Just in Memory

The sound of something large and fragile falling to its destruction was his first warning. The scream that bounced off the empty walls was his second. Despite his instincts, he left his pistol in his holster, ignoring -- with only gritted teeth and whispered concessions that it would not be needed, would not be heeded -- the urge to grab the gun and be ready to fire.

The scattered lights of the sun cascaded over the floor, revealing the broken slats and desolate and dangerous basement rooms below. He stepped carefully along the one board that seemed to be sturdy, testing it each step of the way. Not that he could do anything should it happen to break. There was nothing to grab onto, and there would be only his own wits and mockery to rescue him. Everyone knew not to enter this building. Everyone knew it was not safe, not even for denizens scurrying out of authorities' reach. Everyone knew...

So naturally this was the only place to go. The frenzied cry still rang in his mind, the terror that wailed in inhuman tones. The only scrap of intelligible voice that had lead him searching after the sudden disappearance of his partner. The only clue he had to find him, rescue him, and bring him back.

He glanced around the building and wished he dared call out. He kept silent, not because he feared the walls themselves would collapse with the outrush of his breath, but rather from the fear that his partner might hear the voice and mistake it for something more horrible than hiding. He might recognize it as something come to Get Him and Take Him Away.

He closed his eyes, briefly, only to feel the rise of pain and confusion and desperation that he had to find him. Had to reach him and somehow, beyond all computable odds, convince him that everything was going to be fine, if he just trusted his partner and let him take him away. He wondered how he was going to convince his death-crazed partner of anything at all.

Three days ago Knight had walked into the police precinct, sunglasses propped on his forehead, fist curled around the stack of files he'd been asked to return. Working at home, he'd explained, when Cohen asked where the hell the reports had gone to. Schanke didn't have the heart to tell him no one believed he was working at home. Everyone knew he was running the con.

It was a con everybody did. Cops, accountants, lawyers, students. Take the paper away from your desk and they think you're working. Hide the work from prying eyes and they can't tell that you only touched the files when you put your feet on them while watching the game, unnoticing that the popcorn and beer were dangerously close to staining the manila. It was a con everyone played, and no one believed. But it worked, somehow. And no one knew why.

But Knight handed over the files, and Cohen found completed reports. She wondered for a moment if she had been wrong about the con this time; she didn't now that a vampire can type at lightening speed and finish an entire report in the time between a phone call from a Captain and his appearance at the station door. Give him a few minutes to account for traffic, for the last of the sun's rays to go down, and figure that he flew instead of drove, and you have it.

But Cohen didn't know, so she figured the con had not been played. Schanke knew, but wouldn't say. The privilege of being partners. He grinned at Knight when he sat down, and gave him a 'way to go.' Admiration for a well-played game.

Then they began again, another round of killer bees and swarming sharks. Schanke sometimes wondered if it would all end up a tie. Then she came in, and everything started to shatter.

She was smiling.

The warehouse taunted him with its silence and dust. Shadows hid everywhere, leaking truth and illusion into corners where a man might hide from his memories. Schanke stepped carefully through the rubble. He wanted to call out, send his voice into places his feet could not go. The weight of a man would bear him down, through the rotten boards and into twilight.

And still he searched, for nothing else could be done. He stayed still after every step, and listened. The entire building was silent. No breezes to creak the doors and rattle the windows, no scurrying feet of tiny -- and not so tiny -- rodents. No panting breath of a man desperate with fear. Schanke looked around. Nothing.

Softly he risked a call. "Nick?" The air seemed to swallow his voice as soon as it sounded, soaking up the volume into thirsty debris. He heard no response. He took the next step.

Boards creaked beneath him. Freezing in place as if motion would make his weight greater, he waited. It wouldn't be so bad if only he knew his partner was in here. But where else could he be? Madman's Alley. That's what he'd said... and this was the only place a man like him could hide.

Nat sat down on the edge of Nick's desk, ignoring his bemused look. His hand rested in still-frame, caught in the act of opening a folder which was now sealed shut beneath the weight of a lady. So close to pinching, instead he moved his hand away.

"Why are you smiling?" It seemed the logical question.

"Because I'm happy." It seemed the logical reply.

Nick laughed, and Schanke told him he'd never become a detective if he asked questions like that. He turned to the coroner and began his interrogation.

"Did you get an ID on the girl?"

"Yup. Got her name, her background... found out why she killed herself. Real sad story, but... ya know, it was kinda dramatic. If you gotta go, this was the way to do it." Her tone reflected her honest sorrow that another person had died. But in the midst of so much death she had learned to respect the times when sometimes death was necessary. Or if not necessary, at least when someone died with passion.

"No death is dramatic," Knight said quietly, as if he knew something she did not. She gave him a quiet look, and they both turned when Schanke spoke.

"If you're going to die anyway, why not be dramatic? Otherwise it's boring." Again the tones of levity revealed the sincerity of grief. Those tones must have been lost on the vampire who insisted again.

"A girl too young to die should not be dramatic. She should not be boring. She should be alive."

Schanke raised his hands in placation. "I'm not arguing with you on that one. But she's dead now. Can't we appreciate something?"

"It seems a waste not to," Nat said quietly. Then she smiled. "Wait till you hear her story. I think you'll agree."

Schanke and Knight looked at her attentively, one not quite agreeing. Their faces turned towards her like children ready for fairy tales, and Nat told them about a stranger's life.

Her name was Rosalie.

She was an only child, of older parents who had apparently despaired of having children. They had lavished her with everything a child could need -- not spoiling her with material goods, but regaling her with tales of her family, her relatives' starry lives and shrouded pasts. They gave her a history and a tangible inheritance in travel to see the homes and the lands and the gravesites. They strove to rebuff the danger that their families would die with them -- no close siblings, cousins, or aunts and uncles still of childbearing age.

She was the last, they told her, and even though they put no pressure on her beyond the normal pressures that she should succeed in school and hobbies and friends, she felt it anyway. What could you tell a child who had to carry the burden of being the sole heir to an ancestry? Tell her she need not marry, have kids, spend the tales she gathered in childhood to ensure that they would last?

Or whisper behind closed doors that she was their only hope, their only chance of seeing the next century and farther into the future. No one told her parents that not everyone survived. Not every family could touch the future. Some had to disappear into the dust to make room for others, selected by chance and circumstance and maybe, if you believed it, natural fitness.

How many family lines had not survived to this night, when three friends sat in a precinct sharing a story two parents had not thought would be the one to endure? Their heritage should have been wrapped in tales of merchants and sailors and homemakers with ten kids and statesmen and artists. Not in a single tale of a young woman's suicide. Or so they'd thought.

They didn't think it now, of course. They'd died two years ago, in a traffic accident. For two years the woman had carried the knowledge that she was the only one -- now totally alone -- to be her family, the only one to persevere and make someone remember her family name. She'd only lasted a short while before breaking under the weight of too many generations on one slender back.

It wasn't the grief for her parents that graced her death. It wasn't even the disappointment that she would never have children of her own. It wasn't even the combined weight of the stories of love and loss and trials of her relatives that had faded to dust.

It was the letter. The letter that told her a side of a story she'd heard, and not heard. A grandmother's sister, who died too young in throes of grief and love, whose life and death had burned in her memory since the first time she heard the story. And whose memory burned in another's heart, as she never knew and never suspected until the damning letter arrived and told her more stories and she realized she had no chance at all.

She died to honour the memory, for she decided she'd rather do anything than let her family line be so disgraced. She left the letter lying there, where it could be found, in case anyone was interested in collecting one more story.

Her name was Rosalie Rochet. And she knew someone was going to die.

He peered into the darkness, suddenly aware of the other in here with him. He looked into the pertinent shadow and discovered a mound of shaking fear and grief. He stepped carefully closer, and knelt down before him.

Nick didn't look up, he didn't even seem to realize that anyone was close by. He had his arms wrapped around his legs, curled into the tightest ball a person could manage and still be able to hold the screams inside. Schanke put his head next to Nick's, and said his name quietly.

He expected no response, and he got none. Gently, as if afraid too much pressure would shatter the shaking body into dust, the dark murky dust that covered everything in here, even the man who'd just walked in a half hour before, Schanke placed his hand on Nick's back. He said his name again.

This time, Nick raised his head. His face was streaked by shadows and dust, obscuring the lines of tear tracks Schanke knew had to be there. How he'd managed to cry so quietly that even a breath could not be heard, he didn't know. He squeezed his hand gently, trying to let Nick know he was truly there.

"Let's get out of here, ok?"

Nick just stared. His eyes looked at nothing, at everything... looked at the face of a young girl beautiful as the sunlight. His lips moved cautiously, as if trying to form the apology, the regret, express the grief he felt and knew no one else on this entire planet could ever understand. But the lines shattered into nothingness before he could put breath behind them and he remained silent as an angel of death held frozen in time.

"Nick... this is no place to fall apart. If you want to go crazy, at least do it someplace appropriate."

A voice, a soft, calm voice he recognized formed slowly around the edges of his mind. The dust took form before him and he saw a man he knew. He listened to the words again.

"More appropriate? Where else but in a broken-down abandoned building where only the mad can survive should I be?" His voice more ethereal than Schanke had ever heard, it sounded more sane than his eyes belied. As if the line had been scripted for him, for dramatic effect. Schanke shifted in his crouch and considered. Almost as if the line were the last...

He placed a very firm hand under his partner's arm and pulled it towards him. Wondering just what the hell he was supposed to do next, he spoke with an instant of inspiration. "Yeah, well, it isn't very fair to her."

Slowly, as if eternity had gathered to live inside his eyes, Nick turned to face his partner, met the steady gaze with the wavering uncertainty of his own. "What do you mean?" The edge in his voice preceded what would have been a grasp at a foolish mortal's throat... if he'd cared.

"I mean, just sitting here going to pieces isn't going to give her the consideration she deserves. Her funeral, Nick. Shouldn't you at least say goodbye?" Schanke knew his guess had to be right. This had to draw him out -- if only for two days, until the funeral of the girl who'd tried to learn to fly. It had to draw Nick back to his sanity long enough for his friends to rescue him. This had to be something he would care about, for what else had sent him here?

Nat had showed them a copy of the letter she'd swiped from forensics. When it had become clear that the death was a suicide and not a homicide, Schanke and Knight had left the remnants of the woman's life behind. No one needed clues so badly they would pay two detectives to uncover it. There were still deaths to prevent, and a simple laboratory scientist and his two capable assistants could unlock the puzzle in their spare time. But the puzzle had drawn one coroner inside, and she'd gathered up those pieces and read them.

And stolen a copy of the letter that had been the harbinger of death. She held it up and read it softly to two men -- one enthralled from the very first word, one only gradually coming to realize just what it was he was hearing, and who then hung on every word. Four eyes stared as if to make the words more clear.

"Dearest Rosalie," the letter began so innocently, as if from a trusted friend. "I hope this letter finds you well. I only recently heard of your parents' death and wish to offer condolences. I know they had so many dreams, had so many hopes for you, their only child. I know you will make them proud with your choices.

"I know that your parents placed great importance on your learning the truth behind your relatives' lives. It is in that spirit of honesty and remembrance that I send you this letter, this story. I know you knew some of it already; but some you could not possibly know for no one but I and another could know to tell it to you.

"It is with great regret that I share this, and I only hope it does not bring you sorrow. Do not let it mar the memory of your family, but know that what I tell you is the truth.

"Your great-grandmother's youngest sister died rather young -- but you know this. She was about your age, perhaps a little older. Your family told you what they knew of the circumstances of her death; needs be that I tell you more. It was no passing stranger that sent your great-aunt to her death. It was her own love, the lover that her family forbid her know.

"She was killed by her cousin, with whom she had committed one of the greatest sins. He cut her throat when she dared spurn him, weakened by the entreaties of her parents. She would give up her dreams, her dancing, to go away to the convent to have her cousin's child.

"In a murderous rage he killed her and ran. His cowardice and pettiness cost her her life; and from the tales of my family, I know he never regretted it. But your family knew what he had done and swore to hide it, cover it up, never let the children know. In spite of all your parents' claims to share with you everything they had, everything of themselves, they never told you this.

"And since I care deeply for you, I have to wonder... how much did they really care for you at all? What sort of parent would give the weight they gave to you, the burden to carry on for all time and sacrifice her own dreams, her own desires? I know you left that application for the school of arts lying in your desk... you are so like your dear aunt, perhaps they were afraid of family traditions recurring.

"Dearest Rosalie, I am sorry. When we met, I fell in love. From your eyes, your words, and your heartfelt smiles, I know you felt the same. But Rosalie, I fear we have done it again. Your great-aunt's cousin ran away, and fathered another child. He was my grandfather. Rosalie, Rosalie, I am so sorry..."

How he got him up to the loft he never quite knew. He only felt the urgency, the desperation, the strength of a friendship carrying a man out of a desolate, ruined building and to a place where he might find sanctuary. Schanke half-carried Nick to the couch, and set him carefully down. Nick hadn't said a word, since Schanke had offered to take him home, take him to the funeral, stand beside him and let him hold onto something that resembled meaningful contact with the world.

Nick stared into the nothingness of his soul, as Schanke closed the doors, and closed the blinds. He stepped over the thick tarp dropped on the floor, which he had used to protect his partner from the boring light of the sun. Glancing back at the shattered shell slumped lifelessly on the couch, he made his way to the kitchen.

Nick didn't move when Schanke appeared before him, holding out a steaming mug. Schanke took one hand and wrapped the fingers around it; some forgotten instinct made Nick grasp it. Schanke sat down on the coffee table, staring at Nick, not wanting to move too far away, as if proximity would allow him to reach in and help guide Nick back out of his soul. When Nick made no move, gave no indication he even realized what was going on, where he was or with whom, Schanke placed his hand under the mug. He guided it to Nick's lips, and tilted it slowly.

Nick drank. When some of the colour returned to Nick's eyes, Schanke spoke. "Do you want to tell me?"

His voice filtered into Nick's brain. A soft, patient voice; someone he trusted, someone who cared. He drank again and then he spoke.

The words came slowly, haltingly, each word and phrase drifted unconnected to the others as Nick tried to verbalize what his broken heart was saying. "She wasn't pregnant. I never touched her -- never. We never even kissed. Until that night. Until the night I killed her. He tricked me, I killed her... sliced her throat to hide the wound. He lied... why did he lie? She didn't have to die. She shouldn't have...

"Rosalie didn't have to die. I killed her... I..." His voice dropped off and returned to that silent place his eyes sought. He barely noticed when a hand raised his, and found a circle of clay pressing his lip. He drank as the warm liquid touched his mouth, swallowing from habit rather than an instinct to survive.

He felt that hand brush his shoulder, and heard that same soft voice reply, "You don't have to take the blame, this time. The letter made her jump; a letter somebody else wrote."

They sat there in silence for several moments before the meaning of those words touched Nick's thoughts. Someone wrote her a letter telling her she ought to die. Someone who knew enough of the truth to twist it into cruel fantasy. Someone... who would do nothing unless it meant cruel pain for Nick.

He raised his head, and saw his own living room form around him. "He did this to me." His voice echoed off the stones, wrapped in sorrow and the ever-familiar rage. His hands tightened, one into a fist, one around a mug -- the smooth clay vaguely reminded him there was something in his hand he ought not break.

His eyes stopped seeing the room, as the vision of his anger swept before him. Once again he had nearly lost the battle for his soul. As his rage overcame his grief for a girl he did not know, and guilt for a love he would never know again, he stood. He didn't see the one who stood up when he did, standing beside him, looking into his eyes for a clue of his intentions.

Nick's rage battered him, and when he would have shouted out his name it collapsed, and he stared in confusion and misery.

"Why does he keep doing this to me?"

He didn't hear the voice that said, "Perhaps you should ask him."

"Why do you think they keep coming back? The ones you love, the ones who sometimes say they love you, the ones who hurt you... the ones you hurt. Are these relationships so... important... that we will keep coming back no matter what we do to each other?

"Why do you keep coming back to me... why do I keep reaching back for you? Why do your whispers haunt my soul... why do mine haunt yours? Do you really love me? Do you know that I really love you?

"Reach out to me tonight, and let me show you the stairsteps of your heart, leading out into the mystical reunion of a connection that cannot die. Reach out to me; I am waiting. I am always waiting.

"The Nightcrawler is waiting for you... are you coming back to me?"

He stared at the radio. He didn't remember turning it on, but perhaps he had. Schanke certainly wouldn't have... would he? Schanke never understood his fascination with this station, this particular DJ; he usually offered the change the station, or snapped it off halfway through a commentary that made Nick wonder what he could ever believe.

Nick glanced over at Schanke. Schanke was driving. He blinked at the realization. How had he missed that? Perhaps if he had not noticed climbing into the passenger side of the car, letting his admittedly more clear-headed partner drive, perhaps he had not noticed when his own hand turned the radio on.

Not that it really mattered. The voice was the same, the words were driving tiny stakes through his heart, like always. Sometimes when he listened to his master's words he thought he found something behind them worth reaching out for... someday. Other times, he heard only cruel torment, taunts and reminders that everything he loved was going to disappear into the dust -- whether from time, or at the hands of a vampire too old and powerful to let such trifles as his child's desires stand in his way.

Nick stared at the radio, not hearing the callers' monologues as they traded souls with their Nightcrawler. Sometimes Nick felt sorry for them; they so obviously thought they had found a kindred spirit, who listened and cared and reached out to them when no one else in the city even tried to understand. What would they say, if they knew the whole charade was for only his benefit? All the words going to only one man, all the messages and the soft supple tone geared only towards touching one man, out of an audience of thousands. Would they feel betrayed? Or would they realize that they could have expected no better? Did something in the Nightcrawler's words tell them his concern was not for them?

Or did they cling to the illusion with a tenacity that made Nick want to scream, knowing that everything they might think they wanted was everything he had to get away from? He wanted to find each of them and tell them, warn them, make them run for their lives... but of course that would do no good. Lacroix always found a away to destroy all his efforts. No matter what those efforts were for.

He wanted to sink down into the seat of the Caddy and let the steel frame of the car protect him from the voices coming over the radio. Instead he let his head fall back and looked up into the stars. The top was down. Another thing he hadn't noticed.

He didn't see Schanke glance over, or hear when the click of the radio cast the voice away. He only saw the stars, mostly hidden behind city lights and smog. Only a vampire's sight could pick out the too-few faint twinklings of the brightest stars. He found himself aching for home, and the wide-open sky.

He wondered if that sky was still open wide, or if the cities had overtaken his homeland, as well. He wondered if he would ever feel like he could relax again, and enjoy something as simple as the stars.

He rolled his head towards Schanke. "Where are we going?"

Schanke's startled look faded quickly in realization that Nick was just not able to track the world around him right now. Grief and despair did that to a person. He wanted to reach out and reassure his partner, somehow, but only answered his question. "We're going to talk to a man about a funeral."

As they stepped inside they heard the music on the speakers.  

"By the last breath of the four winds that blow
I'll have revenge upon Fortunato
smile in his face I'll say come let us go
I've a cask of Amontillado
Sheltered inside from the cold of the snow
follow me now to the vault down below
drinking the wine as we laugh at the time
which is passing incredibly slow
what are these chains that are binding me down?
(All of you die each passing day)
say its a game and I'll come to your side
(You feel your life, slipping away) 

You who are rich and whose troubles are few
may come around to see my point of view
what price the crown of a king on his throne
when you're chained in the dark all alone
spare me life on the name of the lord
(All of you die, each brick I lay)
bring back some light in the name of the lord
(you feel your life, slipping away)  

Nick and Schanke exchanged looks; both questioned the musical selection of the DJ. Nick was used to strange messages over the radio, and he remembered the glee Lacroix had shown when Poe's writing was finally published. The lighthearted way he had curled up by the window and read, sometimes sharing a passage aloud if Nick chanced to enter the room and stay long enough for his presence to intrude on Lacroix' recreation. He remembered the sound of his master's quiet voice, marveling at the passions and frivolities of a man. If anything, that should have been his warning.

Nick shook his head at the memory, and continued through the hallways to the studio. He told Schanke to wait for him in the lobby; Schanke gave him the privacy to rage at the man Nick knew was responsible for the girl's death, responsible for writing the letter. Schanke told Nick to be careful, and to yell if he needed help. Nick just nodded, but knew he wouldn't.

He knew Lacroix would be waiting when he stepped inside the studio. He even expected him to be smiling. He didn't expect the sarcastic applause. He stopped just inside the door. Lacroix smiled tolerant patience at Nick's confused expression. The studio was empty of sound -- even the static of an off-air radio was missing, as if with the crossing of the threshold into the studio, Nick crossed into something deeper, where Lacroix waited knowing that such trivialities as a station could be forgotten.

"Well done, Nicholas. I expected you a bit sooner, but still, well done. I liked the Madman's Alley touch, that was... entertaining." He nodded his head slightly, in appreciation.

Nick stared in utter disbelief. "You... you did this." It was the harshest accusation he could make. That the vampire had deliberately tortured him for his own amusement.

"I wouldn't call it torture, Nicholas." Lacroix' voice snapped, reprimanding the younger one's thoughts. "I would, however, call it an object lesson. I did not send that letter... although I admit I may have... shared some information with a certain young man Miss Rosalie was seeing. I am not responsible for what he did with that information."

"You lied to him. You made him believe your lies, and made him tell Rosalie. You killed her." His voice was shaking in rage, as his mind searched for some punishment that would destroy the pain the older vampire had caused.

"As I recall, Nicholas, she jumped from a bridge. I was nowhere in sight at the time."

Nick watched the self-satisfied look on his master's face, that smug grin, the delight in his eyes... and felt a resurgence of the loathing that had driven him from his side, every time. At the moment he couldn't remember what had ever drawn him back.

"The truth, Nicholas. The truth brings you back to my side. You know it is where you belong. You know that if you did not get caught up in these mortal fantasies of yours, you would not bring yourself such grief. If you had never deluded yourself into loving that dancer, you would no be so tormented now by her memory, or by the death of her young niece. They would simply be the passings of ants... you might even be amused. As I am. As you should be. It's your place, Nicholas. How many times must I remind you?" The exasperation showed in his final words.

"How many times must I tell you, I will never believe you? They are not ants; they are better creatures than you or I will ever be."

Lacroix laughed. "Oh really? Such a noble creature that it will kill itself to escape a little bad news?"

"She killed herself because of your interference, your lies... as far as I'm concerned you are totally responsible." Nick ignored the sting of his master's laughter, tried to ignore the meaning of his words.

"And you aren't? Nicholas, who killed Sylvaine?"

Nick felt his heart crash and burn inside his chest. "You forced me..."

"No, I merely told you what you needed to hear to resume your nature. You are the one who killed her."

"You lied to me... just like you lied to Rosalie. You are responsible." Though the words repeated his accusations, his spirit had started to falter. Every word he spoke was met and parried; this was not the way to fight him, this was not the way to beat him. Nick found himself asking if there was a way at all.

Lacroix stepped closer, still speaking calmly. "What I said or did not say does not matter. I did not lie, not exactly. I may have... allowed her young man to draw an erroneous conclusion concerning his... parentage. I may have even let him harbour the delusion that he was required to atone for some nonexistent sin. But I did not tell him to write that letter. I did not send those men to your dancer's dressing room. And I did not take the woman by the throat and drain her of her blood. I did not push the girl off the bridge. I am only... a spectator of the circus that is your life, Nicholas." His tone lightened dramatically with the last line, as if the terrors he'd described were nothing, nothing at all.

Nick tried desperately to keep the tears off his face, out of his voice. He wanted to vent his rage at the man's plotting, at his games that served to twist his life into something more hellish than... than living as a vampire had ever been. At least when he'd killed, he'd escaped this psychological torture... and his mistakes had been easily washed away. Draining the wrong human resulted in only a small funeral pyre and a quick relocation. Now, as he avoided even sipping their blood, he managed to ruin more lives with his attempts to escape the one who'd made him.

He found himself wondering if it would be kinder, to those he cared for, if he simply went back. He didn't see Lacroix smiling, as he stared into his own head and wondered just what price he was willing to pay in order to find freedom. His own life, perhaps. But the lives of those innocents whose only fault was to cross his path? At least a vampire's kill wasn't accompanied by the grief, the torment of Lacroix' cruel plans. Would Rosalie have been happier dying quickly, rather than being drawn to suicide over a course of several days, haunted by the thoughts of her family, and the shame she thought she'd brought?

The red tears shielded his eyes from the triumph shining on Lacroix's face. As he stepped forward, reaching out to welcome his son home, he heard a mortal heartbeat in the hall outside. He prepared to send the mortal away, moving to Nicholas's side. They both looked over, as Schanke stepped inside the room.

"Ah, Detective Schanke, I believe. So good to finally meet you." Lacroix inclined his head. He wondered if he ought to make this man his midnight meal. He wondered if he could get Nicholas to partake as well...

"Nick? You all right?" Schanke had barely given Lacroix a glance, then focused on his partner.

Nick suddenly wiped his face, smearing the bloody tears but cleaning them off quickly, hoping that in the dim light he hadn't seen. "I'm... all right. I think..."

When he faltered, Lacroix spoke up. "Nicholas has decided to return with me to London. The grief -- of the young girl's death, you understand -- has convinced him to... take a break from police work. I am sure you can understand." Lacroix' smooth tone made it sound as if everything was going to be all right.

Schanke fixed him with a glare. "I don't think so."

Lacroix smiled at the man's audacity. "It is his own decision, Detective. But feel free to ask him yourself..." Lacroix felt confident in his claim; the thoughts and feelings swirling around in Nicholas's mind assured him he was malleable to Lacroix' suggestions.

"Oh, I don't doubt you've convinced him to go with you. But if you're going to convince him by lying to him, then he deserves the chance to hear the truth, and decide for himself what he really wants." Schanke stepped closer to where Nick and Lacroix stood, Lacroix's hand resting possessively on Nick's shoulder. Nick looked thoroughly miserable, but he wasn't trying to get away from the man's reach.

Lacroix smiled. It would be a joy to drain this one of his arrogance, of his blood. "My dear man, I have no idea what you're talking about." His smile was charming, even if you knew him.

Schanke merely replied in a calm voice, "If you want him back, that's fine. You can try to talk him into it all you want. But I won't let you force him, won't let you trick him into thinking he has to go back. Not without telling him the truth."

Lacroix gave a small laugh. This was more fun than he'd expected. "Detective, you have no idea what you're doing." He imagined the expression on the man's face when he felt the fangs sinking deep into his skin.

"Quod ago, scio!"

Lacroix stopped, and blinked. Nick, finally paying attention, looked over at his partner with an almost undazed expression. "Take Latin in high school, Schanke?" He sounded as if he wasn't planning on being present for the entire conversation.

Lacroix glared at Nick, then back at Schanke. "What do you think you're getting into, little mortal?"

Schanke laughed, and Nick had presence of mind to realize it was not a pretty laugh. "You're damned arrogant, Lucius. You really are. I wonder why someone didn't get sick of you long ago, and stake you just to brighten the scenery."

Lacroix's eyes flashed to gold. "You are going to pay for that. Pay dearly..." His voice whipped out like a lash, cracking down on Schanke's back.

"You think I'd come in here and threaten you without some way of protecting myself? Come on. At least ask me what I've got up my sleeve." Schanke sounded as if he were getting some strange pleasure out of finally confronting the one who'd been the source of Nick's torment all these years. He didn't spare a glance at Nick, but kept his gaze firmly on Lacroix.

"All right, what do you have 'up your sleeve'?" Lacroix decided to indulge the man's pretensions.

"Actually, nothing." Schanke held up his hand. "It was in my pocket." The small gun looked unintimidating.

Lacroix considered it with some amusement and asked, "Let me Guess... is it loaded with silver bullets?" His tone taunted, and revealed his delight at the game he knew he would end up winning.

"No," Schanke fired. "Wooden." He moved forward, grabbed Nick by the arm, and pulled him out of the studio behind him. Nick felt as if perhaps he had no idea what was going on. He watched his master fall, heard the scream of rage, felt the reverberating shock in his mind. He reached out at the falling figure, even as he let Schanke pull him away from the scene. Part of him wanted to run back to Lacroix, though whether it was to help him live or help him die, he wasn't sure. He ignored Schanke's questions as they left the station, his mind filled with the image of Lacroix falling, blood spilling out of a tiny hole in his chest.

He looked at Schanke, sitting in the driver's seat. He'd missed that again, apparently. Schanke glanced over and responded to the shock on his face and the uncertainty in his eyes. "Oh relax, Nick. He isn't dead. That just slowed him down. In a couple days he'll be fine... and hopefully by that time I'll have had a chance to talk some sense into that thick skull of yours."

Nick simply stared for a moment, letting Schanke pull the car into traffic and drive several blocks into the night before finding out if his voice still worked. The last few days' worth of grief and confusion echoed in his shaking words. "What is going on?" He suddenly put a couple of pieces together. The mug Schanke had handed him had been filled with blood. "How did you know?"

Schanke smiled. "That, my friend, is a long story. And hopefully one which, by the time I've finished telling it to you, will have convinced you that your master's way is not the only way. You don't have to live like that. You don't have to stay under his control." Schanke's light-hearted tone belied the seriousness of his words, the underlying anger and disgust at what Lacroix had done to his protege.

Nick decided that staring blankly about him was perhaps a better course of action; his battered mind was simply not keeping up with the events of the night. He wanted to scream, he wanted to tear things apart with his bare hands... but mostly he wanted to collapse somewhere and cry until his heart bled. If it wasn't bleeding already.

The night city passed by them, as the car rolled down one street then the next. Images and lights flashed silently against the car's windshield; sounds swarmed in to fill the open air and bounced off again, unheeded. Schanke wondered if his story might not serve to distract Nick from his confusion and pain, but decided that his partner needed time to adjust more than distraction. Time to get his mind back into working condition, because he was going to have some very hard decisions to make very soon. And he was going to have to understand just what he was getting into before he made them. Schanke hoped his partner was up to it. He couldn't protect him after Lacroix healed from his wound.

Silence wrapped itself around the car, until they were parked inside Nick's garage. Then Nick turned to Schanke and asked, "So how do you know?"

Schanke smiled as he got out of the car and headed for the elevator, Nick trailing behind. "It all started when I was studying at the university. I found the most intriguing book... of fables."

Still half out of it, Nick asked, "University of Toronto?"

"Nah. Nineveh." Schanke grinned at Nick, while he tried to figure that one out. They rode up to Nick's apartment in a different sort of silence that had accompanied them in the car. It was a confused and patient silence, where before it had smothered the energy needed to break it with a deafening cloud. When the door slid open, Schanke headed for the den, intending to settle in for a long night. Nick followed, feeling like a lost child.

"I don't understand," he almost whined. He wanted the world to stop throwing him curves, he wanted it to stop spinning around and start making sense, start being predictable and sensible. He wanted a nap.

Schanke gave him a look of sympathy. "I can't guarantee you'll believe me... but just listen, ok?"

Nick nodded warily. "Are you a hunter? Like Liam?" It was the only thing that made sense.

"No. The reason I know about Lucius -- Lacroix -- and about you is because I was around when he made you."

Nick stared at his friend for a moment. He had thought that he was beginning to gain a little clarity on the shifts and waves the universe had been sending him. When he'd sat down he'd thought he could finally begin to get a grasp on the unreality that seemed to permeate the last few days.

Then his partner had to go and lose his mind.

"Schanke... are you going to tell me you're remembering a past life? I thought you stopped calling those 1-900 psychic lines." His light tone only served to underscore his rapidly disappearing clutch on rationality.

Schanke smiled, but it wasn't his usual 'pleased with himself and the world' kind of smile. Rather, this one spoke of sadness and regret, piled upon the experience that comes only from being alive. "No, Nick. I mean I was there. Well, admittedly I was in Italy at the time. But... well, back then we were a lot closer, you know? Everyone knew everyone else. We heard about your coming across within a decade. If Lucius had kept with tradition, you'd have met us. The new kids always used to be brought out to meet everyone..." The sorrow in Schanke's voice echoed across the room, touching Nick in a way he couldn't understand. Nick furled his brow, trying to figure out what Schanke was talking about. He knew what it sounded like, but he knew that was not possible.

"Schanke... you're trying to tell me you were alive eight-hundred years ago?" He found himself speaking softly, moving slowly, not wanting to startle his friend who had obviously gone off the deep end. Nick suddenly stopped that train of thought and realized, perhaps he was the one. Perhaps, in his misery and grief he had let loose his grip on sanity and now his mind was calling forth ghosts of his world and forming them into amusing vignettes to distract him.

Schanke gave him a level stare, and Nick remembered that Schanke had never lied to him. "Nick... I realize this is gonna be hard for you to believe. I don't really have any way of proving it, except by telling you. And we all know that stories can be fiction."

Nick's eyes began to lose their focus. Maybe if he recreated the moment he had lost his grasp, he could reclaim his sanity and rid himself of these dreams. Would the image of Lacroix disappear? Would the image of Schanke? Where would he find himself? Most likely in the hollowed-out building where he'd hidden from his past. No doubt the grief had claimed him there. He started when a hand touched his arm.

"Nick. Would you give me a chance to explain? Lucius is gonna come after you when he's able. You gotta be prepared... you can't just sit here and wait for him to steal your soul."

"He already has." Nick sounded bemused, taking this dream at face value until he could find his way out. He wished Schanke were really there, so he could reach out and find some handhold back home.

Schanke sighed. "You're not even trying, are you?"

Nick glanced at him. "What do you expect? You're trying to tell me you were alive in the year 1228. That's impossible."

Schanke laughed. "Oh yeah? And I suppose it's not impossible that you were alive then?"

"That's different." His voice faltered. If he were a dream, then saying these words would never matter. "I'm a vampire."

"Yeah, so I heard." Schanke's dry tone drew a bit of Nick's attention away from the cascades of grey fog that drenched his thoughts.

"But you aren't." By interjecting a line of logic into the conversation, Nick hoped he could track himself back to reality. Logic was good for reality, wasn't it? He wasn't sure he remembered.

"So how else could I have been alive back then?" Schanke said it, and waited for Nick's reaction. Given the way his eyes were wandering, it was a good bet his mind was wandering far afield as well. The dimness in his eyes was not purely due to the afternoon sun.

"You are not a vampire." There, another piece of information he knew he could believe. He clung to it like it might lead him back. What else did he know, what other pieces of truth could he offer his tormented mind as solace for this maelstrom of confusion? He looked at Schanke. "You breathe. You have a heartbeat... I can hear it right now, in fact. You eat, go outside in the sun... you have a child. You are mortal; you are not a vampire." There. He relaxed. Several lines of truth he knew beyond a doubt.

"Yeah, but I used to be." He said it so casually, as if he were telling Nick it might rain tonight or the Dodgers had won again. But the tension in his shoulders and the concern in his eyes spoke the real truth... the truth Nick had to find, before his master destroyed him completely.

Nick stared at him, and suddenly leaned forward. "You used to be." The words could mean so much, if they were true. Nick felt a rushing in his ears, and wondered if perhaps he was wrong, and this was reality. Nevermind that it was a hell of a coincidence. Nevermind if his partner never acted his age -- older than eight-hundred, older than he himself. But for the chance it might be true he was willing to listen, listen to anything. "How did you come back?"

Schanke hid the wince at Nick's desperate plea. "It's a long story, Nick. Not the way back, that part was simple... once you figure it out. But the reasons... and the things you need to hear so you'll believe me, that's going to take a while to tell."

"Bring me back across and I'll believe you." Nick wanted to reach out, grab him; he had to find some way to convince the man -- the so-called ex-vampire -- to share his secret before this really did turn into a dream. "Please... I can't be this way anymore." It wasn't only the desperation in his voice, it wasn't only the fear tinged with hope in his face, in his eyes, and it wasn't just the flexing of his hands as he kept himself from reaching out to steal the secrets from his friend. It was the myriad of meanings he packed into one sentence, which cried out how much he needed to be free.

Schanke squeezed his hand. "I know, Nick. Believe me, I understand. But there are things you have to know, have to consider before I tell you. I had the way back for a thousand years before I used it. It took me that long to realize I was ready to make the change again. And I can't... be responsible for giving you the secrets without knowing... you're honestly prepared to deal with what it means.

"And I have to be sure you believe me, because otherwise there is no way you're going to believe me when I tell you the way." Schanke sat and watched Nick inhale the words, the promises and warnings. He seemed to brush them all aside and reach out again, for the only thing he really heard... there was a way. Nick leaned farther forward, focusing on only one thing.

"Please Schanke, tell me."

With the burst of sympathy he'd been feeling in the three years since he'd hooked up with Nick, Schanke began sharing his story. He only hoped Nick would be ready to hear it all, and would really hear it all... He'd noticed his young friend had a tendency to listen to only those words which meant something to him. Or those he thought did. But all he could do now was explain and hope Nick could understand.

"I was a student at Nineveh, in old Babylon. It was 729 BC, and I was studying with a man named Madaron. He was my teacher, my mentor, and one night, he became my master." Schanke smiled at the memory. "He was also my best friend." Schanke saw, but ignored, Nick's look of disbelief that said he knew the story could not be true because no one could care for the creature who brought him into hell. Schanke remembered his master, and continued speaking.

Schanke leaned back and watched the walls fade away into a far-off desert. The flashbacks didn't grip him like they used to, but they still had a power of colour and light that could carry him away when he wanted. Especially those memories he'd enjoyed before. Without a glance to the strained and eager, doubting and hoping, young vampire sitting nearby, he told the story he'd not told in a thousand years.

No one had really cared to hear it, in that time.

"I was studying to be an astronomer, and I'd been learning to speak and read some of the Indian languages. Madaron was helping me polish my accent... he always said I sounded like a hoarse rat." Schanke gave a small laugh. "But we spent a lot of time together, studying, pouring over the books that came in. I became a sort of errand boy for him, since he had... a skin condition, couldn't go out in the sun." His tone said everything it needed to -- Nick realized he'd fooled fewer people than he'd hoped with his medical explanation. Then again, if what Schanke was saying were true, he wouldn't have fooled him anyway. He steeled himself to listen, and try to figure out who was going nuts around here. The winds echoed outside, and he heard the dim rustling of the approaching night. Where was Lacroix, he wondered. Would he come here, tonight?

"Madaron told me, one night, who and what he was. We were working so well together, he wanted us to travel and visit the other libraries, at Ashur and Esagila, travel to India and China and Greece. We were... like starving men, who needed to soak up every ounce of knowledge that mankind had uncovered. And in the lifetime of a vampire, so much more could be consumed.

"He explained everything, and after I'd considered it for a year, I let him bring me across. He introduced me to some of the other local vampires, some of them over a thousand even then. Man, oh man I miss talking with them sometimes... The stories Haroc could tell. I never found out if he was making them up, or not. I guess it didn't matter. He died in 971 AD... some shaman caught him, burned him in the sunlight." For a moment his voice died away, and he looked at the wavering image of his friend. The smile and the laugh, the gentle touch of his wit that could flay open the backs of the politicians which were his rage. "I think he was ready to die... either that, or he had a reason not to fight. That shaman was... well, it doesn't matter. He had his reasons.

"Maybe I knew what they were. I'm almost as old as he was, when he died. Maybe I just took another way out."

Nick stared at the unfocused gaze of his friend, recognizing the trance of a memory engulfing the mind. If this were a fairy tale, it was a good one. He opened his mouth to speak, but Schanke continued.

"But Madaron and I traveled together for four hundred years. He taught me everything he knew... he was good to me. He was the first one to complain about the changes... You see, Nick," and the sound of Nick's name was the first clue he had that Schanke still remembered to whom he spoke. "When I came over, folks... did it deliberately. I mean, there was an established understanding... who was turned, and who did the turning. There weren't very many of us, a few hundred, and we kept in touch... hell there was an entire town filled just with vampires, for a nearly six hundred years. Raised sheep and tigers for food. I lived there for a while, but they didn't have the culture human cities did. It got boring after a while.

"But while there weren't rules, there were definitely certain ways you did things. About the time Lucius was brought over, those ways had begun to break down, fall apart... entropy gets us, too, I suppose. Some things immortality can't escape." Schanke's eyes and voice suddenly lost their faraway tone. He said with distinct clarity, "The one who brought Divia over made a mistake. He saved her from a fever, and he'd wanted to take her, raise her as his own daughter. Save her from the kind of father Lucius was. But she left him and turned Lucius. She had no training, beyond a few stories she'd heard from her master. She had no business being on her own... much less making children."

Nick found Schanke staring at him, and he felt as if his partner were searching for a way to say he was sorry. As if by having known what happened, he could have been able to prevent it. He was struck by the memory of a grandmother, faced with the death of her neighbor at the hands of his son. The family tradition of abuse had gone on for so long, and the sixteen-year-old had ended it. The old woman had looked so weak, so pitiful, as she tried to find a way of apologizing for not having stopped it herself. Nick faced Schanke squarely. "Go on."

Schanke began to resume his story when a thought struck him and he smiled. The light transformed the weariness of the story and again Nick had to believe that he did not look his age. Schanke said, "You know, I was about your age when Lucius came over. About a century younger."

Nick matched his smile, then laughed. These words were so unreal, so unexpected, that he had to only be amused by the suggestion of their meaning. That he was sitting at the feet of a grandfather, listening to his life's stories, learning about life and the world from the one who'd lived it before. It was something he'd forgotten, from the time he was nine and his own grandfather had died. He resisted the urge to sit on the floor and gaze upward.

And he felt a stab of jealousy, that once he could have had this, had he been brought over sooner, had his master been a kinder one and given him the community that Schanke said existed. The sorrow of a lost opportunity to have the family stabbed through him and he looked away.

A hand touched his shoulder, and a soft voice told him he understood. It was a moment before Nick realized it had been said in the French of his childhood.

Perhaps his friend was not lying, after all. Then his eyes glowed. Then there was a cure...

"Tell me, Schanke. Please." Nick leaned forward. How could his friend keep this information from him? How could anyone who truly cared, as Schanke always seemed to show he did, prevent or even delay his finding the one thing he'd searched for his entire life? How could Schanke just sit there, and say nothing at all?

"Nick... I told you, you won't believe it until you've heard what I have to say. You've waited eight-hundred years; you can wait one night."

Nick felt his throat tighten -- he didn't want to wait; why should he? But as he looked into Schanke's eyes, he saw the glimmer that said things he hadn't heard before, things which spoke of centuries and lifetimes that echoed much farther into the past than Nick had ever seen. He felt himself falling into that depth, and he suddenly realized that he had never met such an old vampire before. Almost eight-hundred years older than his own master, who had learned from and lived with even more ancient ones. It occurred to him he might stay quiet, and perhaps he would learn something. He felt a faint pang in his heart, that he wanted to learn something about himself, from someone who was willing to tell him.

Schanke smiled as he watched the fading impatience and knew what it meant. When Nick faced him calmly, waiting to listen, he spoke again. "I know what you've been going through, Nick. It's why I got myself assigned your partner. I mean, it was flat luck you became a cop in the same district I was, but once I saw you had, I pulled a few strings. Do you realize how many times I've wanted to say something to you?"

"You did a good job not saying a word." Nick grinned. All those close calls, missed only by Schanke's apparent blindness to his partner's quirks. Now he wondered if Schanke had been laughing good-naturedly at him the whole time. He would have, had the tables been turned.

"Yeah, but now." Schanke shook his head, and he searched for a way to convince his partner. "You can't go back with him, Nick. He's lied to you too many times for you to trust him now. He arranged Rosalie's death. He arranged Sylvaine's... and each time he let you take the blame. You gotta stop doing that, Nick."

The pain returned to Nick's eyes. "But if I hadn't..."

"Nick... I know how you feel. I loved somebody too, once, and I nearly killed her." Schanke's soft confession jolted Nick out of sinking into guilt. He looked over, and saw Schanke staring at him, eyes clear and honest, voice touched with the same sorrow that haunted Nick in his dreams. He wanted to ask, and wondered if he had the right.

"Her name was Sara. I was living in Greece, around 300 BC. Spent a lot of time chatting with the philosophers and orators. It was a real education, you know? And man those guys could drink... I had a house in Athens. I had about a dozen slaves to keep it up. Everyone did, and, to be honest, at that time I hadn't learned that slavery was evil. Unpleasant sometimes, but not... I had bought a few slaves who had been captured when a merchants' caravan had been raided. They were foreigners, and you know Athenians. No one is as good as them. So I got them for a real good price.

"And three years after I'd moved them in, I realized I'd fallen in love with her. She was everything a man could dream of. Beautiful, intelligent, a sharp sense of humour... she even stayed up late debating with some of the students, when they got too drunk to realize they were arguing with a woman. She kept my entire house organized. But what really got me were her eyes." Schanke faded away again, into the memory of those eyes. Nick waited patiently, knowing as well the joy of memories like those.

For several silent moments Schanke watched her smile, listened to her laughter. Admired the way the moonlight glistened in her hair, smelled the freshly laundered fabric of her dress as he smoothed his hand down her shoulder, down her arm. Listened to the stern tone of her voice as she argued with him that Heraclitus had been totally, utterly, inanely wrong about the universe. For a moment he treasured her memory, then he wished her well, and returned to the present.

"When she'd been part of my household for about five years, I decided to bring her across so we could live together. It was almost time for me to leave, and I didn't want to leave her behind. So I told her what I was, and asked her to go with me."

When Schanke said nothing for a moment, Nick gently asked, "She said no?" He imagined the 'almost killed her' might have been required to cover up the knowledge, which Schanke hadn't been able to bring himself to do.

"Oh, she said yes. She asked if we could go to see her family, in fact, before we found someplace to settle for the next decade. I was... so happy. I had never really been in love before. I wanted to give her everything, put her on a pedestal and sing her praise. I wanted to be everything for her, and I tried to be the best husband and master for her I knew how to be." Schanke smiled, at himself this time, and not at her pale enchanting face.

"She stayed with me a hundred years, and then she left." The simple statement vanquished all the pleasantries his story had conjured up, vanishing into the swirls of desert sand that encroached upon his memory like it did every time he called her forth. So many things he found himself remembering when he thought of her. So many things he'd thought he'd managed to forget, so many things he discovered he had forgotten, last time he whispered to the phantom.

Nick was surprised. "Why? Had she changed her mind about being a vampire?" Maybe it was not surprising, after all.

Schanke shook his head. "No. She left because she'd learned everything she felt she needed to know. She never loved me, Nick. She wanted what I had. When I gave it to her, she didn't need me anymore." He took a deep breath, and Nick heard the shudder. "I followed her, and thought about confronting her. Thought about demanding she return, thought about all kinds of crazy things. Killing her. She'd betrayed me, and it hurt worse than I'd ever imagined. She'd spent a century with me, listening to me say I loved her, and she never said a word. Never gave me reason to think she didn't feel the same. I hated her for using me... I wanted her dead."

Nick heard the strength of a hatred that can only come to life when it has been born of passion, turned and soiled into rage. The pangs of love become pains of hate, and only the death of the emotion can enable its victim to survive. Nick knew that emotion well, and he feared it. And he ached, that his friend had felt it, too. He groped for words which might reach out, knowing suddenly that he needed to return the lifeline that Schanke had sent him, the day before as he lay huddled in the warehouse. In all his years he still had never learned to speak the things he needed; he reached out and gripped Schanke's hand.

Schanke held it for a moment, then smiled the same sad smile with which he'd offered his regrets that Nick had been brought across by a master such as Lacroix. As he explained Nick understood why. "Madaron found me, and asked me if I could ever destroy something I loved. I couldn't. So I let her go." His easy words drove home the pain that continued inside him, at the loss and the grief of losing someone he'd cared so much about.

Nick felt the fire of jealousy, that Sara had been given a master who would let her go. "Schanke..." He did not know what appeal he wanted to make, only knew he had to ask. "Please tell me." For when the story ended he would reveal the secret Nick needed to survive... to return to a life he could live.

Schanke nodded, and continued his story.

Nick stared out the window, at the night dark and smooth as ink. He felt the cool, hard wood of the frame where his hand rested. For a moment everything was still, everything was in place, everything made sense. For a moment he saw peace.

He turned and looked at Schanke, across the room flipping through books which Nick had never let him see before -- books collected over the past five hundred years. They'd spent the last few hours delighting in their shared passion for the history of their world, digging through Nick's collection of archeological journals and texts, icons and remnants of cultures they each remembered. The last few hours coating the heavy burden of Schanke's revelations with a light dusting of camaraderie.

For the first time in his life Nick felt secure. He suddenly felt that he could surround himself with friends who cared, understood, and who could help him defend himself against the entreaties of his master. As he stared at his partner, looking for all the world exactly the same as he had last week, just another mortal in the throes of a normal life, Nick felt grateful. Who better to help him, than one who'd gone through it before? And someone who, though mortal, was even older than Lacroix, could surely help protect him. He'd certainly seemed willing.

"Nick, I gotta explain just one more thing, before I tell you. Lucius isn't going to stand back and let you try it. He is going to do everything in his power to prevent you from crossing back. You have to be prepared for that."

"I don't know how to fight him, Schanke. Not and win." Nick's desolate voice had fallen softly as the sun made its descent to the earth. "He always... seems to beat me. I've never withstood him for more than a hundred years."

"Well, if you're mortal you won't need more than a hundred years, will you?" Schanke grinned. Nick laughed, but didn't forget the challenge that lay waiting for him. Lay somewhere, licking its wounds, a bloody bullet no doubt laying nearby fueling its anger. Nick shivered. "Don't worry... I've learned a lot of tricks in the last 2700 years. And in the last fifteen I've had to use several of them. They work."

"Fifteen? That's how long you've been--"

"Mortal? Yeah. Fifteen years ago I finally decided I was ready. I'd been holding onto the way back for one thousand years, asking myself if I could do it, if I were ready to take the plunge. Asking myself if I were willing to die, if it came to that. And I was. And I came back over." Schanke's smile was a small, proud one. Nick's heart leapt -- it was the exact same smile he dreamed of wearing himself. To remember fondly that moment when he'd crossed back over.

"Why did you do it? I mean, why fifteen years ago and not a hundred years ago? Why not five years ago?"

This time his smile was slightly embarrassed. His reason told Nick why. "Myra."

"You fell in love again."

"Well you'd be amazed what love can motivate a person to do. I mean, last Saturday I spent the whole day cleaning the yard."

Nick stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. When he stopped, he realized he now only had to ask the last question. "Why did it take you a thousand years to change back?" He held himself very still, the dryness in his voice and the tremor in his hands revealing the seriousness of his question, the seriousness of the answer. This was it, he told himself. This is the moment which will change everything. Am I ready? He realized the question and wondered quite honestly at the answer. Was he ready to hear it? Was he willing to wait a thousand years for the answer, if that's what it took?

Anything was worth knowing, he realized. If he had the cure, he could wait to use it. Maybe not a thousand years, but he could wait. He tried to calm himself and listen to Schanke's reply.

"I had to be sure I was ready, because if I wasn't, I would have died. The way back... will either bring you over or kill you. And the only thing that will decide which happens is how much you believe. The slightest bit of doubt, and all that's left of you is ash."

The shock ran through Nick like a knife. Here he had thought Schanke simply hadn't been ready to give up his life as a vampire... now he found out it was a matter of life, period. "Are you sure?" Perhaps it was a dumb question, but he had to know.

"I'm sure." Schanke stared at him, willing him to believe the lethal consequences of doubting. "I know five who didn't make it across. Five vampires who vanished into dust because they weren't completely willing to go back." Mercifully, his stern glare softened and he said, "I know five others who made it, and lived long and happy lives as humans. I know it can be done, Nick. And I'll tell you how... but you have to promise me something."

Nick blinked at the urgency of his request, and realized how much Schanke cared about him. He remembered Schanke's statement that he wouldn't share the secret at all, if he thought Nick would use it in haste. He nodded. "Promise what?"

"That you won't use it until you have fully thought everything out. Until you've made plans for dealing with Lucius, and everyone else in your life. Until you've considered what coming back means... and that you won't use it unless you are sure. Don't be so impatient to come back that you destroy yourself, Nick. And this may sound really cold, but if you're wanting to come back to be with Nat, then I'm here to tell you that if you wait a thousand years until you're ready, you'll have fallen in love again."

"I understand, Schanke. Believe me, I have no desire to kill myself. I want to live... but I want to live as a human. Please tell me."

Silence surrounded them for what seemed like an eternity. Should he say it, Schanke wondered. Should he try again to make him understand? Then he steeled himself and told him. "Sunshine."

Nick stared. "What?" Unbidden, he thought of the Monty Python players, 'you got us all worked up and its just a little bunny rabbit.' "Sunshine? But... Schanke, the sun--"

"Burns, yeah I know. Give me some credit, Nick. I'm not jerking you along here. Sunshine burns vampires, and in the full sunlight it burns them to ash. There's been two or three just this past year, here in Toronto. But -- and don't ask me how it works -- but if you really want to cross back, with no reservations, no doubts, then all that will burn is the vampire inside you and it'll leave behind your human self, your mortal body. It may sound crazy, but that's how I did it. That's how you can do it."

Nick let the knowledge sink in. No wonder Schanke had spent so much time warning him, trying to tell him the danger. Sunshine. When he tried it, he would either succeed or die. He knew he wasn't ready yet to make that choice. He asked himself when he would be, and found an answering voice saying that he should ask, would he ever?

Schanke let him ruminate for awhile, then gently distracted him by comparing tales of travel and faraway lands. There would be time enough to decide. There would be forever, if he needed.

When midnight came, Schanke told him he would have another night before Lucius was able to return to trouble him. Schanke promised to return, as well. Nick had nodded, knowing he was going to spend the rest of the night and all of the day thinking. He had so much to consider, and he honestly didn't know what was going to come of it all. He'd tried to express his thanks to his friend, but he'd fallen over his tongue and ended up standing without a word trying to say what he could not.

But Schanke had understood, and he'd given his friend a hug. "I'll see you tomorrow, Nick. Take care..." and he'd stepped into the elevator and Nick had listened as the heartbeat had faded into the distance. A mortal heartbeat in the body of a 2745 year old man. It could be done. Nick smiled into the nighttime. It could be done.

Schanke stood beside his car, and considered lighting a cigarette. He still had to remind himself at times that his lungs couldn't heal themselves as quickly as the nicotine harmed them. He left the pack in his pocket, and considered the night sky.

"Hello, Akham."

He turned, and smiled. "Hello, Sara." She was beautiful as ever. "Thanks for coming."

She shrugged. "We are old friends; why would I not come? You say you need me. I can think of a time or two when you dropped everything to fly to my side." Her eyes seemed to glitter in the moonlight.

He grinned. "I am so glad I forgave you. I can't imagine us fighting, like Nick and Lucius have."

She heard the sorrow in his voice, and reached out a hand to take his. He held it gratefully. "That's why I'm here?"

"Yes. I told Nick how to cross back. But Lucius isn't going to just let him..."

She nodded, and reached into her jacket pocket. It was velvet, a fabric she'd never refused to wear. He remembered the first time she'd discovered its joys... if he hadn't held her back she'd have spent her entire fortune to cover herself and her home. She took out a pack of cigarettes and offered him one.

"No, thanks. Those things will kill me." His voice was laughing at her; she wondered if she saw regret, though, in his eyes.

"I keep forgetting. So... what is it you want me to do?"

"I need you to keep Lucius away from Nick. At least until I can get him ready to protect himself, teach him what he needs to know. While he's still a vampire he shouldn't have much problem. But once... if he crosses back over... Sara, I have to ask you something, it could be... a monstrous favour."

"Ask, Akham. If it is what I'm thinking, it is not so monstrous."

"Nick may not be ready to cross back for a long time. If he isn't... will you keep an eye on him?" He said it hesitantly, as if still not sure his friendship was strong enough for such impositions. Then he finished in a rush, "and... and if he needs it, will you protect him when he's mortal?"

"Of course, Akham. From what you've told me of him, he seems quite likable, a decent man. Besides, fifty years of a mortal's life is not so inconvenient I would forget my oldest friend."

He heard the sorrow in her voice that time. Usually she managed to conceal it from him. "You're still wishing I would come back."

"No, Akham. Not anymore. I have seen you with your family... you are much too happy to give them up. Although I think Myra would make a wonderful vampire..." She teased him, as she had for the last fifteen years.

He smiled. "Yeah, and sometimes I'm sorry I introduced you two. Every time I forget to do something around the house, or forget -- heaven Forbid -- our anniversary, she says she's going to have you make her a vampire, and use hypnotic suggestion on me."

Sara laughed. "What an excellent idea! We'll have to wait till little Jenny is older, of course. Then she can come too."

They laughed, because even though he knew Sara would miss him when his mortal life was over, the jokes were not bittersweet. He and Myra knew their choices and had already decided. Sara knew it, but would not let such trifles prevent her from teasing her friends.

"When will I need to start... distracting Lucius?" She interjected a bit of seriousness into their laughter, knowing that even immortals needed to occasionally work quickly.

"He'll be healed by tomorrow night. I got him with a wooden bullet, right near the heart. He'll be coming for Nick, or for me..."

"No, he won't."

He looked up at the steel edge in her voice and smiled. "Thanks, Sara. I knew I could count on you."

"To protect my friends? You ever doubted?"

"Well, no. How much time do you need, to get ready?"

She shrugged again. "I've heard of Lucius. I would say... half an hour?"

He laughed. "In that case, come home with me. Myra will never forgive me if she doesn't get to see you, before you get embroiled in wicked, nasty plots."

"You make it sound like a drama."

"No, more like a cop show."

After Jenny had been sent off to school -- having woken two hours early to enjoy her aunt Sara's company -- and Myra had left for work, they sat in a darkened room in silence. Sara swirled the goblet of blood that had been warmed to her taste, and watched as Schanke stared into a can of beer. How many days had they spent like this? She didn't know, and for now it didn't matter. When he was gone, it would; it would matter very much. But now she let the memories wait.

"Do you still have some?" She asked softly.

"Yeah." He didn't look up, knew exactly what she was asking about.

"I truly do not mind helping you... but why didn't you do it yourself? A few years wouldn't have mattered."

He looked up, but not at her. "I know. But... I didn't want to. It sounds strange, but even though I have every reason to need to, and even though I know it wouldn't be forever... I just didn't want to. I don't want to go back."

"I understand." She swallowed the sweet blood, and wondered how anyone could tire of the taste, and all that it meant.

"No, you don't." He smiled at her. "You love who -- and what -- you are. You accept my decision. You don't understand it."

"You're right, I don't. But... why do you keep it, then? If you don't want to go back?"

"Maybe because I just want to keep my options open."

"But I would be happy to," she offered.

He shook his head. "No, I..."

"Don't want me to be your master?" She said it, her eyes twinkling with mischief.

"Well, not exactly. I guess... I don't know, to be honest. Maybe I just want it to be my choice, if I ever... decide to do it again. Maybe I'm afraid you'd talk me out of it."

"You're right. I would."

He was surprised at her answer. Not because it was true, but that she would admit it to him. "In a way, that's good to know."

"Does Myra know you have it?"

"Yes. She said... whether I keep it or not, it's up to me. All she wants is for me to talk to her, before I use it."

"Did you the last time?"

He laughed, at the memory of the harsh chastising words Myra had let him have. "No. That's why she said I had to... She agreed I'd done the right thing, but... well she'd been planning a surprise trip to a family reunion, and suddenly I couldn't go. She was upset, but... well, we agreed that I wouldn't do it again without talking to her."

"Sounds wise."

"Yeah... Jenny keeps wishing I'd go back, though. She remembers when I took her flying, though geez she was only four. She's been wanting to ask Nick, but... well, maybe now she can."

Sara returned his smile. "Ah, family. They are so wonderful, are they not?"

Schanke looked at her, clearly and with a sudden vision of what his life had brought him to. "Yes... yes, you are." He wondered if Nick would be able to find the peace and happiness that he had.

She emptied her glass and stood. "Well, I should be resting up, and making plans to torment -- that is, distract -- young Lucius."

"He's only three-hundred years younger than you."

"Are you're saying I'm not young?" Her eyes flashed.

"Oh, of course not!" He held up his hands, warding her away.

Her laughter warmed his heart. "I will see you around, no doubt. And Akham... should your blood ever be spilled, come to me. I will give you more."

He inclined his head, to thank her. As she vanished into the basement he simply stood watching, remembering a time when he had been sent into the dark by the rising of the sun. And he knew what she meant by her words. If he were killed, she would avenge him; if he were wounded, she would restore him. And if the bottle, hidden in the deep freeze in the basement, were broken, she would give him hers to fill another. That bottle, containing the blood of a vampire obtained the night before he saw the sun again. That bottle which had been refilled twice in the last fifteen years.

He wondered if he would tell Nick to do the same, to provide him a way back across, should he need it. Perhaps he'd figure it out, himself. Schanke closed the basement door and went to clean the kitchen, before going to bed.