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Defying the Gods

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Defying the Gods
By PJ
June 2018

 

Nick and Schanke dug under the police tape and entered a narrow alley that was illuminated by floodlights. Several uniformed officers were present, some of them standing in a half circle around a body. While Schanke went to talk to the first officer on the scene, Nick joined the coroner who knelt next to the victim. "Hey Nat, what do we have?"

"Male, mid-fifties," Natalie began to rattle down her prelims. "He was shot point-blank. Looks like a robbery that was interrupted. He's missing his wallet, but he still had this and a business card in his pocket."

After Nick had pulled on gloves, Natalie handed him the card and a black silk pouch.

"Walter Skelton," Nick read the name on the business card. "The card says he's the owner of a pawn shop on Yonge Street." After slipping the card into an evidence bag one of the uniforms handed him, Nick emptied the contents from the pouch into his hand. It was an assortment of jewellery, a pearl necklace, a couple of ear-rings and several rings.

"Anything interesting?" Schanke asked and approached him.

Nick tensed as his eyes focused on a large silver ring. All too well he knew that ring and the hand on which it belonged. "Ah, mostly costume jewellery," Nick stated while slipping the ring unobtrusively into his coat pocket. He returned the remaining jewellery into the pouch and handed it to Schanke. "Not particularly valuable."

* * * *

On the way back to the precinct, Nick turned on the car's stereo.

"If you love someone, let them go. If they're really yours, they will learn their lessons and return," the Nightcrawler's velvet voice sounded from the speaker.

"Is he running out of topics? I'm sure he already said that last month," Schanke commented.

Nick furrowed his brows. "It's a recording. Must be his night off and the station doesn't want to disappoint the fanbase."

"You mean, he has other fans besides you?"

Nick shot him a glare, but his mind was already elsewhere. If a tape was running, that meant Lacroix wasn't in the studio.

As they pulled into the precinct's parking lot, Nick turned to his partner. "Why don't you start with the report? I'll catch up with you later at the morgue."

"Why? Where are you going?"

"I need to check on something."

When Nick didn't provide any further information, Schanke got out of the car, commenting, "I'm starting on the report, but I'm not going to write it all by myself. You hear that, Knight?"

* * * *

Nick entered the Raven and made his way over to the bar, where Janette leaned against the counter.

"Nicolas, you look worried. What burden are you carrying around now?"

"Do you know where Lacroix is?" Nick asked.

"At this time of night? At the radio station I would presume."

"No, he's not. They're running a recording."

Janette shrugged. "I haven't seen him all week."

"Have you sensed anything? Was he in trouble?"

"Mon cher, you know quite well that Lacroix is not in the habit of being in trouble. Why would you think so?"

Nick pulled the ring from his pocket and showed it to her. "We found it in the possession of a dead man."

Janette's eyebrows shot up. "He never takes it off."

"Exactly. That's what worries me."

"I have not sensed that anything was amiss. But then you're much closer to him."

Nick looked to the floor. There was a time he was very much in tune with Lacroix. He could sense the other's emotions and knew what he was thinking. Frequent blood sharing had strengthened their bond beyond the loose connection between master and child. But that intensity had faded to a low tingle when he began to distance himself from his sire. And now, after three weeks on Natalie's latest regimen, he felt nothing at all. Whatever the green concoction was Natalie had come up with, it was in some ways very effective. While he still burned in the sun and didn't tolerate solid food, the liquid dulled his hunger for blood. But Nick was beginning to have doubts. Along with the lack of hunger his senses were dulled and he felt increasingly weak and tired. What bothered him even more was the fading sense of others of his kind. Although he had often voluntarily isolated himself from the Community, there had always been the bond vibrating in the back of his mind. Without it he felt utterly alone.

"Not anymore," he whispered, unsuccessfully keeping the longing from his voice.

He turned to go when a gloved hand reached for his arm, holding him back. "But you miss it, the closeness, don't you?" Janette probed.

Nick cast his eyes down. Whenever he had thought that maybe he and Lacroix could get along again, something would come up and deepen the rift between them. Still, the longing to regain what they once had, remained. "Sometimes," he admitted. Automatically he slid the ring onto the fifth finger on his right hand and left.

* * * *

"Hey Nat."

Natalie jumped slightly as Nick appeared behind her. Letting out a loud breath, she scolded, "I didn't expect you this early. I've barely started with the autopsy."

"Did you find anything unusual or was the shot really the cause of death."

Natalie gave him a scrutinizing look. "Define unusual."

"Is he missing blood? Does he have any other wounds like bite marks or a cut?"

Natalie watched him sharply. "You think a vampire did this?" When he remained silent she ventured, "Is that why you're withholding evidence?"

Upon Nick's surprised look she elaborated, "I checked the contents of the silk pouch before I gave it to you. Later, in the evidence bag I noticed that a ring was missing."

Guiltily Nick showed her his hand with the ring on.

"Nick, how often do I have to remind you that you cannot just throw the law overboard every time something from your past ––"

"It's Lacroix's ring," Nick stopped her.

After a moment of stunned silence, Natalie asked, "So you think he did it?"

"I don't know what to think. But I do know that Lacroix never takes his ring off. Not even under the shower."

Natalie pinched her nose in a vain attempt to find relief from an upcoming headache. "Do I want to know why you're so familiar with what Lacroix wears under the shower? –– No, forget that I asked that."

"I'm worried about him, Nat."

That caught her off-guard. "Worried about Lacroix? If something happened to him, shouldn't you be rather –– I don't know –– glad to be rid of him? After all you almost killed him yourself not so long ago."

When Nick remained silent and merely regarded her with an anguished look, she continued, "Or is it, if you cannot kill him, nobody else is supposed to?"

"Something like that," Nick mumbled.

"Care to explain that to me?"

Nick let out a sigh. "It's hard to explain. But despite our differences, Lacroix has always been there for me."

"Yes, he's been stalking you for centuries, Nick."

Nick shook his head. "No, I mean, there were times when we were in different countries, going our own ways. Still, whenever I got myself in trouble, really life-threatening trouble, he always came to rescue me. I could always rely on that."

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Mount St. Helens, Washington, May 17, 1980

Nick entered the ranger station that served as operating base for controlling the evacuation zone which had been established in a 25 km radius around Mount St. Helens after a series of earthquakes had increased the risk of flooding and landslide two months ago. Immediately he picked up an increased activity than on the previous evenings when he had reported for duty. Approaching his superior officer, he inquired, "What's up, Captain? Any signs of an imminent eruption?"

"Quite the contrary, Nick. It has quieted down. We haven't recorded any eruptions since yesterday. That's why we gave in and allowed property owners into the area to gather whatever property they could carry. They were supposed to report back by sunset. However, five people are still out there."

"Do you have their names and possible locations?"

The Captain handed Nick a clipboard with the information.

"Don't worry, I'll find them and send them back."

"Tell them they can come back tomorrow morning at 10."

"Will do." Nick waved at his superior and left the station. He jumped into his Landrover, passed the security gate and headed towards the first cabin on his list whose owner hadn't reported back.

By midnight Nick had contacted three of the missing persons. On two occasions he had to use a little mental push to make them leave. One turned out to be a resistor and could be persuaded to leave only after Nick had helped loading several pieces of wooden furniture onto the man's truck.

On his way to the remaining two people, Nick passed the Coldwater II observation point, which was located 10 km north of the volcano. Recognizing a mortal heartbeat, Nick stopped the car and headed towards the sole occupant of the observation post. "Hey David. I thought this was your night off."

"I'm filling in for Swanson. What are you doing here?"

"Hunting down persistent cabin owners. They let them in to fetch some of their belongings and some chose to stay instead."

"Yeah, I heard. I don't know, I don't trust this, Nick."

Nick eyed the young geologist curiously. "Why, what is it?"

"This sudden cease of eruptions. It's like the silence before the doom."

"Then I better make sure to find the two people still on my list. I could come back later and keep you company until dawn."

"No, I've already sent Carolyn home. If the blast happens I want as few people as possible up here. Take care, Nick."

"You, too." Nick returned to his car and continued on his way through the forest.

When he reached the cabin of his next quarry, its occupant was sleeping peacefully. It took Nick a while to rouse him only to realize that the man was utterly drunk and in no condition to drive. He set the man under the shower and made him coffee. When neither helped, Nick decided to take the man with him in his own car.

The man dozed off again as soon as he was settled on the Landrover's passenger seat. Sighing, Nick started the engine and drove to the last address on his list. As he parked the car in front of the cabin, he didn't detect any inhabitant. Returning to the car, he radioed the operation base. "I'm at Spirit Lake Drive. The cabin is empty. Has Mr. Hutchins reported back?"

"No, Nick. He's still missing. And so is Peters."

"I've got Peters in the car. I'll search the area and see if I can find Hutchins." Nick ended the call and checked his watch. He only had two hours left until sunrise. Making sure that Peters was still asleep, he left the car and took to the air. Opening his senses he cherished the exhilarating feeling of a hunt. After flying for 30 minutes in circles over the trees, his eyes flashed golden as he detected a human heartbeat. He landed a few meters away and found a man bent over the open hood of his pick up. Hutchins, no doubt.

Nick returned to retrieve his car and approached the spot anew. Hutchins immediately waved as he came into view. "Thank god, I thought I would have to spend all night here," he said.

"Car trouble?" Nick guessed.

"Yeah. I stopped to remove some branches from the road and then the car wouldn't restart."

Nick glanced at the motor. His imperative mission was to get the people out of the evacuation zone. There was hardly enough time to reach the base before sunrise. "Listen, you take my car and drive Mr. Peters to the base. I'll stay and see if I can fix yours and follow later, okay?"

Nodding, Hutchins went to the Landrover and drove off.

Nick sighed. He gave the motor a brief glimpse before deciding to call AAA in the morning. He took to the air and covered the distance to Hutchins' cabin just as the sun crested the horizon. He let himself in and quickly drew the curtains against the increasing morning light. Then he stretched out on the couch and dozed off.

* * * *

At 8:32 a.m. a massive earthquake shook Nick awake. Slightly disoriented he took in the foreign surroundings before remembering that he had taken shelter in a cabin within the evacuation zone. Careful to remain in the shadows he peeked through a window to catch a view of the volcano. His eyes widened as he saw that the entire north face of the volcano was missing. A sudden explosion rocked the area and caused an avalanche of lava mixed with pulverized older rock cascading towards Spirit Lake. Realizing that his location was exactly on that route, he started to panic. He wanted to flee, but the daylight prevented him from leaving the cabin. However, if he stayed, he'd be swept away with the pyroclastic flow.

He ripped the cover from the couch and wrapped it around himself. Although inadequately covered, Nick rushed out of the cabin and into the woods. He knew that there was an abandoned mine shaft about a kilometer east of his location, which he hoped could shelter him from the lava flow. Receiving multiple burns from the sun while he half stumbled and half flew through the woods, he finally saw the boarded entrance of the mine before him. Using his last strength, he ripped the boards away and staggered into the mine where he collapsed. A moment later he heard tremendous thunder above him. Then the light from the entrance was cut off as the avalanche buried everything under volcanic debris. As realization struck that he could be buried alive for centuries, Nick passed out from exhaustion.

* * * *

Montreal, Canada, May 18, 1980

After an enjoyable evening at the opera house, Lucien Lacroix had already changed from his tuxedo into his morning robe and sat in front of the fireplace, listening to a broadcast of Vivaldi's La Cetra on the stereo while savouring a vintage fit for the occasion. All of a sudden the glass broke in his hand as a sense of panic rushed through him. Immediately he knew it was coming from Nicholas. He hadn't seen his son in nearly a decade. After Nicholas had left Vietnam, he had stayed behind in order to tend to a family matter. After providing enough guidance to ensure that his newest child could survive on his own, he had settled down in Montreal to be near his daughter. Janette had recently moved to Toronto and he expected Nicholas to join her eventually.

While he had no idea of his son's current whereabouts, the sensations he received were truly alarming. Nicholas was fearing for his life. Since he had taught him that fear in the fearless was unbecoming, the incident that caused this emotion must be of unusual quality.

A moment later the broadcast of Vivaldi's violin concerto was interrupted by a special breaking news announcement. The volcano Mount St. Helens in the States was having a major eruption. A pyroclastic flow of lava and debris was leaving a destructive path. Due to the unexpectedness of the eruption the authorities assumed that there were several fatalities, among them a geologist, a photographer, a ranger and a lodge owner who were known to have been in the immediate area when the eruption occurred.

Lacroix froze. The reported time of the eruption coincided with the time he had felt the bout of panic from Nicholas. His hands clenched into fists. After almost exactly 1900 years he was not prepared to lose a beloved to a volcano again.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Pompeii, 79 AD

"Seline!" Lucius called out as he staggered over the volcanic debris that covered the major part of the house, paying no heed to the pain the still smoking surface caused to his feet.

After Vesuvius' eruption had ceased, he had returned to Pompeii in order to look for survivors. He searched in vain. Those that were not covered by lava had died from the poisonous air that engulfed the city during the eruption. He found it sickening himself until he realized that he did not need to breathe.

Lucius closed his eyes for a moment. His comrades who had survived the campaign to Gaul under his successful guidance now lay dead at his feet. His friends whom he had not seen for years and who had gathered here to welcome him home had all perished.

As he reached the women's quarters, he caught a glimpse of raven hair. Her lower body covered by debris, Seline was resting on a divan, still wearing the earrings he had given her on the previous night. Lucius fell to his knees next to her, ignoring the hot lava burning on his exposed skin. Bending down, he placed a soft kiss on the woman's lips. Cold lips that had burned with so much passion only hours before the eruption. Lucius had demanded that they spend time together, and she had complied most willingly.

"You're pathetic, General," a young voice spoke behind him. "Let go of your mortal bonds! There is nothing for you here. Not even a drop to drink."

Lucius straightened. "You're right, Divia. We will leave this place tonight." He turned back to Seline and removed one of her earrings. Never again would he allow the gods to bereave him of a beloved, he vowed. He would seek out a silversmith and have the earring transformed into a ring to serve as a reminder of that vow.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

After sunset Lacroix was on the first flight to Portland from where a chopper brought him into the immediate area of the volcano. As soon as he stepped from the chopper Lacroix cast out his senses. After circling the mountain for several hours, he eventually picked up a faint vibration. Following the link he arrived at a location where the pyroclastic flow had turned the forest into wasteland. His eyes widened with the realization that his child lay buried underneath the layer of volcanic debris, probably slowly burning to death.

Half an hour later Lacroix was back with a shovel. Paying no heed to the pain the still smoking lava caused to his feet, he started to dig. After several hours he had removed enough debris to reveal the entrance to a mine. He slipped through the narrow opening, almost dreading what he might find.

A good distance into the mine he saw a body face down on the ground. Carefully turning him around, he faced shrivelled skin that looked as if Nicholas had been dried out from the inside. Without hesitation Lacroix bit into his wrist and placed the bleeding wound over Nicholas' lips.

* * * *

A rich thick liquid made its way down his parched throat, the dried tissue absorbing the sustenance even before he could swallow. Fortunately the flow continued and as he finally did swallow, Nick tasted the most heavenly ambrosia he could imagine. A familiar taste he thought he would never experience again. Reaching up with his hand, he came in touch with a wrist which he pressed harder against his lips until his fangs were buried deep into the pliant flesh. As he began to draw out the blood with increasing intensity, he revelled in the flavour and the knowledge that he was safe.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

"He saved my life innumerable times," Nick stated. "I owe him to at least find out what's wrong."

"Shouldn't you be able to sense him?" Natalie wondered.

"I can't!" Nick exclaimed. "That damn concoction is bereaving me of all my senses."

"Excuse me?" Natalie's eyes flashed in anger. "That damn concoction, as you call it, is the result of working three months overtime. Do you have any idea how tedious it was to find the correct ratio between the chlorophyll and the iron supplement to trigger the exchange of the magnesium against the iron in your cells? This is the first time I've come up with something you can actually tolerate and obviously live on. I thought this is what you wanted."

Nick cast his eyes to the floor, regretting the outburst immediately. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Natalie's feelings. "I'm sorry, Natalie. I do appreciate your efforts. It's just ––" He ran his hand through his hair, not sure if he should continue.

"What?" Natalie wanted to know.

"I still burn in the sun, I cannot tolerate any food. It makes me weak and dulls all my senses."

"It makes you feel like a mortal, Nick. Mortals do not have enhanced hearing. You cannot have both, being mortal and maintain your abilities. You have to decide what you really want."

Nick shook his head. "I can't go on with this if I lose the ability to atone."

Natalie felt her headache increasing. "Nick, you don't need to be immortal to atone."

"What use am I then? Last week Stevens was shot because I didn't hear the shooter's presence."

"Thankfully the bullet just grazed him. It was nobody's fault but the shooter's."

Nick shook his head. "I could have prevented it. Next time someone might die. I couldn't live with the knowledge that I might have been able to prevent it."

* * * *

Upon leaving the morgue, Nick pulled out his cell phone and dialled the number of his supplier.

"It's Nicholas. I need two cases of uncut blood delivered to the loft by dawn –– no, not my usual. Human." After ending the call Nick stared a moment at the phone in his hand. He hoped bottled blood would be sufficient to re-awaken his senses.

When he returned to the precinct, Schanke looked up from the type-writer. "Perfect timing, Nick. I've just pulled the form in to start with the report."

Nick stared at him somewhat nonplussed. He had indeed hoped the report would be finished by now. "You're starting only now? What have you done all night?"

Schanke gave him an exasperated look. "You asked me what I've done all night when you're the one who disappeared? While you were out checking out who-knows-what, I did some real police work. I went to that pawn shop on Yonge. Turned out our victim is a frequent customer of the owner, Mr. Skelton. That night he had retrieved his jewellery after paying the debt."

Nick took in the information. It didn't make sense. Why would Lacroix's ring be among a pile of pawned jewels?

"Are you going to stand there all night or are you going to actually contribute something to this case?" Schanke interrupted his thoughts.

"I've been to the morgue," Nick provided and sat down at his desk. "Nat hasn't finished yet."

"Well, you can continue with this, while I go and get myself some coffee." Schanke placed the typewriter in front of Nick and vanished into the break room.

With a sigh Nick started to type, while his thoughts strayed towards Lacroix.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Portland, Oregon, May 19, 1980

Tentatively, Nick traced Lacroix's lips with a finger. He had woken a short time earlier, finding himself in a hotel room lying next to Lacroix, his master's blood coursing through his system. He still wore his tattered ranger uniform, but his burns had healed.

Noting that his action had caused the other to wake up, he replaced his finger with his mouth. "You came," Nick murmured against his lips. "I thought I'd be buried there for eternity."

Immediately Nick found his lips claimed by Lacroix's mouth while strong arms crushed him against the other's torso. "I would never allow the gods to take you from me, Nicholas," Lacroix declared after releasing his lips while maintaining his hold.

"It's been so long. I didn't expect that you would be able to sense me. How could you know that I needed you across the distance?"

"Because I do pay attention." Lacroix held his gaze.

Nick's lips smiled broadly before wandering unerringly towards Lacroix's neck.

"Nicholas, what are you doing?" the elder whispered hoarsely.

"I'm expressing my gratitude for the rescue. –– And I've missed your flavour," he breathed into Lacroix's ear. He claimed Lacroix's lips in a brief but deep kiss before sinking his fangs into Lacroix's neck and started to feed like a starved man. Before he became too weak, Lacroix returned the bite. Mingled with fragments from Lacroix's past, Nick perceived the mental torture Lacroix had gone through since the first signs of Nick's predicament and the tremendous relief he had felt after finding him.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Shortly before dawn Nick stepped from the elevator, carrying two cases over to the kitchen table. He picked one bottle and studied the ornate label. Natalie would kill him if she knew what he was up to. Yet, after feeling more and more useless at work as a result of his dulled senses, he did not see any potential in her current regimen anymore. It merely caused him to lose all the advantageous characteristics of his existence, but not the essential ones with the exception of the blood lust. And even that effect didn't prevent the vampire from emerging in intimate situations. Nick had found that out after taking the mixture for one week. When his hunger remained dormant during that period, he and Natalie had kissed to celebrate the success. Confident, he had dared to let the kiss become more passionate. Soon his lips moved out of habit to her neck. When Natalie perceived his fangs grazing her skin, she had frozen in his arms. Noting her discomfort, he had drawn back, muttering an apology and an explanation about biting being a natural part of the process of the intimacy he had practised over the last eight centuries.

Now he needed all his senses if he wanted to find out what was wrong with Lacroix, and he suspected indulging in his natural diet would accomplish just that.

Carefully Nick removed the cork and inhaled the aroma. It did not call to him in the slightest. He poured a glass and took a cautious sip. It still didn't appeal to him. Yet, sip by sip, he forced the liquid down and emptied the glass.

About five minutes later his eyes suddenly flashed crimson and his stomach began to cramp from a ravenous hunger. Nick grabbed the bottle and upended it, draining it in hasty swallows. Two more followed suit. He took a fourth bottle over to the couch and emptied it more at leisure. Then he stretched out and fell instantly asleep.

* * * *

Nick woke shortly before sunset. A multitude of various sounds filled his senses. With a smile he sat up, feeling alive and invigorated as he had not for weeks. Immediately he cast out his senses in search of Lacroix. Much to his relief he felt the familiar vibration. He embraced it and focused on it. Then he left through the skylight and followed the link.

From what he discerned, Lacroix was deeply focused on solving a problem. The link led Nick to a warehouse in the Oakville industrial area. After landing in front of it, Nick tore the door from its hinges and rushed inside ready to rescue his master from whatever predicament he was facing.

Nick came to a complete stop as he took in the tableau in front of him. The warehouse was completely empty except for a table in the middle of the hall and two chairs. A game of chess in progress was set up on the table. Lacroix sat comfortably on one chair, his legs crossed. The other chair was occupied by another vampire who looked faintly familiar. Nick found all eyes focused on him.

"I believe the cavalry has arrived," Lacroix commented dryly, a benevolent smile playing around his lips while the other stared in utter astonishment at Nick. "I told you there is no problem."

"What is the meaning of this?" Nick hissed.

Lacroix rose from his seat and sauntered towards him. "There was talk that your senses were weakened so much that you were becoming a liability to the Community. The Enforcers were sent to assess the situation." Lacroix circled him until he came to stand behind Nick. "They decided to test if you would be able to sense my absence and seek me out."

Nick's eyes widened. He wouldn't have noticed Lacroix's absence at all if he hadn't accidentally found the ring. He wisely kept his mouth shut as he felt Lacroix's restraining hand on his shoulder.

Lacroix fixed the other vampire with a glare. "I believe Nicholas' presence here is evidence enough that he is in peak condition. I suggest you collect your companion and leave my city."

"It appears indeed that we have been misinformed. My apologies for the inconvenience, Lucius."

Nick relaxed slowly after the Enforcer had departed in a rush of air. Turning around he faced Lacroix. "What would have happened if I hadn't come?" he asked wearily.

"You would have been disposed of. As would the person responsible for your condition." Lacroix's voice remained neutral as if he was discussing the weather.

Nick closed his eyes and suppressed a shudder. Unintentionally he had put Nat's life in danger. His mortal friends were indeed better off if he ceased trying to become one of them. "Was there a time limit?"

"The duration of a single game of chess," Lacroix stated. "Do you have any idea how tedious it is to avoid winning and keep the game ongoing for hours?"

"I appreciate your help in protecting Nat."

"I can assure you that it wasn't her I was concerned about." Lacroix's hands clenched into fists and his eyes flashed golden. "Why do you always jeopardize your own life out of concern for them, Nicholas?"

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Portland, Oregon, May 19, 1980

Nicholas sat on the bed, watching the latest newscast on the eruption. Fifty-seven fatalities had been reported.

Sensing his mood, Lacroix reached for the remote and turned the television off. "You couldn't have saved them, Nicholas. They were doomed by their decision to stay in the area. Natural disasters like this just tend to brush mortals away with a flick of the hand. There is nothing you could have done to prevent it."

Nicholas turned towards him. "Was it like that for you? Back in Pompeii?"

"Yes," he replied softly.

Nicholas regarded him curiously. "Who was the woman I saw?" he asked. "Seline?"

Lacroix turned his head to the side, reluctant to reply. He had not intended to share those long-buried images from his past. The present incident must have triggered a flow of images he usually concealed behind carefully erected walls. "Someone who used to be very prominent on my mind when I was mortal," he eventually explained.

"And the girl? Divia?"

Tensing, Lacroix abruptly sat up. He would not allow more unpleasant memories to surface than those that had already been unearthed by this present volcano eruption. "That is none of your business," he hissed. "Let us rather talk about what compelled you to spend your days on a time bomb such as this volcano?"

Taken aback by the sudden mood change, Nicholas replied, "I've been working as a ranger for the past five years. I'm usually staying outside the evacuation zone, but last night I didn't make it back on time before sunrise."

"Pray tell, and why didn't you make it back on time?"

"There were mortals in the danger zone. I was assigned to find them and send them back to the base. It took longer than I expected."

"Why do you always jeopardize your own life out of concern for them, Nicholas? Do you regard the gift I've bestowed on you of so little value that you willfully surrender it?"

Lacroix felt a soothing hand on his shoulder. "I do not. And I'm grateful that you found me on time, Lacroix. I didn't want to spend eternity in that tomb in darkness and isolation."

Unbidden images of a head being severed from his daughter's body replayed before Lacroix's inner eye. He had sealed Divia's remains into the sarcophagus in the Valley of Kings, along with the guilt and the secret he dared not share. How cruel of Nicholas to trigger those memories he wanted dead and buried for eternity in that tomb.

Lacroix whirled around, eyes ablaze, and struck Nicholas squarely across the face. "Never do that to me again!" he hissed.

Stunned, Nicholas rubbed the burning side of his face, apparently utterly clueless as to what he had said or done to cause this eruption. "It's always about you, isn't it?" he accused. "I thought there was more to it, but I'm just the possession you want to keep." He pulled on his boots. "I'm leaving tonight for Chicago. Do not follow me!"

Lacroix glared at the closed door. A child's love knows no bounds, but neither does its cruelty, he thought gloomily as he reflected on the previous hours.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Lacroix turned on his heels and walked towards the demolished door.

"Lucien, wait!" Nick called after him, causing him to stop. "I would do no less for you, you know that," he said softly while catching up with his sire. Placing a tentative hand on the other's shoulder, he added, "and I was genuinely concerned when I found your ring. I know the significance it has for you. But I have to know, how did it end up on a murder victim?"

"Knowing very well that your senses were dulled, I had to get your attention somehow, hadn't I?"

Nick's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Did you kill him?" he accused.

"I'm quite capable of creating my own pile of dead bodies, Nicholas. I do not need to claim the deeds of others," Lacroix scoffed. "He was already dead when I passed the scene. I intercepted the shooter as he came running from the alley and relieved him of his booty. After adding my ring to the assortment, I placed the pouch on the murder victim."

"What happened to the shooter?"

"He got away. Do you expect me to do all your work, Nicholas?" Lacroix raised his eyebrow.

Nick smiled in spite of himself. "I may need your help to draw a composite."

"Very well, you know where to find me." Lacroix turned to the door again, only to be once again detained by Nick's hand on his arm.

"You took quite a risk. Someone else could have been assigned to the case. Then you would have lost me and the ring."

Lacroix gazed at him intensely. "If I had lost you, Nicholas, losing the ring would have been of no consequence anymore," he stated hoarsely.

Nick swallowed, a memory from something he had caught in Lacroix's blood long ago replaying itself.

~Never again would he allow the gods to bereave him of a beloved, he vowed. He would seek out a silversmith and have the earring transformed into a ring to serve as a reminder of that vow.~

Feeling genuinely flattered, Nick's lips opened into a broad smile. A moment later Lacroix claimed his lips in an ardent kiss. Instinctively Nick welcomed Lacroix's tongue and responded with long-restrained passion while his arms embraced the other, drawing him closer.

"I've missed the link between us, you know," Nick admitted after they separated. "It was disconcerting to be cut off from everyone. I'm not sure that I want to go through that again."

Lacroix raised Nick's chin with his fingertips and studied him probingly. "Does that mean not only my ring is returned to me, but also my son?"

"That depends on your conduct," Nick said solemnly. "And I mean that literally. Recently I told you that I wasn't coming back to you. But being cut off from you didn't work for me either. I would prefer getting along. But it really depends on your conduct."

"And what about your conduct, Nicholas? Will you resume your self-destructive path now that the immediate danger is over?

"I cannot promise you that I won't try out something else should a promising cure come up. But I will assure you to be more discrete about it."

"Then you have learned nothing from this incident!" Lacroix hissed.

"Au contraire, I have learned something very important. And if you hadn't waited eight centuries to enlighten me, our relationship may have been less bumpy." He removed the ring from his hand and, picking up Lacroix right hand, he slid it on the fifth finger where it belonged. After brushing a quick kiss on the ring, he let go of the hand.

"Thank you, Nicholas. I felt rather naked without it."

"Will you come to the precinct tomorrow and work with the sketch artist?"

"We don't need to involve a sketch artist, do we? I believe your own artistic skills are sufficient enough to draw the composite, wouldn't you agree?"

Nick contemplated the offer. That way he wouldn't have to explain Lacroix's presence at the precinct. "Fine, I'll drop by after sunset," he agreed.

* * * *

"The eyes are still wrong," Lacroix commented.

Exasperated, Nick looked up from his sketch-pad. He had already spent over an hour sketching the composite according to the information Lacroix provided. "Still?"

"I believe the distance between the eyes is too narrow."

"Are you sure? When I had them set wider apart, you said the distance was too much."

"I don't know how to better describe it, Nicholas. All I know is that your sketch does not do him justice yet."

Nick glared at him. Lacroix's information had been rather vague causing him to alter the features in his sketch over and over again due to the often conflicting statements.

"If you're running out of patience, I suggest resorting to a simpler solution, Nicholas." Nick's eyes widened as Lacroix opened his collar. "The information is all here. You just have to take it."

"I should have known you had an ulterior motive when you lured me here," Nick muttered.

"I did not lure you here, Nicholas. It was you who asked for assistance in catching your killer."

Setting the sketch-pad aside, Nick moved closer to Lacroix. "I'm only doing this because I need the information," he stated.

"Of course," Lacroix breathed.

Reaching for Lacroix, Nick leaned forward and brushed his lips against the skin of Lacroix's neck. Then he reared back his head and struck. As soon as the blood flooded his mouth, Nick searched for the information he needed before he lost himself in the long-denied flavour. Once he saw an image of the killer, he memorized it, but continued to drink, needing to taste what Lacroix had implied the night before. The love he tasted enveloped his senses like a caress. Unconsciously he craned his neck, giving Lacroix access to complete the circle. Nick shuddered as Lacroix pierced his skin. For a moment he felt whole.

Then he drew back and regarded Lacroix with a lop-sided smile. "Thank you."

"The pleasure is all mine." Lacroix reached out and brushed a stray drop of blood from Nick's lips and licked it off. "I trust you found the information you have been looking for?"

"Uh-huh." Nick reached for the sketch-pad and resumed drawing.

"You could have taken my wrist," Lacroix remarked.

"I know," Nick replied without looking up from his work.

Smiling contently, Lacroix remained silent until Nick had completed the composite. When Nick held it up for his inspection, the elder confirmed, "The resemblance is quite accurate now."

Nodding, Nick rose from his seat. "Thank you."

"So glad to be of assistance," Lacroix purred.

* * * *

Nick entered the precinct and headed to his desk, where Schanke was already waiting for him. "Let's hit the street. I have a description of the shooter," Nick informed his partner.

Schanke looked up from the report he had been reading. "Haven't you heard? He turned himself in."

"What?!" Nick leaned on Schanke's desk.

"Yeah, this afternoon. Claimed he heard a voice from the radio in his head that told him to turn himself in. Judging from his dazed appearance, I personally think he had one joint too many. Anyway, he confessed. Case closed."

"Great," Nick muttered and tossed the composite into the trash.

FIN