the matt..." he began to ask, but he
stopped when he noticed the steady trickle of blood flowing
freely from two neat punctures at the base of her neck.
She'd been bitten...

Janette began to tremble, the shivers racking her body in
tiny little waves, starting from her chest and descending
all the way down into the tips of her perfectly pedicured
feet. "Nichola, I'm sorry! I did not tell them anything!
Forgive me!" she cried deliriously, rocking back and forth
in distress.

"What? Tell who?" he asked, completely confused as she
began to mumble on incoherently in her native French.

He shook her lightly, enough to get a few moments of
lucidity. "Ooooh, Nichola," she moaned, her wild mane of
dark brown curls damp and flattened with sweat. "Je suis
très désolée..."

"For what, Janette? Why are you sorry? Tell me what's
wrong and I can help!" Her teeth chattered relentlessly,
and she did not answer. Nick inhaled deeply and clenched
his jaw shut, frustrated beyond words. He set her down on
the floor gently and went to her private bar, grabbing a
bottle of uncut blood. He thought briefly about giving her
some of his own blood, but realizing that he had no idea
what effect the Lyzatrex would have on her, he decided that
wasn't the best choice.

He sat down next to her shaking body and uncorked the
unlabeled glass bottle, gently sitting her up so that her
head was resting in his hand, and tilting the mouth of the
bottle towards her sensuous lips. After several moments,
she grabbed the bottle and began to gulp it down readily as
if she hadn't fed in years.

With the last swallow, she brought her chin forward in a
motion that made it seem like it was difficult for her, but
after, she turned to him with her soft blue eyes, obviously
troubled. Obviously in pain. Nick grew very afraid when he
saw that the wound on her neck was not healing very much at
all.

"Janette, mon coeur, please, what's wrong?" he asked softly,
pulling her tightly to his chest.

"Nichola..." she whispered, distractedly, her eyes
fluttering golden a bit before she was able to quell her
obvious hunger. "Your heart... it is beating..." she
commented, her large eyes opening even wider, amazed at what
she heard.

"I know. Nat tried a new drug, and it seems to be working
somewhat..." he explained quickly. This was not what he'd
come to discuss... She nodded slightly, looking at his
neck as if it were the most delectable thing in the world,
and he began to feel slightly uncomfortable. "Janette,
control yourself!" he cried as she almost snarled at him,
her lip curled upward in a hungry grimace.

Breathing hard, she looked at him. "I am sorry, Nichola...
I do not know what has come over me..." she commented
absently, fingering the wound in her neck softly, wincing
when she hit a particularly sore spot. "It must be their
fault..." she whispered, looking at him in sheer terror.

"Who, Janette? What happened?" he questioned once again,
hoping that he would finally get an answer. At this point
the curiosity was burning so brightly within him it
threatened to turn him to ash, as sure as the sun on a
bright clear day.

Janette looked at him sadly, placing a blood-red nail onto
his supple lips. "They are here, Nichola. I only met one,
but I've never seen one traveling alone... Always in
pairs..." she sighed deeply. He was already getting a very
bad inkling as to where this was going.

"The Enforcers, Nichola. One was asking about you... He
came as soon as the sun set, I was unprepared... When I
refused to tell him anything, he did this..." she said,
gesturing towards her now slowly healing neck.

"They took what they wanted from my blood..." she said with
an ever increasing amount of dread, until she finally began
to sob, repeating that she was sorry.

Nick felt his stomach sink as a feeling of utter coldness
hugged his soul short of breath. The Enforcers. Looking
for him. They must've found out somehow that he'd broken
the code. Numerous times. Oh God, Schanke... Natalie...
They were both in danger... Glancing between Janette and
the door, his heart began to pound. "Janette, Janette I
have to go... Have to warn..." he said mechanically, his
voice dying in a slow wheeze as he realized how much trouble
he was in. Not one, but _two_ mortals knew about vampires
because of him. He had to get out of here and warn them...
he had to get Nat and Schanke to someplace safe...

"Nichola, NO! If they found me, they can find you," she
began in a frantic effort to get him to listen to reason,
interrupting his panicked train of thoughts. "They are
probably watching you this instant! If you run to Natalie
they will know and they will kill you without hesitation.
Don't run away Nichola. There is a chance that they did not
glean everything that they could from my blood. They may
not know everything. If you run away, if you warn Natalie
and Schanke, then that advantage is lost!" she pleaded,
grabbing onto the lapels of his shirt ferociously.

Nick looked again towards the door, but the initial panic
was slowly dying as reason began to kick in. The Enforcers
hadn't killed him, or Nat, or Schanke, yet. And that was
for a reason. Maybe they didn't know all the facts, maybe
they just weren't sure if his small transgressions were
worth their time. After all, Nat had proven herself a
valuable asset in covering up for the community, and Schanke
had proven to be quite trustworthy.

Janette was apparently watching him and knew what he was
thinking. She attempted to encourage his course of logic as
much as she could. "Oh, Nichola... Promise me you won't
run away! If you don't run, they may be willing to grant
you mercy..." she pleaded with him, her eyes filled with a
burning passion.

Nick opened his mouth slightly to protest, but she cupped
her smooth hand across his mouth and prevented it.
"Promise," she demanded softly, blue eyes flashing wildly.

He closed his eyes in pain. "I promise Janette," he
whispered sadly, taking her into a tight embrace. She
really was right. If the Enforcers were indeed after him,
there was not much he could do about it anyway. But if they
_were_ after him, why hadn't they gotten him yet? It's not
like he was all that hard to find... But that only meant
that they were observing him...

His mind brightened at the possibility. Maybe if he could
solve this case, they would be more lenient with him... He
could show them how he helped uphold the code... "Janette,
have you seen any new vampires in town _besides_ the
Enforcer who bit you?"

"No, Nichola. No one new has passed through that I've
seen," Janette answered, slightly confused by his quick
subject change. "Why on Earth do you ask?"

"That's why I originally came here. There's been a messy
vampire kill that was left completely out in the open. No
witnesses or anything. I had been hoping you could provide
me with a lead..."

"Ah..." Janette nodded, understanding, but not quite
grasping how he'd steered to that subject...

"Janette, if I can stop this rogue before he kills again,
then the Enforcers may be lenient with me," he explained.

Her eyes widened and she kissed him lightly on the cheek,
forgetting both her physical and emotional pain momentarily.
"Oh, Nichola... I do hope so. I do not know what I would
do if you were dead. I do not want you to die!" she cried.

"I won't if I can help it," he assured her, although the
feeling of dread from before was coming back to rest in the
pit of his stomach. As with the mysterious Alihra, he felt
like he was being backed into a corner, hunted... "I just
don't understand who would've done this! There wasn't even
an attempt to disguise the bite marks. It's like someone
just left the body there, with the _intention_ of me...
finding it..." his voice trailed off as he realized that
what he'd proposed had a high probability of being true,
especially if Janette had neither seen nor heard of a new
vampire in Toronto.

Someone was baiting him. Toying with him before they went
in for the kill... But who? He got up to leave and ponder
his situation, but his thoughts were interrupted when he
felt a tingling sensation in his nose, an inexplicable urge
to... "ACHOO!"

Janette looked up at him sharply. "Nichola... you
sneezed..." she said, worriedly stating the obvious...

Nick turned towards her, a strange look of confusion marring
his normal emotional mask. "I..." He didn't know what to
say. He hadn't sneezed since... well he couldn't remember
the last time he'd just randomly sneezed.

Janette got up from the floor and rushed over to him. "You
sneezed!" she cried again, shaking a pointed index finger at
him wildly. "This drug Natalie is trying on you, it is
making you sick!" she accused angrily.

"Janette, I'm sure it's fine..." he tried to reassure her,
while at the same time reassuring himself. So that was what
a sneeze felt like. Odd...

"Nichola, I've never heard you sneeze before, and you tell
me that this is all right?" Janette questioned, perplexed.

"Janette, relax! If I sneeze, that's a good thing, right?
If I want to become mortal, I have to deal with the problems
as well as the advantages..." he rationalized quietly,
hoping she'd understand.

Janette sat down in a nearby chair in a huff. "Mortals have
no advantages. They grow old and they die..." she said,
dejectedly. "Nichola... I... This quest of yours to
become mortal does not bother me so much as the concept of
me losing you..." she told him honestly, her soft French
accent becoming more and more pronounced the more emotional
she got.

Nick felt himself smile. This was the first time she'd ever
admitted that she needed him as much as he needed her. They
were each other's only constant through the changing decades
and centuries. "Janette, I know..." he commented softly,
reaching down to pull her up from the chair and into a warm
embrace. "But as far as I'm concerned, we can deal with
that if and when it happens. I'm not mortal yet..." he
tried to console her as she started to weep, immediately
feeling bad.

"But you are getting close... I don't want to be alone,
Nichola... You're the only static thing that I have
left..." she whispered into his chest, blood tears beginning
to fall freely from her damp eyes.

Nick swallowed as he heard her forlorn whimpering. That was
partially his fault. LaCroix... He'd always gotten along
much better with Janette. And now he was gone... "Janette,
I don't know what to say. I can't stop my quest because of
this..." he said, hoping that his admission would not make
her angry. But at the same time, he felt that he was being
terribly self-centered.

Janette looked up and wiped her eyes with her fingers. "I
know, Nichola. I know that I am being selfish... You
deserve your happiness," she said softly, and then she
started to cry again.

"Shhh, Janette... It's all right..." Nick found himself
saying as his own tears began to fall. But it wasn't all
right. If this cure worked, things were going to be more
difficult than he thought...

*****

Schanke glanced down at his watch for the third time in as
many minutes, they'd been in there talking for two hours.
He stared nervously at Alihra. "I don't know what's taking
him so long... Usually he's in and out..." he excused his
partner, but Alihra only smiled.

"It's quite all right, Don. Tell me, is Nick often like
this?" Alihra asked, looking away towards the empty bar as
if to de-emphasize the fact that she was being nosy.

"Like how?" Schanke asked cautiously, looking in the
direction of her glance. Miklos had left about an hour ago
to go take inventory in the basement, and it was just the
two of them sitting alone on the stoop of the dark,
unnervingly silent Raven.

"Leaving you here doing nothing while he goes and solves the
case alone..." Alihra explained, her voice dripping with a
sickly sweet innocence that made Schanke queasy.

Schanke sighed. "He used to, now he doesn't at all. I
think the only reason he didn't bring me along to talk to
Janette this time is because of this..." he commented,
gesturing to the unexpectedly closed Raven. "Janette
doesn't really mind if I come to talk to her during business
hours, but she has a low tolerance for having her privacy
interrupted," Schanke said with a chuckle, remembering the
last time he'd come here without Nick to see if she had any
tips on a case.

That had not been pretty at all, although Nick was laughing
out his ears when he found out Schanke had been scared out of
his wits upon trying to enter the Raven during the daytime.
Luckily Janette had recognized him before a crisis had
happened... He could still remember her snarling viciously
at him. And he thought that she was a scary woman when she
looked normal... Vampire Janette was not one to be trifled
with, not at all, and he commended Nick for his bravery. Of
course, Nick and Janette were on much more even ground...

"So how close is he with Janette?" she asked, curiously, her
emerald eyes flashing.

"I think that if he wants to tell you that, it's his
business," Schanke commented dryly. This woman had a
terrible propensity for prying.

"Well, what about Dr. Lambert. What's going on with her?"
Alihra asked, rapidly changing her approach.

Schanke stared at her in amazement. She just didn't quit!
"Natalie is Nick's significant other, as I believe you
termed it. They're real serious, and I'm not going to say
another word unless it's common knowledge that you could
find elsewhere just as easily..." he said, rather annoyed.

Alihra seemed to realize that she was making all the
progress of a runner on a treadmill, so she switched
approaches again, much to Schanke's increasing irritation.
"So, Nick has a sun allergy? Don't you find that the least
bit odd?"

"Of course it's odd!" Schanke cried anxiously, "He has a
very rare skin condition, I believe Nat called it something
like Hemolotololopapsia... but I can't remember..." Alarm
bells were starting to chime rapidly in Schanke's head. He
didn't like where this was going at all. Not one bit.

"That's not really the cause, he has no disease. There's
something that you're not telling me," she said, her almond
shaped eyes narrowing ever so slightly, marred with
suspicion.

"I..." Schanke felt a lump forming in his throat. Nick had
never really coached him on what to say in a situation like
this. His partner had trusted his judgment to keep his
secret and keep it well. God help him if he blew it.

"I thought so..." Alihra said haughtily, a wicked smirk
splitting her flawless face. She then turned to stare
directly into Schanke's eyes, and he felt himself start to
go weak in the knees. Lucky for him that he was sitting
down...

"Why don't you tell me what you know?" she asked
seductively as she curled her sinuous body over his, and he
heard her voice as if it was resonating in his head, echoing
off the sides of his skull. He could hear his heart beating
steadily in his ears, a rumbling sea of pounding war drums.

"Tell you ... what I know..." he found himself repeating
dangerously, unable to stop himself. It felt like she had
a grip on his mind, commanding it to bend to her will.
Almost like Nick when he was mesmerizing someone...

"What do you know about Detective Knight's allergy?" she
prodded, taking hold of his shoulder with her hands as she
looked deeply into his eyes, her voice echoing as if it were
being thrown across a wide canyon.

"I... I..." he found himself gasping for breath,
desperately trying to resist, but finding that he simply
could not.

And suddenly, the strange sensation left his mind as if it
had never been, his heartbeat receding back into his chest
where it belonged. He heard Alihra groan beside him,
frustrated. Why?

Oh... he realized then why she'd stopped, as Nick solemnly
appeared at the door to the back, his face screwed up in a
picture of grief. Strangely, he was wearing a different
shirt than the one he'd entered with, and Schanke wondered
distractedly whether Alihra noticed the change at the same
time as wondering why on Earth Nick had switched shirts.

"Nick!" he cried. He had to tell Nick about Alihra. About
how she had been prying. About her strange hypnosis
ability. Unless... Unless she was a vampire? Nah...
Nick would've mentioned that, and knowing Nick, he certainly
wouldn't have left him alone out here with her if she was
one, especially since Nick was visibly disturbed by her as
well.

"Schanke, I have to go. I have to take care of something
before it's too late..." he said, his voice growing hoarse
with raw emotion. It was obvious that he'd been crying...

"Nick, what's wrong?" Schanke asked, worriedly, but Nick
didn't even seem to hear him as he walked towards them, a
prisoner of his own overwhelming grief. He was heading for
the door. He was going to leave him here with Alihra!
"Nick, wait!" he cried frantically.

But it was too late. Nick shoved past them and left before
Schanke could utter another word. With the slamming of the
door, he felt Alihra grab him harshly and pull him out of
the Raven and onto the frigid street, her nails clutching
the lapels of his shirt like sharp talons. He tried to
break free, he really did... "Tell me what you know..."

And God help him, Schanke could do nothing other than
submit.

*****

He landed only quick enough to be thrown almost completely
off balance by a terrible sneeze. "ACHOO!" His whole body
flung forward with the intensity, his black leather boots
unwittingly kicking up a fine layer of dusty snow. Nick
wiped his sniffly nose on the back of his hand, not having
a handkerchief or anything else with which he could take
care of his problem. He'd been sneezing a lot since that
first one that he'd experienced while talking with Janette.

The air was cold, so much so that he was surprised it
wasn't frozen solid, and he wished at once that he'd had
the smarts to have bought a warmer coat. Although it wasn't
like he actually would've needed it until now. He'd found
that after the initial shock of receiving the Lyzatrex had
warn off, most of his vampire powers still quite accessible,
like the power of flight he'd used to get here so quickly,
but he was also noticing that things were affecting him more
than usual. He was more sensitive to the bitter cold night
air, and he had a hunger looming about his stomach that he
wasn't necessarily sure whether it was for blood or not.

He clutched Schanke's red scarf tightly around his cold neck
and red-flushed face. Thankfully, his partner had been nice
enough to loan it to him on the way to the Raven when he had
mentioned that he was really cold.

He sighed. Schanke... Nick realized he was feeling
particularly guilty for leaving Schanke with Alihra so
unexpectedly, but his conversation with Janette had made it
apparent to him what he needed to do. He wanted Christmas
with Nat to be special. And now he had the perfect idea.

Sobbing slightly, he realized that there was a good chance
he wouldn't even live to see Christmas, what with Enforcers
and a hunter of some sort after him. He only had to make
it another thirteen days. Thirteen days.

He approached his destination at a more than leisurely gate
and tapped gently on the glass door. A short balding man in
his bathrobe, sitting on a stool within, smiled upon seeing
Nick's arrival and immediately got up to let him into the
store.

He entered quickly and looked first left and then right.
Finally choosing a direction, strode down the aisle, the dim
lighting bringing out his haggard features in a ghastly pale
visage that started even him as he glanced into one of the
many mirrors that littered the store. Mortality, it seemed,
even partial mortality, was not doing good things for his
stress levels.

"Well, Mr. Brabant, it's good to see you, although I do hope
you make it worth my while for opening the store for you so
early in the morning," the owner smiled cheerfully, trying
to stifle a glaringly obvious need to yawn.

Nick smiled sheepishly as he glanced at his watch. It was
rather early, especially for someone who was not working on
the nightshift. "Don't worry, Mr. Mathias. I'll add in an
extra twenty percent onto the final price to make up for the
inconvenience," he said quietly as he looked around, hoping
that something would catch his eye. Something special.
Something eternal.

"Ooh, Mr. Brabant, you're too kind," Mr. Mathias said with
a greedy smile, clasping his hands together and raising his
index fingers towards his lips in the classic gesture of
complacence. However kind the man may have been on a
regular basis, the prospect of making a lot of money always
made him kinder.

"ACHOO!" Nick shuddered as a shiver ran through him. He
was getting sick... Really sick...

"Bless you, Mr. Brabant! You sound very ill!" Mr. Mathias
stated the obvious as he gracefully proffered a crisp
handkerchief out of his bathrobe's front pocket to his
special customer.

"Yeah, I must be coming down with something," Nick sighed
worriedly as he continued to look around. There must be
something here! Something...

There!

It was perfect. Beautiful. Fit for a queen. His queen...
Smiling, he pointed to the display as he walked straight
towards it with a look of determination. "I want that
one..."

Mr. Mathias's eyes just about bugged out of his head. "Mr.
Brabant, are you sure? That one is rather expensive..."
Mr. Mathias said cautiously, obviously hoping that Nick was
not pointing to that one by accident or by
misunderstanding.

"I don't care. Price is not an object in this anyway. How
much?" Nick asked carefully, hoping the man did not wish to
haggle over the price. He was rapidly developing a
headache and he didn't think he'd have the energy.

Mr. Mathias smiled and wrote a rather large figure on a
piece of paper. "That's fine," Nick said. "What's twenty
percent on that?" he asked as he pulled out his black
checkbook from the inside pocket of his black duster.

Mr. Mathias wrote another figure onto the sheet. "Oh, I'm
so glad to do business with you, Mr. Brabant! You've
pretty much paid for the next year's rent!" he commented
excitedly, obviously very glad that he'd opened the store
despite his previous misgivings.

Nick smiled warmly despite his rapidly deteriorating state
of health. "I trust this will be ready for me to pick up as
soon as it's been fitted and my check has been cleared with
the bank?" he asked, making sure he had the details of the
contract correct.

"Oh, absolutely! I can do it express if you need it in a
rush. May I ask who the lucky recipient is?" Mr. Mathias
asked jovially, running his chubby hand through his
thinning hair.

Nick smiled again, this time much more dreamily. "Someone
very special..." he said, his voice taking on a far away
tone.

Mr. Mathias grinned a toothy smile, his mustache creasing
upwards ever so slightly. "Ah, a lovely lady, I'm sure."

"Oh indeed. And she gets lovelier every day..." Nick sighed
as he thought of Natalie.

"Ah, beauty is always greatest when true love has swept up
the eye of the beholder," Mr. Mathias commented, clapping
his warm hand across Nick's back in a friendly gesture. "I
wish you the best of luck, Mr. Brabant!"

"Thank you," Nick said as he bid the kind man goodbye and
stepped back outside into the bitter chill of night. He
closed his eyes and took a deep breath, tilting his head
skyward.

The sun would be rising soon...

*****

Nat looked at the body on her table, perplexed. It was
definitely a vampire kill, no doubt about it. But there was
something that was bugging her about it. Like it was too
by the book.

There was not a scratch on the body. Nothing. Usually
she'd found _some_ indication that the victim had put up an
initial struggle before the vampire hypnotized the victim
into submission, but this time there had been nothing. Only
the two punctures, and a _huge_ amount of blood loss. It
was as if this victim had wanted to be sucked dry. Like it
was a pleasurable experience.

Nat subconsciously fingered her neck, where two tiny
puncture marks had taken up what seemed to be a permanent
residence. Although Nick had successfully finished once
before without biting her, it was a fairly isolated event.
Only once since then had he been able to make a repeat
performance, not that Nat minded. Getting drunk from _was_
a very sexual experience, one that she enjoyed thoroughly,
but she doubted it would be quite the same outside of the
context she'd experienced it.

Nick had never really talked about it, and although she was
dying to know, she didn't think it was her place to ask. He
was very uncomfortable just talking about the little things,
like his hunger, and whatnot. Talking about feeding from
someone would probably send him into a terrible guilt
fest...

"So what did you find?"

The voice penetrated her thoughts, and Nat looked over
towards the door, startled. She recognized the older,
slightly wrinkled, graying woman standing before her almost
immediately. "Alihra! What brings you here?" she asked
curiously, looking behind her shoulder for either Nick or
Schanke and growing slightly nervous when she saw neither.

Alihra approached Natalie hesitantly. "Nick had to run an
errand and Schanke's out parking the car. I got sent in to
find out any details that you may have found..." she said,
staring at Nat with a hard glare.

Nat immediately felt uncomfortable. Parking the car? They
always parked it illegally anyway, it wasn't like someone
would be taking their spot... And Nick, running an errand?
That was logical, he often left in mid-shift if he thought
something was important enough, but he usually jumped at the
chance to come and visit her at the morgue. It had gotten
to the point that Schanke just didn't even volunteer
anymore, Nick always got the info from the morgue when they
didn't come together. Not to mention that this was a
'special' case. They'd never send an 'uninformed' person in
to talk with her. Would they?

"Really? Well," she said distractedly, clearing her throat,
"it was obviously an animal attack. I would attribute the
blood loss to evaporation, but I'm going to have to check
into that more when I get the opportunity. I've been busy
today as you may have guessed... Suicide rates during
Christmas and New Years always skyrocket..." she babbled,
going off on the first tangent that hit her. Perhaps if she
dodged the subject and distracted Alihra, she wouldn't ask
too many questions that she couldn't answer without it
looking suspicious.

Alihra smiled. "Come now, Dr. Lambert... What did you
_really_ find?" she asked, her tone getting dangerously low,
seductive almost.

She tried to hide her shock at the question, but she
couldn't help it as her hands began to shake. This woman
knew something that she wasn't supposed to know... "I'm not
sure what you're talking a..." Nat's voice cut off as she
saw Schanke come into the room and she sighed in visible
relief. "Schanke!"

"Hello, Natalie... It's so good to see you..." Schanke
said, almost completely monotone.

Natalie backed herself against the desk. "Schank?" she
asked, a feeling of dread coming to rest in the pit of her
stomach as Schanke stopped next to Alihra and stared blankly
ahead. Nat's eyes shifted to Alihra, who was standing there
with a ghastly wicked grin on her face.

Alihra brushed a stray gray hair from her eyes with a blood
red nail. "Don't worry, Natalie..." she said sweetly as
she motioned to Schanke.

"Don't worry, Natalie..." Schanke said monotonely, in that
strange, possessed voice, repeating Alihra word for word as
if he had no mind of his own. He began to walk towards her
slowly, his arms outstretched like he was preparing to grab
her. He _was_ preparing to grab her...

Nat tried to back up, glancing back and forth between Alihra
and Schanke with panic, but she realized that she was
already back as far as she could go. And she couldn't bolt
out the door either, Schanke and Alihra were blocking any
possible exit. "Schanke? Listen to me! She's controlling
you! Stop!" she pleaded desperately, but to no avail.

Schanke said nothing as he grabbed hold of her shoulders
and clasped his hand in front of her lips to prevent any
hope of screaming for help. She struggled against his firm
grip with all her might, twisting this way and that.
Despite the fact that she was in much better physical shape,
she was still no match for Schanke's large frame and he was
able to hold her fast.

"Natalie, this won't hurt a bit. I assure you. If you
hold still it will make it easier and then we can all go
home..." Alihra said, slightly condescendingly. It was as
if she thought Nat a mere child.

Nat's eyes widened and she kicked her feet out in one last
ditch effort to escape, knocking over a tray of scalpels and
whatnot, her blue heeled pump flying off her foot and almost
right into Alihra's pale, lined face. Alihra dodged and
quickly righted herself. "You little witch! How can Nick
like you?!" she screeched as she advanced upon Nat and
slapped her stingingly across the face.

Tears sprang into her eyes and Nat blinked furiously to keep
them from falling, breathing hard into Schanke's warm hand.
What on Earth was going on? She didn't understand at all,
Alihra had seemed perfectly fine, if not a little strange at
the crime scene... She cried out futily into Schanke's hand,
but all the resulted was a muffled moan. No one out in the
hallways would be able to hear her...

"Now, Natalie, I want you to look at me..." Alihra said
threateningly, her hand raised again to discipline her if
need be.

Nat squeezed her eyes shut in response, turning her head
away as far as Schanke's firm grasp would allow. Another
slap. "Look at me!" cried Alihra, frustration dripping from
her voice. She was obviously not used to such furious
resistance...

"If you don't look at me, I'll have Schanke carry you out to
Nick's Cadillac and lock you in the trunk while we go to
the loft and stake him while he sleeps..." Alihra said, her
tone going from angry to dangerously low. Dangerously
calm...

Natalie felt her heart stop in her chest as he mind began to
race. This was a hunter. It had to be... And she would
kill Nick if she didn't cooperate... But she would kill
Nick if she _did_ cooperate too... wouldn't she?

Apparently knowing exactly what she was thinking, Alihra
continued. "Look at me! I'm not going to kill him if I can
help it but you're not giving me much choice!"

Nat hesitantly opened her eyes and looked into Alihra's
shocking fiery green ones. She couldn't help but notice how
incredibly exotic they looked, with the golden streaks in
them they looked almost... hypnotic...

"Now, Natalie," Alihra said, sighing with obvious relief.
"I want you to tell me what you found..." she commanded
huffily with a slight shake of her head, the condescending
tone returning to her rich feminine voice. The command
echoed for years in her head, and it almost felt like her
brains were being turned to mush as the older woman spoke.
And then it turned to a terrible pressure. Her legs gave
out, but Schanke caught her before she could fall to the
cold, tiled floor.

"Don, remove your hand from her mouth so she can speak..."
Alihra said smoothly. Schanke's hand fell from her mouth
almost the same instant that the command was issued.

Nat knew she should scream for help. She knew it... And
yet she found herself strangely unable to. The pressure on
her head and her chest were increasing. "Tell me what you
found!" Alihra said more forcefully this time.

"I... I... Two..." Natalie found herself speaking,
completely outside of her control. It was as if she was
sitting somewhere outside her body, helplessly watching it
respond to the commands of this mysterious woman.

"Yes, two?" Alihra said excitedly, almost visibly jumping in
a cheer of success.

"Two... punctures... vampire..." That was the last thing
that she had conscious realization of saying, her resistance
completely lost. Natalie sighed as the pressure became too
much and she fell into the heavy black waterfalls cascading
across her view field.

*****

Nat sighed as she pulled open the elevator door, dusting off
the wet snowflakes from her overcoat and wild hair. Damn
headaches! She'd had an awful bordering on a migraine
headache since that stupid autopsy, which, of course, had
shown her nothing except what she had already known from the
start.

"Nick?!" she called out tiredly as she set her purse down on
the floor beside the door and strode across the practically
empty floor, her heels clicking on the cold hard wood as she
progressed. No answer.

She rubbed her temple with her hand as she glanced about,
the shooting pains in her forehead increasing slightly.
Nick was nowhere to be seen, at least on the first floor.
Odd... He _always_ waited for her to get home, and she for
him.

MREEEEOOOW!

Natalie glanced down, where a certain gray and white fur
ball was now rubbing furiously against her legs. "Hey, Sid.
Didn't Nick feed you?" she asked curiously as if she
expected an answer. Even if Nick was too tired to wait up
for her she would've hoped that he would've taken care of
her poor, obviously starving cat. Hah. That was a laugh.
He was so spoiled that the day Sidney was starving was the
day that Hell froze over. Not that that wouldn't be hard
with the weather they were having...

After taking care to feed her over-indulged cat, she walked
up the stairs and poked her head in their bedroom only to
find Nick dead to the world. Damn! She'd wanted to talk to
him about how the Lyzatrex was working. Not having the
heart to wake him up when he was obviously tired, she
decided that that discussion would have to wait until
tomorrow.

She wandered back downstairs and over to the fridge,
grabbing an apple for a quick snack. With a groan, she sat
down at the black table in the kitchen, eating quickly. She
was tired. And her head hurt. Sydney hopped up onto the
table to keep her company, purring up a storm.

"Hey, Sid. Got any miracle cures for headaches?" she asked
jokingly, rubbing her temples again in pain. Since she'd
already taken well beyond the max dosage of ibuprofen, there
really wasn't much else she could do. Sydney just looked at
her, meowing in indignation as her hands went to pet her
forehead rather than his. She laughed despite her
discomfort and indulged him briefly, rubbing behind his soft
ears and underneath his chin. His most favorite spots.

After she finished appeasing her cat and her stomach, Nat
went back upstairs. Ooooh to join Nick in sweet slumber...
Quickly undressing, she looked around for her nightgown. It
was gone... DAMNIT!

Frustrated and not really interested in rummaging around for
a clean one, she just grabbed a pair of Nick's black satin
pajamas off of his valet and put them on. As tired as she
was, she laughed slightly as they tented around her, way too
big for her and yet still very comfortable... Very...
smooth... She wiggled a bit in them and smiled as she
turned towards the bathroom with all intents of going to
brush her teeth and be done with it.

COUGH

She stopped cold in her tracks. Was that Nick? She looked
more closely at him than she had the last time she'd come
up and noticed that his sleep was not nearly as peaceful as
she'd originally assumed. His face was covered with small
beads of bloodsweat, and his breathing sounded very labored.
Normally when he slept you couldn't see him breathing at
all, and now his chest was heaving up and down like he was
running a marathon.

"Nick?" she called as she approached the bed. He coughed
again as she placed her hands on his shoulders and shook
him.

Unlike how he usually awoke involuntarily, snarling and at
the ready, he opened his eyes blearily. "Nat?" he asked,
his voice hoarse and painful as he broke into a coughing
fit.

"My God, Nick! You look terrible! Is this the Lyzatrex?
Why didn't you call?" she started asking him questions a
mile a minute, but it was obvious she'd lost him pretty
much with the utterance of the name. His eyes closed and
she shook him hard, her own headache all but forgotten.

She glanced at her watch. She'd given the Lyzatrex to Nick
almost eleven hours ago. That wasn't much time for any
disease to multiply enough to be seen, symptom-wise, and
that was assuming that he'd been infected the second the
Lyzatrex had kicked in. But then again, there was always
the odd, incredibly virulent strain...

"Nick, c'mon. Stay with me here... When did this start?"
she asked worriedly, trying assess what specifically was
wrong. She didn't _think_ the Lyzatrex would've done
this...

"Dunno... borrowed scarf... cold..." he murmured
unintelligibly.

Cold... Her mind raced, trying to decipher his broken
speech. Of course! The Lyzatrex had only partially worked,
making him somewhere in-between mortal and vampire. It
must've weakened his vampire immune system. Good lord, that
was something she'd never even considered... He'd never
been exposed to today's diseases, he would have virtually no
immunity at all. No wonder he'd gotten sick so soon, his
body had no defenses whatsoever against all the current
germs. Probably every bacterium in Toronto had located
Nick's virgin immune system and exploited it.

She placed her hand on his forehead, completely unsurprised
to find it burning up. He had a terrible fever... His
eyelids drooped tiredly and she was immediately sympathetic.
He probably hadn't been sick since he'd been a mortal. This
was practically a new experience for him.

He coughed again, and she immediately forced herself back on
task. She ran into the bathroom and grabbed the rubbing
alcohol from the medicine cabinet and a dry washcloth from
the towel rack. Returning, she unbuttoned his pajama top
and swathed his forehead and chest with the alcohol.
Hopefully, the quick evaporation would help cool him off a
bit.

"Nick? Can you hear me?" she asked quietly, patting his
cheek in hopes of giving him some lucidity. His eyes
fluttered again and she gasped at the sight. They were
golden, glowing slightly on their own in the darkness of the
room. If he had the vampire... then why was he sick? I
feel... not mortal. But not vampire...

Her hands went immediately to his jugular. Thump. Thump.
He had a pulse, a very slow one, like that of an Olympic
athlete, but it was definitely a pulse. What in the world?
I feel... not mortal. But not vampire... It seemed, that
the Lyzatrex had dealt him a cruel blow, giving him the
weaknesses of mortality, but not the strengths. Why was the
stupid Lyzatrex working so much differently in Nick's
bloodstream as opposed to Nick's blood samples?

"Nat? Tht'stuff rlly smells..." Nick complained sleepily,
opening his eyes only a crack, only enough to see her, but
at least this time they were blue.

Nat looked down and found that the whole time she'd been
contemplating what the Lyzatrex was doing to his system, her
hands had been on auto pilot, applying and reapplying the
alcohol. "Well you shouldn't have gotten a fever then!" she
chastised him playfully, glad that he was getting a bit more
lucid.

"Srry," he said, slurred slightly. It was obvious that he
was not in the best of health. He coughed lightly again,
and then it grew into a rather bad coughing fit. She sat
him up and rubbed his back until it subsided. "Thanks..."

"You're welcome. Although I think we need to try something
else, because Nat-medicine is getting really tired..." she
said with a pronounced yawn, making sure he had his balance
and then getting up.

Nick raised an eyebrow. "Just knock me out and put me out
of my misery..." he said as he placed his head in his clammy
hands. "You shoulda just left me feverish, at least I
wouldn't remember it..." he had to stop to cough again, and
he looked rather distressed. "Nat, am I dying?"

Nat couldn't help but laugh. "Of course not, Nick. You've
just got a bad cold... well it's probably not a cold since
you've got a fever... Or was it that fevers sometimes...
Oh I can't remember... I'm a coroner not a virologist," she
babbled until she saw she was losing his attention quite
rapidly. "To put it simply, no," she answered finally.

He smiled. "You know, I think I have a whole new
understanding of how you felt when you were out with the
flu... Remind me to be more sympathetic next time," he said
with a laugh, again accentuating it with a cough and a
sniffle.

"I think I'll have to hold you to that... Now wait there a
second," she answered, not waiting to see his response as
she went back into the bathroom and opened the medicine
cabinet again. With her index finger she scanned through
the contents, Tylenol... nah... Sudafed... no..., until it
finally came to rest on the sacred blue-labeled bottle.
Ah, NyQuil. Cold medicine for the Gods...

"Nick," she began as she grabbed it and walked out into the
bedroom. "_This_, my friend, is your first lesson in
mortality. What I am about to give you, is the cough
medicine of cough medicines. The elixir to appease the sore
throat God. _This_ is cherry-flavored NyQuil," she said
grandly, waving her hand in front of it like Vana White as
if she had just turned over a vowel.

Nick looked appropriately awed. "It looks... gross..." he
commented with a slightly disgusted curl of his lip as she
poured it out into the small plastic cup.

She snapped her head up and looked at him. "Hey! Never let
it hear you say that! It might not work now because you've
hurt its feelings..." she said jokingly, handing him the
cup. "Just pretend it's purple blood..."

"Purple blood?" he asked, an eyebrow raised.

"Yeah, purple blood," she confirmed, trying to keep the
smile from her face as he downed the contents of the cup,
screwing up his face in a look of surprise as the initial
zing cleared up his nose and throat.

"Wow... This is powerful stuff..." he said, staring at the
bottle as she set it on the nightstand.

"Yup. But _never_ take it during the day, cuz it'll knock
you out," she added informatively as she snuck into the
covers next to him, her headache coming back slightly, but
not nearly as bad as it had been before.

Nick nodded and lay himself down into her warm embrace. It
was silent for several moments, and Nat almost thought he
was asleep. "Nat?" suddenly came Nick's cautious voice.
"Not that I mind, but why are you wearing my PJs?"

She laughed in spite of her returning headache and
tiredness. "You know, if I make it through the night
without catching whatever nasty bug you have... I just
might tell you," she said huffily and then settled in for
what she hoped would be a restful sleep.

*****

Come now, Dr. Lambert... What did you _really_ find?"

I'm not sure what you're talking a... Schanke!

Hello, Natalie... It's so good to see you...

Schank?

Don't worry, Natalie...

Don't worry, Natalie...

Schanke? Listen to me! She's controlling you! Stop!

Natalie, this won't hurt a bit. I assure you. If you hold
still it will make it easier and then we can all go home...

You little witch! How can Nick like you?!

Now, Natalie, I want you to look at me...

Look at me!

If you don't look at me, I'll have Schanke carry you out to
Nick's Cadillac and lock you in the trunk while we go to the
loft and stake him while he sleeps...

Look at me! I'm not going to kill him if I can help it but
you're not giving me much choice!

Now, Natalie, I want you to tell me what you found...

Don, remove your hand from her mouth so she can speak...

Her lip twitched as she began to moan.

Tell me what you found!

She tossed in her sleep frantically, side to side, almost
falling off the bed.

I... I... Two...

Natalie snapped awake like a overly tense springboard,
panting and drenched in salty sweat. That had been a crazy
nightmare... She glanced around wildly, only to realize
that she was alone.

"Nick?" she yelped, her heart still beating wildly in fear
from the terrible dream. He wasn't there, but she didn't
have time to ponder it as a bolt of pain coursed through her
head. She winced and sucked in a quick breath through
clenched teeth, her eyes squeezing shut against the
onslaught.

Nick poked his head in the door almost instantly. "Nat?
What's the matter, I heard you moaning..." he said worriedly
as he walked in, a steaming coffee mug in his hand, almost
completely forgotten.

She opened one eye cautiously and then the other, peering at
him like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
"Noth... Nothing, it was just a nightmare..." she assured
him, although she said it to assure herself more than him.
Luckily the pain shooting through her temples was rapidly
receding.

"I don't suppose it's too much to ask that you're drinking
real coffee?" she asked hopefully, distracted by the large
cow-spotted mug clasped absently in his hand. Cow spots.
She'd thought it funny when she'd gotten it for him a few
weeks ago, but now it was just plain obnoxious.

"Actually," he said with a grin, looking down at the cup,
"It is coffee. I already had some blood, but I was still
hungry and I thought I'd give it a try. It's not really all
that bad..."

She felt herself break into a wide grin. "Oh, Nick! That's
wonderful! I..." she exclaimed as she hopped out of bed and
ran to him. Without hesitation, she placed her hand to his
forehead. "Your fever is gone too!"

Nick smiled triumphantly, as if his entire self-worth relied
on the fact that his overworked immune system had finally
come through for him. "Yup. Although I still feel like
I've been hit by a truck..."

She frowned and hugged him, careful not to jostle the mug in
his hand. "Well, Nick, this wasn't exactly what I'd hoped
for when I gave you the Lyzatrex, but it's a good start,"
she said with a satisfied smile, resting her head lightly on
his broad shoulder.

Nick affectionately brushed her hair absently with his free
hand for a few moments but his fingers suddenly grew still
as if he were pondering something of deep importance. "Nat?
Will this stuff wear off?" he asked curiously.

She brought her head off his shoulder and peered into his
worried eyes. "To be honest, Nick. I'm not sure," she
said honestly. From the look on his face, she could tell
that that was _not_ what he wanted to hear.

"It obliterated the vampire nucleotides, not just
deactivated them. Don't worry about the half-mortal, half-
vampire thing. I think if we give you a second dose it'll
probably get rid of the rest of your vampiric cells. I only
gave you about one cc, hardly enough to do the entire
job..." she explained, and thankfully, the worried
expression slowly bled out of his face.

But, she thought as she looked closely at his cleanly
shaven face, there was still _something_ there. Doubt?
"Nick, what's the matter? Are you having doubts about
this?"

Nick looked back at her, a certain sadness clouding his
eyes, and he shook his head, walking over to the nightstand
to place to now cooling coffee down on the wooden surface.
"About this?" he asked, gesturing absently towards himself.
"Certainly not. I've wanted this for _years_. It's just...
It's just something that Janette said. Nothing big," he
commented, trying to brush off whatever was bothering him
like it was nothing.

"What did she say?" Nat prodded. She'd learned very early
on in their relationship that while Nick always tried to
hide his problems away, he was almost always screaming on
the inside to talk about them. He just needed a little help
getting started.

"I..." he paused and then tried again. "She... She said
that my quest for mortality was bothering her not because I
would become mortal, but because she would lose me..." he
whispered softly, his face filling with pain as his speech
came to an end.

"And now you're feeling guilty?" Nat questioned him softly,
starting to realize where this was going. Guilt. That was
Nick's arch enemy. Always lurking, waiting to strike him
when he was vulnerable.

He shrugged and looked down at the floor. "I... I don't
know. Nat, never doubt how much I love you... It's just
that I..." he said, struggling to find words that expressed
the feelings he was so obviously a victim of.

"You love her too, and you're not sure you could stand her
being left behind," she finished for him, her voice raw with
pain. Not out of her own jealousy, but out of his hurt.
"It's ok, Nick. I understand that you two once had
something very special. I've seen it when you've taken my
blood. You don't have to act like you don't care about her
anymore," she assured him, trying to be supportive. She
knew there was no chance of him ever leaving her for
Janette, but that didn't mean he didn't still care...

"Yeah, I guess. Don't worry, Nat. I'll figure it out
somehow, I just need time..." he said wearily, rubbing his
eyes with his index fingers.

Don't worry, Nat.

Natalie blinked, as a strange tingling sensation started at
the nape of her neck and swept around to her face.

Don't worry, Natalie.

And suddenly the pain came roaring back to life. She
groaned. "Nat?" Nick said frantically as she doubled over,
but she was unable to respond. "What's the matter!?" he
cried, his voice echoing through her head like muddled
thunder as the images began to replay in her mind. Blurry
at first, but then clear as the pale moon on a crisp night.

Tell me what you found!

"She made me tell her!" Nat suddenly blurted out, the agony
practically making her see stars. She screamed loudly,
shaking wildly as she felt Nick's strong arms encircle her,
pulling her back towards reality, making her feel safe and
cared for.

And suddenly, the pain receded. All the events of the
previous night that had replayed in jumbled skits assembled
in sequence, becoming crystal clear in her mind. "Oh, God!
Schanke!" she sobbed worriedly. What had happened to
Schanke? The last she had remembered, he had been
brainwashed into Alihra's little servant.

By this time, Nick was about sick with worry. "Natalie!" he
yelled as he shook her hard. "What are you talking about!?
What's going on?" he cried frantically.

She shook her head, trying to calm down the panic that was
forming but to no avail. "Nick! Alihra! She hypnotized
me. And Schanke, she hypnotized Schanke! I... That's why
I was having headaches I think... I was trying to remember
but I couldn't..." she explained rapidly, but it was obvious
that she'd lost Nick almost completely by the end.

"Wait, wait, headaches?" he exclaimed, crisscrossing and
uncrossing his arms in rapid gesticulation as he tried to
catch up with her. "Since when were you having headaches?"
he asked, very concerned.

"Since last night. You were ill, so I kinda forgot to
mention it... Nick, you've got to stop Alihra. She was
threatening to kill you, I think she's a hunter..."
Although she had managed to begin her speech at a moderate
pace, by the end her heart and voice were racing fast enough
to challenge a Derby winner in a sprint.

"A hunter? Hunter's can't hypnotize people... They get the
bloodlust, the anti-sunlight stuff, not hypnotism..." Nick
said with a perplexed look, being entirely too logical for
such a dire situation.

"Well, Nick. Whatever the Hell she is," she began, growing
angry as she thought of how Alihra had violated her, "that
hag hypnotized Schanke, and me, and..."

Nick interrupted her again. "Nat, Alihra may have done the
things you said, but I wouldn't hardly call her a hag..." he
said, obviously trying to put some humor into the situation.

At the look on his face, it became apparent to her that he
was humoring her. He didn't believe a word she was
saying... "Well fine then, an exceedingly mature, fiftyish
woman," she began angrily and then asked "Is that better?"
with an eyebrow raised, daring him to make another joke.
This was real damnit! Not some nightmare, which Nick
obviously thought it was...

Nick just laughed out loud and she felt her cheeks turning
red and hot at the horrible sound of his ridicule. "Nat,
Alihra's barely thirty, and she doesn't have a gray hair
on her head!" he exclaimed. "Really Nat, you almost had
me there..." he paused upon seeing the look of daggers her
face. "Wait... You're serious, aren't you?"

"Yes!" she hissed, amazed that he could be so incredibly
thick. Thick as a goddamned brick! She wanted to scream at
him and shake him she was getting so angry. "I am telling
you, Alihra is dangerous! She hypnotized me, ME, a
resistor!" she exclaimed, gesturing to herself wildly,
thumping her chest hard for emphasis.

Nick closed his eyes and took a deep breath, recollecting
himself. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said quickly in a
cursory apology, but she could tell that he meant it.
"You're probably going to clobber me for sticking on this
track, but you really think Alihra is an fifty-something
woman?"

Nat could only nod, not understanding where he was going
with this, but curious as to why he was focusing on it.
"Well, that's news to me... because I'm seeing a dark,
middle-eastern looking, black-haired, thirtyish year
old..."

Nat stared at him, mouth agape. "You weren't joking when
you said that earlier?" she asked curiously. She thought
he'd said that just to deride her... Nick shook his head.
"Well one of us has to be wrong, because last time I
checked, people can't change their age at will, and they
certainly can't change their coloring..."

Nick looked at her seriously. "Nat, maybe you _were_
dreaming..." he suggested quietly, but she could tell that
he meant no offense.

"Well I wasn't dreaming at the crime scene... She looked
the same to me there too..." she said, her voice trailing
off as the gravity of the situation began to set it. What
the Hell was going on?

After pondering for several moments, Nick suddenly
brightened up like an overhauled light bulb and he sprang
towards the phone on the nightstand, quickly dialing a
number. He looked over at Nat and then up towards the
ceiling while it rang. Nat could vaguely hear a click on
the other end of the line, and Nick took a deep breath
before speaking. "Schank? Listen, this is going to sound
like a really weird question, but what does Alihra look
like?"

Well, at least the fact that he'd picked up the phone
probably meant he was out of Alihra's clutches, Nat thought
as she perched herself on the edge of the bed in
anticipation. She strained to hear what was being said on
the other end of the line, but all she could discern was
laughing, and Nick looked a little frustrated. "Seriously,
Schanke. What does she look like? Humor me..." Nick said
into the receiver, looking towards Nat and shrugging
helplessly.

More noise on the other end. "You're kidding... You've got
to be kidding, please say your kidding!" Nick pleaded, his
voice becoming strained as he continued, defeated, "You're
not kidding... Listen Schanke, I'll explain later, I've got
to go..." Nat couldn't help but snicker as Nick put the
phone down. She didn't need to be holding the phone to
understand _those_ expletives...

"Well, Nat," he said with a harried sigh, "We've now got one
woman, who looks like a graying fifty-year-old, a young
black-haired middle-eastern thirty-year-old, and a creamy
white blond of unspecified age."

"So what the Hell is going on?!" Nat cried, leaping up from
her perch on the bed. Her patience was suddenly wearing
very thin.

"I don't know. I've never encountered anything like this
before. Maybe she's a shape shifter or something... All I
can say for sure is that she's not a hunter, and she's not a
vampire," Nick said, putting his head in his hands as he sat
down heavily on the bed.

"Nick, don't you think that if she can fake superficial
appearances, she'd be able to fake that too?" Nat asked. It
was a perfectly logical assumption, but lord, what a mess!

In response, Nick got up in a huff and went to the dresser.
The look of frustration on his face as he manhandled a pair
of cleanly pressed pants off his valet was clearly
inadequate towards expressing his turmoil. "Nick? Nick,
what are you doing?" she asked cautiously.

"I'm getting ready for work. When Alihra gets there, I'll
just ask her what the Hell is going on, although in nicer
terms I think," he stated coldly, his face suddenly becoming
a mask of stone.

"But, Nick! You can't just waltz right up to her and ask
her that!" she exclaimed incredulously. He couldn't
possibly expect something as direct as that to work...

"Yeah? Well then what do _you_ suggest I do?" he responded
angrily, although she knew his anger wasn't really directed
at her. She simply remained silent. She didn't really have
a better suggestion, even if his idea _was_ pretty set for
failure.

"That's what I thought," he commented dryly, pulling on a
shirt and buttoning it furiously, his fingers fumbling with
the small buttons.

"Well if you're going to do this, I'm coming too," Nat
stated calmly, waiting for Nick's overprotective side to
burst through his well kept barriers. Watching his face,
she was surprised to see nothing but acceptance. It was as
if he had temporarily given up all protest. Life had
thrown him one too many curveballs, and he just couldn't
catch them all.

Well, it was just as well. Because there was obviously
the same question burning inside her that was burning
inside him. Who was Alihra? Or more accurately, _what_ was
Alihra?

*****

Nick stared blankly as the windshield wipers whisked the
sleet off the windshield of his Caddy. Nat was right. This
was never going to work... Not in eight hundred years...
But he had to try. Alihra, she knew things that she wasn't
supposed to know, possessed an art of illusion so developed
that she'd had three people seeing her as three different
women, all at the same time. And it was scary.

"Nick? Are you planning on turning the car off anytime
soon?" Nat's voice interjected his thoughts impatiently.

He sighed and brought his head down on the steering wheel,
groaning in frustration as he weakly turned the key towards
himself. The steady murmur of the car's engine abruptly
ceased, and all that remained was the sound of the sleet
hitting the window in sheets of slushy mess. "Nick, it's
ok. Everything will be ok..." Nat said worriedly, rubbing
his back.

"Oh, if you only knew..." he grumbled, sitting up and
looking into her soft blue eyes. He really should mention
the Enforcers to her, but they could be watching, even
now... And he didn't need anything _new_ to worry about at
the moment.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Nat asked suspiciously,
bringing her mitted hands and arms together in a stern cross
across the middle of her abdomen in a perfect expression of
'Oh lord, what now?!'

"Nat, after this is over, you'll hear all about it, I swear.
But I think we should get this out of the way first, don't
you?" He asked, trying to escape her penetrating gaze.
Luckily she seemed to accept that explanation, for now. He
sighed, shuffling in his seat and grabbing the lever on the
door, pushing it open with a hardy shove. Nat followed
suit.

They walked through the precinct parking lot in silence,
buffeted by the chilly weather. Always chivalrous, Nick
pulled open the precinct door and motioned for Nat to enter
first. Nat smiled, happily complying.

Schanke looked up from his desk almost immediately as if he
had a radar which had the specific purpose of detecting when
Nick arrived... "Hey, Nick! Do you mind, oh hi Nat," he
paused as he noticed Nat walking in beside Nick and said
hello to her out of politeness before continuing, "Do you
mind maybe telling me what that phone call was about?"

"Where's Alihra?" Nick asked coldly, not bothering to answer
Schanke's question.

Schanke glanced over his shoulder, "Well, she went to the
ladies' room a few minutes ago, oh wait, there she is..."
He pointed beyond Nick towards the bullpen where Alihra was
now exiting into the office section of the precinct.
Schanke waved meekly and she smiled back as she approached.

Nick, however, was not interested in letting things get very
social. The minute Alihra was within reach, he grabbed her
arm viciously and started yanking her towards a private
conference room. "Alihra, we need to talk, and we need to
talk now!" he hissed into her ear.

Nick didn't know if it bothered him more that Alihra wasn't
protesting at all, or that Alihra seemed to be much more
powerful than she looked and that she was simply allowing
herself to be led like a dog on a leash. "Nick, what the
Hell are you doing?" Schanke cried from somewhere behind
them as he leaped off his chair and followed in hot pursuit,
Natalie not two nose-lengths behind him.

Soon, they were all in the conference room, Nick, Nat, and
Schanke sitting on one side of the long conference table,
and Alihra sitting on the other side, looking like a defiant
child facing up to the authorities. Nick didn't wait any
longer to begin. "Schanke, tell me what you see," he began
mysteriously, pointing to Alihra with an outstretched index
finger.

"I see you going psycho! C'mon, Nick. What's going on?"
Schanke asked, obviously frustrated that Nick wasn't giving
any answers.

Nick turned and stared at him coldly in silent fury, using
every form of silent intimidation that he could muster.
"All right! All right! I see Alihra. Very blond, and
_very_ pretty," he smiled with a twinkle in his eye and
winked to Alihra, who up until then had been sitting there
silently.

She stood up, the chair legs screeching in protest as they
were pushed back across the tiled floor. "Look, it's
obvious that you've figured out there's something not quite
right about me. Let me just make this easier and I can
explain everything, all right?" she said calmly, and Nick
peered at her with narrowed eyes. It was obvious to him
that this was a situation she'd been in before...

"Fine," Nick said flatly, gesturing unmercifully with his
hand for her to continue while at the same time trying not
to let his face betray the surprise he felt that she'd given
up that easily.

Alihra lightly sat back down in her chair and opened her
mouth to begin, brushing her luscious 'black' hair away from
her face absently, but Schanke interrupted before she had a
chance to speak. "Nick? Nat? Alihra? Would _SOMEONE_
explain to me what the Hell is going on?!" he cried
frantically.

Alihra began, getting straight to the point. "Relax, Don.
Your partner has obviously become upset because I do not
appear the same to him as I do to you, or to Dr. Lambert,"
she said coolly. "My appearances," she continued, "are in
the eye of the beholder. I appear the way you want to see
me, except my eyes. They are my one constant... I don't
know why this is so, I've never met another with similar
capabilities. I am alone," she trailed off, looking
forlornly at the table. Nick realized that despite her cool
appearance, this fact bothered her immensely. It was like
Alihra felt she had no identity.

"What?" Schanke asked incredulously. "You mean to tell me
that the reason I'm seeing you as a gorgeous blond babe is
because I _WANTED_ to see a gorgeous blond babe?! And you
also expect me to believe that you're only appearing like
a blond babe to _ME_ and not Nick or Natalie? That's
ridiculous... Really, Nick. This was very funny, but..."

"Schank, would you be quiet for a moment and listen?!" Nat
snapped, obviously distressed by this news. "Why would I
want to see you as an older woman?" she asked curiously.

It was a rather open-ended question, but Alihra was quick
to answer. "You are obviously quite attached to Nick, why
would you want competition?" Alihra said with a grim frown.

"Competition?! Am I that petty? That I would conjure you
as an older woman because I think Nick would be attracted
to a younger, prettier one?" Nat cried, becoming more and
more upset she spoke.

Alihra sighed. "Whether you want to admit it or not, every
woman feels that way to some extent. Even if it's something
you may never actively think about, it was still how you
_wanted_ to see me. And so here I am..." she explained.

Nick frowned. "Then why are your eyes the same?"

Alihra shrugged. "I don't know, except that I am a firm
believer that eyes are a pathway to the soul. All other
looks are superficial, but the eyes, they can tell
everything about what a person is feeling, even when they do
not wish to express it," she said softly, looking down at
her hands which were clasped firmly in her lap.

It made sense, Nick supposed. But that still left a lot
unanswered. A lot unsaid. "This still doesn't explain why
you hypnotized Nat last night. And Schanke... And it
certainly doesn't explain how..." Nick said cautiously,
looking her in the eyes, but Schanke interrupted before he
could finish.

"Me? No one hypnotized me, buddy! I was completely lucid
since... Wait..." Schanke claimed, his voice trailing off
as he realized he couldn't remember what he'd done last
night. At all.

"I... I cannot tell you that," she said, her voice
wavering. "How... How did you possibly find out about
that?" Her chest began to heave.

"It doesn't matter. We know. And why were you threatening
to kill me?" Nick prodded, rising from his seat and leaning
across the table, bringing his face threateningly close to
her gold and green streaked eyes. The vampire within him
screamed for release as he stared at her hypnotic eyes.

"I don't know what you're talking about!" she insisted, but
it was obviously a lie, she'd basically confirmed that with
her first admission. He could hear her heartbeat increasing
rapidly as she began to panic.

He looked at her coldly, having no sympathy for her
whatsoever. This woman had hurt Natalie, and Schanke, and
he most certainly didn't take kindly to death threats.
Leaning imperceptibly closer, his voice low with quiet rage,
he began, "Alihra, tell me what you know about me..."

The intimidation was too much for her. She snarled, her
fangs dropping and her eyes turned a true gold, the streaks
flooding the entirety of her irises. "I didn't want this
assignment!" she screeched. "I didn't want it, damnit!" she
pounded her fists on the table.

Nick felt his own fangs drop, and his vision turned an amber
hue in instinctual response. "You... You're a vampire!" he
hissed, standing rigidly, not backing off in the slightest.
"But... but your heart beats!" he cried, completely
confused, his mouth agape in a wicked display of sharp,
pearly canines.

"So does yours," she said flatly through her fangs.

"But..."

"You wanted to see a mortal. You saw a mortal. Right down
to the heartbeat. The only reason you see me like this now
is because I allowed my mental masking to slip. You can
feel me now?" she asked, but it wasn't really a question.

Nick nodded. God yes, he could feel her. The soft buzz at
the back of his mind that LaCroix always produced was
nothing compared to this. The air was thick with her
presence, wrapping his mind in thick cotton. Suffocating
him. She radiated age, and power. With great difficulty,
he forced his fangs back up into his gums, knowing that even
if he had been a full vampire he would never have been able
to match her.

"I'm sorry," Nick found himself saying, praying that Alihra
wasn't going to do anything. As it were, she could probably
snap him in two like a twig, and Natalie and Schanke would
be left defenseless.

Red, sticky tears fell from her amber eyes. "I didn't want
this... I didn't want to have to do this. I'm not like the
others, I believe you're not a threat..." she whispered
frantically, breathing heavily as she sat down.

"What are you talking about?" Nick asked her, keeping his
eyes averted. He didn't want to provoke her in this
obviously troubled state...

"I'm from the Council. I was sent to asses the threat you
posed and kill you if I saw fit," she said honestly, looking
at him with a sniffle. "You... you don't have to act all
submissive. I won't do anything. At least not yet..." she
stated sadly, her eyes drooping with an age-old weariness.

"The Council? You're an Enforcer? Oh God, you're the one
who bit Janette... She said it was a man, but knowing
Janette, that makes sense..." he whispered hoarsely as he
grasped the entirety of the situation, suddenly realizing
what deep trouble he was in. Here he was, cowering before
an Enforcer who basically knew everything about him and his
quest. Hell, he was in mid-cure. And now, he was probably
dead...

Alihra nodded mutely. "I had to asses how much everyone
knew. I killed that poor man in the alley too. I had to,
I had to see who all was involved," she confirmed and then
looked to Natalie. "I'm sorry I had to hurt you Natalie, I
thought that my mesmerizing job would stick, but it
obviously hasn't..."

Nat, who'd been in silent wonder of the scene enfolding
before her, was shocked into speech, "I... no, I'm a
resistor," was the only thing she could think of to say.

Alihra let out a sigh. "That doesn't matter when you're as
old as I am," she said quietly. Nick felt himself actually
growing empathetic towards her... And it was obvious that
she was hurting. "Nick, I can't let you live. No matter
how much I want to. The others would realize you'd been let
go and they'd not only kill you three, but they'd sack me as
well," she said quietly, and Nick felt a lump forming in his
throat.

"Why am I not dead already?" Nick asked in a hoarse whisper,
silently fearing the answer.

"Because I like you. I admire you and your quest," she
closed her eyes and sighed, weeping silently. "And... I
want it too..." Her admission was soft, almost too quiet
for even his enhanced ears to pick up. She looked up, her
eyes finally changing back to their normal gold-streaked
green. "Six thousand years... It is a long time to live
without a soul, without any real identity except what others
make for you," she whispered forlornly.

Nick stared, his eyes wide. Six thousand years... That
made even LaCroix seem like an infant. "Is there any way to
save them?" Nick said, pointing towards Natalie and Schanke,
both sitting speechless, mouths agape.

Alihra shook her head. "No," she said simply. "You know
the Code. They must die," she stated bluntly, her disgust
with the whole idea evident through the expression on her
face.

Nat stood up abruptly at that. "What are you talking about?
I've known for years, and I've never told a soul! Hell,
I've even covered for you!" she said furiously as she
slammed her right fist into the table, her cheeks turning
slightly red as she spoke.

Alihra blinked and looked at her, suddenly becoming
defensive. "I don't really have a choice in the matter, Dr.
Lambert. Even if I let you go, someone would come for you.
They would know I'd been soft with you the moment I share
blood with Elohr, my master. You _do_ know about the blood
sharing..." Alihra said softly, looking pointedly at the
small bite marks on Nat's neck, who immediately blushed and
sat back down.

Nick paled. Elohr... He'd heard that name before. He was
the second in command of all of the Enforcer clan. The son
of the eldest vampire. He'd heard about him by word-of-
mouth, but even LaCroix had never met him. And even what
he'd heard was sketchy. Most vampires he'd met over the
years avoided discussion of the Enforcers like the plague.
They were feared throughout the Community, and definitely
not a topic of choice for casual discussion.

A knock came at the door, and Alihra managed to work away
her vampiric appearance just before the Captain stepped into
the conference room. "You've been in here for an hour!
Are you working on a lead?" she asked curiously, an eyebrow
raised as she brushed a stray black hair away from her eye
and folder her arms authoritatively across her chest.

"We were discussing theories," Nick said flatly, trying
desperately not to let the emotions generated by their tense
confrontation seep through and into his tone.

The Captain nodded suspiciously. "Ah... Well, I came to
tell you that we have another murder. Same pattern, no
marks except the two cuts on the neck," she said as she
handed Schanke, who was sitting closest to the door and to
her, a file. "The address and particulars are in there.
The body is already waiting at the morgue for you, Dr.
Lambert."

Cohen looked pointedly at Schanke and Nick. "Please bag
this one, guys. I don't want this developing into a rampant
serial killer case," she warned them sternly before exiting.

Nick turned to Alihra. "Was it you?" he demanded coldly.
This was all so unnecessary. One person had already been
killed because of him, he didn't need a second death on his
head.

Alihra shook her head. "No," she said, a strange tone
entering her voice. "But as long as I'm in town, I might as
well take care of this offender as well..." she said with a
bitter sigh. She didn't like her job, not one bit. That
much was evident.

"What about me?" Nick found himself asking hoarsely,
desperately not wanting to hear her answer.

"I'll," Alihra began, her voice breaking as she began to cry
lightly again. "Later. I will deal with you and your
friends later..." she whispered as she stood up to leave to
conference room.

Nick sighed in relief collectively with Nat and Schanke as
she departed. "Nick, what are we going to do? If we help
her solve the case do you think she'll relent?" Nat asked
worriedly as Schanke sat in a speechless daze.

Nick shrugged. "I don't know, Nat. I just don't know," he
stated honestly. A death sentence was practically
irreversible in the vampire underworld. Enforcers, even
emotionally wrecked ones, were not vampires to be trifled
with.

*****

"Nick, Schanke, this wasn't a vampire kill."

Natalie's voice brought him out of the shocked daze he'd
been sitting in since they'd arrived at the morgue. "Huh?"
Nick asked, practically falling out of his chair at the
interruption.

Nat pointed towards the neck of the victim lying on her
autopsy table, and Schanke moved in closer to see what she
was pointing at. "These two 'bite marks' were made by a
needle. There's also no evidence of vampire saliva in the
wounds, but it was so similar I'd almost say the murderer
was trying to make it look like a vampire kill," Nat
commented softly, the professional confident tone completely
gone from her voice. She was being affected by the events
at hand more than she probably wanted to admit.

"Are you telling me that some wacko figured that he was
going to go waltzing around like Count Dracula?" Schanke
asked incredulously, finally breaking the silence that he'd
kept since Alihra had revealed her motives.

"Yes, Schank. That's exactly what I'm saying, although not
quite that elegantly," Nat said lightly, giving Schanke a
smirk despite herself.

Schanke slammed his hand down on the desk. "Damn! That
means Alihra is probably going to be on our backs again,
real soon..." he commented, the worry in his voice steadily
increasing. "Nick, what are we going to do? You could
bring us both across, couldn't you?"

Nick looked down at the floor and shrugged. "Alihra may
still want to find the mortal who did this, Enforcers don't
police just vampires... And yes, but bringing you both
across is an option which I'd rather not consider, and which
I'm not even sure if I could do," Nick answered hesitantly.
He'd hoped that neither Schanke nor Natalie would've thought
of that...

Schanke peered at him with a raised eyebrow, "Can't, or
won't?" he asked suspiciously.

That was a good question. In the face of death, _would_ he
actually bring them across? And if he did, would he regret
it for the rest of his life? Hopefully, he would never have
to decide. "Schanke, with that drug Nat's given me, I
honestly don't know if I can. Not to mention my track
record with fledglings has been less than stellar..." he
commented honestly. He would save the rest for later, if it
was necessary. A feeling of dread began to flood his system
as he realized that it probably was.

Schanke looked at the ground. "Oh," he said, obviously
disappointed that it wasn't simply Nick's morals getting in
the way of the decision.

"Schanke, I'll figure something out, I promise," Nick found
himself saying before he could stop himself. Like what the
Hell was there for him to figure out? The Enforcers wanted
all of them dead. End of story. And definitely not much
leeway.

"Well, we can still try and find the person who did this,
that may get us into Alihra's favor..." Nat said hopefully,
but it was something she knew was pretty much destined for
failure.

Nick stared at her and immediately felt the guilt constrict
his chest. She and Schanke were going to die. And it would
be his fault. Because he'd been too stupid to walk away
when he could've, when he'd been presumed dead. He'd come
back, and despite his better judgment, he'd stayed. And now
they would all pay for it with a fatal price.

"Nick, don't you dare start feeling guilty about this!" Nat
said when she saw the look on his face change. "This is all
of our faults. We're in this together, and if anyone is
taking blame, it should be split three ways between us..."

Schanke nodded mutely in agreement, but Nick still couldn't
see it. How could they even pretend that this wasn't all
his doing? How could they... He was broken from his
thoughts when Natalie planted him with a desperate kiss in
an attempt to distract him. "Nick, stop it, now! We will
get through this, even if I have to knock your head in and
drag you through," Nat commented with a little laugh.

Schanke smiled as well, "I agree, but don't expect me to
kiss you..."

Nick couldn't help but grin in response. "Schanke, I think
I'd rather have Nat do violence to my head than have you
kiss me, no offense," he said playfully, feeling a strange
tingling sensation beginning in his abdomen, but choosing to
ignore it. "I'm sorry I'm being all doom and gloom about
this, I know that we should be working out a plan of escape,
so to say. It's just that, the Enforcers are not ones to
show mercy..."

"Hey, there's always a first time for everything," Nat said
optimistically, and Nick couldn't help but admire her for
it. She was so... so... incredible. He couldn't even
begin to put her into words. And he didn't want to. He
liked her just the way she was. What on Earth had he done
without her? It almost seemed like eons ago, another part
of his life that he cared not to remember. The tingling
sensation he felt earlier was getting worse.

He was struck from his thoughts when he felt a burning
sensation in his chest, and suddenly an incredibly intense
urge to feed. Blinking as Nat's and Schanke's heartbeats
began to flood his ears, he clutched at his chest, panting
hard. What was going on? "Nick, what's wrong?" Nat asked
worriedly, placing her hands on his shoulders to support him
as he felt the muscles in his legs giving out.

His world turning a blaze of gold, he found himself snarling
wildly as the pain began to set in. He blinked furiously,
trying to breathe, but it was if the air itself was crushing
him. "Nat..." he hissed through his taut lips, "Please..."
he managed to utter before muscle spasms engulfed him. He
felt Schanke's hands in addition to Nat's, straining to keep
him upright.

"Nick, what? Please, what's wrong?" he heard Natalie cry
through the thunder. "Schanke, get some blood out of the
fridge!" he heard her demand. Two hands left his shoulders.

He let out a forced moan as his nerves all seemed to fire in
rapid succession, leaving him on fire and freezing at the
same time. His teeth began to chatter, even though he felt
like he was being flamed in the fiery pits of Hell. Stars
exploded in front of him, completely blinding him, and
despite Nat's efforts to keep him standing, he felt himself
collapsing to the floor and onto his knees with a painful
crack.

Something cold was placed in his hand. Something that could
only be... He growled wildly, a complete slave to his
vampiric instincts as he took the blood pack to his lips and
practically ripped it a apart in an effort to get to the
blood inside.

The pack was soon empty, but he was too crazed to care. He
sucked at it wildly, trying to get every last drop, panting
sharply between swallows, like a desperate addict. It was
like he hadn't fed in a month, he was starving.

Another pack appeared before him and he completely drained
it as well, throwing it to the floor in a bloodlust induced
rage. Growling, he exposed his gleaming fangs to his two
observers and he tried to get up, but instead fell back onto
the floor, hitting his head on the cold tile with a loud
crack. That was enough to bring him back to his senses.

Bloodsweat dripped down his face as he lay there panting.
The thunder in his ears went away, the wild chorus of
beating hearts receding dimly into the background. He
sighed heavily, surprised to find that he was still very
hungry.

"Nat, what just happened?" he heard Schanke ask curiously.

"I don't know!" Nat sounded completely dumbfounded.

"Nick?" Nat's hands were at his chest shaking him, but he
couldn't open his eyes. They were just too heavy to lift,
his jaw too heavy to open. A warm finger gently pushed his
his eyelid up, and the light brought shoots of pain to his
brain. He clenched his eyelids shut, still finding himself
unable to respond even though he was completely aware. He
tried to move and found himself strangely paralyzed.

"Well, he's awake... but..." he could hear Natalie mumbling
to herself. He was hungry. His insides were practically
clawing at him, chewing him out from the inside. He wanted
to tell them... he wanted to, but he couldn't. It was like
he was completely frozen. Hunger induced paralysis...
Something he'd never had the unfortunate chance to
experience until now.

There was a cold thing on his chest suddenly, probably a
stethoscope but he couldn't tell for sure. "Oh, God. His
heart isn't beating anymore..." Nat said frantically, and
he could feel her hands probing him here and there.
"Everything else seems fine... Schanke, he must've
reverted..."

"You mean that Lyzastuff didn't work?"

"I don't know, I'm not sure..." Nat whispered, worriedly.
"Nick?" he felt her warm hand patting the side of his
cheek, trying to get him to wake up.

He managed to groan lightly in response, the pain in his gut
was starting to make him see stars even though his eyes were
closed. "Nick, if you can hear me, make noise!" Nat said
frantically, obviously hoping his groan hadn't been a
fluke.

Nick made a gurgling noise in his throat, unable to do much
else. His insides were screaming. "God, Nick. Do you
know what's wrong with you?"

He gurgled again. Just let her realize he needed blood...
Please... "Maybe he needs more chow..." Schanke mumbled,
obviously looking down on Nick from somewhere almost
immediately behind Nat.

"Schanke, he couldn't possibly, he just had two pints!" Nat
rebuked his theory almost immediately.

Nick made another gurgling noise. Please. Blood. Please!
His entire body was burning with need... "You need more
blood, Nick?" Nat asked, amazed. He confirmed almost
instantly.

Within minutes he felt a prick in his arm. "Jeez, Nat. Is
he supposed to absorb blood that fast?" Schanke asked,
amazed. Natalie must've responded with either a nod or a
shake of her head, because Nick couldn't hear her reply.
After what seemed like eons, he could feel the burning
subside, and feeling returned to his limbs.

With some difficulty, Nick opened his eyes to a world of
amber colored pain. "Welcome back, buster," Schanke
commented playfully as he sat up weakly, but Nick couldn't
help but notice the worry behind his and Nat's eyes.

He looked from Schanke to Nat, who was removing the IV setup
from his arm. "More," he whispered in a choked sob, tears
of pain beginning to flood from his eyes as his gut began to
wildly cramp again, urging him to feed.

Natalie put her hand on his cheek. "More?" she asked in
disbelief but reached over towards the cooler that now sat
beside him and pulled out another pint bag. He drained it
immediately and went for another, not remembering a time
when he'd ever been this hungry, not caring that the blood
he was desperately consuming was human. Even as a fledgling
suffering from the first hunger, it hadn't been this bad.
Shaking with need, he grabbed a third. A fourth. A fifth.

It didn't seem to end. He was ravenous. Finally on his
sixth, he collapsed back onto the floor shaking like a leaf
fluttering in the wind. "Nick? Are you all right?" Nat
asked hesitantly, her hand on his back.

"No..." he whispered, hugging his knees closely to him. He
felt like he was going to puke. Everything hurt.

"I... I think you reverted Nick. I think the Lyzatrex
failed..." Nat whispered, rubbing his back in soothing
circles, trying to calm his tense muscles.

"No, not yet. Something still lingers," he moaned, his
entire body aching. The hunger was gone, and he could hear
a heart beating wildly in his ears. His heart... "I can
still hear my heartbeat..." he said with a shocked whisper,
inhaling sharply as his tortured nerves continued to stab
him.

"Nick, I listened to your heartbeat while you were out, it
was gone..." Nat said softly, as if she were afraid the
truth would hurt him. But even so, she placed her hand to
his jugular and gasped. "Ohmygod, you're right! The
Lyzatrex! It must be failing in stages. That was just your
vampire side trying to break through, but it obviously
didn't succeed," she exclaimed rapidly.

Nick wobbly got up off the floor with the help of Schanke
and Nat, his muscles weak and strained. "Is this going to
happen again?" he asked fearfully. He didn't even want to
think about what would happen if it occurred while he was at
the precinct, or in a public place.

"Nick, I hate to say this, but I think it might, if this was
any indication. You're body is at war with itself... God,
I've made another mistake! Another failure!" Natalie cried,
tears falling down her pale face. "I'm sorry, Nick," she
whispered sincerely, taking him into a firm embrace.

Nick sighed, his breath coming in weak, ragged gasps.
"Please, just take me home..." he whispered tiredly, resting
his head on Nat's shoulder.

Nat nodded softly and worked herself under one of Nick's
arms, clasping her arm behind his back to support him.
Schanke followed suit and put Nick's other arm over his
shoulder. Nick closed his eyes to the pain as they slowly
guided him out of Nat's office.

*****

Surprisingly enough, Alihra met them at the door of the
Coroners' Building. "I checked around, no one saw anything.
Hey, what happened?" she asked, suddenly concerned when she
saw Nick leaning heavily against his two friends.

Natalie sighed as Nick's weight rested against her. God,
this was her doing. She'd given him so much hope,
especially when the Lyzatrex had seemed to be working at
first, only for him to come crashing down. What's worse is
that she couldn't tell if he was being despondent because he
felt ill, or if it was because he was disappointed, or if it
was a combination of both.

"The potential cure I tried on him didn't work. He's slowly
reverting," Nat said softly, not surprised that Nick hadn't
said anything. It looked like Nick was practically asleep
on his feet.

Alihra put her hand to her chest, "Oh, I'm so sorry," she
said sincerely. Like she hadn't been planning to kill them
at all. Like she was some dear friend who knew exactly what
Nick was going through.

"Alihra, what do you care? It's not like you were going to
let him live long enough to enjoy it even if it had
worked..." Nat said caustically before she could stop
herself. Great way to win her over, Lambert.

Alihra looked appropriately set in her place. "I'm sorry, I
deserved that," she admitted, looking down at the ground in
shame. Nat couldn't help but notice that now that she'd
been exposed for what she was, Alihra was less intimidating
than a mouse.

"Anyway," Schanke interrupted, sensing the coldness in their
speech, "Nat discovered that the kill wasn't made by a
vampire."

"Really?" Alihra said, her eyebrow raised, green eyes
flashing.

"Yeah, we think a mortal did it on purpose to look like a
vampire kill," Schanke commented, guiding Nick down off the
sidewalk and onto the asphalt carefully.

Nat glanced around cautiously. The parking lot was very
dark, she'd never enjoyed walking in it at night while she
was alone. She was actually happy to have Alihra there for
once. It made her feel a lot safer knowing that they were
being accompanied by one of the planet's most perfect
predators.

"I wonder why," Alihra said curiously, rocking a bit on her
heeled pumps.

"To track you down!" a baritone voice came through the
darkness, somewhere behind a nearby pillar.

Alihra spun on her feet, glancing this way and that,
perfectly able to see in the darkness, even though as hard
as Nat tried, she couldn't see anything but inanimate
shadows. "Hello Alihra, so nice to see you," a man in a
dark trench coat stepped out of the shadows, lighting a
cigarette as he came to a stop in front of her. Its
glowing embers provided an eerie cast to his face, making
it seem abnormally pale and gaunt.

"Who are you?" Alihra said, obviously trying very hard not
to succumb to her vampiric urge to rip this threatening
man's throat out.

The man smiled. "I knew you wouldn't be able to resist
investigating a vampire kill, and I knew you were in town.
My source at the Raven told me all the details. Seems you
had a little problem with Brabant. He's a hard one to keep
a lid on, never was able to track him down, his ancient
bastard of a father who I never had the fortune of
successfully killing, kept getting in the way..." the man
said amusedly, flicking the ash from his cigarette and
lightly gestured with his free hand. Six more men stepped
out of the shadows, surrounding them.

Alihra stood fast, still not committing to any action, and
Nat felt herself becoming very nervous. This was a hunter,
it was obvious! Why didn't Alihra do something? With Nick
as a crutch, she and Schanke were pretty much out of the
picture.

"That's right, dear. Snarl for me. Show me what a big bad
Enforcer vampire you are," the man said, speaking like he
was someone swooning over an infant. When Alihra merely
glared, the man threw his cigarette to the ground and
stamped it out. "You disappoint me, Alihra. I've been
tracking you for a good decade. Now I find you and I'm
greeted with... well with you. Ok, boys," the man said,
gesturing with a blase sweep of his hand.

Nat held her breath as each of the surrounding men pulled
weapons out of their coats, all obviously geared towards
taking down a less than cooperative vampire. "Now, Alihra,
you all can come quietly, or you can put up a fight," he
said with a maniacal laugh.

Alihra snarled in response, her eyes glowing bright amber,
arching her neck like a cobra ready to strike.

EEEEIIIII

Her fangs revealed, she let out the ungodly screech, and Nat
unsuccessfully tried to cover her ears. She'd never heard
Nick even attempt to make a noise like that, she doubted
that he could.

"Much better, Alihra!" The man giggled as he pranced
backwards trying to induce her to take a step forward.
There was a breath of freezing night air as she disappeared
from her current position, and reappeared behind one of the
men in the circle surrounding them. She took quick leave of
him, draining him like he was a plaything, and he slumped to
the ground with a sick, hollow thud.

Nat couldn't stop herself as her instincts of self-defense
kicked in. She let go of Nick and kicked out towards the
closest of the six men, catching her pointed shoe in his
exposed crotch. The man buckled in pain and cried out as
another one grabbed her strongly from behind. "Ah, ah,
little missy. I wouldn't interfere if I were you," he
hissed in her ear, his hot breath clawing at the nape of her
neck as he closed his grip on her midsection uncomfortably
tighter.

Suddenly, there was a thud as Schanke clobbered him from
behind with a swift punch, and Nat sighed in relief.
Apparently, Schanke had set Nick down gently on the pavement
before coming to her aid. Unfortunately, the remaining men,
who had been distracted by Alihra's advances, began to
notice that the mortals in the group were putting up
resistance. One of them brought out what looked to be a
teargas gun, and suddenly, there was a strange hissing noise
echoing through the cold air.

Nat felt herself get lightheaded. Gas. They'd used gas!
Her last sleepy thought as she slipped to the ground was
that she hoped Alihra hadn't waited to long to strike...
Again she heard that awful screeching noise, a scuffle,
discharge of numerous weapons, and then it went silent as
the rush of blood in her ears engulfed her.

*****

It was black. When had it gotten so dark? It was cold too.

"Nat?"

Someone was shaking her.

"Nat, wake up. Please, wake up!" a familiar voice was
bidding her to wake, no, pleading with her. It sounded
worried.

She groaned and cracked an eyelid open. "Damn!" she managed
to say through her parched lips as her head began to ache
like two jackhammers were playing tag inside it. Whatever
drug had been in that gas must've been pretty nasty.

"Shhh, don't sit up too quickly," Schanke said as he helped
her up, his warm hand supporting her back as she rose into
an upright position, dizzy and nauseous.

Squinting in the dim, soft light, Nat finally got a good
look at her surroundings. She was in a small barred cell,
maybe twelve by fourteen feet if that much. The floor was a
pale, cold concrete, no padding whatsoever, and there was a
small window up near the top of the wall in the left hand
corner. Enough to light the cell dimly but not enough to
hurt Nick...

Nick... Nat glanced around frantically until she located a
rather large, unmoving lump on the floor in the corner. It
was Nick, she could tell from the shock of mussy blond hair
on the crumpled figure's head. She sighed in infinite
relief as her eyes located him. He was crumpled up like a
neglected toy, his arms clutched around his stomach,
breathing rather evenly. Asleep. He was asleep. Nat again
sighed with relief, at least he hadn't had another one of
those awful attacks.

"Where are we?" she asked hoarsely, looking around.
Something was missing... Something important. She finally
realized that Alihra was nowhere to be found, and despite
her dislike of the woman, Natalie found herself feeling
worried.

Schanke shrugged. "I've only been awake about an hour.
Nick's been out like a light the whole time, I think that
gas really got him good... But I haven't seen anyone walk
through here."

Nat took another look at Nick. Why had the hunters left him
here and not Alihra? Then it occurred to her that they
didn't know he was a vampire. For all intents and purposes,
he appeared to be a mortal. His heartbeat was a little
slow, and his temperature a little low, but they were more
similar to mortal vital stats then vampire ones. Not to
mention that he'd been knocked out cold by that gas, and she
suspected that it had just been for their benefit and not
Alihra's.

She got up and walked over to the door of the tiny cell,
jerking at the bars with all her might. The door gave about
a centimeter forward and backward on its rusty hinges,
moaning pitifully in protest. Nick would have no trouble
ripping it open if he were awake and all vampire again. But
at this moment, neither of those two premises were met, she
and Schanke would have to fend for themselves.

"Should I try and wake him up?" Schanke asked curiously,
pointing towards Nick's unconscious form.

Nat shook her head. "No, he might need the sleep," she said
absently, testing the barred door once again, only
receiving another horrific groan as it rocked back and
forth on its joints. Sticking her head into the narrow gap
between two of the bars, she glanced as far to the left and
right as she could. There was a small, three foot wide
corridor in front of the cell that led off indefinitely in
either direction, with another cell directly across from
them, and to either side of that. The concrete walls to the
left and right prevented her from seeing any length down
either side, beyond the three cells in her direct view.

Nat went back to Schanke and sat down in a huff. "Well, it
looks like we're stuck here for now. I wonder why they took
us?" Schanke just shrugged. He was as much in the dark as
she was, and at least she'd had _some_ experience with
hunters.

Somewhere down the hall an unearthly scream ripped through
the air, echoing harshly down towards their cell, and Nat
squeezed her eyes shut. A feeling of dread set into her
stomach like a brick as she suddenly developed a very good
idea as to where Alihra was... "God, I think they're
torturing her..." she whispered fearfully, her eyes
subconsciously darting towards Nick.

"But why?" Schanke asked, looking in the direction the sound
had come somewhat worriedly. Nick hadn't really told him
about hunters. Schanke didn't know...

"They're hunters Schanke. That's what they do," she said,
gritting her teeth. She was suddenly very thankful that
Nick was still under the influence of the Lyzatrex. At
least he wouldn't be subjected to the same fate as Alihra.

"Comfy?" a voice asked. Nat and Schanke both looked up in
shock to see the same man they'd seen last night, standing
there in front of their cell with a grisly smile of sadistic
contentment.

Nat ignored his question. "What do you want? Why have you
kept us?" Nat demanded coldly, standing up quickly to look
him daringly in the eyes.

"My, you are a spunky one!" the man commented gleefully.
"Well if you must know, you all are just chow. We like to
keep our vampires fed, at least for awhile..." he said with
a haughty snicker.

"You, are a sick monster!" Nat screamed, trying desperately
not to launch herself at the bars. She would not lose her
temper. Would not lose... her... temper... She took a deep
breath. She needed to keep her cool if they ever hoped to
get out of there. there would probably be a tiny opening
somewhere along the line, a brief chance of escape. And if
she angered their captor, that might ruin it.

"Ah well, I suppose I am. But right now, I've got a
vampire who is just _dying_ to see me again. Ta ta..." he
said cheerfully, laughing at his own pun as he grinned
wildly and turned to skip down the corridor like a giddy
two-year-old on a sugar high.

Nat felt hot tears start to fall down her stinging cheeks.
"Nat, shhh, it's all right," Schanke soothed her as she sat
back down onto the cold ground. "There's nothing you can do
about it, anyway," he said softly. "We'll find some way out
of this..." he rubbed her back softly, taking her into a
platonic, comforting embrace.

"Schanke, Alihra may not have been the most amiable of
vampires, but she still didn't deserve this," Nat sighed,
her sentence punctuated by another inhuman scream of agony
from down the hall. A snarl and a growl followed, and then
the scream of what was most certainly a mortal man. Nat
smiled. At least Alihra wasn't making it easy for them...

"Yeah, well," Schanke said staring down at the floor sadly.
"I kinda feel guilty for feeling this, but I can't help but
wonder if this will get the Enforcers off our backs..."

Nat looked at him, understanding where he was coming from.
For the briefest of moments, she'd thought the same thing.
"I don't think so Schanke, they'll send even more Enforcers
into Toronto if she were to disappear. Not to mention that
it's doubtful that we ourselves will get out of this
alive..." she commented bitterly. It seemed like it was
just one thing after another these days.

In the corner, Nick suddenly started as another howl
penetrated the cell, his eyes flying open in surprise.
"Nat?" he said with a gasp as he pushed himself into a
sitting positing with his palms.

"Nick, it's all right," Nat said, scootching over towards
him.

Another scream.

Nick winced. He didn't have to ask what was going on. He
just knew. "They're killing her..." he whispered, his voice
a harrowing picture of his emotions.

Nat hugged him close as he started to tremble at the sounds
of her screams. He was afraid... Hunters were something
that every vampire feared, she was sure of that. Nick had
never said it in so many words, but it was probably his
worst fear ever. He'd told her of many instances in the
past where he'd come within an inch of his life at the hands
of some crazed hunter or religious fanatic. The most recent
being in 1994 when a woman had been hunting people and had
just by accident discovered that she could hunt one of the
world's most ultimate predators. Him...

"She doesn't deserve this," he commented softly into her
shoulder, breathing softly into her neck as another shiver
coursed through him. But he suddenly went silent, a quick
gasp cutting him off.

"Nick?" she asked cautiously.

He let out a small whimper, followed by a rather deep growl.
Nat could feel his back vibrating as he fingers ran over his
his torn shirt. He clutched at his stomach and let out a
cry of pain as he ripped himself from her grasp, backing up.

Schanke was beside her in an instant. "Nick?" he called,
but Nat knew it was no good. Nick was having another
attack. And there was nothing she could do to help him.

She put out her hand to stop Schanke from advancing.
"Schanke, stop. He's hungry, and we don't have anything to
give him..." She whispered sadly, desperately wanting to go
to him, but knowing that she would probably lose her life if
she did. Schanke reluctantly sat back on his haunches, not
going any further.

Nick snarled in a wide grimace, his fangs dripping with
salivation as he threw himself back against the far cement
wall. "Stay away," he warned in a guttural, vampire-laden
voice, shaking as he pressed himself into the wall as hard
as he could, his muscles straining at the effort. Blinking
furiously, his eyes leaked a steady stream of red tears as
he clutched wildly at his abdomen.

Another scream ripped through the corridor, followed by
several shouts of men. It sounded kind of like "Hold her,
you idiots!" but Nat couldn't be sure.

Nick cocked his head to the side, listening calmly despite
the sweat that was now pouring down his face. And suddenly,
he flew up off his feet and flung himself at the door. Nat
screamed, startled as it swung open almost immediately upon
impact. Nick stumbled around for a moment trying to gain
his footing, a bit stunned from the force of his crash, and
then he was off down the corridor faster than Nat could
discern.

Schanke leapt up off his feet as Nat sat there staring in
shock. She hadn't expected that at all... Sounds growls,
frantic shouts, and weapons firing echoed through the
corridor. "C'mon, Nat!" Schanke screamed in her ear, and
Nat was finally able to come to grips with what had just
happened.

They took of down the hall, the breeze hitting their faces
as they ran. In the craziness of the moment, she blindly
followed Schanke for a good fifty feet before she realized
something was wrong. "Schanke, wait!" Schanke came to a
halt just in front of her, so abruptly that she almost ran
into him.

"What?" he hissed, but then he cocked his head to the side.
He heard what she heard too. Nothing. It had gone silent.

He motioned to her with his head, his cop persona obviously
taking over as he hugged the walls with his back,
stealthily approaching the narrow blue door that lead to who
knew where. All Nat knew is that that was where Nick had
gone, and that was where all the noise had been coming from
before it had stopped.

Schanke grabbed the door and opened it a crack, peering in.
He gasped and yanked it open all the way. Nat and Schanke
both walked into the small room. Blood was streaked
everywhere, dripping off the walls and onto the floor.
Three men, including their captor lay, on the ground
unconscious with lightly bleeding wounds in their necks, and
two quite dead, although it appeared from their own weaponry
and not from either of the two vampires in residence.
Alihra was on a small steel table off to the side of what
looked to be a miniature torture chamber, strapped down
harshly with twine ropes and rosaries, and from the stench,
probably all dipped in garlic.

She weakly looked towards them and gasped in pain, her eyes
streaked crimson and gold. "Alihra?" Nat called, trying to
determine if the vampire was lucid.

"Please," the vampire gasped, "Please untie me!" She
whimpered and started to struggle wildly against her
restraints, yanking them this way and that only to receive
new cuts for her troubles. Blood welled up where the twine
had rubbed her skin away.

Nat rushed over to the hurt vampire. "Shhh. Alihra, stop
moving, I'll get you out," she tried to sooth Alihra as she
attempted to untie the garlic-slippery ropes and rosaries.
Finally, she managed to get most of them off, enough for
Alihra to rip herself out on her own.

Alihra coughed, spitting up a bit of blood. "Nick!" she
cried worriedly, pointing across the room. Nat whipped
around in the direction of Alihra's outstretched index
finger, she'd forgotten all about Nick while she'd been
helping Alihra.

Schanke was hunched over a body, all Nat could see was
the legs due to the angle. "Shhh, Nick. Calm down.
Breathe! There, that's good. Take it easy, you'll be all
right," Schanke was saying calmly, and Nat sighed in
relief and turned back to Alihra, knowing that Schanke had
enough sense to ask for her help if something was
genuinely life threatening.

"Alihra, are you all right?" she asked as the elder vampire
started to shake wildly.

Alihra sucked in a quick breath. "There are splinters,"
she said painfully, "In my thigh. And..." she started to
explain more but she lost her train of thought, obviously
quite out of it. She stared ahead blankly and Nat had to
snap her fingers in front of Alihra's face to get her to
keep talking.

Alihra blinked and licked her lips. "I'm hungry..." she
whispered, but she appeared to be in control for now.

Nat turned to Schanke. "We've got to get these two out of
here, and we have to get the police in here," she said as
Schanke turned around. "What's wrong with Nick?" she asked,
wanting to make sure she hadn't been wrong in her earlier
assessment.

Schanke looked at her grimly. "He's a bit hungry, Nat," he
said tensely, the lines on his face showing his strain, and
his worry. Nat resisted the urge to laugh. Hunger seemed
to be the common medical problem of the day. Too bad it was
a bit more serious when it involved vampires... "Why don't
we get you three out of here, and then I'll call for backup
and take care of this..." he said as he threw Nick's arm
around his shoulder and stood up. Nat did the same with
Alihra and as a group they limped back down the corridor
where they had come from, luckily finding that the other
direction led to a nice clean office and a small parking
garage.

*****

"Stop, I'm through," Nick said softly, raising his hand to
ward off Nat's hand as she tried to offer Nick yet another
bottle of his preferred beverage. When he and Nat had first
limped through the door of the lift, he had been able to
think of nothing except the hunger, and he had been amazed
that Nat had remained unscathed through the whole ordeal.
But now, numerous bottles and a brief nap later, the beast
was sated. At least for now. Sighing, he lay back on the
couch as Nat pressed her hand to his forehead.

"Nick, I'm sorry," she said softly, brushing a stray lock of
his hair out of his face.

Nick sighed. "Is it all gone now?" he asked, his voice
hoarse and sore. His entire body ached, and he felt more
weary than he'd ever been before. Nat nodded and he
couldn't help but suppress a sob. "I really thought it was
working this time," he said quietly as he looked forlornly
towards the closing shutters that warranted the arrival of a
new day. So. He sighed again. Sunlight was to be his
enemy for a good while longer.

The pain in Nat's eyes told him that this was as hard for
her as it was for him. Hell, she'd hesitated in telling him
that she'd found a possible cure, just to avoid getting his
hopes up. "So did I, Nick," she whispered.

"While you were asleep earlier, I took a sample back to the
lab. The Lyzatrex has no effect anymore, it's like your
body developed an overnight immunity," she said softly as
she sighed and put her head in her hands. "If I had tried a
larger dose to start out with, it might've worked, but I
don't know. I just don't know!" she sobbed, looking into
his eyes with a pained stare.

"It's all right, Nat. It's not your fault," he whispered
quietly, taking her hands into his firmly, looking at her
reassuringly.

She shook her head. "I can't stop thinking about what might
have happened if I'd just given you a full dose to begin
with... It _did_ work, but now the window of opportunity is
gone because I wanted to play it safe, just like always..."
she said angrily. She was angry with herself...

"Shhh," he soothed her, hugging her closely to him, trying
to be supportive even though he felt as down as she did, if
not more. "Nat, this just means that we've got a base. We
know it worked once... Maybe another derivative will do
the trick," he said, trying to reassure both of them at the
same time.

Nat wiped a stray tear away from her red cheeks and inhaled
deeply, trying to recompose herself. "I know, Nick. Hell,
I'm the one who should be telling _you_ this! But I... I
just can't help feeling this way... I'll figure it out, I
just need some time..." she whispered disjointedly as her
emotions threatened to take over her again.

Nick tried to comfort her, closing his eyes briefly to the
pain of failure, but it didn't go away. It never went away.
He didn't know how much more of this he could take. He
wasn't built of optimism... "Where's Alihra?" he asked, the
fact suddenly occurring to him that his potential
executioner was nowhere in sight.

"She's in the bedroom sleeping off the worst of her
injuries. I didn't think you'd mind if I let her have the
bed..." Nat replied, her eyes darting upwards towards the
door of his bedroom.

Nick sighed. "Of course I don't mind, Nat," he said,
accenting his speech with several yawns.

Suddenly, the lift began to hum. Nat looked towards the
sliding door far across from the sofa. "That couldn't be
Schanke! He called an hour ago and said he was going to be
at the precinct clearing things up for at least another two
hours!" Nat exclaimed, her eyes suddenly turning suspicious.

Nick sat up and looked towards the lift, desperately trying
to remember who all had the codes to his apartment now...
Let's see, Schanke and Nat... and... and... That was it.
Technically no one else should've been able to get through
his security system. "Nat, why don't you go upstairs and
stay with Alihra?" he suggested, the edge in his voice more
than a little apparent, but Nat firmly shook her head.

The lift came to a stop and the door slid open, revealing a
tall, rather handsome man with skin the color of a rich milk
chocolate. He was large, muscular large, although most of
it was hidden underneath his beige Armani suit. With a cold
stare, he looked towards them. "You must be Brabant," he
said, his voice deep and rich, and very threatening.

Nick was nearly knocked over as age and power swept over his
senses. This was a vampire. A very old vampire. And while
he had thought Alihra's presence had been intimidating, this
made her seem like a mere child. "Yes," he said cautiously
even though he knew that the vampire had not really asked,
his previous statement being just that. A statement.

Subconsciously, Nick glanced quickly to the right, checking
on his mortal companion. Luckily Nat was staying quiet
beside him. Apparently even she could sense the power
emanating from this ancient. "Who are you?" he asked,
praying that the elder wouldn't take offense.

The man did a graceful bow, his silky black hair falling
lightly over his forehead. "I believe you would know me as
Elohr," he said suavely with a slightly more friendly
quality in his tone, his eyebrows raising, waiting to see
Nick's reaction to the news of his identity.

Nick felt his heart freeze in his chest. Oh... my...
lord... He was standing face to face with the second in
command of the Enforcer clan, the son of the eldest vampire,
and all he could think of to say was, "You're Alihra's
sire..."

Elohr snickered, a deep bellow erupting from his lips as his
striking violet eyes gleamed in amusement. "You know, of
all the greetings I've ever gotten, that has to be the best
I've heard in awhile!" he exclaimed, taking a small step
towards them.

"I have most vampires sniveling in fear the moment they hear
who I am," he said disgustedly, pausing to shake his index
finger at Nick. "But you," he paused, his eyes narrowing,
"you are different. Why?"

Nick was struck speechless. Why? Because he'd had so much
experience dealing with domineering, elder vampires that it
was rather laughable that he was even acting _this_ nervous?
"I... I just don't find that type of thing very
intimidating anymore..." he said honestly. It was true...
He'd seen enough that not a whole lot fazed him anymore. He
was more apprehensive about what this vampire would do to
Nat, who's loud heartbeat was permeating the air to the
point that a vampire as far away as Cleveland would probably
be able to hear it...

Elohr simply stared, his lips suddenly curving upwards in a
twisted sneer. "You're worried about what I might do to
your little mortal pet. Aren't you?" he asked, his
eyebrows arched upwards.

Nick was quick to deny as he subconsciously stepped between
Nat and Elohr, blocking her from his immediate reach. "No,"
he said, his voice rushed.

The Enforcer just smiled. "I am an Enforcer, you silly
fledgling, do not think that you can lie to me," he said
condescendingly as he strode across the floor and helped
himself to a seat. "Brabant... I know you from somewhere,
where have I heard your name before? Is this your first
time in trouble? Ha, of course it is, otherwise you'd be
dead..." Elohr began talking to himself absently without a
care devoted towards his curious audience, placing his chin
in his hand as a look of utter consternation enveloped his
face.

Nick just watched with dread as a look of recognition marred
the elder's face. "Ah, now I remember you. You were
LaCroix's little brat. Always causing trouble with your
fruitless little quest for mortality..." he said,
his voice containing a tacit warning in it.

Nick swallowed hard. He'd known that he was a common object
of ridicule amongst the community, but he hadn't known he
was so well known throughout the Enforcer community. He was
broken from his thoughts when Elohr continued. "Tell me
something, Brabant. Why do you search for what you surely
will never find?" he asked, his tone becoming more curious
than condescending.

"Because..." Nick paused. He couldn't very well tell this
man that they'd actually come very close on more than one
occasion, that would establish way too much of a case
against him. There was already too much against him.
"Elohr, what type of world do you think this would be if we
didn't follow our hearts? When you were mortal, did you
ever think something as simple as a CD player would be
possible?" Nick asked in a sudden flash of insight.

Elohr nodded slightly. "Yes, yes, I think I can understand
that..." he commented softly, his voice containing none of
its former threat.

"What are _you_ doing here?" Alihra's voice suddenly
floated down from the upstairs walkway as she instantly
appeared beside Elohr in a gust of air.

Elohr did not look the least bit startled as he calmly
turned to address his vampire daughter. "I felt your pain,
I came to check on you..."

"It was a hunter. It has been taken care of..." Alihra
snapped. "Look, I'm fine. You can go back to wherever it
was that you were so I can take care of this..." she said,
her voice breaking slightly as she gestured to Nick and
Natalie.

Elohr glanced to them and then back to Alihra. "Taken care
of?" he asked suspiciously, raising himself gracefully into
a standing position. He reached out and grasped Alihra's
shoulders. "You're hurt," he stated flatly when he saw her
wince.

"With all due respect, I'd be dead if it weren't for them,"
Alihra whispered grimly, gesturing absently towards Nick.
"So please leave. I have to show my thanks by enforcing
your _stupid_ law!" she cried, a single red tear flowing
quickly down her cheek. She was losing it, and she was
losing it fast. Nick couldn't help but sympathize with her.
His relationship with LaCroix had been similar, if not much
more extreme...

Elohr turned to Nick, obviously shaken at the news. "Is
this true? Did you save her?" he asked softly, and Nick
could see Alihra wince as Elohr's grip on her shoulders grew
slightly tighter. He obviously cared a great deal about
her.

"Well I helped, but Natalie is the one who treated her
injuries..." Nick commented hopefully, trying to keep his
cool. This might be exactly what they needed to pull them
out of this mess, and there was no way he was going to ruin
it with a misplaced smile or show of self-satisfaction. He
was in the presence of an Enforcer. He was supposed to be
afraid... Submissive...

Elohr seemed to debate silently with himself for a brief
moment before gracefully bowing. "Then I thank you," he
said simply. "Alihra is my first and only fledgling, I
would not do well to lose her," he commented softly as he
looked at her, his eyes reflecting a certain, hidden pain.
There was a weariness amongst the violet irises, and Nick
was surprised that he had not seen it before...

The elder turned to Nick with a click of his heals. "I will
grant you one request, within reason, in return for what you
have done for me. Name it and I shall do my best to adhere
to it," he said seriously, the look on his face grim and far
from friendly.

Nick felt a surge of hope spread through him as he took a
deep breath. "Let us go. I promise no more infractions..."
he said, his voice low and meek. He wanted this, but he
wouldn't, he _couldn't_ make it seem like he was desperate.

Elohr briefly considered the request and then nodded
minutely, apparently coming to the decision that it was a
fair trade. "Done. I grant you asylum. The Enforcers
will not interfere with your affairs provided no further
serious infractions of the code are incurred. And I expect
you to contact us _immediately_ should there be an accident
regarding that..." he warned them and then turned to Alihra,
not even waiting for a response or to see their reaction.

"Alihra? Shall we depart?" he asked, extending his arm for
her to grab onto. Alihra smiled and nodded.

"Thank you," she whispered and kissed his cheek. Elohr
looked rather startled at the open gesture of affection, but
he quickly returned it with a light hug. Nick found himself
unable to move as he closed his eyes and held his breath,
waiting for himself to wake up from this wonderful dream...
But it wasn't a dream. Alihra grabbed lightly onto her
sire's arm and led him out of the loft.

Letting his breath out in a heavy exhalation as the door to
the lift slid shut and the whirring motors hummed to life,
Nick felt his shoulders suddenly slump in relaxation. He
hadn't realized how truly tense he'd been... "Did you hear
that Nat?" he whispered in wonder, needing to reassure
himself once again that he wasn't dreaming.

Nat smiled and moved closer to him. "Yeah, I heard him,"
she said with a wicked smile on her face, "Now c'mere and
let's start collecting." She grabbed him in a tight
embrace, planting her lips on his, practically crushing
herself against him as a blissful silence filled the loft.
It was just he and Nat, their panting breaths flooding the
air in an explosion of passion.

*****

Natalie startled awake, slapping her evil alarm clock as
hard as she could until she was greeted with blessed
silence. Funny, she couldn't remember setting her alarm...
What time was it? She looked up blearily towards the
digital display, and was greeted with an ugly green display
that read 7:00 AM.

AM? When was the last time she'd actually woken up in the
morning? Wow, she couldn't even remember it. She rolled
over to embrace Nick and go back to sleep, only to be
greeted with an empty bed.

Opening her eyes wide, she glanced around. There on Nick's
pillow was a small note.

Meet me downstairs, I'll be waiting.

Love, Nick.

It was succinct, but it did get its point across. Nat got
up and put her pink terrycloth bathrobe on, wondering what
this was all about. She peered out of the room and into the
living area below. It was completely void of Nick, except
there was one thing there that hadn't been there before...

She raced downstairs, her feet padding furiously on the cold
floor. It was beautiful. "Do you like it?" Nick came up
from behind her and grabbed her into a tight embrace,
rocking her back and forth as she stared at it.

"You put up a tree!" she exclaimed happily, staring at it
with wide eyes. It was a green fir, so laden with lights
and glittering ornaments that it lit the entire room on its
own, and there, on the top, was a little angel with wings
outspread in a gesture of rejoice. "Nick, it's lovely..."
she said dreamily, leaning back into his arms as he kissed
her back and shoulders repeatedly.

"Your present is down there, why don't you go open it?" Nick
suggested innocently.

Nat turned to him suspiciously. "Nick, Christmas isn't for
another three days, what have you got up your sleeve?" she
questioned him with a light kiss.

"Just open it," he said with a mischievous smile.

She looked down underneath the tree and found a small box
about three inches long and two inches wide, wrapped in
plain green paper and a tiny red velvet bow. Looking up at
Nick curiously, she only received a small nod of
encouragement.

Lightly, she creased the tape with the nail of her thumb,
and eased open the paper, careful to protect it from any
tears and breaks. "Nat, it's a present. You're supposed to
rip it open..." Nick said with a chuckle.

Nat looked at him indignantly. "I like to save the
paper..." she said as she eased open the small box and
gasped. There inside, was a tiny ring, a marquise-cut red
stone set between two smaller brilliant-cut white diamonds.
She shifted the box in her hands, letting the light reflect
off the facets of the crystals in the sheer brilliance of a
sunset captured in stone. It was absolutely stunning.

"What's the red stone in the middle?" she asked curiously as
she continued to examine the little ring, feeling slightly
lightheaded from sheer joy.

"It's a red diamond," Nick whispered softly. "Red for
passion... for love. Natalie, you are my heart. My
life..." he said, his voice hoarse with emotion. He gripped
her abdomen in a tighter embrace, looking over her shoulder
patiently as she stared at it and the way the light glanced
off its surface.

She glanced down in awe. "I didn't even know they came in
red..." she said absently, delicately touching the stone as
if she half expected it to break at the slightest jostle.
No one had ever given her something like this before.
Never. The red diamond was rather large, but being no
expert on diamonds herself Nat couldn't really gauge it
other than to say that Nick must've been out a fortune.

She pulled it out of the box and fingered it, turning it
over lightly in her hand. On the inside of the golden ring
band at the base of the diamonds, was a small inscription,
"All my love forever," Natalie whispered, reading the tiny
script in wonder. Testing it out, she found that the ring
fit perfectly, not too snug, not too loose.

Finally finished staring at the beautiful ring on her
finger, she turned around in his embrace and looked up at
him, her eyes wide. "Nick, is this what I think it is?" she
asked hesitantly, not wanting to get her hopes up only to
have them smashed.

Nick nodded slowly. "Unless you're thinking it's not an
engagement ring," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Nat,
I love you more than life itself, will you do me the honor
of being my wife?" he whispered softly, getting down on one
knee and taking her hand in the classic proposal pose.

Nat suddenly felt like she was floating as a smile split her
face. "Oh, God yes, Nick!" she cried happily, leaping into
his arms and practically knocking him over, kissing him
wildly.

Nick smiled mutely and softly kissed the ring on her finger.
"Thank you, Nat. Thank you for everything," he whispered
passionately as he took her into a warm, fervent kiss.

THE END