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In Pursuit of the Paladin

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A divergent timeline…

“Pardon me,” Lacroix addressed the Cal-Train station agent, backing a polite smile with the bludgeon of vampiric persuasion. “I seem to have become separated from my traveling companion.” He displayed a relatively recent snapshot of Nicholas, acquired, not without cost, from Doctor Lambert. “Have you seen him?”

“I’m sorry,” the uniformed woman shook her head. “But of course there’re so many people, even at this time of night. Would you like me to ask for him over the intercom?”

“No, thank you.” Lacroix replaced the photo in his wallet, his wallet in a pocket of his black leather overcoat, and his gloves on his hands. While San Francisco was warmer in the winter than he had remembered, fingerprints were best avoided as a matter of habit. He walked to the glass walls enclosing the train platform; the dark outdoors and light indoors mirrored him here and obscured the city beyond. He looked as he had for almost two thousand years, give or take tailors and barbers. The city, not unpredictably, had become something else entirely since he had last seen it in the early years of this century.

Lacroix had known Nicholas was not nearby, of course, as he always knew his children’s proximity; he knew that Nicholas was not dead and not hurt, as he always knew their injuries. But the negative evidence was all he had. This trail was cold. Nicholas had slipped through his fingers again.

A foul-smelling man wearing many mismatched layers shook a paper cup. “Spare change?”

Lacroix ignored him.

It had been months since Lacroix had last cornered Nicholas. That had been in Las Vegas; his son had quickly escaped amidst the crowds and cameras. On first departing Toronto after Detective Schanke’s death in that plane explosion, Nicholas had struck out for underpopulated hinterlands, walking, hitch-hiking, paying with cash, hunting animals and generally making Lacroix’s pursuit as awkward and uncomfortable as possible. Eventually, however, Nicholas had returned to the metropolises, a vampire’s natural habitat, teeming with camouflage as well as prey.

“Couple bucks for a warm meal?” the malodorous man prompted.

Lacroix turned; his eyebrow raised and his lip curled. The man’s eyes widened. He backed away.

Initially, as Nicholas had resigned his job, vacated his home, and even sold his absurdly dated car, Lacroix had scented triumph. That petty terrorist’s music box bombs had accidentally accomplished what all Lacroix’s deliberate efforts had not, dislodging Nicholas from his mortal charade — and so tidily, without bending any of Lacroix’s agreements with his son. For the first time in a hundred years, everything had fallen in line... until Nicholas had disappeared. Week after week, month after month, always two steps behind, Lacroix would discover some pathetic mortal who had been assisted, rescued, or even — stars above! — inspired by a handsome stranger who had never been seen in daylight and could not be persuaded to stay.

The man with the paper cup was still looking at Lacroix and still backing away.

Lacroix sighed at the inconvenience. When the man reached a structural pillar at the edge of the light, Lacroix overtook him and placed an arm around his shoulders, adding a hand over his mouth as Lacroix propelled the man behind the pillar, outside and fully into the darkness. Glancing up quickly for security cameras, Lacroix located a blind spot, stepped into it and drained the man to death.

Doctor Natalie Lambert stepped around the corner. “Nick hasn’t been at the Ferry Building—” she began. Looking from the body at Lacroix’s feet to the blood on his mouth, she crossed her arms and frowned.

“I would have preferred more appetizing fare, too, my dear,” Lacroix licked his lips. “But this one seemed determined to remember me.”

“Hah!” Doctor Lambert knelt beside the body and felt for the pulse that was no longer there. “You can do something about that when you want to, I know.” She broke the corpse’s neck, a precaution that Lacroix found vaguely insulting. Then she drew her fingers through the blood on its neck and licked them clean.

Lacroix enjoyed the sight. Nicholas could well waste his immortality on this pitiful knight-errantry for decades yet — he had before — and Janette had actually declined to join this pursuit, but the good doctor’s companionship would suffice for now. Sooner or later, Lacroix would contrive the inevitable reunion. Then, with Doctor Lambert as an object lesson — or leverage, or hostage, or proxy; his plans varied — his lessons for his wayward son would be more pointed than ever.

Lacroix would let her explain why her conversion was not the recompense Nicholas still owed him on Fleur’s behalf. Doctor Lambert had become quite eloquent on that point.

“Lacroix?” She frowned again as she savored the blood. Swiftly, she peeled back the top layers of garments on the body to expose a worn but sturdy leather jacket, likely hidden to deceive thieves. Doctor Lambert poked her finger through a bullet hole on the right side. “Not again!”

Lacroix raised his eyebrows.

She snorted. “It’s Nick’s.”

Lacroix closed his eyes and let the fresh blood images flood his brain. He had locked them away before, not caring what loves and losses, striving and setbacks, marked yet another trifling mortal life. Now, he waded through them, fighting past this meal’s talents and terrors to reach the only thing that mattered: Nicholas. Smiling. Sad. Strong. In need of a haircut. Color in his cheeks, but not the kind raised by drinking human blood. Lacroix frowned. Nicholas had given this vagrant the coat off his back, and ... then the memories were gone. Whatever life had brought this mortal had thinned his blood. The images misted away. Lost.

Lacroix clenched his fists, as if he could grasp Nicholas and hold him still, just for once. Then Lacroix took a long breath and opened his eyes.

“Well?” Doctor Lambert prodded.

“My dear Natalie,” Lacroix smiled, “I believe that we are getting closer.”