"May I come through?" Nick gestured at the window seat with his boarding pass. In the emergency exit row, there was enough room to step by without asking, but only just.
The young woman in the middle scrunched back against her cushion and angled her hardback book more steeply into her reading light, revealing the latest installment in that best-selling teenage vampire series. She didn't otherwise acknowledge him. The mature woman in the aisle seat — also slender and African-American; related? — smiled and stood to let him pass.
"Thank you." Nick took off his overcoat and folded it under the chair in front of him before clicking his seatbelt. His luggage had barely fit into the overhead compartment, among the holiday packages and winter gear that had already been so carefully stowed. Next time, he should use a smaller bag. Or arrive on time. "I didn't mean to run so late. I hope I didn't cost everyone a shot at an early take-off."
"It happens." The woman refastened her seatbelt with a wink. "So was it holiday cheer, or a sweetheart?" Her gaze flickered down his gray blazer and back up his white dress shirt, buttoned all the way to the top. "Don't tell me it was work or traffic! That's too New York, and I'm all ready for Paris."
Nick laughed. "None of the above. I just couldn't get out of my hotel before sunset."
"I hear you." She shook her head, amused. "If it helps, you aren't even the very last. They put out a call for some other missing guy — French name — asking him to come up in case he was already on but his boarding pass hadn't scanned properly. I'm Eileen, by the way."
"Nick." He extended his hand, trying not to block the reader's sight of the novel on her lap.
Eileen shook his hand. "And this silent one is Tanya."
"Mom," Tanya protested under her breath, never lifting her eyes from her book.
"Hey, we're going to be sitting together for seven hours and twelve minutes, give or take."
Tanya sighed heavily, marked her page, and then extended her hand for Nick to shake. "Nice to meet you, sir. Did you bring any books or anything?"
Nick blinked at the "sir." What decade was this? "I have an iPod and a Kindle in my coat pockets."
"My mom is going to talk to you for the entire flight unless you get them out or plug into a movie." She nodded at the screen embedded in the headrest in front of him.
Nick winked at her. "I'll keep that in mind for when we get above ten-thousand feet and it's safe to turn on electronic devices."
Tanya closed her eyes. Nick would bet that she wanted to roll them at him, but was far too well-taught. Having done her teenaged best, she returned to her book. Nick reminded himself that he needed to read that series soon, for the day when this young woman's generation would appear to be his own — if he didn't find a cure first, at last. He grinned at her mom over her head.
Eileen grinned back. "So we're starting our vacation. But if you just tore yourself out of a hotel, does that mean this flight is taking you home?"
"France hasn't been home in many years." Nick leaned back against his seat and glanced out the window at the terminal lights. "But — the years were all good, in Paris."
"'You can't go home again'?" Eileen watched his face. Nick wondered what she saw. Surely his curse and hopes were too tangled to distill into his expression. "No," she reversed herself, "you're more, 'home is where the heart is,' aren't you? My husband is meeting us—"
But Nick missed the rest of what Eileen said. A familiar sensation clawed up his spine. Colder than death. This same rupture of his hard-won defenses had chased him out of San Francisco International Airport the evening before, for the first time in years. Nothing had bothered him as he slept the day in New York, so he had hoped he had escaped. He should have known better.
Before he could twist free, the plane moved, and the feeling ebbed. Eileen fell silent when the flight attendants launched the safety spiel. In a crisis, it would fall to them in this row to help other passengers out safely. If an emergency came, that's exactly what Nick wanted for himself: to be useful, putting human lives before his own.
Nick had been on ships that had gone down, though no planes — he should have been the one on the plane Vudu bombed, he still could not help thinking — and he never wanted to be that helpless again. He never wanted to be the lone survivor.
Although, this flight, "alone" would hardly be the problem, would it? In a chill balled up at the base of his skull, Nick's blood-borne compass so reliably told him what he so rarely wanted to know. Take away sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and he could still find the one who made him a vampire.
Right now, somewhere up in first class. Lacroix rarely settled for less.
Nick stared out the dark window as the runway sped past. Lacroix's pursuit of him probably exemplified unchangeable things best accepted, but letting go his anger at being stalked by Lacroix only increased Nick's determination to resist being defined by Lacroix. The plane lifted. The thrust of the engines was nothing like leaping into flight himself, but the lights of the city below receded in much the same way. Nick regretted that there had been no time to visit New York's rebuilt skyline, but he had been waiting for Janette's summons for even longer.
When the nights are long enough, come visit.
There's someone I want you to meet.
Nick had stared at her offline instant message until his screen-saver kicked in. Then he had opened his browser and begun checking airline listings. Coast to coast on one dusk-to-dawn flight, then across the Atlantic on another. Regulations prohibiting liquids on airplanes were brutal on the vampiric constitution, but after a century of restricting his diet to animal blood, and almost two decades minimizing that intake, Nick took pride in knowing that he could handily manage a night's fast, even in the tight temptation of an airplane.
He wondered whether Janette could.
Her new convert certainly couldn't, which is why Nick had to go to them.
And Lacroix? Nick dropped his head back against his seat. The ancient vampire had boarded the plane on his own, with no invitation from Nick. If Lacroix had let himself in for a strain on his civilized veneer, surely that was no concern of Nick's. Surely Lacroix would do nothing to draw attention in this age of heightened security?
Nick considered the hundreds of beating hearts packed into the plane with them. He groaned silently. There was no telling what Lacroix might do.
"I love flying in the rain." Eileen nodded toward the window beside Nick's face. It had become a horizontal waterfall. "I don't mean the hazards, of course, but the cocoon-y feeling, you know?"
Nick trailed one finger along the wall edge of the window, thinking of flying in the rain under his own power. "It's a little like being under water. Good thing we don't have to breathe out there."
Eileen laughed. "Do you fly often?"
"I used to." Nick had never been able to just quit flying, to voluntarily give up the sky, the predator's vantage and the prisoner's liberty, no matter how Nat had urged him. But he had learned that using the vampire's powers stoked its hungers. An innocent pleasure had turned guilty. Reluctantly, yet with the ease of practice drilled deeper than instinct, Nick turned the conversation safely away from himself. "So your husband is meeting you in Paris?"
"Yes, he's across the pond on business. It seems like forever now, but we've really only been apart—"
Nick listened as Eileen filled him in on their history and holiday plans. Tanya poked her nose further into her book in wordless vindication. Nick would have been content to spend the entire flight in vicarious appreciation of their happy, normal, human family — the kind he had been part of once, so long ago, and hoped someday to be part of again.
But as soon as the flight attendants completed the first pass of the beverage cart — Nick asked for water; yes, the whole bottle, please; no, still, not sparkling, thank you — Lacroix appeared in the aisle. He placed one hand on the seat in front of Eileen, as if for balance; in the other, he held a red-filled wine glass that Nick suspected was not supposed to be seen outside the La Première cabin.
When Nick let Lacroix catch his eye, Lacroix tilted his head and twitched an eyebrow, shrugging away the doubtless exquisite pinot noir in the glass. From vines, not veins. The wealth and wiles needed to reliably slip blood unnoticed through dozens of mortal hands into one specific plane's stock, for unremarked service to one specific passenger, when a single weather delay or personnel change could expose it and bring down the Enforcers, was beyond even Lacroix.
The cut of Lacroix's all-black three-piece suit reflected the latest in high-end men's fashions, Nick supposed. To him, it just underscored how little else about Lacroix ever changed.
"Nicholas," the ancient vampire said.
"Lacroix," Nick acknowledged. Eileen looked curiously from one to the other, as Lacroix and she both awaited an introduction. Nick did not provide it.
Lacroix shook his head and nodded toward Tanya. "Young lady, several of your peers are discussing that... work... adjacent to my seat in the first-class cabin. Their debate has grown... ardent. If you would consent to take my place until they conclude their observations, I would be obliged. You would have all the privileges of that level of service until I returned."
Tanya's expression was skeptical, but speculative.
"I have cleared it with the crew. And it would grant me the opportunity to visit with Nicholas, whom I rarely see."
Nick snorted. But when Tanya looked to her mother for approval, and Eileen glanced at Nick, he spread his hands and nodded. Safer away, and with Lacroix in your debt. Simple rules. If only Nick had ever managed to follow them, as Janette had.
"All right," Eileen decided. "But who do we have to thank for this adventure?"
"Lucien Lacroix," he introduced himself.
"Thank you, Mister Lacroix." Tanya unfastened her seatbelt, stepped into the aisle, and was out of Nick's view faster than Lacroix settled into her seat.
"So you're not a fan of the sparkly vampires, Lucien?" Eileen laughed. "I must admit, I ate up the Vampire Sagas by Emily Weiss when I wasn't much older than my daughter is now."
"No, I'm afraid you misunderstand." Lacroix raised his wineglass, fastening his seatbelt one-handed. "I am entirely in favor of the 'sparkly vampire' stories. I believe they will have a salutary effect on this generation's... expectations. Don't you agree, Nicholas?"
"I'd rather people still read Emily's — Miss Weiss's."
"Oh, are you an Emily Weiss fan, too?" Eileen's eyes suddenly sparkled better than any fictional vampire.
"Her complete works to date are on the Kindle in my coat pocket." Nick grinned back. He appreciated people who appreciated Emily. He had been forced to make her forget their love; her life sang to him from her books now, so it did not hurt him to remember. "I just downloaded her new short-story collection. Have you read it?"
"I expect I'm getting it for Christmas, so I've fought the urge." Eileen leaned toward the seat in front of her, looking at Nick around Lacroix. "Do you remember when she broke off The Vampire Sagas back in 'ninety-four, right after The Denied came out? I was crushed! I'd heard in the news about her assistant jumping off that building, of course, and I know I should have felt sorry for him, but mainly I was furious that he'd spoiled it for the rest of us."
"A rational reaction, keeping your own interests first and foremost." Lacroix stretched his legs across the extra width of the emergency exit row and sipped his wine. If Lacroix remembered that he had personally murdered Emily's assistant, he gave no sign. "If you must travel economy class, Nicholas, this is at least the optimal seating choice. I approve."
"You do realize," Nick kept his voice mild, "that by sitting here, you've agreed to assist the other passengers in the event of an emergency?"
Lacroix raised an eyebrow.
"The act of remaining after the flight attendant's explanation is a contract. Your bond, if not your word." Nick plucked the instruction card from the holder and handed it to Lacroix. "Don't tell me that you've never flown coach before."
"Not since the invention of first class. And before that, everything was first class, as I recall." Lacroix glanced over the card and returned it. "Show me this Kindle you mentioned."
"I have been thinking of purchasing one, but have not yet had an opportunity to handle the device."
"You just want to criticize my reading material."
"I always did enjoy perusing your shelves."
"May I ask," Eileen broke in, "are you two related?"
Lacroix's raised eyebrow dared Nick to deny it. Nick laughed, and felt cheered that he was laughing more these days. It had been years after Nat left him before he found that coming easily again.
"Is that a terrible question?" Eileen asked. "I'm so sorry. It's just that you're both—"
"Yes," Nick said. "We're... family."
"They say one cannot choose one's family." Lacroix appropriated the armrest between his seat and Nick's. "Au contraire."
Eileen smiled. "I don't know that I would have chosen my daughter's late-adolescent aloofness if I'd been given the choice, but as I have her, I certainly wouldn't trade her. Do you have children?"
"Oh, yes." Lacroix sipped his wine. "In fact, we both do. We're on our way to visit Nicholas's daughter."
"Really? How old is she?"
"One does not ask a lady's age, even so young a lady as our Janette. No, but I understand what you mean about adolescent aloofness, indeed. And it just goes on and on, seemingly without end. What is a parent to do?"
"Well, they all grow up someday, don't they?"
"We live in hope."
When Eileen excused herself to go to the restroom, Nick shifted around as well as he could in the tight seat to look Lacroix full in the face. "I don't think of Janette that way. She doesn't like to be thought of that way."
"Perhaps you should have considered that before you caused it." Lacroix spread his fingers on the armrest. "I am not criticizing, of course. You did entirely the right thing in bringing her back to us, regardless of the temporary insanity of her wishes. All your ridiculous guilt after the fact does not change that. But you must admit and grasp that your relationship to her has changed."
Nick looked at his reflection in the dark, rain-washed window. "Our relationship will be whatever she wants it to be."
"No!" Lacroix's eyes blazed briefly in his reflection, next to Nick's. "This has gone on long enough. She is yours now, and you owe her your support and guidance, whether she wants it or not. It is not her decision. It is your responsibility."
"I'm not you, Lacroix."
"And she is not one of your half-made mistakes that you can afford to estrange or abandon! She is most profoundly and eternally your family — not as she has always been, but as she will now always be."
Nick pulled two large capsules out of his pocket. He pushed them into his bottle of water, one at a time, and capped and shook it. The water slowly turned a muddy crimson. Protein might not have to be red, but Nat had indulged him by working out a recipe that was. "Have you dumped this harangue on Janette, too? Put it out to the Nightcrawler's Twitter followers, maybe?"
"This is a parenting lesson. Given how well you manage childishness all on your own, I am confident that Janette—"
"You don't know," Nick realized. The hand shaking his water bottle stilled.
"Know what?" Lacroix tipped up his chin.
"Janette made a convert this fall."
Lacroix blinked. "Absurd. Janette is worse than you for taking too much. She freely admits it. I had to intervene in the matter of the Baroness Sofia myself, and Janette has not tried since."
"She always said what you wanted to hear." Nick sank his voice, a faint murmur to mortal hearing, and gentled it as much as he could. He did not want to deliver this as a blow, not even to Lacroix. "You're right. She and I are connected differently now. About three months ago, I felt a surge of emotion from her. Delight, fear, this incredible... fervor. Unlike anything from anyone before. She brought someone over."
Lacroix finished the rest of his wine in one tip of his glass. "You have never felt it before. You could be mistaken."
"Ah." Lacroix spun the stem of his empty wine glass between his fingers. "Congratulations. The line continues."
Nick could have pointed out that Janette was hardly lost to Lacroix. The relationship had changed, of course, but it could continue however they wished it. Nick had no interest in mediating ties to Janette. But Nick considered freeing Janette from Lacroix the one good part of selfishly denying her wish to die as a human on that winter night in Toronto when this all began. He held his tongue.
Eileen returned. "Lovely people in the line for the restroom! I presume that some will want to start going to sleep soon, but everyone is so full of holiday cheer tonight." She fastened her seatbelt, and looked at the water bottle in Nick's hand. "What a clever approach to the liquid restrictions! Is that from one of those juice powder packets?"
"Yes, Nicholas, what kind of 'juice' is it?"
Nick felt the tired scorn. They had been over this a thousand, thousand times since Nick's soul struggled to wake over Sylvaine's corpse. "Concentrated protein, vitamins, minerals." Nick resumed shaking the bottle. Foul taste aside, it would blunt the hunger. "Prescription stuff."
"Oh? Are you still in contact with Doctor Lambert, then?"
"Of course. Mostly online." Nick studied Lacroix's face. "Nat is... family... too."
Nick knocked back half of the protein brew, and then leaned down to pull out his coat, letting the motion hide his expression. His taste buds loathed his conscience. He retrieved his Kindle from his overcoat's huge pocket, and punched up his favorite short story from Emily's new book. Then he handed it to Eileen. "One tale won't spoil your Christmas surprise, I'm sure."
"'Live Your Passion'?" Lacroix read the title over Eileen's shoulder.
Nick smiled, spread his coat like a blanket, and pretended to go to sleep. It was the easiest way to duck the meal service.
Lacroix, knowing Nick could hear every word, turned to Eileen. "Are you familiar with the theory of adolescent egocentrism in cognitive development?"
Eventually, hard as it was to sleep at night, not to mention next to a live, in-person, Nightcrawler monologue, Nick did drop off.
He dreamed mistily of Alyssa, of blonde hair, laughing eyes, and a solemn mouth. Of how she had been holding her father's boar-spear and jesting with the huntsmen when Nick and Lacroix rode into the courtyard at Linz. She had wanted only to love and live with him. Alyssa: his wife, his victim, the first person he had tried — and failed — to convert to vampirism.
"Ahhh. But if you go on this way, possess her as a vampire must, then you will have to kill her — or bring her across — and either way, you will no longer possess her."
He saw Gerald, a doctor who had sought only to heal. Elizabeth, a leper who had longed only to be beautiful. Richard, a lawyer who had hoped only to bring justice. Nick had succeeded in turning them all, but success flared to ashes in their swift ends at his hands, as each succumbed to the vampire's ever-spiraling hungers for more and more and more.
"It is our nature to possess, to drain away the lives of others into our bodies. And that is the logical consequence, isn't it?"
He saw Serena, who had desired only a baby, and Janette, who had wished only to die. It should not have been possible to drag them across against their wills — the Guide at the Light should have given them the choice — but somehow he had forced on them the vampirism that he yearned to escape himself.
"Possession, my dear, hungry Nicholas. For a vampire or a mortal to possess another totally is to destroy them. They cease to exist."
And then he saw Nat. Drained but revived. Trapped in between. His and never his. From the moment she woke in the hospital and could neither bear the daylight nor dare his embrace, he had dreaded the night she would move on and leave him behind. She believed the restless instinct came with the vampire virus that she now carried but did not express.
He believed it was his penance.
"Creatures such as you and I always kill again."
Nick woke with a start.
Stretching out the stiffness from the awkward chair, Nick noticed that Eileen was asleep, his Kindle held carefully against her. The center seat was empty. Tanya must be at the restroom, Nick thought. He opened his water bottle and choked down the rest of the protein tonic. There were other vampires in the world who preferred not to kill — poor Urs came to mind, dead at Divia's claws, and Feliks, living in Copenhagen last Nick heard — but there was no broader future in Nat's nutritive drinks unless the taste could be improved.
The view out the window was still dark, though dry. The rain had stopped. Nick tracked where he thought the horizon should be until he spotted one star, and then another, and another. If he read them right — as Lacroix had taught him to do from the air, in their long-vanished early years of harmony — they were almost across the Atlantic.
Nick had not told Janette precisely when he would arrive, but he presumed she would feel him as soon as he landed in her city, the way he felt Lacroix — that is, when the old vampire was not playing games, and Nick was not struggling to shut him out. How much liberty could Nick give Janette, if he tried, with every slow, rare, heartbeat, to set her entirely free? Or was Lacroix right, that the choice to splice the threads anew had been made when he drained her and fed her, and there would be no unraveling them, ever?
Nick refused to believe he was doomed to become Lacroix to her.
Above all, he put his faith in the power of choice.
Concentrating, for once, on those esoteric ties that he usually denied or fought, Nick felt a new twang of satisfaction vibrate down from Lacroix, a timbre of youth and zeal over the thrum of hunger. It dawned on Nick that Tanya's book was not on her seat.
Careful not to wake Eileen, Nick strode straight toward the warmth seeping into his link with Lacroix. A galley closet opposite the back restroom had a blue curtain for a door. Had Lacroix lost his mind as well as his self-control, using a place so nearly public? All in one silent move, Nick slipped inside and shoved Lacroix away from Tanya.
The mesmerized girl's eyes were wide and still. Nick bent to examine her wrist, wet from Lacroix's mouth, but not his bite, thank all that's holy. Just beginning to bleed freely, the slice was straight and shallow, from a knife, not fangs. No chance of her coming across, or turning into a thrall like poor Amalia... or a "hunter," like Nat. Nick stood, turned Tanya to the galley sink and washed the wound. Then he looked around for something to use as a dressing.
Smirking, Lacroix handed him a gauze bandage. "Really, Nicholas. Some of us do know how not to take too much."
"You are a monster, and you are also an ass." Nick kept his voice low and his touch light as he swiftly bound the cut. "Release her."
Lacroix raised his eyebrows. Then he seized Tanya's vacant gaze and rolled power down the taut line with which he had wound her in. "You will not remember anything that happened on this side of the blue curtain. Return to your seat. Sleep," Lacroix flicked an amused glance at Nick, "until the next beverage service. Request orange juice."
The blue curtain fell behind her.
"What were you thinking?" Nick hissed and whirled on Lacroix, pressing him up against the counter and cupboards. "That child is not for you! None of them are."
"They are all for me. For us!" Lacroix snarled and shoved back, letting his eyes go gold. He licked his lips, still moist with his brief taste of Tanya's blood. "This is what you are, Nicholas, as well as what I am. I will not have you contaminating the future of my line by corrupting Janette and her fledgling with your humanitarian perversions. There is no choice but the one you made eight hundred years ago, when you returned to me."
"I will not let you harm anyone in my presence, Lacroix. Never again."
"What harm?" Lacroix leaned close, whispering in Nick's ear, Tanya's living human blood uncut on his breath. "I did not bite the young woman, did I? I did not sink in my fangs and distill her essence with her lifeblood. I did not rip her artery so that she spurted into my mouth. I did not..."
Nick rested his forehead on Lacroix's shoulder for a moment. The hunger surged. The vampire rose. Just for a moment. Then Nick snapped back his head and pushed against Lacroix's chest, opening precious centimeters between them. Nick understood. He cursed himself that this trick still worked, and might always work. The aim of Lacroix's calculated risk of exposure had not been Tanya's warm blood, but Nick's undivided attention. She had been attacked solely for the bad luck of meeting Nick.
"It doesn't matter that the violation wasn't worse, Lacroix." Nick drew strength from the knowledge that his own eyes were human blue, blazing only with fury, not supernatural fire. "It's still a violation!"
"She doesn't remember, Nicholas." The gold in Lacroix's eyes faded. He sighed. "A few days for the cut to heal, and it will be like it never happened. You should be thanking me for my enlightened approach to your precious mortals. Why, I'm positively green — renewable resources, and such."
"You assaulted her mind and will as well as her body—" Nick began roughly, but then dropped his hands and shook his head. "I don't know how to explain it to you. Can't you ever imagine yourself in their places, your blood and choice and memories stolen from you?"
"No," Lacroix snapped. "And neither should you."
The blue curtain twitched.
"Ah, my alarm." Lacroix smirked.
The curtain moved to the left. A middle-aged flight attendant blushed. "Les messieurs, reviennent s'il vous plait à vos sieges."
"Oui, naturellement," Lacroix replied easily. As he stepped out of the galley, he tipped up the woman's chin and released her from whatever hypnotism he had set before Nick arrived. "We shall, of course, continue this later, Nicholas."
Nick stumbled over Tanya's book when he tried to follow. The cover and spine were spotted with blood. "Madame, est-ce que je peux utiliser votre poubelle? Merci." Nick set the book upside-down in the trash can she pointed out.
There was not another beverage service before landing. Tanya, stupefied by Lacroix's suggestion, was difficult to wake, even as other passengers disembarked. Eileen laughed and called her "sleepyhead," but looked up at Nick with worried eyes.
"Let me help get your bags," Nick offered, fastening his overcoat and stepping into the aisle without meeting Eileen's gaze. "What am I looking for?"
"Oh, they're right above us. Purple coat, green coat, a laptop, and — yes, those are right." Eileen took the items Nick handed down. "You don't have to do this, Nick. We're just holding you back."
"Fair turnabout on my boarding late, right?" Nick smiled lightly, then stepped into the aisle while Eileen helped Tanya put on her coat, still sitting. He laid his hand on a flight attendant's arm. "Excuse me, but I think this young lady is dehydrated. Could she please get some water, juice, anything?"
"Yes." The man glanced from Nick to Tanya and Eileen. "One moment!" He returned quickly, removing the cap from a bottle of sparkling water, but then hesitated between them.
Nick took it from him and offered it to Tanya, kneeling in front of the middle seat. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Orange juice, please," she responded automatically, then blinked hard and looked around in confusion. "Have we landed already?"
Nick smiled and Eileen laughed in relief. "Drink the water, honey. Oh, my! I was overreacting something fierce, for a few minutes. I had no idea that dehydration could have such severe results so quickly!"
"You should watch her closely for the next few days," Nick sidestepped the lie, hating his familiarity with believable half-truths. "She'll be all right."
The two women carried their purses, but Nick carried their other items as well as his own off the plane and to the first stage of Customs. Then they sorted out who owned what.
"Where's my novel?" Tanya asked, unzipping her bag. "Mom?"
"Last I saw, you were reading it."
"I must have left it on the plane!" She spun on her heels, ready to charge back.
"It's a terrible thing to get stranded halfway through a book." Nick put one hand on her shoulder and pulled his Kindle from his pocket with the other. He had downloaded the bestseller for her as soon as they were on the ground and the crew had announced that it was safe to use cell phones. "Here. Take my copy."
Tanya looked from him to her mother.
"That's far too generous, Nick," Eileen said. "Thank you, but we'll just put in a request at the lost-and-found. And Paris is probably as rife with that story as New York is."
"Yeah, en français." Tanya crossed her arms, her murmur too quiet for her mother to make out over the surrounding noise.
But not for Nick. "You can mail it back to me when you're home in the states. It's a loan until then. I can read the books they have around here." Nick grinned at Tanya, aside from her mother. Hesitantly, Tanya grinned back.
Nick added a business card to the hand holding the Kindle. Tanya accepted them, then looked at her mother again.
Eileen threw up her hands with a laugh. "Thank you, Nick."
"Thank you very much," Tanya looked at the business card, "Mr. Shields."
Nick felt like throwing up. He did not blame it on Nat's recipe.
Nick waited at the taxi stand long enough for his winter overcoat to grow slick with the pre-dawn mist. When it was Nick's turn, Lacroix appeared and slid in beside him. Determinedly ignoring Lacroix, Nick gave the driver the address of Janette's current townhouse, and then stared out the window as the streets slid by in the race against sunrise. Paris was always changing, and yet always exactly the same. Did Janette love it so much for its dynamism, or for its constancy?
"Are you still sulking about our disagreement on the airplane?"
Nick looked toward Lacroix, but found him staring out his own window.
"I am quite certain that it was not always like this between us, Nicholas. It would be so pleasant if you would just... come back."
Nick let the silence seep into today's wounds, and yesterday's scars. Even after everything, when Lacroix could bring himself to ask, some part of Nick was still willing to give it all up for him. Did that come from within himself, or from the blood he had accepted eight centuries ago? Was there a difference anymore? He tried to match Lacroix's pensive tone. "It would be so pleasant if you would just let me go."
"Oh, but I cannot." Lacroix turned toward Nick. "You will see, with Janette. I think perhaps you will comprehend at last, when you cannot let go, either. I am quite... looking forward to it, actually."
Nick frowned. "You have a dozen besides us, at least. I've never understood — why us?"
"My Nicholas, my Janette?" Lacroix smiled tightly. "Only you survived the fever, for one thing. But that is an effect, not a cause, of course. Now that Janette is yours, you will see."
"Janette is her own." Nick turned back to the window.
"Your denial of the natural law does not alter it, Nicholas."
"Your rejection of hope does not defeat it, Lacroix."
Nick looked down in surprise at the woman who opened the door. Thick, black hair poured back from a determined expression on a broad, olive face, undimmed by vampirism's exile from the sun. She wore a gold turtleneck tucked into an ankle-length skirt and, Nick was surprised again to realize, high-heeled boots that raised her not even to Janette's height.
She didn't feel like family...
"You are Nicolas and Lacroix, yes?" she asked in French-accented English, edged with another inflection Nick was out of practice identifying. "Well, come inside, then! The sun is at your heels. Soyez rapide!"
With the door safely shut behind them and the windows confirmed to be sealed, Nick glanced around the bright entrance foyer at the foot of a staircase, then set his rolling bag next to the wall and shed his overcoat. He extended his hand to the woman. "Nick Shields."
"Drina Răducanu," she took his hand. Her grip was firm — and also cold and pulseless, reassuring Nick that she was indeed a vampire, as he had first thought. But he could not seem to sense her through Janette, and that ignited a hope that he had succeeded in releasing Janette. Drina smiled. "Do you prefer 'Nick,' then? I am delighted to meet you. Janette has told me of you so much!"
"Nothing good, I am sure," Lacroix smiled, bowing and extending his own hand. "Lucien Lacroix."
"Good, yes, of you both." Drina moved to shake Lacroix's hand; he kissed hers instead. She raised her eyebrows. "And not good, also. But it is very well to have family for the New Year."
Warned by that extra sense, Nick looked to the top of the stairs a moment before Janette appeared. She paused, letting them look their fill, first at her — elegant as usual in a black-and-red wrap dress, her hair twisted intricately at the back of her head — and then at each other. As Janette descended the steps, Nick felt the unease between himself, Lacroix and Drina, the hesitation over how to share the woman who linked them.
Which additionally confused Nick, because if he could sense Drina now, why not moments before? It didn't match anything in his experience. Blast Lacroix for hoarding knowledge of what they were, and what it meant.
"Nicolas," Janette welcomed him. It was sweet to hear his name on her lips again, for the first time since Toronto. And if those lips on his differed from before, well, he could tell from her smile as well as her kiss that she still knew that he would always take her back.
"Lacroix." Janette embraced him. "I did expect you to follow Nicolas, of course. Your room is ready, as well as his. You are not offended that you were not invited directly?"
"I would have done the same." Lacroix kissed her cheek. "There is a new order to be forged."
"Ah, yes! Shall we retire to the dining room?" Janette took Lacroix's arm; Nick took Drina's, and followed through a paneled door. "You must be ravenous after that long flight — these ridiculous rules — but to begin, I would very much like a toast."
The dining room had a long table under a long window, currently heavily shuttered, but what dominated it were the ample bar and credenza. The door in the corner doubtless led to a wine-cellar. Red-filled goblets waited at room temperature; after sniffing to confirm his held bovine, not human, blood, Nick noticed that someone had marked it with a horse-shaped trinket on a wire around the stem. He was touched that it was the cavalier's symbol, and amused that it might as easily have been a cow.
Before he could see what marked the other glasses, Janette lay her hand on his arm. "I do not like the words we have for what we are. I am not your 'daughter.' Lacroix is not my 'grandfather.' There is something deeply ill-fitting about these words — especially in English, bigre! But we are family. With all that we can each ever do or fail to do, we cannot become otherwise."
She looked into her full glass. "When I met Drina last year, I never imagined anyone taking her from her bright world, teeming with connections, into our dark, often lonely, one. But when someone did, and she rightly staked him for it" — Janette met Nick's eyes; he flinched — "I could not leave her orphaned and alone."
"You adopted her," Lacroix realized before Nick did. "A time-honored solution to lack of an heir, a way to build alliances or an honor to a foundling. But not," Lacroix growled, "common among vampires. Only blood is blood."
"How much must one share, and in what manner, and when?" Janette dropped her hand from Nick's arm and drew her eyebrows down as she met Lacroix's eyes. "Who made Alexandra? Who made Sofia? Who makes this rule, Lacroix?" She held his gaze for a long, silent breath. Then she dropped her eyes and crossed her arms. "I say, she is mine. Do you doubt me?"
Lacroix toyed with the charm on the stem of his goblet and scrutinized Drina. She planted her hands on her hips and visually dissected Lacroix in return. "Can you sense her, Nicholas?"
"We shall have to explore those times." Lacroix raised his glass in her direction, and then looked at Nick. "Well?"
"Janette has called on you to act as pater familias and formalize this adoption." Lacroix's expression drifted, and from that and the sudden gratuitous Latin, Nick supposed some imperial Roman adoption custom had pulled Lacroix's attention irresistibly into memory.
Janette stood behind Drina and put a hand on her shoulder. "Give us your blessing, Nicolas."
Her certainty humbled him. "I don't know what you need from me."
"I need to know that this transformation is as real to you as it is to us. I need to know that in case of Enforcers, or angry mobs, or mortal law enforcement, you will take Drina's side as you would mine — and trust that she would take yours. And that if I am pushed into the sunlight someday, you will still count each other family." Janette cocked her head. "Would you not have granted those things unasked, if I had been the one to drain her?"
Nick shook his head, slowly. "I didn't do that much for my own converts."
"You eliminated those who could not follow your Spartan code." Janette pursed her lips in a peculiar smile Nick had rarely seen. "But Drina need not follow your rules. She follows mine."
"You have a code?"
Nick smiled wryly. It had, after all, been almost fourteen years since she left her portrait and two exsanguinated bodies as her farewell. They had a lot of catching up to do. He set down his goblet and sat on a chair in front of Drina, looking up into her face, a perspective he would not usually see. "I'm not sure how to say this. Drina, you can still go... free." He couldn't find the words. He suspected this was not entirely sane. "It's not Janette; it's us, the three of us, the rest of us. You don't want us. Even for vampires, we're— 'dysfunctional' does not begin to skim the surface. The things we've done to each other, never mind mortals..."
"The man who made me a vampire did such things. I will stop you, too, if you try." Drina crossed her arms. "I choose to accept what Janette offers. Her life into mine, as if her blood from the start. You — Nick and Lacroix — are part of her blood."
Nick searched Drina's expression, and his intermittent metaphysical sense of her. She did not know what she was getting into. But, then, neither did any vampire at the start, as Janette had once pointed out.
In fact, neither did he, now. When he brought Janette back across, all the threads had snapped and recoiled, and then rewoven in patterns he had so far barely glimpsed, in his determination to give her freedom. And now there was Drina. Part of Janette's patterns, which were part of his own.
Nick stood. This would seem to require some sort of ceremony, but if a vampire rite existed, Lacroix had never mentioned it, like so many things. The practice in Nick's human days had been to dedicate foundlings to the Church, hardly an appropriate parallel. Contemporary human custom revolved around paperwork and court appearances, as far as he knew. But what Janette had asked for was a toast. "You should have given me a chance to call Feliks," Nick grumbled. "He would have made up something good."
Janette smiled brilliantly, knowing she was about to get what she wanted. As always after they had been apart, that smile captivated Nick.
"Well, Nicholas?" Lacroix prompted.
Nick picked up his horse-charm goblet. There was something Emily Weiss had written in her Vampire Sagas. He took a deep breath. "By your choice, Drina, our blood is yours. By our choice, your blood is ours." He raised his glass. "Welcome to the family."
— End —