Angels of Mercy
Angels of Light
Angels of Darkness
Angels of Might
Angels with voices that whisper so clear
Who do I lean to, who do I hear?
--Susan Ashton, "Better Angels of Our Natures"
"Are you ready for this?" A heavyset black woman with a single streak of silver in her dark hair asked softly, turning to the younger woman beside her.
Her companion nodded, her eyes bright with anticipation and her golden-brown hair fluttering a little in the gentle wind. "Oh yes. I've been waiting for it for so long."
"You must remember, the choice is still his, but the time has finally come when his heart is ready to make the right decision. All you have to do is be there to guide him."
The younger woman nodded again, her eyes fixed intently on the distant city skyline. A quiet, contented smile spread slowly across her face.
"Well," the older woman announced, "it's almost time, so I'd better go, and YOU'D better get down there to that hospital."
"I'll be there in a wink," was the soft reply.
With a satisfied nod, her companion turned to leave.
Tess turned back with a question on her face.
"Say hello to Monica for me, when you see her. It's been a long time."
"Please, someone help me!"
Nick was shouting, his voice edged with despair and panic, as he entered the emergency room with Natalie hanging pale and limp in his arms. It was easy to see that she was on the verge of death.
The staff went into action immediately. She was placed on a bed and doctors began bustling around her to discern what was the matter. An orderly tried to pull Nick away.
"Leave me be!" he said sharply, pulling away with surprising strength and continuing to hover over the dying coroner.
"Sir, if you want to help, please go wait outside. You'll only get in the way back here."
The detective's eyes flashed, but he reluctantly acquiesced.
Once out in the waiting room, he began to pace, his feet wearing a restless path in the linoleum. The air of danger that always surrounded him had increased to the point where it seemed downright murderous, causing others in the room to edge away from him as his pacing brought him close to where they were sitting.
"Excuse me, sir."
He turned abruptly, pushing down the gold that threatened to surface in his eyes. A young nurse with straight, dark honey-blonde hair that fell to her waist, was standing behind him, holding a clipboard. "I'll need you to fill out a few forms."
With a hesitant nod, Nick took the clipboard from her. Sitting down, he uncapped the pen and began to write, but his hands were shaking so badly that his usually elegant handwriting was illegible. After completing just half of the first page, a perusal convinced him that no one would be able to read what he had just written.
"Can...can I get another copy of this?"
The same nurse who had spoken to him before handed him another copy of the form, a sad smile on her face. For what seemed like an incredibly long time, he just stared at it, as if the words were written in some language he didn't know.
She's dying, he thought numbly to himself. She's in there dying because of me. I've killed her, just like LaCroix wanted me to.
"Are you all right?" she asked him softly.
"No." I've brought the woman I love to the point of death, and still can't bring myself to save her life the only way I can. How could I be all right?!
"Do you want to talk about it?"
He shook his head. "No. I don't even want to think about it."
In the emergency room, Doctor Nathan Trent shook his head in amazement, as they prepared to do another blood transfusion on the woman who had just been brought in.
"I don't understand how she could have lost so much blood without there being more on her. Especially with no internal injuries."
"Vampire?" one of the other doctors quipped with a wink.
Trent frowned, a frown obvious even through his surgical mask. Nevertheless, he bent over to examine the wound on her throat. No, it was definitely a slash, although curiously to the side of her neck. The gash had been stitched together to staunch the flow of blood, but it was still an ugly sight.
What the hell happened? he wondered.
Back in the waiting room, Nick had finally managed to finish filling out the form. With a shaking hand, he held it out to the young woman who had given it to him.
As she carried the clipboard back over to the reception desk, Nick risked a glance in the direction of the window. The sky was beginning to lighten, which meant it would soon become a danger to him.
Thinking quickly, he once again signaled the young nurse. "Miss..?"
She turned to him with a curious smile. "Is there anything I can do for you, sir?"
"Yes, is there somewhere I could rest for a while? Somewhere dark, without any windows? I haven't slept all night."
She nodded. "Of course." Indicating that he should follow her, she led him to a small room decorated like a lounge. It had a couch, a loveseat and two overstuffed chairs, as well as the usual assortment of plant life.
"We don't use this room very often, so you shouldn't be disturbed, but you can lock the door if you'd like."
He nodded in grateful acknowledgment. "Thank you so much."
"If you need anything," she continued, reaching down to fluff one of the pillows on the couch, "just ask. My name's Anastasia." She turned back to him with a sincere smile on her face. "I'm always around somewhere or other."
As soon as she had left, Nick began trying to find a way home. Much as he wanted to stay, there was too much he had to do before anyone could accidentally stumble on the scene at the Loft. Of course, it was possible that LaCroix had dealt with things, but he doubted it, considering the master vampire had been trying to get him to leave town.
He finally decided the only option left to him was to face the problem head on, now that most of the people he had come to rely on were either dead or dying. Taking his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, he dialed Reese's number.
"Captain? It's Nick."
"Knight? What are you doing calling me at this ungodly hour?"
"I'm at the hospital. Someone attacked Nat at my Loft tonight."
"WHAT??" The captain was instantly awake. "When the hell did this happen??"
Nick shut his eyes for a moment, a wave of guilt washing over him for the lie he was about to tell. "I don't know. I came home and found her lying on the floor in my living room with her throat cut."
Reese swore. "You don't think she..?" He didn't finish the sentence, but the implication was pretty clear, especially considering the recent suicide of Nat's friend Laura, and Tracy's death earlier that night.
Forgive me, Nat. "I don't know. She might have."
"Oh, man! I'll be right over."
"Captain, could I ask you a favor?"
"Sure, Nick, anything."
"Nat told you about my allergy, right? Is there any way you could give me a ride home? And find me something to cover myself with?"
"I'll do my best. I'm surprised you don't want to stay there."
"I do," he replied honestly. "But I can't. Could I possibly have the night off tomorrow, though?"
"Yeah, of course. I was planning on giving it to you anyways, because of Tracy..."
Nick told the captain how to find him at the hospital, then hung up. He sat there, staring blankly at the wall of the room, while the sun rose unseen over Toronto.
The next night, as soon as the sun was down, Nick literally flew to Nat's bedside, where he stood looking down at her, his eyes filled with sorrow. In his mind, he saw her face, shining with happiness on the one day he had seen her, however briefly, in the sunlight. Then, he saw it touched by the paleness of death last night in his Loft. His eyes burned with the tears he wanted to shed, but dared not, lest someone see they were not salt, but blood. If it hadn't been for LaCroix, he scolded himself silently, he would never have even noticed that her heart was still beating, and she would be dead now.
At the same time, though, he wondered if he should have let her die, instead of subjecting her to this suffering. The sight of the tubes and wires sticking to and out of Nat's body made him want to shut his eyes, to shut it out. WHY couldn't he have brought himself to bring her across, to save her life the one way he could? Because it would have been wrong, a quiet voice reminded him calmly. She deserved better than the darkness of this life, a life without the sun. And because I could not stand to taint her with it. She was my angel of light, just as Janette once said--my 'angele de soleil.' I would rather lose her forever to death than to the darkness.
"Sir?" a voice spoke softly behind him. "I'm afraid I must ask you to leave. Visiting hours are over."
For a moment, he was tempted to use his vampiric abilities to gain more time at Nat's side, but he pushed the desire aside. No. If he truly desired the cure they had been seeking, he must learn not to depend so much on the vampire in himself.
Nodding slowly, he stood, realizing as he turned to leave that the young woman lingering in the doorway was the same one who had given him the admission papers to fill out for Natalie last night.
"How is she?" Anastasia asked with a gentle smile.
Nick shook his head, still fighting back the blood tears. "No change. Is she going to die?" He knew he sounded like a plaintive child, but the one thing he feared more than anything else was losing Natalie.
The young nurse hesitated for a moment before answering, her eyes drifting to a point behind him, as if she were looking at someone. "Only if it's her time," she finally replied, meeting his eyes with a gaze of quiet sympathy.
"I feel so helpless," he found himself confessing, his heart aching. "I want do do something for her..."
"But there is something you can do."
Not any longer. It is too late now, too late to save her the one way I can, and even if it weren't, I still don't know if I could... "What?"
"You can pray for her." She smiled. "And you can have faith that God will work things out for the best."
Nick thought for a moment about her words. Faith. Nat had asked him to have faith in himself, to believe he could be with her without losing control. She'd had faith in him, and he'd let her down. Was there any faith that was not eventually betrayed?
"You believe in God?" he asked the nurse, watching her face carefully for her reaction.
She nodded, smiling in quiet wisdom. "Oh, yes."
"I used to," he told her, turning away to once more gaze at the prone form of the woman he loved. "I'm not so sure anymore, haven't been for a long time."
"Whether you still believe in him or not, Detective, God still believes in you," was the calm reply.
"You say that as if you were certain."
"I am certain."
He laughed shortly. "Anastasia, I have been as close to Hell as anyone can come without being in it. If God did exist, why would he bother with someone like me? Why would he bother to listen to my prayers?"
"Because He never turns his back on someone who is earnestly seeking him. If you call on him with a sincere heart, he will hear you, no matter what you have done."
Unable to think of a response, Nick turned to leave the room, his thoughts full of what Anastasia had told him.
He turned back to her from the doorway, his eyes still haunted with unshed tears.
"God gave us tears so we would not have to bear our griefs alone. Don't be afraid to cry--It won't help her, but it could do a lot towards healing you."
When he was gone, Anastasia turned back to the young man who was standing, unseen, on the other side of Natalie's bed. "Is she going to die, Andrew?"
The angel of death shrugged, his eyes somber. "I don't know. I was only told to come here and wait."
Pensively, she nodded, looking down at the woman in the bed. "I hope not. There is so much good these hands could do, and not just for Nick. But..." she lifted her head once more and smiled peacefully. "God's Will be done. He always knows what is best."
LaCroix was waiting for Nick at the Loft when he arrived home that night, barely before sunrise.
"I hope you realize how foolish that was," the older vampire scolded his protege sharply.
Nick shuffled past his master into the Loft, barely looking at him. "What are you doing here?" he muttered, his voice dark with bitterness and grief. "Haven't you done enough damage?"
LaCroix did not even flinch, only replying with a calm sarcasm, "Actually, Nicholas, if you remember correctly, you managed to do most of the damage yourself, without any help from me."
All pretense gone, Nick whirled on him, his eyes blazing gold. "Why? Why do you have to torment me with this?"
"Nicholas, Nicholas, always having to blame someone else for your own foolish guilt! I have had offspring who would have laughed at such a remark. If it torments you, you have no one to blame for it but yourself."
Hissing with barely controlled rage, Nick turned again once away, striding to the window to gaze out on the slowly-fading darkness. He stood there for several moments, making no move to close the blinds. Finally, the older vampire picked up the remote and hit the proper button.
"Are you crazy? Do you want to get us both killed?"
A wild, insane fire came into the detective's eyes. "Yes," Nick hissed, making a sudden move towards the window, as if to fling himself out into the gradually brightening sunlight. But LaCroix caught him, his grip too firm for the younger vampire to break. "Let me go, LaCroix! At least let me die! I know you will have no regrets about this, so go on living if you like. BUT LET ME DIE FOR MY CRIMES!"
"I will not let you take the easy way out!"
Nick stopped struggling, startled by his master's words. "What do you mean?"
"I'm surprised you want to die--you're so fond of your guilt. But the one time you most deserve that guilt you want to escape it by committing suicide." The older vampire sneered. "I would never have taken you for a coward, Nicholas. Never until now."
"What right do you have to say what I do and don't deserve?" Nick lashed out. "You wanted Natalie to die! And you wanted me to kill her! Well, she's in a coma now, and she probably will never recover! Are you happy?"
LaCroix's response, much to his protege's surprise, was softly sad. "You're wrong, Nicholas. I did not want her to die, at your hand or anyone else's."
"Don't lie to me!"
"I'm not. Oh, I admit, at first I wanted her dead. I wanted her to die because I thought she was taking you away from me. I wanted her to die because she reminded me of Fleur, and I thought she didn't deserve to live if your sister had to die. I wanted her to die because she reminded me of the fact that you could never accept what I considered my greatest gift to you. And I wanted her to die because I could see that you loved her."
"And you're telling me you changed your mind?"
"Yes, I did. For some time now I have wanted you to bring her across, not kill her. I have no desire to see her die."
"Because you knew bringing her across would be worse for me," Nick spat.
LaCroix nodded in acknowledgment. "At first, yes. When I began to see that you would rather risk her life than 'condemn' her to our kind of life was when I first began to contemplate the idea. But that did not remain my reason. I wanted you to bring her across because I began to realize what a loss to the world it would be to not have her in it."
"Then why didn't YOU bring her across?"
"Because I knew you would only accept such an action if you performed it yourself. If I brought her across, it would only drive you farther away from me, and you would take her with you."
"If you didn't want her to die, why didn't you stop me?" he asked softly, a final challenge.
LaCroix sighed. "I don't know."
"In a way, Lucien really does love him, doesn't he?" Anastasia commented softly to Tess as they watched unseen while the two vampires alternately sparred and faced each other with long silences.
"In his own way, yes he does," Tess replied, sadly. "But it's a very possessive love, one that never learned to let go like any 'parent' eventually must. He is going to be your biggest obstacle in this assignment. Because Lucien will do anything to keep his protege with him, even try to make him believe that the light he so desperately seeks will reject him. He's never seen what Nick sees, that no matter what this dark life may seem to offer, it isn't worth the price. And because of that, he can't understand why Nick won't accept what he sees as his gift to him."
"Is he hopeless then?" Anastasia watched LaCroix with a wistful sadness in her eyes.
"He has made his choice," the older woman replied softly. "But no one is ever hopeless, Child. Maybe someday he'll be able to see that the life Nick has chosen is better. Besides, whether he likes to admit it or not, he's still very human."
Nick looked up from where he had been staring dismally at the pavement beneath his feet to see the young nurse from the hospital hurrying after him. He noticed briefly that the lights along the park path made her hair seem to gleam like spun moonlight, with momentary flashes of starlight hidden in it.
"Isn't it a beautiful night?" she asked enthusiastically once she had reached him, her eyes drifting up to the stars visible through the trees, a joyful smile on her face.
He returned the smile ruefully. "I suppose. I find it rather difficult to see any beauty in night any longer." Or in creatures of it, like me.
"God is as much present in the night as he is in the day," she remarked quietly.
Nick let out a short, hollow laugh. "Right."
"Why shouldn't he be? He created both, after all. Besides, he promised he would never leave us. Never usually implies more than just when the sun is out." She smiled almost mischievously.
"So, what are you doing out here, anyway?" Nick changed the subject.
"Just out for a walk. I'm on my break, and I love coming to parks. They're some of the only places left in the world today where Creation is relatively untouched by man's technology."
Nick nodded thoughtfully, surprised. His motivation for coming here tonight had been similar, although the reason for it was surely different. He still remembered the days when most of the world had been relatively untouched by man's technology.
She continued with a smile, "And when I saw you here, I thought I'd catch up and see how you were doing."
Nick sighed deeply, turning over in his mind everything that had happened in the past few days. Her words, and LaCroix's, had been haunting him all day and into the night, which is one of the reasons he'd chosen to come here to this park, to try to sort out his thoughts.
"I've been thinking a lot about what you said," he admitted hesitantly. "About praying for Nat..."
"And have you been praying for her?" she asked.
"Actually, I have." He smiled sourly. "Not that it's done any good."
"God doesn't always answer yes or no right away, Detective. Sometimes he asks us to wait a little while." She smiled, her blue eyes wiser than her age implied. "The important thing is to have faith."
Something about her calming presence enabled Nick to voice the question that had been nagging at him ever since he had come so close to killing the woman who'd had faith in him.
"But what good does faith do? It didn't save Nat..." ...from me, he added silently.
"But you don't know that. She's still alive now, isn't she?"
"I hope so," the vampire replied earnestly, his eyes drifting in the direction of the hospital.
"Sometimes it's easier to believe for someone else than for yourself," Anastasia remarked quietly. "Can you have faith for her, even?"
He hung his head, a morose look on his face. "I'm not even sure I really know what faith is anymore."
"'Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see,'" she quoted softly.
"Even when what you do see seems to contradict it?" he asked.
She nodded, a sad smile on her face. "Yes, even then, although I know it's difficult."
"How do you do it?" he asked. "How do you keep believing? I tried, once, really I did. But I couldn't."
"But that's just the problem, you see. It's when we stop trying to be faithful and just rely on God's strength that we are able to believe no matter what happens."
Nick looked thoughtful, turning over her words in his mind. "That doesn't seem like it should make sense, but it does."
"No matter what some people may say, God is not limited to what the human mind can make sense of," Anastasia replied with a smile.
He nodded, his face still pensive. "I suppose not..."
Even though it had not yet begun to get light, a glance at the sky still told him he did not have much time before he would have to return to the Loft. He frowned, silently wishing he had encountered Anastasia here earlier, since there was a lot he still wanted to discuss with her.
"I should be heading home," he admitted reluctantly.
She nodded, smiling. "Well, it was good speaking with you."
"Yes, I'm glad we ran into each other."
"Have a pleasant day, Detective." With that, Anastasia turned and began to walk back in the direction of the hospital. Nick watched her for a moment, then, unable to ignore some of the questions that were crowding into his mind, flew after her.
"Anastasia..." At that same moment, he touched her arm, and the word became a sharp gasp of pain as he pulled his hand abruptly back again, an action that probably would have dislocated his shoulder, had he been mortal.
Nick stared in disbelief at his hand, burned as red and as painfully as it had been the last time he touched a cross. What on earth??
He tried to remember any other time when such a thing had happened, some person whose touch had burned him. Perhaps a priest, or someone who might have come into frequent contact with a cross, and somehow absorbed its power to burn him, but he could think of no other instance even remotely similar to this in all of his eight hundred years. The closest he had ever come was when the exorcist had touched his forehead with a finger dipped in Holy Water, but even that hadn't burned as much as this!
Nick raised frightened eyes to where Anastasia was regarding him with concern.
"Are you all right?" she asked him.
Not willing to tell her what would be required to explain that touching her arm had burned his hand, Nick nodded, trying to shake the puzzled expression from his face.
"I...I wanted to ask you something..." he stammered, "but I can't remember what."
"Well, if you think of it later, you can bring it up the next time you come to visit Nat," she suggested helpfully.
"I'll do that."
"Well, Baby, you've certainly given him something to think about," Tess commented, watching Nick's retreating form.
Anastasia nodded sombrely. "I know. I just wish there was more I could do. He's hurting so much..."
The older woman nodded, giving a comforting squeeze to the younger one's shoulders. "All in God's time, Baby. All in God's time."
"Did he have to touch my arm like that, Tess? I'm afraid that's going to frighten him..."
"Well, I don't know if he had to do it, but that's the way things happened, so that's the way they'll work out. It will work out, Child. No matter what happens."
She nodded again. "I know. I just hate to cause him more pain when I'm trying to help him find healing."
"Baby, if there weren't any pain in the world, people wouldn't know when they were healing. You can't cure an illness you don't know about."
LaCroix stared at Nick, incredulous at the speech that had just come out of the younger vampire's mouth. Faith--that seemed to be Nick's idea of the month, considering he had mentioned it in relation to Natalie when he was asking his Master to kill him so few days before. And now, he seemed to be thinking about it even MORE seriously, if that were possible.
"And what put all of these notions into your head all of a sudden, pray tell?"
"I've been speaking with Anastasia...the nurse who's taking care of Natalie."
"Oh, you have, have you? Really, Nicholas," LaCroix sneered. "What could this mortal girl possibly know about the state of your soul?"
Nick glanced thoughtfully down at his hands, and the red mark that was still healing from where he had touched Anastasia's arm. What does this mortal girl know that causes her touch to burn me like that of a cross? he wondered.
"I don't know, LaCroix," he replied honestly. "But I have to try to find out."
"You think too much about faith, Nicholas," the older vampire said scornfully. "That has always been your weakness. Faith is always a weakness, unless it is faith in yourself."
Just as it had on the night Nat lay dying on the floor in the Loft, Nick's mind went back to his encounter with Jeanne D'Arc. Is faith weakness if it gives the power to face death without fear? To reject this dark immortality for something better?
"Is it, LaCroix? If it is such a weakness, then why were people of faith not wiped out long ago?"
"Because they were not worth the trouble," the elder vampire replied glibly, his voice still heavy with disdain.
"I don't know, LaCroix..."
"Well, then think about this, Nicholas. If God does exist, and the faith of these people is rewarded, how much more damned are you? Better to dance with the devil by choice, and thus share his power, than to be cast helpless out of heaven into the pits of hell."
With that ominous thought, LaCroix disappeared through the open window into the darkness.
As soon as the older vampire had left, Anastasia took a step towards Nick, but Tess caught at her arm.
"Not yet," she instructed firmly.
The younger angel turned back to her with pained eyes. "But Tess, he lied to him! How can I just stand by and let him hear such horrible things, about himself and about God? What if he believes them?"
"That decision isn't yours to make, remember?" Tess reminded her gently, putting one arm around the younger woman's shoulders to comfort her. "When the time is right and he's made the choice, you'll be able to step in and reassure him, to prevent him from faltering. But until then, we can just watch and wait."
Anastasia opened her mouth as if to protest, but Tess continued. "Baby, you've waited eight hundred years for this already. What's another day or two?"
Hesitating, the younger woman turned back to where Nick had seated himself at the piano, picking out a thoughtful tune on the keys.
"Patience isn't just a virtue in humans, you know," Tess remarked finally, with a smile which Anastasia slowly returned. "You might say it's even more important for an angel."
For a while, LaCroix just soared over the city, restless with an emotion he hadn't felt more than once or twice in centuries--fear. Nicholas was his favorite 'child,' that he knew. It was something he had been reminded of often in recent years, the reason he had been there to gloat every time Nicholas's newest attempt to be 'cured' had failed. There was a time when he had tried to control him, to keep his love, by destroying everything else the younger man cared for, but had realized over time that this only drove him further away. But even as he had begun to allow himself to accept more and more aspects of Nicholas's chosen life, he couldn't stop fighting his attempt to find a cure. Because a cure would take his son away from him forever, because a mortal eventually had to die.
The elder vampire hissed fiercely to himself. Nicholas's sudden reconsideration of his faith frightened him even more than the whole 'cure' concept. Even though the incessant guilt instilled in the younger vampire by his medieval Catholic heritage had prompted his search for a way out of the vampire life in the first place, it had also in many ways prevented him from finding it, since he remained firmly convinced that God, if he existed, would not accept him, and without that hope of heaven, Nicholas had just enough fear of death to cling to the immortality he had been granted through unholy means. Although the former Crusader would never admit it, that was the real reason he never fully followed Nat's instructions for cutting back on blood intake and trying to build up a tolerance to actual foods. Subconsciously, he wasn't sure he wanted it to work.
But if he became convinced that there was a God who would accept him...that the gates of heaven would not be closed to him after he died...
Looking down, LaCroix realized that his flight had brought him to the hospital where Natalie was still in a coma from Nicholas's attack earlier that week. Strange that the two people who had come closest to restoring Nicholas's faith were both in that hospital.
But Natalie had been dealt with. Because she had lived, and might still live, and because he had not been able to grant Nicholas's wish to die with her, his protege had been given time to reconsider his momentary assurance that something better did await beyond this earthly life...
Or at least he would have reconsidered, if it hadn't been for that meddling nurse, Anastasia.
A look of vicious determination came over the ancient vampire's face as he dropped to the roof of the hospital. No mortal was going to take Nicholas away from him, no matter what he had to do to prevent it.
"Anastasia, I believe?"
The young nurse turned at the sound of LaCroix's voice, a bright smile on her face. "What can I do for you?"
Meeting her eyes, LaCroix dropped his voice and spoke slowly. "You will stop telling Nicholas all this nonsense about faith and a God who loves him. You will not go out of your way to speak to him at all, but if he speaks to you, you will tell him that he should learn to be content with the life he has--"
For a moment, the young woman just regarded him with something very strongly resembling pity, only kinder, in her eyes, her countenance completely untouched by his attempt to hypnotize her, then, with a flash of light that almost blinded him, literally thrust him away from her with her mind. LaCroix reeled for a moment, trying to recover from the shock of what had just happened. How did she DO that??
"I won't stop telling him the truth, Lucien," she told him earnestly, her eyes filled with sadness. "He knows it himself, he just needs to be reminded. But if you keep fighting to hold him in the dark, all you will succeed in doing is driving him away from you forever when he makes the choice. And he is your only connection to the light."
LaCroix was both angered and frightened by her words, even though he didn't completely understand them, or how she seemed to know so much more than he or Nick had told her. Overcome by fury, he grabbed her roughly by the arm, only to release it a moment later with a surprised gasp as a pain like the burning heat of a cross shot through his hand. Through this all, Anastasia just watched him with that same expression on her face, mingled with a wisdom that belied her years.
He stared incredulously from his hand, which was burned red everywhere it had come in contact with her skin, to the young woman who had somehow caused the injury. No mortal could inflict this kind of harm on one of his kind through a mere touch!
"What are you?" he whispered.
"A friend," she replied simply. "To Nick...and to you, if you would let me be. But you have to let go of the darkness first..."
LaCroix snarled at her, his eyes turning red with hatred. "I don't know who you are, or what sort of power you think you have over Nicholas," he intoned warningly, "but you will not take him away from me! I am his Master, not you or any god you can conjure up to entice him!"
With that, he turned and strode away with furious determination, disappearing into the night.
Anastasia watched him go, her eyes sad.
By the time he returned to the Loft the next night, shortly before morning, Nick felt almost ready to scream his confusion. At the hospital, he had spoken again with Anastasia, and as always, her words seemed to fall into place right into the empty spaces in his heart, a comforting assurance of something he seemed more and more to already know. Everything she said echoed with the ring of truth, even things he doubted, though his doubts were more habit than genuine conviction.
But then there was LaCroix, who had intercepted him when he stopped at the Raven for a drink after leaving the hospital. LaCroix, who had done his best to refuel the younger vampire's doubts.
Nick didn't know who to believe. LaCroix was his oldest, and closest remaining friend, not to mention a father figure, and in many ways, still his mentor. But at the same time, he knew the former Roman General too well not to know what he would and wouldn't do when his control of a situation was threatened. Anastasia, although a relatively new acquaintance, had the advantage of having always been gently frank with him, never giving him false hopes or false fears. At least, not if what she was telling him was true...
But could faith really make the difference she seemed to think it did? And even if it could for a man, could it do the same for a vampire?
Images of men and women of faith he had known through the years drifted through Nick's mind. The young man imprisoned with himself and LaCroix during the Inquisition, who sacrificed his own life, even though he was innocent, to save them. The young woman awaiting her execution on charges of 'witchcraft' because she claimed an angel had instructed her to take up arms--a 'man's occupation'--and fight for her land and for God. And yet, those who had persecuted and killed those two had also claimed to be faithful, just like the merciless slaughterers of the Crusades. It was seeing the work of men who claimed to be of God that had driven Nick away from the Church and into the arms of Janette and the vampire life seven hundred sixty-eight years ago.
But if human beings were fallible, could they ever be true representatives of a perfect God? Didn't he know from experience that it was possible to be blinded by zeal to the thing you were supposedly zealous for? Wasn't Natalie lying in a coma in the hospital because he had let his physical desire for her overwhelm the love that had initially inspired it?
I imagine it is much more difficult to be true to a Faith you claim than to be false to it... he reflected, lightly running his hands over the keys of his piano in that same familiar tune he always played when he felt the need to think about something seriously.
But something tugged him away from the piano, leading him to his desk, where a piece of paper he had intended to use for a farewell note to Nat, when he left Toronto, seemed to stare at him, its whiteness sharply contrasting the dark wood of the desk. For a few moments, he stared at it blankly, as if trying to read the message hidden in the lack of words. Then, he seated himself slowly in the chair, picked up a pen, and began to write, the words of a fervent prayer pouring out of his heart, through the ink, and onto the page.
They say your blood can cleanse
But can blood wash away the stains of blood?
How can one man's blood
Cleanse this soul darkened by the blood of thousands?
They say your cross can heal
But how can that which burns me heal me?
How can I embrace
How can I cling to what I cannot touch?
They say your light can free
But I must flee the light
And find my refuge only in the darkness
The only freedom daylight offers me is death.
Your blood was shed to give others life
My life is sustained by shedding others' blood.
We are opposites, you and I
How can we be friends?
If there is a way, Jesu, let me find it.
If your blood can purge my sins
There is no heart it can't heal
I would gladly trade my immortality for your eternity.
May the fire of your cross
Purge me of my darkness
And make me pure as refined gold.
May the power of your blood
Quench my thirst forever
And enable me to walk again in light
Setting down his pen, he stared blankly at the words he had just written, pouring out the turmoil of despair and hope that was in his heart. Suddenly, they seemed almost foolish--childish and naive in their hope. Who am I trying to fool? he thought miserably, staring at the paper. There may be a way for a mortal who's sinned to come back to God and be forgiven...but she didn't know I'm a vampire...
"There is a Way, Nick, if you are willing to take it."
Nick turned suddenly at the sound of the gentle female voice behind him. It was Anastasia, but not as he'd ever seen her before. A long white dress, stylish but modest, fell from her shoulders to her ankles, gathered slightly at the waist. Bare feet showed under the hem of the dress, and her golden-brown hair fell in shining waves over her shoulders. A halo of sunlight seemed to surround her, reminding him of the moment he had grabbed her arm, and been burned by the touch. She smiled, holding up her hands with a gleaming silver goblet in them.
"Recognize this?" she asked softly.
He nodded slowly, taking in the familiar form of a Communion chalice.
"Do you remember what it represents?"
He nodded again, the once-memorized words springing almost eagerly to his lips. "The blood of Christ..."
"The only blood that CAN quench your thirst, and truly bring eternal life," she replied quietly, her eyes filled with knowledge and wisdom.
"Then you know...what I am?"
Anastasia nodded, a sad smile on her face. "Yes, I know. I've known ever since the moment you became a vampire, seven hundred sixty-eight years ago."
The detective's face turned pale. "How...?"
"I'm an angel, Nick. I've been watching over you for almost your whole life. You knew God once, but you became disillusioned with the actions of those around you who claimed to serve Him. You turned your back on Him because you felt their hypocrisy must reflect on who He really was. But even when you gave up on God, He didn't give up on you."
"How could he not?" the vampire spat out, turning agonized eyes away from the bright presence. "I'm a vampire! Isn't the fact that the touch of a cross or your hand burns me proof that God hates me?"
"No. It burns you because you rejected Him, not because He rejected you. God doesn't hate you, Nick. He LOVES you, and He's been waiting almost eight hundred years for you to come back to Him. That's why He sent me, to help you find the way home and the healing you've been searching for."
She held the chalice out to him. "Here. The gift is always waiting for you, but the choice to take it must be yours."
Nick hesitated. "Will it burn me?"
Anastasia nodded. "Yes, but the pain will only be like that of the surgeon's knife, cutting away a cancer from your soul, so it can heal."
Tentatively, Nick took the cup from her hands and raised it to his lips. The wine that poured down his throat was a strange, sweet fire, soothing even as it burned. And as he drank, he could feel the darkness being burned away, replaced with an indescribable joy.
In a hospital room across town, two angels standing at Natalie's bedside glanced at each other, a joyful smile passing between them.
"It's time," one of them, a young woman with long, wavy auburn hair, said softly.
Andrew nodded, still smiling. With one last glance down at the woman in the bed, he said, "See you later, Natalie," and vanished.
Still smiling benevolently at the still figure, Monica laid one hand softly on Natalie's forehead. "Now, Natalie," she whispered, even though no one would have heard her shout. "It's time to wake up."
Natalie's eyelids fluttered open in response to the silent voice, and for a brief moment, the coroner thought she saw a young, red-haired woman bending over her. But when her vision cleared, she was alone in the room.
When Nick lifted his head, Anastasia had vanished and he was alone once again. But at the same time, he felt less isolated than he ever had before in his life. Something had changed, although he still wasn't completely sure what it was. But for some reason, he no longer felt cut off from life.
The phone rang, interrupting his reflection. With one last thoughtful glance, Nick set the chalice, the only physical evidence of what had transpired earlier, on the mantel of the loft and picked up the receiver.
"Nick? This is Captain Reese--I just got a call from the hospital. Nat's awake!"
A thrill of hope shot through him. "I'll be right there!"
"But, Nick, your--"
He didn't wait to hear the rest of what Reese had to say, only stopping long enough to grab the keys on his way to the elevator. His drive to the hospital was completely oblivious to everything around him, his mind consumed by the knowledge that Nat was awake.
Arriving at the hospital, he parked as close to Nat's wing as he could get and raced inside, straight past the front desk, into the elevator, and up the seven flights to the private room she had been given. Reese was already there when he arrived.
The Captain looked up in surprise as Nick entered the room, hurrying to Nat's bedside.
"Nat..." he whispered to her, lightly laying his hand on top of hers. Weakly she turned her head to look at him.
"Nat, I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?"
She nodded. "Nick...look at you...your hands..." Her voice was weak, but there was a strong emotion in it.
Puzzled, he studied her face, trying to comprehend what he saw there. "What about my hands, Nat?"
"They're not....burning," she whispered.
For the first time since Reese had called, Nick took the time to focus on something other than the woman lying in the bed before them. He looked down at his hands....
...and at the sunlight streaming across them.
Startled, he turned to the window. The blinds were open, and it was bright day outside, but his flesh was not smoking. He had driven to the hospital, with the hood of the Caddy down, in broad daylight, and there was not a burn on him.
"I'm cured, Nat," he whispered, his voice awed. "I'm really cured!"
"Would somebody mind telling me what is going on here? And Nick, what the hell happened to that Vitamin D allergy you supposedly have that makes you unable to go out in the daylight?"
Nick turned at the sound of the captain's voice to where the black man was still lingering in the doorway. The former vampire's face was nearly glowing with the awesome realization of what had happened to him.
"It's gone," he whispered. "I'm still not quite sure how, but by some miracle, it's gone."
two weeks later
In the weeks since he had been cured and Natalie had been released from the hospital, Nick had gone crazy with cooking. His once empty shelves were filled with spices, cereals, bread, peanut butter, and any other non-perishable that he had the urge to sample. The bottles of blood in the refrigerator had been replaced by a wild assortment of fruits, vegetables, meats and baked goods from all over the world. Tonight, he had prepared dinner out of one of the many cookbooks that had overrun his counter.
Leaning back in her chair, Natalie watched him eat. There was something so touching about the exuberance with which he tasted everthing, as if by enjoying each meal to its fullest, he was doing the same with life.
The blinds were open, and the sun was just beginning to set in a blaze of red-gold. Nick's hair caught the light almost enthusiastically, as if each individual strand was trying to make up for the centuries of brightness it had missed by shining more now. Even Nick's wardrobe had taken a brighter turn, as evidenced by the short sleeved sky-blue shirt he was wearing.
God, I love this man! Nat thought to herself, a fond smile creeping over her lips.
Nick glanced up and noticed her watching him. He smiled sheepishly and dabbed at the edges of his mouth with a napkin.
"Did you enjoy it?" he asked, nodding in the direction of her empty plate.
"I loved it, Nick. You're an excellent chef," she replied warmly. "You always have been, even back when you couldn't eat your own cooking."
He nodded, eyes shining. "You know, Nat, I knew there were a lot of things I missed about being mortal, but I never realized just how many, until I started rediscovering them. It's like being born all over again."
"How did LaCroix take the news?"
Nick smiled wryly, remembering the confrontation they'd had that night after he returned from the hospital, when Anastasia had literally stepped in, unseen by LaCroix, to prevent the elder vampire from attacking his former fledgling.
"I told him I wouldn't let him bring me across again, which he obviously wasn't too happy about. But I also told him that if he behaved himself..." He lifted his brilliant blue eyes to meet hers. "...and if it was all right with you...he would always be welcome in my house."
Nat's heart fluttered a little. "If it's all right with me?" she repeated.
Nick nodded, then getting up from his seat at the table, went down on one knee and pulled out a simple, but elegant diamond ring.
"Will you marry me, Nat?"
Nat caught her breath, not quite able to believe that she hadn't fallen asleep and started dreaming.
"I've known almost from the moment I met you that you were the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, my mortal life. Will you be my wife, Natalie Lambert?"
Speechless with the tears of joy that had come into her throat, Nat nodded, throwing her arms around him and holding him as tightly as she could. A moment later, he pulled gently back, and took her hand in one of his to gently slip the ring onto her finger.
Then, he kissed her, and for the first time there was no hidden fear in the kiss, no hint of the monster that had once haunted him. When they finally separated, clear crystal tears shone in both of their eyes.
"I have to ask, Nick," Nat spoke first, her hand lightly tracing the curve of his cheek and her eyes locked on his. "How did it happen? Was it...what we did?"
His face sobered briefly as his thoughts flashed back to the night she had almost died because of his lack of self-control.
"No, it wasn't that. Maybe if you had died, that would have done it...but..."
Nick's eyes brightened again with this new memory. "It really was a miracle, Nat," he told her quietly. "Something I've known about for a long time, but thought I had lost forever."
Releasing her hands for a moment, he walked over to the mantel and took down the silver cup that was still sitting there, bringing it back to the table where she was sitting. Then, with a quiet smile and reverence in his voice, he began to tell her the story of a vampire and his guardian angel.
"You know, I'm going to miss this assignment. I've had it for so long," Anastasia commented to Tess as they were walking away from Nick's building.
"Well, it's not like you're never going to see him again, you know," Tess pointed out. "And even before then, this mortal life is going to take him some time to get used to, and who better to help him through it than the angel who knows him best? You may be seeing a lot of Nicholas de Brabant Knight for a while." The black woman smiled and put a motherly arm around the younger woman's shoulders.
Anastasia returned the smile. "But not right away."
"No, not right now."
She cast one last glance over her shoulder in the direction of the Loft, her eyes shining in anticipation. "It's been so long since I've had a new assignment, that I can't help wondering what God has for me next."
Tess chuckled softly. "Wait and see, Child. Wait and see."