Nick and company don't belong to me. They belong to Sony. I'm just borrowing

them for this little tale. The rest of the characters are mine.

This is a third season story that takes place between the eps "Games Vampires Play" and "Human Factor".

A Question of the Soul

by

C7

He stared up at the bulging shelves of the store, feeling overwhelmed and confused. The toys stretched as far as the eye could see. There were trucks, cars and motorcycles of all kinds and sizes. There were board games, electronic games and dolls.

What's a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?

He picked up a baseball and tossed it in the air as a smile touched his mouth. Elliot loved going to watch the Blue Jays play. Maybe he would like... Nick shook his head. No. Elliot already had a ball and glove. As a matter of fact, the only child of his good friend Jacob Simmons had more toys than a boy would ever have time to enjoy. Two sets of doting grandparents, along with other family members and friends, had seen to that.

So why are you looking for something to add to the multitude?

It really didn't make much sense. But he wanted his little friend to delight in the gift, and a toy, whether Elliot needed it or not, seemed to be the logical choice. He put the ball back into the bin.

Elizabeth had told him not to worry about getting her son a present. Just his being at the small get-together would be enough to make the youngster happy. But he couldn't show up without a present on the first birthday he'd share with Elliot.

He continued to scan the endless collection of toys as he walked down the aisles. He saw puzzles, stuffed animals, skates, skateboards, tricycles and bicycles.

What do you get a six-year-old for his birthday?

Throughout his almost 800 years, Nicholas Knight had had very few reasons to consider that question.

As he moved along, Nick was so immersed in his search that he didn't notice the woman, whose arms were filled with several boxes, until he bowled into her. The contact sent the parcels flying. Nick reached out to steady the woman as he apologized. "Are you all right? I'm sorry. I didn't see you standing there." He flashed a repentant smile at the frowning young woman as he released her.

But neither Nick's words, nor his smile, appeared to have any soothing affect. An irritated sigh left the woman before she dropped her hands on her hips. She shot him an impatient glare. Her voice was a little louder than it needed to be when she finally spoke. "What? Do you need glasses or something? How could you not see me standing here holding all these boxes?"

Nick frowned at the annoyed words, a twinge of anger rising at her unwillingness to accept his apology.

Hello? Accident.

He took a deep breath and opened his mouth, but quickly decided against the indignant response as he got a closer look at the tired mortal standing before him.

He noted the tendrils of dark hair that had escaped a bun that he was certain had started the day neatly tucked at the back of her head. Her pretty face was drawn with fatigue, and the shadow of circles showed under her brown eyes. She'd let her hands drop from her hips, and her shoulders drooped without the support. The business suit she wore was wrinkled and limp from a long day's wear, and she appeared the slightest bit unsteady on her high heels. She was the picture of exhaustion, and his collision with her had only helped to unnerve her further. Sympathy replaced Nick's anger, his sharp retort quickly forgotten.

Instead, he bent down and started to gather the scattered boxes as she continued to chastise him. "I was lucky enough to find the last red Power Ranger doll. My little boy's been asking for one for months. You better hope it didn't break because of your clumsiness. There's only a little over a month left until Christmas, and I won't be able to get hold of another one in time if it is broken."

Nick had the parcels collected and stacked neatly on the floor by the time she finished voicing her concerns. He picked up the toys, and, as he straightened, became uncomfortably aware of the curious looks he and his victim were receiving from other customers in the crowded store. Again, he tried to smooth things over. "I really am very sorry." He paused a moment to search the woman's face for any sign of forgiveness. He saw none. He forced smile as he continued, a hopeful note in his voice. "The Power Ranger is here on top. It doesn't look any worse for the experience."

The putout mother shot him a skeptical glance. Pulling the doll from the stack, she took a closer look. Her expression soften slightly when she saw that her son's much coveted toy was undamaged; however, she still seemed unwilling to forgive Nick his awkwardness. She put the toy back on the stack and held out her arms. "Well, consider yourself lucky it didn't break."

Nick wanted to make up for the trouble he'd caused. "Can I get you a cart for these?"

The lady shook her head. "No. I'm finished shopping. I just want to get out of here. Can I have my packages back?" She emphasized the question with raised eyebrows.

He tried again. "Will you let me carry them to the check-out lane for you?"

Looking up into Nick's still smiling face, the unfortunate customer again shook her head, her tone continuing to echo with irritation. "No. I think you've done enough. I just want my boxes so I can leave."

"I truly am sorry for the inconvenience." He handed the unforgiving woman her boxes.

Pinning him with another peevish look, she turned on her heel and headed toward the front of the store, leaving Nick staring after her, utterly defeated. There was just no pleasing some beings. Sometimes he wondered why he even bothered. Closing his eyes, he pushed the negative thought from his mind.

Of course, he knew why he bothered.

With a shrug, he turned back to the shelves and resumed his search for the perfect gift, but his enthusiasm was gone. It only took a couple of minutes for him to decide he too wanted to get out of there. He glanced at his watch. It was getting late anyway. He needed to get to the station. There was still a little time before Elliot's birthday. He could continue looking tomorrow. Slowly and carefully he moved through the crowd and made his way to the exit.

Nick sat at the red light staring down at the radio. He reached out to turn it on, but stopped the movement just as he touched the knob. Once again, there was a familiar, gentle tug along the thread that would forever bind him to his master. Tonight, however, he resisted the summons. Even though the malice he held for LaCroix had mellowed over the last several months, Nick was still determined to distance himself from the ancient vampire and the existence he represented. However, Nick was finding it harder and harder to do these days.

Over the months, things had happened in his life that had taken heavy tolls on his resolve. He had worked through them, but not without feeling that resolve slip. The sickness caused by his infection with the disappointing AIDS cure had made him wonder if death was the only type of mortality he would ever know. His hope slipped. The demon possession had given a renewed strength to his desire for human blood, and the recent encounter with the VR game had taken that strengthened desire further by engaging him once more in the hunt and kill. The exhilaration the game had fostered frightened him. His will slipped.

Nick closed his eyes against disturbing recollections. He didn't want to be this thing anymore. He didn't!

The Nightcrawler turned down the microphone and started the music.

Sitting back in his chair, he closed his eyes, allowing every muscle in his body to relax. The turmoil of his son's emotions and thoughts came to him slowly, and a contented smile curved his mouth.

The light turned green, and the horn of the car behind him brought Nick's attention back to the road. He shoved the tumultuous images from his mind.

Taking his foot off the brake, he allowed the Caddy to resume the relatively short journey to the station. Once there, he parked in front of the 96th Precinct building but remained in the car. Tracy would be waiting for him, but his thoughts had wandered back to the child whose upcoming celebration had been the catalyst for the night's minor fiasco at the toy store.

The tension caused by his uneasy thoughts drained away as the happy, young face of Elliot Simmons came to mind. The soon-to-be six-year-old, along with his father and mother, had become very dear to Nick since their circumstantial meeting less than a year ago. Elliot was an out-going, energetic, inquisitive boy who looked up to Nick with all the uninhibited trust and enthusiasm only the innocence of a child would allow. He couldn't resist basking in Elliot's affection, even though the always-present inner voice told him that he didn't deserve it and should discourage the young mortal's ever growing devotion. But Jacob's son brought a joy and light to Nick's existence that he was not prepared to relinquish.

The day he met the boy and his family was still very fresh in Nick's mind.