Disclaimer: Nick, Natalie, LaCroix, and the other residents of Toronto belong to JD Parriet.
Author's Notes: This takes place following "Ashes to Ashes," but diverges from the story at that point. I'd like to take a second and thank my fantastic beta reader, Ell. What would I do without you? If anyone wants to achieve this on another page, please just ask, first.
Don't Forget Me
"What do we have, Natalie?"
Natalie Lambert stood from her crouching position next to the body of a young woman and shook her head at Tracy Vetter. "Victim's name is Angela Densey. Female, early to mid twenties. T.O.D. approximately two hours ago. Bruising patterns around the neck suggest strangulation, so this one's for you guys."
The blonde winced noticeably at the girl's half-nude, splayed position on the apartment's living room floor and asked, "Rape?"
"Yes," Natalie replied. She looked down at the girl's body and sighed. "Before she died, and maybe after. I'll have a better idea once I get her back to the lab. We think the victim must have known her killer. Aside from one broken vase found near the body there's no other sign of a struggle anywhere in the apartment. Did you get anything from the roommate?"
"Not much," Tracy said as she furrowed her eyebrows and looked towards the brunette woman sitting glassy-eyed at the kitchen table. "And I don't think we will, right now. She's pretty shook up, but then wouldn't you be? Finding the body and-- … God, I don't even want to imagine it."
"So don't. Don't even think like that. You'll make yourself crazy."
Even as she heard her own words, Natalie felt the same emotions the young detective was experiencing stirring in her, as well. Tragedy had struck her family many times, but even she never had to return home to find a dead body waiting for her. With a small smile, Tracy nodded and replied, "I know, I know…Meanwhile, have you seen Nick around yet? They radioed his boat-on-wheels in at the same time I was sent over, but that was like twenty minutes ago."
Natalie looked at her watch. It had been dark for a full three hours already. "Has he been into work, yet?"
"No. I just thought maybe you'd know where he was. Should we be worried?" Tracy smiled slightly and continued, "I mean, he usually beats me to a scene before I've even left my apartment."
Detective Carr called out to Tracy from the apartment doorway and motioned her over to him. "Go," Natalie replied with a reassuring smile. "No worrying just yet. It's Nick. I'm sure he just got caught up."
Tracy returned her smile with a small nod and left Natalie to watch her technicians begin bagging the body's hands. Natalie only wished she could have believed her own encouragement. Something about this situation was not right. If she was being honest with herself, nothing about the past few months had been right. Nick had been through a lot, the most recent of which being Divia's attempt to kill him. In response to everything in his life falling apart, Nick had been spending more and more time at the Raven.
Oh, he tried to hide it from her, sidestepping her offers to resume their long-forgotten movie night and lying about not being able to hear his phone during the day. There were tiny clues, though: protein shakes left untouched for weeks, no questions about her progress on his trips to the morgue, and even a slight smile once when referencing his master. Nick and LaCroix were renewing their bonds, and Natalie had genuine feeling that he was inching closer and closer to abandoning his search.
It should have upset her. She had spent the last six years of her life devoting herself to finding a cure for Nick's vampirism. Dozens of protein shake batches. Hours in the lab. Nights spent analyzing samples and agonizing over the results, and days wasted lying in bed trying to think of new ideas. Anything to bring them one step closer. Closer to Nick's mortality, and closer to what she hoped it meant - a chance for a real relationship with him. Despite all the unnecessary effort she had put in, Natalie could not be angry at him. A part of her was attracted to what was happening. At some point during the last couple years, a voice in her mind starting whispering something she would never admit to Nick. They could be together - now. It did not have to be this hard.
"Dr. Lambert?" came one of her young tech's voice pulling her out of her daze.
Natalie blinked and shook her head slightly to clear it. When the scene before her came back into focus, she saw that Angela Densey's body was already zipped into a body bag and strapped onto the waiting stretcher. How long had she just been standing there? And at a crime scene? 'I'm getting as bad as Nick,' she thought wryly.
She let her face fall back into its professional mask. "Go ahead and wheel her out. I think we've done all we can here."
Natalie fell into step behind the two men as they walked out of the apartment complex and gave one last thought to Nick. Whenever he finally decided to grace them with his presence, they would need to have a long discussion. The real question that lay between them as he continued his backslide: what did it mean for the feelings they still tried in vain to hide?
Earlier that evening...
Nick hurried down the stairs while fastening the buttons on his shirt cuffs. His shift did not begin for another hour, but he was hoping to stop by the Raven on his way to the precinct. Since LaCroix had killed his daughter two weeks before, he and Nick had begun the long process of repairing centuries of damage to their relationship. To his surprise, Nick found himself welcoming the change. He had forgotten how much he could enjoy LaCroix's company when his master was not pressuring him to be something he was not.
As Nick opened the refrigerator to retrieve a bottle of bovine, every hair on his body raised and pulled at his skin. Even before he heard the words, his senses warned him that perhaps his kind's blind eye towards him had just been uncovered.
"Nicholas de Brabant, son of Lucius….We need to talk."
After closing the refrigerator door again, Nick turned in the direction of the man's voice. Two Enforcers landed in front of him followed by a brown-haired man who appeared to be about forty years old, but whom Nick knew to be much older. "Darius. I'm surprised to see you. I didn't think the Elders would bother sending one of there own here to take care of me."
Darius motioned for the two Enforcers to station themselves by the lift doors. "You are in no position to joke, Nicholas."
"I wasn't joking. To be honest, I expected this a long time ago."
The Elder raised his eyebrow slightly as he took a seat on the black leather couch. "You know why we're here, then. You understood you were pushing our Code to its very breaking point and making those among us uncomfortable, yet you did nothing?"
"I made sure the Community was in no risk, and it hasn't been," Nick replied. "Look, let's drop the pretense, here. Is she dead? Have you killed her? Or is it funnier to you if I have to watch?"
"Nicholas, Nicholas," came a stern voice from the skylight. "And here I'd hoped you'd learned how to address your elders at some point throughout these centuries. Clearly, I was mistaken."
LaCroix landed to in front of the coach and continued, "You would do well to be silent unless spoken to directly. I tried to warn you about the good doctor, Nicholas. This is the consequence for your actions."
Nick sighed. "LaCroix. What are you doing here? This doesn't concern you."
"Quite to the contrary. Your transgressions are always my business. It just so happens that they are even more so this night. Darius requested my presence here."
At the mention of his name, Darius said, "And I assure you, Nicholas, no one here is laughing. Now if you will both have a seat, I will 'drop the pretense' as you say and discuss Natalie Lambert."
LaCroix took a seat to Darius' left, while Nick sunk into the armchair. The Elder's presence, despite how he had made light of it, did give him a sense of comfort. Enforcers were typically sent to handle a situation when both parties were merely to be executed. That an Elder had chosen to speak with him gave Nick hope that Natalie would not be harmed.
"Nicholas, for centuries the Community has looked on in silence while you pursued a 'cure' for what you are. You have allowed mortals knowledge of our existence, and none so much as Dr. Natalie Lambert. For the past six years, she has been made privy to too many of our secrets and allowed to study your biological makeup in depth. It would be quite reasonable to presume that she knows information about our kind that even we do not.
"Rest assured that allowing this behavior from almost anyone else would have been grounds for an immediate execution of both parties. Lucius has appealed on your behalf a number of times, and we have fallen back." Nick felt his face register his complete astonishment at the Elder's statement, and LaCroix merely raised an eyebrow in response as Darius continued, "Your ongoing relations with the mortal have been tolerated at best."
Nick nodded. "Yes, I understand, but you must also realize that Natalie has—"
"—been an exceptional asset to the Toronto Community since she learned of your secret." Darius allowed a tiny smile to flash across his lips before concealing it once again. "We know. Of course we know. I stood next to Lucius as your advocate in the beginning. I, unlike others among the Elders, foresaw the benefits of having an ally in the Coroner's Office. Benefits which have come to fruition time and again. However, the past year has been riddled with too many close calls, and the risk is becoming unacceptable."
Just as Nick was about to respond, his phone rang and echoed through the loft. A stern look from the Elder told him that he should let the machine pick this one up. "Hi, you've reached Nick Knight. I'm either in bed or incommunicado, so leave a message. BEEP Knight, this is Reese. A body was found at the Oak Terrace Apartments. Vetter and Lambert are already en route. Dispatch has directions. I know it's early, but we need you in on this one. BEEP "
Nick sat in silence for a moment. His mortal career had to be put on hold for the time being. "Okay. So, why now? What's so important about now?"
LaCroix caught his son's eye. "Divia, Nicholas...The Enforcers were needed to clean up after her mess. All eyes were fixed on Toronto. The Elders cannot ignore you and Dr. Lambert anymore."
"What is to be done with her?" Nick asked. "Please, I will do anything to protect her."
Darius let another small smile reach his lips. "We are aware of your devotion to this mortal, Nicholas. That would not have spared her, of course. In fact, it was she that saved her own life when she saved ours."
Nick returned the smile. "The Fever. Of course."
"She spared us, and we have decided in turn to spare her. However, just because we have decided not to execute her, and you I might add, does not mean that this conduct will be permitted to continue."
"If you're not going to kill her…" Nick's statement faded to silence as the reality of the Elder's intentions became apparent. "No."
As Nick stood and turned from Darius, LaCroix said calmly, "The good doctor will be a welcome addition to our family, Nicholas."
Nick spun quickly back towards the men. "Her knowledge of our existence and her participation in my search is my fault. Let it be me alone that is punished." He could practically hear the desperation in his own voice.
"Nicholas-," LaCroix started.
"No, Lucius," the Elder said as he put a hand up to interrupt LaCroix. "Let Nicholas speak."
"I have never known you to be this lenient a man, Darius," LaCroix said with narrowed eyes.
Darius raised an eyebrow. "Nor have I known you to be an advocate for any mortal…your son's pets in particular. It seems we each have our own agendas this night, does it not?"
When LaCroix did not respond, Darius turned towards Nick. "We merely wish to put an end to the unacceptable. We are not looking to punish either of you, Nicholas. Converting Natalie Lambert is not a punishment. The Elders have met numerous times on this matter. The decision is the most logical solution. She has maintained the Code and understands many of our traditions. The transition would be quite seamless, and she would undeniably make an excellent member of the Community."
Nick sunk back down to the armrest and replied, "From the moment I approached Natalie on the sidewalk, I understood exactly what I was doing. I got her involved in a search that I knew risked her life. I've worked with mortals on a cure before, but she was the first to make any real progress. I've known for a while that the Elders' discovery of our work was only a matter of time…But Nat never asked anything of me. She never exposed our secrets. She helped to save us all from final death. It is I who crossed the line over and over, not her.
"Natalie deserves so much more than this. She deserves the opportunity to live out her life as she sees fit…not to be forcibly condemned to the darkness. She once asked me out of fear to bring her across. I refused, and she later admitted to me that it would have been a mistake. This is not what Nat wants. Her last breath would take with it everything she knows."
"Most do not view our life as condemnation, Nicholas," LaCroix said sternly. "Perhaps the good doctor would now welcome the change. You claim that she does not wish to receive this gift, but you cannot be certain. You do not know for sure because you have refused yourself that knowledge. You have never asked her what she wants."
Before Nick could respond, Darius said, "You have made your case, Nicholas, but have offered no solution. This situation cannot be permitted to continue as it is. I can see no other option than to end her existence. It will be a shame, and certainly a loss to the future of the Community."
"No," Nick said with a quiver in his voice. "There is another option…I leave Toronto and disappear. Natalie is an intelligent woman. She knows her life is in danger if she ever speaks a word of the truth."
Nick waited for the explosion from the Elder, but Darius merely crossed his arms and appeared to consider Nick's plea for a silent moment. Finally, he said, "This is completely unprecedented. You realize that no mortal has ever been formally allowed knowledge of our existence."
He paused and bowed his head. As Darius silently communicated with the Elders, Nick chanced a glance at his father and was met with an expression he could not place. LaCroix's eyes betrayed something almost akin to remorse, but that served only to confuse him more. As Nick was trying to identify emotions that danced just beyond edge of his connection to LaCroix, Darius looked up. "Very well, Nicholas. The Elders have agreed to your terms on two conditions. One, her research must be destroyed. Any empirical evidence must be collected. She has proven to be a woman of integrity and will not speak of her knowledge, but we cannot allow her any physical evidence."
LaCroix stood from the couch and walked to the fireplace. He set his jaw and turned to look down at Darius. "I do not understand this, nor do I appreciate these games you are playing with my son. Never in my existence have the Elders attended to one's wishes as you have with Nicholas."
"Lucius, you do not understand. Nicholas can have all that he desires for his mortal, but as with every deal-"
"-there is a price," Nick finished. He hesitated to ask the question at the tip of his tongue. He had been foolish to think that he was going to bargain with the Elders without sacrificing anything of his own. Nothing in this darkness came without a hefty price tag. "What will you require in return?"
The Elder narrowed his eyes. "Ah, that would be condition number two. We have indulged you for centuries, Nicholas. Surely, in return for Dr. Lambert's continued knowledge of our existence, you know what we would ask of you."
Nick closed his eyes. "Return completely to the fold and bandon my quest for mortality." He opened his eyes once again and shook his head. "You had this planned when you arrived tonight. You knew that I would not allow Natalie to be brought across against her wishes."
"Something like that, yes," Darius replied straight-faced. "Spending more time socializing within the Community has been an admirable first step, but it is not enough."
"And if I refuse your terms?"
Yellow flecks appeared in the Elder's eyes as he stood from the couch. "You are trying my patience, de Brabant. Do not mistake our intentions. If you go back on our agreement at any time, Natalie Lambert will be executed immediately with you in attendance. And if not her, her children. Her children's children. Perhaps we could look up your human partner. Something about a Spaniard recently departed from the night…"
"Then rejoin the Community, and I will speak to Dr. Lambert," Darius said firmly.
A familiar tingling in his mind alerted him to LaCroix's opinion. For whatever twisted reason, LaCroix was practically screaming through their link to bring Natalie over. Why LaCroix was advocating against terms that would solidify his total return to the Community was beyond him. He would not be played by his father, and he would certainly not listen to his own mind's voice that whispered beside LaCroix's - the voice that had been telling him for months how wonderful it would be to have Natalie with him through the rest of eternity. To finally express what he felt for her without concern for her safety. Nick closed his eyes and sighed. He would not drag her into the night against her wishes. He fixed his gaze on the Elder and said resolutely, "Give me an hour. I need to make a couple calls and pack some things."
As Nicholas stood from the armrest, Darius reached a hand out to him. "Well then, Nicholas, welcome back to the night."
While clasping the Elder's hand, he heard LaCroix speak simply across his mind, You're a fool, my son.
Hearing the door to her lab open, Natalie clicked the stop button on her handheld tape recorder to pause her dictation of Angela Densey's autopsy. She smiled when she looked up and saw Grace entering with two steaming cups of coffee in her hand. "Oh, Grace. You're a lifesaver!"
Her assistant handed the beverage over as she said, "I was going for one myself and figured you could use a break. You've looked a little tense since you got in from the Densey scene."
Natalie took a long sip of coffee before replying, "Mmmm...And you drew the short straw to see what was wrong?"
"Natalie Lambert!" Grace exclaimed as she playfully smacked her on the arm. "Of course not…but I don't think anyone else would have volunteered, sweetie. Let me guess – everyone's favorite super hero detective is pulling at your heart strings, again?"
"Am I really that predictable?"
Grace shook her head. "Nah, just that in love." Before Natalie could say anything in protest, she continued, "What did Nick do this time?"
Natalie shrugged. "Nothing. That's the problem. He was radioed into the scene tonight, but he never showed."
"No offense, Nat, but is that really cause for concern? Doesn't he usually play the disappearing act?"
As she nodded, Natalie admitted, "Yeah, yeah he does, but I don't know. This time is just feels…different. Did you ever get that feeling that something wasn't right even though you have no reason to--"
The two women turned to find a delivery man carrying what looked to be a huge floral arrangement in his hands. "Is one of you Natalie Lambert?"
Natalie put her coffee down on her desk and walked over to where the young man was holding out a clipboard for her to sign. "Uh, yeah. That-that's me."
Before Natalie could return to her purse for tip money, the delivery man said, "Please, that's alright, m'am. The gentleman on the phone already provided me with gratuity." He handed the large vase wrapped in pink paper over to her and added, "You ladies have a good night."
Grace let out an excited squeal as Natalie took the flowers to her desk. Gently removing the wrapping unveiled what had to be about three dozen long stem pink roses arranged in a vase with a matching bow tied neatly around it. Nestled in the midst of the fragrant blossoms was a small envelope with careful handwriting that she immediately recognized. Natalie smiled. "They're from Nick."
"Well, of course they are, honey. What I wanna know is how much finagling it must have taken for a flower shop to deliver at 2:15 in the morning."
Grace's statement caused Natalie's smile to fade slightly. She was right. Maybe it was just vampire persuasion or Nick's VIP credit card collection that accounted for the late delivery, but she doubted that. Something was wrong. Hastily, Natalie pulled the envelope from its resting place and tore it open. Her eyes ran over Nick's message once, then twice. It could not be, and yet there it was written clearly for her to see.
She dropped the card on her desk and went for her coat. Before she could remove it completely off the back of her chair, Grace laid a hand over Natalie's to stop her. "Natalie, what the hell is going on, here?"
"Nick's leaving. Leaving town leaving." Natalie finally wrestled her coat from where it was draped. "I have to find out what's going on."
As the chestnut-haired woman threw on her coat and fled the lab with Angela Densey's body still lying on the autopsy table, Grace reached for Nick's card. It read simply, "Now you'll be safe. - N."
All the officers Natalie encountered on her way into the precinct met her eyes and quickly looked away pretending to be immersed in their work. She did not miss the sympathy she had found on their faces every time. 'They know.'
If she had learned one thing about the 96th precinct, it was that word traveled fast. By the time she approached Nick's desk, Joe Reese had already learned of her arrival and was waiting for her there. "Natalie, my office?"
He turned and walked towards the small room, gesturing for her to follow. More eyes burned holes into her back, but she knew that were she to turn around, no one would be looking at her. Natalie hit the bare desktop with her palm in frustration and strode quickly to the Captain's door.
Once inside, she saw Tracy Vetter sitting with her head bowed in the chair across from Reese's. Natalie was surprised to see a crumpled, tattered tissue in the young detective's hands. She had not thought Tracy cared that much about Nick, but after losing Vachon just weeks ago, Natalie supposed this was the last thing she needed.
Natalie finally looked at the captain. "You know, then?"
Reese nodded as he closed the office door. "Yeah, and I don't buy it for a second."
In response to Natalie's raised eyebrows, he walked back to his desk and picked up a large envelope. "Knight had this delivered to me a half hour ago. It contains his gun, badge, and this."
He held up a crisp piece of white paper and read, "'It is with much regret that I must inform you of my resignation effective immediately. Forgive the suddenness of this decision blah-blah-blah.'" The captain laid the piece of paper back down on the desk and flopped down into his chair. "Now ain't that the biggest piece of bullshit you've ever heard this side of the nuthouse? There's gotta be more to this than Nick's letting on."
"He wouldn't just leave like this," Tracy agreed in quiet agreement from the other chair. She lifted her face to meet Natalie's and said, "He's been talking about leaving the precinct ever since our case with the guy who thought he was reliving a past life. I made him promise me that he would say goodbye. But I never thought that he would actually, you know…go."
Natalie sighed. "Well, Trace, he's done it before. In fact he almost did it right after Schanke and Cohen died." She turned her attention to Reese and continued, "There might be more going on here, Captain, but we'll probably never know. When the going gets tough, Nick gets going."
"That man was my best detective. I hate to just lose him like this."
As the large man behind the desk became lost in his thoughts for a moment, Natalie could feel herself on the verge of an emotional implosion. The air constricted her throat, and the bland office walls spun slightly back and forth. This was all becoming far too real, and she had to get out of that office. "Captain, I think I need to not be here right now."
"Go," Reese said waving his hand. "Just take care. I'll phone over to your office and let them know you need some time off."
Natalie shook her head. "No, i-it's fine. I just need the rest of the night. I'll be okay…Tracy? Call me if you need to talk."
When she hurried out the office door and once again felt every pair of eyes on her, Natalie wished she could figure out how to get out of the spotlight. She did not want their pity. It would not bring Nick back to her. Now maybe nothing would.
A mist hit her face as she walked into the rainy darkness of the night beyond the precinct's door. Natalie fumbled with her keys through her rapidly blurring vision until she found the correct one and let herself into the car. The tears that had been threatening to make themselves known since she had received her flowers in the morgue finally fell with abandon.
"Damn it, Nick."
On the corner across from the precinct, a tall brown-haired figure watched the doctor enter her car. In the dim light from the lamps around the vehicle, he could see her shuddering shoulders. With a small nod, he took a step back to become invisible in the shadows.
The moon still hung high in the night sky when Nick finally landed in a densely forested patch of land and sat down on the cool ground. He leaned his back against a tree's rough bark trunk and closed his eyes, waiting for his pursuer to catch up to him. After Darius left, Nick had moved silently around the loft packing a few of his prize possessions in a single box. He would have someone pick it up for him when he knew where they would settle. The rest would be professionally packed and shipped later. LaCroix had not spoken a word during this time, and he had kept his distance while they were airborne, but Nick had a feeling that was about to change.
As predicted, he soon heard his father's exasperated voice ask, "Have you had quite enough, Nicholas?"
When Nick reopened his eyes, he saw LaCroix emerge from the shadows and move to stand before his son. He ignored the hand that his father extended to help him off the ground. Instead, Nick merely stared into his father's eyes until the hand was withdrawn. "Ah, I see," LaCroix finally conceded. "We're playing hard to get, tonight. Very well…New York City, hmm? An interesting choice. Or is this merely a rest stop of sorts?"
"I need to find her, LaCroix. She's close by," Nick mumbled.
LaCroix raised an eyebrow. "I see. And to whom are you referring?"
"You know damn well who I'm talking about, LaCroix. I need to see Janette. She's the only one I trust to help me, now."
When his father did not say anything in response, Nick changed the subject and asked, "Why?"
As he turned his back on Nick, LaCroix replied, "Why what?"
"What you communicated through our link right before…You wanted me to bring Natalie across. You called me a fool."
"You are a fool, Nicholas." LaCroix turned around and continued, "And your rash decision about Dr. Lambert was ill-advised."
Nick shook his head and laughed slightly. "Of course it was, LaCroix…Sorry, but I don't buy it. You probably had this planned with the Elders all along. You just wanted me trapped back underneath your thumb."
Before his father spoke, Nick thought he almost felt a twinge of sorrow through their link that was blocked almost the very instant it reached him. "Delude yourself all you like, Nicholas. The sun will not crest the horizon for another few hours. That will give us ample time arrive at Janette's new establishment in Buffalo, but I will caution you - I am not wholly certain she is prepared to see you just yet."
"I understand, but we have to try. There's something I need her to do for me."
Natalie reached her apartment after a lengthy climb up the stairs. It had been a long night that had started with a crime scene and ended with Nick leaving Toronto. After crying in her car for at least an hour, it seemed as though she had no strength left. She slowly unlocked her door and moved numbly into her apartment. The moment she closed the door behind her, Natalie froze. Nothing in the living room was touched, but there as a stagnant feeling in the air that immediately put her on guard.
"You felt me. How perceptive."
Natalie dropped her purse and spun to face the voice that had emanated from the shadows near the window. As the man stepped out of the darkness and into the moonlight streaming in from the window, Natalie knew instantly that he was a vampire. If his pallor, black suit, and power nearly jumping off him in waves had not given him away, then certainly the two tall and very scary vampires baring their fangs behind him did.
"Hello, Natalie Lambert. Forgive the intrusion, but I come on a matter of some urgency. May I?" the man asked, pointing to the purse which was still laying forgotten at her feet.
As she watched the other vampires turn the lights on in the living room and position themselves by the fireplace, Natalie tried to relax a little. If they wanted her dead, they would have killed her instantaneously. None of them would be playing Mr. Chivalrous and picking things up for her. She accepted her purse with a slight nod and finally found her voice. "You're here because of Nick, aren't you?"
Mr. Chivalrous stared at her for a moment before walking back towards the couches in the living room. After having a seat on one of her over-stuffed chairs, he responded, "Indeed I am. It seems as though we have a rather unique situation before us. I spoke with Nicholas earlier this evening. I am Darius, an Elder of the Community. Do you know what that means?"
Natalie tried to remember Nick ever talking about Elder vampires, but came up empty-handed. Leave it to him to leave out information that she might have actually needed one day. "No he, uh, he never mentioned anything like that."
Darius raised an eyebrow. "I see. And what if I told you that these two gentlemen with me are Enforcers?"
Her heart began to pound even louder in her chest. That title she did know. Nick had told her about the Enforcers the first night he had met her in the morgue for testing.
Six years ago…
"You do understand that if we're going to work together, you must promise me this stays between the two of us," Nick said almost hesitantly. "You must not print your findings, leave your research where others could see it, or tell anyone you know about my existence."
Natalie leaned back in her desk chair and flashed him a smile. "Well, it's not like I'm going to run through the streets of Toronto blabbing about it. 'My Patient is a Vampire on the next Jerry Show.'" She laughed a little under her breath at her own joke, but Nick had not so much as cracked a smile. "Oh come on, it's funny."
"This is not a joke, Dr. Lambert." She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued, "The Enforcers are a serious threat. It's their sole purpose to assure that no mortal discovers us. If they find out that any vampire has broken this Code whether knowingly or accidentally, they kill him, along any mortal who has discovered us."
'Oh,' Natalie thought. He was right. This was not funny. Natalie felt as if a five hundred pound anvil had just been put on her shoulders. The knowledge that vampires were real was a secret she had known she would have to keep, but prior to Nick's admission, she had not stopped to think about how dangerous this undertaking would really be. A cold chill ran down her spine. "Okay, so Enforcers – not good. Got it."
The corners of his mouth actually turned up into a smile at her response. 'He should do that more often.' The simple gesture relaxed his entire posture and was incredibly endearing. "Good," Nick laughed. "But don't worry about this too much, Dr. Lambert."
"Natalie," she corrected him.
There was that smile again. "Right, Natalie. We'll be careful, and I promise you that I'll keep you safe. I may have turned my back on the Community's ideals, but I think I still have some pull with a few of its members. I'll protect you."
'But you didn't protect me, did you, Nick?' Natalie thought ruefully as she came back into the present. He had said the Enforcers were the Community's executioners. What he had not mentioned was who the judge and jury were. Natalie could only guess that Darius and others like him filled those roles.
Darius smiled. "I can see from your reaction that you know who these men are. However let us understand something. If they were going to kill you outright, we would not be having this conversation. So please, come. Sit," he commanded as he gestured towards the couch in front of him.
When Natalie did not move right away, one of the Enforcers took a step forward. Needing no further convincing, she quickly shed her coat and sat down in front of Darius. "Okay. So…What happened to Nick? Why did he leave?"
"That I cannot tell you. What I can say is that his life and your life depend on what you do with the information you have. Nicholas is sending someone to collect all, and I do mean all, of the empirical evidence you have in your possession about his condition tomorrow evening. You will hand over everything, or you and he will be eliminated. You have been granted permission to retain your knowledge of the Community, but if you so much as breath a word of our existence, even on your death bed, we shall destroy everyone left about whom you still care…starting with de Brabant. Have I made myself clear?"
Natalie's chest heaved as the implications of what he had said hit her. She nodded quickly and responded, "Of course. I would never-"
"Unfortunately, I do not have time for your verbal assurances. Gentlemen, if you will," Darius said as he gestured towards the two Enforcers.
The tall vampires approached her on each of her sides and hauled her to her feet. One easily lifted her right arm and held it firm in a vice grip. The Elder stood and walked slowly to where Natalie stood immobilized. Without warning, Darius took her wrist from the Enforcer and allowed his fangs to drop. Natalie's eyes widened as she realized what was going on. She struggled for only a moment before the fangs pierced her skin. A sudden, sharp pain was quickly replaced by an intoxicating heat that spread from her wrist through her body. As Darius' lips coaxed the blood from her, Natalie felt his concern for his people caress her mind. A feeling of satisfaction passed between them, and somehow she knew that at least for this night, she was not in any danger.
Darius ceased feeding almost as quickly as he had started. After gently removing his fangs from her wrist, he ran his tongue over the twin puncture marks effectively cleansing the extra blood from the area and closing the wounds. Natalie watched in fascination as both closed up as neatly as she had seen Nick's injuries heal. "Forgive me, Natalie Lambert, but distrust is bred into us from the time we are fledglings. I had to be sure we could trust you."
As the two Enforcers relinquished their hold on her and stepped back, Natalie brought a hand to her head as she tried to process the sensations she had felt from the Elder's bite. She had fantasized about letting Nick sip from her more times than she cared to admit, but she never considered the possibility that the experience was pleasure for the mortal as well as the vampire. Natalie wondered just how much Nick had concealed from her about the true nature of vampires. He had always been quick to tell her the drawbacks. What about the advantages?
The Elders voice cut into the fog that surrounded her and brought her out of her haze. "I will take my leave of you, now. But rest assured, Dr. Lambert, we will be watching you."
Natalie watched as the three men walked towards the window. Darius paused briefly before leaving to add menacingly, "He has 24 hours to obtain your research or both your lives are forfeit."
Buffalo, New York
Under a black awning and a small sign reading "Club Minuit" in gold script, a muscled bouncer stood watch in front of Janette's new nightclub. As Nick and LaCroix approached the double doors, he regarded them with a wary expression for a moment before gesturing them inside.
A twisting flight of stairs lead them down to the club's main floor, which Nick decided was slightly larger than the Raven's own. Janette had clearly forgone her old club's chains for rich maroon and ebony velvet draping. It would have been tasteful in its own right, but when compared to LaCroix's crass redecoration of the Raven, it was downright elegant.
Nick surveyed the mixed crowd gyrating on the dance floor under dark lighting and was surprised to see so many mortals still in attendance at 3:30 in the morning. Who he did not see was the club's owner. "Are there back rooms here, LaCroix? I can sense her, but I don't see her anywhere."
"Why don't we ask the gentleman behind the bar? I would imagine that he, of all people here, might know," LaCroix replied as he gestured towards the left side of the room.
Nick followed his gaze and immediately recognized the tall bartender pouring drinks behind a long mahogany bar. As they walked swiftly across the dance floor, the crowd parted to make way for them. "Miklos, where is she?"
"There's a hallway to the right of the stage. Last door on the left. She's expecting you," Miklos said while pouring drinks for the customers at the crowded bar. He paused briefly to look up at Nick. "Just so you know she's still…displeased."
The pair moved quickly down the hall. LaCroix opened the door Miklos had indicated to reveal Janette, looking more like the chic temptress Nick remembered from the Raven than the sorrowful mortal that had returned to Toronto just months earlier. She stood from one of the plush, burgundy armchairs to greet them, her strapless gown's sapphire velvet flowing around her in waves as she moved.
"LaCroix," Janette whispered.
Nick looked on as his master took her hand and brushed his lips over it. Janette had succeeded in concealing her emotions and thoughts from him, but being in the same room as he allowed him to sense the anger radiating from her loud and clear through their link. She turned her attention to him and said, "Nicolas? Je suis étonné de vous voir ici. I am surprised to see you here…I thought I asked to stay away."
"You did, and I did, but…" Nick started. In eight centuries it had never been this difficult to talk to her. "Janette, Natalie's in danger."
Janette's eyes darted towards LaCroix for a moment as she hesitated. "Oh, Nicolas." She gestured towards the sitting area she had previously occupied and motioned for them to have a seat.
"May I offer you something to drink? I should warn you that I have no need to stock bovine at this club," Janette said as she began to fill three wine goblets from a bottle of one of her private vintages.
Nick looked down at his hands. "It's alright, Janette. I've been ordered back on human blood, effective tonight."
He looked up at Janette expecting to see a triumphant expression, but found instead one of compassion. As she walked over to the armchairs with a silver tray of goblets in her hands, she spoke softly, "Nicolas, what have you gotten yourself into? Is this about the Elders' presence in Toronto?"
"You heard about that?" Nick asked in disbelief.
"Mon cher, I may not live in Toronto anymore, but I am not halfway around the world. Word travels fast, especially among the young ones. Some fled to Buffalo after Divia's destruction." Janette paused for a moment to sip from her glass before continuing, "I had hoped that my family was not involved, but when I felt your presence here I knew that it must be. They forced you to end your search?"
Nick stared at the bloodwine rocking gently in the goblet. "As payment." When Janette did not respond, he added, "For letting Nat live with the knowledge she has."
Janette leaned back in her chair. "I see. They finally feel she had gotten too close. I must admit I am a little surprised they did not wish her to be brought across."
"That, my dear, is exactly what they asked of Nicholas. He refused," LaCroix stated. "Instead, he is to return to the Community. Eternally."
"And you are unhappy with this, mon pere?"
LaCroix raised an eyebrow at her endearment and smiled slightly. "I am of course thrilled that my son has reentered the fold. What would make you think otherwise?"
"Nothing, bien sur," Janette replied with a tiny smile.
As LaCroix and Janette spoke, Nick lifted the wine goblet to his lips. In the months since he had lasted tasted human blood while hooked on the virtual reality vampire game, he had felt his body craving his natural sustenance more than usual. The moment he sipped from glass, Nick shuddered in satisfaction. He let the blood linger on his tongue a moment before swallowing it and feeling it infuse him with its power. Tilting his head back, he emptied the rest of the goblet in one draught.
He sat still for a moment with his head bowed and could LaCroix and Janette's eyes on him. It was Janette who spoke first. "Mon cher?"
"Give him a moment, Janette," LaCroix replied with a smile for Nick. "This change of diet, no matter how long overdue, is bound to be a shock to his palate."
Nick looked up and rolled his eyes. "I'm fine, LaCroix." He turned his gaze on Janette. "Now, about why we're here."
Janette leaned forward slightly and replied, her voice suddenly gentle, "You know I'll do whatever I can to help."
With a small nod, Nick leaned back in his chair and began, "Thank you. The Elders want all of Nat's research by midnight tomorrow. I need you to go to Toronto and collect it from her. I'd go myself, but…" His voice trailed off for a moment. He steadied it before continuing, "It's too complicated. If I saw her, I don't think I could leave."
"Nicolas, what do I say to her? She is a strong-willed woman. Surely she will demand an explanation."
Nick shook his head and countered, "Natalie knows the rules…and the consequences for those who ask too many questions. I don't think she'll push too hard for information. Just tell her that I was ordered to leave town or watch her be killed."
"A slight stretch of the truth, wouldn't you say, Nicholas?" LaCroix interrupted with a disapproving eyebrow arched.
Nick turned his head to glare at his father. In eight centuries, he had never heard LaCroix question any lie he had told to a mortal. He would not give into whatever game the ancient vampire was looking to play. "I don't want Natalie to think she should have sacrificed herself for me. I won't let her live with that guilt."
LaCroix did not say anything in response as Nick turned back to Janette and said, "There's just one more thing."
He reached into the pocket on the inside of his jacket and found the soft pouch he had placed there before leaving his loft. As he removed the black velvet bag, Nick explained, "I need you to take this when you go to Toronto tomorrow night. There's something I want Nat to have."
The moment the delicate gold chain slipped from its velvet confines into Janette's hand, Nick felt LaCroix's discomfort through their link. Janette stared at the fragile piece of jewelry for a moment before gazing at Nick questioningly. "Nicolas?"
Nick curled Janette's fingers around the necklace and smiled faintly. He should have known they would instantly recognize it. "Don't tell her what it is, Janette. Just…give to her."
When Janette nodded her acceptance, Nick fell quiet. It was almost done. He hoped that after all his ties with Toronto had officially been cut, the voices would stop filling his mind with doubt.
The beast, in particular, was screaming inside his head to call the whole deal off with the Elders and fly back to Natalie. It had recognized her as its mate and wished to possess her for the rest of eternity. But it was that very part of him that he needed to protect Natalie from. After the asteroid scare, she had told him explicitly that she had been wrong to consider coming across. If Natalie had known what options the Elders had actually presented to him, Nick knew she would have surrendered her human life for him despite what she wanted for herself. He could not permit that. No matter what his foolish heart or the vampire lurking in him desired, it was better this way.
The following evening…
The lift door slid open to reveal nothing. Darkness. Silence. The refrigerator hummed quietly to itself in the nearby kitchen, the only sign of life within. Natalie noticed a box lying just inside the loft. After setting her tote bag down, she dragged the medium-sized box across the floor to jam the door open and used the light from the lift to guide her towards the switch in the kitchen. Harsh artificial lighting instantly illuminated the loft and revealed it to be almost completely untouched, as if Nick would be coming home any minute.
Natalie sighed as she went to retrieve her bag and close the lift door. Just before Grace found her in the morgue and yelled at her for coming in that night, Natalie had managed to retrieve all the notes she had collected on Nick's "Virus X" and the blood samples she was storing in the refrigerator. Now an entire six years' worth of her life was tucked neatly into her bag, ready to be carried away and become as good as forgotten. After leaving the morgue with her research, Natalie could think of no other place to come but the loft, if only for a few moments.
She laid her tote bag on the kitchen table and walked back to retrieve the cardboard box she had used to prop the door open. Having placed it next to her bag on the table, curiosity immediately got the best of her. Natalie quickly tore off the tape sealing it and gasped. She should have known.
Inside and packed hastily with newspapers were a collection of items that Natalie knew to be close to Nick's heart. Joan of Arc's cross. A few artifacts he discovered with some of his archeology students. Natalie's breath caught as she unburied a framed picture of the two of them at the Commissioner's Ball held just months ago. 'It's not fair,' she thought as her fingers caressed Nick's beaming face through the glass.
Before Natalie could dwell further on the happy night that winter, she felt a cool breeze hit the back of her neck accompanied by the sound of someone landing behind her.
"He said I might find you here," came a female voice with a gentle, lilting French accent.
Janette. Natalie wondered why she always had the misfortune of wearing her most unappealing lounge clothes when meeting her. She should have expected that Nick would send Janette.
"Yep, here I am," Natalie muttered as she turned to face the woman who had always stood between her and Nick. Gone was the reserved, almost shy mortal she had treated in her morgue only months prior. Dressed in snug black pants and an intricately-beaded, crimson spaghetti strap shirt, Janette looked very much like the vampire Natalie remembered from the Raven, even out of her customary evening wear. "You know, I seem to remember Nick telling me that you died in a fire. Damn. I knew he was acting strange that next evening at the crime scene."
"Nicolas says many things, Dr. Lambert. I'm sure he meant to protect you."
Natalie rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, he always does. Mean to, that is." When Janette did not reply, Natalie crossed the room to one of the armchairs and allowed herself to fall into it heavily. Why bother trying to be graceful? She shook her head and continued, "What's going on, Janette? Why did Nick leave so suddenly?"
"I…am not sure about what I can tell you and what I cannot," Janette began hesitantly. "Nick was visited by an Elder yesterday evening, as I'm sure you are already aware. He was given an ultimatum right then and there – either he left town immediately, or you would be killed. As would he."
Liar. Natalie had to clench her teeth a moment from shouting the accusatory name directly at the vampire who had in the meantime perched herself on the couch's armrest. Finally, Natalie was able to ask, "Why? Why now?"
"Does it matter?"
It didn't. The Enforcers' interference had been a long time coming. "Okay…Where did he go?"
Natalie detected a glimmer of pity in Janette's eyes before the other woman hid it behind a stoic expression and replied, "You know I cannot tell you that."
"Well then what the hell can you tell me?" Natalie put her head in her hands as the anger in her raised voice registered. She did not mean to take her grief and frustration at the situation out on Janette, but she was such an easy target. Here was someone who had not only found the elusive cure and reclaimed her mortality, but was also someone Nick viewed precious enough to bring over again when her human life was in jeopardy. For eight hundred years, Janette had traveled the world with Nick experiencing it in a way she could only dream about. There was no way to compete with her, and yet Natalie found that she could not hate this woman.
A hand brushed over Natalie's knee and came to rest lightly over her thigh. Natalie raised her head and found that while she was lost in her thoughts, Janette had left the armrest to crouch next to her. "Natalie, for what it is worth to you, I am sorry…Here."
Janette took her hand and pressed something cool into her palm. When Natalie opened her hand, her fingers revealed a small, solid gold pendant with emeralds and sapphires in the shape of a simple flower attached to a fragile chain. "He wanted me to give this to you," Janette finished as an afterthought, perhaps sensing the confusion rising in her.
"What is this supposed to mean?"
"He wanted me to give this to you," Janette repeated. "That is all I know."
Natalie scoffed. "That's all you're going to tell me."
Janette raised her chin slightly at the curt response, and then stood in one fluid motion. "I do have other matters to attend to this evening, Doctor. May I have your research?"
It was time. As Natalie walked towards the kitchen table, she found it difficult to believe that this would be the last time she would deal with the Community. Six years had led to something much more anticlimactic than she had expected. She lifted the tote bag carefully from its resting place on the table and handed it over to the other woman. "It's all there: notes, test results, blood samples…hell, even the protein shake recipes."
Janette nodded in acceptance then asked softly, "Is there anything you would like me to tell Nicolas for you?"
Natalie nodded slightly. A thousand phrases raced through her mind at once. Words denouncing his decision to leave without saying goodbye. Words betraying her grief over losing a life she never had in the first place. Nothing seemed appropriate. Except for one thing. Natalie took one last look at Janette, at how unusual the remorse appeared on her face, and turned away.
"Don't forget me."
End Part One