Part XI

Natalie smiled as she examined herself in the mirror. Her hair was perfect, her make-up was perfect, and she *felt* perfect. Nothing could take away the wonderful feeling she felt inside herself that night. She stepped back to enjoy the view of the new dress she'd acquired in Montreal. Lucien was in for a big surprise tonight, no doubt about that!

Lucien... she thought, sighing softly. She could feel a wave of nerves washing over at the thought of confronting him again. Would he take her back as Janette had say he would? Or would he spurn her?

He'll take you back, of course! Natasha interjected. How can you doubt that?

"Did you see how upset he was when he left the last time?" Nat shot back at her alter-ego. "How could he *not* still be angry?"

Because he loves you! Natasha insisted. Now, come on! We've got a man to win back!

Nat forced her nerves out of her mind for the rest of the drive to the Raven. Pulling into the parking lot, she checked her face in the mirror one last time before opening the door. There were tiny frown lines on her face where she'd been obsessing about it. "Now, stop this!" she told herself aloud. "There's nothing to worry about! He loves me."

Opening the door, she stepped out of the car, only to be thrown back inside as another vehicle slammed into her from the side. Nat felt a momentary pain exploding throughout her body, and then, the world went dark.

*****

LaCroix looked up from the microphone to see Javier Vachon pounding on the sound booth glass in a frenzy. Switching to a commercial, he signaled for the Spaniard to come inside.

"There's been an accident outside," Vachon spoke in a rush. "Drunk driver. He looks like he's dead!"

"And *this* concerns me in *what* way, Javier?" was LaCroix's response.

"The guy smashed his car into someone else's. It was Doc Lambert; she's hurt."

LaCroix sprang from his chair, pushing Vachon aside as he made for the door. Vachon stood there awe-struck for several minutes before he realized that LaCroix had left the booth without going back on the air. After pushing about twenty buttons, he managed to find a recorded show to broadcast and mumbled something into the microphone about technical difficulties. He then went back outside to see what was going on.

By the time LaCroix arrived outside, followed momentarily by Vachon, an ambulance had arrived and a crowd had gathered. Nick and Tracy were kneeling beside the drunk driver, who had been thrown from the crash. LaCroix approached them.

"He's dead," Nick said, looking up at his master.

"And..." LaCroix paused, glancing at Tracy, "... the *other* victim?"

Nick met his eyes, sorrow plain to see. "She's unconscious. We won't know anything until we get her to a hospital."

"I see. I trust you will keep me informed," LaCroix said as he turned on his heel and strode away from them.

Tracy glanced quizzically at Nick. "Why should *he* care what happens to Nat?" she asked.

Nick shrugged. "He owns the club. If Nat dies, he could have to face charges for serving alcohol to the man who killed her. The club could lose its liquor license, I guess."

"Oh," replied Tracy.

When Ellen Landry came to examine the body, Nick left Tracy with her and went to find his master. He spotted LaCroix hovering in the shadows near to the spot where the emergency crew was trying to remove Natalie from the car.

"Hey," he said as he slipped into the shadows beside LaCroix. "You still here? I thought you'd have gone back to your show by now." Nick met his master's eyes and was surprised to find tears. "LaCroix?"

LaCroix spoke in a low, strained voice, as if from some far away place. "If they would all leave her alone, I could save her now, Nicholas, but they don't. They... buzz around her like flies... They..."

"They're trying to help. Everything that can be done, is, I assure you," Nick replied. He placed a hand on LaCroix's shoulder, but the elder vampire shrugged away from him.

"Not... not everything, Nicholas," said LaCroix, his voice choking in his throat. "Natasha... my darling, sweet Natasha wanted me to..." His voice faded away as they watched Natalie's lifeless form being pulled from the car. LaCroix lurched forward, as if to go to her. Nick grabbed him, pulling him suddenly.

"You don't know if that is what Natalie wants, LaCroix."

"She'll die if I don't!" LaCroix hissed backed at his son.

'You don't know that, either. She could live. Her injuries might not even be serious, but we won't know until she's safely at the hospital." Nick tightened his grip on LaCroix. "I know how you feel. I feel it, too. It's called helplessness, and I hate it, but it's all we have, LaCroix. Let the doctors do their jobs."

"What if they fail, Nicholas? What if they fail and Natalie dies?"

"They won't. Have a little faith, will you?"

Their eyes met and held, each remembering a time long ago when Nick asked LaCroix to do as he said. Their debate then had been as important as this one-- determining the future the one mortal they both loved. An understanding passed between them, and Nick loosened his grip on his master.

"Very well, then, Nicholas. I concede... but if these mortals fail to keep her safe from harm, I *shall not.*"

*****

Natalie awoke, opening her eyes to the glare of bright hospital lights. "Where am I?" she wondered aloud.

"Nat... Nat, it's me. It's Nick. You're going to be all right now."

Nat turned her head towards Nick's voice, her vision finally beginning to focus. "What happened? I remember a car... a loud crashing noise... Nick, where am I?"

"You're in the hospital. Ambulance brought you in last night. You were pretty banged up," Nick told her.

Nat tried to sit up, only to be hindered by a sharp pain shooting throughout her lower body. "Pretty banged up? Is that your professional opinion, Dr. Knight, or someone else's?' Nat muttered, trying to make light of her pain.

"The doctor says you have a fractured femur. It's not too bad, really. You'll have to wear a cast, but they figure you'll be up on crutches in a few days," Nick told her cheerfully.

"Well, that's just swell," said Nat, sarcasm dripping from each word. How can he possibly be so cheery? Nat thought. There was no reason to be happy, not now that all her plans were put on hold. How could she declare her love to Lucien from this hospital bed? "Do you think you can help me sit up, Nick? This position is getting uncomfortable."

Nick moved to her side, and easing his arms behind her back, helped her into a sitting position. "Sorry about that."

"Don't apologize, Nick. You couldn't have known lying on your back for the better part of a day could be the least bit painful." Nat saw Nick wince with pain and her manner softened. "Thank you, Nick," she said, laying a hand on his.

"Nat... what were you doing at the Raven that night?"

"I... I had to see Lucien. We had unfinished business to discuss."

Nick sighed. "I'm sorry about that, too. I tried to locate him while he was missing... so I could set things right between us all... but I couldn't find him. By the time he finally showed up, you were gone." He looked at her meaningfully. "We were both so worried about you, Nat. Where did you go?"

"Montreal. I went to see Janette."

There was a long silence between them. At last, Nat spoke again. "I don't really want to discuss it right now, Nick. I'm tired." She stifled a yawn.

"Yeah, sure. I have to work anyway. I'll... I'll see you later?" Nick leaned over to kiss her forehead before he left. She didn't stop him, as she was too tired, both physically *and* emotionally.

" 'Night, Nick," she mumbled as her eyes drifted closed.

Nick stood in the doorway, watching her sleep. He wondered how good his chances were of getting her back? " 'Night, Nat," he whispered as he slipped out at last.

*****

(A day or two later)

Natalie hobbled into the kitchen on her crutches. She stopped when she saw Nick standing before her sink. He wore a stained cleaning apron over his black silk shirt. His arms, covered by yellow rubber gloves, were hidden up to the elbows in a sink full of dirty dishes and fluffy white suds. He must have sensed her behind him and whirled around to confront her. The sight of him placing his yellow-gloved hands on his hips in a disapproving manner was comical, and she began to laugh.

"What's so funny?' he asked her, not the least bit amused. "And what are you doing out of bed, anyway? Get back in that bedroom right now." He pointed to the door and suds dripped off his gloved finger onto the floor.

Nat stifled a giggle. "I'm fine, Nick. The doctor said I would be able to move around with my crutches. I don't *need* to stay in bed. What I need is some exercise and something to keep me busy."

Nick shook his head. "You still need rest. You were sleeping when I checked on you last."

"I wasn't sleeping, Nick. I had my eyes closed because I was bored," Nat snapped at him. "I need something constructive to do."

"Yeah, well," said Nick, waffling a bit in response. "You can be constructive when Grace gets here after work. While I'm here, you're going to stay in bed."

"I quite agree," came a cool, sensual voice from behind them. LaCroix stepped forward from out of the shadows, moving gracefully to her side. "Allow me to escort you back to bed, my dear," he said as he swept her into his arms, discarding the crutches that held her up.

"Lucien!" Nat protested, although she was unable to keep laughter from her voice.

He ignored her protest completely. Turning to Nick, he said, "I'll see to it the Good Doctor finds her way back to bed, Nicholas. You may..." he pause, assessing the situation, "... continue with your *chores.*"

Nick glared at him silently, remembering their agreement.

LaCroix ignored Nick's dark look as he carried Natalie back into the bedroom and gently laid her down atop the blankets.

"I... I don't need to be in bed all day, Lucien," she told him, despite being a bit breathless.

"Oh?" he inquired with a raised eyebrow. "I think you do." He leaned closer to her, so close that their faces nearly touched. "Just look at how tired and out of breath you are, my dear."

"Th-that's not because of my...." her protest was cut off when their lips met in a tender kiss. Her arms wrapped around his neck, drawing him into the bed with her.

As the kiss deepened, his body pressed against hers. Without warning, Natalie ended the kiss with a yelp of pain. "My leg!" she exclaimed as LaCroix quickly moved off of her and returned to standing beside the bed.

"I am truly sorry, my dear," he apologized.

"That's okay," she said with a sigh. She looked longingly up at him, and their eyes met. Silently, they each read into the other's soul, finding there a secret happiness. After several intense seconds, Natalie broke eye contact and looked shyly down at her quilted blanket. "Maybe..." she suggested quietly, "you could just sit here and hold me, Lucien?" She looked up at him again, the love in her eyes plain to see. "You could read to me, like you used to do."

LaCroix smiled down at her as he selected a book from her night stand and slipped into bed bedside her. Opening the book to the first page, he began to read.

*****

An hour later, when Nick appeared in the bedroom door, Natalie was snuggled into LaCroix's embrace. Her eyes were closed and her lips drawn into a smile as she listened to him narrating the story.

When Nick cleared his throat pointedly, LaCroix paused in his reading to look at his son. Nick's eyes shot daggers into his master's heart, but he said nothing.

"Why did you stop, Lucien?" Natalie asked in disappointment.

Nick spoke. "I was just about to cook dinner, and I was wondering... what would you like, Nat?" he asked her.

Nat's eyes popped open with alarm. Nick, cooking? In her house? In *her* kitchen? "Uhhh... " she stammered. "You know, Nick, I really haven't had the chance to go shopping since I've been home. There's hardly any food in the house. Why don't you forget about cooking tonight and go get some take out?"

Nick's face fell, as he had been looking forward to cooking for Natalie. "You'd rather I do that?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Ok. I'll... I'll go get some Chinese for you. How does that sound?"

"It sounds good," Nat said with a smile.

Nick turned to leave. At the door, he turned back. "I love you, Nat," he said to her.

"I know you do, Nick," she replied with a sigh as Nick slipped out the door.

*****

When he was gone, LaCroix set the book aside. Turning to her, he said, "We must talk, Natalie."

"I know," she replied.

"Nicholas informed me that you saw Janette," he continued. After a pause, he added, "I take it you told her about... our disagreement."

"I did, and I also asked her to tell me about Fleur."

"And she did so?"

"Against her better judgment, yes. She told me that the both of you would hate her for it. Lucien... why didn't you just tell me about Fleur? It would have saved us both some heartache if you had."

LaCroix took her hand, holding it gently. "If Janette told you everything, then you know why I could not," he said in a low voice.

"I know... and I understand it now."

"You do?"

"Yes, I do, but I never want to feel that much doubt again, Lucien. I want us to always be honest with one another. I love you, and I don't want to lose you again."

LaCroix looked at her with surprise. Drawing her to him once again, he whispered, "I love you, as well, mon amour," as he bent to kiss her lips.

*****

Nick stood outside the Chinese restaurant, waiting for his take-out order to be done. As he waited, he thought about all that had happened that night. He didn't quite know when it had occurred, but Natalie had chosen. When he saw her in LaCroix's arms on the bed, the only thing he knew was that he had truly lost her. He just didn't know how it had happened. A part of him-- the dark, resentful part--wanted to confront LaCroix and fight for her. The rest of him knew he could not do that. They'd agreed to allow Natalie to decide for herself which of them she wanted. Nick was just sad because it wasn't him.

Frowning, he slipped back inside the restaurant. Paying for the food and taking it from the man at the counter, he made his way back to Nat's apartment.

He found them where he had left them-- on the bed. Natalie looked so comfortable as she snuggled against LaCroix. She was listening intently to him as he read to her, her eyes gazing lovingly up at him. Nick felt a little sick as he cleared his throat to get their attention.

"I'm back," he said. "I brought back all your favorites, Nat."

"It smells delicious, Nick. Thank you," she commented as LaCroix helped her to sit up and set a tray down on her lap.

"Yeah, I guess, " said Nick unenthusiastically as he held out a brown paper bag to LaCroix. "I stopped by the Raven and picked these up for us," he said, "but I'm not really in the mood for it right now."

Nick's forlorn expression caused Natalie and LaCroix to stare at each other and then at him in concern. "Are you feeling well, Nicholas?" LaCroix asked his son.

"No. No, I'm not. I'm going to go home now. I'm... I'm sure you can watch after Nat until Grace gets here." Without waiting for a response from them, he turned and fled the bedroom.

"Poor Nick, " Nat sighed as she watched him leave. "I hope he'll be all right."

"I'm sure he will, my dear," LaCroix said as he dished out some of the Chinese food for her to eat. "Nicholas is stronger than even he thinks. He'll be fine in time."

Outside, Nick hovered in mid-air, watching them from the window. He'd lost her to LaCroix fair and square, and he knew it. He sighed as he saw his master gently take the chop sticks from Natalie's hand and lovingly feed her bits of chicken and rice. Wishing it could be himself with her, Nick sighed once again before flying off into the night.

*finis*