"Schanke, go home."
Schanke looked across the messy desk, exhaustion showing in his brown eyes. He started to voice a protest, but Nick cut him off.
"It's after ten; you've been out with two patrols - and you're not even suppose to be in today."
Schanke nodded. "I know. It's just, you know, being Christmas Eve and everything..." He sighed, dropping all pretense of tough, uncaring cop. "A missing kid on Christmas just seems worse somehow."
Nodding, Nick pretended to understand. He had understood once, had known the joy and promise of this special winter night. But 800 years ago he had forfeited the right to understanding and promise. He wanted to remember, wanted understanding but for now the closest he would come was through what joy he could give his friends.
"Go home, partner," he said softly.
Reluctantly, Schanke stood and reached for his coat. Looking over at Nick, he said, "Hey, you gonna be okay? You really don't mind taking my shift?"
Warmth touched Nick, made his mouth curl up into a soft smile. With a slight shake of his head, he said, "No, Schanke, I really don't mind. Go on, go home to your wife."
But Schanke was not so easily put off, and this time his concern over rode anything else. "Yeah, but Christmas Eve... and the Wilson kid."
"We'll find him, don't worry. Go home," Nick gave his friend a slight shove toward the door.
Schanke started toward the exit. "Okay, buddy." He stopped at the door, almost causing Nick to run into him. "But you will come over tomorrow, right? No one should be alone on Christmas."
"No," Nick said firmly. "I will not be over tomorrow. I'm not going to force you're family to stay inside all day with the curtains drawn." He put an arm around his stout partner. "I will be fine. Natalie is coming by tonight, we're going to eat before I take her to the airport. Then I am going home and sleeping." He didn't add that he was going to do a little searching of his own later.
Obviously torn between taking care of his partner and taking advantage of the evening off, Schanke gave it one more try. "Well, call if you change your mind, okay?" He started out turned back once more. "And if you hear anything on the Wilson kid..."
"I'll call," Nick promised.
Schanke turned toward him, held out his hand. "Merry Christmas, Nick."
He couldn't say it, there was too much meaning in those simple words. Shaking Schanke's hand, he said softly, "And to you, partner."
The last strains of "Oh, Holy Night" faded from station's battered radio at the same time as Nick hung up the phone. It was a quarter to three and whatever magic the day held had long since faded under, three b&e's, two shootings and two possible suicides. And the still missing child. Nick sighed, leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes.
On the mortals' most holy night - murder and robbery. He wondered again at his driving desire to be human. If this was what they did to each other, was what his kind did so much worse? But he knew it was, knew that his existence mocked the promise of the day even more than what the humans did to each other.
A bored clerk dropped another stack of reports on his desk. He flipped open the first one, a suspected suicide, a report filled with gruesome pictures of a lost person who'd gone to the same reward Nick was already experiencing. The differences between his kind flashed through his mind. No mess, no gruesome pictures or sad stories, just cleansing sunlight and nothing. He almost laughed, he couldn't even kill himself on Christmas Eve, not unless he could figure out a way to impale himself. No escape at night, only with the dawn.
"Nick?" A hand touched his shoulder.
Jumping guiltily, he looked up and found a smile for Natalie. "Nat! Time already?"
"Any word on Tommy?" she asked, so tired and worried that she failed to note Nick's depression.
Shaking his head, he said, "No, nothing."
"Damn." Moving her coat off her arm, she pulled out an airline ticket. "Maybe I should..."
He took the ticket from her. "No. There are over one hundred cops and double that number of volunteers looking for him. There is nothing you can do."
Coming to his feet, he closed the folder on his desk, and took her arm. "So, dear lady, where do you fancy eating... is this lunch, dinner or breakfast?"
"It's a meal," she said rather blandly.
Nick twisted the dial again, trying to zero in on the frequency he wanted. There was the faint crackle of a station identification, a moment of silence, then the soft sound of a choir singing "Silent Night." Frowning, Nick tried again.
"What are you after?" Natalie demanded, obviously tired of his fiddling.
"The Nightcrawler," Nick said shortly, knowing she wouldn't approve. "Can't seem to find him tonight."
"Thank goodness for small favors," was all she said.
Giving up, he let the soft carols and light conversation steer Natalie away from murder, suicide and missing children. For himself, the nearness of the gentle women improved his mood as much as Schanke's concern had earlier. When she started humming "Jingle Bells" as they dashed through the snow covered highway, he found himself singing along.
"I hope you get home before traffic gets any worse," she commented quietly, squinting through the slightly foggy window.
He shrugged. "Oh, well, that's why I have a big trunk."
Fear colored her light brown eyes, and he smiled, touching her hand. "It was a joke, Nat. I'll be fine. It won't be light for several more hours. I'll be home and in bed long before then."
She continued to study him closely, searching for something he wasn't sure about. Finally, she returned the warm grip on his hand. "You'll be okay?"
That actually made him laugh. "Do you and Schanke have a bet as to who can ask me that question most often?"
"Sorry," she said quietly. "We just... well, with Christmas and everything.. we worry."
He eased into the unloading space, killed the engine. Sitting still for a moment, he finally looked over at her, staring into the intense blue eyes. He wanted to reach out, wanted to touch, but didn't.
"Natalie," he explained softly, "Christmas doesn't mean anything to me. If I were going to be depressed I'd pick a sunny summer day."
She kept up her inspection for another moment, then smiled. "Okay. Don't forget you have to pick me up in five days."
Raising her hand, he kissed it gently. "I would never forget that. Huh, can you call and remind me?"
She punched him his shoulder. "Come on, help me inside."
The snow had stopped, the storm past, dawn would be clear. He exited on the side road leading to headquarters for the Wilson search parties. The heavy holiday traffic and deep snow had made the trip from the airport take longer than he had anticipated. Daylight was less than an hour away; home about the same travel time. But something in him knew he could find Tommy Wilson.
Something tingled along his neck and he slowed the car, sliding a little before coming to a stop next to a large snow drift. Dawn would, like the day itself, bring both hope and despair. Light would make the search easier, but having not found the eight year old before the worst of the storm hit made finding him alive unlikely. Still, the warning along Nick's spine told him to stop here.
Even though the search parties had finished with the section earlier that morning, Nick scanned the area carefully before taking to the air. The wind was hard and cold against his face, the stars appearing slowly from behind the dissipating clouds. Flying was the one thing in his existence he still loved, the one thing he would miss. He sometimes came to the countryside and simply flew for miles. But tonight, he followed the tingle in his blood, gave into the hunter and the hunger, trusting both to lead him to the only human prey in the area.
Precious minutes disappeared into his flight, into the nearing day. A wave of hunger swept through him and he stalled in mid-air, circled down. On landing, Nick kept going, sinking two feet into the soft snow. Cursing, the inconvenience if not the cold he couldn't feel, he struggled toward an ancient stone fence in the field of white. Slipping as his foot hit ice covered rock, he reached for the nearest tree to steady himself - and caught sight of the lightening east. Self survival brought a wave of panic but he fought it away, fell back on his hunting skills. The target was close, everything in him said so.
Taking a deep breath, he turned slowly around, scanning the black and white world. Near the base of two large, bare maples a glow of red signaled body heat. Pushing off the rocks he staggered for it - and the shape exploded out of the snow, the deer bounding for deeper cover. Nick slammed his palm into the nearest pine, bringing a cascade of white down around him. Vaguely he realized it would have been funny if things weren't so desperate.
He closed his eyes, concentrated, thought about feeding, about blood. Energy surged through him; he felt his canines lengthen, felt the blood pound through his veins. He opened his eyes, the landscape was now crystal clear, sparkling in shades of red, orange, yellow, blue and purple. A larger lump glowed brighter than the approaching dawn. Nick leapt, landing nearly on his target and plowing through the snow with savage abandon. His hands touched chilled flesh. With a single move Nick jerked the child free of the entombing ice.
His vision narrowed down to the boy's white throat as the power that had helped him locate his prey now demanded payment in blood. Nick held the boy tight, breath coming hard; he closed his eyes, fought against the raging need. Eventually the vampire receded, leaving the detective kneeling in the deep snow next to a still body.
Nick didn't have to search for a pulse, his hearing had already told him Thomas Wilson was alive. But he wasn't moving, not even shivering in the below freezing winter. Whipping off his heavy coat, Nick wrapped the boy in the warm folds. Looking up, he realized the area was light enough to see the individual the pine trees. He could make it back to his car but dawn would come before he could drive to the search site. And the boy needed help now. Very aware of the pink-gold sky, Nick lifted his small charge and flew toward help.
Flying at tree level, Nick came as close as he dared to the rescue area. As soon as his feet touched earth he was running. Survival for both of them lay in reaching the searchers. The officials would have a van, an ambulance, means of helping Tommy as well as shielding Nick from the sun. He came to the edge of the woods, a hundred yards away through a trampled snowy field was a barrage of emergency vehicles and official cars. Nick took a deep breath, stepped into the field.
Sunlight exploded across the countryside, catching Nick completely unprotected. Crying out, he threw his arm up to shield his face, flinching as he waited for the pain to hit him. Three long heartbeats went by before he realized that there was no pain, no burning, no sudden drain of strength. There was only warm tingles that started at his hand and seemed to reach through the thick cotton shirt. Very slowly, he lowered his arm.
It was nothing like his eight hundred year old memories - the memories paled to insignificance against the reality of the sunrise. Colors. Colors that the night could never hold, that the best lightning could never reproduce; colors that danced across the landscape like living things, colors audible like the notes of a symphony, colors warm like a promise between two friends. The pines were dark against the tri-colored blue, pink and gold sky, the snow reflected the colors back, even the road seemed to glow with life. And sounds. Sounds of life and daylight. A goose flew overhead, honking loudly; faraway Nick could hear a cow lowing over the squawk of crows picking over a brown field.
His hand came up to his face, touched the cheek being warmed by the bright sun. He stared into the bright globe, soaked, revealed in it's beauty. His dark shirt grabbed the heat, carried it deep into his bones. An insane desire to take his shirt off, to let the light cover him brought a long, real laugh. It was more than he could handle; it was not enough; it was everything he wanted.
A quick whimper dragged his attention back to the small bundle in his arms. The child had red hair and freckles. A small part of him protested the interruption, even as he stood up and staggered toward the men already running toward him.
"Nick! Nick!" A familiar voice echoed across the incredibly sparkling snow.
A warning chilled his spine just as Schanke appeared in front of him. He touched Nick's arm as another man took the now shivering child. Nick looked up, smiled at his friend, saw the fear in the deep brown eyes. Schanke tightened his hold on Nick's arm.
The sun was growing hot, and the warning tickled his nerves again. "I think I need to get to a van, Schanke."
They didn't even ask each other what they were doing there, they both knew the answer to that. Schanke only ushered him away, threw open the doors to a communications unit and shoved him in just as the first burn started over his hands.
"I'll be back," Schanke promised, slamming the doors.
He leaned back into the dark safety with a sigh. Nick vaguely thought he should have been upset, filled with longing, disappointed that it was over so soon, angry over the so close temptation. But he wasn't. He remembered now, remembered what the day was about. It was about a promise that had to be earned - for himself and for the rest of the world. He glanced carefully up into the rearview mirror in the front of the van. Outside the world still sparkled, the wind blowing clear and fresh. He smiled again, it was a promise worth working for.
The drivers door opened just enough to let Schanke slide in. The bigger man turned around.
"The boys going to be okay, Nick, though he may loose a couple of toes. And you're the hero of the season." Worry entered the man's voice. "Don't worry, I'll have you home in no time. You okay? That sun was pretty bright. It didn't..."
Nick waved off the concern, then smiled very broadly at his partner and friend. "Merry Christmas, Schanke."