Fenris (lafenris) wrote in fkficfest,
Fenris
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Bete Noir by Fenris for Foxy11814 (R, gen w/implied pairings)

Title: Bete Noir
Author: Fenris
Beta-Reader: Brightknightie
Recipient: Foxy11814
Prompt: Pairing request: Nick's control of the vampire lapses because of extreme situations on the job, and now Nick believes Natalie finally sees him for what he believes himself to be -- a beast.
Length: ~9999 words
Rating: R for violence, gen w/implied pairings
Warnings: Highlight to view: * Violence, references to child abuse (non-explicit) *

Nick swerved to avoid the idiot who had just cut him off in traffic and winced as the retaliatory blaring horn pierced his eardrums with tiny needles. The sudden pain made him snarl and he felt his fangs drop despite his efforts to hold them back. A disturbing impulse to wheel the Caddy around and follow the driver bubbled up and, alarmed, he strove to calm himself down. As he'd done countless times before, he muzzled the beast and pushed it back into its cage where it prowled, restless and angry and unsatisfied. The effort it required, though, was far more than it usually cost him.

He grimaced uneasily. Natalie's most recent anti-vampire concoction, which Nick had been taking for almost a month now, was playing increasing havoc with his body. He'd had an almost constant low-grade headache against a backdrop of queasiness for the last week or so and it was really starting to affect his nerves.

Nick was sure at this point that it wasn't his imagination; lately his hearing and sense of smell had become much sharper and he was ravenously hungry all the time. He hoped that this meant that his vampire nature was sensing a real threat to its survival as the increasingly potent doses of drugs and nutrients were absorbed into his tissues. It certainly felt like the beast was actively rebelling by seeking to manifest itself more completely in Nick's system.

But the fact remained that for the last few weeks, regardless of his hopes for success, Nick had been continually on edge and the people around him hadn't smelled so very…desirable, so delicious to him in a long, long time. And his blood hunger was becoming more acute by the day.

"I don't know. Maybe I should take a few days off, stay around the loft. This new regimen seems to be getting results, but I'm not completely convinced that they're good results. And to be honest, I'm starting to scare myself a little."

He parked the Caddy outside the station and went in. As he approached his desk, Nick was a little surprised to see Natalie perched on the edge of it, chatting away with Schanke.

The desk phone rang. As Schanke picked it up and started talking, Natalie smiled and gave Nick a little wave. He smiled warmly back at her. "Natalie! It's good to see you. Not that I'm complaining, but why are you here?"

She hopped down off the desk. "Nice to see you too, Nick. I was hoping I could catch a ride with you and Schanke, my car's acting up."

Nick glanced at Schanke, then said, "Sure, no problem." He pointed at the large camera bag slung over her shoulder. "What's that?"

She grinned at him. "It's exactly what it looks like. You must be a detective!"

He returned her grin. "All right, all right. Then I guess the operative question, ma'am, should be why are you carrying it?"

Natalie smiled. "I'm taking a course in photography at the University. You know, I always wanted to learn but Grandma said there were more starving photographers than doctors. So the idea got back-shelved when I went to school." She shrugged. "I finally have the time and money to do it, so I splurged and bought some real equipment, enrolled in the class, and voila!"

Schanke hung up the phone and stood, grabbing his coat off the back of his chair. He headed for the door, tapping Nick on the shoulder as he went by.

"All right, kiddies, hate to interrupt but it's time for Annie Leibovitz to come along with us because we need to roll. Dispatch just asked us to do second response at a homicide scene. I told them we were on our way. Nat, you're welcome to come with, if you don't mind waiting until we're done."

They piled into the Caddy and took off. As they neared their destination, Schanke filled Nick and Natalie in with what sketchy information he'd been given over the phone.

"So far, all we have is that it's an adult female, victim of violence. Husband came home and found her dead, called it in. Sounds like maybe a burglary gone wrong."

"Or a domestic disturbance gone to extremes." said Natalie. Schanke nodded at her. "There is that possibility."

Nick drove in silence as they talked, concentrating on ignoring his hunger.

Inside him the beast paced its endless circuit, whining for release from its cage as the sweet smell of their blood teased it; and deep in his bones the marrow that could no longer produce its own blood called for theirs.

***

The apartment was in a part of town that had once been upscale, but had fallen into lean times. As they approached the building entrance, Nick inhaled and scented a faint air and smell of decay around the entire area, an effluvia of moldy disintegrated plaster and rotted wood with a soupcon of uncollected garbage rounding it out. The residual summer heat radiating from the surrounding walkways and brick buildings added its own simmering note to the bouquet.

"Schank, I don't like this neighborhood."

"Right with you, partner." Schanke checked his sidearm as they approached the entrance to the apartment building. "Where the heck did the uniforms park their cruiser? I don't see it."

Nick looked around, thinking much the same thing. "I don't know, Schank. Around the side, probably. Same thing with the Coroner vehicle, I guess. I hope we're not coming in on the wrong side of the building; you have the apartment number, right?" Schanke nodded.

Nick was starting to feel increasingly uneasy, and glanced over at Natalie. She caught Nick eying her. Looking a little exasperated, she said, "Nick, if you're about to tell me to go back and wait in the car until you call for me, don't bother. I can take care of myself. And besides, in this neighborhood, I really don't want to be sitting out here by myself, even locked inside your rolling fortress."

Nick saw the mulish expression on her cherubic face and sighed inwardly. That was exactly what he'd been about to do, but he knew now that it would be a waste of words. Natalie could get a bit defensive sometimes about people doubting her ability to handle herself in situations. Probably because she got a bit more than her fair share of "What's a pretty woman like you doing cutting up cadavers for the police?" comments along the way. Nick himself had been guilty from time to time of being overly protective of her, and Nat usually wasted no time in letting him know when she felt he was overdoing it.

They entered the building and found the correct number. At the door of the apartment, Schanke knocked and called out, "Metro Police. Open up, please."

A few seconds later, the door opened. A man with receding sandy blond hair and a blank, shocked expression stood there and ushered them in. He was large but not tall, a middle-aged bear of a man with thick arms and a slight paunch. A splash of blood fanned across the front of his shirt, shockingly crimson. Rusty splotches of darker drying blood dappled his sleeves and pant legs.

The smell of blood rose all around Nick like a rising flood. Inside him the beast roused and wailed its hunger, throwing itself against the bars of its cage, frantic. Nick could feel threads of gold weaving themselves into the blue of his irises, and closed his eyes for a moment until he could master himself.

Schanke glanced at the paper in his hand. "Mr. Whitney?" The man nodded.

"Yeah. I'm Tim Whitney."

Nick looked around at the quiet apartment, noticing the complete lack of professional law enforcement and emergency medical personnel. Brow furrowed, Nick asked, "Where are the police? Aren't there any officers here yet?"

At the same time, Schanke gestured at Whitney's bloody clothing, saying, "Sir, do you need an ambulance; are you hurt?"

Whitney looked at them, confused, then looked down at himself. "Oh no, this is…It's my wife. I'm not hurt. She's in the kitchen."

Nick went in, followed by Schanke and Natalie, closing the door on the curious glances of a few neighbors who had peeped out of their doors at the sound of Schanke's loud summons. As they followed the man into the apartment, Nick looked around and asked, "Mr. Whitney, is there anyone else in the apartment? The police should already be here, do you know anything about that?"

The man shook his head, "No, it's just me and my wife. This way." He walked toward the kitchen. The trio behind him exchanged puzzled looks, and followed him.

The woman lying on the kitchen floor in a lake of her own blood was long past any help a paramedic or anyone else in this world could provide. Natalie moved toward her and stopped a few feet away to examine her and the space where she'd fallen. She studied the blood-splashed floor for a few moments, then looked up at Nick in concern as if she'd just remembered that there might be an issue here.

"Ah, detectives, why don't you take Mr. Whitney' statement and call Dispatch to find out where the uniform officers and medical response are? I'll examine…Mr. Whitney, what's your wife's name?"

"What? Oh. It's Jane."

Natalie looked at Whitney, her expression guarded. Nick felt rather proud of her; he hadn't been sure what Natalie's reaction might be to a fresh body at a crime scene, especially one this violent, but so far she was handling it like a trouper. And Nick was glad for the excuse to back away from the overwhelming scent of blood roiling coppery and sharp in his nostrils. In the back of his mind, the beast howled its raging hunger, tearing at its cage.

A quick call to the dispatcher revealed that a street name and number had been garbled and the uniformed officers and ambulance had been sent to the wrong place. "Well, for crying out loud, get them over here, will you?" Schanke snapped into the phone and hung up, rolling his eyes.

Nick shrugged at him. "Hey, Schank, it happens. We can start taking his statement, they'll be here in a few minutes."

Nick and Schanke moved Whitney to the far side of the room, out of direct line of sight to the kitchen, and started taking the man's statement. As Whitney told them about coming home and finding his wife lying in the kitchen in a welter of blood and how he'd futilely tried to revive her, his audience exchanged increasingly dubious looks with each other.

About two minutes into the man's story, Nick knew he was lying. Not only did his voice and body language tell Nick (and to a lesser extent, Schanke) that he was not being truthful; the pattern of blood across the man's shirt told them a very different story about what happened. Nick was intimately familiar with blood and all of the ways in which it left the human body, and knew a major arterial spray pattern when he saw it. As did his partner, Nick could see it in his eyes. This man hadn't come home and found his wife with her throat cut. He'd been standing in front of her when her throat had been cut.

The beast paced back and forth inside its cage in tireless motion, seeking a way out of its confines. Its endless whine was a pitiless constant gradually sanding down the edges of his control, eroding it away grain by grain.

Surrounded by the smell of blood, Nick found that the impulse to lay hands on this coward and simply start breaking things until he confessed to his crime was strong; but that wasn't the way he did things anymore. Instead, Nick locked eyes with Whitney and spoke to him, his tone gentle and confidential. The voice of a trusted friend. Pushing compulsion along the silky threads of his voice, Nick said gently, "Tim, that's not how it actually happened, is it? You should tell us what really happened here. I know you must have had a good reason for what you did, you don't have to hide it."

For a moment Whitney shook his head, confused, and Nick feared that he had a resistor on his hands. Then the man's face smoothed out and his eyes glazed over a bit and he started talking, his voice eerily calm.

"I had to do it; she didn't leave me any choice. She was always interfering with me. Thought she was better than me, thought I was nothing. She was going to call the cops on me; can you believe it? Said I was sick. Had to show her, had to teach her a lesson…"

He trailed off as Schanke and Nat stared at him open-mouthed, astounded for different reasons; Schanke by the man's sudden unexpected confession, Natalie by the fact that Nick was openly using his vampiric abilities to coerce a confession. Nick suppressed a frightening urge to break the man's neck or plunge my hand into his chest, past bone and muscle and pull out his beating heart, show it to him, teach him a lesson--

Appalled at the urgency of the sudden savage impulse, Nick stepped back, swallowing hard against the flood of rage and bloodlust that welled up in his throat.

"Tim Whitney, you are under arrest for murdering your wife. Do you understand?" Whitney nodded, serene. Schanke and Natalie watched as Nick continued, their expressions a mixture of surprise and disgust.

"You have the right to retain and instruct counsel without delay. We will provide you with a lawyer referral service, if you do not have your own lawyer. Anything you say can be used in court as evidence. Do you understand?" Whitney nodded again. "Would you like to speak to a lawyer?"

As he said it, Nick held Whitney's eyes with his own and very slightly shook his head. The man shook his head, mirroring him, his eyes still dreamy and disconnected.

"No. I don't need to speak to a lawyer."

"All right, then, why don't you tell Detective Schanke here what really happened? Tell him why you had to kill her."

Schanke cuffed Whitney and sat him down at the table in the adjoined dining nook to take his confession. Natalie was looking at Nick as if she were torn between congratulating him for making the man confess and berating him for using his vampiric abilities. Nick didn't feel like he could face either one without snapping at her right now. He walked away to stand in the doorway between the dining room and hallway.

Back turned to Schanke and Whitney, Nick struggled to get himself under control while the guilty blood behind him called out to him as its vessel sat at the dining room table sniveling self-justifications for murder at Nick's disgusted partner.

This is no good, no good at all, I have to talk to Natalie about adjusting the dosage or something, my control is slipping more than I ever---

In the middle of his self-diatribe, Nick stopped and cocked his head, sniffing the air. His enhanced senses reached out and a sharp new thread trembled along the lines of his nerves. He sniffed again and knew that there was more blood in this place, different blood.

Nick stalked down the hallway, his senses keenly, almost painfully alert. Behind him he heard Whitney's voice, roused from its glamoured sedation, speaking in shrill, rising tones.

"Hey. Hey! Where's he going? He can't do that; he needs a warrant or something! Hey, come back here!"

Nick found what he sought behind a locked door at the end of the hall. A careless, casual turn of his wrist snapped the lock and wrenched the door open. As he approached the frail body on the bed, a spasm of emotion crossed his face. Then his expression smoothed and became perfectly blank.

She was no more than eight or nine years old, and would never be any older. Nick's face grew more and more still as he looked down, taking in detail upon detail; the dried blood crusted around her nostrils, layer upon layer of bruises old and new. His enhanced senses, especially his sense of smell, told him all of the repulsive details of what had happened in this room.

Inside him, the beast hurled itself against the door of its cage, roaring to him that its rightful prey was mere yards away and as the sight of the pitiful remains on the stained bed called to him for justice, his control simply disintegrated. Nick closed his eyes, the dead child's blood hanging heavy as ancient guilt and penance in his nostrils, and, with a soft cry he flung the cage door wide.

***

Natalie looked up, alarmed at how vehemently Whitney was protesting Nick's going into the back hall of the apartment. Schanke stood up, his hand on his sidearm, and said sharply, "Hey Tim, just settle down. Stay in your seat there, that's a good boy. Wanna tell me why you don't want Detective Knight to go back there? You're not hiding anything are you?"

Suddenly realizing that they only had Whitney's word on whether anyone else was in the apartment, Natalie got up and moved away from the body to stand behind Schanke out of his field of fire, just in case. A similar thought seemed to occur to Schanke and he unholstered his pistol. He snapped at Whitney, who seemed ready to come up out of his chair. "You stay right there, Tim, I'm not kidding. Don't you freakin' move."

He looked at Natalie, obviously wanting to go back Nick up but reluctant to leave her alone with Whitney, even though the man was handcuffed. Natalie went into her jacket pocket and brought out a can of pepper spray, showing it to him.

"Go ahead, Schank. I can deal with him if he doesn't want to stay put."

Schanke gave her an relieved smile and nod, and went into the hallway. Whitney looked at her, eyes suddenly desperate, and Natalie saw that he was perspiring heavily. She brought up the pepper spray and flicked off the safety switch, saying, "I wouldn't do it, Tim. I'm not your wife. And, right now, I'd just love an excuse. Don't tempt me."

Natalie took a moment to glance down the hall after Schanke, then returned her attention to their prisoner. "What a mess this is turning into," she thought miserably. "We are not prepared to deal with this, where the hell are the uniforms?" A motion in the hall caught her eye and she looked back to see Nick moving up on Schanke, far too quickly.

Nick stopped in front of Schanke and took his face in his hands. Natalie heard his voice, dark and thick with compulsion, snarl, "Sleep!" into Schanke's face and Nick's partner crumpled to the floor. A moment later there was a blur and the chair in which Whitney sat shot across the floor as he was swept out of it.

Too stunned to do anything but stare in shock, Natalie watched as Nick, eyes blazing yellow and fangs bared, hoisted Whitney up in the air. One hand was wrapped around the man's belt, the other hand locked securely around his throat. Nick tightened his grip, cutting off Whitney's astonished scream into a strangled aborted cry, and snarled up into the terrified man's face.

"Your own daughter, your own flesh and blood! Filth!"

Natalie watched in horror as Nick brought the man's face down until it was almost touching his and growled, "Go ahead, beg for your life. Beg me like she and your wife must have begged you. Tell me it wasn't your fault. It'll make you taste even better." He grinned, eyes molten above wolfish teeth, and licked the side of the man's face, grin stretching even wider at the high-pitched noise Whitney made, eyes rolling in terror at Nick.

Stumbling back, instinct pushing her away from the predator that her dear friend had suddenly become, Natalie finally found her voice and yelled "Nick, NO!!" as he snarled and buried his fangs in Whitney's neck.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God," she stammered as she backpedaled into the kitchen, simultaneously retreating from Nick and trying to think of a way to get him to let go of Whitney before he drained the man dry. She saw a cast-iron skillet on the stove, snatched it up in one hand and wheeled to run back into the dining room, pepper spray still clutched in her other hand.

***

Rejoicing in freedom and the bone-shaking satisfaction of feeding on this wicked man's blood, the vampire barely noticed as a cloud of fiery mist enveloped his head. It burned, but not like fire or sun, and it only made him growl and seat his teeth more firmly in his prey's neck. He pulled hard, gulping the life-sustaining heated blood greedily down. Then a heavy blow to the side of his head coupled with a metallic bong unseated his teeth and the resulting pain of his cracked skull made him rear back with a roar, turning to face his opponent.

He had just enough time to register the woman swinging the heavy cast-iron frying pan at his head before a second blow across his face staggered him and swung him halfway around. He spun back and snarled, preparing to lunge at his unlucky attacker.

***

Natalie's second swing with the skillet connected just as hard as the first had and rocked Nick back. He let go of Whitney, who dropped like a wet rag, and turned on her, eyes blazing and not a hint of recognition in them. Natalie thought I've had this nightmare before, I remember now, as she screamed in his face.

"NICK!! Wake UP!!"

She forced herself not to do what instinct was screaming at her to do and run for her life. "Don't run, don't run, never run from a predator, it makes them chase you," she chanted to herself as she yelled at Nick again to snap out of it, willing strength into her voice.

Miracle of miracles, Nick stopped and stood still, regarding her with angry citrine eyes as hard as gemstones, a low sing-song growl rumbling in the back of his throat. A hint of confusion crossed his face and he cocked his head, studying her. But just as she felt a swelling hope that Nick was coming back to himself, Whitney spoiled it all by issuing a wet burbling groan from the floor.

Nick's attention snapped back to the downed man and a harsh noise resurged in his throat and bubbled up into a menacing sound as he took a step toward the woman now standing between him and his rightfully claimed prey.

As Nick moved toward her, still growling, yellow eyes narrow and feral, Natalie tried again. Amazed at how calm she managed to make her voice sound, she said,

"Nick, stop it. You know me. Just stop it, you don't want to do this."

"On the contrary, doctor, I think he really does. But he'll regret it later. Nicholas!"

She hadn't even heard the front door open and maybe that's not how he got in, maybe he'd materialized out of smoke like a horror-movie vampire or maybe he'd come down the chimney like goddamn Santa, but he was there and Natalie found herself in the unique position of actually being happy to see LaCroix.

***

For a moment, her voice filtered through the red fire of instinct and blood-hunger and beneath the haze Nick remembered that he knew this woman somehow, that she was important to him. Then his prey moaned in distress and the vampire instantly refocused on his half-finished meal and he hissed a warning at the woman to get out of his way.

He took a step in her direction, displaying a threat that even the stupidest person should have understood and heeded, but she still didn't move. Before he was forced to follow up on it, though, he heard the faint sound of a door being forced open then quickly shut again and the frisson that signaled the arrival of a much older vampire shivered across his senses.

But this aura was familiar to him and the faint snarl that it pulled out of him smacked more of welcome than of warning.

***

Natalie stared at LaCroix, not daring to move and hoping like hell that he'd come to help and not to ask Nick if he wanted to split her for dessert.

The old vampire strode forward, eyes flicking briefly toward Natalie, then she was forgotten as he turned his attention back to Nick. Nick's eyes shaded to a darker gold as he stared back and he smiled at LaCroix and purred, "Mon pere."

As he advanced on LaCroix, part of Natalie was riveted by the fluid grace he displayed and she suddenly realized that she'd never understood how hard Nick must have to work all the time to move like a normal human. The sinuous, pantherlike gait he displayed now was his natural walk.

LaCroix looked torn between appreciating Nick's behavior and being disturbed by it. Disturbed won out, though, and he snapped at Nick.

"Nicholas! Control yourself. Come here!"

Nick stepped up to LaCroix. The old vampire placed his hands on either side of Nick's face and tilted it up toward him to stare into his eyes. Natalie watched, fascinated, as Nick patiently submitted to having LaCroix move his head slightly this way and that, then hold it still as he studied Nick's face. Then LaCroix leaned in and sniffed delicately at Nick's neck, pulling back almost immediately with a faint exclamation of anger.

"Ah, Nicholas, what have you been doing to yourself?" He glanced at Natalie, briefly gracing her with a frosty glare. "His blood is poisoned, he reeks of it. One of your anti-vampirism concoctions, doctor?"

Thrown on the defensive, Natalie hesitated, then threw caution to the winds because she was still too rattled to be cautious. She nodded, "We've been trying a new treatment, yes. And it's been having a real affect on Nick, it's been working well."

LaCroix huffed in exasperation and continued to study his son. Still in yellow-eyed predator mode, Nick simply studied him back, his mouth curved in a gentle smile. One of his hands came up to rest affectionately on LaCroix's shoulder. It distracted the older vampire for a moment, then he shook himself and snapped at Natalie. "It's been poisoning him, doctor. I've been sensing his distress for days, then I felt him completely lose control just now. You're very fortunate I was able to get here in time, otherwise he might have seriously hurt you."

She couldn't help it, because the idea that LaCroix gave a rat's ass about what happened to her was just too ludicrous. "Oh, and that would just ruin your day, wouldn't it?"

He spared her another cool glance. "It would certainly ruin Nicholas' day, doctor. And in doing so would ruin mine by proxy, so you're actually right. It would. Now be quiet and don't interfere. I need to purge this poison from his system so that Nicholas can overcome its effects and bring himself back to the fore."

LaCroix's eyes burned sulphurous and his fangs dropped. He brought his forearm up to his mouth, obviously intending to bite down, then hesitated. Throwing a slightly malicious smile in Natalie's direction, he instead shrugged off his overcoat and undid the top few buttons of his expensive tailored shirt and pulled it back to expose a flash of pale neck and shoulder. He dragged a sharp nail across the white marble flesh, scoring it. Beads of dark garnet-red blood welled up in the cut and LaCroix whispered something in French to Nick, whose eyes burned hot and gold as he stepped in close against his sire and bent his head.

Natalie looked away as Nick sank his fangs into the junction of LaCroix's neck and shoulder and began to suck greedily. After a few moments she looked back. Nick was working at LaCroix's shoulder, eyes blissfully closed. LaCroix brought one hand up to cradle the back of Nick's head, holding it steady while he drank, his own eyes half-shut.

***

The red fog began to lift and Nick came back from behind its mists, feeling his self-control reasserting itself and the vampire receding, humming with pleasure as he savored the healing strength of his sire's lifeblood. Then he woke fully to what he was doing and realized that he was standing in LaCroix's half-embrace with his teeth buried in LaCroix's neck, his sire's rich ancient blood flooding his mouth and senses. And Natalie was standing not ten feet away, watching them.

Gasping, Nick withdrew his fangs and straightened up. As soon as he did, LaCroix removed his hand and allowed Nick to step away from him as if burned by the touch.

Feeling very much like he'd just popped back up out of Alice's rabbit hole, Nick looked around him in confusion. The last he remembered, he'd been in the bedroom looking at that poor child's remains. But now he was standing in the kitchen enveloped in the smell of fresh human blood. And for some reason LaCroix was here, which couldn't be good.

Summoning his customary knee-jerk reaction to LaCroix's unexpected presence, Nick glared at his sire. "LaCroix! Why are you here, what's going on? Did you have something to do with this?"

LaCroix lifted an eyebrow at that and Nick saw something that might have been genuine offense cross his face before it smoothed out into its customary bland amusement. "So suspicious, Nicholas. And so undeserved! I only came to save you from doing something that you'd regret bitterly later on."

The icy comment pierced the last remnants of the atavistic miasma that had overlaid Nick's thoughts and he frowned, concentrating. Like a hung-over drunk recovering flashes of memory from last night's bender, the events of the past fifteen minutes came back to him one by one, dealing themselves out like ugly cards from a demonic tarot deck and showing him what he'd just done in shocking detail.

And Natalie had seen it all. She'd seen him gloat over his prey, seen him tear into a man and half-drain him, seen him purr like an animal and nuzzle against his sire's breast to suckle at his throat. She had finally seen his beast in plain light at last and had been spared none of its repulsiveness.

Shame, hot and crushing, scalded his spirit and made him cringe, folding into himself as he played back in his mind every bestial thing he'd just done. LaCroix had nothing to do with it; Nick had done this to himself. He'd lost control, ripped the skin off his human façade and shown Natalie the corruption and vicious squirming rot that lived beneath it. She had seen his true face and would never look at him the same way again, would never see him without seeing the beast crouched waiting underneath his human mask.

LaCroix was watching him with a knowing expression. Impatiently, yet with an odd tinge of sympathy in his tone, he said, "Nicholas. Berate yourself about this later, please. For now, let's think about damage control."

Nick shook himself and nodded reluctantly at LaCroix. Part of him cared only for what he'd just revealed to Natalie, wanting nothing more than to flee and avoid having to see her disillusioned face. But the other, more practical side of himself realized that unless he wanted to abandon this life here and now to start fresh elsewhere, LaCroix was right. They had a mess to clean up.

As Nick turned to look at Whitney lying half-conscious on the floor, he risked a quick glance in Natalie's direction. She was leaning against the kitchen counter watching him, her eyes wide and thoughtful. As if burned by her gaze, Nick looked quickly away and said, "Nat, please go check on Schanke, make sure he's okay. And call Dispatch again, find out where that ambulance is." He hesitated and swallowed, then continued. "Tell them there's another body in the back bedroom."

She disappeared into the hall. Shortly after that Nick heard a faint cry of appalled disgust and he knew she'd gone into the bedroom. A few minutes later she emerged from the hallway, wiping tears away from her cheeks. On her way to the phone she paused to look down at Whitney, her face carefully expressionless. She spit on him, then walked away to pick up the phone and call the dispatcher.

For the first time in a long while, Nick found himself once more appreciative of LaCroix's long-proven ability to swiftly come up with the most efficient way to cover an indiscretion. A quick rummage through the kitchen drawers produced a meat fork with a pair of tines spaced widely enough to look convincing. LaCroix dipped them in Whitney's blood and then curled the dead woman's hand tightly around the fork handle.

Then LaCroix knelt by the dazed and chalky pale Whitney and hauled him up into a wobbly sitting position. LaCroix slapped the man's cheek lightly to focus his attention, then the ancient vampire snared him easily in his ancient fathomless gaze. Whitney listened and bobbed his head, nodding faintly as LaCroix rewrote the history of what happened for him; that his wife had grabbed the meat fork and stabbed him in the neck, a last desperate attempt at self-defense. He also implanted an urge to confess fully to the police and to hold back none of his shameful behavior when questioned about it.

As LaCroix finished, Nick couldn't help feeling a pang of envy for how superb his sire was at this kind of thing. Nick was no slouch at it himself, of course, but when it came to this sort of mental manipulation LaCroix had a delicacy of touch paired with a steely strength of compulsion that was nothing short of masterful.

As LaCroix let Whitney slide back down to the floor, he swiped a finger through the broad swath of blood drying on his throat, put it in his mouth and licked it clean. He looked pensive, then gave Nick a little smile and a nod.

"Hmm. The taste of the deserving, Nicholas. Well chosen, mon fils."

Nick looked away and a fresh surge of bitter shame flushed his skin along with his stolen blood. He hated it, but couldn't deny that he was feeling better every minute, the blood of his sire mingling with the massive influx of fresh human blood to revitalize him. Feeling clearer every second, Nick looked at his elder.

"LaCroix, you'd better get out of here before the ambulance arrives."

His sire nodded. "Understood, Nicholas. I need to return to the station anyway; my listeners have been treated to the sound of nothing but dead air for almost an hour now. Before I leave, though, I think I hear your partner stirring. Shall I go explain what happened to him before I go, Nicholas?"

Nick shook his head. "No, I can take care of it. Just go, please."

LaCroix left, and Nick found himself still unable to face Natalie. He turned and went into the hallway where his partner was sitting up, looking very confused. It was simple enough while Schanke was in this state for Nick to mesmerize him and suggest that they'd found Whitney bleeding from twin neck wounds when he first let them in, and that he'd collapsed to the floor right after confessing what he'd done.

Schanke let Nick help him up and bring him back to the dining room to sit at the table to wait for the ambulance. Looking dazed, he shook his head and said, "I passed out in the hall? Really?"

Nick shrugged. "You did. I don't know what to tell you, Schank. You should probably get yourself checked out at the hospital."

The uniformed officers and the ambulance finally arrived, and the ambulance crew loaded Whitney onto a stretcher. They also took Schanke despite his protests, because he'd fainted. A second ambulance came to take the bodies away.

Finally they were done. Still unwilling to look directly at Natalie, Nick said quietly, "Come on. I'll drop you back at the station before I go home to clean up."

The ride to the precinct station was stiff and awkward, Nick keeping his gaze fixed strictly on the road. When they pulled up to the station, Natalie took a deep breath and started to speak, "Nick, I just--"

He cut her off, shaking his head. "Natalie, please. You don't have to say anything, I understand. Tell Captain Cohen that I'll report in tomorrow, I have to go home and clean up."

She got out without another word and he drove away from her, refusing the temptation to look in the rearview mirror as he did.

***

Nick parked in front of his building, got out, and walked toward his front door. For the first time that he could remember the smell of blood that permeated his clothing and clung to his skin was making him feel slightly ill and he couldn't wait to get inside and wash it off.

He felt rather then heard his sire arc down from overhead and stopped with a sigh, waiting. Evidently, the lecture was going to come sooner rather than later. With the weight of his grief over the loss of Natalie's regard and the realization that his quest to become human had failed yet again dragging his spirit down, Nick didn't have the strength right now to muster up his usual defiance. Instead, he spoke wearily over his shoulder as the other man came up behind him.

"I don't want to hear it right now, LaCroix. I'm too tired."

He turned to face his sire, who stopped and shook his head at Nick.

"Nicholas, you wrong me. I only want to reassure myself that you're feeling better."

A spark of anger did rise at that, and Nick roused himself enough to snap, "Look, LaCroix. Let me spare you the trouble of having to point it out, please. I let myself hope too much when I felt the changes that this formula were making in me, and I let that hope blind me to the fact that they weren't good changes."

Nick paused for a moment, his shoulders bowed, then reluctantly continued. "It was a mistake to keep taking the formula when I knew it was making me sick, when I felt the danger growing that I might loose control of myself. But I'm healed now. Your blood has purged the poison from mine."

He gritted his teeth; the next part simply stuck in his craw, but fair was fair. "I'm grateful, LaCroix. You stopped me from hurting Natalie, maybe from killing her tonight and you didn't have to. Thank you."

LaCroix sighed. "Nicholas. Can't this incident wake you up to the danger in these attempts of yours? Won't you finally stop this insanity, please? Accept that this is the way that you are, and live the way that you were meant to live. Janette misses you." After a pause, he added in a low voice. "And so do I." At Nick's startled look, he continued.

"Nicholas, we are your family, not them. For the thousandth time, mon fils, you can't go back in time, you can't go back and join them at their campfires again. Like me, you're one of the pairs of eyes that gleam from the darkness surrounding their fire instead. When will you see that?"

Nick stood and looked at his sire for a long, long moment. When he finally responded the grudging anger was gone from his voice, replaced by a gentle regret. "Never, LaCroix. I'm sorry. Never."

Later on Nick tried hard to tell himself that he hadn't seen the look of genuine grief that flashed in his sire's eyes before he abruptly launched himself away from Nick, arrowing up into the dark sky. But when he did, he knew that he was lying.

***

Bone-tired, Natalie parked her car and approached her front door. As she started to unlock the door a shadow fell across her and she whirled, fumbling in her bag for her other can of pepper spray. Then she saw LaCroix standing at the foot of her front steps and she stopped, simultaneously relieved and exasperated.

"Oh God, what do you want? What?! Look, LaCroix, I'm exhausted and I just want to take a bath and go to bed, why don't you--"

In the blink of an eye he was sharing the top step with her, leaning in so they were nose to nose. Threads of feral yellow were creeping into the stony gray eyes and a hint of eyetooth peeped out from under his curling upper lip. Natalie stood paralyzed, heart pounding.

"Doctor, you'd do well to adopt less of a fishwife tone when speaking to me. I am not Nicholas and I have little patience for your incivility. All I want are a few quick words with you and I'll be on my way. Now are you going to invite me in or shall we have this discussion on your front doorstep?"

After a moment she sighed and ushered him in, trying hard to keep her hands from shaking as she closed the door. If he was going to kill her, he could do it as easily on her front stoop as in her house. Once inside, he turned and locked eyes with her.

"Doctor Lambert, I want you to listen carefully to what I'm about to say to you, it's important."

She nodded at him. "I'm listening."

"You've experienced something that few mortals have done and lived to speak of, doctor. You have walked in our world and been aware of us, have had a hand in our lives; something you should die for. While you live, you are a danger to us all. But Nicholas loves you, so my hands are tied in that wise. Doctor, look at me." Startled, she looked up and he locked gazes with her.

Staring intently, his eyes glowing like banked coals, he hissed, "You will, however, immediately cease administering this latest concoction of yours to Nicholas. I won't have him poisoning himself into a deranged state of mind and losing control like that again, possibly in public next time. It would spell disaster for us all. Not to mention that if it occurs again and he happens to kill you that time, it will plunge him into despair and I won't have that."

Furious, Natalie snapped, "I'm not an idiot! I understand that what happened tonight can't happen again. I had no idea that this formula was affecting Nick that badly; he didn't say anything about it to me!"

LaCroix studied her for a moment, head cocked thoughtfully to one side. When he continued, his voice was once more calm and reasonable, almost friendly. "Very well, doctor. I'll consider my point made. Now, I'd like to offer you some advice in appreciation of the assistance you've occasionally rendered our community. You should stop wasting your time with Nicholas and look to your own kind again."

At her raised eyebrow and barely-suppressed eye roll, he elaborated. "Don't mistake me; I don't speak out of jealousy. Personally I rather like you, despite your occasional lack of manners and common sense; traits you share with Nicholas, by the way. This is just a bit of free counsel, doctor, which I'm sure you'll most likely ignore. But do believe me when I say that it's honestly meant for your benefit."

"There is always a price, Dr. Lambert, for mingling your life with one in another world; whether it be the supernatural or simply the wild itself. And that price is usually grief on both sides."

He circled her and leaned in close to continue. His voice became a quietly intimate purr and he almost crooned his next words. "It's intoxicating, isn't it? Knowing such a secret, having a mythical, fantastic creature like Nicholas befriend you, protect you, love you? Having such a powerful being focus its attention and devotion upon you alone? It makes you special, sets you apart from the crowd, doesn't it?" His smile warmed. "Don't all little girls dream at some point of having a magical companion or about falling in love with an enchanted prince under a curse?"

He continued to circle her slowly, his expression sympathetic. "And what a triumph it would be, what a compliment to your abilities, to be the woman who finally redeems him from his cursed existence. It would make you feel like quite the princess, wouldn't it? To transform the cursed creature into a mortal man by the virtue of your magical potions and the power of your love. To be the one for whom he gives it all up; his immortality, his ancient family, his true self, which you finally saw for yourself tonight."

Stung, she snapped at him. "I don't care what you say, that was not his true self! Nick wants nothing to do with that life anymore; you saw how badly what happened tonight hurt him. All Nick wants is to be human again, and you can't accept that!"

LaCroix shook his head and smiled serenely at her. "You're wrong, doctor. I'll let you in on a little secret. If there really were such a thing as a cure for vampirism, I'd probably allow Nicholas to partake of it. Then perhaps he'd finally be able to put aside this unnatural obsession of his with returning to the human state."

Natalie folded her arms and looked at him skeptically. "Oh, come on, LaCroix. Do you really think I'm that stupid? I don't believe that for a second."

He walked into the kitchen and she followed him, watching angrily but not quite daring to object as he opened the refrigerator and started taking out bottles, sniffing at them until he found the ones that contained the culprit formula. As he poured their contents down the sink, he continued.

"Doctor, Nicholas was human for only a few paltry decades. He has been a vampire for almost eight centuries. He may think he remembers being human, but it's like remembering his earliest childhood; he's idealized the memories beyond any hope of accuracy. Nicholas may honestly believe that he wants to return to mortality, but the reality of it would soon disillusion him and he'd come back to me of his own accord."

"The sad truth is that after a few years of you and Nicholas living together as mortals, you'd find yourselves at each other's throats over the most trivial of matters. You, doctor, would find yourself becoming the focus of why Nicholas wasn't truly happy in his new life and he'd come to resent you and the debt of gratitude he owed you. And as for your part, I predict that you'd quickly come to realize this and from there would begin to question every gesture of affection on his part, sensing the resentment beneath it."

"You see, doctor, our Nicholas doesn't like to acknowledge the fact that he can be a bastard all on his own--he needs to be able to blame his troubles on someone else. And with myself out of the picture, you'd be next in line. Every wrinkle, every blemish, every extra pound he put on, every inch that his hairline receded; each frustration and dissatisfaction of his restored mortality would ultimately become your fault in his eyes. I am strong enough to bear that kind of censure from Nicholas, and have borne it for centuries. Would you be strong enough to bear it for the rest of your life?"

Natalie paced back and forth, then finally turned to face him, defiant. "All I can say is that I hope Nick and I will someday get the chance to prove you wrong, LaCroix. Now, if that's all you've got to say to me, I will respectfully ask you to please get out of my house and let me get some sleep."

He inclined his ancient head in mock courtesy and left her alone with her thoughts.

***

Nick called in sick to work the next night, and the night after that. The second night Schanke called him, concerned.

"Hey, partner of mine. How are you holding up? You've never been out sick two days in a row before, do I need to be worried about you?"

Nick felt an almost sickening rush of gratitude for the honest concern in Schanke's tone. Feeling absurdly moved, he said, "Ah, Schank, I'll be all right. You shouldn't worry about me. I just need a little time to myself, to get past finding that girl. I might even talk to the Captain about taking a little vacation time, but you still shouldn't worry yourself. I'll be all right."

Schanke sounded dubious. "All right, Nick, I guess you know what's good for you. At least we brought in the bastard who did it. Hey, Myra says you should come by for dinner Friday night if you're up for it; she'll make her not-so-famous souvlaki-style poutine for you. It's not to be missed."

Despite himself, Nick had to grin. "Very tempting, Schank. Tell you what, I'll think about it and get back to you, okay? I've got to go. Thanks for calling to check on me."

"What partners are for, partner. See you soon."

An hour later, there was a knock at his door. Nick went to open it, wondering who it could be. LaCroix wouldn't bother with knocking; he usually just dropped in through the skylight. He opened the door and was poleaxed to see Natalie standing there.

"Natalie! Uh…hello. What, uh.."

She cut him off, saying, "What am I doing here? Well, let's see, you haven't shown your face at the precinct for days, you don't answer your phone, how else am I supposed to talk to you?"

Oh, here it was. Nick realized that he should at least feel grateful that she wasn't so frightened of him now that she didn't want to be alone with him when she told him that she never wanted to lay eyes on him again.

"Nick, are you going to ask me in?"

He shook himself and said hastily, "I'm sorry, Natalie. Please, come in."

She came in and stood expectantly in front of him. Nick met her eyes for a moment, then his nerve failed him and he dropped his gaze to the floor, not wanting to see the inevitable disappointment sure to be in her face. But it was simply cowardly to keep avoiding it. He might as well look her in the eye and get it over with, to move past the disgust or revulsion sure to be there now and start working on living his life without her in it.

Nick picked his head up and looked her in the eye for the first time since they'd stood together in the abattoir kitchen. He blinked, surprised.

Natalie was smiling at him and there wasn’t a hint of disdain or fear in her expression. Instead, she was looking at him with every bit of her old fondness; in fact there was a warmth and appreciation there that simply knocked him flat.

"Nick, if you don't stop looking like you expect me to whip out a stake and drive it through your heart any second, I'm going to belt you one."

Flabbergasted, all he could do was stare at her, speechless. She looked at him, an expression of exasperated affection on her face, and she had never looked as beautiful to him as she did right then.

"Natalie, I don't…I don't understand. I thought that after you saw me the other night that you wouldn't want anything more to do with me. How can you ever trust me again after what I did?" Head bowed, Nick looked away, shaking his head. "I don't see how you can even stand to be in the same room with me now. LaCroix is right; at the heart of it all I'm not human anymore. I'm a beast."

She nodded. "I knew it was something like that. All right, detective Knight, listen up." Startled at her sharp tone, he looked at her. She placed her hand gently on the side of his face and said, "Nick, you're missing the most important point here. Even though you were sick from the treatments and not in your right mind, even with your vampire side in full control and you starving for blood, you didn't go for the closest meal, Schanke. You didn't go for me. Instead you went for the man I might have handed to you myself, if I'd known then what you found in that bedroom."

"Did it occur to you that you probably saved Schanke from an internal investigation? Don't you think that if he'd been the one to find that little girl, things might have turned out much worse than they did?"

Nick looked at her, confused. She 'tsk'ed in annoyance at him and continued.

"Jenny is about the same age as that poor girl. After finding her, Schanke probably would have come back out and shot that guy himself, you know. Hell, I might have shot him if you hadn't gone after him. As it is, I can only hope he spends a long and miserable rest of his life in a prison full of fellow inmates who all know he's a child molester and a child killer."

Nick opened his mouth to argue with her, but he couldn't find anything to say. Instead, he sagged against the wall and simply stared at her, part of him wanting to melt with relief but not yet quite daring to believe that she could be this understanding. Natalie stepped closer and looked up into his face, smiling at him.

"Nick, don't you see that even when you lost control of yourself, your response was still basically human? LaCroix is wrong; you're a man at heart, not a predator. Look, maybe he's known you for a long time but I think that even someone as old as he is can still delude themselves about something when they want it as badly as he wants you back. He wants you to embrace being a vampire again, so that's all he sees in you. Any person can lose control and act savagely under extreme conditions. We're all animals, really, and under the right set of circumstances we all revert into killers. If you weren't so set on blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong on the face of the earth, you'd see that."

"Nick, I've seen you break your heart repeatedly for years trying to do the right thing, looking for a cure for your vampirism. You didn't betray your humanity the other night, Nick, you reacted like any other real human being would and tried to kill the only real beast in that room."

***

Nick watched through the window as Natalie drove away, shaking his head in wonderment that even after eight hundred years, people could still surprise him. Then he looked up at the three-quarters moon, bright in the clear night sky, and flew up to the skylight, letting himself out onto the roof where he stood for a while, quietly watching the city's lights.

A faint disturbance in the air and along his nerves heralded the arrival of his sire, and Nick turned to watch the ancient vampire touch lightly down on the graveled rooftop.

"LaCroix."

The other man inclined his head, gravely acknowledging Nick's greeting, moonlight glinting off his harshly cropped hair like frost on winter wheat.

"Nicholas."

"You went to visit Natalie, didn't you?" Nick's eyes glinted orange as LaCroix nodded.

"With only her welfare in mind, Nicholas, yes I did. Calm yourself, I made no untoward threats. I simply wanted to reassure myself that she realized that this latest attempt of hers at a cure was too dangerous to continue. She wholeheartedly agreed that it was, and that was the end of it. The conversation was quite civil."

Nick tried for anger, but failed. In his own high-handed way, LaCroix had been looking out for him, and for Natalie too.

"I'm not upset, LaCroix. I probably should take a break from any further attempts for a little while and make sure I'm fully recovered before Natalie and I continue." He looked at his sire and added, "Maybe I'll even avoid bovine for a little while and drink at the Raven, oui?"

It was an apology for their last conversation and LaCroix inclined his head, acknowledging it as such. He gestured toward the empty space where Natalie's car had been parked earlier.

"You've mended fences with the lovely doctor, then?"

Nick nodded, looking pensive. "I thought she'd be afraid of me now. But she's not. It's hard to believe."

LaCroix shook his head. "Don't ask me, Nicholas. Two thousand years is not nearly long enough to understand the labyrinthine rationale of a woman's heart. Janette might be able to tell you why an intelligent and educated woman such as the doctor refuses to listen to her common sense and simply show you her heels, but I can't."

Nick shot him a scowl, but was still feeling too euphoric to be really annoyed. Instead, he said, "I hope the other night didn't cause too much trouble for you at the station. I suppose I should be flattered that you didn't even bother to put on background muzak before coming to my rescue."

"Not to worry, Nicholas. I simply told the station manager that it was the trial run of a new Zen segment that I was considering incorporating into my program."

Nick couldn't help laughing at that. LaCroix quirked his mouth into a half-smile back at him and stretched himself, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck. "I feel the need to rise above it all for a few hours, Nicholas. You are more than welcome to join me if you'd like to clear your head."

Instead of responding right away, Nick tipped his head up and stood still, scenting the wind, letting it carry a thousand messages to him.

LaCroix knows I'll never give up, just like I know that he'll never give up. Maybe in the end, that likeness of nature is what keeps us coming back together. But this right here, this isn't so bad. I just hope we can keep finding some kind of accord in the spaces between.

He turned a rare and brilliant smile on his maker. "D'accord." Then his smile broadened and he said, "Lead the way. I'll follow you, tonight."

Like swallows, they darted up into the swirling dark sky and were gone.
Tags: author: lafenris, character: lacroix, character: natalie, character: nick, character: schanke, genre: drama, genre: policework, rating: adults only, type: gen
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