... she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

-- Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V

Her first thought had been to go to LaCroix. She wasn't sure why, really; a thousand years of habit if nothing else. And, oddly enough, she expected more honesty from her former master than from the one to whom she could not apply that term. Certainly LaCroix was bound to have a better idea of what was going on than would his wayward, suffering son. And with the mounting confusion and anguish bombarding her through their link, if she didn't find out soon what was going on, she would quite likely go insane.

No, Nicolas was no one's master, least of all his own. Janette doubted he was even aware that his turmoil had reached her in Boston, or indeed that she was in Boston at all. LaCroix had always said that he knew when his children were in pain; leave it to Nicolas to put his children through his own.

Shortly before midnight it had risen to a pitch she could no longer ignore; and now, one unpleasant Air Canada adventure later, she stood surveying the emptiness of the Raven. In this lonely hour before dawn it was not so unusual to sense no one about, but there was more to it than that. Perhaps it was simply her imagination, or the change in her perceptions since LaCroix was no longer her master; but this no longer seemed a place he belonged to.

No doubt he was with Nicolas already. No more delay; without another glance at the club that had once been hers, she took flight--and nearly fell out of the sky as the agony multiplied itself to an impossible degree.

No. Not impossible. She had known such pain on a cold winter's night a few short months ago, kneeling powerless in the snow as Robert slipped away from her forever.

Damn the door and the bothersome security code. Landing on the roof next to the skylight, Janette took in the scene below in an instant: Nick kneeling on the floor, holding the hand of a deathly still Natalie; LaCroix standing above him clutching a wooden staff.

"Damn you, Nicholas!"

In the split-second before LaCroix raised the stake, she knew what was happening. "No!"

Two pairs of blue eyes snapped up in her direction, both shining with tears, as she smashed through the skylight to land between them.

"Have you both gone mad?" she demanded, taking hold of the stake and looking from one to the other.

LaCroix spoke first. "Perhaps we have at that," he noted coolly. "What solution do you suggest to Nicholas' conundrum?"

"Not this." She narrowed her eyes at Nick, who in his shock seemed not quite to comprehend why he wasn't dead yet. "I see no solution here at all. Only more running away."

"Janette, please..."

When it became apparent Nick could find nothing else to say, she turned her attention to the motionless figure on the floor. Had he left any life there at all, or had her sometime rival's fierce tenacity finally met defeat? When first they'd met, Natalie had been a quixotic but sharp-witted little force to be reckoned with, a kick in Janette's cynical complacency. A woman who truly belonged to none but herself. But now? "What has he done now?" she murmured, to herself and to Natalie.

"I couldn't stop," Nick explained, his voice hollow with grief--and, no doubt, repetition. "She trusted me. I took to much, I--"

"That's not what I meant," Janette interrupted sharply. "What you have done to her took far more than one night." Again she read their faces, these two who had each in his turn brought her into the darkness out of selfish love. LaCroix waited with patient interest to see what would unfold; Nick remained simply stunned. Kneeling opposite him beside Natalie, she searched for any spark of the woman's former bright vitality. "Is this what she asked of you?"

"I can't condemn her--"

"Answer the question!" Janette snapped. "Listen to me, Nicolas. She has entrusted her voice to you, and if you try to silence it now it will haunt you to the end of time. And I swear to you I will make certain you never escape it. What did she choose?"

"Whatever follows..." Nick whispered. "She wasn't afraid. Not of death. Not of darkness. Only of being left behind."

"Only that you would take all that she has given you and scatter it on the wind." She covered his hands, still wrapped around Natalie's, with her own; and both felt it then: the faintest of flutters in near-empty veins. "You're right, Nicolas; you cannot condemn her to darkness." Decisively Janette took up a fragment of glass and opened her own wrist. "She will have her choice."

Nothing had been what Natalie expected. But then, after six years with Nick, she knew she would be oddly disappointed now if it had.

One thing she had expected, and it had brought inevitable disappointment: he could not match his love for her with faith in himself. And no amount of faith and love on her part could quite close that gap. That had been made exquisitely, excruciatingly clear in the torrent of impressions that had flooded her mind as he took her blood, drowning her in the failures of unchecked passion that so haunted him, in his regrets and his bottomless terror of destroying

her soul by accepting the gift of her heart.

It had been a sort of apology for the abrupt "consummation," a desperate wish for her to understand why he dared not give her even the gentle beginnings of intimacy they had shared in the past, certain that if he lost his head she would lose her life. And in the very process of showing her why, he had been caught up in that passion anew, had drunk in the sum of her short life faster and faster. She had stood fast against the pain and fear even as the room began to spin around her, even when she realized they had gone too far and darkness reached up to claim her. Never mind whether she was as certain as she'd said that she was not afraid of it; afraid or not, it was upon her. No turning back. Well, then, nothing left but to go forward.

There had been confusion for a while; she could have sworn she'd heard LaCroix's voice, even seen him, which made no sense.

And now she was here. Wherever "here" was. Not that she didn't know what it meant--the stretch of sand, the eerie silence, even the quintessential brightly glowing doorway all matched Nick's description--but where, truly, was it?

That question intrigued her, but even as she began filing away the details of her surroundings, another question began to frighten her: Where was Nick?

"I won't live a life of eternal pain," he'd said; and later, "No matter what, we'll be together." If he had drained her beyond his own reach, if he could not bring her across...he intended to follow her. That would be the only way to keep his promise not to leave her, if he could not bring her back to him.

That was what she had asked of him.

"Our choices define us."

The voice came from the direction of the doorway, and Natalie recognized it immediately. "Laura?"

"No. A reflection of her, in your mind's eye." The figure stepped forward as Natalie approached, her auburn curls and gamine features now recognizable. Yet it was clear she spoke the truth, though Natalie could not have said why. Whoever this was, it was not Laura Haynes. "An echo of the voice you have been listening to most closely."

"Do you think I was wrong?"

The smile was Laura's, but it wasn't. "That's not for me to say. The results of your choices must speak for themselves."

"That's not an answer."

"You have to find the answer within yourself." Natalie was about to retort when she recognized the words as her own. "Yes. You've said that to Nick a dozen times or more. But he keeps believing that you are his answer."

"I tried." She almost laughed at the lump rising in her throat, this creation of her subconscious mimicking physical reactions that she doubted were occurring in her dying body. "I love him, I believe in him with all my heart. But it can't ever be enough if he can't believe in himself." She looked over not-Laura's shoulder, but there was nothing to see but the light. "What will happen to him if he follows me?"

"Why don't you ask what will happen to you?"

"I'm not afraid of that. I have no reason to be."

The being wearing Laura's face nodded. "What you believe, how you judge yourself, determines in part what you will find."

"And Nick?"

"The same."

"But what he believes, how he judges himself..." Natalie didn't like where this was leading.

"It has to be taken into account. Our choices define us. His choices have led him to believe he doesn't deserve redemption. To believe he doesn't deserve you." The dream-figure stepped to one side, gesturing to the doorway. "He has to face that for himself, Natalie."

"I'm not going in there and leaving him behind!"

From far, far away Nick's voice could be heard. "She had faith...a beginning, not an end..."

"It's time, Natalie," not-Laura told her quietly. "This is only a place to pass through. You can't stay here."

She could almost make out people through the doorway, felt a powerful impulse to pass through it. The next leg of the adventure awaited, and she took a single step toward it, then stopped. "The hell I can't! I'm not going anywhere without Nick."

"It's time," the quiet voice repeated. Was that Richard she could see now?

"I'm not going!" she declared firmly, turning her back on the gateway and its siren call. "Do you hear me, Nick Knight?" she shouted to the sky, stalking back along her own footprints in the sand. "I'm not going! I waited six years, I can by God stand here and keep waiting if I have to! I'm not leaving you, Nick!"

Another disembodied voice rang through the desert, crystal-clear; and this time it was LaCroix's. "Damn you, Nicholas!"

"No!" Even in the afterlife, it seemed, running on sand was a bitch. "Leave him alone, LaCroix! He already thinks he's damned, because of you!" She had run out of footprints to follow, and except for the bright gateway--which was not as far away as she had run, she was sure of it--there was nothing but desert on all sides. She wasn't going to get back the way she'd come.

Or was she? "Nick! I'm not afraid of the darkness, and I won't go to that light if you're going to send yourself someplace else! Do you hear me?!"

"Enough, Natalie." Not-Laura stood beside her, and the doorway was right there again. "It's time.


A new voice hung in the air. "Natalie. Listen to me."

Whirling in the direction of the sound--and this time it did have a direction--Natalie whispered in astonishment, "Janette? For pete's sake, Nick, did everybody crash our party?"

"You must choose now," Janette's voice went on. "You can live in the night, or learn what lies beyond. But I cannot let Nicolas follow you there. Hate me if you must, but I know he is not ready for that judgment."

"So do I," Natalie agreed. "I have to go back. He needs me. We need each other."

Not-Laura spoke quietly, sadly. "If you go back now, you take the darkness into you. This is your last chance to cross the threshold pure and certain of yourself."

"Then I guess, when the time comes, I'll do it the hard way. How can I expect him to believe he can do it if I'm not willing to fight that battle for myself?"

"Natalie?" Janette called. "Do you hear me?"

"I'll be true to myself," Natalie pledged. "All I have is faith and love. And that's all I need."

"Are you sure?" asked not-Laura.

"I have to be." Turning away form the portal, she called out, "Janette! I can't wait to hear the story..."

"...ree b'hind this."

Nick's heart lurched at the faint mumbled nonsense that heralded the start of vampire existence for the woman who had embodied humanity in his eyes for six years. "What did you say, Nat?" he managed.

"One thing at a time, Nicolas," Janette chided, bracing herself against the floor with her other hand as the hungry convert seized her wounded wrist in a vise grip of hands and teeth. "Aah! Enough, petite soeur, enough." Tilting her head toward the refrigerator, she requested, "LaCroix, would you be so kind? Something to wean our bottle baby before Mother runs dry?"

"Anything for my children," LaCroix replied, bemused.

The words had been spoken lightly, but Nick noticed the clenching of her teeth as she disengaged her wrist from Natalie's grip. "Are you all right, Janette?" he asked, reaching hesitantly to touch Nat's hair, take her hand.

"Fine," was the terse reply. What else could he expect?

Then LaCroix was back with several bottles, and Nick supported Nat's shoulders as she sat up and downed two of them in short order. Her eyes were clear now, and though she gave Nick's hand a reassuring squeeze, it was to the one who had given her this life she looked first. "Janette...thank you."

For the first time, Janette favored her new child with a gently ironic smile. "You're welcome."

Then she turned her eyes on Nick, her lovely fathomless eyes that now held the unmistakeable shadows of a vampire who had seen the Light beyond and turned her back on it. But they were still Natalie's eyes, and they also held a plea for forgiveness and understanding. What was to forgive? She had done this for him. "Nick?" she began uncertainly.

He replied with the warmest of embraces, twining his fingers in her rich mane and crushing her to him with a force that might have broken mortal bones. "I'm yours, Nat. Heart and soul and body. Forever."

Above them, LaCroix laughed shortly. "They say you get what you pay for, Natalie. I hope, for all our sakes, that proves true in this case."

Pulling back from Nick's embrace, she gave each of them in turn a long look before saying, "This is certainly going to be...interesting."

"You have a great deal to learn, Natalie," Janette told her, laying a hand on the young vampire's shoulder. "But first and foremost is a lesson I should have learned long before this." She glared from Nick to LaCroix and back again, then leaned close to murmur in Natalie's ear, "Never leave the men to fend for themselves."