The air in Feliks's greenhouse was hotter and more humid than Nick remembered.
"I built this section specifically for the specimens I found on my last trip to South America," Feliks explained as he led Nick past long lines of luxuriant growth, adeptly dodging the sun lamps strung above the plants. "They do love the moisture." He stopped abruptly, halting them in front of a plant whose bright yellow flowers seemed to light up the room. "This is it."
Nick stared, enthralled. "Gloria del sol," he said reverently.
Feliks nodded. "That's what the conquistadors called her. Beautiful, isn't she?" He snapped off the sun lamp above the plant. "One of only a handful left in the world."
"Amazing," Nick said honestly. To think that this plant could...but he didn't want to hope. Not too much. Not yet. "How long did it take you to track it down?"
"After I first heard the stories? Almost two years." Feliks gently grasped one of the flowers by its base and shook its pollen into the murky green contents of the wineglass he carried. Harvest complete, he released the flower and turned back to Nick with a theatrical flourish.
Nick's gaze shifted from the plant to the glass. "And that's it?"
"If the legends are true," Feliks said. "The pollen, mixed with the herbs--"
"Will cure me."
"If you want to call it that." Feliks looked down doubtfully at the glass in his hand. "Are you quite sure you want to do this, Nicholas?"
Nick grinned broadly and clapped Feliks lightly on the shoulder. "You know how long I've been looking for this, old friend."
"I do. But I must confess, I've never quite understood this desire of yours for mortality. You seem well-settled in your current life, clearly you're not yet weary of living...what do you hope to gain by this?"
"Freedom," Nick said softly. "Belonging." He paused for a moment, contemplating the yellow flowers once again. His miracle cure. They almost seemed to glow with their own inner light. "Forgiveness."
"Have you considered starting a garden instead?" Feliks asked. "I assure you, plants are quite forgiving. They're remarkably non-judgmental, as long as you don't forget to tend them."
"I know, Nicholas." He sighed. "I fear it's my age showing. I don't have a great many friends left from the old days, and the thought of losing any of them distresses me. Plants are wonderful companions, but sometimes one does long for more...expressive company."
"You'll have me for a while yet, I hope," Nick said. "I plan on living a little before I die. Unless your potion poisons me first."
"Well, we'll both have to hope that's not the case," Feliks said, handing over the glass. "Wait a minute?"
Nick nodded and watched as Feliks vanished down another row of plants. He tilted the glass as he waited, watching the liquid within slosh against the sides. It was foolish to get his hopes up, of course--this wasn't the first cure he'd tried, nor even the fiftieth. All of the others had failed him, and he had every reason to believe this one would too. And yet this felt different. Perhaps because he'd been making progress with Natalie, or perhaps because it was Feliks--who had never been especially interested in a cure and had no particular investment in the outcome--who had brought it to him.
This time, he thought it might actually work.
Feliks emerged from between the plants a moment later. He carried another glass in his hand, this one filled with a familiar red liquid.
"I thought we should have a toast," he said. "Do this properly."
Nick held up his glass. "And what shall our toast be? Old friends? New beginnings?"
Feliks nodded. "And to a merry life, however short or long it might be."
Glasses clinked, and then Nick downed the drink in one smooth swallow, and waited.
Nick fought down a grin as he knocked on Natalie's door. He hadn't wanted to get her hopes up along with his only to have them both crushed, so he hadn't told her about Feliks's message--only that he was taking two weeks vacation and would be out of touch during that time. He suspected she thought he'd spent the time visiting some site from his past where he hadn't wanted to be disturbed. She certainly had no reason to think he was taking a step toward the future.
He lost the battle as soon as Natalie opened the door, lips curving in delight as he watched her initial surprise give way to shock--and a glance at her watch to confirm the time--and then a dawning understanding.
"Nick! How did you--?" She reached out and touched his arm, as if reassuring herself that he was solid. "Are you--?"
"Human," he said, still smiling. "Yeah, Nat, I am."
"Wow." She stepped back, studying him sharply. "That must be some story."
"It is," Nick said. And then added a line he'd been wanting to use since she'd first offered to share this quest with him. "Can I tell it to you over lunch?"
Her answering smile was as delighted as his.
They ended up on the patio of a café near her building, with Nick reveling in the sun the entire walk there.
"So what are you going to tell Schanke?" Natalie asked, spearing a tomato in her salad.
"That I spent my vacation at a clinic in Europe undergoing an experimental treatment for my skin condition." He'd worked that one out on a long walk through a park.
"He'll probably buy that," Natalie. "I guess everyone will. You were pretty non-specific about the causes, so it's not like they can go look it up."
"Especially with you there to back me up," Nick said. He reached across the table and squeezed Natalie's hand. "You do know how much I appreciate everything you've done for me, don't you?"
"Even if I wasn't the one who cured you in the end."
"You gave me the faith to keep looking when I would have given up," Nick said seriously. "You helped remind me of what it meant to be human, and why that was worth fighting for. Your friendship has meant more to me than I can tell you."
"I'm glad you got what you wanted, Nick. However it happened. But I do want to see this mysterious plant. The whole recipe, really. Maybe I can figure out how it works. Maybe I can figure out how vampirism works. If we know how to cure it, we might be able to unlock the whole thing."
He smiled and released her hand. "I'll talk to Feliks about getting a sample for you."
"So what are your plans now? Are you going back to work?"
"Tomorrow, yeah. I'm going to try to live as normal a life as I can, Nat. Do all the things I couldn't do before."
"Barbeques, picnics, hanging out at doughnut shops…"
He laughed. "Exactly."
"Maybe. I need to take some time and adjust to things, but eventually…who knows?"
"Just remember to be careful tomorrow. I know you're used to being able to rush into dangerous situations, but you're not invulnerable anymore. You're right--it's going to take some getting used to."
"Well, that's what I've been doing for the past two weeks," he said. "Don't worry, Nat. I'm not going to get myself shot on my first day back. I plan on staying alive long enough to really enjoy being human again."
The next conversation was harder.
Nick eased his way through the crowds at the Raven, circling around the edge of the club as he kept an eye out for Janette. Whether by timing or happenstance, there weren't many vampires around, which Nick found himself grateful for. Lacroix might be gone, but there were others who would disapprove of his choices almost as strongly, and he had no desire to encounter them just yet.
It occurred to him that that he might still have one last move ahead of him before he settled into his new mortal life, should the community disapproval prove forceful enough. He frowned at the thought and then pushed it away; there would be time to deal with that later.
He spotted Janette by the bar, talking to her new bartender. She was dressed in her customary elegant black, with her hair loose around her shoulders, and Nick stopped for a moment just to watch her. Almost eight centuries earlier, he'd followed her into the darkness, not realizing how long-lived that darkness would be. He'd long since regretted that choice, but even with what it had cost him, he couldn't bring himself to regret meeting Janette. He wondered if she felt the same way. If she'd still feel that way after tonight.
Watching her flirt with a customer before adeptly sending him on his way, Nick imagined he could still feel the bond between them. That he could feel a link spanning the distance between them. It was impossible, of course, and yet when finally moved toward her, Janette turned and smiled as if she'd felt him coming.
"Nicolas!" And then the smile faded.
It was like watching the inverse of Nat's reaction that morning--joy chased away first by shock, then something akin to horror. Or dismay.
"Oh, Nicolas." A gloved hand rested on his arm, another echo from earlier. "What have you done to yourself, ma chère?"
"I know this isn't something you wanted, Janette. But it's something I wanted."
"Mortality." She gave the word a contemptuous twist. "How?"
Disapproval flickered in Janette's eyes. She stepped back and picked up her glass from the bar, sipping at the blood/wine mixture. "He's old enough to know better."
Nick waited silently. After a moment, Janette set the glass down again with a sigh.
"I know I said I would support you in this quest, but…"
"But it was easier when you thought I was doomed to fail." He'd understood that when she first offered her support. He had no doubt that she genuinely wanted him to be happy, but he'd known she made the offer secure in the knowledge that he could not successfully achieve what he sought.
Janette acknowledged the point with a tilt of her head. "You could have waited a little longer," she said. "To lose you so soon after--" She stopped abruptly, swallowing the rest of the sentence.
"Everyone talks as if I'm going to die tomorrow," Nick said lightly, ignoring his twinge of guilt. "And I keep saying--I plan to live on for a while yet."
"A mortal life passes in a blink of an eye, Nicolas. You know this. You have what? Forty, maybe fifty years left, if you're fortunate?"
"But they'll be good years."
"Perhaps." Her tone was flat. Unconvinced.
Well, he hadn't really expected her to rejoice with him. Especially not at first. "If I ever regret my choice, I know where to find you," he said. He was pleased to see a hint of a smile touch her lips.
"I suppose you'll be returning to work?" she said. "Serving and protecting?"
"That's the plan."
She nodded thoughtfully, and he wondered if he was about to receive yet another lecture about the need to be careful in his new fragility. But instead she leaned in and kissed him gently.
"Good luck, Nicolas. I hope this new life is everything you've dreamed of."
It was odd walking into the precinct as an ordinary human. The whole world had been muted since his transformation--once-familiar sounds and smells dulled beyond detection; no more heartbeats pounding in his ears or the copper smell of blood scenting the air--but somehow the change was especially noticeable here. Perhaps because he'd always been on guard while at work, or perhaps it was simply his imagination playing tricks again, fueled by the knowledge--as Nat had observed--that for the first time in centuries, he was as fragile and vulnerable as the people around him, and as much as Nick might insist that he planned to live before he died, years of military and police service had left him acutely aware that one didn't always have a choice in such matters.
He found Schanke just inside the squad room.
"Partner!" Schanke interrupted his efforts to wheedle Khatri into participating in a dubious-sounding scheme involving a rock band and a comedian long enough to greet Nick with a slap on the back. "Did you have a good vacation?"
"I did, thanks," Nick said. Behind Schanke, Khatri took the opportunity to make his escape.
Schanke frowned at Khatri's rapidly retreating back. "We'll talk later!" he called, before turning back to Nick. "So where'd you go, anyway? Some sort of yoga-macro-organic health resort?"
"Something like that."
"Myra's always talking about going to one of those places. Thank God she always changes her mind and heads to the cottage when summer hits. You look good, though." He eyed Nick critically. "You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd swear you had a tan."
"I did get a bit of sun," Nick agreed, straight-faced.
Schanke's mouth dropped open in a parody of surprise. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the presses! Are you saying that Nick Knight, the man with the weirdest allergies ever, actually saw daylight?"
"Wait. You can't stop there. I need details, Knight! How did this happen? The way you acted, I figured you burst into flames or something if you went outside during the day."
"I spent most of my vacation at a clinic in Switzerland," Nick said. "They have an experimental new treatment for allergies, and my doctor thought they might be able to help me."
"And it worked?'
"That's fantastic!" Schanke grinned widely. "That's great. I mean, how long has it been since you could go outside during the day?"
"Honestly, Schank, it felt like centuries."
"I bet. So does this mean you'll come help me with the witness interviews tomorrow for the Cheng case? Body turned up yesterday, and I only got through about half the family today."
"Sure," Nick said, steering Schanke toward their desks. "Just give me a chance to get up to speed."
Two hours into his shift--most of which was spent catching up on the cases assigned during his absence--it seemed as though everyone at the precinct had stopped by to welcome him back and check if it was true that his skin condition had been cured. Happily, no one seemed inclined to question his story of an experimental treatment at a European clinic. If he did have to move on, at least he wouldn't be leaving behind a station full of suspicious cops.
He was reading through the witness statements that Schanke had taken from the witnesses to the Cheng stabbing when the phone rang. Schanke answered, so he tuned it out and kept reading. When Schanke hung up, Nick looked across at him quizzically.
"Fatal shooting in the entertainment district," Schanke said. He stood up and grabbed his jacket. "Come on, Knight. Time to get back to work."
The body was located just outside a slightly rundown looking nightclub just off the main strip--nowhere near the Raven, Nick noted gratefully. One less thing to worry about.
Natalie was already there, kneeling over the body. "Six shots," she said, tilting her head to look up at them. "Somebody really wanted this guy dead."
"Gang hit," Schanke said confidently.
"Do we have an ID?" Nick asked.
"Sean Gordon," Natalie said. "Twenty-three. Cause of death looks pretty obvious, but I'll let you know for sure after I finish the autopsy."
"Dead of lead poisoning," Schanke said, making a note. "I'll go talk to the club owner."
Natalie stood up and stripped off her gloves. "So how's it going?" she asked quietly once Schanke was out of earshot.
"So far so good," Nick said.
"Good," she said. "Just remember--"
"To be careful," Nick said. "I know."
He left her to deal with the removal of the body, and headed over to Mierkowski, who'd been first on the scene. "Any witnesses?" he asked.
"Tons," she said. "And every one of them has a different story. I'm pretty sure the shooters were human, but beyond that…" She shrugged helplessly.
"Right," Nick said. He glanced around at the crowds that had gathered just outside the police tape. "So the shooters could be anywhere, including still hanging around here."
"Make sure we get some photos of the crowd," Nick said. "Maybe we'll--" He stopped as gunfire rang out again nearby, and then again.
Nick turned and raced toward the sound of the shots. Footsteps echoed around him as other officers from the scene followed suit. Even without the advantage of vampiric speed, Nick held the lead, rounding the corner with the uniformed officers close behind him. Guns rang out again as the shooters came into sight. Nick felt a sharp pain in his stomach, and then he was on the ground with Mierkowski on top of him. The gunfight continued over their heads as the officers behind them returned fire. It was over in moments.
"Are you okay, Nick?" Mierkowski asked, clambering off of him.
Nick sat up and put a hand to his stomach, expecting the worst. Instead he found nothing. No blood. No wound. Not even a tender spot. He wondered if the momentary pain had also been a product of his imagination, and then his fingers found the hole in his shirt. Shock flooded through him with disappointment following close behind, bitter and sharp. He had been so sure this time.
"Nick?" Mierkowski repeated.
"I'm fine," Nick said, pulling himself to his feet. "Thanks to you." He buttoned his jacket, then nodded toward the scene in front of them. "What do you think the odds are that one of these guns will match the bullets in our victim?"
Natalie gave Nick an incredulous look. "What do you mean you got shot?"
"I think I took one in the stomach during that gunfight," he confessed, embarrassment over his failure to heed Natalie's warning warring with his concern over the possible meaning of his rapid healing.
"And then you decided to drive back here rather than, oh, call an ambulance? Nick, you're human now. You can't--"
He opened his jacket and lifted his shirt to reveal unmarked skin.
Natalie leaned closer. "Okay. I don't see anything. Are you sure you were hit?"
Nick pulled down his shirt, showing her the hole in the fabric.
Natalie's eyes widened. "Nick, you know, humans don't generally recover from bullet wounds in a matter of minutes."
"So what's going on?"
"I was hoping you could help me figure it out."
"Okay, have you had any other symptoms? Could Feliks's cure be wearing off?"
It had been his first thought, but… "There are no other symptoms."
"Problems with sunlight? A sudden craving for blood?"
Nick shook his head. "I feel exactly the same as I have since I first changed." He started to say changed back, but apparently that wasn't the case. Whatever he was now, it wasn't what he'd been brought across.
"Okay. Then I guess the other obvious possibility is that the cure was incomplete. It affected some symptoms but not others. Either it's still going, or it was only partially effective."
"How is that possible?" Nick demanded. "It's all connected. I should either be a vampire or not. There's no halfway in-between."
"Tell that to Sophia Jergen's patients," Natalie said. "You're assuming it's a metaphysical condition. A state of being. What if it's more a collection of symptoms?" She opened a drawer and began digging around. "This isn't all bad, you know, Nick. There are a lot of people who'd give anything to have that kind of healing ability. And if you were fully human, you could have died today." She pulled out a syringe and held it up triumphantly. "I'm going to take a blood sample and compare it the earlier samples, both from before the cure, and right after. I'll see if I can detect any changes over time."
Nick nodded, resigned. Perhaps Natalie was right. Perhaps it was a matter of science, and science would solve it. But he'd been so sure. "Let me know what you find."
"I will. Oh, and Nick, just in case the cure continues to work, next time you might want to think before you decide to race into a gun fight ahead of the people wearing the Kevlar vests."
"I know." He leaned down and kissed her on the temple. "I'll be more careful. I promise."
Nick felt Janette's presence before he entered his apartment, though he had no reason to expect her. Definitely not his imagination, then. One more piece of evidence that he wasn't really human after all. His heart sank a little further.
She was standing at the easel, studying his most recent work: a sunlit landscape based on actual, firsthand observation. She spun gracefully as he entered.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to see if you were alright," she said, ignoring his tone. "Earlier, I felt...were you hurt?"
He smiled despondently. "I can't be hurt."
"What do you mean?"
"The cure was partial, at best. I can walk in daylight and I don't crave blood, but I still heal like a vampire." He moved to stand beside her, staring at the painting.
"You aren't reverting?"
"No. I'm just...stuck between worlds."
Janette rubbed a soothing hand across his back. "That doesn't seem like such a terrible fate, Nicolas. Especially for someone in such a dangerous occupation."
"Yeah, but what if it's more than the healing?" he asked. "Nat's been doing some tests. She called me just before I got home."
"And what did the good doctor find?"
"She says my cells are regenerating at a tremendous rate, and she thinks…" He swallowed, replaying the conversation in his head. "She thinks that the healing and immortality might be linked. That we're immortal for the same reason that we heal quickly. And if that's the case--"
"Then you will still be eternally young," Janette finished. She looked pleased at the thought. "It seems like you've managed to combine the best parts of vampire and human, cheri. You can walk in the sun and still live forever."
Nick shook his head. "But it's not what I wanted."
"Why not?" Janette asked. "You can't tell me you want to die. If that were the case, you could have arranged that years ago."
Nick ran a gentle finger down her cheek, and then drew back. "Because I'm still separate from them. You know how hard it is to care about people when you know you're going to have to watch them die. I thought I'd finally escaped that. That I could finally be genuine in my attachments. And instead, I'm as much of an outsider as ever. Maybe more." The vampire community could still choose to reject him, and if it did...he shuddered at the thought of an eternity spent cut-off not only from mortals, but also from the only other people who would remember him lifetime to lifetime.
"Hmm, yes. Neither human nor vampire."
She stepped away from the painting, circling the loft slowly until she came to rest beside the piano. He pivoted to follow her progress.
"It feels like there's something else bothering you," she suggested.
Nick glanced down at his sun painting, and thought about the other forms of light he'd been denied. "When the cure seemed to work," he said finally, "I suppose I thought that I'd finally been...forgiven. And now I find out that I was wrong." And yet he'd been able to hold Jeanne d'Arc's cross without pain. Perhaps it had been hubris that had made him take it as a sign.
Janette looked at him compassionately. "Oh, cheri. When will you learn? God does not care what happens to any of us."
An old argument between them, fought at length more times than Nick could count. He knew just enough about Janette's mortal life to have some idea of why she might reject belief in a loving god, trusting in her own strength and power instead. It broke his heart a little that he'd never been able to convince her otherwise. He didn't have the heart to fight that battle again today.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
He joined her at the piano. "Keep going," he said. "Keep looking for a cure." Keep trying to earn forgiveness. "What else can I do?"
"I'm sorry, Nicolas."
He shook his head. "No, you're not."
"I am. I will admit to being relived as well, for my own sake. But I know how badly you wanted this. For your sake, I wish it were otherwise."
"We can't both get what we want."
"No," she agreed. She took a step closer, eyes bright in the candlelight. "But perhaps I can make your disappointment easier to bear."
And for a while, it was.