This Forever Knight story is my rewritten version of the final episode of the series, Last Knight. Needless to say, my version ends quite differently than Mr. Parriott's.

Reclaiming

Cousin Shelley


Prologue

Natalie hadn't been waiting for Nick long. When he walked into the loft, she surprised herself with the calmness in her voice. "Tracy Vetter passed away twenty minutes ago."



The vibrations LaCroix constantly received from Nicholas had grown more and more disturbing over the last few months. And particularly over the last day. Nick almost always felt things to extremes but lately there'd been too many lows, each one deeper and more desperate than the one before. LaCroix knew that no being, immortal or not, could survive very long in the absolute depths of despair; not when all hope for something better was lost.

And judging by what LaCroix felt from Nicholas right now, he was in a quick spiral toward the bottom of the pit.

When would he learn? LaCroix wondered. It was a familiar pattern. Mortals die, details get messy. It couldn't be helped, LaCroix had tried to explain so many times. It was simply a sign that one needed to move on. But Nicholas' guilt would become too much; his emotional state would start to corrode.

And such a shame all this turmoil should arise now, he thought. His bond with Nicholas had been fortified in recent months and they'd reached a sort of tentative peace with one another, the likes of which they hadn't shared in years. Perhaps that was part of the pattern, too, another sign that it's time to move on. After all, the wolf can't play with the sheep and still run with its pack.


"Faith's a mortal folly, Nat," Nick said.

"LaCroix' words, or yours?" she asked. "Do you really believe that's true?" Natalie felt desperate, frustrated. Nick had listed names of those who'd died before their time: Cohen, Schanke, now Tracy. She'd been trying to pull Nick out of his guilt, but she felt they were talking in circles. Nat mourned for these people, too, but he seemed determined to shoulder the guilt for the death of everyone he loved.

"I'm not sure," Nick said.

She'd discovered he'd planned to leave without her, without even saying goodbye. Now, she tried to convince him that these things were not his fault. And that they belonged together, no matter what. She talked about faith.

"I won't accept that the sum of our existence can be measured in the few short years that we're alive here. It would make everything that we believe ... meaningless. It would make our whole lives here meaningless. I know that's not true and so do you.

"You have faith, Nick. And if it's a mortal folly, then you’re the most mortal man I've ever known."


LaCroix' clothes, books and various items were in a large trunk to be left in the capable hands of Aristotle, the leader of the vampire community's equivalent of the witness protection program. Only a few small items remained, and those he'd long preferred to keep with him. Sentimentality held little appeal for LaCroix, but these weren't just any offhand mementos--these were symbols of his children.

His beautiful, beautiful daughters. The large, ancient cameo he carried served as symbol of, what? Pain and guilt he'd condemned himself to eternally feel for what he'd done to Divia--what he hadn't done? Or a reminder of how he'd loved her once? Both, he thought bitterly, as he closed his eyes and willed himself to remember the innocent child he'd cherished beyond reason. He smiled slightly, then jerked himself back to the present as Divia's enraged death-mask transposed itself over the wide-eyed face of a fair, quiet child.

And Janette. Janette who, despite her protective streak for Nicholas, had always seen her master's point of view. She'd never been ashamed of what LaCroix had given her, until . . . .When she'd called him to the Raven and told him of her plans to leave, LaCroix knew with certainty that, though it may be decades, even centuries, before he'd see his dark daughter again, he would see her again. Now, after her brief bout of mortality and her consequent re-birth, he couldn't be sure. In fact, the 2000-year-old vampire guessed that neither he, nor Nicholas, would ever hear from her again.

He carried one of the gloves Janette had worn the day she gave him The Raven. Long, black mesh, intricate, slinky, he couldn't have found a more perfect representation of Janette had he tried. Though he'd thoroughly searched the entire place, he'd never found the other glove. Just the one smoothed down onto the middle of Janette's neatly made bed. He'd taken to wrapping it around the cameo, and now he closed his eyes, thinking how appropriate a symbol that had become.

LaCroix marveled at his suddenly maudlin state. Surely moving on would remedy these unsettling moments of nostalgia. Moving on, and ever-increasing time between LaCroix and recent disturbing events. Time does heal wounds, he thought. Most wounds.


Nick looked at her, his face softening. But then he turned away. "You cannot deny what I am."

Natalie followed Nick as he walked away from her. "You can't deny what's in your heart."

"What are you saying?"

"I have faith there's a future for us," Natalie said softly. "Here as we are, or somewhere else. I believe in *you*." Natalie placed her hand on Nicholas' chest. "I trust *you*." She stroked Nick's cool cheek. "Make love to me, Nick. Just take a little at a time."


LaCroix touched his chest and felt the hard circle of Nicholas' watch. He'd given it to Nicholas as a gift, and Nicholas had returned it on a mortal's 'Father's Day'. Though LaCroix had carried it since, he'd always thought of it as Nicholas' watch. Always thought someday he'd give it back.

Always thought, hoped, someday it might be happily received. Thoughts of Nicholas made LaCroix even more aware of their bond. He could sense Nicholas's guilt, sorrow, pain, overwhelming in their intensity. Despair. And, odd, LaCroix thought, the first whisper-thin stirrings of . . . arousal.

Ordinarily LaCroix would mentally feel his way down the length of their link, drink in Nicholas' sexual excitement like an elixir. But, strange though it was to come at such a time, LaCroix tuned it out as best he could. Anything to interrupt his pain, he thought. Let him have it fully and wholly to himself.


"I'm afraid of what might happen." Nick's resolve weakened.

"Don’t be afraid. I'm not afraid of death. Or of an eternity in darkness as long as I can spend it with you. All I have is faith and love. All I'm asking is for you to make love to me. I trust *you*."

Nick stared into her eyes, then took her hands in his, lowering his gaze. As he raised his head, his incisors dropped, and his eyes turned to gold.

"I won't leave you," he promised. "Whatever happens, we'll be together."

Natalie stared into the golden eyes. "Forever," she whispered.


One last glance to be sure all things were accounted for. They were.

All but one.

LaCroix smiled to himself as he thought of trying to stuff a struggling Nicholas into a steamer trunk. He had voyaged in one before, after all. The smile faded rapidly when he realized that as long as Nicholas didn't choose to go, or at least give in a bit, LaCroix wouldn't want him along anyway.

LaCroix closed his eyes and sighed.

Nicholas had always been prone to mortal attachments. But, though he hated to admit it to himself, this time was different. Nicholas' doctor friend had an effect on him that intrigued LaCroix. She was pretty; Nick had had prettier. She was smart; Nicholas' nature and resulting wealth had allowed them to spend time with the intellectual upper-crust of society whenever they chose to socialize with mortals.

She had fire; so had many others.

But LaCroix had felt that special *life* in the few occasions she'd been in his presence. He idly wondered if it was something that all vampires felt coming from her. Surely not.

Perhaps it was the combination of a remarkable woman and the right era. Many remarkable women had been stifled in ages that kept women dumb and subservient, after all. He wondered how different Dr. Lambert would have been had she been a child of the Roman Empire. She'd have made a fine mistress in his day. All that fire and will held inside as dictated by the times -- he imagined what it would be like to be the one to release that pent up strength and emotion, to help her release her inhibitions . . . .

LaCroix blinked and lowered his head, unbelieving. He'd actually been wondering what it might be like to touch the stubborn doctor. No, not wondering--imagining, experiencing. Her lips beneath his, the warm taste--

That's when he felt it.

Despite LaCroix' decision to block out the sensation coming from his son, Nicholas was wide open, more so than he'd ever been. Fear, dread, and arousal was coursing through him, and through his connection to LaCroix. If LaCroix relaxed and went with the feeling, as he unconsciously had moments before, he knew that Nick was kissing Dr. Lambert, caressing her, devouring her.

He could feel the hunger coming through the bond, the need, the unbidden desire. LaCroix gasped.

Nicholas was going to take her.


Nick kissed Natalie, no longer worrying about holding back. He pulled away, kissed her wrist, and looked at her with the longing she'd always hoped had been there. He pushed her hair away from her neck, and after a reassuring, yet hungry look, he sank his fangs into her neck.

Natalie gasped, caught off guard at the quickness of his movements. But just as the pain, the pull began, she started to feel as if she were watching the scene from outside herself. A fuzziness crept into her thoughts, panic formed in her chest. Just a little, Nick, just a little . . . .

Nick tasted how much she loved him. And from the first drop of her blood he knew he was doomed. He thought *stop*, he begged himself, willed himself to stop, but he could not. He felt her slipping away from him even as he felt his pull strengthen. Glass shattered above him, then iron hands grasped his shoulders and pulled him away from Natalie.

LaCroix caught Natalie as she slumped. She opened her eyes and started when she saw LaCroix' face instead of Nick's. He looked into her eyes, through the haze, and willed her to sleep, deep, dreamless and long. Sleep. She resisted, but her weakened state allowed the suggestion to take force. He carried her to the couch.

Nick panted, barely able to stand upright. "LaCroix, Natalie, oh . . . oh please . . . ."

"She is sleeping. She might be a bit weak for a day or two, but the good doctor will recover."

Nick covered his face with his hands, his voice shaky with emotion. "I almost took too much."

"May I ask, Nicholas, what you thought you were doing?" He suspected he knew. He hoped he was wrong.

Nick dropped his hands but didn't look at him. "Janette's cure. We . . . I was trying--"

"You failed." LaCroix regarded the pale doctor, listening to her slow but steady heartbeat. His relief at her condition surprised him.. It wasn't as if he really cared what happened to her, though he did admire some of the qualities she possessed: Passion, determination, intelligence, optimism. But she was a mortal, after all. He was only concerned with her life because of what the alternative would do to Nicholas.

He'd considered killing this woman more than once, and idly wondered how things would be now if he had. LaCroix knew he could blame her for Nick's withdrawals and rebellions and attempts to shed his nature, but if it hadn't been Dr. Lambert by Nick's side, it would have been someone else, perhaps someone less virtuous, just as it had been often enough through the centuries. As easy as it was to blame Nick's foolishness on her, it wasn't her doing. He knew where the blame lay.

Nicholas.

He had to put an end to this little saga once and for all. For all their sakes.

LaCroix snarled and backhanded Nick, knocking him into the air. Before Nick had a chance to stand, LaCroix projected himself across the room and jerked his son up by the shoulders, pinning him to the wall, his feet suspended above the floor.

"We've been through this how many times? How many centuries of this foolish, fruitless search for mortality? How many disappointments, Nicholas? How much more of this can you take?"

Nick closed his eyes. "I can't be this anymore." LaCroix watched the muscles in his son's jaw twitch.

"You said those exact words once, if I recall. Yet here you are, being what you are, centuries later. Doesn't that tell you something?"

Nick's eyes snapped open and he struggled against LaCroix' immovable grip. LaCroix snarled and dug his fingers in, sliding him farther up the wall.

"It is not going to happen, Nicholas." LaCroix' face was mere inches from Nicholas'. "It's such a simple concept. You will never be anything other than what you are at this very moment. You will never be mortal. Never." As he spoke the last word he jerked Nicholas, snapping his head into the wall. "Never."

Nick looked beyond LaCroix at Natalie, and his defeated expression made LaCroix want to slam Nicholas through every wall in the loft. Their relationship had come so far recently, with his sharing of his past, and then Divia, and now it was as if none of it had happened. Nicholas' wish for mortality had destroyed what they'd been building, rebuilding, over the last several months. All that concerned Nicholas now was the fate of his mortal friends, and where the fault may lay. As he watched a tear trickle down his son's cheek, he felt the zephyr tinge his eyes and twitch his still-concealed fangs.

"Nicholas, she is mortal. Mortals die. Whether she dies now or fifty years from now, does it really make a difference?"

"I almost killed her. I should have left. I should have moved on without saying anything."

"You should have, but you didn't. She will live. And now we will go." LaCroix said the words, doubting if his son was capable of doing so. "How long do you think you could have stayed here before someone noticed the fact that you don't age? Another five, ten years?"

Nick looked through LaCroix, his eyes hollow, dull. "She wanted to go with me when I moved on."

"So, if she left with you and you were part of her life until she died at a ripe, old age, how much longer would that have been? Fifty years at best? You are eternal. How insignificant is fifty years to a man who has forever?"

"I love her."

"I know. You'll get over it." LaCroix growled as his fangs ached to descend. "Now or fifty years from now, you'll survive her death and the deaths of all your mortal friends." He struggled to maintain his control. "But I have always been here, Nicholas. I have always taken care of you, always accepted you for what you are, not despite it. And I will always be here. Eternally." He lowered Nicholas to the floor without letting go and stepped forward, their bodies nearly touching. "What could she possibly give you in the next fifty years that I can't give you with all eternity stretching out before us?"

Nick focused on LaCroix' face for an instant.. He whispered, "She could give me . . . my humanity."

Nick nearly fell as LaCroix jerked his hands away and stepped back, stunned. He stared at Nicholas, unmoving. "She will live, Nicholas. But if her continued existence is so important to you, you can make her life eternal. It's not too late for you to bring her across."

Nick leaned over and kissed Natalie. "I can't condemn her to this darkness."

LaCroix nodded. "A wise decision."

Nicholas walked toward the window and picked up an ornate walking stick. "She had faith in me. In what's beyond. That we could have a life together. That this would be a beginning, not an end."

Nick knelt beside the couch, looking at Natalie. "I have that faith, too. I can't go on this way to be with her. And I can't condemn her to my existence. So whatever comes *after* . . . . I'll be there waiting for her."

"Don't be foolish, Nicholas," he said, watching his son stare at the unconscious doctor. "Life is a gift. As sweet as the freshest peach. As precious as a gilded jewel. I have never been able to understand the logic in willfully surrendering such a treasure.

"What is there to gain? How dark can your existence be, when compared to an eternal void? Or do you have faith, that there is something beyond?

"What do you see from where you are? A bright light at the end of the tunnel? Is it a ray of hope? A glimmer of something better? Or will it burn you like the morning sun? Are the sounds you hear, the trumpeting of St. Peter's angels, or the screams of Memnoch's tortured souls?

"You can't answer that, can you? Because you will never know the answer, until after the deed is done. And is your faith really that strong?"

Nick slowly nodded his head, tears filling his eyes.

LaCroix, stunned, spoke his fear: "And so, in your eyes, I'm the devil."

Nick stood before LaCroix and shook his head. "No, not the devil, LaCroix."

"What then?"

"You . . . are my closest friend." Nicholas slid the ornate knobkerrie into LaCroix' hands, one tear sliding down his cheek. Understanding passed between them like electricity.

LaCroix watched, stunned, as Nicholas turned and knelt. He clasped Natalie's hand in both of his, and waited. Leaning his head forward, he exposed his back to LaCroix. His heart.

The horrible realization sank home. "Damn you, Nicholas." LaCroix hoisted the weapon into the air, his mind reeling with his son's words. He held the impromptu stake high as he struggled to find one last line of reasoning that could snap Nicholas out of this madness.

...damn him everything tossed away tossed away for this for mortal guilt this is my punishment for creating him, my punishment for his lifetimes of regret how can he give up like this you have norighthowcanyouaskthisofme...

"Please, LaCroix," came the whispered plea. "Please."

...you really want to die, do you...

Nicholas' sob made LaCroix' decision for him.

LaCroix slammed the toe of his boot into Nicholas' side, flipping him onto his back. As Nick grunted in surprise, his eyes wild with confusion, LaCroix steadied his grip on the wood and set his jaw.

...then look me in the eyes...

Understanding flashed across Nicholas' face and his body tensed in anticipation. As LaCroix hoisted the Celtic stick high into the air, he spoke, barely a whisper:

"Yes, mon fils. As you wish."

Staring into the wet, blue eyes of his son, LaCroix drove the stake home.


Nicholas screamed as the wood penetrated his heart, his hands instinctively flying up to grip the intruding object. Agony crackled through their bond. LaCroix stared into Nicholas' face and fought to control the raging sense of death and decay that threatened to swallow him. He held fast to the object protruding from his son's chest.

As Nicholas' primal scream softened to a wail, LaCroix composed himself enough to kneel down, one hand still steadying the wood that was killing his son. Tears ran down Nicholas' temples, dampening his hair; sweat covered his forehead and neck.

LaCroix noticed the gray tinge of Nicholas' skin and the already ashy color of his lips.

...no not supposed to happen this fast...

Nick's mouth opened wider. His agonized wail choked off, he hissed silently as if he no longer had the energy to scream. He strained to look at LaCroix, his face twisting into a mask of pain and horror.

LaCroix' every instinct tore at him to alleviate his son's pain, but he held fast to his decision. And momentarily hated himself for it. Unflinching, he stared into Nick's eyes and struggled to speak slowly and calmly.

"Tell me, Nicholas. How does it feel to die?"


Nicholas tried to scream but could manage only soundless cries. Every inch of him felt as if it was being sucked toward a fire in his center, through the hole punched in his heart and whatever darker hole might lie beyond. He gripped the wood above his chest, held fast by LaCroix, only because there was nothing else he could do. He was being pulled in and devoured by an agony that was spreading and burning and tearing and eating him alive.

"Will the pain free you? Will it save you?"

Nicholas looked through his tears into LaCroix' hard, cold eyes. His master knelt over him, their faces only several inches apart. Nick tried to tell him, to plead with him not to do this, oh please not now, LaCroix, but he couldn't speak.

"So when the good doctor awakes to find only a pile of ash, how will she feel about your faith, then? Are you sure this is the way?"

Nick squeezed his eyes shut to block out the condemning expression, but LaCroix was there, even in the darkness, and could not be blinked away.


Spinning, falling backward, air buffeted his skin, and suddenly he was no longer on the floor, but standing behind a dusty couch, looking at his dying Father. A Father who'd just agreed to let him move on, alone, for one last crucial favor.

LaCroix, prone on the couch, regarded the wood protruding from his chest. His face, ashen, clearly showed his pain, his fear. "Nicholas. S'il vous plait."

Nicholas walked around the couch, and made an effort not to bristle at LaCroix' swiftly decaying appearance. Bracing himself with a foot on LaCroix' shoulder, Nick jerked the stake free. LaCroix screamed.

Nick's body spun with the effort of pulling the wood from LaCroix' chest. Colors swirled before Nick's face, colors of heat and flame and death. As he regained his balance, realized he was sitting, leaning up against something smooth and hard. He flinched from the burning plank of wood embedded in the wall mere inches from his face. The loft was in flames.

Confused, he squinted against the smoke and fire when he heard a woman cry out, then gasp. Across the room he could see LaCroix licking the slim length of her neck . . . Alyce! LaCroix looked at Nicholas with smug triumph and anticipation before he sank his teeth into her exposed throat.

Nick jerked the burning plank from the wall and hurled himself in LaCroix' direction, knowing he was too late even before he began. As he impaled LaCroix with the burning wood, pinning him to the loft door, he spat out the words: "Burn in hell. Va au diable."

LaCroix' blood-coated mouth worked silently as the flames stretched, and swallowed him.

Nicholas held Alyce's limp body close to him as he looked at the burning door and the pile of smoking clothes on the floor. Crying into the dead woman's hair, he closed his eyes and fell, spinning downward now without displacing air, smells of dirt and blood and sweat passing through his skin until he slammed onto his back on concrete, his head cracking into the floor. He felt cold steel slide under his arm, fling it out and away from his body.

He struggled to open his eyes. Finally, he saw LaCroix looming over him, a cleaver raised overhead, fangs dropped, blood dripping off his chin. Before he could jerk away, his master hissed:

"Decapitation!"

Fully vamped, Nick snapped his eyes open and projected himself upward. LaCroix was hurled backward, impaled. With a clink, the cleaver dropped from his hand. Nick gingerly fingered the blood-wet point of metal protruding from LaCroix' chest, looked at the slack face, and walked away.

As he reached the door, he looked back, and felt his feet fly out from under him as he rose higher and higher in a blinding circle of light. He spun through water, cloud, rainbow, then he stood, looking back just to be sure LaCroix hadn't moved. He hadn't; his master was still in his chair, his back to Nicholas.

Nick spun the chair and gasped when he saw the ornate knife handle jutting from LaCroix' chest. Turning, he reached for the phone but it melted and wrapped around him, spinning him faster, faster than before, finally dropping him through what felt like a net of broken glass. He composed himself just in time to see LaCroix pick up a barstool and crack off a leg.

"I'm going to help you with your guilt, Nicholas."

LaCroix snarled and advanced on him with preternatural speed. Nick screamed as the makeshift stake pierced his heart, the force of the blow sending him backward through a wall of glass. He jolted back to the present, spinning, falling, spinning . . . .


As Nick screamed, LaCroix pushed his son's damp hair away from his face and forehead. It was time.

"Oh, Nicholas. This is so unnecessary."

Nick's shudders rattled the wood in his hands.

"It's not the pain anymore, is it? It's the knowledge that in a few moments," LaCroix gestured, as if tossing something invisible from the tips of his fingers, "poof."

He lowered his face a few inches away from Nicholas and held his eyes with his own. His whispers came stressed and separate.

"You...won't...exist."

Nick's head shook violently back and forth, his mouth opening and closing. He was fighting, fighting the pull of death.

"Are the yellowed, brittle edges curling in on you?"

LaCroix steadied Nicholas' chin with his free hand and captured his eyes. The uncontrollable shaking in his son's body jarred LaCroix to his very center.

"Nicholas. Oh, Nicholas," he said, taking on his most entreating, gentle tone. "Do you really want to die, here and now?"

Nick's dry, gray lips formed a tiny circle. LaCroix watched his whole face strain with the effort of puffing out one soft syllable: " . . . n-nuh . . . ."

No, thought LaCroix. Refusing death isn't good enough. Won't be good enough for him. You must embrace life, Nicholas.

"Mon fils, tell me. Do you want to live?"

Nick's eyes closed as sobs racked his body. His chest heaved as his eyes flew open and LaCroix felt the icy pull in his own chest, the pull of Nicholas leaving this world.

As Nick's mouth worked around the word he was trying to form, his chest heaved again and LaCroix gasped with the near tearing of their tether. "Please, Nicholas. Your answer, I must have it now!"

Nicholas clawed at the wood protruding from his chest and dug at the floor with his heels. His legs and arms twitched. LaCroix could feel the strain in Nicholas face. His son's mouth quivered, as he struggled to speak between sobs and gasps of pain.

"Yuh-- y-yy-- ahh--"

"Nicholas!" LaCroix jerked Nick's head again to face him directly, squeezing tightly. An arctic ball was building in LaCroix' chest--a spreading emptiness left as Nicholas was pulled away from him.

Finally, the wail broke free from the dry mouth.

"Y-ye-aaye, yeeeeesssss--" Nicholas cry was choked off but his mouth remained open. His shudders slowed, his eyes closed.

Nick's body lurched as LaCroix tore the knobkerrie from his chest and hurled it across the room. LaCroix dropped his incisors and tore at his own wrist, nearly severing his hand from his arm.

He placed the open wound firmly over Nicholas mouth, knowing this is what he'd hoped for, yet dreading the knowledge Nicholas would acquire from his blood.

Blood ran in thin streams down each side of Nick's face. "Nicholas, take what you need. You must survive." Running his fingers into the hair on the top of Nick's head, LaCroix tilted his face back to further open his mouth and throat. "Drink," he whispered, as he pressed his flayed wrist again the slack mouth.

LaCroix stretched himself across the brittle filament that was left of their connection, willing Nick to stay with him, come to him, willing Nick to drink.

A tongue flicked gently against the wound. Nick's throat flexed as he swallowed, coughing and wheezing.

"Yesss, that's it, Nicholas. Drink." LaCroix held Nick's face and adjusted his wrist atop the mouth again.

After several small swallows, LaCroix felt the firm pressure of Nick's lips struggling for purchase on the almost-healed wound. Without warning, Nick's fangs punctured his skin and tore his quickly-healing veins once again. As Nick gulped the offered blood, the icy cavern in LaCroix' chest slowly withdrew, a familiar warming growing at the edges as Nicholas slowly returned.


After drinking from LaCroix and regaining the strength to speak, Nicholas had asked for bottled cow's blood from his refrigerator with one rasped word: "Bottle." But it hadn't satisfied him. He'd been forced to drink human blood to quell his need -- he had a few bottles hidden away . . . just in case. Now he sat, only occasionally sipping from the last bottle, with his back to LaCroix.

He hadn't spoken, or even looked at LaCroix, since that one-word request.

LaCroix sensed that Natalie would sleep for some time still. He was willing to wait, as long as they had time. He knew what forces must be warring within Nicholas now. He'd known when he'd decided this course of action. That didn't make him dread the possibilities any less.

Finally, Nicholas stood a bit uncertainly, and raised watery eyes to LaCroix.

"I tasted it in your blood, LaCroix."

"Yes."

"You, you made me say it. You . . . ."

"Yes, Nicholas."

"If I hadn't, you were going to . . . .you had every intention of pulling out the stake -- you knew you were going to remove it before you staked me."

"I knew you would say it. I knew you wouldn't choose to die."

"No, you couldn't know. You had no intention of letting me die. Why? Why did you put me through that?" Nicholas stared.

"You're still weak, Nicholas, or you would already know the answer to that question."

"JUST ANSWER ME! Why did you make me ask, beg, for my life, when all along . . . . you had no intention of letting me die?" Nick's voice cracked with emotion.

"Because, Nicholas, life is a gift. Not something I burdened you with -- not something forced upon you unknowingly. I wanted it to be clear to you that when faced with the alternative, you chose *life*. Freely. Again."

Nicholas remained motionless for several seconds. His voice belied his calm exterior. "I'm moving on. Don't follow me. Don't." Then only air remained where'd he'd stood.

LaCroix had known he'd go as soon as he felt strong enough. But he also knew he'd easily be able to follow, and convince Nicholas that he'd made the right decision. On his own. At least he'd finally realized the necessity of moving on. Nick would understand LaCroix' decision in time. The anger, the hurt would fade and he and Nicholas would settle into an uneasy peace once again. LaCroix only hoped it wouldn't take as long as it had in times past.

"Forever . . . ." Natalie whispered in her sleep, wrinkled her brow and gently tossed her head from side to side.

LaCroix circled in front of the couch and regarded the doctor. He pitied her, in a way. He knew the pain she'd feel when she woke to find Nicholas gone. Forever, indeed.

He leaned over her, brushed a stray hair from her cheek, and softy kissed her forehead. Then he lowered his mouth, and brushing his lips to ear, he whispered.

"He was always mine . . . ."

The air rippled as LaCroix disappeared through the skylight.