Detente DETENTE

by Kethrineth@aol.com

Standard disclaimer. They don't belong to us. We just borrowed them and the powers that be can have them back when we're done. This is our own little pocket universe and diverges in spots from the official one. };-) *** Warning for medical torture...***

Private journal of Nick Boyle: 8-21-96 ~ I'm beginning this private journal, for no eyes but my own, because I need someplace to put my thoughts down. To somehow make sense of all the things I can't talk with the others about or risk having read by a Legacy Tribunal.
I don't know what shocked me more in there -- the fact that Derek had brought the charges against himself or the coldness in his face when he confronted a man he had called his friend for almost as long as I've been alive. There was no mercy in him. It didn't matter to him. Charles Bannion was a vampire. In Derek's mind, that made him a creature of darkness that had to be exposed and destroyed even at the risk of all he had built with his life. He didn't even ask 'why?' before he killed Bannion.
I wonder why. I wonder what made a Legacy precept choose to become a vampire, or if he had even been given a choice. I wonder if he was really evil at all. Is anyone who isn't completely human automatically the enemy? That's what haunts me the most. I wonder what Derek will do if he ever finds out about me. Will the man I have followed without question for most of my adult life one day turn on me the same way he turned on Charles Bannion?
I have dreamed of the answer to this question almost every night since what remained of the tribunal left and took their Guardians with them. In my nightmares, it's me facing the judges while Derek plays his little cat and mouse game. Sometimes it ends with a stake driven through my heart, other times I'm cast out of this place that has been my home to face the fire of the sun on an empty belly. It always ends soaked in sweat, screaming in my bed.
Rachel has tried to get me to talk about the nightmares but I don't dare. They all believe I was traumatized by the trial and by the fear of losing the team that has become my family. They don't understand that Derek is what I'm afraid of now and I can never tell them. Not without making the nightmares come true. ~

Thursday November 19, 1998 11:27 a.m. San Francisco Legacy House

Nick Boyle stretched out in his chair and let his attention wander past his associate, Alexandra Moreau, to the window and the autumn sunlight dancing on the bay. He really couldn't care less about the charity auction the Luna Foundation would be sponsoring at the end of next week to kick off the holiday season. His associates had pointed out often enough his lack of discernment when it came to precious works of art. He didn't really mind the criticism. That wasn't what he had joined the Legacy for. He had joined the Legacy to try and make a difference in the lives of people who were being victimized by powers beyond their control.

"Earth to Nick. Come in, Nick." Alex's teasing comment got the intended response as the ex-SEAL looked at her and smiled sleepily. She couldn't help smiling back, warm brown eyes sparkling in a darkly beautiful face. Nick had taken quite a beating two nights ago when they'd exorcised that ghost from the house on Bay Street and deserved a bit of rest. That didn't mean she had to stop teasing him though. "Whenever you're through with your nap do you think you could help me go over the inventory of what's already arrived and get it all sorted by lot number?"

Nick yawned at her. "Yeah, sure."

"Good." Derek Rayne, the Dutch precept in charge of the small meeting broke in, a brisk and businesslike counterpoint to the relaxed teasing of his young colleagues.

To Nick's disappointment, their fearless leader pulled another thick manila folder from the pile in front of him and flipped it open. It was hard not to just tune out again. He wanted to be out in the brisk morning, running, the wind flowing over his body until he was nothing but wind and motion, no thoughts, no worries, just him and the wind, the sun and the trees. Maybe a friend to run with him. Probably not though. He wasn't the only one whose life was at the beck and call of a diehard businessman.

"So now all we have to do is go over the guest list to see who has responded to the invitations. Nick, you'll have to do some checking on their guests so that we don't get any undesirables like last time."

"Ri-i-ight." Nick somehow managed to slump even lower in his seat than before and let his head fall until it thudded against the back of the chair. This morning's meeting was stretching out even longer than he'd feared. Sometimes he envied Rachel's ability to sidestep the more useless Luna Foundation meetings, as she had this morning when she left for a weekend medical conference in Salt Lake City.

~*~

William Sloan could feel his shoulders tensing with worry as he waited on the doorstep of the San Francisco House for someone to answer the bell. The head of the security detail that had accompanied him was looming uncomfortably over his left shoulder. The man had wanted him to remain in the car with the others but he owed Derek this much at least, that he do this in person. That was why he had come all the way from London to preside over what was to come. Still, the weight of cold metal in the pocket of his overcoat was reassuring. He only hoped it wouldn't have to be used as anything but a deterrent.

As soon as the butler, Dominic, opened the great door, Sloan shoved past into the foyer, scanning the empty room for any sign of the one they had come for.

"Mr. Sloan." The domestic was plainly startled by the rude behavior but recovered himself. One didn't ask questions of the head of the Legacy Ruling House. "I'll inform Dr. Rayne that you're here immediately."

"No!" Sloan spoke more sharply than he had intended and carefully lowered his voice a notch. It was important to preserve any element of surprise they had here. It could well mean the difference between the success of their mission and bloody failure. "I was hoping to surprise him. Where is everyone?"

"The House is having a conference in the library, sir." Dominic stepped back, stunned and a little frightened as more than a half dozen men in dark suits crowded into the foyer. After the last time, he had hoped to never see one of the Legacy Guardians again. The old servant backed away from the door as two of the men took up posts flanking it. Their expressions made it quite plain that no one was to leave until they had completed whatever business they had come for.

~*~

Derek Rayne looked up, startled, as the doors of the library were thrown open and the ruling precept of the Legacy strode into the room with the same hard, closed look on his face that Derek remembered so well from their days in the field together. It was the face William Sloan put on when he went into battle against the minions of evil and a sight Derek hadn't seen since they were both young. It was certainly a sight he hadn't expected to ever see in his own library. The large-bore handgun the intruder pulled from beneath his coat was anticlimactic by comparison.

Somehow, he doubted Nick Boyle would agree as the weapon was shoved hard against the side of the younger man's head and he was ordered to keep his hands on the table and not move. His teammates could only sit in frozen silence as grim-faced Legacy security men converged around the table and secured Nick's hands with rune-inscribed silver shackles linked together by a third metal loop inscribed with the symbols of the Holy Trinity.

"What in Hell do you think you're doing, William?!" Derek recovered his voice as Sloan eased back a step to let the guards haul their captive to his feet and frisk him, removing all of Nick's possessions from his pockets.

"Securing this House. I'll need your keys, Derek. Yours too, Miss Moreau." Sloan's eyes never once left the young man he had come for. The gun never wavered.

"What?!" Alex started to her feet, only to have one of the intruders place a warning hand on her shoulder. The young Creole woman shrugged it off angrily but remained seated. "You can't just burst in here like this--"

"Be quiet, Alex." The harshness in her precept's tone had the desired effect. All eyes were on him now. All but those of the man holding a gun on his security chief. "Since you've brought Guardians with you, I assume a tribunal has been called. What is Nick being accused of?"

"All in good time, Derek. There are procedures to be observed. The charges will be read once the tribunal has been formally convened." Sloan frowned at the two Legacy members not being restrained by guards. "I see that one of your House is missing. Where is Dr. Corrigan?"

"At a medical conference in Salt Lake City. She won't be back until Monday." Derek's gaze sharpened and grew thoughtful as he watched the reaction to his information.

"We'll wait." Sloan nodded decisively and flicked his hand at the two large men gripping Nick's arms as though, even bound, he would somehow throw them off. "Take him away."

The uncertain, half-pleading look on Nick's face as he was led from the room tore at Derek's heart as much as the realization that there was nothing he could do at this stage of a tribunal.

The precept's mind raced as he tried to figure out what William was up to. Was this some kind of test to see how they would react to an accusation against the most loyal member of their House? Was Nick even the target at all? There was always the chance that this was some sort of payback for his own misuse of the tribunal system and the public humiliation of those who presided over it.

No, William wasn't even in charge of the London House back then. I need more time to find out what's happening here!

Derek desperately wished he could get in touch with some of his contacts but knew that his House would be completely isolated to avoid contamination until the proceedings were over with. His thoughts turned back to what little he had to work with.

Sloan had looked relieved at the delay. That meant he needed more time for something. Time, however, didn't take sides. Hopefully, Derek could use this delay to learn why his House had been invaded in this manner and what Nick could possibly have done to warrant such extreme measures in response.

Thursday evening

Alex eyed the guard uncomfortably as she slipped into the study where Derek had been holed up for most of the day -- when he wasn't trying to argue Sloan's ears off, that was. The manner in which there was always someone hovering nearby, watching them, bothered her just as much today as it had over two years ago when it had been Derek on trial. She came to a stop as close to the precept as she could, keeping her voice pitched too low to be heard by the intrusive observers.

"I tried to get the guards to let me see him but I couldn't get past them. 'Mr. Sloan's orders' was all they'd say." Alex rubbed her arms to try and ward off the chill in the room even though she knew the sensation was coming from within. "What's going on here, Derek? What do they think Nick's done?"

Derek sat back and arched his eyebrows at her as if he wasn't rattled at all by any of this. "That's exactly what I intend to find out." Without another word he got to his feet and left the room, leaving his head researcher staring helplessly at his disappearing back.

She threw her hands up in exasperation. "Nobody tells me anything! He's as bad as the rest of them." Alex put a hand to her forehead but dropped it and glared as she noticed that she was still being observed by the ever-present Guardians who shadowed their every move. "Now, I'm talking to myself!"

~*~

William Sloan looked up as his former teammate entered his commandeered office unannounced. "Derek. I've been expecting you for some time now. I'm surprised it took you this long. It's nearly eleven o'clock."

"Stop it, William! This isn't the time for your games." Derek could feel his temper boiling and reined it in forcefully. William Sloan was entirely too fond of getting on his nerves and he wasn't going to let him get away with it this time. This was too important. "I want to know what's going on here. Why is Nick being held in the basement with no visitors and why did you refuse to allow the servants to take a meal down to him?"

"I don't have to explain myself to you, Derek. Everything will come out during the tribunal once all the concerned parties have been gathered."

"Oh, really?" Derek circled around and planted his fists on the desk, coming so close that his superior had no choice but to look up at him. "That's interesting to know because I heard that you haven't even tried to call Rachel back from her conference. Do you plan to keep Nick down there with no food or water for four days? Without even being indicted for any crime?"

"What if I do? What then, Derek?" Sloan sat back and watched his old friend's face closely, weighing the emotions he saw there, trying to decide just how much Derek knew of the truth. Nothing, he hoped. This entire affair had been carefully planned to reveal the awful truth of this situation in such a way that this House wouldn't crumble. If Derek already knew, and had done nothing, then Nick Boyle would only be the first of this House to go before the tribunal.

"You've gone mad." Derek couldn't believe his ears at first. He studied his old schoolmate's face, searching for some explanation. The one he found wasn't madness. Sloan was weighing him, playing some game with them all and wearing a poker-face every bit as good as the one he'd had when they were young.

The San Francisco precept quickly pulled himself together. Losing control would only hand his opponent the victory in this strange battle that was forming between them. When he spoke again, it was very softly. "No, you haven't gone mad, have you?"

"Does it matter?" Sloan responded with equal mildness.

"No." The decision of how to proceed was made quickly and Derek Rayne forged ahead. He had studied the protocols of the Legacy's judicial system thoroughly only two years ago, prior to levying charges against himself in order to ferret out the traitor among them, and he had spent the last few hours reviewing those protocols. Derek knew exactly where he stood at this stage of things and what his -- and Nick's -- rights were.

"Mad or not, you have to play by the rules. You have a responsibility to provide for his basic needs regarding food and shelter while a prisoner. You are required to inform the prisoner of the charges against him within twenty-four hours of being taken into custody. And," Derek leaned forward again, "you must allow him to receive visitors and to record his perspective of these events in his journal."

Sloan frowned in irritation. Granting such rights to the thing in the basement didn't fit in with his plans, but Derek was right. Legacy decree wouldn't allow for any variation at this stage. "Very well, then. I'll have something sent down to him and take him his journal. We'll begin the proceedings in the morning and let the records show that, as precept of this House, you insisted on this. As for Dr. Corrigan, we'll send for her as soon as possible."

"I want to see him. It's my right as his precept."

"No, it isn't!" Now it was Sloan's turn to fight his temper. If Derek was allowed to see the prisoner at this stage, it could ruin everything. He needed time to break through the prisoner's mask of humanity in order to show these people just what they were harboring. They had to recognize the evil. If any doubts were left in their minds as to the righteousness of what had to be done here, this House could easily fall to the distrust and dissent that would follow. His lips thinned. Derek wasn't the only one who could hide behind the letter of the law. "An isolation period is allowed before the formal indictment."

Sloan knew he had won this round from the stiffening of Derek's spine, but found no comfort in the victory. "He hasn't asked to see anyone, Derek. Don't you wonder why?"

Derek didn't respond to the question but he did pause beside the door as he was leaving. "I'll be waiting at the head of the basement stairs to see that you fulfill your obligations."

~*~

11-19-98 ~ The return of my journal is the best sign I've had since Sloan and his troops locked me away down here. It shows they remember that, for now at least, I'm still a member of the Legacy. Being finally fed was even more welcome though it was only some milk and a bowl of something disgusting I don't quite have the courage to eat yet. Hardly enough, considering I missed lunch and probably dinner, too. It feels that late at any rate. A more pressing type of hunger has begun to grow inside me, telling me I've been locked down here longer than I can afford to be.
There is no time down here without windows to let in the light. I'll probably be glad of that before too much longer. I don't even have a watch. They took everything from me before I was imprisoned here. I guess they wanted to make sure I was truly helpless. The four guards the tribunal feels I require remain in the room with me and never leave, although so far, they have stayed by the door. You'd think the shackles were enough. They make it hard to write but I have been reminded that it is my duty, even now, to record these events in my Legacy journal. It's not the journal I'd like to have with me, but it's going to have to do.
The private journal I have kept for myself for over two years now has, so far, gone undetected in its hiding place. If it had been found, I would've been confronted with it by now and any pretense of a trial set aside.
It's strange to try and write openly in the official journal after hiding the truth for so long but there isn't much choice. They know. Why else all these precautions? Even if I'm wrong, I'll be revealed soon enough. If they haven't drawn the shades over the windows upstairs I'll burn to death in the morning sun when they take me to face my judges. My nightmares will come true. Who knows, it might be an easier death than facing Derek when he learns what I have become. ~

Nick put down the pen and massaged his wrist where the silver cuff had bitten into it. His only real hope of escaping the fate of his nightmares was his Kindred sire. Cash would be coming to look for him soon when he wasn't at their usual meeting place but Nick didn't dare write that in the journal. He would not endanger the Masquerade by mentioning the others. That had been drilled into him practically every night since his embrace.

Nick let his head thud back against the chill stone of the wall and tried to ignore the discomfort of his prison. They knew. Why else would he have been confined in this barren underground room with no amenities at all? No chair to sit on. No table to write at nor bed and blanket to sleep in. Only bare stone and chained hands. Nick shuddered. It was a good thing holy symbols didn't affect his kind. He could only imagine the pain that would be burning through him after hours in the obviously consecrated bindings if they did.

This time, he didn't try to stifle the anguished call of his soul reaching out to his sire. He could feel Cash's nearness and didn't want him to go away thinking Nick had missed the meeting because he'd been sent away on Legacy business as he had so often been in the past. The frightened Gangrel didn't know what could be done to help him with so many eyes on him but he didn't want to die down here all alone without anyone knowing what had become of him. Nick only hoped that he wasn't calling his primogen into a trap.

~*~

Nick needn't have worried about being abandoned. Cash had felt the fear and confusion of his childe and had been chafing all day as he went about his duties for his prince, waiting for night when he could go to Nick and find out what was wrong. His worry had only grown when no one came to the empty baseball field near the old Fort that was one of Angel Island's historic landmarks.

The silent call, when it came, drove through the young Kindred like a hot knife and sent him flying up the rough hillside on the four powerful paws of a wolf. Using an outcropping of rock as a launch point, he sailed easily over the electrified fence in this form, confident that there were no cameras able to observe him here in the shadows of the trees.

~*~

Within the castle, Nick felt the swift approach and struggled to hide the hope and fear that filled his heart. He waited in the corner and kept his eyes on his own knees, drawn up close to his chest, whether for warmth or protection he didn't know. Sometimes he wished he were as invulnerable to such discomforts as the folk tales claimed, but long ago, when he had complained about this shortcoming, Cash had simply told him that he was thinking of the wrong kind of vampire.

The exhaustion and disappointment in his sire's eyes as he used the hated term had silenced Nick more surely than the shortness in Cash's manner and he had chosen, instead, to snuggle closer to his elder's warm body while he was fed from the freshly opened vein. The strain of becoming primogen of their clan when he, himself, was so young was hard on Cash and Nick had no desire to add to his sire's burden any more than his secret existence already did.

Nick's heart jumped when one of his guards called sharply to the others that he had seen something lurking in the shadows but he refused to look up. The excellent night vision that had not been a folk tale would surely have shown him where the newcomer was and would just as surely get his would-be rescuer killed should anyone follow Nick's gaze to him.

He felt it when Cash escaped from the vast room via the hidden tunnels that had been used by rumrunners during the prohibition era and tried to focus his hearing on his agitated captors to learn more. It was harder than he'd thought it would be. While he had been told about his sharpened senses not long after being embraced, he had also been discouraged from using them too much for fear of accidentally revealing himself. Nick had given up so much to be able to join the Legacy. He had never thought he would regret those sacrifices -- until today.

It didn't take extra senses to know what was going on when two more Guardians came down and began to rearrange the crates so that nothing could come within twelve yards of the locked storeroom where their companions stood watch. There would be no rescue tonight. Nick lay down on the cold stone and curled up as small as he could in his corner to try and sleep, clinging tightly to the wisp of emotion that had promised to come back for him even as he felt his savior growing more and more distant.

~*~

"Julian!" The young leader of the Gangrel clan burst through the front door of his prince's mansion, howling, though he'd had the decency to resume human form first. "We have to do something! They have him!"

The Kindred prince of San Francisco looked up, a little startled by the display and more than a little relieved that he was no longer on the phone when Cash made his entrance. Whatever was going on was obviously no business of his human associates in Australia. The cool sophistication of the Ventrue standing him in good stead, Julian Luna kept his voice reasonable. "Cash, maybe if you explained whatever has you so upset a little more clearly, I could help you, but right now I haven't a clue what you're talking about."

Both Kindred ignored the muffled laugh from the nearby drawing room at the parental condescension. Frank Kohanek had been a most unwilling addition to the prince's household nearly eight months ago after a drug lord, allied with the Los Angeles Brujah, had blown up his apartment and issued a hefty contract for the police detective's life. Things had been rocky at first, but in the months that followed, they had come to tolerate one another -- or at least ignore each other. Cash never even looked toward the human though Julian shot an irritated glance at him, wishing the man would go to bed.

"It's Nick. The Legacy found out about him, Julian, and they're going to kill him!" Cash started to pace the marbled foyer, running his hands through his wild, light brown hair, tugging at it in his agitation. "There are strangers all over the house and they have Nick, in chains, down in the basement!"

"Somebody is holding a Kindred captive somewhere?" The bored detective had come out to join them, his interest piqued by the strange news.

"That's what I just said. We have to help him!"

"Calm down and tell me exactly what you saw." Julian caught his bodyguard by the back of the neck and steered him toward the front room where conclaves and other important matters were handled.

~*~

"William!" Derek's voice thundered through the early morning air as he stood in the center of the foyer and yelled. If anyone had still been asleep in the beleaguered House, they weren't anymore.

Sloan had been expecting the bellow and wandered out of the hall leading to the kitchen, sipping from the steaming mug of coffee in his hands.

"There's no need to shout, Derek. I'm right here and I don't want to hear it. Legacy protocols are very specific on the treatment of prisoners and they are being followed to the letter -- as you insisted. They specify that a prisoner must be provided with one cup of water, one of milk and one bowl of gruel a day and must be allowed the opportunity to confess their sins to a priest or other holy man. Rabbi Tolman saw him an hour ago and got yesterday's gruel thrown at him. He's been given his milk. He gets nothing more until evening."

"That's absurd! Those rules were written in the thirteenth century!"

"You're the one who insisted on the letter of the law, Derek! Right now, since you seem to have decided it's time for everyone to get up, I'd suggest you and Miss Moreau wait in the library until you are summoned for the proceedings." Sloan paused at the door to the downstairs drawing room they had converted into a formal courtroom last night. "We'll be going over your journals in addition to the records being pulled from your computers."

Derek was still standing in the middle of the room, simmering with outrage, when Alex came down the stairs in a long kimono-type robe and lightly touched his arm. "Come on, boss. The best thing we can do right now is play along. Nick's a tough guy. He'll be all right."

"Will he, Alex?" Derek allowed himself to be led back upstairs with a heavy heart. "He's suffered so much in this life. Sometimes I wonder just how much even Nick can take without breaking apart."

Even though he pretended to be invincible, Nick had always drawn much of his strength from the support of his friends. He needed to be reassured that what he was doing was right and that there were people in his life who cared whether he did the right thing or not. The abuse he'd suffered at his father's hands had damaged Nick's self esteem so badly that he had no real faith in himself. He needed others to have it for him.

~*~

William hadn't been kidding about following the letter of the law. In fact, he was now taking great pains to do so while, at the same time, showing his irritation at having his hand forced before he was ready. It was exactly two minutes before the twenty-four hours was up when a Guardian hurried through the basement door to fetch the prisoner.

Derek absentmindedly laid a hand over Alex's on his own arm and patted it reassuringly. Alex was a brave woman but it was hard to stay that way under these conditions. The two of them were being forced by a guard to stay back in the library doorway as Nick was brought upstairs. The man barring the locked entryway of the Legacy House had drawn a carbon copy of the terrifyingly large bore weapon they had seen the day before and looked ready to use it.

~*~

11-20-98 ~ I lost my temper this morning. This really isn't unusual, but to have it happen now is about the worst thing that I could have done. I just got so angry when that pompous ass came down here to give me a chance to 'ease the burden of eternal torment on my soul by confessing to the evil I had allied myself with'. I suppose I should be thankful they still think that's possible. All I'm really thankful for is that Philip is back in Ireland. I don't know if I could have taken him standing over me like that demanding that I 'repent my sins'. As far as I'm concerned, I haven't committed any!
I guess that's as good a place to stop as any. If this is to be my last entry it's only right that it should be a denial of any wrongdoing. They are coming for me now. Whether to take me to my trial or my execution, I don't know. I guess that'll depend on whether or not anybody pulled the drapes. ~

Nick closed the book and looked up at the Guardian looming over him silently with one hand held out. Without a word of protest, Nick handed over the pen and his journal. He'd never been able to bring himself to reveal in the book what he had become but what he had written was damning enough. Nick had known, even as he wrote, that the words would be used against him. He was certain the real reason the journal had been brought to him was so that he would condemn himself and save them a little time.

For just a moment, he considered struggling as two more men grabbed him under the arms and hauled him to his feet but it wasn't much use. If he fought, he would probably just die sooner. The funny thing was, that it wasn't the thought of dying that bothered him so much as the thought of dying at the hands of those he had labored so long and hard beside.

Technically, he should have been dead a long time ago. No, he only wanted a chance to show the people that meant the most to him that he wasn't evil. That everything they had gone through for one another hadn't just been an act on his part. He didn't want all the good that he had tried to accomplish tainted by the perception of evil.

He couldn't help freezing up when they reached the door. No matter how ready he had tried to believe he was, Nick was still afraid. He stumbled as they crossed the threshold and would have fallen if he weren't being held so securely. There was barely time for him to realize the windows were all covered before Sloan's smug voice drew his attention.

"What's the matter, Mr. Boyle? Can't see where you're walking?" The ruling precept strode casually to the long windows flanking either side of the great doors. "Perhaps it would help if I opened these drapes and let in a little light. It's a beautiful day out."

"No!" Nick recovered his composure a bit as he was pulled back from his lunge by the guards and it was more the old Nick who continued than the silent shell that had been dragged up the stairs. "You wouldn't want any stray tourists to see what's going on in here, would you?"

"No, I don't believe we would." Without another word, Sloan turned and retreated into the tribunal chamber.

It wasn't until the prisoner was settled in the single, straight-backed chair directly in front of the tribunal that Derek and Alex were escorted in to fill two of the three seats set off to the side. Their escort continued to the long table and laid the journals he carried before the three assembled precepts as two of Nick's guards closed the doors and took up posts in front of them. The remainder of THE quartet stood at either shoulder of the accused to keep control of him.

Sloan never even looked down at the paper in his hands as he stated the charge. "Nicholas Boyle, you are accused of having made a pact with the dark, become an enemy of the Legacy and being an agent of evil working against this House. For the record, do you have anything to say in your defense?"

"Why should I when you've obviously made up your mind?" Nick peered up at the long table from under lowered brows. "You didn't set all this up to give me a fair trial. You did it to prove to everyone that you're right."

"As you wish, Mr. Boyle." Sloan carefully set aside the formal document in the open file folder that would be the sole official record of these proceedings. "I believe you are all aware that considerable evidence of guilt has already been gathered before a tribunal is ever called and that the accused is presumed to be guilty until proven otherwise. These charges have been brought by a former member of the Legacy whose name is protected by Legacy decree and sealed in this box to protect the informer from the evil that has been revealed in our midst."

Derek exchanged a quick glance with Alex as they watched a sealed envelope being locked in a small wooden box. He hoped the name on the letter wasn't Philip's but he didn't know who else it could be. The fact that the young priest was, technically, still a member was reassuring, but he and Nick had had their disagreements. The precept shifted in the uncomfortable seat and shot a quick, worried look at Nick. The accuser could have been anyone they had worked with in the last year or more who had taken a dislike to the ex-SEAL. The only thing that mattered now was proving the charges unfounded.

Derek didn't know what was going on here and the strange little confrontation between Nick and Sloan in the foyer hadn't shed any light on the subject. Light. His mind shied away from the reference but the precept forced himself to think about it. All of the windows on the main floor of the house had been covered. Nick had shied violently when he was practically dragged upstairs, after twenty-four hours under guard, and had lunged at William when the older man seemed ready to open the curtains.

The precept shook his head to clear it. Nick had never had a problem with sunlight before. Just yesterday, he'd been pretty much basking in the morning sun, snacking his way through the meeting, while they went over plans for the auction. He was a perfectly normal young man, if a bit more troubled than most. There had to be some other explanation than the one he was now thinking of. Derek only prayed that Nick could restrain himself from making matters worse while they sorted this mess out. He had already hurt his case by mouthing off to Sloan about them never intending to give him a fair trial.

"Your judges in this tribunal," Sloan continued, "are Rabbi Yakov Tolman, Precept of the Legacy, Cape Town House, South Africa. Carl Marshall, Precept of the Legacy, Zurich House, Switzerland. And myself, William Sloan, Precept of the Legacy, Ruling House, London, England. Do you understand the charges against you and the consequences should they be borne out?"

"Can I say something now?"

"That is the customary way of responding to a question." The ruling precept replied scathingly.

"Yes, I understand the consequences." Nick fought to control his emotions and won. He wasn't starved enough to frenzy yet. "What I don't understand is why I'm suddenly an enemy of the Legacy. I have fought for you people against evil for most of my adult life. How can all the good I've done suddenly mean nothing to you?"

"Evil has many fair disguises. Lucifer, the Great Deceiver himself, was the Angel of Light and said to be the fairest in all creation." The rotund rabbi fingered the cut on his head where the edge of the thrown bowl had struck him only this morning. "While your temperament is far from angelic, I wonder if this isn't an apt comparison."

"Do you recognize what this is, Mr. Boyle?" Sloan smiled grimly as he picked up the gun he had carried yesterday and gave their prisoner a good, long look down its barrel. It twisted his gut into a knot every time he used that name and he enjoyed the flicker of fear in the mossy eyes. Jonathan Boyle had been a friend and he was infuriated at the way that friend's son had been turned against them.

"It's a phosphorous gun. The latest trend in some of the mobs. We learned about them in the SEALs. They're a really nasty way to die." Nick looked pointedly at the weapon and was relieved when it was returned to the table. He had seen firsthand just how nasty they were during one of his rare meetings with his grandsire, Stevie Ray, before his murder. A lone Brujah, trying to make a name for himself, had tried to take out the Gangrel primogen while Stevie Ray was feeding Nick from his own wrist. He'd failed. The phosphorus gun Stevie was never without had seen to it the would-be assassin would never get the chance to try again.

"I would imagine so." Sloan got up and paced around the edge of the table so that he stood in front of it. "I would also imagine it's a very effective weapon against vampires, wouldn't you?"

"It's an effective weapon against anything." For one wild moment, Nick almost considered thanking Sloan. The fear and tension building inside him had his heart hammering without the conscious thought it would normally have taken when he was this hungry. Instead of focusing on remembering to breathe and make his heart beat to appear human, Nick found himself fighting to slow down the runaway organ. "What does it have to do with me?"

"I think you know exactly what it has to do with you." The ruling precept's eyes were ice as they met those of his prey but he was all business again when he raised those eyes to the rest of the House. "Right now, I believe we should adjourn for lunch. We will reconvene tomorrow, after this tribunal has had time to examine the journals and other new evidence to be presented here."

"Wait just one second!" Alex Moreau got to her feet to face the judges, unable to believe what she was hearing. "You can't just make an accusation like this and then adjourn without explaining anything! Are you trying to claim that Nick is some kind of a vampire?"

"That is exactly what he's being accused of, young woman." The precept from Zurich spoke for the first time, disapproval of such loose conduct in a tribunal showing plainly on his face.

"He doesn't show any of the signs of vampirism. I ought to know." Alex began to worry aloud at her friend's problem, trying to sort it all out. "He has a reflection. Holy symbols don't bother him any more than the sun does. He eats, for God's sake, and believe me that's not easy when you're being changed into one of them. I bit him! Why aren't you coming after me?"

"You were never fully transformed into one of the undead." Sloan gestured to the guards to proceed with removing their prisoner despite the delay being caused by his longtime friend and teammate. "I'm afraid we're dealing with a very different kind of vampire in this case. There are several different types. Exactly what type he is and how far his immunity to the weaknesses of his kind extends is something we will be bringing in experts to tell us. For today, however, these proceedings are closed."

Nick stopped in the doorway, resisting the hard hands that guided him for long enough to catch his friend's eyes. What he had to say was important to him. "This wasn't your fault, Alex. Thanks for trying, though."

The small, sad smile Nick almost managed for her benefit tore at both of the people who loved him but there was nothing they could do. The Guardians took a firmer grip on the young man's arms, nearly lifting him off his feet as they shoved him violently from the room.

Derek Rayne watched in silence from his chair until everyone else had left the room and he and Alex were alone. She knelt down beside his chair, worried by the blasted look in her mentor's eyes. "You okay, Teach?" Alex asked softly, turning his face to look at her.

"He didn't deny it, Alex. He didn't deny any of it."

~*~

It was a grimly silent House Rachel Corrigan arrived at after catching the last ferry over to Angel Island. Her immediate thought was to find Derek and find out what was going on that made it necessary to summon her all the way back from Salt Lake City to a House swarming with Legacy Guardians.

"Rachel, thank God you're here!" Alex reached out to hug the doctor as she joined them in the sitting room.

"It didn't sound like I had much of a choice. They actually sent someone to accost me and tell me I was 'required to return' with them." The doctor cast a worried look at Derek and went over to take a seat near him. The precept looked as though he had aged years since she had left. "I wasn't even allowed to stop home to see Kat. What's going on here, Derek?"

"They've accused Nick of being some sort of vampire." Alex answered quickly before her boss's stony silence could weigh too heavily. "They're keeping him down in the basement and everything."

"Nick?!" Rachel Corrigan couldn't believe her ears. Yeah, she'd seen some strange things since joining the Legacy, including vampires, but this was going too far. "No, I refuse to believe that. There's got to be some kind of misunderstanding."

"I know, but what?" Alex crossed her arms protectively in front of herself and began to gnaw on her fingernail as she paced the room. "They actually had me doubting him by the end of my interview."

"How so?" Derek spoke sharply from his seat by the fire.

"Well..." Alex stopped pacing while she gathered her thoughts to give the precept a coherent answer. They'd gotten her so confused with their little word games that it was difficult to sort it all out. "They wanted to know who chose Nick to be my first victim when I was being transformed into a vampire."

"And?" Rachel prompted unnecessarily, earning herself a sharp look from Derek filled with rebuke for the interruption.

"I'm really not sure. A lot of what was going on then is really hazy for me. I think it was Justine but I can't be certain."

"Do you have any idea why Nick was chosen?" Derek asked urgently, getting up to grip Alex's arms.

"Derek! You're hurting me."

"Sorry, please go on." Derek Rayne let go and moved back to his seat, not really paying any attention to the comforting hand the Legacy House's psychiatrist laid on his arm.

"At the time, I thought it was just because he was special to me. You know, a way to sink the hook in deeper and make me irretrievably theirs." Alex shuddered at the thought of how close they had come to succeeding. It had been a lucky chance that saved Nick the first time. When the vampires had captured him down in their lair later, she had been eager to finish the job. In light of the last two days, the fuss they had made over his impending death was disturbing. She had seen them simply drain and cast aside other victims. Nick, they had trussed up almost like some kind of sacrifice. At the time, she had thought it was because he was to have the 'honor' of being her first kill. Sloan and his cronies had made her wonder if there could have been more to it than that.

"Could there have been any other reason?" Even though he, himself, had been there when Alex's transformation was nearly completed, Derek had to know how she had seen the event. More importantly, he had to know how the tribunal would see it.

"I don't know, Derek. I just don't know."

"I think," William Sloan interrupted from the doorway, "that this discussion is better saved for the tribunal, don't you?"

"Of course. It's getting late. I think we should all go to bed, don't you, ladies?" Derek quickly stood up, turning so that his superior couldn't see his face and trying to signal the women with his eyes. Any doubts they were beginning to entertain were best kept between the three of them right now.

"I think that's a wonderful idea. The trip back from Salt Lake City was exhausting and I, for one, will think a lot more clearly after a good night's sleep." Rachel smiled brightly and headed for the stairs, hiding her true emotions behind the cheerful, professional mask she wore so much of her time at the hospital.

~*~

Outside the Legacy House, Cash slipped silently once again into the tunnel entrance Nick had shown him years ago and had reassured him was unmonitored. He'd been able to see how much leaving this weak chink in the estate's security irked Nick but he was glad of it tonight.

The Kindred stilled his breathing and stayed perfectly motionless against the edge of the partial opening he'd made for himself at the tunnel's entrance. The black jeans and turtleneck he wore let him blend into the darkness. Cash stared angrily at the great empty space that prevented him from getting close enough to somehow help Nick. If there had been fewer guards, he might have tried anyway and then influenced the man to forget his visit but there was no way he could handle four of them at once without taking their lives and breaking Kindred law. Instead, the young primogen focused his ears on the two older men at the foot of the stairs.

"Have you completed the initial tests, Dr. Goddard?"

"Only the most basic ones." The pudgy, balding man in the lab coat kept his voice low but not low enough to escape the ears of a Gangrel. Cash steeled himself to hear what had been done to his childe without breaking cover. It would do Nick no good if he died challenging these monsters.

"He's immune to all of the standard wards used against vampires. Our biggest break is that his immunity toward sunlight is breaking down fast. That would indicate it's caused by something that has to be ingested on a regular basis rather than a spell of some sort. That's about the only reassuring thing about him. His reflection is genuine, I think, not a hypnotic suggestion. There's no evidence of fangs. While his canine teeth are slightly sharper than average, they don't fall outside of the accepted norm. I'll be interested in comparing them to his former dental records if we can learn exactly when this change was brought about. Are you sure the medical records in the computers here are forgeries?"

"I'm afraid so. I've had two of our best programmers picking the files apart. All of the files containing physical data on our traitor were either supplied by him when he joined the House, mysteriously damaged in unexplained system crashes, or altered by someone who knows the security codes as well as if he'd written them himself."

Cash could only imagine the desperate humiliation Nick must have gone through during the long day down here, alone with this man, being examined like some kind of animal. The tests being referred to were medieval and had never applied to their people though they had been used frequently enough in the days of the Inquisition. He tucked his head down in shame at the way he'd failed his childe. As Nick's sire, he should have somehow protected the younger Kindred from these hunters.

"Have you been able to discover anything else that might be useful, doctor?"

"You have to understand, I've only had a short time to examine him. The tests with the holy water, garlic and other traditional weapons took a lot of time and only proved that such things have no effect on him."

"We'll be conducting more interviews in the morning. I want you to learn all you can before we send for him."

"I'd like to test his reaction to ingesting blood. That seems to be the central feature in all vampire mythology."

"No!" The thin, sour-looking man who seemed to be in charge spoke sharply. "I want him weak and vulnerable so that he can't hide what he is any longer."

"I hope you know what you're doing. A hungry vampire is going to be very dangerous to try and work with."

Incandescent eyes followed the gray-haired pair as they left the basement. Their faces would not be forgotten and, one day, they would know what it was like to be helpless and starving before they were destroyed. For now, Cash settled more comfortably into his hiding place to watch, every muscle tensed to fight if he should be seen. Even though there was little chance of getting close enough to be any help, he would stay the night here and offer what comfort he could by his presence.

~*~

Derek Rayne left the interrogation room that had been made of his own formal study shaking with anger and feeling very much in need of a shower. The cold and biased way they had twisted his every word in there and the way they had talked down to him throughout the interview had left him feeling somehow soiled by the encounter. All he wanted was to return to his room to pull himself back together for whatever was going to happen next, but first, there was something else he had to do. They had made him doubt Nick and that doubt had to be addressed before anything else.

The precept of the San Francisco House went straight to the basement door and the guard at its top. "As precept of this House, I demand my right to see the prisoner." Derek braced himself for an argument but, to his surprise, didn't receive one. The Guardian simply nodded and swung open the door for him.

Almost before he was ready for it, he was with Nick. The four guards who shared the prison room with them stayed near the door to allow some measure of privacy but it escaped the attention of neither man that there were now four phosphorous guns aimed squarely at Nick.

Derek studied his operative in silence for a moment, trying to repress the twinge of pain in his heart at his first sight of Nick, huddled on his side on an examining table, clutching his stomach as though in pain. The two broad straps holding him in place hardly seemed necessary. Intellectually, he knew they had to run tests, but the pain being so callously inflicted on a man who had yet to be proven guilty of anything was almost too much. He was already certain that he would be filing a complaint of his own with the Committee when this was over, no matter what the outcome was.

"Are you all right?" Mercy won the conflict taking place in his heart as Derek reached out to touch Nick's cheek. It pained him enormously when the young man flinched sharply away from the contact.

"Does it matter?" Nick fought not to show just how much the answer to his question meant to him. That Derek would ask at all gave him hope that he wouldn't be discarded, their friendship forgotten, the way Charles Bannion had been when Derek discovered his fellow precept's terrible secret. It nearly broke Nick's heart when the man who had been like another father to him didn't respond.

"Is it true?" Nick had no way of knowing how very much it was costing Derek to ask this. He had wanted so badly to believe in Nick's innocence but the ambiguities in the security chief's actions were beginning to add up to an unpleasant conclusion. "Are you some sort of vampire, feeding on the blood of the innocent?"

"I have never fed on anyone!" Nick jerked sharply against the straps that held him down. He knew he couldn't hide what he was any longer but he wasn't going to let them get away with painting him as a monster. The sick horror in Derek's eyes when he denied only what he had done, not what he had become, cooled Nick's anger. He could hardly blame Derek for reacting the same way to him as he'd reacted himself the first time he felt the urge to take blood from a human.

It had been a long night, years ago, helping Philip and Julia track down a coven of witches that had been using an old gold mine to practice their rituals. Those rituals had included human sacrifice and it had actually been a practicing witch from a nearby region who alerted the Legacy. Things had gotten so hairy during the afternoon leading up to the confrontation and the night that followed that Nick hadn't had the chance to feed on the cold blood he bought from local butchers when forced to travel.

Their targets had managed to scatter and they'd had to split up. He'd cornered one of them in a dead end and had been advancing on her, caught up in the thrill of the chase, when his hunger took over. Nick had been able to hear the blood flowing in the girl's veins. He could see the heat in it -- and he wanted it. Then Philip had come up behind him and he'd snapped back to himself. He'd stumbled to the wall and dry heaved while his teammate dealt with his intended prey.

Nick had been too horrified by the close call to sneak out and feed when they finally went back to the roadside motel they had been staying at in the predawn. With the case wrapped up, the plan had been to grab a few hours sleep before checking out and heading back to Angel Island. Nick's failure to feed had made the long drive home in daylight impossible for him.

When Julia came to see if he was awake yet, Nick had locked himself in the small bathroom and claimed to have caught a bad stomach flu. Because of his reaction in the mine, they'd believed him and stayed an extra day to let Nick recover. He'd spent the entire day hiding in the drab little room with the drapes shut, wracked with hunger pains, and retreated to the bathroom whenever one of the others came to check on him. When night came, he'd gone out the back window, broken into a meat market and fed from the thin, cold blood the butchers had drained from the meat.

No, he couldn't blame Derek at all for the look on his face. Nick knew he wasn't the monster these men believed him to be but he also knew just how thin and close the line was between himself and the beasts he knew his clan had once been.

Both men were still lost in their separate memories, only silence between them, when Dr. Goddard stepped in and suggested Derek leave so they could continue with their tests. Derek turned away, too devastated by the truth of the accusations to believe anything Nick had to say in his own defense. He paused by the door. There was one other question he needed answered. "How did this happen?"

"By my own free will, Derek. I wasn't attacked or anything like that." That was one 'out' he wouldn't take. Nick had made lots of mistakes in his life but he didn't consider becoming Kindred one of them.

"Why?" The single word was a croak coming from Derek's throat. If this was the truth, then Nick was truly irredeemable.

Nick was just tired of the whole mess and wanted it over with now. He locked eyes with his precept, willing him to understand what he had to say next. "Because, Derek, in nineteen ninety-three, AIDS was still a death sentence and you gave me too much to live for when you asked me to join the Legacy. I did it for you, Derek."

~*~

Once again, Frank Kohanek was lurking in Julian's study when Cash finally dragged home to report to his prince. The story of a secret society that fought evil and had a Kindred childe, that most of the Kindred didn't even know about, captive had intrigued him enough to take some of the vacation time he had stockpiled. To his surprise, he hadn't even had to argue with Julian to be allowed to listen in.

"These guys sound crazy if you ask me." The cop commented idly when Cash seemed to be winding down. "I mean waving crosses and garlic? Come on!"

"Nobody asked you!" The young Gangrel whirled angrily on the human but backed off when he caught sight of the sharp warning in his prince's eyes. "Sorry, Julian, I'm just worried what they're going to do to him next. They didn't stop poking at him until nearly one in the morning."

"Were you able to see him?" The calm tones of the Ventrue prince soothed his bodyguard and Cash visibly stopped hackling though he continued to pace the luxurious room like any worried parent.

"Part of the time. They left the doors open while they were going in and out of his cell for the medical tests. They were uncrating all sorts of portable equipment down there." Cash turned pleading, anguished eyes to his prince. "I'm afraid of what they'll do to him next."

"But they haven't seriously hurt him yet." Julian replied. He was the prince of the city. He had to consider more than the discomfort of a single Kindred and, so far, he could see no reason good enough to move openly against these people. So far, they weren't hunting Kindred. They plainly didn't know about the larger population and he wanted to keep it that way.

"They're starving him! They drew blood, Julian! More than he could spare without being fed for two nights in a row." Light blue eyes turned to unnatural, incandescent ice at the memory of his own failure and a low growl grew in the back of the Gangrel's throat.

"Enough!" Julian rounded on the young primogen, backing him down with his own anger at the growing insubordination. "Until they actually hurt him, breach the Masquerade, or begin to hunt for the rest of us, we wait. For now, I believe you have work to do."

Cash glared at the back of his prince's head for a moment as Julian turned dismissively away from him, the muscles in his jaw working convulsively in his rage. Finally, he turned and flung himself out of the room.

It took hours after she found him for Cash's Brujah lover to calm him down enough for the story of his secret childe and the danger he was in to come pouring out.

He didn't tell Sasha the story so that she would intervene with Julian on his behalf but it was obvious from the narrowing of her eyes that this was exactly what was going to happen. Cash laid his head against her shoulder as they held each other. He didn't regret loving her, despite the problems caused by the ancient rivalries between their clans. He only wished he'd been able to embrace her himself and make her Gangrel like him. Their love could have been so much deeper if only Cash could have shared the same bond with Sasha that he shared with Nick.

~*~

After Cash had stormed out, Julian turned back to his remaining companions. Frank nearly jumped out of his seat when the voice spoke from the hidden depths of the large wing chair in the corner.

"If they continue to take blood, the childe will become dangerous in his hunger." Daedalus, the ancient leader of the Nosferatu clan rose to join the other two by the fire. "If he frenzies in his need for blood, it could endanger us more than a rescue would."

"I know." In the safe companionship of his most trusted friend and advisor, Julian let the weariness that he couldn't reveal to Cash show in his voice and his manner. "If he tries to use his remaining strength to feed, and fails, he'll soon face final death from starvation. I don't plan to allow that."

"How can you stop it? These people have you, Julian. With a live captive they can go public about the Kindred with indisputable proof and hunt you."

Julian smiled at the genuine concern in Frank's voice. "Once, that's what you would have wanted, Frank." Ironically, the detective had also become almost a trusted friend. Lately, he had been becoming a trusted, if somewhat abrasive, advisor as well. Not being Kindred, Frank was often able to give him an objective view of things he might not have seen otherwise.

"Yeah, well, times change." Frank Kohanek shifted uneasily. It was true, he had started out hunting the Kindred over the death of his Kindred lover, killed in a bloodhunt for endangering the Masquerade, but not anymore. Her last request, for Julian to look after Frank, had forced them into each other's lives and the more the detective had learned about the Kindred, the less he was able to hate them.

"Good, that's why you're here. I don't think these people want publicity any more than we do. They seem to have their own Masquerade to protect, though it hides a different secret."

"What does that have to do with me?"

"Everything. Sonny will be back from his police training seminar sometime tomorrow. I can arrange for an anonymous tip about a man being held in that house against his will. All you have to do is your duty as a police detective and look into it. Once you find him, you just have to get him to someplace with Kindred doctors on staff who can provide for his needs."

"You want me to transport a starving Kindred without getting bit?" The skepticism in the detective's voice made Julian smile. Dancing around a potentially touchy subject wasn't one of Frank Kohanek's talents.

"I can give you something to make him pliant until you get him to our people." The Nosferatu spoke from right behind Frank's chair and this time he did jump to his feet. He was positive the creepy guy liked scaring him!

~*~

Nick Boyle wished he could curl up on his side again to ease some of the pain in his tired body but the heavy straps securing him to the examining table prevented that. He almost laughed at the memory that only the night before last he'd been feeling sorry for himself for having to sleep on the cold floor. He'd gladly go back there if these doctors would just leave him alone. The stainless steel table he occupied now wasn't any warmer and the attention of the medical personnel brought only new pain to torment him.

As a technician approached with a biopsy needle to take yet another tissue sample, Nick tugged hard on the straps, fighting to break loose. They had taken so much from him already -- and it had hurt! Apparently, Dr. Goddard didn't feel his comfort was important. The man had treated him coldly when he was in the hospital after Alex nearly killed him a couple of months ago. That experience had been bad enough. Since his arrival at the Legacy House last night, the man had treated his patient as a monster, not even providing a sheet for Nick to cover himself with when he wasn't being poked at. Nick was almost certain the scientist took pleasure in his pain and humiliation.

Without any conscious thought, the single claw Kindred used to open the veins of their prey emerged from his right index finger and flexed menacingly as Nick strained to reach the strap on his wrist with it. He had never used the claw before and its instinctive appearance surprised him. Nick had never been allowed to hunt for fear that the psychics in the House would sense him as a predator if he ever did. Now, he hoped the natural weapon would free him. In the end the strap was too far for him to reach but the claw did serve to make the technician's eyes bug out as he dropped the needle and went running for his superior.

Nick let his head fall back against the smooth stainless steel of his bed. Blood tears of true, heart-piercing anguish ran down his face as he screamed.

~*~

William Sloan smiled in triumph as the prisoner was brought in, nearly being dragged by two of his guards, and dropped in his seat in front of the tribunal. It was plain that the creature was both weak and desperate, giving him the upper hand. Derek and the others would have no choice but to see the danger he had rescued them from. He only wished they would locate that private journal that had been mentioned in the most recent entries to the official journal of the accused. It, no doubt, held many of the answers they were seeking.

"Last time you were brought up here, Mr. Boyle, you had nothing to say to us. Do you have anything to say for yourself now?" Sloan smirked at the helpless glare shot his way.

"No!" Nick's voice was harsh from thirst and the screams that had been torn from him during the painful testing that had been halted only minutes before he was brought upstairs, once more held in consecrated chains. Even though they had figured out the symbols did nothing, the metal bands themselves were a more than adequate restraint in his current condition.

Thanks to the bone marrow extraction they'd done on his hip less than a half hour earlier, Nick hadn't even been able to stand unaided. The chains had made it impossible for him to catch himself when he fell. Because he wasn't moving quickly enough on his own, the prisoner had been struck repeatedly for 'resistance' before they hauled him to the stairs. Nick had begun to wish he hadn't been so cooperative early on when he still had the strength to do some damage in return.

"Perhaps we should hear Dr. Goddard's findings?" Carl Marshall, of Zurich House, spoke up. He didn't like the way William was constantly baiting the prisoner. When a Legacy operative made a pact with the dark, the way this one had, he was dealt with -- not toyed with.

"Very well." Sloan gave in graciously enough. The doctor had kept him abreast of new developments and he knew that, while many of the test results weren't ready yet, there was a wealth of damning evidence. The secret journal, if they'd found it, would have just been icing on the cake at this point.

The old doctor left his place on the sidelines and went to stand before the tribunal. "While our testing is far from complete, we have found a number of anomalies. The most blatantly vampiric is in his blood. It isn't any single blood type but, in fact, a combination of several. While we have no safe way to test the theory at this time, I believe what we are seeing is the blood of his victims -- a partially digested meal, I suppose you could say. There were also nonhuman blood cells of a type never documented which I believe to be his actual vampiric blood."

"Now, hold on a minute!" Rachel Corrigan sat forward in her chair, unable to listen to this any longer. "That could be the result of contamination of the sample. I've treated Nick when he's been hurt working for you people! He's normal. A human being, not some kind of monster."

"Is he, Dr. Corrigan?" Dr. Goddard reached for the stethoscope he'd brought with him for just this moment. "Listen to his heart. It doesn't beat."

"That's nonsense." Rachel scoffed as she rose to comply. She smiled at Nick and rubbed his arm reassuringly as she knelt beside him to undo a few buttons of his shirt and slip the stethoscope beneath it. He didn't look good at all. His face was dead white and he was shivering -- from shock she supposed -- and there seemed to be blood in the corners of his eyes. What in God's name have they been doing to him down there? The doctor frowned, going through the list of possible causes for such a symptom as she absently searched for a heartbeat.

Rachel got a puzzled look on her face and withdrew the comforting hand from his arm, beginning to pay more attention to what she was doing as she moved the stethoscope carefully across Nick's silent chest. She didn't even have to speak as she got to her feet and backed away from the young man isolated in the middle of the room. The shattered look she gave the remaining members of the House was more than enough to tell them what she hadn't heard.

"As I was explaining," Dr. Goddard continued dryly, "the heart doesn't beat and yet, he's plainly alive -- or at least animate. He breathes. He can eat and drink like a real person when he wants to and, apparently, has the ability to make his heart beat when he isn't in a weakened state. All these attributes have helped him to hide among us, despite the efforts of people like Dr. Corrigan -- and even myself."

"You mentioned a number of anomalies. Please go on, doctor." Sloan urged him. Derek and the others looked sick over all that had been revealed so far but they had to feel the same righteous anger he did. They had to believe to the depths of their souls that this monster they had trusted needed to be destroyed for the common good.

"Just before we were interrupted to bring him up here," Goddard didn't bother to suppress the irritation in his voice, "we discovered the existence of a claw-like protrusion -- obviously some sort of natural weapon -- that extruded from the subject's right forefinger and then retracted. We haven't had time to pursue that. At the same time, it was discovered that he can excrete a blood-like substance from the tear ducts in his eyes. Another thing we really need to study."

Sloan cleared his throat and hurriedly changed the topic. The women had both looked upset at the mention of what were plainly tears, even if they were blood. "I think we've heard more than enough evidence to prove that Mr. Boyle here has given up his humanity. What I'd like to know is why -- and what he, and whatever he made his pact with, hoped to accomplish by his joining the Legacy."

"Some good." Nick raised his head from where he'd let it rest against the back of the chair while the doctor was talking about him. "That's what I hoped to accomplish by joining the Legacy." He turned to address the only people whose opinions mattered to him. "Isn't that why all of us joined the Legacy?"

"Yes, I believe it is." Derek answered him. "I'd like to hear more about both decisions however."

"No!" Sloan interjected immediately, damning himself for opening this particular tangent. "The prisoner was given an opportunity to speak in his own defense just minutes ago and declined."

Sloan hated to admit it, even to himself, but he had been relieved when the prisoner refused to defend himself. There hadn't been enough time to fully illuminate the evil that Nick Boyle had become and the London precept didn't want the remainder of the House confused by any statements he might make now, while his colleagues still thought of him as a human being.

The deliberate thump as the Zurich precept banged a nearby journal down on the table as an impromptu gavel drew all eyes to him. "You opened this line of questioning, William. We will see it through."

"Okay." Nick pulled a deep breath into his lungs while he gathered his memories of all that had been going on back then. "After I left the SEALs, I kind of drifted, not really knowing what I wanted. I went back to school at a community college and got in with a pretty wild crowd. Started doing drugs and getting in fights instead of doing the things that needed to be done. Finally, my faculty advisor got fed up with me and sent me for counseling. Things kind of went up and down from there."

"Finally, I got assigned Liz Barrow as a study partner. She was taking some evening classes to upgrade her teacher's certificate and she agreed to tutor me so I wouldn't get kicked out. We started dating and, with her help, I kicked the drugs and started to put my life back together." Nick smiled as the memories began resurfacing with increasing clarity. If this was his last chance to set the record straight, he wanted the whole story known, not just Sloan's version. The opinions of Derek and the others meant too much to him.

"That's where you came into the picture." Nick looked directly at his precept and was relieved to see that Derek was really listening to him. He hadn't been discarded completely yet. "I needed the extra credit for one of my classes and I figured, having been around this stuff most of my life, I could sleep through your lecture, get the credit for attending it, and fake it if anybody asked me any questions." Nick smiled in return at the muffled snort of laughter as Derek covered his mouth and looked down at the carpet as if it held the mysteries of the universe.

"Anyway, I didn't sleep through the lecture and ended up switching my work and class schedules around so I could attend the class you were teaching in the evenings." Nick shifted to include Alex and Rachel in the story. "I started showing up early for classes and hanging around afterwards to help put things away. I even started bugging Derek with questions in the office they let him use. Everything had changed. I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. I just didn't have the guts to ask for it. Then he offered me the chance to join the Legacy. He just took everything I'd hoped for and dropped it in my lap then told me to go home and think about it before I gave him my answer."

Nick looked back down at his hands, suddenly aware of the silence in the room and all the attention on him. His throat stung from thirst and the sudden, extensive use but he had to finish. To make one final statement. "That's when it all fell apart. When I got home, my roommate was lying on the floor with a needle in his arm and a suicide note that said he'd just found out he had AIDS and couldn't deal with dying that slow and painful."

"I guess I called 911 or something, because the cops came and had the body taken away. I was pretty deep in shock by then, so they took me to the hospital." Nick's voice slowed as he struggled to form a coherent picture from that screwed-up day he'd tried, up until now, to forget. "The doctors there found the needle tracks on my arms. They weren't that old back then. I remember them asking me if I'd ever shared needles with Davey, or anybody else, and taking blood, but that's about it. They checked me in for the night and sedated me to sleep it off. In the morning, I checked myself out."

"For the next couple days, I was in a kind of daze. I didn't go to work or school but I couldn't stay in the apartment. I wouldn't return Liz's calls. I just hung out at the bars and drank myself into a stupor. A biker buddy of mine would drag me home after I passed out and I'd wake up back in the apartment." Nick struggled to keep the emotions surging inside him from spilling over in tears. He really didn't think he could keep his temper in check if that doctor interrupted his tale to scrape the blood trails from his cheeks for study. "I suppose I should be grateful Davey offed himself with heroin. I couldn't even look at the stuff after that, much less get hooked on it again."

"Then 'the call' came." The young ex-SEAL's eyes darkened at the bitter memory, "I was still checking my answering machine and found out the hospital needed to see me about something. I figured it was just more questions about Davey. They sat me down in this little office with a couple doctors and a social worker and told me I was HIV positive and already showing some minor symptoms of full-blown AIDS." Nick laughed, though there was little humor in it. "I'd thought it was just some kind of rash combined with not taking real good care of myself. Something connected to the drug withdrawal, maybe. I just sort of expected to feel like hell for a while afterwards. I must have been at the hospital for hours while they poked and prodded and talked about treatment programs and support groups and even financial aid but all I really remember about it is some guy telling me most patients only lived about a year after being diagnosed."

Nick shuddered and stopped for a moment, looking up at the faint, sympathetic noise that had come from Alex's direction. The compassion in her eyes gave him the strength to keep talking despite the physical weakness crashing down on him. "After that, I just stayed home. I didn't even drink. I don't know what I did during those days. I know I didn't keep my first appointment at the treatment center. They called, but I never answered. It didn't matter. The dying part wasn't even what bothered me. What bothered me was dying when I'd just been given so much to live for."

"I don't know what would have happened if the same guy who hauled me home from the bars hadn't come by to check on me." Even now, Nick was careful not to mention Cash by name. Whatever happened to him, he wasn't going to lead them to the rest of the Kindred. "He asked me if there was a way to make it all right, would I take it. It sounds stupid, but, looking in his eyes, I believed he could do something about it, so I said yes. He told me about being something other than human but not evil. He called it 'the other side of life'." Nick shot a rebellious glare at those who had come to condemn him. "I already knew there was nothing evil about him. He helps people. He cares. I agreed and he changed me."

William Sloan could see things getting out of hand. The story had brought out too much sympathy in the small audience. He needed to put things back in perspective here. "By ripping your throat open and draining your humanity away with your life's blood! Replacing it with his own poison!"

"That's not how it happened! " Nick practically roared as he tried to stand, only to be forced down, all too easily, by the hands on his shoulders. "He was my friend. Yes, he took my blood and replaced it with his own but he did it to save my life! There was nothing savage about it. He was slow and gentle. Being embraced is about as close as you can get to making love with someone without actually having sex with them."

"That means you're 'Kindred', then." Sloan relished the shock on his captive's face as he dropped his little bombshell. "The members of this tribunal looked into the various sorts of vampires quite thoroughly before coming here. The lore concerning a group known as the Kindred is the only place the term 'embrace' is used for the act of creating a vampire."

"Tell me more." Derek's quiet demand made his friend smile. He should have known the hard-headed Dutchman wouldn't let a sad story sway him when there was evil in their very midst.

"We don't know very much, I'm afraid. One thing we do know is that, unlike most vampires, they aren't loners. Instead, they are a coalition of several so-called clans working together for some purpose we can't discover."

"Survival!" Nick lashed out sharply. "The Kindred aren't evil! They aren't out to conquer the world for the forces of darkness! All we want is to live in peace." The angry captive jerked free of the restraining hands on his shoulders and leaned forward, his lip curled up in a snarl of rage. "No matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to prove that I've made some kind of alliance with evil! That's why you haven't presented any evidence from the journals or our case files to support your accusations. There isn't any there!"

Sloan's lips tightened. He stood abruptly and yanked back the curtain that covered the large picture window overlooking San Francisco Bay. "This is all the proof I need." Almost immediately, Nick threw himself from the straight-backed chair and tried to roll clear of the blazing sunlight filling the room. The shriek that ripped its way from Nick's throat, as smoke began to rise from his body, sounded more like the cry of a bobcat Derek had once seen, cornered by a pack of dogs on a hunting trip with his father, than that of a human being.

"Close the curtains!" Derek snapped out the command as he rose to his feet.

The inhuman cry didn't stop him from going to Nick and ripping his own suit coat off to cover the smoking body. Rachel was already on her knees on the other side of the huddled form. By the time Legacy Guardians forced them to move back, Alex had taken care of the curtains and no one made a move to reopen them.

Derek barely spared a glance for the raw, partially blackened burns that had appeared so rapidly on Nick's hands, neck and face. He rounded sharply on the members of the tribunal. "That is enough! You've proven your point William but, regardless of what he has become, you go too far. The Legacy is not in the business of torture."

"I was only trying to make a point of my own, Derek." Sloan went to kneel down by his prey and hauled Nick's head up by the hair until he was looking him in the eyes. "For someone who has nothing to do with the forces of darkness, you sure have one hell of a problem with the light, Mr. Boyle."

"I'm afraid I have to agree with Dr. Rayne, William." Carl Marshall spoke coldly from the place he'd never stirred from at the long table. "I think we have seen more than enough evidence in this case to come to a verdict. I would presume your decision is guilty?"

"Yes, it is." William Sloan got up and returned to his seat. After standing for a moment, glaring, Derek returned to his also. Order was restored in the tribunal with the exception of the accused who remained curled up in a fetal ball at his guards' feet. "And your decision?"

Rabbi Tolman studied the pitiful figure on the floor but could find no mercy in his soul for the creature. He felt only anger for the damage that had been done to one of the finest Houses in the Legacy and sorrow for the potential that had been lost to them all. It would plainly be a long time before the remaining members got over this. The sooner the thing was destroyed, the sooner they could begin helping the others pull their lives back together. "Guilty."

"I agree." Carl Marshall leaned forward to rest his folded hands on the table top, easily taking over the proceedings, and turned his gaze on Nick. Despite the coldness on his face, he pitied the young man who had been forced to choose between the apparent salvation offered by the other side and lingering death from a modern plague. The boy was more victim, it seemed, than criminal but he was also too far gone from the light to be redeemed. "Due to the nature of this case, we are left with no choice but to order your permanent destruction. Sentence to be carried out immediately. May the God you betrayed have mercy on your soul."

"You can't!" Dr. Goddard's indignant cry broke the solemnity of the pronouncement. "This is the first time since the Inquisition we've had one of the Kindred in our hands. They have so many differences we need to study. Think of how much more effective we could be at finding and destroying them if we just take the time to study and question this one!"

"He has a point." Sloan spoke quietly now. It was over with. He'd failed. Even though he'd proven beyond doubt that Nick Boyle was no longer human and gotten his conviction, the ruling precept could see that the members of this House blamed him, not the monster on the floor, for the events of the last two days. That blame, and guilt for not having seen the truth themselves, would eat at them until this House fell. When he got back to London, he'd have to start going over the files and selecting a team to rebuild this shattered House. At least, if they allowed the good doctor his chance to study the condemned, they would see some small gain from all of this.

"Very well." The Zurich precept was tired, too. He had served on many tribunals in thirty years as a precept of the Legacy. He knew all too well the damage they so often did while excising the cancer from a House. All Carl Marshall wanted was to be done with this task and end the suffering of the miserable creature lying on the floor, just as he had been forced to put his own brother out of his misery after Peter was bitten by something not so very different from what Nicholas Boyle had become. "You have until nightfall Monday, no later."

"But --" The scientist left off the plans he'd already begun making in his head for studies he wanted to do. It wasn't enough time! It wasn't nearly enough.

"You heard what was said in here, did you not, doctor?" Marshall demanded. "The Kindred live in communities. That means there are more of them somewhere in this city. I want this one destroyed before the others come looking for him. We need to be ready to fight them if they come, not worrying about the one at our backs helping them from the inside."

~*~

This time, when they got him back downstairs and moved to strip his clothes from his body to begin their endless tests again, Nick fought with the animal ferocity of his clan. It was too little, too late. Punctured, burned, and starving, the Gangrel was too weak to take on the three medical technicians, much less the four Legacy Guardians. Nick only managed to break free long enough to get halfway up the stairs before he was pulled down and allowed to fall the last few steps to the basement floor.

If anything, the tests being performed now were more painful, more invasive, now that sentence had been passed and they no longer had to be concerned with keeping him alive and able to appear before the tribunal. Nick had heard what the precept upstairs had said as he lay half conscious on the floor. They only had a little over two days to study him. Obviously, the sadistic bastard looming over him now wasn't going to waste any of that time. All Nick hoped for now was that he'd reach final death soon and that, however the end came for him, it wouldn't be in a way that could be made into a new weapon against his people.

When he was turned on his side and they stuck the needle into his spine without warning, Nick screamed and arched up off the cold table. He almost hoped now that his clan would be allowed to avenge him. This doctor had slowly and systematically made him come to hate them all for what was happening. All but his family in the San Francisco House. His sire knew how he felt about them. Cash would see to it they were spared. Nick's head began to swim as fluid was drawn out and the needle removed. For a few minutes, all he could do was lie there and whimper on the edge of consciousness.

Before he passed out, Nick tried again to do anything to fight back. To his surprise, he was able to sink his teeth into the soft meat of the head physician's hand as the man brought some instrument close to his eyes. In true Kindred fashion, he latched on tightly and began to feed.

Nick was only able to swallow a small amount of blood before the hand was ripped away and a closed fist broke his jaw but it was enough to push the specter of death back a few hours.

~*~

Sasha stormed into her uncle's study just before dawn Sunday, shaking with rage. After Cash had collapsed, screaming, yesterday afternoon, she had been determined to find out why. All Julian and Daedalus had told her was that, due to the unusually powerful bond between them, he was echoing what was being done to his childe and that they would care for him. Since Julian had been determined to treat her like an infant, as usual, Sasha had gone to Angel Island on her own.

The Brujah had reassured herself that she was only checking on him because Cash wasn't able to and would have asked her to do the task for him if her uncle had just let her stay long enough to talk with him. The truth was, Sasha had wanted to see this childe. For some time, she had sensed there was something more coming between her and her lover than merely being from enemy clans. Last night, she had seen that something.

When Cash first told her about his childe, it had been a relief. It was a childe, and a male at that, not a mate taken from among his own clan as she had feared. What she had seen being done to that childe on Angel Island had been horrifying. Sasha had nearly frenzied at the sight of the damage that had already been done to the Gangrel lying on the metal table. If he'd been Brujah, she would have. As often as she denied the influence of her clan's blood, Sasha was Brujah. She only cared what happened to this Gangrel because he belonged to Cash. For that reason alone, she would make her Uncle Julian save him.

~*~

It had taken time to gather the primogens of the five clans residing in this city, but by ten o'clock that Sunday morning, a ragged conclave had been convened in the prince's study. The Nosferatu primogen was the only member of the group who seemed disposed to listen. Sonny had been delayed and, in his absence, Julian would speak for the Ventrue. The leaders of the Brujah and Toreador clans were too busy glaring at Frank, who had assumed his partner's seat at the conclave table despite not even being Kindred, and at Cash, who appeared to be on the verge of drinking himself under his seat while Sasha fussed over him.

"Well, Julian? I can't wait to find out why I was dragged out of bed only hours after the club closed on a Sunday morning." Lillie, the dark-haired primogen of the Toreador purred in a falsely sweet tone, not really bothering to hide her annoyance. "Were you planning to finally embrace Frank and set him up as head of the Ventrue in Sonny's absence, or are we here to discuss Cash's new fondness for abusing the humans' recreational drugs?"

"Neither, Lillie." Julian smiled, somewhat gravely, at his former lover. "Cash is drinking to dull the pain of what's being done to his childe. I'm afraid it was my idea, not his."

"Childe?" Cameron leaned back in his chair in a calculated effort to act as though he were still indifferent to the situation, but it fooled no one. Eddie Fiori, the former Brujah primogen, had been a near-mindless brute. Cameron was not. The Manzanita Brujah was cold and smart and now he was paying full attention to every nuance in the room. "I find it interesting that my people never mentioned him."

"He's been a secret." Julian acknowledged, somewhat unhappily. Two years had passed since Cameron killed Julian's sire, Archon, leaving the Ventrue to choose a new primogen and the prince still hadn't been able to catch the man out and make him pay for his sire's life. Cameron always remained just inside Kindred law and safe from the prince's vengeance. Julian wished anybody else had asked the question.

"Even my clan knew nothing until two days ago." Daedalus contributed quietly to assuage the tempers of those feeling left out of things.

"I think I'd like an explanation for this..." Lillie asked nicely with steel in her eyes and voice. "Why is he a secret and what's being done to him?"

"It began five years ago when the Gangrel and the Brujah were just beginning to recover from their fighting. Things were still very tense. All of the Gangrels were still very young. Cash had only been Kindred for about a year when he embraced a young man without permission." Julian's face grew grim and he glowered down the smile that had lit Cameron's face. "He knew it was wrong to just go ahead without asking but there were special circumstances."

"I tried to save him." Cash raised his head to look at the others, his breathing still ragged and heavy. "All he wanted was to live so he could help the bastards that're killing him!"

"Julian?" For the first time, alarm entered the Toreador's voice. She was old enough to have encountered human hunters before. If it was happening again, this could be serious.

"I'll get to that." The prince held up his hand to forestall any more interruptions. "As Cash said, the young man, Nick, was dying. He'd recently been given the chance to join a very old organization committed to battling the dark forces in this world -- forces we all know are real. It was what his father and grandfather had done before him and was all he wanted to do with his life."

"I'd like to hear more about a primogen embracing someone without permission." Cameron lightly flicked at an imaginary dust mote in front of his eyes. "I seem to recall you taking a very dim view of that practice, Julian."

"Sorry, Cameron. I realize it was before your time, but Stevie Ray was primogen then. At least until your old boss staked him out on a rooftop." Julian's dark eyes were cold as flint and just as easily kindled to flame. He had been close to his former bodyguard and was still angry over his death, despite the fact that his killer was now long dead.

Cameron backed down. "As I've said before, Eddie was stupid. That's why he's dead. Please continue."

Unexpectedly, a quiet voice continued the tale before the prince could. "I knew I should have asked. I took him to Stevie as soon as his first torment had passed. All he wanted was to join his Legacy. When he realized that first night that he didn't dare join them for fear they'd find out about the Kindred and hunt us, it nearly killed him. It was Stevie that came up with the plan."

When Cash fell silent and Julian was certain he wasn't going to start speaking again, the Ventrue prince continued the story himself. "Stevie Ray thought these people were one of the greatest potential threats to the Kindred. He thought that if we had someone inside we would at least be warned if they set out to hunt us. If we were lucky, Nick could even help shield us from discovery. It's worked well. We've fed quite a bit of information to these people over the years, through Nick, and they've gotten rid of a lot of monsters who might have alerted the public to the fact that there's more waiting out there in the dark than they know about."

"I'm curious. How did you keep them from figuring it out? Once people know what to look for, you guys are pretty obvious. I found all the information I needed about the Kindred in the library." Frank Kohanek spoke up, shooting defensive looks around the table. He knew he didn't really belong at the conclave table but they'd involved him in the problem and, the way he saw things, that gave him a right to ask questions.

"Most people aren't as obsessed as you are, Frank. They have more on their minds than just us." Julian returned his attention to the primogens. "That's not to say it was easy. Some of these people are psychics. To keep them from sensing him, we had to keep Nick a childe. He's been taught nothing about the use of his abilities and been discouraged from using his sharpened senses. He's never hunted, or fed on human blood, so he doesn't feel like a predator to them. For five years it's worked. I don't know what changed that but I do know we have to help him now."

"Why?" Lillie came straight to the point. "What's happening now?"

"I'll let Sasha tell the rest." Julian sat back and gestured for his niece to address the conclave. The disjointed atmosphere the meeting had begun with had evaporated by now. All eyes in the room were focused intently on the young Brujah next to Cash. The conclave grew silent, except for the single voice.

~*~

"There's got to be something we can do about this, Derek. Some appeal -- or something?" Rachel Corrigan paced the confines of Derek's bedroom, where they had retreated to avoid the well-meaning counselors that had arrived as soon as the precepts from Zurich and Cape Town had left. Rachel and Alex had agreed that the 'specialists' who had been brought in to 'help' them through this time were damned annoying.

"There is none." Derek sank down on the edge of his bed and cradled his head. He'd had a fierce migraine all day from this whole mess. "He's already dead, Rachel. He's been dead for a long time. The Legacy just has to finish it. All we can do is pray that his soul will find some sort of release." And maybe if I keep saying that enough, I'll begin to believe it. He didn't though. Having lived and worked with Nick for so many years he couldn't see the man who had become his friend as simply a corpse, animated by evil, and seeking to undermine all they had worked for together.

"No," Alex took her fingernail out of her mouth and rose from the writing desk by the window. "I don't buy that. I mean -- according to what was said in there and the records Sloan showed us, Nick was -- what do they call it? -- 'embraced' before he ever joined the Legacy. This is the same man we've always known, Derek. What's changed?"

"I think a better question might be, what did we miss?" Derek spoke bitterly. "We don't know what else Nick may have hidden from us while seeming to carry out his duties. If you ladies don't mind, I'd like to go back to bed. I don't feel very well."

"Sure, Derek. Give a yell if you need anything." Rachel steered Alex out the door with her, privately deciding to do something if Derek's sudden 'ill health' continued. If he was going to go into a depression as a result of all this it was important to intervene quickly before the condition became debilitating.

Once the two women were gone, Derek settled down under the covers. It seemed like all his heart could feel any more was bitter exhaustion. He had been betrayed, not only by a trusted member of his own House but by himself. Nick was a vampire. He had always been a vampire and Derek hadn't realized it.

The precept tossed restlessly and pounded on his pillow a couple of times as though it were to blame for his restlessness. No, Nick hadn't always been a vampire. Derek could remember Nick as a boy, remaining quietly in the background while the adults talked, but always ready to pitch in and help. He had only seen the boy infrequently in those days, mostly when Nick's parents couldn't find a sitter or invited Derek home for dinner.

He remembered the lecture, too. Nick had been one of his most vocal and intelligent questioners following it and he'd been glad when the young man enrolled in his class. Derek had watched Nick for most of a semester to be certain the rumors of his drug problem were exaggerated before deciding to offer him a position with the Legacy. He was a perfect candidate. He believed in the supernatural, already knew a lot about what they really did, and seriously wanted to help people.

Derek opened his eyes and stared sleeplessly at the ceiling. None of that had changed. If Nick had told the truth in there, he'd been 'embraced' right after the invitation. Granted, the young man who finally accepted the offer nearly a month later was a bit more troubled and subdued-seeming than prior to his sudden absence from campus but no more so than he'd really expected after being told the circumstances surrounding the death of Nick's roommate. The suicide, and its purported reason, had been a hot topic around campus for a while. No one, not even his closest friends, had known that Nick, too, had been stricken with AIDS. They had all assumed he was simply taking his friend's death hard and needed time to recover.

Derek wished, now, that he hadn't given the young man that time. Maybe if he'd gotten Nick's address from the main office and gone to see him, this would have never happened. While joining the Legacy in his condition would have been out of the question due to the physical dangers involved in their work, they could have found some alternative other than the one that monster had offered. A job with their front organization, the Luna Foundation, and the medical coverage that provided would have helped and Derek would gladly have taken his old friend's son into his own home for however long he had left.

~*~

Two floors below, William Sloan stood at the foot of the stairs and watched while the medical personnel tried to question their subject. Since his attack on the doctor, they had tried drugs to control the creature and, to their surprise, had been successful. This had led to the use of chemicals to gain information. So far, they were having less success here. The emotional resistance was too strong and made Nick Boyle's true loyalties plainer than anything revealed in the courtroom had. The problem was being compounded by the creature's growing tendency to lose consciousness in spite of the adrenaline they were injecting directly into its heart.

In a lull, while Dr. Goddard was preparing a syringe of something more powerful, Sloan stepped up to the steel table. "I'm sorry this had to happen, you know." He offered lightly.

"You could've fooled me." Nick ground the words out. Even that short response was agony as the broken jawbone shifted. Nick was glad for the pain and for the effort each word required. It made it easier for him to not tell these men all they wanted to know. Nick almost wished the break had been worse than it was so that he would be unable to answer their questions when they finally broke his will. They were getting close to that point now. His throat was raw and dry from captivity and hunger was tearing him apart.

Nick fought not to swallow to try and ease the discomfort of his aching throat. It would only make his jaw hurt worse if he did and wouldn't bring any moisture to the parched tissues. Since the conviction, they had only given him the occasional sip of water so he could answer their endless questions.

"I believe fooling people was your game, not ours." Sloan smiled insincerely. "No, I'm sorry to see your family's name sullied in the Legacy records like this. Your father was a good man and one of the greats when it came to field work."

"My father was a monster!" Nick tried to lunge upward in his restraints but was too weak now to do more than raise his head off the table and glare, too angry to care about the pain he was inflicting on himself. "He was a drunken bastard who beat his wife and kids whenever he felt like it and, believe me, he felt like it a lot!"

"Of course, you'd say something like that." Sloan turned away dismissively. "It's the nature of evil to try and discredit anything good and pure in this world."

The animal shriek of rage at his back never even made the precept turn. The creature was restrained and could do nothing now other than rage at his captors and try to undermine their faith in one another and the cause they served. William Sloan wasn't going to allow him to succeed.

Coming out of the basement, Sloan stopped at the sight of Derek, still in his bathrobe at midday, heading back upstairs with a covered plate and a fresh cup of coffee. "Derek?"

"What do you want now, William?" The voice sounded so tired, Sloan could almost hear the unspoken 'what more do you want to take from me?' in Derek's tone.

"It was the only thing we could do, Derek. Would you rather have kept your eyes closed until he lost control and killed one of you?" Sloan moved in closer but didn't get within reach. Derek looked beaten but he'd seen his old friend's temper when they were young and had no desire to see if age had lessened the pain of Derek's left hook. "How far has he already spread this evil?"

"I've admitted that he has to be destroyed, William, but not this way." Defeat gave way to a growing anger in Derek's eyes. "You didn't have to storm my House as though it were some enemy stronghold and you certainly didn't need to put Nick through the torment you did to prove your point. Remember, once he was human just like the rest of us. He turned to the dark only because, in his eyes, all his other choices had been taken from him."

Derek turned his back on his superior and continued silently on his way. He no longer looked quite so beaten. When he had come downstairs to get something to eat, it had been with the intention of taking a tray back upstairs with him and going back to bed. That plan had changed. Perhaps a shower would do more for his headache than more sleep. It was time to take back control of his House from the interlopers who no longer had a valid reason to run affairs here.

~*~

The conclave that governed the Kindred of this city was silent as the lovely young Brujah drew near the end of her tale. The faces around the room had grown tight with anger. So far, the story Sasha had been so agitatedly telling them could have been taken from the trial transcript of any one of the nazi doctors indicted at Nuremberg fifty years ago for human experimentation. The difference, this time, was that the victim was one of their own.

"We have to do something!" Cash growled loudly between clenched teeth as he pounded a fist angrily into the table.

"We will." Julian reached out a cautionary hand to keep his enraged bodyguard in check. "We need a workable plan first. Rushing in will only get Nick and, probably, several others killed. Sonny will be back in a few more hours. We'll act then."

"Do you think we can afford to wait?" Cameron questioned. "I mean, even once the Ventrue primogen returns, he'll need to be brought up to speed and we'll have wasted more time than we can afford. While my clan cares nothing for the fate of one stray Gangrel pup, we have to do something about the hunters. We cannot wait for one clan to finish their latest dalliance with the humans and their affairs."

"He's right Julian." Lillie's eyes were wide with genuine alarm. "We have to move in and wipe these hunters out before they come after the rest of us."

"And if we do?" Julian cocked his head at the two agitators. "If we storm in there and wipe out everyone we find, then what? Do you think the humans won't answer such an open assault?"

Julian slapped an open palm down on the smooth mahogany table for emphasis as he spoke. "This is not an isolated group. The organization these people work for is nearly as widespread as we are, though their numbers aren't so great. They would declare war on us! Even if they didn't reveal us openly to the world, that alone would shatter the Masquerade!"

"I don't see the problem. All we have to do is ensure that the pup doesn't tell them about the rest of us." Cameron could feel his heart beginning to pound with rage. He knew the solution that would be offered if the captive were Brujah and saw no reason the same solution shouldn't be applied here. "The best way to do that is to destroy him ourselves before he talks too much. If the Gangrel can't clean their own kennel, I'm sure my people can do it for them."

"Cash! " Julian barely caught the back of Cash's leather jacket as he lunged. "Sit down!" The angry Ventrue didn't remove his hand until Sasha's arms had safely enfolded and restrained her lover.

"Perhaps it would be a good idea to tell them what you're suggesting." Daedalus advised quietly from his seat between Cash and Cameron, never taking his eyes off the angry young Gangrel primogen. Cameron's dismissal of the childe and goading of that childe's stressed-out sire had been ill advised. Conflicts such as this were why Julian traditionally placed Daedalus where he did at the conclave table. The powerful primogen of the Nosferatu made a good buffer between the younger, warring clans. If there was another physical attack by either party, it wouldn't get very far.

"You have a plan, Julian?" Lillie latched onto the offered hope.

"Yes. I propose we negotiate." He had already decided to discard their original plan of sending Frank and Sonny in to rescue the childe. In light of all they had learned since then, it wouldn't be enough. These were not the sort of people who would just let Nick go, now that they thought they knew what he was. "According to Cash, Nick has said that this Legacy values truth. I say we offer it to them -- truth, rather than the superstitions and assumptions they are obviously leaning on. Perhaps if we show them we're no threat, they will agree to a truce."

"A truce that would shatter the Masquerade." Cameron voiced his irritation as he let his hand drop from beside his face to lightly slap the table for emphasis.

"The Masquerade has already cracked. A war with the humans would break it wide open. All that is being proposed here is a widening of it to encompass and contain the breach that has already occurred." Daedalus placed himself and the strength of his clan behind his prince's bold plan as calmly as he did everything else. The Nosferatu didn't need to raise their voices or flex their muscles to seem strong. The Nosferatu were strong.

"Thank you, Daedalus." Julian's expression softened as he smiled briefly down at Cash and Sasha. "At the very least, I want to try and get Nick out of there. That's the important part. I won't sacrifice one of our own, least of all one who is still a childe, dependent on sire and clan to protect and teach him. The Kindred can abandon this city afterward if we need to. Shall we put it to a vote?"

"I'll do anything it takes, Julian, and so will my clan. You know that." Cash spoke quietly and sincerely. His relationship with the Ventrue prince had come a long way since the night after his sire died when he swore he'd kiss no one's ring. Body and soul, Cash belonged to his prince. If Julian ordered it, he would even take Nick's life, though it would destroy him to do so. Such fierce loyalty, so typical of his clan, was why Julian had recruited the Gangrel in the first place.

"Daedalus?"

"The Nosferatu will support whatever it takes to preserve the Masquerade."

"The pup means nothing to us." Cameron tossed off the casual remark to irritate his counterpart but grew serious when he raised his eyes to meet the glowing ice of his prince's gaze. "However, the prince has our full support in this matter. The Masquerade is important to all."

"If you can stop the hunters without breaking the Masquerade, the Toreador will back whatever you must do, Julian." Lillie responded in her own turn, already going over in her head which of her people to send away now, just to be safe.

"Do I get to vote since Sonny's not here?" Frank asked sarcastically.

"No." The reply was short, dry and final. "I speak for my clan in the absence of its primogen. The Ventrue will back negotiating for the childe and for peace." Julian smiled at the irony of voting to support his own idea.

"Why is this human here?" Cameron demanded in annoyance.

"He's part of the plan I was about to tell you." Julian smiled. They didn't need to know he was making this new plan up as he went along.

Angel Island Sunday afternoon

Dominic hurried to answer the ringing doorbell that had disturbed the stillness. The House was too quiet, despite the many extra people currently in residence and the old servant was glad for something to do. He'd long since completed all his regular tasks and was growing tired of inventing new ones to stay busy. He had been fond of young Master Nick and still had difficulty believing the boy had been an enemy of the Legacy all this time. The muffled screams that had occasionally drifted up from the basement had pierced the old man's soul. The only thing worse was the silence that had gradually descended on the House in the last few hours. Whoever was at the door would be a welcome distraction indeed.

"Detective Frank Kohanek, San Francisco Police." A scruffy looking man with dark hair briefly flashed a badge at the elderly servant as he barged in, followed by an even more alarming looking young man who looked like Nick on the wrong end of a wild weekend off. The snub-nosed biker didn't even bother to identify himself. "I need to speak to whoever's in charge here."

"May I ask what this is about?" Dominic inquired from force of habit while he tried to decide who to direct the gentlemen to. Technically, with the tribunal over, Dr. Rayne was once more in charge but Mr. Sloan was his direct superior and he showed no sign of turning the House back over to its precept. If he had, Dominic was certain whatever had gone on in the basement wouldn't have happened. Dr. Rayne wouldn't have allowed it.

The decision was taken out of the old man's hands as one of the dark suited Guardians stepped forward. "Please, wait here, gentlemen." The stocky blond instructed politely.

Dominic retreated as the Guardian headed toward the library conference room. No less than four of his counterparts had materialized from elsewhere in the House to keep an eye on the new arrivals. There was no place here for an old man.

~*~

Derek Rayne didn't bother to take the seat Sloan waved him to in front of his own desk. What he had to say would probably be best said standing up. "You've done what you felt you needed to, William. Now, I want you and your people out of my House."

"Are you sure you're ready to take it back, Derek?" Sloan sat back in Derek's desk chair and steepled his fingers. "I'm told you won't talk to the counselors who came all this way to help you and your team through this experience."

"The only help any of us need is to be left alone to pick up the pieces." Derek leaned down across the desk to make his point. "Finish this now, William."

For just a moment, William Sloan considered doing as Derek asked. Maybe this really was what the San Francisco House needed to recover from the shocking loss of one of its members to the dark. That had, after all, been the main point of the whole fiasco of a trial they had gone through. Maybe I didn't fail after all.

Derek's eyes were strong and determined. He wanted his House back and didn't look ready to back down, even to the head of the Ruling House. Both men broke eye contact at the same moment when one of the Guardians knocked perfunctorily before entering the room.

"Mr. Sloan? There are two gentlemen out here from the San Francisco police department who would like to speak with whoever's in charge." The messenger very carefully kept his eyes focused noncommittally somewhere between the two powerful men vying for control of this House.

"That would be me." Derek leveled an arctic gaze at his boss, daring Sloan to contradict him, before turning sharply to meet their unexpected visitors.

Sloan rose to follow, concerned as much by the possibility that someone had reported the goings-on of the past few days as he was by Derek retaking control prematurely. It had been a mistake to trust their isolation to hide everything. We should've kept it gagged during the early tests and destroyed it when the verdict was passed! A stray hiker must have heard the creature's screams and called the authorities. That troubled Sloan. The cries hadn't been audible away from the area near the basement door. That was why they'd tried to keep the members of the shattered House away from that area these past few days. Sloan hoped now that Derek could handle this.

~*~

"May I help you, gentlemen?" Derek asked as he descended the front steps. He didn't recognize either man from the Luna Foundation's work with the authorities, but then, Frank Karmack tended to act as liaison in cases that would interest the Legacy. The precept wondered if his friend even knew about this visit.

"If you're in charge here." The scruffy looking, sandy-haired man in biker leathers stepped forward, drawing himself up almost haughtily. Cash knew full well who he was speaking to, but he also knew from what he'd seen over the last few days that Derek Rayne no longer truly had control of his own House. "I bring a message from the Prince of the city."

There was no mistaking the challenge in the young man's eyes, nor the fact that they had taken on an inhuman glow. William Sloan stepped to the railing, instantly recognizing the start of the rescue he had feared, and motioned for his guards to hold their fire but keep the creature covered. He wanted to keep it talking for now and learn as much as he could about the foe they were facing here. "The Kindred in this city are ruled by a prince, then?"

Ignoring his superior, Derek continued down the stairs until he was directly in front of the intruder and raised a cool eyebrow. "What does your prince want with me?"

Cash pulled his gaze back from the sadist on the upper level he had vowed vengeance against. His duty to his prince came first. He had been sent here to arrange a meeting -- not start a war. He would deal with the man in front of him, not the one directing his killers from the illusory safety of the balcony. He had heard a lot about the San Francisco precept from Nick and trusted Derek Rayne to hear him out.

The Gangrel primogen pushed down the pain flaring through him. His bones ached with the nearness of his wounded childe but, for that childe's sake, he had to buy time for Sasha to do what she had promised. "My prince wishes to prevent a war that would destroy both of our peoples and to negotiate for the release of the Kindred you've imprisoned."

With his piece said, Cash stepped back and waited for a response. His hands ached to reach for the gun inside his jacket -- but he didn't. Julian had trusted him to keep his rage in check despite the crimes these people had committed against his clan.

Frank wasn't so calm about the whole situation and couldn't resist pulling his service revolver. "You guys want to back up a bit, here? You're making me nervous and we don't want anyone to get hurt, do we?" He inquired sarcastically.

"That all depends." Sloan replied before Derek could. "Are you really a police officer or are you one of them?"

Frank lowered his gun briefly in exasperation. "Do I look like one of them?" Briefly, he thought of his partner, Sonny, who was both a good cop and primogen of the Ventrue clan but he wasn't about to tell these people about that. "Besides, the two aren't mutually exclusive, you know. I tagged along to get him inside and make sure you didn't throw him in your basement with the other one."

"You said you were here to prevent a war?" Derek calmly retook control of the situation. "How?"

"By showing that we mean no harm to you and that our peoples can coexist in peace." Cash was comforted by the way this man spoke directly to him, focusing on the issue at hand instead of the sparring around him. So far, he was living up to all that Nick had said about him. For the first time, Cash began to have a little real hope that he would be able to save his childe rather than merely avenge him or spend his own life in a futile rescue attempt.

"How? By becoming your servants -- like him?" The ruling precept flicked a careless hand at Frank as he came slowly down the stairs to join the growing crowd in the foyer. Word of their visitor was spreading and Guardians were coming from all over the House to secure the entry.

Derek motioned Rachel and Alex to stay back when they followed their Legacy 'escorts' to the front of the House. He didn't want them in the line of fire if Sloan's gunmen got trigger happy or their unexpected guest proved to be the diversion for an attack force.

"Hey!" Frank spun on his heel and bounded halfway up the stairs to meet Sloan before he could be grabbed by one of the guards. "I am not a servant! I'm a cop and I'm here because you guys are holding a guy in your basement against his will. We're talking unlawful restraint here, just to start with. Let's not even get into the torture thing."

"And you're going to arrest me for it?" Sloan asked in mocking amazement. He was somewhat disturbed by how much this man knew of what had been happening over the last few days but didn't let anything show on his face. He would not surrender that kind of edge to the enemy.

"Frank..." Cash looked up at his companion until the human met his eyes. "This isn't what we're here for."

"No, it's not." Derek seconded the young Kindred now beside him and reached out to guide him into the front room. "I'd like to hear more about this prince of yours and his proposed meeting."

The vision hit when Derek touched the worn leather at the messenger's elbow. // Nick, laughing happily as he challenged Cash to a race on their motorcycles. The two of them playing baseball in the moonlight and trying to playfully drown each other in the creek beneath an old railroad trestle. Nick, cradled in the other man's arms as he pulled Cash's wrist close and nursed from it while the older Kindred kept watch and gently, almost distractedly, stroked Nick's hair. //

Derek dropped his hand and shook his head slightly to clear the vision from his mind. The tenderness had been the giveaway. This was the Kindred who had been there when he hadn't and had embraced Nick, bringing him into the darkness. Derek struggled to control the emotions surging through him. All that they had gone through -- all that Nick had gone through -- was because of this creature.

The precept rounded on the startled primogen, swinging the fierce left hook Sloan had feared. "It was you, wasn't it? You were the one who took him from us!"

"Took him?" Cash slowly wiped the blood off his lip and licked the cut closed as he got to his feet. "I gave him back to you!" The Gangrel let his own grief and rage show for the first time. "When I found him, he was alone and dying. I gave him life and I gave him back to you! And now -- look what you've done!"

The red tears coming from the creature's eyes were impossible to ignore. The feeling behind them was too real. Derek had to harden his heart against the pain he saw there. He had enough of his own pain to deal with and it was this man's fault. As the young Kindred turned back toward the foyer, Derek wasn't even aware of the change in his own perceptions from viewing Cash as a creature to viewing him as a man who was suffering every bit as much as he himself was suffering. The depth of humanity in those eyes had made his previous view impossible to hold on to. It was just going to take the precept a while to realize that fact.

"I can't do this." Cash choked the words out past the tears and the tightly clenched teeth holding back his pain. He looked pleadingly at Frank as he pushed his way toward the door, ignoring the deadly phosphorus guns trained on him. "You have to make the arrangements. I'll meet you at the ferry."

The swift transformation, as the young man became a long-legged, tawny wolf, shocked everyone except his companion, who quickly went to open the front doors. It would be bad if Cash had to break a window to get out and worse if these idiots shot the prince's bodyguard.

Frank turned back to the armed -- and highly alarmed -- people surrounding him. "Show's over! Shall we get down to business, gentlemen?"

"What makes you think we have any business to discuss?" Sloan stepped forward to take back the reins. Derek had obviously seen some sort of vision when he'd touched the creature and was just as obviously having a hard time coping with whatever he'd seen. He quickly motioned for two of the Guardians nearest the door to go after the fleeing wolf.

"Oh, I think you do." Frank reassured him as he stood his ground and pretended to be braver than he felt, surrounded by so many weapons in the hands of people he knew were fanatics. This jackass thought he was the toughest guy in the world. Frank Kohanek knew better. "Trust me. You don't want a war with these guys."

"Fine. We're listening." Derek rallied and dared Sloan with his eyes to say otherwise. He had noticed when William attempted to take control back from him and hadn't liked it one bit. He'd listen to what this man had to say and he'd meet with this Kindred prince. At worst, he would learn more about the enemy who shared his city.

~*~

William Sloan caught Derek's arm and pulled him aside as soon as the police detective had left. "I hope you know what you're doing, Derek. You know what happens to people who dance with the dark."

"I know, William, but I also want to know exactly what we're up against here." Derek very deliberately removed his arm from his boss' grasp and turned to go upstairs to the control room. He had a lot of research to do to prepare for tomorrow.

For just a moment, he paused near the basement door. He'd wanted so badly to see Nick after the verdict -- to apologize for failing him, both now and five years ago -- but he had stopped himself. It had been hard enough to accept the facts and admit that Nick had to be destroyed. Seeing him now would be more than Derek could bear.

He wished they would just finish it, so that his House could somehow pull itself together and move on, but Nick's continued survival had been one condition that the Kindred wouldn't budge on. Without Nick, there would be no negotiation, only bloodshed and so the suffering would be dragged out. Briefly, Derek considered ordering a stop to the brutal experimentation he knew was going on but that hadn't been one of the conditions the Kindred demanded be met. The precept found himself regretting the oversight and turned away. He couldn't see Nick now -- not when his heart still ached for all that had been lost.

Derek continued on his way with a bitter laugh. It wasn't as if they would really come to an agreement with the Dark. Like the tests being conducted in the basement, this meeting was a fact-finding mission -- after which, the sentence would be carried out as planned. This was only a way to gain more information to use against this 'prince' and his people. Right now, he needed to get to the control room and see what Rachel and Alex could dig up. It was time for his House to get back to work!

~*~

"Sasha! Over here." Cash waved his arm in the air so that the small Brujah could spot them. He and Frank had retreated to a less crowded portion of the passenger ferry waiting area so that they could talk. It was dangerous being off to the side where Legacy operatives could easily spot them but they needed to talk and didn't dare allow outsiders to overhear this conversation.

"Why didn't you guys stall longer?" Sasha hissed as she joined them, her dark eyes snapping in anger. "I wasn't able to get nearly enough down him to really make much difference and I almost got caught. There was still blood on his lips when those creeps came back down the stairs. What are we going to do if they notice it?"

"Nothing. He's starving, Sasha, he probably licked it off before they got to the bottom of the stairs." Cash looked down, ashamed of how easily he'd been driven from the hellhole that had consumed his childe. "How bad off is he?"

"He's dying, Cash. I don't know if he can last much longer." The Brujah tried to put her arms around her lover's shoulders to offer comfort, here, away from the eyes of their warring clans, but he pulled away angrily.

"He doesn't have to last much longer." Frank put in to try and lessen the tension a little bit. "I set the meet for tomorrow morning, about eleven."

"In the middle of the day?! Are you crazy?!" Cash rounded angrily on the human.

"You guys go out in daylight. We're out in it right now." Frank shrugged, raising both hands to gesture skyward at the clear blue ceiling of the world. "What's the problem?"

"The problem, you idiot, is that we're weakest then. I can feel the sun burning my skin even now, after what little blood I was able to spare for him." Neither listener had to be told what 'him' Sasha was talking about. Nick Boyle had been the whole purpose of this dangerous adventure. "If they try to double-cross us, they'll have an advantage. None of us can afford to get shot and be bleeding under a full sun so far from home, with hours to go until darkness falls." Sasha whirled angrily away from both of the pigheaded males that had bungled the whole affair and stomped off to board the newly arrived boat. This wouldn't have happened if Uncle Julian had trusted her to negotiate with the Legacy people. At least between her reconnaissance and Cash's earlier probes, they had the layout of the place down if they needed to launch an all out rescue.

Monday morning

Katherine Corrigan looked over her shoulder to make sure her teacher wasn't watching the small knot of girls by the rail of the passenger ferry. Miss Garret was busy getting one of the boys down from the top rail. Kat flashed a brief smile at Charlie Michaels, glad he'd kept his promise to distract the teacher for them. He was usually in trouble anyway, but this time, Kat felt she owed him. Maybe she'd accept his invitation to go with him to next month's sixth grade dance after all.

"Now, remember," Kat got serious and turned back to her small circle of girlfriends, "when we get to China Cove, you guys have to hang out up on the porch of the old hospital building so that Miss Garret can see you and not worry. While she's keeping track of Charlie and the others at the beach, I'll slip around back. Stay huddled really close together so she can't tell exactly who's there or how many of you there are. You can't tell anybody where I'm going either, okay?"

"They're gonna guess." Amy whined. "Your Mom works at the Luna Foundation. That's the first place they'll look for you."

"Du-uh. I just need a little bit of time. Once I'm there, it should be fine." Kat quickly went to grab her book bag from the bench she'd left it on as the loudspeaker announced that they would be docking at Ayala Cove soon.

~*~

"Well?" Sloan demanded of the operative who finally reported to him at about nine-thirty that morning at the empty building they'd commandeered as a command post. The spot, halfway between the isolated waterfront building where the meeting was to be held and the road above, provided what the ruling precept considered the best vantage point in the complex tangle of half-ruined buildings that comprised the old fort.

"There's no sign of anyone, sir. I think we can cover all the approaches if we only leave two men up at the House."

"Don't think. Do." Sloan's eyes were hard and cold as he thought about the problem confronting them. "Pull all your men down here and make sure everyone is armed with phosphorus weapons. Let the lab technicians worry about the House. It has defenses built into it that we don't."

Sloan watched until the Guardian had gone back down the hill, already talking on his cell phone to summon the required support. Other eyes also watched. Sonny, the newly returned primogen of the Ventrue clan stood silently, hidden in the shadows, while the old man Cash hated so deeply checked his weapon. He didn't worry about the muscle that had just left. There had been Ventrue gunmen secreted around Fort McDowell since last night. No matter where the humans went, they would be observed. Should they be planning a double-cross, this man would be the first to fall.

~*~

Once they reached the old immigration center that was the first stop of the day's field trip, everything went according to plan. Kat was able to slip, unseen, up the bank to the road that led past Fort McDowell to the Legacy House looming over Blunt Point.

On the empty street that bisected the upper part of the old military base, Kat paused. She could feel someone watching her. "Hello? Is somebody there? I'm not afraid, you know, so you may as well come out." From any other child, the words would have been bravado to keep her fears at bay. From this one, it was the simple truth. Kat wasn't afraid. She could sense that whatever was watching her meant her no harm.

The Ventrue concealed on the broken third floor of the old barracks building smiled but didn't answer. Billy was impressed that she had sensed his eyes on her when the human gunmen who had passed through earlier had not. He could tell that the child wasn't afraid but she wasn't his concern, not unless she tried to move lower down, into the area where the planned confrontation would occur. Kindred law forbade allowing such a young one to come to harm because of them. He turned, instead, back to the unimpeded view of the empty fort below.

From the vantage of this floor without stairs, he could see no less than three of the ill-concealed humans and, if need be, he could take all three out. His only fear was that he wouldn't be able to take them all down before one of them wounded his prince. Even pooling all the blood the ten Kindred here today could spare might not be enough to save the most important of their number from the burning sun that would soon be riding high above them.

~*~

"You're too close to this, Derek. Please, just consider going back to the House to wait with Alex and Rachel. None of you need to go through this." Sloan cautioned again.

He and the San Francisco precept had been at odds ever since the emissaries from the Kindred Prince had left yesterday and they were no closer to agreement on the matter. In fact, the ruling precept was having increasingly serious doubts about Derek's ability to retake command of his own House. Negotiating with the Dark was never a good sign in this line of work and was entirely out of character for this particular precept. "Remember what happened yesterday, when you were going to handle things?"

"I don't care what happened yesterday! This is still my House, William, unless you have plans to relieve me of my position here." Derek Rayne glared at his former friend. The events of the past few days had very much destroyed whatever bond had still remained between them. All that was left was anger and a vague fear that Sloan did, indeed, plan to replace him here for his failure to detect the taint that had infected his House for so long.

For his own part, William Sloan felt a slight stab of fear. He knew he'd lost Derek's friendship, but everything he'd done had been geared toward retaining this House and its gifted precept for the Legacy. Derek, with his talents, was far too valuable a resource to waste but he had already proven that it was too soon for him to take back control in this situation. The wound had been too deep, too painful -- and the creatures they were about to meet with were to blame.

Before Sloan could think of a response that wouldn't send Derek away from this place forever in his rage, there was a vague commotion as the guard near the west door backed away from the shadows looming there, silhouetted against the sunlight.

Julian Luna stepped into the opening and paused briefly so that his bodyguard could shoulder past and take up his customary position, slightly in front of the prince to deter all threats.

"Julian Luna." Derek stepped forward before Sloan could react to his effortless identification of their enemy. He had recognized the man immediately from the charity social functions they had both attended in the past, even though they had never formally met before. Derek did remember having the man pointed out to him by associates eager to relay the latest gossip about the man's supposed underworld ties. He wished now that he had listened instead of excusing himself from what he'd assumed to be merely the sordid gossip of someone with not enough of their own business to mind.

"I'm Derek Rayne, precept of this Legacy House. What do you want from us?"

Derek eyed the newcomer, sizing him up. The snappily dressed Kindred in the fifteen hundred dollar suit was nearly his own height but a much more slender build, with dark hair and dark, mis-matched eyes. He looked more like some Hollywood casting director's idea of a Mafia Don than a master vampire. The eyes, however, revealed a shrewd intelligence that would be something to watch out for. The pair that had come to the castle yesterday were mere muscle. They would do whatever this man told them to. The girl, with the delicate, heart-shaped face and dark, angry eyes he wasn't so sure of. She must be the young woman the Guardians had mentioned seeing join the two visitors at the ferry.

Julian allowed a slight, cynical smile to cross his lips and gently gestured Cash to silence at his swift, disbelieving exclamation. That was all it took to halt the slight movement the Gangrel had made to turn his back on these men and leave. "To be left in peace. We're not the monsters you think we are. We take lives only when we have to. That is a part of our law. No human is to be harmed."

"We don't want a war with you!" Cash burst out from beside his prince. "All we want is to take Nick out of this place and then we're gone!"

"Cash!" The sharp command raised more eyebrows around the room than only Derek's. Julian rounded on the younger Kindred, his voice suddenly mild and controlled, and bore down with his eyes. "Wait outside until we're finished here, please."

"But --" The rough-edged biker looked around him for support but neither the police detective nor his own girlfriend came to his defense. The two human guards had tightened their grips on the deadly phosphorous guns they carried. His childe's precept was simply standing there with the infuriatingly inquiring look on his face that Nick had so often described to him. The gray-haired sadist who had instigated all of this was smirking slightly from somewhat behind the Dutch precept at what he believed to be a safe distance. His mouth closing with a snap, Cash turned away and stepped into the blazing sun.

Sloan stepped closer once the infuriated creature with the icy eyes had left. "But you do harm humans. How else would you describe what was done to Nicholas Boyle? You took a promising young man with his whole life ahead of him and you killed him -- made him into some sort of creature that has to kill others to survive." The human pressed his point mercilessly, ignoring the anger in the eyes of his inhuman adversaries and their lackey. "In fact, you have to kill to feed your appetite for blood, don't you?"

Julian deliberately relaxed his stance and adopted an air of almost nonchalance. "Nick was dying when Cash embraced him. This was done with his full knowledge of what would happen and he consented to it. That is free will, not murder."

"And we don't have to kill." The fiery, dark-haired beauty standing silently behind the prince spoke for the first time, in scathing denial of the unfounded accusations against the uncle she loved. "We only take what we need and that's not very much!"

"Sasha?" Julian spoke more calmly than he felt. He knew bringing Sasha had been a bad idea but, at the time, it had seemed easier than convincing her to stay behind. "Why don't you go check on Cash and see how he's doing?" He looked back up at the Legacy men and sighed. It was ironic that he was now left with only a human, who not so long ago had been his enemy, standing at his side to face down this new threat to his people. "This has been hard on Cash. As you guessed, he is Nick's sire and we love our children just as much as you love yours. If nothing else, we would like to have him back and then, as Cash said, we'll leave this city. You'll have won."

"I think you've mistaken the battle." Sloan commented just as casually. "We won't be finished until your kind are wiped out and can no longer prey on innocent people, desperate for some hope. You want to use Nick as an example? Take a look at all the new treatments they have for AIDS. He might still be alive, and healthy, today if you hadn't taken that opportunity away from him."

"That's not something that could be offered to him back then, though, was it?" Unlike the others, Frank spoke quietly, not making any attempt to escalate things. He simply, quietly, stepped closer to the prince to take up Cash's usual position. For this, Julian flashed a grateful look his way.

"This argument is getting us nowhere. Where is the childe? His safety was a condition of this meeting and, as I recall, he was supposed to be here." Julian leveled his gaze straight at the man who kept trying to turn the summit into a battlefield. This was the one who would try and tear it all apart and, therefore, the one he had to focus on.

"Out of the question. He knows too much about our organization." William Sloan's attitude was as high-handed as though he were in his own boardroom dictating to a junior secretary favor rather than negotiating with a hostile force on the opposite side of the world. "You've lost your spy, and your edge, and now you're just going to have to face us without all this subterfuge."

Derek's brows shot upward in amazement. William didn't seem to have any idea how ludicrous such a statement was, coming from him, after all the games he'd played over the last few days. The tall Dutchman settled back to observe the situation as it unfolded.

~*~

Kat slipped softly past the doors to the front parlor where two strange men were sitting, nervously fingering the unfamiliar guns in their laps, watching her mom and Alex while the two women sat staring at the floor. The unnatural tension permeating the old House had struck her senses as soon as she'd slipped in through the kitchen door. The girl was glad Nick had made her memorize the security code, just in case, because the castle was completely locked down for the first time since she and her mother had become part of this strange world.

She'd had a feeling all weekend that something was wrong but hadn't been able to pin it down or get hold of her mom at her convention. It was pretty obvious now why. Mom had been here and something was very wrong. The little girl brushed her long brown hair out of her face and let herself grow quiet inside. She hadn't seen any of the men in the front room before and she really wanted to find Nick! For reasons she couldn't pin down, Kat was sure that something terrible had happened to him.

Letting the part of her spirit that had sent her on this adventure guide her, Kat stepped forward, walking through the front of the House at random. In only a few steps, she was staring at the narrow door to the basement. Very quietly, with a fast look over her shoulder to make sure no one had heard, she turned the knob and crept down the old stairs. Kat had scarcely entered the vast room before she caught sight of her adult playmate and, for just a second, the little girl froze.

A monster was bent over her friend. The bald, slightly misshapen creature was standing beside a steel table at the far end of the room, preparing to lift a blanket-wrapped Nick into his arms. Looking into the monster's eyes, Kat realized her mistake and moved closer until she was standing right next to him. Whatever this man appeared to be, he was a gentle soul and there was something about him that felt a lot like whatever set Nick so much apart from the other grownups in the little girl's life.

Kat picked up one of the heavy straps that hung broken from the table to avoid looking at the burned and bloody mask that was her friend's face. This was the horror she had blocked out of her dreams. The point where she had forced herself to wake, knowing only that he needed her. "What happened? Why did they hurt Nick?" Her voice dropped to nearly a whisper.

The young girl hadn't gathered the courage yet to ask what she really wanted to know -- whether her friend was going to live or not. If anyone could help him, it would be this man. The young psychic drew an unexpected comfort and strength from the 'monster' who cradled her friend.

"I don't know, Child." Daedalus looked the little girl over and answered her frankly. This was not an ignorant child. She plainly had some idea of what she was facing and it didn't matter to her. All that mattered was her friend's safety. Such courage and loyalty deserved the highest respect and his complete honesty. "Perhaps they were afraid."

"I don't understand. He's like you... sort of, anyway. Nick feels somehow -- I don't know -- wilder and kind of lost but he isn't scary. What would they be afraid of? Where's Derek? He wouldn't have let this happen." Derek loved Nick as much as he loved her or Mom or Alex, this much Kat was sure of.

"He's with my prince now, trying to sort this all out. Shall we go and ask him your questions?" Daedalus inclined his head gravely. Julian would object to involving a child, but she had really involved herself and could be a help in what was to come. She seemed to have more sense than the adults around her and had somehow sensed something of what Nick was, even to recognizing the difference between their two clans. That, alone, was reason enough to bring her to the prince's attention. "I have to take your friend out of here, now. He needs to be cared for if he is to live."

"If you take care of him, he'll be all right, won't he?" Kat looked worriedly up at her new friend as they traversed the dark passageway the Nosferatu had used to enter the basement. She already knew this wasn't something her mom could help with. Kat could feel a depth of knowledge and caring in this man that she had never encountered before -- and she was drawn to those depths. She trusted him with both their lives and always would, even if she never saw him again.

"I don't know but I have to try. We all owe him that much." Daedalus glanced briefly at the blanket-wrapped bundle and tweaked an edge to make sure the pale face was fully covered before they emerged into the bright day. "Tell me, child, how did you happen to find out your friend was different from the other people in this place?"

"I always knew." Kat's brow wrinkled as she thought hard about just what had been different about Nick. "It's hard to find words for it -- but he just felt different from the other grownups."

Daedalus smiled gently to reassure the girl and stopped her briefly. "Before we leave this passage, I need you to do something for your friend. You must walk beside us and, if you see the blanket slip at all, I want you to cover him at once. The sun is our enemy right now, I'm afraid."

Kat nodded her acceptance and checked the heavy wrappings carefully. She had noticed that Nick didn't like to go outside when he was tired and the sun was really bright out. He always claimed either that it hurt his eyes or that he burned really easily, even though Kat had never seen him with an actual sunburn before.

~*~

In the end, it was Derek, not Sloan, who shattered the summit meeting. The pressure had built steadily within him ever since the ragged bodyguard who had stolen Nick's life away from him slipped back into the room and retook his place at his master's shoulder. The images just wouldn't stop coming to him. Images of Nick playing in these very ruins as a child until someone from the Legacy House came to get him.

When he was older, Nick had come down here to run sometimes when he accompanied his father to the island. Derek could remember the young teenager huffing and puffing for breath after a long run while chattering about staying in shape for the playoff game his junior high baseball team was gearing up for. The pictures that hurt the most, though, were the recent ones. The ones that had been proven a lie.

The boy he had seen all too little of as a child had never been allowed to truly grow into an adult. Nick had still been a boy when he joined the Navy and, in Derek's opinion, hadn't really been an adult yet even when he got out. The young man he'd so enjoyed having in his class had just begun to show the glimmerings of the mature adult he would one day become. The person Derek had worked with for the past five years, and grown to love as a son, had been a lie.

He would never forgive William for revealing that lie to him. The ruling precept had proven Nick had been taken long ago by the very evil they had fought against their entire lives. That hadn't made it any easier to stand aside when he was hauled away by the Guardians, burnt and bleeding, after being condemned to death by the very people he had served so long. Despite Sloan's precautions, Derek had heard the muffled cries from his own basement. The anguish of the condemned creature had penetrated his dreams -- and the cause of all that pain was slouching insolently by the window, glaring at them as though they were to blame for this!

"I don't think you quite understand the situation here." Sloan sneered at the seemingly young man standing so coolly across the room from him. "We could simply expose your kind for what you really are. People will be on their guard against you. Some will form mobs and burn you out of your lairs. The game would be over. You'd be eradicated like the disease you are."

"No." Only the spark of anger kindling the dark eyes revealed how close the Kindred prince was to losing his temper with this man after spending so long listening to his petty threats. He wanted to be done with this. "I think it's you who doesn't understand. As I'm sure Dr. Rayne could tell you, I own one of the largest newspapers in the city."

"Go ahead and tell anyone who will listen to you about the monsters among you. I'll even publish your story for my readers. How do you think it will look to them?" A hint of spite crept into the sharp, biting tones of the prince as Luna continued. "A group of stuffy academics, steeped in the occult, accusing local businesspeople of being some sort of creatures of the night feeding off their city? You and your fanatics will be discredited in every paper in the city as raving lunatics. From there it will spread. Have you ever heard of the power of the Associated Press, Mr. Sloan?"

"We don't need the press to defeat your kind." Sloan bluffed as his mind raced for a way to recover the ground he'd just lost to this clever foe. The Legacy couldn't afford to become a movie of the week. "The best way to slay a monster was always to remove its head."

Both the human police detective and the Kindred ruffian who had accompanied Luna to the meeting stepped forward to place themselves between Julian and the Legacy gunmen who had shifted their positions to support their boss's far from subtle threat.

"Stop it! " Derek stepped forward explosively from the position he'd subsided to, somewhat removed from the center of the negotiations, before William could get them all killed. This was neither the time nor the place for this battle. This so-called summit meeting was nothing but a farce and he was getting tired of it.

"I have heard enough of this petty bickering! Nick was rightfully convicted of becoming an agent of evil working against the Legacy. No threat will prevent me from hunting those who took advantage of him and turned him to the very evil his family has fought against for centuries. And as for you," he whirled, now, on William Sloan, "you, William, enjoyed doing this, being the big hero, sweeping in to rescue us from our own blindness. For that, I will never forgive you!"

"What if he weren't evil?" A deep, strange voice asked from the heavy shadows near the eastward facing windows. "Would that overturn your rightful conviction?"

An imposing figure stepped out of the shadows with a large, blanket-wrapped burden in his arms. This creature looked more like what the San Francisco precept had always thought a vampire would be. He was hairless and appeared vaguely feral. The slightly pointed ears enhanced the impression of a cunning, yet strangely civilized beast.

"Could anything he's done possibly be more evil than what's been done to him?" Without waiting for a response, Daedalus lowered his burden to the floor, in a sunless spot midway between the opposing forces, and pulled the blanket back.

A low moan sounded as Cash came forward and dropped to his knees beside his childe. He reached out to lightly touch the bruised jaw, not daring to touch the bloody eyelids, and swept his hand downward as all eyes followed. Nick's torso was a mottled ruin of bruises, lacerations from all the tissue samples the doctors had cut from his body, and ugly, oozing burns where they had tested his resistance to fire and light.

The body never stirred. It was only the worry on the faces of the Kindred that told the humans that the still form hadn't passed beyond their reach. The Gangrel primogen quickly tore open his wrist with his teeth and moved to offer the life-giving blood to his only childe.

"No." The primogen of the Nosferatu clan enforced the command with the strength in his ancient hands as he reached forward and caught Cash's wrist, licking the wound closed, before he could lower it to Nick's pale lips. "His need is too great. If you try to feed him here and now, the sun will destroy you both before any of us can help -- provided he doesn't simply drain you dry in his frenzy to feed. Your clan cannot afford to lose another primogen so soon."

"Will the childe survive long enough to reach the mainland and help?" Julian asked quietly, stepping to the window to signal his guards. He hadn't realized how bad off Nick would be and knew they would have to act quickly and ruthlessly to escape this place and the fanatics who had done this.

"No." The ancient Nosferatu made no attempt to soften his pronouncement. Let the humans see the evil they had done in the name of righteousness. They wouldn't have long to look once the grief-maddened primogen at his feet had marshaled his clan to exact vengeance. He only hoped he wouldn't have to destroy Cash before these monsters had been punished for the horror they had created in their basement torture chamber.

"What did you do to him?" Derek's voice was thin and strained. No one but Sloan had paid any attention when the San Francisco precept came forward to kneel opposite the Gangrel he'd professed such hatred for. What he saw before him now was far worse than anything he had imagined -- or would have allowed, had he bothered to find out what was being done beneath his roof in the name of the Legacy. Derek's horror-stricken eyes were on his former friend, demanding answers. "This is torture, William, not justice. This was never supposed to be."

"Was it ever justice?" Daedalus asked quietly, reaching a hand behind him to comfort the human child he could feel clinging to the back of his coat. "What did this childe do to deserve destruction? He's never hunted, never drank human blood -- much less killed for it. All he's done is whatever you asked of him."

"Loyalty is a trait of his clan. Once a Gangrel has given his loyalty to you, you have it forever, without reservation -- whether you are worthy of it or not. You'd know this if you actually knew anything about us." Now that the stand-off had been broken, Julian came forward to lay a comforting hand on his bodyguard's trembling shoulder, the tight grip conveying that he wasn't alone and helping Cash cling to his sanity.

"Your kind wouldn't know the meaning of loyalty." William Sloan spoke bitterly, watching one of his oldest remaining friends kneeling in the middle of the floor surrounded by creatures of the night -- staring at him with accusing eyes. Derek was lost to them and, without him, there would be no way to salvage this House. The battle had been truly lost. What was important now was to get out of here with his remaining troops intact.

That was more than they'd been able to do in New York when they went in to clean out the nest Charles Bannion had left behind. Sloan hadn't been the ruling precept back then and had been part of the team sent to see what could be salvaged. They'd lost the entire House that time. Five members of the salvage team had died at the hands of the three humans who had been all that remained of the New York House once the undead had been disposed of. Five lives wasted because he hadn't been willing to face the notion that the people they'd 'rescued' were beyond redemption.

The New York House, like the San Francisco House, had been like a family. Not all those that remained had been evil. They had simply sought to protect, and later to avenge, the ones they loved regardless of what those loved ones had become. Writing off those people had been the hardest thing William Sloan had ever done. Until now.

The ruling precept stepped closer to the sheltering walls and signaled his watching Guardians that it was time for the planned finale he'd told no one else about. First, though, he had to give Derek one last chance to see what was happening here and renounce this insane compromise he'd gotten them into when he agreed to hear out the dark prince's emissary. He had to confirm what side of the fence his old schoolmate fell on before he condemned Derek to die along with the monsters surrounding him. "Move away from them, Derek. It's time to end this."

"Yes, it is." Julian Luna's eyes were glowing with his own anger as his Ventrue quickly melted from the shadows and, disarming their adversaries, dragged them from the building before they could become violent.

"Nick's not evil." The small voice startled everyone into looking at the young girl slipping from behind the Nosferatu.

"Kat." Derek reached out, stunned, to pull her into his arms. "What are you doing here?"

"Yes, Daedalus, what is she doing here?" Julian demanded, concerned by the child's presence. This was very close to being a breach of Kindred law.

"Don't be mad at him." Kat looked up from stroking Nick's bloody cheek. "I came looking for Nick while he was down in the basement and I helped make sure he didn't get burned by the sun on the walk here."

"She knows us." Daedalus replied simply. "She has always known what her friend was and loved him anyway."

"Why did you let them do this?" Kat pushed down the tears that had started to well up inside her when she understood that Derek had allowed this to happen. She pulled back a little to angrily confront the man who had so often been such a patient teacher since their first meeting in Ireland.

"Kat, I didn't know. I swear to you, if I could fix this, I would." Derek started to stand up to pull Kat away from the danger that surrounded them -- and from the sight of the young man lying broken and bloody on the concrete floor.

"Good, because right now, you're the only one who can fix this." The bitterly beautiful young woman who had knelt beside Nick's sire spoke as if in challenge and, to everyone's surprise, Derek took up that challenge.

"How?" Was all he asked.

"You're human. You can give him enough of your blood to survive and begin to heal without burning in the sun the way we would if we tried that." Sasha challenged both of the leaders with her eyes as she made the suggestion.

"I'll help." Kat innocently volunteered.

"You are too little, child. There isn't enough blood in you to spare what he needs." Daedalus reached out to gently stroke the girl's long, brown hair. "It must be an adult."

"What do I do?" Derek asked as he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt. /P>

"You have to open the vein. He's too weak to do it himself." Cash hardly dared to believe the way out that was being offered and sat back slightly on his heels to stare at the human.

In the background, William Sloan found a large hand clamped solidly over his mouth as he tried to protest. Somehow, looking at the two Kindred bracketing him, he didn't think resistance would be a very good idea just now.

"Out of the question." Julian's decision was immediate and, as far as he was concerned, final. "If he could drain his own sire before he realizes what he's doing, he could easily kill a human."

"Not necessarily." The Nosferatu hastened defensively to explain. "There are enough of us here to stop him after only a small amount -- enough to sustain him until nightfall when we can do more but not enough to seriously harm the human."

"I could probably spare a couple pints, too, if it would help." Frank chipped in, not quite believing what he was offering to do. He just knew that, now that he'd seen how badly the young Kindred had suffered, he had to do something to try and help the poor guy.

"Weak as he is, he could frenzy at the first taste of human blood." Julian knew when he was outnumbered and wasn't willing to argue with his people in front of outsiders, but he had to be sure they understood the risk. It wasn't that Julian wanted the childe to die, he just wanted to be sure those who were now offering their life's blood were aware of the price they could pay for their kindness. He wasn't really worried about Frank. The detective had been in their world long enough to know what he was doing. This Legacy man knew only the half-truths and gross exaggerations perpetuated about his kind through the centuries. "Are you willing to take that risk for a creature you were ready to destroy not so very long ago?"

For his answer, Derek Rayne simply bared his wrist and presented it to the ragged young man he'd wanted to kill only yesterday. His steady gaze never left the Kindred prince as the bodyguard slashed his wrist open and guided it to Nick's closed mouth. Only a slight flinch at the deep gash and a sharp gasp as Nick latched on and began to draw weakly on the wrist betrayed how much the process hurt.

In less than a minute, Derek's vision began to swim. He could feel the life being drawn out of him and yet, he didn't regret his choice. This was right. Despite all he believed, this was the only right thing that had happened since the man he used to call his friend had burst into the library and begun the chain of events that had brought them all to this dirty room and the tragedy it might be too late to prevent.

~*~

11-23-98 ~ I'm not certain what I expected to happen when I offered myself to save Nick. I only knew that I needed to, in some way, atone for the injustice I allowed to be carried out in this House. This was Nick's home just as much as it has been mine. He didn't deserve to have the security of that home ripped away from him while those who called themselves his family stood by and did nothing. Any betrayal was on our part, not his, and for that, we must all hope for his forgiveness. Thanks to the perseverance and caring of creatures I would have sworn were incapable of such emotions, we will have the opportunity to ask for that forgiveness. Nick will survive, though the Kindred are plainly still concerned.
The primogens, leaders of their clans, have met with Sloan and, via a satellite link, with the other members of the Legacy Council. For now, they have declared a truce, during which evidence will be presented to determine whether or not these creatures are truly evil, as those were the grounds on which Nick was convicted. This process will, in all likelihood, take years. During that time, all of the Legacy records will be sealed to prevent possible crusades by individual Houses not content to wait for the decision of the council. Such events have occurred in the past to the detriment of us all. Open warfare with the Kindred would destroy us both.
After all that has happened here, we must tread lightly. The Kindred are understandably reluctant to be studied after what was done to Nick. Dr. Goddard, who I believe brought the accusation against Nick based on their earlier encounter, has been advised to leave the area. The Kindred prince has warned us that some of the younger Kindred can be hasty about such things and all of the Gangrel are apparently both quite young and quite angry at what was done to their primogen's only offspring.
They consider the individuals they embrace to be their children in every respect. I find myself almost jealous of the boy upstairs watching over Nick. I never realized how flattered I was when Nick first began looking to me as a kind of father figure. I fancied that I could undo some of the terrible emotional damage he suffered at the hands of his real father. It was easy to take Jonathan's place in Nick's heart, but I know now that I could never take the place of his sire. The term is animalistic but conveys perfectly the strength of the bond the Kindred share with their young.
Somehow, I must learn to work with Cash despite our initial bad start. Nick's sentence has merely been suspended, not overturned. Until the verdict on the true nature of these beings is finalized, he is to remain in my custody.
The council plainly intended for him to be kept almost as a hostage during these proceedings but I could not allow this. To my surprise, I found myself siding more and more with the Kindred against my own people. Despite what William says, I do not believe this is a step toward the dark. Instead, I choose to look at it as a step toward greater understanding and tolerance for the differences. Together, we obtained permission for Nick to continue as a kind of probationary operative of this House, letting his actions reveal the true nature of his heart -- if he still wants to remain here, that is. It was a difficult struggle but he will be given the chance to choose. He can remain with the Legacy, or return to his people. We won't know his decision until he wakes up.
I am told that the combination of his injuries and the extended time with no nourishment make a swift recovery unlikely. It's strange, I never thought of vampires needing medical care when injured, but the leader of the Nosferatu administered some sort of potion intended to aid Nick in his recovery. If the Gangrel are the youngest clan, I think the Nosferatu must be the oldest. Though I have only seen the one, that one seems to be a mixture of priest, healer and sorcerer. Despite his aloofness, I believe he has a kind heart. In his place, I would not have shown to my enemies the restraint and caring he displayed toward me.
By the time I was pulled back from Nick, I was nearly unconscious from blood loss. The Nosferatu primogen, Daedalus, in token of the peace they hoped to create, gave me some sort of elixir to counter the effects. I must confess to still being tired, though it saw me through the meeting that temporarily decided Nick's fate. All I can do for now is get some rest so that I will be equal to the task of coping with the mixed emotions that fill my House. ~

Derek stretched as he rose from the desk in the corner of his bedroom and flipped the cover of his journal closed. He lightly rubbed the inside of his wrist, staring at it, a bit amazed by the already fading mark where his blood had been drawn out by the hungry vampire who he could once more admit to loving like a son. The wound had closed before his very eyes with only a simple swipe of Julian Luna's tongue.

The precept laughed lightly, a bit giddy feeling from the blood loss, as he turned out his light and settled down beneath the thick comforters. His House was overrun with former friends whom he now considered enemies and creatures of the night he'd once have destroyed without hesitation, but he would sleep better tonight than he had since this entire fiasco began. Life in the Legacy was strange, indeed.

~*~

Rachel Corrigan gently turned Nick's head on his pillow so she could see his other eye. Like the first one, it was already showing signs of healing from the barbaric tests Goddard had conducted and the swelling around his jaw had lessened considerably. That healing was the only indication she could see that the body on the bed had any life in it at all. Nick wasn't breathing and had no heartbeat. According to the young primogen slumped in the armchair, this was normal for a sleeping Kindred but it still weirded her out.

Cash reminded her so much of Nick in the way he sprawled out in the heavy old chair, watching over his childe and waiting to be needed for something. Or was it Nick who reminded her of his sire? How many of the traits they treasured in Nick had been inherited not from his biological parents but from Cash?

Rachel's eyes grew thoughtful as she stared at the man who seemed far too young for the responsibilities he carried. He looked about the same age as his sleeping childe, though, for all Rachel knew, the exhaustion showing in every line of his body could be from the weight of centuries rather than from a heavy burden assumed too soon.

"Mommy?" Kat sleepily opened her eyes, interrupting Rachel's introspection, and instinctively tightened her arm over Nick's chest.

"Right here, Kitten." Rachel smiled at her daughter and pulled the blanket a little closer around the two. "I was just checking on Nick. Go on back to sleep, now."

Kat had refused to leave Nick while the grownups argued, for fear of what they'd do to him, and Rachel had decided to simply tuck the two in together. The little girl's protective attitude toward the former navy SEAL only increased Rachel's sense of guilt for letting her fear rule her judgment and not trying hard enough to help Nick before things got so far out of hand. She told herself she was letting Kat stay for Nick's sake -- to reassure him when he woke since she was the only member of the House who hadn't abandoned him. To be honest, Rachel felt better knowing exactly where her daughter was. There were a lot of frightening strangers in the Legacy House tonight but not in this room.

Kat had always been safe with Nick and, to her surprise, Rachel found herself trusting Nick's sire just as she would have trusted him. It had surprised her when Cash objected to Kat's presence but the reassurances of the Nosferatu had clarified things and revealed just how caring this young stranger was. It had touched the cynical psychiatrist that even in the midst of his worries for Nick, the young primogen had thought about her daughter's safety.

When Nick was on the brink of starvation, there was apparently a fear that he would go into some sort of frenzy at the first chance to drink blood. That danger had passed when Derek offered his life to save Nick and make right all that had happened. He'd been lucky he hadn't lost it. From the conversation, they'd had a rough time getting Nick to let go. Next time he woke up, Nick would still be hungry and still hurting but not insane with the urgency of his need. After dark, his Kindred sire would be able to feed him as he had since before Nick had become a member of the Legacy.

With her patient apparently resting comfortably, and her daughter once more sleeping, Rachel settled down in the other chair they'd dragged into the room and curled up to write in her own journal. This was one part of being in the Legacy she enjoyed. It helped her gather her thoughts and begin to make sense of the often bizarre experiences she'd had since meeting these people.

11-23-98 ~ It's more than a little strange to be sitting here watching over Nick for a change. He's always been the one who was strong. The one who stood guard when the rest of us were afraid. I have wondered since the day Derek confided Nick's history of abuse to me where he inherited that strength and caring from. It certainly didn't come from the drunken monster who punished his family for his own shortcomings or from the thoroughly beaten woman who stood aside as her child was brutalized. How much of what we are is genetic and how much is due to our environment? Neither would explain Nick unless what the Kindred say about the embrace changing their very blood is true.
They claim that when a person is embraced, they develop certain traits common to the clan they have been made a part of. Can a genetic predisposition be passed on that way -- superimposed over the individual's original genetic code? I suppose we'll find out soon enough. While Alex works with Detective Kohanek on sorting the fact from the fiction in the historical references to the Kindred, I'm supposed to be working with Daedalus on the medical aspects of being Kindred. A delicate task after what has already been done here in the name of medical research. I only hope I can focus on the job with him in the same room. He terrifies me. He's not a big man. He's actually not even as big as Derek, but he has a presence that looms over everyone in the same room, instilling fear in those around him. I saw how very gentle he was with Nick when they brought him back to the House half-conscious after whatever happened at their meeting. The careful way he'd cleaned the wounds and applied salve to Nick's burns showed he truly cared whether or not he hurt his patient. I have to admit, I'm confused about how to reconcile these two very different impressions.
According to Daedalus, Nick's recovery will be very slow. That didn't come as much of a surprise. A human couldn't have survived such injuries without intensive and immediate medical intervention. One who did would still have suffered permanent damage. Nick is expected to be on his feet in two days. That was a surprise. I think I'd better get used to them. This study could take a very long time. There will be no more invasive physical testing, only passive observation. The conclave was adamant about that. There will be no tests that could remind Nick of the medical torture he suffered at the hands of Dr. Goddard. I'm entirely in agreement with that!
It's nearly Thanksgiving and I find myself with a lot to be thankful for this year that I never would have dreamed of not so long ago. Our House has survived, intact, its second occupation by a Legacy tribunal. The big surprise is that I'm thankful Nick really was what they accused him of being -- that's what kept him alive. I refuse to believe, no matter what the outcome of this investigation, that the man who has played with and protected my daughter since our arrival here is evil. I'm not sure what he is, but evil isn't it. I'll have to find out from Cash, someday, what he meant when he told Nick the Kindred were 'the other side of life'. For now, it's enough to sit here and watch Kat and her favorite 'big brother' sleep. And for that small pool of peace in our lives, I'm thankful. ~

Epilogue: Thanksgiving Day November 26, 1998 3:30 p.m.

"Nick?" Derek pulled his operative aside as the others left the dining room and headed off to have their pie in front of the television set in the living room. Alex and Rachel had some sort of bet on the upcoming football game between their respective alma maters. So much for the myth about men converging on the big game while the women clean up the big mess left after the feast. That was why Derek paid the servants double to come in on Thanksgiving for a couple of hours in the evening.

"I'd like to have a word with you in my study, please." The precept's tone of voice made it clear that he wasn't making a request. He and Nick had been avoiding each other for too long already while each one tried to figure out what to say.

"Sure, Derek." Nick followed the precept, more than a little nervous. The nightmare that had plagued him for years and very nearly come true wouldn't really be over with until he knew where he stood with Derek -- but that didn't mean he was in any kind of hurry to have the anticipated confrontation. In Nick's mind, it was already a 'given' that he would lose his place in the Legacy. All that was left was to learn what place, if any, might be left for him here.

Please, not the basement again. Nick sent a quick prayer to whoever might be listening as he slid past Derek into the study and went to stand in front of the desk, nearly at attention. He knew they would have a right, under the circumstances, to keep him a prisoner while his fate was being appealed, but he didn't think he could hang onto his sanity if he had to go back down there. They could install any kind of security system they wanted to on his bedroom just so long as they left him some small illusion of humanity.

"You didn't touch your drink during dinner. Why?" Derek leaned back in his chair waiting for an answer. He'd put a fair amount of thought into his peace offering and Nick had simply sat there during the meal, silently staring at it.

"I didn't know what you wanted from me." Nick admitted. He'd been confused and a little bit frightened when a servant had placed a wine glass full of blood in front of him. He still didn't know what to make of it.

"It was a peace offering, Nick." Derek could feel himself getting annoyed and got up to stand near the window. It was making him uncomfortable to sit there behind his desk while Nick stood. "As I understand it, you need blood to survive. From now on, it will be provided for you just as the special needs of any other member of this House would be provided for."

"So, what are you telling me? That I'm still a member of this House, after everything that's happened?" Nick tried to keep the doubt out of his voice. He didn't have to try not to get his hopes up. He didn't really have any left. That was why he'd stayed quietly in his room for the last few days, even after he'd completely recovered from his wounds.

"If you want to be." Derek could see the stunned disbelief in Nick's eyes and went on before he could react prematurely. "The ground rules will have to change a little, but I don't see why you shouldn't continue with your duties while we await the council's verdict in this matter."

"And if I don't want to stay?" Nick asked, testing the waters. He didn't really want to leave the Legacy, but he was having a hard time believing they would actually let him go if that was his decision.

"There were those on the council who would have preferred you remain a hostage to guarantee your people's cooperation. Fortunately, they didn't have final say in the matter." Derek leaned back against the wall and folded his arms, his voice tightening as he reined in his emotions. He didn't want Nick to leave but he'd fought for his operative's right to make just such a decision -- and he'd abide by it, no matter how much it might hurt him personally.

"Should you decide to leave the Legacy, the sentence passed by the tribunal would no longer be hanging over your head but you'd never be allowed to return. That has always been our rule and, in this case, there could be no exception." Derek wished he could convey to Nick how much he meant to them but any words would sound hollow after what they had allowed to happen to the ex-SEAL. As he had done so many times before, Derek took refuge in his role as precept. "I hope you'll reconsider. Leaving now would seriously hurt any chance that the final ruling will be in your favor. If the council decides the Kindred are evil, they will be hunted and because of your previous tie to the Legacy, you would be hunted the most strenuously of all."

Nick finally slid into a chair, staring down at his hands to avoid looking at his precept. "You said if I stayed, the rules would change. How?"

Derek could feel himself relaxing already as he sat down behind his desk. Nick hadn't made up his mind yet. His attitude became more matter-of-fact as he settled down to list the changes as if the decision had already been made and Nick was staying. "First of all, from now on, any special needs you might have will be met by this House. To this end, you'll have to keep me informed of just what those needs are. Any time you are in the field, you will let whoever you are with know if there is going to be a problem. For example, if you haven't had the opportunity to feed, I think it would be best to let somebody know before the sun rises. Because your actions are to be used to help judge all of your people, you will no longer be allowed to go out into the field unaccompanied and whoever you are with will be reporting on your behavior in addition to filing the regular case reports."

"What else?" Nick was having a hard time believing these were the changes that he'd been bracing himself for. So far, everything Derek had mentioned was in his best interest. Maybe not the bit about having somebody watching him all the time but the rest of it... The council had to have placed some sort of restrictions on his activities. They weren't exactly known for being soft -- especially when it came to an operative who'd been convicted of dealing with the dark side. It could've been a lot worse.

"No more secret meetings with any of the Kindred. I want to be kept informed of where you are and who you are with from now on." Derek couldn't bring himself to mention Nick's sire by name though they both knew that was who the prohibition was chiefly meant to keep him from seeing. He may have admitted to himself that he was jealous of the other man's relationship with Nick, but that didn't make it any easier to address the problem. His reason for restricting Nick's access to his own people was twofold. The most obvious was to protect what secrets they still had from these potential enemies. The other, was to hopefully loosen the ties that bound Nick to them.

"Haven't you always wanted to keep close track of all of us?" Nick didn't have to force a smile. As the head of security, he'd often helped Derek run background checks on new friends or love interests that drifted through the lives of the people in their House.

"Yes, and I obviously didn't do a good enough job of it, did I?" Derek fired back. It felt good to be teasing one another again. Maybe the rift that had opened between them wouldn't be as difficult to heal as he'd feared.

"It wasn't exactly a fair contest since you were counting on me for your information and I was the one with secrets to hide." Nick stood up, suddenly hungry. He'd barely touched anything at the table and he was normally a big eater. If he left now, he could help the cook put everything away and poach a nice meal for himself in the bargain. Like many of the younger Kindred, he still enjoyed food and would miss it when that craving faded with the passing decades. "If that's it, I think I'll go and have that drink after all, Derek."

"You do that. We have a new case I promised an old friend we'd start work on tomorrow. I'll expect everyone to be ready to work." Derek didn't allow the relief he was feeling at Nick's acceptance to show on his face. He didn't want Nick to think that he doubted him but there was a fear at the back of Derek's mind that he couldn't ignore.

The Kindred had said that Nick was fed by his sire so that the psychics in the Legacy House wouldn't sense that he was a predator. Now that things were out in the open, Derek very much feared that Nick would hunt. It was what came naturally to his kind and could easily become a renewed death sentence if the council fell for the common misconception that all predators were bad. As long as he kept Nick supplied from the local butchers and knew exactly where he was getting his meals from, that threat could be kept at a distance.

Derek reached for the nearest report on his desk, not particularly caring what it was about so long as it gave him something to focus on before Nick could pick up on his discomfort.

Nick stopped for a moment with his hand on the door, wanting to say something to make things the way they had been between the two of them before all of this blew up around them, but he couldn't find any words. Sometimes, you really couldn't go back. He was just going to have to keep going forward and hope to find some new place to make things right.

"Nick?" His precept's quietly serious tone called him back. "There can be no more lies between us. It was the lies that hurt -- the lies that almost destroyed us all."

Nick was stricken at the reminder of the pain he'd inflicted on the people he cared for most. "I'm sorry." He whispered before turning to flee those tired eyes. He very much feared there would always be lies between them. The Kindred had too many secrets he didn't dare tell.

The unhappy, worried look he'd fought to hide in Derek's office settled into place as Nick made his way back to the dining room to intercept the leftovers. He hated the idea of piling more lies on top of the ones he'd already told but he knew he couldn't just quit seeing his sire. He needed Cash and the older Gangrel needed him. Cash had warned him once that the more they fed, the more they would need.

For five years now, Cash had fed heavily enough to supply both their needs. He couldn't leave his sire to struggle with the raging hunger that would linger even when there was no longer a physical need for the extra blood. For a while, he would have to continue his clandestine visits until they had both been weaned. He just hoped Derek wasn't too generous or he was going to end up with a serious problem. The hunger the Kindred lived with was a nutritional need but it was a need that tipped all too easily into addiction and he'd been down that road one too many times already.

The End

E-Mail the Authors: Janet and Sandy at Kethrineth@aol.com

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