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Redemption of The Damned

By Lorelei Sieja

Chapter One: The Beast

She was there.
The phantom lover of his dreams plagued him again... teasing, taunting the beast, bringing him to the edge of his self-control and beyond. Long, chestnut curls entwined in his fingers. Wide set eyes bored into him like wooden stakes, demanding and compelling, baring his very soul, the one he claimed he did not have. Her sharp fangs sank into the pale, tender skin at his throat. Sucking deeply of his essence, she discovered him. All of his thoughts, his dreams and his disappointments, all he had been in the past and all that he might yet become, she perceived through the blood kiss. She knew the killer and the lover... the vampire and the man.
His need to possess her intensified. The beast let out an unearthly growl, fangs descended, eyes of the killer turned blood red. His back arched as he reached out to her, desperate to taste her, needing her more than life itself. But his arms wrapped around nothing, as the phantom dissolved and Nick awoke to an empty room.
He sat up slowly, dazed and disoriented. The room was all darkness and shadow, as the red eyes of the beast sought vainly for the nightmare creature. He wiped blood sweat from his brow and stared at its red sheen on his palm. Absently, he lapped at it and closed his eyes, vainly trying to recall the dream.
It was gone.
Nick buried his beast. Then the shadows of the room rescinded and he could plainly see the timepiece on the nightstand. He had overslept! It was his first day on the job, his first day back to work after spending so many days between the brig and sickbay. The party last night had made him feel forgiven, welcomed back into the fold, as it were, after some of them had discovered what he was and just what he had been doing to them. Today certainly wasn't starting out the way he would have planned. He reached for a nearly empty bottle from the floor and drained the warm, stale dregs.
B'Elanna was gone. She must have slipped out some time in the night. He had been so exhausted; he barely remembered a thing. Just the thought of B'Elanna was enough to bring back the eyes of the beast. She was so delicious, so alluring! Nick sprang from the bed and headed in to take a cold shower. He wondered, idly, as the water cleansed blood sweat from him, why he had been permitted to sleep in. Starships were fairly structured places. But then, Ship's Historian and Counselor was not a critically demanding position, either. Perhaps they knew how difficult these past weeks had been for him?
He pulled on a clean, new uniform. The gray turtleneck shirt and black trousers were the same, but the black jacket with a teal yoke was new... a sign of his recent promotion to the "medical" profession. Nick grinned wryly at the thought of himself as a counselor! Wouldn't LaCroix enjoy a few laughs over that! Nick had been a veterinarian before, and during some of earth's many military conflicts in centuries past he had served as a doctor, providing emergency treatment to the critically wounded. That had been a mutually beneficial position, as he drew minimal sustenance from his patients, just enough to keep going, and relieved their wretched pain with his hypnotic ability. But medicine had progressed beyond his meager skills and he no longer tried to pass himself off as a doctor.
Somehow, though, Captain Janeway had the impression that he would be useful as a psychologist. True, he had been able to diagnose Crewman Paulus's severe depression, but recognizing the problem was not the same as solving it. He knew her fears and repressed emotions through tasting her blood. That technique would not work on the non-human members of the crew. Vulcan, Talaxian, Bolian, Borg... all were inedible. In fact, the human percentage of the crew was just barely enough to keep him alive, and then, only when they were healthy. Since they were still recovering from the effects of a devastating parasitic infection, Nick had had to rely heavily on the flat, unsatisfying replicated plasma for several weeks. His stomach lurched. It was even worse than chilled bottled cow blood!
Paulus would be coming in later this afternoon for the first of what would undoubtedly be many sessions, and Nick didn't have a clue how to proceed. It unnerved him. What if while trying to help her, he caused her more harm? It would not be the first time that good intentions coupled with inexperience backfired for him.
LaCroix, his vampire master, had been rather insistent that he was above the mortal laws and customs. Schools and academies were for the pitiful beings whose lives were too brief to accumulate the experiences a vampire gained through assuming a myriad of identities in the course of his immortal existence.
The memories of Chicago were still sharp, when he had first stepped into the life of a cop. He had almost cost his partner's life because of his inexperience and lack of training. Although he'd received a citation for his performance that night, he had chosen to attend the police academy anyway, and learn the skills he would need, just like a mortal.
But now, stranded out here so many thousands of light-years from Earth, where could he go to learn? Who would teach him? If there was another qualified counselor anywhere on this ship, then he would not be needed.
Nick paused in front of the mirror to straighten his new jacket, only to be angered again by its refusal to reflect his image. He slammed a fist into it, hard enough for it to fissure in a starburst pattern. Small drops of vampire blood dripped from his hand. He ran his tongue across the sharp points of his fangs as he watched the tiny cuts leave spots of red on the counter before they healed.
The door chimed softly. "Enter," Nick called.
Chakotay stepped inside. Nick smiled at him, once again regaining control of his darker side. "Here to walk me to work?" he asked.
Chakotay folded his strong arms across his chest. The action was the only sign of his displeasure as the stoic Indian's face revealed nothing, and yet Nick sensed that he was really very angry. Nick considered Chakotay the closest to a friend that he had in the entire quadrant; his anger bothered him. Last night at the party Chakotay had been supportive and Nick had assumed he was forgiven. Today was just beginning. How much trouble could he be in already?
"Uh... I'm sorry that I'm late. Guess I forgot to tell the computer to wake me. But, no one called either. How late am I?"
"I tried to contact you. Where is your comm badge?"
Nick scanned the room and his gaze settled on some smashed bits of wire and components that may very well have been his comm badge a little while ago. He picked up the fragments, feeling somewhat embarrassed. "Sorry, Chakotay. I... I really don't know how this happened."
Chakotay let a heavy silence fill the room for several minutes before he responded. "B'Elanna was late this morning too."
Nick squirmed under Chakotay's scrutiny. He knew B'Elanna once had a crush on the First Officer, but he didn't think that Chakotay returned her feelings. What was he getting at?
"She had to report to sickbay first. Seems she had some rather nasty bruises and a broken wrist."
Nick stared at him, his lips parted as though he would deny it, but he said nothing.
"I know that Klingons tend to get off on violence, but you have to remember that she is half human, raised among humans with human customs. And we don't tolerate that kind of abuse-"
Nick sank onto the edge of his bed. His shoulders slumped, his face turned downward. He shook his head sadly, slowly. "I didn't warn her," he whispered. "I was so tired, I must have fallen asleep.... It won't happen again."
Chakotay unfolded his arms. He laid a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Warn her of what, Nick?"
Nick hesitated. He never did like to talk about himself. But Chakotay's grip became a little firmer.
"Warn her of what?" he asked again, this time in a tone of voice that would not be ignored.
"Never to wake me." Nick's voice was barely above a whisper.
Chakotay waited. "Explain."
Nick looked up at his friend. Guilt and shame played across his youthful face. "The vampire wakes first. Not the man."
Chakotay tried to understand what he was telling him. He sat beside Nick on the bed, a less intimidating posture, and lightened the moment with stoic humor. "The vampire wakes up first. What does that mean? That you regularly get up on the wrong side of the bed? That you are not a morning person?"
"Meaning, that I have no control over my actions. The vampire reacts on instinct. It only lasts for a few seconds, but sometimes that is all it takes."
"To do what?"
"To kill." Nick heaved a sigh.
The silence grew to fill several minutes. Chakotay remained beside Nick, not judging him and not condemning him, but just accepting him. "Could put a real kink in a relationship," he said at length. "So how have you handled it in the past?"
"I have always lived alone. I have never kept an... intimate... relationship with someone who was not also a vampire."
Chakotay whistled between his teeth. "Don't envy you telling this to B'Elanna. If I know her, she isn't going to give up easily. So, when I tried to contact you, the vampire destroyed the comm badge, and went back to sleep?"
Nick shrugged.
"What's the right way to wake a vampire, then?"
"From the other side of a closed door," Nick commented dryly.
"What about calling the computer to turn on all the lights brightly?"
"No!" Nick looked horrified. He stuttered once, before he was able to speak coherently again. "We sleep when it's daylight! And bright lights are painful!"
Chakotay chuckled softly, as he unfolded his long legs and stood. "I know. Not funny, huh? Come on, let's get you to work."
Nick stood, his shame and grief still on his face. "But... How's B'Elanna?"
"She's fine. In fact, she's practically glowing. I know she's a passionate woman, but I've never seen her quite so... feminine... before. You're good for her, Nick."
"So long as I don't kill her first," he muttered.
"Yes, that's true," Chakotay replied, slapping Nick on the shoulders. "Now come on! You're new job is waiting. We've got a room set aside for you, but you'll have to arrange it the way you want-- Captain Janeway has cleared the replicators for your use today-- order up what you need." Chakotay continued to talk to Nick about the plans and changes they were making concerning him, but Nick's mind was only half listening. He felt torn between his consuming desire for the Klingon blood with the taste of lilacs and honey and his certainty that sending her far away from him was ultimately the best thing for her.
Nick's new office was a small room just down the hall from sickbay. It was oddly shaped, previously a generic storage compartment wedged in around structural supports and jeffries tubes, yet it had an outside bulkhead with a large, sloping view to the stars.
Nick didn't like it. The colors were dreary. Drab steel-gray walls and floors, two utilitarian white-cushioned chairs, and little else. Even his loft back in Toronto had had more warmth and interest.
Chakotay clapped him on the back again, then poured the broken remains of his comm badge into Nick's hand. "You can start with repairing this. Maybe that will remind you to keep it out of harm's way while you sleep?"
Nick nodded glumly.
"The Captain said she sent you a message, and that you're to attend the next staff meeting which is scheduled for tomorrow at 0800."
He watched Chakotay leave, then sank into one white chair. There was no tabletop or other surface to work on. There were no shelves, no pictures, no items at all to make the room less austere and intimidating. Crewman Paulus would never be able to relax in here! He felt an odd sensation, a pounding behind his eyes, something like a headache, and a rumble inside to remind him that he hadn't fed yet, either. Although most crewmen who overslept had to endure working on an empty stomach, Nick knew that wasn't the wisest option in his case. He had too recently been ill. Although he had mostly recovered, he didn't feel strong enough yet to maintain the control he must constantly exert over his darker nature.
So, he headed up towards the Mess Hall. Neelix was fairly easy to hypnotize. One way or another, he would feed.
"Oh, Mr. Knight!" the squat little Talaxian bubbled. "I'm so glad that you stopped by! I didn't see you this morning. You know, you should start joining the crew at meals! Sharing food is very important to your emotional well being and no one needs to know what is in your glass, really! This is only slightly more disgusting than that black stuff the captain is always drinking-"
"Enough!" Nick roared. That creature's endless chatter could bring an entirely new meaning to the word "eternity".
Neelix affably offered Nick a coffee mug filled with his beverage of choice. "Of course, Mr. Knight. We're all a little testy when we're hungry." Neelix pulled out a chair and motioned for Nick to sit. Then he placed a full bottle on the table before him.
Nick inhaled the warm liquid's faint scent. This was Ensign Kim, he was certain, even before he tasted it. He turned his back to the intruding alien as he felt his fangs descend and he savored the small cup's contents. Kim's youthful offering was fragrant and filling; his wide-eyed enthusiasm crossed over into his blood. Nick licked his lips appreciatively, and wondered again at how could he have survived for almost a century on that spineless bovine product? Nick spread the comm badge pieces out and sorted them.
Neelix hovered nearby. He wiped off some other tables, straightened chairs, surreptitiously glancing at his only customer. Nick tried to ignore him. He drained the last of Kim's offering, then refilled his cup from the bottle of replicated blood. It was flat. He grimaced, forgetting for a moment that he had an attentive audience.
"I am sorry, Mr. Knight. Captain Janeway said to offer only one cup at mealtimes for now, and all the replicated stuff you can drink. You'll have to take it up with her if it isn't sufficient."
Nick shrugged, not looking at him. The comm badge was almost irreparable. It would be so much simpler to get a new one from the replicator. Chakotay must have given him this inane assignment as some sort of penance. The parts were so small, and relatively fragile compared to his superior strength. He would have to control his irritation before he rendered it completely useless. Several times he got nearly everything where it belonged, and then one part, still slightly warped, would buckle and jump out of alignment. He clenched his jaw, feeling his tenuous control slip, and his eyes changed to the red night vision of the predator, which was perfect for hunting by starlight, but made even seeing the cold, inanimate components difficult. The badge fell back apart, little pieces danced just out of reach across the glossy table. He growled fiercely.
A mottled hand with tufts of yellowish fur gently swept the pieces into a tidy pile. Nick glared at him, not even bothering to conceal the face of a vampire. Maybe the worrisome creature would easily be scared away. Neelix slid into the chair opposite him with a small tray of tools just right for the job. Quietly, carefully, he rebuilt the badge and tightened its bonds.
"There, Mr. Knight. I think that should just about do it," he said.
Nick accepted it. "Sorry," he grunted, knowing he should apologize for his rudeness yet not quite able to make himself actually feel remorseful.
"Oh, that's quite all right, really. No harm done. In fact, that is something that I wanted to talk to you about."
"I said sorry," he grunted more loudly.
Neelix patted his hand paternally. "There, there, Mr. Knight. I only meant that I think I know how you might be feeling."
Nick stared at him. Gone was the vampire and in its place was a youthful face with eyes the color of a pale blue sky and soft blonde hair that curled boyishly. Neelix found it hard to imagine that this troubled young man was older than Talaxian recorded history.
"I, too, am all alone on this ship. Oh, there are 152 crewmen, but no other Talaxians. No one with the same background, the same biochemistry, the same cultural heritage or beliefs. I have many friends and acquaintances here, but no one who really knows what it is like to be Talaxian."
Nick sighed. He hadn't known just how busy a counselor could be. Maybe, eventually, he would have to talk with just about everyone on the ship, but were they all going to come by today?
Neelix patted his hand again. "So, I just wanted to let you know, Mr. Knight, that if you need to blow off a little steam at some one, you just come in here and yell at me. I won't mind a bit. I can't cook for you, make you any special meals, but, I would be glad to serve as a release valve for you, if you think it would be of help."
Nick hung his head. These people were all being so nice! What had he ever done to deserve it? "Thank you," he whispered. "And, you can call me "Nick"."
"Is there anything that you need for your new office?"
Nick shrugged. "Yes, actually. The room needs help, but I haven't figured out what."
Neelix walked with Nick back towards his office and was companionably quiet. Nick matched his step, so the short chef wouldn't have to struggle to keep up. At the right door, Nick paused. A new plaque had been mounted on the wall panel, next to the room number and security lock. "Lieutenant Knight, Counselor." He felt a sudden rush of pride, even though he felt he had done nothing to deserve this position.
The sensitive little alien beamed. "That is a right pretty sight, isn't it, Mr. Knight? Nick, I mean. Seeing your name like that?"
Nick was grateful that his pale complexion didn't blush easily. He stepped close enough for the door to slide open, then entered. Neelix came in behind him and stared at the room's cold austerity.
"Yes, it definitely needs a few touches," he suggested. "A low table- "coffee table" I believe is the correct term. A plant or two, I have some from Kes. I'll loan them to you for now, and take some cuttings from them. Some artwork, too. Do you have a painting of your own to hang here? And I think a pet would be nice, to create a cozy living environment..."
Neelix smiled broadly up at Nick. "Well, a fish tank might do it. Just think about it, and we'll start with the table.
Nick had been unable to get rid of his self-invited guest until Neelix's rumbling stomach reminded him that it was time to get the next meal prepared. By then the room had been artfully transformed. Several colorful throw pillows brightened the sterile white chairs, which sat at a gentle angle to each other. The coffee table in front of the chairs displayed two flowering plants, a Trngi music box, and a small booklet of poetry, all gathered on a circular piece of antique lace that an old friend of Nick's, Mama John, had crocheted for him a few centuries ago. One of Nick's original oil paintings hung on the wall where it was visible from both chairs. That was it. Nick thought that he might invite each of his clients to donate something appropriate. That way he wouldn't have to do anything more to the room, and they might feel like the room was part theirs, as well. Maybe it would even help them to feel more comfortable.
Then he read his mail, which included two short notes of encouragement for his first day as counselor, a job description copied right out of the Starfleet Regulations and Training manual, and an impersonal message from the captain. She stated the time and place for the staff meeting and gave him the proper clearance codes to continue writing the history he'd been doing unofficially all along. Nick shrugged as he filed it. She wasn't comfortable around him yet. But at least she was making an effort to treat him like part of the crew.
The door chimed softly. Nick jumped. He felt strangely anxious, as he wondered who might be his first official visitor. "Enter," he said. He hoped whoever it was wouldn't hear the nervousness in his voice.
B'Elanna smiled at him. She ran to embrace him, standing up on her toes to kiss him and passionately nibbled at his neck.
Nick held her tightly. For a few moments, he reveled in her nearness, in the soft fragrance that was so much a part of her. Then he drew back. "They said you were hurt," he whispered. He held her small hands in his, his eyes downcast. He was the picture of remorse.
"They don't know shit," she cursed.
Nick turned her palms up, looking for any sign of a bruise, then ventured to look at her face. She looked fine, lovely even.
B'Elanna pulled free from his scrutiny. "I'm fine! But, you could have warned me that you wake up so... so passionate! I would have set the alarm earlier to allow more time."
"B'Elanna! I wasn't... I mean, I didn't... I don't even remember this morning!"
She laughed. Nick was confused. He hadn't meant to be amusing.
"So, do we have a schizophrenic shrink with multiple personality disorder?"
"No." Nick sank into one of the white chairs. For all their ugly style and utilitarian covering, they were really quite comfortable. "Although it may seem that way. But when my vampire nature first wakes, I am not fully aware, nor am I in control. It isn't going to be safe for you to spend the night with me, B'Elanna. Not ever again."
She sat on his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. She wiggled her hips to rub against him intimately and breathed into his ear. "That is wonderful! How did you ever learn so much about Klingon romance! It isn't exactly something you could have found anywhere in a book." She stopped just breathing on him, and started nipping his neck. Nick wasn't sure why he had so little control today. He had allowed the vampire out in his room when he smashed the comm badge, and again when he smashed the mirror, and then again when he yelled at Neelix. Now his fangs came down yet once more, gently scraping her neck. A small trickle of blood dripped on the gray collar of her uniform. It was fortunate that this uniform called for turtlenecks!
Nick tried briefly to stop. "B'Elanna! We're on duty! Shouldn't we wait?"
B'Elanna only laughed. "Everyone gets to take a lunch break, Nick," she gasped, before pulling him onto the floor with her.
He took only a moment to call a security lock onto the door before allowing himself to succumb to her demands. The last coherent thought that flitted across his mind was to add a small, soft area rug, soon. Then he became inexplicably locked with her mind, their thoughts entwined. He saw visions of himself through her blood, of the two of them, as they bit and drank and kissed and made love on the floor of his new office.
Later, B'Elanna pulled her clothing back on and ran her fingers through her short, dark hair. She tugged at the hem of her jacket. "So, have you had anyone in here yet?"
"You mean, other than you?"
She slapped at him playfully. "Like a client?"
Nick shook his head. B'Elanna did look glowing, he decided. Her tawny complexion was almost radiant, her dark eyes sparkled with excitement, her cheeks were flushed and her lips full and red. He bent to place another kiss on the small, new scabs at her throat.
B'Elanna laughed, gently pushing him away. "Lunch break is over, Nick. I have to get back to work."
"B'Elanna, we have to talk," he insisted.
"Fine. Tonight. Will you join me for dinner?"
Nick hesitated. It wasn't that he didn't want to spend every possible moment with her, but rather that the scent of food cooking always turned his stomach. He nodded.
"See you then, at your quarters about 1800? Bye!"
She left and the door closed quietly behind her, but the scent of her blood, the scent of their passion, remained. Nick inhaled deeply. Maybe this wasn't such a bad job after all?

Chapter Two: The Counselor

Nick's next visitor was Crewman Paulus. She was a tiny woman, barely even 150 centimeters to the top of her auburn hair. Normally thin and wispy, she looked even more fragile, like she had not been eating well for some months. The doctor had warned Nick that if he could not help her soon, she would have to be taken off active duty. Her eyes were olive green, wide set, and hauntingly rimmed with darker green eyelashes, in a pale golden complexion. She was human, of human parents and grandparents, but somewhere in her ancestry there must have been some alien blood to create such exotic features. Her husband was red haired and freckled, the picture of the "All-American" stereotype. Nick was curious, wondering whom their daughter resembled.
"Won't you come in," he invited.
Paulus took one step inside, just enough to allow the door to slide quietly shut. She surveyed the room, then slowly walked around the perimeter, allowing slender, listless hands to touch every surface. Nick sat down, not wanting his much taller frame to intimidate this quiet person. He clasped his hands in his lap. Best not to show his nervousness at this encounter.
The music box played a few sweet notes when Paulus touched it. She startled, nearly dropping the fragile toy. Tears flooded her eyes instantly. "Oh, oh... I am so sorry," she whimpered.
Nick covered her trembling hands with his own. "That's okay. Nothing's wrong. Here, let me play it for you." To show her that the box was fine, Nick wound it up and set it back on the coffee table. The hand-carved box depicted children's toys and pets, which circled around and around as the inner mechanism chimed a simple, lovely melody. Nick swallowed, wondering if the reference to childhood would only hurt Paulus, who was already grieving for the daughter she had not seen in over four years.
A slight smile flitted across her sad face. "The song is lovely," she whispered.
"Neelix brought it this morning. He helped to decorate the entire room. It's coming along, but I was going to invite you to contribute something, anything that you think the room needs."
She started to shake her head, then paused. "Something..."
He had to keep her talking. He didn't really know how to help her, but maybe if she talked long enough, he would figure it out. "Neelix suggested I needed a fish tank, but I don't see the attraction," he began.
She smiled. This time the smile didn't instantly disappear, either. It remained until the end of her sentence. "Not a fish tank, but... maybe a terrarium."
"Terrarium? Terras Vivarium-- land of life?" Nick's Latin was rusty. He had spoken it as a boy, but that was millennia ago. The reference escaped him.
"A terrarium is a little bit of home," she explained. "It's a mini-environment, with soil, plants, sometimes a tiny animal or just a little figurine. If you set it up correctly, it rains inside and requires almost no maintenance."
Nick was pleased with the way her face became animated when she spoke. "No work. Sounds like my kind of plant. Will you help me put it together?"
She nodded. Nick stood and held out his hand for her. She hesitated, almost drawing back in upon herself, but then she placed her tiny hand in his. Nick held it as he escorted her to the replication center several levels down.
Paulus hesitated when they stood before the replicators. "But what about the rationing? Should we waste the energy for this?"
"Yes, we should," Nick said. "Chakotay said the Captain wants me to fix the room up nice. She gave me unlimited access today to do this. Now, what do we need."
Paulus flipped through several images in the database for a container. She located a clear duroplast rectangular box. "This will work," she said.
"Good." Nick programmed the replicator to send the item directly to his new office, so they wouldn't have to carry it there through the corridor. Next, Paulus found a lid, with the growlight and internal structure to maintain the artificial clouds that would water the miniature earth for them. She ordered up a bag of soil, some charcoal, sand, and gravel.
Next they went to the hydroponics bay to see if there were any appropriate little plants they could use. Paulus pointed out several varieties and showed Nick how to make cuttings from them.
"This should be enough for now," she said. "We can always add to it later."
"Fine." Nick took her hand again, and together they returned to his office. He didn't probe her to discuss her daughter, or her health, or her fears. Instead, he allowed her to chatter on about the terrarium, explaining to him how it went together and why, as they worked to assemble it. They knelt together on the floor, getting dirt under their fingernails and ground into the knees of their trousers. Sand and gravel went in first, with a layer of ground charcoal on top, then several inches of soil. Paulus sculpted the soil into small hills and valleys. She said it would create more visual interest than making it all flat. Next the plants were set in, laying loosely on the surface, as she arranged and rearranged them, asking him how he thought they looked.
While they worked, their hands occasionally brushed together, or their shoulders touched. Paulus was so engrossed in her project, that she lost her timidity. In some ways, she reminded him of a little sister. Not his Fleur, certainly, but he was beginning to feel very big brotherly towards her. Several hours later the box was finished. Paulus lightly watered each plant, then placed the lid on top. They both sat and admired their project in silence for several long minutes.
A large tear formed at each corner of Paulus's olive green eyes. She wiped at them, smearing her cheeks with soil. "I... I should be going," she whispered.
Nick brushed at another tear with an equally dirty thumb. "Thank you for your help with this. You will have to come by often until the plants get established, to ensure their survival. I don't have much luck with them."
She nodded, unable to speak.
Nick stood up and pulled her gently into his arms. He laid her head against his chest, patting her gently on the back. Paulus allowed the close contact. Nick felt her warm, salty tears penetrate his jacket as she wept silently. Then she straightened and pulled away from him. She touched his jacket, keeping her eyes downcast.
"I've got you all dirty," she apologized.
"It's fine," he said. "There's the restroom, if you'd like to wash up before you leave." He indicated a door. She nodded and slipped inside. Shortly, she emerged, the dirt and tears washed away, and only sadness remained on her porcelain features.
"Thank you, Nick," she whispered. "Shall I come again tomorrow at the same time?"
"That would be fine. But you can call me any time you wish, day or night. Just, you'd better use the comm system, don't try to come to my room. I tend to sleep pretty sound. Okay?"
She nodded and left.
Nick watched her retreating form, thinking that this job might not be so bad after all. It wouldn't be easy, but it was a welcome change to work with living mortals. He had isolated himself for the past couple of centuries, sheltering himself from risk and pain... He spent too much time alone....
============= Flashback, Chicago 2042 ===============
Nick yawned and rolled over, intending to hold her in his embrace. It was his custom. Nearly every morning for the past forty years he had hugged her as the last of a good day's sleep drew to a close. She was always there, to return his sincere love with her affection.
At one time she had loved him. He knew she did. But that was before. When she had still been a mortal, and he was something forbidden, something dark and sensuous, yet completely unattainable. For years she had helped him. She drew blood samples. She made noxious protein shakes. She gave him pep talks when he was depressed, and she lectured him with a dose of reality whenever his enthusiasm got out of control. And she was not afraid of him. That had done more to help him feel like a mortal again, than all the medicines, all the ancient potions, all the gimmicks and tricks he had tried for almost a century.
Then she joined him, becoming a vampire, and they were finally able to consummate their love. Then he started losing her. He felt her slipping away from him. He had always feared that would happen. It was one reason why he had refused to bring her across, even though she asked it of him again and again. It was only a small reason, but there it was. He hated being a vampire. He wanted to change. When she joined him, he lost his only colleague in his lonesome quest.
For forty years they had made a life together. Nick was the rock, she was the paper. He never changed. He was solid, still the thirteenth century crusader, trying to live in a world gone mad with 21st century morals, or lack of them. He provided an income, working at a mortal job. He made a mortal home. He tried to emulate the life that was still beyond his grasp.
She quit working altogether. She cut herself off from all her mortal friends, as they were no longer of any interest to her. She was a paper, able to bend and fold, to float on the breeze like a child's toy plane. She covered him. And he was lost.
This morning, her side of the bed was empty.
There was no one to embrace.
He didn't have to arise and search to know that she was gone. Although she was not related to him by blood, he should still have sensed her presence. He knew, as sure as he knew anything, that her clothes and all of her things were gone too. She had moved on.
He had almost left her several times, back when she had still been mortal. He would have left the same way. Just one day she would come to the loft, and there would be no trace that he had ever once lived there. But, something always held him back. He truly did love her. It was more than just the affection he always developed with the mortals who dared to call him friend. He wanted to marry her! He wanted to love her, to make love to her, and to bask in her love. And so, he stayed. After his partner Don Sckanke died in a plane crash, he stayed. After Janette left him again, when he made her his child, when he denied her a mortal's death, he stayed. After the Fever that killed dozens of vampires, that nearly killed him, and shook his conviction that becoming mortal again was even desirable, he stayed. But he had stayed too long. And now, he was the one to be left behind.
He buried his face in her pillow, her scent still clinging to the satin sheet, and he wept bitterly. He would never love again.
================ end, flashback ==================
It was a painful memory. Those old wounds opened briefly, flooding him with the same sense of despair, desolation... betrayal. He had grieved for her for a very long time. He still got angry when he thought about her, implying that even three centuries later he had not fully forgiven her. Although the cause of Paulus's depression was different in many ways, he felt that he could intimately relate to her feelings. She had a loving husband here with her, but she grieved for her daughter. For the past four years she had cut herself off from life, from the ability to experience any emotions, in an effort to keep from feeling the pain. No despair, and no hope. No misery and no joy. Now, probably triggered by a recent miscarriage, all the pain and repressed suffering had burst open again, like a festering wound. Nick had to find a way to help her. Maybe LaCroix would know something that could help him? He swallowed the last dregs and tossed the empty bottle in to be recycled.
The soft door chime startled him, but not half as much as the visitor. Seven of Nine, the tall Borg woman, entered. Her light blonde hair was swept up in a French Twist, which while attractive and feminine to most women, it only seemed to accentuate her severity. She had lovely blue eyes that at times could almost look lost and vulnerable, but above one eye remained the metallic Borg implants. Her full, red lips never parted in a friendly smile. Much of the time she displayed about as much emotion as a Vulcan. Nick wondered what a Vulcan Borg would be like. Would there even be a difference?
Seven remained, standing straight and tightly controlled, just inside his office.
"Please, come in," Nick offered. He would rather have told her to leave. He was feeling tired, irritable, and more than just a little hungry. Wasn't this enough for one day? Only yesterday he had still been chained in sickbay.
Seven raised her eyebrows at him disdainfully. "I am in."
"So you are. It is a human expression, implying that you should come in farther and sit down," Nick responded, the note of irritation creeping in to his voice.
"Since you are not human, and I have no human memories, than let us dispense with such trivialities."
Nick felt his control slip for an instant. He drew a deep breath, and allowed the ship's filtered air to slowly escape through his lips as he regarded Seven more closely. She clasped her hands behind her back, her posture imitated Tuvok's in many respects, except that Nick could sense she was not at all composed. Her heart rate was accelerated. Her blood pounded through her body... Nick felt his teeth begin to tingle. He shook himself. "You're frightened," he stated.
"And you require nourishment," she returned.
He glanced at her with surprise. The corner of her lips curved slightly and she nodded at him. Point scored. She was perceptive. He would have to be very careful with her.
"So, what can I do for you?" he asked conversationally.
"What can you do?"
"I mean," Nick said, with a trace of irritation returning, "what do you want?"
"What I want is irrelevant. The doctor insists that I report here. He anticipates that if I undergo therapy with you, I may reclaim more of my childhood memories concerning human behavior."
"Therapy? What sort of therapy," Nick said.
Her tone became condescending. "You are the therapist. You tell me."
Nick paced the length of the room. He knew he was inadequate for this position, but it did not help that Seven knew it too. He didn't really know what Seven's problems were, and since her blood was too dangerous for him to even taste, he couldn't use it as a diagnostic tool. He was on his own. "Would you please sit down," he said, indicating a chair.
"I fail to understand how sitting will aid in memory restoration."
Nick whirled around glowering at her with eyes of amber. The urge to bite something was becoming dangerously powerful. Slowly he approached her, catching the sound of her rapid pulse. When all else failed, try hypnosis, he reasoned. His eyes bore into hers. For a moment her eyes widened. "You will sit down," he began. Perhaps he could force her to open up.
Seven's Borg implants must have inhibited him somehow. She refused to be hypnotized or intimidated. "This session is terminated," she replied coolly. She turned and walked from the room.
Nick needed to hit something. He swung a fist into the outer bulkhead, knowing that nothing else in the room would survive his strength. The durosteel-reinforced bulkhead would withstand phaser fire and meteor showers. It didn't even dent under his abuse. He did manage to break two fingers, though. The mild pain it caused was enough to bring his anger under control. He left the room and headed towards sickbay. Surely the doctor would agree with him, that he was useless as a counselor, and help him to convince the Captain to change his duty assignment again. Even working for Tuvok would be preferable!
The doctor didn't even look up when Nick entered. He continued with some research of his own, that Nick wouldn't even hazard a guess concerning its form and function. He waited politely for thirty seconds before demanding the doctor's attention.
The doctor raised both eyebrows with an expression of surprise. Nick wondered at the curious nature of mortals, to create a potentially perfect lifeform, and give it all of humanity's weaknesses. "I didn't know you were here, Mr. Knight," he stated, running a medical tricorder over Nick and adjusting its settings. "My sensors still do not respond to your life signs. How odd."
"Because I have no life signs," he stated flatly.
"Yes, you do. You have a pulse, even if it is too low to register on most equipment. You have a body temperature, a heart rate... It will only take time to program them into my sensors, and then I will be alerted to your presence whenever you approach."
"That's not why I came," Nick insisted, the anger and exasperation still evident in his tone. "It's about Seven."
"Ah, yes. She has a similar effect on most of the crew. I hold out hope that you will be able to help her though."
"Why? I'm not a counselor. Surely you must know that."
The doctor faced Nick with a stony look. He folded his holographic arms across his chest in an intimidating posture. Nick felt his hands grow clammy, and it irritated him even more to be dressed down by the inanimate object.
"Mr. Knight. While I agree completely that you are untrained and unqualified for this position, I must admit that I am even more unqualified. I have been programmed with dozens of texts of human behavior, psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, mental disorders, and varied and assorted treatments. Unfortunately, while I can diagnose and treat any physical ailment at the speed of a bioneural microprocessor, I am unable to diagnose most mental ailments, or to decide on which treatment would be best for which patient. That kind of knowledge cannot be taught. It comes from instinct, something the mortals have never been able to understand let alone to program it into a holographic physician. Now. I can teach you everything I know. I can give you the texts and the textbook treatments. But you already have the instinct. And everyone on this ship needs you. They need you to get yourself under control, so that they can develop confidence that you will be there when they need you. Comprende?"
The anger left him. Nick felt only very tired. It irritated him, but the EMH was correct. He nodded and turned to leave.
"I don't recall dismissing you," the doctor snapped.
Nick stared at him, open-mouthed.
The doctor had his medical tricorder running again. "It is imperative that I understand your physiology. Every member of this crew must have a complete physical, and be certified fit for duty. Yours will take longer, because I have nothing to compare it to. I have no records on what a healthy vampire should be. I will have to conduct a series of exams over a period of time. What is your normal body temperature?"
Nick shook his head, feeling the irritation build again. "You kept me locked up in here for over a week! I don't have to do this." He turned and marched from the room; the doctor's demands that he cooperate faded when the door hissed shut behind him.
It was a little early for dinner, but he had missed lunch. Maybe he could convince Neelix to let him feed. He would need something, to regain the tenuous control he'd lost so many times today. He hadn't gone far, when Tuvok approached him. Nick wasn't too concerned. The Vulcan would be the last person on the ship to require his services as counselor. Tuvok stopped precisely one meter in front of Nick. He stood erect, his shoulders square and his uniform creases absolutely perfect. Tuvok always looked like he was at formal inspection.
"The doctor reports that you disobeyed a direct order to comply with his medical evaluation."
"Come on, Tuvok! Give me a break. I just spent the past week chained in his laboratory. What more does he need?"
"That is not up to a lieutenant to decide."
"His questions are irrelevant--invasive--a violation of my rights. What business is it of his how often I urinate or what my rectal temperature is! I don't get sick! Phasers and bullets cannot harm me-- I do not need his services, and I certainly will not be his lab rat!"
Nick's raised voice had drawn more than a few stares from hapless crewmates who just happened to be nearby. When they saw with whom he was arguing, however, every one of them changed their minds about where they needed to be at that moment. Nick knew he was digging his own pit deeper and deeper, yet he could not seem to calm himself.
Tuvok remained unruffled. He was unaffected by Nick's tirade. "Interesting. Vampires experience the same emotion of embarrassment over simple biological functions as humans."
"And you can't tell me that Vulcans don't! I don't see you in sickbay!"
"The first Vulcans to serve in Starfleet also submitted to the same medical evaluations, until a baseline of data was collected. Whether you experience pain or illness is irrelevant. As a member of this crew, it is imperative that the doctor know all that he can about your normal physiology. It is possible, that had he already obtained such knowledge, this past incident with the bone marrow parasite would have been diagnosed and treated far sooner. The orders of a superior officer stand, regardless of personal inconvenience. You shall return to sickbay at once."
Nick's fangs descended, unbidden, the amber glow filled his eyes, shading Tuvok and the blue-gray corridor with golden tones. He kept his mouth tightly compressed in a vain attempt to conceal his loss of control, but the tips of his fangs extended over his lower lip. He examined his options quickly. Hypnotizing the Vulcan was out. Further disobedience would certainly land him back in the brig. The only choice was to comply. He turned sharply and marched back to sickbay, Tuvok accompanying him on the way. Nick fumed at the feeling of being treated like a child. Tuvok left him at sickbay.
He glowered at the doctor, complying with the order in form only and not in spirit. He permitted the doctor to run his tricorder and his other sensors, but refused to answer any question. He lay on the biobed like one dead.
The doctor talked on and on. He explained impatiently to Nick the importance of his work. He tried several tactics to elicit the correct response, but Nick wasn't fooled. At last the doctor dismissed him. "I will be speaking with the Captain about your lack of cooperation, Mr. Knight."
Nick bypassed the Mess Hall and went straight to his quarters. Neelix had been there. The room was almost just as he had left it-- the bed still unmade, the mirror still broken-- but on the table next to his keyboard was a bottle of blood and a handwritten note. "Sorry to have missed you at lunch. Thought you might need this yet before dinner. Your friend, Neelix."
Nick tore the cork from the bottle with his fangs and spat it across the room. He held the bottle to his mouth, and sucked on it hungrily, greedily, like an infant to its mother's breast. A small trickle escaped, dribbling down his chin, yet still he suckled the bottle, leaning his head back until the last of it had been drained. Then he wiped at the drip on his chin and licked it from his finger.
"Was it good for you, Nicholas?"
Nick felt his father's presence again, as clear as it had been the first time he sensed him just about two weeks ago. Why could he sense LaCroix's presence at this distance? And why had he never sensed the ancient before in the past four years of his delta-quadrant banishment? It was strangely comforting, though, to resume the petty bickering with his master, the behavior patterns they had spent centuries forging together.
"What, LaCroix?"
"That watered-down placebo of synthetic protein-enriched plasma you try to pass off as blood?"
That made Nick laugh. He tossed the empty bottle against the wall, laughing again at the satisfying sound it made as it shattered. "No, LaCroix. It was not. But then, I feasted at lunch. And I had a feast last night."
"Yes. The lovely B'Elanna, I know," the ancient replied with disdain.
"What do you know?" Nick felt a cold finger on his spine. His master could always read his thoughts. It seemed that he always knew where Nick was, and what he was planning or what he'd been doing. There were less than a handful of times in the past eleven centuries when Nick had managed to fool him.
"I would appreciate it," the older vampire said smoothly, accentuating each word as though it was a pearl of wisdom, something to be treasured. "...If you would close our link whenever you partake of your new Klingon lover. I find her much too sweet for my tastes. And your newly kindled, voracious sexual appetite is somewhat annoying. Although, I suppose I should be grateful to her, for helping you to rediscover your true nature so--so... frequently."
"You! You!" Nick shouted. He paced the small quarters, rage burning hotly, but he found no release. "You were here with us? Last night?"
LaCroix laughed evilly. "And this afternoon. Really, Nicholas. On the floor, in the middle of a duty shift? How delightfully decadent of you."
Nick grabbed the closest chair and bashed it into the wall. The material splintered, leaving only a sharp, jagged leg in his hand. "Stop it! Don't ever invade into my private life again, or I'll... I'll kill myself right now!" He turned the sharp stake inward, clutching it with trembling hands.
For only an instant the ancient one severed his link. Nick was standing alone in the room, with no one's thoughts but his own, a strange and lonely experience. Then LaCroix returned. He tone was patronizing.
"Don't be ridiculous, Nicholas. The stake is not made of wood. You will do no permanent damage with it."
Nick stared at the splintered chair leg, then let it drop to the floor. Damned mortals! Life was so much simpler, once! When vampires could fly before the moon without being caught on radar or videotape and when chair legs were made of wood.
"But Nicholas, I will permit you your privacy," conceded LaCroix. "I am much too old to find amusement in your base animal ruttings. It is you who must close the link."
The ancient was at a loss for words. "Nicholas. Didn't I ever teach that to you?"
"No." Nick sank on the corner of his bed and sulked.
LaCroix sighed. "Yes, yes. You have been denied so much, because of your extended rebellious period of adolescence. But now I will teach you this."
Nick sat very still, listening, absorbing, practicing, to master the new skill. It left him very, very hungry.
"Yes, Nicholas. This can be rather draining to maintain. You would be wise to exercise this new skill only when absolutely necessary, and to keep an extra bottle around.
Nick lay back on his bed and closed his eyes. He was so weary. Just a few moments would help so much. "LaCroix?"
"Yes, my son?" The ancient master's voice was soothing, almost lulling. Nick could almost see the smile tugging at LaCroix's lips.
"Thank you...."


Chapter Three: Team Player

"Nick? Are you awake yet?"
Nick rubbed his eyes and tried to remember where he was. His quarters on Voyager. He was on his bed, fully dressed. The sweet voice on his comm called to him again. He tapped it and responded. "Knight here."
"You stood me up," she teased. "Must've been pretty tired. I guess it has been rather rough for you lately. Just don't do it again."
"B'Elanna," he said. "Dinner, 1800."
"That was yesterday, Nick. How 'bout breakfast before your first staff meeting? I'll be over shortly."
Still groggy, he nodded, even though she could not have seen his gesture over the small communications device. It didn't matter. She had terminated the conversation already. Nick rose, rubbing a kink from his neck, and headed for the shower.
He felt more in control this morning, in spite of the ache of hunger in his gut. The uninterrupted night of sleep, alone in his bed, had done him a lot of good. When he emerged from the shower, fully dressed and toweling his damp hair, B'Elanna had already arrived. She gestured at the broken mirror, the shattered green bottle, the rumbled bed, which he had slept on top of, and the ruined chair. "Wow. Looks like a great fight. Who won?"
"I did," he answered huskily, pulling her in for a kiss.
B'Elanna giggled, wiggling in his arms. "Nick! This is serious! The mirrors are fairly indestructible. You'd have to hit one pretty hard for it to shatter. Want to tell me what it's about?"
He kept his arms around her, nuzzling her neck. He loved the way her pulse raced when he was near. Stepping in front of the mirror, he turned her around. Two lovers both dressed in black, but only one reflection, fragmented in the starburst pattern of shattered glass.
B'Elanna gasped. "Nick! How'd you do that?"
He just shrugged. He teased her ear lobe with his tongue, staring at her reflection. He rubbed her abdomen with one hand. Her jacket was pulled aside revealing her smooth stomach, but his hand was invisible in the mirror. B'Elanna stared at her own reflection. She leaned into his embrace, oddly aroused by the phantom hands that played and tantalized her.
"It is part of the curse," Nick whispered seductively. "We are the damned, the creatures of the night. We can not exist... We have no soul, no reflection, no future. We have only an eternal now."
B'Elanna tilted her head to expose her throat for him. Nick needed no further encouragement. He sank his fangs into her willing flesh. She filled him instantly, her pulse raced, spurting the thick lilac blood faster than he could swallow. She wrapped her arms around his head and held him tight, a moan of pure ecstasy escaping her lips.
Nick sensed his master's presence for an instant. He didn't really understand the link that they shared; he never had. He hadn't thought much about it before, about the link being always open. In the past, if he thought about LaCroix, he could find a familiar place in his mind, and he would sense his master. He could sense LaCroix's general state of mind, and he could locate him, following the link. Nick could never really read LaCroix's thoughts, at least not as accurately as LaCroix could read his. But apparently, even when he didn't seek LaCroix, that link was still open. It permitted LaCroix free access to him, to invade his thoughts at any moment. This link seemed to grow stronger with time, but it used to be weakened by distance, and it was always the strongest when Nick was in real trouble... LaCroix had always known when his very existence was in danger, and had come to his rescue. So what made it so strong now?
The skill he recently learned, to shut himself off from this connection with LaCroix, felt awkward and trying to concentrate on giving himself a headache. And it reminded him how very, very hungry he was. He'd missed consuming any real blood for 24 hours now, and had only had one bottle of the replicated plasma. He forced himself to withdraw from B'Elanna's throat and he licked at the small trickle of blood until it ceased to flow.
B'Elanna turned around in his arms and hugged him tight. "You owe me," she said. She rubbed against him intimately, insuring that he understood her demand. Then she pulled away from him and tugged on her jacket. "Come on, or we'll miss breakfast."
Mess Hall was thinning out. Nick smiled at Neelix and thanked him politely, as he accepted the mug of human blood from him, and the large, warmed bottle of replicated filler. He led B'Elanna to the table at the back corner. It was darker, and one of the more private tables in the public eating room. He and B'Elanna often ate here, now. Oddly enough, many of the crew avoided this particular table, as though he had hung his own "reserved" sign on it! Perhaps they were just being polite, remembering what it was like to be in love.
B'Elanna was exquisite. Nick's teeth tingled and he felt a warmth spreading through him.
"Nick!" she exclaimed.
He looked at her with surprise. "What?"
"Your teeth, your eyes! Don't do that here! Not now, we have to be at the meeting shortly."
Nick grinned, trying to hide his embarrassment. He hadn't even been aware of the change that desiring her had brought about. He chugged the rest of the warm liquid in his coffee mug. "Then, don't sit so close to me," he whispered huskily into her ear. He felt pleased with himself as he heard her pulse quicken, and saw the blush stain her cheeks, glad to know that he affected her as well.
She brought her dishes back to the wall receptacle. "Come on. We might as well get this over with."
An odd choice of words, Nick thought. He had never been to a staff meeting before. He had been an insignificant underling, restlessly biding his time at mundane tasks, wondering how he was ever going to last the seventy-five years it would take to return home. Now, he was the counselor and historian. Janeway expected him to attend staff meetings, participate in away missions whenever possible, and take a more active role in their mission. He was glad for the promotion and the added interest, but also more than a little apprehensive.
Twelve people knew about him. That was eleven more than he had ever allowed to retain that knowledge in the past. Twelve people, whom he was likely to forge strong bonds with, if this journey lasted even a fourth as long as expected. And it would be his responsibility to ensure that they did not have any memory of him once they arrived. He would have to wipe their memories clean, all their logs, all ship's records, the hologram's records, or he would have to kill them so that they would take their knowledge to the grave. If Nick failed, the Enforcers would finish the task for him, brutally. And they would destroy Nick as well, for his carelessness.
B'Elanna paused just outside the door to the conference room to tug on her jacket and pull out imaginary wrinkles.
"Should we go in separately," Nick asked.
She smiled at him, "Why?"
Nick fumbled for words. "Ah, so... people don't get the wrong ideas... about you and me?"
B'Elanna laughed. "And what would be the wrong idea, Nick?" She seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. She let Nick squirm a moment longer. "Nick, everyone "knows" all ready. We wouldn't be fooling anyone but ourselves."
Nick looked genuinely surprised. Life had been simpler once, he knew it had! Once privacy had meant something.
"Relax," she said, slapping his arm with a friendly punch. "But, don't sit next to me in there. I have to pay attention." Then she stepped close enough to open the door and entered.
Nearly everyone else was already inside waiting, and unfortunately, the only two chairs still available were side by side, and the one for the captain at the head of the table. Nick sat down stiffly, his lips slightly parted to permit him to breathe through his mouth whenever breathing became necessary. Then hopefully he would not be distracted by the nearness of her scent.
Janeway was the last to arrive. She was a petite woman, but no one was ever fooled by her size. The very air around her seemed magnetically charged. Whenever she entered a room, all eyes turned to her. When she paced with frustration or irritation, everyone seemed to hold their breath, hoping fervently that they were not at the receiving end of her ire. Even Chakotay was not unaffected by her, Nick realized with surprise. He knew his friend had feelings for the Captain. He could hear Chakotay's heart pick up a beat whenever he talked about her. Nick noticed the way Chakotay's eyes seemed to turn a shade lighter and his normally composed, unflappable expression turned upward at the corners of his lips when Janeway was near. Nick stared at the Captain with renewed insight. So maybe she was over a millennium younger than he was. She had learned something he couldn't even define. She was a leader.
Janeway was an irritated leader this morning. Nick thought about his poor behavior all day yesterday and knew she had to have heard about it by now. Undoubtedly Tuvok, Seven, the doctor, and even Chakotay, had filed less than admirable reports. Nick only hoped that she would wait for a private moment before giving him hell.
She never sat. She stood behind her chair with her hands gripping into the cushioned fabric cover. Her words were carefully chosen. "Lieutenant Knight, on behalf of everyone here, let me extend a warm welcome."
Nick stared at her expectantly. He knew she was upset with him, and yet, he was the only one in the room to notice. Her tone was controlled, her words professional. Only her heart rate gave her away...something the others would not detect. Nick nodded humbly. "Thank you, Captain."
"You have been doing an admirable job with your history up until we discovered Primia. Then, I realize, that illness interrupted your work. What do you know about our current situation?"
Nick thought hard. Primia had been mostly a scientific side-trip. It hadn't been much out of their way, and it was very much like what many paleontologists hypothesized Earth had been in the very distant past. And so, Janeway had authorized the side trip, gathering data she knew could prove invaluable to researchers when they returned home. They had gathered some food while on Primia, although the food scavenging had definitely played second fiddle to the research. Nick didn't know anything more than that, and that information was widely available.
In writing his history of the crew, he had generally just tapped in to the public records. Sometimes, when the information was especially intriguing, he would break into places he had no clearance to be, but he didn't want to advertise yet another transgression.
"Not much, Captain," he admitted truthfully.
Janeway nodded to Neelix, giving him the honor to explain.
Neelix began, voicing his concerns. "The foodstuffs we gathered from Primia are incomplete. While they are rich in some nutrients, they are totally void in others. Specifically, they contain no vitamin C or D- probably a result of growing without sunlight. Our other food supplies are getting very low. We can supplement them with replicated foods, if we cancel all private replicator use."
B'Elanna shook her head. "We should cancel replicator use any way. We're running dangerously low on deuterium."
"Deuterium?" Nick asked. They replicated food out of something as unappetizing as deuterium? "Isn't that like gas?"
The blank stares of the entire assembled crew focused on him. Nick wished he'd kept quiet.
"Deuterium is a liquid, Nick," B'Elanna explained quietly.
"I know that," he said. "So was gas- gas was a flammable, toxic liquid once used to power vehicles. It fell from use in the 21st century."
Kim nodded with excitement, not the least concerned to have the staff meeting sidetracked with another of Nick's living history lessons. "Why would they call a liquid a gas?"
"Short for gasoline, I guess," Nick answered, shrugging. He wasn't really a walking encyclopedia. He could tell them all about TVs, VCRs, telephones and pagers, because he had used them in the past... but he couldn't even begin to explain the technology behind how they worked. "So you use deuterium to replicate food? No wonder it tastes so... strange."
B'Elanna stared at him. How could anyone not know how replicators worked? They had been around for almost a century!
Kim was neither shocked nor surprised. Instead he launched into a brief explanation. "We don't consume the deuterium, either, Nick. It powers the impulse drive, and many of the ship's other systems, including the food replicators. Raw food stock components are stored, until the phase transition coils dematerialize them, then the main computer provides matrix data, and with technology very similar to molecular transportation, the food materializes at the replicator terminal. Some of the ship's systems run off the dilithium crystals, which power the warp drive. We can cross-link most systems, to run from either drive, depending on which ever power source we happen to be running short of, but the food replicators cannot run off the warp drive safely."
Neelix finished the explanations. "So, we're running short on food, and deuterium, at the same time. We must replace at least one or the other before we go much farther."
Captain Janeway flipped on a viewer behind her and indicated it as she spoke. "We are at a crossroads. This way is more direct, but as you can see, it is sparsely populated. Our initial long range scans suggest only two class-M planets, and they are quite a distance away; it is impossible to tell if there are any deuterium deposits on our long-range scans, and there are no spacefaring races to trade with, or to fight with. This other route, however, adds at least two months on to our journey. It has nine class-M planets, and a race known as the Buliga, with warp capabilities. We don't know much about them, only that they have conducted interstellar trade in the past and they aren't currently at war with anyone that we know about."
"Captain, what about sending a communications probe on ahead, to contact the Buliga--let them know we are coming, and ask if they're willing to trade deuterium?" This came from Ensign Kim.
She shook her head. "I prefer to deal with new contacts in person. There are too many variables at stake to run the risk of offending them."
Nick found his attention wandering. He hadn't really been aware of all the difficulties Voyager faced on the day to day basis. Most of the crew operated in the dark. They went about their tasks, performing what was expected of them, and trusting their captain to get them home safely. Nick felt rudely awakened, and more than a little embarrassed that at his age he could still be so naïve.
"It's settled, then," Janeway finished. "Mr. Paris, plot in the new course and heading. Chakotay, we'll be flying at high warp for three weeks, no stops and no leaves, so you may need to find ways to keep the crew focused. Some of them can catalog the data collected from Primia. I don't want any one becoming bored and inefficient. Dismissed."
The other officers rose, pushed in their chairs and filed out of the room. Nick hesitated, anticipating Janeway's lecture, so he was surprised to hear her call out Chakotay's name. She was definitely upset, but could he be mistaken about her reasons? B'Elanna waited for him in the corridor. Slowly, Nick joined her, still amazed to be off the hook.
Chakotay waited until the door had closed completely. "Yes, Captain?"
Janeway picked up six padds, shuffled them, sorted them, and tossed them back on the table in front of her first officer. "Conduct unbecoming an officer, arguing with a senior officer. Disobeying a direct order, uncontrolled behavior, late for work, destruction of Starfleet property--these are just a few of the more colorful reports I have had concerning Knight, and that after just one day's work! Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw him back in the brig immediately."
"Because that would be unfair, Captain," Chakotay calmly replied.
"Unfair! Fairness has nothing to do with this. Starships are run by rules and regulations, designed to keep the ship running smoothly...rules which Knight isn't making any effort to comply with."
"Captain, perhaps he is unsure of the rules."
"Then get him an instruction manual!" She was fuming.
Chakotay kept the emotion from his voice, responding to her with cool patience. "Consider Paulus. After the crash, as she lay in sickbay, you didn't order her right back to work. Even after the parasite was eliminated, you still knew she was not fully recovered. You knew this because she is human, mostly. Even if she'd been Vulcan, or Klingon, or any other alpha quadrant native, you could have asked the EMH how long he would expect it would be before she was fully recovered. Nick doesn't have that option."
"Are you suggesting that I pushed him back to work too soon? That all he needs is little more time off, and these reports of atrocious behavior will cease?" Janeway wasn't buying word of it.
Chakotay would have to try a different tactic. He thought he knew what the problem was, but he wasn't saying it very well. He wished Kathryn had chosen to discuss this in her ready room, casually, among friends, rather than in here, as his commanding officer. "Captain, we are all working in the dark. We don't know what to expect from Nick, and I'm not sure he knows what is expected of him."
"He's a big boy, Chakotay. He's been around for a long time, I hear."
"Yes, Captain. And how confusing that must be for him! The rules keep changing! Think of all the changes in the past three or four centuries- an eyeblink for a man who can recall the Sixth Crusade as easily as what he did before breakfast. Why even for most of his life, women were forbidden to wear pants, speak in public, and hold positions of leadership."
Janeway considered that point for a moment. She had only thought that a man as old as Nick claimed to be, should be a lot wiser than he acted. She hadn't thought about how confusing it could be, to have so many changes in one lifetime. He hadn't even known how a simple replicator functioned. He had lived before warp travel! Hell, he had even lived before airplanes and automobiles. She couldn't even imagine what that must have been like. "So what do you suggest, Chakotay. I can't just ignore these reports. I can't discipline one crewmember for disobedience, then ignore the next. That's a sure way to mutiny."
"Perhaps, you should treat this like a First Contact."
Janeway stared at him. She opened her mouth before thinking, and sputtered the words. "First contact! That's absurd! He's been living with us all of his life, this is nothing like first contact."
"I beg to disagree. For us, it is our first contact. Until a few days ago, we didn't even know his race existed. Now, we still know precious little. We don't know what is normal for him. We can't predict how his kind will react to stress, or sleep deprivation, or even space travel. Don't treat him as just another member of a Starfleet crew, but rather as a new alien race. Appoint a liaison, a go-between, to act as a buffer between him and the rest of us. Someone who will make it his duty to get to understand Nick, his needs and his behaviors."
Janeway rubbed the back of her neck, a habit that implied she was actually considering his request. Chakotay remained silent as he waited.
"Is Nick in agreement?"
"I don't know, Captain. Generally we have never asked a new alien race for permission to make first contact before we contacted with them. That would imply that first contact was actually second contact."
Janeway smiled wanly, shaking her head at him. He always had a point.
"I will try it your way. For now. And I appoint you his liaison. But, I don't ever want to see this big a stack of complaints against any one member of my crew again. Understood?"
Chakotay nodded. That would be easy enough. Those reports should have been brought to him first, anyway. She wouldn't see them again. Janeway passed the reports over. "But Captain, I was thinking more of assigning this to Ensign Kim. He's already read most of Nick's diary, which gives him a head start."
Janeway shook her head. "This is too important to leave with a rookie. And with his hero-worship infatuation, I wouldn't count on Kim to keep this professional. I want you on it. Personally. And you can contact all these people and reassure them that the situation is being handled."
Chakotay nodded stiffly. It was going to be a very, very long day.

Chapter Four: Assaulted

Chakotay returned to his quarters. He had many things to discuss with Nick, and he would need to clarify his thoughts before confronting him. To start with, he needed to select the best location. Not his quarters. He tried to keep it separate from his identity as First Officer. Friends were always welcome, but work was not. And the ready room was too intimidating. Nick's office was to be his domain, and Chakotay did not want to trespass. He needed neutral ground, some place where they could go together and yet be assured of privacy.
He sat cross-legged on the floor, closed his eyes, and allowed his thoughts to reach out beyond the confines of his consciousness.
He had known Nick for a long time. They had fought together in the Maquis, but even before that... many years ago he had known him.
Nick had lived on his home world for a time. Chakotay had been a boy, of eleven or twelve, and Nick had been the same as he was today. Chakotay hadn't ever really wondered about Nick's eternally youthful face... many races had longer lifespans than his people did. Vulcans lived around two and a half to three centuries!
Chakotay had only wondered why anyone would choose to live alone, in such primitive conditions, when nothing prevented him from a much more desirable life of technology and adventure! Chakotay's people had left earth to found a new colony on distant planet that just happened to become part of the demilitarized zone later during the Cardassian conflict. Chakotay's thoughts drifted back, to the time when he stood on a threshold of maturity and Nick was an archeologist, a guest among his people.

Nick came, bringing gifts - archeological finds from Earth - to his father. The people were so pleased over the collection of broken pottery and artifacts in a way that made Chakotay faintly ill. How could they possibly find anything interesting in such a bunch of junk? He hated his life here! He wanted desperately to go somewhere, anywhere, and learn! His playmates were no longer fun. They were adopting the ancient ways of his people. Soon they would marry, make families, and enslave their own children to this go-nowhere existence. He wanted none of it!
That night, dressed like one of the people, Nick had gone on the hunt. They slew a wild boar and drank its blood. The moonlight reflected oddly in Nick's eyes as he drank. He was so different from Chakotay's people, skin that was white as death contrasted to their darker coloring, eyes that were often pale blue but sometimes tinged with gold, when nearly every one of his people had eyes of solid brown or black.
Later, the boar was roasted over a campfire. Nick sat between Chakotay's father, Leader of the people, and Simpac, Spiritual leader. It was a position of highest honor. Nick spoke in the ancient language, quite fluently, speaking it better than most of the elders, and he narrated stories all through the night.
He passed around a cup of carved jade, and shared a legend of it's past. It was used to drink the blood of sacrificed victims. Chakotay knew that his people had a violent, bloody heritage. It would have been interesting to know them. His people seemed too placid and peaceful now by comparison. Chakotay squirmed on the outskirts of the gathering. He didn't want to be a part of this archaic ritual, this continual looking-back. But Nick's stories were captivating. They were different from the childish moral lessons that his father often related. These sounded like true stories, about people who really lived, and Nick told them with such sincerity, as though he had actually met and talked with these long-dead ancestors. Chakotay found himself being drawn to Nick.
Quite late, when sunrise was only two hours away, Nick rose. The night had grown chilly, the fire had died down, and yet there was no sign of discomfort on his face. No chill raised the hair on his bare chest and arms. Chakotay's father glanced at him, then spoke softly to Nick. He knew they talked about him, and he felt his irritation mushroom. He was not some recalcitrant child any more! He deserved to be treated like a man! He approached them purposefully.
"My son's heart is troubled. He finds no solace in the ways of our people," his father said sadly.
"Perhaps, he would like to come with me for a while," suggested Nick. "We would journey together. My heart is often troubled, as well."
Chakotay bristled as he saw his father consider Nick's request. He felt like the older man was pawning him off because he could no longer control him. Yet, some time spent away was just what he wanted--although he would prefer to spend it off planet.
He went with Nick. The pale man seemed to be in a great hurry after the decision had been made. Together they set off on foot for the river's edge, then continued their trek by canoe. Nick was stronger than he looked. The canoe moved swiftly upstream with each stroke of the paddle. Nick glanced often at the eastern horizon and spoke little during the journey. When he did talk, he spoke to Chakotay with the same manner as he had to his father. He didn't treat him like a child at all, but rather as an equal. Chakotay felt some of his defensiveness melt away with the coming dawn.
Nick pulled the canoe to the shore. Chakotay could see a simple wooden structure in a clearing very near the river. Nick led him there. The structure was not like the homes of his people, but it was simple and archaic in design. Chakotay realized that Nick adhered to the spirit of his people-- forsaking modern technology-- even if his ways were somewhat different. Nick dashed inside. Chakotay caught a whiff of smoke. He scanned the woods but saw nothing. Then he followed Nick.
Inside it was very dark. All of the windows were shuttered and as the door closed behind Chakotay the house went completely black. He could hear Nick move around, but even as his eyes adjusted to the dark, he couldn't make out much. He smelled sulfur, then saw a small light as Nick struck a match and held it to a candle. The house was small and simple, but comfortably neat. It had a fireplace, a hand-made wooden table with two benches, shelves with books. Nick indicated a couch. "You may sleep there," he said. "My bed is in the other room. I sleep during the day, as I must stay out of the sun. If you chose to get up before dark, you may, and don't worry about being quiet as I sleep rather soundly. Then, tonight maybe we could go fishing?"
Chakotay smiled. Not only was he being treated like an adult, but apparently, he would be given more personal freedom as well. He nodded. Nick then went into the back room. It surprised Chakotay when Nick locked the door behind him. Well, different people had different customs, he thought, and went to sleep.
He spent almost an entire season with Nick. Together, they went fishing and hunting, they swam, they hiked through the woods and up to the top of the ridge. They sat up all night just talking. Nick was a good listener. He let Chakotay talk about his feelings, his anger at the ways of his people, and Nick never seemed to judge him. He didn't try to give him advice, either. He just listened, which was all Chakotay really wanted him to do.
There seemed to be a sadness about Nick, too. His eyes often looked unfocused, as though he visited on a different plane of consciousness. Chakotay felt something for Nick. He could not explain it. The man was older than him, but treated him like a brother. He wanted to join with him, as blood brothers. He wasn't sure how to ask it of Nick, though. Then sometimes, he would catch Nick watching him, with such a dark look, such longing. Chakotay wondered about it. Never being one to hedge around the truth, he asked Nick to explain it outright.
Nick laughed. For a brief moment, there was joy in his face. "I see, that although you stand on the threshold, you have not yet lost the wisdom of childhood!"
Chakotay felt his face flush. "Why!" he demanded.
Nick drank deeply from an animal skin. His eyes seemed to go unfocused, and Chakotay wondered if he was going to respond at all. Then, he looked directly at him. "Chakotay. I cannot have children. So I can only enjoy the children of others. And I will never forget this summer."
The next day, Nick slept fitfully. Chakotay could hear him thrashing about in his room, crying out in a strange, alien language. He knocked on the door, but could not wake him. The door was still bolted fast. Even after he had spent several months with Nick, he had not trusted him enough to leave it unlocked. But Nick sounded really sick or in pain. Chakotay banged on the door, and called out to him. Then he went for the ax to break the lock. Just as he swung it back, the door opened.
Nick looked terrible. His forehead was covered with beads of dark red sweat, his eyes were haunted and frightened. "We must leave at once," he said. "You must return to your father immediately."
Chakotay put down the ax. "Why? You don't look well, we should wait a few days. Are you sick?"
"No time for questions! Come, at once!"
Nick threw open the door, but he jumped backwards as the last rays of the setting sun spilled inside. He stood in the shadow of the door, ready to bolt.
"I'm not going anywhere," Chakotay said obstinately, "until you tell me why."
Nick stared at him with eyes of amber. He looked dangerous, but not angry. It was the look of a wild animal, one cornered and caught, forced to fight for its life. Chakotay did not know what he was afraid of.
"My father is coming," Nick answered.
Chakotay was even more confused. He shrugged indifferently.
"It is not safe here for you! He will hurt you, and I cannot protect you from him. You must go now!"
Chakotay crossed his arms across his chest resolutely. "I will not run and hide. I am not afraid."
Nick grabbed his shoulders. The grip was powerful, small bruises formed. He stared fiercely into Chakotay's eyes. The sound of a heart beating grew louder, thundering in his ears.
"Obey!" Nick said firmly, then turned back toward the door.

The memory ended abruptly. The next thing Chakotay recalled was waking up at home and telling his parents about some of the many adventures he had shared with Nick. He could not recall how he had arrived at home. He could not even tell his parents where Nick had gone, but he never saw Nick again until six years ago when he was the captain of a Maquis ship, rescuing some escaped Cardassian prisoners.
The lack of memory bothered him. He sensed fear, pain, regret. He sensed that the memory was there, but somehow repressed. The doctor had said something about Nick having the ability to hypnotize people... Chakotay cleared his mind, relaxed, and waited for the memories to resurface.

"Obey!" Nick had said. That was the moment of hypnosis. In one word, Chakotay was trapped. His will was no longer his own. He felt angry, violated and betrayed. The memory started to fade under his strong emotional battle. Chakotay willed his mind to clear again...

"Obey!" Nick said. He turned back toward the door, with Chakotay still in his grip. But the door was blocked. A tall, cloaked stranger filled the doorway. His face was concealed in a hood. He was even taller than Nick. A deep, menacing voice boomed from the dark shadow. "Nicholas!"
Nick backed away, pulling Chakotay behind him. Chakotay tried to peer around him, curious to catch a glimpse of this man he called father. Nick gave him a push towards the window. "Run!" he cried. "Run home, now!"
The stranger threw back his hood, revealing a face as pale as death and contorted with rage. "Stay," he commanded. The word was compelling. Chakotay found he could not move. He watched the events play out, unable to think or to react. He was not paralyzed by fear, but rather by some outside force. The evil visitor had cast some kind of spell on him.
"LaCroix! You're issue is with me, not the boy! Let him go!"
LaCroix laughed. The sound was dripping with contempt. "Issue, Nicholas!?" He drew back his hand and struck Nick across the face. The force of the blow lifted him off the floor, sending him crashing against the far wall. Dark blood oozed from his mouth as he slumped to the floor. Then LaCroix trained his blood red eyes on Chakotay.
Nick flew in between them. He staggered a little, spreading his arms as though to wrap Chakotay in a safety field. The man struck Nick again and again, tossing him about like a mean dog worrying a rat before the kill, and Nick, broken and bleeding, kept crawling back for more, pleading for Chakotay's life. The table overturned, the benches smashed. LaCroix shoved Nick through the window, shattering glass and boards. Still, Chakotay stood rooted to the floor, mesmerized by the horrific scene. They spoke in their own language. Chakotay could not follow the words, but only gather meaning by their tone. Nick had done something to anger the father, who then hunted him down to seek revenge.
When the little cottage was in shambles, and Nick lay crumbled in a bloodied heap, LaCroix grabbed Chakotay, bared his teeth and prepared to sink them in his neck. Nick grabbed a wooden spike, splintered from the table, and held it over his own chest, preparing to kill himself. Then clearly, distinctly, he exclaimed, "Harm the boy, and I will end this now! I swear it, I will!"
LaCroix hesitated. He growled at Nick, but again the words were incomprehensible.
Nick choked, vomiting dark red blood. Chakotay stared, horrified yet strangely fascinated at the same time. Briefly, Nick's eyes fluttered. He almost passed out, but then he strengthened the hold on the instrument of his own death. "Release him, or I die!"
LaCroix tossed Chakotay towards Nick. He sneered. "Always so melodramatic... my son," he said, his words filled with hate.
Nick wrapped an arm around Chakotay's shoulder and struggled to his feet, still clutching the wooden stake. Chakotay looked deeply into Nick's eyes. They were golden, but fading to blue, and Nick was near to losing consciousness. Quickly, he locked onto Chakotay, and altered his memory. "You will not remember this," he said. "We had... a good summer... you will go to your father now, and never return to this place...."

Chakotay gasped for air. The painful memory was as clear as if it had just occurred, and yet it had been repressed for almost thirty years. What had Nick ever done to bring down such wrath? What kind of father would beat his own child so horribly? Chakotay felt tears on his face, tears of compassion for the one he called friend. Although he still didn't know anything about Nick's race, he had a deeper understanding of Nick.
Then he knew exactly where to hold his meetings with Nick. He spent the rest of the morning preparing a holodeck program of the simple cottage on the river of his home world.


Chapter Five: The Artist

Nick still could not believe he had escaped that meeting with his commission still in tact. He felt fairly bursting with relief. He swung by sickbay first, and gathered several files that the doctor felt he should read. Paulus wasn't expected until after lunch. He might as well get started on learning how to fill this new role. He settled into one of the chairs and placed his feet up on the coffee table. The files were complicated and boring. It was a good thing he had a near perfect memory. Maybe if he just piled all that knowledge up inside, it would lurk there, waiting until the right moment, then spring forth with pearls of wisdom when needed. Nick grinned at the mental image and shrugged. Well, what else did he have to do this morning, anyway?
B'Elanna stopped by again, to celebrate lunch break with him. What a wonderful little custom, he thought curiously. How had it escaped his knowledge all these years? Perhaps it was not an earthly custom, but from whatever planet B'Elanna called home? It didn't matter. He would have to arrange with Neelix to get his meal early. He could not safely miss a meal on a regular basis. Not when he had to work in such close proximity with his natural food source.
Neelix bubbled in next. He seemed very agitated. His heart rate was high, even for a Talaxian, and his voice raced ahead of his brain at a higher pitch than normal. He carried a coffee mug of human for Nick, and a bottle of the other stuff.
"Since you missed lunch again, I thought I'd just stop by and bring this over," he squeaked. "I don't think it is a wise idea to let you go hungry, very long, that is, oh, dear, it isn't that I don't trust you, you know, its just, argh!" Neelix finally closed his mouth and hazarded a glance at the vampire.
Nick was grinning. He accepted the coffee mug gratefully. B'Elanna had been so sweet, and he needed something to cut the sugar and fill him up. He couldn't place whom this blood had come from. Maybe it was too old... or the person was not fully recovered from the parasitic infection? That was it. The blood had the slightly off flavor of illness to it. Now he understood why Janeway had him on such a limited diet. The crew physically was not up to meeting his needs.
"What can I do for you, Neelix?" Nick tried to calm the nervous little alien.
"Well, I love your painting, Nick, really I do. The one of your family? The Maquis painting? But, I just was wondering-- well-- would you look at this! Did you do this painting, too?"
Neelix stared at the one Nick had chosen to hang in here. It was a wild swirling of colors and shapes, depicting his moods, rather than a realistic work. It wasn't exactly what he would have chosen to put in here, but the portrait of LaCroix and Janette was totally inappropriate. He wanted to make people feel comfortable, not scare them into submission.
"Nick, your other painting... I think it is just a little bit too dramatic for the Mess Hall. People see it, and I don't think it is good for their digestion. I mean, all those sweet faces, gone! Dead! Could I maybe trade? And hang this bright, cheery painting in the Mess Hall?"
Nick felt suddenly very pleased. His painting affected others? He was glad it made them feel something! He had never intended it to be some trivial fluff of interior decorating. "Thank you, Neelix!" he said. "Frankly, I would be glad to have it back. I wasn't ready to part with it."
Neelix went back outside the door and returned with the large canvas. "I'm so glad that you don't mind," he enthused, his voice already dropping lower. "I was hoping that would be the case!"
The family portrait of the vampires that had died with the Maquis was very large. The portraits were tiny, overlapping one another against the backdrop of space. As he placed it on the hook, it was Anton's face he saw first. Sweet Anton, the little brother who wanted to paint, seemed to smile at him wistfully. Nick felt a tear well up, and tried to blink it away.
"Now, I expect to see you for dinner, Nick. You need to spend time with the crew-- and don't skip any meals."
"Right, Neelix. I'll be there."
Nick settled back to sip from the replicated plasma and resumed the boring tome of modern psychotherapy technique. The author really irritated him. He checked the index for any background information. Certainly the author's methods were meant for some alien race and not the complex yet fragile mortal human psyche he was so familiar with? But the author's name sounded human enough. It was a relatively recent work, yet it referenced studies of the past three centuries. Something about it really irritated him, though. There were many different ways to deal with people in pain. LaCroix had shown him them all, at one time or another....


==========Flashback, Chicago 2042==========


"Nicholas! Enough! Get up and get dressed!" LaCroix fairly shouted at him.
Nick rolled over in his bed and pulled her pillow over his ear to block out the noise. "Go away. I want to be alone," he whispered hoarsely.
"I have left you alone, you miserable, pathetic creature! For six weeks now! So she left you. It was time for her to move on. She is not truly gone, Nicholas. You know that. She will return one day."
Nick did not respond. He felt weak, listless. He wasn't even sure if it was day or night. He had quit feeding a while ago, finding that the dull ache in his gut was preferable to the painful throb of emptiness left in Natalie's wake.
He felt the covers pulled away, and a rough hand clamped onto his arm. LaCroix yanked him out of the bed and set him forcefully on his feet. His head felt heavy and he was overcome with dizziness. A sudden wave a nausea hit him. He crumpled to the floor, vomiting a small pool of thin, stale blood. There was nothing in his stomach to lose. He had not fed in more days than he could remember. It was his own blood he vomited. Then, the dry heaves shook his thin frame. Again and again. His master's voice sounded very distant. The words were no longer comprehensible, as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
He felt himself being lifted. But maybe that wasn't real. Maybe that was the dizziness again, the way it made him feel, disjointed, divided. The cold floor left, and he was once again on his bed. Something pressed against his lips. Salty, ancient... the healing blood of his master.
Nick did not want to be healed. He turned away.
"Drink, damn you!" LaCroix roared.
Nick never even flinched. Maybe LaCroix would beat him. It didn't matter anymore. He was dead inside. No pain. No nothing.
LaCroix pulled his pajama shirt open, tearing the fabric and popping the buttons. He cursed at the sight. Pale skin hung loosely over a skeleton of a man. There was almost no muscle left... his vampire body had begun to consume itself when he stopped feeding. Nick felt himself float free from above, watching vaguely as his master tried to make his other self, the corporal form in the bed, feed. The wasted flesh and ruined body were grotesquely fascinating. He knew he could not kill himself in this matter. His heart could stop, his brain activity would cease, and yet still he would exist, not passing on into the next life, but trapped here for an eternity. And yet, as a living corpse, he would never hurt again. He was dead to pain. And maybe that was enough.
LaCroix grabbed a knife and slashed Nick's wrist, attempting to nourish him directly. The knife cut clear through flesh without even a drop of blood, coming into contact with bone. LaCroix stared aghast. How was he to get nourishment into him? Nick's tortured stomach heaved again, a small trickle of blood oozed from his lips.
LaCroix fell to his knees. He pulled Nick into his strong arms, rocking him gently and he wept. "My son, my son! What hast thou done!"
That startled Nick. He could not remember ever having seen vampire master weep before. Not even when he buried his own daughter, child of his mortal flesh, in a fiery grave. Nick felt a twinge of guilt. He didn't mean to hurt him. He just didn't want to hurt anymore.
His corporal self could not see or think or feel. He had slipped into unconsciousness. His spirit self watched, feeling a moment of empathy for the grieving father. His spirit self could not speak, but he shared the psychic link with LaCroix. He pictured a place of peace and tried to send it to him. There was a place of sand. The sun warmed but did not burn. LaCroix was there, too, but then it wasn't really LaCroix, just a guide who looked like him. "It will be okay," he comforted him. "See the light? ...and the sand? Let me rest in the sand. Feel the peace?"
LaCroix continued to rock him. One hand cradled Nick's head, tenderly stroking the long, unkempt golden curls. His blood tears flowed freely, two streams of red on a pale white face. The streams followed their downward course, pulled by forces of nature, and fell onto Nick. Some dripped into his eyes and mouth. The tears were a soothing balm to the pain in his dry, sunken sockets. His spirit watched, following the course of the tears. He saw the swollen tongue slip between pale lips to lick at the tears. Then, his spirit was yanked back, forced to return to the crippled, wounded body. No longer could he watch, separated from the events. He was trapped again inside. He was blind, his mouth would not form words . He was unable to communicate through any means... even the link with LaCroix seemed barred. His lungs barely functioned. His limbs were dead, unable to move at all. This was living Hell.
Somewhere, he could still hear his master. Sometimes in French, sometimes in Latin... sometimes the words made no sense to his fuddled mind. Gentle, cold hands bathed and dressed him. Again and again, blood was offered to him... a few drops on his lips, a slash to his wrist. And when he lay in bed, he was pulled up close against a cool chest, a familiar scent, his hair gently stroked with loving fingers.
==========end, flashback==========


Nick blinked back blood tears. Focusing on his demons would not help Paulus! He sighed, and tried once again to concentrate on the medical advice before him.
The door chimed, and Paulus entered tentatively. Nick smiled at her warmly, grateful for the interruption from the painful memory. He laid down the padd he'd started reading and stood up. "Won't you come in?"
She surveyed the room, as if making sure of its safety. Her eyes settled on the large painting, the only change in the past daily cycle. "I love this picture," she whispered. "Will you tell me about them?"
Nick hesitated, moving to stand beside her. He needed to get her talking! And there were so many portraits. It would take forever. But, he knew he still needed to gain her trust. Even now he could hear her heart rate elevating. "There are so many," he said, coming up with what he hoped was a fair compromise. "What if I tell you about just one today?"
Her face swept the canvas starscape. She gazed intently at the many small portraits for a long time. Nick watched her. She was all closed in upon herself. He suspected that this was much more than mourning for a child. She was afraid to let anyone in... her husband, Nick, the Captain-- well, he wouldn't argue there, the Captain was an intimidating woman.
Nick surveyed the many small portraits. Whom should he talk about? Whose story might be even remotely interesting this shy mortal? Finally, his gaze settled on Anton.. He felt closer to Anton than any of the others. He suspected Anton's portrait reflected that feeling, besides which, his was at the center of the composition.
"This is Anton," Nick began. The brief respite from his painful memories was over. Time to face them again.


========== Yukon, 2043 ==========

"Drink, Nicholas!" LaCroix commanded.
Nick sat, unmoving. LaCroix still dressed him every evening, put him to bed at daybreak, and set food before him at regular intervals, as he had been doing for many months. Nick's health had returned, but not his will. His master's patience wore thin these days. Often now a command was accompanied by a blow, yet still Nick remained listless.
He stared at the mug of human plasma before him, thawed and warmed and tantalizing. He took a sip, then pushed it aside. Folding his arms on the table, he laid his head down and closed his eyes.
"Nicholas! You would try the patience of a saint!" LaCroix exclaimed.
Nick waited. LaCroix would strike him, then force the liquid down his throat. He never flinched, but merely waited, resigned to the abuse, and knowing that the physical pain was still better than trying to go on with the painful phantoms in his mind. Tonight, however, he felt LaCroix's hand rest on his shoulder.
"I am expecting company, tonight, Nicholas. I trust you will behave yourself." Then he left. Not bothering to turn his head and watch, Nick simply listened to the sounds, and thought about what each meant. A door opened. LaCroix was putting something on, a coat, perhaps. Nick couldn't remember if LaCroix had gone out before in all his months here. He must have, but then no one had come by, either. Not that Nick wanted to see anybody. He just assumed that by now LaCroix would have tried to bring by some of his old friends-- mortal or vampire alike-- to "cheer" him.
Some time later LaCroix returned, to find Nick still with his head resting on the table. He had not moved. The ancient replaced his outer clothing in the closet. "Nicholas," he called. "This is Anton. Anton, meet my obstinate child, Nicholas."
"Hello, Nicholas, sir," a youthful voice responded. "I'm happy to meet you!"
Although Nick never moved, the boy approached and hugged him. "Mr. LaCroix has invited me to stay with you! I am very grateful. Looks like a nice place. He had a lot of wisdom and foresight to prepare a shelter like this!"
Wearily, Nick pushed himself up to a sitting position. He stared at the annoying person. Anton was young, still a boy, growing towards a man. Maybe he was seventeen, or eighteen or so, as he was definitely a mortal. His hair and eyes were soft brown. His clothing was torn and dirty, in fact, he was dirty everywhere.
"LaCroix," Nick complained. "Your guest needs a bath."
"Yes," the other agreed.
"My son. I am not in the business of giving care to injured mortals, pets, wildlife, or children. If you feel so inclined, then by all means, proceed."
"But he's your guest."
"Hmm," LaCroix answered disinterestedly. "I brought him here for you."
"I don't want him."
"Then do with him as you please. Bathe him, or eat him, I do not care." With that, LaCroix stood up and left them.
Nick glared at the boy, as Anton explored the room. He touched everything, but with such care and reverence, that nothing was in danger of being broken. As Nick observed him, he saw as though for the first time this home LaCroix had brought him to.
There were no windows! The walls were decorated with heavy tapestries, and the paintings Nick had created over the years, yet still, the lack of windows was very strange. Nick wondered how he could have missed that fact before.
Prominently displayed were many of his artifacts, ties to mortality or sentimentality, Nick was no longer sure which.
He saw the Jade cup, the wooden box that housed Courage's simple cross, a photo of his caddy-- before the treasured machine had finally succumbed to age and rust beyond repair, and even the Celtic harp... a treasure he had not owned before. How had it come to be in LaCroix's possession? Nick was touched, momentarily speechless, at the tangible evidence of LaCroix's concern for him.
Nick pushed himself to his feet, then waited for the brief moment of dizziness to pass. "Come," he said.
Anton hurried to his side, gazing up at him with open trust and adoration. "Thank you so much, for letting me stay," he said. "You won't be sorry! I can clean, and cook, and I will take care of you both!"
"I'm sorry already," Nick snapped at him crossly.
Anton didn't even flinch. He just smiled broadly, as though he deserved whatever Nick gave him. "Then I shall have to work that much harder," he vowed.
Nick led him to the nearest bathroom. He made sure that plenty of soap and shampoo were available, before turning to scowl at Anton. The boy was small- maybe six or seven inches shorter than Nick, and too thin. Nick wasn't sure if there was any clothing that would fit him, but he would have to look. "Clean yourself. Thoroughly," Nick said. "And throw your clothing in the trash."
Anton had unbuttoned his shirt and removed it, baring a thin, bony back that was covered with oozing sores. When he heard Nick's last comment, he whirled around, clutching the khaki green shirt to him.
"No, sir! Please! I can wash them."
Nick shrugged. "As you wish. I will bring you a robe, then, until they are clean."
Nick returned to his room, exhausted already by even this brief excursion. Slowly, he made his way towards the closet and stepped inside. He had to lean against the door for many moments. Vampire bodies healed themselves, but his perfectly healthy muscles were atrophying from disuse. Already, a fine sheen of blood perspiration covered his forehead.
He saw that the bed was neatly made... LaCroix must have seen to it. LaCroix still slept with him, as he tried to protect him from himself, and attempted to keep the nightmares away. Nick was tempted to lie down, if only for a few moments, but LaCroix would notice. He refused to allow Nick to lie around feeling sorry for himself. He had to do that sitting up. He grabbed the robe from a hook just inside the closet, and slowly, painfully, made his way back to the bathroom.
Anton was already out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his hips. Nick scowled at him critically and handed him the robe. "Did you get clean? That was pretty fast."
"Yes, sir. I didn't waste any water, honest." He slipped into the robe and tied the belt, then hung up his towel to dry. His hands, now free of the grime, were delicate. Long, thin graceful fingers, protruding wrist bones, festering sores on his forearms. LaCroix's guest was not in good health.
Another wave of dizziness overcame Nick. He leaned against the doorframe and shut his eyes, willing the sensation to cease. Anton slipped an arm around him. "Here, sir. Let me help you to a chair?"
"I can manage," Nick said gruffly. But he lacked the strength to push Anton away. With the boy's support, he returned to the table. The glass was still there. He took another few sips... the walk through the house had stirred his appetite.
"Do you have any thing that needs washing? I could throw them in with my clothes," Anton offered.
"Where is the washer?"
"I don't know," Nick answered. His head hurt. He could not sense the position of the sun or moon as all good vampires could, and so he didn't know how much longer until LaCroix would permit him to return to sleep. Sleep was all Nick wanted. Anton's chatter kept him from his goal.
"You don't know?" Anton sounded lightly amused. "And you have lived here for over a year?"
Nick thought before answering. Had it been that long? He couldn't think. His mind felt fuzzy. He couldn't actually remember even coming here. "Why are you here?" he asked crossly.
"I don't know. When Mr. LaCroix came and offered me a place to stay, he didn't tell me why. I assume that I am to work for you."
"Where are your parents, your family?"
Anton's face became sad. He blinked away tears. "Gone. All gone. I was at scout camp when it happened, or I would have died with them.... Did you do all these paintings?"
Nick watched the boy's face lighten as a curiosity instantly replaced his grief. Part of him wondered about the "it" that had claimed the lives of the boy's family, but part of him really didn't care. Where was LaCroix? It was time for his guest to leave.
"Yes, I did."
"Would you teach me to paint?"
Nick didn't answer. He laid his head down again and ignored the boy. Maybe he would just go away.
Anton busied himself. He opened closets and doors until he located the washer and dryer, then threw in his tattered, filthy clothes. Nick heard him clean the bathroom he had used, then he washed and dried the two glasses in the kitchen sink. He hummed a cheery tune as he worked, interrupting Nick's chance of returning to the oblivion that only sleep offered.
"What is it that you want," Nick snapped.
"Teach me to paint?" Anton pleaded. "I will work very hard for you. I'll take good care of everything!"
"You don't have to work here. You are LaCroix's guest and not a hired man."
Nick knew this fortress had a studio somewhere. LaCroix had given him a guided tour months ago and he had encouraged Nick to paint again. So that was probably what this little visit with Anton was all about. LaCroix was again manipulating him. Well, he would give Anton an art lesson, and then maybe he would feed on him and that would be that.
Anton slipped his thin arms around Nick and helped him to his feet. Nick stiffened at his touch. "I can make it on my own," he said. He took another swallow from the glass, then slowly forced his tired body to comply. He moved through the living room to the far corridor, which curved slightly to the left and down. The studio was behind the fourth door he opened-- far enough from the living room that LaCroix would not be offended by the smell of turpentine, yet close enough that he would still be able to sense his son and control him through their link. Nick knew how LaCroix thought. He was not the least surprised to see that the studio had recently been arranged with two easels, two canvasses, and the supplies for this little lesson. LaCroix had probably ordered the boy to ask for the art lessons. He might have no talent, and no real interest. Then Nick could show his miserable painting to LaCroix as an excuse for draining him.
"You'll need to set up a still life," Nick said, as he started to place small dabs of paint on two palettes. "Gather some items from the living area, of varying colors, textures, and shapes, and make an arrangement that is visually pleasing. Then we'll begin."
Anton smiled brightly and hugged Nick. "Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!"
"And it's just "Nick", Anton."
With the palettes prepared, Nick lowered himself to the floor and closed his eyes while Anton fulfilled his first step in the art lesson. It would be entertaining to see what the boy came up with. He pulled up his knees and rested his forehead on them.
Before long, he felt Anton gently touch his shoulder. "It is ready, sir, Nick," he said.
Nick glanced up first at Anton's face, flushed with excitement, and then at the stool. A canvas board had been laid on the stool first, giving him a larger surface with which to work, then a dark quilt was draped over that. The Celtic harp stood near the center of the arrangement, slightly angled to show off its graceful shape. A helmet from a suit of armor rested on top of a thick, black leather book. It was Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," a popular book in the fourteenth century, but this antique edition also held a lock of dark hair from a certain seductress... part of the reason he became a vampire so many years ago. The ancient Jade cup from the Mayan dig sat off to one side, lonely and almost forgotten.
It was an interesting assortment. All of the objects had at one time held great meaning for him. Anton could not have known how deeply personal the objects were. Nick had told him to gather some things, and these items had all been readily available. Yet, if Nick worked on this painting, he knew it would affect him. "Did LaCroix help you," he grunted.
"Only with the quilt. I asked him if it would be alright to take it," Anton replied.
Nick nodded. "Fine. Let's get started, then."


==========end, flashback==========


"Anton learned quickly," Nick said. "He became a brilliant artist. His works were profoundly inspirational.... He painted night pictures mostly, of children dancing and laughing beneath the brilliant orange light of the harvest moon, or lovers sharing a midnight stroll under the golden devil moon, joyous family picnics spread out in the silvery tones of a full moon, and sleepy towns or villages barely visible in mystic mists of a waning moon.
"He lived with me for many years. I taught him how to paint, and he taught me how to live again. Of all the faces on that canvas, I miss his the most."
Nick quickly wiped the blood tears from his eyes. Anton was gone. He would grieve for him, but he would not return to the despair from which Anton had rescued him. The ability to go on was Anton's gift to him. Now, he needed to know how to pass that gift on to Paulus.
She remained with her back to Nick, her eyes intent on the painting. "Will you please teach me to paint, too?" she whispered.
Nick was surprised. "I, uh, I would be glad to," he stammered.
She turned to face him and smiled a strange, sad little smile. "Teaching Anton helped you. Maybe it can help me, too."
Nick returned her smile. He stood and hugged her in brotherly fashion. "Wear older clothes tomorrow and we'll begin. I'll gather all the materials."
She nodded briefly, then slipped outside and was gone. Nick stared after her. He shook his head. "You're in too deep, Knight," he chided himself. "She needs someone desperately, and it isn't you."


Chapter Six: First Contact

Chakotay's gaze swept Nick's office and he nodded appreciatively. "Good. Come with me."
He never was one to mince with words. Nick wondered where they were going, as he followed him through the corridors. He suspected it had something to do with the Captain and her irritation this morning. That Chakotay didn't say anything to alleviate his fears convinced him that it was even more serious than he thought. He didn't recognize where they were going, though. Not to the ready room, not to the brig... Nick never came to this corridor before. All that was down this way was the holodeck.
"What's up," he asked nervously.
Chakotay tapped a switch on the door panel outside of the holodeck. "Computer, run program: Chakotay, 1401A."
Lightning quick, Nick's hand grabbed onto Chakotay's wrist, barring him from stepping into the doors. "Stop!"
Chakotay looked at Nick intently. He saw genuine fear reflected in his face. Nick's blue eyes, now flecked with gold, were open wide. If it was even possible, more color drained from his pale face.
"Nothing's up," Chakotay answered him, curious to the cause of his discomfort. He'd seen this vampire in battles... not much unnerved him. "We just need to spend some time together, and talk over a few things. I thought we'd do it someplace comfortable."
"But I-- I can't go in there," Nick stammered, glancing at the closed doors with apprehension.
Nick shrugged. He didn't really know. He'd never gone in there. Holographic sunlight would be real enough to burn him, although it might take longer than real sunlight. When holographic technology first came about, a lot of vampires were thrilled. It allowed them to recreate times in history when being a vampire was simpler and food more plentiful. But at an earlier time Nick had tried a virtual interactive game and found that it had awakened the killer in him. He craved the game like a drug, feeding his unholy lust for blood. Natalie, still a mortal then and dedicated to helping him find a way back to his own mortality, had tossed the game into the fire, forcing him to withdraw from its addictive clutches. Fear of repeating the same mistake had kept him out of holodecks.
"You mean, that you've been on this ship for four years, you almost never go planetside, and you've never been in the holodeck?"
Nick swallowed and nodded.
"No wonder you seem wound tighter than a drum. Everyone needs a break, Nick. Now, we'll go inside together. If anything in the program bothers you, all you have to say is "computer, end program" and it will disappear. It is nothing but empty holograms and replicated matter. Nothing is in there to harm you. Not even sunlight. This program is set to run only by moonlight."
Nick hesitated again. How could he explain his concerns? He nodded almost imperceptibly and followed Chakotay through the doors.
Inside he smelled pleasant scents of smoke from campfires, perfumes and pollens from dozens of flora, the press of humanity in a nearby village. He heard the low, droning tones of an ancient one relating a story, the overlapping thrum of countless heartbeats, the distant cry of a wolf, the ripple and lap of the river. He felt the evening's breeze lift the hair from his sweat-covered brow. Then slowly, Nicholas Knight, 1179-year-old vampire, had the courage to open his eyes.
He recognized the place. Quietly, he followed Chakotay to the river's edge. Chakotay lifted a paddle and dangled it tauntingly in front of him. "Do you still remember how to use one of these?"
Nick simply nodded, not yet ready to carry on a conversation. He pulled off his jacket and turtleneck, kicked off the Starfleet issue boots, and stepped into the back of the canoe. Chakotay followed suit. They set off upstream, which if Chakotay had thoroughly created the program, would bring them to one of his former homes, the one where he had spent a summer with Chakotay.
"You don't seem as strong as you did thirty years ago," Chakotay said lightly.
"You're just heavier," Nick croaked.
In silence they traveled upstream. Moonlight filtered through the woods and sparkled on the crests of each ripple of the river, painting each with a patch of silver while the swift stream itself was inky black. The small replica of a hand-hewn canoe lurched forward with each stroke of the paddles, glided silently, slowed, and just before it could drift backwards again in the current, the paddles again slipped into the river pushing against the water, a rhythmic dance more ancient than Nick himself, more ancient than the first fathers of the People, Chakotay's tribe.
Chakotay sat in front again, as he had as a boy. Now the memories were clear, with the veil of Nick's hypnotism lifted. He recalled that other night. He had despised the ways of his people. Their unnatural clinging to the past, forsaking all that was modern. Time would not stand still. Neither should people. But part of him was sick, tortured with grief, that all that had survived of his people for a millennia was now gone, irretrievable, ashes in space, because of the Cardassian attack on his planet. He was not just an orphan, alone with no family or relatives. He was an orphaned race, the sole survivor of his people. Chakotay swallowed past the thickness in his throat and buried his grief deeply again.
Nick tried to remember that night, thirty years ago or so, but he still could not adjust to the concept of the holodeck. The paddle felt real in his hands. It was smooth wood. The air smelled crisp and fresh. This was not a square blue and silver cubicle on a starship, this really was the planet in the alpha quadrant, an insignificant rock that had the terrible misfortune of being on the wrong side of an imaginary line designating the territories of opposing political parties. The moon looked real. The rising sun would be real, too. Recalling the urgency of that long ago night to reach his home before sunrise, Nick paddled harder.
He guided the canoe into the cove by another holographic replica depicting his house. He knew that this was all supposed to be just make-believe, a pretend mock-up of his home, and yet he felt a sense of belonging steel over him mixed with pride. He had lived here intermittently for many years, living off the land and not interfering with the lives of mortals. He had hunted wild boar, slaking his burning blood thirst on their warm fluid, satisfied with the rage of the dying beast. He had avoided getting in the way of history, of mortals and their petty disputes... he had avoided all contact with LaCroix.
Nick walked a slow circle around his land, then turned to face Chakotay. "How much do you remember?"
"More than I did yesterday," he answered cryptically.
Nick stared at him, trying to decipher the emotions behind the stoic reserve.
"You saved my life," Chakotay stated. "That day, thirty years ago, and again on the Liberty." He pulled a knife from his boot, the same knife he had buried in Nick's chest two weeks ago. He held the knife over his forearm as he prepared to slice into his skin.
Nick stayed his hands. "I cannot join with you in the ceremony."
Chakotay questioned him with a look.
"I joined once, years ago, with a healer, Marion Blackwing. It wasn't even real--we performed the blood ceremony in the spirit world. She healed me, for a short time, of the guilt I had carried for centuries. She made me whole again. She set me free.
"But she took my evil into herself, and it made her a killer. She killed twice, before she was mortally wounded. As she lay dying in my arms, I took back from her that which she had freed me of. I could not send her on the spirit walk, to live for eternity with that which I could not endure another moment.
"Part of me died with her. The part that ever truly believed I could be cured."
"Cured? Of what?"
"Cured of being a vampire," Nick explained. "I will not join you to the darkness that is within me."
"Even if I ask it?"
Nick sneered at him. "You don't even understand it! You have no idea what you ask."
"I know that I don't want to lose my memories again. When we reach the alpha quadrant, I would rather join you, as blood brothers, than have you scramble my brains."
Nick laughed humorlessly. "You are a resistor--I can't hypnotize you any more, Chakotay! If I could, you would have killed me two weeks ago."
Chakotay sliced through his forearm swiftly. Extending his arm towards Nick, he spoke with the same, deep power that made him such an effective commander. "Blood's thicker than water, Nick. Everything I know is gone! My father, my mother, my friends, neighbors, relatives, everyone is gone, destroyed by the Cardassians! I sought release through vengeance! I joined the Maquis, expecting to kill a few on the way to my grave! I never wanted this life, Nick! I should be dead, with all of them!"
Nick stared at the wrist, at the blood welling forth and spilling wastefully onto the ground. His fear of the holodeck vanished. The sound of Chakotay's voice was nothing in his ears. Only the sound of the blood as it pulsed through Chakotay's veins.... It filled his thoughts and his desires. There was nothing except him and the blood.
His hunger was intense. The blood scent stirred the beast. His fangs descended, his eyes flipped from feral gold to blood red. Unable to restrain himself, he lunged for the wound.
Chakotay stood firm. He watched, strangely--almost sensually-- fascinated, at feeling Nick suck the lifeblood from him. It was a dangerous game they were playing and he didn't know the rules. He wanted something from Nick. But he sensed this was not the way. He felt dizzy. He tried to shake Nick off, but the other man was still much stronger than he looked. He called to him, but if Nick could still hear, he was beyond understanding. Nick, the quiet crusader, was gone, and in his place was the dangerous beast he had alluded to.
"Computer, run 1401B!" Chakotay gasped, even as he felt his knees grow weak.
From out of the shadows ran a fierce wild boar, the holographic representation of the dominant predator on his home world. It charged for Nick and sank its powerful incisors into Nick's leg, just as Chakotay had programmed it to. The sudden attack startled the vampire, and he released Chakotay to face this newest threat. With a bone-chilling roar Nick grabbed at the boar's jaws and tried to pry them apart. Chakotay picked up his knife and hurled himself at the boar, sinking the blade into its ribs on the right side, stopping it's heart even as Nick cracked its jaws and snapped its neck. The beast lay still.
For a heady moment Nick and Chakotay glared at one another. Chakotay saw a brief hint of shame on Nick's face, along with a smug satisfaction. Nick saw acceptance and challenge in Chakotay, but no fear.
"You should not trust a vampire," Nick said menacingly.
"I will never again underestimate the vampire," Chakotay conceded. "But when we reach the alpha quadrant, you will make me like you."
"That should give me about sixty years to change your mind."
Both men laughed. Chakotay sliced open the beast and retrieved the heart. He had expertly severed the main arteries without damaging the muscle. The warriors among his people prized the heart, eyes and brains of the kill. Then the beast was roasted and shared with the rest of the tribe. He held the heart out to Nick.
Nick knew it was a sign of respect. After nearly killing his commanding officer, he decided he'd better not offend him, too. He accepted the still warm heart dripping with blood that almost even smelled real. His fangs pierced the warm, tender flesh, and he sucked every drop from it.
The blood was replicated plasma, not empty holograms, yet somehow it didn't taste as flat. This blood still held something of the beast, both rage and fear as it fought for its own survival. He felt the thick fluid drip down his chin and onto his bare chest. Then he held the empty heart to Chakotay, who bit into it, tearing the raw flesh with his teeth and consuming it. Together, they had killed the beast, and together they would share the kill. Tonight there was neither commander nor subordinate, no Starfleet and no Federation... there was only two warriors, a bright star-filled sky, and a feast.
Chakotay dug a pit, built a small fire and buried the rest of the boar. It would smoke-cook for two days, if this were reality. Instead, it was a task performed as part of tradition, as another step in an intricate dance, the dance of The People. Then they swam in the river to wash away the blood. The cold water cleansed the wounds on Chakotay's arm, as well, the knife's gash and the small puncture marks of fangs.
"I thought you didn't like hunting," Nick said.
Chakotay laughed. "That is only what I told my father. To irritate him, I'm sure. But what is a soldier, if not a hunter? So I hunt down enemies instead of animals.... And somewhere, some Cardassian child mourns his father because of me."
Nick was growing sleepy. He'd put in a long day, worked out with B'Elanna, hunted with Chakotay, swam, feasted, and now he was filled and relaxed. He stretched out on the ground at a safe distance from the fire pit. When Chakotay joined him, he asked sleepily, "So, why here? This is more than a chance to recall old times, isn't it?"
Chakotay laughed. "Yes, it is. I won't hedge around any longer. It seems that you are having some difficulty integrating into this ship. It has become my task to make it easier for everyone."
"Lucky you." Nick yawned.
"Janeway is really uptight. I don't know why, I have never seen her this upset about any creature we have ever encountered before-- not the Hrojen, nor the Borg, nor even the Vidiian pirates. It would have been easier, I think, if you had never consumed her blood."
"Sorry about that," Nick said, his speech starting to slur slightly. "I didn't even know she was a captain back then. It was a matter of survival...."
"What do you mean, "back then"? When did you take the Captain's?"
Nick didn't answer at first. Chakotay repeated the question. Nick yawned widely and folded his hands across his chest. His eyelids closed. "It was back on the array. When the caretaker first abducted us. It put you, Tuvok, everyone from our ship into some kind of stasis, but it left me alone. I was starving..." he drifted out of consciousness.
Chakotay prodded him. Nick was never so easy to talk to as he was now in this state of near sleep, and he didn't want to lose the moment. "Starving...?"
"Uh-huh. I had to feed, so I could look for a way to rescue you. Then I was in a barn, it was strange. Dreamlike, barely real... and I smelled a woman, and I drank. But she elbowed me, and flipped me on my back. Never had my prey do that before! I masked her memory, then I vanished. The caretaker dumped me back onto the Liberty. You and the others appeared there shortly."
"So you haven't put the bite on Captain Janeway since you joined this crew?"
"Nope. Not smart, that. Don't attack the boss."
Chakotay sighed with relief. He didn't know why, but he suspected life just got easier for one lonely vampire.
"Nick, why was you father so mad at you?"
Nick didn't answer right away. Chakotay nudged him again, remembering how Nick had warned him never to try to wake him. "LaCroix was always mad about something. I gave up trying to fight back long ago. It only made him madder and fueled his rage. Eventually he stops. He really does care about me...."
Chakotay couldn't get any more out of him. Nick Knight was dead to the world. Chakotay hesitated only briefly, before running a ship-to-ship transport to place Nick in his own bed, protecting him and the rest of the crew. Then he grabbed his shirt and jacket. He winced slightly. His arm had scabbed over, but the skin around the gash was purpled. Rather than stumble around concerning the origins of this wound with the holographic doctor, he decided to conceal the evidence and live with the discomfort. He whistled as he left the holodeck. "Computer, end and save program."


Chapter Seven: The Vacation

Chakotay watched them at breakfast the next morning. They looked nice together. He was genuinely happy for B'Elanna. He knew how her Klingon temperament clashed with most of humanity. Even Tom had found her difficult to get along with--they had spent as much time arguing as doing anything else. Chakotay was beginning to suspect that she had met her match in Nick. The vampire had the same explosive, moody nature. He was as conflicted with himself as she was. Chakotay had to meet with Janeway soon, and begin smoothing a few ruffled feathers, but Nick had fallen asleep last night before he'd said what needed saying. So now he approached them casually.
"Good morning." They both jumped at his gentle greeting. He grinned devilishly, having caught them off guard. Nick's eyes were flecked with gold and danced with spirited amusement, a look Chakotay had never witnessed before. B'Elanna's mouth was full and sensual, her cheeks blushed. She had never looked more beautiful. He hated to interrupt their little love fest.
"Nick, come see me in an hour?"
Nick nodded, the amusement still evident. Chakotay smiled at them both and slowly moved away, feeling a little wistful. If only... but his would-be girlfriend was also his superior officer. Nothing would ever come of that relationship. Kathryn was too professional. She would never let her personal life interfere with her duty. So, she forbade herself to have a personal life.

He found Kathryn already on the bridge sipping a cup of coffee, undoubtedly the umpteenth of the day, and no where near the last. He motioned to her, and she led him into the cozy ready room off of the main bridge.
"Kathryn," he began. He wanted to get the jump on this session. With that one word, he informed her that this was unofficial, and that he was directing the flow of conversation. He saw the way she bristled slightly, but he forged on ahead.
"Kathryn, I think we have all judged Nick too quickly and too harshly. I think the first contact procedure is more than warranted. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned how much we don't know."
She paced a figure eight, one arm folded across her middle supporting her right elbow as her coffee cup swayed precariously and all but forgotten. Somehow, she never spilled a drop of her precious beverage, but he had known her to reheat it so repeatedly that it was barely edible. Chakotay moved to sit on the couch beneath the window to the stars and folded one long leg casually across the other knee. He watched her pace a few moments before continuing.
"Nick is at war with himself. He had a brutally abusive father. You know how quickly he heals. Imagine... to be beaten near to death, only to recover and be victim to more abuse. I can't think of a more hellish existence. Stranding him out here, away from LaCroix, may be his first taste of freedom in nearly twelve centuries!"
"Lots of children grow up in abusive homes. It's a tragedy, but it happens," she stated, swallowing a mouthful of what must have been very cold brew. She placed the mug in the replicator and ordered it warmed. "Would you like a cup?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you." He didn't care for it as much as she did, but he knew that the social aspect of sharing coffee would keep this meeting casual. He waited until she brought him his cup, extra sweet, then she finally sank into the chair beside him. She stretched her legs out, crossed at the ankles, and rested her feet on the coffee table. Finally, he sensed she was open to listening to him. It had taken him several years to learn how to relate to her, and she could still surprise him... but then, that was always a woman's prerogative.
"Did you know that before yesterday he had never been in a holodeck in his life?"
Kathryn shrugged.
"Combine that with his limited inclusion in away missions, and if he were human I think we would explain away much of his behavior as stress fatigue from work overload. I recommend giving him time off. No work, no duties, at least until we reach this next planet. Then, he needs to be on the away team if it is at all possible."
Captain Janeway eyed him narrowly. "So, he slips into our quarters like a thief in the night, violates us, and you would reward him?"
"He never slipped into your quarters, Kathryn," Chakotay replied. He watched her open-eyed surprise. It wasn't often he could catch her off guard.
"Nick said "it's not smart to attack the boss." Only once did he ever attempt to assault you. It happened on the array over four years ago. He said it was in the barn. He'd been there for nearly three days, alone, and needed sustenance to rescue Tuvok and me. You happened to be the first person he could reach. And, you flipped him. He did that forget-this-ever-happened mind thing to you, and after that, he says he left you alone."
Janeway rubbed her neck absently. It shouldn't matter, but it did. She had not been able to sleep well at nights ever since she'd learned about him. Just imaging that he had victimized her left her feeling weak and helpless, an unacceptable condition for a captain. So, he had avoided her? Whether it was out of respect for her as a captain or out of his need for self-preservation it didn't matter. Maybe, just maybe, a vampire with a conscience was trainable after all.
She nodded. "Agreed. I put you in charge of this, and I'll listen to your advice. For now. He can still report to sickbay and comply with the doctor, though. That shouldn't be too taxing."
Chakotay nodded. He disagreed- a vacation in sick bay wasn't much of a vacation- but he didn't want to press his luck too far.

Before long, Nick stood stiffly at attention in the same ready room. Chakotay was working his bridge-duty shift, while Janeway rested. Nick was uneasy. He remembered going into the holodeck yesterday, but not leaving it. He had some really strange, fuzzy memories. He wasn't sure what was real and what had been a dream... a wrong dream. But not a bad one. He studied Chakotay. His friend was in "command mode" now and revealed nothing.
"You're off duty today, Nick. Get some rest."
Nick was instantly defensive. "Why! I didn't oversleep today, and it's too early to have done much wrong already. What am I accused of now!"
"Nothing. But it has been a rather stressful couple of weeks. You've just been sick, underfed, you've had a major career change, and now you have some things of a more personal nature to work through. You need a vacation. Spend some time in the holodeck. Read a book. You're off until we reach the first class-m planet, and then I want you on that away team. Got it?"
Nick nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak just now. Vacations were not desired in his existence. He needed his work to feel that he was useful, that he had purpose and a right to exist. Vacations showed him that life could go on with out him, and was maybe even better for it. He saw Chakotay wince slightly as he rested his arms on the edge of the table with his fingers interlaced. So, that part of his fuzzy memory must be true. He had hurt his best friend! But Chakotay wasn't petty enough to seek revenge in this way.
"What about Paulus," he said defensively. "She's coming this afternoon. I'm just starting to win her trust. It wouldn't be good to cancel our appointment, you'd put me back to the beginning with her!"
He saw Chakotay consider his point, saw the lightning quick mind behind the composed mask flip through his options and make a decision. "Go ahead with Paulus then, if you really feel up to it. But you're not to see Seven or any other clients professionally until the time is up. You're going to meet with me regularly, and you still need to submit to the doctor's medical evaluations."
Nick groaned. "Some vacation. His tests are useless."
Chakotay's expression remained stern, but Nick did not get a sense of anger or aggression from him. "Explain."
Chakotay silently indicated a chair. Nick sat down, trying to imitate Chakotay's attitude of professional detachment and not take every thing so personally. "The doctor is annoying. His curiosity is invasive. I ask you to set a time limit on my sickbay sentence. Then he will be forced to prioritize his tests, and eliminate the useless ones. Otherwise, he may keep me there the entire "vacation"."
Chakotay nodded slowly. No one, except sweet Kes when she'd been here, had ever "liked" to spend time with the doctor. "One hour, every other day."
"Obey all orders."
Nick nodded. That one went without saying, even though it was often hard to comply with. LaCroix had often accused him of being more than just a little rebellious, but it wasn't entirely true. He couldn't remember much of his mortal childhood, but the rebelliousness that burned in his heart was the legacy from Lord Dellebarre, whom Nick had admired and obeyed, then later learned just how the evil lord had played him for a fool. The lord had murdered Nick's first love, framing Nick for it, then had sent him to fight in the Crusades with the thought of restoring honor to his family name. The war had gone badly... which had started his downward spiral into the world of the undead.
Then Nick had resented LaCroix, his master-maker-father. He resented Captain Janeway. But strangely, he did not resent Chakotay now. Maybe it was still a carryover from his blood's influence. Nick didn't really think so. He respected Chakotay. That made it easier to follow orders.
Chakotay seemed to sense Nick's discomfort with his last command. "Follow all orders, if you want to remain a member of the crew on this ship. If something seems really dumb or pointless, you may come to me and I will try to explain it to you, in private. But in public, you must obey. Understood?"
Nick nodded again. "Agreed."
"Now. As your appointed ambassador, is there anything I do for you? Is there something that you require? Within reason, of course? Someway that your needs could be met more effectively?"
Nick was surprised. Why would he ask? Why would he care? Nick was used to taking care of himself. Never had anyone asked how they could help him and mean it. Ever. LaCroix assumed he knew what Nick wanted and forced it upon him. Janette served her own needs. Sometimes that included Nick, but more often it did not. Even Natalie, his coroner friend, had been more interested in her own research and personal investment than him. What did he want? And how could he sum it up for Chakotay in a brief interview?
The silenced stretched between them. Chakotay could sense Nick was confused and uncomfortable, but he hadn't a clue why. He hadn't mentioned his dangerous brush with death. As far as he was concerned, he'd pushed a vampire beyond the safe limits, and he was wiser for it. When Janeway had settled down some, and built a better working relationship with Nick, he would mention that Nick should probably not work in sickbay, nor be left alone with anyone with open wounds, as he'd learned that the sight and scent of blood was very powerful to the vampire.
At length Chakotay broke the silence. "I suspect that the blood rations are not adequate. You'll need to let the doctor know what you need under what conditions. But until the crew completely heals from that parasitic infection, they really can't donate more than they are."
Nick nodded vaguely. He had suspected as much.
Chakotay then stood, signifying the end of the meeting. "You may contact me anytime, Nick. Problems, questions, concerns, or even if you just want to talk. All right?"
Nick stood slowly. He tried to say something, but his voice failed him. He turned and left silently.

Nick felt the curious stares of the bridge crew as he filed past them to begin his forced vacation. Already he was bored! He needed to talk to B'Elanna. She could help him put things in perspective. In the privacy of the turboshaft he tapped his comm badge and called her name. She answered instantly.
"Yes, Nick?"
"I need to talk. Got a minute?"
"Uh-huh. Meet me outside?"
Nick grinned as he rode the lift to Engineering. B'Elanna had requested early on in their relationship that he stay out of her work area. She was so strongly affected by him, and she needed to stay focused at work. She had the care and maintenance of the ship's warp systems! It was much too dangerous to risk even a moment's indiscretion. But twice now she had met him "outside". He had waited outside the door to engineering, then when her coast was clear, she pulled him into the tiny lab across the hall and....
Nick felt his fangs itch and he wasn't hungry.
Then suddenly B'Elanna was there! She leaped into his arms, wrapping her legs around him and smothering him with her kisses. Nick was tempted to take her right there in the hallway. B'Elanna did things to his neck with her teeth and tongue that brought out his beast. One hand slid under her jacket to touch the smooth warm skin, the other hand wrapped under her, holding her close to him. She inhaled sharply, a soft moan escaping.
Some one giggled. Nick and B'Elanna both jerked in the direction of the sound. The Wildman child peeked at them from around a corner. She giggled again, covering her mouth with a small hand. B'Elanna hissed at her, cursing something in Klingon. The child ducked around the corner and ran away.
"Perhaps we should at least make it into the closet," B'Elanna suggested, her voice dark with emotion. Nick swiftly carried her into the tiny lab.
Her passion was intense. There would be no discussing anything with her yet. Her slender hands slipped inside of his shirt and jacket, raking at his cool, bare flesh. Her sharp, Klingon teeth nipped his neck and ears. Nick felt his father's disdainful laughter, then using the new skills LaCroix had taught, he closed that part of his mind. Then he took B'Elanna fiercely, on the table, the way she liked it.
She hugged him tightly, gasping for air until her breathing slowed to normal. "Oh, Nick," she groaned.
"B'Elanna, I've been laid off," he blurted.
"Why? What did you do?"
"Nothing. Chakotay, or maybe Captain Janeway, feels that I have been "working too hard." I'm on vacation until the next away mission."
"Oh, Nick! I'm so sorry," she exclaimed. Nick had known she would understand. They connected! Not just a physical connection, and not just the blood bond. She was like him in too many ways. B'Elanna loved her work. She would go stark raving mad on vacation.
"I have to get back to work," she mumbled miserably. "But, I'll come by for lunch, and we'll talk later about how we can work this out, okay?"
Nick smiled. He felt better already. This vacation would be more effective if she had to endure it with him.... "See you for lunch, then?"
Next, Nick reported to the doctor. He decided to get his one-hour out of the way immediately. Maybe, if the doctor hadn't had enough time to organize himself, Nick could successfully waste the entire session?
The doctor was not happy to see him. For an artificial life form, he had more than his share of annoying human mannerisms.
"My work is important, Mr. Knight! I don't know how you got Commander Chakotay to agree to this ridiculous schedule! Maybe a little twinking of his mind and memory is there?"
Nick jumped up on the biobed and grinned his biggest, little-boy grin. "I can't hypnotize him, doc," he replied innocently.
"Why not? Are there others you can't hypnotize?" The hologram's eyes seemed to penetrate Nick's, probing for signs of deception like an old-fashioned lie detector. Nick's grin remained. He felt an odd rush of victory.
"Vulcans and Borg," he answered.
"So, we can trust Tuvok, Vorik, and Seven around you."
Nick's grin dropped for a moment. "You can trust anyone around me doc. I don't like your implication."
"Trust is earned, not given. Now- about these existing "medical records". I'm guessing that a lot of it is pure fabrication?"
Nick nodded, finding the humor in the moment again. "Of course. That's how we survive. It would look rather suspicious to fill in the blanks with facts. The whole purpose of creating an alternate identity is to remain incognito."
The doctor sighed expansively. "We'll start at the beginning then. First, your name."
This was going to be a lot of fun, after all! "Well, that's a long story, doc. My parents christened me Nicholas Henri Robert de Brabant. My father was Henri, and Robert was a familial name, and Brabant was our land and castle. Then, at my first communion I received the Catholic name of John, for St. John the Baptizer. He was beheaded you know. At the time, I didn't think anything of it, but now I think it is ironic to be a vampire and share a name with a beheaded saint. Anyway, then at my confirmation I also took the name of Gregory. When I became a vampire,"
"Weren't you born a vampire?"
"No, and I'm not finished. You're interrupting. Where was I? Oh, names. When I became a vampire, I lost all of my names except Nicholas. I became child and slave to my vampire father. When we would move on and begin new lives with new identities, my last name often changed. Sometimes I was Nicholas Chevalier, or Nicholas McArthur, or Nick Knight. I liked "Knight", I think I took that last name more than any other. But always I was Nicholas. Does that answer your question?"
The doctor shook his head with resignation. "I'm not sure. I'll have to sort it through later. Next one, when were you born?"
"By which calendar?"
"What difference should that make?"
"Well, I don't do stardate conversions very well, so I might get it wrong. I wouldn't want to be accused of lying to you. And the Gregorian calendar didn't even exist yet when I was born, although I think I know the year by that one. If I was born in 1198 AD by the Gregorian, then it was the year 4958 by the Hebrew calendar. The Islamic calendar loses a day every 2570 years, but I am not that old, so it shouldn't matter. Their year one was 622 AD by the Gregorian system, so I would have been born in 576. But, if you want the stardate conversions, you'll have to work it out for yourself."
The doctor rolled his holographic eyes and snorted. "You can't add, either. You told me before that you were 1147 years old."
"No, that is how long I have been a vampire. I lived thirty-two years as a man, first. Next question?"
"I have your height and weight already on file."
Nick leaned over the doctor's shoulder, examining the falsified medical documents Aristotle had so carefully prepared for him. "Known Allergies: yes. Sunlight, garlic, penicillin, crosses, wooden stakes. Next?"
"Have you ever had any diseases, injuries requiring surgery, accidents, limb reattachments?"
Nick laughed. "As a boy, I had cow pox." He thrilled at the ignorant look on the doctor's face. He'd figured that the ancient disease was no longer part of standard medical knowledge, as it had been completely eradicated for centuries. He decided to stretch this answer a little longer too. He indicated a slight indent on his forehead beneath the curling strands of hair. "A pox mark, left from the disease. Cowpox was considered a peasant's illness, as cow maids usually got it. I caught it from a cow maid," he amended, with an impudent grin. "But, those who contracted cowpox didn't contract the more severe small pox. So I learned that a moment's indiscretion can save one's life.
"I was injured in the Crusades. Right here." Nick pulled up his shirt and displayed the faint scar on his ribs. It had scarred and healed before he was brought across, so it was permanent, just like the pox mark. If it had still been an open wound, then it would have healed completely, like all vampire wounds. "Since then, I have lost a hand, broken more bones than I care to count, been stabbed, staked, chained, maimed, even shot in the brains at least once that I can recall, but I have never had surgery. I heal without your interference, doc."
"So tell me how you became a vampire? We just assumed you were born one."
Nick hedged. Some things should still remain private. He looked at the timepiece on the wall and heaved a sigh of relief. "Gee, doc, will you look at the time? How it flies, you know. It's been real. See you in a couple of days?"
And he nearly flew from the small, brightly lit, smelly confines of sickbay, with a victorious laugh.


Chapter Eight: Artistic Expression

Nick set up two easels in his office, two palettes, assorted brushes, and a jar of turpentine. Expecting to spend some time there, he set a bottle of replicated blood discretely behind a chair. Then he arranged a still life for Paulus's first lesson. On a high stool, to put it at about her waist level, he draped a cloth of royal blue velvet, then arranged a crystal bud vase containing a single rose, a low brass candlestick, a thick, white candle, and a second rose laying on the velvet, near the vase. It looked like a pleasing arrangement, and it would cover a variety of techniques-- painting the clear glass with the royal velvet visible through it, the shine of the brass, the blue-gray shadows of the white candle, and the black, almost velvety tones in the blood red rose. He altered the lighting in the room, to create the light and shadows he desired. Then he poured himself a drink and waited for her.


========== Flashback, Yukon 2043 ==========

Anton became absorbed in the act of painting. His youthful prattle ceased, and the conversation centered solely on the act and aspect of their art. Nick demonstrated on his canvas, and watched Anton as he applied paint to his own. Their paintings would be uniquely different, as they viewed the still life from different perspectives, and they would paint from the sum of their experiences. Anton's painting was colorful, energetic, a happy picture of assorted objects. Nick's painting evolved. At first it was very dark. The lines were crisp, bold, and unforgiving. Then, as they painted far into the night, he applied an umber wash, warming the darks with a golden glow. Nick's painting reflected more than mere objects... they were pieces of his soul.
Neither of them noticed when LaCroix entered. The vampire master was silent, moving without distracting. Some part of Nick's mind buzzed with the close contact of his father, but it was not a conscious thought. Shortly, LaCroix returned, placing a plate of food near Anton's palette, and a large glass of appropriate sustenance within Nick's reach. He retreated to the shadows, watching, a slight smile transforming the hardened face of a Roman general into that of a caring father. Things were working out nicely.
The scent of the warm blood tugged at the back of Nick's thoughts. Absently, he lifted the mug and drank deeply. He shifted it to his left hand, and continued to paint with his right. The colors on the canvas were very wet. He liked to work wet on wet, and so he continued, unaware of the ache in his shoulders, or throbbing in his legs as he stood hour after hour at his easel. He softened the lines of the objects... as his pain concerning them also softened.
The original owner of the harp was dead. Whether he had married her or not, she would be just as dead. He remembered her voice, the sweet, haunting songs, the music of the harp. As long as he remembered her, she was not truly gone.
The black book was also special. It was an original edition, at a time when books were rare, and only royalty could afford them. LaCroix had often read aloud to him and Janette in the early days. Nick would lie on the floor, his head in her lap, and listen to the deep, expressive sound of the ancient's silken voice as the tales unfolded. Nick's stomach would have been sufficiently filled, and he basked in the glow of their affection. LaCroix was more of a father than his mortal one had ever been, and Janette, both sister and lover, adored him.
The helmet was a reminder of his duty as a Knight, and how much he had sinned when he accepted LaCroix's promise of immortality. Silently it mocked him. He had hated the Crusades. It conflicted him, as he slaughtered the Saracens in the name of the church, or the Lord Dellebarre, or the captain who had given the command that they leave no survivors. The Crusades marked the beginning of Nick's suspicion of authority, his drive to rebel against anyone telling him what to do, his hatred of injustice... but as he continued to define the varying shades of the metal on his canvas, he realized that although the Crusades had been evil, being a knight had not been. He had many happy memories of that period in his life... and his mother had been so very proud of him.
The Jade cup was symbolic of his quest, that which divided him from LaCroix, the desire to become human again. But now, the cup was just a cup. With Natalie gone from his life, he was no longer sure of anything. His quest was over, and like Sir Galahad on the search for his holy cup, Nick had failed. Perhaps some day he would take up the search again, but for now, it no longer mattered. It suddenly struck him as odd that LaCroix would have brought this cup here. It was, after all, LaCroix who had shattered its mate, the second cup, which was necessary for the legend to be fulfilled. Perhaps, it was a sign from his master that the legend was false, and therefore posed no threat? Or perhaps the cup was more significant. Could it mean that LaCroix would no longer thwart him in his quest? If so, then it must mean that LaCroix was certain of the outcome, that it was ultimately fruitless.
He drank again from the glass, just noticing as LaCroix stepped closer to refill its level. He glowered at him. "What do you want?"
"I want for nothing, Nicholas," he answered. His deep voice was relaxed, contented. "I have everything that I require now." Then, with a smile, he left them alone.
Nick shrugged at his master's cryptic message, then returned to his painting.


========= end flashback ==========

Nick smiled at the memory. LaCroix had manipulated him so expertly then! He had coaxed Nick to paint, to feed, and to feel again, and all without saying a word. The memories of Anton were sometimes poignant, but there was no more time to think on them.
Paulus came by, dressed in blue denim pants and a T-shirt. The clothes hung on her slight, undernourished frame. Nick smiled at her. Some styles never changed, he thought. Blue denims had been popular for at least four centuries! She looked more like someone's kid sister now.
She listened intently to his gentle instructions. Some beginners were hesitant when they mixed the paints for the first time, but not Paulus. She boldly smooshed the alizarin crimson into the cobalt blue with a wide brush to create a dark primary coat and splashed it across the blank white canvas with a confidence he didn't know she possessed. Nick forgot about her emotional troubles, his own irritation at the forced vacation, the ship, the delta quadrant, and his life as a vampire. It was always thus. When he painted, there was just him and the paint. Sometimes he was so involved that he drank the turpentine by mistake, or mixed the paints in his drink. It didn't matter. Only the art.
Paulus, like Anton, seemed to join him in that realm of total concentration. For two solid hours, they painted. Her canvas transformed. She followed his instructions, but internalized it and created something that was uniquely her own, too. The essence of glass and velvet and brass emerged, yet with a bold, childlike portrayal that reminded Nick of some of Van Gogh's work.
They wouldn't complete the pictures today. Oil paints took days to dry, and especially for a beginner, some paintings were best worked in layers. Finally, Nick placed his brushes in the jar of turpentine and called a halt. Paulus slipped back into her timid, withdrawn shell. She smiled shyly at Nick through too-long bangs. "Will you come again tomorrow?" he asked.

She nodded, then vanished quickly.

B'Elanna arrived late for lunch break. Something had come up and kept her busy. "I'm glad you waited for me," she whispered into his ear.
He hugged her tightly even as he felt his fangs drop. "I was about to give up on you," he growled.
She giggled and pulled away from him. "Come on, Nick. I'm starved. Today we have to eat first!"
"You're torturing me." He grinned broadly.
The Mess Hall wasn't as noxious smelling. Neelix had prepared a simple meal with raw foods, nothing simmering in grease and spice to turn his stomach. Most of the crew had already eaten and returned to their duties. Only a few stragglers remained. Neelix smiled brightly at them and he passed them their respective meals. "Sliced mashki on whole grain bread with a squirt of mustard-hold the garlic, raw plums and a glass of tea for the lady, and a mug of your brew for you, Nick," he announced.
Nick preferred to drink from a wineglass, but Neelix felt that the opaque coffee mug would arouse less interest from the crew. Somehow, the coffee mug felt clunky and less refined to Nick, tainting the flavor of his meal. He slid opposite B'Elanna at a quiet table in the back, and rubbed his knees against hers under the table. He watched the blush rise in her cheeks, heard the increase in her heart rate. "Eat fast," he whispered huskily.
Ensign Kim approached them. Nick glowered at him, willing the young officer to leave them alone. Kim just smiled innocently. He seemed oblivious to Nick's irritation or B'Elanna's discomfort.
"Lieutenant Knight," he greeted cheerfully, pulling up a chair and joining them. He held no food tray. He must have finished eating already. Maybe he wouldn't stay long.
"What!" Nick tried to control the tone, knowing it would take a lot of effort to convince Chakotay that this vacation wasn't really necessary.
"I learned that you play the piano. We're organizing a concert, and I'd like to put you on the program."
Kim was surprised. He stammered a little awkwardly. "Well, of course, I've never heard you play, but none of us are professional musicians. It's just something we do, to provide entertainment for the crew. Whatever you want to perform will be fine, I am sure."
"No." Nick's tone was final.
B'Elanna smiled at him mischievously. "Nick, I didn't know you played. Well, I guess I did notice the keyboard in your room. You write music too, don't you?"
Nick leveled one of his fiercest scowls at her. "I do not perform. That's it. Vampires do nothing to draw attention to themselves. Ever."
Neelix heard the rise in volume and came to head off a potential situation. "Now, now, people," he soothed. "Nick, I understand your hesitation. Performing is risky; it takes a lot of courage. You never know how people will respond to your performance. Makes a lot of people scared."
"I'm not scared."
"Of course not," he bubbled. "But did you ever stop to consider that by trying to stay too anonymous you might actually be drawing more attention to yourself? We are 152 people on one ship, for most of our adult lives. It is our solemn duty, our moral obligation, to do what we can to make this voyage pleasant. Do the concert."
Nick averted his eyes, even as he felt them change with the golden glow of his anger. He felt cornered. B'Elanna patted his arm, but could not keep the amusement out of her voice. "Poor Nick," she teased.
"Under two conditions," Nick stated firmly.
Neelix grinned, that he had once again saved the day.
Kim nodded. "Anything, Nick," he promised.
"I'll perform Rachmaninoff's Concerto for piano and orchestra, number 2, in C minor, opus 18. You must provide the orchestra. I can't perform with a handful of amateur strings! And second, you get Tom to play another piece, a duet with me, anything of his choice." Nick smiled smugly. He was certain he would not be participating in this concert! Even if Kim could manage to turn this Starfleet might-and-military, light-on-the-arts crew into a passable orchestra, he would never get Tom to cooperate with Nick. Yet, he knew that eventually he and Tom would have to settle their differences. Nick knew, through drinking Tom's blood, that Tom needed counseling more than most of the crew.
Kim nodded gravely. He stood up and almost saluted. "Thank you, sir. I'll get to work on it right away."
"You do that," Nick answered.
B'Elanna carried her tray back to Neelix, then led Nick away. "You're really wicked, you know that?"
Nick turned his innocent look on her. "How so?"
"You just wait. Kim's going to do it, and you'll have dug your own hole!"
"He can't get an orchestra together-- not one capable of that piece. It is rather challenging."
"He'll do it. And he can get Tom to agree to anything. They're best friends, you know."
"No, I didn't know," Nick said morosely.
"Can you actually play that song?"
Nick nodded. "I was with Rachmaninoff when he wrote it. At the turn of the century."
"Which century?"
Nick thought back, hearing the powerful chords, the melody that pulled at his soul. "Um, 1900, I think. Turn of the 20th century."
He was distracted, caught up in memories. B'Elanna sensed he was not entirely there, yet he responded with an unguarded openness that was uncharacteristic and thrilling. "So why don't you like to perform," she coaxed, leading him away from his quarters and on towards the holodeck. She had an idea, and wondered how it would play out.
"Vampires don't generally perform. We are too affected by our prey. The emotions in our music are not musical, but governed by the passions of our last victim. Sometimes our music is compelling, sometimes it is dreadful."
Nick journeyed away from the starship through his memories... of the wretched young composer, Serge Rachmaninoff. When Serge was 24 years old, he had a disastrous public performance of his first piano concerto. It crippled him with a severe nervous crisis. For several years he quit composing, and sought help through hypnosis and psychoanalysis. That was when Nick met him.
LaCroix had brought him and Janette to Russia. At that time it was a backward and violent country, the perfect haven for their kind. Nick sought a piano teacher, and LaCroix always insisted on only the best for his children. Whether he used money or hypnotic suggestion, Nick didn't know, but he got Serge to agree to teach his son.
Nick was no beginner, either. He had already studied under Beethoven and Chopin. But in the past few identities Nick had been an army surgeon, which left no time for music and art. Now, LaCroix was again trying to unite his little family, and for a few short years, Nick felt content.
Serge began working on the second concerto when he began teaching Nick. Serge was 27, or there abouts. Even though 700, Nick looked barely over thirty. He spoke Russian like a native. Nick, possessed by his own demons, was often moody, a dark current of rage barely contained beneath the veneer of royalty... so like the soul of Russia. Serge and he quickly became close friends.
Nick didn't flatter himself that he had brought Serge out of his depression, but he did feel at least partly responsible for the 2nd concerto. He had written a simple little motif, something that haunted him, something that spoke about his passion and his hell. Serge, with his permission, took that motif and developed it into the most beautiful piano concerto ever written. Together, they completed writing it. Nick played it, studied it, as Serge composed. Nick was the first to perform it, at a small, private gathering, as Serge had not yet fully recovered. The piece was so successful, that Serge did eventually perform it in 1901. It launched Serge's career. He lived a long and happy life after that, composing and performing until his death, somewhere in his seventies. But nothing was ever as expressive, as intense, as that hallmark piece of Russian romanticism.
Nick pulled out of his memories to find himself standing in the middle of an empty blue and silver room, the holodeck. Instinctively he tensed, looking furtively for the exit. "What?"
B'Elanna laughed lightly. "You never warned me that you were subject to lapses of consciousness, Nick. Where were you?"
"More importantly, why I am here now?"
"I want to hear you play that song you told Kim about."
Nick glanced about the empty room and shrugged.
"Computer," B'Elanna commanded. "Give us a piano..." She looked at Nick for clarification.
Nick was still caught up in his memories, the haunting echoes of the concerto filling his consciousness. "Steinway concert grand."
A shimmering disrupted the air, then a twelve-foot long piano stood in the middle of the room. Nick raised the lid all the way. A pleasant sensation filled him as his fingers slid across the polished surface. "But, B'Elanna, this piece is meant to be played with a full orchestra."
"So, tell the computer what to play."
Computers couldn't perform. Computers lacked the emotions of a human performer, too, he thought dryly. But as the phantom melody swelled in his memory, he lost his contentiousness. He instructed the computer which recording to play, orchestral part only. Then he adjusted the bench and held his hands poised over the keyboard.
First there was silence. Then soft bass chords of the piano, slowly building in power until the vibrations filled the room. Then it burst into the theme with the orchestral accompaniment. Nick played with his eyes closed, sensing Serge's presence with him, timid nervous young Serge, pouring the contents of his soul, Nick's soul, the soul he denied existed, into the drama. Seven centuries of passion and suffering encompassed in a thirty-four minute concert.
B'Elanna was captivated. The alien piece stirred her Klingon heart, called out to her human half, and united her in a way she had never felt before. But it was time to move into stage two of her plan.
She moved behind Nick and caressed his shoulders while he played on. He was so intimately involved with the piano that he was not conscious of her at all. That was even better. She leaned close to nibble his ears, to let her warm breath touch his neck. She saw him inhale, still oblivious to her. She saw his eyes flutter open once, glowing yellow amber with his passion. He shut his eyes and played on. Still behind him, she wrapped her arms around his waist. Slowly, seductively... the jacket opened at her touch. Her fingers explored his cool, firm chest. The first movement of the concerto swelled, the room trembled with its powerful vibrations. Nick's hands flew across the keyboard. Blood sweat beaded on his brow, so intense was his concentration, so powerful his performance.
Her hands moved lower. They caressed his thighs, sliding slowly inward. With each stroke she moved closer, tantalizing but not quite reaching her target. The first movement was softer now, slower. B'Elanna matched her seduction to his tempo. She stole an upward glance, but Nick was still in his other world. She smiled, curiously pleased.
Then Nick started the final arpeggio section, his fingers moving too fast to see. He struck the three final chords bringing the moderato to its dramatic close. A quiet pause, as the orchestra moved into the second movement brought awareness to Nick. He started to jump up from the bench, but B'Elanna held him.
"Don't move," she whispered.
"B'Elanna!" His voice was husky, filled with need and raw emotion.
"Just play."
"What are you doing?" He could hear her pulse, he knew she wanted him. And she was driving him over the edge. Again. She was very good at it.
"You said you didn't think you played with passion, Nick. I'm giving you the passion. Now, whenever you play this piece, just think of me, and you will never have an excuse to give a flat, dull performance."
"But... but I can't play, not while you're ...doing this," he whispered.
"Just try. Computer, begin the second movement again," B'Elanna instructed. The computer-generated orchestra began the soft flowing strains, building in volume. "Just play. And don't miss a note."
Nick closed his eyes. She was too desirable right now. Too near, and too... tempting. But she didn't touch him yet. His hands lingered at the keys, then he began the slower, enchanting second movement, the adagio sostenuto. He usually sat very still and erect when he played, as was the custom in Beethoven's time, but with Rachmaninoff's music he could not still the urge to move with the music. His shoulders leaned ever so slightly into the keyboard. His arm movements were graceful and flowing as his fingers danced an intimate encounter with the keys. A blood tear slipped from beneath his closed eyes, followed by another, as the music's pathos, its hunger and yearning consumed him.
Nick struck the final chords. He moaned, speaking her name. He pulled her to him, kissing her fiercely, mindless of the sharp, fully extended fangs. "You," his whispered huskily. He couldn't say any more.
B'Elanna smiled widely. She'd planned the attack, launched it, and found victory. That her own desires had not yet been met was irrelevant. This had been her gift to Nick. She wound her fingers into his damp curls and pulled his face in close.
Nick stood, pressing her close to him. He felt so completely at ease with her. He could drop his mortal pretense and give in to his natural desires... she loved it all. She found his amber eyes, glowing with fierce rage and passion, to be beautiful and erotic. She was not afraid of him. And he needed her!
B'Elanna pulled the close-fitting collar of her shirt to expose more of her throat, and arced her head away, offering Nick what he desired. He sank his fangs and drank from her. B'Elanna gasped. All the emotions she had experienced in the music now crossed into him through the blood kiss. Her hot, sweet blood exploded into him, almost faster than he could manage. Visions of him as he had performed for her, mingled with the haunting melody, filled his consciousness, even as her love for him was manifest in every drop he drank. Nick felt the wave of his passion crest, and he trembled, holding her tightly in his embrace.
Love. There it was. B'Elanna realized it with sudden clarity. They had never spoken the word. They seldom actually spoke about anything, having a very physical relationship. But B'Elanna knew that was how she felt about him. And through the blood kiss, she was nearly certain that he loved her too.
Nick nuzzled her neck until the tiny wounds ceased to bleed, then he inhaled deeply, relishing in her scent. His fingers wound in her hair, stroking it, luxuriating in its thick, silken texture. For a brief moment, Nick imagined Serge watching them. Would the romantic composer appreciate this performance of his composition? Nick smiled.
The concert, if he had to give it, would be unforgettable.


Chapter Nine: Becalmed

Nick's life settled in to a routine that if not exactly what he craved, it at least satisfied. B'Elanna came to him every day, often two or three times. They met in small closets, the holodeck, his office, his quarters, her quarters, and even the botanical gardens. She was already so much a part of him that he could not remember what it was like before her. He felt young again... it was like first love... it consumed his waking moments and his sleep.
He subsisted almost entirely on replicated plasma. It was dull and flat, even worse than the cow's blood he once forced himself to consume in another life, another time. He couldn't get enough of it to fill him. He was drinking quantities more than he normally required, and yet he felt strangely empty. The hollow feeling lightened partially whenever he tasted B'Elanna, but then it returned again in full force. Oddly, the longer he drank it, the easier it was to control his temper. And he was getting a lot more sleep than usual. Maybe that was part of it.
He dodged around the nosey doctor's prying examinations on the limiting time restraints with increasing efficiency. Somehow he'd managed to avoid the "birds-bees-and-vampires" discussion every time. If the mortals learned that they could be turned into vampires, they might rethink their decision to allow him to remain with them. Of course, he couldn't really turn them. He'd had so little luck bringing anyone across... they generally died from his attempts, but that would offer his mortal friends small comfort. Apparently there was an art to it, to nearly drain the victim-but leave just enough- and then it was up to the victim to make the final choice to return from near death and feed off the master vampire, closing the circle and binding himself for eternity, to become both child and slave.
LaCroix had developed the skill. But then, he was already very old when he took Nick for his own. And since he had no qualms about killing, he'd been able to "practice" for centuries.... Who knew the total number of his failed attempts?
Nick was so tired. He could hardly keep his eyes open. The curving blue-gray corridors all started to look alike. He passed door after door, and several turbolifts. Which floor was his quarters on again? Maybe if he found his office he could catch a nap in there. Placing one foot in front of the other, he straggled almost blindly down yet another hall.
He was all turned around. Somehow, he was in a section he didn't recognize. He leaned against the bulkhead and slid to the floor. His eyes closed. He pulled up his knees and leaned his forehead on them. Maybe after a few moments rest he could think more clearly.

"Hello ? Hello!"
A girl's voice called through the haze of his semiconscious dreams even as the child's grip shook him. Nick forced his eyes open, yawing widely.
"Wow! Astral teeth! Are they real? Do they hurt?"
Nick was startled to wakefulness. He was sitting on the floor in the corridor, displaying long sharp fangs to a semi-human child of four. Nick clamped his mouth shut, trying to conceal the fangs behind his lips until he could fully retract them. He shook his head. He still felt vaguely fuzzy.
"Hi! I'm Naomi Wildman. Are you lost? Are you all right?"
Nick nodded his head. He wasn't sure what he was answering.
"I used to get lost here too, when I was little, but I know this ship pretty good now. I'll take you where ever you want to go. Mess hall? Engineering? How about the bridge?" Her eyes gleamed at that possibility.
"No, not the bridge," Nick said, slurring his words slightly.
Naomi shrugged, with just a little disappointment. "Are you sure you're not needed on the bridge? I know the way there, even though I can't go there." She put her hands under his arms and tugged. "Come on, then."
Nick stood up without the child's assistance. She was big for four. What ever species her father hailed from must have increased her metabolic rate. She was also articulate and very intelligent. Three button-shaped ridges vertically dotted her forehead. She had bright, pretty eyes and long, straight blonde hair. What a pity, Nick thought, as his mind still drifted groggily, that she had not yet even met her father. Ensign Wildman hadn't even known she was expecting yet when she'd been assigned to the brief recovery mission aboard Voyager.
"This is where I live," Naomi said, indicating a door as they passed it. Then she led Nick towards the nearest turbolift and stepped inside. She held the door for him, as he stared at it for long moments before crossing the threshold.
"Do you want to go to the holodeck? We could play a game. Seven sometimes plays with me. She's my friend. Neelix is too, but he doesn't play much. He tells me stories. Can you tell stories?"
Nick stared at her. He blinked slowly, still seeing her in amber tones.
"What deck is your room on?" she asked.
He concentrated. His room was around here somewhere... his bed was waiting for him. What was that number again? There were 28 decks on this ship... or were there more? His was near the top somewhere... what was the street name again? He stared at the child. She smelled pleasant. But not tantalizing... vampires had learned to be very cautious about tasting mixed bloods and aliens.... He felt a wave of dizziness and slowly slumped to the floor.
"Are you sick? How come you don't know where your room is?"
Nick shrugged. He smiled at her innocently. "I move a lot."
She nodded with understanding. "Okay. Computer, where is Lieutenant--" she looked at him expectantly. "You're Mr. Knight, aren't you? The one every one's been talking about so much lately?"
Nick wasn't sure how to answer. Were they talking about him? Why? Was he in trouble again?
The girl didn't seem to need an answer. "Computer, where is Lieutenant Knight's quarters?"
The computer responded to the request. Then the girl directed the turbolift. "We'll get you there shortly," she comforted him, patting him on the shoulder.
Nick smiled at her. It was an odd-shaped smile. His eyes were golden and the fangs were in place again. The space-born half-alien child was unafraid. She'd never heard Earth's horror stories of bloodsucking demons from the night. She'd grown up entirely in the delta quadrant, where the Borg assimilated people by the millions, where Vidiian pirates stole organs from living people, and where the Hrogen hunted and skinned people, using their internal body parts as wedding presents for their girlfriends. Naomi Wildman was not afraid of Nick. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder and leaned on him.
"You like Lieutenant Torres a lot, don't you? Too bad. I heard the Delanie sisters talking about you. They think you are soo cute, and they've been trying to hit on you for ages. Then one sister- I don't know which one- they look a lot alike, and I was kind of snooping- she said you just didn't like girls. But you like me, don't you?"
A question again. He cocked his head at her. What did she want? She was a friendly little thing. He smiled, and hugged her gently. Don't leave bruises on children.
"I'm glad we had a chance to meet, Mr. Knight. May I call you "Nick"?"
Nick stared at her vaguely and nodded yes, without a clue to what he was agreeing.
"That's good. Nick is a nice name. It's Greek and means "people of victory." I looked it up. Your other names, Robert means "bright fame" and Henri means "estate ruler". I found your other names on the computer files when I was hacking around. My name means "pleasant." Neelix says I am pleasant, but Mom says I'm a pest. She usually smiles when she says it, though. And Seven usually calls me "Wildman Subunit" or something borgish like that."
Nick nodded. His eyes closed. He hugged her gently, and leaned his head against the back wall of the turbolift.
"Here we are. Come on and get up, now."
Nick struggled to his feet. His eyes drifted shut. Naomi tugged on his hand and he followed her. The door to his quarters recognized his bioreadings and opened as they approached. Naomi led him to the bed and turned down the covers for him. Nick crawled in happily. A short rest would be perfect. He heard the child giggle, then felt some one tug off his boots and pull the covers up around him.
"Good Night, Nick," she said, kissing him on the check.
"Knight," he whispered, trying to remember the question.
Naomi giggled again, and ordered the lights dimmed as she let herself out.

Nick awoke. He checked the chronometer, but the date didn't make any sense. Had he slept through an entire daily cycle? And he was fully dressed, except for his boots. He searched, but found no signs of injury, no reason at all for the confusion in his brain. He got up and tried a shower, then grabbed something to snack on from Neelix before heading into his office.
He skim-read more of the doctor's files on psychotherapy, and held a private debate with the long-dead authors of such psychobabble nonsense, in which he was the victor. Nick wondered if the doctor was seeking revenge by giving Nick only useless or archaic information, thereby guaranteeing that he failed in his new office. But the doctor was really just a hologram, and not capable of independent, devious thought. Right?
Nick focused on the new painting Paulus had started at their last session. She was learning to paint much quicker than she was learning how to cope. Her still life was a really nice picture, remarkable considering it was her first. For her second painting Nick had selected a print of one of the Masters for her to copy, teaching her the classic style of composition, form and color. He felt it was important to first learn the skills and techniques of oil painting before attempting original expression, like teaching an adult to read from classic literature before expecting them to write a novel. He encouraged her to explore painting on her own, whenever she felt like it, to produce the energetic colorful swirls of her child-like style.
Then Paulus came by. She seemed especially tense. Her hands were tightly clasped behind her back, and she wouldn't meet Nick's gaze.
"Hello, Paulus," he said congenially.
She nodded. Bringing a hand out from behind, she held out a holopic for Nick. He accepted it, already expecting it was of her little girl.
The child in the picture was four years old, a beautiful mix of both parents. She had the olive green eyes and lashes of her mother, and a honey-colored complexion, but she had the red hair and dimples of her dad. Her youthful face was filled with excitement, reflecting none of her mother's somber pain. Nick sensed that to do a straight, simple portrait would be insufficient. He would have to learn more about the child. But how? From Paulus? Not for some time.... She was not ready to talk about her.
"Thanks," he said. "I'll get started right away."
Paulus nodded quickly, and ran from the room.
He held the holopic and thought. Well, his only client had come and gone. He might as well return to his quarters. Maybe he could get in a nap yet before lunch?
Nick stretched out on his bed and laced his fingers behind his head. The dim lights were set at a comfortable level. He was not so sleepy now, but just very relaxed and comfortable. Then he felt the familiar tingle, the prick of his consciousness, that he was no longer alone.
"Hello, LaCroix," he said aloud.
"Ah, Nicholas, my son... how much longer must I endure this sickening, goody-goody compulsion that fairly oozes from you?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Nick said without emotion.
LaCroix was fuming. Generally, younger vampires went out of their way to avoid all contact with him, and when that was impossible they simpered and groveled at his feet, giving him the honor and respect that was his due. How dare this impudent, prodigal child of his do any less! He was most disturbed by the sugar-sweet lethargy that had emanated from his son through their link for the past two weeks. "How long until you return to work?"
Nick laughed languidly. "I don't know. Two weeks maybe?"
"I'm going to barf," the ancient replied, slipping uncharacteristically into colloquialism, even if it was outdated. "You find my irritation amusing, Nicholas? What about that revolting escapade over the piano! Really! I thought you were going to shield your animalistic matings from me."
Nick was too comfortable to be annoyed. Maybe there was something to this vacation thing. Nothing seemed to irritate him. Not the doctor, not LaCroix, and not even Ensign Kim, as Nick heard the miserable rehearsals he conducted in the holodeck with a tiny volunteer orchestra. Kim was good, excellent even. Nick had heard him perform before. But none of the other musicians had a clue.
"Although, I find your Beloved B'Elanna extremely original. "It was a rather... interesting... experience."
"I apologize," Nick said gently, without a trace of remorse or embarrassment. "I was caught up in the music. I wasn't aware of her, or you, until it was nearly over."
LaCroix fumed silently, waiting for Nick to respond.
"Father, I need a favor from you."
The ancient was startled, even speechless, at the tender, loving tone in Nick's voice. Nick almost never referred to him as "father". Not that LaCroix minded, really... only that it was so unlike his son.
"I need you to find out about a mortal for me. A little girl... tell me where she is, who is caring for her, what she is like. Her mother here is about mad with grief for her."
"Absolutely not!" The ancient vampire was more shocked than angry.
That simple request further set LaCroix on edge. Something was terribly wrong. This was not his Nicholas! He cursed the miles between them, desperate to protect his offspring from harm. Nicholas was still so naïve about so many things... He was a constant danger to himself, often offending the Enforcers, and risking exposure because of his desire to live among mortals... Caring for him was nearly a full-time job.
"I am not a mail service, Nicholas. If I serve this one request there will be more, and 152 people will want me to convey all their disgusting, mortal platitudes to one another. I will have no part in it! Tell me the child's name and I will take her! I swear!"
Nicholas was unconcerned. LaCroix sensed the calm in his spirit like a narcotic. It was dangerous. It had to be stopped. A complacent vampire was a careless one. Nick's life, his immortal existence, was in grave danger! But how could he help, so far away? How could he even learn the root of the problem, in time to suggest a cure, before Nick was truly dead?
"Tell me, Nicholas, what you would do with this knowledge of the child?" he asked, softening his tone of voice. He needed to buy time, to gain knowledge. "Do the others know about us, about our connection?"
"No. I think some of them heard me talking to you and think I'm more than a little unbalanced."
LaCroix sighed hugely. Nick hadn't been irreparably careless, yet.
"I don't know what I will do with the knowledge. I'd like to tell her that her daughter is fine, but I don't think I could convince her of the truth. I thought maybe that I would incorporate whatever you learn about her into a portrait for the mother."
That might be acceptable. But LaCroix thought quickly for a way to turn his son's request in his favor. "All right," LaCroix purred, his silken voice deceptively calm. Nick should have picked up on it, suspected the dangerous tones, worried about its dark undercurrents. Nick was complacently oblivious. "I will, under one condition," LaCroix continued. "That you spend time with me. Do not close our link at all, until I give you permission to do so." He waited for Nick to object.
"Even when B'Elanna is with you."
"Swear it!"
Nick laughed softly. "Don't be so paranoid, father. I promise."
LaCroix needed help. He needed a plan, before the situation became desperate!

Chakotay and Nick met again in the holodeck. Chakotay had given Nick a choice of programs. They could hunt, or return to Nick's simple dwelling and finish the roast pork. "It ought to be done by now," Chakotay teased.
Nick shrugged indifferently. Chakotay was concerned. Nick had been the model officer for nearly two weeks. No outbursts of temper. No defiance, no arguments. Nick wasn't acting like Nick. But how could he tell if a vampire was sick? He wouldn't run a fever and his complexion was always pale. He just seemed indifferent. He had already felt concern, and then when B'Elanna came to see him earlier, he was really worried. She said Nick wasn't passionate anymore. He was apathetic. She worried that their explosive romance might be over.
Chakotay wondered about putting him back to work early, but somehow, putting a counselor on the job who was perhaps coming unglued didn't make much sense. Janeway seemed unconcerned. She was pleased that Nick seemed to have worked everything out so quickly. Chakotay had no proof of his premonitions, that it was all a strange calm before an emotional storm broke loose. He didn't want to spook his captain with unwarranted fears, especially if Nick really had adjusted smoothly. So he kept his concerns to himself, but decided to spend more time with him.
"What did you used to do for fun before you were taken by the Cardassians?" Chakotay prodded.
Nick shrugged again. "Vampires hunt, Chakotay."
"What else?"
"Sometimes I played piano, or painted."
"Good. But those are solitary. What did you do with your friends?"
"What friends?" The question was spoken with bland indifference. There was no self-loathing, no anger or passion or guilt, not a thing that Chakotay had come to associate with Nick Knight.
"I'm worried about you," Chakotay said.
Nick laughed lightly. "You and my father."
Chakotay bristled indignantly, recalling the memory of the vengeful, evil vampire battering Nicholas into unconsciousness. "I am nothing like your father," he spat.
"No. But LaCroix said the same thing this morning," Nick said.
A cold chill crept up his spine. Chakotay breathed deeply several times, in and out, trying to still his anxiety. "Where is he, Nick. How could he speak to you?"
Nick laughed. The sound was empty, shallow. "Forget I said that."
"Are you hearing voices again, Nick. Tell me, I want to help you."
"I'm feeling tired, Chakotay. If you don't object, I think I'd like to go to bed," Nick responded.
Chakotay stared at the retreating back of a very strange vampire.
The door chimed repeatedly, until B'Elanna broke into the wall panel and rewired it to open for her. Nick lay on his bed, staring vaguely at the ceiling. "Nick! Why didn't you let me in," she shouted.
Nick didn't stir, but moved only his eyes to glance at her. "Oh hello, B'Elanna," he drawled.
She moved to sit beside him on the bed. Grasping his pale, cold hand in her own, she touched the other hand to his forehead. There was no bloody sweat. His eyes were clear blue and expressionless. She hadn't seen the vampire gold in days. He bore no resemblance to the passionate performer in the holodeck!
Talking was useless. She had one last resource. Burying her fear and concern, she tried to arouse the desire in him again. She dimmed his lights even further, then ignited the candles around his room. Slipping into his bathroom for a moment, she returned with something decadently flimsy and lacey, a short piece of black lace barely held together over her cleavage and an even smaller lace thong. She ordered the computer to play something soft and romantic, a collection of Chopin nocturnes. Then, she moved in for the kill.
Nick was unresponsive for a long time. She persisted, trying to break beneath the cold indifference of his illness, for that was what she called it now. He was ill, and no one knew how. She kissed him gently and passionately. She whispered into his ears and nipped his chest, neck, and shoulders. She touched him in private ways. Slowly, she felt him respond to her. Finally, he began to kiss her back.
She lay on top of him, sensing his slowly rising desire. Suddenly, he stiffened. "No!" he shouted. "Stop it! Go away!"
She froze. Shame and anger consumed her, and yet he didn't seem to be looking at her. He put his hand to his forehead and rocked from side to side. She jumped off him fearfully. "Nick! Stop it! Stop it at once!"
He stared at her. His eyes were filled with pain. It was something different, something better than the anesthetized torpor he'd been in lately, but it tore at her. "Don't leave me," he pleaded.
Then he clutched at his head again and screamed.
"Nick! Nick, should I call the doctor?"
"No! No! LaCroix, stop! Please!"
She shook him, trying to pull his hands from his face. "LaCroix isn't here, Nick. It's just you and me. Talk to me, Nick!"
His fangs descended even as she watched. His eyes turned blood red, his face contorted with rage. "Kill her," he said in a voice that was somehow not his own.
B'Elanna trembled. Not much frightened her. She had been born of a Klingon-human union, but raised among humans. She had always been stronger, braver, and more obstinate than her peers. But now she was terrified. The human part wanted to comfort Nick, the Klingon wanted to beat him.
Nick's face was almost unrecognizable. His eyes were red coals, his mouth opened wide baring his fangs and he hissed contemptuously. She saw nothing of her lover in him. Then he lunged for her. B'Elanna's Klingon nature was always the more decisive one. She landed a gut punch and followed with a cross to his jaw. Nick staggered. For an instant, the clear blue returned to his eyes. He looked lost and frightened.
"Help me, B'Elanna," he whispered.
Then the evil rage returned. B'Elanna didn't even wait for his attack. She fought mean and dirty, kicking him hard. When he flew at her, she flipped him on his back. He was much stronger than she was, but he was not fighting intelligently. B'Elanna straddled him, and slapped him across the face.
"Nick!" she shouted. "Nick, stop this!"
The vampire went limp. His eyes may have returned to the clear blue, but he held them tightly shut. Blood tears welled under his long lashes and trailed a slow descent down pale cheeks now brightly marked from where she had struck him. B'Elanna held him pinned a moment longer, while she gasped for air. Slowly the adrenaline rush dissipated. The entire encounter had been too frightening, yet the Klingon in her found it strangely erotic.
She released his wrists and gently stroked his face. "Nick, talk to me. What's happening?"
"He's in my head, B'Elanna. He's always been there. For 11 centuries I have felt his presence."
B'Elanna wiped at the flow of tears. Nick pressed his hands against his eyes, as though even the dim candlelight was painful. His shoulders trembled.
"Mostly it is like the gentle touch of familiarity, like recognizing someone in a crowd. Sometimes it is severe, like a child who's been caught misbehaving and knows he's going to catch hell later. But this... it has never felt like this before."
"What does it feel like? Help me to understand!"
Fresh tears streamed down his face. He did not speak for many minutes. B'Elanna moved off of him, and lay on the floor beside him. Resting her head on his shoulder, she gently patted his cheek, his arm, his chest, keeping in constant contact, hoping to reach through to him, hoping somehow to reassure him that he was not alone.
Slowly, his weeping stopped. Nick lay limp, drained and exhausted.
"I'm sorry, B'Elanna. Maybe you should just go," he whispered.
"Like Hell. Maybe you should just talk!"
A ghost of a smile quirked at his lips. "Brave woman," he whispered. "I'm so tired. Can't talk."
B'Elanna got up and tugged at him. A sudden and unique feeling replaced the love of desire she had felt for him just a short time before. Now she felt the love of compassion, embodied in the need to comfort him. He was nearly asleep. Only her Klingon strength convinced him to obey. Meekly he stood and waited while she removed his clothes and turned down the covers. Then he lay down in the sleep of the dead.
B'Elanna hesitated. He was ill, and potentially dangerous. But she didn't want to leave him alone. "Computer," she said. "At my command, you will flood this room with intense, bright light."
Then B'Elanna crawled in beside her man and dozed in fitful slumber all night.


Chapter Ten: The Pain

Gentle caresses touched the edge of her awareness. B'Elanna smiled in her sleep. Cool hands stroked her shoulders, cool breath nudged her ear. Slowly, she realized Nick was awake. Nick was himself again, and Nick wanted to play. She tried to keep the grin from her face. She kept very still, taunting him with unresponsiveness.
It was challenging. He touched her in ways she wanted to be touched. He whispered things to her that no one had ever said before. He knew her intimately and yet he loved her. He loved HER!
Suddenly she could stand it no longer. Her arms wrapped around his neck as she emitted a growl and bit him. Nick laughed. "Good morning, my beauty," he whispered.
"Good morning, my beast," she teased.
Their encounter moved more slowly after that. They lived for the minute, uncaring of the passing of time. B'Elanna was thrilled to have her "Nick" back. Nick didn't even seem to remember last night. Something about that bothered her, but she shoved it aside to face later. Nick was passionate, Nick was demanding, and Nick was hers!
Eventually, real life had to assert itself. They showered together and dressed for the day. She tugged a comb through her short hair while grimacing in Nick's broken mirror. She wondered idly at the physics behind a lack of a reflection. Did it have to do with the way his body absorbed light? Was there really a "curse" involved?
Nick stepped behind her, nibbling at her neck.
"Nick!" she snapped, good-naturedly. "Quit that! There's no time."
He took the brush from her and slowly drew it through her hair. He wound his fingers through the silken strands and inhaled the scent of her. B'Elanna stood patiently for a few moments. It felt oddly sensual to have him brush her hair. Then she turned to face her vampire. She tugged at his jacket and straightened his hair. It was a lucky thing his hair was prone to curl. It was less likely to look like he hadn't brushed it.
Nick smiled. "Ready, M'Lady?"
At breakfast, Chakotay invited Nick to the morning's staff meeting. Nick grinned, hoping that his forced time off was about to end.
"I'm happy for you, Nick," B'Elanna confided.
He just smiled.
B'Elanna was curious about last night. They needed to talk about it. But right now she just wanted to enjoy his company. Maybe later, after her duty shift, she could get him into that rare mood when he would open up. She'd learned that it usually meant getting him fed and comfortable and nearly asleep but not exhausted. Not easy to do, on a starship. But she could be fairly persistent. "LaCroix, your days are numbered," she thought to herself.
Captain Janeway stopped Nick just outside of the conference room. B'Elanna glanced from the captain to Nick, then went inside to wait. Janeway touched Nick's arm and indicated stepping aside for the effect of privacy. "Nick, I've been very pleased with your conduct this past week. I think that you have made real progress, that this time off has been good for you. So I am putting you back to work, if you think that you are ready."
"Yes, Captain!" Nick's enthusiastic response pleased her.
"Good. And, Chakotay has already assigned you to the next away mission. Other than that, we will make a special effort to see that you get off ship at regular intervals. Is there anything else that you require?"
Nick was momentarily caught off guard. The captain didn't seem to be play-acting. She was genuinely pleased with him and seemed to really care about him as a member of her crew! He wished he knew what he'd done... he would make sure to do it again. "Thank you, Captain," he stammered.
She shook his hand, then became all business once more. With a brief nod, she strode into the conference room. B'Elanna looked questioningly at Nick as he took the seat opposite her. He smiled back. All was well. She would wait for the details. Then the Captain started the meeting with an update on their progress.
They were still a week away from the first planet of the Buliga territory. Certain foods were dangerously low. Although there was enough to keep their bellies full, it was not enough to maintain good health. All replicator rations were going to be suspended indefinitely, and handed over to Neelix. He would use the replicator sparingly to balance out their diets. The crew tended to use their coupons for rare treats and special beverages, and not for the vitamins or minerals that might be missing from their menu. Neelix knew the nutritional requirements of every species on the ship, with the exception of one indigenous vampire. Neelix would make sure they all got what they needed, even if his concoctions were sometimes not too successful in the taste department.
They should be able to make initial contact with the Buliga in about three days. Long range scans of the first planet indicated plenty of flora and fauna, and deposits of unrefined deuterium. Whether it was going to be usable or not, they could not discern at this distance.
Ensign Kim waited until the meeting was nearly over before making his announcement. "I'd like to inform you that we have a rare concert planned. It is scheduled for three weeks from today, on the Talaxian feast of the full moons. Tom has agreed to play, and so has Nick Knight."
Nick buried his face in his hand and B'Elanna laughed outright. "I told you not to underestimate him," she whispered, knowing that Nick could hear her.
"Well," Captain Janeway began. "I look forward to it. Thank you, Mr. Kim and Neelix, for your efforts in this matter. And Nick, let me be the first to say how grateful we are that you have chosen to share your talent with us."
The meeting broke up after that. Several people clapped Nick on the shoulder. He plastered a smile on his face and nodded, too nervous to trust his voice with a response. In the corridor, B'Elanna slapped him lightly and laughed again.
"I can't play in that concert," Nick whispered frantically.
"Sure you can. You'll be perfect."
"But, I don't play for an audience!"
"You'll find a way," she said. "You're cornered, now! But, you should probably check with Tom on what he wants to play. He doesn't read music, you know."
Nick nodded. Maybe he wasn't ready to return to work after all.

Nick sat in his office reading more documents on the study of the human mind. The morning's blood offering had been bland. It left a stale taste in his mouth. Not a sick flavor, just an empty one. He wasn't really hungry, but he felt strangely unsatisfied. His eyes drifted closed momentarily.
Then he sat bolt upright and clutched his forehead. He cried out in pain. "Stop it!" he shouted.
The pain subsided. All of last night's events came flooding back. It had not been a dream, or nightmare, it had happened. He had attacked B'Elanna, but she had chosen to remain with him... "LaCroix, what are you doing!" he demanded angrily. "You promised long ago that you would stay out of my private affairs!"
The ancient one laughed languidly. "Oh, Nicholas. I have not reneged. I am merely trying to get your attention."
"By doing what! That pain-- in my head. It felt like sun light, like I was burning up."
"Yes," the other drawled. "Rather unpleasant, isn't it?"
"I should think by now the answer was obvious."
Nick hated it when LaCroix was like this. Powerful, cryptic, sardonic. LaCroix was trying to tell him something, but would make him pick at it, worry it, reflect on it for weeks even months on end, and then when Nick had it almost all figured out, LaCroix would change the rules. "Cut the crap," Nick hissed, resorting again to archaic colloquialisms. When one lived forever, some speech patterns remained pleasant even after they lost temporal popularity.
Suddenly the blinding pain was in his head again. Nick fell to his knees. He clutched his head in both hands, unable to silence the cry of pain. The pain grew and intensified. His fingers tingled, his legs felt numb. Blood tears flowed through tightly closed eyes.
"You will consider this one, my prodigal child," LaCroix stated menacingly. "You will remember what you are, and what you must do. You will remain in constant contact with me, or the pain will only increase."
Nick curled into a fetal position on the floor. "Yes, master," he whimpered.
The searing pain continued only a moment longer. Then it was gone. Nick was afraid to move. He touched his forehead gingerly, but found no visible sign of the trauma he had endured. He staggered to his feet and drained two quarts of replicated plasma without feeling any strength return. Weak, frightened, and alone, Nick decided to visit the doctor.


Chapter Eleven: The Patient

Ah, our neighborhood vampire! Come to pay a social visit," the sarcastic hologram suggested.
"No," he replied softly. Nick moved slowly, careful not to turn too fast and possibly bring on another attack of The Pain.
He sat up on a biobed and waited for the doctor to take over.
The doctor leveled him with a holographic icy glare. "You're not scheduled to come in until tomorrow."
"I came in early," Nick replied.
Nick should have guessed that the doctor would not be so easily dealt with. "I have had a headache," he said. "I wondered, what do mortals do when they suffer?"
"Mortals have physical causes for head pain. Stress can cause the veins to constrict, causing a lack of oxygen to the brain and the feeling of discomfort. Archaic aspirin may help to enlarge the veins, thereby relieving the discomfort, a meditool can to the same thing more quickly, and of course, the stress can be dealt with. In your case, I wouldn't have a clue. Lack of baseline data to compare with. A study of your brain would not help now, because I would not know what was normal before the pain began."
If the doctor had been mortal, Nick would have decked him about then. It didn't help that the doctor was right. "Forget it," Nick mumbled and started to leave.
The Hippocratic oath programmed into the doctor's most basic functions took over then. His tone and mannerisms changed. He laid a calming hand on Nick's arm. "Just bear with me, and I will see what I can do," he promised.
Nick sat back on the biobed, wincing even as he moved. The doctor ran his small tricorder over Nick.
"When did the pain begin. Describe it. Where do you feel it," he questioned.
"Last night, I think. Right here. It feels, like, almost like, I was standing out in full sunlight, and looking straight at it."
The doctor turned Nick's face to view into his eyes. He shined a small, lighted tool into the eyes, causing Nick to blink back blood tears. "Watch it, doc," he snapped.
"Sorry, son. Now, explain. I had mortal programmers. The sun would not cause pain to them, and staring at the sun would only hurt momentarily until natural reflexes cause them to blink. So how would it be different for a vampire?"
"The sun is deadly, doc. To a young vampire, it need only be a moment's exposure. To an older one, like me, it would take longer, minutes probably. But in those minutes, our flesh incinerates to fine ash, to be blown away by the wind. Nothing remains. And to stare at the sun for even an instant causes blindness. Of course, if we return to the shadows, the eyes heal, but the pain is no less severe."
The doctor closed his tricorder and patted Nick tenderly on the shoulder. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant. There was an injury to the brain. It showed up briefly, almost like a stroke. Something happened, causing the pain, but even as I watched the readings in the tricorder, it healed. Right now, you are perfectly normal for your condition... at least, I think so. I don't know what caused it though. I don't suppose that you know anything about it? Is there some sort of vampire disease or condition that this could be?"
Nick hesitantly probed his forehead and nodded. The Pain had gone. The fear had not. Somehow, LaCroix had found a way to torture him from across the galaxy! Sometimes, unlife just wasn't fair. "No, Doc. We don't get diseases. Ever."
The doctor picked up a tiny metallic box and fiddled with it. He laid it against Nick's neck, but removed it and fiddled again. Nick leaned over to watch. "What, Doc?"
"This is a neurocortical sensor. If I can adjust it to your... unique... setting, it should monitor you throughout the day, alert me when another attack hits you, and record what is happening. I can't make any promises, but it's a step." He tweaked the sensor again, then touched it to Nick's skin. A small red light flicked on. "Ah, that's it! It's nearly at the Vulcan setting. Do vampires and Vulcans split from the same family tree?"
"I sincerely doubt it, Doc. Why don't you ask Tuvok?" Nick smiled in spite of his recent pain. The image of infant Vampires and Vulcans playing together was certainly amusing. Vulcans didn't play, and Vampires were never infants.
The doctor fastened the sensor to Nick's skin, just behind the ear. It was too tiny to see through his hair, even with the faint red light glowing. "Just tell B'Elanna to bite on the other side for a few nights," the doctor suggested flatly.
Nick was grateful that he didn't blush easily. "I'll tell her you said so," he answered.
After Lunch Break with B'Elanna, and several hours pain-free, Nick was just beginning to relax again. His shoulders ached slightly. He must have been sitting wrong. He leaned against the wall, bent his knees and rubbed against the firm surface. He was in that position when the doors opened and Seven walked in. She turned her cold blue eyes on him.
"It was hurting," Nick explained, as he stood up.
"And rubbing makes the discomfort any less?" It was more of a condemning statement than a question.
"No. But it feels good."
"Pain is irrelevant."
"Thanks," he said, with a hint of sarcasm. "Now that we've got that all cleared up, what can I do for you?"
"That is precisely what I would like to learn as well."
Nick didn't like the way she looked at him. As if she was sizing him up and found him sorely lacking. He stood a little taller.
Their gazes locked, and each stared at the other, unblinking, unmoving. Nick would not look away first, he determined obstinately. Yet as the minutes passed, Seven seemed to be just as stubborn. Nick locked on to her pulse, his eyes glowing softly, as he again attempted to hit her with a hypnotic suggestion.
"Curious," she said flatly. "Is that how you plan on assisting all your clients?"
Nick released her, and turned away. Trying not to let her irritate him, Nick sat casually in his chair. She could stand through the entire meeting, and he would not say another word about it.
For many minutes, neither of them spoke. Seven remained standing, tall and unmoving. Nick remained comfortably seated, watching her.
"I see no purpose in continuing this further," she stated at last, and turned to leave.
"What are you afraid of," Nick asked quietly.
"I am afraid of nothing!"
"Yet you are leaving. A superior officer sent you here, and twice now you chose to leave before I give you permission. You are either disobedient or afraid. Which is it?"
"Neither. I am... bored."
Nick smiled awkwardly. "Bored, I can work with. I find this room boring too. What would you rather be doing?"
"I have some adjustments to make to the transStator assemblies-"
"No. Besides work. What do you do when you are not at work, not sleeping and not eating. What do you do for fun?" Nick wondered where that had come from. It sounded vaguely familiar.
Seven paused, almost cornered, even though she stood in the middle of the room. She obviously did not like to be questioned when she did not know the answers. "On occasion, the Captain and I shoot at targets. The game is irrelevant. But I find the... competition... oddly stimulating."
That was a start. She could shoot at targets. While it was not as interesting to him as painting, if it took a little target practice to break through her veneer of titanium, then he would do it. "Swell. Let's go."
Seven gaped at him. Her full lips parted slightly with just a hint of fear. Nick found it strangely endearing. Behind the cold, callous woman there was a little girl locked inside. He needed to help free the child, and get her to meet the woman. Somehow. And somehow, he didn't think the psychofiles were going to provide him with the answer. After all, none of the experts had ever tried to reintegrate a borgified female.
"Swell?" she questioned.
Nick shrugged. Did the mortals know how confusing their vernacular could be to an immortal? How often their language changed? Sometimes, he felt he could more easily carry on a conversation with Will Shakespeare or Geoffrey Chaucer than any 24th century mortal.
Seven led him to the holodeck and called in the correct program. Then at Nick's request, she explained the rules to him. It was a simple game, a combination of shooting practice and Ping-Pong, he thought, a test of skill, speed, patience, and endurance. Nick would have been able to beat any human on the ship, but Seven's Borg implants greatly enhanced her natural ability. If she'd shown any patience, she might have won a game or two. Nick beat her every round.
After seven games straight, Nick called the program to end. Seven was almost breathing hard enough to split a seam in her suit. She glared at him before responding. "You are a formidable opponent. You are quicker than you would appear."
Nick nodded. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"A very human thing to do. To take a simple fact and either feel pleasure or pain, when it is just a fact." Her tone was condescending.
Nick laughed. "Thanks, again! You see, Seven, I may not be human, but I have often wanted to be. I have tried to act like them, to think like them. So, it is a compliment, a small victory, to have you tell me it was "a very human thing"."
"Why would you wish to be human?"
Nick stiffened. She sounded just like LaCroix when she said that. The answer was very complex, and not one he was sure he could make. Still, some of her Borgish cold indifference had left, and he didn't want to shut her out. "I will tell you. But not here. It will take a while. Computer, run Tom Paris's Wendy's program."
The targets game ended, and the holodeck transformed into a late twentieth century hamburger shop, complete with vinyl upholstered booths, rock music in the background, and the smell of greasy food. Nick slid into a booth and gestured to Seven to do the same. She hesitated only a moment, staring at the room with wide-eyed fascination.
A teen-aged, holographic waitress appeared to "take their orders." Nick glanced at Seven, then ordered for them both. Burgers, fries, pop, and lots of ketchup. As the girl left, Nick folded his hands together nervously before him, and drew a deep breath.
"I was born mortal, a human," he confessed. In his mind he could still see the de Brabant castle, if he concentrated. the mortal memories were not as clear as the vampire ones. He remembered his mother and sister Fleur well, because he went back to see them after he had changed, but his father had been dead then. "I was taught that mortal life was only the first step, that we must obey the rules and seek to live righteously, that we may attain admittance into the next life, a place of perfection. Failure condemned us to an eternity suffering the fires of damnation.
"When I was 32, my faith was weakened. I was filled with doubt, I was injured, and I was seduced. I accepted the offer of immortality from LaCroix. Of course, after receiving the offer, it was either accept it or die, no vampire would allow me to live once I knew of their existence. It is the code.
"But, I betrayed my beliefs. I still believe that I am damned, as I will not die and pass into the life of perfection."
Seven remained silent and thoughtful.
The girl returned then, balancing a large tray on one arm, and set the noxious products down before them. She flashed a bright smile, with silver braces on her teeth, and asked, "Will that be all?"
"Yes," Nick answered.
Seven stared at the metallic implants in the girl's mouth, until the hologram blushed a bright red and hurried away. Then she faced the plate of food before her without interest.
Nick lifted a long, soggy French fry and dipped it in the ketchup. Lifting it, his nose crinkling slightly at its foul odor, he stared at the thick red dripping ketchup as he summoned the willpower to place it in his mouth. Once inside, he had to concentrate on remembering how to chew and swallow, as he hadn't eaten anything solid in nearly three hundred years.
Seven watched him closely. Then, lifting a fry of her own, she imitated his every move, right down to the slight gag reflex that Nick had never been able to conceal. "What is the purpose of this," Seven inquired.
"I haven't a clue," Nick answered, grinning broadly.
"This plate of liquefied animal fat, sodium nitrate, sodium chloride, the tubers of a semi-toxic plant and pulverized bovine flesh on a soggy wheat bun is not supposed to be taken as nourishment, is it?"
Nick laughed out loud. "You got it, Seven! These humans are such complex creatures! They have written some of the greatest literature in the quadrant, produced masterpieces in art, drama, architecture, and yet they seem to struggle with the most basic survival instinct of procuring nourishment."
"I am grateful, then, that I still do not require "food". My alcove provides for my needs."
Nick dipped one more French fry. As the ketchup flowed and oozed, forming a small pool on his plate, he allowed the fangs to erupt. "But as bad as it tastes, the humans find a great deal of comfort from eating. It is a social custom. They partake of food at every function-- baptisms, burials, promotions, weddings, parties, even an informal date is not complete without an ice cream cone. Until you and I can eat with them, we will remain separated."
Seven picked apart the hamburger as though she was touching poison. Then lifting a French fry smothered with ketchup, she attempted a second taste. "The ketchup is acceptable," she stated flatly.
They fell into a companionable silence for a while. Vampire and Borg, immortal and nearly indestructible, both stubborn, determined, and all alone in an alien crew, shared a common weakness... somehow a greasy little hamburger joint had united them in a way Nick would not have believed possible.
Nick hoped it meant she was ready to listen. He didn't really want to have to beat her at target practice for months on end.
"You were born human, and raised Borg. Now, you are neither and both, caught somewhere in the middle and uniquely your own. You fear becoming fully human and losing your uniqueness," Nick said.
"I fear nothing," she snapped.
"Ah, the lady doth protest too much!"
The reference was lost on her. She stared at him curiously. She knew nothing of Shakespeare, Earth's history, or vast literature! The Borg assimilated entire species in their eternal quest for perfection, but while they grabbed at the technological, they carelessly discarded the irrelevant... the missing ingredient in their perfection! He knew what course of action to take with her now!
"Seven. I want to show you about your heritage. You have your parent's letters and documents, to know them better. You have the crew around you to know what humans are like. I want to show you where they came from. Consider it a history lesson."
"I am aware of their major conflicts. The Borg assimilated that knowledge."
"No. Not a history of war. A history of people! The heroes of their past, the great artists, composers, authors, architects! The first men to venture into space! History is more than dates and battles! History is people! You will see that to be human is to be unique!"
Nick's voice grew in volume as his excitement escalated. He gestured with his hands, trying to make her "see" his thoughts. Her heart was still beating fast. It was probably still from the workout, but Nick hoped that just maybe he had caught her interest.
"History is irrelevant," she intoned.
"Okay. So it is irrelevant. But, you have to spend time with me. So, would you rather explore history, or learn to paint?"
She turned to leave. "History, then."
"Great. Meet me here, at 1400, in two days."
She nodded slightly, and fairly ran from the holodeck.
Nick needed to learn how to program the holodeck. He had never done it before, but as it was such a common item to modern life, there were no instruction manuals. "Computer," he called. "Who writes the majority of holodeck programs on this ship?"
"Ensign Tom Paris," came the instant reply. "Paris has programmed-"
"Fine, that's enough. Where is Paris now?"
"Ensign Tom Paris is in the Mess Hall."
Nick squared his shoulders. It was time to face "the other man."
Tom glanced up casually as Nick entered the room. He was spinning a tale around a table, with three girls hanging on his every word. Tom was young, good-looking, arrogant, and currently unattached. On a ship with only so many options, he was definitely desirable to a majority of the women. The tale spun on with only a few exaggerations. He was recounting events of stopping an entire planet's entrance into the Federation single-handedly, when he was only a boy.
Nick had tasted Tom's blood before. He had consumed it directly, fresh from the victim, before it had had a chance to cool and thereby lose some of the life's essence. With only a sip of the fresh blood, Nick had learned everything about Tom, and Nick's near perfect memory retained that knowledge. The wild tales Tom told really were mostly true. But the way he told them made them sound like a fabrication. Tom's childhood had been so bizarre, so painful and so debilitating, that no one would have believed the truth. But Nick knew.
Nick got a coffee mug from Neelix and exchanged pleasantries with the Talaxian, while Tom finished his tale. One girl snuggled too close, and Tom put her off. Nick suspected then that Tom was still hoping to get B'Elanna back. Nick carried the mug over to join him.
"That's all for now, girls," Tom said with a plastered smile. They got up and left, but not without a backward glare at the man who interrupted their fun.
Tom kept the stiff smile in place. Nick spoke up immediately, to settle Tom's fear about how deep this meeting might run. "I had two questions," Nick said. "Why did you ever agree to do a concert with me, and how do you program a holodeck?"
Tom laughed. This meeting, at least, would be non-invasive.
Nick could already hear the change in his heart rate.
"I agreed to perform with you, because Kim thought it would piss you off," Tom answered cheerfully. Then he laughed again at the expression Nick pulled.
"Thanks," Nick said.
"Oh, don't mention it. And, why don't you know how to program a holodeck? Any two year old can do it."
Nick shrugged, hoping he didn't look as dumb as he felt. "Holodecks were not invented when I was two years old," he answered.
Tom stood up and waited for Nick. "Okay. Let's go, and I'll show you. Besides, we have to work out our piece together."

Programming the damned room was a bit like ordering from a menu, Nick realized. He only needed to tell the computer, exactly, what he wanted. If he called for a table, it would list 700 different varieties. He had to state what year, what model, what material, and what size, of everything. It was very time consuming. But when Tom was working with him and not antagonizing him, Nick found him really very likeable.
Then Tom called up a piano and sat at the bench. He swung into a boogie tune, embellishing it, as he watched Nick. His arms and wrists were fluid, swinging rhythmically with constant boogie beat. Nick didn't recognize this specific number, but he was familiar with the style of music.
"Not what you had in mind, old-timer?" Tom grinned broadly. He and Nick could almost have been brothers, two peas of the same pod, with only 1115 years between their ages. Tom's hair was also blonde, his eyes were blue. He had a pale complexion, although it was capable of sporting a tan, when he had the chance to bare a little skin in some real sunshine.
Nick slid onto the bench, pushing Tom over enough to give him room. Watching Tom play a few more bars, Nick imitated him, then added to the song as he maintained the steady boogie beat. Tom called it "jamming." They jammed until they were both late for dinner. They jammed from boogie to swing to blues. They would have jammed far into the night, except LaCroix struck again.
Nick pressed his hands to his face and fell from the bench. He screamed with agony. Tom was instantly beside him, checking for a pulse out of habit and slapping his comm badge to call for help.
The doctor materialized beside them before Tom even finished. He watched as the doctor held the tricorder near a small sensor planted behind Nick's ear. "I didn't think vampires could feel pain," he said lamely. Nick was obviously in a great deal of pain, and there was nothing Tom could do.
Blood tears flowed from Nick's eyes. His jaw was tightly clenched, yet fangs appeared over the lower lip. It was so strange to see them. Tom knew he was a vampire, but it was still hard to believe, like something from a grade B holoflick. Nick hunched into a ball. He didn't look so old and wise and dangerous anymore. He was hurting. Tom felt compassion for him, even if he was still pissed off with him.
The doctor drew a meditool from his bag. "Tom, hold him still while I work," he directed.
"Yeah, right," he thought under his breath. Nick was stronger than two Vulcans, three guards and a captain all thrown together. Tom moved toward Nick's head and tried to hold him. The doctor ran the meditool. He did not speak about Nick's condition as he treated him, but held the scanner's face for his medic-in-training to view.
Tom winced at the readouts. If Nick were mortal, he'd be dead. He was suffering an old-fashioned stroke. Even as he watched however, the ruptured blood vessels healed. Whether it was from the doctor's intervention or the vampire's natural healing process or a combination, Tom didn't know.
Nick lay still. His wretched cries had ceased. He was limp, awake but barely aware.
"He will need to rest," the doctor said. "Help me get him to sickbay. Then, I want you to tell me everything you can remember before this attack began."
The doctor ordered the lights in sickbay lowered, for the vampire's comfort. He brought Tom to the far side of the sickbay to question him, trying not to disturb or alarm his patient. However, he had not yet learned just how well a vampire can hear. Nick was able to pick up the information. He was just too weak to respond.
Tom's story was brief and unenlightening. They'd been having a good time. Nothing happened to bring on the attack. Nick was simply laughing and relaxed one minute, and writhing on the floor the next. The doctor's face emulated true concern.
"If he were mortal, he would be dead. But he's not mortal. Still, I think that this will kill him, if it continues. Certainly, there is the chance of brain damage. Although the vampire cells repair themselves, if memory, speech, or other areas of the brain controlling higher functions are damaged, it is conceivable that he would heal but not be himself."
"What can you do for him?" Tom asked.
"Right now? Watch him. Nothing else."
"Um. I'll,... go tell B'Elanna," Tom muttered. It would be one of the hardest things he had ever had to do.

Nick slept for fourteen hours straight. The doctor fed him blood through a tube. He kept the lights low and the noise down, flitting silently about his only patient like a worried mother.
But the next morning, Nick awoke as his same old self. He saw B'Elanna's sweet face and grinned at her seductively. The fact that he was in sickbay seemed to escape him. B'Elanna rose and stroked his cheek tenderly.
"Nick! How do you feel?"
His eyes rimmed with gold. His fangs descended as he rose on one elbow to draw her nearer.
"Nick! Not here," she breathed huskily.
The doctor was beside him, running his annoying little scanners once again. Nick sat up slowly, vaguely remembering something. Tom, the piano, and The Pain. LaCroix's evil game of torture. What was it he wanted? Did the attacks have anything in common? The first happened in his room while he was relaxing with B'Elanna. The second he'd been in his office, and the third was at the piano. If there was a connection, it escaped him. The attacks were progressively more severe. He suspected that a fourth one might do something permanent and it terrified him. He swung his legs around, preparing to leave.
"Where do you think you are going," the doctor demanded in his no-nonsense medical voice of authority.
"Ah... to breakfast?"
"Curious. Are you hungry? You've had twelve liters of replicated plasma since you came in here."
That surprised even Nick. He knew his blood consumption was directly related to the use of his "special" abilities. Every time he flew, or hypnotized someone, or his cells repaired themselves, he required more than normal. But twelve liters! He couldn't even remember how many a liter was at the moment. Archaic probably, but he was still more comfortable with quarts and gallons. Liters were a little like a quart... had he taken three gallons of blood? There was no sign that he had perspired in the night, no blood on the bedding. He didn't feel the need to visit the bathroom, a rare occurrence in the life of a vampire. LaCroix really had messed up his brains yesterday! The injuries must have been extensive. He seethed with barely concealed rage at the ancient one's perverted concept of paternal concern.
"Look doc, I feel fine. You know as well as I, that you can't prevent another attack. So I might as well get to work."
"Nick," he said.
Nick nodded at him. "Thanks, doc. You're okay. For a lightbulb."

Chapter Twelve: Alien Dead

Nick suffered through a dozen different versions of the same question during breakfast alone. He plastered a smile on his face and responded to each, "I feel fine. Thanks," but if anyone else confronted him, that could change. B'Elanna patted his hand with genuine concern.
"They're just worried for you, Nick. It's the human response. I'm worried, too."
Nick couldn't look at her just yet. He had to bury his own fears before he could tell an effective lie. He couldn't tell anyone about LaCroix. But he was not safe; he was not fine. He had to get alone and try to communicate with him. He had always been LaCroix's favorite child, a dubious honor to be sure.
LaCroix had abused him in the past. At first, it was merely emotional bullying. Shortly after Nick had become a vampire, he was overcome with guilt. His beliefs, the religious teachings of his youth, resurfaced to mock him, tormenting him, damning him. He wanted to go back to his mortality.
LaCroix had become overcome with rage. There was no going back! There was no god, no death, no right and no wrong. He made Nicholas dependent on him, then he would often abandon him. Nick, hungry, frightened and alone, came crawling back to the protective arms of his creator.
Sometimes LaCroix would beat him. At times Nick fought back, but LaCroix was always the stronger of the two. Whether he fought or not, the outcome was the same. LaCroix beat him whenever he'd been chasing down another myth, another legend of a cure for vampirism. LaCroix beat him when he tried to run away or when he showed any independence. After awhile, Nick almost welcomed the abuse. The pain and punishment would relieve his immense sense of guilt, if only for a time.
But then there were all the times LaCroix had helped and nurtured him.... For although LaCroix could beat him, no one else was permitted to hurt him and survive. Once he'd been assaulted by an ancient vampire, and LaCroix's vengeance had been absolute. When he'd been involved in a shooting as a homicide detective which resulted in a mortal's death, the guilt threatened to overcome him and LaCroix had helped him to see things in perspective. Then after Natalie abandoned him, LaCroix was there. LaCroix got him interested in art and music. LaCroix provided for him to have the best of teachers.
LaCroix was a father to him, and at times an older brother. They had been together for 1147 years. Always Nick had been certain of only one fact, that he was the "cherished" son. LaCroix's possessiveness towards him was not extended to any of his other children.
So why would the ancient one want to kill him? It didn't make any sense. Unless LaCroix had finally given up on him, and chose to permanently sever the ties that bound them together regardless of the miles that separated them....

"Nick, maybe you should talk to the Captain and take another day off?"
"No!" He hadn't meant to be so sharp with her. Instantly remorseful, he forced the golden eyes of one hunted to recede and drew all of his boyish charm into a smile. "B'Elanna, the vacation was killing me! I have to be doing something. I'm all right. Really."
She smiled, not quite convinced. "See you later then."
"For lunch?"
"I don't know, Nick."
Nick leaned closer and breathed on her neck. He touched the tips of his teeth against her soft skin just enough to elicit a response. When her pulse quickened, he stepped away. "I will be waiting for you."
Her smile deepened, her eyes bright with unspoken emotion. Then she left.

Nick returned to his quarters. Maybe there was time enough before Paulus was expected. Lying on his bed, he tried to find the link they shared. Usually it was LaCroix who invaded him. LaCroix's powers were stronger, because of the natural bond of master to child, and because of his age. Nick's powers were weak even for one his age, since he had spent so many centuries denying his true nature in what may actually have been a fruitless search for his humanity.
But he felt nothing of LaCroix. There was no familiar tingle. No raising of the hair at the back of his neck. No taunting, perverse laughter at his feeble attempts. The prolonged quiet was disturbing. He rolled out of the bed and paced. "What are you doing, LaCroix!" he demanded to the empty room. "Why this new form of torture? What have I done to you now!"
The Pain struck again. Nick fell instantly to the floor and begged him to stop. Instantly, IT was gone. Nick waited, afraid to move.
"Good evening, my son...." The familiar voice sounded almost pleasant.
Nick was lost. It was a dangerous new game and he didn't have the rules. He sensed LaCroix was waiting for him to speak, but he didn't know what to say. One wrong word and The Pain would return. His thoughts were filled with fear.
"It... isn't evening... father," he ventured.
LaCroix chuckled. "Ah, but it is. Here, where you belong... there is a full moon out now. Can you feel it?"
Nick hesitated. Still unmoving, he opened his senses a little further. He felt something pale dance across his face. The silver glow of the cool body that ruled the night. The sense of joy and hedonistic abandon of a full moon calling to his vampire nature. The need to hunt! An image of LaCroix standing in the light of a full moon, basking in the sensual touch of its embrace, filled his mind. LaCroix was happy at the moment. As happy as he ever was, for a sadistic master of the dark.
Maybe Nick could ask him now. "Please..." he began.
"Yes, Nicholas?" LaCroix waited. He knew full well what Nick wanted to ask, but he would force him to say the words anyway.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"To save you. You are in grave danger, my son. Stay alert. Stay wary. Do not allow this complacency to continue."
LaCroix laughed again. The tone was less pleasant, almost patronizing. "You will learn, Nicholas. Now, you've met some one new? Tell me more about this... Seven?"
Nick's comm badge vibrated softly as the doctor called to him. "Nick? Are you all right? Your sensor pulsed wildly, then stopped. Do you require assistance?"
He hesitated. To ignore the doctor would bring him here instantly. The doctor had access to everyone on the ship regardless of doors and locks. To respond might bring LaCroix's anger again. Concentrating on two things at once, Nick tried to conjure up an image of Seven and answer the doctor.
"I'm fine, doc. The Pain stopped, and I feel no injury."
"Hmm. All right, then."
LaCroix was only momentarily distracted by the image of Seven. He caught the exchange between Nick and the doctor, even if he didn't quite catch all the words. "Seeking mortal help for your troubles, Nicholas!"
"No, LaCroix," he lied defensively. "But they are bound to notice something is wrong when I pass out on the job."
"Ah, yes. I have warned you.... Stay alert. Who is this Seven? Maybe you should bring her across? She seems like a worthy prey."
"She's off limits," Nick said, careful to keep any hint of defiance from his thoughts and words. "She's part Borg. There are nanoprobes in her blood, a technology that even the humans are not quite sure off, and these nanoprobe things work overtime to heal and protect her. They might prove dangerous, even fatal to our kind."
"Pity. She is a... tempting morsel. Such exquisite beauty, in such a... formidable package. I look forward to your next encounter with her."
LaCroix started to withdraw. Nick felt the pang of abandonment that always accompanied the closing of the link, even when it was desired. It was a physical response, and had nothing to do with his emotional tie. "LaCroix!" he called, trying to maintain something he did not even understand. "Please, tell me! Is It over?"
The silken voice laughed as it faded. "Be wary, Nicholas...."

LaCroix's encounter left him feeling more vulnerable than he cared to admit. As a Crusader he had been blessed with the unique idiocy of youth that he would live forever. The nearly mortal wounds he had sustained at the hands of the Saracens had gravely shaken that belief. It left him defenseless, ripe for the seduction of the beautiful Janette, who promised him eternal life, great strength, power, wealth, and her.... As a vampire he'd had that firm belief in his own immortality shaken only once more... when a strange fever developed that could kill vampires, back in the twentieth century. No matter how severely LaCroix dealt with him, he had always known he would heal. Until now.
There was nothing to do for it but return to work. There was no where to hide from one who had access to his thoughts. He chose to take the long way around, getting in a brisk walk through the long, gently curving corridors of the dimly lit ship. "Be wary," he had warned. Wary of what? "Stay alert." Did LaCroix know something was about to happen? Nick was deep in thought as he strode past the transporter rooms. The tingle of the annular confinement beam grasped at the periphery of his attention. Someone was beaming aboard. He didn't have time to ponder it further, as a scream split the air.
Nick flew into the transporter room. The transporter still hummed but its task was over. Whoever was trying to board would not walk the land of the living again. Bodies exploded upon transport. Blood painted the room. The walls were dripping with a fresh coat of thick red ooze, the carpet slogged where he stepped. The technician was screaming at the gruesome accident. Nick caught her before she hit the floor unconscious, his hands coated with the red alien blood where he touched her. His fangs descended and the vampire emerged in full force.
He slapped his comm badge, leaving a blood red print. "Doctor, medical emergency, transporter room one!" He could hear heartbeats quickly approaching- Tuvok and Commander Chakotay. He stared at the blood on his hands. It was so tantalizing. He hesitated only a minute before he licked it away. Then he forced the vampire at bay and stood with the unconscious technician cradled in his arms.
They ran inside together. "What happened!"
"I heard her scream," Nick said. "When I came in, everything was already red. I think she fainted."
The doctor tingled into existence, his tricorder already open and scanning. He pulled a wretched face at the remains of the aliens now beyond his help, then he approached the technician. She was totally covered in blood, but none of it was her own. "Bring her to sickbay," he told Nick. "After we clean her up, she may need a sedative. She's had quite a shock."
Nick hesitated, looking at Chakotay and Tuvok. "Who were they? What went wrong?"
Chakotay laid a comforting hand on Nick's shoulder and gently but firmly guided him out of the room. "They were messengers from the Buliga nations, who control this sector. We were going to negotiate supplies and safe passage through their space. Tuvok will handle the investigation. Now go with the doctor. There is nothing you can do here."
The transporters would be off line until further notice, so Nick carried her through the corridor, leaving a trail of blood red footprints in the carpeting. Two crewmembers were in the corridor up ahead. Nick wished to prevent them from viewing the gory sight, but humans being what they were, their own curiosity would force them to watch. He warned them anyway.
"Don't look! She's all right. The blood is not her own!" But he didn't take the time to pack his command with a hypnotic punch. So they looked and they vomited. The mop-robot would be kept busy on this level.
The doctor indicated a bed and Nick laid her down. His brain fumbled to put a name to the technician; the alien blood was prickling at his consciousness. Something had not been right. He couldn't lay his finger on it.
Dorry, Dairie?
"Remove Dulie's clothing," the doctor instructed.
"But, Doc, isn't that your job?"
"No. It would be a nurse's job, if we had one. You're here, you'll do. I don't want her to wake up and see blood."
Nick complied. Her clothing was removed and stashed into the recycler. He took a wash cloth and cleansed the drying blood from her skin, face, and hair. Would she too become another client? How did Starfleet justify sending out their ships without a qualified counselor on board! But he knew the answer. Voyager was a small, compact ship, built for speed and stamina. It was to be launched on lightning-quick strikes and return. This trip was only supposed to last two- three months at most. That was over four years ago.
The doctor gave Nick a sidelong glance. His expression was unreadable.
"So, did you get your kicks this morning, Lieutenant?" Nick turned innocent eyes on him. "What?"
"Your neurocortical scanner. At the moment of the accident, it dipped drastically. A sudden rush of endorphins, perhaps? Did you find the blood bath pleasant or sensual?"
Nick turned away from the doctor. Had he? No! It was tragic, a waste of life! But the vampire had surfaced if only for a minute. Nick carefully finished washing the blood from himself. "I had nothing to do with their deaths, Doctor," he said firmly. Then he strode from the room.

Chapter Thirteen: Recovery

Nick's office was busy all morning. At least two dozen of the crew stopped in. They were all ashen and nervous about the transporter incident. Some wanted to vent their fears, some wanted "the inside scoop" since they had heard that Nick had been there. Transporters were vital to starship travel. Every time someone stepped on the pad, they were consenting to "die" if even only for a fraction of a minute, while the complex network of systems dissected them at the atomic level, shot their atoms through the narrow ACB, then reintegrated them into living tissue someplace else. They had to trust their equipment! There was such a complicated, overly redundant back-up system to the transporter technology that accidents of this kind were extremely rare. But they were no less traumatic. Nick found their macabre fascination with the grotesque oddly amusing. Like little children they flocked around something frightening, then needed help to deal with the trauma.
Nick was no stranger to blood. The blood had not offended him. But the accident did. He knew very little of the science behind the technology. He only knew that accidents were rare. And that the alien blood held a hidden agenda. If only he had some more of it, he might interpret the strange images it contained. But by now the mortal security people would have gathered what little information they could, and the hapless cleaning crew would have removed all further evidence.
B'Elanna did not stop by for Lunch, either. She was assigned to tearing the transporter apart and ascertaining the trouble, as quickly as possible. Nick knew it was part of her job, but he couldn't help the letdown feeling he experienced. He had hoped to talk with her, to share notes, or ease his pain, or even just enjoy a pleasant distraction.
Paulus's visit was less than satisfactory. She was still taking little side steps, no progress being made but no ground lost either. The painting lessons were the only thing she seemed to respond to at all. Nick did not want to hurry her along, but he wondered if after she'd learned the basic skills and started to create more original compositions, would she begin to open up. Today when she came by one of the plants had died.
She flew at Nick with uncontrolled anger. She ranted, called him irresponsible, called him worse, and even struck him. It was just a plant. Yet it sprawled across the soil, it's leaves limp and mildewy, mocking the vampire's ineptitude.
Nick let her scream. He let her pummel his chest. The walls were sealed for sound, and the tiny human was incapable of hurting him. He felt that he had failed her, though. As her screams turned into sobs, Nick gathered her into his arms and swayed gently, patting her head and whispering softly.
"I'm ...sor..sorry," she hiccuped.
"Sh-sh. Don't be. Don't be sorry. It's okay," he soothed.
"I should go."
Nick hesitated. Maybe she should stay? He held her for another moment, but he didn't want to do anything to damage the fragile trust they had built. He released her. "Come again tomorrow," he said, as she left the room.
B'Elanna was still working on the transporters at suppertime. Nick hated to feed in the mess hall without her. Somehow, when she was near, everyone tended to give them wide berth, allowing them privacy. But without her presence, Nick was forced to associate with too many mortals and to carry on too many pointless conversations. He was surrounded by too many smells- both the delicious and the noxious, his vampiric senses were overloaded. With behavior that rivaled Seven for rudeness, Nick bolted from the Mess Hall altogether.
Neelix chased after him in the corridor. "Nick!" he huffed, his short legs insufficient for the task. "Nick, wait up! Please, bring this to B'Elanna!"
He spoke the magic word. Nick stopped and waited impatiently. Neelix caught up to him, carrying a covered tray. "B'Elanna's been at it all day. See that she gets this, and eats it while it is still warm." Neelix beamed brightly.
"Thanks," Nick barked. Now he had a reason to do what he'd been itching to do all day. Boldly bearing the food tray, he approached B'Elanna on her own turf.
The transporter room had changed drastically. All of the blood had been cleaned and scrubbed away. The air had been purified- not even a trace of the blood molecules floated in it. The transporter pads were torn apart, with bits and pieces scattered in orderly piles around the cleaned, damp carpet. And B'Elanna had her top half submerged between deck plates, cursing expertly in both Klingon and Standard.
Nick just watched her for long moments. Then, he decided that maybe she did need the break. "B'Elanna."
"What! Damn it! I'm doing the best I can, I'd get a hell of a lot more finished without the interruptions!"
Nick laughed softly. B'Elanna pulled out of the deckplates, only slightly embarrassed. "Nick. What are you doing here?"
"Neelix's orders," he stated, holding the food tray out protectively.
B'Elanna tried a smile, but it looked more like a grimace. She wiped lubricant off her hands onto her pants and took the tray. "Hope it's not something vile and disgusting," she snapped. She hefted the cover and tossed it aside. Nick watched the emotions play across her face. First wariness, then awareness, then relief. The taco dinner pleased her. She grabbed one taco and took half of it in one bite.
"I've missed you," Nick said truthfully.
She nodded, still stuffing the food in fast enough for heartburn.
"How's it coming?"
B'Elanna shrugged indifferently, but her scowl spoke otherwise. "Damned piece of junk. I can't find any thing wrong! Nothing! It should work just fine!"
"Maybe it does?" Nick suggested.
B'Elanna growled. "You saw the destruction in here! Did that look like everything was hunky-fine, Nick!"
Nick sat down behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. Applying pressure with his thumbs, he rubbed at her tension. She closed her eyes. "Oh, that's it. A little higher."
"I know it was terrible, B'Elanna. But, if the transporter isn't malfunctioning, maybe it was something else."
"Like what!"
"I don't know. I'm not a scientist."
"You know something, though. Don't you!" She turned around in his arms and glared at him.
Nick touched a stray lock of her hair and brushed it back. "No. Nothing solid. But, something about this is all wrong. And, maybe you should take a break- an hour off- then come back? It might give you a fresh perspective."
"Nick, are you propositioning me?" Her smile was seductive.
"I hope so," he said huskily.
B'Elanna tapped her comm badge. "Captain, nothing new. I haven't found a thing. I'll break for dinner and get right back."
Nick heard the captain's curt reply. The alien Buliga demanded answers. B'Elanna wasn't to take any longer than absolutely necessary.
B'Elanna inhaled the rest of the tacos as they fairly raced for Nick's quarters, laughing on the way. Nick wrapped B'Elanna in his arms and buried his face in her thick hair. She always smelled of lilacs and honey. But she seemed tired, distracted. Now wasn't the best time for intimacy. Nick scooped her up and carried her into the bathroom.
"Nick! What are you doing," she squealed.
"Old fashioned cure for a long day. The bath."
He plugged the tub and flipped the controls to dispense exactly the correct amount of warm water with bubble bath, at the perfect temperature. Instant relaxation! Technology had some benefits, he decided, although he'd always found that the sound of a bathtub slowly filling was half the fun.
"Klingons aren't really into... bathing," B'Elanna sneered. Nick laughed. The sound was deep and sensual. "No, but humans are. Trust me. I'll show you the correct way to bathe."
By the time the deep, scented water started to turn cold, both had relaxed enough to return to their tasks. B'Elanna was ready to rebuild the entire pad assembly from scratch. Nick had tried to suggest that something about the alien deaths seemed odd, but he didn't explain why he thought so. She just chucked it somewhere into the back of her mind. He'd been right before, about Paulus, and the parasite infection, almost like a sixth sense, so she wasn't ready to ignore his concerns.
B'Elanna had comforted Nick as well. He'd shared the highlights of his last session with Paulus. "That's great, Nick!'" she had cheered.
He hadn't understood why. "Because," B'Elanna explained. "It shows she trusts you. Like a brother. You only yell at the people you're close to. She's starting to treat you like one of the family. It won't be long now." Nick wished he shared B'Elanna's optimism.
"This was a great idea, Nick," she said as she kissed him. "We've never just talked before."  
Nick had to spend some time in the holodeck working on the programming before Seven's appointment tomorrow. He wasn't sure how this exploration of history was going to play out. He'd met so many people in his long life. Hitler and Rachmaninoff, Rasputen and Joan of Arc, Michelangelo and Albert Sweitzer. His first program needed to be perfect, or the cold, intelligent Borg would not return.
Rachmaninoff was still very much on his mind. Maybe it had a lot to do with his upcoming concert, or because the young composer reminded him in some way of Paulus. But Nick decided that was as good a place to begin as any. If nothing else happened, Seven would at least be able to attend the concert a little more knowledgeable.
He wondered whether to set it up like a movie, with events playing out around them uninterrupted by their presence. Seven didn't strike him as a passive learner. Then he wondered about incorporating them into the events. But then Seven would need to dress in costume and act out a roll. Also, not likely to be successful. Finally, Nick decided to just set the stage. He would have a series of scenes, from different parts of the years Nick spent with Serge, and let Seven interact with him directly. She would probably interrogate him. Nick winced with guilt. Even if it was only a hologram, it still seemed like a dirty trick to pull on a friend.
When his work was finished, Nick sat at the familiar piano in the comfortable suite. Trailing lightly across the keys, he closed his eyes and tried to recall the melody he had composed for her... so long ago. His fingers recalled chords before he did, and the strains started to fill the room.
The melody was simple, haunting, and bittersweet. It was his love for the coroner, a love he could not even speak. Once, when he dared to confess his feelings for her, LaCroix had almost destroyed her. Nick had to convince LaCroix that it was all a lie, that he was only using her. Then he hypnotized her, and robbed her of their intimate memories.


========== flashback, Yukon 2044 ==========

Nick felt warm, safe, loved. It was a wonderful dream, and he didn't want to wake up. He kept his eyes shut tight and willed himself to return to happy oblivion. It was unsuccessful. Opening his vampiric senses just a fraction, he tried to sense what time of day it was. Ever since becoming a vampire, he had never needed a watch or weatherman to warn him of the sun's path. At some instinctual level he knew when daylight was approaching in time to seek shelter. It seemed as though it must be past sun down, although the sense was not clear. That confused him. He ventured to open his eyes.
LaCroix was still asleep, with an arm wrapped protectively around him. Nick felt a moment of irritation. He was old enough to take care of himself- but even before he finished the thought, he acknowledged that if he had been taking care of himself, LaCroix would not have come to rescue him. He pushed those thoughts away. He wasn't ready yet to think about how he came to be LaCroix's prisoner again... he wasn't ready to think about her.
Slowly, he eased out from under LaCroix's hold and slipped into the bathroom for a shower. Anton had finished another painting late last night. It was absolutely beautiful. He had painted his family from memory. Mother, father, three little sisters, and the dog- a big red Irish Setter with a silken coat. The girls had soft brown curls. Two of them had sweet, angelic faces, but the youngest had impish eyes. Nick almost asked how they had died, but he wasn't sure if Anton was ready to talk about it. He knew, that if Anton shared, he might be forced to share as well, and he definitely was not ready for that. And so he remained silent.
After they cleaned up their brushes, they had played several games of cards before retiring. Nick wanted to try something new with Anton today. He thought they would try a little sculpting. Perhaps LaCroix could be persuaded to procure them some marble. He hadn't asked him for much in the year and a half that he'd lived in this dark, sheltered prison.
He poured himself a large mug and warmed it in the microwave. Anton was not up yet, either. He drained it, and refilled it, then moved restlessly around the living room. The piano sat idle. He hadn't played it once since coming here. He set the mug down and pulled out the bench. Memories floated past, as he thought about what to play. Nothing sentimental. Definitely nothing romantic, and none of his many songs to the moon. His feelings were still in turmoil, repressed but not resolved. Bach's inventions were just the thing. Exercise for the fingers and the brain, but something he could play as pure music, without the encumbrance of his own emotions. He played them all. First the two part inventions, and then the three part. His fingers stretched and danced, slipping into the familiar fingering patterns with ease. As his stomach started to rumble, he realized that he had been playing for hours. He stopped, and drained the now stale blood from his mug.
"Well done, Nicholas," LaCroix commented.
Nick looked up. LaCroix was seated comfortably across the room from him, with a thick book in one hand. He smiled with a relaxed expression. Nick went to the refrigerator and pulled out a fresh bottle. He filled his own, then went to LaCroix and offered to fill his as well. The master held out his glass.
"Where is Anton?" Nick asked.
LaCroix took a sip before responding. "I haven't seen him," he said. "I think he may still be in bed. How late did you keep him up last night?"
Nick felt concerned. "I haven't a clue," he said testily. "There are no windows anywhere, and your collection of antique time pieces are not trustworthy. How am I to know for sure?"
LaCroix laughed. "We are fifty feet below the ground. Where would you like me to put a window, my son? A view of solid granite must be scintillating."
"Under ground?" Nick was confused. He hadn't made any attempts to run away from LaCroix, not since she had left him... why did his master feel compelled to make this fortresses impenetrable? But something seemed wrong. He could sense it was dark outside, above the ground. Anton should have had enough sleep by now. He put down his glass and went to check on him.
Anton had a comfortable room not far from the living area. Nick knocked, then let himself inside. The boy was in bed, but he was not asleep. His eyes looked back at Nick, glazed over with pain. Vomitus lay on the floor near the bed, with traces of blood in it. Nick flew to him, and pressed a hand against his forehead. It was cool to the touch. There was no fever.
"I'm sorry, Nick," Anton whispered feebly. "I just couldn't get up to clean it."
"Where does it hurt, Anton! What is wrong?"
Anton closed his eyes. "I knew it was going to happen... I just didn't realize it would... hurt... so much."
"LaCroix!" Nick shouted, bringing his vampire master there immediately. "There is something wrong with him, he's sick! You must go get a doctor!"
"I can not," LaCroix replied sadly.
Nick glared at him angrily. "Then I will go! Do not harm him!" He started towards the door, but LaCroix caught his arm and held him. The grip was firm.
"Let me go!"
Anton whispered, "Nick. He is right. You must not go outside. It isn't safe. Not even for your kind."
Nick felt shaken. None of this made sense. The boy knew what they were? Had he somehow been careless? And the boy agreed with his father? "Explain!" Nick demanded, turning back to LaCroix. "Are those his thoughts, or did you give them to him!"
LaCroix's face was filled with sadness. The expression unnerved Nick even more. LaCroix reached out to comfort him, but Nick jerked away. "My son... you have not been aware for such a long time. Much has happened outside. I meant to tell you, but I wasn't sure if you were ready to hear it."
"Tell me now! Tell me why you'll let a sick boy suffer, why this prison has no windows, and why we never go anywhere!"
"There's been another war," LaCroix whispered.
Silence filled the small room. It permeated the air, making it too thick to breathe. War conjured up many different memories for Nick. War once meant hacking away at mortal flesh with a sword. Then later, bullets propelled with gunpowder allowed the soldiers some distance from their enemies, softening some of the ugliness of the war. They didn't have to see their enemy's eyes as they died. But... he'd lived through world wars one and two... each successive war was more destructive than the last. After what he'd seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nick was certain that the human race would do whatever it took to prevent another war involving nuclear weapons that could very likely destroy all life. If, there'd been another war nuclear weapons had been fired. That would account for the sores on the boy's skin... the boy was dying from radiation poisoning.
Nick staggered. LaCroix caught him before he hit the floor, and drew him into his embrace. Blood tears pooled in LaCroix's eyes, for a second time in centuries. Nick was stunned, but LaCroix was visibly grief-stricken.
"What of Toronto? Chicago? My friends? Where is every one?"
Come, my son. Come and sit down. We will talk."
Nick moved listlessly again, as LaCroix guided him to the living area. He sat down next to his son, and draped an arm around his shoulder comfortingly. "Toronto is no more. There is no Chicago. No Montreal, or Milwaukee, or San Francisco, or Atlanta or Paris. All of the major cities are gone. 600 million are dead from the mortal numbers. The vampire deaths are equally devastating. Although all of the ancients have survived, many of the young ones either did not heed our warnings, or didn't care.
"Janette lives in my other shelter in the southern States. She took over a hundred fledglings and strays into the shelter with her. There are enough supplies there to keep them all healthy until the worst of the fallout dissipates."
Nick couldn't even think. It was all too horrible. There was no comprehending the news. He wanted to believe it was just a cruel hoax, yet LaCroix's blood tears and Anton's wounds were too compelling. "What about... " Nick couldn't even say her name yet. He wanted to hate her. She'd hurt him, and some small part of his nature wanted her to hurt, too. But, he didn't want her dead.
"Natalie lives. She and Vachon relocated to a NASA complex in Montana. She has a rather impressive job in medical research."
They sat together in silence for a long time. Nick could not cry. He wanted to ache for the misery of the world, but part of him was just too tired. The mortals had let him down. They brought this war upon themselves. They deserved it. But Anton hadn't. He said he'd been at scout camp when "it" happened. He must have been far enough away from any of the blast points that he survived, but somehow he'd been exposed to lethal levels of radiation anyway.
Nick got up and started to pace. Anton had come to mean so much to Nick. He'd helped Nick out of his depression, and helped him to live again. He couldn't lose him now!
"LaCroix, bring him across," Nick said firmly.
"Nicholas, I'm not sure that would be wise," LaCroix hedged slowly.
Nick flew to his master, grasping his throat and glaring at him with fully extended fangs and eyes of red. "Yes! Do it! You brought him here! You made me care for him! Save him!"
LaCroix firmly removed Nick's hands from his throat as though Nick was no stronger than a child. His own eyes became red embers, yet he controlled his rage and said nothing.
"Forget it, I'll do it myself," Nick growled.
"No." LaCroix's voice was firm. "I will indulge you in this request."
Then, he was gone. Nick followed him to Anton's room.
"Child," LaCroix said gently to the sick boy. "I can make you well again. I can take away your pain. You will live forever. But you must become one of us. What is your decision?"
Anton gazed at Nick. He tried to smile through his pain. Tears filled his eyes. "You are all the family I have left," he whispered. "Take me!"


==========end flashback==========

The memory faded, just as the song ended. It was the first time he had played it in decades. It was the first time ever that he played it without shedding tears. Natalie was happy. He could be happy for her.
He played on. The Moonlight Sonata, Claire de Lune, Moonlight Becomes You, and Moon Song. He remembered his strange visit with LaCroix this morning as his master basked in the glow of earth's Silver Queen. Where was his father living now? Starships set their time standard to San Francisco, arbitrarily, as that was Starfleet Headquarters. So when it was "day" on the ship, it should be daytime in California. Was LaCroix visiting the south China Sea again? There so many little cultures still existed, where the peoples chose to live according to tradition and allowed the modern world to pass them by. Some of the more ancient tribes held vampires in great esteem. LaCroix was no doubt among them again as a god among his primitive subjects. Of course, Auckland Penal Settlement was there, as well. Maybe he was just staging a prison break for another reckless vampire fledgling?
"Computer," he called. "Leave the piano here. Save and end the rest of the program."
Instantly, the blue and silver walls of the modern holodeck replaced Serge's comfortable apartment. The silver was a fitting color for his present mood. He played on, another song of the moon. "Computer, show me earth's night sky, with a full moon," he said.
"Specify point of origin," the obtuse computer voice responded.
Where was the best place to watch for stars? Toronto? Chicago? Nepal? He had lived so many places. "Aukland, New Zealand," he said.
As the stars and moon appeared, Nick played on, wondering if his father was still watching.

Chapter Fourteen: Under Attack

The holodeck trembled. Nick was so engrossed in his playing that it went unnoticed, until it happened a second time and the piano rolled out of reach. Nick sprang to his feet. The room lurched too fast for the inertial dampers to adjust. It canted awkwardly at an angle. The piano rolled into the wall and crashed. "Computer, End program," Nick commanded, as he lunged into the hallway.
The recessed lighting was blinking red, but Nick didn't need the color-coding to know that they were under attack. He wasn't sure where to go. As Ships' Historian he hadn't been assigned an alternate duty for emergencies. He would be useless in engineering, and no one would be frequenting his office until after this crisis was over. Maybe he should head into sickbay. If there were wounded, the Doc would need a hand. Tom, the assistant medic, was also the best pilot on board.
The ship lurched again, throwing him against the wall forcefully, then his stomach felt queasy as the artificial gravity fluctuated momentarily. The comm system was quiet. Only the bridge crew and engineering would know exactly what was happening. Everyone else simply went to their posts and fulfilled their role in keeping the ship running smoothly, even as system after system failed from alien energy blasts. Nick hated to place his existence so totally in the hands of others, mere mortals. If only he could be a part of the defense... be included in the information loop.
Sickbay was busy. The attack had come out of no where, no one had been prepared. When his piano crashed, people all over the ship sustained multiple injuries from something as minor as a few cuts, bruises, and broken bones to more serious burns and life-threatening wounds. The doctor scowled at Nick. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but I'm a little busy. I can't help you now."
"I know, Doc," he said. "I came to help you. I have some... very basic... first aid training."
The Doctor blinked out and rematerialized directly in front of Nick. "Can you refrain from devouring the wounded," he whispered harshly.
Nick paled further. It was a horrible accusation, but not unwarranted. "I will do my best," he answered.
The doctor slapped a medical tricorder in Nick's hand. "You're on probation. Start there."
Nick swallowed. He glanced nervously at the small instrument, then followed the direction indicated.
A little girl lay on the biobed. She was Ensign Wildman's child, the only one on the ship. Burns covered her arm and shoulder, bits of melted circuitry floated in pools of puss. The child's cries were heart-rending. Nick touched her check, forcing her to look at him. "What is her name," he demanded. The child's mother wasn't present; she must be at her post. Chances were she didn't even know that the child had been injured. That was part of being Starfleet, the part that stank. Harrison had found her and brought her in, since he was coming here anyway. He held a blood-soaked towel to a nasty head wound.
"Uh, Naomi," Harrison stammered.
"Naomi," Nick said. "Look at me, Naomi."
The girl's pitiful cries filled the sickbay. The adult wounded cringed, some even shed tears for her. They had entered spaceflight, knowing that attack was always a possibility. But she was just a child, a child who had been born on this ship. She'd never lived on a planet. And now her home was crumbling, her safety shattered, and she was alone.
"Naomi," Nick repeated, gently touching her cheek. The sound of her beating heart grew louder. She looked at Nick, momentarily silent, and the vampire hypnotized her. "You will feel no pain," he whispered. "You are safe here. We will help you. There is no pain."
"No pain," she said.
"You will sleep now. You will sleep for hours. And when you awake, you will not feel pain."
Naomi shut her eyes and fell silent. The tension left her face. She smiled weakly at him for a moment then went to sleep.
The injured crew around her stared at Nick. He kept his gold-rimmed eyes averted, struggling to read the tricorder. The child's life signs were stable. He didn't know how to treat the severe burns. The Doc would have to finish with her. Nick went on to the next one.
He was able to treat the broken bones. Thankfully, those that were bleeding from minor cuts were treating each other and staying out of the way. The scent of their blood was everywhere. It filled his lungs and clung to his clothing. It was almost intoxicating. Nick tried to ignore the aroma. He tried to avoid noticing the bloody pools on the floor. The ship darted about and more wounded came. Twice the lights flickered out, but came back on quickly as power was automatically rerouted to keep sickbay operational.
The doctor fizzed in front of Nick again, handing him a medical bag. "I want you to take this to the bridge."
"But Doc, I--"
"You've done well, Nick. But I can't leave here now, there are too many patients. Communications went out awhile ago. Some of the bridge crew might need your attention."
Nick took the bag. He wasn't being sent away. He was needed. It was a good way to feel. The ship might be blown apart in a second, if a lucky shot made it through their shields and struck a vulnerable place igniting the warp core. He could be ripped apart, his atoms sent to dance in the universe, but it wouldn't change a thing. Nick was needed on this ship. He had truly become a full member of the crew.
He raced through the corridors. The turboshaft was offline when he arrived. He pushed the top hatch aside and climbed on top of the roof to fly up the shaft to the bridge level, rather than backtrack to find another one that might still be functional. The ship lunged again while he was in flight. His forehead struck a rung on the ladder. He grasped at the rung, caught himself, and flew the remaining distance. His own blood dripped from a gash, dark and cold, but he was not aware of it.
The doors to the bridge from the shaft would not open. They sealed automatically when the shaft went offline. Nick forced them apart. One door tore off in his hands. He surveyed the bridge quickly. The mortals were too busy defending their ship to notice one somewhat careless vampire. He tossed the door panel aside and entered. Captain Janeway gripped onto the back of her chair, issuing orders. When the floor vibrated and ducked she went white. Nick thought she might pass out. The medical tricorder indicated that her ribs were cracked. That was fixable. He pulled out the bone knitter and approached her.
Janeway didn't even acknowledge his presence and she didn't hold still for him. He stood behind her, following her moves and the movement of the ship, to mend the ribs as best he could. When he finished, she still did not acknowledge him, but her color did look a little better. Nick went on to Chakotay. One arm hung useless. The uniform was burned and torn, blood from a deep gash soaked through his sleeve. Nick clenched his jaw, ignoring the ache in his teeth. He held the meditool over the gash, slowly mending the torn flesh and arteries. He went on to the next, and then the next. All of them were cut and bleeding. They were hurting, but the adrenaline rush kept them at their posts.
Smoke started to fill the bridge. Nick froze momentarily, unable to move. Smoke was a vampire' s nightmare. Kim grabbed an extinguisher and shot at the source, the air stank from the smell of melted wires and oozing plastics. Someone's cry of pain called to Nick, stirring him from his fears. He returned to his task. Mend bones, heal cuts, but don't give painkillers. The bridge crew couldn't afford to be anything less than fully awake.
Suddenly the ship was still. Nick stared at the captain from his position on the floor near a fallen shipmate. Janeway was immutable. "Damage report," she shouted.
Nick turned to the viewscreen. The attacking ships were retreating. One had been blown away. The battle was over, but was the war? And whose war was it? Nick turned back to the injured man and tended to his wounds. Then he stood and looked around again. He had treated everyone. Janeway met his gaze.
"Good work Lieutenant," she said. "Tom, You and Nick report to sickbay now. I imagine the doctor will need all the help he can get."
Tom swung out of the pilot's chair and went to the turboshaft. His rolling, casual gait could not quite conceal his nervousness as sweat ran off his forehead and plastered pale blonde hair to his face. Nick was about to warn him that it was out of order, but Tom grabbed on to the railing that ran the length of the shaft. Hooking his feet around the outside of the rungs, Tom did a controlled slide all the way down. Nick followed, holding the rail, but used his flight ability rather than rub sores on his hands.
The sickbay was even busier than before, although the severity of the wounds was tapering down. Those who had sustained only minor injuries had waited until the crisis was over before reporting in. Tom and Nick worked along side the holographic doctor for hours. Nick was too tired to even realize he was tired. The smell of blood was everywhere, in the air, on his hands, on his clothes, but in his exhaustion he could not even sense that he was hungry. Finally, the doctor herded him and Tom to his private office. He handed each of them a mug. Nick's was filled with his beverage of need. Tom's smelled noxious, but he grinned and drank it readily.
"That was wonderful, Nick, what you did for the child," the doctor said.
Tom looked questioningly. Instead of accepting the compliment maturely, Nick was staring at the floor like a condemned man. When neither volunteered further information, he went ahead and asked. "What did you do, Nick?"
"I made her stop crying," he stammered. "She...was in pain...and her pitiful cries were upsetting everyone."
"How did you do it? What did you do," the doctor prodded.
"I...uh... hypnotized her. Told her it didn't hurt, and she could sleep." He'd promised the captain that he wouldn't hypnotize the crew anymore. Technically, one could argue that didn't include the child, but Nick knew that to break a promise was like telling a lie. Tom had been court-martialed out of Starfleet for doing as much.
"I wish I could give my patients such quick relief," the doctor said. "Good work. Tom, tell me. What happened? Why were we under attack?"
Tom shrugged. "They were Buliga, but there was no warning. And we don't know if this is the official response of the Buliga nations, or rogue pirates seeking retribution for the deaths of the two messengers. We're hit pretty good. We're not going anywhere for a while."
The doctor nodded solemnly. "So, I'd better take stock and prepare, before they strike again. Both of you, go get some rest. Doctor's orders."
Nick didn't have to be told twice. He wanted to swing by engineering, but he knew B'Elanna would have her hands full. She would not likely get to sleep at all. Suddenly dead tired, Nick struggled just to put one foot in front of the other. He'd been up around the clock. He didn't work well on sleep deprivation; it usually made it harder to control his violent tendencies. He dragged into his room and sprawled across the bed, too tired even to change. Within moments he was sound asleep.
The Pain returned. Jerking awake, with amber eyes and full fangs, Nick clutched his head and screamed. He rolled over, falling to the floor. "Stop! Please!" he shouted. The doctor materialized next to him, with tricorder and meditool.
"Nick, I'm here," he said gently.
Nick's body tensed, his head buried in his arms as he cried out again. "Stop! Why must you do this!"
LaCroix growled at him menacingly. "Your disgusting service to the ship, working yourself to exhaustion, all that filthy goodwill filling your sleep, you've ruined the entire night for me, Nicholas! Over this miserable union we share I am continually beleaguered with your exhaustion and smug self-satisfaction! I will end our link for good!"
"No! Please, don't! I'm sorry!" he begged.
"Who are you talking to, Nick," the doctor asked. He ran the meditool over Nick's cranium, trying to heal the tiny ruptured blood vessels before they caused permanent damage.
"I had to, LaCroix," Nick whispered. He muffled his voice in his arms, for LaCroix's benefit only. "I can't let this ship blow up, it is in my best interests to help the crew, so they can bring me home. That's all! And I can't let any of them die... there's barely enough of them now to feed me!"
The Pain stopped suddenly. Nick didn't move. The doctor continued to heal the remaining injury. Nick's natural healing process was functioning very slowly, probably in part because he was already overtired and underfed, then Nick broke out in a blood sweat, further compounding the problem.
"You are a pathetic liar," LaCroix hissed.
Nick didn't respond. He was too miserable to move.
"Good," his master cooed. "A few more times and you just might be trainable...."
Nick wept. Large red tears burned in his eyes, seeping out through closed lids. Was this how it would end? After centuries... was it just time to die? The grief was almost unbearable. He didn't want to give up. Not yet. There were too many people counting on him, too many people he had grown attached to. But the torture of existing like this, chained to a madman, would destroy him.
"Nick," the doctor spoke again. "Have something to drink. Maybe it will help you to rest better."
But Nick didn't move. Fear of The Pain kept him absolutely still. The room started to recede. He was slipping into the unconsciousness of vampire sleep. A small fear nagged at him, would he ever awaken again? And an opposing thought, equally urgent, was afraid that he would.
The doctor checked Nick's vitals once more. He was weak, but healing. At lightning speed his complex program zipped through several options. Leave Nick here, take him to a crowded sick bay, try to wake him and force him to feed, or give him blood directly. He chose the first and the last. He gave Nick several units, until the vampire's life signs returned to what he could only presume was vampire normal. Then he took the blanket from the bed and spread it over the sleeping form. Checking the small scanner still mounted behind Nick's ear, he felt satisfied that he had done all he could. Sickbay was crowded with patients. Time to return. But when Chakotay had a moment, he would have to speak to him about Nick's invisible companion.


========== flashback, Yukon 2044 ==========

Nick waited, afraid to breathe, afraid to speak. LaCroix had all but drained the boy's blood. Now Anton must chose for all time, whether to return to them to live as a vampire. Then he would be fed from LaCroix, and it would be done. But Anton was so still.
"You've killed him," Nick accused.
"No. I have not," LaCroix said, his voice sounding strained.
"He was sick! Maybe he isn't strong enough to come back!"
Then, Anton stirred slightly. LaCroix bit into his wrist, opening two wounds, and held his life-giving blood over the boy's lips. Anton licked at the blood, slowly at first. Then he grasped at the wrist and sucked deeply. LaCroix let him drink. Nick watched the ritual. He'd had so little luck creating vampire children, he hadn't trusted himself to perform this act. At least this way Anton would be his brother, not his slave. Of course, he had just condemned the boy to an eternity with LaCroix as a master, but LaCroix didn't treat his other children with the same ironclad control and dominance that he did Nick.
"Now, he will sleep," LaCroix said, his words slurring badly.
Nick looked at LaCroix with alarm. The ancient was trembling. Blood sweat dotted his brow. He lost his balance. Nick caught him, or he would have hit the floor. "What is wrong?" Nick asked.
LaCroix blinked, looking into Nick's face with an unreadable expression. "Did it for you, my son. His... blood... is poison." Then he passed out.
A cold dread filled him. This was not what he had wanted! He clutched LaCroix tightly. He had to help him! He lifted LaCroix and flew him to the couch, as it was near and the bedrooms were not. He laid him down, slitting his own wrist, and tried to feed his master.
"Come, LaCroix, drink!" he shouted anxiously.
LaCroix swallowed only a few drops before he sank into unconsciousness.
Nick spent hours, going from LaCroix to Anton and back. Both lay in deathlike slumber. Nick was afraid for them both. If they should die, what would he do? He would be all alone in a world gone mad. He had to keep them alive, or he would die in the attempt.
A healthy mortal would have awakened hours after the deed was done with the first hunger. Although Nick had bottles of human blood on hand for that moment, Anton slept on. The vampire antibodies were working doubly hard, to conquer the mortal blood cells, replacing them with the new nucleotides that would forever keep him out of the sun, and make him immortal.
Nick returned to LaCroix's side. The ancient looked his age with sunken eyes and a pale gray complexion dotted with blood. At times he shivered convulsively, then he would be deathly still, barely breathing at all. Nick covered him with a quilt, and wiped the dark perspiration from his brow with a cool, damp cloth.
"Please, come back to me," he whispered. "You have always been there when I needed you most! Don't leave me now!"
When night returned Anton finally awoke. His youthful face looked almost comical with the golden eyes of the beast. He resembled a pet hamster, and was about as threatening. Nick offered him blood, bottle after bottle, until his first hunger was slaked. Then, the vampire infant smiled before returning to sleep. It was the sound sleep of a healthy child. The boy's wounds were gone.
LaCroix sank deeper into a coma. His breathing stopped entirely. Nick did CPR on him twice. He opened his wrists repeatedly, trying to get even a few drops of his own blood into his master.
All night long, and all the next day, when Nick should have been sleeping, he kept his deathwatch. He cursed the mortals who caused the war. He cursed them in French, and then in English. He continued to curse them, systematically running through every language that he knew, which was considerable. Late in the day he was cursing in Latin when LaCroix finally stirred.
"You never did get the pronunciations just right," LaCroix whispered, with a short, weak laugh.
"LaCroix!" Nick cried, burying his face in LaCroix's shoulder. "I was so worried! I didn't know the blood would hurt you! I just didn't even think about it! You should have warned me!"
LaCroix patted his son's head affectionately. There was no strength yet in his hands, but already he could feel the poisoned blood weakening under the onslaught of the vampire's healing antibodies. "There, there," he comforted. "I knew that you would not be strong enough to save the boy and survive his blood. I am old... the poison is only... a trifle annoying, ...really."
Nick stayed there, with his head on LaCroix's chest, listening to the comforting sound of the ancient's slow heartbeat, and he wept. He mourned for the souls of the dead, for the victims of the war. He mourned the loss of his purpose, the loss of his lover, the loss of direction. He mourned for himself and for LaCroix, and for Anton. He felt his tears outpouring, washing away the last of his long depression. He had a home, a brother, and a father. He had more than he deserved.


========== end, flashback ==========


Chapter Fifteen: The Storm

It was many hours before the doctor was able to speak to Chakotay alone. He had been instructed that anything related to Nick was to go through Chakotay and not the Captain or Tuvok. For some obscure reason, Nick had been assigned his own personal ambassador. But after the attack, and the hours of clean up and repair, Chakotay and Janeway had alternately sought some rest. Only Tuvok was able to work through the next several shifts without a break. Finally, Chakotay got the message and met him in sickbay.
The doctor led him to the privacy of a small corner office. "It's about Nick," he began.
"Yes. He did a wonderful job as your assistant last night. I've heard dozens of crewmen mention it, although I must admit I was skeptical about letting him work in sickbay."
"Uh-huh," the doctor grunted. "Something else. I've already informed you of these strange attacks, the devastating cerebral injuries that occur without any apparent provocation. Well, last night I was present during such an attack. He was talking to someone, who wasn't there. He carried on with a "LaCroix," someone he held in a position of power over him, and whom he blamed for the injuries."
Chakotay's jaw set firmly at the mention of the monster's name. "LaCroix again! I'd love to wrap a garlic braid around his throat and..."
"Commander, you're missing the point. There was no LaCroix in the room. I'm afraid, but I question the mental stability of our counselor. Sir."
"No. Nick is fine," he stated.
Chakotay turned his sternest glare on the doctor. He was silent for moments, organizing his thoughts before speaking. It was the silent, thoughtful glare that intimidated subordinates so effectively, but the doctor wasn't exactly a subordinate. "Nick's link to this LaCroix is a fact, doctor. I don't understand how it works, or why, or how closely they can communicate. But it is there. As I understand it, it is similar to the bond shared between mated Vulcans, who are attuned to each other, even across great distances. They know when they are nearing the Pon Farr, and even know when their mate is injured or dying. It is a psychic bond, unexplainable in our science, and yet it exists."
"Are you saying that this LaCroix is his mate?"
"No!" Chakotay's sudden fury surprised even himself. He forced himself to calm down before continuing. "No, doctor. LaCroix is his father. But he has an unnatural relationship with Nick. He has abused him, with every form of physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse. It's small wonder that when Nick is in pain he assumes LaCroix is the cause."
"But he talks to him!"
"Does he get answers?"
"Not that I've noticed."
Chakotay forced a light laugh. "Then he's fine. Everyone talks to themselves at one time or another. Some talk to their pets or plants. Some talk to infants who can't possibly understand them. Unless LaCroix starts telling Nick to do something evil, I don't see the problem."
The doctor nodded, processing and filing the information, even if he disagreed with Chakotay's explanation.
"What about these attacks, doctor. How is he now?"
The doctor flipped a viewscreen to bring up the current data being received from Nick's sensor. "He is awake, Chakotay. And he seems fit for duty at the moment."
Chakotay nodded then turned and left.

B'Elanna sensed something. She'd felt uncomfortable all day, and couldn't quite lay a finger on it. As she'd been working around the clock to make repairs before the Buliga pirates could return, she hadn't really had time to think about it. But now Tuvok had ordered her to bed. She'd left detailed instructions for Lieutenant Carey, Vorik, and each of the engineers under her. She wiped the last of the lubricant from her hands and headed towards Nick's quarters out of habit.
She was tired enough, she should probably just go to her own. The narrow beds of a single-occupant quarters were rather confining. Still, cuddling up close to him she had never had any trouble getting to sleep... eventually! Nick filled her thoughts suddenly. Where had he been during the attack? Then she realized that the discomfort was somehow associated with Nick. Something was wrong with him! She'd sustained only minor injuries in the attack, and Tom had been the one to come and treat her, even though she knew that Nick had also worked as a medic all night. Was he injured? But vampires were fairly indestructible... no, it wasn't the Buliga attack that affected Nick. She quickened her pace and raced the rest of the distance to his quarters.
Nick sat at his table, draining what looked like the third bottle of his beverage. He looked terrible. Blood sweat matted his hair. His gold-flecked eyes were haunted.
"Nick! What's wrong," she exclaimed.
He didn't look at her. "Nothing!"
She was too tired to play twenty questions. She crossed the room in a few quick steps and stood in front of him. She swatted the bottle from his grip. It sailed across the room, bounced off the wall and left a puddle on the carpet. He glared at her, but blue still filled in the center of his eyes. She was learning. The blue was human, the gold was passion, and the red was danger. "I sense something wrong! I don't understand it. Like a splitting head ache. I know you've been hurt, Nick, and I won't be brushed aside!"
He jumped to his feet and glared down at her. "You could not sense my pain! You're not a vampire," he hissed. "You're not a telepath. Just leave me alone!"
"But I felt it!" She was adamant. She put her hand to her head, pressing her fingers on several spots, above the eyebrow, above one ear, and at the base of the neck. "Right here! And here! I felt pain, Nick, and it wasn't my own. Explain it to me!"
The gold dropped from his eyes along with anger, to be replaced with fear. "You can't be! Klingons are immune! I never meant to bring you over, B'Elanna!"
He hugged her, burying his face in her neck. She was still too angry and too tired to be interested right now. She pushed him hard. "Stop it, Nick. Talk to me! I hear you've been talking to yourself again. Tell me about this LaCroix!"
Nick put a shaky hand to his head. "NO! Not now- it is still night! Later. We'll talk later!"
B'Elanna growled. This was going no where, and she needed to rest. The fact that it was actually "day" on the ship- late afternoon- escaped her. She pulled him into her arms. "Fine, Nick. We'll talk later. Now, how about a shower? I want to clean up and get some rest, and you're going to be needed to help with the repairs."
Nick was a zealous lover. He was burning with need, craving every inch of her, clinging to her with desperation of one who knows there will only be a few tomorrows. Although she climaxed again and again before their shower ended, the encounter left her frightened. Nick tucked her snugly into his bed and kissed her before he left, but she felt terribly alone.

Nick had to keep busy. There was so much to do. Everywhere on the ship lay broken panels, burned circuitry, melted parts, and oozing gelpacks. Although he lacked the technical ability to do any major repairs, even the lowest crewmember was trained to rebuild dozens of systems. If he kept busy, then he wouldn't have to think. He sensed LaCroix was asleep, so he knew he had a few hours of peace, but he grew more agitated as the hours passed. It was night on the ship... day where LaCroix was currently living, but the sun would set soon. What new tortures would the approaching night bring, besides, quite possibly, an end?
And what would become of B'Elanna? He had never thought she would be in danger. Klingons were too different from humans. No Klingon had ever been brought across in the two centuries that they had been coming to earth. Was her human half enough to place her at risk? Had she consumed enough of him that she would leave their special union as his lover, and become instead his child? And if he died at LaCroix's hands, what would become of her? Who would teach her, guide her, protect her? Who would love her then?
Nick clenched his teeth, forcing his mind blank, and returned to the tasks at hand. The repairs were monotonous. The tasks usually proceeded much faster, but with the replicators severely limited, they were having to prioritize the repairs, often jerryrigging one system into another, or pull parts from undamaged, less important systems to fix something else. Everywhere sparks flew, souring the air, as the irritable, overworked crew struggled furiously against a phantom fear that the Buliga soldiers might return. Nick responded to their agitation with increasing anger, not even aware it was happening.
The deck officer in charge sent Nick to a separate location to work, where he would be all alone.
But now he was too much aware of his master's presence....
Nick's hands shook. He dropped the laser torch and swore. LaCroix was relaxed, just coming awake. Nick had only a few moments left. Quickly, he tried to recall the happy times between him and his master. He sat and leaned against the bulkhead, drifting back through centuries as easily as recalling yesterday.
As a young fledgling, Nick had not seen LaCroix's perverted, possessive nature. Nick had been too eager to learn, willing to listen and to obey. He recalled his first kill and how LaCroix had been so pleased with him then. The master was gentler, tolerating his new creation's insatiable curiosity, and delighting in the vicarious thrill he got from the link as Nick and Janette satisfied their other desires. Nick grew wistful, wishing for a moment to return to those pleasant times...
"Good evening, Nicholas," LaCroix purred, his voice deep and sultry.
Nick's vampire heart skipped a beat. Instantly he assumed the submissiveness his master demanded.
The ancient vampire laughed languidly. "Good boy, Nicholas! I am glad that we finally understand each other."
He fought to conceal his irritation at LaCroix's condescending tone. He didn't understand LaCroix at all! Then his fear overrode the anger quickly, like floodwater on a small fire.
"Such a pity you are so far away, now that you are more... amenable. Remember, Nicholas, you are a hunter! Do not ever forget it!"
Nick didn't care to point out that there was no place to hunt on the small ship. "Yes, LaCroix," he responded simply.
"About that child..."
Nick held still. Now what? Would LaCroix further torment him by destroying one little girl, who was of no consequence to him? He berated himself. He should never have asked LaCroix to do it! LaCroix would always collect on his favors... and the interest was compounded by minutes, not days.
LaCroix's presence brushed against Nick affectionately. He could almost feel his father's hand on his shoulder, feel that for just a moment, he was safe and treasured. He felt a pressure build behind his eyelids, and he swallowed the thickness rising in his throat.
"The child lives with both sets of grandparents," LaCroix said. "They adore her immensely. She is eight years old, I believe, a precious time in human growth. She was not the least bit afraid of me."
"You went to her? You let her see you?" Nick struggled to remain detached, so he wouldn't flood his father with his emotions.
"Now how else was I to give you any useful information, my son? Don't be obtuse. She was--" LaCroix paused dramatically. "She is... a most delightful child. Julianna Pauline Petrov. They don't call her that, though. They've given her a nickname, ...Sunny. She explained that her grandparents called her "Sunshine" for years. She plays the recorder, competes in track at the junior nationals level, and is assistant team leader in her Young Explorers troop. The maternal grandparents hope to encourage a future in music. The paternal ones are pushing more for athletics. But the child informed me that she is going to be a scientist. She knows her parents are stranded in the delta quadrant, and she is going to invent the transwarp conduit to bring them home again. She asked me not to inform her grandparents of this, however. It was to be "our little secret"."
"Thank you... LaCroix," Nick responded.
"Do you see how pleasant life can be for obedient children? Pleasant hunting, my son."
LaCroix pulled away from the link abruptly. The sudden separation caused a physical reaction of pain and yearning. His absence left Nick wanting...needing... him to return. The unspoken message was a clear warning, a threat. LaCroix still wanted something from him.
Nick returned to his work, knowing that The Pain would not come today. He had this one day at least. While his hands kept busy, his mind began composing the portrait for Paulus. Sunny. Symbolic? A sunny child. The sun brought warm, happy thoughts to humans, much the same way that a full moon excited vampires.
Nick couldn't tell Paulus anything that he had learned from LaCroix. The master was right. If the humans learned about his close connection to a creature in the alpha quadrant they would want to exploit it. Nick knew that if his own master did not destroy him then, the Enforcers would. But, surely he could do an impressionist style, incorporating the idea of a sunny child surrounded in love? Damned repairs! How much longer until he could return to his easel?
For two days Nick continued the same pattern, working double-shifts and sleeping on the third, consuming only replicated plasma on the job, and taking no time off. He caught glimpses of B'Elanna in passing, and not even so much as a single kiss. Nick was tormented, alternately depressed then terrified, fighting off a bone-weary exhaustion, and trying constantly to refrain from thought. It made him just irritable at first, like everyone else on the ship. But unlike the others, the long hours and restricted diet affected him at a more primal level. He saw everything with the glowing, distorted view of his nocturnal vision. He heard the beating of a hundred hearts thundering in his brain like the native rhythms of some primordial dance. Their various unique scents intermingled, wafting through the ventilation system, taunting him, coaxing him, daring him, while the hunger in his gut tore at him, demanding to be satisfied.
Soon the others felt the dark rage emanating from him. They walked a wider berth around him. They drew straws when he needed to be approached. They whispered about him, and shrank from his dark, sinister presence.
He hadn't shaved. The stubble of beard shadowed his face, adding to the menacing, defiant bearing. Several of them approached B'Elanna, thinking to talk to her about him, but as they caught her unique brand of multi-lingual cursing, they decided that Nick and B'Elanna were well suited and left her alone. Finally, when they happened to see Chakotay coming through the corridors, they again drew straws on who should bring up the subject of Nick.
"What seems to be the problem," he asked brusquely. The repair work was progressing too slowly. The talks with the Buliga had terminated, as tensions among the Buliga exploded into civil war, with Voyager trapped in the middle. On top of which, Janeway felt personally responsible for the outbreak of the war, and would not consider leaving this sector, even if the food situation could be resolved, until she felt she had repaired whatever damage to their natural evolution that she may have caused. The food supplies were near dangerous levels--the doctor informed him that if something wasn't done immediately, he would expect to see symptoms of various nutritional-deficiency disorders among the crew by the end of the week, maybe even sooner. The deuterium reserves were emptied after the attack. Chakotay wasn't in the mood for minor personality squabbles.
The unlucky winner in the shortest straw contest lost her ability to speak. She pointed meekly at the wall panel where Nick had been working. The work was correct, but there was a hole in the wall panel above the damage, a hole that wasn't a result of the initial attack.
"What is this!" he snapped.
"Its- its where Nick's been working, sir! He's... he's been rather... spooky, sir. Dangerous. People are afraid to work around him. Sir."
Chakotay examined the hole more closely. It did seem as though some one had punched the wall hard enough to break the plastisteel section. That was pretty damn hard. Chakotay gulped past the premonition that the proverbial calm had just ended.
"Computer," he said. "Where is Nick Knight now?"
"Lieutenant Nicholas Knight is in the Mess Hall." Chakotay didn't have to glance at any chronometer to know it wasn't time to eat. Of course, with the round-the-clock shifts, Neelix had been trying to leave something available if anyone should drop by, but artificial blood was available to Nick at any replicator on the ship. There was no reason for him to be there. He set off quickly in pursuit.
The Mess Hall was a mess. Tables were overturned, chairs smashed. Nick's colorful, abstract painting had been shredded. Curiously, the platters of snacks Neelix had left out for the nightshift were basically unharmed. Chakotay rushed around Neelix's counter as Nick swung a chair leg into the door of a small refrigeration unit. The unit was locked. It contained the rations of human plasma for Nick.
"Nick, stop!" Chakotay ordered.
Nick drew the chair part back again and slammed it into the door. The glance he shot Chakotay was frightful. His eyes were feral red, glowing embers in a dark expression. There didn't seem to be any recognition in that look. Chakotay hesitated, almost afraid of him for the first time. Then slowly, with his arms at his side, he moved between Nick and battered refrigerator. "Nick! Put down the chair. Talk to me, Nick. What's wrong?"
The enraged vampire swung his club back and paused. There was a moment in forever when Chakotay expected the club to strike him, before Nick flung it aside. The club smashed into some pots on the counter. The vampire hissed at him with long, sharp fangs.
"Nick," Chakotay said again. "You're hungry? Or did the refrigerator get out of hand? I hope the replicators never get on your nerves. We can't really afford the repairs if you decide to beat them into submission as well."
The vampire cocked his head slightly. He heard the words, and the light tone, but didn't seem to understand the language. He staggered once, twisted and landed hard on the floor, leaning against the dents in the door. He pressed a cheek against its cold steel surface.
Chakotay squatted next to him. His behavior was odd, even for a vampire, but then, Chakotay had only a few weeks of observation to compare it with. Still, Nick had managed to conceal his true nature for four years, and he never would have succeeded if he'd acted so violent. Something was very wrong. Chakotay guessed it was hunger.
Nick had suffered from "food" deprivation for months as the crew had been infected with a strange delta-quadrant parasite that reduced the nutritive quality of their blood. It was this infection that finally lead to the series of events that revealed the vampire in their midst. Nick had been virtually starving. Hunger made him careless and he fed on the crew too frequently. Then, somehow, he had detected the off-taste of their blood as a sign of infection, which helped the doctor to diagnose the problem and work on the cure. The crew was just starting to heal from that, and now, with so many injured in the attack, and the amount of blood they had lost, no doubt the supply available for Nick was severely limited. Moments ago Nick was strong enough to bash tables made of durosteel, now he could barely hold his head up. Perhaps the vampire had surfaced in full force, overriding the man's limited control of it, in a desperate final act of self-preservation?
Chakotay pulled his jacket sleeve up, baring a few inches of skin, and held his arm out in front of Nick. The vampire's eyes were closed. Chakotay tapped his face, trying to reawaken the inner beast. Nick reached for his wrist with a weak grasp. There was no power behind it. His hands were deathly cold and limp. An unearthly growl more frightened than terrifying sounded from him. Then he sank his fangs into the proffered wrist.
For a second time Chakotay experienced the strange sensations as Nick drank from him. It was less sensual than before, perhaps because his friend was so weak. Chakotay waited, with Nick hanging on to his wrist, for many moments. He waited until he felt light-headed. Then it barely took any strength at all to pull free. Nick's head fell limply on to his lap. Chakotay stared at the two small wounds in his wrist. Then he tapped his comm badge. "Neelix. Report to the Mess Hall," he said.
Neelix hurried inside shortly, wrapped in a bathrobe and his hair tufts disheveled from sleep. At the sight of his ruined kitchen he was fully awake and shocked speechless, a very rare occurrence. He stared at the Commander, with Nick's head cradled in his lap, the dents in the door of a refrigerator that only contained human plasma, and he figured out much of what had happened. Silently he keyed in the numbered access to open the door. Chakotay leaned forward while Neelix pulled out the contents. Neelix warmed a bag in his hands for a few moments, then held it out. He warmed a second while Nick drained the first. He scrunched down beside them, offering Nick as much as he could take. When the vampire turned away, eight bags were emptied and only one remained. Neelix looked sadly at Chakotay.
"I'm sorry, Neelix," Chakotay said. "I'll get someone to help you clean up."
"Oh, don't mention it," Neelix replied, his voice tender with emotion. "I was just thinking of poor Nick. He must have been starving. And he never said a word to me."
Chakotay nodded. Nick's requirements were going to outweigh the crew's supply very, very soon. Something needed to be done.
Nick shuddered once. His eyes opened, now clear blue and disoriented, as he looked up at Chakotay. He turned, taking in the damage in the room. His expression clouded. He got up silently and started cleaning the mess.
"Oh, don't worry about a thing," Neelix bubbled. Nick gave him a dark, hooded glare, then returned to his self-appointed task. Without a word, Neelix and Chakotay assisted, offering him their silent support. Nick ignored them. He slunk around like a guilty child ashamed of his own behavior. When the room was as straightened as it could be, although still minus a few chairs, Nick approached Chakotay. He waited, but if he expected to be censured, he was mistaken.
"Chakotay," he said at length, breaking the silence. "You should return me to the brig."
"For the safety of the crew," he snapped.
"No. You mean the safety of the chairs, don't you? You haven't hurt anyone, broken any major rules, only chairs and wall panels. I'll take it out of your pay."
It was an old, old joke. None of them got paid. The Federation was not a currency-based society any longer. But Nick wasn't in the mood for humor.
"Look, Nick. I'm tired. You're tired. And besides, I can't spare the manpower to put anyone down in the brig with you. Tomorrow you and I are going exploring. I just have to clear it with the captain. Comprende?"
Nick gave the slightest of nods.
"And Nick. I can't help you, if you won't be forthcoming with me. Tell us what you need. It would save the furniture." Chakotay stared at the retreating back of his friend until he rounded a corner and disappeared from view. Not for the first time he spoke to his dead father and thanked him for the loving, supportive home he have given him.

Chapter Sixteen: Away

"Captain," Chakotay said. He chose to use her title as this was official business. He'd learned her rules and tried to play by them. "I need to take a landing party to the Buliga outpost asap."
She grimaced as she tried to conceal a yawn. They were all tired and frazzled. A week off in the Caribbean would be heavenly about now. She nodded for his benefit. "Agreed. As soon as the impulse engines are on line, we'll set a course..."
"No, Captain. I don't think we should wait. I want to take a shuttle there in the morning."
"Excuse me?" She wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. "You know, I'd invite you to sit down, but if I don't stay standing, I don't believe I'll stay conscious. The morning? I know the level of food supplies is running dangerously low, but so is going anywhere until this business with the Bugali nations has been set straight."
Chakotay stood firm. He didn't want to lay the need for this mission all on Nick's shoulders. He wouldn't be dishonest about it, so he'd filled out a complete report and laid it on her very cluttered desk, knowing full well that she wouldn't take the time to read those reports any time soon. "I know the risks, Captain. I believe the situation calls for it. I plan to take Ensign Kim, Neelix, and Nick with me."
"The opposing factions in the Buliga civil war have agreed to resume peace negotiations, if I will attend. The meeting is to be at the outpost in a week. Let me talk with Argab, and maybe he can make the arrangements for us to arrive there sooner. I'll get back to you."
Chakotay grunted.
"Problem, Commander?"
"I still don't trust Argab. All of my instincts tell me he is deceiving us."
Janeway pulled at her hair with frustration. She and Chakotay had had this talk already! "I know, I know! Look. We came here, asking to negotiate for supplies and safe passage through their space. Their messengers are killed in our transporter, and you don't want to trust Argab? I think we're the ones who need to be earning trust."
Chakotay did not respond. His silent disapproval was usually more effective with her than any conversation. Silence was hard to argue with.
"I don't mind telling you that I feel like patching the ship, turning tail and running from this war! But, in the first place, our food supplies will not last to the next system, and secondly, they would not be at this war right now if those messengers weren't dead!"
"But which side is the right one, Captain? How do we know that Argab is the one to align ourselves with?"
"Because Argab is offering, Chakotay. The Buliga-unza attacked us. It was Argab's side that came to our aid."
Janeway clenched her jaw tightly. Her eyes hardened. "Commander. Get some rest. We'll speak again then."

Chakotay headed towards his quarters when the doctor requested to speak with him. Since he might be on the planet for as long as a week, he might as well endure another few moments awake. He headed into sickbay.
The biobeds were finally empty. The doctor still had monitors on several patients, but had sent them to their own quarters to complete their recovery. He motioned Chakotay to come view one of the screens.
Chakotay stared at the readings. Medicine was not part of his core knowledge, and as tired as he was, the readings meant nothing. He stared at the screen without blinking then shrugged noncommittally. "Yes?"
"This is Nick's sensor," the doctor stated flatly. "I've been following him very closely since the attacks began, and even more so over these past three days. His readings were slowing down, which I attributed to work overload and sleep deprivation, like the rest of the crew. Then here-" he pointed to the screen- "it jumps drastically. Usually, this occurs when B'Elanna is around...uh, for some time.... And I ignore it. But, during this spike, B'Elanna was in here with a headache. Before I could contact Nick to find out what was wrong, this happened."
Chakotay could see the readings all drop drastically before leveling out and checked the time index. The readings indicated a nearly comatose patient. That must have been when Nick lay on the floor of Neelix's kitchen not so long ago. Then, it changed again, climbing erratically, no doubt as Nick consumed each packet of plasma.
"Here. What was going on? When I checked with the computer, you were with Nick at the time. Now, all of a sudden, he is healthier and stronger than he's been in a week, and these marks indicate a high level of emotional stability as well."
Chakotay related briefly the crisis in the Mess Hall. The doctor probed for clarification at several points, but unlike the Captain, his interest seemed only scientific, trying to understand Nick's peculiar nature that he might provide better care for him, so Chakotay eventually told him everything.
"Hmm," the doctor responded, stroking his holo-image of a smoothly shaven chin. "Interesting. The vampire's rage is as emotionally satisfying as good sex. It's a wonder he can control himself as well as he does."
Chakotay grinned wickedly. "What makes you think their sex is good, doctor? Are you monitoring that as well?"
"No. Pure speculation, based on the frequency. I'd say two people who can't keep their bodies apart for more than a few hours at a time are enjoying something. And the monitor is only set to alert me if there is another cerebral attack. Now here, the consumption of real blood did more than just satisfy hunger and restore health. It would seem that he gets emotional balance from human blood that the replicated source does not provide."
"Curious." Chakotay yawned. It was interesting, but he was beyond caring right now. His quarters was even too far away. He lay down on the nearest biobed. "If you don't mind," he yawned, his eyes already closing. "Nick and I are going to the planet in the morning."
"I wouldn't recommend that, Commander! Nick is far too sensitive to sunlight to risk a trip right now. I need to study him further." The doctor ceased his vocal subroutines. Chakotay's slow even breaths assured him that no one was awake to hear.

B'Elanna lit all of the candles Nick had in his room. The doctor told her Nick would be leaving shortly, for a week. He would be accompanying Chakotay on the supplies run to the Buliga outpost, the first planet on this edge of their sector of space. She'd been so busy with repairs, that they'd hardly spent any time together all week. She was determined to send him off properly! Once before when she'd tried to wake him, though, it had been at great personal risk. She didn't want to repeat that. But something had changed. She felt somehow connected to him. It was very strange. Last night, she'd had the uncontrollable urge to smash something! Then, when she'd seen what Nick had done to the chairs in the Mess Hall, it had unnerved her terribly. She had a hard enough time trying to control her own temper. Being psychically linked to his might just be more than she could handle!
But now, as he lay dreaming, she felt more tender towards him. His face, relaxed in sleep, was boyish and sweet. The golden hair lay in soft ringlets around his face like a crown. Long dark lashes softly curled against pale cheeks. The stubble of beard followed the contours of an eternally youthful face, and barely showing from the full, sensuous mouth were his long, sharp, wildly erotic, teeth.
The room smelled fragrant now with the scented candle wax, the faint wisp of smoke, the gentle flow of air warmed by the small flames.... She was excited by the heightened awareness of her senses! She sat next to Nick on the small bed and watched him sleep. Yes! She could even hear the slow, faint beat of his heart!
B'Elanna brought her wrist to her mouth and nipped, then dipping a finger in the trace of blood, she held it out to Nick. As it passed beneath his nose, she watched a faint tremor cross his features. A second pass, then she touched it to his lips. Even in his sleep, her blood could stir him! Slowly, his tongue emerged, licking away her sweet offering. B'Elanna pressed on her small wound to bring up more of the thick, red-purple blood that was so uniquely her own. Again she taunted Nick with it, but this time when his tongue emerged, she pressed her lips to his, caught his tongue in her mouth and pulled on it gently.
His arms engulfed her, pulling her into a hard embrace as a low growl issued from somewhere deep in his chest. The kiss lengthened, arms tightened, hands moved to caress her, and many minutes later, Nick awoke.
His eyes were brilliant amber, glowing with a fire more intense than the conflagration of candles in his room. His voice was deep, husky, as he called her name. She laughed, joyful that her ploy had been so successful. "Oh Nicky," she said lightly. "Do you know what a little boy you are when you sleep?"
Behind the wildness in the yellow glow his eyes sparked with amusement. "Let me show you what a little boy I am awake!" He rolled with her, bringing them both onto the floor. She may have been the instigator, but Nick took charge now. He was passionate and loving, both violent and tender, demanding yet caring, and his superior strength was frighteningly erotic.

"Nick, I'm going to miss you," she said later, pouting.
"Ah, you've been so busy with repairs! You haven't had time for us for days. I'll be back before you know it." Nick kissed the top of her head, afraid that any place else might delay their farewells again. He would barely have time to hit the Mess Hall before meeting Chakotay at the shuttlebay as it was! Nick winced at the embarrassing memory of hitting the Mess Hall last night. He owed Neelix big, this time. He'd have to think hard about what to do for the Talaxian chef.
"You act like you're glad to be going," B'Elanna said. She was almost ashamed of the churlishness in her voice. She wasn't sure where it had come from.
Nick hugged her tight. "I am, B'Elanna. I must get off this ship, until the crew is stronger, until the smell of their blood leaves the air I breathe. Until there is enough food supplies... for everyone, and... and until Neelix gets a new door for his refrigerator."
LaCroix always accused Nick of lacking a sense of humor, but B'Elanna smiled at his jokes. He touched her chin and gazed deeply into her dark, lustrous eyes. The light humor vanished. "I can't say I look forward to leaving you behind... with that arrogant playboy hanging around your door."
"Why, Nick! Are you jealous?"
"Should I be?"
B'Elanna giggled. "Hurry back!" Then she kissed him lightly and skipped out of his reach. "Have a safe trip!"
After she left, Nick took a look around his quarters. He went to the closet and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. He wasn't sure why he held onto them. He'd been cuffed many times in the past, and never was it a pleasant experience. Yet, if he should become unable to control the beast within, the cuffs might save a life. Chakotay would never think to pack them. Nick slipped them into a pocket and left.

He straightened his jacket as he paused just outside of the Mess Hall. The room was crowded and noisy. He was tempted to just skip the meal rather than face their amused expressions, but it was a long ways to the planet yet. It was far enough that they would even be out of communications range, until Voyager got impulse engines back on line and limped a little closer.
"Nick, report to the holodeck," the Doctor called over his comm badge.
"Hey, Doc," he answered. "I'm a little busy, now."
"I understand that, Lieutenant. Report at once that I may authorize you fit to go on this mission."
He grunted, terminating the signal. Blackmail supposedly went out of style ages ago! Well, that ended the to-feed-or-not-to-feed debate he'd held with himself. Just as he was about to leave, Neelix popped out into the corridor.
"Nick!" His squat little face split into a wide grin. "Ready for our big trip? Here, I brought you this, thinking you might not get here in time. I'm sorry there's only the one left. I'd give you my own if you could take it, you know." He handed a coffee mug to Nick, and clapped his shoulder, which meant rocking up onto his toes to reach.
"Mission?" Nick started towards the holodeck.
"Oh, don't worry about the doctor. I'm sure he'll let you come."
Nick shook his head and checked his chronometer. He hadn't thought he'd overslept. Why did he feel so uninformed? Neelix waved him off and waddled on towards the shuttlebay. Nick was not going to miss this chance! Since the doctor could not be hypnotized, he would just have to convince him how important it was, for everyone's safety, to send him away!
The doctor stood in the holodeck, impatiently tapping his foot. The room was still a blank blue and silver-- no program had been set to run. He held out two objects. Nick accepted one and turned it over in his hands. It was a pair of sunglasses! They had been stylish in past ages, before humans adopted the common practice of UV-protective eye drops-- drops that his vampire eyes rejected. The sunglasses wrapped around the side of his face offering maximum protection from the dangerous rays of a sun.
"Thank you," Nick said, genuinely touched.
"Now this." The doctor slipped a band around Nick's arm and tightened it snugly. "This was the best I could do on such a short notice. I hope to perfect later. But I felt this would be the best place to test it."
"Test what?" Nick would have to make sure he was included in more staff meetings.
"This is a light-sensitive, wide-band forcefield. If you are caught unprepared by a quick sunrise, this sensor will activate it. Theoretically, it will provide a protective shield from the sun for up to thirty minutes. No longer."
Nick was speechless. He swallowed passed the lump caught in his throat.
"Now, if you feel any discomfort, just call, "End Program." The doctor paused, waiting for Nick's nod of acknowledgment, and to put on the sunglasses. Then he ordered the holodeck to run his program. Instantly the room became a sunny afternoon. Nick shook, trembling with the instinctual fear that had been ingrained into his very nature for over 11 centuries. He tried to sense beyond the fear. Was he actually in pain? He looked at his hands... no blisters. He forced himself to breathe once. No searing pain in his nose, or burns in his throat. He did feel very, very warm. "End Program!" he shouted. At least, he meant to shout, but what came out was barely audible.
The sun vanished. The doctor held out his tricorder. As the light faded and the sensor flicked off, the tricorder then scanned and recorded nothing out of the ordinary. "Nick? What's wrong?"
"I... I felt warm," he said, feeling a little foolish to display his fear in front of anyone.
"Of course. Sunshine is warm. It warms everything it touches. I'm sorry, I never thought to warn you about that. Sometimes, objects sitting in the sun become almost too hot to touch. But beyond that, how do you feel?"
Nick just nodded. He turned away from the doctor. For some strange reason tears were forming, and it had nothing to do with pain. At least not physical pain. Nick had all but given up his centuries old hope of one day being able to see the sun! He felt strangely melancholy, wishing to see it again, even though it terrified him.
The doctor just clapped him on the shoulder, much the same way Neelix had earlier. "Enjoy the trip, then. And, this is still experimental. It's only for emergencies. Don't push your luck."
Nick nodded again and left abruptly.

Shuttlebay was a busy place this morning. Captain Janeway was there, along with Neelix, Tuvok, Seven, Tom, several technicians, and of course, Chakotay. Nick folded his sunglasses and slipped them in the small chest pocket in the inside of his jacket. Tom sauntered over to him and draped an arm carelessly over Nick's shoulders. "Guess you're piloting this trip," he drawled. "Wish it was me. Repairs get so dull after a while."
"Yeah. I'll agree with you there."
"But don't worry about a thing. I'll watch out for her while you're gone."
Nick stiffened and stepped away from Tom. The young pilot grinned widely. "Don't worry, old man. She's been too busy for either of us lately." There was a moment of silence. Nick sensed Tom's pain. It radiated from him so powerfully, he could almost see it, and wondered why no one else could. Of course, he'd learned a lot from Tom when he'd first tasted his blood, but generally those impressions faded over time. Nick didn't have to use his vampire abilities with Tom, and the pain wasn't just B'Elanna, either.
"Oh, and Nick? Watch out for these Buliga buggers. I don't trust them."
"Right." Nick shuddered involuntarily. He didn't trust them either. There had been something to the blood of the dead aliens. Something very wrong.
Janeway was giving last minute instructions to Tuvok, which seemed strange. He wasn't coming, was he? Then Nick realized that the captain was joining them! Tuvok was put in command, to oversee repairs until she returned. Nick climbed in to the shuttle and took his place quickly, hoping they could leave before anyone else decided to join the party.
Chakotay sat next to him. Janeway, Kim and Neelix took up places behind them. The technicians moved behind the clear durosteel plates as the air pressure in the shuttlebay was released prior to opening the bay doors. Chakotay grinned at Nick. "Just like in the old days, hey?"
"Let's hope not," Nick said, with an easy smile. "Attacked by Cardassian and Federation ships alike, thirty-year old equipment..."
"Rotten food..."
Nick grinned wickedly. His voice dropped for only Chakotay's hearing. "Not for me. Cardassians are a delicacy." Captain Janeway spoke with the Buliga leader, Argab. "We're clearing the bay, now. Thanks for the support." Argab's voice filled the little shuttle. The words were politely spoken. Why did Nick feel a chill up his spine? "Stay close to us, Federation shuttle. We will give you safe escort."

It was fun to be piloting again. It wasn't quite like flying, but then it wasn't as physically draining either. He didn't get much chance to fly these days. The ship was too small, too many people. Of course, this was a rather mundane run. He plotted in the course that Argab sent them, and followed it, with three Buliga warships riding herd on them.
The trip towards the planet would take six hours. Janeway lay on the cot in back for a nap. She'd been up most of the last four shifts, pushing her meager diplomatic skills to the limits with the obnoxious, contentious Buliga. It was becoming her opinion that if the transporter incident hadn't set off their war, something else would have. They were demanding that she hand over the transporters for their science team to study, and that just wasn't going to happen! Then, they had also demanded her pilot, as payment for food and supplies... which was even more puzzling. Tom Paris was desired by many of the women on the ship, and by many of the alien females they had come across in their journey, and he was an excellent pilot. But what would the Buliga want with him? She was grateful that Chakotay felt Nick's piloting skills were good enough, as she didn't feel that Tom would be safe in the small shuttle.
Eventually Neelix and Kim seemed to have drifted off too sleep as well. Chakotay leaned a little closer to Nick and lowered his voice. "The replicator on the shuttle is off-line. We have only three units of blood, period. If you have to, how long can you go without food?"
Nick kept his eyes on the viewscreen. "I have excellent hearing, Chakotay. You could whisper from fifty paces and I would understand every word."
Chakotay remained silent. He knew Nick was attempting to change the subject.
"Three days. But after 36 hours, it is hard to control the rage. After 60, no one is safe."
"May we hope for good hunting, then."
Suddenly, Nick froze, and in the next instant, he dropped the shuttle a thousand meters and veered sharply. Captain Janeway was tossed off the cot into sudden wakefulness; Neelix and Kim sprawled on the floor. A bright light filled the space where they had just been, the explosion of a Buliga cannon. Nick darted the little shuttle about, bucking and kicking like a wild horse, as he struggled to avoid being blown out of the sky by the very people they were supposed to trust.
"How did you know," Chakotay exclaimed. "You altered course before they fired!"
Nick didn't respond. All of his skills were focused on the act of self-preservation. He reached out with the vampire, his eyes red, sensing the danger and swerving to avoid it. His teeth tingled with anticipation. He felt more fully alive than he had in months! One wrong step- and the shuttle would be nothing more than space dust.
"Who is firing on us," Janeway shouted.
"Your good-guy, Argab. Seems that he wants to make sure you do not attend the peace negotiations," Chakotay answered.
"Captain, I can't reach Voyager. We've moved beyond communications range," Kim informed her. "And we're no match for their warships."
Nick and Chakotay locked gazes for just an instant. It was as though the past four years hadn't happened, and they were still Maquis soldiers fighting with the brilliant desperation born of the knowledge that although they may win the battle, they had already lost the war. Employing a Maquis trick, Nick jumped the shuttle in and out of warp three separate times, criss-crossing his paths enough to disperse their trail and make tracking them near to impossible. It would only buy them time. The Buliga would naturally search the planets for signs of the shuttle. It couldn't wander very far from the ship. Chakotay began scanning the planet. "Small settlements, no cities. Breathable atmosphere."
One more quick warp jump, dangerous when activated so close to a planet, stressed the little shuttle well beyond all tolerance levels. Then the planet filled their viewscreen. Nick changed course again.
"Ensign Kim!" Janeway called. "Find us a location to land, to wait for Voyager."
Kim ran preliminary scans of the planet. There were large bodies of water. There were forests and deserts. He shook his head, fearing to make a decision that might mean their lives.
"Kim! A forest, a hiding place, now!" Chakotay yelled.
As the shuttle dipped again, leaving his stomach several meters behind, Kim punched the coordinates for one forest arbitrarily into the system. Chakotay acknowledged the coordinates.
Janeway sensed what Nick and Chakotay had in mind, as she began passing out Starfleet issue survival packs and supplies to Kim and Neelix. She shouldered one herself. Then she brought the transporters on line and waited for the word.
Chakotay and Nick jumped out of their seats, grabbed the packs she handed to them, and nodded. She activated the transporter beam. Just as the familiar tingle reduced flesh and bone to molecules and sent them to the planet, the shuttle exploded in space. If the Buliga were able to track them, they would find only trace readings of alien metals and compounds floating freely in orbit above the outpost planet. The small away team shimmered into existence in the light of the late afternoon sun.
Nick shuddered, his eyes shut tight, blinking away blood tears from the pain of the intense light. He fumbled in his jacket pocket for the sunglasses the doctor had given him earlier. The small forceshield on his arm seemed to be functioning, as there was no smoke and sizzle rising from him. He swallowed past his fear. Captain Janeway was speaking.
"Tell me what just happened," she demanded.
Chakotay was calm. He noticed Nick's discomfort and drew the captain's attention to himself. "I believe, Captain, that we were attacked."
She glowered at him. Chakotay saw Nick take a breath and relax a little. The short stalling technique had been enough. He spoke to Nick. "Yes, Nick. You reacted before there was a sign of trouble, and saved all our lives. But how did you know?"
Nick shrugged. "I sensed danger. I often do... it isn't clear, just a feeling and I respond to it."
"So now what? We're stranded on the outpost planet, no shuttle, only a few weapons and supplies, in the middle of a civil war, and we're despised by both sides! Suggestions, people?" That week in the Caribbean was looking better all the time.
Kim spoke up, reciting Starfleet procedure, as though he thought she had expected it from him. "First things first. Find shelter, then food."
Chakotay and Neelix aimed tricorders into the woods and scanned in a circular motion. Then Chakotay spoke up. "Rock cliffs up ahead, striating layer of limestone and granite. Should produce some caves."
Without another word, the small band set off, with Chakotay in the lead. Nick kept up. The sunlight that filtered through the woods was diffuse, yet he couldn't shake the sense of fear it caused him. The man knew that the shield would protect him, but the vampire was driven more by instinct. His fear was all consuming. He couldn't concentrate, couldn't focus on their journey. Blood sweat dotted his forehead. He stumbled, caught himself, and took a few more steps. Everyone turned at the sound. Chakotay passed the tricorder to Janeway and drifted to the rear of the line with Nick.
"Hey, what gives?"
Nick stared at him, struggling to control his voice before speaking. "I can't continue. I must get out of the sun."
Chakotay nodded. "We're looking for shelter, Nick. But I don't know how much longer until we find it."
Nick shook his head. "I must go underground now!"
"Bury yourself in the dirt?" Chakotay asked, sure he had misunderstood him.
"I'll find you later. After dark."
"Nick, this is a strange planet. I don't think that we should split up." Chakotay folded his arms across his chest. It was the immovable stone statue Nick had come to recognize. But he had to convince his friend otherwise.
"We must! I can't stay in the sun a moment longer! I will be fine in the ground... it wouldn't be the first time. And I can find you easily after dark."
Chakotay hesitated only a moment. Then he clapped Nick's shoulder. "Take care. If you don't join us within an hour after dark, I will come looking for you." Then he rejoined the group. As they drifted just out of sight, Nick quickly dug a hole and buried himself. Only when a foot of cool, damp soil covered him, blanketing him from the sun, did Nick relax. He felt the rapid pulsing of his heart slow to normal. With one final breath, he slipped into the sleep of the dead to await the coming darkness.

Chapter Seventeen: The Outpost

The alien sun drifted towards the horizon and hovered just at the edge for what seemed like hours. The small band trekked further into the woods. One tricorder locked onto the stone cliffs, the other two collected data on their surroundings. Captain Janeway kept the lead, setting a brisk pace. Chakotay and Kim had no difficulty keeping up, but Neelix huffed silently, gasping the cool, damp air into his single lung.
"Hmm," Chakotay grunted. The captain never slowed her pace as she asked for clarification. "No red-blooded life forms anywhere within reach of our scans. Although that means no Buliga are nearby, it also means none of the warm-blooded animal lifeforms are iron-based."
Janeway nodded. No food available for Nick. That could be a problem. But then Nick and problems seemed to go hand in hand these days. She longed for a quiet little assignment with a normal Starfleet crew, lots of Shoreleave....
"That means that this is most definitely not a Buliga home-world, but rather a colony."
"Why is that?" Neelix asked, gasping deeply.
Kim spoke up. "Because only one type of blood evolves on a single planet. On earth, all warm-blooded animals, from bats to humans to elephants, all have iron-based, red plasma. On Vulcan, all creatures have green, copper-based blood. The Buliga have claimed that this is their ancestral home, yet, evolutionary evidence would imply otherwise."
She listened and tucked that piece of information in with a growing pile of confused data concerning this entire situation. None of it was making the least bit of sense.
Neelix coughed. Janeway and Chakotay turned simultaneously to stare at the small Talaxian. Neelix squared his shoulders gamely and forced a bright smile. "Just a bit dry, Captain, no concern!"
But he didn't look well. He was sweating heavily, and his yellow mottled skin tones had paled to sickly saffron. Several years earlier some Vidiian pirates had stolen both of his lungs. Only a small miracle, and the gift of a lung from Kes, had saved his life. Chakotay and Janeway exchanged knowing looks. This was a far as they could travel tonight.
Janeway dropped her pack and avoided looking at Neelix. "I think that's far enough. I'm just too hungry to go any farther tonight. Kim, you can pitch the tents, Chakotay start a fire, and I'll see about finding us some water. Neelix, when the fire's ready, would you warm up some of the rations? They're much better that way."
Neelix smiled broadly, grateful for any opportunity to help.
Before long, they were gathered around a small campfire, sipping reconstituted coffee and warmed-over rations, which might have belonged to just about any food group in it's former life, but now was barely distinguishable from the packaging it came in. Still, although it wasn't a tropical island beach, they were alive, and that was something. The alien sunset happened all at once. One moment the woods were still oddly glowing with twilight beams dancing between the canopy, and the next brought total darkness. They blinked until their eyes adjusted to the dark. Chakotay peered into the black woods expectantly, wishing he had not left Nick alone.

The blackness was comforting. Nick slept soundly, as though his vampire instinct "knew" it was time for sleep, with the planet's sun warming the soil all around. His breathing slowed even further; the minute air pockets in the loose soil would have been sufficient even if he'd been forced to remain buried for a full day. As dusk neared, Nick's sleep lightened, and he entered into a state of dreams and semi-wakefulness. There were so many problems facing them on this planet. He'd had time to run some sensor scans during the long flight, before all the action had started. He knew that the only edible food was the enemy, the Buliga. Voyager was still effecting repairs, and didn't even know that a problem existed, yet.
"What problem?"
Nick tensed. All he needed now was LaCroix to resume his twisted little mind games! But this wasn't LaCroix. This wasn't even a voice, really. But it was a connection. He was sensing B'Elanna! He relaxed, trying to strengthen the weak link they shared.
He was enveloped in a deep sense of peace. B'Elanna must be sleeping. Finally. She brushed against his consciousness with a shy, tentative presence. She sought him, even in her sleep. Was he all right?
"I'm alright, for now, B'Elanna," he thought, concentrating slowly on each word, that she might understand the message. "The Buliga attacked us, it was a trap! We are hiding out on the planet surface."
She was disturbed by the hint of danger. Nick sensed the mystic union breaking, felt her drifting from him. Nick couldn't let her wake up-- her presence, her companionship was too cherished. He held his arms around an imaginary B'Elanna, tried to sense her presence, the feel of her hair as it caught on his whiskers before he shaved, the sensual touch of her teeth against his neck... B'Elanna was reassured and comforted. Nick was aroused.
Nick growled, coming to wakefulness. Yet, still he felt B'Elanna was with him. He could almost see her, snuggled down in the bed, his arms around her. She smiled in her sleep. The very dirt around him held her scent. "B'Elanna!" He thought suddenly. "Tell Tuvok! We were ambushed-- we're okay for now, but send help as soon as Voyager's up it!"
Then the link was severed. He felt her ripped from his mind as she must have been startled to wakefulness. The soil was still warm. His eyes felt droopy and his breathing remained slow. He'd been thinking about Anton a lot lately. Now, as he drifted in and out of sleep, the memories resurfaced, keeping him company.


========== flashback, Yukon 2044 ==========

"Everything is so clear! I see so much better!" Anton fairly burst into the living area.
Nick started to admonish him for the noise, but he turned as he heard LaCroix laughing softly. His master was much healed, but an unusual lethargy still lingered.
"It is an exciting experience, is it not?" the ancient agreed.
Anton extended his arms, displaying the flesh not covered by the short sleeves of his worn Boy Scout shirt. "And the sores are gone! I haven't felt this good in- in- ages!" He turned a cartwheel, followed by a back handspring, and then came to kneel at LaCroix's feet. His eyes were golden and his new fangs extended as he grinned up at his new parent. "Thank you thank you thank you!" Then he hugged LaCroix impulsively.
Nick stared, agape, fearing LaCroix's response to the impetuosity of this new one. LaCroix stiffened slightly, but then he laid a weak hand on the boy's head. "You are entirely welcome," he replied. "Nicholas. I believe your little brother has much energy to expend. If you will follow the east wing to the end, you will find a doorway leading out into the rocks in which this home is carved. In the rocks runs a vein of clay. Go and amuse yourselves."
Anton jumped to his feet, after hugging LaCroix once more in such a firm grasp that the ancient could not stifle a gasp. Then he grabbed Nick's hand and nearly flew from the room.
Nick held back for a moment. "Do you need anything?" he asked solicitously.
"Yes," LaCroix said. His voice was pleasant, betraying his amusement; "I need peace and quiet. Now go!"
The east wing wound steadily downward, with a dozen small bedrooms off either side of the corridor. Nick wondered why this fortress was so large, for whom had LaCroix built it? He would have to ask him later. The last door at the end opened inward, to reveal a large cave, with a tunnel extending even further into the rocks. Nick suspected that the tunnel would eventually lead to a back entrance to the fortress, although the door would be tightly sealed against nuclear fallout. The cave itself was large enough to construct additional sleeping chambers for quite a number.
Nick touched the rock wall, feeling its solid strength. Cities had been crushed, lives destroyed, and yet the earth survived. He ran his hands along the layers. The layer of clay was easy to find. It was gray and damp, and a spring of water seeped from the bottom of the clay layer, forming a small pool that ran downward with the tunnel exit.
Anton touched the clay with both hands, then grinned up at Nick. "It feels cold! And soft!" Then he dug his fingers into the gray mass. Nick followed suit, pulling out large handfuls of the raw clay. It would not do for serious pottery in this state, it held too many impurities, small stones and sand, but for beginning sculpture, it was perfect.
"I'll make a bust of you, and you do one of me," Nick suggested, sitting down on the rock floor near the pool.
Anton nodded. "I'll need more clay than you, then!"
"Because your head is bigger," Anton replied innocently.
"What!" Nick glared at him, but the boy laughed heartily.
"Very funny," Nick said, smiling in spite of himself. "At least yours has a better chance of becoming a good likeness! My model never sits still."
Anton laughed again. His laugh was infectious. Nick felt happier than he could ever remember.
For some time they played with the raw clay, pressing, pushing, gouging, then smoothing their work with clay silt from the bottom of the rock pool. Anton's soft brown hair was long, falling past his thin shoulders, and he often wore it pulled back with a tie in a bushy tail. His jawline was smooth, unmarked yet by even the beginning of a few whiskers. His eyes were large and guileless, with delicate long lashes. Nick stared at his face, studied it, even as Anton stared at him.
Once Anton reached up to grab more clay, and a small chunk flew at Nick, striking him in the forehead. Nick wiped at it with a trace of irritation. "Watch it!"
Anton laughed, and purposefully tossed another sloppy chunk, this time hitting his chest. Impulsively, Nick flung a large handful at Anton. He ducked, but a second handful followed the first. Clay was flung wildly around the cave, as they ducked and darted about. Nick tried not to laugh, but somehow the clay got in his mouth, his hair, his ears, not to mention all over his clothing. He was stronger than Anton, but the younger vampire was very quick. They were fairly evenly matched.
Finally, when they were too slick with the gray goo covering them entirely from head to foot, they collapsed on the ground and laughed. Only then did Nick notice they had an audience. LaCroix stood just inside the open door, trying to appear stern although his mouth curled up slightly.
"I see that you took my advice quite literally, my children," he said. "You will rinse off entirely in that pool before you set foot inside."
"Yes, yes, of course," Anton answered obediently. "But first! Come see my sculpture! Do you like it?"
LaCroix hesitated, not finding an area of the cave that was not wet and slippery with clay. Then he simply levitated across much of the mess and alighted near the two busts. The one of Anton was skillful, and a very good likeness. The one of Nicholas pleased him immensely. Anton had captured something of Nick's essence in the clay. The intent gaze that his son got when he was deeply involved with either his art or his music. The head was cocked slightly to one side, and the mouth was relaxed. It was his son when he was at peace with himself, a rare and wonderful moment, now forever captured in art.
"These are beautiful," LaCroix murmured. "Nicholas. See that you take care to preserve them both. What would you require to cast them in bronze?"
Nick shrugged, embarrassed yet pleased that LaCroix liked what they had created. "I'll think on it," he answered.
LaCroix smiled at them. "Although, I hardly think it was necessary to bathe in the clay in order to pose for one another. Clean yourselves up then come and join me. It is past time to feed."
Shortly, both Nick and Anton emerged, cleaned and scrubbed and both dressed in casual sweats. Anton's clothes, borrowed from Nick, were several sizes too large. He pulled the drawstring in the waist securely, but the legs would not stay cuffed. He didn't seem to mind. He accepted it as he did everything else, happy and grateful for any little thing at all.
LaCroix sat in an easy chair sipping his beverage. Several green bottles stood on the low table, with two glasses for Nick and Anton. Thus was dinner. Nick picked up his and passed the other to Anton, as they sat down on the couch.
Nick stole a glance at the ancient. He still seemed tired and old. Nick's emotions immediately crossed over to LaCroix through their link.
"Do not worry so, Nicholas," LaCroix gently chided him. "I will make a full recovery."
Anton was curious. "Can you tell what we are thinking?"
"Certainly," LaCroix answered, mildly perplexed. "Can you not feel it? The link that we share?"
The fledgling shrugged. "I know that Nick is not as sad as when I first came, but that is plainly visible. I see that you are still tired. But I don't know that I feel this."
LaCroix took another sip, then set the glass down. "You should feel the link strongest with me, as I am your maker, and yet, you should feel it with Nicholas as well. You should be able to sense the presence of other vampires, although we cannot test that until it is safe to leave this shelter. Now, close your eyes, Anton, and concentrate. What am I sending to you?"
Anton's eyes closed. He leaned back against the couch to obey the command. For many moments he made no sign that he sensed anything at all. Then suddenly he sat upright. "A lady! You are thinking about a beautiful lady!"
LaCroix smiled. "That is correct. Her name is Janette, and she is also family."
"That's incredible! Is it like ESP or something? How does it work? How is it useful?"
Nick and LaCroix shared a smile. This fledgling was so full of enthusiasm that it was contagious.
"Drink your fill," LaCroix said. "Then we will need to teach you how to use these new skills."
Shortly, LaCroix arose. "I will go. You are to focus your thoughts on me. Try to picture where I am, then come and join me. Nicholas, you will accompany him, but do not assist him. Do not take overly long."
Nick recalled when he had first played this game with LaCroix. It had frightened him when he was left alone. He was still very young at the time, and unsure of himself. He didn't know if LaCroix was going to come back. But now his own link with LaCroix was very strong, and oddly enough, very comforting. He could sense exactly where the master was going. He couldn't wait for Anton to figure it out as well! A long soak in the hot tub sounded like fun.
Anton tipped up the last bottle, sucking on it to draw the last few drops from the rim. Then he placed all three bottles and glasses in the sink.
"Anton, sit!" Nick chided him. "You are not the maid! LaCroix wants you to do this now. Can you sense him?"
The boy squeezed his eyes shut tight to block out the distractions in the room. "No."
Nick tried to explain it to the boy, but Anton became confused. "Come, then," Nick said. "Choose a direction. If you choose the correct one, you will feel something- like a tingling, and if you choose the wrong ones, you will feel nothing."
Anton tried the hallway towards the clay, scowling in concentration. Nothing. Then he tried the corridor leading towards his own bedroom. The studio was that way, too. Still nothing. Choosing the one leading towards Nick and LaCroix's bedrooms, Anton fairly squealed. "This is it! I know it is! I don't know how I know, but LaCroix went this way."
"Very good," Nick agreed. "Keep going. The sense you feel- the presence of LaCroix- find a way to make it stronger. Lead me to him."
On they played. Anton wasn't very good at the game, but he was eager. Then, Nick sensed from LaCroix that they should hurry up, and so he linked with Anton. Touching the boy and opening his mind to him strengthened the link between all three. Within moments, Nick and Anton were rewarded by discovering an indoor pool and hot tub. Anton's first lesson was over for the day.


========== end flashback ==========

The soil was cooling. It must be safe to emerge now. The loose dirt pushed away easily. Nick sat up, brushing off his jacket. A pair of squiggly dirtworms rolled off him into the loose dirt. Nick watched them for a few moments. Undulating slowly, they began the process of burying themselves in the dirt once again. Were worms somehow related to vampires? They had the sun-thing down. He quirked a smile at his stray thoughts. The worms would be useful to his terrarium. Paulus had said it should have some small creatures. A pet worm was just about all he felt capable of raising. He picked up the two worms and a handful of dirt, depositing both in a pocket. Then, standing slowly, he circled around to search for the way.
The path the mortals had made was easy for the vampire to track. A snapped branch here, a foot print there. The scent of them lingered on the air. Nick felt that he could afford the time to conceal their tracks. Footprints were brushed clear, the branches broken off at a more natural angle. Most species would not smell humans like he did, and the evening wind should blow their scent off course. Flying was a risk. It meant not leaving tracks, but it also meant he would need to feed far sooner. Much as he hated to, Nick grounded himself and walked the rest of the way.
Creatures of the dark, predators like himself, came back to life, to begin again the eternal quest for food, the cycle of life that did not change that much from one planet to another. The temperature dropped significantly. Nick could feel it, even though he was unaffected by it. He knew his mortal companions would be. Had they made it as far as the rock cliffs? Or would they have to hole up in those flimsy tents for the night? The temperature continued to drop, to a level that would require extra clothing. Yet on he went.
Nick could hear them when he was still a long way off. They had built a small fire. Nick could hear Kim's teeth chatter. He heard Neelix blathering away as he boiled something over the fire, and he heard Janeway talking. Chakotay made no sound. For a brief moment Nick worried about him. Then, suddenly, Chakotay was beside him.
"Nick!" he whispered.
Nick startled. Only LaCroix could consistently creep up on Nick, without his sensing the older vampire's approach. Vachon could do it, sometimes. Mortals, never... at least, not that he could recall. But then, Chakotay was a hunter, from a tribe of warrior hunters. It was the bond they shared in some small measure.
"I was just coming to look for you," he said, handing Nick the first of his blood rations.
Nick fell into step with him. Drawing the handcuffs from his pocket, he placed them in Chakotay's hands. "Keep these," he said in a low voice. "In case."
Chakotay scowled at him, but Nick had to make him understand. He grasped Chakotay's shoulders and glared fiercely into his dark eyes with eyes of blood red. He didn't try to catch the heartbeat... Chakotay was a resistor. He was forced to try honesty.
"The chairs in the Mess Hall, Chakotay! They could just as easily be Captain Janeway the next time. She is at the greatest risk, although none of you are safe. Promise me, if we don't find food in 48 hours, you will protect yourselves from me!"
Chakotay silently placed the handcuffs in his jacket pocket. "Let's tell Captain you're back. Then, how about you and I go hunting?"
The wind was biting and carried a dozen new scents. The tricorders and phasers were pocketed. Chakotay carried his knife, Nick had only his hands. To use their technological implements might make them vulnerable to the enemy, but more than that... this was man and beast against the night. This was the hunt. Their senses heightened. Their skills sharpened.
They traveled in the general direction of the rock cliffs. They both knew that if they were going to camp out for as much as a week, the mortals would need greater protection from the cold, and Nick would need more than a thin tent between him and sun while he slept.
The woods were filled with sounds. Nocturnal predators like themselves searching for their meal, ever silent, stealthful, then with sudden flurry, launched their attack. Nick grinned through his fangs as the predator subdued it's catch. It was a good night to hunt!
All of the wildlife within range of his superior senses was cold blooded. There were reptiles and related avian cousins, insects and invertebrates... but no where could he catch the scent of a warm-blooded species. At least, that also meant that none of the Buliga soldiers were near.
Chakotay tensed. Nick stood still, watching, listening. Something moved along the ground, a belly-crawler. Chakotay raised his knife slowly, waiting for the moment. Then swiftly he threw it, severing the head from a large snake. Chakotay lifted the serpentine form, fully two meters long, and slung it around his shoulder. He laughed at Nick's expression.
"You should try it sometime. Snakes on my world taste like chicken. This should be about the same."
Then they reached the rock ledges. A small, ancient river gouged a path at the base of the rocks, with weathered and worn caverns carved along both sides in a spectacular canyon. Chakotay searched for caves with the ubiquitous tricorder. Nick dove off the edge of the gorge and soared.
Chakotay dropped his tool in the dirt and waited for one awful moment to hear flesh and bone mutilated on the rocks below. Then he approached the edge and peered curiously over. A dark form flew past, rose, tucked, and doubled back. It stopped in front of him and hovered effortlessly just a meter away, and at least two kilometers above the base of the gorge. It grinned at him, the pale moonlight glinting just enough to illuminate the face of a happy vampire.
"Caves, Chakotay! Not far down. But we'll have to carve out stairs for the rest of you, I suppose," he said, grinning broadly.
"You never said you could fly," he accused him.
"I never said I couldn't," Nick answered. He drew a phaser and began to carve out the soft limestone layers. Chakotay dropped the snake and assisted him. It took the remainder of the night before they had created twelve simple, sturdy stairs down to the mouth of the nearest cave. It was not quite deep enough to offer the protection Nick would need. Using the phasers again, together they fired on the soft limestone vein at the back of the cave. The stone crumbled easily. It splayed out from the energy blasts and the cave grew deeper. The front room was large enough for everyone, then in the back they hollowed a smaller, deeper recess for Nick. The horizon was faintly pink when they finished.
"I'll take them the snake for breakfast," Chakotay said, grinning widely. "What do you want to bet that Neelix is the only one to appreciate it?"
Nick smiled. He was getting very tired. It had been a long time since he'd left Voyager, and he had been excessively tired a lot lately. He didn't even know if it was day or night there any longer, or if it was day or night on earth where ever LaCroix was staying. What was the archaic term again? Jet-lag? Of course, jets had gone out of use centuries ago, but the phrase still applied to having one's natural circadian rhythms thrown out of kilter by extensive travel. He yawned, feeling his fangs drop. For a moment, Chakotay blurred, as Nick's vision shifted. His eyes glowed with a soft amber light; his friend pulsed in warm, tasty colors. Nick shook his head. His eyes were once again clear blue, but vaguely absent with his exhaustion.
Chakotay stared at Nick's transformation. He didn't seem to be intimidating him intentionally. Chakotay doubted Nick was even aware of it. Watching the change in him was fascinating, reminding him of the time he and his father had crept up close to a wild Chuba bear and watched it. The bear had stood on its hind legs, yawned widely- displaying massive jaws filled with sharp teeth- and lumbered off to sleep. Chakotay wondered what Nick would think of being compared to the bear.
"You'd better wait here and protect our new home from would-be trespassers," Chakotay suggested.
Nick nodded, as he yawned, displaying fangs once again. He lumbered off to sleep.
"Yep," Chakotay thought again. "A Chuba bear."

Just as he had predicted, Neelix was thrilled with the snake. Kicking the dying embers of their fire back together, Neelix laid the snake's body right in the coals. Kim turned away from the sight and claimed he'd just as soon eat rations. Janeway didn't look too excited either, but she knew it would be foolish to allow the snake to go to waste and consume their limited food rations. "We will eat your snake," she said firmly, catching Kim's attention.
The snake cooked quickly, filling the air with a tantalizing aroma as it warmed and sizzled. Ensign Kim picked at his portion. He ate it, but he wasn't quite able to get beyond his own preconceptions of what constituted edible. Janeway and Neelix ate their fill.
"What about Nick," Neelix asked, as he licked his fingers. "Has he found anything yet?"
Chakotay shook his head. It had been 18 hours since Nick had anything to eat, as the days and nights on this planet rotated at a longer cycle than earth-normal. They still had two units of blood. Things were not yet critical.
They struck camp, rolling up the tents and stowing the gear, then swept the area to conceal that they had ever been here. It would take just over an hour to reach the caves. Chakotay led onward. He was getting tired, himself. Once they arrived, he would have to sleep. Had life always been such a challenge, he day dreamed? As a boy, he had never wanted to sleep, too afraid that he might miss out on something of interest. But starting with his years at the Academy, then serving in Starfleet, then as a Maquis rebel, it seemed that life just rolled from one disaster to the next without enough sleep. What would happen if they just started sleeping? Would the disasters wait politely until a more convenient time?
A deafening explosion shook the ground, snapping Chakotay out of his reveries. Dirt, wood and underbrush shot out from a land mine as Ensign Kim stepped on it. He was thrown thirty feet, but he was no longer screaming.

Chapter Eighteen: The Wounded

Chakotay raced for the fallen boy. Janeway reached him first. She uttered an oath that he didn't quite catch. Neelix pulled out a medical tricorder from the first aid kit and scanned his life signs. His expressive face puckered with concern. Captain Janeway dug out the tissue regenerator and started to cleanse and close the multiple lacerations on his body. His legs were striated with burns and cuts; blood soaked through his uniform. His arms weren't badly injured, but his forehead suffered a deep gash when he landed. Chakotay watched them treat Kim's wounds, then he got up to cut some boughs for a stretcher. He cut two poles and folded a blanket in thirds across the middle. Neelix helped him move the young officer onto the stretcher and to carry it. Janeway aimed her tricorder at the edges of the hole created when the land mine exploded.
"Sweet little device," she snapped sarcastically. "An explosive with organic properties. It didn't show up on our scans."
"Can you reconfigure the tricorder to be aware of them now?"
She nodded. "I believe so." She led the way now, moving much more cautiously. Kim was moaning softly, though he remained unconscious. Neelix was struggling silently. He never complained, but Chakotay could hear him gasp for air. He was smaller and older, and not a trained soldier at all. But he made up for in effort what he lacked in natural ability. Chakotay tried to remember to take smaller steps to accommodate him. It was already afternoon before they reached the cave.
Kim was awake now. Janeway gave him a hypo for the pain, but it was only partially effective. Kim's coloring looked unusually pale, his eyes were glassy. Janeway was usually pretty good about masking her emotions, but not this time. She was very worried for him. Of course, part of it was that Kim was the youngest member of the crew, not including the Wildman child, Naomi. Captain Janeway had always felt a little maternal towards this one officer.
"Knight will be waking soon," Chakotay said. "Maybe there's something he can do for him."
Janeway just nodded. Chakotay dragged himself towards the back of the room and flopped down on the rock bed. He almost envied Nick's ability to sleep so soundly.

Late in the day, Nick awoke. He was hungry and in strange surroundings. After a moment of confusion, he recalled where they were, only the smells were wrong. He smelled drying blood, fresh wounds, sickness... Concern overrode the hunger. Holding the vampire at bay, Nick emerged from the depths of the cave.
He stepped over Chakotay's sleeping form to join the others. Captain Janeway looked at him hopefully. "Kim stepped on a land mine. Can you help him?"
Nick knelt beside the young man. He grimaced at the stench of old blood. His teeth hurt. He had to clench his jaw tightly to keep his fangs from dropping.
Kim was still in pain and going in to shock. There wasn't much time to waste. Nick leaned over him to catch his eyes in the hypnotic stare. Kim's heart was beating too fast and shallow. It took longer than normal before Nick had him.
"You feel no pain," he said slowly. "You will rest now, and when you awake, you will feel no pain."
"No... pain," the ensign responded. Then the pain-filled look vanished. He smiled at Nick just before closing his eyes in quiet sleep.
Nick folded back the thin cover protecting Kim and grimaced again at the sight. Kim's chest and upper torso were not badly affected, but his legs were open wounds, pussing and bleeding. In the old days, legs this severely damaged were amputated and still the patient seldom survived. Nick knew modern medicine had progressed a lot since then, but his abilities had not. He wasn't sure how to help.
"I tried closing some of the wounds," Janeway informed him. "But they were already infected. I think the land mine was impregnated with bacteria."
Nick growled angrily. He had seldom been one to toy with his prey. He had believed that if one must kill, then do so and be done with it. But he knew that some of his kind loved to torture their meal, as the increased agony of the victim sweetened the blood. Still, this kind of violence in war disgusted him. It served no purpose. Whether the enemy suffered and died or just died should not make the outcome of the war any different....
Treat for shock. That came first. Raise the legs, make the patient warm. He propped the makeshift stretcher up on a backpack, then glanced at the captain. "He will need a fire to warm him." She nodded and moved away to gather sticks and kindling. Kim's blood pressure was too low. He'd lost blood, and the shock wasn't helping. He would need a blood transfusion, or he wouldn't survive the night. Nick picked up the two units of blood. He looked at them hungrily for only a moment, then pierced one bag with a plastic tube and started the IV. Neelix touched Nick's arm with concern.
"But Nick. That's all that we have. It could mean your life."
"It will mean his life, if he doesn't receive it now," Nick answered.
Neelix blinked away sorry tears. "Is... is there anything I can do?"
Nick cut away the legs from Kim's pants and as gently as possible removed the torn garment. He pointed to the bits of fabric that floated in the open wounds. "Help me clean the wounds, while I give him the antibiotics."
For the next hour, both men picked out the fibers, splinters, dirt, and foreign matter. Then Nick sprayed antiseptic on the wounds and lightly bandaged them. Kim's blood pressure was a little better. Nick sat back, tired already and the night hadn't yet begun.

The sunset went unnoticed, as thick clouds settled over the woods and filled the canyon with a haze. The temperature dropped drastically. Sharp winds, heavy rain, thunder and lightning... all the trappings of a really intense storm. Nick was not affected by cold or rain, but the prey would be. It would be useless to hunt until the weather cleared. Janeway had gathered enough wood to keep the fire going through the night, but no longer. Nick went out foraging, and brought back several arm loads of damp wood. He passed it to Neelix to set near the fire to dry.
Neelix was trying to be his usual bubbly self, to boost their flagging spirits. He set a pot of water on the fire to boil and tossed in some leaves he'd gathered earlier to make some tea. "It isn't going to be coffee, Captain, I'm sorry," he apologized, "but then, you drink too much of that stuff anyway. Nick! You're soaked to the bone! Come and sit by the fire!"
Nick shook his head. "No, Neelix. I'm fine."
Janeway looked at him. His clothing was dripping, his hair was plastered to his face. "Yes, Nick. Come warm up."
Nick didn't want to make a scene. He moved two steps deeper into the cave, keeping his back pressed to the cold stone wall, and hoped they would just go on with their conversations and forget about him. But then, nothing on this mission had ever gone the way it should have.
Neelix patted the ground beside him and spoke to Nick again. "Come! Join us! Maybe we should spend the night sharing tales!"
Nick stared into the flames. Fire... the most destructive force known to vampires.... The sun was fire incarnate. Wooden stakes could be endured, and recovery was swift if the stake was removed in time. Garlic was painful and mildly poisonous, but seldom life-threatening. Only fire was terrifying. It killed mortals and vampires alike... so why weren't mortals more afraid of it?
Once, when he'd worked with Natalie several centuries back, to find a cure for his condition, he'd tried to conquer all of the vampire weaknesses. He'd made himself learn to hold a cross. He'd forced himself to eat small tastes of food. And he'd had a fireplace.... It was a gas one, operated by remote control. Even striking a match was upsetting, although he could do it. Then he used to sit on his couch and stare at the flames for hours, forcing himself to conquer the fear.
That was all a long time ago. The instinctual fear was back, and as strong as ever. He couldn't look away from the terrifying flames, even though the brightness was hurting his eyes. He couldn't step any closer. He was vaguely aware of their curious stares, but it didn't matter. Maybe this was a really bad idea. Vampires should not be trying to live among humans... sweat broke out in a fine sheen along his forehead. He stopped breathing entirely. The flames danced and pirouetted, beckoning to him. In the flames he saw again the simple peasant girl, Courage, from Domremy, burn at the stake... "hold my cross for me, it will give me strength" she had pleaded. Nick raised the simple wooden cross as his own flesh burned and seared, unable to turn away, staring without understanding, as the brave child died and sent her spirit into the light... the light he had forsaken... the death he was denied....
Chakotay sat up and rubbed the sleep away. He'd been out for hours. The hard rock floor made his muscles ache. He stood, stretched, and walked over to join the group. Kim was resting quietly. Nick stood transfixed at a distance from the fire, while the others just stared. Chakotay went to stand beside him. "Thanks for helping Kim," he said. "How is he?"
Nick didn't answer at first. Chakotay nudged him gently back from whichever century his memories had dragged him this time, then repeated his question. Nick shrugged. "He... he has a chance. I'm not really a doctor. He needs more antibiotics. But he's a fighter."
Chakotay sat down beside Nick. It was chilly inside. Soon he would have to relocate nearer to the flames, but for now he felt his presence was needed here. He tugged on Nick, and the vampire slid silently to the floor beside him.
Neelix jumped up and brought a mug of herbal tea and cold snake leftovers to Chakotay. He smiled wistfully at Nick, then sat a little closer to him, not quite as close to the fire. Only Captain Janeway and Kim remained near enough to be warmed by it. She stared at Nick, at the lights and shadows playing across his eternally boyish face, and wondered at the powerful memories that the flames seemed to have rekindled. It would be a long night, the first of many before Voyager could even begin to look for them. She would set the tone with a rare moment of sharing, following Neelix's earlier suggestion of campfire stories.
She told about camping out on Mars when she was a young woman, with a young man-friend who was more adventurous than romantic. They'd explored the caves all day, but when night fell, she was unable to sleep. She made them laugh at her tale, how she knew the caves were ancient... they had held firm for millennia, and yet she was terrified that they would not make it one more night. She'd tried "counting sheep" and brushing out her hair, which she had worn much longer then. She finally had to wake the young man and insist that they leave! She'd never liked caves since.
Chakotay was tempted to volunteer to comfort her, as she must spend the night inside the warmth and protection of this alien cave, but decided not to tease her in front of the others. Instead, he realized that her story was meant for Nick, for now they all acknowledged that he was afraid of the fire. He tried to think of a story of his own to share, but nothing came to mind.
Neelix took up the story ball from Janeway. "My greatest fear was a recent one, after Seven joined us. When I died, and did not meet my family. I was dead for several hours. Seven's nanoprobes and her technology revived me. I don't know if you remember it, Nick, but I was not happy to be back among the living. All of my beliefs in the afterlife were destroyed, all the traditions of my people, gone! But worst of all, I had always known that when I cross into the next life, I would be reunited with my parents, my sisters, all the loved ones who have departed from me. But, then I was dead, and I was alone. I wasn't at all. There was just nothing."
The others were silent. Only the fire dared to speak, snapping quietly at the limbs as their sap boiled fragrantly. Chakotay gazed at the Talaxian knowingly. He had tried to help Neelix rediscover his faith, but the cold, grieving expression told him that this story did not yet have an end.
Nick shivered slightly. He had been to the light. He had been dead... at least twice that he could recall. The first time, he had died as a mortal, when LaCroix brought him across into a world of darkness, the life of a vampire. At death, he found himself in a wide, peaceful desert. There was a door, and a guide, and a bright light. He could chose to walk into the light... but what did it offer? His faith was shaken... was there truly a heaven? Was there really a God? Or was it all a lie, a great hoax? There was a silken voice, beckoning him to return. He made the choice. And lived to regret it, for 1147 years....
A second time Nick tried to return to the desert and make a different choice. He returned to the peaceful place, but this time the bright light was barred to him. The guide spoke cryptically, letting him sense that he had not yet made reparation for the great many sins of his past.... That if he chose death, he was damned. He had to return to the living....
He should tell these things to Neelix. He should let him know of his journey among the unliving. But, these memories were too personal. He could not yet tell them of his deep, personal need to become like them, to leave the life of the vampire, to show them all that he was emotionally crippled, unable to adjust to his life even after all these years. Perhaps someday, privately, when he knew Neelix better, and knew what the Talaxian believed of the afterlife...
The fire snapped again. Janeway laid two fresh logs on the fire. Sparks flew up and outwards. It was a tame, quiet, controlled little fire, yet the vampire jumped nearly two feet. The others fell silent, waiting expectantly.
The fire demanded he remember the peasant girl. "We were in prison together," he began. His voice was low, soft. They quietly moved a little closer to catch the story. "I have been in prison many times... it is no mystery. I only wonder at each time I escape the fate I deserve, but she was an innocent. A little girl, a little slip of a thing, who heard voices..."
Chakotay listened attentively. He knew Nick often heard voices as well. Did he identify with the girl? Was this story the thing that made him afraid of the fire? Or was it even true?
Nick narrated how she led the French army, won battles, saved the dauphin- the heir to the throne of France, Charles. But during one battle, she was separated from her troops and captured by the Burgundians and sold to the enemy, the English. There she was tried for heresy and burned at the stake.
"I could see her, standing bravely, tied to the stake, the tongues of flame snapping at her flesh, crackling, the smoke rising. Her hair singed away, her clothes melted to her tender skin. She prayed, and called out forgiveness for those who harmed her. She begged me to raise her cross, It was a simple one, of two sticks lashed together. I was afraid of the cross, but I could not deny her dying wish. I wrapped my hand in my cloak, and raised it to her. She gazed at it lovingly, and prayed, while the English bystanders called out "Witch! Heretic!" My own hand burned, my face burned as I watched. My clothing began to melt from witnessing the scene of the burning saint. She told me not to grieve for her. She died, and I fell down as one dead, her cross still trapped in the folds of my cloak. That night, my body was dumped in a shallow grave, for they believed I had died."
The little group sat silent. Chakotay knew the story was believed to be true. It was the life of Saint Joan of Arc. He marveled at the gift of Nick's long life! To have met so many others! Such a wealth of tales he must have!
Janeway stared at the young officer skeptically. He did not fit into her perception of the universe at all! She believed in science! Technology! Anything that could be proven! But vampires? Saints? Miracles and superstitious nonsense? And yet, there he sat, his eyes softly glowing amber, his fangs descended and he trembled before the face of the fire. He was real. She could see him, touch him, and not explain his existence. He was the embodiment of a thousand superstitions....
Neelix was full of questions. He didn't have the cultural literacy to understand much of the story. "What was a witch or a heretic? What was the war about? Why would they burn a child?"
Nick stared at him. He glanced down and the amber eyes receded. Cocking his head at the Talaxian, Nick smiled briefly. He patiently answered all of Neelix's questions. The longer he spoke, the more calm he became. Whether it was subconscious or not, Neelix asked more questions. Even Janeway became caught up in his tales of historical relevance. He obviously knew a great deal about the war, the customs and culture of the time. He was even able to explain some of the religious beliefs, although she noticed that his voice trembled then, and he hurried through the explanation, as though it was painful or frightening for him to even speak about it. Perhaps Tuvok would be able to help Nick conquer his superstitious fears, she wondered.
Eventually, Janeway and Neelix began yawning. Chakotay teased her. "So, brave Captain, after hearing of the heroic young Joan of Arc braving the flames, do you think you can manage to sleep the night in a cave?"
She slapped him lightly and went to spread her bedroll.
Nick walked a wide circle around the flames to kneel down beside Kim. He lifted the sheet and removed the soiled bandages. Whatever bacteria the aliens had peppered their landmine with was certainly effective, as the multiple lacerations were still quite infected. He sprayed on more of the antiseptic and rebandaged his legs. There was just one dose of antibiotics left. He prepared the hypo and gave that to Kim, hoping it would be enough until Voyager came for them.
Kim stirred. A groan escaped his lips at he fought restlessly to return to wakefulness. "Nick," he whispered hoarsely. "Nick! I can't feel my legs! I can't feel a thing!"
Nick touched his hand to Kim's face and looked into his eyes. "It's okay, Harry," he answered him. "You can't feel them because I blocked your pain. "Do not be afraid."
The ensign relaxed slightly at his words, but a look of fear still flitted in his eyes. Nick gently stroked his face a moment longer. "You have some severe injuries, and infection has set in. I've given you antibiotics. You just need to rest, until we can get you to sickbay. Do you want me to put you to sleep?"
Kim shook his head slowly. "No, thanks. Not yet. But, I could use something to eat."
Chakotay brought over more of the snake and some tea. Nick helped him to sit up partly, letting Kim rest against him. Kim sipped at the tea. The dried, cold snake didn't seem any tastier today than it had yesterday, as he picked at it disinterestedly.
"So tell me," Kim wanted to know. "How long until Voyager even knows we're in trouble? How soon until they come to look for us?"
Chakotay cleared his throat. "Um, we've only been gone the equivalent of maybe forty-two hours... hard to tell for certain. The daily cycle here seems to be about thirty-six hours long. I'd guess that Voyager is still working on the impulse systems, which may not even be repairable unless we can get some refined deuterium from the Buliga...which may not be an option." He wished he could fill the boy's head with comforting fiction, but Chakotay just couldn't betray his trust.
Nick held Kim in his semi-vertical position with comforting arms. Kim was much shorter than him, the boy's head rested against his chest. He tried to guess at Kim's age... joining Voyager right from his graduation from the Academy,... they'd been gone for almost five years... Kim must be 24, or 25 now... the same as Seven. Why did he seem so much younger?
"Actually, Harry," Nick confessed. "I think that Voyager already knows we're in need of assistance. I expect them to get here before a week passes."
Chakotay stared at Nick questioningly. He was about to ask him to explain... he didn't want Nick to tell falsehoods either, yet Kim seemed to find great relief in Nick's words. He closed his mouth and the moment passed.
"I'm sorry, Nick," Kim whispered. The empty tea mug fell from his hands. "Sorry."
Nick eased Kim back down. "It's okay, Harry." He caught the young man's eyes in the hypnotic trance and put him into a sound, restful sleep.
Nick wandered towards the mouth of the cave, as the rain still thundered down the canyon outside. Chakotay came beside him. He held out his arm, offering his wrist to Nick. Nick stared at the small pulsing of the veins in his wrist. Without even thinking, his eyes took on the amber glow, he felt his fangs descend. He started to reach for what was freely offered, but then he broke free from the vampire's desire.
"No, Chakotay. I can't."
"But it has been beyond the 36 hours. You must."
Nick shook his head fiercely, forcing his beast away. "You have given me too much in a short period of time. It would not be safe to drink from you again. Not now... not for some weeks."
Chakotay demanded explanation. If his friend and officer was going to suffer, to succumb to his inner nature, the violence which he had only barely acknowledged, he wanted to know why.
"Three times," Nick murmured, turning away from him. "We can "toy" with our prey only so long, taste their essence... before our very nature craves all that there is to offer. The third time is always fatal. Always."
Chakotay lowered his arm and turned to view the others. Nick didn't even have to turn to know what he was thinking. "Neelix and Kim are safe. The scent of infection is too strong in Kim... his blood is tainted." Now they both knew. Chakotay must protect the captain, at all costs. It was his duty as first officer, although he was surprised to realize that his personal feelings for Nick had changed. Already, the aged vampire with the boyish face had become more brother to him than friend. For now, duty was stronger than friendship... but would it also be stronger than blood?
Nick seemed unaware of Chakotay's private struggle. He glared mournfully out into the blackness, as the rains continued to wash the alien world. "I must go out," he said. "I will bring back water, firewood, even another snake, if you wish. I'll return at dawn. By then I should be able to sleep."
Chakotay nodded. He had seen Nick's eyes glow bright red, watched as Nick's jaw trembled under the iron will that held the vampire at bay. He hated to think of him out in this rain, although he knew Nick claimed to be unaffected by the cold. He knew Nick felt physical pain, even if he felt it differently than mortals. At what point would the wind and rain affect him? How cold and wet must he be, before the dismal weather brought forth his melancholy? And the strange attacks, the strokes he had suffered on the ship, were still a possibility... and yet, he knew that this was something Nick had to do. It would be better for the group. Before Nick left, he touched his sleeve, and waited for Nick to face him.
"You must return. Before sunrise. Kim needs you, Nick." He waited, rock solid, until Nick nodded in agreement. Then he watched as Nick simply lifted off the rock ledge and soared out into the wet, dark night. "Some day, little brother, you will make me like you."

Chakotay wandered around the cave for some time. He stared into the flames, searching for inner peace. It was not to be found. His mind was filled with concern... for Nick, for Kathryn, even for Kim. Would Voyager come for them in time? Then he remembered Nick's words to Kim, that Voyager already knew about their troubles. How? Had Nick managed to send out a distress beacon before the shuttle exploded? But wouldn't the Buliga have intercepted it? Yet, Nick knew things, and sensed things, and they didn't yet understand the full range of Nick's abilities. Before yesterday, he hadn't even known Nick could fly! He would ask him to explain when he returned at dawn.
Chakotay remained awake the rest of the long night, locked with his own private thoughts. He recalled his people... his father, mother, friends. The little children of the tribe. For much of his childhood he had despised their rituals and their ways, clinging to a lifestyle that had refused to evolve with the future. Now, they were no more.
Nothing he could do would bring them back. An ancient culture, and entire civilization, had been obliterated from existence. Even if Chakotay took many wives, and fathered many children, he could not rebuild what had been lost. And there was no woman from his tribe to take as his mate.
He was the last.
As long as he lived, his people would not be forgotten.
Was that all there was about becoming a vampire that attracted him? He still knew so little about Nick. Surely, if he became a vampire, he would no longer be Indian, at least, he would be less of his people and more of Nick's. It would tie him to Nick's evil father... That thought alone almost made him rethink his options. But perhaps, he could help defend Nick, or help him break away from the domineering, abusive man he called father.
If he became a vampire, then the stories of his people would live forever. Their once proud culture would continue, if only in history books. And Chakotay could devote the rest of eternity to ensuring that their plight was never repeated again.
Nick felt that he was evil, that he was cursed. Was that because he was a vampire, or because someone had drilled it into him? Chakotay knew no other vampires to compare with. He only knew that Nick had saved his life when they were Maquis rebels, and he had saved Paulus's a few weeks ago. Nick had comforted the Wildman child, he had heard it from a dozen different reports. Nick seemed driven to serve and to protect... and Chakotay admired him for it. He would watch Nick, and learn more about him, but ultimately, they would join as brothers.
Just at dawn, Nick returned. He made three quick trips, bringing in armloads of firewood, then two full containers of water, and finally several large, alien fruits and four fish. Nick stood near the entrance, drenched and dripping water. He tried to avoid looking at Chakotay. He turned away and kept his distance, yet Chakotay noticed his ashen complexion, a slight tremor of his shoulders, and knew Nick was very hungry and very cold. He sensed Nick wanted to hide away in the back of the cave. He knew the approaching sun would affect him that way, and the only thing between Nick and rest was Chakotay. That he hesitated to move inside warned Chakotay just how tenuous Nick felt of his own control right now. Chakotay moved closer to Kim, as though to check on him. Nick slunk around the fire, moving deliberately to the rear of the cave.
"Nick," Chakotay asked. "Before you go... can you explain to me, why you told Kim that Voyager already knows about us?"
"No. I can't explain it," he said harshly. His back was still turned to Chakotay, but the Indian was certain that the odd accent to his words were the result of his fangs. "I don't understand it myself," he went on. "I just know that B'Elanna heard me."
That made sense. He knew that the two had grown close, even if it had only been a few weeks. Sometimes, that was enough. He still didn't understand the vampire's link to his father, but the one with B'Elanna was acceptable. B'Elanna loved him... they spent time together... they had "bonded". That she should sense Nick was in danger was perfectly normal. But whether she could convince the Chief of Security to act upon her psychic relationship with the vampire was another matter entirely.
"Nick," he called again. This time Nick growled at the interruption. "Take off your wet things and crawl under the blankets. I'll come get them later and dry them by the fire."
Nick placed one hand along the cave wall for support. He turned then to face Chakotay. His eyes were feral, glowing out from a shadowed face. The distant light of the fire glinted off his full, sharp teeth. His stance was predatory. Chakotay wondered... was Nick intentionally reminding him of the danger they were in? But Nick seemed too tired to be thinking clearly. The red-eyed beast just nodded in response, then slunk off to bed.
Chakotay didn't wait long. He had seen Nick fall asleep the instant he closed his eyes on more than one occasion. He moved slowly, quietly, to approach the dark recess at the back of the cave.
Normally Nick slept on his back, with his hands folded protectively over his heart. But now he was curled up on his side, shivering visibly under the lightweight blanket. His hair was damp and curled. Dark circles shadowed under his eyes. He looked deceptively small and helpless... Chakotay shook himself, and picked up Nick's soggy clothes.
He shook out the trousers and draped them on the pile of wood near the fire. As he turned the jacket sleeves right side out, he noticed a dark, muddy stain at one pocket. Chakotay peered inside, and withdrew two dirtworms and a handful of mud. How would they get in there!
Chakotay recalled the image of Nick sleeping from moments ago, the image of a boyish face, and wondered, just how old was he? Not in actual years, but in vampire maturity? Was he really an ancient, filled with the wisdom of ages, or was he really still a vampire child, impulsive and immature, and needing the guidance of a father? Chakotay replaced the two worms in his pocket, and put the jacket far enough from the flames not to hurt them.
He waited until Janeway and Neelix awoke and told them a little about the night's activities before he also went to sleep. He adjusted his bed, blocking Nick's path, hoping to wake if the vampire should be up first and step over him. He felt the handcuffs in his pocket. Was it time? But cuff him to what? Binding his hands together, whether in front or in back, would still leave his sharp fangs free, and with his ability to hypnotize, Kathryn would still not be safe. Taking his clothes from him might not stop him. If he were driven by instinct, he wouldn't care if he was dressed or not before he killed. But he had looked so cold and so alone! Chakotay worried about him over and over, until a fitful sleep overtook him.

Chapter Nineteen: Penance

Late in the day the beast awoke. There was light and confusion. There were noxious smells, smoke, and soft conversations... but the words were alien. He could not make out who was there. He reached out with his vampiric sense. He could not find the presence of his master, either! Panicked, the vampire sat up. The room pulsated in the hues of his nocturnal vision, the shapes were fuzzy and unclear because of the light. His eyes hurt. He rose, slowly, and unsteady on his feet. There was only hunger. Great, powerful hunger. He stepped from the bed, driven by the scent of prey. The blanket fell. His arms and legs were bare, a strange sensation, yet a minor concern. Only the hunger drove him.
One slept almost at his feet. This one smelled familiar, strong, yet strangely... unwanted. There was one much sweeter not far away. A smaller being with the quicker pulse of a woman. The scent of a woman. The soft, husky voice of the woman. He stepped lightly, silently over the man and approached her.
A sick boy rested on his cot, sleeping. Another being was with her, chattering on, until he looked at him. Then the small, spotted being looked frightened. He stared into its eyes and commanded it, "Sleep!" The being willingly complied without another word.
The woman turned and faced him. Her face registered surprise but no fear. She spoke to him. Her tone was commanding. He cocked his head. The words made no sense. He caught the rhythm of her pulse. It was singing to him. His teeth ached! The hunger within was all consuming. He stepped closer to her.
Janeway watched as Nick's lips parted in a seductive smile, displaying long, sharp fangs. He had always been pretty well controlled around her, it was a sight she hadn't been able to witness very often. It was rather frightening, yet strangely alluring, too. He had a powerful, primitive magnetism. She felt drawn to him.
"Kathryn," he whispered. Her name sounded different on his lips. In his weakened state, he slipped into speaking a mixture of standard and his native French. "Kathryn, come to me... come to view the beast!" The words were whispered, but the tone was hard to ignore. Her breath came faster. She stared at him as though seeing him for the very first time.
Chakotay had warned her. Stay away from Nick. But now, she could not remember why. After all, Nick was one of the crew! And he was obviously weak... maybe sick. Besides, she was the captain.... Janeway moved closer. He was so alien and yet, so incredibly beautiful. She had never really noticed before.
"Kathryn, come to me," he said. His voice was deep. It rumbled softly, like a lion's growl, demanding to be obeyed. She wasn't used to being ordered around! That was part of the appeal. It would be so nice, just once, to have some one tell her what to do. If someone older and wiser could take over making the decisions for 152 people! She leaned closer, fascinated at the way the light glinted on his fangs.
She gasped once, the first sign of fear just beginning to appear. All the better. Fear made the blood that much sweeter. But he sensed that she might wake the other, and he couldn't allow that. He caught the sound of her heart beat again, stared into her gray-blue eyes and demanded her to submit. She struggled, resisting him for only a moment. She tried to glance away. He touched her chin, directing her to look at him again. Her skin was so warm, and smooth to touch. She was his, caught in the snare of his desire. Her fear dissipated, now she longed for him, nearly as much as he longed for her. His hunger was fierce! He couldn't wait a moment longer. He pulled her into his embrace, turning her around with her back to him. He wrapped his arms around her, and rubbed his cheek against her neck. His breath trailed along her ear, prickling her skin even as her heart rate increased. She moaned softly.
"Nick! Stop!" roared Chakotay.
The vampire growled menacingly at him. It was enough to break the spell. Janeway stared at him, and knew at once what he had tried to do. She pulled out of his arms, seething with anger. Chakotay was at her side.
"Are you all right, Captain?"
She was almost too angry to speak. She nodded curtly. "He- he would have killed me!"
The vampire bared his fangs and growled at her. The sound was not the deep rumblings of a man, but more like the bone-chilling threat of the lion king, paralyzing his prey with fear long before he slew them with his claws. Janeway trembled involuntarily. Chakotay moved to stand between her and Nick, with his knife in one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other. Nick feinted to one side, but Chakotay was not fooled. He swung the knife, making a glancing blow to Nick's forearm. The dark, cold blood of the vampire gushed for a few moments, then slowed and stopped, even as the starving beast stared at it. The confusion spread across his face. He swayed, losing his balance. He stumbled to his knees. He held his forearm out, staring at the knife wound as the skin closed and repaired, then turned questioning, blue eyes up at Chakotay. For one moment, he was confused. Then as the realization of his actions dawned on him, the look clouded into deep regret.
"No!" he cried out.
Chakotay took a moment to sheathe his knife before going to him. It was all the time Nick needed. He dodged beyond his grasp, hurrying to the mouth of the cave. He paused for a moment, with a pain-filled, troubled expression. "Forgive me, captain," he whispered. Then he lunged out into the full light of day.
"Nick!" Chakotay shouted. He raced after him. Already the scent of burned flesh hung in the air. "Bring a blanket," he shouted at Janeway, then he mounted the rough stairs in the cliff wall to pursue the vampire.
Janeway couldn't move at first. Neelix had awakened at the shouting, although he was still somewhat dazed as the after effects of the hypnotic suggestion faded. He grabbed the blanket that Chakotay had requested and went to Janeway. "Captain? What is happening?"
She stared at the blanket, unable to meet Neelix's eyes. Nick had tried to kill her. Nick had seduced her. And Nick hadn't done it at all, but rather his alter-ego. Nick was trying to kill himself, so filled with regret for the actions of the other being with whom he shared an identity. She didn't understand it at all. She only knew that he had the most beautiful eyes. Something had to be done for him... immediately. Grabbing the blanket, she only said, "Stay with Kim." Then she hurried to follow their trail.
Chakotay hoped that Nick would not be able to fly far, in his weakened, hungry state at full light. He was a good tracker, but Nick's flight would have been impossible to find in time. Standing at the summit, he closed his eyes and listened, reaching out with his sense of hearing, but also the other sense. The sense that had no name. The sense of family, of blood, thicker than water. Chakotay grasped his wrist, where twice Nick had fed from him. Something had happened to him then. As Nick's saliva had entered his blood stream, he felt somehow joined with him. It wasn't a strong feeling, not like the link between Nick and B'Elanna, or Nick and his father. It was more subtle. He couldn't explain it, but there it was. Nick was alive and in pain.
The scent of smoke and burning flesh drifted downwind. Ever so faint, he heard the moan of a dying creature. Chakotay turned and ran. Captain Janeway had reached the summit as well and followed him, although he was pulling away from her. Nick had not flown into the woods, where the diffused sunlight would have prolonged his own death. He'd flown along the barren ledge of the canyon, and now Chakotay could see him laying on the rocks, fully exposed, his skin burned and blackened, his scant clothing smoking and beginning to melt away. Layers and layers of skin peeled off, leaving red, bleeding tissue exposed to further damage from the sun. Chakotay burst forth with renewed energy and threw himself on top of Nick to shelter him from the deadly rays. Nick made no effort to resist him. Nick was unconscious.
Janeway caught up shortly, retching at the sight of the injured vampire. Trembling, she shook the blanket out over the two men, then dropped to her knees. She lowered her head and took deep breaths. Chakotay slid out from beneath the blanket. The front of his uniform was stained with Nick's blood and burned flesh. Janeway fought down the urge to retch again. Together they tucked the blanket around Nick, then Chakotay lifted him and walked briskly back towards the cave.
Chakotay laid him down inside, near the back but not quite as far as Nick had been sleeping. It was too dark at the rear to see him to tend to his wounds. Janeway brought a pail of water, and the first aid kit. Neelix hovered worriedly over his shoulder. Then Chakotay slowly removed the blanket, trying not to cause further injury to the blistered flesh. Nick made no sounds. Chakotay knew it would be hard to tell the difference between vampire sleep and death, but he hoped that Nick was still alive. He wanted to believe it. Perhaps in the wanting, he was somehow holding on to that spirit of the vampire and keeping it trapped here with the living.
He began first with his face. Nick had fallen face down, so the injuries were not as severe. He moved the tissue regenerator over the facial burns, but without effect. Nick's vampire skin was not repaired with the tool. Lifting an eyelid, he saw that Nick's eyes were bloody and oozing. They were severely burned and sightless. He first laid a sterile padd over his eyes, then secured it in place. Next he took the cool water and a wad of bandaging to gently cleanse gravel and dirt from the burns. He moved lower to the arms. He had thought himself clever to take Nick's uniform from him last night, but that left his arms and legs fully exposed. He lifted a tattered corner of Nick's Starfleet issue, gun-metal gray undershirt to see that his chest was not as severely injured. Twice now, he chided himself, he had underestimated the power of the vampire! It would not happen again.
Nick's burns did not react like mortal wounds. Kim's legs were covered with puss, as the body's natural defenses went to work to cover the open wounds, fight off infection, and begin healing. Nick's wounds did nothing. They remained raw, open burns. Chakotay had heard that if he fed, his body would heal at a miraculous rate, but he hadn't realized that without feeding, his body would remain in this limbo- not healing and not dying- but forever trapped in pain. He forced the thoughts away for now, and continued to bathe Nick's legs and feet.
Captain Janeway appeared beside him again, and ran a medical tricorder over Nick. She ran it for many minutes. Finally, when she nodded, Chakotay released the breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding.
"I got a pulse. It is low, even for him, but it is there," she said softly.
The remainder of the day passed slowly. Neelix reheated the fish he had cooked at daybreak, but they all found it hard to wash down the dry, tasteless lumps. Neelix kept himself busy, puttering as only the chef could putter. He swept out the cave with a branch, discarded the snake skin and fish left-overs, made tea, and a weak, fruit soup to feed Kim when he next awoke. Janeway almost envied him, to have something to do. It was too cold outside to just go for a walk. She sensed that this area on this world must be entering into it's winter-hibernation period. She did gather more firewood once, and kept the campfire going, but she couldn't seem to keep her eyes from returning to the injured, broken form and wonder what they were ever going to do with him.
When Kim awoke, she took the task upon herself to help him eat the soup. Neelix sat behind Kim, supporting him in a semi-sitting position. Kim was too weak to even hold a cup today. He was perspiring, and his black eyes were vague and glassy. Yet, he was aware enough to want to know what had happened to Nick. Janeway was greatly disturbed by the incident, yet Neelix had been asleep through much of it as well. So she briefly recounted it for both of them.
Kim seemed satisfied. He was in great pain, and his "healer" was injured now, too. There was no more medicine for Kim, and no more blood for Nick. If rescue did not come soon, Kim would die. Would the vampire, too? How long would he remain in the death-like sleep, victim to his injuries? A month, a year from now, if blood were given, would he then still recover? Or was it possible to injure him so severely, that his eternity would end? No one knew. The doctor still reported that he had more questions about Nick's nature than answers. And strange as it seemed, she suspected that even Nick did not know that much about his own nature. He was vampire, but he was not a vampire doctor, or a biologist, or a scientist. He didn't even seem to know the questions, let alone the answers. She wondered, idly, how he had managed to survive as long as he had. Were there any vampire doctors back on Earth? How many vampires were there? How had they existed without her knowledge, without her even suspecting? Her head hurt. The 18-hour day was finally ending. She couldn't even compute if this was day 3 or 4 here, or day 4 or 5 on Voyager. Neelix had set one of the tricorders to keep track for them, but she was too tired to even care.
Chakotay woke from a light sleep when he heard Nick move slightly. He sat up and smiled at him. "Hi there, buddy," he said. "Glad you came back."
Nick couldn't speak. His throat was raw. He tasted blood... his own. There was something very important though. He had to try. Open the eyes. His eyes hurt terribly. They would not open. All was blackness, but for the first time that he could remember, he could not see in the dark. Panic gripped him for a moment and he struggled to sit up. A pair of strong hands pressed his shoulders down again, a deep, comforting voice spoke to him.
"Just lie still, Nick. I've covered your eyes... they were damaged. Help should come for you soon. If I know B'Elanna, she'll get Voyager here if she has to get out and push."
Nick moved a hand weakly in the air, as if grasping for something. Chakotay took his hand in his own and held it. Nick seemed to quiet then. His hand became limp, cold. Chakotay knew he needed blood now. Disregarding Nick's earlier warning, Chakotay bit into his own wrist to draw blood. He held the small wound over Nick's mouth, letting the red liquid drip.
Nick's tongue was swollen. He struggled to swallow more than just a few drops. Then he turned his face away. Chakotay was concerned. Nick would need to feed in order to heal, but his wounds were too painful to allow it. He didn't have the tools to pump blood directly into his stomach, as the doctor had done before. "Nick! What can I do? How can I help you?" Chakotay asked.
Nick struggled. Throat hurt too much. But something wanted to be said. Something important... He was so weak! "The handcuffs, Chakotay. Now. You must."
"No, Nick. You're too weak. It isn't necessary."
Nick summoned all of his will into one burst of intimidation. The one hand grasped Chakotay's wrist with enough force to leave a dark bruise, much more strength than Chakotay would have been able to guess he could possibly summon. "You must! You are not safe!" He emitted a long, agonized growl, then he sank back, drifting out of consciousness.
Chakotay didn't want to do it. But, he didn't want Nick to feel like he had to exert that kind of strength again just to warn them. So, reluctantly, he pulled the wrist restraints from his pocket. He clipped one end onto Nick's wrist, and left the other end loose for now. It would take some thought and ingenuity to know how to restrain him in this barren cave. But his wrist was painful. Nick may have even bruised the bone. Maybe, the handcuffs weren't such a bad idea, after all. The memory of how close Kathryn had come to dying earlier was still fresh and clear. It wasn't something any of them were likely to forget any time soon.
Chakotay rummaged through the survival gear. The tent poles and stakes were strong. They were a titanium alloy, far stronger than a tent needed to be, but intended to be multi-functional. He suspected a healthy, strong vampire would have difficulty bending them. He slipped the free handcuff around the tent stake, then drove it into the rock base, and buried it with more rock on top. Now, when he had to sleep, at least Kathryn would be safe.

Nick felt The Pain. This was the worst it had ever been. It was not just in his head this time. It burned all over his body. He was surrounded in black... his eyes would not open. His limbs were heavy. Even breathing was painful. His throat burned with the effort. Cold, stale blood oozed into his lungs. "LaCroix!" he cried out in anguish.
"Yes, my son," the silken voice returned.
Nick couldn't speak again. He hurt too much. He allowed all of his pain and misery to flood through the link they shared, to allow the pain to speak for him. LaCroix gasped.
"Nicholas! What has happened!"
There was true shock in the ancient's voice. Nick couldn't think.
"This is not from me, my son. I have not inflicted this upon you. This is your own carelessness, the very thing against which I was trying to warn you!" LaCroix voice was hard. He seemed indignant.
"It doesn't matter," Nick thought. His mind wandered for some moments. To whom was he speaking? What was it again? "Can't continue...father... must be... time to end...."
"No!" LaCroix's voice was hard, commanding. "No, Nicholas! Obey me!"
LaCroix forced the anger from his voice. His tone became gentle and filled with compassion. "Yes, I know. Let me share your pain, Nicholas. And I will share my strength with you. Just rest now. Rest with me."
Nick felt himself rising. There was a soft glow in the darkness. It was a cool silver, like the moon. He was no longer on the hard rock floor of the cave. He floated freely, without effort. LaCroix came to him from the silver light. Nick held out both hands- in his dreams he was free to move, unfettered by the titanium handcuffs, but he was still too tired... too weak to rush into the open arms of his master. LaCroix came closer. He came to Nicholas. He put one arm around his boy, patting his back, and the other touched the golden head tenderly. He tightened his embrace, whispering softly to him in Nick's native French. Nick inhaled deeply, the pain was no longer a part of this dream. He drew the scent of his master into him, comforted by the ancient's presence. A tremble shook him... his knees went weak. LaCroix supported him, swaying gently with Nick in his arms.
"Sh-sh," LaCroix soothed. "My beloved son, my favorite child. Just rest... and I will protect you."
Nick felt the blackness crowd in again. He clung to his father desperately, filled with fear. Was this the last night? The final darkness? Distressed and anguished, his eyes burned, but he didn't even have the strength to weep.
"Sh-sh," LaCroix continued. "Do not fear. Gather strength from me, my son, let me sooth your pain..."
The blackness mellowed. LaCroix became the silver light. He lifted Nick and lay him on a soft cushion, then tenderly bathed his wounds of burned and blackened flesh. Nick felt no pain or discomfort from his touch. He only felt a little cold and lonely, that he was no longer cradled in his father's arms. LaCroix laughed softly. "My son... it is a pity that you must suffer so, before returning to where you have always belonged."
Then LaCroix lay beside him, gathering him again into the firm embrace of a loving father. He held out his wrist to Nick. "Drink, Nicholas! Drink all that you can, and gather strength. You know what you must do. Know that I will be with you. Always."

Chapter Twenty: Vampire Seduction

The small group sat around the morning campfire, quietly sipping more of Neelix's herbal tea. The taste wasn't too bad, considering Neelix was in an alien world with limited supplies and spices. They cast worried glances towards Nick and Kim, but no one spoke. Finally, Janeway drew in a deep breath.
"We can't wait any longer. We must try to hike out of here, and locate the Buliga forces. Without help, they will die. Perhaps the Buliga will negotiate?"
"Captain, they tried to blow us out of the skies. I don't think we can hope to get any help from them," Chakotay pointed out.
"Maybe Argab doesn't speak for them all? Maybe, if we could just reach their leader, the King Arman, he would help us?"
"No!" Nick shouted. Three pairs of eyes turned towards him. He was up on one elbow, struggling against the handcuff that held him. "Bad blood!" He pulled more forcefully, rubbing off more layers of skin. Then his fangs descended. His mouth opened wide and he emitted a terrifying howl and lunged for them. The handcuffs held firm, yanking his arm as he struggled. He turned then and sank his teeth into his own wrist, gnawing on it viciously. Janeway turned away, tasting bile in her throat.
"What is he doing!"
Chakotay judged just how close he could safely go, then approached him. "Nick, stop this! What do you mean about the Buliga? What do you know?"
The vampire receded, but with it, all the strength fled. Even as Chakotay watched the fangs withdrew, and he lay limp again. Nick's wrist was bleeding profusely. It left a slick puddle on the cave floor, and would not likely heal unless he was able to feed very soon. Chakotay ventured closer, took the last of the medkit bandages and wrapped it around the fresh wound.
"Was he trying to feed on himself?" she asked.
"No," came a voice from the other corner. Janeway and Chakotay turned around. Ensign Kim was awake and aware. "It is animal instinct. A coyote will chew off it's own foot to escape the hunter's trap."
They fell silent, staring at Nick lying still on the floor, so wounded, so weak, and yet so very dangerous. Janeway could not remember a time when she had felt quite so helpless. "I still think that our best option is to get a message to the Buliga King before the peace negotiations...."
Nick stirred. "No peace talks, Captain. A trap, from the very beginning."
"What do you mean! How do you know?"
Nick was silent. Janeway started to move towards him, but Chakotay held her back. He went instead to touch Nick's face. "Nick! Wake up. Tell us what you know!" He hoped the commanding tone would sink through Nick's delirium and elicit a response.
"Drank them," he murmured. "In the transporter..."
"They were lying to us, right from the start...."
Nick fell silent. Janeway shook her head, wishing she understood what he was trying to say. "We need to wake him, commander," she said. "He knows something. It might help us!"
Chakotay slid back his sleeve and stepped closer towards the vampire. Captain Janeway touched his shoulder and shook her head. "No, commander. He said that it was not safe for you to do this again, yet." She held out her wrist. "Does it hurt?"
Chakotay's look was unreadable. "He's hungry and out of control. He won't know when to stop. You must tell me before you feel dizzy!"
She nodded. Chakotay took her small, narrow wrist and knicked the skin with his knife. She winced. Then she held her wrist out to the unconscious vampire and waited.
First, he took a deep breath, catching scent of the fragrant fluid. She watched as the tips of his fangs dropped, visible through parted lips. One hand stirred; it touched the back of her hand softly, almost a caress. She held her breath. A drop of blood fell from her wrist to land on his full, sensuous mouth. His tongue appeared to capture it, savor it. Then his mouth opened wide, baring his sharp teeth, and a moment later they sank into the tender flesh at her wrist. She gasped, startled at the erotic sensations as he drank. Her blood gushed into his burned, wounded throat, faster than he could swallow. Twin trails of red dripped from the corners of his lips. Even as he drank, Janeway saw his many wounds begin to heal. Under layers of flesh meshed together, the angry red welts paled in color, then shrank in size.
Chakotay held her shoulders protectively. "Captain," he called.
"No. Not yet," she said, prolonging the experience. "He is still so weak."
Nick clung to her now with both hands. His sucking grew stronger. She swayed, the room was spinning. Chakotay firmly pulled her from Nick's grasp. She felt strangely lethargic. It wasn't like recovering from an injury involving blood loss, but more like the euphoric lethargy she experienced after moments of intimacy. Chakotay supported her, until she was able to stand alone. She felt oddly embarrassed at the intimacy of the blood kiss. It had been so unexpected.
Chakotay shook Nick gently. "Nick. Help us out here, buddy. What happened in the transporter room? What aren't you telling us?"
Nick licked his teeth. He took a deep breath, and then a second one. "Blood was wrong..." he whispered. He raised his free hand to the bandage covering his eyes and lifted it. He blinked in the dimly lighted cave, dazed, confused, unsure of his surroundings.
Chakotay spoke again, in a deep, firm voice. "Who's blood? How was it wrong?"
"Buliga. No fear. They knew."
Janeway and Chakotay exchanged frustrated looks. Chakotay grabbed her wrist again and held it tantalizingly just out of Nick's reach. His amber eyes returned. He tensed, now wide awake and focused on the small red wounds still dripping with her unique flavor... Indiana sunflowers. He strained against the titanium handcuffs, the bandages on his wrist darkened with fresh blood. Chakotay held her wrist firmly out of reach.
"You want blood, my friend? You will have to work for it! Did you drink the Buliga blood?"
Nick nodded, never taking his savage eyes from her wrist.
"Why didn't you tell us before?"
Nick didn't answer at first. Chakotay repeated himself more forcefully.
"Blood everywhere... arousing... I licked it from my hands before you came in."
"Why didn't you tell us?"
"Doc was angry. Blood held no fear. They knew they would die."
"Maybe they didn't have time to be afraid," Neelix suggested.
"No! At the moment of death, the emotions are always strongest! That is part of the seduction! They knew before hand that they were going to die. They were prepared for it!" Nick lunged for her again, straining at the chain. Chakotay should have guessed that the drive for self-preservation must be very strong for a vampire to live so many centuries, and yet still it was strange to witness.
Janeway tried to capture Nick's attention. Her cheeks flushed at his gaze. "Nick! You can drink their blood?"
He nodded. He stared into her eyes, catching her pulse, locking her to him. He didn't speak, but beckoned to her with a slight gesture. Janeway took a step closer. He had beautiful eyes! Why had she never noticed them before?
Chakotay grabbed her shoulders firmly before she could take another step. He glared at Nick. "Stop it, Nick! That's enough!" He was unable to completely hide the angry jealousy as he noticed Kathryn's new attraction for Nick.
"Uncuff me!" Nick shouted suddenly. "Buliga soldiers are coming!"
Chakotay drew his knife, Janeway went for her phaser, but neither of them had time to release the injured, dangerous vampire.
The time for talk was over, as a band of ten Buliga soldiers invaded the cave.

The soldiers had their weapons drawn, but Chakotay wondered if they were dumb enough to fire them inside a cave. The blasts could bury them all alive! He ignored the possible danger to himself and leaped for the nearest enemy, rolling on the hard rock floor. He scrambled back to his feet and threw a punch. Neelix was wrestling as well, but the small Talaxian hadn't the size or strength to best his opponent. Janeway had managed to stun two of them before another kicked the phaser from her hand. Kim cried out when someone fell on him. Nick struggled against the handcuffs. Several soldiers landed a few punches on him until they realized that he was already restrained, then they turned their backs to him and concentrated on Chakotay.
The vampire resurfaced in full rage. Although the meager meal Janeway had offered was not enough to heal him completely, it had given him a burst of strength, and now that Buliga filled his cave with the scent of their blood, the vampire was in control. With another yank he broke the bones in his hand and pulled the battered, limp appendage through the titanium handcuff. Then in a flash he grabbed one soldier, sank his fangs in his neck and drained him before anyone knew he was free. He tossed the limp body aside and attacked three more, not taking the time to kill them now, but merely drinking enough to weaken them.
Chakotay had immobilized two warriors and was wrestling with a third. One was pummeling Neelix into unconsciousness. Nick was about to even that score, when Kim drew a weapon and stunned the enemy. Only two more remained. Nick flew at one, kicking him hard in the side. He heard ribs crack as the warrior fell down in agony. The last warrior, still not quite aware of how the tables could have turned so quickly, was raising his energy blaster at the captain. Nick launched himself at him. They rolled on the ground, the weapon discharged and a hole appeared in the side of the cave, as pea-sized gravel rained down on them. Nick got to his feet, dragging the warrior with him. He yanked the head to one side, and emitted a victory growl as he prepared to take the kill.
"Nick! Don't!"
Somehow, through the fog of his rage, he heard the woman's command. The neck vein pulsed before him, tantalizing... daring him. He'd been so hungry, so often! This one deserved to die!
"Nick! Let him go!"
Captain Janeway approached the violent beast, who had so recently hypnotized her, nearly killed her, and then saved her life. This was it, she decided. If he could not obey this order, he could not be allowed to wear the uniform. She could not stand there and watch a member of her "civilized" crew drink the blood of an enemy!
Of course, if she'd still had a phaser, she would have fired on the enemy, and she would have hoped that just stunning him would be enough, but if she had to, she knew she could kill. Still, killing an enemy in self defense with a phaser seemed totally different. For one awful minute she was certain Nick would disregard her. She couldn't look away. When she gave the order to lock him in the brig, she would have to remember this moment forever.
Nick's teeth itched. He leaned closer to the victim's neck. The woman's voice was familiar, one he should respect. His need to belong and his instinct to kill warred with each other. He was unsure of what to do or how to respond. Death was rather permanent. That was how he decided to obey the woman, this time. He lifted his mouth from the victim's unbruised neck and waited for the woman's command. He could always kill the victim later. He tightened his grasp on the man's arms and shook him roughly.
Janeway stared, pleased immeasurably that a five-foot two, one hundred ten pound woman had commanded the beast and he obeyed. Maybe, Nick could learn to be a part of Starfleet, after all. Then she noticed that Nick was healing rapidly. The burns on his arms and legs were all but gone. She must not have stopped him in time to save the lives of other Buliga soldiers.
Nick's eyes were still red glowing embers. His fangs were still fully visible. Chakotay had rendered his opponent unconscious, and came to Janeway's side. Nick shook the single soldier again, growling in his ear. "Tell them... Prince! Tell them the plan of deception! I know it all, now! Your soldiers... they told me everything!"
The tall soldier swallowed. "I am Prince Armantis, heir to the Buliga kingdom. Harm me, and my father will destroy you!"
Janeway waved aside his threat with a brush of her hand. "Your threats mean nothing to me, any more than your promises. I have heard enough of both from your people. You are our prisoner and our hostage. Your people will listen to me now, or I will fire you out a photon tube after I let our resident vampire drain you first. Clear?"
She was surprised at the anger and vehemence in her own voice, and wondered where she had ever come up with such a colorful, violent threat? Could she really have carried it out? She hoped it would not be necessary. "Tie him up," she ordered.
Chakotay looked at the handcuffs Nick had escaped from. He unlocked the one, and waited for Nick to shove the Prince nearer, then he clamped the prince's hand in securely. The eight soldiers were tied up with tent rope, one casualty. When all were restrained, then she went to Neelix.
Nick came to Kim's side, mindless of the dying fire. The bandages covering his legs were fouled. Kim was in agony. He captured Kim in a hypnotic glance and eased his pain.
Kim smiled at him weakly. "I don't want to sleep yet, Nick," he pleaded. Nick nodded absently. Something pricked at his consciousness. Someone called to him. He turned away, listening intently.
Janeway brushed at Neelix's face with a dampened cloth. "Wake up, Neelix," she coaxed. He coughed and sputtered, gasping for air. Then he winced painfully, and rubbed his jaw. It was hard for her to tell if it was bruised. His natural complexion was mottled with yellow-green spots, and his cheeks were covered with longish tufted fur. Then blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. He laid a hand on her arm comfortingly.
"Don't worry, Captain, it is not as bad as it looks. I think he knocked a tooth loose, is all." He forced a smile then, even as he winced. She patted his shoulder.
Chakotay was limping slightly. His face was bruised, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. Her wrist was sore from receiving a kick. All in all, she felt pleased with her people. Four of them had held off ten soldiers! And she knew, it was mostly because of Nick.
How had he broken free from the handcuffs? She was about to ask him, but Nick seemed somewhere else. His head cocked to one side, and he neared the mouth of the cave. It was still light out. "Nick! Stop!" she called.
"They're here, Captain," he said.
Neelix gave a whoop. Chakotay grinned broadly. He picked up Nick's uniform and held it out to him. "I think that it's dry by now. Maybe you'd like to get dressed before they arrive?"
Nick stepped into the pants, oblivious to any discomfort he caused the captain. He didn't notice as she turned her back while he finished dressing. Chakotay picked up the small forceshield and strapped it securely onto Nick's arm.
"How do you know this?" she asked.
"I sensed B'Elanna! Just as clearly as I sense danger. They are on their way. I don't know how soon until they get here, but it shouldn't be long now."
Janeway stepped outside of the cave and looked up at the clear, alien sky as if she could catch a glimpse of her ship traveling through space. She shook her head at herself and moved back inside. "Nick. Come here. We have to talk," she stated, sitting away from the light of the cave entrance and the small fire.
Nick drifted closer, but his attention wandered. He kept turning his head, looking for something. And he yawned. She had to remind herself that less than an hour ago he was severely injured and nearly comatose. "Nick. How did you get out of the handcuffs?"
"I broke the bones in my hand," he answered distractedly. Chakotay lifted his hand and looked at it. Even the wounds from where he had tried to chew off his own hand were gone.
"Tell me everything you've learned about these Buliga, and how you learned it!"
"They rigged the transporter accident themselves," he began. His mind was still elsewhere. Janeway noted that when he wasn't paying attention, it was much easier to get a straight answer from him. Curious. "The two soldiers were wired to explode upon transport, to frame you for their deaths, so the Buliga could lay claim to the transporters for their investigation, in hopes of acquiring the technology. The attack was to frighten you to comply, because you wouldn't give them the transporter. Then, when they saw how well the ship fought, even when our shields were damaged, they wanted to own your pilot as well. There is no war, and no peace negotiations. They didn't want you. Only your transporters and your best pilot. But, when we escaped their attack in the shuttle, then they weren't sure if your pilot was here or still on Voyager, so they sent out a search party to take us alive." Nick yawned again. He shuddered, yet still he was distracted by some nonexistent sounds that only he could hear.
"Nick!" Janeway called, more loudly. When he finally turned and acknowledged her, she blushed awkwardly. Damn this thing! This whole experience with Nick had set her on edge. The universe as she knew it had ended... everything was different now. Darker, scary, sinister... and it was somehow all his fault. After the "blood kiss", as he called it, she felt attracted to him. When she looked at him, her heart rate increased. She noticed the way his hair curled softly, the way a stray lock hung boyishly over his forehead. The way his eyes were as clear and blue as a summer morning in Indiana, where the skies stretched out for miles without a cloud or tree or building to mar the view. Sometimes those eyes were rimmed with flecks of amber gold, and she could no longer breathe. She noticed the deep timbre in his voice, and the sensuous curve of his lips. She began to fan her face. This was disastrous! And inexcusable. She had always been able to control her emotions before. Even around Chakotay, although the longer they remained on this voyage, the harder that was becoming. But Nick had come up almost out of no where! Several weeks ago he was just a name on the duty roster, she couldn't even quite put a face to. And he was too young for her, and not her type, and if she weren't the Captain, it would be Chakotay she would turn to, not some hot-tempered, alien blood-sucking demon!
Nick had saved her life again and again. He'd helped Kim, and back on the ship she'd heard a dozen different versions of how he'd helped the Wildman child. He was doing wonderful work with Paulus. This was embarrassing, and probably a private matter, but she did not want to be alone with Nick. He apparently, felt the same way. She motioned Chakotay to join them. Even Kim seemed awake now and interested. A quick memory of Nick working to save Kim's life, giving Kim the blood that Nick would need to survive was the ultimate sacrifice. That meant more to her than any other act. It was hard to conceal her true feelings and play fair at all times, but she had always had a special place in her heart for the young ensign.
Nick still seemed distracted. He avoided looking at her. When she did catch his gaze, she saw the same longing reflected in his eyes, the same need to join that tortured her. And he was embarrassed as well. Somehow, that made her feel better.
"You hypnotized me," she stated.
Nick fidgeted and squirmed. He reminded her more of a small boy than a creature with centuries of wisdom and experience. "I guess," he murmured.
"What do you mean, you guess?" She didn't mean to sound so snappish.
"I was pretty out of it, captain. I don't remember anything."
"So, anytime you become injured, you are a security risk to the rest of my crew?"
Nick flinched. Chakotay interrupted, coming to his defense.
"Captain, that's not fair. Nick warned us. He packed the handcuffs. And I warned you to stay away from him. Klingons and Vulcans both can be quite violent, yet still they manage to make it on vessels with other species. Vulcans keep their violent natures tightly reined, but pushed hard enough, even they become killers."
That brought a surprised look to Nick's face. Somehow, he couldn't see Tuvok as violent and uncontrolled.
"What else? What aren't you telling me," she demanded of Nick.
He looked at her with confusion.
He was so beautiful, she thought, as her pulse quickly raced. Nick blushed and looked away from her. "Oh," he whispered.
"It's... it's... uh, a reaction to... the blood kiss," he stammered.
"And!" Did conversing with him have to be like pulling teeth?
Kim cleared his throat. "Captain," he said in his gentle, soft-spoken voice. His dark hair was plastered to his face with sweat, his eyes still too glassy. His breathing was quick and shallow. She was very worried about him.
"Yes, Harry?" she asked gently. Even though he was her youngest officer, when he spoke, he nearly always had something worth listening to. Janeway valued his input. She nodded to him, encouraging him.
"Captain, I believe I can explain it." He glanced at Nick, who was struggling with embarrassment even more than the captain. "The kiss of a vampire is very intimate, according to myth. Vampires generally are physically attractive, youthful, sensual. The intended prey is usually of the opposite sex from the vampire, and is lured by flirtation and foreplay. Once bit, if the victim survives the experience, she remains drawn towards the vampire, begging for death. And the blood kiss is the climax of vampire sexual intercourse."
Janeway stared at Nick. Nick stared at his hands. He looked like he was trying to melt into the cave floor. "How long? How long does this last?"
Nick shrugged. He whispered something, and she demanded he speak up. "Uh, ... maybe a week? It should... fade... over time."
"Tell me, Nick. Is this blood kiss what holds B'Elanna to you?"
He turned surprised, innocent eyes to her. "Huh?"
"Is she really in love with you, or is it only this vampire thing that you did to her?"
For a moment, he returned to her reality. His face was like an open book; a host of emotions played across it. First was anger, then shock, then denial, and finally, fear. "No, Captain," he whispered. "At least, I don't think so. I never meant to... she isn't human-I didn't think about how it would affect her... I guess, I just didn't think."
Janeway felt warm clear through when she looked at him. She wanted to hug him, and comfort him, as right at that moment he sat with his arms wrapped around his knees like a lost, little boy. But she knew this needed to be dealt with! If B'Elanna loved him, she would be happy for them both. But she had to know. "Nick. B'Elanna is half-human. Don't your people know how you react to other species? Aren't there any doctors or scientists among you?"
He shook his head dejectedly. "One doctor. Natalie Lambert. She studies each new species, to tell us if they pose any threats. But, to my knowledge, she hasn't studied the effects... of vampire seduction."
"It might be painful, Nick, but don't you think you should know her true feelings."
Nick glanced at her with a horrified expression, but he made no response.
She stood up and folded her arms across her chest. She paced back and forth, trying to avoid looking at Nick. She could not let this emotional pull affect her thinking. When she looked at him, sitting so humble and dejected, she wanted to kiss all his fears away. Yet, this wasn't her! This was an alien reaction, like a drug -induced euphoria! That angered her. Still, she couldn't hold him personally responsible for acting out of the instinct for self-preservation. It was a powerful instinct that crossed over into many, many different species.
"Nick," she said slowly, coming to a decision. "It is not my habit to get involved with my crew's personal lives, but I have to know that this is B'Elanna's choice, that she's coming to you free and independent of whatever chemical or physical, or "supernatural" pull you've wammied on her. I want you to stay away from her for three full weeks."
Nick blanched. He was stunned. He'd just been parted from her for a whole week! The experience had been so painful! And now, that she was coming, that she was almost here? How would they endure it?
"Starting from when we left the ship. I'll rotate her to a separate duty shift. You may see each other publicly and at meal times. But no private encounters until further notice. Do I make myself clear?"
Nick struggled to speak. "Yes, Captain."
"Nick?" For one moment she stared into his clear, blue eyes, now filled with pain. She had to force herself to keep from hugging him. "You've the makings of a fine officer. Your actions here have helped to save Kim. You saved my life from the Buliga soldier. You identified the Prince for us, and uncovered the Buliga deception. And you're saving Crewman Paulus's as well-- I've heard only good reports about her progress from both her husband and the doctor. I'm pleased to hear that you've even been working things out with Tom Paris. I want you to understand. I am not punishing you. I will not enter any formal reprimand into your files for hypnotizing me. I will acknowledge that instinct runs deeper than training. If B'Elanna's feelings for you are genuine, I will be happy for you both."
Nick just nodded. He couldn't quite find his voice to speak. He wandered off to the back of the cave and lay down, the picture of solitary rejection.
Chakotay stared at Janeway for long minutes. "A little hard on him aren't you?" he asked softly.
She went to the fire and poured more of the herbal tea. Then, sitting near Kim, she stared into the green-black brew and took deep, even breaths. "Kim, do you feel up to telling me more what you've learned about vampires."
He nodded weakly. His voice was soft, feeble, but he seemed eager to talk. "Captain, I have collected a lot of information based on myths, and a little bit from Lieutenant Knight's diary. I'm not sure what is fact and what is fiction."
"Understood. Tell me everything. Then, I'll know what to ask Nick."
So Kim began. His voice was weak, wheezing, but his infatuation with the subject was evident, as he became more animated. He recounted myths of vampires from a variety of earth's cultures, some of the myths conflicted with others, but some things were constant. Vampires lived long lives, were strong, healed incredibly fast, could fly, see in the dark, had excellent hearing. Vampires were allergic to the sun, garlic, penicillin, wooden stakes, and feared religious objects. They drank human blood. There were no references to similar creatures on any other planet.
That seemed odd to her. That nearly every earth culture had some form of vampire myth implied that there actually were vampires. The disparity between the myths was easily understandable, as early encounters with the night creatures would have been the subject of tavern stories, an oral tradition that evolved with each successive generation. Why this deduction had escaped mortal minds for so long amazed her.
"According to Nick's diary, he is considered rather unique among his kind," Kim said. At the captain's questioning look, he continued. "His diary seems to be a long letter to his father, LaCroix, recounting his experiences in the delta quadrant. He has made several references to his faults, that he tries so hard to live among mortals. It was his service to mortals that got him captured by Cardassians. And his duty to the Maquis that brought him here. And he has tried to fit in to this crew. Apparently, this is abnormal behavior. Most vampires live among themselves, on the periphery of human society. They don't get involved."
"What about all the vampires that died in the Maquis massacre?"
Kim grinned. "Well, it would seem that only Nick was involved to protect the innocent from Cardassian aggressors. The other vampires were hanging around the battles for the free food. He says that Cardassian blood was considered a delicacy among his people."
Chakotay laughed. Janeway's face pulled a disgusted sneer. "Ah-ah," Chakotay chided her. "Cultural differences, Captain."
"And this LaCroix would rather that Nick return to living like a vampire?" she questioned.
Kim nodded.
"Well, let's be thankful then for rebellious children...."

Chapter Twenty-one: Rescued


========== flashback, Yukon 2044 ==========

Nick lowered the top on the grand piano before sitting down to play. Anton had fallen asleep on the couch again. They had spent several hours painting, then played chess, which as often was the case with Anton these days, ended in a wrestling match. LaCroix never would have tolerated such behavior in the past, but they had spent more than two years inside this mountain already. Perhaps he suspected that allowing small breaches in decorum would prevent wide scale mutiny, but he simply took himself elsewhere when Nick and Anton became too noisy or raucous for his tastes.
LaCroix continued to seem old. Nick was increasingly concerned for him. His master even took to walking with a cane on some days. He scoffed at Nick, and claimed it was just a fashion statement, and admonished Nick to find something else to do than annoy him. But the ancient's face was often gray-colored. His eyes seemed sunken, shaded with dark circles. Some days he just sipped at the blood, barely able to consume even one glass. Although at some point LaCroix had returned to his own bedchamber to sleep, Nick kept his door open during the day, and tried to wake himself frequently to check in on his master.
Anton had adjusted to his new life amicably. Of course, he had yet to make his first kill... all of his sustenance was provided by LaCroix, by a storeroom chock full of human blood. Even though he had built this incredible complex ostensibly just for Nick, he had not procured a single bottle of the bovine variety that Nick had been consuming. But, that was LaCroix. He could be tolerant, or indulgent, or even caring, but ultimately, it was a selfish act, only when it was to his benefit to be so.
Nick shrugged off the dark thoughts. It didn't matter now, not really. He was contented. His life might be just a little uneventful now, but the calm and quiet was a welcome interlude. They fed and they slept, they painted and played. They watched DVD's from an extensive collection on a 42-inch screen with surround sound that caused the furniture to vibrate during the climactic events. LaCroix often read aloud. His voice was satin smooth, as he read from such varied materials as the Punic wars in the original Latin, to Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, to the more recent satires regarding the political upheaval before the war, "Children of the Nameless Stone". He read all of the classics and many of the "forbidden" works as well, items which had been banned under a repressive environment attempting to quell the violence that seemed to feed upon itself. He read "Dracula", and dozens of collections of rather amusing ghost and horror stories. Nick found he could listen to LaCroix's voice forever, as long as it wasn't telling him what to do.
Anton was never bored. He had an incredible imagination. He was always able to invent a new game, a new diversion, to pass the time. And he was thoroughly enjoying the art. He learned quickly. Oils, acrylics, water colors, clay sculpture, even pencil drawings... Anton had done them all, and with such vitality, such optimism. His pictures made Nick smile when ever he looked at them. Not patronizingly, but with genuine pleasure. And when Nick played his piano, often Anton would lean over the instrument and watch intently.
As a fledgling, Anton tired quickly. He played hard, fed well, and then he often fell asleep for a short rest sometime in the early hours just after midnight. And so now, Nick sat at his piano alone. Anton slept on the couch, and LaCroix had retired elsewhere. A few trills and chords later, Nick settled in to a Chopin piece that should not wake the sleeping undead.
"Chopin is an odd choice," Nick thought to himself, recalling briefly the melancholic young composer. Chopin had been mystic and romantic, frail and consumptive, at once adored for his exotic appeal and scandalous affair... yet, his music was simple, sweet and moving. Nick played the Fantaisie-impromptu, then some preludes, when he sensed Anton had awakened and joined him.
Nick slid over on the bench to make room for his little brother. "Sleep well?"
Anton nodded, stretching a thin, deceptively frail-looking hand over the keys. "Do you play?" Nick asked.
"No. I asked my dad for a flute once. He was horrified."
Anton laughed. Nick sensed he was not really happy, but was just avoiding a painful memory. Nick turned to look at Anton. "Tell me about your family, Anton."
The boy moved away from the piano bench then. He touched the smooth polish of the piano, then trailed a hand over the paintings, the tapestries, the many objects in the living room, just as he had on his first day here. Nick had never really noticed how tactile Anton was. Nick slowly moved to the couch, and waited for the boy to speak.
"My dad was a nice guy. He played linebacker for the Vikings until I was five or six. Then he retired, and my three little sisters came soon after. Bing, bing, bing. He was proud of that. Like he was a big man, or something. They are all nine months apart. But they were nice kids, too.
"My mom was a high school teacher, and coached the girls soccer team. My sisters were all really coordinated. They excelled at sports. They were smart, too. Made good grades in school. They were so proud of them."
Anton had drifted to the kitchen while he talked. He touched the table, the refrigerator, the glasses on the counter. Eventually he filled two glasses and offered one to Nick. He plopped down on a chair and drained his glass before continuing. He forced a smile, but his eyes betrayed a deeper emotion.
"I think my parents were disappointed in me, almost from the moment I was born. I was a sickly baby, and developed asthma. I did poorly in school, and I could not play sports. They loved me. They were never unkind or abusive, but, they never told anyone that they were proud of me."
The room was very quiet. Anton did not speak for a long time. Nick sensed through Anton's still untrained link, that the boy wanted to talk, needed to talk, but Nick wasn't sure how to encourage him. "What about your art? You have such a talent. Didn't you do well in art at school? I may have taught you to paint, but I never taught you to be talented."
Anton cocked his head at Nick. "Art in school? What century are you from? All art and music programs were cut back when my parents were kids!"
Nick tried to think if this was something he should have known. But, the past forty years with Natalie he had not been as closely tied to the mortal world. "So, Anton. Did you try to be happy and helpful, just to please your parents?"
Anton shook his head. "Well, maybe at first. But, it is who I am. Or who I have become. I like to be helpful. And, I learned a long time ago, that I could only live this moment once. I could live it in tears or in laughter, but either way, the moment would be gone, and I could never bring it back. And each moment became just too precious to me to waste."
Nick set his empty glass down on the table. "Anton, I can't begin to tell you how much you mean to me. I... I love you. Truly. And I am proud of your talent. Your paintings are remarkable. And I am very grateful that you came here. You have helped me, more than you know."
Anton laughed. Then he attacked his big brother, relishing in his new strength and vigor. He fought hard with his fangs extended. Nick felt his sharp teeth on his neck. The boy scratched the skin, his warm breath tickled. Nick tolerated him for a few moments, before he fought back. He was much stronger, and there was never much of a fight. They were too unevenly matched. Still, Anton was quick. The boy took off down the hallway, flying more than running, with Nick in pursuit.
That was how they discovered the cause of LaCroix's weakness.
One corridor only led up. It curved tightly, turning back upon itself, climbing higher up into the mountain. There were no doors in this section, no other rooms. At the top was a solid door, locked from the other side. Nick could sense that LaCroix was behind the door, but that was all.
Anton touched the door, then reached over with his other hand to touch Nick. His mental abilities were still insignificant, but were greatly enhanced by physical contact. Nick felt his own abilities strengthen with Anton's assistance. Now he could see LaCroix, as clearly as if the door had been made of glass.
The hidden room at the top of the mountain contained a complex array of the latest meteorology equipment, computers, and a radio station. LaCroix was collecting data on the current outside conditions, and transmitting it. Nick recognized the Nightcrawler personality, imparting the weather report right along with his philosophical musings. Nick listened, trying to guess for whom the report was intended. Then, he knew. LaCroix was speaking to vampires. His words were couched in mystery, that the mortals who might tune in would not understand, but the vampires would be encouraged to know that there were still ancient ones, that life would continue, that the horror of this war would pass.
Nick blinked back tears of blood, then pulled Anton's hand from the door. LaCroix had not wanted him to know about this. The master had his image to maintain, after all. Nick led Anton away before he dared to speak to him.
"That room is not protected enough against the radiation, is it," Nick asked, already sensing that was the case. But, since Anton had been poisoned, and Nick had not, Anton was more sensitive. The boy nodded solemnly. LaCroix exposed himself to what would have been lethal levels of radiation every time he went in there. And yet, it was something the ancient felt motivated to do. Nick could not even imagine what it might be like for the vampires on the surface. He'd heard predictions throughout much of the previous century on how global nuclear war might affect the earth.
Millions would die immediately, when the nuclear devises were launched at major cities and military installations. Then from one-quarter to one-half of all combustible materials would incinerate in nuclear-ignited fires. The smoke and soot produced would block out the sun for months. Temperatures would plummet- once tropical areas would freeze and the cooler zones would face a long winter. More mortals would die from cancers and radiation poisoning. Then more would die from starvation, as agriculture was critically affected by the lack of fossil fuels, adequate precipitation, high-acid rains when it did fall, inability to transport food products, lack of information for modern farmers on how to farm without the machinery dependent on fossil fuels, even a lack of seed. The world could starve for lack of seed. Pestilence and disease would be wide spread, as most of the world's doctors and nurses were incinerated in the initial attack when the hospitals were destroyed. Then, the social response would likely bring forth wide spread rioting and plundering. Civilization would crumble, at least for a time, leaving total anarchy in its wake.
If anyone up there, mortal or vampire, could find comfort in the soothing voice of the Nightcrawler, Nick would do nothing to stop him.


========= end flashback ==========

Shortly, Nick emerged from the back of the cave, his face illumined by a brilliant smile. "Captain! They are here!"
Janeway slapped her comm badge. "Janeway to away team!" She paused, then, "Janeway to Tuvok!" Still no response.
"Step outside the cave," Nick suggested.
She did, and then she didn't even need the comm badge, as she could see Tuvok's head at the summit, scanning for them with his tricorder. "Right here!" she shouted, waving her hands wildly.
The away team found the rough-hewn stairs and hurried down to the cave. Janeway couldn't resist the urge to embrace Tuvok, even knowing that Vulcans did not like to be touched. She knew he would understand. B'Elanna, the doctor, and Seven were with them. B'Elanna's face was all smiles as she ran into Nick's arms. He buried his face in her hair and shuddered. The doctor had his tricorder out, scanning Nick and scowling at his readings.
Janeway tapped his tricorder to get his attention. "Kim first, doctor." And she led him into the cave.
Tuvok counted the Buliga prisoners and appraised the tiny group. "Impressive," he commented. Seven knelt next to Kim, assisting the doctor. She had no real talent as a nurse, only that she was often available to help. And it was her technology that had saved Neelix's life once.
Nick and B'Elanna remained outside. He was still in full view of the Captain and behaving himself, she noticed thankfully. B'Elanna held him in a strangle hold, kissing him much too passionately for the public moment. Janeway saw Nick force B'Elanna's arms from his neck, and when he took a step back, she could see his glowing amber eyes and sharp teeth. B'Elanna looked hurt and confused. Janeway wondered if she should step in and explain her orders, but decided there was time enough for that once they were back on the ship.
The doctor was busy treating Kim. Janeway motioned Tuvok aside. "How?"
He looked at her, but then shifted his gaze to a spot on the wall approximately four centimeters above her head. His shoulders squared and he clasped his hands behind his back. Janeway recognized the pose. The pose of puzzlement. "Lieutenant Torres, Captain. She claimed that Lieutenant Knight told her you were in trouble. She was most insistent, and when the Buliga refused to let us speak with you, I was inclined to share her concern. Then, when we arrived, she seemed to know just where to find you."
"Curious," Janeway admitted.
"Captain, I believe Kim is stable enough to transport now," the doctor informed her. That was the cue to leave. Chakotay and Tuvok carried Kim's stretcher outside the cave and contacted Voyager. They then herded the Buliga prisoners out as well, and utilizing all the transporters, got everyone on board quickly.
Voyager rocked once with an impotent blast from a Buliga laser canon. B'Elanna grinned at Janeway. "We figured out how to adjust the shield harmonics to withstand their weapons," she said.
Janeway nodded. "I have a feeling that we won't be fired on again, this one's the King's son." She motioned for Tuvok to escort Armantis to the bridge. Nick followed, curious. He wasn't posted to the bridge, but this was a moment to record in the history. He could always read the logs later, but he would get a special perspective if he was there!
While Janeway walked quickly through the corridor to the bridge, she gathered reports from all the department heads on the way. The warp engines were repaired and functioning, the impulse engines would be fine as soon as they could get deuterium. All major systems were functioning adequately, except the replicators, off of the warp drive. And, shields were at peak efficiency. The only thing keeping them here now was the shortage of food, deuterium, and the Buliga. Janeway contacted the alien embassy, bringing their images up on the large viewscreen.
Several generals responded to her hail. They were disdainful at best, bullies in every sense of the word. But their faces fell when Tuvok escorted the prince, captured and shackled, into their view.
"This is the scoop," she sneered. "We know all about your deception and wasteful little games. We won't play along any more! You will give us a thousand kilos food, one hundred cases of blood, and a thousand kilos of refined deuterium. Then you will allow us to leave peacefully. Your prince will be our guest, until we are prepared to leave. Then we will send him out, adrift in a shuttle, which we will detonate if you so much as sneeze in our direction. Understood?"
Nick grinned. It was so satisfying to see the tables turn! And to see the petite woman wrench the upper hand from a room full of generals. He turned to Chakotay and they shared a grin.
Janeway terminated the connection. She didn't feel like listening to one more moment of Buliga pig-headed posturing! Then she turned to view the bridge. All signs of the recent attack had been cleaned up and repaired. It looked ship-shape and good as new. It was good to be home!
"Tuvok, see that Armantis is comfortably detained in the brig," she said sarcastically. Then she motioned to Nick and B'Elanna. She stepped into her ready room, knowing they would follow. It surprised her, though, that Chakotay joined them as well. She didn't object. It would feel right to have his presence there, as she was still too much affected by a certain handsome, young Knight-errant.
"B'Elanna. I am switching you to night shift for a while. Nick will stay on days. You may visit at meal times and in public places. But, we have the Starfleet medical protocol concerning first intimate alien encounters. Nick admits no vampire has ever had a relationship with a Klingon-Human partner. You must work with the doctor on this, and I want him to study this whole blood-kiss thing. Until further notice there will be no intimacy. Understood?"
B'Elanna was seething. Her arms were tightly folded across her chest, rising and falling with each quick breath. Her expression was stony-cold and stormy.
Nick was more controlled. Of course, he'd had more time to adjust to the ultimatum. "Yes, Captain," he said softly.
"What about this psychic thing, Captain!" B'Elanna shouted.
Janeway waited briefly, not acknowledging B'Elanna's outburst. The Klingon officer struggled, but lowered her voice and rephrased her complaint.

"What about it?" Janeway asked.

"Well, this isn't part of the Vampire thing, either. I feel -I don't know- bonded to him. I knew when he was hurting from that stroke to his brain, and when you were stranded on the planet, and even what cave to find you in! Doesn't that prove my love for him?"
"Nick? Has this ever happened to you before?"
His eyes were downcast. "No captain. Never... with a mortal."
"You mean, it can happen with another vampire?"
Nick nodded slowly.
Janeway felt a cold shiver up her spine. "All the more reason for this protocol. Both of you, sickbay, now. And my decision remains, until further notice!"

Chapter Twenty-two: The Bond

Once encased in the privacy of the turbolift, B'Elanna rushed into Nick's arms. He felt so perfect! She missed him more than she could have ever imagined possible. And the strange dreams, that he'd been in danger, suffering! It was such a relief to see him looking fine and healthy. The nightmare had been so graphic, covered with burns and blistering flesh....
Nick held her tight, never wanting to let go, savoring the moment. The turbolift stopped, as two others entered, riding along to the next level, then exited, yet the two officers barely acknowledged their presence. Nick was surprised at the strength and depth of his feelings for her, and he felt panicked, too. What if it was just the kiss? What if, after a few more days, or weeks, she was no longer under his spell? What if she went back to Tom? His fangs descended abruptly at the thought.
"Nick, I'm never going to make it," she breathed, her voice husky.
"Me neither," he answered. He kissed her chastely on the top of her head, then pulled her arms from his neck. He clasped her hand in his. "Help me? I always hate these doctor visits."
She smiled at him with full understanding.
The doctor was still busy with Ensign Kim when they entered. "Just take a seat," he told them. Nick took a seat. B'Elanna took the same one, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"B'Elanna," he groaned in her ear. "You aren't making this any easier."
"I know! But I have to make sure you'll wait for me," she said.
He hugged her tightly. Although the Buliga blood had filled him, he was consumed with longing for the sweeter Klingon substance. "It is you, who might leave me," he whispered, shuddering even at the thought.
"Never," she promised. Then she laid her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. "I didn't hardly sleep while you were gone. I knew you were in trouble. I knew when you were hungry, and when you were in pain. It's weird, Nick. But, although I missed you desperately, it's like you never left, like I was with you all the time."
Nick wondered at that. He certainly had sensed her presence, but not constantly. Was she going to be stronger at this link, just like LaCroix? What was it he wasn't getting? He was suddenly too tired to care. With B'Elanna in his arms, he leaned his face against her hair and drifted to sleep.
Sometime later the doctor roused them both and coaxed them to sit on separate biobeds. He must have conversed with the Captain already, as he apparently knew why they were there.
"Nick, you look great. Did the away mission agree with you?"
He smiled. "A full belly helps a lot."
"Yes, I suppose it does. But it's more than that, Nick. I think I understand why replicated blood doesn't work for you."
Nick sat on the edge of the biobed. His legs swung with restless energy. He wanted to check in to his office, and speak with Paulus. He had a few holographic programs he'd like to create, to share with B'Elanna when their sentence of forced separation was over. And he had to speak with LaCroix! He thought he had figured out his master's cryptic exhortation, and he wanted to get back to him before LaCroix returned to his twisted little game.
"Okay, doc. I'll bite. Why?"
"You seem to get an emotional rush from blood. Most humans find eating to be a pleasant experience, but it is more with you. When you were consuming mostly replicated blood, you became lethargic, indifferent, almost catatonic. But consuming human plasma released endorphins that bring about emotional stability. We can't replicate emotions, Nick. We can't make replicated blood that will meet your unique requirements."
Nick nodded, only partially hearing. So he had to consume real stuff to feel real. It made sense. "Can I go, doc?"
The doctor shook his head. "Patience, son, patience. I need some blood and tissue samples."
Nick became very still. He held his breath, staring intently at his arm as the doctor painlessly drew several small vials of his blood from the right arm with the phlebotometer. Nick gripped the edge of the biobed with his left hand. He was leaving indentations in the steel.
"Something wrong?" the doctor asked.
He shook his head, trying to brush it off. How could he explain it? Once, when he'd been working with various doctors and quacks in the past, he'd grown accustomed to the blood-letting rituals, but now he was totally a vampire. He had no shadow, no reflection, and could tolerate no food whatsoever. His vampire nature was very possessive of his blood. It wouldn't want him to lose any. It would draw back into him much of the blood shed from injuries, and it would try to attack anyone who attempted to take his blood from him. Only the fact the doctor was not alive kept the vampire confused long enough for the task to be completed without catastrophe.
He allowed his eyes to close briefly, as Nick tried to calm the inner beast. He consciously focused on how the doctor was a "friend", that sickbay was a safe place, and that these tests were necessary. Unfortunately, his vampire instincts knew better. It hadn't been all that long ago when he'd been chained to this biobed with durosteel restraints and doubted whether he would ever live to see home again.
The doctor held a petri dish and instructed Nick to spit.
Nick stared at him curiously. "Why?"
"Because I suspect that the saliva in your mouth is unique and quite different from the digestive fluids in your stomach, or the blood in your veins. Trust me, this is necessary."
How did mortals stand it, he wondered, being subjected to such invasive treatment under the guise of medical care? He turned to catch a glimpse of B'Elanna sitting impatiently on the next bed. She smiled back, an understanding, sympathetic smile. The effect was immediate. Nick felt his fangs erupt, his desire flood his being, his heart beat once powerfully, circulating the excited rush throughout his undead being, and he salivated. He glared at the doctor and spit into the dish. The saliva was red, but it did not look the same as his own dark, cold blood. Nick cocked his head curiously. He'd never really noticed before.
Then the doctor instructed him to lie down. "Just one more thing for now. I'll need a sample of tissue from your stomach. This will not hurt a bit, but you must lie still."
Nick didn't budge. A cold, red sweat broke out on his brow. "No, doc," he whispered. He couldn't do it. Not now. Nick didn't feel he could control himself another minute. The beast would never willingly allow a piece of himself to be taken away!
The doctor ran the subroutine of extreme irritation. "Nick Knight, I order you to submit to this exam!"
B'Elanna jumped off the bed to intervene. "Doctor, it's okay. Just back off a minute."
He glowered at her. B'Elanna put a comforting hand on Nick's back and patted him gently. He didn't look at either of them, but his eye lashes were oddly illumined with an amber light. She was sure the eyes of her beast were responsible. She patted Nick's hand, then showed her palm to the doctor. It was dotted with red blood.
The doctor ran his tricorder quickly, making note of the biochemical changes in the vampire.
"Nick wants to comply," B'Elanna explained. "The vampire does not. His inner, instinctual nature will kill to protect itself, and Nick is afraid he can't control it."
The doctor turned his tricorder on B'Elanna. "And you know this because?" he coaxed.
"I don't know how I know!" she snapped. "I just do!" She continued to pat Nick's back, then touched his cheek with her hand. "Nick? What can we do for you?"
Nick looked at her then. It was the face of the beast, passionate, violent, and terrified. He slowly turned, bringing his legs up on the biobed, and he lay down. One hand gripped hers tightly.
"Restrain him," she told the doctor.
He shook his head. "B'Elanna, this is a minor procedure. I guarantee he won't even feel it."
"Just do it!"
The doctor tapped the controls in the side of the bed, and reinforced durosteel restraints clamped down on Nick's wrists and ankles. Then the doctor quickly took the tissue samples he required.
The vampire emerged in force. He struggled at the restraints with enough force to tear the skin at his wrists. His eyes were murderous red, and he howled in rage.
Instantly the doctor ran through any other possible samples he might require and took them as well, while the beast was here, rather than have to put Nick through this again. He drew samples of bone marrow, spinal fluid, and semen, then put away the tools. He turned to B'Elanna then, who was sobbing.
Klingons could not cry. They had no tear ducts. This was a rare sight, for even though her half-human anatomy could produce tears, her Klingon stubbornness often forbid such an expression of weakness. The doctor's programming alerted him to several appropriate responses. If it were a man, he should ignore the tears but deal with the emotion behind them. If it were a child, a hug and a kind word were called for, followed by a serving of a high-caloric sugared substance. Women generally preferred a shoulder "to cry on." He wasn't exactly sure which response would suit B'Elanna.
B'Elanna chose for herself. She kissed Nick's forehead and stroked his cheek tenderly. "It's over, Nicky," she whispered. "It's okay now. You can rest."
Nick visibly relaxed. His lids closed and he stopped fighting the restraints. The doctor removed the restraints, and focused the medical tricorder on the flesh wounds on Nick's wrists as they quickly healed. Nick didn't move. His pulse dropped, indicative of vampire sleep.
The doctor touched B'Elanna's arm and gestured to the next biobed. "Your turn, Lieutenant," he said softly. The tissue samples from Nick were something he'd been wanting to gather for some time. His medical research subroutines were eager to analyze them. But first he must gather data from the Klingon patient and dismiss them both from his sick bay.
"I trust you won't be as difficult," he said, not really expecting an answer.
B'Elanna sat on the bed and waited while he ran the less invasive procedures first. She tried ignoring him. That was generally the best way through a physical. She didn't understand the new closeness she felt with Nick. It had never happened to her before. She'd never felt close to her mother. Her father had left her when she was five years old, and she never saw him again. She'd had few friends growing up, and fewer boyfriends. This emotional, almost psychic connection was both comforting and frightening. She drew comfort from it, knowing how deeply Nick cared for her. His barely controlled rage was frightening. She was certain that her Klingon uncles would approve of him!
"B'Elanna, explain this bond you feel for him," the doctor prodded gently, drawing her back from her thoughts.
She shrugged. "I don't know if I can, doctor. If I think about Nick, then he is there. Right now, I sense calm from him, as he is sleeping. I'd know he was sleeping, even if I wasn't here and could see it for myself. Before, I knew his fear. The animal fear of what you might do to him, but also Nick's fear that he might hurt some one. Oh, and this... this is neat. Watch him!" Then she closed her eyes.
"What is it you are going to do," the doctor questioned, wanting to know what results from her display he should look for.
"I'm going to wake him. I'm thinking about the last time we... " B'Elanna blushed and her elevated heart rate and increased pheromone production informed the doctor what she was recalling.
The doctor glanced from B'Elanna, sitting quietly on the biobed with her eyes closed, to Nick. The vampire stirred, slipping into the light REM sleep. His eyes moved rapidly beneath his eyelids. He inhaled deeply, twice. Suddenly he sat bolt upright and wide awake. Blue eyes flecked with gold stared at the doctor, momentarily confused. His fangs were obvious. The neurocortical sensor implanted behind his ear recorded elevated readings and other physical evidence of his arousal.
B'Elanna opened her eyes and turned to smile innocently at Nick. "Good morning," she said sweetly.
Nick avoided looking at her. He swung his feet with restless energy. "Um, if you're through, doc. May I leave?" There was a note of desperation to his request.
The doctor went to Nick and placed a hand on his shoulder. "One more thing. How did the shield work?"
"Great. As long as I wore it."
"You didn't go outside without it?" If Nick's information before had been correct, that would be suicidal.
"It'll all be in someone's report, I'm sure. May I go now?"
The doctor nodded and Nick flew from the room in the space between microseconds.
Then the doctor returned to B'Elanna. "Interesting. But was that necessary?"
She smiled at him. "You wanted to know."
He shook his head. Maybe it was something holographic programs weren't expected to understand. He drew samples of her blood and tissue, asked a few more questions, then dismissed her, as well. She was ordered to return every day for more studies until further notice. It was more her physical reactions that he would have to study, to determine if there was a biochemical connection between her and Nick, but it was Nick's tissues that intrigued him. As her exposure to Nick's influence faded with time, would there be a physical response? How was she linked to him? The doctor would study them both, and also try to learn if there were going to be any specific inter-species difficulties, with reproduction and the like. Nick so far had been pretty tight-lipped about where little vampires come from.
Nick decided to stop by his office next. He wanted to pull his gift for Paulus out of his pocket before anything happened to it. The door was already ajar. He stepped inside, to find Paulus there checking in on the terrarium. She smiled brightly at him. "Nick! You're back!"
He nodded. She was looking different. A little healthier, maybe, like she was starting to eat better. Her eyes were still sad behind the pleasant smile, but something was definitely better. "Hello, Paulus. I... I brought you something. For the terrarium, actually." He pulled the small package from his pocket.
Paulus shook the contents into her hand. A small clump of dirt and two squiggly dirtworms wiggled on her palm. She looked at him questioningly.
Nick squirmed with embarrassment. Maybe it had been a dumb thing to bring on board? "They will help the plants. They loosen the soil, eat dead stuff, fertilize... I know they're rather ugly, but once they go underground, you probably won't ever have to see them again."
She reached up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "That is so sweet, Nick!"
He lifted the lid and she gently laid the worms inside. They watched the worms gyrate into the dirt. As she watched, large tears spilled down her cheeks. Nick hesitated, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Paulus?"
"I feel like a worm, sometimes," she whispered, trying to smile through her tears.
He rubbed her back with small, circular motions, the way LaCroix did sometimes to comfort him when he was very distraught.
"I feel rather small and insignificant. I played a very minor role in my daughter's life. I gave her my genes. But, whoever she grows up to be will be more affected by her grandparents than me. I don't have any important tasks on this ship. If I died tomorrow, the journey would continue and someone would just step in to take my place. The only person to miss me would be Johnny. And, I'm not even a very good wife, sometimes."
Nick stared into the terrarium for long moments. Now he wished for the educational background to go with his position! What was the right thing to say to her? All those psychobabble files he'd been reading still hadn't prepared him for this crucial moment. He'd have to try the truth, as he saw it, and hope he didn't mess her up too badly. "Can you see the worms anymore?"
Paulus stared into the tank and shook her head.
"And you might not ever see them again, until you know how to look for them. And the plants would probably have survived just fine without the worms. But the plants will be better for their presence. Now their tender new roots won't have to struggle through hard-packed dirt. As the terrarium grows, the plants consume the nutrients from the soil. Eventually, some of the plants will die, as is the nature of things. Their dead leaves will eventually decay, feeding the soil, for the next generation of plants, but the worms will speed up the process of decay. Because of the worms' presence, the entire terrarium will be a better home." Nick paused a minute. He smiled about what he was going to say next. It was faintly amusing and yet true... sort of. "Paulus, you and I are worms."
She chuckled a little, even as fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. "You're not a worm, Nick. You're really important here."
"I haven't done much for the past four years. I was just kind of passing time, trying not to draw attention to myself. Only recently have I taken a more active role. But the ship got along just fine before."
"Well, worm. You're important to me," she said, laughing again, even as she wept.
Nick offered her a tissue, and waited while she dried her eyes. "There are a lot of ways to be important," he said, thinking aloud. "Not everyone can be captains or engineers. And sometimes Starfleet gets too wound up in the technical. This ship is filled with scientists, exobiologists, engineers, technicians, and tacticians. And do you know what they want me to do? Play the piano. I am older than dirt. I've been many things in my life-- doctor, archaeologist, professor, homicide detective. And they want me to play the piano. They are starved for the arts. This voyage would be unbearable for them, if it weren't for Kim's clarinet, my music, Neelix's parties.... You have a beautiful soul, Paulus. I see some real talent in your paintings. You will find a way to be important!"
"I used to sing," she whispered shyly.
"You did?"
"I studied voice when I was much younger. Then, somehow, I wound up in Starfleet. I don't even remember why anymore. My parents wanted me to pursue a career in music. But I was afraid-- every time I performed I got all cold and jittery. I thought being in Starfleet would be easier."
"So, you started digging yourself into the dirt," Nick suggested, reminding them again of the analogy.
She nodded in agreement. "You're right. I'm unimportant, but that's my fault. I've done nothing to contribute to this crew, other than my assigned tasks. How can I change?"
"Pick a song. Join me in the upcoming program Kim and Neelix are sponsoring. I'll even accompany you."
Paulus turned very white. Her hands trembled slightly. Nick heard the quick rise in her heart rate. He rubbed her back again. "Pick something simple, something you could sing in the shower. And relax. Okay?"
Although her hands still trembled, she set her jaw firmly. "I'll do it."
Nick smiled at her. "Good girl."
Paulus hugged him quickly. "How do you watch for worms, Nick? You said something about knowing how to look for them."
He got up and looked around his office. He tore off a clean sheet from the paper palette, folded it several times, and then attached it to one side of the terrarium. "The worms will stay away from the light," he explained. "But if we hide the light here, then they may dig some of their tunnels along this edge of the tank. Periodically, you can peel back the paper and look for them."
She smiled brightly. "Thanks, worm," she teased. She pecked him lightly on the cheek, then left.
Nick checked the timepiece. The jetlag still affected him. It was only afternoon, but he was suddenly very tired. And unless LaCroix had relocated, there was still time to catch him awake. So he headed back to his quarters to wait for dinner time when he could see B'Elanna again, if only briefly. He opted for a bath over a shower. A long, hot soak would be more relaxing. Resting in the tub, the warm, lightly scented water up to his chin, he closed his eyes and felt all of the tension and trauma of the past weeks dissipate. Then, he felt the familiar presence again. Timidly, he tried to sense his master. Was the ancient still angry with him?
"Good evening, my son." The familiar voice slipped into his consciousness smoothly. Nick felt a sudden rush of pleasure, of connectedness. There was also a longing, profound and penetrating, a deep sense of homesickness that surprised him with its intensity. He blinked back tears.
"LaCroix," was all he managed to say. He was also frightened then, as LaCroix had little patience for his emotional surges.
The ancient seemed touched by the emotion in his voice and thoughts. "I miss you, as well, Nicholas," he said, his own voice sounding thick and strained with longing.
For many moments Nick just relaxed in his master's presence. Sleep was not very far away. He remembered LaCroix comforting him when he was injured and dying from sun burn. He recalled times past when LaCroix had been there for him. He recalled also, the pain LaCroix had inflicted on him recently. "I think I have learned," Nick said shyly.
"Yes. What have you learned, Nicholas?"
"That I am a vampire, not a mortal. I am different from them and I must be myself."
"Yes..." LaCroix waited for him to continue. Nick opened his senses a little wider. He did not feel that LaCroix was becoming angry or agitated. Maybe honesty was what he wanted to hear this time?
"I cannot change the past, and dwelling on the should-haves, could-haves, is a waste. The future is not yet here. I need to remember that life means living now, a constant string of little moments in time, each one precious and then gone forever. Being immortal is no excuse for wasting a single moment."
"Very poetic, Nicholas," LaCroix responded conversationally. "What else?"
"I've learned that I need human blood to survive. Protein shakes, cow's blood, and the "watered-down placebo of synthetic protein-enriched plasma they try to pass off as blood" aren't sufficient. Although I still won't hunt my friends, they are much safer if I am well-fed."
LaCroix sighed contentedly. "You have been busy, then, my son. I sense more from you, as well. You seem... contented. What has brought this about, if I may ask?"
Nick thought for a moment. He was contented. It had snuck up on him unaware. Was it because of B'Elanna? But, she was not permitted to come to him for two more weeks, and by then she might not even want to. That worried him, yet still, he sensed that she was not the reason for his new-found peace. At least, not the sole reason. Was it his new position? It made him nervous. Working with Paulus had been rewarding, and he had learned as much from her as he had taught her. The sessions had reminded him of Anton, the orphan child who could still find joy even in a world destroyed by war. Was the peace because he felt himself integrating with the crew, felt acceptance, even from the Captain? But they were just mortals, and in an eyeblink they would grow old and die. They would be gone from existence, surviving only in his memories. No, this new peace was different. He was happy with himself. He felt that he actually liked himself. For perhaps the first time in many centuries, certainly for the first time as a vampire, Nick was at peace. Of course, he could never explain that to LaCroix.
"I've been hunting again," Nick answered truthfully. "It felt wonderful."
LaCroix sighed contentedly. "I apologize, Nicholas, for resorting to such punishment. You've always been rather head strong. And with the miles that separate us, there is little I can do to influence you."
Nick blinked. The warm, scented water was relaxing. He was almost asleep. But his recent memories had sparked a question that needed answering. His master seemed more loquacious than normal. The moment might not repeat itself for some time. "The fallout shelter in the Yukon. Why did you build it, when you already had the other one in the States?"
"Thoughts of Anton, still my son?" LaCroix did not answer him right away. Nick wondered if he was going to ignore it altogether. "There were times, Nicholas, when our relationship was somewhat strained. I was concerned, that if you had to spend some years entombed with me, you would rather chose death. I built the second one for you, and for whatever mortal playmates you would want to bring there with you, should the prospect of war become inevitable."
Nick was speechless. The shelter had been marvelous! Anton and he had explored it together at great length. They had been quite contented then, and never minded the isolation of being cut off from the world. It had been quite large, and fully equipped with all of Nick's treasures, and all of his favorites past-times. Nick was humbled at the realization that LaCroix had done all of it, and had never even intended to be able to use it. LaCroix fully expected to be ensconced in the other shelter, with Janette, and her entourage of strays.
"I don't believe I have ever thanked you for that," Nick whispered, yawning widely. Nick was drifting to sleep. He felt LaCroix's touch, like a hand brushing against his cheek affectionately.
"Rest well, Nicholas."

Chapter Twenty-three: Interim


========== flashback, Yukon 2044 ==========

"Tell me, Anton," Nick said, once they had left the upper corridor. "About how it happened."
"But these are sad thoughts, Nick. Why would you want to dwell on them?"
"Because, things like this should never happen. Right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world was terrified at the thought of nuclear war. They did everything they could to prevent it from happening. They established the United Nations, and the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty, and they built fall-out shelters, and they remembered... somehow, people stopped thinking about Hiroshima, because they did not want to dwell on unpleasant thoughts."
Anton nodded gravely. "Perhaps, then, I should sketch this war, so that people will not forget?"
"That might be wise, little brother."
They went in to the studio, the one room they occupied more than any other. Anton took a drawing pad and several pencils and sitting on the floor, he began to sketch. Nick did not feel like painting yet. He sat behind Anton watching over his shoulder and listened as the boy told his story.
"I was camping out with my scout troop," Anton began. Nick had heard that much before. He waited, listening to the soft scraping sound as the pencil lead covered the paper. "It was a survival camp, only for eagle scouts, up north of here. My family had gone to Detroit to visit friends. I don't know when the first weapons were launched. Probably the bigger cities in the States and Europe were first hit. But when Toronto and Montreal went up the ground shook. It felt like an earthquake. Shortly the sky went dark and the temperature started to drop.
"All of us were frightened and wanted to go home, but our troop leader forbid us to leave. He said that the weather would turn freezing before we could hike out of the woods. We had to remain there and build a shelter.
"That gave us something to do. We built a quick, temporary shelter, gathered firewood, and went fishing. It was like the survival camp we had signed on for, and yet, I think that we were all in a kind of shock... I think we knew our families were very likely dead.
"Then, the boys started to get sick. Even as far away from the blast points as we were, we got radiation poisoning. The leader said something about there being damage to the ozone layer right above us.
"So we packed up and drove the vehicles as far as we could until they ran out of gas. We drove through areas where the map indicated some small towns, but they were in ashes. All the gas stations had burned up. Then, Jimmy died. He was the first. Mr. Blackhawk, our leader, said something nice when we buried him. In a few days, half of the troop was dead. The rest of us helped to dig the graves, but we just did it in silence. Mr. Blackhawk was pretty sick, then.
"I was the last from our troop still alive, when LaCroix found me. I was laying in the snow, very near here. If he hadn't brought me inside that day, I would have been dead by nightfall."
Anton's pencil moved rapidly. The large page was filled in, depicting the small troop of young eagle scouts pounding in a crude monument at the head of a grave. The landscape was barren, burned and blackened. The skies were ominous, enormous clouds of ash and soot obliterating the light. The boys were wearing ragged, short sleeved shirts, with rags tied around their arms for warmth, rags they had torn from the shirts of their dead.
Nick felt tears burning in his eyes, his throat ached. This young boy had survived so much. His family was gone, he had seen the world he lived in destroyed, and he had stood by and watched as his friends succumbed to the cold and the deadly UV-B rays that penetrated the atmosphere. Anton was a survivor. Nick vowed that he would never forget. He knew he was prone to bouts of melancholy and depression, but if Anton could pick himself up and continue after all he had been through, then so could he.
"Do you think LaCroix knew we were there?" Anton asked, curiously.
"Maybe not yet. But he will. I have never been able to hide my thoughts from him. Not for long, anyway."
"Then maybe we should tell him first, before he finds out through the link. That might make him angry."
Nick smiled. Anton was clever, too! Nick hadn't yet learned how to relate to LaCroix, or how to avoid conflict with him. Maybe, because he never tried to consider his master's side? Nick felt humbled again, as he acknowledged his selfishness. "I have an idea."
"LaCroix, I am bored," Nick announced later that morning.
The ancient vampire was slumped in the easy chair in the living room. Nick noticed now the cyclic conditions of his "illness". LaCroix must go to his radio tower every night, somewhere around 1 am, then the rest of that night he would be exceedingly weak and gray in color. Feeding was difficult. Eventually he would sleep. Awaking later the next afternoon would see some improvement, feeding again would have him nearly recovered... until it was time to begin again. At the moment, LaCroix looked terrible.
"Then play something for me, Nicholas," LaCroix answered. His eyes were closed. The hand that held his glass trembled; his skin was like parchment.
"I don't want to play piano. I don't want to paint. I don't want to "amuse" myself."
LaCroix laughed weakly. "Now, that sounds like my Nicholas," he chided.
"I want some one else for company. You built this place big enough for a crowd. So, where is everybody?"
LaCroix sat up straight and glared at his ungrateful son. "You will not leave this dwelling. It is far too dangerous for you out there, yet!" He spoke harshly, forcefully. On the last word he started to cough. Nick hurried to him, worried and solicitous, as the ancient coughed up blood.
"I have no intention of leaving," Nick said softly.
Anton refilled his glass and offered it to him to calm the cough. LaCroix sipped it, wincing painfully. "Whatever is your annoying prattle all about then, my son! When the situation above deteriorated... you had no care for anyone- not mortal, not vampire, and certainly not yourself. Whom should I have brought here to amuse you?"
"What about the survivors, LaCroix?"
"I will not fill my home with diseased mortals now!" LaCroix coughed violently again.
Nick offered his wrist to the master. LaCroix glared at it, at Nick, and then at Anton. Nick felt the familiar tingle as LaCroix invaded his thoughts. Unconsciously, he held his breath. Then LaCroix's lips curved into a smile, even as he tried to scowl at them. "So that is what this petulant mood is about?" he commented. "You followed me to my private domain."
Nick held his wrist out again, and this time LaCroix accepted it. The sweet ambrosia of his favorite child's essence gushed into his mouth, soothing the irritated tissues and healing him almost immediately. It had been such a long time since he had tasted Nick last... it was the flavor of him that LaCroix desired above all others, it was part of the reason that he kept this child closer to him. Reluctantly, he withdrew his fangs and licked at the two small wounds until they healed. Then, leaning back into the chair cushions, he closed his eyes.
Through the link between the brothers, LaCroix had sensed their genuine concern for him. It touched him. These past two years, since Anton had come to live with them, had been perfect. He felt closer to Nicholas than ever, and although Anton was entirely too energetic and too innocent for a vampire, his company was not unwanted. LaCroix was reluctant to do anything to change this happy arrangement. Still, there were vampires outside, stragglers, survivors... they were suffering the physical pains of poisoning from the tainted blood of mortals, and they were emotionally despondent. He did not sense them clearly... a few of them may have been children of his other children, as there was a tingle of the familiar about them.
"We didn't mean to pry," Anton said. "We were just concerned about you. And I know that the room with your radio equipment makes you sick. Is there anything that we can to do help?"
LaCroix hesitated. If he made the suggestion, he knew Nick would want to do it. Did he really want to share his home with a bunch of ignorant, sick young vampires, who had lacked the intelligence or foresight to provide for themselves? But then, after this war, how many of his number would have survived? Vampires had always controlled their own population, assuring that they would not endanger their most closely guarded secret- their existence- because they required too much food. But vampires tended to live in cities, also to protect their anonymity, and the cities had been laid waste. He needed to help any who had survived... the survival of his race may depend on it.
"If you both are willing to share this home with strangers, then I could invite them to join us," LaCroix offered.
Anton nodded eagerly. LaCroix was pleasantly surprised to see the hesitation obvious on Nick's face. His son surprised him further, with his next comment.
"Only vampires, though, LaCroix. Do not lead any mortals here. Let them take care of their own!"
LaCroix agreed.
The vampire refugees started to arrive within a week. They were sick, dirty, hungry, and utterly wretched. Anton and Nick saw to it that they bathed, had clean clothes and knew where to find the refrigerator. LaCroix did little directly, but his mere presence was enough to inspire fear and respect in the guests. There were no problems. He continued to do his radio show, though, and Nick continued to offer his healing blood.
Nick met many of the vampires for the first time. Since he had spent much of the past 150 years denying his true nature, he had limited contact with them. Over the next weeks and months, they continued to come, with haunted looks and terrifying nightmares.
Now, he played the piano to a full house. Sometimes, LaCroix allowed them to pushed furniture aside and turn the volume up on the music and dance, transforming the serene living quarters into a small version of The Raven. Anton thrilled at meeting the others. They were generally very tolerant of him, treating him like a mascot, as he was the youngest son of their ancient host. Oddly enough, many of them were the very same vampires Nick would lose in the Maquis rebellion...


========= end flashback ==========

Nick's door chimed softly. Two days down, twelve more to go, before it could be B'Elanna coming to see him. He sat on the floor next to his bed with his arms wrapped around his knees. He ignored the door. Maybe the noise would go away and leave him alone.... It chimed again. "Come in," he said at length, if only to stop the noise.
Someone entered, then walked over to him. It was Ensign Kim. Nick moved only his eyes to glance at him. "You're looking better," he said.
Kim smiled. "Thanks! I feel better." He pulled out a chair at Nick's table and sat down, laying the things he had brought with him on it. He seemed a little tired. Modern medicine could repair all sorts of injuries in record time, but Nick knew that humans at least often still suffered a little residual fatigue which only time could heal.
Kim gestured to the things he'd brought. "I thought you might need a little cheering up, so I brought some games, and my clarinet, in case you'd like to play a little music."
"Cheering up?" Nick asked.
Kim blushed. "Um, yeah, until, ...two weeks? I mean, I figured you'd be missing her."
Nick smiled then, reassuring Kim, before the young Ensign decided it was a dumb idea and split. "What games did you bring?"
"Checkers, Encore, and a deck of cards."
Nick grinned. Encore was a musical trivia game. "You know I have an excellent memory. I'd have a unfair advantage in that game."
"I know. But, if you were really depressed, I figured it'd be okay if you won every game."
That made him laugh. "Well, let's start with checkers then."
Kim pulled the board onto the floor and set up the pieces. He had suspected that the ancient games would elicit more interest from the vampire than any of the more modern ones. And some games were classics; they never went out of style. They played several games of checkers, and two card games, something called "Ginn" that Nick had to teach him. Nick recalled playing Ginn with an old girlfriend, Janette.
"She always won," Nick confessed. "Sometimes she cheated, sometimes she was just lucky. But we used to bet, and I always had to pay up."
"Why would you bet with her, if you knew she was going to win?" Kim asked curiously.
"Because losing was fun, in a way. She was like my wife for 97, or 98 years once. She had a special way of making me feel better after the game was over."
Kim blushed. "Do you miss her?"
Nick was silent for a while, thoughtful. He missed LaCroix, and that surprised him. He used to miss Natalie, after she left him for Vachon. But Janette? He was used to her. He knew her. And part of him would always love her. But he was not important to her. She might flirt with him yet again. She might even desire him for a time, before she grew bored and went after something new. No. He would never be important to her.
"No," he finally answered. "I miss B'Elanna."
They were companionably silent for a time. Kim shuffled the cards absently, then slipped them back into their box.
Nick had stretched out on the floor during the card game. Now he sat up, crossing his legs and leaning his elbows on his knees. "Somehow, it doesn't seem right," he mused, almost forgetting that he wasn't alone.
"How's that?"
"I mean, some one always seems to be telling me what to do, where to go, how to behave... I'm ancient by human standards, and I am still treated like a rookie."
Kim nodded. "I know how that is. I was green when Voyager left space dock. Fresh from the academy, this was my first post. And everyone knew it. Being short didn't help. I was treated like everyone's kid brother-- no, "baby" brother. But, I am years older now! I'm no longer immature and inexperienced. Yet even the Captain still "babies" me."
Nick glanced at Kim, then started picking at the carpet fibers, his eyes downcast. "At least, you will age. You will gain respect. You will eventually become mature; your parents may someday become old enough that you will need to take care of them. My father will forever be older, stronger, wiser, than me. That will never change. And, I know I have to obey the captain, as she is the captain, but I mean, she's just a "baby" by comparison."
"Well, in a way, she is older than you," Kim suggested.
Nick glanced at him curiously. "How so?"
"It's like, she's reached a developmental stage that is older than you. Like, well, how can I explain it. Kes was only four years old when she left us. She was an adult Ocampan, with wisdom and compassion, but, Naomi Wildman is a four year old human, and she's just a child. My grandfather is in his nineties, and he is treated with great respect as an ancient one, possessing strength of character, patience and wisdom. But Tuvok is in his nineties, I think, and he's not old yet. He's got a grandchild, but he won't reach the Vulcan age of maturity and wisdom for another century. Captain Janeway is 42. She's a captain because she has the experience, training, and ability to be a captain. And she is older than you. It's like, you keep saying that your 1179 years old, but really, you're still just 32, and you've been 32 for 1147 years."
Nick had never really thought of it like that before. It didn't especially make him feel better. He would live forever, and never grow old, but never "grow up" either. He would never turn 33. He could never grow away from the control and influence of his father. But somehow, there was something strangely comforting in that thought. "Thanks," he said. "For clearing that up for me." Then, he sprang to his feet and went to the keyboard spread out across his table. "Want to "jam"?"
The next days were busy. The Buliga had met with all their demands. Nick was assigned to assist Neelix in stacking the crates of foodstuffs and cataloging them. The Buliga blood was also cataloged. They had crates and crates of it. One section of the storage room was designated for cold storage, and the perishable foods and packets of blood were stacked there.
Neelix prattled on inanely. Nick had been ignoring him, but he felt mildly guilty about it. He had nearly destroyed the Mess Hall in a fit of rage, and Neelix had never been anything but friendly. Now he heard the wistfulness behind Neelix's comments.
Neelix was sad? This was something Kes would have been doing with him last year. She would have helped him sort and store the food stuffs. She would have tasted his new recipes and given him moral support. He had risked his life for her, and they had almost had a child together. Neelix missed her.
Nick could relate to that! He couldn't stop thinking about B'Elanna! She was asleep now. Nick could sense her peaceful slumber. But just thinking about her brought about a very physical reaction. He cursed under his breath and slammed the crate of foodstuffs down on the floor a little too forcefully.
"It must be time for a break," Neelix gasped, dropping the crate he'd been moving as noisily as Nick had.
Nick followed Neelix through the side door in the storage compartment to the Mess Hall. Neelix unlocked the dented, battered refrigeration unit and poured a packet of blood into a coffee mug then warmed it. Handing it to Nick, he grabbed a cup of something else for himself. He led Nick to the nearest table and he sat down with a sigh. He was perspiring lightly. Nick listened to Neelix's pulse rate. It was normal, but the Talaxian still had some difficulty breathing when he exerted himself. He lived with only one lung, the smaller Ocampan lung and life-saving gift from his Kes.
"So what have you heard about her from the doctor," Neelix asked.
Nick shrugged dejectedly. "Nothing. He tells me nothing."
"Well, there is an old expression, "no news is good news"! I'm sure that if something was wrong, you would have heard by now."
"You don't understand," Nick grumbled morosely. "She'll be fine. But what if she doesn't really love me? What if she doesn't come back?"
Neelix sighed. "I do know what it is to be insecure. I loved Kes so fiercely. I was terribly jealous. I trusted her, but she was so innocent and naïve. I worried that Tom was going to take her away from me. I worried about her on every away mission. I wanted her to stay with me all the time so I could keep an eye on her, and protect her. I hated it when she got interested in studying medicine, even though I was proud of her that she could learn all that. And I miss her now." His voice had grown soft, and tears filled his eyes, threatening to overflow.
Nick listened. He felt that way, sort of. He didn't worry about protecting B'Elanna as much, but she was much stronger than Kes, and not the least bit naïve. "But you're still connected to Kes, aren't you?" he asked softly.
Neelix started. "How? How? What do you mean?"
"You're lung? You have a piece of her with you. Don't you feel like she is more real? Like if you think about her, you can almost touch her?"
Neelix nodded. "I didn't want to sound crazy, but, I think, where ever she is, she does know about me. I feel like I can sense her thoughts sometimes. Not very often. It is as though she has as existence apart from time and place. But once in a while, I will suddenly feel her, and learn something new about her, that I didn't know before. I know it is from her."
Nick nodded. He didn't really understand the Talaxian, but that wasn't important. He understood how he felt. For a counselor, that was all he needed. "Kes is happy, isn't she, Neelix?"
Neelix nodded enthusiastically. He wiped the unshed tears away and put on a happy smile. The last traces of melancholy were tucked away. "Yes! I know she is happy. That is why I try to be happy, for her."
Nick chugged the rest of his snack then pushed the mug aside. "Neelix, sometime I'd like you to drop by my office and we'll talk. I've been to the place between life and death. I'd like to share that with you. Later."
Neelix's head bobbed up and down although he kept his eyes averted. He carried their mugs to the sink, then forced a bright smile. "Time to get back to work!"
A course was plotted following the original route they had considered a month ago. Just as they were preparing to leave Buliga space, the Prince and the eight surviving soldiers were packed into one tiny shuttle and launched. Then they left the Buliga far behind as they took off at warp 9.
Nick worked on his holodeck programs, one for Seven and another one for B'Elanna. Naomi Wildman was helping him with Seven's program. He enjoyed the child's company. He was considering inviting Naomi to accompany Seven in the history lessons. The two had a lot in common, and Naomi seemed to bring out something very nice in Seven.
His program for B'Elanna was exhausting to work on. He knew she felt the link much stronger than he did, and assuming that she still loved him when the time was over, he wanted this program to be a surprise. So, he consciously closed their link when he worked on it. It left him hungry and tired, but he hoped that it would be worth it.
He met with Tom and they rehearsed their duet for the concert. He enjoyed Tom's light-hearted relaxed attitude. He was so unlike anyone Nick had befriended in the past. Tom was fun. Anton had been fun, too, but Anton was child-like, innocent, and trusting. Tom had lost his innocence at some point, long before he ever reached the age of adulthood. Tom was the most forgiving and accepting person Nick knew. They didn't speak about B'Elanna though. That would come soon enough. Nick wasn't ready to talk about her.
He spent more time with LaCroix, in the privacy of his quarters. LaCroix seemed pleased with him, and even loving, at least for now. Nick knew it would not last, but he intended to enjoy it as long as it did. He marked the days, the minutes that kept him and B'Elanna apart. The doctor was silent about whatever reactions B'Elanna had to Nick or to the absence of Nick. He hoped she was going to be fine. He closed his eyes and tried to sense her. He sensed that she was worried for him, as well. She was sad, lonely, and very, very tired. She hadn't been sleeping well without him! Nick smiled. As the two week mark went by and they began the third and final week of their separation, Nick sensed her desire for him growing even stronger. Surely any effect of the blood kiss should have ended by now?
He began the portrait of "Sunny", Paulus's daughter. Choosing a medium-sized canvas, and a soft, impressionist style with pastel tones, he painted Sunny as she was today, for the images he had of her through LaCroix were very clear, and she was such a pretty child. He painted her sitting on the grass on a sunny afternoon, with a book in one hand, to show her interest in science, a pair of track shoes on her feet, the laces untied, and a recorder beside her. A page of music fluttered softly on a breeze. Her knees were bent, one arm wrapped around them and the other held the book open, but she wasn't looking at it. Instead, she looked out with a sweet, thoughtful expression. He painted her long, red hair loose. It fell down her back, around her shoulders, in gentle waves, a few wisps fluttered freely around her face. She had her mother's olive green eyes, but her father's pale complexion, and a dimple. The background was indefinite, anybody's garden. Soft flowers, muted ferns. He hoped Paulus would like it. Only waiting now for the paint to dry, he planned to give it to her before the concert.

Chapter Twenty-four: The Concert

Finally, the big night arrived. Nick paced in his quarters restlessly. What if he couldn't do it? He wasn't worried about forgetting notes or losing his place. He had a nearly perfect memory. But Rachmaninoff should never be played without passion. What if, when faced with an audience, he played only notes and not music?
Then Paulus had selected a strange number to sing. "Morning Has Broken." Symbolic, perhaps, of her "morning" as she broke free from the dirt-darkness of her own unimportance. But, the song was somewhat sacred, an ancient hymn, although the music itself had been a pagan, Celtic melody. Could he concentrate on just the melody, and not be distracted by the religious references in the hymn?
The only bright spot in the concert would be his routine with Tom. He was doing a Victor Borge imitation, while Tom was more like Oscar Levant. It should be a lot of fun.
"Nicholas," LaCroix's soft, silken voice sounded within his consciousness.
Nick jumped, already too tense for this concert. He didn't need to deal with him now, too!
The ancient vampire laughed softly. "So emotional, my son! I only meant to wish you well. And to ask if I may listen to you play tonight."
"Ask?" Nick was suspicious. LaCroix never asked for something, when the answer was in doubt.
"Yes. It is day, here. I am quite fatigued, really. But I do so enjoy listening to you play."
Nick breathed deeply, trying to sense more from his father, but there was no deception that he could tell. Only, genuine affection and exhaustion. "Yes, LaCroix. I think that I would like to know that you were listening."
He showered then, shaved, and dressed for the concert. He wore a classic tuxedo, with the white silk shirt, black coat and tails, newly shined black dress shoes, white gloves, and a tall black hat. Whether he played well or not, he felt like a prince.
Several girls whistled at him as he walked down the corridor towards the shuttlebay-turned-concert hall. Voyager was minus two shuttles right now, and the others had been moved aside. Sometimes concerts were held in the mess hall, or a storage chamber, but this one was drawing too big an audience. Neelix had done a splendid job fixing up the shuttle bay. A raised platform filled the area right in front of the shuttlebay doors, with a beautiful concert grand piano occupying the center stage. Several chairs were near by, behind curtains that graced "left" and "right" stage of the platform. Then, one hundred twenty chairs were arranged around the bay, with the back rows on small risers for everyone to get a better view of Nick when he screwed up.
LaCroix laughed softly. "Relax, my son," he soothed.
Nick then went behind stage left to wait.
Paulus was there already. "I just can't tell you how much I love her portrait," she gushed again, for at least the hundredth time. "It is so perfect! It's like you must have met her! And I think, she really must be happy. I know my parents and Johnny's parents all adored her. Thank you, Nick!" And she threw her arms around him and kissed him.
"Ah-ah-ah," B'Elanna clucked, chucking Paulus away from Nick good-naturedly. She held a short stemmed carnation and tucked it into the buttonhole of his lapel. Then she stood on tiptoes and kissed him.
Nick felt a warm flush surge through him instantly. "B'Elanna," he moaned.
She grinned wickedly. "Captain says our prison sentence is over! I passed the doctor's physical today!"
"You mean?" Nick couldn't even finish his question, embarrassed at the semi-public setting, and yet everyone on the ship knew just about everything about them anyway.
"Yes!" She kissed him again, intimately, licking the razor-sharp tips of his fangs with her tongue. Drops of blood flowed from a small cut on her tongue, just a taste of her, and yet it was enough to arouse him.
Nick placed his hands on her shoulders firmly and took a step away from her. She laughed. "That's just a promise for after the concert," she whispered. "So remember, you can play it the way you want!"
Then she left, to take a front row seat.
Neelix was standing behind the stage right curtain, elegantly dressed in a Talaxian-tux, similar in style but brightly colored, instead of the refined black and white of human custom. Kim arrived, and the volunteer "orchestra"- twenty semi-talented strings and brass players, with the missing parts being filled in by computerized recording. Then finally Tom Paris made it. As Tom rushed down the aisles of the now crowded shuttlebay to slip behind the curtain, there were a number of whistles and catcalls at him as well. He stood next to Nick, shaking his arms in a rare display of nerves. Nick couldn't believe him. The shirt wasn't completely buttoned, cuffs loose, bow tie untied, hair out of place! He grabbed Tom's shoulders and scolded him. Tom cocked his odd little half-smile.
"It's not like I've had much chance to practice dressing up," he confessed.
Nick buttoned his collar and cuffs, tied the bow tie, tugged and straightened the entire outfit. Somehow, Tom still looked like a beach bum. A very nicely dressed beach bum. Oh well. Their routine was supposed to be humorous.
Neelix went out on the stage, and the lights of the shuttlebay dimmed, leaving only the spotlights on the stage. He bowed, the master of ceremonies par excellence, and gave his introduction, followed by polite applause. Then Kim started off the program with a clarinet solo.
Kim played wonderfully. Nick knew he had studied it for years, and played a number of musical instruments. He'd even played with the prestigious Juliard Youth Symphony back on Earth, before going to the Academy. Kim also performed wonderfully. He had the right decorum, not shy and timid, not proud and boastful. Just, a humble man quite willing to share his joy of music with friends. As the piece came to its close, the crewmates applauded him heartily.
Nearly everyone was in attendance. Voyager had come to a full stop for the concert, and most stations were put on automation. Only a skeleton crew manned their posts, and the concert was being piped to them over the comm system.
Paulus sang next. She was very, very nervous. For the entire first verse, her timid voice was barely audible to even the front row. Nick stumbled over the keys twice, too, as he consciously tried not to pay attention to the spiritual meaning of the words.


Morning has broken, like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning;
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.

Then, Paulus smiled at him, between the verses. She smiled brightly, trying to encourage him! Nick began the second verse. He did not look at the keys but just at her. He focused on the petite, shy woman, and she drew strength from him. She launched into the second verse, taking a deep breath and using her diaphragm the way she'd been taught as a child. Only now, she had a woman's voice. The song filled the shuttlebay auditorium, ringing clear and true, a sweet simple song of the morning.


Sweet the rain's new fall Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness Where His feet pass.


It was all the more impressive because it was so unexpected. They stood when they applauded her. She bowed, and walked off stage with an air of joy that made Nick proud.
Then Neelix announced, "Tom and Nick!"
Somehow, it reminded him of an ancient novel, Tom and Huck, about two irascible youths... the comparison fit Tom, at least, Nick decided. He grinned at Tom and they ran onto the stage to take a deep bow. The catcalls were even louder when they appeared together. The piano recital began with comic repartee. They argued about what to play- with Nick being the refined performer, speaking in an elegant French accent, and Tom shrugging carelessly in his tux, still the beach bum. They shared the piano bench, shoving each other. At one point, Tom shoved Nick right onto the floor, amid hoots of laughter. Nick remained there, cursing good-naturedly in his ancient tongue, which couldn't offend anyone, as no one spoke it now. Tom made a show of offering him a hand up, and they resumed the bickering at the bench. Tom started several bars of a wild piano solo, "The Sabre Dance" by Aram Kacheturian. Nick slapped his hands down on the keys then and complained about "that noisy dance" being unfit for such an occasion. He launched instead into something by Franz List, which was all soft, romantic broken chords. Tom made like the music was putting him to sleep.
The audience roared. Humor was such a good outlet for so many different species, Nick realized. Even LaCroix seemed to enjoy the silly show.
After a few more jokes, they finally agreed on the piece they would perform, a twenty-second century concerto for four hands. It was a classical style piece, and technically challenging. Tom hadn't known it three weeks ago. He didn't read music, either, due to his dyslexia. So when they practiced, Nick had to play it for him, once through for each part. Tom had watched and listened, then he played it back nearly perfectly, improving on Nick's original performance with his own natural interpretive ability. Sometimes, Tom had only to hear a piece hummed, and he could pick it out. Nick marveled at his talent, one he seldom shared. But, for this performance, it was perfect, as they continued their verbal sparring, and switched off the parts they were playing. Sometimes Nick reached over Tom to play the upper keys, once Tom raced around the bench to steal Nick's position at the lower notes. They entangled their arms and played half of each part. And all throughout, they teased each other, Nick in his dignified French persona, and Tom as the street-wise bum.
When the powerful concerto came to its conclusion, the audience was moved to tears. Some by the beauty of the music, most because they were laughing too hard. Either way, Nick felt the performance was a success.
Neelix came on stage next and gave a short talk. The purpose was to stall, giving Nick a chance to go back stage and prepare himself for his big number. Neelix talked briefly about each of the performers- Kim, Paulus, Tom, and the members of the orchestra, then Nick. The orchestra took their places. The spotlight centered over the piano. Nick tried to forget the audience. He concentrated instead on Serge, his friend and composer, the depth of emotion he put into everything he wrote, but especially into this one piece. It marked the end of Serge's self-imposed exile, his reemergence into the world as a composer and performer. It was Serge's "morning" song. Nick would play tonight for Serge.
Nick walked onto the stage and bowed, not seeing anyone, not feeling anyone, not even LaCroix. He took his place at the bench and held his hands over the keys for a moment, and then played the first chord. It was played softly, a faint sound, a deep note, then the chord again, a little louder, the deep bass... the piece began. It grew and swelled, and the strings picked up the dramatic melody and his fingers trilled up and down the length of the keyboard in the intricate arpeggios and chords of the second concerto.
Nick played on. No longer did he even think of Serge. This was his piece. This was his life. Tragic sometimes, then melancholic, powerful, moving, and deeply personal. At times, he leaned into the keys, almost caressing them, coaxing a gentle loving passage from them, then again his arms added strength behind his wrists to play fortissimo. Blood sweat dotted his forehead, his hair was a wild tangle of damp curls, catching a more golden glow from the stage lights. The auditorium of 120 people sat silent in rapt enjoyment, overwhelmed at the majesty and beauty of the music.
When Nick struck the final chords of the last movement, there was a brief pause of total silence. No one moved or breathed in honor to the music. Then, the room shook from the power of their applause. Nick stood, feeling weak and drained, not even aware of the streams of sweat running down the side of his face. He moved to stand in front of the piano and bowed, then he gestured to the orchestra. They took their bow and gestured back to Nick.
The applauding continued. Nick felt embarrassed by it. He bowed again, searching the faces of the audience almost frantically, wondering just what he had to do to get off the stage. There was B'Elanna. She stood up from her place in the front row, clapping and wiping away human tears, and waving at him with a big smile on her lovely face. Nick returned her smile. He remembered what she had promised him before the concert began. Their forced separation was over.
And she still loved him! It had nothing to do with a biological bonding through the vampire's kiss. She loved him! He didn't have to try to change, to be something that he was not. He didn't have to wait on her, placating her vanity. She didn't expect him to amuse her, buy her gifts, take her places, or perform any other service. He could just be himself, and she loved him for it. Nick felt his own tears press against his eyelids then. He quickly ducked behind the curtain.
The concert had come to a close. Some of the crew had to return to their duty shifts. The rest were treated to a reception in honor of the musicians. Nick listened to a hundred different varieties of "that was lovely" while he sipped glass after glass of Buliga blood from a wineglass-- Neelix's gift to him. Tom was being cheered as well, Nick noticed, by every single available female on the ship, all at once. Tom's bow tie hung loose, and he had cuffed back the sleeves of his tuxedo jacket. Somehow, the carefree style suited him. He winked at Nick, and said he'd be glad to argue over a piano with him again anytime.
Captain Janeway- Kathryn tonight, as she was dressed in a very feminine evening gown- took his hand. She clasped it warmly. Her eyes were bright with emotions- joy, fascination, peace... but not longing. One arm was draped over Chakotay's sleeve, where it belonged. "That was... absolutely... wonderful," she said simply. "Thank you, for everything."
Then her mouth quirked in a teasing grin. "But I have a special project I'd like your help on. I'm creating a holonovel program for the crew, and since it is somewhat historic in nature, I thought you might help add authenticism to it."
Nick shrugged. The holodeck was becoming a favorite spot. "Sure. What's the novel?"
Chakotay grinned, too. "I hear it is a very interesting story."
Nick laughed at their teasing. Dracula was actually a favorite among many vampires, in that it strayed far enough from the truth to be amusing. "I shall look forward to it, Captain."
Paulus seemed to have a small crowd around her as well, praising her and thanking her for the performance. Shyly, she grasped her husband's arm and thanked them all. She faced them, no longer hiding behind her emotional barriers. The doctor clapped his back then.
"Good work, Nick!" he said. "On the concert and on Crewman Paulus. She showed the painting to me before the concert. Excellent! And, congratulations are in order, too. I hear you and B'Elanna are an "item" once again."
Small ships were an interesting universe. There were no secrets. It was very like a family, a large family, and generally ran fairly smoothly because of the Starfleet protocols, which the Captain insisted they adhere to. Still, there would be ups and downs, disputes and apologies, births and deaths, as they continued the interminable voyage homeward. Nick grinned. He felt truly alive again, for the first time in many years.

Chapter Twenty-Five: Knight's Castle

"Nick, where are you taking me?"
He grinned mischievously. "Just wait and see, my love. You were complaining that we never did anything together, know... so, I've planned something really special."
B'Elanna was amused. Her vampire could be such a complicated set of contradictions. He lusted for her, desired her, pleased her, fulfilled her, and yet, he couldn't even say the word "sex." They walked together, his fingers entwined in hers. It was a simple gesture, yet it said publicly that they belonged together. She felt a warm rush fill her.
Nick stood outside of the holodeck and set the program to run.
"I hope it isn't anything too demanding," she said. "I'm a little tired." She didn't want to mention that Tom had fairly lived in the holodeck. It was never wise to discuss past relationships, but Tom had been exhausting. He always had to be doing something. So they went skiing, parachuting, bungi jumping, wind surfing, hang gliding, rappelling, and scuba diving until she was too bruised and harried to feel up to anything romantic!
They stepped inside the holodeck. As the doors closed behind them, so did her link with the modern world. Before her stood a medieval castle built of stone, with gently rolling farmlands spread out all around like a royal carpet with hints of green among the black-velvet shadows of the night. Quaint little stone walls defined separate areas for crops and domestic animals. A small stream looped through the croplands. Somewhere, a lonely wolf howled, then off in the distance broke the answering call of its mate. A full moon graced the star-studded heavens, bathing them both in its silver light. She stared at Nick, curious and surprised.
"This... is my home," he whispered shyly. "Brabant. I was born here."
She squeezed his hand affectionately. "Am I to meet your parents so they can pass judgement on me?"
He stole a sideward glance at her, still oddly embarrassed. "No. I just wanted to show you where I came from."
"That is so sweet, Nick. Lead me on!"
Nick grinned boyishly. He tugged her hand and set off briskly towards the castle. She laughed, trying to keep up. He led her quickly through the large stone hall, set with long tables. Lighted sconces hung on the stone walls, interspersed with heavy tapestries. Several large dogs roamed about freely, or curled up before a huge stone fireplace. Up a stone stairwell he led her into a bedchamber. She blushed at him, about to make a comment about his promise to "do something else". Somehow, changing the location of the bedroom didn't really mean doing "something else." Then Nick pulled on a silken cord and a serving girl in ancient garb appeared.
"Prepare a bath for M'Lady," he ordered. Then, he turned to B'Elanna. "You will bathe and dress. I shall return for you." He bowed low, kissing her fingertips.
"Nick!" she pleaded.
He cleared his throat. "Nicola de Brabant." His eyes danced with mischief and romance. Then he departed.
The servant girl filled a marble tub with warm water. B'Elanna wasn't really into bathing. It was part of the Klingon nature, but she'd play along with Nick for now. The girl remained. She washed B'Elanna's hair, adding more warm water sprinkled with rose petals to the bath. She waited on B'Elanna decadently. Then, she was clothed.
First an under-garment, a smock with long, snug-fitting sleeves of a home-spun fabric, then a loose kirtle over that. Hose, gartered at the knee, and low-cut leather shoes. The kirtle was scarlet silk, tied with a silken cord, or girdle.
The girl brushed her short hair, but seemed perplexed as to how she would manage to put it in a plaited style. B'Elanna asserted herself then. "No braids, no hats!" The girl nodded submissively and selected a jeweled hair pin to adorn the "lady". B'Elanna was just about to scream enough when Nick returned.
He had bathed and changed as well. His hair, still damp, formed tangled, golden curls. His pants were loose-fitting, secured with a drawstring at the waste. These were a fine linen and tucked into the tops of knee-high boots. The under tunic, also linen, had full sleeves and snug cuffs, slit in the front to reveal part of his smooth, pale chest. He wore a royal blue over-tunic, with slitted sleeves, belted and with dagged edges that set off his broad shoulders handsomely. An ornate golden chain finished the outfit, with an intricate jeweled design on the pendant. He was gorgeous! He bowed low, in courtly fashion. "Would M'Lady care to join me for dinner?"
B'Elanna laid her hand on his forearm. She wasn't too sure of herself. She'd read Earth history, but never really studied it. If only Nick had warned her where they were going, she could have prepared herself. But then, he didn't seem to care, really. He was just showing her his home, his mortal home. The place where he was born, where he grew up, where he learned and developed. He seemed to feel that this was more about who he was, than all the centuries he had lived as a vampire, learning to try to be something he was not.
They returned to the great hall. Nick walked like a king, the lord of the manor. Servants bowed to him. Of course they would, since he had written the program, but something about it had the ring of truth. Nick must have been born to mortal royalty, as he played the part so well. He sat at the head of the table in a great chair, with B'Elanna at his side. Holographic guests filled the room, sitting at two long tables perpendicular to the head.
A priest joined them at the head table. He was a simple monk, but no one else sat with them. B'Elanna would have to ask him later why he didn't bring his family into the program. For some reason, Nick did not want them there. The priest's name was Stephen. He began the meal with a simple grace, through which Nick clenched his eyes tightly shut. When the ordeal was over, then servants began carrying in tray after tray of food. Huge platters of roast pork, chicken, and venison, cormorant, and mutton. Smaller platters contained apples, plums, pears, and nuts. There were no vegetables. The later courses brought cheeses, cakes, wafers and cookies. Little peasant boys carried jugs of wine and constantly refilled the glasses of the guests- one glass for every two people, which they shared between them.
Nick filled his own glass with a private bottle. He didn't eat any of the food, but smiled at B'Elanna and encouraged her to eat her fill. The meal was a lengthy process, with multiple courses. No one ate with silverware, as was the modern custom. Instead, the meats were picked up with fingers. Most of the guests wiped their fingers on the white linen tablecloth, throwing the bones and scraps on the stone floor for the dogs.
B'Elanna was hesitant. Even though it was all just holograms, she felt oddly embarrassed. What if she made a social gaff? What would her Knight think of her then?
Nick grinned at her, his eyes alight with mischief. She felt a prickly feeling at the back of her consciousness, and knew that Nick was there. "Relax, my love," he said huskily, the tips of fangs just barely noticeable. "Social customs have not changed that much in 1200 years.
"Diners should eat slowly and take small bites," he recited, as though this was something he'd had to memorize as a child. "They should not talk with food in their mouth. Knives are for cutting and are not to be placed in the mouth. Diners should not gnaw on bones with their teeth, poke fingers in their eggs, spit across the table- under it is acceptable- wipe their mouths on their sleeves, or bite the trencher."
At B'Elanna's questioning gaze, he indicated the bowl-shaped bread that her food was placed on. "The trencher is given to the poor, after the meal," Nick explained.
B'Elanna nodded, her nervousness lifting under his amusing tutelage. "Please, continue," she urged, before taking a small bite of the venison on her trencher. It had a delicious flavor. There was something wild and almost Klingon about it, although it was cooked and most Klingon foods were not.
Nick smiled. He sipped from his own goblet, then continued the crash course in thirteenth century etiquette. "No elbows on the table. Don't slurp soup, belch, or pick any orifice. Do not wipe your teeth or knife on the tablecloth, and do not butter your bread with your thumb.
"Do not plunk food down in the salt cellar. But although proper etiquette is against tossing scraps to the dogs, this is still a common practice, and one my dogs quite expect. If I do not give them the scraps willing, they may climb up on the table to retrieve it themselves."
Later in the meal Nick clapped his hands and a dwarfed man in garish jester's clothing scurried out to juggle some scarves, then small balls. The guests chattered through the meal, some ignoring the jester entirely. Again, Nick clapped, and the jester turned cartwheels on his way out. A minstrel boy entered next, carrying a small harp. He sang with an angelic soprano voice, several Celtic tunes about love and death. When he finished, four musicians entered and played on recorders and flutes. Nick took B'Elanna's hand and led her out onto the floor, in the space between the long tables.
"The lord must begin the first dance," he told her, "before any of the guests can join."
"I don't know much about dancing."
"Just follow me," he said. Then, they were dancing. He held her by one hand, and stood beside her. The dance was steady, slow, sedate and proper, a few steps to the left, a few to the right, a graceful dip and bend the knees. Nothing fast or challenging. Nick was every inch the lord and he seemed more at home, more confidant, than anywhere else she'd seen him.
Gradually, the guests left their tables and joined the dance, while small serving children hastened to clear off the tables. Nick danced B'Elanna towards the exit, and as the dance ended, he escorted her back outside where a full moon still illumined the night. He kissed her once, but did not allow her to deepen the kiss. "There is more yet to come," he promised huskily. Carrying a lantern for her benefit, he showed her all over the manor. It was an entire village, self-sustaining, a little world all unto itself. They made their own linen from flax that they grew, felt and wool from their own sheep, tallow candles, wooden barrels, wine, and more. B'Elanna was overwhelmed. There was nothing like it in Klingon history.
Then he led her into the stable. It was warm and filled with smells of sweet hay, sweat and leather. Nick hung the lantern on a sturdy hook, casting the barn in its soft yellow glow. He patted a smooth neck on a huge beast, a magnificent, powerful horse. It was pale, like Nick. Its color was the shade of moonlight on water. Nick slipped a soft halter around its neck and backed it out of the stall. Even at the withers it was still taller than B'Elanna.
"This was my horse," Nick whispered. He spoke the words almost reverently. B'Elanna thought it was odd that he should want her to meet his horse but not his parents, but she didn't say anything to disrupt the magic of the moment. "His name was Charger."
Nick leaped onto the broad back of the magnificent horse, then offered his hand to B'Elanna.
She hesitated. "Nick, I don't know. I've never ridden before, and he's so... big."
"I'll hold you," he said. "And we won't be going fast."
She placed her hand in his and allowed herself to be lifted up onto the horse. Nick set her in front of him, with his arms securely holding her in place. Then with a touch of his knees, the horse stepped out into the moonlight.
The large horse walked proudly through his castle grounds, snuffing impatiently for more excitement. B'Elanna lost her initial hesitation and relaxed with the gentle rocking motion. She leaned back against Nick's chest, cradled in his strong arms. He breathed into her ear sending a tingle of excitement down her spine. His tongue traced her ear and trailed up her cheek. The evening air felt cool, but was not responsible for the tingle of goose flesh on her arms.
Nick held the reins with one hand now. The other hand wrapped around her, holding her close against him. She leaned her head against his firm chest and closed her eyes. She rejoiced in the moment.
Nick guided Charger out across the fields, and with a subtle touch, the horse eased into a canter. The wind whistled briskly. B'Elanna gasped at the fast pace and clung to Nick. She hoped he didn't know how to disengage the safeties on the holodeck! She stole a glance at Nick, unburying her face from his shoulder for an instant. Nick looked enraptured. Cloaked in royal blue and moonlight, he was more than a medieval lord, he was a god of the night. Strong, powerful, loving and passionate, he ruled this land as well as her heart. She wanted him, not just for now, but for always. Overcome by her own potent desires, she buried her face again.
They were riding up a steep hill, and then the horse stopped. Nick dismounted, leaving B'Elanna to sit side-ways on the back of beast that frightened her. Nick plucked the bloom from a thorn bush and held it out to her.
"This place was always very special to me," he said, indicating the hilltop with its rose bushes and the panoramic view of the entire estate below. "I've never brought another person here. I used to come here alone to pray, a very long time ago. After I became what I am, I never returned again."
B'Elanna remained quiet. She sensed Nick's need to speak conflicting with his innate aversion to sharing. The Klingon culture was steeped in religion, but it was a faith she did not share. Vulcan mysticism seemed to add no joy to their lives, and the human cultures had evolved so many different religions, that she wondered how they had ever become united as a planet. Religion was simply not important to B'Elanna. Yet she knew that it was fundamental to Nick, even though, according to his religion, he was one of the damned. She wondered how he could continue to believe in anything so depressing.
"B'Elanna, I am what I am. I will never be able to sit on a sunny beach with you, or enjoy a four-course meal. We can not have children. I will never grow old with you. But I love you, with a love that is stronger than I have ever felt before, in my entire existence. I pledge my life to you, I vow to love you, to honor and cherish you, and protect you, as long as we both shall live. B'Elanna, will you marry me?"
"Nick!" B'Elanna was momentarily speechless. "Oh, Nick! Yes!"
He held his arms out to her, and she slipped from the back of the beast into the warm embrace of another... her beast. She clung to him tightly, blinking back tears of joy. Nick took a ring from the small pocket in his tunic and placed it on her finger. It was a princess style, simple gold band with a single diamond. He brought her fingers to his lips and kissed them tenderly.
Maybe there was no physical cure for his condition. Maybe he would remain forever a creature of the night. But neither must he live like one condemned. There was always forgiveness and hope, always a chance of redemption. He would live, as Anton had shown him, in the moment. He could not change the mistakes of his past. He could not control the events of the future. But he could live this day, trying to do his best, to do right. If Klingons and Vulcans, Bolians and Andorians, Ferengi and Humans had all learned to live together, then just perhaps there was a place for a solitary vampire, too.
B'Elanna pressed her hands against his chest, slipping beneath the tunic to touch his cool skin. She glanced at the diamond ring, noting the way the moonlight sparkled on the stone. What was so special about the sun, anyway, she wondered idly. The moon was for lovers, even on Qo'noS. Some things were everywhere the same. She pulled his face lower, to kiss him with all of the passion of her klingon and human natures, for with him she felt herself united.
It was nothing short of a small miracle! Nick had just proposed to her, and she had accepted! Time was unimportant. Whether they lived and loved together for hours or decades, she was now a part of him, her soul bonded with him, touched him, and he would never be the same. Nick could even believe in his own redemption.
The End.

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Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my dear online buddy, Shaman, for all her wonderful help in getting this story ready for posting. She first wrote to me when "The Persecuted" appeared, and we have been corresponding daily ever since. She worked on every step of"Redemption of the Damned" with me. We discussed themes for weeks on end. She would not let me be sloppy or careless. Every scene had to have a purpose. Every relationship had to ring true. I feel that my skill as a writer has improved greatly since "The Persecuted", and I am sure that it is because of her invaluable online tutoring. If I could afford to pay her what this help was worth, she could retire! Shaman, thank you. Very, very much. May we collaborate on another story soon?