This is a post "Be My Valentine" fic (season 2). After the close call with LaCriox, Nick tries to put some distance between himself and Nat.

FYI, this is not an original story idea. I've used it before in another fandom. One of my Magnificent Seven fics has the same title and uses the same premise (also some of the same characters). I've always thought that Chris Larabee and Nick Knight had a little in common, and I wanted to see if I could get this idea to work for both of them. A 13th century vampire and a 19th century gunslinger have something in common? Sounds a little funny, I guess. I'm not too certain that the idea does work for both of them, but...shrug...ah, well.

Nick and Nat don't belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for a short while. Anyone else in this story does belong to me.

The gates of hell swing open wide Invitin' me to step inside....

She's all I see Between the Devil and me

--Alan Jackson

Between The Devil And Me



"Nick? Pick up. I know you're there. Please, pick up."

The sound of Natalie Lambert's confused voice stabbed Nick Knight straight through the heart as he listened to it over the answering machine.

"What's wrong? Is it something I've done? Why won't you talk to me?"

The imaginary knife plunged a little deeper with the questions, the vampire's lips tightening into a granite line against the assault.

Knight closed his eyes against a painful longing while he tried to gather his resolve. He wouldn't pick the receiver up. He couldn't. He couldn't tell her. There was no way to explain his actions. She could never be allowed to remember. It was too dangerous. LaCroix had bought his act, but for how long, if he continued to keep Natalie so close?

With a click, the machine stopped recording, and the immortal opened his eyes, a shaky sigh of relief leaving him. He'd been able to hold his ground, not give in to the aching need, but a guilty anguish continued to hold him as he stared down at the telephone. He'd known when he made the decision this was going to be hard, but....


Nick pushed a rough hand through his hair and walked over to the window. The sun was on its way up, the golden hue of morning coloring the Toronto sky. Purposeful strides took him over to the coffee table where he picked up the remote and pushed the button that would protect him from the dangerous light, separate him from the waking world outside. He watched the metal slide into place and wished that separating himself from Natalie could be as easy as pushing a button.

It could be, you know. Nick's relentless conscience threw in its unwanted two cents worth. All you have to do is leave. Walk away and never look back. It's the only thing that makes any sense, and you know it.

Yeah, he knew it, but.... How many times had he had this argument with himself since allowing Natalie into his life? He couldn't even begin to guess.

Frustrated, Knight tossed the remote on the couch and headed for the refrigerator. He needed a drink. The cow's blood wasn't much more than putrid, especially in its cold state, but it was blood, and it nonetheless had a calming effect on him. He felt some of the repressed anger drain away as the nourishment ran down his throat.

Lowering the bottle from his lips, the vampire contemplated the past week as he stared at the green glass in his hand, a bitter sadness seeping into his heart. The days had been nothing short of unbearable, and he knew the intolerable struggle was only going to get worse. Keeping Natalie at a minimum safe distance would never be easy, no matter how much he told himself it was for her own good. As he'd admitted to himself only recently, he loved her too much.

God, help me...too much.

The process of detachment had been a monumental battle from day one, Nick's newly acknowledged love making the need to draw Nat close almost impossible to overcome. However, the horrible reality of that heart-wrenching Valentines Day had given him no choice. It had also given him a strength of purpose he hadn't known he possessed. He'd come much too close to losing her that night, and it could never...never happen again. It didn't matter how much it pained him. It didn't even matter how much it hurt Natalie. Keeping her safe was all important.

Since that fateful February day, Nick had gone out of his way to avoid her at work, made up excuses why she couldn't come to the loft, why he couldn't visit her in the morgue to pick up her latest concoction or let her pull another blood sample. At first, Natalie didn't seem to think too much of his dodges, but after a few days, his efforts to avoid her had become blatantly obvious, as had her pain and confusion.

Re-corking the bottle, Knight pushed it back into the refrigerator and slammed the door.

Damn it all to hell! Turning from the appliance his angry thoughts faltered. Not all. Not Natalie.

He was already there, the formality of true death the only thing standing between him and eternal damnation. Natalie, on the other hand, would never share his fate. He would do everything in his power to see to that.

A profound weariness seized Nick as he walked back into the living room. He considered going upstairs and trying to get some rest, but he very much doubted his success in that endeavor. At the moment, Natalie weighed too heavily on his mind to allow him the luxury of sleep. Instead, he made his way to the couch and sat down, leaning his head back to rest on a cushion, his eyes closing against the indirect daylight that stole into the room though the skylight. The phone call from a few minutes ago ran through his head.

'What's wrong? Is it something I've done? Why won't you talk to me?'

A fresh misery churned Nick's stomach. It hadn't been the first time he'd heard the questions. Over the last couple of days, Natalie had confronted him with some form of them more than once, before he'd pushed her away with whatever excuse seemed reasonable at the time, ignoring the inquiries altogether. What could he possibly say to her? How could he explain?

With another heavy sigh, Knight slid his body into a prone position on the couch, a leather-clad arm serving as his pillow. He didn't know. He just didn't know what he could say to her. There was one thing, however, Nick did know. He'd better think of something to tell Natalie, and quick. She was not one to be put off for long, and sooner or later, he would be forced to talk to her. He was quite certain it would be sooner rather than later.

Resting an arm across his eyes, the vampire knew a couple of other things too. He was going to have to lie to Natalie again, and he was going to have to hurt her even more than he already had. Merely thinking about it triggered an acute loathing. It was going to kill him to do it, but it was a desolation he would have to bear, Nat's safety depended on it.

"I will have the retribution that you promised me." LaCroix's words came flooding back. "I will deprive you of the mortal that you love, or I will deprive her of you. Either way, your promise will be fulfilled."

The impassioned determination in the declaration sent a chilling wave of horror through Nick, much as it had the first time he'd heard it. It was a threat that would haunt him until the end of his days, his rash promise to LaCroix all those years ago finally rearing its ugly head. At the time he'd made it, Nick hadn't been thinking about the future and who it might hold for him. His only thought had been to preserve his sister's innocence, her humanity, the consequences of the promise never once considered. Now, of course, he had no choice but to consider them.

With a vengeance, the terror of Valentine's night rushed over Nick again, the same cold fear slicing through him. He'd come so close to losing Natalie, so horribly close. And in that one instant, with LaCroix hovering over her, ready to strike, the consequence of the promise had hit Nick square in the heart. Without even realizing it, all those centuries ago, he'd offered Natalie up on the altar of retribution, and the reality petrified him.

"I'm sorry, Nat." Nick's hushed voice cracked the silence of the loft. "I had no right to endanger you. I...had no right to...fall in love with you."

The words helped conjure an unwanted picture of Natalie, beautiful, open, soft, giving...loving. And he remembered, at once happily and reluctantly. The silken curve of her cheek. The wonder of having her in his arms. The honeyed taste of her mouth, warm and inviting as she welcomed his touch.

Fatigue began to catch up with Nick as he allowed himself the defeating luxury of dwelling in the cherished memories. Memories that he knew he should be doing everything in his power to push far from his mind. Foolishly, Knight allowed the paralyzing fear to dissipate as he lost himself in the gentle flow of pictures and feelings that would never leave him no matter how he might try to banish them. The few hours that he and Natalie had acknowledged, and acted upon, their feelings for one another were far beyond precious, and he would hold them dear for the remainder of his life, such as it was. The time could never be repeated, so Nick would keep its memory safe and draw comfort from it when he could. As now, allowing the warmth and tenderness to saturate his mind and soul, expelling the lonely darkness that lurked in his reality. The beauty continued to drift through Knight's mind's eye and a settled sleep claimed him.

The vampire woke to the sound of a familiar heartbeat--Natalie. The grinding of the elevator registered next. Both recognitions triggered the dread that began to descend over his heart. A keen apprehension clouded his mind, threatening to siphon his strength, steal his resolve. Fighting the debilitating weakness, he opened his eyes. This confrontation was inevitable, and he worked to gather the fortitude necessary to get through it.

A clear, evening sky looked down on the immortal, stars bright as they considered the earth. Their ethereal beauty was not completely lost on him, but their usual brilliance seemed somehow compromised, lacking. Tonight they appeared oddly bereft, much like he felt at the moment.

A quiet sigh escaped Nick when he affirmed the loss of the gentle, soothing dream that had guarded his sleep. It was just as well. The tender memories would do nothing for him now. Nothing, that is, except sabotage his conviction. They would also serve to endanger Natalie if he continued to indulge in them. LaCroix would eventually glean Nick's true feelings and disaster would not be far behind. Knight would inevitably betray Nat to his maker if the feelings weren't somehow stifled.

Stifled by distance? Maybe. How much distance? He didn't know. How much could he stand?

The elevator door slid open, and Knight put his feet on the floor, pulling himself into a sitting position. Natalie entered the loft, but Nick didn't attempt any further movement, keeping his position, waiting. He could do no more as he steeled himself against what was to come, a fine layer of blood-sweat beginning to form on the palms of his hands.

The vampire listened as Natalie took off her coat and hung it on a kitchen chair. His lips formed a hard line as the morbid anticipation continued to grow. Faint footsteps brought Nat to stand behind the couch.

"We have to talk, Nick." Determination colored the coroner's quiet voice.

"About what?" Aloof innocence clung to the simple question. Nick knew he wouldn't get away with it, but it might buy him a little time. What the hell was he going to tell her?

"You know damn well what. Why the cold shoulder?" Natalie's impatient tone wavered with sadness as she continued. "What's wrong? What have I done?"

Done? Oh, not much. Nothing more than make me fall in love with you. Nothing much at all. Knight answered silently, his heart aching with the dangerous confession.

The immortal fought hard to ignore the grief he sensed in Natalie, telling fists forming at his sides. He could be strong. He would be strong. But dear God, it hurt. It hurt so damn much.

"You haven't done anything, Nat." Nick rose from the couch, still refusing to look at Natalie. He walked to the fireplace and stared down into the dark hearth. His jaw tightened with the self-disgust that lay bitter in mouth. "Cold shoulder? I...I don't--"

"Come off it, Nick. Yes, you do. Don't give me that crap. Talk to me. Don't I at least deserve an explanation?" Renewed anger gave force to Natalie's words.

"You deserve much more than that. So much more." With the hushed admission a dark anguish wrenched Knight's insides, and he closed his eyes against the excruciating torture. Deep in his heart he knew he would never be the one to give Natalie the happiness she deserved. Never.

Again, light footsteps brought Nat to stand behind the vampire. Her fingers touched his arm and the warmth from the delicate contact nearly sent Knight to his knees. He desperately wanted it, needed it, craved it. The heat permeated his cold flesh, and Nick stood stone still basking in the intoxicating sensation. He'd had a taste of the delicious closeness, and he wanted more, much more. How could he find the will to give it up, to give her up?

'I will deprive you of the mortal that you love,....'

LaCroix's threat invaded Knight's mind once more. It was a blast of arctic air on Nick's heated thoughts, and he worked to smother the dangerous longing as a shiver rippled down his spine.

" to me, Nick." Natalie pleaded softly.

The solemn need in Nat's voice conjured a crushing guilt, and the desire to pull her to him and comfort her flooded the vampire's being.

No. I can't. I won't. Knight stuffed his hands into the pockets of his pants as he fought the sudden impulse.

Opening his eyes, Nick broke the contact with Natalie, walking to stand at one of the iron-clad windows. The craving to hold her in his arms, however, continued to gnaw at him, the distance he put between them not having much of an effect. He had to get through this, somehow. He had to.

"Damn it, Nick. Look at me."

Nat's frustrated demand stirred the immortal's shame, his jaw clenching against the unwanted emotion. Was he really such a coward? That he couldn't face Natalie as she confronted him? No. It wasn't so much fear of the confrontation. He and Nat had disagreed in the past, on many different things. No, it was the fear of looking at her, watching her, of seeing her beautiful eyes shadowed with pain. A pain he was responsible for. The sight would blur his objective, obscure his purpose. Did he have the strength to look through the sadness and do what had to be done to protect her? Yes. LaCroix had given him no choice.

Knight took a deep breath and turned to face Natalie. His back stiffened as he drew himself up to his full height, foolishly hoping the gesture would somehow reinforce his courage.

She stood before him proud, determined, hopeful and...a little angry. Well, perhaps more than a little. Nick watched, fascinated, as all of these emotions vied for supremacy, the struggle reflected on her expressive face. Her strength of purpose, however, seemed to win out as she looked at him, arms crossed over her chest, waiting for him to confide in her. Knight envied that strength, and prayed he would be a match for it.

But when Nick looked into Natalie's eyes, he doubted his ability. The deep sorrow lurking there clawed at his gut, his biggest fear realized. Something inside him started to ache as he recognized the grief, a grief of his making. A pain he had the power to ease, but wouldn't, couldn't. The need to turn away from Nat's profound sadness seared Knight's mind, but he stifled the cowardly impulse.

"I just...just need a" Nick found his voice, the response more hesitant than he would have liked.

Knight groaned to himself. The words sounded even more cliched when he said them out loud. They were true, but at the same time, they were a copout, because they were in no way an explanation. They were convenient. They were evasive. Guilt continued to have its way with Nick as he searched for something else to say. A wave of self-loathing rose in his throat, caustic bile burning the tender skin as his body objected to the betrayal.

The vampire witnessed a shocked surprise register on Natalie's face. She looked as though he'd slapped her. And, when he thought about it, in a way, he had, actual contact the only thing lacking. His mind reeled. He couldn't do this. God! He couldn't do this to her.

"Space? What's that supposed to mean?" Nat's incredulous voice broke through the lengthening silence. "I thought...? Last week...?" Natalie touched an unsteady hand to her forehead, as if desperately trying to think. Her attention shifted to the floor, and she shook her head. "You said we had a good time. I guess I must have had a little too much to drink. I still can't seem to remember much about the evening, but I thought it went okay. A nice friendly dinner." She looked back at Nick. "Now you want space?"

While Natalie had been under LaCroix's influence, Nick used the opportunity to bury her memories of their time together, the tenderness, the admissions of love. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. If Natalie didn't remember, then she would be out of danger. They would go on as they had before, good friends, and LaCroix would have no more reason for suspicion. Nat would be safe. But now, Knight knew it had been wrong. Hell, he'd known it at the time he'd done it, but he'd panicked. His fear had overwhelmed his better judgement, and he'd tampered with something that should have been left alone.

Awkward seconds continued to tick by as Knight quietly berated his meddlesome stupidity, eyes glued on Nat's lovely face. Her wounded expression all but tore the heart from the immortal's chest. His cruelty reflected back at him, and the sight was more than he could bear. Pursing his lips, he pushed a rough hand through his hair. With his entire being, he wanted to tell her what had happened and what he had done, but it wasn't possible. Not now.

"It did, Nat. Dinner went...fine." Nick pulled himself from his disturbing thoughts and tried to reassure Natalie. He failed miserably. He wanted to tell her that everything had gone great, wonderful, but couldn't quite bring himself to that level of enthusiasm. Somehow, it would compound a falsehood he already detested himself for fabricating.

"Fine? Is that all you have to say? Fine?" Natalie stared at Nick, hands on hips, wide-eyed and disbelieving.

"There's...nothing say. We had a good time." The vampire repeated his misleading mantra even as the words threatened to get stuck in his throat.

"And now? Things aren't fine anymore? You Whatever that means." Sarcasm dripped from Natalie's last sentence as she seemed to shake off the confusion and regain her resentment.

"It means I need to step back for a while." The unvarnished truth of this particular statement allowed Nick to put some force behind it, his voice unwavering.

Natalie flinched, again looking as though she'd taken a physical blow. This one, however, had been much harder, hurt a great deal more. Her attention moved to fix on something behind Nick's head, as she appeared unable to look at him. She stood silent. The color drained from her face while moisture gathered in her sad eyes. "Step back?" Her sights returned to Nick, immense pain shinning through the hovering tears. "From me."

The desire to gather Natalie in his arms swept over Knight once more. His heart begged him for relief from the hideous torture, implored him to stop the unbearable cruelty and console her. The fierce need took him a step closer to her before he caught himself. Abruptly halting his approach, he closed his eyes against the agony that washed through him.

"Nat, please--" The vampire implored as he found the strength to look at the mortal again.

"No, Nick." Natalie cut Knight off as she shook her head. Her impatience was growing, and she made no effort to hide it. "I don't want to hear it. Are you going to tell me what's wrong?"


"Okay, whatever." Natalie threw her hands up in disgusted defeat. After a second or two of quietly contemplating the floor, she pinned Nick with an angry glare, the threatening tears effectively banished. "I thought we were closer than this, Nick. We're friends. Aren't we? We talk to each other. Why are you pushing me away?"

"Nat, please believe me. It's not you. It's me. I just--"

"Never mind." Natalie's annoyed response interrupted Knight. Taking a slow, deep breath, she walked to stand directly in front of the vampire, her chin lifted in proud defiance. "You get your wish, Nick. I'm outta here. If you don't want to talk, you don't want to talk. For my part, when you're ready to tell me what's really going on, I'll be ready to listen. I only hope that it's soon."

Without another word, Natalie spun on her heel, grabbed her coat from the kitchen chair and headed for the elevator. With the push of the button, the door opened and she disappeared through it.

Tears stung the back of Nick's eyes as he stared at the metal doors, listening to Nat get into her car and drive away. Her overwhelming sorrow continued to hang in the air like a thick, suffocating fog, and the vampire nearly choked on it, his sense of accomplishment nowhere to be found. After all, he'd achieved his goal, hadn't he? He should feel good about that, surely? He accomplished what he'd set out to do. He'd put some distance between himself and Natalie. Some distance? Knight's thoughts faltered. More like a canyon. An irreparable canyon? No matter. If it were true, mores the better, right? Nat would be beyond the reach of his dangerous influence. Yes, it was good. It was terrific. So, why did he feel as if his whole world had just come crashing down around him?

A loud, steady clapping caused Nick to whirl around and face the staircase. His eyes moved up to the railing on the second-story hallway. Seated on the rail, legs dangling over the side, was a man dressed in a black, three-piece suit, a bright smile on his face.

"Very good, Knight. Very good, indeed." The stranger continued to clap as he praised his host, a hardy glee reflected in his voice. "I have to congratulate you. You're doing a wonderful job."

"What the--" Nick's complete surprise colored his hushed tone.

Dumbfounded, the vampire gawked at the man so precariously perched on the railing. The gentleman looked to be in his early fiftys, dark brown hair, short and neat, graying at the temples. He was slender, but well built. Nick got the impression power coiled in the body balancing on his stair rail. The stranger's eyes were green, alight with the smile that lingered on his face. Fine lines were etched at their corners, no doubt from years of smiles and laughter. He was a distinguished looking man, but also hinted at being a jovial one as well.

How could he get in here without so much as an inkling? Knight hunted for some kind of an explanation for the undetected arrival. He hadn't heard another heartbeat enter the loft. For that matter, he didn't hear one now.

Vampire? No. He couldn't feel the presence of another vampire anywhere in the area.

"No, Detective, I'm not a vampire." The stranger seemed to glean Nick's thoughts as he too answered the unasked question. "But I do get around, don't I?"

Lifting one hand from where they both rested on his lap, the intruder appeared to use the motion to raise the rest of his body. Slowly, he rose from the railing, hovered for a second in the seated position, then straightened his legs and began a leisurely decent until his feet settled, ever so lightly, on the floor.

"What the hell?" Dismay washed through Nick as he studied his now grounded visitor.

If this guy isn't a vampire, what is he? The perplexed immortal tried to come up with some kind of an answer. A ghost, maybe? Nick's mouth quirked with a rejection. No, he looks real enough.

"No, not a ghost, either." The older man shook his head. A mischievous light sparkled in his eyes as his smile grew a little wider.

Again, with the Kreskin impersonation. Knight noted quietly, exasperation flickering to life.

Nick closed the distance between himself and the intruder, walking over to stand a few feet in front of him. The immortal noticed that he and the man were just about the same height before an ever-increasing irritation pulled him from the stray observation. "Who are you? How do you know me? How'd you get in here?"

Knight didn't like the situation, not one iota. Although he didn't get a sense of danger from the man, his presence was, to say the least, unnerving. The fact that he seemed to be able to read Nick's every thought was beyond unnerving. It was downright intimidating. The vampire had no idea what or whom he was dealing with, and the uncertainty churned his stomach. He wanted answers, although after what he'd just witnessed, maybe the last question had been unnecessary.

"No need for alarm, Nick. This is a friendly visit. The name's Thaddeus J. Winterbottom. Oh, I've been following your exploits for years now. It's a pleasure to finally meet you." The visitor held out his hand, but when Nick refused to take it, it fell back to his side. "Yes, well-- I've come to congratulate you, Knight. Nothing more."

"Congratulate me? What are you talkin' about? Who are you? What are you? What the hell is this about?" Nick's patience was wearing thin, a frustrated anger building fast.

"Precisely that, Detective Knight. Hell. You catch on quickly."

"What?" Stark confusion usurped Nick's simmering irritation as a puzzled frown creased his brow.

"Hell, Nick. This is about Hell." Thaddeus stuffed his hands into his pants pockets as he smugly considered his host. "And more specifically your journey toward it. Today you pushed a considerable roadblock out of the way. It was admirable, and I wanted to applaud your effort."

"Roadblock? Today?" Knight struggled to follow the inane conversation.

Natalie? The realization hit Nick from out of nowhere. Today he had pushed Natalie away. Pain crept back into the vampire's heart as Nat, and his treatment of her, came to mind.

"Exactly. Natalie." Winterbottom confirmed the vampire's suspicion. "The good doctor was starting to get on ol' Scratch's nerves, but, I would venture to say, he's feeling better now." A happy enthusiasm filtered through the praise. "You handled her very well."

"Scratch?" Knight didn't miss the fact that, once again, the intruder seemed to read his mind, but the reference caught his attention. "As in Beelzebub, the Devil, Lucifer?"

"One and the same." With a satisfied grin, Thaddeus nodded in accord. "I'm sure he's very pleased with you right about now. Your life certainly has gone his way."

Nick's incredulous stare bored into his unwelcome visitor. The conversation was getting way out of control. He still knew nothing about this guy, and now they were discussing Lucifer.

"Okay, let me get this straight." Sarcasm oozed from Knight as he crossed his arms over his chest, a mocking grin plastered on his face. "You've come here to tell me that the Devil is happy with the way my life, for lack of a better word, is going?"

What a shock. Nick added silently, his attitude sobering. If the Devil did exist, and Knight's beliefs told him that he did, Beelzebub couldn't be anything but pleased with the way the crusader had handled his life. But a visitor from down below? That was a little hard to swallow, even for a vampire.

"Yes, I guess you could say that." Thaddeus bowed his head in agreement.

"So, on top of being able to fly, and apparently read minds, you're crazy too." Leaning forward, Knight dropped his arms back to his sides and turned an ear toward Winterbottom, mockery staining his tone. "Ah...what was the name, again?"

"Thaddeus. Thaddeus J. Winterbottom. And I am not crazy." An annoyed frown turned the corners of Thaddeus' mouth. He obviously didn't appreciate the facetious accusation.

"You're not? What are you then?" Knight paused a moment, and a thought hit him. His eyes narrowed with blatant wariness as he focused on Thaddeus's face. "Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me you're a demon?"

"A messenger, simply a messenger." Winterbottom insisted, holding up a hand in protest.

A demon. Great. Just great. How much worse can this get? Knight quietly scoffed as his eyes fell to the floor. He had a loony...something in his home telling him Satan was please with him. Surely, this was a dream. It had to be. Please let it be dream. Unfortunately, he knew it wasn't.

Nick remained silent as he allowed himself to think about the circumstance for a second. Thaddeus wasn't a vampire, but he wasn't moral, either. What then? Knight's thoughts slowed. Was it possible? It sounded nuts, but.... Could the man actually be a demon? Why not? But...what did a demon look like?

LaCroix. The name popped into Knight's head, unbidden. A sad frown tugged at his lips as he again pictured the ancient vampire standing over Natalie. Maybe technically it wasn't true, but in every other sense of the word, his master could fit the bill perfectly.

Nick's mind continued to wrestle with what he was seeing and hearing...and thinking. His religion warned of the Devil and the evil he inflicted on the human race. It also preached of the Devil's henchmen. Demons did Satan's work. Did they fly? Did they read minds? For all Knight knew, they did. Did they have a heartbeat? Why would they? But...he didn't sense evil in his visitor. Malevolence, if it was near, usually made an impression on him. He recognized it fairly easily. Why not now?

"So, Beelzebub is a happy camper again, and I'm on my way to Hell. Tell me something I don't know." Suddenly, Nick felt everything, from his conclusions about the man standing in his living room to his eventual fate. He didn't care. It didn't matter anymore. Besides, if anyone deserved it, he did. He'd done too much. Hurt too many. One, in particular, would haunt him the rest of his days.

"It doesn't bother you? The thought of eternal damnation?" An odd disappointment tainted Winterbottom's tone. For someone who should welcome Nick's defeatist attitude, he seemed genuinely frustrated by it.

"I've had 800 years to get over it." With a casual shrug, Knight turned and walked to the front of the couch. He leaned his head back and looked up through the skylight at the clear, star-filled evening. "I've long since stopped worrying about my soul."

"Ah...but that's not really true is it, Nick?" Thaddeus followed the vampire and stopped opposite him, the coffee table between them. "You worry about it quite a bit, actually. Or you wouldn't be trying so hard to regain your mortality."

Nick's attention returned to his visitor as a deep sadness blanketed his mind. "So, you know about that too, do ya?" For some reason, the surprise just didn't come. "Well, maybe I won't be trying so hard anymore. The possibility of mortality grows more faint with every day that goes by. Success is a dream that will never come true." With a heavy sigh, the immortal closed his eyes against the painful reality.

"Especially now." Thaddeus' agreement was nothing short of triumphant.

"Now?" Knight opened his eyes and looked back at his unwanted guest, curiosity peaked. "Why especially now?"

"Well, Natalie, of course." A short chuckle left Winterbottom. "You know...if you'd tried, you couldn't have screwed it up more than you did. She's as mad as a hornet, on top of being cut to the bone by your rejection. You really did a bang up job, Nick. I've got to hand it to you. I couldn't have done better myself."

That intense ache started again. Nick felt it radiate from his heart and spread throughout his entire body, leaving him weak from the sorrow. What he'd done was unforgivable. Unforgivable, but necessary. The necessity, however, didn't make his cruelty any easier to live with. It merely gave him the guts to follow through.

I'm sorry, Nat. So sorry.

"I did what I had to do." Restless, Knight strode over to the fireplace as he tried to banish the memory of Natalie's pain. Facing Thaddeus, he injected a determined harshness into his voice. "The farther from me Natalie is, the better off she'll be."

"Agreed." Winterbottom nodded as he joined Nick at the hearth. "Your feelings for her are dangerous. Dangerous, indeed." With a fresh smile, Thaddeus gave Knight a good-natured wink. "I can't tell you how proud I am, my boy, that you've chosen to abandon them."

"Dangerous for her, yes. I have to step back." Nick ignored Winterbottom's playful attitude as he was, once again, reminded of what was at stake and what he had to do, the loneliness that lay ahead.

"Dangerous for you, too, Nick." Thaddeus added. "Well, for a successful conclusion to your journey, anyway."

"I, somehow, doubt my destination will be altered." A gloomy acquiescence gripped the vampire when he acknowledged his destiny, his gut tightening with a prevailing helplessness. "Natalie's a mortal, like so many before her, trying to help me with my quest. The only difference is that I love her with everything I am." Nick didn't see a need to try to hide something he knew Thaddeus was already well aware of.

"And that is the danger." A punctuating finger pointed to the ceiling, Thaddeus emphasizing his point. "You see Nick, this past hundred years or so have slowed your journey's progress, what with your search for morality and helping mortals. They've also worried Beelzebub, just a touch. And when Natalie Lambert entered your world, he really got anxious." Winterbottom slid his hand back into his pants pocket. "True love always concerns Satan. It's powerful stuff. It can accomplish miraculous things. But what he hates most is its ability to sap his strength, diminish his power. Nothing makes him angrier. However, you've taken care of that problem. All's right again." Thaddeus flashed a quick grin. "You've surrendered that love. You've given up the one thing that could have stood between you and Scratch, and offered you some chance for a reprieve. Lucifer's back on top. He's back in control. Thanks to you, he's regained his strength.

"What I find ironic is that you don't seem to realize that Natalie, and your profound love for her, have brought you closer to humanity than you've been since the day you were brought across." Thaddeus shrugged. "Oh, maybe not physically. You're still a vampire. You need blood to survive, and so on. The closeness comes more on the spiritual side. And that's the dangerous part, the part that makes Lucifer nervous." Some of the seriousness left Winterbottom as his smile returned. "However, your rejection of Natalie and that love has pulled you back from humanity, separated you from it, as before. When you rejected her, you rejected the closeness. But, that's a good thing, and certainly understandable." A blatant pity clouded Thaddeus' expression, his eyes suddenly doleful, smile gone. "You're weak. You're frightened. You just don't have any fight left in you. You've been beaten. It's just easier to lay down and submit. LaCroix has always gotten the better of you. Why should now be any different?" A smirk lifted the corners of his mouth once again. "As I said before, Lucifer has the upper hand again, and I just wanted to give you a much deserved pat on the back for all your help."

Nick was seething. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, knuckles whiter than normal with the pressure. How he kept from pushing one through Thaddeus' face, he didn't know. What he did know was that he'd heard about all he could stand. Knight's deep scowl tightened his jaw, rage burning through him. Where did this guy get off?

"Just who in the Hell do you think you are?" Nick took a resolute step closer to Thaddeus, his anger barely under control. "You've done everything but call me a coward to my face."
"You said it. I didn't. But--" Thaddeus cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips as he left the damning accusation unspoken.

"It's not cowardice." Running an aggravated hand through his hair, Nick walked back over to the couch. He stared down at the black leather and struggled for a way to counter the hideous allegation. "It's...."

"Fear?" Thaddeus offered, rather caustically. "Kinda the same thing, isn't it?

"No, it's not." Knight continued to argue his case, although, he wasn't quite sure who he was trying to convince, Thaddeus or himself. "I'm backing away for Natalie's sake, to spare her life. LaCroix will kill her, or worse yet, bring her across, if I don't somehow bury my feelings for her. And with her so close, I don't know if I can keep hiding them." Nick's voice dropped to a whisper. "I love her so much."

"Well, as the saying goes, you've got a funny way of showing it." Winterbottom held up his hands in a gesture of surrender when Nick's furious glare settled on him. "But that's all right. As a matter of fact, that's fine. We like that. Hell is full of cowards. They do very well there."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better? Damn it, I'm not a coward." He wasn't, was he? What bothered Knight more than anything was that he wasn't sure anymore.

"If you weren't, Nick, you'd find the strength to keep her close and keep her safe. But, apparently, you don't love her enough to try." Thaddeus slapped his hands together in celebration, his unabashed glee nearly tangible as it permeated the room. "This just keeps getting better and better. You're going to make such a nice addition to Hell."

"We'll see about that." Rage continued to boil inside Nick. He wouldn't let this bastard be right. He couldn't let him be right. He loved Natalie. And, damn it, he wouldn't throw that away. He was strong enough to do this. But...the doubt, like an insidious wound, continued to fester. Could he protect her from LaCroix, keep his feelings locked away?

"What?" Thaddeus' eyes widened with surprise. "Your not going to try to turn things around now, are you? It's a little late, don't ya think?"

"No, I don't. Damn you." Nick held fast to the determination that seized him. He would need every ounce he could muster. "In the end, I may still be a nice addition to Hell, but I'm going to go down fighting."

"Oh, my." A concerned scowl set Winterbottom's mouth as he appeared lost in thought. A few seconds ticked past before he focused on Nick once again, clearly dubious. "So you're going to embrace Natalie's love, cherish it? Are you quite sure you want to do that? Hmmm...Lucifer's not going to be very happy to learn this."

"Pardon me if I don't get upset." The sarcasm was thick, dripping off of Nick's feigned apology like so much honey. However, it completely disappeared with his next words, quickly replaced by a confident resolve. "And yes, I'm sure, very sure."

"Yes, well, we'll see, Nick." A healthy skepticism shadowed Thaddeus' expression, one eyebrow raising as he conceded the possibility. "We'll see if you're strong enough. If nothing else, it should prove interesting. Now, I think it's time you got some more rest, don't you?"

"Rest? I just woke--" The protest died in the vampire's throat as a sudden wave of exhaustion washed over him. His eyelids suddenly felt for all the world as if they weighted fifty pounds apiece.

"That's it. Tomorrow will be soon enough. You can resume your journey tomorrow."

Thaddeus' soothing voice came to Nick from across a great distance as he felt the couch come up to meet him. He fought the growing darkness, but to no avail. In the next instant, all was black.

The stench of brimstone pricked Thaddeus' nose just before he wrinkled it against the unwanted assault. He and Nick were no longer alone. Sliding his gaze from Knight's sleeping form, he eyed the being now standing beside him. With an aloofness born of familiarity, he made contact with the unnatural, red eyes that considered him. A sly smile gave him a glimpse at the mouth full of jagged teeth, the rank odor of brimstone gaining new strength with the subtle movement of the yellow lips. Thaddeus took in the two small horns protruding from his visitor's forehead before he looked back into the amused eyes.

"Ya know, Thaddeus," the demon's voice crackled with a dry sort of roughness, "you're gonna get into trouble. You know as well as I do that your boss doesn't like it when you appear as something you're not. Isn't it against some kind of rule or something?"

"You're lecturing me on ethics, Claudius?" Thaddeus didn't try to stop the incredulous laugh. "This is one for the books. Wait a minute..." Looking around at nothing in particular, he pretended to search for something. "Let me write this date down somewhere." The uninspired smile Thaddeus received clearly told him the playful jab was in no way appreciated.

"Well, now that you mention it, it is a pretty noteworthy day when I have to remind you of the rules."

Thaddeus dismissed the bait with a wave of his hand. "Never once did I say that I was a demon. I just never got around to saying I wasn't. Anyway, what's really bothering you is the fact that your boss isn't too keen on my slightly unorthodox approach."

"Well, he does get a little frustrated with you. But in this case, I guess he won't mind too much. Since there's no chance of your winning. I don't get it, Thaddeus. Why are you even bothering?" The demon walked around the end of the couch to stand behind it, placing large, clawed hands on the back as he looked down on Nick. "You can stick a fork in DeBrabant, he's done. He's been done for about 800 years. You're wasting your time."

Thaddeus' mouth lifted at the corners with Claudius' modern-day reference to Knight. The angel had to hand it to the demon. Claudius did keep up with the times.

"Oh, I don't think so." Thaddeus shook his head, his attention drawn to the sleeping vampire. "And besides, it's my time. I can spend it any way I choose."

"Well, I didn't think beating your head against a brick wall would be one of the ways." Claudius chuckled, a thick sound that came from deep in his chest. The amusement reflected in his blood-red eyes as they moved back to Thaddeus. "He's a lost cause. Admit it."

"I'll admit nothing of the sort." Determination echoed in Thaddeus' voice, as he met Claudius' contented stare. "There's still hope. There's always hope."

"Hope." Claudius rolled his eyes, a peculiar sort of distaste turning his mouth. "Such a wishy-washy word. What is hope? At most it's an uncertain desire. It holds no strength, no destiny. It's a wish for the weak and will do DeBrabant no good at all."

"We'll see." Thaddeus quietly questioned the demon's conviction, his own faith in the hope that he held for Nick steadfast.

"And what about LaCroix?" Claudius abruptly changed the subject with the challenge, as if the master vampire's name would further reflect the futility of the angel's faith.

"Yes, LaCroix is a problem." Thaddeus admitted with a node, a deep sigh echoing his concern.

"Yeah, isn't he though?" Claudius' satisfied grin reflected the immeasurable pride he held for the ancient Roman. "He's a legend. I've got a beautiful set of horns just waiting for him."

"I'll bet you do." Thaddeus couldn't stop his short laugh. "But, he's a problem Nick will have to learn to deal with." A solemn frown pulled the lingering smile from his lips. "And Knight really hasn't done a bad job of it up until now. He can handle LaCroix. However, Natalie is so precious to him that he's not thinking too clearly. The possibility of losing her, either to death or to darkness, has all but paralyzed him. He's got to snap out of it. She can help him. He can't push her away."

"Help him? How?" The skeptical questions shot from the demon as he folded scaly arms across his chest, his stance defiant. "He has no say over what happens to him now. Neither does she. He has no control. He gave that up 800 years ago with his decision to become a vampire. He can't change anything, and neither can you. It's much too late."

"Don't you believe in miracles, Claudius?" The angel's eyebrows rose with a false surprise as he teased.

"Please." The demon brushed aside the notion with a flip of his wrist, as if it was a pesky fly buzzing around his face. "You can't save a soul that isn't there."

"Isn't there? You know as well as I do that Knight still has something to salvage." Thaddeus fervently disputed Claudius' damning assertion. The angel knew better and wasn't about to let the demon get away with it. "It happens sometimes. The darkness didn't take all of his humanity."

"Yeah, yeah. There's an occasional weird exception. And he's one of 'em." Again, Claudius casually dismissed the hope that still existed for Nick. "So what? There's not enough left to make him a candidate for salvation. There's just enough to make his time on earth more painful than it has to be." A wicked smirk touched his yellow lips. "And when I think about it, that's not such a bad thing."

Thaddeus could do nothing but shake his head in disgust at the demon's delight in Nick's suffering. As many times as he'd witnessed the evil cruelty of the beings, he remained immensely sensitive to it. There was no numbness. No calluses had developed. The degree of malice still effected him deeply. And, he supposed, that was the point. He would never, could never, grow insensitive to the beasts and their malevolence. It would sabotage everything he tried to do. Cold complacency would cost him his job. He loved his job. There was too much to be done, too much of Satan's work to undo.

"Oh, and just out of curiosity, why didn't you appear to him as all sweetness and light, with encouragement and love?" Claudius' rough, patronizing voice altered the short silence. "That's the usual scenario, isn't it? Why the charade?"

"LaCroix's threat seemed to have drained all the life out of Nick." Thaddeus again looked down on the serene vampire, sympathy filling his heart. "I wanted to see if I could put some of it back. I wanted to see if I could get him mad enough so he'd want to fight back. Who better than the enemy, come to gloat over his failure? Angelic encouragement would have been nice, but Nick needed to find the drive within himself to keep up the battle. And I think he has."

"For all the good it'll do him," the demon scoffed. "It's a battle that's already lost. The sooner you and DeBrabant realize that, the better off you'll be."

"Thanks for the advice, Claudius, but I think I'll ignore it, if you don't mind." Thaddeus offered a weak smile as his attention shifted back to his determined rival.

"Suit yourself." Claudius shrugged. "I'm just trying to spare you some frustration."

"How generous of you." Thaddeus feigned his appreciation before taunting, "Are you going to stick around and see what happens next?"

"What happens next doesn't matter, Thaddeus." The demon took a step back from the couch as he shook his head, his eyes settling on Knight. "It will change nothing, least of all DeBrabant's fate. What's the word?" He looked up at Thaddeus, brown, jagged teeth peeking through the huge grin curving his mouth. Ah, yes...sealed. But...should that miraculously begin to change, I won't be far away."

With the threat, Claudius dissolved from sight, his triumphant smile the last thing to disappear.

The angel glanced down at Nick, who continued to sleep peacefully on the couch. "Neither will I, Claudius." He quietly promised. "Neither will I."

He was awake, but he didn't open his eyes. Instead, he lay very still, listening.

No heartbeat. He quietly observed. But that doesn't mean anything, does it?

No, it didn't mean a damn thing, not where his visitor had been concerned. But.... Nick allowed himself to view the darkness that began to cloud the skylight. Did he truly have a visitor, or did his overwhelming guilt conjure up one hell of a lifelike dream?

Swinging his feet over the side of the couch, Knight sat up. He looked around to assure himself that he was indeed alone. There was no sign of Winterbottom anywhere, and with the discovery came a sigh of relief. At least, if he had been real, he was no longer cluttering up the loft. Nick had had about all he could take of the distinguished-looking demon. Waking up to find Thaddeus still in his home was not something the vampire was up for at the moment.

With elbows resting on his knees, Knight held his head in his hands. He stared down at the ground, oblivious to what his eyes encountered as he struggled with the meeting he wasn't entirely positive had taken place. It had to have been a dream. Right? That was the easiest, sanest, explanation. There had been no sojourn from a demon, had there? No. That was ridiculous.

However, as the visit had played out, he'd admitted to himself that it wasn't a dream. It certainly hadn't felt like one at the time. Closing his eyes, Nick slowly shook his head. Looking back on it now, he wasn't so sure. Or, maybe, he didn't want to be sure. If it had actually happened, it meant his greatest fear was, indeed, a reality. Although he'd suspected it all along, he now had proof. Ignorance and uncertainty could no longer comfort him, could no longer allow for the possibility of reprieve. He'd learned that Satan's grip on him was real, strong, unyielding. And thanks to his recent behavior, Beelzebub's hold was tighter than it had been in over a century. A bitter smile tuned the vampire's lips. He would make a nice addition to Hell.

But is that all he'd learned from the...dream? And did what he'd discovered mean anything, if it was, in fact, a dream?

Knight raised his head, his sights resting on the gray sheets of metal covering the loft windows. Picking up the remote from the coffee table, he pushed a button. Gears hummed to life, and the protective barrier rose, revealing the twilight-cloaked city.

A quiet sigh escaped Nick as he stood and walked to the window. He scanned the growing darkness, seeing more than he should, more than was natural. Nighttime. A vampire's time. His time. That would never change. He would remain a prisoner of the darkness for as long as he walked the earth. A bitter smirk pulled at a corner of his mouth. Had he really believed he could alter that damning reality? Beat the Devil? Actually, yes. With Natalie to help him, he'd felt more confident than he had in years about the possibility of success. Her conviction, her fortitude, her encouragement had invigorated him, breathed fresh life into his waning hope, shored up his weakening determination. She made him feel a though anything was possible. She made him believe in miracles.

Of course, he'd destroyed all of that last night. The memory of Natalie's devastated expression filtered back into the vampire's mind and his body stiffened against the agony it conjured. His cruelty had successfully pushed her away, and with her, the possibility of miracles. His hope had deserted him when she walked out the door, the desire for the unattainable losing its potency. Without Nat in his life, why would he want to regain his mortality?

"Natalie." The name left the vampire in the form of a haunted wish, a fierce longing moving through him while he momentarily abandoned his torturous thoughts. He didn't try to stop the images that bombarded his mind, his senses. The warmth, the tenderness, the love. His gut clenched tight with the overwhelming craving that seized him, Natalie's skin so soft, so inviting, under his touch. Hesitantly exploring, learning, discovering. Nat's heated, willing body pliant in his arms, as eager for his kisses and he had been for hers. Wanting more, needing more, but shyly reserved as the new feelings worked toward becoming more familiar. A sad smile lifted Nick's mouth. Dear God, she was so very precious to him.

Damn it! No! Relinquishing the window, and the stimulating memories, Knight stalked into the kitchen. Silently, he contemplated the refrigerator door, his hunger stoked by the passionate reminiscence.

He had to stop this. Now. If Natalie was to stay alive, he could no longer indulge his feelings for her. Somehow, he had to cut himself off from them, smother them. If he didn't, his maker would....

God help me...please. Nick closed his eyes as the ardent request entered his mind, a paralyzing dread slicing through him.

LaCroix's threatening presence loomed over Knight like a great, black, thunderous storm cloud, promising to strike Natalie down at Nick's first sign of weakness. Continuing to harbor this intense love for her would surely get her killed or worse, brought across. But even with that horrific menace hanging about him, Nick didn't seem to have any control over his feelings. He loved her so very much. How could he possibly deny it, hide it?

"You're weak. You're frightened." Thaddeus' damning accusations replayed in Knight's head. "You just don't have any fight left in you. You've been beaten. It's just easier to lay down and submit. LaCroix has always gotten the better of you. Why should now be any different?"

A heavy scowl darkened Nick's face as he heard the words again, the same anger that he'd felt the first time bubbling up inside him.

Coward. Was he really? Weak. Beaten. Beaten? Would he lay down and submit, allow LaCroix's threat to take from him the one good thing in his life? Knight's frown deepened as he considered the repulsive possibilities, his rage multiplying with every second that passed. Damn it, he wasn't a coward. He wasn't. But...he was running away, wasn't he? Running from Natalie and the light she offered him, the love.

" don't seem to realize that Natalie, and your profound love for her, have brought you closer to humanity than you've been since the day you were brought across." Again, the demon's words returned. This time, however, they had a calming influence over the vampire. Knight felt some of the fury drain away as Natalie's extraordinary significance in his life was, once more, brought to his attention.

Was Nat truly his saving grace? His way back to humanity? Was his love for her a strong enough remedy to overcome 800 years of evil? Could he keep her safe and allow the panacea to continue working, allow his devotion to guide him away from the hell into which he'd fallen, loosen Satan's hold? A consuming fear abruptly strangled the questions darting through Knight's head, an arctic shudder running down his back. Did he have the strength?

"'d find the strength to keep her close and keep her safe. But, apparently, you don't love her enough to try."

Nick's eyes sprang open and he spun around, fully expecting to find Thaddeus standing behind him, a triumphant smile plastered on the demon's face. The taunt had sounded so clear, so close. A wave of relief rippled over the vampire when he realized he was still alone.

It took only seconds, however, for the relief to be replaced by the returning anger, the vile accusation, once again, hitting him hard. Hell yes, he loved her. He loved her more, more than....

"'ve got a funny way of showing it."

Knight's head snapped toward his left, his eyes darting to the second floor hall as he took a couple of steps forward. He would have sworn the sarcastic barb came from the direction of the upper railing, but as before, Thaddeus was nowhere to be seen.

Taking a few more steps out of the kitchen, Nick stopped and stared up at the empty place on the railing where Winterbottom had first appeared. Yeah, he had a funny way of showing it, but that was the problem. He couldn't show it, not the way he longed to, the way he hungered to. LaCroix would....

The memory of Natalie in the master vampire's arms rekindled the crippling fear. Nick felt it spread through him like a debilitating poison, causing his muscles to shut down, his breathing to falter.

"Hell is full of cowards. They do very well there." The hideous words flashed in Nick's head as he continued to stare at the empty railing, the dread continuing to rip him apart.

The sickening words, however, seem to act like an antidote to the poisonous fear. Tightening his jaw against the brand of coward, Nick slowly moved his head from side to side in a determined rejection. A stalwart conviction crept back into his heart. He could show Natalie his love for her. Not with profound declarations, but with quiet strength. By finding the strength within himself to hold his powerful emotions in check, and by banishing the undermining fear, he could be brave enough to be her friend. He would be brave enough to be her friend.

However.... Would Natalie be willing to give him the chance to try again? Could Nick regain her friendship after all the pain he'd caused? She had a kind, generous heart, no doubt, but had he wounded it too deeply?

Knight closed his eyes, the possibility of her rejection a torturous knife twisting in his gut. If she discarded him, he would truly be lost.

"No!" The vehement denial splintered the silence that enveloped loft, Nick's eyes springing open. He refused to allow his misgiving to defeat him before he'd even begun. Rejection or no, he would have to try.

With that thought in mind, the vampire climbed the stairs and prepared for work, but more importantly, he prepared for, what he hoped, was a renewed journey back toward humanity.

Through the lab door's window, Nick watched Nalalie remove her elastic gloves and toss them into the bio-hazard container before leaning against the counter and closing her eyes, a soft sigh escaping her. A guilty frown tugged at the vampire's lips as he noted the fatigue that seemed to drape around her shoulders, the sadness that reflected in her beautiful features. In the pockets of his long coat, strong hands clenched with regret. He was responsible for the sorrowful, weary picture she presented, and he hated himself for it. His cowardice had done this to her, his cruelty.

Nick's jaw tightened against the dark fear that returned with a vengeance. Had his cruelty been too much? She'd said that she would be ready to listen when he was ready to talk, but had he hurt her too deeply? Would she really want to hear what he had to say?

Knight's thoughts faltered, his troubled gaze falling to the window frame. What did he have to say? How much could he say, without endangering her?

He wanted to tell her the truth. Damn it, he would tell her the truth. But he knew in his heart, he could only tell her so much. Certain things would have to continue to be unexplained, glossed over. A precious confession would have to go unspoken. Tender memories would have to remain buried. Her safety depended on it.

The vampire's uneasy attention rose to once again settle on Natalie. She had moved away from the counter to sit at her desk, her back to the door. With a heavy sigh, Nick placed a hand on the doorknob and turned. As he walked through the door, he mustered his resolve and prayed that Natalie's forgiveness was within his reach.

The door closed behind him with a muffled click.

"I'll be with you in a minute." Nat acknowledged that she was no longer alone, but continued to write in the open file in front of her.

"Take your time. I've got plenty to spare."

The sound of Nick's voice stayed Natalie's busy hand, her head raising slightly.

Knight's heart sank to his feet when, after a second or two, he watched Natalie's back stiffen. The rigid posture reminded him of a wall, a protective barrier that was suddenly erected between them, a defensive mechanism that had never been necessary until now. An ominous sorrow clouded Nick's mind as the gesture registered. He had no one to blame but himself for the tale-tell reaction. His self-loathing sharpened to a razor's edge, the blade of disgust debilitating as it sliced through his conscience.

"What can I do for you, Nick." The frosty words reflected Nataile's posture. She remained seated with her back to Knight, an eerie stillness surrounding her.

"Well, for starters, you can look at me." The vampire took a few more steps into the room, stopping a foot or so from Nat's chair.

Standing stone still, Nick waited. The seconds of chilly silence felt more like days, Natalie seemingly unwilling to face him. Her hesitation rekindled the agonizing dread. Knight felt its inky blackness seep into his mind and cloud his thoughts, blocking out his fragile hope, smothering his delicate determination.

Damn it, no! I won't do this! The vampire struggled against the crippling emotion.

As the weakness threatened to consume him, Nick willed himself to reject it, to banish it from his thoughts, his heart. It wouldn't get him where he needed to be, where he wanted to be. Strength and courage would regain Natalie's trust, secure her love. More than anything, he yearned to recover that faith, shelter that devotion. She had to listen to him. Dear God, she had to forgive him.

Taking another resolute step forward, Knight allowed the desperate longing to filter into his hushed voice. "Please."

With the gentle plea, Nick saw Natalie's shoulders drop slightly, some of the unyielding harshness draining away, and he allowed his hope to return.

With a heavy sigh, Nat laid her pen on the desk and rotated the chair, stopping when she faced in Nick's direction. Lifting her head, she looked him in the eye, but remained seated, and oh so quiet.

The stony expression did little to hide the sadness hovering in her eyes, an answering ache clutched at Knight's heart when he recognized the sorrow.

"I'm sorry, Nat." Nick's apology brimmed with regret as he sought to begin the healing. "I didn't want to hurt you."

"Then...why?" Natalie's brows furrowed with the confusion that entered her voice, the harshness completely disappearing, leaving the stark grief in its wake. "Why did you?"

"I...I only wanted...." An intense shame made it difficult for the vampire to speak, the source of Natalie's pain a dishonor he would never be able to tolerate. "I...needed to protect you."

"Protect me?" Nat rose from the chair, her confusion obviously heightened, her curiosity peaked. "From what?"

"From me...from what I am." Running an unsteady hand through his hair, Nick took a deep breath and ventured closer to the truth he had promised himself he would tell her. "From...LaCroix."

"LaCroix?" Natalie took a step closer to Knight, her perplexed gaze still trained on the vampire's face. "Nick, what are you talking about?"

"He's jealous. He wants to hurt you. I can't allow that." Nick made no attempt to conceal his sudden anger, the statements bitter reminders of his master's malicious intent.

However, even Knight's anger wasn't enough to weaken Natalie's effect on him. As Nick looked down into Nat's lovely, questioning eyes, her nearness suddenly became too much for him, the desire to pull her close and comfort her gnawing at him like some ravenous animal. But he couldn't give in to the craving. The temptation to take it farther would be too great. Turning, he walked to the other side of the room. With both hands back in the pockets of his coat, he faced her.

"Jealous of what?" Nat's confusion began to blossom into irritation as she followed Nick a few paces across the room, the question leaving her in a short huff.

"Of our...friendship." Nick's heart balked at the lukewarm description, his answer echoing the hesitation. "He wants it ended. He doesn't like me being close to you."

"So...because big, bad LaCroix wants it, you do it?" There was little mistaking Nat's dubious tone as her hands were impatiently shoved onto her hips, eyebrows raising in disbelief. "Since when?" Seemingly unable to stand still, the doctor crossed her arms over her chest and took another step forward before continuing, her voice simmering with an undisguised fury. "You pushed me away without so much as a word. I thought I meant more to you than that, Nick. Besides, why listen to him now? I don't give a damn what he wants, and neither should you."

"I give a damn when it means your life!" The forceful pronouncement exploded from Nick as his frustration, edged with an acute fear, made its way to the surface.

He regretted his loss of temper immediately when he saw the color drain from Natalie's lovely face, and he cursed his lack of control. But as he studied her stricken expression, Knight wasn't sure if it was his outburst that upset her, or the information he'd bestowed upon her.

"My life?" Nat's rage vanished. A numbing shock appeared to usurp it, her features growing pensive while she absorbed Nick's meaning. Stunned disbelief tainted her voice as troubled eyes collided with Knight's. "He threatened to kill me?"

"Or worse." The need to impress upon Natalie how much danger she had been in pulled the callous words from Nick, his welling sympathy for her ignored.

"Bring me across." Nat quietly spoke the chilling prospect aloud, its effect obvious, a visible shudder running through her body. Her attention drifted to somewhere on the wall above Nick's head. After a second or two of contemplation, a perplexed frown tugged at her mouth, the question apparent even before it was asked. "Why?"

"I told you, he's jealous." Nick stuck to the truth. It was a vague, non-specific sort of truth, but it was the truth. "He doesn't want to see me happy with mortals."

"But why now?" Nat's sights settled back on Knight, a curious demand shading her attitude. "He's known about our friendship since he came to town. What's different now?"

I'm in love with you! The damning admission burst through Nick's scattered thoughts like a charging bull as his composure, without warning, came crashing down around him, the pointed question knocking him off guard. What could he tell her? Not that. Definitely not that.

With his attention still glued to Nalaie's inquisitive expression, Knight offered a watered down version of the truth. "He thinks we're getting too close."

"Are we?" Nat took a few more steps forward, stopping little more than a foot or so from the vampire, a mischievous, almost sultry, grin curving her lips.

Yes, yes, yes! Again, Nick's thoughts betrayed him, the need to confess ripping through his gut like so much shrapnel.

Knight pulled his eyes from the hope he saw in Natalie's, his gaze falling to the floor. His jaw tightened against the words he longed to utter. Surrendering to the desire would see her dead. Silence would keep her alive.

"We can't." From somewhere deep inside himself, Knight gathered the will to temper his greater want with a simple truth, his voice little more than a whisper when he finally found the courage to speak.

"That's not an answer, Nick." Natalie moved nearer. Raising a hand, she placed gentle fingers under the vampire's chin, forcing him to look at her. The playfulness disappeared, an urgent, serious, need to know dominating her demeanor. "Are we too close?"

The tender contact caused Knight's knees to buckle, but he successfully saved himself the embarrassment of falling to the ground. He couldn't, however, prevent his eyes from sliding shut as Natalie's silky warmth bathed his icy flesh. However, he allowed himself only a few seconds to bask in the luscious heat before opening his eyes. The delicate wish reflecting back at him did a number on his resolve, but he held on to it, somehow.

"Too close?" Of its own volition, Nick's hand left the confinement of his coat pocket to run light fingers down Nat's cheek, the satin skin sending a bolt of awareness shooting through him. His voice sounded thick, husky, to his ears when he continued. "I don't think that's possible. I could never be too close to you. Your...friendship is the one thing in my life that's keeping me sane, keeping me human. Or at least as human as I'm capable of being. The closer we get, the more human I feel. I never want to lose that. It took you walking out of the loft last night to make me realize it."

Reluctantly, Knight's hand fell away from the inviting warmth of Natalie's cheek, once again finding refuge in his coat pocket. He ached to have her in his arms, desire a shape agony pulsing through him from head to toe.

No! Knight warned himself away. LaCroix. Remember LaCroix.

"I am sorry, Nat." Focusing on his master was enough. The resulting remorse effectively squelched the hunger, Nick's need to explain his hideous actions surfacing. "But when LaCroix threatened you I...panicked, I guess. I thought that if I stayed away from you, you'd be safe. He'd leave you alone. Your safety...that's all that really matters."

"But I have some say in that, don't you think?" Natalie's touch moved from Nick's chin to his cheek, a tender determination shining in her eyes. "It's my life, after all. You hurt me, Nick. A lot." Pain dulled the conviction and pulled at the edges of Nat's mouth. "You should have come to me. You should have told me."

"I know, Nat. I know." Nick fought the draw of Natalie's gentle proximity with every once of strength he could muster, his shame aiding in the battle. "I was wrong. Very wrong. But I'm here now, and I'm asking you to forgive me. Please."

"I forgive you, Nick." Raising up on her toes, Nat placed a light kiss on the vampire's forehead. "How could I not? But you've got to remember that we're in this friendship together. That we fight for it together." Removing her hand from the vampire's cheek, the doctor took a step backward, a defiant gleam entering her eyes. "LaCroix's just gonna have to get over it." The gleam, however, didn't last long as concerned apprehension turned her mouth, the frown subtle as the same worry colored her voice. "You think he will?"

"I'll take care of LaCroix." The unembellished honesty of the statement allowed for its resolute delivery.

Nick knew that he, and he alone, would be the one to protect Natalie from his maker. It would be his strength of purpose that would keep the master vampire at bay. The ability to conceal his all-consuming love for Nat that would keep her from harm. He would take care of LaCroix.

"Okay...." The look Natalie gave the vampire was playful, a faint smirk crossing her lips, however the anxiety still remained. "But he's.... Nick, you be care-"

"I'll take care of LaCroix." Knight didn't allow Nat to finish, repeating his pledge, deliberate resolve emphasizing every words.

Nodding her head, Natalie silently accepted Nick's promise, a genuine smile brightening her beautiful face.

When he saw the acceptance, a tremendous wave of relief washed over Knight. Natalie believed him, believed in him. The steadfast faith hovering in her lovely, blue eyes caused the lingering fear of rejection to fade away, a warm contentment taking its place. He hadn't destroyed her trust, and the knowledge empowered his conviction. He would be strong, controlled. LaCroix would not be a problem.

"Alright, we won't talk about you-know-who anymore." Nat's cheerful pronouncement halted Nick's musings. "What we are going to talk about is your protein intake of late. Or should I say your lack of protein intake of late? Ya know, Nick...."

A satisfied smile curved the vampire's mouth as he listened to Natalie scold him for his shortage of cooperation where her protein concoctions were concerned. Her stern, yet upbeat, voice was music to his ears. The relaxed, happy expression on her face made him feel warm all over, or at least, what he remembered it felt like to be warm all over. His eyes never left her as she walked to the refrigerator to retrieve one of the revolting drinks, her mantra of collaboration never missing a beat.

I do love you. So very much. He couldn't have stopped the dangerous admission even if he'd wanted to, the passion rushing through him like a title wave. He would have to have better control in the future, but for now, he let the emotion sooth him.

It gave him immense joy, watching her, listening to her. She was his hope, his miracle. She stood between him and the Devil, a delicate shield against the horrid fate that awaited him. His love for her a cleansing light that warned him away from the dark threshold which stood silent, ready to swallow him. If he would allow it, cherish her and the love he held for her, he just might be able to avoid the dark decent altogether. He just might.

The End