I would like to thank SamFKfan, Shaman, Alexa, and LHorizon. All of them helped with proof-reading this script, offered helpful suggestions, and encouraged me to finish it and get it posted. I would also like to thank my readers, the FK fans, for you are the nicest people online.
Prologue: Ryeta Space
Canons blasted through the failing shields. Kulin gasped as the smoke filled his lungs, burning, searing... he blinked, wiping hot sticky fluid from his eyes. It was blood- but whose? Staggering to his feet, he tripped over the captain's body. He looked near death. At least something good would come from this misbegotten battle.
"Get us out of here!" he barked to the helm officer.
The young Ryeta soldier nodded vigorously as he slapped in the new coordinates. It didn't occur to him that Kulin was not the one to be in charge.
No, with the Captain incapacitated, command would shift to Murth... but never had Kulin met a man less qualified to be in space, let alone in charge of a battleship during an interstellar war. Murth was a man of thought, not action. The ship would be blown to bits before Murth could decide what to do. But then, maybe Murth wouldn't survive long? Battle could be so hazardous. Kulin's large mouth tugged in a mirthless grin.
The Xin ship fired on them again, but the shots went wide and they broke off their attack, crawling back to their own little sector of the galaxy. Perhaps they'd been hit more seriously than it appeared? Kulin glared at the young crew. They were so inept. Well, a few months under Murth, and then they would be his. He grabbed the body of their fallen captain and stormed from the bridge wondering if he'd find the honorable Murth shivering under his bed.
The Discovery limped from the battle to hide in the shadow of Q42's larger moon. Captain Murth strode through the corridors assessing the damage and estimating the time for repairs. He'd have an official report to file within the hour-- his first act as the new captain. At least, it was something he felt capable of handling.
Two soldiers were clearing debris off the bridge, trying to patch the communications console together with parts rigged from trash. Fyid, the doctor, was assisting with clean up, as they'd had just two casualties, and both were beyond the help of modern medicine. Now, they would know for certain the answers to Ryeta's most pressing questions: were there gods?
Shouts drew Murth's attention away from his useless musings. He redirected his steps towards engineering, the source of the conflict.
Murth pushed through the doors just as Kulin backhanded a little Liat whelp in front of the engineers and the enraged cook. He went to the Liat and helped him to his feet. An ugly red and purple bruise colored his hairless cheek and the strange salt-water dripped from his large moss-colored eyes. Murth didn't like the Liat; he didn't want them on his ship. But he couldn't abide cruelty to any kind of creature, no matter how useless or stupid.
He reached out towards the Liat to brush away its water, but the whelp shrank back from him. Of course. Now Kulin had taught him to fear. Curse that man! "Sh-sh. That's enough," he said softly, whispering other nonsense syllables, knowing the Liat would only understand his tone and not his language.
Keeping a firm hand protectively on the Liat's head, Murth turned towards Kulin and the cook. "Speak!" he demanded, hoping he sounded more authoritative than he felt.
"Worthless Liat! Just a pack of useless hay-burners," Kulin cursed. "We ought to fire them out a cannon and be done with it!"
Murth turned to the cook. "It's "Tregor", isn't it? I take it the Liat are yours?"
Tregor was an exceedingly handsome Ryeta, and the youngest member of this crew, not including the Liat. His fur, a deep sienna, was thick and coarse, his black eyes barely visible through the long fringe. Murth wasn't really interested in Tregor's physical attributes as his interests were for females- although the war made meeting any all but impossible. He was glad to see that Tregor had a fierce temper, though. He would need it to survive long on this entirely male ship.
"Aye, Captain," he grumbled. "Except for that one. Kittim was the late captain's. Now he's yours, I guess."
Murth glanced again at the skinny little Liat. Good gods. He'd never owned one before. A slightly panicked feeling choked him.
Kulin was shouting again. Murth scowled slightly. Everyone on the ship treated him with the proper respect, except this one. He disliked the rude soldier immensely, even as Kulin made him feel grossly inadequate.
"Make him climb down there to remove the charred debris away-- he's small enough-- it will take hours to take the panels off so we can reach it."
Murth glanced down the reactor tube. It was barely three feet in diameter. The Liat would easily fit through it, as no Ryeta on the ship could. But how to make the mute little beast understand?
"Your method of communication eats muck, Kulin," Murth replied, insultingly. He glared at the engineers' snickering. Although he suspected that no one really liked Kulin, he wouldn't tolerate insubordination from any one.
"Tregor, can the Liat do this task?"
The young cook nodded vigorously. "They understand a hell of a lot more than we give them credit for, captain. You just had to give short, clear directions. And I don't know why, but it helps if you are looking right at them when you speak."
"Are they deaf?"
"No. They hear well. I don't think they understand what they hear, though. I don't think they even know their own names."
Murth nodded, adding that piece of information to his meager store. If it weren't for the war, he'd still be a scientist. When he'd first entered the university, he had planned to work in medical research, hoping to discover the cure for the harmless Ryetan disease that was systematically annihilating the Liat. He gestured to Tregor to demonstrate.
Tregor knelt down to be closer to the Liat's eye level. "Kittim," he stated, also touching the Liat to draw his attention. "Climb down the tube. Put broken things in this bag."
Murth stared agape as the little Liat nodded, then took the bag and slung it over his thin shoulders. Glancing timidly at Kulin, the Liat scurried around him and climbed fearlessly into the tube. But then, the Liat wouldn't have the faintest idea how dangerous it was down there. One wrong move and the whelp would be dead. It seemed somehow dishonest to take advantage of his ignorance.
"Kulin," Murth called, squaring his shoulders to appear more commanding. "If you strike any creature on this ship again I will have you under arrest."
Then he turned and marched from the room. Kulin glared at Murth's retreating form. Yes, he thought angrily. War could be very dangerous....
Murth stared out through the large porthole in his quarters at the peaceful void of empty space. The massive blackness called to him. All the little spots of light signified disasters in the making, but the darkness contained nothing. Closing his eyes he could almost imagine himself floating among the void. Regret was bitter company. How had everything turned out so wrong? The gods would curse the day the Ryeta ever entered space.
The smaller door set inside the larger one hissed softly. That would be the Liat, Murth thought, without turning. A picture of the boy sprang to his mind suddenly, full and clear, and Murth wondered now what he should do with him.
It was a Ryeta responsibility to care for these helpless creatures, but it was yet another task for which Murth felt hopelessly inadequate. Only a few months ago he'd still been a junior officer and attaché to Ambassador Derk as they tried to form an alliance with the neighboring Bugali nations. That, like everything else Murth had ever laid hand to, had failed.
He slumped onto the couch.
Small soft hands startled him as they touched his feet. Murth nearly jumped out of his fur. "What the devil!"
Kittim, the Liat whelp, drew back his lips in an expression that showed his teeth. Murth wasn't sure what it meant, except that he sensed the creature was not frightened now. He stared curiously at him. His teeth were so strange looking- two long, sharp canines, like little needles, smaller teeth filling in the spaces but just as sharp looking.
The whelp tugged one of his feet onto his lap and began to massage the stress away. Murth relaxed and closed his eyes. The tiny fingers threaded through his thick fur, gentle and soft yet not quite tickling. Maybe having a Liat around wouldn't be so bad after all.
"Captain," a tired voice interrupted, speaking over the comm system. "A priority message from High Command."
Murth felt a cold chill settle deep in his gut, destroying the restful feeling the Liat had induced. Damn them! If only he could have refused that promotion! "I'll take it here," he answered.
Sighing, Murth stood and went to his desk. He adjusted the comm screen and forced the fear from his voice.
General Gorlon's craggy face filled his screen. The battle-scarred soldier was looking tired these days, Murth thought. Unlike himself, Gorlon had always been a soldier. If he was giving up hope...
"Captain Murth. An alien vessel has been detected on our long-range scanners, coming from sector 142 mark 2. Ambassador Derk reports that they are aggressive and dangerous. Apparently, they attacked the Bugali, stole food and supplies, and held the prince ransom. One report even states that they drink the blood of their enemies."
Murth couldn't quite conceal the shudder of disgust that swept through him. Gorlon merely grunted. "My sentiments exactly. However, we are under no obligation to the Bugali at this point, so it may be in our best interests to try to make an alliance with this ship. Their weapons are superior, and if the reports are at all correct, they can outrun and out-maneuver us. The only thing not in their favor is their small size. We could best them easily in hand-to-hand combat."
"Gone are the good-old days," Murth muttered sarcastically.
Gorlon snorted, but chose to ignore the disrespectful tone. "How soon until your ship is repaired?"
The general nodded. "The alien ship is called "Voyager". If it maintains current heading and speed, they will enter the edge of our space in two weeks. You are to intercept them, and begin negotiations. If they are as hostile as the Bugali suggest, you must annihilate them."
It was a suicide's mission. The only way to annihilate a superior vessel was to deliberately ram it, igniting both their warp engines. The resulting explosion would take them out, as well as any life form for a circumference of several light years. "Aye, Captain," Murth replied grimly.
Four Weeks earlier...
Chapter One: The Morning After
Nick stared at the beauty in his arms, gently brushing a strand of dark Klingon hair from her tawny complexion. In sleep none of her defiance and inner rage was visible; instead she looked deceptively small and delicate. B'Elanna Torres was the most amazing woman he had met in many centuries. She loved him. And very soon she was going to become his wife.
B'Elanna's breathing increased as she slipped through the layers of sleep. Languidly, sensually, like a cat uncoiling from a nap, she stretched one vertebra at a time. Her dark, lustrous eyes opened. "Good morning, beast," she whispered huskily.
"Still want to marry me?" he teased.
She held her hand before her and gazed at the small rock on her third finger. "This is going to take some getting used to," she grumbled, already sounding more like the B'Elanna Torres that everyone knew. "I'm not really the jewelry type."
Nick smiled, pulling the small hand to his lips and laying a kiss on it.
"Why don't you have to wear one?"
That made him laugh. She was half-human. Didn't she know any of the mortal-human customs? "I will, B'El. At our wedding. We exchange wedding rings. Remember?"
"So I get two rings, and you only get one? Why is that? It doesn't seem quite fair."
She snuggled closer on his shoulder and lightly traced her fingers down the smooth firm chest. Nick caught the exploring hand and held it. There was never enough time anymore. "A long time ago, when a couple wanted to wed, they gathered in the middle of the community and walked three times around a blazing fire. Three was to signify two lives becoming one. The fire was for passion and purity. The circle has always meant forever, no beginning and no end, and the community bore witness to their marriage walk. Then certain stones were believe to have magic power- the diamond was to promise a long life and bless the marriage with children. After the spread of Christianity, the ritual marriage walk was incorporated into the three rings."
"Oh, Nick! That is so sweet. I didn't know," B'Elanna murmured. "It is a -lovely- ring. I'm sure I'll get used to it... eventually."
Nick laughed heartily at that. "Come on, then. Let's hit the shower before we miss breakfast again!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Chakotay shared a cup of coffee with the captain before retiring. It was hardly an appropriate bedtime beverage, but sharing anything with Kathryn was worth it. They didn't always work opposite shifts, but until they'd put a few more light years between them and the Bugali, she didn't feel comfortable sleeping with any other officer at the helm.
"That was such a lovely concert last night," she reminisced, swallowing the still too hot brew. Wincing only slightly, she repeated the action before speaking again. "He has such a gift. Wonder if he'll perform more often now?"
Chakotay blew across the top of his coffee. It smelled better than it tasted anyway, and he certainly did not want to spend all his time with Kathryn just talking about Nick. He was very fond of the vampire; thought of him like a brother, but this was not the place. They were both off duty for another ten minutes. "I could ask him to play at Neelix's next party, if you like," he suggested. "He is planning a couples night first, then a special party in honor of the color green, to be followed by a birthday celebration for the Wildman child."
Captain Kathryn Janeway burst out laughing, sloshing her coffee dangerously close to the rim of the mug. "Why so many?"
Chakotay shrugged. It wasn't often he could make her laugh, but it was such fun when he succeeded. "I'm not sure. I think it has something to do with the dark space." At her questioning look, he continued. "The area of space we're in now- few stars and fewer planets. It's dark. Neelix seems to feel that it is at least partly responsible for the depression among the crew, so he has been feverishly trying to create these diversions."
Kathryn refilled her cup and ordered a honey-wheat bagel from the small replicator. She might be a few minutes late to the bridge, but they'd all been putting in overtime for far too long. And the "dark" space, as Neelix called it, was also "boring" space. No planets meant no people to interact with or cause problems. She could afford to relax a bit. Being responsible for 151 lives for the past five years was more than exhausting.
Depression was something to be concerned about, however. They were all long overdue for shoreleave. Janeway was feeling a bit off herself, and a few days on a sandy holographic beach just wastn't going to fix it this time.
"So tell me more," she probed. "Whose idea was this couples' night?"
"Nick's," Chakotay answered, slightly frustrated that the conversation had come back to him already. His frustration vanished as she laughed again, more heartily.
"Yes, I should have guessed. He's had little else on his mind for weeks. Wonder if we'll be having a ship's wedding soon?"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nick strolled liesurely towards the mess hall clasping B'Elanna's hand in his. "We should announce the news this morning, don't you think?"
A moment of panic choked her, but then it faded. She smiled up at Nick in wonder. In the past, whenever she had become serious with anyone, panic had always made her push away, but Nick was so different. He wasn't like anyone she had ever dated before. And something about him just felt right! "Sure. Do it."
"What about a date?"
B'Elanna didn't answer at first. Still no panic. She would be able to do this. But, just in case, she should push the date off for a while. "Oh, Nick," she thought aloud. "I don't want to get married until some plans are made, like, where're we going to live? I mean, my quarters and yours are both single occupant."
"Okay," Nick answered agreeably. "We get married right after the room is fixed." He flashed her a brilliant smile.
As they entered the busy, noisy mess hall, the conversations died down. Many eyes turned towards the happy couple with expectation. Nick clasped her hand firmly and gazed into her eyes for a moment. He saw her love and her trust, and not a trace of indecision. He turned to address the assembled crew. "Friends," he said a little louder and with conviction. Tapping his comm badge and contacting the captain, he continued. "I would like to announce to all of you, that I have asked B'Elanna to be my wife! And she has accepted."
A loud cheer split from some of the crew, and more dignified responses from the rest. "Congratulations, Nick," the captain answered. "When?"
"When we've had a chance to make some plans, but soon. Very soon," he answered, causing a raucous laugh from the less inhibited.
"Congratulations to both of you. I'm happy for you," the captain said, then closed the comm link.
Kim jumped up and pumped Nick's hand. He kissed B'Elanna chastely on the cheek, and wrapped them both in a hug.
Neelix waddled up quickly, bringing Nick his breakfast in a glass flute and a second flute with champagne for the future bride. "This is traditional, I think," the talaxian chef insisted. "And since it's non-alcoholic, it will be okay before work."
Others came forward, each with some expression of joy and good wishes, yet Nick scanned the crowd for one who had not yet appeared. At the back stood the lanky blonde ensign, Tom Paris. The younger man nodded at Nick tensely. Then, sighing, he pushed himself away from the table he'd been perched on and approached. Brushing past Nick, he held B'Elanna at arms' length and stared at her intently. "Happy, B'Elanna? Is this what you really want?"
Nick could hear her heart rate increase rapidly. She'd been Tom's girlfriend not long ago. Nick forced the animal surge of jealousy to creep under a dark rock somewhere. He tossed the last of the Bugali blood down his throat and waited.
B'Elanna returned Tom's steady gaze and nodded. "Yes, Tom. I am."
Tom pulled her tightly into an embrace and kissed the top of her head. "Good," he answered simply. Then he slapped Nick on the back with one hand and shook the outstretched hand with the other. "Be good to her. Or I'll find some garlic."
The words were said lightly, almost carelessly, in that notorious Tom Paris way, yet Nick was all too aware that Tom wasn't entirely joking. "I'll do my best, Tom. Or I'll die trying." He held Tom's gaze for a moment. Nick still saw pain reflected, but it was different. The pain was not raw like an open wound. This pain had the look of long suffering. Tom had accepted B'Elanna's abandonment, just like everyone else who had ever left him. His mother, his sisters, his father.... And with this acceptance, the officer was more deeply convinced that he deserved it. That he was so worthless, no one would ever stand by him... and he buried this belief behind an arrogance that many found annoying.
"Come by my office later, Tom," Nick said softly.
Tom lowered his gaze and shifted uncomfortably. "Sure, maybe. Look, I gotta run." And then he was gone.
Nick felt B'Elanna's arm slip around him. "He'll be okay, Nick. He'll get over it."
Nick nodded. Yes, Tom would have to be okay. Because Nick was the ship's counselor and Tom's only hope. If he couldn't help the other man to deal with it, then Nick just wouldn't feel right to go through with the wedding... he'd have to make things right. Quickly!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"That was fast," Chakotay said, finishing the coffee and standing to take his leave.
"But not unexpected," Kathryn answered. "Keeping those two apart for two weeks was more of a punishment for the entire crew! I had no less than seven people come ask me to lift my ban before the time had passed!"
"You're kidding! Seven people questioned one of your orders?" Chakotay was amused, enjoying the light banter. "Maybe this is indicative of a deeper problem, lack of discipline in the ranks?"
"Could be, Commander," she teased back. "I'll dig out the cat o'nine tails and start practicing. And you, get some sleep. That's an order."
Chapter Two: LaCroix's Demand
Nick parted, letting B'Elanna report to engineering while he took the turbolift towards his office. He touched the small brass plaque mounted just to the right of the door with no small amount of both pride and humility. "Lieutenant Nicholas Knight, Counselor". It was a first for him. He'd been many things over the centuries- doctor, teacher, archeoligist, even mortal once, when he'd been a knight. He was proud and pleased to once again feel important, needed, even liked by the mortals he tried so hard to emulate. Yet, it still terrified him that he was unprepared for this position and he hoped fervently that whatever god ruled this side of the galaxy would keep him from making any major mistakes.
The door parted for him and he stepped into the small office. There was the terrarium Crewman Paulus had helped him to plant, and the paintings they had worked on last- still wet and unframed. There was the couch and the rug that he and B'El had... put to good use. Yes, this room was already collecting memories. Nick sat at the desk in the back and activated the computer. Although computers in this century were voice operated, Nick had never quite lost his attachment to archaic keypads. He opened the most recent history file and began to enter the latest events into his account of Voyager's adventure.
Nick had started this history years ago when circumstances marooned his maquis crew with this starfleet one out in the delta quadrant 75,000 light years from earth. When Janeway had discovered it, she made it official. Granting him the title of "Ship's Historian", she also gave him the clearance to access the files legally so he could continue his project. She said she had been impressed with his clear style and his insightful perceptions. Nick glanced over the last paragraphs of his "history" with a smile. He hadn't meant to be insightful or clear. This was begun as a letter home to his father....
"Good morning, my son," the familiar voice sounded in his mind.
Nick leaned back in the desk chair and closed his eyes. "Good evening, LaCroix," he answered. Then, concentrating on the threads that connected them even across the expanse of space, Nick opened himself to the ancient vampire. He sensed peace between them. It felt wonderful. Such times were precious few and far between, so he relished every moment while it lasted.
LaCroix was still in the South Seas back on earth. Nick sensed the rhythmic pulsing of drums in the distance, the soft, wild sounds of one of the last of the "untouched" jungles on his overpopulated planet, and the faint glow of moonlight on his father's face. LaCroix seemed contented. And, LaCroix was not alone.
"Who's there?" Nick blurted, without thinking. He regretted it instantly, filling his mind with incoherent thoughts and almost losing the link between them in his distress. LaCroix demanded respect above all else, even more than obedience, which was something they still fought over.
"Nicholas," the ancient said, his silken voice sounding faintly amused. "Always so emotional. It is all right, this time. I take no offense."
Slowly Nick relaxed and opened himself again to the intimate contact of the blood link. Likewise, the ancient master dropped the curtain of privacy that he mostly held taut between them so Nick could meet the latest of LaCroix's little diversions. He saw clearly the small, svelte Island woman with long black hair and bronze complexion. She smiled seductively at LaCroix, her delicate fangs glinting in the pale glow of the waning moon.
"Meet Kayleia," LaCroix murmured.
She looked too young for his father, but then Nick sensed that she was actually about 700 years old and no kin by blood. He heaved a sigh, unaware how jealous he had been until now. LaCroix wasn't replacing his prodigal son. LaCroix was simply finding a moment's diversion with a pretty girl.
"I will not be with you for a time, my son," the ancient said.
At Nick's sudden wave of concern, LaCroix went on to explain. "The moon fades. I have not the power to reach you without it. Six days at most, before we can commune again."
Nick nodded absently. LaCroix had mentioned once before that he drew strength from the moon for this mystic union between them. Nick didn't really understand how it worked, or why. He'd only been grateful on occasions that it did. Although he resented LaCroix's control over him, he'd never resented his help when help was truly needed. And it was strangely comforting that no matter how badly Nick treated him, LaCroix was always there.
"One more thing, Nicholas," LaCroix began. Again Nick almost lost the link between them. He concentrated harder, knowing he would need to hear his master's last demand. Then the tenuous link strengthened. He felt LaCroix's arm around him in a paternal embrace. "Again, my son, you have been careless. You must do something about this situation."
"Do what? What danger could we possibly be in, LaCroix! We are decades away from reaching the alpha quadrant. The enforcers can hardly touch us here."
The friendly contact became firmer, almost threatening for a moment. Nick struggled to calm his irritation, but LaCroix always knew how to get under his skin. He knew LaCroix was upset about the crew's new knowledge of vampires. It was the biggest crime a vampire could commit and the enforcers would kill them all to keep this precious secret. Still, the enforcers couldn't possibly know unless LaCroix had told them....
"I did nothing of the sort, you ungrateful child," LaCroix snapped. Then calmer, with almost a condescending tone, the ancient explained. "I would never betray you, Nicholas. You told them yourself. Six months ago, when your ship somehow managed to get letters sent home. You wrote to me, and told me you were still alive, and how you came to be a part of the Starfleet crew. It was the happiest day of the century for me."
Nick sensed that LaCroix was very near to shedding a tear. They had not been in contact for almost four years before the letter. Then somehow the ancient had found a way to reach Nick through the mind link, stretching his power across light-years of time and space.
"The moment Starfleet received the letters, the enforcers were aware of your situation. You can be assured that they will be on the first vessel you meet from the alpha quadrant. You must at least conceal all written proof of your existence in a separate file, which you can delete at a moment's notice. You could always deal with the mind purges later. Do this, my son, at once!" Then, the link faded again.
"Good-bye, LaCroix," Nick whispered to the empty space between them.
Chapter Three: The Valentines
Nick strolled towards the small replicator placed in the office for his use and called up a glass of plasma. It was flat, lifeless and unsatisfactory, but it helped in a pinch. Now the warm liquid soothed as much as comforted. Returning to his desk, he tried to concentrate once again.
There was so much to add since the last entry- the strange trip towards the Bugali outpost and the subsequent attack on the little shuttle that he piloted. Four lives were dependent on his skills then, and all of them friends, but none of that had entered his mind when he'd dropped the shuttle almost faster than the inertial dampers could compensate for, as his instincts had warned him of danger a moment before the Bugali fleet opened fire on them.
Nick wrote and rewrote that episode. No matter how he presented the facts, it still sounded boastful. The truth was, he'd just been damn lucky. It had been so much easier to record the incidents when he wasn't one of the key players....
"Nick, this is Neelix," the Talaxian called over the comm link, startling Nick out of his reverie. The fretful tone didn't immediately worry Nick. Neelix was often upset about something.
"Go ahead," he answered. He saved the files he'd been working with, then tried to focus on what the other was saying.
"I just don't understand, I'm afraid," he panted. "I mean, this holiday is supposed to show how much you love one another- so why hang hearts for decorations? Isn't that just a bit barbaric? It almost seems like something from the Klingon culture!"
Nick was stunned for a full minute. Then, when he realized what the Talaxian must have thought, he burst out laughing.
"I did not mean to amuse you, lieutenant," Neelix sniffed. "Don't touch that!"
"Not you, Nick. I have Naomi with me this morning."
Nick nodded, still enjoying a smile. Naomi was the only child on the ship, and Neelix was her godfather. She was a good kid. A little precocious and outspoken, perhaps. Her curiosity and enthusiasm were probably normal for a child, too, but this ship had not been designed with kids in mind.
"Neelix, why don't you come to my office and I'll try to help you. Okay?"
"Gladly!" Neelix must have been already on his way while speaking, as only moments later he entered with Naomi riding on his back. The short Talaxian was huffing heavily. Naomi was not very heavy, but Neelix's one small lung was over-taxed.
Nick grabbed the little girl, tickling her around the ribs. "And who invited you?" he growled playfully.
"You're a counselor, Mr. Nick! I don't have to have an invite to come here," she squealed between shrieks of laughter. She wrapped her arms around his neck and perched on his hip. Nick patted her rump affectionately, then turned to Neelix.
"Not real hearts, Neelix," he explained. "You hang heart-shaped paper cut-outs."
"Human heart shapes?"
Nick sat back at his desk, pulling Naomi onto his lap. "Computer, display six valentines from twentieth century North America." He waited a moment for the results. Then pointing to a pink shape he explained. "This is called "heart" shaped. It is a symbol for love really, more than for the heart. People used to send this heart shape in a letter with a poem to loved ones. See this?"
Neelix leaned over his shoulder, while Naomi read the card aloud.
"Roses are red, violets are blue,
I am so happy 'cause I love you."
"Nick! That's silly!" she giggled. "And it isn't even a good poem!"
"Of course it's silly. When you're four years old, everything is silly. Now read the next one."
Naomi complied. It was a longer poem, a free verse without rhyme and something a husband might have sent a wife. Nick had to help her with only one word. She read very well.
Neelix bobbed his head up and down. "So, this heart shape will decorate the mess hall. But, where did the word "valentine" come from? Is that another word for heart-shape?"
Nick sighed. Why did they all treat him like a walking encyclopedia now? Sure, he was older than most of the existing architecture on the planet earth, but that didn't mean he was an expert. "I don't know, Neelix. Yes, I guess, valentines are cards that are made with heart shapes. But the word comes from St. Valentine. He was a priest in the early Catholic Church. And if you need to know more than that, you'll have to research it yourself."
"That's fine. I think I have enough to get started, so I'll just hurry along then! But, I think Naomi should probably stay here, don't you? You have such a way with kids, Nick! And who knows- with your up-coming marriage, maybe kids will be in your future, too! Bye, now," and the Talaxian traitor scooted out before Nick could come up with a response.
Naomi snuggled back against his chest and patted his hand. "Poor Nick. You just got drafted, didn't you."
"Yeah, I did. So, what are we going to do?"
"Do you want me to help you with your work," she volunteered. "I know a lot about everybody's problems. They all have parent trouble."
"Parent trouble? You're the only one with a parent on board, squirt. Where did you get that notion?"
It was Naomi's turn to sigh, with the sound of long-suffering when a child realizes she is not being taken seriously. "Really, Nick. Ensign Paris doesn't think anyone will love him because his dad doesn't. And Captain Janeway works so hard because she still wants her dad to be proud, only he's dead, so maybe he doesn't care. And Lieutenant Torres is afraid to marry you because her dad ran out-"
"That's enough," he snapped, a little louder than he'd meant to. Naomi shifted on his lap and waited in the heavy silence. "Kid, you have a lot of strange ideas. Don't you ever do anything normal for a kid?"
"Mommy says I'm a pest."
Nick laughed. "Your mom is a smart lady," he said. "But, I meant more like games. What children's games do you play?"
Naomi turned around on his lap so she could look at him. Her small arms wrapped around his neck and she leaned very close. "I don't know any children's games," she whispered. "There aren't any children here to teach me."
He blinked quickly, deeply touched by her admission. It must be very hard to be the only child on a starship. Maybe, almost as hard as being the only vampire? "Come with me," he said suddenly, standing up and setting her on the floor, keeping her hand in his.
"Where are we going?"
"We are going to pick up some supplies and come back here. You and I have a lot of valentines to make this morning, and no time to waste!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Captain Janeway covered a yawn while she strolled towards the counselor's office. The party the night before had run just a little too long, and she'd been one of the last to leave it. Today she was paying the price that even six cups of coffee weren't going to help.
She'd sent Nick a note that she'd be stopping by, which he hadn't answered. It wasn't really important. She just hoped she wasn't going to interrupt anything. "Computer," she asked, tapping her comm link softly. "Who is in the counselor's office now?"
"Lieutenant Nicholas Knight and Naomi Wildman," the dispassionate female voice responded.
She nodded to herself, half wondering why she couldn't have had a computer audio with a sexy male voice. Approaching the door, she set off the automatic chime announcing her presence, but without any response. She stepped closer and let herself in.
The room's occupants were so engrossed in their work that they failed to notice her at all. She stared at the mess they were making, wondering what sort of therapy the new counselor would call it. Both he and the child were sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Scraps of colored paper littered all around, with bits of ribbon and lace, and a dozen crayons scattered in several directions. Naomi accepted a pink cutout from Nick. Then dipping her fingers in a jar of thick, white goop with a wintergreen scent, she smeared one side of the cutout and attached it to a folded red card. Then she sucked the remainder of the goop off her fingers and wiped them dry on the carpet.
Janeway cleared her throat disapprovingly.
Both of them glanced up at her with childish innocence, the oldest and the youngest members of the crew, and both completely clueless. Janeway hid her smile and turned to the lieutenant curiously.
"Library paste, Captain," he said. "Perfectly harmless. Mortal children always eat it. The wintergreen is supposed to serve as a preservative, but it also makes it irresistible."
Janeway vaguely remembered that. She hadn't played with paste and paper since she was three years old, though, that she could remember. "But what is all of this?"
"We're making valentines, Captain," Naomi answered. She smiled at Janeway with paste smeared on one cheek. Then she proudly offered one slightly damp gooey card. "This one is for you! I made it myself- 'cept Nick helped me cut the heart-shape. It isn't a real heart, you know. It is a valentine heart shape. It means, "I love you"."
Janeway hunched down on her heels and read the short poem, resisting her first urge to set down the card and wash her hands.
"Dear Captain Janeway
I just want to say
How much I love you
On Valentine's Day. Naomi."
Behind the pink heart was a white lacey doily, then a brilliant red ribbon all on a red construction paper card. The poem was printed in block type with black crayon. Vaguely, Janeway remembered having made one similar, a long, long time ago. She'd made it for her father. Everything she ever did was for him.
"Thank you, Naomi," she said sincerely. Then, on a moment's impulse, she reached out and hugged the little girl. The faint perfume of wintergreen attached itself to her uniform.
"Nick showed me how to make them, Captain. He's real good at it, too. Do you want to see the one he made?"
Naomi reached for another card, but Nick snapped it out of her hand and tucked it behind him.
"That's all right, Naomi. It's for B'Elanna; I'm sure she doesn't need to read it."
Janeway could have sworn that the pale vampire was blushing. She grinned at him. "It must be some card, Nick. Actually, though, that is what I came to see you about."
Nick wiped his fingers on his trousers and stood, trying to look like an officer. "Yes, ma'am. How may I help you?"
Janeway stepped over the damp artwork and picked her way towards one chair. Nick joined her, taking the other one. Naomi shrugged her shoulders and continued with her project, but kept her ears open. Adults always talked around her and tended to forget she was even there. That's how she stayed informed about the crew. They as much as told her everything themselves.
"Nothing, Nick. I was just wondering how I could help you," Janeway responded. "Chakotay mentioned something about housing accommodations. I know that the quarters on this ship are rather tight, but I also know that there isn't much in the way of extra space. I talked it over with B'Elanna. She didn't seem to have any ideas either. If you could get adjacent rooms somewhere, then we could knock out an interior wall. But the rooms on either side of B'Elanna's are both double occupants. And there are similar problems adjoining your quarters."
Nick nodded as she talked, trying to visualize the ship's interior. He hadn't really given it any thought yet. But surely, someone would be willing to trade rooms with them?
"Then Tom stopped by. He has a plan that I think will work out fine. It has my approval, if you like it. He'll stop by later and show you the design."
Embarrassment flooded Nick. He'd always been a private person; having the entire ship try to find a way so he could sleep with his betrothed was just too much. "Uh, thanks, Captain," he mumbled.
"And then there is the marriage ceremony itself. I'm sure you know that as ship's captain, I can perform the ceremony, if you wish. Or Tuvok could, as he studied to become a priest in the Vulcan tradition. I understand that you were once Catholic, but we don't have a Christian priest on board-"
"I can assure you, Captain, that it won't be a church wedding," Nick interrupted. "Actually, B'Elanna and I haven't talked about what sort of ceremony to have."
Janeway smiled. "That's fine. Don't mean to rush you. Just thought I'd give you something to think about. And I know the crew is eager to have a wedding- any reason to celebrate, I am afraid, but don't let that rush you into anything before you are ready. And honeymoons are also traditional. After we pass through this "dark space" as Neelix calls it, we'll look for a good place for shore leave. I think we can manage a three-day honeymoon for you then. All right?"
"Yes, captain," Nick answered. He was deeply touched at her thoughtfulness. For the past two weeks he hadn't had one kind thought about her. She'd ordered him to stay away from B'Elanna, after all! Somehow, and he didn't understand why, he and B'Elanna had "linked". She knew his thoughts and he knew hers. He'd never felt this close to any other being, vampire or mortal, not even his master. Oh, LaCroix knew all his thoughts, anytime the ancient wanted to invade them. But the connection was seldom reciprocal. Even after nearly twelve centuries, LaCroix remained an enigma to Nick, his favorite son.
"I do have something else I'd like to talk to you about, though."
Janeway raised her eyebrow and nodded for him to proceed.
"Naomi?" Nick asked. "Will you go to Neelix for a few minutes? Tell him I'll be by to see how the preparations are coming along."
Naomi heaved a sigh. So Nick hadn't forgot about her.... "Okay," she muttered. "Can I give him his valentine now, too?"
"Sure," he said, then waited until the doors closed behind her. "That kid is not normal, Captain."
"I'm sure she's fine for her species, Nick. She's only half-human, you know."
"I'm not talking about her physical nature. I mean, she isn't a real kid. She has no playmates, no kids her age to interact with. She doesn't know any kids games. All she ever does is adult stuff."
Janeway nodded. "True. But then, she wasn't supposed to still be here. None of us were."
"I know. But, whether we get back to earth when she's six, or sixteen, or even sixty, she is still going to have to fit in. We should try to help her become as normal as possible, given the circumstances."
"And what is it you want me to do about it? We can't very well provide her with a playmate!"
Nick glanced down at his hands, clasped tightly on his lap. This captain could be so intimidating, and it really ticked him off sometimes. He thought through his response carefully before answering. "Nothing, yet, I guess. I just think that you should be aware that this is a problem. I mean, she knows everyone on this ship, almost too well. She knows all their problems, all their quirks and tastes. But she doesn't know how to play tag or shoot marbles. She knows nothing about fairy tales or nursery rhymes, although she reads several years above grade level and is making excellent progress in elementary algebra. I think that when she goes planetside, she needs to be encouraged to play like a kid, and that not all of her activities should be educational in nature. And, she should get a pet- like a kitten or a dog- soon. Pets are great when other children aren't available."
He stole a glance up at the captain then, trying to gauge her reaction. She seemed lost in thought. She cupped her chin with her right hand, the thumb massaged along the jawbone like she did when she was seriously considering something. Nick leaned back then and relaxed, waiting for her.
Janeway thought back to her own childhood. Naomi was a lot like she had been. Her dad never played with her. From the time she was old enough to talk, he gave her mental puzzles to solve, new skills to master. She'd work and work at them, and then she'd earn a word of praise for her success, only to be given a new and more difficult puzzle. She'd grown up precocious and lonely. Yet, her little sister had been cuddled and babied, and never challenged. There had been times when she'd almost hated Phoebe. Why could she get hugs and love from their father just for being, when Janeway had always had to earn them?
Yes, Nick was right again. She smiled at him. "I knew I was right about you, Nick. You're making an excellent counselor."
Nick squirmed boyishly under her praise. It amused her. No matter how long they lived, some men never seemed to grow up.
"I'm sure you know how difficult it will be to find a pet for the child that we can safely bring on board. That might not be possible, but I won't rule it out. I want you to review the archives for all information pertaining to tribbles. You will find that Captain Kirk and Commander Sisko both had run-ins with these "harmless" creatures. The reports are amusing, but the problem is a potentially serious one."
She stood up to leave then. She picked up her valentine and smiled brightly. "I remember making one once. Earth doesn't still observe this holiday, though. I wonder why?"
Nick nudged a few crayons out of Janeway's path with his toe. "It faded out in the early part of the twenty-second century. When we starting incorporating the holidays of other planets, the calendar got a little cluttered. Traditionally held on February fourteenth, it was also a Vulcan holy day, a time of silence to respect the honored dead. The solemnity of the Vulcan day was at odds with the lighter romantic holiday. So, only babies in day schools still made valentines."
Nick was as good as a walking computer sometimes, Janeway thought to herself. "Thanks, lieutenant," she said. Then stepping carefully over the paper clutter, she grinned at him. "Don't let me keep you from your duties any longer."
He glanced around at the mess in his office. Well, he'd get Naomi to help him tidy it later. Neelix was waiting for him. As he stepped through the sliding door, a wave of dizziness passed over him, sudden and staggering, and then it was gone.
== Flashback, Cardassia, ten years ago==
The hunger returned, fierce and demanding, in full control of the injured vampire's actions. Nick struggled to move. He couldn't breathe- something heavy crushed his chest. He tasted cold blood in his throat. It was his own. By sheer will, he forced his eyes to open.
His home lay in shambles around him. It must be the Cardassian response to his negotiations. Well, it wouldn't be considered one of his better successes. He'd sensed deception from them for some time. There was a dark evil here; he knew it would only be a matter of time before war broke out. This evil had nothing to do with metaphysics. The soldiers in power had no morals, no god, and no code of conduct. They were so depraved that they could even murder their own children, their own flesh and blood.
It was for the children that he had fought. And now, as he faced another failure in his long existence, who would step in to protect them? Tears threatened to spill over in his overwhelming grief. But the vampire was stronger now, and refused to shed what he so desperately needed to heal. With a growl of rage he tossed the heavy cement slabs of the collapsed ceiling aside and staggered to his feet.
The refrigeration unit in the kitchen had toppled over in the blast. The door was open and the contents were spilled across the floor. All of the containers of human and cardassian blood, which he'd kept there, were shattered, except one. Greedily, he tore the seal from it and drank it down.
The cold, thick fluid coated his throat and soothed his injured stomach. Nick paused. He heard voices. The detective skills refined in one of his mortal reincarnations urged him to discover their identity and thus who was responsible for this act of terrorism. The vampire within wanted merely to drain them.
Two soldiers kicked through the rubble. Their voices were low, yet Nick could hear them clearly.
"Think he's dead?"
"No one could survive this," the other said.
"But Gul Mudik will want proof, some reassurance. It would help if we could bring in his head."
Nick's teeth ached. Cardassian blood was one of the few alien fluids vampires could consume and it was considered a delicacy. Nick hadn't killed- except in extreme cases- in several centuries, but he was willing to make an another exception. They wanted him dead! And Gul Mudik was behind it?
The mortal ethics he tried to build and develop were arguing with instinct. Do not kill. Not even the enemy. Do not sink to their level. Besides, they hadn't succeeded in their attempts. They thought Nick was just another human. He'd managed to keep his special needs and abilities secret these past years in his life as Ambassador Nick Thomas to Cardassia. Maybe his untimely "death" could be useful?
The soldiers drew nearer. They continued pawing through his home, picking up the charred remains of whatever possessions he'd brought with him. Grateful that he'd left much of it in storage in one of LaCroix's subterranean shelters back on Earth, Nick still felt the pangs of loss at what had been destroyed.
The soldiers had made it to the kitchen. Nick pressed himself into a dark corner, becoming part of the night. He closed his eyes, that their amber glow would not betray his presence, and listened intently.
The soft chirping sound of the alien tricorder discovered the pool of spilled blood on the floor. There was a lot of it- he'd just received a fresh shipment. "Mostly human," the one soldier intoned. "But there is some cardassian blood here as well. Not much. He must have had one of the refugee children here with him."
"No loss," the other replied. "But, it's just blood. Where's the rest of him?"
"How the hell should I know? There's too much blood here for him to have survived. He's dead. Look, here's the chain he'd been wearing earlier. Grab it and let's go."
Nick looked down suddenly. The medal he'd received after negotiating a peace with the Cordec Alliance was gone. He'd worn it in all his dealings with the Cardassians, as he'd known it would impress them and give him greater respect given their military perspective. And he'd been proud to wear it. It represented one of the few real successes he'd had in his long life. He almost reached out to take it back.
But this was better, the mortal self argued with him. Let the cardassians think him dead! Then he could do more for the children!!
=== end, flashback ====
Janeway headed towards the turbolift and took it to sickbay. She wasn't really ill, but maybe the doctor could give her a mild stimulant so she could keep going. Besides, it was probably time to see how sickbay was managing. For the past few weeks the doctor had been very, very busy. She didn't doubt that he'd have everything cleaned and all the stocks refilled by now, because the emergency holographic program was extremely efficient. But as captain it was still her duty to oversee.
The doctor had his back to her, as he subvocalized while reading information from the small screen of his computer access monitor. "Terrible," he exclaimed. "This is simply terrible."
"What is, doctor?"
He turned around sharply, imitating the human gesture of surprise. "Captain! I didn't hear you come it. But this-" he said, indicating the screen. "This is atrocious! This is the Starfleet training manual for emergency first aid. Did they somehow give you an older edition before leaving port? No one teaches first aid like this any more! This is barbaric."
Janeway rubbed a sore spot between her shoulder blades. She almost regretted telling the doctor that the crew needed to get recertified in basic first aid- a course they were supposed to repeat every four years. Since they had now been in the Delta quadrant for five years, she knew everyone would have to take it. "How is it, doctor, that Starfleet medical, which programmed you, could write a first aid book you find offensive?"
"Because like all bureaucratic behemoths, the right hand knoweth not what the left hand doeth, Captain. Now, how may I help you?"
He stepped behind her and expertly massaged the crick in her shoulders. Any other crewmember would not be allowed such an intimate touch, but the doctor wasn't alive. Janeway loved the way he gave a massage. She yawned and leaned into the strong holographic hands. "I was hoping for a stimulant. Can you give me some caffeine intravenously?" She was only half kidding.
"No. But I can go one better. I can relieve you of duty and send you back to bed. Is that wintergreen perfume you are wearing?" The doctor's tone was one of superior disdain. Janeway had learned to ignore him much of the time. He was after all only the sum of his programming. If he was rude and boorish at times, she should register a complaint with the programmers. The greatly honored and respected, and irritable, Dr. Leonard McCoy had been responsible for the EMH prototype. She wondered how much of his caustic personality crossed into the final project.
"You can't relieve me of duty for being a little tired, Doctor," she said.
"Perhaps not. But I could for posttraumatic stress. We've been to hell and back for the past month at least. Now, everything is repaired and under control. We're in the middle of a void, with no danger in sight. I think you should take onboard shore leave. Thirty-six hours minimum. Now, will you go quietly into the night, or do I have to make it official?"
Janeway thought for a moment. She could get herself riled up and chew him out and try to override his order. The doctor was the only one on ship that could relieve the captain of duty. If she wanted to fight him, she'd need Chakotay's help. But, the stubborn Indian would tell her to take the vacation, too. Anyway, a little time off might be nice.... She had a holonovel to read, and some knitting she worked on in her leisure time. Surprising them both, she just shrugged.
"All right, doctor. I'm going. And good luck rewriting the training manuals to your expectations."
The doctor stared with holographic surprise, as the Captain exited.
Chapter Four: The Loft
Nick glanced around his office. All signs of the morning's destruction were gone. Naomi shook his hand. "Good work, Lieutenant," she said.
"You too, crewman," he responded.
Momentarily shy, she glanced up at him, her forehead creased with concern. "May I come by again?"
Nick knelt down at her level. "I would like that very much," he answered truthfully.
Naomi hugged him, then broke free, all smiles again. "Thanks! See you tomorrow!" And she skipped out, colliding with Tom Paris in the corridor. "Oops! Sorry! Bye!"
Tom shrugged, his expression carefully nonchalant. "Gotta hand it to you, Knight. You sure have a way with women."
Nick ignored the barb. "Were you coming to see me?"
Tom's pale complexion flushed red with embarrassment, a physical reaction he had little control over. He ambled through the door and shoved a small device towards Nick. "Here. The designs. Captain thought you'd be interested."
Nick motioned him in further without taking the strange small device. He wasn't sure how it worked. Technology advanced faster than his interest. "Sure. Why don't you show them to me?"
Tom pressed a small button and held the device on his palm. A holographic three-dimensional image of the ship formed in the space above his hand. Setting the device in Nick's palm, he flipped another switch and the image became a cut-away view, displaying one half of the ship. "Here's your place," Tom said, indicating the image with a finger. "Double bunks on this side, and the turboshaft here. No room to expand. But up above is just storage space. We can't give you the whole room, but if we drop the ceiling in the storage area, and push in one wall, we can built a loft bedroom above that. We'd have to put in a narrow, circular stairway for B'Elanna, since she doesn't fly, but, I think there'd be room."
Flipping the controls to the last display, the ship disappeared, replaced with an image of Nick's room fully remodeled with the loft and stairs. Tom fell silent, awkwardly waiting for Nick's approval. He shuffled from one foot to the other.
"This is great," Nick said. "I've always loved a loft bedroom. How did you ever think of this? I was afraid that I'd have to move, trading places with someone."
Now excited and no longer nervous, Tom became more animated. "I think it will work, too. I didn't have a loft room, but I slept in an attic for a while, tucked up under the eaves. It was peaceful, and you could hear the rain on the roof- this roof above the storage area slopes a little. There isn't a window there, but eventually we could put a skylight above the bed, and you could see the stars. I thought it would be, ...cozy." Tom was suddenly embarrassed again, as he thought about his ex-girlfriend being with her fiancée.
"This is really great, Tom. Thanks. How long do you think it will take to remodel?"
"Depends how many volunteer to do the work. Hey, I'm great at designs, but I'm afraid you'll have to get someone else to do the grunt work."
Nick hesitated to press the issue. He knew Tom could build it if he wanted, but the younger officer was dyslexic and often made errors of reversal. It wasn't a big deal, but it did embarrass him. So Tom avoided doing any projects when others might be around to watch him screw up. Of course, he covered the real reason behind careless indifference, but Nick wasn't fooled.
"Well, I suppose I could ask Jans to help me," Nick hedged, intentionally picking one of the more inept crewmen. "But, I was hoping that maybe you and I could work on it alone. I mean, everyone else is pretty laid back right now. Even the captain is off-duty for a few days."
"You and me," Tom stated, eyeing Nick suspiciously.
"Yeah," Nick said, trying to imitate one of Tom's indifferent shrugs. "I mean, it is your design. Maybe you'd like to see it done right?"
Nick caught the eager look in Tom's eyes before the façade dropped back in place. "Okay. I guess," he drawled. "You can tell B'Elanna that it's my wedding present or something."
"And, if we work together on it, I gotta be in charge. You can't build shit with a committee."
The vampire stifled his urge to complain. He hadn't done a lot of construction work over the centuries, but he surely had more experience than Tom would ever accrue. But this wasn't really about building a loft. It was about building bridges. "Committees," Nick snorted. "Where the hell would Starfleet be without 'em?"
"Maybe a lot better off?" Tom suggested. They shared a grin.
"Well, come on then," Tom said, slapping Nick firmly on the shoulder. "Let's get started."
The younger officer glared at him. "What? You getting cold feet already?"
Nick shook his head. "No. Fine, let's go." He took a backward glance at his tidy little office. Well, his shift was almost over anyway, and working on the loft was sort of work-related. Then he took a few big steps to catch up with Tom.
Nick hesitated before stepping closer to his door, which would cause the internal sensor to scan his bioreadings and open it at once. "I didn't clean up this morning," he confessed.
"Shit," Tom commented. Nick wondered how long he would remain in the anal-obsessive stage? "Who the hell cleans when there's a woman in your arms? Besides, we're only going to mess it up now."
Nick stepped through the door then. His gaze quickly swept the small room. The bedsheets were rumpled; a few clothing items scattered over the carpet. Still damp towels hung over the shower and sink, and a few empty bottles covered the nightstand like dead soldiers. His keyboard was still on the table. The easel filled one corner, with a large canvas- a work in progress- displayed. The paint was dry. Nick had been too preoccupied lately to work on it.
Tom looked up as if he could see the ship's internal structure right through the ceiling panels. "You'll want to push everything aside. Cover stuff with sheets or towels to keep 'em from getting too dirty." He hefted a painting, the portrait of LaCroix and Janette, from where Nick had hung it over the shattered mirror.
Tom stared at the broken reflective surface and whistled through his teeth. "Not bad," he praised. "I've punched a few computer screens, broken chairs and stuff, but I never tried to break an unbreakable mirror before. Did it help?"
Nick took the painting and glared at Tom's reflection. Although two men stood in the room, there was only one in the mirror. At Tom's surprised expression, Nick grunted. "Obviously it didn't," he muttered.
Then Tom shrugged. His attention shifted away, no longer concerned that the vampire was incapable of casting a reflection. Tom rolled up the keyboard carefully and clasped the strap, then laid it out of harm's way. Nick unzipped the Starfleet jacket and tossed it aside before lending a hand. It didn't take long to clear the area. Tom left briefly, returning with some tools. Then they began tearing away the ceiling panels, cheerfully destroying Starfleet property with the captain's permission.
Nick tried to remember to hold back. His superior strength could have torn the panels off in just minutes, but that would accomplish nothing towards gaining Tom's trust and maybe even his friendship. So Nick exerted only enough effort to match Tom's, which made it a long, sweaty job. He lowered the internal temperature in the room twice, and eventually they both pulled off their shirts. Still, Tom's pale complexion glistened with a light sweat, and Nick wiped a fine sheen of blood off his forehead repeatedly. Then Nick took yet another of his many replicator rations, and brought Tom a beer. He put his own beverage in a beer-shaped bottle as well. Tom accepted the beer gratefully, clinking the bottles together. "Cheers," he said.
The vampire flinched. The ancient custom was supposed to drive the evil spirits away from the beverage, so the drinker would not suffer a hangover or worse from consuming it. But Tom didn't know that. Now it was just a custom. And Tom wouldn't know that Nick still thought of himself as evil. "Cheers," Nick answered thickly, then downed half of the contents in one swallow.
Tom sat on the floor of the storage compartment above, with his legs hanging down in Nick's quarters. Nick still leaned on the ladder between the two levels. They had opened a three-foot wide section of the ceiling, running the length of the room. The storage room was half filled with crates of raw material- metals mostly- for emergency repairs for the ship. They might be critically important one day, but weren't often needed, so the storage room could be dark and cramped. Nick glanced up at the outer bulkhead's gentle slope. It would be perfect if they really could install a skylight here.
"Nick?" B'Elanna's voice called from below. "What the hell?" She glanced up through the hole, seeing only the lower half of both men at first. Then two blondes grinned down at her, both handsome and filthy. She smiled back. "What trouble are you getting into now?"
Tom gestured towards the mess with the empty bottle. "This is your wedding present, B'Elanna," he said.
"Gee thanks, Tom," she answered flatly. "I don't know what to say."
"B'Elanna," Nick began. "Tom's helping me to remodel the place. We're getting an extra bedroom here."
Understanding spread across her face. She smiled brightly. "Great. Call me when you're done. I think I'll head back to my quarters for a shower. Will you be coming to dinner any time soon?"
Nick came down the ladder not wanting to let her leave just yet. "Of course I'll join you," he said softly, reaching out to hug her.
"Ugh," she exclaimed, pushing his arms away. "Only if you shower first!" Then she ducked out of his reach and left.
"Never figured a Klingon would turn up her nose at a little sweat," Tom quipped. "But hey. I'm getting hungry too. Want to call it a day?"
"You're the boss," Nick reminded him.
Tom grinned, then dropped down to the floor without the ladder. "Fine. See ya tomorrow. 'bout the same time."
Nick nodded, before heading in to clean up.
Work on the loft progressed slowly. If they'd been on earth, Nick could have framed in the addition very quickly, but on the ship materials were limited. Although he was eager to get it finished, the extra time spent in Tom's company was worth it.
The younger officer was a master at keeping conversations superficial, at steering away from intimacy or any potentially threatening situation. Nick was hesitant to push too hard. He figured he'd only get one chance at helping this troubled officer. And so he followed Tom's lead. He laughed at crude jokes and told a few himself. He imitated Tom's careless shrugs. And slowly, a working relationship grew out of it.
One of the most challenging projects was constructing the circular stairway. They had bulkhead panels, duroplast sheets, flooring material, but nothing suitable for the wedge-shaped stairs.
"Wanna hit the Mess Hall for a break? Maybe I can bribe Neelix out of a snack. I'm a little hungry," Tom said.
"Sure," Nick agreed. He wasn't really hungry. Since leaving Bugali space, he was finally getting enough to eat at regular intervals, which was so necessary for him to maintain control of his violent instincts when working among mortals. Still, consuming food was a social activity.
"Neelix made a cake this morning," Tom was saying. "I think he's practicing for Naomi's birthday, so he'll get it just right. I saw him tuck it up in a cupboard."
"But won't he object if you eat it?"
"Naw. What else will he do with it?"
Mess Hall had an almost empty air when they strode inside. Neelix usually whistled or hummed while he worked, or sometimes he had music playing loudly. Recently he'd developed a fondness for Klingon Opera, much to the discomfort of the crew. But someone was in the kitchen.
"Neelix?" Nick called.
The sounds ceased.
Maybe it was a carryover from his years as a cop, but Nick was instantly alert. He pulled Tom behind him and pressed up flat against the wall. Stealthily he approached the entry, then burst in with a shout. "Freeze!"
Naomi Wildman screamed. Tom Paris laughed. Nick felt a little foolish, as the four-year old thief must have shared Tom's knowledge about the existence of the cake. She had stacked a series of empty storage containers one on top of the other yet off-centered, creating a makeshift step stool. One foot rested precariously on the top container, the other foot froze on the counter, and both hands were on the cupboard door.
"Mr. Nick!" she gasped. "You startled me."
Nick stepped forward and gathered her into his arms. "And just what do you think you're up to?"
She wrapped her arms around his neck and tried an innocent look. Nick recognized a schmooze job when he saw one, and it intrigued him at how young females learned to manipulate others. Naomi even did that thing with her eyes that he had seen Janette do for centuries.
"I didn't do anything wrong, Nick. I'm just hungry. I'm a growing child, you know. I need lots of carbohydrates to keep my energy up."
"Nick, that's it," Tom exclaimed. He pointed at the makeshift stairs Naomi had constructed. Lifting the top container, he turned it around in his hands and wrapped lightly on the flat surface. The all-purpose storage bins were metal, roughly six inches deep and two feet wide. They held all sorts of materials, from food and medical supplies to parts and equipment. If they'd been in the alpha quadrant, the empty containers would have been exchanged at a star base, and filled ones taken on. But here, they were mostly just accumulating. Neelix refilled them on his frequent foraging trips, and Kes had filled some with soils for her plants- although she mostly gardened hydroponically. Still, the storage rooms were full of empty bins.
Tom set the container down, then took a second one and stacked it on top, turning it to make the wedge-shaped stair of the initial design. As he set a third step on top, Nick grinned widely, suddenly realizing that the last hurdle in his new loft had just been jumped.
"And I helped you, didn't I, Mr. Nick?" Naomi pointed out, still trying to wheedle out of a tight spot.
"Yes, you did," Tom agreed. He reached into the cupboard and brought out the hidden cake. "And such a major accomplishment deserves a celebration, isn't that right, "Mr. Nick"?"
Nick rolled his eyes. "You're a lot of help," he muttered under his breath. Naomi squirmed out of his arms and raced after Tom. He cut them each a large piece, then filled two cups- one juice and one coffee. "Going to join us?" he asked Nick.
He grabbed a mug of his beverage and slid into a chair. "Partners in crime to the bitter end."
Naomi giggled. "You're so funny!"
== Flashback, Cardassia ==
It didn't take him long to locate the hidden camps on Cardassia, Nick learned with regret. It wouldn't take the Cardassians long to find them, then, either. He wouldn't have much time. There were a few adults -mostly political enemies- innocent Cardassian men and women who objected to the growing reign of terror a little too often. They'd had to flee into the wilderness, leaving behind possessions, comfort, family and friends, and without much hope for a better tomorrow. Their faces were gaunt and empty. They were sheep without direction.
Mostly, the camps were filled with children. Little boys and girls, all part Cardassian and part something else, all the offspring of the violent unions between the prisoners of the Cardassians and the soldiers who'd raped them. For years they had been surviving in the harsh prisons, growing in number, until some of the Cardassian Guls decided to do something about it. They ordered the deaths of these impure beings, these guttersnipes who brought only embarrassment to their Cardassian parent.
Nick had objected loudly. He'd demanded the Cardassians accept responsibility for these children. Then he had begged them to allow him to take the children to other worlds, to the homes of their vulcan, or bajoran, or human parents. But the Guls had merely laughed. They would not permit these children to become political pawns of the Federation. They were better off dead. Nick had tried to send information about the children to Starfleet, but his communiqués were intercepted. Then one day, while he'd slept as the sun shone brightly, his home had been bombed.
The refugees were distrustful at first. Nick hunted for them at night, bringing them fresh kill to roast and feed upon. He'd gathered foods from far away as they had already stripped the plants within their reach. He'd stolen blankets for them from the Guls' own apartments. Gradually, he won their trust and their friendship.
Nick took to snacking on the soldiers he met, leaving them tired and listless. He didn't kill them. He was not a killer any more, and leaving corpses might eventually lead the soldiers to discover the refugees he worked to protect. But more than one soldier had his career altered when he'd been found sleeping at his post.
Helping the refugees was only a temporary solution; they needed to escape. So Nick became part of the underground. Smuggling them in small groups, he got them out. Sometimes two or three at a time, sometimes as many as a dozen, all packed into the storage compartments of shipping lines, of Ferengi trading vessels, of pirate ships, even a few undercover ships of the new Maquis freedom fighters-- any way at all, he'd get them away before the war officially broke out and escape became all but impossible.
Finally, he had a ship that would take twelve children. He had the money to bribe the proper officials. He had the supplies, and a few weapons, should they come under attack. But he had no pilot. The alien had died in a bar brawl that night, but not before revealing too much information. Nick had to get the children out immediately!
Carrying them two at a time, Nick flew low over the city so he wouldn't be detected on their surveillance systems. They huddled in the small ship, waiting for the rest of their group. At last, Nick closed the hatch and launched into the night.
The small vessel made a clean escape-- at least, until the Romulan rebuilt cloaking device started to blink. Within moments, Cardassian scout ships were firing on him.
The children screamed. Many were crying. Nick tried to block out their misery as he focused on saving them, but he couldn't fly and fire at the same time. One of the older girls took the co-pilot seat. She watched Nick lock and load the photon torpedoes and fire them. Then she took over. Nick gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile.
"My name is Vasik," she replied. Her vulcan parent had trained her well, given the circumstances. Vasik seemed calm in the face of near certain death.
"Nick," he answered. But then, the children probably already knew that. He hadn't looked for personal glory, but he was something of a hero among the refugees.
Vasik did well, considering that there'd been only had a few torpedoes to work with. The phasers were on line, but they weren't much defense against the swift, sturdy scout ships. Nick's best chance was to outrun them. The little ship was fast, with a warp engine several sizes too large. If he wasn't careful, he could fly her apart.
Nick saw a pattern to the blinking of the cloaking device. He timed his course changes to coincide, so that every time his ship blinked back onto their detection grids, he was in a different location. It bought him time. They had to spend more time looking for him than firing.
Smoke was filling the ship. Vasik was coughing, as were all the children. Two older boys found fire extinguishers and began spraying equipment liberally. At last, Nick shook off the scouts and entered into the neutral zone between Cardassia and the Federation.
"I can't breathe," one of the children cried out.
Nick took a deep breath. The air- or lack of it- burned. The life support systems were failing. He'd saved them from the Cardassians, only to let them suffocate in the cold, loneliness of space....
He sent out a distress signal and put the ship on autopilot. Then he pulled a little girl onto his lap and hugged her.
"What is your next plan of action, Nick," Vasik inquired.
He looked at her with suffering and regret. How could he answer? She was obviously too smart to fool into believing that everything was going to be all right.
"I don't know," he replied truthfully. "Anyone here know how to repair the life-support?"
One boy of about 12, named Jamie, caught Nick's attention. "No, sir," he said. "But I heard once how some people were saved, by locking themselves inside a transporter beam until help could arrive."
"Really?" he asked. Then looking at Vasik, as if she'd had a full degree in science even though she was just a 10-year-old half-vulcan child, he asked her if it were possible.
"Considering the alternatives, sir, it would seem to be a viable option," she answered calmly.
Nick wasn't sure how to do it. Technology had never been his stronger suit. But with inspiration born of desperation, he began the transporting process, dismantling all of the children into molecular streams, and locking them in the pattern buffer. He would stay out. He could survive without breathing. And someone needed to make sure that power wasn't cut to the transporters.
His small ship drifted for days. His supply ran out and hunger became a constant. His mind grew fuzzy. Then finally, he succumbed, and fell down as one dead in the cold, airless ship.
== End, flashback ==
Chapter five: The Waltz
The big night finally arrived. Neelix had posted that no one was allowed to dinner in uniform as this was a purely social event, and dinner would be served in shifts to allow everyone the opportunity to attend. Nick had the night off, as did B'Elanna. Their shifts coincided fairly well now, thanks to a sympathetic and understanding first officer.
Nick stared into his closet and flipped through his clothing choices. One thing about uniforms is it made dressing easy. The tux he'd worn for the concert was too formal. Blue jeans and T-shirts too casual. Black had been his favorite color ever since becoming a vampire. In the end, he pulled on black jeans and a black silk shirt with silver-thread embroidery down the front. His black belt with the big silver buckle finished the ensemble. Although he'd worn something very similar in past centuries, some styles never seemed to go out of date. He picked up the card he'd made for B'Elanna, the long stemmed rose and his keyboard, then hurried to catch her at her quarters.
B'Elanna was nearly ready when he arrived. Nick stared, awed, at the feminine figure before him. She wore a knee-length gown of pink filmy material. It had spaghetti straps at the shoulders, and the soft, full fabric hugged her hips and curves like second skin, yet swirled out when she turned. Her short hair glittered. He looked more closely, and saw little star and moon shaped sequins scattered in her hair, caught in the thick strands and catching the lights. She wore no jewelry, other than the diamond ring he had given her, yet she was every bit at regal as his Janette had ever been. A line from a children's book suddenly came to mind- all girls are princesses. For B'Elanna at least, it was correct.
"Nick, you're staring. Don't you like it?" she asked, her face betrayed a moment of insecurity.
He grinned broadly, then whistled through his teeth. "I love it. You're stunning," he said. "Here, these are for you."
She took the rose and inhaled its gentle perfume, then timidly opened the card. "What is this?"
"A valentine, B'El. Didn't you read Neelix's memo about the party?"
"Nope. I ignore him as much as I can."
Nick waited, watching her expression as she read the verse he had penned. He wasn't much of a poet, but after centuries of practice, he had hoped he'd learned something. It was hard to read her expression, though. She seemed closed off, even through the link. Something was bothering her.
"I wrote a song for you, B'El," he confessed. "I thought you'd rather hear it in private, though." Nick unrolled the keyboard on her table and pulled out a chair. As he played the opening passages, he kept his eyes on her. B'Elanna clutched the rose tightly. She didn't seem to be breathing.
It had started as just a musical number, but Nick had realized that it begged to be sung. Working out the words had taken weeks. While he was marooned on the Bugali outpost, he'd thought about it. The two weeks they had been kept apart, he'd worked on little else. Even the hours he put in at his new office, he still had the lyrics running through his mind. Now, as he sang them for her, although they'd been the best he could do, they still seemed a pitiful way to express his feelings for her. Perhaps she would understand?
"I love the glow in your eyes at morning
When we wake and I'm the first you see
My love for you came so fast, without warning
B'Elanna, how much you've come to mean to me.
~ ~ ~
You are my morning, the light that fills
This dark eternal soul.
You are my day, my night, the joy that
makes me whole.
You are lilacs and honey, fresh and sweet,
my darling... You are my all.
~ ~ ~
What can I offer as a token of my love,
A gift to gather dust upon a shelf?
What of value can I possibly give you?
I offer you ... myself.
~ ~ ~
As the words ended and he played the final musical passage, Nick glanced at her hesitantly. Tears filled her soft, brown eyes, but her mouth was set grimly. She slammed the rose down on the table and growled.
"Damn you, Nick!"
He jumped to his feet in a panic. "What, B'El? I'm sorry... I know, I shouldn't try to write poetry." He tried to gather her into his arms but she pulled away and turned her back to him. She swiped away the tears, pacing angrily in the small confines of her quarters.
Nick had learned that her anger didn't necessarily mean she was angry. B'Elanna didn't often know her own feelings. If she was lonely, or frightened, or overwhelmed, she would often react with anger. It was a safe emotion, as everyone expected a Klingon to behave aggressively. Nick opened himself to the link between them, trying to sense her, but all he felt was a swirl of confusion. "What is it?" he asked softly.
"It's you!" she exploded. "You! You're just too much. You are so, loving, so solicitous, you scare me! No one's ever written a song for me before! I feel like I'm suffocating!"
Nick tried to bury his hurt. He'd only meant to please her, not threaten her. He sat on the edge of her bed, struggling to control his beast that ever lurked just beneath the surface. "I'm sorry, B'El," he choked. "I am the way I am. I can't really change. But I can promise you, that I won't leave you. You know that, B'El. You can feel it in the bond we share."
"Don't pull that ship's shrink crap on me, Knight!"
Nick lunged for her, pinning her into a corner. She reached up to strike him, but he grabbed both her wrists and held them easily above her head. The man had wanted to be loving and supportive, but the beast had burst free. The golden-eyed vampire glared at her; he hissed through sharp fangs.
"I'll tell you what 'crap' is, B'Elanna! This is crap. Your anger! I love you, damn it, and I know you love me. Nothing else counts. The rest is all crap." The beast nuzzled her neck; his hair tickled her ear. Her breath came in short gasps. She stopped struggling, arching her neck and offering herself to him.
Nick released her wrists. She wrapped her arms around him fiercely and bit his throat. It was enough to destroy the last of his control. His fangs slipped into the soft flesh behind her ear and he trembled as her passion filled him. He gulped her rare klingon-human mix, and his own passion crested instantly. They clung together, desperately, as slowly her breathing returned to normal and Nick's eyes faded again to deep blue.
"That was lovely," B'Elanna whispered hoarsely.
Nick licked at the two small wounds until they scabbed and began to heal. "What, this?" His breath still made her quiver.
"No. The song. Thank you. I guess I don't know how to just accept a gift. Gracefully."
Nick laughed then. "Oh, I kind of like the way we do things. Come on, now, or we'll miss the party."
The party was again set up in the shuttle bay, which had more space than the mess hall. It also allowed Neelix to decorate in advance. The tables were covered with red cloths, delicate white candles floated in glass bowls filled with water and stemless red roses. The room was illumined by candlelight alone; the soft scent of perfumed wax lent a magical quality.
The grand piano was still there on a slightly elevated platform. Tom sat at it, playing away one romantic melody after another, until they all blended together. Neelix had first asked Nick to play tonight, but Nick had suggested that he ask Tom instead. That permitted Tom to come without the pressure of asking anyone to be his date. Tom was casually attired in blue jeans with a soft sweater, the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and the ever-present lopsided grin. A glass of champagne sat on the piano, which he sipped from between pieces, and which Neelix, the perfect host, kept filled. The Delaney twins leaned over the shiny piano, each trying to make certain that Tom had a clear view of her cleavage. They were "safe" dates, Nick decided. They were silly, shallow girls, and would not be expecting anything from Tom other than one night's memories.
"Hi, Mr. Nick!" Naomi called, waving vigorously.
"Good evening," he replied, with a slight bow towards the smiling child and a pleasant smile for her mother. "How are you tonight?"
"Great! I gave everyone their valentines. Mom really likes hers."
Ensign Wildman beamed at Nick. "She's talked about you non-stop for weeks, Lieutenant. Thank you for spending time with her." Then she turned to include B'Elanna in the conversation. "Hang on to him, Torres. They don't make them like that anymore."
Nick jerked with surprise. Ensign Wildman wasn't supposed to know about his special nature... but he knew that once the secret was out, it would spread, regardless of the mortals' basic integrity. Once they'd learned the gift of speech, they almost didn't know how not to use it. Eleven of the crew knew of him: The captain, Commander Chakotay, the Doc, the Vulcan, Neelix- ah! That was the weak link in his chain. Neelix had a tendency to run at the mouth even while the brain was disengaged. How much had he told? Nick would have to visit with Wildman at the earliest moment and use his power of hypnosis to find out whom she told, and what she told, before erasing her memory.
"Will you be able to drop by my office sometime tomorrow," Nick asked. "I'd like to talk with you, if I may."
A look of concern shaded her face. "Is something wrong? Has she been a nuisance?"
Nick shook his head and put her at ease. "No. Nothing's wrong," he lied. "She's a great kid. Enjoy your meal." Then, he steered B'Elanna away before he had to lie again.
"What was that all about?" B'Elanna whispered softly, knowing he would hear her. Vampires had even better hearing than Vulcan's.
"We'll talk later," Nick answered. Then he forced his fears away and plastered on a smile. "Hope you wore your dancing shoes, B'El. You're not getting out of here without a waltz."
The dinner was a rare treat- it was delicious. Neelix had several choices, catering to many of the various races and species of lifeforms on the ship. There was a vegetarian dish- sautéed and served over pasta, and the human favorite, grilled steak and potatoes. There was a soufflé- a Talaxian favorite- and yet, many of the earthers loved it as well. He prepared a noxious ground nut paste over bread for the Wildman child, as it was all she would eat these days. It concerned him, as a growing child needed a variety of minerals and vitamins, yet the mother assured him that strange food binges were a normal part of human childhood.
B'Elanna and Nick didn't speak much during the quiet, candlelit meal. At least, not with words. B'Elanna had bonded with Nick so quickly and completely, that she was able to hear his thoughts and feelings. The gift was raw, untrained and unpredictable as yet. Nick focused on their link, sending her very detailed accounts of what he planned for later. The blush that stained her tawny complexion informed him that the message was received. She surprised him by expanding on his thoughts and sending them back. Nick's eyes suddenly flipped to amber gold as the passionate messages aroused him.
"Nick," she whispered. "Control yourself!"
"You're not helping," he murmured. "Time for that dance, so we can get out of here."
B'Elanna glanced around nervously. "Nick! I don't dance, you know that."
He ignored her denial, standing and holding a hand out to her. "You did just fine the last time. Besides, I promised Neelix. He's afraid no one will dance unless someone gets brave and starts it out. Waltzes are easy. Just hang on to me and count to three."
B'Elanna hesitantly allowed Nick to take her hand. They moved passed the tables to a clearing near the piano. Nick nodded to Tom, and the younger officer winked. Tom called the computer to play "Tales of Vienna Woods," a Strauss waltz, and he played along.
Still holding her hand, Nick bowed. "Now you curtsey," he whispered to her.
"What the hell is that?" she whispered back.
He grinned. "Never mind." Pulling her closer, he placed one hand on her lower back, and held her other hand close to his heart. "Feel the beat of the music? One, two, three... just relax." Then, he led her off.
B'Elanna shut her eyes tight. Nick's embrace was so strong that her feet hardly even touched the floor. His steps were broad and flowing. The music was powerful, igniting her passion in a way she wouldn't have believed possible. Not even Klingon music affected her this way. They moved fast, swirling around the dance floor. Her dress billowed, her body pressed close to Nick's. She felt his own desire rising, sensed it through their link. On and on went the waltz, around and around they moved, almost faster than mortals could move. She glanced up at her lover, her fiancée, to see him gazing at her with such love. She smiled shyly.
"I think I love waltzing," she said.
Nick grinned. "Good."
The waltz ended. B'Elanna held on to Nick until her balance returned. Then she noticed that no one else had joined the dance. Instead, the edge of the dance area was filled with couples just watching them. Her embarrassment threatened to turn to anger. Nick sensed it. He changed her mind, claiming her mouth with a very public kiss. The audience clapped.
"Quick!" B'Elanna said loudly, for all to hear. "Let's get out of here, or you'll be asked to give dancing lessons!"
The others laughed too. Tom began a more contemporary dance number and the bystanders moved out onto the dance floor. Nick led B'Elanna away, disappearing from the crowd. As they turned down the corridor towards B'Elanna's quarters, Nick could hear the strains of "Pretty Baby," a twentieth century number, and the sounds of laughter. Neelix's party was a success. It was just what this over-worked, isolated crew needed.
==The Neutral Zone, ten years ago ==
The scent of blood was close. Nick struggled back to consciousness, to find a mortal encased in an environmental suit leaning over him with a tricorder in her gloved hand. "No life signs," she was saying. Then Nick opened his eyes.
The woman screamed. Nick smelled blood very near, and he needed it immediately. Grabbing her in a hypnotic stare, he commanded her. "Give me blood!"
In a daze, she took human plasma from her medi-kit and injected it into the undead body beside her.
"Are you all right?" someone asked, rushing to her side. "What are you doing, doctor?"
The woman could not answer. She was still in the hypnotic daze.
The one unit of blood did not satisfy, but it was enough for Nick to regain control. He lunged unsteadily to his feet and raced to the transporters.
Four mortals, all in environmental suits, stared in awe at the man now obviously alive in the cold, airless ship. Nick did seem to be gasping for air, yet he did not pass out.
Nick stared at the transporters. They were still functioning. But what should he do now? They would not be able to breathe if he rematerialized them. He turned to the dark-skinned mortal standing beside him.
"There are twelve children in there!" he exclaimed. "How can I save them?"
Geordi LaForge stared at him quizzically. "You put them in the pattern buffer?" At Nick's impatient nod, the engineer accepted this fact and began working on the solution. "Our ship is nearby. We have to rematerialize them here, as we can't ship all of them at once, but then we can immediately retransport them to the Enterprise. They may experience a moment of discomfort, but it shouldn't be serious." The engineer was already manning the controls as he explained. "Enterprise, stand by," he spoke into the comm link.
Nick leaned against the bulkhead, gasping and struggling to remain conscious. He watched as Vasik and five more children became solid only to fade again as the Enterprise took them to safety. Then the last six children came and went. Nick crumpled to the floor, yet he felt a surge of relief that they were going to be fine. Then he felt the strange tingle as the Enterprise rescued him as well.
Once on the transporter pads of Starfleet's flagship, Nick was engulfed in a crowd. Vasik, Jamie and nine more of the children all reached out to touch him, their lifesaver in a sea of strangers. Nick did a quick head count. He coughed deeply, bringing in the clean, filtered air of the Enterprise. One child was missing.
His eyes zeroed in on the smallest little girl, Marti. A small, gray lump lay unmoving, as a medic ran his tricorder over her. Nick grasped her hand. It was so cold and still.
"Marti!" he cried, gasping. He touched her smooth, baby-plump cheek, patting it gently. "Marti, wake up!"
The medic was administering a hypo to the child. Her eyelids fluttered once. She coughed and cried out. "Mama!"
Nick pulled her into his arms and kissed her, blinking back tears quickly. He patted her back, hiding his face in her wispy brown hair.
The eleven other children grasped on to him, hugging his legs and waist, almost crowding the air from him, as they latched on to the only person they knew. He stood on shaky legs, holding Marti close. She leaned against his chest and closed her eyes. He swayed, still weak and hungry.
"Easy there, mister," the mortal doctor said, placing a supportive arm around him. Her helmet had been removed. Nick saw a pretty, slim redhead of 40 something smiling at him. Her smile didn't reach her eyes though. She was definitely suspicious.
The doors of the transporter room parted and in walked an older gentleman of power and distinction. Nick recognized him as the captain even before he spoke.
"I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the Starship Enterprise. Welcome aboard." His voice was deep and comforting, and Nick detected the hint of a French background.
He wasn't sure what made him do it, but Nick replied with a French accent himself. "Bon soir, Captain," he said. His voice didn't sound very stable yet. He desperately needed to feed. "I am Nicholas de Brabant, former refugee of Cardassia." As long as the Cardassians thought Ambassador Nicholas Thomas was dead, he might as well remain so. He wasn't interested in resurrecting that life again. He'd learned about the growing underground operation, the Maquis, while on Cardassia. They might be worth looking in to.
A surprised smile spread across the Captain's handsome features. "Ah!" he said. "Are you from France, then? What part?"
"My ancestry was from what is now Belgium, but I lived for many years in Paris." That much was truth. He just didn't expand that he hadn't been there much since the Nazi occupation of the mid-nineteenth century.
"Captain," the red-haired doctor interrupted. "They should all come to sick bay immediately."
Captain Picard nodded. "Yes, of course, Doctor Crusher. Mr. Brabant, I'd like to see you later, when you are up to it. I'm interested to learn how you came to be here."
Nick nodded and smiled easily. He liked this man already. He felt he could trust him.
The little girl would not let go of Nick's neck, so he carried her. Most of the children walked, but they latched onto his clothing, all wanting to touch a part of him, even Vasik. Maybe her Vulcan training was not perfect, after all. It made walking very slow. The doctor kept a firm hand on him. Nick could hear the fading conversation of the engineer as he described to the captain about the transporter trick. It had been tried once before by someone he called "Mr. Scott", but it was still rather unusual.
"So, what do you make of him?" Picard asked.
Geordi shrugged his confusion. "Definitely not human, captain. Beyond that, I haven't a clue."
Deanna had been silent up until then, but she felt it necessary to add what little information she had gathered. "He projects a powerful mental aura, Captain. I've never felt it so strongly from another being before- not even my mother. His concern for the children was genuine."
Picard nodded, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Stay with him. It shouldn't be too difficult- you are ship's counselor, and he has been through a traumatic event. After he's settled into guest quarters, I want to meet with all of you."
Deana's aristocratic features puckered in a slight frown. "Do you suspect something?"
Picard's look was guarded. "Perhaps. A man fleeing from Cardassians is less than forthright about his identity. Could be Maquis. Until we know more, I don't want him alarmed. Let him feel nice and comfortable here."
Beverly held Nick's arm securely, guiding him towards sickbay. "Tell me, Mr. Brabant, what are you?"
Nick knew what she meant, but he sidestepped her with practiced ease. "Please, call me Nick, doctor. I am a refugee." He gave her one of his most endearing boyish grins. "And your servant, for I shall be eternally grateful for your rescue."
She flushed a little. Nick was glad he'd thought to use the French accent in this persona. The doors parted before them, and Nick stepped into a modern sickbay. He felt the eyes of the entire medical staff staring at him, and he squirmed uncomfortably. He had to shift their attention to the children. And he had to find food.
Dr. Crusher whipped out a tricorder and aimed it at him. With a lightning-quick movement, Nick caught her wrist. "No!" he commanded. Then softening his tone, he added, "I feel fine, doctor. See to the children."
She glared at him and at the bruise on her wrist, her temper rising. Bless Vasik, Nick thought with relief. She tugged on the doctor's frock and pleaded with a little-girl innocent voice. "I think I'm going to be sick."
The doctor touched her shoulder gently. "Go with Nurse Ogowa. We'll help you to feel better soon."
Vasik clung to Nick's sleeve tightly. Her lower lip trembled. Nick put a hand on her back and comforted her, unsure now if it was entirely an act. "I'll stay with you, honey. Don't worry about a thing."
It took some doing before the twelve children were seated upon four biobeds, unwilling to go anywhere alone. Some of them were crying. Marti still clung to Nick in a deathlike grip, and Vasik still held onto his sleeve. He didn't notice the way the nurses stared at him, a handsome young man who had a way with children.
The medical staff examined them, cleaning small cuts and abrasions, giving them the vaccinations they had not received growing up in a Cardassian prison. "Mostly, they are suffering from malnutrition," Dr. Crusher stated, closing her tricorder. "Now, it's your turn, Nick."
What now, he thought? The stalling techniques hadn't helped him come up with a feasible story, and he couldn't just hypnotize her in front of all the kids and medical staff. He'd have to lure her away.
"I require privacy," he said softly.
She shrugged. It wasn't really necessary, as most medical exams did not require the removal of clothing, but she thought he might be protecting the children. She indicated a small surgery off to the side. Nick removed Marti's tight grasp from his neck and passed her to Vasik. "I'll be just a few moments, baby," he promised.
Inside the surgery Nick tried to catch her again in the hypnotic trance.
"I want to know how you survived on that ship," she snapped, not looking at him. "There was almost no air, for who knows how long. The temperature was below freezing, and you had no life signs! Yet, here you are. Tell me how you did that."
She unfolded her medical tricorder again and began scanning him. "You have no pulse, no heart beat!"
Nick grasped her wrist again, trying not to bruise her this time. "Look at me, Dr. Crusher," he demanded softly. He touched her chin to bring her eyes to his. Her heart was beating quickly with the adrenaline rush. He'd have to slow it down to be fully effective. He spoke soft, soothing French, calming her. "I am fine," he said, when he was certain he had her. "I am just hungry after the ordeal. You will give me blood for an injury received in the battle, and you will not be concerned about my health again."
Her eyes were slightly unfocused as she moved to obey. Drawing a packet of blood from the cooler, she handed it to him. Nick tore open the contents and drank it. It wasn't enough, but it would help. Then, he waited as she came back to her present.
She shook herself and put her fingers to her forehead. "I must be more tired than I thought," she said with a nervous laugh. "Well, you seem fit enough. You must be hungry. Lets get you and the children down to ten-forward and find you something to eat."
Several single nurses volunteered to assist him, each taking two children by the hand, and led them through the massive, comfortable ship to the informal lounge called ten-forward. They pushed three tables together before helping the children into chairs. Marti clung again to Nick's neck. She was not going to let him out of her grip. Nick sat in the center of one long side and settled Marti on his lap. Then the nurses began to bring out food- whatever the children requested. Now wasn't the time for a well-balanced nutritional supplement. Food spelled comfort for children of many backgrounds. So they were served ice cream sundaes and hot chocolates and oatmeal cookies, assorted fruits, and juice.
Nick was grateful. He wasn't sure he could stomach the noxious scent of a garlic and pepperoni pizza just now.
Suddenly, he felt a presence. The hair on his neck tingled. But it wasn't a vampire presence! He looked around, searching for the source of the sensation. Then he beamed a smile of surprise. "Guinan!"
=== End, flashback ==
Chapter Six: The EHP
B'Elanna didn't want to see Nick's room again until the remodeling was finished. Nick didn't mind whose quarters he slept in really, except that hers was a mirror image of his, so everything was backwards. If he awoke a little groggy, like good vampires often do, he walked into walls and tripped over furniture. He'd broken another chair just yesterday. B'Elanna had growled at him, saying he was getting expensive to keep around.
Later, as they lay entwined on the narrow bed, B'Elanna asked again what was bothering Nick.
"LaCroix was with me," he said.
B'Elanna tensed. She didn't really understand this bond thing. And the few times she knew of LaCroix, Nick's father, contacting him, had been painful. The ancient vampire seemed to find pleasure in bullying his son. She hated him. She hated her own father. Sometimes, she thought she hated men in general. Except Nick. He was different.
"So what's that sadistic tyrannical bastard want now?"
Nick chuckled. "Be glad you're not linked with him. You would not survive."
B'Elanna was not amused.
"He wants what is best for me, ultimately... in his opinion. Before, he wanted me to stop consuming replicated plasma. The doctor then learned that it would not keep me healthy."
She merely grunted.
"Now, he wants me to do a little damage control. Too many people know about me."
"So he wants you to murder again?"
Nick flinched at her bluntness. The link between them had revealed more of his past than he liked. She knew about his centuries of killing, of feeding off the mortals of his world. Strangely, it didn't offend her. But then, Klingons had just as violent a past, even consuming their enemies.
"Not necessarily," he said. "But maybe wipe a few memories. I think he knows I won't wipe everyone's. But, now even Wildman knows about me. Neelix must be telling folks."
"No. Not Neelix. I know his mouth flows constantly, but I trust him."
"Why else would she make such a comment as she did at dinner tonight?" Nick exclaimed.
B'Elanna thought back. Her memory wasn't as perfect as Nick's, but as he recalled the evening's events, she was reminded of them through their bond. The ensign had made a comment about "not making them the way they used to". Then she laughed.
"Nick! That doesn't mean anything. That is just an expression. She doesn't really know that you are 12 hundred years old!"
Nick wasn't convinced. "Regardless, I should at least insist that the doctor keep my medical files separate from the rest of the crew's, and under a separate password, so that at the first sign of enforcers I can purge all record of my existence instantly."
"Worry-wart!" B'Elanna rolled on top and bit him playfully. They would not talk again that night.
Ensign Wildman came by first thing the next morning. She still seemed concerned and flitted nervously around his office. Nick gave her the short tour, showing her the terrarium, the paintings he and Paulus were still working on, and then he insisted she take a seat. It took a while to catch her in a hypnotic trance. Then he interrogated her.
"How old am I," he began.
"Old," she responded blankly.
It took several tries before he was able to elicit a more informative response.
"Chakotay says that you are a Delta quadrant being, and no one knows for sure how old you are. You are the last of your kind. Your home world no longer exists. You are peaceful, and not a threat to us," she said.
Nick was surprised at her narrative. He'd never thought of that himself. Delta quadrant, heh? That meant he could be an alien, and all his particular quirks would be swept under the rug of enlightened acceptance.... He questioned her further. She didn't know that he drank blood. She didn't know that wood was lethal, garlic poisonous, and religious symbols painful. She only knew that he was allergic to sunlight and to the drugs that would treat that particular allergy. He decided to do them both a favor and give her one more piece of the puzzle. "I sleep very soundly," he told her. "Don't ever try to wake me."
Then he roused her from the hypnotic trance, making her think that they had been chitchatting the entire time. She seemed a little confused at first, but as he turned the conversation towards Naomi, Ensign Wildman became attentive.
"Yes, I'm very concerned about her myself," she said. "She never met her father, you know. Now she feels she is better off. I try to tell her about him, but she doesn't want to know. She seems to feel that fathers are a burden others must endure. I don't know how to change her opinion, yet I don't want her to feel that way about my husband. He is really a dear, and I know he will be heartsick about missing so much of her life."
Nick nodded. "Thanks for telling me. But I was more concerned that she doesn't ever just play. All of her activities are geared towards teaching her something. She needs to kick back and have fun sometimes."
Her mother shrugged. "She does have fun. She loves to read, and she's very good at mathematics. She helps Neelix in the kitchen- she's a very happy child."
Nick could see the problem already. The mother must have had an unnatural childhood herself. This was something he'd have to solve alone. "You don't mind her spending time with me, then?"
She laughed. "I couldn't keep her away if you wanted me to, I'm afraid. She can be very headstrong."
Nick conversed with her a little longer before ending the meeting. Then he stood and escorted her to the door. "Tell Naomi that I could use her help in the holodeck after lunch."
Ensign Wildman smiled. "She'll be there!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
LaCroix's demand weighed heavily. The ancient had been away from their link for two full weeks, well past the few days of the new moon that he had mentioned. Any day now he would return, and he would know if Nick had done anything or not. Nick made the appointment and went to speak with the doctor.
The EMH called him paranoid.
He spoke with the captain, who brushed his concerns aside.
Finally, he talked with Chakotay. The big Indian should have been his first contact, but Chakotay had been working the third shift lately. Chakotay at least listened to him.
But he seemed more concerned about LaCroix than about the need to keep Nick's medical files secret. "What will he do? Can you block him from your mind? How can we protect you?"
They just didn't get it. "It isn't LaCroix, Chakotay. He is my father! He is only trying to protect me from the Enforcers! Please, you must help me."
The stoic stone wall expression dropped over Chakotay's face. His arms crossed over his chest. He would listen but he would not hear. "I will speak with the Captain," he stated.
Nick sighed. Short of trying a hypnotic whammy, he wasn't sure what else to do. And he had promised the captain he wouldn't hypnotize the crew any more. Except for emergencies, maybe...
He did go back to the captain one last time, unsuccessfully. She felt that the ships' records were already well protected and any further coding of his files would be redundant.
"May I ask for a favor, then captain?"
She welcomed the distraction, fixing herself a cup of coffee and even bringing him a mug of replicated plasma. Settling on the couch cushions of her ready room, she invited him to join her. Nick took the chair, trying to seem more relaxed with her. He wasn't here as some errant lieutenant receiving disciplinary action again. Now he was the ship's counselor, and the captain was truly interested in his work.
Nick sipped the flat beverage while he tried to collect his thoughts. "I'd like you to assign Tom Paris to work with me in constructing an educational holographic program."
Janeway nearly choked on the too-hot coffee. "What?"
"He knows about them. He had one himself when he was very small. I think the Wildman child could benefit, but also, I believe it will help me with Tom. Working on the remodeling to my room has been great, but we're going to finish that tomorrow."
Janeway nodded. "But I thought you said she was getting too much "education" and not enough play?"
Nick grinned boyishly. "You don't know that much about Tom's EHP then?" At the captain's blank look, he continued. "He reprogrammed it. Originally the unit was supposed to conduct a traditional classroom in math and reading. When Tom finished with it, they went on many holographic field trips, from Kittyhawk to Thermopolae to the Pony Express. Tom had a most- unique- education."
Janeway burst out laughing, setting her mug on the coffee table before she spilled it. "That sounds like Tom alright! Tell me, how old was he then?"
Nick laughed, too. He liked Tom. If they had met before the Cardassian conflict, before Caldick Prime and Tom's imprisonment, he was certain they would have been friends. "Four years old," he answered.
Janeway's laugher continued. "And you think Naomi is precocious? All right. I'll grant your request. But if he wants to know why I'm giving him extra work, I'll answer him truthfully."
Nick agreed. It was fair enough. "Thank you, Captain."
"And Nick- we've picked up an alien vessel on long range scanners. It is on a direct course with us. We launched a probe, but they destroyed it. They're running with shields down yet, so I don't think they are hostile. Perhaps just cautious? As more information becomes available, I'll transfer it to your office."
It was good to be useful again. Then as Nick left her room, another wave of dizziness belted him.
== Flashback, The Enterprise ==
Guinan joined Nick and his tableful of children, setting a tall mug of something in front of him. "This is new," she observed with a secretive smile. "What are you this time? Teacher? Foster Parent?"
"Try refugee, Guinan," Nick said in a low voice. "And you? A bartender?"
"It's a life," she said.
"Do you know Nick?" one child asked.
"What's going to happen to us now?" asked another fearfully.
Guinan pulled a small boy onto her lap and made herself more comfortable. "Nick and I go way back," she said truthfully. They shared a grin. Try about four hundred years? Nick had met her in San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century, before earth had even been aware of life on other worlds. Guinan was also a refugee. Her people had been nearly obliterated by the Borg. Now they were scattered throughout the galaxy without a home to call their own.
"Well, we're not near a space station," Guinan said. "But I'm sure Captain Picard is contacting Starfleet even as we speak. You'll be found new homes and you'll be well taken care of."
"We want to stay together," an older boy informed her decisively. He had a sad face, the look of a Bajoran priest, Nick thought. Even in his torn rags and thin, gaunt face, he carried himself with a quiet calm that comforted the younger ones. Nick thought back for a moment. Laret something. No, just Laret. None of the children would want their Cardassian surnames now.
Guinan nodded. "Yes, you've been through a lot together. Must make you feel like family."
Skillfully, Guinan launched into a tale of her past, and one of the families she had adopted for her own. The children relaxed, mesmerized by her calming presence and deep, soothing voice. They sat around the table for over an hour. Finally an officer, who identified himself as Commander Data, came to escort them to their quarters. As the children refused to let Nick out of their sight, he gave them a suite of adjoining rooms.
He then assisted Nick in getting the tired children bathed and dressed in clean pajamas and in to bed. The children seemed to trust Data, for in spite of his perfect military bearing and impeccable speech, there was something almost childlike about him. Data was an android.
"Thank you," Nick said, as the last one, Marti finally went to sleep.
"If you require further assistance, please call. Counselor Troi will be by later to talk with the children." Then he left.
Nick took the opportunity to rest himself. Who knew when he would get a chance again? These children were going to be more than a fulltime job, he realized. Somehow, he'd become their security, and he couldn't abandon them now. Still, it wouldn't be long before suspicions were aroused. The captain would no doubt be running a check on any Nicholas de Brabant. If only he'd had the opportunity to speak with Aristotle, or Felix, before boarding the Enterprise! Either of them would have taken care of the "paper trail"- the proper documentation to create a new identity. Well, he'd have to deal with it one step at a time.
Meanwhile, Commander Data joined the officers at the briefing. Geordi confirmed Nick's claim to be Cardassian refugees. They were definitely Cardassian weapons that had fired on the ship, and his logs verified Cardassia as point of origin. The Romulan cloaking device concerned them. It was fifty-year old technology, so not of any particular scientific value, yet it was unusual and suspicious. It pointed more and more towards validating Picard's suspicions that the young man was a Maquis rebel. Yet, it wasn't enough to convict him.
"There is no record of a Nicholas de Brabant as a Federation citizen. It would seem unlikely then that his heritage is actually from Belgium, as he claims," Commander Riker stated. "What did you find, Doctor?"
Beverly Crusher's eyes came a little unfocused. Her response was vague, repeating only what Nick had told her. She'd given him a blood transfusion for his injuries, and told him to get some rest.
"Where was he injured?" Geordi asked, concerned. He'd seen Nick on the ship, no environmental suit in an airless room, but he hadn't noticed any obvious injury.
Beverly became confused, searching for information she did not have. Deanna Troi sensed her distress but did not understand it.
"Doctor?" Picard prodded.
"It is private, Captain," she answered at last. "He asked that his exam be kept private. I can only assure you that he will be fine."
Picard accepted that. Only Deanna still felt uneasy.
"He claims to be French," Picard mused. "I think I shall have to spend some time with him, and see how carefully he's done his homework." A slight smile curved the corners of his lips. "Starfleet has been appraised of the children. They should be sending a shuttle to take them from us by the end of the week."
Then the briefing turned to other matters. Deanna continued to watch Dr. Crusher throughout. Something wasn't right. She could sense it. But until she had more than vague suspicion, she would remain quiet and alert. She was certain that Nick De Brabant was not who he claimed to be. Besides his genuine concern for the children, she had also sensed a deep, threatening power from him. Behind the boyish smile and easy charm, she sensed a killer.
== End flashback ==
Chapter Seven: The holodeck
Tom was already at work on the loft when Nick showed up after his duty shift. The younger man was dressed in blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt. His light blonde hair hung in his eyes, no longer neatly slicked back in Starfleet fashion. He swigged a beer taken from Nick's replicator before speaking. "I got started with out you, old man."
Nick tugged off the uniform jacket and shirt, wearing only the gunmetal gray undershirt. He knew from experience that the manual labor would soon have him sweating. Without even thinking, he flew to the loft to join Tom.
"Not going to give the stairs a try, huh? Paint's dry now, you know."
"Stairs are for mortals," Nick said with a grin.
He looked around appreciatively and whistled. Tom had finished more than just the stairs. The carpeting had been laid, and in place of Nick's narrow, single bunk stood a massive bed. It was even made up, with black sheets and a forest-green printed cover. "B'Elanna picked out the furniture," Tom explained defensively. "Captain gave her a bunch of replicator coupons for an early wedding gift."
"It's great," Nick said. "Really."
Tom shrugged off the compliment. It ran like water off a duck. He would forget all praise and remember each and every reprimand. Sometimes Nick just wanted to shake him.
The finishing work took longer than he'd expected. The room had been so close to done- he hadn't realized that the little things could be so time-consuming. They'd worked through dinner, and when at last it was complete, neither quite knew what do to. An awkward silence took over.
Tom fidgeted. He rubbed his palms on his jeans, then ran his fingers through sweat-damp hair. "Captain wants me to work on programming an EHP with you," he stated abruptly.
Nick nodded. "Yeah. For Naomi, and any other children that might join the crew."
"Shit," Tom said. "You want to work with me so you can get inside my fucking brain. Admit it!"
Nick should have known Tom was too bright to be manipulated. He shrugged. "I wouldn't put it quite like that," he answered truthfully.
"Well forget it. I'll help with the EHP- for Naomi- but you can leave my brain alone."
"Like, what the hell could you know about my life? My father? What could you possibly know about growing up with a perfectionist? No matter what you tried, it was never good enough? He's a dictatorial bastard. And you? You were a fucking prince, for gods sake!"
Nick felt his lips twinge. It didn't go unnoticed. Before Tom could take offence, Nick responded. "Well, I wasn't really a "fucking" prince, Tom. You have to understand times were different. You didn't fuck a lady. You placed her on a pedestal and pledged your life to defending her honor. You never fucked her."
"Yeah, right," Tom snorted. "Is that how feudalism ended? No future princes for the throne? You can't tell me you knights were celibate."
Nick laughed. "I didn't say that. There were always the peasant girls. But they weren't considered ladies. They were more like cattle. Possessions."
"Times were different."
A silence fell again. Nick wasn't sure, but he felt that he'd reached a crossroad. Tom seemed very close to accepting him. If only he knew how to encourage him. He reflected on Tom's outburst.
"And I do know what it's like to have a bastard for a father."
Tom just snorted again.
"I've met yours," Nick explained. "Through your blood and through the captain's. And I met him in person, when I was an ambassador. Yeah, he's a jerk all right, but he's only a neophyte jerk. If you want him to be a professional jerk, he should take lessons from my father."
"Okay. Show me your old man," Tom challenged.
Nick stared at him.
"In the holodeck. Show me what your dad was like. If he's really a jerk, then I'll compare notes with you."
Nick shrugged. "You're on."
They swung by the mess hall first and their conversation seemed natural, almost like friends, Nick thought. For the moment, they were equals. He hoped he'd be able to keep Tom's trust. In the holodeck he began to search the archives for any record of LaCroix. It would be easier if he could pull up existing data, rather than start from scratch. The holodeck didn't have records dating back to the battles LaCroix had commanded as a Roman General, though, and he'd avoided mortal history pretty much after that. However, he had attended some of Nick's functions. Like when Nick had been awarded the Federation Peace Prize after the Cordec negotiations, a major victory for any ambassador. LaCroix had come to the ceremony, and remained for the party after. Nick accessed the file and shortly a still hologram of the ancient vampire stood before them.
"Well, he's not going to win any Mr. Personality awards," Tom remarked, "but he doesn't really look like a jerk, either."
Nick cocked a grin at him. "Hold on. Computer, access my personal logs, and using any references to Lucien LaCroix, create a reasonable facsimile." They watched, as the hologram evolved. Nick gave a few more directions to the computer, then saved the finished product. It was eerie. It really looked like LaCroix. It even sounded like him.
"Good evening, Nicholas," the ancient's voice purred.
Tom shivered. "The guy's creepy."
"Good evening, LaCroix," Nick answered, his insides quivering slightly before the intimidating hologram. He forced himself to smile. It wasn't real. LaCroix was thousands of light-years away. Nick thought back to what time it was on earth. Late night here, late morning then, if LaCroix was still in the South Seas. He should be sound asleep.
"LaCroix, tell my friend Tom about my music and art lessons."
The hologram turned a disdainful look upon the mortal. "Only the best for my children," it said coldly. "Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninov gave him piano lessons. Mozart was good, but he was no teacher. Raphael, Da Vinci, and Van Gogh taught him to paint."
Tom shrugged, but his façade wasn't quite as convincing. "Yeah. Well. My dad wouldn't allow me to paint. He chose my life. It was preordained that I would be a Starfleet pilot."
Nick faced the hologram again. "What did you do, when I wanted to change my life? When I tried to become mortal again?"
An evil sneer spread across the marble features. "My son, I would have beat you within an inch of your unlife to keep you from such a self-destructive purpose."
Nick couldn't stop the shiver that ran down his spine. This was too real. He even felt a tingle of the hairs on the back of his neck, like another vampire was actually present. It didn't make sense. He needed to end this little experiment quickly. He turned towards Tom. He didn't see the golden flash in the hologram's eyes.
Tom grinned. "So this jerk is really your dad? He must be older than dirt."
The hologram flew at Nick, clutching him firmly by the throat. "What did I tell you to do, Nicholas? Why must you persist in defying me?" His voice was chilling.
Nick stared into the amber pools. He was confused. The hand on his throat felt cold and familiar. The presence in his mind was definitely his father. How had the hologram become so real?
"Hey!" Tom shouted. "Unhand him, you fucking bastard!" He pulled back a fist, ready to do battle with this symbol of parental domination. His repressed anger burst forth with a vengeance.
LaCroix slowly turned to the scrawny mortal; his fangs fell into place. Still restraining Nick with one hand, he flipped the mortal across the room. Tom slammed into one blue and silver wall and crumpled to the floor with the wind knocked out of his lungs.
"LaCroix!" Nick gasped, barely able to choke the words out from the crushing grasp of his master.
LaCroix released him. Slowly, he faced the mortal with a predatory gleam. "Since you won't clean up after yourself, my son, I shall do it for you."
Tom gulped in air as he felt himself lifted from the floor. He stared into the face of the demon, just beginning to feel apprehensive. The holodeck safeties were still active, weren't they? They would keep him from getting critically injured, but what about death-by-draining? Had the programmers known to take that into account?
"Computer, end program!" Tom shouted. Nothing happened. The hologram of the vampire should have disappeared, but it remained, the razor sharp fangs drawing nearer.
Nick had to stop him, had to distract him somehow, so Tom could get away. He flew at LaCroix and bit his neck savagely. The hologram made a stunned expression before releasing Tom. Then it tore Nick from its throat and threw him into a wall. Tom heard something snap. Whether it was holoemitters or vampire bones, he wasn't certain. He tried to get to his feet. He knew they both had to get out of here quickly, but he still couldn't breathe. His legs wouldn't respond.
"Leave him be," Nick shouted. He struggled to his feet again and flew at LaCroix, only to be tossed away. The ancient vampire temporarily ignored the fallen mortal. He turned his attention on his errant son, willing to give him the punishment he begged for.
Nick fought with desperation. The blood he'd taken was not empty holograms. It coated his throat, filling him with images from his vampire father. It was cold and ancient, and healed his crushed throat instantly. It was LaCroix. Somehow the ancient had traveled across the galaxy to take possession of the holographic double. And he didn't disappear when Tom had tried to terminate the program. They were both in real danger now. Nick seldom won these fights. LaCroix was so much stronger than he was, and the elder vampire had been a general in the fiercest army earth had ever known, while Nick had only been a knight, governed by rules of conduct and chivalry. LaCroix fought mean and dirty. LaCroix did not know how to lose.
It hurt to stand. Nick was certain some of his ribs were broken, as was his leg. His face was cut and bleeding, one eye already swollen shut. He was exhausted, yet he couldn't relent. "Get out of here," he begged Tom. He would always heal, but the mortal must be protected. He didn't have the strength to back up his command with a hypnotic punch. Seeing LaCroix turn again towards the ensign, Nick flew at his leg and bit down hard. The ancient blood barely spurted into his mouth, not enough to heal his many injuries, before the vampire plucked him off. LaCroix slammed his fist into his mouth. Blood gushed, even his fangs felt loose. Nick felt blackness creeping in at the edge of his vision.
"Please go," he whispered.
He heard LaCroix laughing. He felt the cold hands on his throat again; regret filled him as he realized that once again he had failed.
Tom reached the controls for the holodeck. Struggling to his feet, he clenched his hands together and raised them behind his head. He slammed them down on the controls. Sparks flews out as little cuts on his hands started to bleed. The raging vampire glanced at him with surprise. Tom slammed his fists down on the controls again. Then, the hologram disappeared with a flash.
Nick's body, formerly held by the vampire, fell to the ground with a moan. Tom went to his side. Habit made him check for a pulse. A cold dread sickened him before he remembered Nick wouldn't have a pulse on a good day.
"Nick, hang in there," he said. "I'll get you to the doctor."
A bloodied hand clutched weakly at Tom's arm. "No. Just bring me something to drink."
"Nick, you're hurt. You need a doctor," Tom insisted.
At that moment, B'Elanna came racing in to the holodeck. She caught the smells of burnt circuitry and fresh blood. "Damn! I knew it," she cursed, as she slouched down next to Tom. "I felt this, Nick! All of it! Why are you doing this to me!"
Nick looked at her sorrowfully with his one good eye. Blood tears, blood he couldn't afford to lose, pooled and spilled down his cheek. "Forgive me," he whispered. "No doctor. Blood!"
"Tom, get him some. Hurry. And bring a first aid kit."
Tom shook his head as he exited.
B'Elanna looked over Nick's injuries, knowing them all. She'd felt the pain when his ribs had cracked. She'd lost her balance and tumbled to the floor when his leg broke. Her head hurt, her vision blurred. When her initial fear dissipated and she'd opened herself to the link they shared, she'd known someone was hurting Nick. Not certain with whom she should be angry, she caressed Nick's cheek tenderly. "Just rest, my love. Tom will be back soon."
Nick closed his eye and gave in to the blackness.
=== Flashback, Enterprise ==
Captain Picard invited Nick to his quarters that night. Nick hesitated. One didn't turn down an invitation from the top, and the children were starting to relax a bit. But what did he want?
Vasik patted his shoulder affectionately. "You'll be fine, Nick. Just be yourself." Her dark eyes sparkled mischievously, an unusual vision with the upswept brows of the Vulcan and the bony double spine of the cardassian- neither species was known for possessing a sense of humor. Yet, in spite of her mixed heritage and the two cultures that would shun her, she was poised and confident.
"And you know this because?" he asked.
Vasik just smiled. "Captain Picard is interested in archeology. He prefers English tea, although his family owns a small vineyard in France. And he has an excellent memory."
"You learned a lot in a short time."
"Come. Wear this," she said, pulling him into the small private chamber he called his own. Laid out on the bed was a white cotton shirt with wide sleeves, white trousers, and a bright green vest with gold embroidery. It was a traditional French outfit, one Nick might have worn in some past century on Bastille Day.
"Isn't this a bit obvious," Nick questioned.
Vasik grinned. "Well, you were the one to start with the French ID. I'm just helping it along."
Nick pulled on the shirt and vest, but kept his own dark trousers. Vasik straightened his collar and attempted to brush through his hair. "Don't worry, Nick. I'll watch the kids," she said with an assumed air of adulthood. He returned her smile and went to face the captain.
Picard greeted him warmly, speaking in French. Nick hadn't even noticed the language change at first, until the captain looked surprised at one of Nick's more archaic terms. Nick knew many languages- and many dialects of them- but modern French was the most difficult for him. The medieval language of his birth just came out naturally, even after all these years.
They talked about archaeology for hours! Picard was very impressed with Nick's knowledge of earth's history. Then they got into discussing Shakespeare, somehow. It was yet another interest they held in common. Picard had once played Juliet's nurse in an all boys' production at the military academy he'd attended. Nick had known Willie Shakespeare personally, although it wasn't a fact he shared with Picard. But Nick had also acted in the famous romance about the star-crossed lovers. Before long, they were spouting romantic sonnets to each other in fun.
For a short time, Nick was able to relax.
Nick quickly became the most popular bachelor on board. He'd have to speak to Guinan about it, but women were coming by constantly, bringing something for the children and then flirting with him outrageously. He wished he'd thought to mention at the outset that he was married. It would be impossible to add that detail in now. So, he returned their open invitations with a shy smile, playing naïve rather that risk offending them and the children didn't seem to be suffering from the added attention.
Again, the door chimed lightly, announcing another visitor. Nick opened it. A sweet Asian woman with a wide friendly smile stepped inside. "Hi, I'm Keiko," she said, turning from Nick to include all of the children. "I came to escort you to our classroom. I thought maybe you would like to meet the other children on the Enterprise."
They looked at one another with frightened faces, then Laret spoke up. "No, thank you," he said. "We'd rather stay together."
Keiko was taken back, but quickly regained her composure. "Certainly, all of you can come. Even Nick."
Nick gulped, pulling a child- Vasik this time- in front of him defensively. Keiko laughed. "Relax, Nick. I'm married; I am not on the make. This is genuine. Since they feel more comfortable in your presence, perhaps you would join us."
He'd been a college professor once- he could handle this. He gave her a weak smile and hefted Marti into his arms. "Lead on."
The schoolroom was very different from what he remembered. It was carpeted and comfortable, more like a family room or den than an institution. There were children's computer terminals and toys, blocks and various art materials, maps, charts, and several adults. The Enterprise children looked up curiously at the new arrivals in their classroom. One boy, a small Klingon-human child of about four or five- extended his hand. Nick shook it, then introduced himself and the others.
"My name's Alexander," the boy said, then grinned broadly. He was adorable when he smiled, Nick thought with surprise. He'd never seen a Klingon smile before. "Wanna play with my remote?" He showed Jamie how the hand-held controls directed a small vehicle.
Nick felt the quiet panic of being watched. Quickly searching the cheerful schoolroom, he found the quiet, sensuous eyes of a Betazoid. Her look was guarded though. Nick sensed trouble. Turning away from her intent gaze, he went to a low table where several younger children were playing with clay. Nick knelt down, setting Marti on the floor beside him.
One of the teachers brought a smock for Marti. "Would you like to try the clay?" she asked sweetly.
Marti poked at it timidly, clutching Nick with her other hand. "It doesn't look good," she said softly.
Nick chuckled. "No. It isn't good for eating. But you make things with it. Bricks, dishes, sculpture." As he spoke, Nick grabbed a lump and began to work it, getting Marti's fingers covered as she still didn't let go of his hand.
"Cold," she observed.
"Clay feels cold," he agreed. He rolled several simple figures and stood them up. Marti shivered. Making a fist, she mashed them flat. "Fucking Cardassian Pigs!"
The Betazoid woman moved swiftly to join them. Nick shifted uncomfortably. He hadn't taught the child those words! What did she expect?
"You are angry," the woman stated, reassuring Marti. "Hi. I am Deana. May I play clay with you?"
Deana, Nick thought. Deana Troi, ships counselor. Why did she have to be an empath? He held his vampiric breath, trying to calm the terror that must be emanating from his thoughts. If she would only buy it that his fear was from the ordeal they had endured at the hands of the Cardassians, but somehow he didn't think she would.
Deana talked with Marti. They talked how the gray clay did look like the Cardassians, but no Cardassians were on board the Enterprise. Deana reassured the child of her safety. Eventually, Marti tired of the clay. Nick helped her to wash up. Then she ventured away from him and went to join the children listening to Keiko read a story.
"Tell me about yourself," Deana said, taking Nick's arm and leading him away from the children.
"Not much to tell," he stalled, desperate to keep from breaking into a sweat.
"Don't be bashful! It's nothing short of miraculous how you saved all these children. How did you come to be on Cardassia, anyway?"
He wasn't certain how much to share. He hadn't thought through his story yet, as he really hadn't come up with anything believable. Oh Felix, I need you, he thought. "What about the others?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Yes. I've helped about fifty refugees, mostly children and a few adults, escape over the past three months. If my last pilot hadn't got himself killed, I would still be there."
"I see," Deana said slowly, puzzled. She was getting such a mix of feelings from this young man. Regret, shame, anger, concern, real love for these little ones, but most of all, fear. She touched his hand, meaning to reassure him, that he had nothing more to fear, but they both jerked away from the contact. Her hand burned where she had touched him- burned with cold- like gripping dry ice and fire. And she discovered that Nick was terrified of her!
Deana wasn't sure what to do with this new insight. Her first response to comfort and reassure him contradicted with her intuition that he might actually be someone very dangerous. He had done something to Beverly. She didn't know what, but she would find out. Getting to her feet, Deana stepped away from this strange man. "My office is open, Mr. Brabant. If you should need to talk."
Nick had to get away. The children were busy. Vasik saw him back towards the door, but she just smiled at him. Nick took off almost running for any turbolift that would bring him to ten-forward.
== End flashback ==
Chapter Eight: The Deception
Tom returned shortly with several bottles of blood that he'd copped from Neelix's storeroom. B'Elanna didn't even try to wake Nick. She attached an IV shunt from the bottle directly to Nick's stomach, as she'd seen the doctor do a few times. She and Tom both watched as the injured vampire body began to absorb the fluid. Slowly, his blood ceased to flow from his wounds, then flowed back inside the vampire. As each unit of plasma was emptied, B'Elanna removed it and offered another. Cuts closed and healed. The swelling faded, even the purpling bruises paled and disappeared, until Nick merely looked to be sleeping. His face was pale and drawn, but otherwise all signs of the abuse he'd endured were gone.
"Why didn't we take him to a doctor," Tom demanded.
B'Elanna looked into Tom's eyes. "Think, Tom," she said gently. "No one wants to air their family troubles all over the ship. I wouldn't have risked Nick's life for his pride, but he knew he would heal. This has happened before- although, never in the delta quadrant. What were you boys doing?"
Tom sighed. He stretched his legs and rubbed the ache in the back of his neck. "I'm not sure what happened. Nick was showing me his father- it was just a hologram. I don't think he even knew how real he'd made the program. But, it wouldn't shut off when I told it too."
"Weird," she said.
Tom laughed awkwardly. "Yeah. Somehow, weird and vampire do seem to go together."
They both laughed slightly at the sick joke.
"So, is he going to be okay now?"
B'Elanna closed her eyes and relaxed. Then she smiled. "Yeah. He's just sleeping. But he'll sleep clear through his duty shift tomorrow, I'm sure. Although his body heals quickly, it leaves him exhausted. Help me get him to bed?"
Tom figured he could carry Nick alone, until he tugged on one arm. Nick wasn't just so much dead weight. He was also surprisingly heavy for his size. Only with B'Elanna's help could he get Nick vertical. B'Elanna suggested a roundabout route that would minimize their chances of meeting anyone on the way. It was late in the third shift. Many stations were closed. The one person they did meet just made some off comment about having "too much" and it being "some bender". Tom forced a grin and agreed with him. They half-dragged the unconscious vampire into B'Elanna's room and laid him on the bed. Tom turned his back to Nick, struggling with his emotions.
"Thanks, Tom," B'Elanna said. She laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Is it true, B'Elanna? What you said in the holodeck? Could you really feel what that monster did to Nick?"
B'Elanna wished she could learn to keep her mouth shut. She couldn't lie to Tom, but the truth would hurt everyone. Tom wouldn't want her to suffer from this mind link, and Nick wouldn't either. But what could be done about it now? Even the time she'd been forced to stay away from Nick hadn't caused the bond to fade in the slightest. For better or for worse, she was bonded to this vampire. And like it or not, she would have to help him learn new ways of dealing with his family.
"That monster is his father, Tom, and no matter what happens between them, Nick still loves him."
"Then Nick's a fool." Tom turned swiftly and strode from her room.
B'Elanna pulled off Nick's shoes and trousers then pulled the blanket over him. He looked so peaceful- almost angelic- as he slept. Having grown up more among humans than Klingons, she was familiar with angel myths- beautiful golden haired spirits, harp-players and choraliers, peaceful beings of goodness and joy. Nick was a far cry from the myth, she thought with a wry smile. But he did look like one.
"My lover. What are we going to do about you?" She pressed a kiss to his forehead. Then she snuggled in beside his immovable form to catch a few winks for the remainder of the shift.
Just as she had predicted, there was no waking Nick the next morning. Not with lights, not with seduction, not with shaking and shouting. She opened her link with him. Nothing. Nick Knight was still dead to the world. She pondered over his situation. If he didn't show up for work, some one would come to wake him. When he didn't wake, the doctor would be summoned, and Nick's privacy would be invaded yet again. He already felt like a goldfish in a bowl, she knew. Being the "only one" in a crowd was something she knew intimately.
Thinking back to her days at the academy, she recalled some of the childish pranks they had played. Tom might be willing to help her. She was certain that if they'd met while at the academy they could easily have become partners in crime. She contacted him to meet her in private where they laid their plans.
Tom grinned widely at her request. "Hell," he said, "When I get busted down to crewman, will you come visit me in the brig?"
"Don't I always, Tom?"
Although Tom officially had the day off, he had to spend two hours with the doctor that morning studying the nursing manual. After losing Kes, Janeway didn't want the doctor training just one person again. And if anything should ever happen to their holographic program, they'd be destitute. So she had selected three crew who'd already had some medic training to continue their studies, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. Tom had only taken the medic training to irritate his dad. Now, he greatly regretted it.
"After you get out of sick bay, will you pretend to be in a session with Nick? We can post a "do not disturb" memo."
Tom rolled his eyes. "Gees, B'Elanna. You are really going to owe me big for this."
"Don't worry, Tom. I know you'll need my help shortly. You never have managed to stay out of trouble for more than two months at a time."
That would take care of most of the day. Next they tapped in to Nick's work files and rescheduled all his appointments. Only one would be hard to deal with. Naomi was supposed to come by that morning. Fooling a ship full of busy crew wouldn't be half as difficult as this one precocious child.
"I say we tell her the truth," Tom suggested.
"I don't trust her."
Tom shrugged. "I do. And I don't see we have a choice. Besides, if we get caught, I'd feel better not lying to the kid."
B'Elanna wasn't sure she followed his thinking. They would be asking the kid to lie for them. Wasn't that just as bad?
"We'll have to leave some memos on his files, just in case Tuvok gets suspicious."
"Fine. You do it," Tom said. His memos were rather recognizable with his dyslexia. B'Elanna agreed. Then they went to find Naomi.
The four-year-old girl grinned broadly and readily agreed to help them, for the price of an ice cream sundae. Tom promised it to her, figuring Nick could cough it up with his stash of replicator coupons later. Tom's were always spent as soon as he got them. He walked Naomi to Nick's empty office and watched the little girl pull out a tablet of paper and a box of crayons.
"These are from Nick. He showed me how to color the last time I was here," she explained. Then she turned to a fresh page and started a new picture.
"Sure you'll be all right here for a couple of hours?"
Naomi nodded. As Tom left, he heard her carry on a conversation with "Nick" all by herself. He shrugged his shoulders and went to face his sickbay sentence.
The morning started off fine. Tom tried repeatedly to break free from the doctor, but the punctual hologram kept him the full two hours, plus four minutes penalty for being late. Finally, he went to Nick's office to rescue Naomi.
She sat on the carpet with large sheets of paper scattered all over the floor. Tom glanced at her pictures. Some of them were interesting, although she'd never be an artist, he decided. Tom's sister Emily had done some oil painting and Tom had tried pastels after her death as a form of therapy. He wedged himself down between the papers. "Do you like to color?"
Naomi shrugged. "It's something new. I wonder what it would be like to get into messier paints, though. Nick said he might teach me to paint after I've done lots of coloring. He says I'm not ready yet."
"How'd it go?"
She grinned. "Pretty good, I think. Captain Janeway came by. She just came in, even though I was supposed to be in here with Nick. And she wanted to know where he was."
"What did you tell her," Tom asked, concerned.
"I said that we'd been playing, and he tripped over me and tore his trousers so he went back to his room to change and he'd be back later but we were going to see Neelix for some cookies and I'd tell him she wanted to see him," Naomi proudly recited in one breath.
"Great work, kid," Tom praised, shaking her hand. He helped her stack up her pictures and went with her to the Mess Hall.
B'Elanna repaired the damage to the holodeck while beginning step two of their deception. She was afraid to leave Tom in there alone, unsure whether the vampire demon would come back or not. "We need to fix the smashed controls, Tom, but then we need to damage the programming somehow. I don't want anyone else using this room until Nick can assure me his father won't be returning."
Tom agreed. After the controls were patched and polished, and the programming sufficiently damaged, B'Elanna got up to leave. "How long must I take up space here," Tom complained, regretting that he'd agreed to help.
"Until I contact you and let you know he's awake," B'Elanna answered.
B'Elanna tried to sense Nick all afternoon. The deathsleep continued. He didn't even dream. Finally, towards the end of her shift, she sensed him coming around. She tried to leave to go to him, but was intercepted twice- once Vorik took several minutes to relay a tidbit of information and the second time it was Ensign Kim. Then she flew from Engineering, risking a brief message to Tom that he could leave the holodeck. As she neared her quarters, she saw Tuvok there as well. Only Tuvok or the captain would have the security clearance to enter her quarters uninvited, and even then, they wouldn't do so unless they already suspected a problem. Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she sprinted to catch up.
Nick staggered towards the door, too slow in responding to Tuvok's hail. Tuvok had already hit the security overrides and took two precise steps inside. Nick was dressed just as she'd left him last night. A gunmetal gray undershirt and his boxers, and nothing else. While his skin had healed from all bruises, blood still stained the undershirt. His hair was disheveled and his eyes barely focused, a stubble of beard shaded his face. He looked like he just woke up, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the Vulcan security chief.
Nick stared unseeing at the Vulcan. Tuvok stared at Nick, seeing everything. B'Elanna broke the silence. "I can explain!"
"Indeed," Tuvok said.
Nick faltered and nearly lost his balance. "B'Elanna?" he asked, looking like a lost little boy.
"Well," she began. "Uh. well, what is it you want? Why are you here? This is my room," she snapped at Tuvok defensively.
"There seems to be some confusion as to the location of Nicholas Knight, ship's counselor."
"Here I am," Nick rasped hoarsely.
"So I see. And where have you been?"
Nick ran his hand through the unruly hair and shrugged. "I, uh... I was on the holodeck."
"Yes," B'Elanna agreed, interrupting before Nick hung himself. "He's been in the holodeck all afternoon with Tom. Just ask him."
Tuvok raised a single eyebrow. "Holodeck 2?"
"And what were the two of you doing for four hours, when the holodeck has been nonfunctional?"
Oh no, B'Elanna thought. Maybe they shouldn't have disabled the holodeck- but no, the danger of LaCroix resurrecting himself was too real. Feeling herself sinking deeper and deeper, she went to the offensive. "It is my understanding that the patient/client relationship prohibits Nick from discussing the content of their meeting with you, Tuvok. You should know that."
Tuvok paused for effect before responding. "Very well. But I shall submit my concerns to Captain Janeway," he said coolly. "I suggest you dress appropriately, Lieutenant." Then he left.
Nick sank on to the edge of the bed. "Am I in trouble?" he asked.
"Not if you want to tell the captain all about your little meeting with LaCroix," she said. Seeing Nick shake his head, she let out a relieved sigh. "Good. Because if you came clean, you'd hang Tom and me out to dry." Then she proceeded to tell him how they'd covered for him. She hoped his near perfect memory was working. Nick still looked a little out of it.
"Nick?" she asked. "Will he be back?"
Maybe she should have taken him to the doctor last night after all? "No, Nick. LaCroix! Will he be back?"
Nick shrugged vaguely. "Can we talk later? My head hurts."
B'Elanna kissed him on the forehead. "Fine, love. Go take a shower, and I'll bring you something to drink, okay?"
A little later Nick emerged, scrubbed and dressed, and only slightly confused. As he consumed two bottles of the Bugali's finest, his expression cleared as well. "Thanks, B'El," he whispered sheepishly.
"Lieutenant Knight, please report to my readyroom immediately," Captain Janeway called over his comm.
"On my way," he answered. Then with a shrug at his lover, he departed.
===Flashback, Enterprise ==
"Guinan, help me," Nick pleaded.
The dark-skinned woman continued in her task as she wiped down the bar, a knowing smile ever on her face. "And what seems to be the problem?"
"She knows something. That Betazoid. I have to get off this ship now!"
"Deana's a good woman, Nick. And she's only half Betazoid. Her father was human, a Starfleet officer. So how did she frighten a 1200 year old vampire?"
"Guinan, this is serious," Nick spat.
Guinan poured him a tall glass, then pulled up a stool and perched on it. Her motions were always smooth, flowing, as though she was never in a hurry. Her species were not immortal, but they did live centuries longer than most humanoids. Perhaps part of their secret lay in the relaxed lifestyle?
"There is no way off right now. It will be a week before a transport can reach us, and take you and the children to earth. If you try to speed things up, you will only arouse more suspicion."
"So what can I do?" Nick shuddered, as he sensed the brig walls closing in around him.
"Just relax. This is a good crew. They won't jump to any conclusions, and they will not judge you for crimes committed centuries ago. So what have you done recently?"
Nick swallowed the warm blood and felt even more like a condemned man.
Captain Picard glanced around the conference table, taking in the concerned faces of his officers. They were meeting yet again to discuss one Nicholas de Brabant, yet it appeared they still had more questions than answers.
"His knowledge of Earth's history is remarkable," Picard stated, his admiration evident in his tone. "He is more knowledgeable than most historians. It far surpasses what one would normally study when assuming a false identity."
"Yet, that he does know so much more than the average man could be suspicious," Riker reminded him.
Picard nodded absently. "And his French is fluent, impeccable. Only, many of his expressions are rather quaint, bordering on the archaic."
"That proves he isn't French, then," Deana insisted.
Picard disagreed. "Why would anyone go through so much trouble to learn Earth's history- not just the main events, but every little detail, including the styles of clothing or slight changes in culture, and then make such a big gaff as to learn a language that is as much as a thousand years out of date?"
A thoughtful silence fell on them. Each had had the opportunity to spend time with the charming Nick de Brabant. Riker found him to be a challenging Poker player. Geordi was amazed at his total lack of understanding on the basic principles of space travel. "I can assure you, he isn't a pilot in his other life," he snorted. "Alexander Roshenko knows more about warp science."
Worf grimaced at the mention of his son's name. He was proud of the boy, but it embarrassed him to have the child discussed at staff meetings. "He is much stronger than he appears. I showed him a few Klingon exercises. He threw me easily, more than once, and never seemed to break a sweat."
Picard masked the smile that threatened to come. He could hear the self-defeat in Worf's voice. Still, the klingon security officer was taller and stronger than anyone else on the ship. It was unnerving to think that the stranger of medium-build could best his best.
Geordi brought up again that Nick had survived on the derelict ship. "He had no pulse, no heart rate. He was dead, captain."
"On the contrary," Data interrupted. "His bodily functions are very different from human, but they do exist. His heart beats approximately once every eleven minutes, and I have perceived him to inhale at human-normal while carrying on a conversation, but during periods of silence, his breathing drops to less than four respirations per hour."
"So he's definitely not human," Picard stated more than asked. "How does this compare with your observations, Doctor?"
Beverly fidgeted, biting her lower lip. "I- I don't know," she stammered.
Deana patted her arm. "Trust me, Beverly. This is important. Now I want you to tell us everything that happened when you examined Nick de Brabant."
"It is his right to request privacy," she said, with less conviction.
"Maybe. But something isn't right here. Tell me, can you even remember giving him an exam? He was injured, and you gave him blood. Do you know where the injury is? Has he been back, to have the wound looked at? Tell me you remember something, and I'll leave it alone!"
Beverly was speechless. She couldn't remember! Nick had come in to the surgery, and then she lost it. She stared at Deana, a panic taking over.
"That's what I thought," Deana said. "There must be a record of the event."
Geordi agreed. "Of course, the ship's internal sensors make a log of practically everything. It'll just take a moment to bring it up."
"Make it so," Picard replied.
Then they stared in shock at the videofile as they viewed the entire scene. Nick had come in to the surgery and demanded she look at him. He told her what to say and what to think. He took the packet of blood she offered him, and tearing it open on his teeth, he drank it! "You will remember none of this," he said softly.
"He hypnotized me!" Beverly shouted. "I'll kill 'im!"
No one spoke for long moments. Some may have been thinking similar thoughts to Beverly, yet Captain Picard still felt uneasy about it. The young man intrigued him. There was something inherently boyish about him that spoke to the Captain on a more basic level. Nick seemed genuinely naïve about a great many things and Picard felt almost paternal towards him.
"Data," Picard said at last. "Run this information through the archives, see what comes up. Starfleet is sending a shuttle to rendezvous with us. If Nick is Maquis, I'll bet that he does anything to avoid that meeting. Deana, keep close to him. Until later, then, people."
Picard decided it was time to visit the strange guest in his quarters. The Captain straightened his jacket, and approached the door. At the soft chime, he heard someone's permission to enter.
He stared at the scene before him. The alien- and possible rebel spy- was crawling on the floor on his hands and knees bearing four children on his back. He growled fiercely, the deep, bone chilling intimidating sound of a lion king, while prowling after a few squealing pedestrians. The tiniest child, a human-cardassian baby of maybe two years of age, wrapped her arms around Nick's neck and hung on tightly. The temporary predator lost his balance. Children and alien spy all tumbled into a heap, laughing loudly.
Picard cleared his throat uncomfortably. Children didn't belong on his ship. He wondered how long before Starfleet realized that fact as well.
Nick peeked up from the tumble-pile and grinned. "Bonsoir, Captain! I didn't hear you come in."
Nick got to his feet, shaking most of the children off as he went. Only the baby still clung to him. He wrapped one arm around her legs to hold her securely, then gestured towards the twin couches. "Please, make yourself comfortable. How may I help you?"
Picard sat back. He watched the young man carefully, looking for signs of deception. "Starfleet will be sending a shuttle for the children at the end of the week."
Silence fell suddenly around the room. The happy faces of the children vanished and they were once again frightened refugees. Nick seemed guarded. Picard didn't have to be an empath to acknowledge that Nick's first concerns truly were for the welfare of the children.
"The children wish to remain together," Nick stated gently.
"That may not be possible."
"You know as well as I, that they will not be welcomed by their own kind. Children of mixed parentage have often suffered. Look at this little one!" Nick took a small boy's arm, pulling him onto his lap. The boy was a little older than Alexander, and also part Klingon. The boy's small face was a stoic mask, yet his lower lip trembled slightly.
"Meet Kyntar. He is five years old. His mother bought his freedom with her life. He likes to catch glowbugs at dusk because he is afraid of the dark, and he wants to be a warrior when he gets big so he can fight injustice. Yet, he will be despised! Klingons would rather die than permit themselves to be taken prisoner! He will bear his mother's shame for the rest of his life, as will his children! Is that what you would wish on him?"
Nick was partially correct, Picard acknowledged, yet he was unaccustomed to anyone using that tone of voice with him. Nick wasn't exactly disrespectful- just passionate. And he didn't seem to be concerned for his own safety. He hugged the small boy, before letting him slide off his lap, then he introduced the littlest one.
"This is Marti. Her mother was human, and captain of an independent transport ship. She was delivering seed and supplies to one of the outer colonies in Federation space when she was taken prisoner six years ago. Marti is the third child she has born while in a Cardassian prison, and she doesn't even know which soldiers fathered them. Marti is the only child still alive. The poor woman was made to watch as the others were murdered. When she was due to deliver, she managed to escape, but she died in childbirth in a fetid refugee camp.
"Meet Vasik, and Laret, and Jamie! Meet them, Captain! These are children! Don't turn them into political pawns!"
Captain Picard held his indignation in check. He did admire the younger man for his passion. "And where would you suggest they live?" The deep, soft tone in his voice would have warned half the ship to tread lightly.
"There is a small planet, a Federation colony world. The natives call themselves "The People". They live a simple existence, steeped in ancient traditions. I'm certain these children would be welcomed into the tribe."
If he was thinking of the right planet, it was very close to the boundaries, which the Cardassians were now disputing. They were claiming ownership of that sector, and wanted all Federation colonists to relocate. If this man were a spy, how would placing the children so near the danger zone benefit him? Was the planet also a Maquis base?
"Unfortunately, Nick," Picard said smoothly. "It is not my decision. The Cardassians are demanding the immediate return of the children. All peace negotiations have been cancelled until this matter is settled."
Nick jumped to his feet angrily. "You CAN'T do that to them, Captain! The peace negotiations are just an excuse, the Cardassians have no intention of making or keeping any truce!"
"The ambassador says otherwise-"
"I AM the ambassador!"
Picard stood slowly. He was the same height as Nick, he thought distractedly. And even in his anger, the young man had not lost his French accent, had not shifted to whatever his native dialect would be. With his blonde hair and blue eyes that sometimes appeared gray in certain shadows, he looked very much like a young Picard would look. But Picard valued honesty above all else. He would never tolerate less. "What are you saying," he demanded in a quiet voice.
Nick stood for a moment, reigning in his anger; his eyes clenched tightly shut until he was certain the gold had receded. Marti tightened her chokehold on his neck, crying softly. The loud voices frightened her- frightened all of the children.
Vasik stepped forward, a calming force in the melee. "It is true, Captain. He is Ambassador Nicholas Thomas, sent to Cardassia four years ago. He performed his obligations there with unerring diligence, until four months ago, when his house was destroyed while he slept inside. The soldiers had left him for dead. He came to the refugee camps, where he has been helping us to escape ever since. If you return me to Cardassia, I will die."
His eyes narrowed at Nick. "The trouble with being less than honest, is one never knows when to believe you."
The younger man squared his shoulders. "I have not lied to you, Captain. Everything I have told you is truth. I am Nicholas de Brabant. Nick Thomas was the assumed name."
"When you survived the blast, you should have contacted Starfleet immediately. Your death set the peace talks back immeasurably."
"There will be no peace. The Cardassians will be at war with the Federation. There can be no other outcome. They just aren't strong enough yet. They're like Italy- waiting to find their Germany and Japan to join forces. And when they do, you will face the bloodiest front in History; only this time, it won't be a world at war- it will be a galaxy! And you will know that it was your fault for allowing it to get that far."
Picard left the guest quarters abruptly. The crying children and the echo of angry words were overpowering. What if, in some way, this young man were correct? Would they be in another war soon? It seemed they had just settled their differences with the Klingons- and the Romulans had not developed into a dangerous force to be reckoned with. But what if the Romulans joined the Cardassians? And Picard had been worried that the Borg was their only true threat.
"Data, get me any information you can find on Nicholas Thomas, ambassador to Cardassia."
The android complied quickly, then quirked his head in an almost human gesture of puzzlement. "I do not understand, Captain," he said.
Picard moved closer to peer over the android's shoulder at the small display. There was a picture of the Ambassador, and it was Nick. Standing next to him was someone Picard could question. Guinan posed next to Nick, a warm, friendly smile on her face. Picard transferred the image to a small, handheld display, and went in search of the enigmatic bartender.
"Tell me what you know about Nicholas Thomas de Brabant, or any other name he has used in the past," Picard demanded brusquely.
Guinan smiled that knowing smile of hers and continued to wipe down her bar. "Oh, we're old friends," she said.
"How well do you know him? Is he Maquis?"
She looked at Picard closely, her white teeth now showing in a wider smile. "Not any longer."
Picard couldn't speak at first. So his suspicions were well founded! This young man was a traitor to the Federation?
"Nick fought with the French resistance in occupied Paris in the 1940's, until he was captured. He spent six hellish months in a Nazi prison camp."
Again Picard couldn't speak. Guinan was grinning now. "I told you we were OLD friends."
Picard did a quick count. If Nick had existed in the 1940's, then he'd be at least four hundred years old now. Picard knew Guinan's people were long-lived, and she was closer to 700 herself. But he had never known her to consume blood. "Is Nick one of your people," he asked anyway.
She shook her head. "He really is indigenous to Earth, captain. And knowledge of his kind is forbidden- punishable by death. Now you may not take that seriously, but consider your crew. Nick fought in the crusades. His father is twice his age. His kind did not survive incognito all these centuries by making idle threats."
"I need a drink," Picard muttered, rubbing his hand across the smooth bald top of his head. Guinan poured him a Saurian brandy. He tossed it back and watched as she refilled the small glass.
"Will Nick try to harm us, then, if he suspects we know about him?"
"Not Nick," Guinan assured him. "Although, his own life becomes forfeit if his kind learns he has been careless. That boy would have died centuries ago, but for an overbearing, tyrannical father that protects him."
Picard sipped at the second brandy. It warmed his throat and soothed the tension. He didn't bother to ask Guinan how she'd got a bottle of it on board. The Enterprise didn't list any alcoholic beverages on its supply sheets.
"Tell me one more thing," he said. "Does Nick pose any danger to us? Do you know what his intentions are?"
Guinan looked him directly in the eye. All smiles and humor were gone. She was dead serious. "I will tell you this. Nick will always do what he thinks is right. He is the noblest person I have ever met. And his perception of right and wrong is founded in very basic morals: don't lie. Don't cheat. Don't kill. He will not bend these morals for the Federation, or for Starfleet, or even for his father."
Damn it, Picard thought. He still liked the boy.
== End, flashback ===
Nick stood stiffly at attention in the Captain's readyroom. Was it just yesterday when he'd been here as a respected ship's counselor? Well that hadn't lasted long. But he wondered just what he was accused of this time. Since he had no memories of the past twenty hours, he felt very uncomfortable.
"Lieutenant, you were in the holodeck with Tom?" Janeway asked softly.
Nick nodded. That much was true.
"And the holodeck is malfunctioning."
Was it? It would be now... he seemed to remember Tom smashing the controls, causing the hologram of his father to disappear. "Yes, ma'am," he answered, since she seemed to be waiting for him.
"What were you two doing all that time?"
Nick was silent. Should he tell her he was getting beat to a bloody pulp just to prove a point? But he didn't really understand how LaCroix did it. Chakotay acknowledged that LaCroix could contact him psychically, and had tried to convince their no-nonsense captain of it. But, this was different. That was no hologram that Nick drank from. Empty replicated plasma could not have healed his injuries as quickly as the cold, ancient blood of his master.
Janeway paced a small circle around him. "And when Tuvok came to B'Elanna's quarters, you had been sleeping, although you apparently just left the holodeck. You were supposed to still be on duty and you were out of uniform. Care to explain?"
"No, captain," he answered.
Janeway paused thoughtfully. Something here was very fishy. She could sense it. But, no harm had been done, either. She would get suspicious if her crew behaved all the time. Tuvok was probably correct in his assumption that not all was as it should be. But she wasn't convinced that it was worth breaking any heads over. Her decision was reached.
"Fine, Lieutenant. You want to keep a few secrets; I'll let it pass this time. You can draw three extra shifts this week, doing KP. One for sleeping while on duty, one for being out of uniform and one for whatever the hell is going on. Dismissed."
Nick turned and left, waiting until he was out of her hearing range before sighing his relief. "KP" was a misnomer. In centuries past it stood for Kitchen Patrol, but now Neelix managed pretty much on his own. The crew joked about it, calling it "kicking pucky" and "korporal punishment" and even "kaptain's prisoners". It was a form of discipline, less severe than the brig, and mildly humiliating. The offender was required to manually clean public places- the mess hall, corridors, turbolifts- chores that were generally performed by mindless robots.
Nick didn't care. LaCroix was a master at humiliation. He'd scrub the entire ship from stem to stern, before he let the crew know the slave/master relationship he had with his vampire father. It was so primitive, so archaic... and he hated how LaCroix could still terrify him, even after all these centuries.
An odd thing happened as Nick scrubbed down walls and surfaces, though. Other crewmembers stopped to chat. Constantly. Sometimes singly, sometimes two or three at a time. Everyone felt obligated to cheer the newest inductee to the captain's "shitlist". They shared stories of what had landed them in similar predicaments, and how the menial labor had affected them. After three days of KP, Nick felt even more like one of the crew.
"Thanks, LaCroix," he whispered with a shy smile.
"You're welcome, my son," a chilling voice seeped into his consciousness.
Nick froze. Would LaCroix resume the power play with his little mind-torture games again? He glanced around, half expecting to see his master approach.
"Alas, I cannot accommodate you in a rematch at the moment, Nicholas," LaCroix said. "And may I remind you, it was you who brought me into that holodeck of yours."
Nick continued to scrub the wall, trying to ignore the crewmen as they passed. LaCroix demanded respect at all times, but Nick was still angry with him. Tom shouldn't have called him those names, but if LaCroix hadn't invaded his session with Tom, he never would have heard the insults.
"I thought you agreed to stay out of my life," Nick hissed under his breath, allowing the surge of righteous indignation to flood over the link.
"Indeed," LaCroix responded. "And I thought that after more than eleven centuries you would have learned how to live by the code."
Nick put down the sponges and cleaners and slipped into an empty science lab for a moment of privacy. "I'm trying," he said aloud. "I spoke to the captain about separating my medical files. So far she has ignored my request. I'm working on it. So you don't have to interfere!"
"Forgive me, Nicholas," LaCroix said then. "I lost my temper. That mortal you were with- Tom? His insolence pushed beyond the limits of my control. It was he with whom I was angry, more than you. You merely got in the way."
"Yeah, well, I heal," Nick snapped. He wasn't ready to forgive the ancient.
"I see," he purred. "Stubborn to the end. Tell me, then, how you will handle this situation? You, who possess Herculean strength and power, and should be commanding this ship, yet are instead scrubbing floors like an obsequious cabin boy?"
Nick slumped to the floor. "I'm tired, LaCroix. Can't you find someone else to pick on? What ever happened to that little Asian seductress? Tired of her already?"
"This petulant mood is most irritating. I grant you one week to handle the matter. Then I shall return!"
Nick felt the link sever abruptly, and the physical response of longing that always accompanied it. "Good riddance," he said with a curse, then returned to his tasks before his absence was noticed.
Janeway stood before the holodeck dressed in 15th century attire and pondered which period of Da Vinci's life she would like to visit this time. She'd spent many of her holodeck hours with the brilliant master, and once he'd even gone planetside with her, when he discovered and "borrowed" the doctor's holoemitters. She smirked at the memory. Holodeck technology had advanced faster than modern ethics. As the doctor, and even Da Vinci, evolved at what point would they become more than their programming? When did they acquire rights? Or would they become the newly enslaved?
Such deep thoughts, she chided herself, when this was supposed to be for relaxation. They should be close enough for contact with the alien vessel in twenty-three hours, if neither ship altered course. This might be the last free time she would enjoy for a while. Janeway decided to try the large house near Tours, when Da Vinci was an old man and very famous. They were peaceful years, generally. The master did very little painting. Instead, he made many drawings of his machines and experimental inventions. It was this stage, with his inquisitive mind, that attracted her most.
"Ah, Katarina," the Italian greeted her. "And so you return! Welcome!"
Soon she became entranced with the man as well as his work. Admiring the sketches for a moveable bridge, she couldn't help but recognize the features still used in constructing the massive shipyards in space. If only she could get this hologram interested in contemplating space travel... maybe he would come up with a way to get her home? But so far, the hologram had persisted in his thoughts of a solid, three-dimensional universe and the possibility of simple flight. She would have to discuss time with Einstein.
A knock sounded at the holographic door of Da Vinci's studio. Janeway glanced at him curiously. He'd never had fifteenth century visitors during one of her holodeck experiences. Who would it be? The French King himself, or one of the Royal entourage?
Da Vinci indicated a bench. "Time for a repast, I believe, Katarina. And let me see who is our visitor."
He opened the door and stepped back, an expression of pleasure on his wrinkled, bearded visage. "Monsieur LaCroix! How good of you to come, old friend! Come in, come in!"
Captain Janeway was alert and guarded. That name was familiar. Of course, being in France, it could just be a coincidence. She stood slowly as she watched the visitor enter.
He was tall. The temperature of the holodeck seemed to drop several degrees. He was dressed in the intricate styles of the time, with a linen shirt and long hose, a padded doublet and a jerkin that hung mid-thigh, and all of his clothing was black. He swept a large hat from his head and effected a polite bow.
"Bonjour, Madame," he said. His voice was deep and sultry.
She looked into his face. His eyes were piercing blue. They were shielded; they were the eyes of a man of power and very little conscience. She seldom judged a man from a first impression, but she was convinced that this visitor was indeed Nicholas Knight's father whom she had heard so much about- and none of it good.
She nodded wordlessly and extended her hand in greeting. He took her fingers, bringing them to his lips and pressed a kiss upon them, much like Nick had done a few weeks ago. Her hand felt cold where he touched her. She pulled it back.
Da Vinci rang for a servant. "Fetch us a light repast; I have guests," he called. "Bring my special reserve!" He closed the door then, before joining them. "Sit, sit," he said. "How long has it been, Lucien? You must stay for the day. Tell me- what news of your family?"
Janeway observed intently every move of this holographic representation of the ancient vampire, and wondered how he had infiltrated her program. He sat regally, leaning back in his chair with an air that exuded confidence and control. His hooded eyes seemed to be watching her, although his conversation was directed towards Da Vinci.
"It has been a while," LaCroix agreed. "Janette is well. She sends her greetings."
Da Vinci's grin broke wider at the ensuing moment of silence. "Ah! And young Nicholas is in trouble again?"
Both men shared a small chuckle. "So it would seem," LaCroix answered.
The servant entered, bringing two bottles, bread, and hunks of cheeses. Da Vinci poured her a glass of wine from one bottle. Then he passed the second bottle and a glass to his guest. LaCroix sniffed at it delicately before pouring the blood red liquid into the glass and sipping it. Da Vinci raised his to his lips. With a wink at Janeway, he swigged it down.
Janeway felt her anger rising as she realized that she was no longer in control of the situation. "You know of his son, Leonardo?"
The artist laughed. "Good Lord, yes! I taught him to paint. And I did a portrait of Janette for him. What a boy! He can be so - intelligent, at times. Thoughtful and moody. But such a stubborn streak! Is he as mule-headed as ever?"
LaCroix shrugged slightly, a gesture that seemed to admit defeat. "Yes, unfortunately."
Da Vinci glanced quickly at Janeway then back to his new guest. "Does she know?" he asked softly.
LaCroix nodded with a slight tilt of his chin.
Da Vinci slapped his thigh and beamed, ready to continue his tale. "I owe that boy a lot," he said conspiratorially. "Because he was often in need of... medical services... due to this stubborn streak, and he was not willing to submit to the superstitious bleeders of the time, I became a doctor to the "undead". Through patching him up, pulling out stakes, washing away garlic pastes, feeding him, I learned more about the human body than would have been morally possible at the time. The church frowns on desecrating cadavers, even in the name of science."
"He was often injured?" she asked, glaring at LaCroix. Chakotay had told her he had been physically abusive.
Da Vinci nodded. "Yes, Katarina. He could not walk away from a challenge. Mule headed. He had this almost suicidal sense of justice, and if he saw anyone behaving badly, he felt obligated to tell him so, regardless of the odds against him. He got into more brawls than a musketeer."
"So why are you here now," she inquired, directing her question to LaCroix.
The face of white marble gazed at her coldly. "Direct. I like that. Then I too shall get to the point. I request that you humor my son in his request regarding privacy of his personal and medical records."
"And if I don't?" Janeway was certain that few people ever denied him anything. She was not surprised then when his eyes flashed gold before the cold blue returned. Although she was still new to vampire culture, she knew enough that gold signified anger.
LaCroix leaned forward in his chair; his eyes seemed to pierce her. "Do not force my son to chose between us, Captain. You will lose. Regardless of what you think you may know about us, I can assure you. Blood is thicker than water."
==Flashback, Enterprise ==
Vasik shook the sleeping vampire as hard as she could. "Nick, Nick please wake up! Someone's at the door, and they want to see you right away!"
The vampire emerged, full fanged and frightful, yet the slim refugee child was not alarmed. "Come on, Nick!"
Slowly, the fog cleared from his brain and he brought the beast back under control. He glanced at the child uncertainly. "Vasik, I..."
"It's okay, Nick. But, I think something's happening. There's two security officers at the door, and they're armed."
Vasik held out his shirt. Nick tugged off the silk pajama top and pulled on the cotton shirt. "Scoot," he told her, waiting for her to leave before pulling on his trousers.
The children swamped him as he stepped into the main room. They hugged his legs and waist, begging him not to go. Marti was crying. The security guards at the door were immobile. Nick looked at them, at their phasers, and feared the worst. "Laret," he said to the Bajoran boy. "Please go to Guinan's room and ask her to come stay with the children."
"You're coming back, aren't you, Nick?" they begged. He turned to the guards. It wasn't likely. "I'm not going anywhere," he stated. Except probably to the brig?
He stepped into the hallway, peeling small hands off of him. Vasik helped, her eyes solemn. The guards lead him, but not towards the rear, where the brig should be located. Forward they went, into a turbolift, and up several decks. One guard opened a door, then stepped back for Nick to enter first. He squared his shoulders and stepped in.
Picard stood in the room, his arms folded across his chest and a firm expression on his face. Deana Troi, Dr. Crusher, the android Data, and Riker sat around a large table. No one looked very happy. But they seemed more concerned than angry. Maybe it could all be settled yet? He felt an invasive presence then. Turning towards the empath, he glared at her. She eyed him coolly. Maybe it wasn't her? Now the sense was gone. He'd been trying to avoid her all along, yet everywhere he turned, she kept popping up. What had she discovered? Her presence in his mind terrified him. Had she learned merely that he'd hypnotized the doctor, or did she know more? Did she sense his regret and shame for his past? Did she know of the thousands of mortals he had killed?
The door's parted again. Worf, the Klingon chief of security entered first, with a visitor. The tall stranger was cloaked in black, yet Nick felt the familiar throb. This was a vampire. The hood was pulled back. "It's about time, Nicholas."
The cold blood drained from Nick's pale face and he staggered back, colliding with the armed guards. "LaCroix," he whispered.
Picard glared at them. "I would like some answers now, gentlemen."
The white-haired stranger turned disdainfully. "I wish to speak to Nicholas alone."
"Denied," the Captain stated. Guinan had warned him that Nick's life could be in danger from his own kind. This stranger had claimed to come to protect Nick, but Picard wasn't entirely convinced. He thought he saw the stranger's eyes flick to gold, but a moment later they were ice blue. Imperiously, the stranger turned back to Nick, taking a predatory step forward. Then he began to speak, using a language unknown to the universal translators.
LaCroix spoke first in medieval French, too rapid for the Captain to understand more than a few words. Then he switched to ancient Latin, and several dialects of a now extinct oriental language. In this manner, he could confuse their infernal translating devices.
"Nicholas! You have been away too long. It is time to return to your own kind. Your continued involvement in these mortal politics puts us all in danger. You are forbidden to return to Cardassia, or to assume the identity of an ambassador ever again! Do I make myself clear?"
"Vio Diablo!" Nick sneered.
LaCroix moved too quickly for the mortals to respond. Grabbing Nick, he lifted him in the air before slamming him down on the table with enough force to split it in two. Worf grabbed LaCroix and the two guards drew their phasers, stepping between him and Nick. Beverly knelt beside Nick, gently checking him for injuries. Picard shouted at Worf. "Get him off my ship!"
LaCroix could have easily dismembered the towering Klingon, but he merely smirked at the Captain coolly. "I will not be defied," he said. Then he left.
"Nick, just lie still," Beverly demanded. "You may have broke something."
Nick inhaled, wincing. He coughed up blood; it oozed down his chin and soaked the white shirt. He was tired. It was still too early to be up. He'd been unprepared to face LaCroix again, and now he was hungry. "Call Guinan," he gasped, feeling the blackness surround him.
A medic ran in with a stretcher. He handed Beverly a medical tricorder and she began to assess his injuries. "Captain," she whispered, "his back is broken."
Pain. Confusion. Silence. The nightmare clung to him, sucking his strength. He tried to move but his limbs felt leaden. He couldn't breathe. There was nothing. Panic gripped him.
"He is not dead," a voice was saying. A deep, sultry voice... it sounded familiar. Deana Troi, the empath. She could sense him! Nick concentrated with all his essence, trying to connect with this most dangerous woman. "Ow!" she cried. "He's in my head! He is trying to reach us."
"Deana, there is no pulse, no heart rate, no respiration, and he has not responded to any stimulus- not CPR, not triQuadrazine, nothing," Dr. Crusher replied.
Deana shut her eyes, tears of pain slipping beneath the closed lashes. He was definitely there. "He wants our help, Beverly. He wants you to give him blood."
"Blood?" She shuddered. But she and Deana both recalled the image of the ship's recorder, the time Nick had hypnotized her. Hesitantly, Beverly retrieved a unit of plasma from the cooler. She looked at it, and at the still form. "Now what?"
"Give it to him. Directly, I guess. Before, he drank it. So, put it in his stomach."
The doctor carried out the bizarre request and waited. The packet of replicated plasma disappeared quickly. Almost at once, the biobed sensors indicated a single heart beat. Then the dial slowly descended to the bottom and fell quiet.
"His color looks changed," Deana insisted.
"Yes, now he's dead white instead of deadly gray," Beverly deadpanned.
Nick still could not move. He felt like he was drifting. He had to reach them soon, before they gave him a burial in space. The vacuum outside could effectively end his existence... He must concentrate!
Deana clutched her head painfully. "Slowly, Nick! You're hurting me," she gasped. "He needs more blood. A lot more."
Beverly repeat the grotesque remedy, giving him three units in close succession. After each unit, there was another pulse of his cold heart. His color did improve. His lungs rose and fell with one deep breath. Suddenly, his eyes opened, filled with a strange light. His teeth were lengthened. He hissed at the doctor, but was unable to do anything. The spinal injury had not yet healed. "More," he whispered hoarsely.
Now Beverly could not deny that he was indeed alive, although the bioreadings were still contradictory. She gave him yet another unit. Then his eyes faded to clear blue. He blinked at them sleepily. "Thank you," he said.
The doctor stared at the sensors. Even the back injury was beginning to heal. "Nick, the captain wants to speak with you."
"Later," he yawned, the long white fangs glinting erotically in the light.
"It's rather urgent. Guinan and the children have been abducted."
"No!" Nick cried. "NO!" He struggled, but cried out painfully. He could not yet move his lower body.
"If you won't lie still I shall have you restrained," Dr. Crusher ordered.
The Captain stepped close enough for Nick to see him. He held his anger tightly reigned, but there was something else in his expression now. Concern for Nick? Regret perhaps, that he had been injured while a guest on his ship? Nick felt a pang of regret himself. He'd really come to admire the captain. It hurt to have betrayed that trust.
"What is that man to you, and why did he kidnap Guinan and twelve refugee children?" Captain Picard demanded.
"Captain," Nick whispered. His mouth felt thick, the words didn't quite want to come out. What had the doctor given him? Something was slowing his natural healing process. "He wants me back. He'll do anything to get me. That's why he took the children. He took Guinan, only so he wouldn't have to take care of the kids. He hates mortals."
Nick blinked. The captain seemed to blur and become two figures. Nick tried to focus on them both. He was losing consciousness. The Captain was speaking. Must listen, Nick thought.
"He said you were a criminal. What crimes are you accused of?"
"Captain," the doctor interrupted. "He needs rest."
"Who is that man!"
"LaCroix," Nick fumbled. "LaCroix... is my father."
Chapter ten: The Exchange
Tuvok observed the lieutenant as he completed his final KP duty, as overseeing any disciplinary action fell into his department. Often he could delegate this task to one of his guards, but Nicholas had a formidable temper. Someone in centuries past had nicknamed him the "Knightmare", and the name stuck. Tuvok was not interested in tempers or petty human failings, only in seeing the tasks done efficiently. So the most efficient person for this task was himself.
Nick suddenly dropped the bucket and sponge he'd been holding and leaned against the wall. A small puddle of water and biosafe cleaner splashed onto the neutral gray carpeting. Tuvok watched a moment longer before offering aid. As suddenly as the signs of pain had struck the other officer, it passed. Nick saw Tuvok and immediately bent to wipe up the puddle. Tuvok stepped nearer.
"You are unwell. Perhaps you should report to sickbay when you have finished," Tuvok advised.
"No, it's nothing," Nick grunted.
Tuvok did not respond. Something was bothering the lieutenant, that much was certain. He folded his arms in front expectantly.
Nick sat on his heels, frustration seething from him like water through a sieve. He glared up at Tuvok. "Don't you ever get sick of being telepathic?" he snapped.
"Telepathy is a form of communication and not capable of causing illness," he answered, puzzled by the vampire's outburst.
Nick snorted. "I mean, don't you get tired of the lack of privacy? People always in your head? Knowing your thoughts and feelings?"
"It would be inappropriate to enter another's thoughts without his permission or knowledge," Tuvok said.
"Let's hear it for Vulcan reserve. LaCroix and B'Elanna are always inside me. Not a moment's peace. I can't even sneeze without both of them saying "Gesundheit"."
"It is not a matter of them entering your mind, as much as you broadcasting your thoughts and feelings fairly loudly, Lieutenant Knight," Tuvok almost snapped disdainfully.
Nick slowly stood, the puddle and the bucket all but forgotten. "What do you mean? Can you read my mind, too?"
"Your mind shouts to be read," Tuvok said. "However, I have been able to shut you out most of the time. Your emotional instability is too unsettling."
Nick stared into the dark, expressionless eyes of the man who had once been his commanding officer. If Tuvok could shut him out, then could he shut out others? LaCroix had recently taught him a way to obtain privacy for short periods, but it was too tiring to keep up. "Can you teach me to do that? Shut my mind?" he whispered.
"Immediately," the Vulcan offered. A look of relief ghosted across his cool features, momentarily exposing a lack of control.
Nick deposited the bucket away and followed Tuvok into his quarters. The temperature was set higher than ship's normal. And although the Vulcan himself was austere, his quarters had been comfortably decorated to reflect tranquility and a piece of home. The walls were the color of a golden orange sunset; the simple artwork tastefully displayed invited quiet reflection and contemplation. Nick had never been to Vulcan- its massive double suns were too dangerous for a vampire- but the room seemed to suit Tuvok perfectly.
Tuvok sat on the carpeted floor with his legs crossed, and set a small oil lamp before him. He was composed, as though instructing one in the art of the mental disciplines was a daily routine. Nick sat down opposite him, folding his legs likewise and fidgeting impatiently. He'd been waiting centuries for LaCroix to complete his training and had all but given up hope.
Let us begin with a simple thought transference. Tuvok's calming voice slipped into Nick's mind. When is your birthday?
Nick started to speak, but Tuvok motioned him to be silent.
Use your mind. Tell me the date of your birth.
Tell him telepathically? That was impossible! Nick squirmed uncomfortably as he failed his first assignment. The cool Vulcan's eyebrows puckered slightly. Explain your reluctance.
"I can't communicate telepathically," Nick murmured.
"You wanted my assistance to learn how to prevent telepathic communication, correct?"
Nick sighed. "I want some privacy, yes. But, vampires don't really communicate with telepathy. I mean, I can sense the presence of another vampire, but it is a physical response, almost like the way hair reacts to a static charge by standing on end. My master knows my feelings, and sometimes my thoughts, but not clearly. I know the feelings of my siblings, but not of all vampires."
"Yet, your telepathic vibrations are fairly loud and constant, Mr. Knight. And you say vampires do not ordinarily use telepathy to communicate?
Nick shook his head.
"Curious. It would seem that you possess great ability."
"Well, change moves slower than icebergs when your people live as long as mine," Nick muttered.
Clear your mind. Still your thoughts. Tuvok continued the lesson. His precise instructions entered Nick's mind, sliding like smooth ice over his heated passions. He felt his cold heart beat even slower, felt the knot of tension leave his shoulders. Feeling Tuvok in his mind was a balm. When again he was instructed to contemplate the date of his birth, Tuvok puckered his eyebrows curiously.
Is that the stardate?
No, that is according to the Gregorian calendar. I'm not very good at the stardate conversions, Nick thought sheepishly. Then he felt a rush of excitement at this small step. He'd "heard" Tuvok, and "answered" him, without using his lips. It was a convenient form of communication. And very private. And it had been so simple! The bond he shared with B'Elanna was more like a closeness, a knowing, a sensing of the other's thoughts and feelings, but not a true language. And he had bonded with her through the exchange of blood; yet, he had never- and never would- drink the coppery green fluid that flowed in Tuvok's veins.
"Stardate is a simple timekeeping system used to provide a standard galactic temporal reference, compensating for relativistic time dilation, warp-speed displacement, and other peculiarities of interstellar space travel," Tuvok recited, as if stating from a child's primmer and bursting Nick's confidence bubble as well.
"Of course," he replied.
Time passed quickly for Nick without him even being aware, until his feet prickled from a lack of blood flow. He learned a simple shielding technique, more complete than his own habit which he had acquired over the years, and as he pulled the shield into place, he felt as if a feather quilt was comforting his mind, so soft and pleasant and sleepy a feeling it was. The frequent headaches he'd been experiencing the past few weeks were gone in an instant. "Thank you, Tuvok," he said with sincere gratitude.
"Puzzling," was the cryptic reply.
Nick opened his eyes then and slowly drifted back into the three-dimensional realm of Tuvok's quarters. "What is?"
"I can sense that you have succeeded in this simple shield, and yet I still sense a telepathic presence."
"You mean some one has been pulsing around in your head, too?"
Nick shrugged. He tried to describe the headache, a short, quick presence, alien images, thoughts that were not his own. Images of children. At first Nick had wondered if they were children of his dark past, but as the images continued, he never recognized them. The pulsing thoughts were but a quick flash and then they were gone.
"I too have been experiencing these telepathic emanations of late, although the messages are not clear. I sensed a presence, but nothing more. I had assumed that you were the source."
"What do you make of it," Nick asked.
"Perhaps we are picking up thoughts from an alien people in this sector. With this technique, however, you should not experience any more side effects from this phenomenon."
Nick nodded and stood up, shifting from one foot to the other as the prickly feeling passed.
Tuvok stood as well. His shoulders were straight, his stance perfect, yet Nick was certain the Vulcan wanted to say something. He'd never thought of himself as especially perceptive. Imitating the Vulcan, he stood erect and proper and silent.
The gesture went unnoticed by the Vulcan, but it did give an opening for him to speak. Tuvok lifted his eyebrows in the subtle indication of offering a gift. "There is much more I can help you to master, if you should wish to continue."
Inside, Nick was fairly bursting. Outwardly, he maintained his "vulcan" attitude. Lifting his eyebrows slightly, he accepted. "I would be most honored," he said.
As he left Tuvok's quarters, he whistled an ancient tune.
=== Enterprise, 10 years Ago ==
Captain Picard turned to Data. "Cross-reference LaCroix with the name Nicholas. See what turns up. Riker, any sign of that ship yet?"
The first officer's voice sounded over the comm. "Nothing on visual, Captain. We are still picking up traces of an ion trail. Its a bit like looking for cracker crumbs in the forest, though."
"Understood," he replied. With a last glance at the pale, sleeping man before him, Picard strode from sickbay.
Commander Data's positronic brain found the references more quickly than any human could have. "There are seven references, sir, covering a time-span of centuries."
The captain gave his undivided attention to the android. "Go on."
"The most recent is the award ceremony for Ambassador Thomas. A Lucien LaCroix was in attendance. Then in the melee after the Third World War, there was a small band of vigilantes trying to enforce law and order in Canada, headed up by a Nicholas Corrigan. They met in a radio broadcast station, owned by Lucien LaCroix. Sixty years before that- 1988 to 1998, Nicholas Knight was a Toronto police detective, Lucien LaCroix owned a nearby night club and radio station. In 1971 in Viet Nam, Nicholas was a Red Cross doctor, while LaCroix was a plantation owner. In 1914 Nicholas and LaCroix were guests of Czar Nicholas of Russia. In 1850, Arizona, both names appear on a "Wanted" poster, for several homicide investigations. Then, I took the liberty of investigating one step further. The name Nicholas de Brabant does appear in the ancient baptismal records of a monastery in Belgium. Nicholas Henri Robert de Brabant was baptized in 1196."
Picard stared at the scant information, and at whatever photographic records were available. Nicholas stared out of the screen at him, with the same open expression of both honor and regret, not having changed at all though the centuries marched on. He stared thoughtfully. Nick had told him only truth. He wasn't sure why, but he still trusted the young man-- or rather, the young-looking being he called Nick.
Guinan seemed to consider Nick a friend. Picard had learned to trust Guinan's opinion. She had earned his respect and admiration long ago. But now she could be in danger. Did she trust the violent creature Nick called father?
She had hinted that Nick's greatest crime was to let others discover his existence. Picard had worried at first that the dark stranger was one of those who would "enforce" that Nick's laws be obeyed. By insisting that their meeting occur on his ship, he had thought he could protect Nick. That hadn't worked out. So what now? How could he rescue Guinan, protect Nick, and still fulfill his duty by returning the children to Cardassia, where Nick was certain their lives would be forfeit?
Beverly interrupted his musings to announce that Nick was waking up. After feeding him multiple packets of replicated plasma, the strange being had slept for eight hours. The Enterprise was still following the faint ion trail LaCroix had left for them. It would appear that the "father" wanted to be followed, as just when it seemed they had lost all traces, another "crumb" appeared for them to find. Picard had more questions than answers, and it was time to change that.
"You must lie still," Beverly was saying to Nick, as Picard entered the sickbay. He noticed that the lights were set dimmer than normal. Nick winced in obvious pain, yet ignored the doctor's advice. He struggled to sit, and moved his legs gingerly to the edge of the biobed. His always-pale coloring was more ashen; his jaw firmly clenched.
Picard laid a gentle hand on his shoulder and looked at him. "Perhaps, you should listen to the doctor?"
Nick couldn't meet his eyes, but glanced downward, fidgeting with what appeared to be embarrassment. Picard did not understand.
"I must go to him," Nick said, his voice low and haunted.
"Unacceptable. We will yet find a way to rescue Guinan and the children."
"You don't understand," Nick insisted. "He is my master."
"He tried to kill you!"
He shook his head sadly. Pushing off the biobed, he nearly lost his balance. He grasped tightly onto the bed, forcing himself to stand erect. "If he had wanted me dead, he would not have failed."
Picard stared at him, his silence demanding further information. Nick hesitated. He warred with himself, then looked at the captain. "May we talk, some place more private?"
Picard thought for a moment, then nodded briskly. When Beverly would have objected, he silenced her with a slight motion. "I will escort you back to your quarters," he offered.
Nick took a few faltering steps, grimacing as he moved. Picard moved closer to him then, silently offering his support. Nick wrapped an arm around his shoulder. Together, slowly, they moved through the empty corridor of the galaxy-class flagship.
Once inside the empty suite, Nick felt overwhelmed at the silence the missing children left in their wake. Picard helped him to the couch, where he sank down gratefully. The captain brushed at the fine red sheen dotting Nick's brow.
"You are not well," the captain stated.
"I am immortal," Nick grunted. "I'll live."
Picard glanced at the tiny sensors set near the ceiling. This room was still under surveillance, a precautionary measure he'd taken when Nick and the children had first boarded the Enterprise. Whatever transpired here next, he suspected, he would want a record of it. He moved to the other couch and sat properly, to await Nick's explanation.
"Guinan said that knowledge of your kind is forbidden. Is that the crime LaCroix has accused you of?" Picard prodded, when Nick remained silent.
The younger man shrugged indifferently. "Whenever I mix among mortals, he suspects that I may have been careless."
"So was he here to punish you? To kill you, perhaps? And us as well?"
"LaCroix only wants me to return to him. Once a Roman general, always one, you know. But now he commands an army of one. All the vampires on earth respect him, and obey his demands, but it isn't enough. He wants me, his favorite son, to bow down before him." Nick's tone was biting, filled with sarcasm.
Picard gaped, speechless, more surprised than concerned. "Vampires?"
Nick's laugh didn't reach his eyes. "Didn't you figure that one out yet, Captain? We drink blood, live forever, avoid sunlight, garlic and sharp sticks? Yes, Captain. I am a vampire." The self-loathing in his confession was thick enough to choke on.
"And this upsets you."
"Shouldn't it?" Nick's voice grew louder. "Can you imagine my life? Always craving something I cannot have, driven by the instinct to kill, to survive at all costs? ... and the cost has been my soul."
"Recently, I met a young man who had risked his life to save twelve children. As I looked into his past, I found that he'd also been an ambassador, striving to keep peace, an archaeologist, who's efforts helped to keep the memories of an ancient, peaceful civilization from becoming lost. He's been an officer of the peace to uphold law an order. He's been a doctor, and even a knight. This is not the life of a man without a soul."
"This is not the life of a man at all! I am a monster," Nick hissed, his eyes glowing golden orbs, and his fangs fully extended.
"Nicholas," Picard said evenly, feeling even more like a father at the moment. "It would seem that your trouble is not what you are, but that you do not accept yourself. Counselor Troi is excellent at what she does. While we search for LaCroix, I would like you to spend time with her."
Nick shrugged indifferently.
"Do you have some ideas how to rescue the children, once we find his ship?"
"A simple exchange," Nick said. He was so tired. It was time for this interrogation to end. Wincing, he leaned back onto the soft cushions and closed his eyes. That the captain was blurring and becoming two and three images was making him feel slightly dizzy.
"Unacceptable. I will not barter you away, for Guinan or for anyone."
"I have no choice. I must return to him now..." Nick's voice was drifting. Picard could see he was exhausted. Still, there was not much time left.
"No," Picard disagreed.
"LaCroix knew what he was doing," Nick explained softly. "Mortal blood feeds us, vampire blood excites our passions. But when critically injured, only the blood of a master can heal us. He took the children, knowing I would follow him. Then, by injuring me, he ensures that I will not try to trick him. I will not recover until I feed from him."
"And this will make you well again?"
Nick nodded, almost asleep.
"Is there something we can do to help you? To protect you from your enforcers?"
Nick didn't answer at first. Picard repeated his question, even as he helped Nick to lay down upon the couch, and spread a cover over him.
"Delete all records of my existence from your files. Allow me to hypnotize you and your crew," Nick whispered, before succumbing to the death-like sleep of an injured vampire.
"Done." Picard smiled at the sleeping form, then with a quick glance at the security sensors, he left Nick alone.
== End, flashback ==
Chapter Eleven: The Ambassadors
The alien ship slowed and came to a full stop. Janeway had been broadcasting friendship messages for some time now, but there had been no response. Chakotay and Knight were on the bridge with her, besides the bridge crew. Knight had completed his KP sentence without incident. She had yet to speak to him about the strange visitor to the holodeck. Knight seemed tense and withdrawn. She hoped there weren't problems in the "honeymoon" suite, yet B'Elanna had been out of sorts as well. Now was not the time for personnel dilemmas. First contact was vital. They would either make allies or enemies within the next few minutes. As Knight had been a very successful ambassador before, she felt he might prove useful.
"May I suggest we raise our shields," Tuvok stated.
"No," Janeway replied, thinking aloud. "That might signify an act of aggression. Have they powered up their weapons?"
"Kim, open a channel."
Within moments the bridge of the alien ship filled the viewscreen.
The ship was much brighter than Voyager. Nick winced, blinking back blood tears at the painful light. Kim quickly adjusted the brightness, dimming the light to more comfortable levels.
The alien captain was bipedal, and completely covered with thick, red-brown fur. Longish hair hung over small brown eyes, and when the mouth opened it revealed two rows of large flat teeth. The beings were herbivores, Janeway realized with a subconscious sense of relief. The being spoke then.
The words were booming unintelligible grunts. She glanced quickly at Kim.
"Working on it, Captain," he said without looking up from his station.
She turned again to the alien captain and gestured to him, hoping she was encouraging him to continue. As the sounds were recorded and analyzed by the universal translator, some of the words were translated into Federation standard, then a few more. When Kim told her the translators were fully functional, then she spoke.
"I am Captain Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager," she stated.
The alien captain opened his mouth and made a gesture she could only guess meant surprise. He suddenly became even taller, and she realized that he had been sitting down before. "Greetings Captain Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager," he replied. "I am Captain Murth, Envoy of the Ryeta."
"We are from the Alpha quadrant," she began, then quoted the general coordinates that the mapmakers of this quadrant would use. "We are merely passing through as we journey home."
"How are we able to understand you?" the captain demanded. "And how did you come to be so far from home?"
Janeway indicated the small comm badge pinned to her jacket. "The universal translator changes my words into your language, and visa versa. It is a very useful tool. As to how we came to be here, it is a long story. May I invite you to come aboard? I'd be glad to share it with you."
Nick moved closer to Janeway and spoke very quietly, not permitting the translator to send his words to Murth. "Make a trade, Captain. The offer will assure him of our peaceful intentions."
Janeway nodded her agreement. She sensed wariness on the part of Captain Murth, but then, it was to be expected. "Perhaps my ship's counselor, Lieutenant Knight, and my first officer, Commander Chakotay, could tour your ship while you're here?"
Murth nodded and his wide mouth pulled in an alien smile. He seemed to acknowledge the wisdom in sending a junior officer to start a relationship between their species. If Knight were to fail, then she could take over herself, but if she were to fail from the start where would they be? They exchanged a few more remarks, then closed the channel.
Janeway faced the two she had just committed. "Feel up to a challenge?" she asked.
Chakotay's lips lifted into a slight smile. Nick shrugged distractedly. Janeway hoped that she wasn't going to be sorry she sent him. "Knight? Do you have something to add?"
Nick snapped back to attention. "Sorry Captain," he stammered. "The Ryeta are at war, I'd suspect."
Everyone on the bridge turned to him with surprise. "What makes you think that?" Janeway asked.
"Everyone was carrying a weapon, Captain, and their chests were decorated with medals- perhaps of rank or some military honor. We have phasers, but we don't generally carry them. They approached us with shields raised but weapons off line, yet they carry hand weapons. I'd say that they expect they'll have to use them."
Janeway thought about it, amazed at his conclusion and agreeing with the observation. She wondered how she'd missed it herself. "So, they will probably want weapons or technology that will give them an advantage in their war, which of course, we cannot give them. However, they'll also want to know whose side, if any, we'll take."
They agreed. "Be careful, gentlemen," she admonished them, then led towards the shuttlebay. They had learned in the past not to immediately divulge their transporter technology. By taking a shuttle, they could cross paths with the Ryeta captain, almost like an exchange of hostages. Although, everyone hoped that such a negative connotation would not be necessary.
Nick took the helm, and Chakotay slid into the systems operations seat beside him. Flipping the controls, they closed the hatch. Janeway watched, feeling a cold knot of dread as she let them depart into the unknown. Not long after she was greeting the Ryeta captain. "Oh my," she thought under her breath. "Poor being will have to walk slouched over!" The Ryeta were much taller than she'd expected.
Nick easily maneuvered the shuttle into the alien bay. The opening was at least twice the size of their own bay doors. As the engines quieted and the hatch opened, intense lighting flooded inside. Nick snatched his sunglasses quickly and put them on. With a nod towards his friend and commander, he followed him through the hatch.
The bay area contained a dozen Ryeta, all at attention and wearing what appeared to be weapons, but none of them were drawn. One alien stepped forward with his hands outstretched, palms up, an almost universal greeting of peace, a gesture that said, "See? No weapons."
"I am Kulin, first officer. This is Tregor, ship's cook and all around busy body. He will join us for the tour."
Tregor bowed his head and grinned at his introduction. Chakotay introduced himself and Nick. They both had to tip their heads back to meet the alien faces. The Ryeta averaged three meters tall.
Kulin pointed out various parts of their ship as they viewed the alien equivalents of Voyager, from the bridge to the lounge. Noticeably missing from the tour were any indicators of their weapons capabilities. Nick let Chakotay do most of the talking. He looked everywhere, committing every detail to his near perfect memory. Nothing seemed to stand out as important yet, but he sensed something was not quite right. The crew seemed tense, wary, and more concerned than the presence two small humanoids should have caused.
Finally the tour took them to the ship's mess hall, where Kulin invited them to take a seat. Tregor asked if they would like to try a mug of grog.
"If you will permit Nick to scan it first," Chakotay said.
Nick followed Tregor through the mess hall and into the galley. He stopped abruptly. Inside were three humanoids. They didn't come to greet him, like all the Ryeta had done, but rather stole quick glances in his direction while they continued their various tasks. Nick recognized the gestures of a class of slaves. His eyes narrowed at Tregor.
The tall, furred being poured a large mug full of something hot and spicy then set it on a counter near Nick. "This is grog. We make it from the roots of a plant we call gasti. Brewed, spiced, and heated, it is a favorite beverage among my people."
The scent was strong. Nick struggled to keep a look of revulsion from his face. It would be too confusing trying to explain to these new acquaintances how he and Chakotay were not the same species. Scanning the brew with his tricorder, he processed the information quickly. The beverage was similar to some herbal teas, yet mildly alcoholic like a mulled wine. Chakotay might even like it. Nick nodded his approval. As Tregor filled three more mugs, Nick studied the Ryeta slaves more carefully.
Their blood smelled tantalizing. Their hearts pulsed, slightly irregular and faster than humans. Their bodies were too warm in the steamy galley, as sweat coated their skin and plastered their hair. He could even hear their stomachs churning. Here, in a modern ship and in the midst of a galley of food, the slaves were sick and hungry. His control slipped momentarily. His eyes glowed amber.
Tregor noticed the change, but didn't understand its significance. He did see that his guest was interested in the servants. "These beings are Liat," he informed Nick. "Theirs is a sad tale, and not one of our better moments. Allow me to tell it later perhaps, when we have better met."
Nick nodded curtly. As an ambassador, he could not let his own feelings cloud his judgment. Yet, in the miserable Liat slaves, bullied and imprisoned by more powerful beings, he saw something of himself. And he didn't like it.
The vampire slid next to Chakotay at a large round table. Their feet didn't even touch the floor when they climbed onto the high sturdy chairs. Tregor set a mug in front of each of them, then he sat in the last chair. Chakotay lifted the mug and paused. The Ryeta reached for theirs and paused as well.
"Among our species, it is often customary to propose a toast before tipping a mug. The toast is a statement of hope, or a polite remark wishing good health. May I?"
Kulin gestured his assent.
"To us! May we discover common grounds among our peoples, and forge a new friendship swiftly!"
"Here, here," Nick commented unenthusiastically. Chakotay clinked his mug at Nick's a little forcefully, compelling him to behave more like an ambassador should. The Ryeta soldiers imitated the mug-clinking ritual awkwardly, then downed half the contents in a single swallow.
Chakotay gulped the grog, trying to match the larger Ryeta. The hot brew was very spicy and the alcoholic punch was more like moonshine than wine. He blinked quickly at the moisture that sprang to his eyes and tried not to cough. Kulin grinned widely, slamming his mug on the table and laughing. "No, Tregor! These alpha-quadranters are nothing like your Liat! To us!" he repeated the toast, and tossed the remainder of his glass down his throat.
Nick touched the grog to his lips and forced himself not to gag. There was no way he could drink this. In a gesture he'd rehearsed with Chakotay before, he set his mug down by his left hand, and Chakotay set his down at the right, discretely swapping mugs during the ensuing conversation. Of course, Chakotay would then get a double-shot of booze, but it was a small price to pay when building interspecies relationships.
"Tell us a bit about your travels," Tregor suggested. Nick saw the question for what it was. They wanted to know if Voyager had made contact with their enemies. Without telling Voyager the name of their enemy first, it could be dangerous to answer. They had met many beings in the past four years. Some pleasant, some violent. Was there a name among them that would threaten the Ryeta, and possibly place him and Chakotay in grave danger? Would they go from ambassador to hostage in a matter of minutes?
Their enemies would have to have developed a similar level of weapons and technology, or the war would be decidedly over. Most recently they had met the Bugali. The Bugali possessed warp travel, weapons, shields, and technology. While Voyager was present, they even staged a civil war, playing on the Captain's loyalty to Starfleet protocol in an attempt to gain transporter technology. The Bugali could be the enemies... but Nick didn't think so. If the Bugali were occupied with a major war, they would not have had the time to stage the elaborate deception.
Chakotay had swallowed more of the grog, buying time before answering. Nick spoke up.
"Recently we met the Bugali, about six weeks from here. Have you met them?"
He watched closely, and tried to catch the sounds of the Ryeta heartbeat, to judge their reaction. Although neither soldier made any sound or gesture, he did hear a slight acceleration of their pulse. The Bugali were known, and not favorably, but they were not feared.
"We ran into some trouble with them," Nick admitted then. "A misunderstanding, perhaps. But after they gave us the supplies we requested to repair the damage they inflicted on our ship, then we released their heir apparent and left their space unharmed."
Chakotay gulped at Nick's forthrightness. It was a bit more information than he would have divulged at this point. But Kulin burst out in a loud guffaw. "Caught the snotty little bastard, did you! Ha-ha!"
Nick continued then, naming several of the more distant species. Now that he'd gained some trust dropping a name they were familiar with, he mentioned the Kazon and Ocampa, the Viddians, Lorns, Mufak- they'd met so many beings. He watched the Ryeta carefully, but their heartrates remained constant. He felt more assured that they had not met the Ryetan enemies yet. It unnerved him somewhat, to think that there was another alien culture out there, more powerful and intimidating than the Bugali, enemies of the Ryeta, that might pose a threat to his crew. And Chakotay's heart was beating oddly. Nick glanced at him. The grog had hit hard. Chakotay's eyes seemed a little unfocused. Nick prolonged his stories, to give his friend a chance to recover. Janeway would not be happy if he passed out drunk on the negotiating table.
Sometime during the conversation, one of the Liat servants had slipped to Tregor's side and curled up on the floor at his feet. Nick listened for the others. They must have fallen asleep in the galley as well. Nick tried to steer the conversation back to the Ryeta. He'd revealed enough for now. Let them speak.
Kulin swung a long, furred foot and kicked the sleeping Liat awake. The small creature scrambled to his feet and stared at them with wide, frightened eyes. Nick felt his anger burn in his throat.
"More Grog!" Kulin commanded, slamming his empty mug on the table.
The Liat bowed and hurried into the galley, returning shortly with a heavy pitcher. It was challenging for the small, thin-boned servant even standing on tiptoes to fill the solid mugs when the table was nearly as high as his chest.
The Liat boy looked to be no more seven or eight, if they matured similarly to humans. Nick carefully kept his voice neutral. "He is little more than a child," he said to Tregor.
"Aye," the Ryetan cook replied with a trace of sadness. "And worse than that. Like most Liat, he is an orphan."
Chakotay put his hand over his mug and spoke directly to the Liat. "None for me, thanks." His words sounded slurred. "I've had enough."
"They may look like you, human, but they aren't like you at all," Kulin snorted with disgust. "Just dumb beasts, and more of a burden than they're worth."
"That's enough," Tregor hissed at the Ryetan first officer. Then forcing a more pleasant expression, he spoke to Chakotay. "Now how about we get down to business. What is it that you want from us?"
Chapter Twelve: The Liat
Chakotay was almost drunk beyond the ability to carry on any sort of conversation. Nick felt presumptuous taking charge. He may be older than the combined ages of every person present, but he wasn't prepared for the responsibility. He'd valued his independence too much to seek promotions, and changed identities about every ten years- generally changing careers as well. He tried supporting Chakotay with a hypnotic push, suggesting comments for him to make, but it was exhausting, and although Chakotay received the message, it tangled in his mouth and came out wrong.
So Nick told them. Voyager merely wanted permission to pass through their space. They would need to stop at least once along the way, in about two weeks, to restock their ever-dwindling food supplies. And if the Ryeta had any star charts of the next sector, Voyager would be most interested in them.
Tregor nodded, patting the head of the Liat beside him absently. Kulin made no outward gesture at all. "We have the power to grant your request," Kulin stated, his voice dropping a few tones lower. "For a price."
Then he proceeded with inquiry after inquiry about Voyager's weapons capability, Voyager's defense systems, and even their improved warp design. Nick had no trouble keeping Federation secrets. He didn't honestly know the answers. But each time he sidestepped a direct question, he saw Kulin become more agitated. He felt he was quickly losing control of the negotiations and he wished desperately that Chakotay hadn't abandoned him.
"I wonder how our captains are getting on," Tregor said abruptly, interrupting Kulin.
Nick felt a sense of relief and smiled at the cook. "I'll bet that Captain Murth has a killer cramp in his neck about now," he said with a grin.
Kulin and Chakotay both jumped at his choice of adjective. Nick had used it deliberately. "Our ceilings are much lower," he explained.
That brought a round of laughter from everyone.
"I suggest then, that we end for now. I think we've made progress. Perhaps we could return tomorrow and find the answers we seek?"
Tregor stood. "Good idea. I'll be needing to get the next meal underway soon."
Chakotay slid down from his high chair and only wobbled a little. If Nick could keep the Captain distracted, she might not even notice Chakotay's condition. Nick and Tregor led, with Kulin and Chakotay several steps behind. They waited outside of the Ryeta bridge while Kulin went in and contacted their captain. Nick could hear their conversation, even through the closed doors and the background noise of the ship's many systems. Although neither side appeared overtly hostile, Nick suspected trust had not yet been gained. He and Chakotay would only be allowed to leave when Captain Murth was preparing to leave Voyager. Finally, Kulin exited and set a slow pace towards their shuttle bay.
The small Liat servant ran up to Tregor, grunting incoherently, with fear on his face. The universal translator remained silent, unable to make sense of the sounds. This was not another language. Kulin growled and prepared to strike the servant out of his way, but Tregor stopped his hand.
"Hold," he said. "This is unusual behavior for him. I must try to find out what has frightened him."
"They are not intelligent," Kulin insisted. "Stop anthropomorphizing your pets!"
The Liat continued to grunt and gesticulate, tears now coursing down his cheeks. Nick stepped forward and touched the frightened boy gently. "Talk to me," he said. "Try to tell me again what is the matter?"
The Liat fell silent. He looked straight at Nick, then smiled. Moments later, Nick clutched his head, crying out, as a host of images swam in his thoughts.
Tregor supported him with a gentle paw. "What is it? What is happening?"
"Kittim?" he shouted. "Someone called Kittim is sick?"
Tregor gaped at him, momentarily stunned. How could he know? No sounds had been uttered. Nick nodded toward the Liat boy. "Show us where," he said.
The Liat turned and hurried down the corridor, looking back over his shoulder to see that he was followed. He led to what might have been the captain's quarters, and lying in the doorway was a very sick, unconscious Liat boy. Nick knelt beside him and felt for a pulse. There was a small cut on the boy's forehead; he'd probably injured himself falling against the doorframe. Nick touched the thick, red liquid and brought it to his nose. His teeth ached at the fresh site, but he held himself in check. The blood had the scent of disease.
Kulin dismissed the sick boy with a snort. "It is time for you to leave," he said. "We will take care of it."
Nick didn't move. The boy was burning with fever. If something weren't done soon, he would die. "Where is your doctor?" he demanded.
Tregor knelt beside him and touched a massive furry paw to his shoulder. "Our doctor doesn't know anything about the Liat. There is no known cure for this disease."
"He is going to die!" Nick shouted.
"I know," Tregor whispered.
Nick scooped the boy into his arms and stood. "Let me take him back to our ship. Perhaps our doctor can help."
Kulin cleared his throat and stammered indecisively. "I don't know, he's the captain's Liat, perhaps we should ask him?"
"He needs help NOW!"
Tregor nodded his assent. "Go ahead."
Nick caught the boy's faint heartbeat and glanced at Chakotay. The boy might not survive even the brief shuttle flight, yet Chakotay was in no shape to fly it alone. Revealing their transporter technology at perhaps an inopportune moment, Nick slapped his comm badge and called to the technician. "Three to beam directly to sick bay!"
Tregor and Kulin stared in awe as their molecules faded and scattered right before their eyes.
== Enterprise, ten years ago ==
Picard secured Geordi's help in cleaning up the sensor logs of any suspicious recordings, save the one he'd just made. That he tucked securely in his quarters with a note to himself. He would protect his crew, but he would stubbornly retain his own memories. Then, he sat by observing while Nick gently removed certain memories and replaced them. The doctor was given new information on Nick's physical condition, Worf "forgot" how the vampire had been so much stronger than he. Deana's empathic abilities made her more challenging. She had to be convinced that the mind purge was necessary, then she had to submit her will, which was not something the independent Betazoid was particularly fond of. Then, Picard allowed Nick to hypnotize him, as well. Let Nick think he'd cleaned up after himself. Later, as he returned to his quarters, a little tired and confused from the ordeal, he read an incredible note he'd written to himself, enough to reclaim that which Nick had taken from him.
Finally, the small transport in which LaCroix had fled was located, and Picard conferred with him on the hostage exchange. The time and place was set. Picard kept his tone cool and disdainful, yet controlled. There still had to be some way to help Nick and save the children, but he hadn't thought of it yet. At least, by going along, he could buy them a little time. Nick was still very pale and weak. Perhaps, he did need to see his master?
At the appointed time, Picard and Nick transported to the planet's surface alone. They brought no weapons and no tricorders. Nick released his steadying grip on the Captain's shoulder quickly, struggling to stand on his own. Shortly, LaCroix stepped out from behind a building. He took two steps forward and motioned behind him. Guinan came forward. Cautiously, Guinan and Nick walked towards each other. In the center, they clasped hands and parted, with Guinan continuing on towards Captain Picard, and Nick went to the ancient vampire.
LaCroix scowled at his faltering steps and sneered.
Nick knelt before him, exhausted. "Please, release the children," he whispered.
LaCroix gloated at his prodigal child for a few moments. Then, speaking loud enough for Picard to hear, he asserted his position over Nick. "Come, my son. Come and heal thyself." He drew Nick up, baring his throat to expose a smooth, firm neck.
Nick weakly wrapped his arms around LaCroix. The scent of his father filled him, excited and repulsed him. It had been many years since they'd been at peace with one another. He still sensed LaCroix's anger burning just beneath the cool exterior. If LaCroix was healing him now, it was only to punish him more later. Still, the sharp pains in his back and weak numbness in his legs was sheer torture. He licked at the exposed neck to bring the jugular closer to the surface. His fangs descended and he sank them into the soft flesh.
The ancient blood poured into him. Brief images of the past few years flitted across his mind- LaCroix's pain and loneliness, his overpowering rage, and his utter loathing of children! The humorous exchanges between him and the formidable Guinan.... Nick felt his own strength returning, and with it, he knew what he must do.
"Forgive me, my father," he whispered, as large red tears streamed down his face.
LaCroix looked on first with curiosity, and then with surprise, as Nick drove a wooden stake into his chest. The ancient crumpled to the ground gasping in pain. Nick flew away. Away from him, and away from the captain. Nick stole LaCroix's ship with the children still on board and fled into the void.
=== End flashback ==
Chapter thirteen: The Sick
As their molecules reformed in the sickbay of Voyager, Chakotay lunged towards the head and promptly heaved into the toilet. The doctor glanced from Nick to Chakotay and started towards the first officer.
"Forget him," Nick demanded, as he lay the unconscious Liat on a vacant biobed. "I need you here. His heart rate is rapid and shallow, and he's feverish. He cut himself when he fell- I don't think the cut is serious, but he has been unconscious for some time."
Having brought the doctor up to date, Nick treated the fever with the ancient treatment of cold water compresses, while the doctor ran the initial tests to see if Federation medical technology would help or harm this delta-quadrant native. "Should I call for assistance? Does Chakotay need medical attention?" he asked.
"No," Nick grunted. "I think he drank something that didn't agree with him." There, it was honest yet vague. "Chakotay will be fine."
"His name is Kittim," Nick added. The boy looked to be about twelve. He was no longer a child, yet not quite an adult. His arms were too thin. He bore all the symptoms of malnutrition. He was clean though, as was his simple clothing.
The doctor nodded as the results came through. Then he administered a fever-reducing drug to the alien. He watched the boy's life signs on the display above the bed. Very similar to human. It was uncanny, really. They could travel for months and not meet another red-blooded humanoid species, but eventually, another would crop up, another example in the random process of evolution that closely resembled the humans of Earth so far away. It happened far too often to accept a purely scientific explanation. It was almost as if some ancient being had seeded these planets with the same prehistoric material.
The doctor was stopped in his philosophical tracks as a small readout caught his attention.
"Nick, this boy is sick," he stated.
"Of course he's sick," Nick exclaimed. "That's why I brought him here!"
"No, I mean, contagious. You should not have brought him on board."
Chakotay stumbled from the head, a few shades too pale and looking very tired. He barely acknowledged them as he headed towards the door. The doctor blinked from beside the biobed and materialized to block Chakotay's path. The Indian almost lost his balance. Holding his head with both hands, he scolded the EMH. "Can't you do that quieter?"
The doctor held a tricorder and waved it at Chakotay for several moments. "I'm afraid that you will not be leaving here for some time, Commander."
"Don't worry, Doc. I'll be fine," he said, his words still slurred.
"That remains to be seen. You have been exposed to an alien disease and I am detecting its presence in your bloodstream. Until I verify that you are not contagious, you will be going no where."
Chakotay snapped an angry retort, then clutched at his painful head again. He swayed unsteadily and finally fell to the floor. The doctor lifted him and laid him on a biobed near the alien Kittim. The biobed instantly assessed his condition and displayed the readings above. Nick and the doctor both saw the elevated temperature and high white blood cell count, so very similar to Kittim's.
"I'm sorry," Nick stammered, as the reality of his error struck home. "I didn't know! I didn't think! Oh no..."
The doctor gave Chakotay the same drug for fevers, too busy to physically comfort the vampire, but he consoled him with a few words. "It wasn't your fault, Nick. Chakotay was exposed to the disease the moment your shuttle landed on their ship and the hatch opened. You've been exposed as well. I am afraid that we are all prisoners here, for the time being."
Nick could not think clearly. The doctor gave him short, specific directions and Nick carried them out, as they tried to make the patients more comfortable. Then the doctor prepared several blood samples and took them to his lab to begin to analyze the disease. Nick checked on Kittim again. The boy's fever was down. He was still asleep, but the immediate emergency had past. Then he went to Chakotay.
The Indian put a shaky hand to his forehead and rubbed. "So what'd you spike that with, Nick," he whispered, trying to quirk a smile at the vampire. He didn't quite succeed.
"You should have warned me that you couldn't hold your liquor," Nick replied, returning the smile. "I'm sorry you were coming down with something and I didn't realize it. I really thought it was the booze."
"So did I," Chakotay said. He grimaced, his head pounding fiercely. Nick grabbed a container fast, just in time, as Chakotay heaved violently. There were traces of blood in the foul smelling bile.
Nick masked his concerns. "I can help you," he said gently. "I can take the pain away."
Chakotay hesitated, trying to face the pain with his usual stoicism. He couldn't even nod his assent, it hurt too much. He shut his eyes and covered them with both hands, tears of pain slipping through his fingers.
Nick gently pulled his hands away from his face and stared into Chakotay's deep brown eyes, catching the rhythmic pulse of his heart. The pulse seemed a little rapid and shallow. Chakotay was a resistor, a mortal that was difficult to hypnotize, but Nick had learned that if resistors just relaxed and permitted the invasion, sometimes it would work. It got easier with age, as well. Although LaCroix was still more powerful, Nick was stronger than he had been. Chakotay's resistance melted. Completely trusting, he returned Nick's steady gaze.
"You will feel no pain," Nick whispered soothingly. "You will sleep now, and when you awake, you will feel no pain."
Briefly, a look of gratitude spread across his face, then Chakotay went into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"You'll have to teach me how to do that sometime," the doctor remarked with a trace of his inherent sarcasm. He continued to flip through the extensive medical archives looking for any reference to a similar disease.
"Doc," Nick began, worrying aloud. "Chakotay and I never touched this Liat, we never even saw him before Chakotay started to become ill. Just how contagious is this?"
The doctor displayed his holographic superiority, as he was able to carry on a conversation without interrupting his research. "You didn't see or touch him... it could be an air-borne virus then."
"Is the captain at risk?"
"No, I don't think so," the doctor said. "She didn't go to their ship, she didn't breathe their air."
"But they came here- in a shuttle."
The doctor froze in his actions. Slowly he turned to face Nick with a look of horror on his features. "Shuttle?" he whispered.
At Nick's nod, the doctor switched to annoyed and angry. "Shuttle! Why wasn't I told! Why didn't they just transport over? No airborne virus would have made the transport! And the transporter filters might have eliminated it if they had!"
Nick didn't know how to answer. He stood still, fear immobilizing him.
The doctor was the first to recover. "Captain," he called, tapping his comm badge.
At her reply, he continued, his calm voice betraying nothing. "Switch to a secure channel, please."
She did so, taking a moment before speaking. She had moved to her private ready room, switching from the voice only comm to the viewscreen and using a priority frequency. "Yes, doctor," she asked, concern evident.
"We have a situation," he understated. "How do you feel?"
Often Janeway scoffed at his concerns for her health, but this time she simply paused and thought before answering his question directly. "Fine, I think," she said. "A slight headache. But that's to be expected after the strain of first contact."
"Tell me, exactly, when the Ryeta arrived, where they went, and who they came into contact with."
Janeway's concern was growing by the moment. She answered the doctor, giving a rather extensive list and gesturing with her hands as she paced the confines of the room. Captain Murth had been given a three-quarter tour of Voyager. Basically, he saw everything except weapons, main engineering, and a few storage rooms. The doctor shook his head. By now, the entire crew had been exposed.
"We have unleashed a new virus on board. I fear that it will spread rather rapidly. Commander Chakotay is already very ill." He stepped aside then, allowing the viewer to focus on the still form of the first officer. Chakotay's color was ashen, with dark circles under his eyes. His black hair matted to his face with perspiration. He did not look like the same man who'd left Voyager only six hours ago.
"I'll contact Captain Murth at once."
Nick interrupted. "Captain? Tregor told me before we left, their doctor does not know how to treat this illness."
Her chin quivered ever so slightly, the iron control of the captain slipped as she faced an unknown threat to her crew. "How serious is this illness?"
Nick couldn't look away. He could offer her no other comfort. "To the Liat, the subservient species on the Ryetan ship, it is fatal."
Janeway snapped off the viewer. A few moments later she was outside of sickbay demanding entrance. The doctor hesitated before removing the quarantine lock from the door. The entire ship had already been exposed. They would either get sick or not, and locking half the contaminated air in sickbay would have no effect. She strode in briskly, first checking Chakotay for herself, then turning to the Liat patient she hadn't even been aware of. "Tell me everything," she said flatly.
Nick told her about his entire encounter with the Ryeta, leaving out no detail. He told her about the grog and how Chakotay drank both his and Nick's, and how Nick just thought the commander had been inebriated. He told about the enslavement of the Liat, and then how he came to bring the sick boy on to Voyager. During his report, the doctor took a blood sample from the captain and compared it with Chakotay's and Kittim's.
"Well?" she asked the doctor.
"The virus is present in your system," he replied.
"Why is Chakotay so sick already, and I'm not?"
"I would need a sample of Ryetan air to be certain, but I believe that this virus probably exists in greater concentrations over there. Chakotay was there for hours, breathing it in, letting it multiply. The small amount of air they brought over in their shuttle escaped into our system. Perhaps if you put one team onto discovering a way to prohibit its ability to multiply in our atmosphere we can at least slow the spread of the disease and buy me time."
Janeway looked at Chakotay again, clasping his still hand in hers and patting it affectionately. The readings above his head didn't quite convey the seriousness of the situation. He was sick, but he wasn't critical yet.
"Nick put him to sleep," the doctor explained. "His headache was severe."
"I'll contact Captain Murth," she said. "We'll get records of whatever research they've already done. Maybe it will give you a head start on what not to try. Who else can help you?"
"Nick can stay," he said. "If for no other help than as a pain-reliever. I'd like Tom Paris assigned here, if possible."
"Tom?" she asked. Tom was a great pilot, and Chakotay was her second choice at the helm. Nick was a close running third. If all of them were in sick bay, they'd not be going anywhere fast. And Tom had the potential to be brilliant, but his dyslexia and sporadic education coupled with a low self-esteem crippled him more often than not.
"Yes. Although I'm certain he is the most annoying crewman on board, he also has an uncanny skill at problem solving."
Captain Janeway turned to leave. Her posture seemed forced now, as she put on a brave front for her crew.
"Captain?" Nick said. "I'm sorry. I didn't think, and I put the crew in danger."
"It's not your fault, Nick," she assured him. "Bringing that sick boy on board was the human thing to do, even if it wasn't the Starfleet response." Then she left. Nick wasn't sure if she'd meant it as praise, but he felt strangely comforted. Was he actually starting to think like a human more than a vampire?
The doctor grabbed a quick blood sample from Nick while he was lost in thought. Startled, the vampire emerged in full force, flashing fangs at the hologram and crashing Nick's euphoric bubble instantly.
"There, there," the doctor soothed patronizingly. "All done. Now that wasn't so bad."
Nick didn't force his beast away immediately, venting his anger. "What the hell was that for!"
The doctor examined the sample under his microscope and shook his head. "The virus is present in your blood as well. I was hoping that since you aren't human, this wouldn't affect you."
"It won't," Nick growled. "I don't get sick."
The doctor ignored him, stepping aside for Nick to see the sample for himself. Nick looked into the eyepiece. He wasn't going to tell the doc the images meant little to him. Magnified blood cells all pretty much looked alike to his untrained eye. But, something did look familiar... Once, three hundred years ago, he'd had plenty of opportunity to examine his blood in this fashion, as a mortal friend, Natalie, had tried to help him find a cure for his curse.
The doctor stepped in front of Nick and flashed a small, bright light in his eyes. Nick blinked painfully, pulling away.
"Tell me if you develop a head ache or other symptom," the doctor intoned as he returned to his research.
Captain Janeway took an indirect route to the bridge, needing the time to collect herself. Some small, evil thought kept niggling at her. What if this had been planned? What if the Ryeta had purposefully exposed them to this serious illness? Biological weapons were not unheard of, although they were considered unethical by nearly every developed species with whom she had ever come into contact. She was furious that somehow she had failed her crew and permitted this danger to affect them.
Finally, the turbolift doors parted and she stepped on to her bridge. "Contact Captain Murth," she stated.
When Murth's furry form filled the viewscreen, she spoke sternly. "Commander Chakotay has taken ill. He caught whatever disease infects the Liat on your ship."
Murth gasped and staggered. Taking two unsteady steps backward, he collapsed into his chair. "Oh gods, no..."
At least that fear was laid to rest, Janeway thought. Murth's reaction seemed genuine. "I need access to whatever research you have done into this disease."
He nodded vaguely, still in shock.
"And I'd like the history of it. Who are these Liat? How did this disease come to infect your vessel? Why are you continuing to spread it around the galaxy?"
Murth grunted angrily, but the emotion was short lived. He seemed suddenly to grow old and tired before her eyes. "Captain Janeway, allow me to send Dr. Fyid over with the records. Also, Tregor, our cook, may prove useful. He is more familiar with the Liat."
Janeway agreed. "We will transport them here, rather than bring more of your contaminated air onto our ship. The transporters are quite safe. Just have the coordinates sent when you are ready." The she terminated the communication.
A hush fell on the bridge. She could feel their eyes turned to her expectantly. How could she face them? Until more was known about this illness, she would just press on with business as usual. But could their alpha-quadrant holographic program hope to find a cure to a disease when the best scientists of this region had failed?
Decisively, she turned to Ensign Kim, the second youngest person on the ship. Ever since taking command of this crew, she'd felt more than just his captain. He'd always looked at her with a mixture of awe and respect and youthful enthusiasm, the perfect Starfleet cadet. It hadn't been a conscious act, but she had treated him differently. More protectively, perhaps. And at the rare times when he'd let her down, her reprimand had been more severe. Facing him now was the hardest thing she had ever had to do.
Yet, the black eyes of the Asian officer looked back at her now with compassion. He was offering her support! She stared at him, seeing acknowledgment in the intelligent features. He was not the naïve Ensign blindly trusting her; he was a seasoned officer now. He would do his duty until he was physically unable to do so anymore.
"Kim, I want you to work with B'Elanna. The air filtration systems need to be reprogrammed to screen out this virus and eliminate it. The doctor feels that will slow the spread of infection."
"How is Chakotay, Captain?"
"Serious, but stable," she answered, hoping that was correct. She heard the collective sigh of relief, then saw it in their faces. One by one, the bridge officers returned to their consoles. She would need to make a shipwide announcement soon, before the rumors spread conflicting messages, but she would wait until she had a little more information.
Chapter fourteen: The Brawl
Tom came in to sickbay, his jacket unzipped and his hair uncombed. He looked like he'd just crawled out of bed. "Captain said you needed me, doc," he drawled insolently.
"Yes, read these reports about the disease and cross-reference them with our own." The doctor handed a box full of the alien documents to him then returned to his microscope.
Tom dumped the box unceremoniously onto a desk. "Geesh, doc. It's four in the morning! Can't you just give me the short version?"
"Nick!" the doctor snapped. "Fill him in! I don't have time!"
Nick jumped from his perch between the two biobeds, where he'd kept a silent vigil on the patients. The fevers were tenaciously resisting the medication. He'd continued to bathe them with cool water throughout the night. He left them now, both sleeping fitfully, and walked to Tom's side.
Tom eyed him coolly. The younger officer crossed his arms in front of him and leaned back against the desk in a defiant pose. Nick hesitated, and tried to think beyond the fuzziness induced from lack of sleep. Had he offended Tom somehow?
"Chakotay became infected by some alien disease while we were aboard the Ryetan ship earlier. We've all been exposed. We may have only a few days to find a cure."
Tom glared at him, then whirled around on the doctor. "Shit! Or what? A few days! Then what, how serious is this?"
"Tom, control yourself," the doctor said. "I could use your clear thinking and unique perspective. If you can't help then get out."
Nick put a gentle hand on Tom's shoulder. It was a hell of a way to wake up, he thought. But it wasn't fear that clouded Tom's blue eyes, it was rage.
"Don't Touch Me!" he hissed.
Nick's hand dropped uselessly to his side. He didn't have time for this now, either. As much as he hated to destroy the tentative relationship he'd been building, Chakotay's life, and maybe the lives of most of the crew, were depending on them now. He pulled rank.
Standing tall and straightening his uniform jacket, Nick buried his emotions beneath a stony mask. "Watch it, Ensign," he commanded. Then lifting the box of alien files, he shoved them at Tom. "We will process these together. Now!"
The rage boiled a few moments longer, then Tom responded with his usual cocky façade. "Whatever you say, Lieutenant." The title sounded more like an insult.
The files were a totally different storage system, and recorded in an alien language. Voyager's computers couldn't handle them. The first order of business was to jerry-rig the Ryetan and Federation technology together. It was just the sort of thing Tom excelled at. He tried one method, and when it was less than successful, he tried another. He thought aloud, and Nick helped him as much as he was able, mostly by just handing him the right tools when he needed them. Before long, the makeshift scanner was functional. It would take an hour to scan and translate the files, assuming nothing burned out in the meantime.
"Good," the doctor stated. "Now you two go get something to eat. Nick, get some rest, then report back here as soon as you are able. Tom, I'll see you back in an hour. And chuck the attitude."
Tom sauntered out the door. Nick took several quick steps to catch up.
"Tom? What's up," he asked.
"Nothing," he grunted, not slowing his pace.
"Like hell," Nick cursed, slipping into the same speech patterns as his "client".
"Bug off, Lieutenant," Tom said. "You're off duty now. Get out of my face."
"No," Nick answered. He was tired. He was worried and scared. And he was in no mood to coddle this arrogant twit, when he was just begging for a fight.
Tom spun around and pushed Nick back. "I said, bug off!"
Nick collided with the bulkhead, waking the crew behind the wall. A pair of sleepy faces poked out of the door. "Go back to bed," Nick snapped at them. "You didn't see a thing."
Then he lunged at Tom, tackling him to the floor. He caught the bulk of his weight on his own arms as they fell, not wanting to seriously injure the human. The corridor was too narrow for a good fight. Tom landed a few punches, Nick pulled a few of his, bruising Tom but not killing him, all the time progressing slowly towards the mess hall. At this hour, the corridors were empty. Of course, if the Captain happened to take notice, they would both land in the brig for conduct unbecoming an officer, but hell. Like Tom pointed out, they were both off duty. He threw Tom through the door to the mess hall. Tom toppled over a few chairs as he landed. Then, slamming him up against a wall, Nick glared at him with golden eyes. He'd try once more with a simple question. Then he'd just do the hypnotic thing again.
"What the hell is the matter with you!"
"You!" Tom spat, rage burning ever more brightly.
Nick waited for him to continue.
"You! I thought maybe you could help. I was starting to like you, to trust you, even. But you can't even help yourself! You're still a victim, you sonofabitch!"
Nick held him pinned and tried to think what Tom was talking about. A victim? Not he! Vampires were indestructible, almost. Maybe this was about LaCroix. Nick vaguely remembered the holodeck.
"No, I'm not!" he denied. "I don't allow him to win, because I refuse to play his games. When I stopped rising to take the bait, he lost interest in badgering me, Tom. That fight on the holodeck is not who we are!"
"But I was there! He - he hurt you! And you just took it." Tears of rage, years of anger, coursed down Tom's cheeks.
"Think back, Tom. I attacked him. I could have left the holodeck and refused to fight, but I bit him first. Remember?"
Tom hesitated, gulping in air, still trembling with emotion. "Why?"
"Because of you," Nick said softly. "It was you he was angry with. He would have killed you."
Tom didn't speak. He struggled in Nick's firm grasp, but Nick wasn't ready to let him go. He looked at Nick then, through tear-filled eyes. "Oh, god, Nick! I- I'm sorry."
"Don't do that! This guilt trip thing! Neither of us knew that it would be so real. I'm still not sure what happened. And I should have warned you- prepared you- on the proper etiquette when addressing a 2300 year old vampire."
Nick then loosened his hold on Tom.
"But I hate him," Tom whispered, his voice trembling. New tears coursed down his face, as the pain of old wounds burst.
"I know," Nick said gently, knowing that they were no longer discussing LaCroix. "I know you do. And that's okay. You have a right to your feelings."
Tom sniffed. He brought his jacket sleeve up to wipe his face on it. "But he's my father! And I hate him!"
"That's not a sin, Tom. Go ahead and hate him. He treated you rotten. Do you remember the Ten Commandments?"
"Were there only ten?" Tom quipped, attempting a moment of jest in his misery. "Seems like there had to have been a hundred at least. Thou shalt stand up when I'm speaking to you. Thou shalt address me with respect at all times. Thou shalt not cry at funerals... shit, his list was endless."
Nick tried to smile with Tom, but hunger, exhaustion, and the recent brawl were wearing him out. He wasn't sure he could remain vertical must longer, let alone coherent. "There are ten, Tom. In the Old Testament. Even if you don't believe what's written in the Bible, the commandments are still a very simple, very elegant, standard for living. And most governments from earth's past have been based on them. But they say, "thou shalt honor thy father and mother." The commandments tell us not to kill, not to lie, not to feel envy. But only to honor your father. It doesn't say you should love him."
"Like what's the difference," Tom said miserably.
"There's a world of difference! You can't change him. He's been a bastard all his life. But you can change yourself. You can change the way you relate to him. You can refuse to play his power games anymore. He dealt you a dirty hand, and abandoned you when you needed him. But if you lay down and pay for that the rest of your life, then he's won! It's time to face the past. And to refuse to let it influence you any more."
"I don't know how."
"Then we'll learn how together," Nick promised.
"Um, Nick?" Tom asked, breaking an awkward silence.
"The fangs. Really cool, but, do you bring them out in all your counseling sessions?"
Nick blinked, struggling to see the young mortal through the golden haze of his vampiric vision. His teeth ached. But he didn't want this one. He swayed on unsteady feet.
"Come on, Nick. Maybe you'd better sit down," Tom said, helping the vampire to a chair. He rummaged through Neelix's kitchen and returned quickly with a bottle of Bugali blood and a glass. Nick grabbed the bottle and drank straight from it, gulping the contents in a few swallows.
"Nick? How long 've you been up? Do you know what time it is?"
The vampire cocked his head at the mortal. Another question. What did he want?
"Okay, old man. Time for bed. Come with me, that's a good boy," Tom said, struggling to pull Nick back to his feet. "Give me a little help here, Nick." With no small effort, he managed to get Nick to the nearest quarters- his own. He didn't feel like barging in on B'Elanna in the middle of the night, and he knew he'd never get Nick up the stairs in his loft. So Tom helped him to his own bed, which was still unmade, and pulled the covers up after first pulling off his boots. The vampire was already dead to the world.
"Thanks, Nick," Tom whispered, even though he knew he couldn't disturb him. "For everything."
Chapter fifteen: The Cure
It was late the next afternoon before Nick awoke. After a moment of disorientation, he gave up trying to figure out whose bed he was in. Stepping in to the sonic shower everything came clean, even the clothes he's slept in. It saved the effort of changing. Neelix handed him his next meal as he passed through the mess hall, then he turned towards sickbay.
It was crowded. Tom was still there, looking just as he had late last night, only more tired. He was shaking the Ryeta doctor and jabbing him in the chest, but his angry words were drowned out by the other noises in the room. Tregor and Captain Murth were slouching on chairs, performing various tasks for the EMH. Every biobed was filled. Several of the crew were moaning in their misery, clutching their heads. The doctor acknowledged Nick with a curt nod. "See if you can help them," he snapped. "None of the medications seems to have the slightest effect.
Nick went to each of them, helping them to block the pain with an hypnotic suggestion. Then he checked on Chakotay and Kittim. The first officer was much worse. His color was deathly, his fingers looked blue, and his breathing sounded labored. Kittim was not much changed from the day before, except that he was awake.
Kittim's eyes were wide. He stared, looking frightened and alone. Nick went to him. He wasn't sure how the Liat communicated. Their grunts didn't seem to be a true language, and they didn't speak the Ryetan tongue. He brushed his hand through Kittim's wispy hair, comfortingly.
"Hello, Kittim," he said in a soft voice. "Just rest. You'll be safe here. We are all trying to make you well again."
Suddenly Kittim tried to sit up. He struggled against Nick's restraining hands and Nick felt a sharp stab of pain in his head along with unclear impressions of terror.
Tregor came over quickly. He placed a hand on Kittim's chest and commanded him to "Stay." Then he turned to Nick. "What is it? Can you tell me how you understood my Liat on the ship?"
Nick rubbed at his head, blinking back the red tears the sudden pain had brought to his eyes. The pain was gone now, but he knew things he hadn't known a minute ago.
Kittim was afraid for his life- not from the disease, but from the Ryeta. He felt that only if he got out of bed and returned to work would he be allowed to live. The boy also seemed very, very young- much more timid and insecure than a human child of twelve might have been.
"He thinks you're going to kill him," Nick told Tregor, leveling him with an icy stare.
Tregor shrugged with defeat. "The mighty Ryeta assumed responsibility for the deaths of the Liat. It was our virus that infected their simple planet and wiped out half of the population in a matter of weeks. We built shelters for their young, but there were so many. So we started to take them into space with us. But, when they become too ill to work any more, they are often destroyed. It seemed kinder than to let them suffer, knowing was no cure."
"That's despicable," Nick seethed.
"I know, Nick, that my people are unethical opportunists. But these problems were created by our parents' parents. I was born into this culture, and do not know how to change it."
Nick struggled to contain his anger. Tregor's sarcastic self-loathing helped. Instead, the vampire turned to Kittim again. "We are not going to kill you. We will work as long as it takes to find a cure."
Kittim began to cough. His breathing rattled in his chest, causing the cough to get worse. Nick knew what it sounded like- pneumonia, an ancient earth illness. It used to kill mortals by the thousands until the advent of penicillin. But this pneumonia was a secondary infection from a virus, and the drugs were not helping. Using more of his archaic knowledge, Nick helped Kittim to lay face down on the biobed, his head hanging over the edge, then he gently- for a vampire- slapped the Liat on the back between the shoulder blades, helping to loosen the congestion. Kittim coughed up pink-tinged viscous. Gradually the coughing stopped and he seemed to breathe easier.
Nick adjusted him on the biobed again, gently brushing a comforting hand on the boy's smooth face. The Liat looked exhausted, but the fear hadn't quite left his face. He pulled Nick to him and wrapped his thin arms around Nick's neck in a tight hold. Again Nick felt the boy's presence in his mind. There was no pain this time, though. And the message was smaller. Nick felt only that the boy was scared and lonely. Nick didn't know quite what to say, or know what language to say it in. Instead, he comforted him with a hug, gently patting the boy's back. Eventually, Kittim closed his eyes. Nick knew by his heart rate that the boy had fallen asleep.
"So how can you communicate with them?" Tregor repeated his question.
"I think they are telepathic," Nick said. At Tregor's confused look, he went on. "I'm not really certain. I'm only mildly telepathic myself, although Tuvok had been helping me to develop my skills. But I felt that Liat's presence in my mind- too much information too fast- and it hurt. Like speed-reading an encyclopedia, my brain was overloaded. Then, I had this clear picture of what he meant to say. It was weird."
Chakotay made a choking sound. He was barely breathing. He too, was drowning in his own body fluids, but he wasn't even conscious. Nick repeated the back slapping routine on him. It was slow work, and required all of his concentration so he didn't inadvertently break a few ribs. Even after coaxing him to cough, the big Indian was only slightly improved.
Nick went to each of the patients in turn, working to make them each just a little more comfortable. The doctor and the assistants were too intent on the disease that they didn't have a moment to spare for the sick. While it irritated Nick, he understood the emergency.
A few hours later Kim collapsed. Then Captain Janeway. Tuvok remained unaffected. The copper-based green Vulcan blood was not susceptible to this virus that attacked the immune system and the white blood cells in iron-based blood. Tuvok took temporary command, remaining in the captain's chair round the clock. Then, the crew started dropping all over the ship. There was no more room in sick bay. Nick literally flew through the corridors, helping them into their beds and relieving their pain. Neelix must have suspected that he was wearing himself out, as the Talaxian began to bring him a mug of warmed Bugali almost hourly.
When Naomi Wildman stopped breathing, Nick lost his control. Grabbing the child, he flew in to sick bay. "Doctor! You've got to help her! Now!" he yelled.
"Nick," the doctor demanded, taking the child from him. "Nick! I'll take care of her. Listen to me!" The doctor took his arm and shook him trying to reach the man behind the vampire's wrath. "Nick, I want you and Tom to put as many of the more serious patients in cold sleep as you can find beds for. It will prevent the spread of the disease and buy us more time. Hurry now! Chakotay isn't going to last another hour."
Suspended animation, he thought with relief. Yes! It might work. They'd used the beds once before, when they needed to pass through a dangerous section of space. They had constructed enough beds for the entire crew except Seven then, whose Borg implants had protected her from the danger. But storage was always a problem on this small ship, so after they had served their usefulness, many of the beds were broken down into their component parts. Many of the parts had since been used elsewhere. There should be enough units still functional for the most serious cases, however.
Nick hesitated. He watched as the doctor gently slapped Naomi's back, getting her to breathe again. Nick had been afraid to do it on a child. Then, lifting Chakotay's limp form, he followed Tom to the nearest storage chamber.
When they filled the last of the cold sleep units, Nick had to carry Tom to his bed.
"Don't let it end here," Tom pleaded, his eyes fever bright. "You'll save us! We need you, old man."
Nick removed Tom's shoes and pulled up just the sheet. A blanket would only aggravate the fever. Then he prepared to put Tom into a pain-free sleep.
"Don't let me down," Tom gasped desperately. "Promise!"
"I won't," Nick whispered. "Now sleep."
It was all too much. He couldn't remember a time when he felt quite as useless. Tapping his comm badge, he called B'Elanna.
"Hey, Nick," she said, forcing a lightness in her voice. "Meet me at my quarters for a break. I won't take no."
He dragged himself through the corridor, now strangely empty and hollow sounding, like a crypt. Entering her quarters, he collapsed into a chair.
B'Elanna came out of the shower, dressed in an oversized nightshirt. It wasn't one of her more feminine items, but it fit his mood. He was even too tired for passion tonight.
She kneaded his shoulders, her strong hands working away at the tension. He closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind, allowing the rhythmic pull to lull him into a kind of torpor.
He must have dozed off, for when he felt her nuzzle his neck he was no longer tired. He pulled her on to his lap and embraced her fiercely.
She winced slightly; but her groan was more arousal than pain. She plundered his mouth; her tongue caressed his sensitive fangs, bringing him to the edge of his control within mere minutes. They rolled to the floor and consummated the fire that burned within.
B'Elanna curled up against his side, her head resting on his shoulder. Nick kissed the top of her hair. "I've been meaning to talk to you, B'El," he whispered. "About the holodeck."
"Nick," she interrupted. "I think you've got enough on your mind right now."
"Hear me out. Please?"
When she didn't resist, Nick inhaled once and tried to clear his thoughts. "I'm sorry about hurting you then. LaCroix came out of no where. He took me by surprise, and suddenly, Tom was in danger. I didn't think- I didn't even try to block it from you. But it won't happen again."
"Why? What do you mean? I'm getting used to having you in my thoughts."
"But, I hurt you!"
B'Elanna rolled on top of him. She took his wrists and pinned them to the floor on either side of his face. Slowly she lowered her mouth to his neck and bit him. "I love you," she whispered in his ear, then trailed another kiss along the sensitive skin. "I love finding you in my mind," another bite, and Nick's fangs descended. "Don't shut me out!" And she attacked his mouth, drawing her tongue across his sharp fangs and nicking it.
A growl came from deep in his chest. His golden eyes were flecked with red. He broke free from her hold and claimed her again, filling her even as he drank the sweet lilac blood from her veins. He drew her in, her love and desire filling his thoughts, his past- his hopes and dreams becoming part of her. And when the tide of their passion swelled and crested, and they again lay in each other's arms, tears streamed down B'Elanna's face.
Nick brushed at them, kissing her lightly on each eyelid. No longer fierce and demanding, he feared that he had hurt her again. Regret filled his eyes...
"I'm sorry, B'El," he whispered miserably.
"Don't be!" she demanded. "Don't do that guilt thing on me again!"
He looked at her with surprise.
"Nick, I'm not hurt. I just love you so much, and it scares me a bit, and I'm crying because I'm happy. It's a human weakness. You must bring it out in me."
Nick stared into the dark pools of her exotic eyes and he knew she spoke the truth. He remembered clearly the love present in her blood, the ecstasy in their recent union. The blood told only truth, and there was no pain in it.
"B'El," he said gently. "I am learning to shield myself. It is something Tuvok's been helping me with. LaCroix won't teach me to master these skills as it is part of his power-control thing. I can endure more than mortals, and you should not have to face that."
"Nick, if I hadn't felt you, I wouldn't have come to the holodeck just then."
He shrugged boyishly. The holodeck was still a touchy subject. He needed to talk to LaCroix, but he was dreading the confrontation.
"And when you were hurt on the Bugali Outpost, I was able to lead Tuvok to you because of this bond we share!"
"Don't you see, B'Elanna! LaCroix has used this bond to manipulate me for centuries! It is not a gift, it is a curse. He can always find me because of it. I have never been able to break free from him!"
"And he has always been there for you, too, hasn't he," she reminded him softly.
"Why are you defending him!"
"I'm not, Nick. And I don't relish having him for a father-in-law, I can assure you. But I am defending this bond. I'm afraid that your stubborn pride will get you killed some day, because you'll be hurt and need help, and you won't let me reach you!"
Nick jumped to his feet. He snatched at his clothes and yanked them back on. He kept his back turned to her, as she still lay stretched languidly on the floor, gloriously naked.
"I am not stubborn," he insisted.
B'Elanna laughed. "Obstinate, then."
"I am not obstinate!"
"All right, pig-headed!"
Nick whirled around, but his anger splintered at the sight of his naked lover and her seductively taunting smile. "You are the most pig-headed, obstinate, stubborn man I have ever met, Nicholas Knight, and you will never convince me otherwise."
He pulled her to her feet and hugged her to him. "Maybe," he conceded. "And maybe you just haven't met many?"
She ran her fingers through his tangled hair and tugged on it gently. "And I love that stubbornness," she said. "Because I know you will use it to help us now. You won't ever give up."
Nick jolted back to reality, and felt guilty that he had allowed himself to frolic when his friends may be dying. "I've got to go."
"I know. Good luck, Nick."
Dr. Fyid and the EMH were working silently. Voyager's doctor continued trying one treatment after another, watching the results under the microscope. The holographic program could work forever without sleep and his movements were often too quick for the mortal eye to follow. The Ryetan doctor appeared sluggish by comparison. He looked as though he'd hardly slept since coming aboard.
Nick went to Kittim's side and took the limp, frail hand in his own. The scent of sickness permeated the air. Kittim's soft, wispy hair splayed out across his pillow, long dark lashes rested on pale cheeks. He looked so young, so innocent, so... familiar.
This was all so familiar! Where had he seen this before? Quickly, trying to keep from lapsing into a lengthy memory, Nick recalled all the periods of illness he had seen in his long life, to find the one niggling at the back of his consciousness. Not the plague of the Middle Ages, not small pox or the cholera epidemics- it wasn't any of the major mortal diseases.
It wasn't mortal! That was what was so strange. This wasn't a disease that the Liat had ever had before the Ryeta visited their planet. The Ryeta weren't even red-blooded beings. Somehow this virus of theirs affected them quite differently. He flew to the Ryetan doctor.
"Tell me again about this virus! Where did it come from!"
The doctor yawned, trying to shake Nick off. "Leave me alone, I'm busy," he growled.
"This isn't a natural virus, is it! Tell me!"
"Nick, we've been through that before," the EMH intoned. "The Ryeta developed this virus to fight off a natural disease that was debilitating their planet. This manufactured virus caused much milder symptoms; the Ryeta then built up immunity to the more serious disease. The original disease has been completely eradicated from their planet now.
A man-made, or in this case, Ryeta-made, virus. It wasn't natural. It was just like the FEVER! Nick glanced back at Kittim, lying at the edge of death, and recognized Vachon.
The Fever was the only time in Nick's vampiric existence that he had ever truly been sick. A mortal doctor working in research had tried to find a cure for aids back in the twentieth century. But her "cure" got out of the lab and infected vampires. It spread quickly through Toronto, destroying the immortal like dry twigs in a blaze.
But why wasn't Nick sick now? If this virus was so similar? Of course, he'd had it already. Did that make him immune?
"Doctor! You said I had the disease in my blood. Check an older sample! Now! A sample from before the time we met the Ryeta!"
"Nick, we're really busy here," the doctor complained.
"Please, I have a hunch."
The doctor shrugged his holographic shoulders and complied. Pulling up Nick's medical files, he found a blood sample and compared it with the recent one. They were identical, even to the new virus in the blood. "I don't understand," the doctor said. "How could you have been a carrier of a disease we'd never encountered before?"
"Because I had it before. On earth, 1996 I think- I forget the stardate conversion."
"Nick, this has not shown up on a single record, and we've been searching the archives for days."
"This one won't, doc," Nick explained. "Linda White developed this as a treatment for aids. It didn't work, but it escaped and infected vampires. Many of my kind died before we discovered that aids-infected blood was the cure."
"So you think if I infect the crew with aids they will recover? Nick, aids has been eradicated for 200 years."
The Ryetan doctor had been listening intently, and now he came to join them. "But doctor," he said. "If this man had the disease and survived, there should be antibodies in his blood to develop a vaccine."
"We can't do that," Nick said. "It is too dangerous."
The doctor was already running his annoying little medical tricorder over Nick. "Not necessarily, Nick. The antibodies would be attached to the normal white cells in your blood, not the vampiric nucleotides."
Nick froze, the vampire inside sensing trouble. "You need to draw more blood?" he whispered.
"Yes, Nick. I'm sorry." The doctor spoke with compassion.
Nick extended his arm towards the Ryeta doctor. "Hold me," he said.
The alien took Nick's small humanoid arm in his massive furred paw. He looked at them curiously. Why would he need to hold Nick, if he were freely offering his blood?
There was little time to explain. "Tight!" Nick demanded.
"Yes," the doctor added. "He is not human, and he is much stronger than he looks."
The doctor took one of the Ryeta's large arms and wrapped it around Nick's chest, until he felt Nick was sufficiently immobilized. Then he quickly drew several large vials of blood. The vampire struggled fiercely, growling in fury, hissing through sharp fangs. The Ryeta doctor tightened his hold, yet still Nick broke free. The vampire flew to the far corner of sickbay, collapsing into a heap on the floor.
The holographic doctor took a unit of plasma from the cooler and handed it to the other. "Give this to Nick." Then he began to separate the white cells from the blood in his samples. The alien doctor took the plasma to the small humanoid huddled on the floor. It was normal to give blood when blood was lost, he knew, but wondered how to give it. The small humanoid lunged for him though; his eyes were glowing an odd yellow amber. Nick took the plasma and bit into the package, drinking it! The Ryeta doctor shuddered with disgust.
The EMH dropped a small amount of Nick's white cells onto a slide containing an active sample of the virus. "It's working!" he exclaimed excitedly. Then he rushed to Kittim's side and gave him an injection. Nick came forward, followed by Dr. Fyid. The three of them watched intently for any sign of change.
At first, nothing happened. At second nothing happened. But after twenty minutes the fever dropped, and after thirty, Kittim was breathing easily. Within an hour, the young Liat sat up in bed.
Nick hugged him, the alien doctor, and even the EMH. From the blood samples that the doctor had taken, he had enough to vaccinate about a third of the sick. Nick contacted whatever crewmembers were still on duty to assist him in distributing the vaccines. They did one-half the decks first. Later, they would do the other half and the more seriously ill when they were brought back from cold sleep. Nick knew he wouldn't be helping them anymore. Not if he was going to donate more blood.
Neither Nick nor the EMH noticed when the alien doctor accessed more of Nick's medical files.
Later, after feeding well, Nick returned to sick bay. Kittim was sitting up eating some of Neelix's vegetable-meat soup. Some of the others were waking up, but still a little groggy. Nick glanced around the room restlessly.
"Nick? What's wrong?" the doctor asked.
"Can we do this somewhere more private," he murmured under his breath.
The doctor nodded and led him to the surgery. He pulled the curtain across the window and dimmed the lights for Nick's comfort. The Ryeta doctor came in, closing the door behind him. Nervously, Nick pulled off his jacket and pushed up his shirtsleeve. He stared at the biobed for a long moment, unmoving.
"Nick? Are you still willing to do this?"
"Like what choice do I have," he grumbled.
"No one is commanding you to vaccinate a crew of over a hundred, son. It is the moral thing, and the mortal thing, to do. But it is still your choice."
Nick climbed onto the bed. He lay back and shut his eyes tightly.
The doctor pulled out a shelf from under the bed. He took several thicknesses of soft bandaging and wrapped Nick's wrist before strapping it down securely. Likewise he padded Nick's ankles and chest before he activated the reinforced restraints. As a last preparation, the doctor turned on a symphony. The surgery was not entirely soundproof.
The EMH inserted a needle into a vein, drawing out the blood into a larger container. Instantly the vampire reacted. With glaring red eyes and full fangs he struggled against the restraints, hissing at the mortals who dared to take this from him. As he pulled against the durosteel bonds, bruises formed on his wrists and ankles. The bandages spotted with blood. The fearsome sounds emanating from his throat grew louder as the struggling lessened. The vampire was becoming weaker.
"This is most strange," Dr. Fyid said. "Are you hurting him?"
"No," the doctor said. "I don't believe so. He is just very possessive about his blood. It is vampire instinct and he has no control over it."
"That is the name of his species. He is the only one on the ship. Much of the crew is human, but we also have Vulcan, Talaxian, Bolian, - our federation is a conglomerate of many Planets and species working together."
The doctor finished taking Nick's blood, then attached a unit of plasma and began to give blood back. The vampire was exhausted. As the fluid filled and satisfied, he closed his eyes. Nick Knight fell into a deep, deep sleep.
The Ryeta doctor stared in amazement as the doctor removed the bloodied bandages, to see Nick's flesh heal at incredible speed. "How long will he sleep?" he asked.
"The rest of the night, I'm sure, maybe more," the hologram replied. He pulled a blanket over Nick and dimmed the lights further. "Shall we?" he asked, as he opened the door. "We have a lot of this vaccine to process."
Chapter Sixteen: The Insolent
"Pig-headed vampire," B'Elanna whispered into Nick's ear. Groggily, Nick lifted an eyelid to argue with his beloved.
"What'd I do now?"
"I could have been here for you," she said, stroking the side of his face tenderly.
"I wasn't in any danger, B'El." Nick pushed himself up and stretched. He felt disoriented. What duty shift was it? His instincts made him sleepy at dawn and wake at dusk, but after four years in space away from the natural circadian rhythms of earth's sun, he had one major case of jetlag. He pulled his jacket on and ran his fingers through his hair. "I need a shower. Wanna join me?"
B'Elanna pecked him on the cheek. "Later, Nick. Someone has to work!" Then she was gone. Nick yawned, not even aware that his fangs were extended. The too familiar ache rose. It was time to feed.
The doctor stuck his head just inside the door. "I see you're awake. How do you feel this morning?"
Nick shrugged. He didn't think well before that first glass of the day. He was running pretty much on instincts.
"Well, let me know if you experience any ill side-effects- headaches, nausea... anything unusual for a vampire, you know." His features pulled into a grimace of a smile. Then he passed a mug to Nick.
He inhaled the revitalizing scent of warm fresh blood before downing it. "How is it going?" he asked.
"See for yourself," the doctor invited, stepping inside and allowing Nick to see beyond him. "Everyone is feeling much improved, although they retain a little residual fatigue- which is to be expected. Kittim is about ready to return to his ship, I'm afraid."
Nick had stood and walked to the door, observing the changes as the doctor spoke. He started at the concern and hidden message in those words. Although the Ryeta seemed to feel the Liat were merely beasts of burden, destined to a life of servitude, the Voyager crew was more inclined to see it as another example of a stronger species enslaving their victims. "Well, see if you can keep him here a little longer? I have more questions about these Liat."
The doctor nodded his approval.
Nick stared at the Liat boy, sitting up in his bed. Naomi was sitting on the foot of the bed, sharing her crayons as they colored pictures together. Nick smiled, relieved to see the little girl looking much improved.
"Hello, Naomi," he said, "Kittim."
"Hi Mr. Nick! My new friend says he's never colored before! See these pictures we made? This is my mom, and this is his picture."
Nick glanced at the childish drawings, once again impressed at the basic artistic ability all children seemed to possess. Naomi's had balance and contrast, a design that was uniquely her. Kittim's picture had him speechless. Nick stared at it. There were faces- humanoid faces- dozens of them. They had large, sad eyes and no mouths. Some wore clothing, some were naked. All of the girl children were drawn with distended abdomens like they were in the last month of pregnancy. Scrawny arms and legs came from small bodies that were drawn exact in every detail, except for the absent mouths.
"Kittim says this one's Jep, and this one's Ferna, and-"
"What do you mean? Did he tell you? Did you hear him?" Nick spoke excitedly. He had yet to hear the Liat boy pronounce a single intelligible syllable. It would help immensely to convince the Ryeta of their intelligence if they would speak.
Naomi giggled. "Nick, you're so funny!"
Kittim giggled too, imitating Naomi.
"Kittim!" Nick touched him gently. He felt a sense of urgency, but did not want to frighten the boy. "Tell me about your picture," he prodded.
Kittim glanced up at him, the laughter still on his face. Then Nick felt a sharp pain in his head. He doubled over, gasping at the intensity. The doctor zapped to his side in an instant.
"What is it, Nick?"
"I ... heard him! He said something- but it all happened so fast," Nick gasped.
The doctor shook his head. "I'm sorry, Nick, but the Liat- or at least this Liat- is incapable of speech. His vocal cords are not developed."
"No! It wasn't words. It was in my head- only all at once, as if an entire story happened in a second's time. It was too much too fast, and it hurt."
The doctor looked at Nick skeptically.
"Look!" Nick took Kittim's first picture and showed it to the doctor. "This girl is Ferna. She's only 6 years old, and she's been impregnated. Her baby is due next week. All these girls are being bred artificially, as the Ryeta bastards fight to keep them from extinction. But they are merely children!"
Kittim shuddered at the passionate tones in Nick's voice. His large, soft eyes filled with tears. Naomi stared at them solemnly. "It's okay," she assured her new playmate. "He's not mad at you, really! Nick's my friend, too."
"Kittim, I don't know how you're doing this. Do it slower, though... and talk to me. How old are you?"
Nick stared wide-eyed as a clear impression filled his mind with images. Kittim had marked the advent of his birth six times. Yet, the boy before him was about twelve or thirteen, a child at the edge of puberty.
"Doc? Can you tell if this is normal for them? Do they mature rapidly, like the Ocampa?"
The doctor picked up a tricorder and studied the boy more thoroughly. "What his natural life-expectancy is, I couldn't say for sure, but this child has been given high doses of a growth hormone."
Nick felt a cold, sick dread inside. He pulled the Liat child to his chest and hugged him, patting him on the back. "Kittim is not a dumb beast. He is a little boy of six, being expected to act like a man."
Kittim responded to the affection. He hugged Nick, and kissed him, wrapping his legs around his waist. "Doc, we can't send him back!"
"Nick, I'm afraid that we have to. It is not our place to get involved."
"This is wrong! The Ryeta have violated the most basic principles of a civilized society. Their actions are unethical!"
"By our standards. But they are not members of the Federation. Who are we to be the police of the galaxy?"
Nick held the boy tightly, speaking to the computer's comm system. "Computer. Where is Captain Janeway?" The captain was in her quarters. Carrying Kittim, Nick stormed through the corridors of the ship.
Moments later he stood before her door, setting off the soft chimes again and again. Faintly, he heard the permission granted to enter. Nick burst in.
"Captain! I demand we grant this child sanctuary!"
Janeway had a towel wrapped around her head and a bathrobe cinched securely at the waist. She looked pale and tired, yet it was a hundred percent improvement over the last time he'd seen her. She stared at him and at the half-grown child clinging to him. Something about Kittim pulled at her. Was it the large, innocent eyes? The way he reminded her of the young protagonist in the Dicken's Novel, "Oliver Twist"? He was delicate, trusting, beautiful to look at-- a victim of hard times and circumstance. She patted the child affectionately, then pulled out a chair.
"Please, sit down, Lieutenant. I'm off duty, so I'll ignore your tone for now. Frankly, I'm not sure I'm up to this. But, if you can calmly relate your grievances, I will listen." She sank into a second chair.
Nick inhaled once, trying several calming techniques simultaneously. Then he sat in the chair a little awkwardly, as Kittim was still clinging to him, obviously frightened by Nick's uncontrolled anger. He felt the boy's thoughts timidly enter his mind. He turned the boy around to sit on his lap facing the captain. "It's okay, Kittim. We will not harm you," he whispered softly.
Kittim seemed satisfied. He leaned his head back against Nick's shoulder. He was a little too big to fit easily on the vampire's lap, but Nick didn't seem to mind.
Nick briefly related everything he'd learned about the Liat. The growth hormones, the forced breeding of children, their rampant malnutrition, and their ability to communicate.
"So, they use telepathy?" Janeway asked.
"Sort of, Captain. It is different though, from the Ocampa. Kes would speak to me with words, that I could hear in my brain. She knew the meanings of my words. This Liat mind-thing doesn't seem like a true language, not like what we've come to understand as language, anyway. It is pictorial. Kittim sent me a raft of images in a split-second's time, that conveyed a vast amount of information. And I don't think he understands my words, but rather, when I am speaking, he gathers my meaning from my thoughts."
"A pictorial language," she murmured, not quite comprehending.
Nick cocked a lopsided grin. "Yes, sort of like dyslexic telepaths." He'd been studying about dyslexia lately, to understand Tom better. Theoretically, most humans (and vampires) thought in words, and thought sequentially, left to right, beginning to end. Dyslexics thought in pictures, seeing everything as a part of a whole, and in three-dimensions. Tom's ability was a gift when it came to solving problems like designing the new Delta Flyer or jerry-rigging alien technologies, but it was a curse when trying to read abstract, two-dimensional type in a left to right sequence.
"Nick, I'm sure you know we tread on dangerous ground. We cannot make the Ryeta change. Even if I wanted to, I don't have the firepower to enforce it. We are not in a position to do much for them. However, I'm sure I can bargain to let Kittim remain on board with us, at least while we journey through Ryetan space."
"But what about after? And what about all the children- the six and seven year old girls forced into motherhood? This is amoral!"
"Nick. You do remember what happened when Tom tried to take matters into his own hands? Let's not have a repeat. I promise you, I will give the matter serious thought, but beyond that, I don't know what we can do."
Nick glared at the petite woman sitting calmly across from him. She was wrong. She had been wrong before, first when she forbid Tom to get involved when a planet's ruling class was systematically destroying their own environment, then again when she demoted him back to "ensign" for disobeying her faulty command decision. She was even wrong for denying his request to keep his files more secure than they now were.
"I will not let anything harm this child," Nick vowed.
"Dismissed," she said warningly.
Nick took the Liat boy back to sickbay. Kittim was already yawning. Even Naomi had fallen asleep on Kittim's bed. Nick settled them both, drawing up the covers. A few others waved at him from their sick beds, offering words of gratitude. He nodded at them. "Get well soon," he told one crewman. "Or you'll be the entertainment at Neelix's next party."
"Sure thing, Nick."
Returning to his loft to shower, Nick slipped into jeans and a T-shirt, signifying his off-duty status, then headed aimlessly through the ship. What did one do when one was off? He didn't feel like venturing in to the holodeck again. LaCroix had given him one week to fix the problem, and that was some time ago. He'd lost track, with the illness and all. But, he wasn't ready to see his master yet. He loitered in the tiny game room, but none of them looked interesting, either. This ship had not been designed for long-term habitation. The games and recreation facilities were sorely inadequate for such an extended journey. His recent conversation with the captain played through his mind again and again. She was wrong! And it irritated him that he could do nothing about it. Listlessly, he strolled into the Mess Hall; boredom often made him hungry.
Neelix was cheerfully singing slightly off-key as he prepared a feast for the newly returning appetites. Nick leaned against the counter and watched him for a while. Large kettles of hearty stew -light on the spice- simmered. Platters of sliced assorted fruits were artfully displayed. Neelix stirred the frosting vigorously, preparing to add it to yet another cake.
"You're spoiling them," Nick said.
Neelix jumped, dropping the frosting. Only Nick's vampiric speed saved the sugary treat from disaster. "I - I didn't hear you come in," Neelix stuttered.
Nick just smiled.
"I know," Neelix agreed, "but some of them were so sick. I think they've lost weight." He pulled a stool up to the counter. Pouring himself a cup of tea and a mug of something else for Nick, he sat down for a moment's conversation. "That was so good of you, Nick. The way you saved them all. Such a miracle it was!"
Nick blanched at the unwelcome praise. "I'm nobody's miracle, Neelix," he grumbled.
"Well without you, a lot of those nobodies would be dead now."
They sipped their beverages then, both lost in thought. Nick remembered the Fever. Back in the twentieth century, he'd been really scared he was going to die! It had made him reconsider his desire to become mortal again, more than all of LaCroix's arguments bunched together. Being mortal meant pain, suffering, and death. He'd lost sight of the goal for a while, for long enough that his doctor-friend all but gave up, as well. Now, he still hoped that one day he would be freed from his incessant thirst for blood; but he still wasn't keen on the idea of dying.
"Thanks for the party ideas, too, Nick." Neelix swirled the orange tea, staring at the patterns of the leaves as they drifted and sank again to the bottom of the cup. "The St. Pat's party is coming up soon. I'd hoped the excitement of the Valentine's party would carry through a few more weeks, but everyone seems- forlorn? As they were before. And it is more than just the illness."
"Forlorn? Not a Starfleet crew," Nick replied sarcastically.
"Maybe that's not the right word. Aimless. Uninspired. Bored?"
"Hmm? I don't think we need yet another party, Neelix."
"I know. Still, a lot of the crew have been off, even before they took sick. I don't know how to explain it. It's almost like babysitting a room full of four-year-olds on a rainy day. They don't seem to know what to do with themselves. The parties and special days I plan aren't enough."
Nick shrugged. He had noticed. They were all just a little "space crazy". Too long in space, too little time off.
"Take you, for instance. What are you doing here? You're off duty, but you have nothing better to do than hang around the mess hall. What's wrong, Nick?"
He stared for a few moments without really seeing. Then Nick slapped his hand down on the counter. "Neelix. You're a genius," he said. Taking Neelix's tufted chin whiskers in each hand, Nick pulled his head closer and placed a loud kiss on the top of his funny little head. "Bye! I've got work to do!"
A very confused, flustered Talaxian just stared in the wake of the vampire's exit.
Nick raced back to his quarters. They'd finished the loft, but the end pieces and junk were still piled in crates waiting to be stuffed into storage. He sifted through the odds and ends, thinking hard, trying to remember a design he hadn't seen in three hundred years.
Two duroplast boards looked to be about the right size and shape. He trimmed and filed them. Then, he needed wheels. Furniture on ships was never built on casters, but was bolted securely to the floor. Still, there ought to be wheels somewhere. Anywhere there were moving parts? Grabbing one box of junk, he headed towards the nearest storage chamber to scavenge for his wheels.
Two hours later, Nick's project was complete. He tucked two skateboards under his arm and went to find Naomi and Kittim.
Captain Janeway slumped behind her desk. Two days in sickbay and two hours in negotiations aboard the Ryeta ship were enough to depress the staunchest spirit. She hadn't even mentioned the Liat, and Captain Murth hadn't asked about him. At least, Captain Murth had granted them safe passage to the home world. It felt like getting in to a private park for free, but having to pay to get back out. She'd agreed only because, first, she really didn't want to journey around the large area of space the Ryeta were calling their own, and second, she would finally be discussing matters with the people in charge. She was certain they could reach a mutually beneficial arrangement, without compromising the Starfleet principles that she held fast.
She didn't want to be here. Maybe a snack break and a quick stroll through the ship would relax her.
Ensign Kim strode past as she stepped into the hall. He was grinning brightly and waved a cheerful greeting. She felt better already. He'd looked deathly pale only yesterday, and even after recovering from the disease, he's still seemed listless. She passed Crewman Paulus as she exited the turbolift. Paulus was laughing. "I was right about Nick," Janeway thought. "He's a great Counselor."
Just as she was stepping into the Mess Hall, two crewmen ran through the entrance as well, colliding with her. They scrambled to mutter their apologies, but what struck her was their expressions. They were flushed and excited. Something was definitely going on! She wished she knew what; she could use a little excitement right about now!
"Neelix," she called, not quite sure how to voice her question. "What is that all about? That is the fifth happy person I've encountered in ten minutes!"
The chef glanced at her, then feigned interest in his work. "Would you like some coffee, captain?"
"Yes. And a direct answer, as well."
Neelix poured her a cup of the aromatic brew. "I suggest that you ask Nick, then. He's making productive use of his time off."
Janeway noticed how Neelix didn't quite meet her eyes when he spoke. That, and his reluctance to be forthcoming, warned her that she would not like what she learned. Setting the cup aside, she said, "Keep this warm. I'll be back." And she went in search of the vampire.
There was a definite noise down the hall towards the holodeck. A raucous, bawdy sound, not at all like her mature Starfleet crew. Two women approached her from that direction, both of them with bright happy faces. They were giggling! They dropped the grins to mutter a respectful greeting, but as she passed, she could hear the inane giggling again. Inhaling deeply, she squared her shoulders and continued the pursuit.
As she neared the crowd, one officer saw her and was about to announce her presence, but she silenced him with a finger to her lips. Slipping between the bodies, she entered the middle of the melee. Just down the hall were Nick and Tom, racing wildly towards her on wheeled conveyances! The assembled crew was waging bets on the outcome. A finish line was marked across the floor at her feet. Janeway remained standing in the center of the corridor with her arms folded across her chest.
The two men careened dangerously down the curving gray hall, and as they neared the finish, and their captain, they swerved to either side to miss her. Tom slammed into the wall, falling on his back with the board unceremoniously landing on top of him. Nick missed to the other side, rolling some distance passed her and winning the race. He picked up the skateboard and jogged back, laughing. He bore no resemblance to the weakened vampire lying in a deathlike slumber just last night!
"What is the meaning of this," she demanded, as the two officers stood before her. Not for the first time, she noted their similarities. Tom stood, with his blonde hair falling over one eye rakishly, and an easy smile, but he still seemed a little in awe of her. Nick, also blonde and rakish, was almost belligerent. It was an unspoken challenge, but she wasn't sure where it had come from.
"Um, it was just a- a little fun, Captain," Tom stuttered.
"Hell," Nick interrupted. "It was a lot of fun. We were unwinding, Captain. No harm was done."
"Racing in the corridors is dangerous. And gambling is strictly against regulations. And where did you get those- those-"
"Skateboards." Nick supplied the missing term. "I made them out of spare parts. Naomi is really good at them, too. But she had to go."
Janeway felt very unpopular and her anger was out of proportion. She would have to deal with this later, after she'd had time to think. "No more racing in the halls! And no gambling. The rest of you are dismissed. Nick, I want to see you at 0800 tomorrow." Then she turned sharply to claim that hot coffee.
Nick got another sentence of KP out of the meeting.
Later, she saw Nick riding the skateboard again and she blew up. "What the hell is this!"
Nick reminded her. She'd forbidden racing, but she'd said nothing about skateboarding in general....
Was he intentionally being obtuse, she wondered? Was this another vampire thing? Did the blood donation affect his cognitive abilities? He was outwardly defiant, and that could not be tolerated. She'd been butting heads with Seven ever since the Borg woman joined the crew. She and Chakotay had been in conflict much of their first year together, as they struggled to blend the Maquis and Starfleet crews together. Was there something wrong with her-- was she that hard to get along with? She considered it for two heartbeats before dismissing that idea.
Janeway firmly informed Nick not to ride the skateboard on the ship. Not to sit on it while it was moving. Not to lie on it while it was moving. He could use it on shoreleaves off the ship, other than that she didn't want to see it again. The corners of his lips had twitched up then, fueling her anger. He got several days added to his KP.
Chakotay's clothes were soaked when Janeway went to relieve him. He seemed embarrassed, but unable to state how he'd come to be covered with water. She rubbed a sort spot on the bridge of her nose and waved him away. Then minutes later Kim came to his post also dripping wet. She cornered him with her most intimidating glare and demanded a full explanation.
"I was bombed, ma'am," he whispered, gulping air. "Water balloons, down the turboshaft."
She didn't even have to ask. She marched into the turboshaft to confront him again, only to have a water balloon land at her feet. It burst, soaking her shoes. Glaring up through the missing plates in the ceiling, she caught a glimpse of a pair of faces. One of them had to be Nick's.
His KP sentence extended through the end of the next week.
But, something else was going on.
She noticed that the crew seemed more alert while on duty. They were still just following the Ryetan ship through the dark sector towards their homeworld, with no promise of shoreleave in sight, yet, it was almost like that first day leaving Deep Space Nine, five years ago. They were happy, energetic, and eager for adventure. They were more alive than she'd seen them in a long, long time.
And the pranks continued. She heard about short-sheeted beds and honey applied to handles. One crewman found all of his belongings stacked carefully in the hallway. Another crewman couldn't find his things at all-- they'd been transferred to another person's quarters. One person stepped into a shower, but instead of getting water, she was bathed in a green tea that stained her skin. Someone put salt in the sugar bowl. Captain Janeway added so many KP's to Nick's sentence, that the ship would be spotless inside and out in no time. Meanwhile his defiant attitude grew. She suspected that it was boiling to a head, but she hadn't a clue how to diffuse the volatile timebomb.
She had to develop a working relationship with him! At first, she'd been distrustful of the vampire, but as she'd seen him control his instinct for violence, he had earned her trust. She found she even liked the boyish lieutenant with the innocent blue eyes. But, she had to know that her crew would obey her commands... she couldn't lead them without that most basic principle.
Maybe it was time for a showdown. He should be scrubbing walls on the tenth level now... but as she approached, she saw two crewmen doing his tasks for him.
"Where is he," she demanded through clenched teeth.
One crewman pointed hesitantly. Janeway strode around the corner.
Nick sat on the floor holding Naomi in his arms and swaying gently. He was whispering to her, but as Janeway neared, more quietly now, she could hear him.
"Shh... don't cry. It was just a bad dream. Nothing's going to hurt you. Shhh."
Naomi clutched him tightly, but as he whispered, Janeway saw the girl's small hands loosen and heard the sobs slow. Janeway stared at her new counselor. His face was lowered; she couldn't see his eyes. Long, pale lashes almost rested on pale, youthful cheeks. His wayward hair curled down on his forehead. His arms were strong and secure around the child. Janeway lowered herself to the floor to wait and to watch.
Naomi stopped her crying. Her small shoulders still quivered, and she hiccuped softly. Nick stood then, and took her hand in his. "Would you like to wash a few walls with me? Then you can tell me all about your dream."
She nodded eagerly. Nick avoided looking at Janeway as he passed her, but he didn't seem as defiant now. It was as if he'd stepped into his role as counselor and nothing else mattered. Nick took a sponge from one volunteer, and Naomi took another. Janeway watched only briefly as the two worked and conversed. She didn't doubt that Naomi's fears would be all but forgotten before long. The showdown with Nick would wait.
Chapter seventeen: The Party
Chakotay came by for her precisely at fifteen minutes before the party was to begin. He was dressed in a bright green cotton shirt, open at the neck, and stitched with bright colored ribbons down the front. Although it was more of a Navaho-style (all but the green) it had been adopted by his people as well. He wore black jeans and shoes, but he held a green-tinted carnation in one hand. He eyed her with amusement.
Janeway turned to her mirror. Everything was in place. She had selected an appropriate outfit in a deep rust color, which didn't clash with her hair and didn't make her look too feminine. "Something wrong?" she asked.
"Only that I figured you wouldn't be wearing green, so I brought this for you," he replied, as he stepped forward to pin the flower to her shoulder.
"And what is this party in honor of the color green all about?"
Chakotay laughed. "Nick will tell us, I'm sure. It's really his baby."
She was afraid of that.
The shuttlebay had transformed yet again. The red and pink hearts had been replaced with big green leaf-shapes. The individual tables had been pushed together into great long rows and were covered with green cloths. Cheerful music played softly over the comm, an assortment of ancient instruments that she wasn't sure she could identify. The music was contagious though. She felt her foot tapping, itching to dance.
Everywhere she saw her crew clothed in green and wearing happy faces. She and Chakotay sat at one of the communal tables, with B'Elanna, Tuvok, Seven, and Ensign Wildman. Janeway glanced around for Nick and Naomi. But then, Nick wouldn't be joining them tonight. His KP sentence extended through the party. He'd be assisting Neelix.
"Where's Naomi?" she asked.
"With Nick. Where else? I swear, the two of them are almost inseparable." The mother smiled easily, obviously unconcerned that her small daughter idolized a blood-sucking demon of the dark.
The music grew softer and the assembled crowd hushed. Nick stood up on a raised platform to address them. He wore a white shirt with red bands around the sleeves a little above the elbows, and a bright green vest covered with embroidery. His pants were dark, but a little green felt cap sat back on his head and a mischievous grin covered his face.
"Good evening, ladies and gents," he said in a thick Irish brogue. "Just a welcome to ye, I'd be makin'. And to give ye a bit o' background into this fine day. Saint Patrick's Day began in Ireland aboot 2 thousands years ago, as a religious holiday in honor of the man who brought Christianity to Ireland. But it grew beyond that, and was celebrated around the world, by folks of many different nationalities.
"It is customary to wear green, attend parades, eat corned beef and boiled cabbage, and give honor to the Irish, who were scorned and persecuted for many, many years.
"It serves to remind us not to forget the little people, the insignificant, the low-born. That might does not make right. And that life is more than just survivin' from day to day, but triumphin'.
"The Irish have a rich culture, a deep faith, and a belief in miracles. Next to your plates, you'll find a booklet o' words to the songs we'll be singin' after ye've had a chance to fill yer gullet.
Applause escorted him off the stage. "He's good," Wildman whispered to Torres. "Is he Irish?"
"No." Torres twisted her napkin in her fingers. Janeway suspected the green cloth wouldn't survive long. "But he was a doctor in the Irish civil war, I think."
Then Nick and little Naomi appeared, setting serving dishes on the long tables. This was also something new. The crew never ate "family-style". Kittim was helping Nick, too. His coloring had improved greatly. He didn't look like the same boy she'd met just over a week ago. She'd noticed how the boy followed Nick everywhere. It was yet another problem waiting to erupt. How would Nick react when the boy had to return to his life on Murth's ship?
Naomi winked at Janeway as she set a big tray of biscuits down in front of her. She was dressed in a green plaid jumper, a white blouse, and little black & white shoes. Her hair was intricately done. Janeway patted the perfect braids. She'd worn her hair like that once, a long, long time ago. French braids?
She served her portion of food and passed the tray, smiling politely, but a part of her just watched. Nick served everyone, as he continued in the Irish accent, leaning down to share a joke with them as he passed. She'd suspected that part of his diatribe had been aimed at her. What was it he was trying to say, about triumphing over merely surviving? Is that what pitted him against her? Was she just surviving? In her incessant drive to push for the alpha quadrant, had she demanded that everyone put their lives on hold? That had not been her intention, but perhaps, in some small way, that was what had happened. She turned to Chakotay, observing him as he conversed with B'Elanna across the table. He was handsome. He was honorable, passionate, and sincere. He could easily be someone she could love. But she had put him on hold. Perhaps it was time to make a change?
She gave him her full attention, determined to take the night off from being a captain and just be his date.
After dinner, Nick sat at the piano bench and started to play the songs he'd promised. Not everyone sang, but those who did seemed to enjoy it. They sang "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "My Wild, Irish Rose," "The Minstrel Boy," a ballad of John Connelly and at least a dozen more. The Irish melodies were ultimately singable, but with a melancholic bent and the words often brought tears to her eyes. Chakotay's warm, strong fingers entwined through her own. Emotion flooded over her, and she wondered just how unprofessional she might let this evening get, before all was done.
Chapter Eighteen: Showdown
They orbited the Ryeta homeworld. It was a lovely planet, the fourth revolving a single G-class star with twin small moons and unusual magnetic fields that created fantastic displays in color, much like earth's aurora borealis. The air was temperate and breathable. From their initial scans it looked like a good place to take shoreleave. The Ryeta seemed friendly and willing to accommodate them. She flipped through the assorted requests on her desk, wondering if Nick and B'Elanna were planning to take their honeymoon here. So far, no further word had been mentioned about the wedding plans, although she knew the improvements to Nick's quarters had been completed.
"Could they be having a lover's quarrel?" she asked Chakotay abruptly. "Is his sudden aggression towards me only a misplaced form of frustration?"
The tall Indian shook his head. "Not really. Not with B'Elanna, anyway. It could be that he's transferring his feelings for his father on to you."
Janeway spilled her coffee over that. Chakotay jumped up to dab at the hot liquid, but she seemed oblivious. "I am nothing like his father," she spat.
A gentle smile upturned his lips. "So you've met?"
Janeway didn't respond at first. Absently, she tried to sip from the now-empty mug, not even realizing it was gone. Chakotay took her cup and refilled it for her. Then he sat near her, crossing one leg casually over a knee. It had been a wonderful party last night, but now it was over. Sighing, he returned to his role as her first officer and as Nick's "ambassador."
"He came to see me in the holodeck," Janeway began.
It was Chakotay's turn to spill his coffee. Neither seemed to notice.
"He is a very... intimidating... vampire," she continued. "He demanded that I permit Nick to separate his medical and personal information from the rest of the crew's, and he warned me not to play tug-of-war with his son."
"Do you think Nick programmed that?"
"No. I don't think Nick even knows we've met. This was LaCroix. I don't know how, but it makes me very uncomfortable. I am just learning to trust Nick. I'm not sure that the elder vampire is at all trust-worthy, from what little I've heard."
"So his father commanded him to do something, and you haven't permitted him to do it. His father probably took it out on him," Chakotay said.
She blanched. "But when? I know he heals fast, but surely we would have noticed!"
"I'd guess it was about the time of Nick's first KP duty."
Janeway thought back. It had been the first time Nick refused to tell her something, and she had let it slide. It hadn't seemed important at the time. But now, given the contest of wills between them, she wondered if she'd been very wrong.
"Nick's done a lot of good here, Captain. Surely you've seen the change in the crew."
"These childish pranks have got to stop," she said.
Chakotay shrugged his broad shoulders. "Why? No harm's done. They're just loosening up a bit. Unwinding. It's good relaxation."
"So, tell them no water balloons when we have visiting dignitaries."
Janeway glared at him. Such inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated on any other ship in the fleet.
"Nick's requested shoreleave with Naomi, Captain. I know he's still on your shit- a- KP list, but I'd ask you not to punish the child as well."
"I want to speak with him first."
The young-looking lieutenant stood in front of her desk before an hour had passed. His stance was rigid, his face a mask of non-emotion, and yet, she sensed a potent anger lurked just barely beneath the surface. He didn't worry his hands or shuffle his feet like Tom, or pace erratically like B'Elanna. Janeway leaned back in her desk chair and regarded him more closely. The golden flecks in his blue eyes were the only visible sign of the strong emotion she sensed from him. She decided to begin this confrontation with a few well-deserved words of praise.
"The St. Patrick's party last night was a wonderful idea. I've heard many positive comments. And I enjoyed myself, as well," she began. The words fell on deaf ears. There was not a single change in his bearing. If anything, the anger grew. Although he stared straight at the wall behind her, she saw the golden hue in his eyes grow brighter.
"But these senseless pranks have got to stop."
Still no response.
"I don't feel like a captain any longer, but more like a den mother at a Cub Scout jamboree. They are escalating out of control- as is often the case with pranks- as the need to do one better and get even takes over common sense."
The silence stretched. Nick still did not comment. He made no effort to defend his actions. If anything, he seemed to dare her to discipline him again.
"Your next KP can be outside. Take an environmental suit, and scrub the debris off the name and lettering."
"NO!" His response was immediate. She glared at him, but even before she could reply, she heard the softly whispered, "Please?"
This was not a word of defiance. It was an expression of fear.
A lot of people didn't like to work outside the ship. The lack of artificial gravity made them queasy, and the environmental suits were clumsy at best. But Nick wasn't like a lot of people. He didn't fear death, pain, or disease. The only things she knew he feared were fire and sunlight.
Outside of the protection of Voyager's sleek bulkheads, would any nearby stars pose a health-risk to the vampire? She noted a fine sheen of red perspiration on his brow.
"I've decided to grant your earlier request concerning privacy and your medical files," she said.
All the wind seemed to leave his sails. No anger, no more fear. She chewed the inside of her lip, as she realized that Chakotay had been correct in his assumptions. So how could she protect this crewman from a holographic demonic parent? To start with, no matter how difficult the challenge, she would not react to him in anger again.
"Thank you, Captain," he whispered sincerely.
She indicated a chair. "Please, sit down. We have a lot to talk over."
Nick wilted into the padded seat. She noticed then that his eyes were clear, but he looked very tired. So stress adversely affected vampires, too. Silently, she went to her replicator and got them each something to drink- black coffee for her, and plasma for him. He accepted the glass wordlessly, but she caught a glimpse of fangs as he sipped.
"I want the pranks to stop," she repeated shortly.
"I'll see what I can do, Captain."
She glanced at him with surprise. It wasn't exactly promising, but neither was it willfully defiant.
"Surely, you know I'm not the one doing all of them. I just let the proverbial cat out of the bag," he explained.
"No, I didn't know," she said. "You didn't say anything. Why did you take the rap for it then?" She couldn't even count all the extra shifts she'd given him.
"I spoke to you once about Naomi, how she wasn't getting enough sandbox time, and then I started to see that the same could be said for everyone else."
"Go on," she urged. Sandbox time? It was a new term for her. Maybe he'd picked it up from something the doctor had told him to read.
"Childish spontaneity. The creative, impulsive urge to do something different. It is necessary for all beings- human, Vulcan, vampire- except maybe Borg. No amount of structured social activities can ever quite replace it."
She nodded slowly. "I have noticed that the crew seems happier. But I won't approve of the pranks. What else did you have in mind?"
"Stop treating this as just a Starfleet ship."
"But it IS a Starfleet ship!"
"No, Captain," Nick said gently. "It is also our home. No other ship in the Federation can compare. Other crews get extended leave, they get transferred, they visit their homes. This is all the home we've got for now. Let the crew relax more when off duty. Kick back. Let them redecorate their own quarters without regard to what's customary or acceptable. Let us mural the corridors, put the stamp of our individuality somewhere."
A mural! She felt instantly repulsed, yet with a quick count backward she was able to conceal it. Sipping coffee bought her another moment to think. "What would this mural be?"
Nick's face transposed into youthful enthusiasm almost instantly. He pulled a folded up sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and spread it on the table between them. It was long and narrow- the shape of a wall- and mostly a deep midnight blue in color. There was a starscape spread across the entire expanse, with bright, swirling colors depicting motion and energy. A simple, almost cartoonish, image of Voyager appeared at one end and repeated across the entire expanse. The ship veered behind a star, swerved and almost flew right off the page, dipped and spun again, resuming the ever-forward direction. The lights and shadows played across the hull, making the ship almost seem to grin. The entire mural made her smile. Simplistic, yet artful, it was their journey.
"Naomi and I came up with the design," he explained, suddenly shy. "But everyone would help to paint it. Murals are community projects. But I thought it would look nice, and make them feel more like the ship was really theirs-"
Janeway interrupted his rambling with a brisk nod of approval. "Permission granted. You may mural one wall, across from the holodecks. I'll think about the rest of your request."
"Thank you, Captain," Nick replied eagerly. "Thank you!"
It was a very different man before her now, from the belligerent officer who had first entered her office. She granted his request for shoreleave, effective immediately, then dismissed him.
"I hope you and Naomi have a good time," she said.
Nick scowled. B'Elanna had originally planned to join them, but she backed out of it now. "You go and play with the kids," she insisted. "I'll join you later tonight. Please?"
B'Elanna didn't give him any excuses. He sensed she was pulling away from him and it frightened him more than he cared to admit. "But-"
Then she kissed him fully, on the lips. "We'll talk later," she promised.
He shrugged. "Yeah. Sure."
Naomi tugged on his sleeve. "Can we still fly a kite without her help?"
The naïve, open face of the little girl stared at him trustingly. He forced a grin. "You bet. It doesn't take an engineer to get one up. Only a good breeze." He snapped on the small device around his shoulder that the doctor had invented for him. It would project a forcefield around him, protecting him from the harmful sun for brief periods. Then he packed the skateboards into a sack, along with a blanket, the picnic dinner Neelix had made for them, and a few other items, then shouldered it and carried the paper kite they had made together recently.
Kittim quietly entered his mind. Nick smiled at the boy, tousling his hair affectionately. "Of course, you're coming with us," he assured him. "And the transporter is safe. I brought you here through it before- although I know you don't remember it."
The boy slipped a hand in his and took Naomi's hand with the other, while they waited for the transporter. Nick smiled at him reassuringly, as their atoms were scattered then formed on the planet below.
Bright evening sun blinded Nick momentarily. He was paralyzed. Naomi took his sunglasses from a jacket pocket and tugged on his sleeve. "Bend lower, I can't reach," she told him.
Nick blinked back red tears. With the fear concealed behind darkened glasses, he resolutely set forth. They only had about thirty minutes, forty-five at the most, before dark. It wasn't much time. They skateboarded first, until Nick found a small, shallow creek. Kicking off his shoes and rolling up the hem of his pants, he grinned at the children and encouraged them to follow suit. Then they waded in barefoot. Naomi wasn't sure she liked the feel of the mud on her toes, but Kittim grabbed handfuls of it and tossed it at the rocks, laughing at the messy blobs it left. Nick couldn't find any aquatic life, like crawdads or minnows, but an amphibious creature scrambled about to the children's delight. Then, still barefoot, they tried to catch the gentle evening breeze with the paper kite.
Nick was surprised at how much fun he was having. This was supposed to be to help the children. This was work. But their infectious laughter and childish joy made him smile and feel good inside.... "Good". An unusual feeling for an evil creature, he thought wryly.
They ran together across a grassy clearing on the alien planet as the kite lifted a few feet tentatively, then crashed. They tried again, and again. Nick could have easily brought the kite up, flying it to impossible heights, but he wanted Naomi to learn how to do it the mortal way. He was teaching her to play. He'd learned kite flying from the masters- Da Vinci and Franklin. He should be able to share his knowledge with the soon-to-be-five human child, and the six-going-on-adult Liat.
Finally, when Naomi and Kittim were breathing hard from the exertion, the kite complied. It sailed effortlessly a few hundred meters above, a shadowy paper image against the rainbow-hued magnetic light show of the Ryetan aurora. Nick tied the kite string to a heavy branch, then spread out Neelix's picnic on a blanket. As dark shadows lengthened across the ground, Nick slipped the sunglasses back into a pocket. Lying down with his arms folded behind his head, he stared up into the magnificently colored sky.
"Captain said we can do our mural," he announced.
Naomi squealed with delight. Kittim dug through the picnic, sniffing the variety of foods. Naomi showed him how to eat a peanut butter sandwich the right way, leaving all the crusts intact, and how to blow bubbles in the milk. Nick chugged his beverage. The thick fluid coated his dry throat. It tasted different... perhaps it was just a little too warm. He finished it off and leaned back on the blanket.
Naomi and Kittim tossed their crusts toward some native birds. Her constant chattering and Kittim's vibrant picture-thoughts jumbled together. Nick's eyes drooped closed for just a moment. A warm, relaxed sensation enveloped him.
It was a very successful evening, Nick decided sleepily.
Nick sat up with a jerk. How could he have fallen asleep when he'd been watching the children! Sure, Naomi was a precocious child, but she was still a very little girl. He looked about frantically. Even with his nocturnal vision, he could see no sign of her or the Liat child.
"Naomi!" he called, jumping to his feet. "Kittim!" He swayed precariously. A sharp pounding throbbed in his head and he couldn't stop the retching reflex. Turning into the bushes he emptied his vampire stomach from the blood he'd swallowed earlier. There was a strange taste to it now... the blood had been poisoned.
"Naomi!" he choked out between spasms.
The night had a silent sound. There was no one to hear him. No one answered. Nick reached for his comm badge to contact the ship only to discover that it too was gone. This had all the markings of a trap, but it didn't matter. They had taken the children and Nick had to save them. He sprang into the air to make an aerial search, still fighting dizziness and nausea.
How long had he been out of it? It had been early dusk when he felt his eyes grow heavy. One horizon was still faintly pink-- so he hadn't been out long enough for anyone on the ship to even begin to worry. The creatures of the planet pulsated in warm tones as he searched the area with his night vision, but none of them were Naomi.
"Kittim!" he called again, this time focusing all his thoughts on the telepathic child.
At once he was struck with a response and he lost altitude. Kittim was terrified and locked inside an empty Ryetan ship.
"I need some help here, buddy," Nick said, still seeing nothing as he circled above. "Where are you? How did you get there?"
The thoughts poured into him painfully, yet Nick ignored the discomfort in his desperation. At once he knew every move the children had made since he had first fallen into the drugged sleep. He recognized the places they had been and followed.
Nick flew towards a Ryetan shipyard teeming with ships, soldiers, flood lights, noise, and the organized sense of chaos that military bases often projected. The ship he searched for was toward the rear. The surrounding soldiers ignored the Ryetan kidnappers and their two small humanoid victims. Nick hovered a moment. Kulin seemed to be in charge. He held Naomi securely, and she was having a full-blown, four-year-old tantrum. She kicked and screamed, shedding tears of rage. Kulin ignored her.
She was the bait, Nick realized. And he was their target. He flew down, landing in front of Kulin so fast it startled the massive soldier.
"Unhand her!" he demanded.
Kulin ignored him. He spoke to his soldiers in the guttural Ryetan language, which without the universal translator, Nick could not understand. The soldiers surrounded him, wielding sharpened wooden staves. How much did they know about him, he wondered, just beginning to feel concern. Their doctor Fyid had worked among them, had learned how he reacted to donating blood, and had probably witnessed his ability to heal quickly, but he shouldn't have known about wood....
"Release the girl," he demanded again. He took a step closer, glaring up at the tall alien and trying to catch him in a hypnotic trance.
Suddenly the dozen staves prodded him from every direction, some tore through his shirt and scratched the skin. Something snapped inside him. He could have been more cautious, but Nick was tired of bullies. "You want me," he shouted. "Fine! I'll come with you! But only if you let the girl go!" He continued to rail at Kulin, adding more colorful metaphors suggesting he do impossible things with his anatomy. It was senseless talk, but maybe it would convince someone to produce a translator, out of curiosity if nothing else.
Naomi continued to squirm and scream. Kulin shook her, then tossed her to the ground. At his command, the soldier beside him lifted the wooden staff and prepared to skewer her. Nick panicked for a moment only, then with super-human speed threw himself on top of her to take the staff in the back.
It thrust through skin and bone. Nick clenched his jaw, refusing to cry out in pain and frighten Naomi further. The staff missed anything important. The wood irritated and burned, but he would survive.
Kulin roared at the soldier. Nick felt a heavy foot on his back just as the staff was pulled out. He shoved his wrist into his mouth, sinking his fangs into his own flesh to still the roar of pain.
Naomi clutched his shirt and sobbed.
Nick rolled off of her, holding her head in his hands. "Look at me," he commanded with a sense of urgency. "You will go to sleep. You will sleep for hours. When you awake, you will tell B'Elanna everything!"
She nodded weakly as her eyes closed.
He glared up at Kulin. Already the back wound was beginning to heal and he itched with prickly new skin. In a rage, he flew at the first officer that was more than twice his total mass. With fangs extended, he shredded fur-covered flesh before the other soldiers yanked him off. Two more staves pierced through him, one in his leg and another in the stomach. As his blood flowed out upon the paved shipyard, Nick felt his strength departing. His wrists were grabbed and tied behind him. His ankles were bound as well. The wooden staff in his leg was broken off just above the wound, but left in place. These soldiers knew too much about him, he realized with growing panic. The wound would not heal as long as the wood remained inside him. A scream tore from his lips. A black haze was settling behind his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Naomi...."
Captain Janeway slowly made her way towards the holodeck. She surveyed the gunmetal gray walls of the corridor in a new light. They were sleek and predatory; she loved her ship. But they were a little drab. How had it failed her notice before?
While Nick was on the planet, she decided it was time to have a little chat with LaCroix. It frightened her no small amount. Part of her, the very mortal feminine part she kept mostly hidden, wanted Nick there to protect her. But the stronger, Captain part needed to be the protector, ensuring that Nick, and every other member of her crew, was safe. Relatively speaking. There were still so many dangers in space travel to be faced almost daily, but child abuse shouldn't be one of them.
She stepped into the empty blue and silver holodeck and wondered how to contact him. "LaCroix?" she called tentatively. The silence of the room mocked her. She ordered the computer to present Da Vinci's home again. Pacing through his quiet living quarters, she found a small oil lamp and lit it. The great inventor must be sleeping, she thought. "LaCroix? We have to talk!"
"As you wish," a deep sensual voice whispered mere inches from her ear.
Janeway whirled around, her hands on her hips. The ancient vampire was attired in more modern clothing, she noted. Still, all in black. He eyed her as well, taking in the black jumpsuit with red across the shoulders, the four simple gold pips of her rank pinned to the collar.
"Women's clothes used to be so much more... flattering," he purred.
She felt the heat rising to her cheeks at his salacious perusal. Damn him, she cursed under her breath. "I'm not here to discuss style with you, LaCroix."
"I want you to leave my lieutenant alone."
"And I want you to protect my son," he stated archly.
She caught the surprise in his stony features before he regained the icy composure.
"You will seal all records pertaining to him?"
She nodded. "The records will be marked with a code, known only by Nick, the doctor, and myself. At the first sign of trouble, all the files will be deleted. Furthermore, most of the crew thinks he is some delta-quadrant alien, not an earth-born vampire. I have not perpetuated this myth, but I will not eliminate it, either."
LaCroix laughed snidely. "Is this new, Captain? A crash course in situational ethics?"
"No. I'm simply trying to protect a member of my crew."
"Ah. I see. Did he put you up to this? Ask you to come here and speak on his behalf?"
"He doesn't know I'm here. And he never told me about your last "little chat"."
She watched as the ancient absorbed the new information. A crack in the fortress of his demeanor appeared. He turned his back to her, but she noted the slight slump in his shoulders, the bent of his head, the softer tone to his voice.
"I hadn't meant to hurt him this time," the vampire said. "It was that impetuous mortal! Nicholas merely got in the way."
Janeway felt a cold anger burn in her gut. Angry that this being had apparently attacked Nick only a few weeks ago and angry that she had been oblivious, allowing it to happen.
"You will not touch him again," she threatened. "Nick, or any other member of my crew!"
The vampire turned again, the crack sealed and he regarded her with disdain. "Or what, my dear captain?"
"I can have the holodecks dismembered. You would not have this physical access to him again. And we could find a nice place for him to live out here somewhere. A red-blooded planet, still 60,000 odd light-years away from harm."
The vampire glared at her. She saw golden eyes flecked with red, and knew she tread on dangerous ground. Then suddenly the eyes cleared. For a moment, she saw the ice blue, before he clenched them shut and cried out in pain. He lost his balance, falling to the floor and clutching at his thigh. The roar of pain sounded again, bone chilling in its intensity. The holographic image faded briefly, she could see through him, reminding her again that this creature wasn't really here and none of this was real.
"What is it?"
"Nicholas!" he gasped. "My son is wounded!"
Chapter Nineteen: The Prisoner
Nick could not stand. The pain in his leg was excruciating. Two soldiers lifted him effortlessly and dragged him inside the nearest ship before letting him drop to the floor. They took their positions at the helm. Kulin entered. He turned to bark a few orders to the remaining soldiers. Nick strained to see through the open hatch as he fought to stay conscious. One soldier lifted Naomi. So, perhaps her life would be spared... but she was not to be brought on board with him. Nick felt a tightness in his chest he couldn't explain. He only knew that if anything should happen to her, he would never, ever get over it.
The ship vibrated. The engines rumbled; an excitement seemed to pulse through the metal panels, building until the ship burst forth, breaking away from the force of gravity. Nick clenched his eyes shut. He couldn't think. There was only the pain. The two wounds in his chest continued to bleed; his thigh throbbed and burned. His stomach was still queasy from the poison. For a moment, he thought of LaCroix, but the ancient was too far away to help him this time. He felt the thread of connection between them, sensed his master's anger. Nick slammed down the shields to block him from his mind. He would live or die on his own. LaCroix be damned; he didn't need him.
"B'Elanna," Janeway called over the comm. Although she disliked the vampire, her human compassion caused her to kneel beside him to offer comfort.
"Not me," LaCroix hissed, even as blood tears slipped through closed eyes. "Go - help- my son!"
Janeway got to her feet and exited the holodeck. B'Elanna certainly sounded fine. She and Nick were linked somehow. In the past B'Elanna had felt his headaches and his hunger, his anger and his passion. She didn't seem to feel any pain now.
"I was just wondering," Janeway began, still not ready to dismiss LaCroix's plea. "How is Nick?"
With a parting glance at the holographic vampire who was beginning to fade away, Janeway hurried towards engineering where she knew she'd find the lieutenant. B'Elanna was silent for a moment. "Is something the matter, Captain?"
Janeway stepped through the doors and faced her. "I'm not sure. I thought Nick might be in pain, but you haven't felt it?"
True concern etched B'Elanna's dark features. "No, Captain. I can't feel him at all, which means he is shutting himself off. Where is he?"
Janeway felt the seconds passing, willing herself to hurry to help him. Slapping her comm badge, she called Nick. Even though he'd be down on the planet, he should still pick up her signal. When there was no response, both became alarmed.
"Transporter room! Lock onto Lieutenant Knight's comm badge, beam him and the children back immediately."
She and B'Elanna raced to meet them.
Nick's comm badge returned, sitting alone on the transporter pad. Naomi returned, as well. She lay huddled in a small heap on the floor, sound asleep. Janeway shook the little girl, but to no avail. The front of her shirt was soaked with blood. Janeway felt for a pulse and called the doctor.
"She seems unharmed," he stated moments later, checking his tricorder. "The blood is Nick's. She is in a deep sleep. If I had to guess, I would say that Nick hypnotized her."
"That doesn't make any sense," Janeway snapped.
"It would, Captain," B'Elanna whispered, feeling a rising dread in her stomach. "If he did it to protect her. He must really be in trouble!"
The doctor took Naomi to sickbay, promising to contact the captain as soon as he was able to wake her. Janeway contacted the bridge, alerting them. All shoreleaves were cancelled and the crew was to beam back under the emergency evacuation plan and keep an eye out for the Liat boy. Kim began a scan of the planet's surface, which would be time consuming, but until further notice, it was a place to start. Tuvok began scanning the upper atmosphere for all recent interstellar ships, and Chakotay contacted the Ryetan government. Still, the seconds passed, then the hours. Janeway closed her eyes, trying to recall Nick's youthful enthusiasm as he showed her the plans for the mural. He'd come to mean so much to everyone... She had to find him!
There was only the pain. It throbbed in his leg and in his chest. His head hurt. He shook with dry heaves, having nothing left to lose. The scent of blood assailed him. With fangs descended, he opened his mouth, blinded by the aroma of the essential fluid. Warm and thick, it coated his sore throat, soothed the irritated tissues. He gulped greedily. Already, the throbbing in his head lessened. Images flooded his muzzy brain. Fear, pain, and death. It was the blood of a murdered child!
Nick spat it out in disgust. After a moment of panic, he was certain that the child had not been Naomi. He opened his eyes and glared at the Ryeta soldier beside him.
The soldiers spoke among themselves, the deep, odd snorts of their guttural language. The blood was removed from his reach.
"Killers!" Nick gasped, his voice sounded hoarse. "I'll make you suffer!" He lunged for the nearest soldier. The large Ryeta swung out with a fist. He struck Nick in the chest, sending him sprawling backwards across the floor of the ship. The pain shot through Nick's entire being. It caught him by surprise and for a moment his control slipped.
"I'm sorry, B'Elanna," he whispered, as the blackness threatened to overtake him again.
B'Elanna had felt it, however briefly. She screamed, and fell to the floor, gasping for air. Human tears spilled down her cheeks before she could regain her control. Vorik was instantly at her side.
"It isn't me," she said, rejecting his offer of help. "It's Nick."
She opened her senses to him, trying to feel his presence again. There was only an empty space where once he had been. It felt so lonely without him there. "Stubborn, pig-headed vampire!"
His thinking wasn't clear. He was on a smallish ship- considering the Ryetan's massive size- and there were just three soldiers within hearing range. Their large, slow-beating alien hearts echoed like dirge drums in his head. He was still bleeding, which surprised him. But then, the wood had not yet been removed. So, they wanted him weak and controllable, but not dead. How much did they know about him?
Fresh blood moved tantalizingly close. Nick's fangs descended, yet he fought back the hunger. He would not feed on children. This blood smelled different though... it was still warm.
A small hand timidly brushed against his cheek, then Kittim was in his thoughts. The boy was frightened, but he was worried for Nick. The vampire forced his eyes open again. "Go away," he whispered.
Kittim did not understand. Nick tried to concentrate, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. His drifting thoughts were confusing the boy. 'Get away! Get back... I am too hungry.' The boy was not safe.
Instead, the Liat lay down behind him, wrapping his small arm around Nick's chest, offering him warmth and comfort. The nearness of the meal was frustrating the vampire, but he was just too weak to roll over and feed.
The alien ship landed abruptly, tossing Nick painfully across the floor to slam into one of the alien chairs bolted securely in place, where he lay in his own blood, too weak to move.
They threw open the hatch. Two soldiers grabbed Nick, hauling him up off the floor. As they approached the exit, Nick felt heat on his face. He cried out in a panic. "Stop! No!"
They ignored his protests, until they smelled the acrid odor of sizzling flesh. They stared at the wisps of smoke rising from him.
Kulin shouted at his men, the sounds were angry and demanding.
Nick couldn't open his eyes. If only they'd let him be. Instincts made him want to find a dark hole to crawl into. But this was important- they apparently didn't know everything about vampires. "Can't go out in the sun," he whispered, gasping between each painful breath it took to speak. "Must cover me, very thoroughly."
Kittim was the only one to understand. He grabbed a blanket and tried to wrap it around Nick, grunting anxiously to get the Ryeta's attention.
The soldiers shrugged. They wrapped a second blanket around their prize, then carried him out into the bright sunlight.
Nick felt a blood-sweat break as the instinctive panic claimed him. The blankets grew warm. He gasped, struggling weakly in the strong arms that held him.
Nick felt B'Elanna for a brief moment. Quickly, he slammed the link, protecting her from his torment. "I love you," he thought miserably.
He fought to remain conscious. He had to learn all that he could, if he hoped to find his way back sometime. Ryeta soldiers had kidnapped him, among them was Murth's first officer, Kulin. But, Murth's voice wasn't heard. These soldiers might be renegades, or on special assignment. He wasn't certain how long he'd been unconscious. His hunger was no judge, either. The wounds he'd suffered were sapping all his energy. Now, they were on a planet, some distance from the Ryeta homeworld. There was a bright, single sun, and the air smelled rich in oxygen. The blankets were too warm... his struggling renewed in a panic. The soldier dropped him, and Nick was rendered unconscious.
== Enterprise, ten years ago ==
Picard looked on in utter shock. He had trusted Nick! And his trust had been betrayed! Guinan returned to LaCroix's side. She stood over him, her hands akimbo, and glared victoriously.
"I can help you, you arrogant, tyrannical, obsessive son of a bitch with filiicidal tendencies, but only if you say "pretty please"."
LaCroix closed his eyes, choking on his own blood and thinking of which torturous method to kill his troublesome child, for Nicholas had gone too far. Guinan nudged the wooden stake with her toe, causing LaCroix to cry out in pain. Picard glanced at Guinan's uncharacteristic behavior. He'd only seen her treat one other being with such scorn- and that was Q. Yes, he thought, LaCroix and Q did have a certain something in common. Their utter lack of regard for humanity. He knelt before Nick's father and pulled out the stake, shuddering at the beastial cry that ripped from LaCroix's throat. Guinan uncorked a small flask and held it out for the vampire. LaCroix snatched it from her. He tossed back its contents in one long swallow, visibly struggling to regain control.
"Did you know about this change in his plans?" LaCroix hissed.
"No. He betrayed me, as well," Picard said.
"Oh shut up," Guinan snapped. "He did not betray anyone. I warned you, Captain. I told you that Nick would not betray his morals for anyone or anything, not you, not Starfleet, not even this monster he calls father. His only thought here is the safety of the children. He knew you were going to return them to the Cardassians. LaCroix, you must know how much it hurt him to do this, or are you blind and stupid, too?"
LaCroix hissed weakly at her, but already the shallow wound was closing.
"Do you know where he is going," Picard asked LaCroix.
The vampire gave no indication of responding. He stood then, and straightened his coat, brushing off his sleeves. "Is that true? Would you have returned the brats for whom he'd risked his life to those gutless Cardassians?"
Picard bristled at the condescending tones. But then, the vampire was older than him by hundreds of years. "I would have done my duty," he answered.
"And regretted it," LaCroix observed. "How pathetically mortal. How like my son!" He narrowed his eyes at the captain. "So that's it? You feel something for him? You allowed him to manipulate you? Perhaps he told you what a beast I am, how I've tormented him all these years? Made his life the hell that it is?"
"No," Picard said coldly. "He only told me that he loved you. And that he regretted he couldn't tell you that himself."
Surprise registered on the ancient's face. He almost called the captain a liar, but the truth hung in the air around them. Nick had wept, even as he had stabbed him. And Nick had avoided any organs. The stick was too slight to cause more than momentary pain, unlike the injury LaCroix had given him a few days back. Nicholas hated him, he knew. The boy had spent centuries defying him, fleeing from him, tormenting him... but did he also love him? Did he even want Nick's love? His respect and obedience, yes... but love? LaCroix wasn't sure how to think. Still, he must shake off this mortal complication quickly, that he could resume the search for his son.
"I do not know where Nick is going. But if indeed you trust him, and wish to save the miserable lives of those children rather than keep them political pawns in the brewing winds of war, then let this issue drop. Do not try to find him. Nicholas Thomas died on Cardassia. Nicholas de Brabant does not exist. Return to your ship."
A thousand feelings ripped through Picard in a moment. Anger, resentment, love and hate. Starfleet was wrong about the children, he agreed. Nick had been nothing but honorable, even if his code conflicted with the one Picard had chosen to live by. It would not be the first time he failed to follow an order. And it would not likely be the last, either. He nodded curtly at LaCroix.
"The children are gone," he admitted. "I will not search for them. But I will find you someday. Nicholas is a wonderful young man. I found him to be intelligent, honorable, and loving. Any man should be proud to call him "son." Nicholas was not responsible for my knowledge of vampires. He erased our logs and wiped our memories. You have just revived them. You will treat him well, or I shall be contacting these enforcers myself."
LaCroix bristled under the threats. "I could kill you in a second," he said chillingly.
"Ah, a starship captain? A bit too risky, LaCroix. There would be an investigation that would not end until the mystery was solved. You will not harm me."
"Gentlemen," Guinan interrupted. "If you're quite through with all this testosterone-induced posturing, then let us leave this place. I want a hot bath, a hot meal, and a good night's sleep. Good bye, LaCroix. Next time I see Nick, you'd better not be any where around."
They beamed back to the ship together. LaCroix was released on the next starbase for questioning, but mysteriously, all records and knowledge of his crime of abducting a Federation citizen vanished and he was again a free man. Picard returned to his duty. Still, the recordings he'd kept of Nick haunted him.
"I hope," he whispered to the boyish, handsome face, "that you find your happiness."
Chapter twenty: All Alone
Cold, hard surface beneath him. Pain. The smell of antiseptic. More pain. Stale, filtered air. Nick hurt.
Slowly, he struggled back from the black abyss. There were voices around him. The deep, resonant tones of the massive Ryeta. He was still a prisoner. Feigning sleep, Nick tried to focus, to learn anything that might prove useful.
He heard the growls of the Ryetan language. Kulin was arguing with another, not a soldier, but perhaps a civilian scientist. The room appeared to be some sort of lab, with table surfaces cluttered with beakers and instruments. The lab scientist gestured at Nick and growled angrily at Kulin. He was not happy about something. Nick tried to recognize words and syllables in the language, without luck.
Nick drifted briefly. Their angry voices continued to drone on, almost lulling him. Nightmares emerged, where the Fever ran rampant again. Faces of dead friends loomed just out of reach... and he held the vaccine in his hand that would heal them. Only, he couldn't move. His feet remained firmly rooted, even as the dead called out to him. Panic gripped him. He wanted to cry out, but he could make no sound.
He felt a touch and opened bleary eyes. The scientist patted his head and spoke softly. Then with a forceps, he yanked the wooden splinters from the gapping holes in Nick's chest. The vampire emerged, full fanged and furious. He flew at the scientist, biting the hand that offered to help him.
The scientist was too startled to speak, but the massive Ryeta wasn't overly concerned by the injured vampire. Strong arms pulled Nick off and slammed him back onto the table. Fresh blood pumped from the multiple wounds, but Nick fought uselessly against the stronger opponents. Kulin pulled his wrists above his head and chained him to the examining table. Nick tugged on the chains futilely. For a moment, he cried out to LaCroix. The master had always been there to rescue him in the past!
But LaCroix was far, far away this time. Nick would have to rescue himself... which meant allowing the scientist to give him whatever meal was available. Tears borne of frustration and pain threatened to spill. Nick clenched his teeth. He would survive!
The doctor grabbed hold of the broken end of wooden staff still embedded in his thigh and yanked. With an anguished cry, Nick passed out.
"Captain, will you and B'Elanna come to sick bay," the doctor inquired. "Our little patient is waking up."
Janeway hurried, meeting B'Elanna on the way. Wordlessly they entered the brightly-lit sickbay and hovered over Naomi. She still looked groggy and a little confused.
"Where am I? Where's Nick?" She started to sit, but the doctor put a gentle hand on her.
"Just rest a little longer," he said softly. "I want you to tell us what you remember. You were on the planet with Nick."
Her eyes clouded over and fat tears spilled down her cheeks. "He's hurt, isn't he! Is he dead?"
"No!" B'Elanna shouted. Then awkwardly she calmed down. "No. Not yet, anyway. But he does need our help. So what can you remember?"
Slowly Naomi recalled their evening. The kite and the picnic. "Nick got real sleepy after he ate," she commented. "So Kittim and I just played. Then they grabbed us."
"They who?" Captain Janeway interrupted.
"The bad guys. Kulin and the others."
"Are you saying that Ryeta soldiers captured Nick?"
"Uh-uh. And they hurt him! They stabbed him, in the leg and twice in the chest. He was bleeding all over!" Tears fell again, heavier this time. Her little body trembled.
B'Elanna pulled her into her arms and cuddled her, the way she'd seen Nick do a dozen times. She patted the child's back. "You are a brave girl," she whispered. "And you've been a big help."
Suddenly Naomi sat up and stared at her, cupping B'Elanna's face with her hands. "Yes. Nick told me. He said to tell you everything! They were going to hurt me, but he saved me. Then he whispered really softly, and he said to tell you everything! B'Elanna, he was bleeding everywhere!"
"He'll be okay, Naomi. We'll find him."
Nick awoke sometime later. The pains in his chest had gone. He opened his eyes wearily to see wide, white bandages taped around his middle. Another bandage covered his thigh and he was wearing only his boxers. The thigh still hurt though. As he lightly rubbed the area, the bandage darkened with blood. The incompetent Ryeta doctor must have left a wood sliver still inside.
He put a hand to his forehead and willed the nausea to pass. There was too much to do. Any escape must be done as soon as possible, before the Ryeta had a chance to learn much about him. Their ignorance was his ace in the hole. How could he use it to his advantage?
Surveying his surroundings, Nick noted what materials were on hand. He was behind bars- like some sort of cage. The bars were all around him, on the bottom, the sides, the ceiling. One thin mattress was lying directly on the floor of his cage with no sheets and only a thin blanket. His cage sat on the floor of the large, brightly-lit lab, which was currently empty of any living beings. A humanoid skeleton stood on a shelf within his view. The wall charts were also humanoid- probably Liat. The printed words were unintelligible, in the Ryeta language no doubt, but the implication was clear. This lab studied the Liat. And they held Nick hostage. And his blood had healed the Liat of the incurable disease. A cold dread filled him, as he realized that they intended to sacrifice him to heal a planet. A noble death, perhaps, but a death, just the same. And it wasn't like he had volunteered to do this.
He stood up, but pain shot through his bandaged thigh. It would not support his weight. He closed his eyes and tried to fly to the cage door. He didn't lift. Surprised, he looked around, and concentrating, tried again. Still, he was grounded. An injured leg shouldn't keep him down, he thought angrily. He didn't use his legs to fly. Maybe he was just too hungry. Frustrated, he hopped awkwardly, lunging for one of the cage walls.
The bars were as thick around as his forearm and made of some alien alloy. He grasped one in each hand and shook for all he was worth, but the metal didn't so much as budge a millimeter. The bars weren't very close together though. Pushing one shoulder out, he wedged his chest between them and struggled. Nothing. He couldn't quite fit, at least, not yet. Who knows? If they didn't feed him well, and he lost weight, and he broke a few ribs, he just might make it... It wasn't a good plan, but it was a start. Hearing someone come, he pulled his arm back inside. It wouldn't do to let the enemy know what he was thinking.
Kittim pushed open the large door and scurried inside. He smiled at Nick timidly. Nick shook the cage door viciously. It was a simple hook and eye type latch, but with a solid lock. Not even the larger Ryeta would have been able to snap it. "Find the key," he urged Kittim. "A crowbar, something, to help me break the lock!"
The boy scrambled around the room. He climbed a tall stool to crawl up on the counter. He picked up one item, but Nick shook his head. "Not strong enough. It will break."
Kittim continued quickly, searching for something that might work. Finally he lifted a metallic rod. What its original use had been was hard to determine, but now it was a crowbar. Kittim tossed it off the shelf; it clattered to the floor. Grasping onto the shelf firmly, Kittim lowered his feet over the side then dropped the distance. He grabbed the metal rod and brought it to Nick.
It took both of them to thread it between the bars and the lock. Then Nick tugged on it fiercely. The lock didn't budge but the rod didn't bend either. He struggled again, finding the strength borne of desperation. He could hear heavier footsteps approaching. "Go, hide," he told Kittim, yanking harder on the rod.
The door flung open, the doctor and two guards stepped inside. Kittim faced them bravely.
The guard barked an alien command and swung a heavy fist at the boy. Kittim was thrown several feet away, colliding with the floor forcefully. An ugly bruise was already forming on his cheek.
"You filthy scum!" Nick roared. "Keep your damn hands off him!"
The scientist chuckled and shook his head. With ease, he tugged the makeshift crowbar from the injured vampire's grip, tossing it aside. Unlocking the cage, he reached inside to grab his vampire specimen.
Nick lunged through the opening to make his break. The guards struck him repeatedly with their staves. He dodged as many blows as he could and nearly made it to the door, until one blow struck his injured thigh, knocking his legs out from under him. He fell to the ground, but still tried to roll away. They grabbed his wrists and ankles. Tossing him on the examining table, they chained him securely.
Nick continued to resist, however uselessly. He bit one hand, his teeth meeting clear through the furry paw. The guard struck him hard, pulling his hand free. Nick had to spit the putrid alien blood out of his mouth before it made him ill. The doctor then began to withdraw his blood from him. The vampire resisted, struggling for freedom with renewed vigor, but in the end, he failed. The Ryeta doctor drew more blood than the EMH had ever taken at one time. Nick was losing consciousness.
"Stop! No more!" he roared. "You're killing me!"
The doctor continued longer before stopping his macabre torture. He fed Nick intravenously, an amount just equal to what was taken, but nothing extra. With the energy Nick had expended, he was still hungry and very weak. Then the guards unchained him and cast him into his cage, locking the door again.
The one guard, with a bandage wrapped around his injured paw, growled threateningly at Nick.
Nick was overcome with emotion. He felt small, victimized, depressed, and very much alone. Blood tears he couldn't afford to shed seeped between closed eyelashes to stain his face. "LaCroix!" he whispered. "Where are you!"
Images drifted through his mind. Fuzzy, disjointed. Soothing. He didn't move, allowing the images to become stronger than the reality.
Chapter twenty-one: The Dreams
He was on a planet- Chakotay's homeworld. The moon was shining brightly, bathing the alien sky with a white-golden glow. A soft breeze carried the hint of winter while the moderate temperatures soothed and comforted.
There were the sounds of children... happy children. Chakotay was not here. He had grown into a man since Nick was here last, and was off in Starfleet somewhere. But Chakotay's father had welcomed him back.
The refugee children took to their new life here quickly. They dressed in simple clothes and learned the ancient ways of The People. Although they were Bajoran and Human and Vulcan and Cardassian, now they would call themselves Indian.
Many of the Indian boys had noticed Vasik's unusual poise and feminine grace. They fought with one another for the honor of just being near her. Nick pointed out to the tribal chieftain that Vasik would not reach the age of maturity for nearly twenty years. The chieftain had simply smiled. "For the right warrior, the prize will be worth the wait."
Laret and Jamie were thrilled to join the Indian boys in their other activities, as they learned to respect nature instead of fear it. They hunted and fished, swam and played, and joined around the campfires in the evening to learn the oral traditions of The People.
Little Marti resisted leaving the protection and comfort of Nick's side the longest. Steadfastly she clung to his neck while the other children made new friends. Nick could spare only a little time. He knew that the longer he stayed here, the longer he put the children in danger of being discovered. But, he needed to make sure they would adjust and find safety before he left, as he might never be able to return.
One Indian grandmother took an interest in Marti. She invited Nick to accompany her, as she patted ground flour and water into a tortilla and baked it on a hot rock. Drizzling the tortilla with honey, she rolled it up and offered it to Marti. Before long, she was showing Marti how to pat the flour herself. That night, Marti slept in the grandmother's arms.
Nick could feel the presence of his father. LaCroix was near. It was time to face him. He bid farewell to the tribe and hugged each of the refugee children- kisses for the girls and the littlest ones, handshakes for the boys- before leaving. LaCroix would be furious with him. He should take this meeting far from the village.
Nick took the hollowed canoe and paddled back upstream towards the cottage that had once been his. With each stroke, the link with LaCroix grew stronger. So the ancient was waiting for him there. Part of Nick wanted to turn and flee from this planet! But, he needed to bargain for the safety of the children. He could stop and feed first. The fresh blood would give him strength to face his angry master, but Nick decided against it. Maybe, if he were weak it wouldn't last as long.
He pulled the canoe up on the shore near his cabin. LaCroix was inside. Hesitating, Nick looked out over the black river laced with patches of golden moonlight and tried to sense his master's mood.
There was nothing. Not anger and not compassion. The master was blocking himself. Nick could only sense that he waited for him inside.
Nick pulled off his clothing and slipped into the cold water, bathing the scent of mortals from his skin. He knew what he had to do.
Climbing ashore, he pulled on his trousers and shirt, but walked barefoot to stand in the door of his cabin. LaCroix demanded respect, but never weakness. He had trained Nick to appear strong, even in the face of certain defeat. So Nick squared his shoulders. He looked at his master in the eyes, trying to find courage, even knowing that LaCroix could hear his cold blood pound in his immortal veins.
LaCroix sat regally in a chair before a small fire, his fingers steepled before him contemplatively.
Nick walked proudly into the room, then knelt before LaCroix. He took the ancient's hand and pressed a kiss on the ring he always wore on the last finger. "Forgive me, Father," he said.
A silence stretched between them. Still Nick could not sense the rage from his master that he expected. There was just a void between them. Nick was so tired. He was tired of trying to second-guess him, tired of running from him. What he'd told Picard was truth. He missed the closeness they could share, and regretted all the times they had spent in battle against each other. He laid his head in LaCroix's lap. He freely opened his mind to the ancient, making himself vulnerable, but also hoping LaCroix would sense what he could not put into words.
Nick didn't move. The night sounds played at the edge of his consciousness, but all he thought of was LaCroix. Gradually, he sensed the ancient's presence in his mind. LaCroix was still closed to him, but Nick kept himself open.
Then, he felt LaCroix's hand rest on his head, and tentatively, the long, graceful fingers brushed through his hair. He closed his eyes. The fingers swept the unruly strands off his forehead, and trailed down the side of his face, then patted the back of his head paternally.
"My son. So it is true?"
The words were whispered. Nick almost hated to speak, afraid of breaking whatever spell was weaving between them this moment. The ancient touched his face again, gently turning his chin that their eyes might meet. "Is it true, that you - miss me?" LaCroix couldn't quite say the exact words he had heard from Picard. Nick had said "love", not "miss".
Nick nodded solemnly.
"You capricious child," LaCroix said. The words were soft, endearing, not a harsh reprimand. "And just when we cannot be together."
"But why?" Nick blurted.
"Because, Nicholas. You are wanted by the Cardassians, the Federation, and Captain Picard. I am afraid that we will only have tonight. Then, for your safety, I shall leave alone and return to earth. I will try to throw them off your trail, while you disappear for a few years. Perhaps you should look into this Maquis uprising?"
Nick nodded, unsure at the turns his life was taking.
"Come now," the ancient said, lightening his tone and breaking the quiet spell. "The night is too short for melancholy. Let us hunt together, one last time."
They hunted the wild boar and feasted on its blood. LaCroix had managed to drink his share without shuddering with distaste. "It is an improvement over earth's bovine creatures," he acknowledged. "This animal burns with passion!"
They flew before the face of the midnight light. And just as it slipped beyond the hills on the horizon, they returned to Nick's simple cottage. Nick insisted his master take the large bed in the single bedchamber, and LaCroix accepted it as his due. Nick stretched out on the narrow cot in the main room. It had been a long time. He'd rescued the children, and now he was about to embark on a new identity. He would become Nick Knight again. Maquis rebel. But how many years until he could return to earth? He missed LaCroix and Janette. Hell, he even missed Natalie and Vachon... Suddenly, he didn't want to be alone another moment.
Quietly, he rose from the cot and slipped into the bedroom. The shutters cast it in darkness and shadows against the rising sun. He neared his bed and the sleeping vampire in it. Lifting the blanket, he slipped down inside. LaCroix didn't stir. Holding his breath, Nick inched closer. He laid his head on his father's shoulder, then snuggled down and closed his eyes. He heard a single beat of the ancient heart beneath his ear. It was comforting.
He could never be like his master. He could never be a "good vampire" again. He wouldn't hunt to kill mortals. He could never make LaCroix proud of him. But neither could he turn his back on him. Such as it was, they were family.
Then he felt the ancient's breath in his ear. "Sleep well, Nicholas."
The memory seemed too real. As Nick lay, weak and hurting, on the floor of an inhuman cage, he imagined that he was instead in the comfort and safety of his master's arms, snuggled against his chest, drifting into a peace-filled slumber, while he heard his master say, "Sleep well, Nicholas."
Captain Janeway paced furiously the small confines of her readyroom. They'd spoken with the Ryeta again and again, but the dignitaries claimed to have no knowledge. They said Kulin was AWOL, and if he'd taken their missing lieutenant then there was simply no way to find him. They did dispatch two small vessels to search for Kulin. They claimed it was all they could spare, with the war and all. They also waived any payment Voyager might owe, and gave them permission to pass through their space.
It was all just a little too convenient. She was certain that they knew exactly where Kulin and Nick were. It didn't take a quantum physicist to figure out that both were probably on the Liat homeworld by now, and information of the location of that planet was sealed in secrecy.
"It is a dying world, Captain," they explained. "There is an epidemic loose, and we cannot allow you to spread it."
That her ship had already been exposed and cured of the disease seemed immaterial.
Then she had an idea.
He grinned broadly as she laid out her plans. "So, you'll fight fire with fire?"
"More like fight diplomacy with diplomacy," she quipped. "They are being oh-so helpful, while doing absolutely nothing. So, we'll just be oh-so gullible. I want us to stick around, finish out our shoreleave, let them think we'll wait for the results of their ineffectual search. Maybe we can do a little reconnaissance on our own?"
Tom had another suggestion to add to the plan, when he was informed later at a staff meeting. "Maybe we should also act like we don't really care," he said. "The Ryeta don't seem to place the same value on life that we do, since they fully expect us to just go and leave Nick behind. Maybe, if they thought that some of us, at least, won't miss Nick, they'll grow more casual about it?"
"I'm not that good an actor," B'Elanna snapped. "And while we pussy-foot around, they are torturing him!"
Janeway put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I know B'Elanna. If you have any other ideas, I'd be glad to hear them."
Her silence condemned her.
"You keep trying to find him through that psychic link, then, and let me know the second you have any information."
The Ryeta doctor brushed the door open with a shoulder and strode purposefully inside, setting boxes down on the high table. Kittim followed him. The Liat started for Nick, but at a harsh command he returned to the doctor's side. Nick didn't understand the word. The translator was still missing.
"Where's my clothes! Where're my things!" Nick demanded angrily.
The Ryeta table was high enough, that from his position on the floor, Nick could not see what he was doing. The doctor seemed deeply involved in his work, though, and ignored both him and the Liat boy. Nick soon became bored. He was angry, and frustrated, and still in pain, but mostly he was bored. He shook the cage viciously.
"I demand you let me go!" he shouted. "Return me to my ship at once! Talk to me, you fur-covered overstuffed moth-eaten animated flee-bag! Now!"
The doctor stopped his work momentarily. Approaching the cage, he gave it a swift kick and barked a single-word command. The cage shook. Nick lost his balance and fell, cursing as the throbbing in his leg increased and the stain on the bandage spread. Without the translator, he could only guess, but the command had probably been the Ryeta equivalent of "shut up!"
Undaunted, Nick continued. He called the doctor more vile names and insulted his maternal ancestry. The doctor sighed, then slipped headphones over his ears and ignored Nick.
So much for plan one, he thought miserably. He leaned against a corner of his cage and moped. Boredom was a cruel way to die.
He wanted his clothes back. True, they'd be filled with holes and stiff with blood, but he'd never felt comfortable with so much of himself exposed. The Ryeta wanted him. They needed him alive, but wanted to keep him weakened so he'd be more controllable. Maybe, it would be in his better interests to feign weak, rather than to expend more energy than he could spare hurling insults? It was worth a try. Slumping lower in the cage, he concentrated on making himself appear ill.
The blood-sweat always got a good reaction from non-vampires, he thought. Fear and pain brought it out, as well as nightmares. The pain in his leg was constant, but no longer severe, as long as he didn't try to stand on it. And he didn't usually remember his nightmares. That left fear. Only, he wasn't afraid now. He was damn mad!
He'd been afraid before. Fire and sunlight brought intense fear, a self-preservation instinct that had not existed before in his mortal life. And LaCroix could still frighten him. He loved the ancient vampire master, with a friendship borne of time, but he also loved the spaces in between LaCroix's possessive domination. At first, intrigued by the promise of power and eternity, it had been LaCroix that seduced him to becoming what he was. There was something compelling about him. Something at once dark and forbidden, yet alluring, like moths to a candle flame. Nick couldn't turn away from the vampire master. He didn't want to turn away...
He recalled the last confrontation in the holodeck. He'd fought LaCroix only to protect Tom. Otherwise, he would have walked away from the fight and refused to participate. LaCroix would have had a few good hits in, but Nick would have ended the fight. That gave him a sense of power and control. For centuries he had fought with the stronger vampire, and lost. For centuries he had suffered the pains of recovering from assorted bruises and wounds combined with defeat and humiliation. But now, knowing that he could alter the situation and just walk away gave him a confidence that was exhilarating.
But on the holodeck he'd been really afraid. As he recalled the memory, he felt his vampiric nature respond. The cage glowed in the cool tones of his nocturnal vision, his sluggish lungs inhaled, and the blood sweat broke out. Then, slumping onto the floor, he stilled his breathing to the near-death rate of vampire sleep.
Kittim noticed and grunted, trying to get the attention of the Ryeta doctor. Nick felt the floor shake under the heavy tread of the large creature. A thick, heavy hand thrust through the bars of the cage to feel for a pulse. Nick stifled the smile, knowing the doctor would not find one.
The doctor barked an order down the hall, and two soldiers entered, armed with wooden staves. The door was shut and bolted, then the doctor opened the locked door of Nick's cage and reached in for him.
Nick might have fought the doctor, but not him and two guards. It wasn't time yet to resist, he decided. The doctor laid him on the cold table surface, but chained his wrists again.
The doctor then fed more blood into Nick's stomach. Nick struggled, trying to pull free. Were they planning to force-feed him forever? "Damn you all," he cursed through clenched fangs.
The doctor pulled a stolen Federation translator from the drawer and attached it to his collar. Then when he spoke, the words were translated for Nick. "Hold still. I am only trying to help."
"Like hell! If you wanted to help, you'd let me go!" Nick's anger was out of control.
"You don't look well. Why did you pass out?"
Nick thought fast. What should he ask for? Freedom was a bit of a stretch, but while the doctor was able to understand him, he ought to make a few things known.
"I was chilled," Nick lied. "I must have my clothes back. My skin is very sensitive to temperature." He tried not to grin as he realized the doctor was buying every word.
"Your things were damaged. I threw them out. But I will get you something from the Liat, then."
It was better than nothing. He certainly did not want to escape to Voyager skyclad in his glorious all-together.
"And my kind don't do well in captivity," Nick pressed. "I could die of boredom! You've got to let me go."
The doctor shrugged indifferently. "We won't let you die. You are the cure this planet needs. We've tried to develop a vaccine from Kittim, now that he's been cured, but the antibodies in his blood are too weak."
The meal was finished and Nick still felt hungry. The doctor removed the needle from his stomach though. "I want more," Nick said. "Let me feed myself."
He shook his head. "Sorry. Your name is "Nick"?"
"Yes. I am Lieutenant Nicholas Knight. And I have a fiancée on the ship. We're getting married soon. I have a job, and people who depend on me. I have a life! You have no right to keep me here."
"I realize that you humanoids have a difficult time comprehending such complicated situations, but this is the best solution to a no-win scenario. With your blood, we can save the Liat from extinction."
"But I don't want to help! I want to go home," Nick demanded.
The doctor merely turned off the translator.
Nick forced himself to remain submissive as the doctor unchained him and placed him back in the cage. Let the doctor grow confident and careless, Nick told himself. When there weren't armed guards present, then he would escape.
All that work, and all he got was a snack and the promise of clothing. Well, he got a half-hour's entertainment, as well. Suddenly tired, Nick limped to his cot and collapsed into a dreamless sleep.
Chapter twenty-two: The Calvary
B'Elanna buried her face in her hands and wept. Nick had been missing for a week! And before they'd parted, she had been avoiding him. She hadn't told him recently how much she loved him. She'd been afraid. Reluctant to go through with the wedding, not because she doubted him, but because she doubted herself. Her father had abandoned her, without so much as a farewell kiss, or a postcard, or an explanation. It was childish perhaps, but part of her felt unworthy of being loved, if her own biological parent could so carelessly toss her aside.
Now, Nick was shutting himself off from her. If he'd just open up, she could lead Voyager right to him and rescue him. But his archaic adherence to chivalrous male-dominance and gallantry would prevent him from asking for her help. She cursed him under her breath, even as she pledged her love to him.
Occasionally, his control slipped. She felt brief moments of intense pain. During these moments, she caught images- vague and unclear- but enough to worry her further. She knew he was imprisoned. She knew he could not walk, and he was intensely hungry. But she didn't know where.
She growled again in her frustration.
Then, she felt a presence. It wasn't Nick. Something dark and ominous invaded her mind. It was frightening and erotic, as she sensed the presence of a killer. "Who are you!" she demanded. "Get out of my head!"
"Help me," it said with a deep, sensual voice, "to find Nicholas."
Her breath caught in her throat. An evil presence, a vampiric presence, most likely, and he wanted Nick. It had to be LaCroix! "Why? You sadistic vampire bully! Got no one else to pick on today?"
She couldn't make out his words, as the link between them faded. Only the image of a holodeck seemed clear. "LaCroix!" she demanded. But he was gone. "Well, call me a fool," she thought aloud, but she would go to the holodeck and confront him. She would do anything to help Nick.
She wasn't completely foolish. She fished around for a little silver cross that Nick had given her once, telling her it would protect her, and stuffed some garlic pills in her pocket. Then, clutching a wooden stake, she entered the barren holodeck.
A distinguished looking gentleman stood before her, dressed all in black and with a silver sword pinned through his collar. He eyed her coolly through partially closed eyes of ice blue. "Ms. Torres, I presume," he said.
"It's Lieutenant. So what the hell do you want?"
"Crude, but to the point. You're not what I expected."
"Same here. Now are you going to talk, or should I go waste my time somewhere else?"
"I require information. Nicholas is in grave danger, and I want to know what is being done to rescue him."
"How do you know? Are you listening in to our communications?"
"Computer, give us two leather chairs," the vampire demanded imperiously. B'Elanna noted that he limped towards one chair, favoring his leg. He collapsed, looking weak and tired.
"What's wrong with you?" she pressed.
"It is Nicholas," he answered simply. "Our link has grown stronger over the years. I suffer his injuries, even though he is attempting to shield me from them."
"Yeah, I know," she said. "I get short, fleeting images. I'm guessing his control slips from time to time. I've tried to impress upon the Captain our need to hurry, but she doesn't know where to look."
"Which brings us here. I can help," he stated. "But I will have to leave this room."
"Tell me where he is!"
LaCroix rubbed his forehead and sighed. "It isn't that simple. I don't KNOW where he is. But I can sense when we are getting closer. I will be drawn towards him."
"So if I bring you along in a shuttle, you can direct me?"
B'Elanna stared at the man she hoped to make her father-in-law. She'd seen what he could do when angered. It had taken Nick eight hours to recover the last time. But at the moment, he looked merely old and tired, the picture of paternal concern. She needed him as a friend, not a foe, but at this moment, he needed her. It might be the last chance to bargain with him.
"I can help you," she said. "But, we have to come to some kind of an agreement."
"You impertinent child! My son may be dying, and you would bargain with me! And you claim to love him!"
"Yes, I do love him. And I love him too much to rescue him, only so you can toy with him forever. Now shut up and listen." She felt the cross in her pocket, doubting that it would do much to protect her if the tired vampire got really angry.
"I will do all that is in my power to bring him back to the Alpha quadrant. I will try to make him happy, and keep him well. And you will never hurt him again, as long as I live."
LaCroix gave her a hooded glare. "Are you finished?"
She exhaled loudly and nodded. "Yep. That's about it."
"Get my ship."
Janeway was on the planet. B'Elanna knew that she would never consent to give the vampire hologram free run of this quadrant. But she felt a rising fear that if she didn't hurry, they would never reach Nick in time. Besides, if she asked, and was denied, then she'd have to break a direct order. Although a Starfleet career hadn't been her plan, she also didn't feel like being busted back to ensign with Tom. It was devious, of course, but if she didn't ask, then she didn't have to disobey.
First, she had to get the doctor's mobile emitter from him. That didn't prove difficult. He was offline, so the emitter was right in the drawer where the orderly hologram always kept it. She slipped it into her pocket while contemplating step two.
There were three people she'd have to distract: Tuvok, Kim, and whoever was on duty in shuttlebay. She didn't want to get Tom to help. She knew he would, but didn't want to take advantage of his feelings for her. She sent Kim a message, to meet Seven in stellar cartography to map a possible course through Ryetan space. Then she sent Seven the same message, adding Janeway's initials to the bottom.
Tuvok remained at his post. He would not leave the bridge until Captain Janeway returned from the planet. But with his suspicious nature, anything out of the ordinary would serve as a red flag. How to distract him? Smugly, she sauntered into the Mess Hall to play on Neelix's hospitality.
"Ah, good afternoon, B'Elanna," he called out cheerfully.
She swept her hand across her forehead, lifting thick hair and exhaled loudly. "Yeah. Maybe. Do you know what's with Tuvok?"
"No," the Talaxian said, his concern building. "Why?"
"Oh, it's probably nothing. But, how long has the Captain been gone?"
Neelix nodded his head knowingly. "She's been gone almost 20 hours. I'll bet Mr. Vulcan needs a break. He takes her absences so seriously."
"You know he won't leave the bridge."
"Yes, that's true... maybe I should bring him a pick-me-up! What do you think?"
"I think that's real sweet of you, Neelix," she said. She chugged the tea he'd poured for her and left. She slipped around the corner to watch for him. Shortly, Neelix appeared carrying a full tray of treats, probably for the entire bridge crew. She'd prefer it if Tuvok were completely off the bridge, but perhaps the Talaxian would be a sufficient distraction.
LaCroix stood as soon as she entered the holodeck. She slipped the portable holoemitter over his shoulder and adjusted it to fit snugly. His arm was more muscular than the doctor's.
"This small contraption will permit me to travel with you?" he asked.
B'Elanna shrugged. "Frankly, I'm not sure how you got this far," she replied. "But it works for our doctor. Now follow me, and try not to be seen."
The holodeck was at the rear of the ship, right below the main shuttlebay. She glanced both ways, then pushed open a hatch to a jeffries tube and gestured to LaCroix. He eyed the ladder disdainfully. "Surely you jest," he said.
"Hurry up! We can't be seen."
He put his hands on the rung, then pulled himself up. She noticed that his one leg was mostly useless, yet he easily climbed the narrow ladder. She pulled the hatch closed and followed behind.
"Stop there," she called. "This is our floor."
She scowled at him.
"I hear footsteps in the corridor," he explained. A few moments later, he nodded. B'Elanna crawled past him and pushed open the hatch. She held out her hand for him, but he stubbornly refused to take it. "Like father like son," she muttered. LaCroix pulled a wry smile at her frankness. He wasn't sure how he felt about his son's newest distraction... time would tell.
"Can you wammie the shuttlebay technician?"
"If you're inquiring about my ability to hypnotize her, then the answer is yes," LaCroix sniffed.
She nodded, and entered.
Kylie glanced up at her inquisitively. "Something up, Lieutenant?"
LaCroix stepped forward. He took Kylie's slender hand in his and placed a gentle kiss on the fingertips. "Good evening, dear lady," he purred.
Kylie blushed, but tried to keep professional in front of B'Elanna. "Who is your guest? Anyone Nick should know about?"
"Ah, Nicholas," LaCroix said. His voice was satin smooth; he held Kylie's complete attention. "We are on our way to rescue him," he continued. "You will sleep now, and when you awake, you will remember nothing."
"Nothing," she agreed. Her legs folded and LaCroix caught her. He kissed her fully on the lips, then laid her on the floor, tucked behind a console so that a casual observer would fail to notice her at all.
"Was that necessary," B'Elanna snapped.
He lifted an eyebrow. "Do something well or not at all, I believe is the mortal maxim."
"Well, hurry up." She dashed for the Delta Flyer, the fastest shuttle available. LaCroix was close behind her, although he didn't quite manage to mask his discomfort. As soon as he cleared the hatch she slammed the lever to close it and shifted into gear. The bay doors had barely opened before she flew out into space.
LaCroix lost his balance, catching himself with a grunt, before lowering into the chair next to her. "I assume you know what you're doing," he stated.
"I'll get us there, LaCroix, but you can buckle up if you doubt my ability."
He didn't answer. B'Elanna checked her sensors. No one was scanning her yet. Thank you Neelix, she thought. I'll really owe you for this. "Which way?"
"Not this one," he replied.
She banked to the right, swerving away from Voyager. They had to hide quickly, or risk detection. With a quick calculation, she warp-jumped to the far side of the nearest moon in orbit. LaCroix clutched his seat in a death grip. When the shuttle quit jerking about, he calming pulled the harness around himself and buckled it securely. Then leaning back in the seat with his eyes closed, he opened himself to the link between him and Nicholas. Nothing.
"Well?" she asked impatiently.
"He has closed himself again," LaCroix said softly.
"Doesn't he know we want to help him?"
"Clear and rational thought has never been one his strong points," the vampire replied.
B'Elanna quirked a smile.
LaCroix's face relaxed as he seemed to slip into a trance. She stared at him, wondering how the link worked between him and Nick. This vampire was really in the alpha quadrant, she reminded herself. His thoughts were projecting across thousands of light-years in ways that defied science. She'd love the opportunity to study it more. What if she could help him? She closed her eyes, and focused on the place where Nick would be if he allowed it. Nothing... much. She felt a faint disturbance. Images. Fear. Pain.
LaCroix sat up abruptly. "That way," he shouted, extending a finger.
Flying with amateurs was certainly interesting, she thought as she tried to transfer his crude direction to three-dimensional marks in space. Then punching the controls, they jumped into warp.
Chapter Twenty-three: The Scientist
Nick felt a small warm hand on his face. He jerked awake, springing from the bed with fangs extended in self-defense. His injured leg gave out and Nick fell to the ground with a gasp.
The small hand reached for him again, patting him solicitously. Blinking back his sleep-induced fog, Nick tried to focus. Kittim sat just outside his cage, reaching between the bars as far as he could.
"Oh, hello," Nick grumbled. He ran his fingers through his hair and wished for a shower.
A warm greeting of affection filled Nick's thoughts. The small Liat was better company than being alone. He dragged himself closer and leaned against the bars. "Hello," he said again, more friendly. "How've you been? Are they treating you okay?"
Kittim cocked his head curiously. Nick felt the presence of the young boy in his thoughts, and concentrated on his concern for him. Kittim then smiled and shrugged his thin shoulders. A thousand words couldn't quite relate the sudden burst of images that filled Nick's mind. Nick leaned forward, cradling his head in both hands as if it could block the telepathic message.
"Slower, slower," he reminded the boy. "I'm not meant for this kind of communication. You have to think much slower for me."
Kittim touched him through the cage bars again. Pulling Nick closer, he reached both hands to Nick's temples and massaged them, slowing sending his regrets through the link. Nick leaned back against the cage and closed his eyes, allowing the boy to rub. Then he reviewed the information he had given him.
This was Kittim's first trip to his planet- he'd been born on the Ryeta homeworld. He'd met others of his kind and was excited to be able to communicate with them, but they were different from him. They had been allowed to mature normally without the intervention of drug therapy, so the Liat his size were older. He felt stupid around them. Also, they were very dirty, and very sick. He had met many children of many ages, but not a single adult. He had not been allowed to leave the medical facility, though. He'd only visited with the Liat who were brought in for treatment.
Kittim got up then, and returned shortly with a pitcher of cold water and a towel, then stuffed some simple Liat clothing between the bars. Nick quickly washed and pulled on the loose tunic of scratchy homespun fabric, the loose trousers, and tied them together with a rope belt. He was still barefoot, and the material irritated his skin, but at least it was something.
Kittim's eyes became tearful. He knew Kittim was thinking of the injuries Nick had suffered at the hands of the Ryeta.
Nick shrugged. "I'll heal. Don't worry about it."
Kittim's thoughts became quiet then. He leaned against the bars, getting as close to Nick as physically possible. His small, warm hand reached for Nick's. The vampire heaved a sigh. He felt conflicted, unsure of his emotions. He didn't wish the Liat harm, or that they should become extinct, but neither did he wish to sacrifice his existence for them! He should be willing to die, if it would do so much good. It surprised him though, when faced with the possibility of his own demise, even after all these centuries, that he still wasn't ready to go. He hadn't yet atoned for his wrongs. The fires of Hell still burned in his nightmares. Maybe, if he met more of the Liat, he would feel differently?
"Kittim," he asked. "Can you bring your new Liat friends here so I can meet them?"
The boy nodded and jumped up, swiftly obeying as he had been taught.
Nick was so hungry. He felt weak and nauseated. His teeth ached. He massaged his thigh just above the wound that still throbbed. Too bad he couldn't hypnotize himself, he thought dryly. Sensing the Liat approach, he forced the vampire to recede.
Kittim came in happily, leading a dozen Liat children. They were of varying ages, from about Naomi's size to young teenagers, and all of them were very, very dirty. They were clad in too many layers of homespun clothing, dirt so thoroughly staining the fabric that it's natural color was impossible to detect. Their faces were dirty, and an odor accompanied them into the room so strongly that Nick felt his insides heave. And all of them had sad eyes peering out through long, unkempt hair and thin, gaunt faces.
Nick pulled himself up, putting weight on one leg only. He was taller than even the teenagers, he noticed. And Kittim was right; they were sick.
But, it didn't seem like the Fever. Allowing his nocturnal vision to help him see them more clearly, Nick noted that none of them had a body temperature any higher than Kittim's. Then he felt them starting to communicate to him and Nick slammed his mind shut the way he had learned from Tuvok. "Hold it," he said aloud. "I can understand you, but only one at a time, and very slowly!"
The children jumped back, intimidated by him. Nick smiled encouragingly. Touching one little face nearest him, he said, "You? What would you like to tell me?"
The child's mind-pictures filled him with the things they held sacred. He was asking Nick if he was one of their gods.
Nick would have laughed, if the child hadn't been so sincere. "No, son," he said. "Only one of the lesser servants."
He indicated another child. This one wanted to touch his face, feeling the scratchy new growth of beard. The child giggled. Another took his hand and sniffed it, pushing up the loose sleeve to sniff again. The child tugged at the hair on Nick's arm curiously. Another asked him in awe if he was the oldest man alive. Nick smiled in amusement. He wondered if they would even be able to comprehend how old he really was.
As he visited with them, one on one, through their incredible telepathic images, Nick learned more about the Liat in a few hours than the Ryeta had discovered in several generations. These were all children, growing up without parents. They were frightened, lonely, malnourished, and probably suffering from various diseases caused by their unsanitary lifestyle, but not a one of them had the dreaded Fever that had so decimated their population two generations ago. Somehow they had evolved, developing a natural resistance to it.
Nick wasn't entirely certain how the grown Liat had died, or even if they were indeed all of them dead. He learned only what these twelve children knew. This band lived alone in a place where it was often cold. They knew little about hunting and gathering foods, and nothing about preserving them. They didn't bother to wash before meals.
"Children, Kittim and I will help you become strong," Nick said aloud. "He was very sick, just a few weeks ago. I will tell you what you need to know, and then you must share this knowledge with others. Can you do that?"
One of the older boys was skeptical. Nick was struck with a powerful sense of doubt. The boy wanted to know how Nick could help them when he couldn't even help himself. He had a point. Nick decided to be completely honest with him. He let the boy probe his mind, as he thought about some of his possible escape plans, and his hope that his ship was still looking for him. The boy seemed satisfied.
"Kittim, bring me more water, and some soap this time," Nick said aloud, even as he felt the boy in his thoughts. Kittim hurried to obey. He climbed up the stool and walked along the counter to the sink the Ryeta doctor used. He tossed down a bar of soap. Then filling the pitcher, he carefully set in on the stool. Jumping to the floor, he carried the pitcher to Nick.
Nick demonstrated washing his hands and face to the children, being exceptionally fastidious in the routine. He felt their curious thoughts, and discovered that while "listening" to them all at once was painful, "talking" to them simultaneously was not. He pictured the invisible germs known to live on the hands, and let the children understand the necessity for cleanliness.
Two younger Liat splashed in the remainder of the water, removing only the top layer of grime. They giggled playfully, sniffing the soap before tasting it. Nick wondered what the Federation response would be if they encountered an entire planet full of orphans.
Suddenly, the Liat froze with looks of fear on their grimy faces. Then without a sound they scurried away, trying to hide behind boxes, crates and office equipment. Only Kittim remained with Nick, when the Ryeta doctor returned.
Nick lay down quickly, continuing his charade of weakness. It wasn't much of an act really. He was hungry all the time. In only a few days he should be able to slip between the bars.
The doctor went straight to the exam table, adjusting the arm and ankle restraints. After locking the door securely, he came to Nick's cage.
Nick realized that it was time for another blood-drawing session. He crawled to the far side of the cage, grabbing on the bars. "Please don't do this," he whispered. "It isn't helping the Liat. You don't need any more of this vaccine!"
"Now be a good little vampire, and this will all be over quickly," the doctor replied, opening the door. Nick was surprised to hear his words, before noticing the Federation translator pinned to the doctor's labcoat.
Nick glanced around quickly. The door was locked, but no armed guards were in the room. There were lots of kids present. Would they come to help him? Or would he put them in danger?
The doctor called to Nick, but he clung fast to the cage, forcing the doctor to duck and come inside. The cage wasn't big enough to accommodate his size. He grumbled as he grabbed Nick and pulled him free. Nick fought hard, drawing on strength he hadn't known he still possessed. He punched and bit the Ryeta, spitting the foul blood from his mouth. He almost succeeded.
The doctor loosed his grip on Nick once, and the vampire lunged through the open cage door. If his leg had been healed, Nick might have made it to freedom. But he wasn't able to run, and he couldn't fly. The angry doctor backhanded him, lifting him completely off the ground and flinging him back against the cage. The bars rattled, the air was forcefully expelled from his lungs.
"You're a foul-tempered little beast," the doctor grumbled. Roughly, he tossed Nick on the table and strapped him down. Nick cried out in frustration and rage as more of his precious blood was taken from him.
"The Liat don't have the Fever," Nick raged. "You don't need to do this!"
The doctor scowled at him. "Of course not."
"Then what's this all about!"
Shrugging, the doctor seemed to debate how much information to give the prisoner. "The fever was why Kulin had been ordered to abduct you."
"Kulin? What about Captain Murth?" Nick was losing too much. He fought to remain alert.
"Murth refused. He was transferred to the front. I don't think he will have a long career. But the first round of inoculations did not help the Liat here. Their symptoms had changed. It's not the same disease any longer. The high council ordered instead that I study your amazing ability to heal. They want to know if this can be adapted to medicines for our people. It could win the war for us, increase life expectancy, eliminate birth defects."
Nick felt his eyes burn, as the sensation to weep pressed against his lids. But no tears came forth. Nick was too dehydrated. "Inhuman monster," he gasped.
The restraints were removed, and no blood had been given back to him. "See if that will teach you not to bite," the doctor said, tossing him back inside the cage and locking the door. Nick lay where he had fallen, too weak to move. The doctor set the samples in a cooler, taking just one with him to the microscope. He prepared a series of slides and began to study them. Nick lost consciousness. He drifted in and out, no longer sure of his surroundings.
"My son, here I am," LaCroix whispered, his words a soothing balm. "Come rest with me."
Nick buroughed his face in his master's shoulder, shutting out the terror that pursued him.
"Put away your fears, Nicholas. These things cannot hurt you any longer." The strong arms embraced him, comforted and consoled, although the words were mildly scornful.
The younger vampire trembled. "I hurt, LaCroix. And I'm afraid!"
"Sleep, my child. I'm coming for you. I will protect you..."
B'Elanna turned to LaCroix. Nick's defenses had dropped. They had both experienced his mental and physical sufferings. Now they knew exactly where to find him. B'Elanna swiped away the embarrassing human tears and plotted in the course. LaCroix emitted a terrifying growl of rage.
"Nick, first," B'Elanna reminded her future father-in-law. "Revenge second!"
Chapter Twenty-four: The Escape
Little children crowded into his unconsciousness, urging him awake. Nick tried to ignore them. He needed to rest, although the gnawing hunger was clawing at him relentlessly. Kittim's presence grew more urgent. Nick wasn't certain, but he guessed that Kittim was warning him of impending trouble. They were going to come for him again. He had to get out!
Nick forced one eye to open. He lay on the floor of the cage, the thick bars cutting uncomfortably. The Liat children were huddled around, beckoning to him. Only Kittim spoke to him though, through their telepathic language. He was urging Nick to come closer.
The vampire had no strength left. He tried to push himself even to a sitting position, but his arms collapsed and he fell again. Kittim took several lengths of rope, the simple hemp twist that the native Liat wore about their waists, and tied them together. One tiny child struggled between the cage bars to bring one end to Nick. The child went next to his bed and pulled the blanket from it, before slipping back through the bars.
Nick wrapped the rope around his chest. His fingers fumbled uselessly for many long moments before making a simple double hitch. The Liat each grabbed onto the other end and tugged, slowly drawing the vampire nearer. Finally, Nick was against the bars.
The older Liat boys pulled Nick's arms through the bars. He slipped between them easily until his ribs stuck. Nick was alert enough to know this was still the best escape. "Pull!" he commanded them. "Harder!"
The children were afraid to hurt him, but Nick was relentless. "Now! It will be okay- get me out!"
They doubled their efforts. Nick's ribs cracked under the force and with a whoosh, he was pulled free. Nick lay, gasping, wincing at the pain just breathing caused. Kittim rolled him onto his back. Taking a crude knife, the boy slit his wrist and held it over Nick's mouth.
Nick knew he should refuse. The mortal part was afraid he'd kill the boy. The vampire part would not turn away from the youthful blood freely given. Still, the vampire was too weak to grasp the boy's wrist.
Kittim's harsh life swept over him with the first taste. The years of servitude when he should have been playing and growing like other little boys, seldom seeing others of his kind, being so alone having no one with whom to communicate. Watching friends waste away from the disease, suspecting he would eventually join them. And through it all was his youthful enthusiasm and innate joy.
The sweet blood was pulled from him. Nick tried to cling to it, but he was too weak. A second arm appeared. He sunk his fangs and drank. The images were similar, the life much the same as Kittim's. Nick drank, and yet another wrist appeared. Arm after arm, child after child. Nick fought his aversion to drinking from children, only because he knew they were offering themselves freely and he was not hurting them.
The sweet blood soothed his parched throat and partially healed him. He felt some of his strength return. The blood offerings stopped before the constant hunger had been satisfied, but Nick was able to deal with it. He turned clear blue eyes to the Liat children. "Thank you," he said. "Now where?"
Two older boys got on either side of Nick, helping him to stand. Nick wasn't sure who sent the message, but he learned they were leaving the facility, to hide in the wilderness. It would be cold outside. The children were wearing multiple layers of clothing, but he and Kittim had only a single outfit on. Now he understood the need for his blanket. "I'll be fine," Nick assured them. He told Kittim to take it and wrap in it snugly.
The children become very still as they reached out with their special senses. Nick watched their faces. They seemed to be somehow connected, as though whatever one thought was shared with them all. Nick was informed that no Ryeta were in the hall, before they opened the door. The troop of thirteen children and one vampire tried to blend unobtrusively into the sterile, wide-open space of the corridor. Nick felt dangerously exposed, until the children ducked into a small room. It was a washroom of sorts. They forced the window open and easily slipped outside.
Nick perched on the window ledge and closed his eyes. If only he could fly! Perhaps it was the wood still embedded in his leg that kept him grounded. Natalie, the only vampire research scientist, could never explain how they flew in the first place. It was just one more aspect of their metaphysical condition that defied physics as they knew it.
The children urged Nick to hurry. Several stood below, their hands extended to help break his fall. Nick jumped.
The press of children kept him upright, even as the jarring drop caused new blood to flow from his old wound, staining his trousers. They moved quickly away from the window, as the remainder of the children jumped after him.
It was not quite past sundown, but heavy clouds obliterated the dangerous rays. Nick heaved a sigh- it was one more aspect he hadn't even thought to consider. But already he could hear the children's teeth chattering. Packed snow and ice crunched under their feet; the wind had a piercing bite to it and the promise of more snow. He looked in the direction the children were taking him. It was at least a kilometer away to the edge of the wilderness! Nick glanced behind him. Several spots of dark blood stained the snow, along with the multiple footprints.
"They will see us," Nick said. "We can't leave such a clear trail!"
Instantly two children ran to pull small brush from the frozen ground. They dragged them behind the group, damaging the clear prints. They packed snow on top of the red stains. It wasn't perfect, but night was falling. If more snow fell before dawn, they just might succeed.
The children were breathing hard and beginning to perspire in spite of the cold, yet still they pushed onward. Nick tried to put weight on his injured leg to assist them, but he was unable to take a single step with it.
Up ahead more Liat were coming towards them. They brought handcrafted sleds with them and new strength! Nick was assisted onto a sled and the smaller children were plopped on with him. Then the children combined their strength and pulled him into the woods.
Nick felt his eyes closing. There was nothing he could do to help them. Wrapping his arms around the children, he fell asleep.
B'Elanna brought the Delta Flyer into high orbit around the planet. There were no signs of enemy craft anywhere. This appeared to be an undeveloped, pre-warp planet. She didn't even pick up any traces of an ion trail in the atmosphere, but it had been a week since Nick's abduction. Any trail would have dissipated given time.
"Are you certain this is it?" B'Elanna asked the gentleman beside her.
LaCroix was silent for so long, she began to wonder if he would ever answer. This is not good, she thought to herself... maybe he's wrong! Nick isn't here!
A sneer spread across the ancient's face, and a shudder ran down his spine. "Yes," he snarled.
"What is it? What's wrong with Nick!"
LaCroix glared at the mortal through hooded eyes. "Nicholas has temporarily escaped from his abductors. He is in a cave, entertaining a room full of... Children! "
The way he pronounced the last word left no doubt in her mind as to what he thought of the matter. So, don't make him a grandfather, she thought to herself. Or at least, don't tell him about it? She and Nick had never really discussed children. She wasn't sure how he felt about it, only that he seemed to enjoy the Wildman child immensely. The doctor had already warned her though. Having children with Nick would be very difficult without medical intervention. The doctor didn't know if this was a problem specific to Nick or to vampires in general.
"Where- can you pinpoint Nick exactly?"
LaCroix wasn't able to give coordinates or even to point to a spot on a map. He said he would be able to steer her directly to Nick, however. B'Elanna hesitated before entering the atmosphere. It might just be time to call in reinforcements, especially as Nick was already freed from the Ryeta. He couldn't be tortured any longer. She contacted Voyager.
"Lieutenant Torres, what the Hell do you think you're doing!" Captain Janeway was clearly not pleased. B'Elanna glanced at LaCroix. The ancient gave her a slight smile of encouragement.
"I should think it was obvious, Captain," B'Elanna responded. She had to speak quickly and act, before the Captain had a chance to give her an order she had no intention of following. "We've located Nick. I'm sending you the coordinates now. He's weak and injured, we have to go in immediately."
" "we"? Who do you have with you?"
B'Elanna adjusted the signal, causing it to break up. "I'm sorry, Captain. I can't hear you. We've got to go in now. Torres out!"
She severed the communication. "Watch out, Paris, here I come," she quipped lightly, as she imagined herself being decommissioned very soon. She altered course and entered the planet's atmosphere.
LaCroix's directions were difficult to follow. She'd ridden in an antique gas-powered motor vehicle with Tom once on the holodeck. The journey was reminiscent. The ancient would say "turn here- turn there" as though steering a ship at high speeds was no more challenging than a summer drive in the country. B'Elanna was cursing, which only amused the vampire.
No scanning devices locked onto them; no shields protected the only building on the entire planet. B'Elanna shivered involuntarily. Massive ice plates covered much of the planet's surface. It was not just winter here, it was permanently winter, as the young planet endured an ice age in it's evolution. She hated the cold.
"Where should I land?" she asked.
"Now, we change the plan," LaCroix informed her. "Revenge first."
She started at the chilling tone in his voice. The words were still softly spoken, but there was a menace beneath the smooth surface that stirred her. "What about Nick!"
"He is safe for now."
B'Elanna was about to object, when LaCroix interrupted her. "Why did you terminate your conversation with the illustrious Captain Janeway?"
"So I wouldn't have to disregard her order, if she told us to turn back," B'Elanna immediately replied.
"Precisely. Nicholas will insist that we refrain from doing harm to his captors."
B'Elanna was torn. She wanted revenge, craved it! LaCroix demanded it. But Nick was probably right... Still, she'd only experienced brief moments when Nick's control slipped, minute glimpses into the torture he had endured. LaCroix knew more.
"I see you need convincing," the vampire hissed. He grabbed her wrist and bit hard, sucking her blood into him. B'Elanna struggled against the invasion, but immediately she saw everything the Ryeta had done to her lover... as seen through the link with LaCroix. She knew it all- caged like an animal, chained, drained, starved! LaCroix released her.
B'Elanna tilted her head back and howled the Klingon war cry. Slamming the shuttle into action, she flew on a direct course for the single building, the Ryeta medical facility. LaCroix never had time to question her intentions before the ship slammed through the front doors, taking out a section of the wall with the impact. B'Elanna flew the trim little flyer straight through the large hall of the medical facility, firing at the rooms with phasers on low range. Her intention was to bring the building down and destroy any research they had been doing. She reached the far wall in seconds, crashing through it with minimal damage to her shields. Arching up into the clouds, she brought the ship around for another run.
Ryeta were running out of the crumbling building. Several soldiers fired at her with hand weapons, but they were ineffectual against the shuttle. It looked like no more people were leaving the smoking building. On her second pass through, B'Elanna fully charged the phasers and targeted the power center. The building exploded around her. She flew out in a cloud of smoke, emitting a victory cry.
The ancient raised his eyebrows at her. "You will make an interesting addition to the family."
B'Elanna grinned. She had just passed inspection.
She located the Ryeta shuttle easily, as the soldiers were all running in that direction. A few well-placed shots took it out. The Ryeta would be stranded on the barren ice planet until reinforcements arrived. She didn't plan to wait around that long. Turning the ship towards the woods, she followed LaCroix's directions that would reunite her with her lover.
After she landed in a nearby clearing, LaCroix lead her through the dark woods with confidence. B'Elanna clutched the small lamp desperately, wishing for a moment that she could see as well as the vampire. They climbed upwards through dense growth that was hardly distinguishable as a path at all. Eventually they neared a large tent, constructed of woven fabrics, which had been dipped in a waterproofing compound.
A line of children blocked their entrance. They were dirty, brandishing sharpened sticks. LaCroix stood erect, a clearly intimidating figure, but the children were either very brave or very foolish. They remained unmoving.
"I am here for Nicholas," he said at last.
They spoke not a word, but looked at one another. Moments later, they nodded and stepped aside, allowing LaCroix and B'Elanna to enter. They filed in behind, following the newcomers.
The tent was smoky and filled with noxious smells of food burning over an open fire. Nick was just pulling himself to his feet, leaning heavily on a crude wooden crutch. He scowled at the vampire master. B'Elanna was puzzled at the response. Surely he should be glad to see them!
"What are you doing here!" Nick snapped.
"Good evening, Nicholas," the vampire said calmly.
"I don't need your help!" Nick was obstinate. "I freed myself, LaCroix. You don't have to come to my rescue any more."
LaCroix smiled indulgently. He didn't point out that Nick had only escaped with the help of mortal children, or that he was still marooned on a hostile planet with a piece of wood festering in his leg. In a rare moment of wisdom, the ancient merely humored his child. "Naturlamont, my son. You make me proud. Now, are you ready to depart?"
Nick was speechless. He scowled again, reaching out with his link, yet felt nothing from the master but sincere affection. Relief washed across his face. Then he nodded. "I am. But... what will become of these children?"
LaCroix sniffed indifferently. B'Elanna stepped forward then, and embraced Nick gently. "I don't know, Nick. But the Captain is on her way, and we'd better get out before the Ryeta send reinforcements."
Nick hesitated. "Kittim," he called.
The young Liat stepped forward. "Do you want to return with us?"
The boy shook his head emphatically. He was accepted now among his own kind. Nick understood. "I don't know what's going to happen, children. But remember what I've taught you."
The press of mortal children hovered around him, touching him, kissing him, wordlessly. B'Elanna sensed a light touch in her mind, as the children communicated telepathically. She didn't understand it clearly, as Nick seemed to. But she felt their gratitude.
B'Elanna offered Nick a shoulder, as did LaCroix, but the younger vampire refused, stubbornly leaning on the wooden crutch. They bid good-bye to the children again, and left.
The snow was falling heavily now. Large, wet, sloppy flakes made the path slippery. B'Elanna clenched her teeth together to keep them from chattering. Within moments she was drenched and chilled to the bone. Nick slipped continually, causing himself discomfort and slowing them down. She wondered how long his father would tolerate his senseless, stubborn pride. "Men!" she muttered under her breath.
LaCroix stood in his tracks. B'Elanna hoped she hadn't just destroyed the tentative respect she'd found with him from one thoughtless word. Instead, the vampire glared at his son. "Nicholas. You are very brave and strong and independent. Now go to sleep!"
She hadn't even realized he was hypnotizing Nick, until he lost his balance and collapsed into the waiting arms of his sire. The ancient shifted him easily, then picked up the pace. B'Elanna had to hurry to keep him in sight.
Lightning cracked in the sky, shedding brief light on the Delta Flyer. She heard LaCroix's sharp intake of breath at the light, but almost instantly it was dark again. The moment of illumination was enough to show her the damage she had wrought on the Flyer. Tom is going to kill me, she thought. Assuming the Captain doesn't first.
She opened the hatch for LaCroix, then moved out of his way as he carried his precious cargo. He laid Nick down on the narrow bed in the rear, then carefully fastened the cross-straps that would protect him as they traveled. She watched the ancient brush Nick's hair tenderly. How could he love him so much, she wondered, and be so horrible to him? Men!
Plotting a course, B'Elanna guided the Flyer up through the atmosphere. Now that the crisis was over, she could worry about the consequences of her actions. She would rescue Nick again, if the need arose... but she still didn't relish the confrontation with Janeway.
Commander Worf, whom she had idolized in her impressionable youth, had been in a similar situation once. Raised among humans from the time he was five, Worf became the first Klingon to serve on a Federation starship. When she first entered the academy she had identified with him.
Worf had a nearly perfect career in Starfleet. He'd served the Federation and the Empire, and yet, just once, he'd been on a dangerous mission with his wife. She'd been injured, and he'd been forced to chose between protecting her and completing the mission. Worf saved his wife.
He'd been formally reprimanded, and denied the option of ever being promoted to Captain and having a command of his own. It was right after that B'Elanna had quit the academy and joined the Maquis. She'd lost faith in the high and mighty principles of Starfleet. Now, she admired Worf even more.
"You are concerned, Lieutenant?"
B'Elanna jumped at the sudden words, so gently spoken in the stillness of the shuttle. "Um. Yes. I'm in pretty deep, I guess."
"You needn't mention the - incident - at the medical facility."
She laughed humorlessly. "The Ryeta will have told her everything by now, LaCroix."
"I think not. The Ryeta officials were denying any knowledge of Nicholas's capture, so they can hardly turn around and charge you with blowing up one of their buildings, that just happened to be housing a Federation hostage, now can they?"
She shrugged. It made sense. But, it still didn't get her off the hook. "LaCroix," she asked. "Will you come to our wedding?"
He was silent and thoughtful for a few moments. Then, glancing away, feigning an indifference she didn't believe, he responded. "Only if Nicholas wants me there."
Chapter 25: Recovery
With a mixed feeling of relief and dread, B'Elanna picked up Voyager on the scanners. The sleek ship dropped out of warp, opening the shuttlebay doors almost simultaneously. B'Elanna landed, holding her breath. The captain had yet to make voice contact with her. Of course, Voyager would have scanned them by now, and ascertained that she and Nick at least were on board. Whether they picked up LaCroix or not would depend on if the scanners were specifically looking for a holographic entity. The continued silence intimidated her more than a verbal lashing.
LaCroix had already removed the safety harness from Nick and lifted him. He waited for her to open the hatch. B'Elanna breathed deeply, squared her shoulders, and went out to face the consequences.
The shuttlebay was crowded. Every man and woman possible, and the only child, had pushed into the available space. They clapped and cheered as LaCroix emerged with Nick in his arms. Chakotay stepped forward, giving B'Elanna a quick pat on the shoulder. He reached to take Nick from LaCroix but the ancient refused. "Lead me to your medical facility," LaCroix demanded imperiously. "Nicholas requires attention."
The applause continued. B'Elanna was confused. "What's up, Chakotay," she whispered. "Why are they here? I thought I'd be in big trouble!"
"You are," he answered. "But they are still happy that you have brought Nick back. They care for him very much. I only wish he was awake to hear this."
Tuvok stepped forward from the crowd then. "Lieutenant Torres. The Captain will see you in her ready room at once." Then he turned sharply and followed LaCroix.
She sighed. If only Nick were awake, he'd be offering her comfort through their special bond. I miss you, my love, she thought.
Captain Janeway paced furiously in the small confines of her room. B'Elanna stood, awkwardly silent.
"Tell me this was all his idea," Janeway demanded. "That he compelled you to do this!"
It was a tempting offer, she thought. "No, captain. I can't."
"B'Elanna, I thought you finally understood that our rules and protocols exist for a reason! This was reckless! Foolhardy! What if you had failed? How would that have helped Nick- or the crew? You should have contacted me, the moment you knew where Nick was."
B'Elanna thought it best to remain silent.
"Why didn't you contact us? We could have gone after him with Voyager."
"Captain, time was too precious. Every time I sensed Nick he was weaker. Even LaCroix felt that another moment wasted might have proven fatal. If I'd called you, we would have had to pull up everyone from shoreleave, and we would have tipped off the Ryeta. They might have relocated Nick before we could arrive. His only hope was a small, surprise rescue operation."
"That wasn't your call to make!"
Janeway stood face to face with B'Elanna, her frustration and worry vented as pure anger, but B'Elanna saw it for what it was. The captain really cared about her. "I'm sorry, Captain."
"I'm entering a formal reprimand into your record. I know that doesn't mean a hell of a lot out here, but we will get home one day."
A reprimand? B'Elanna felt a suicidal urge to laugh. She'd risked her life to rescue her lover- her future husband, and all she got was a slap on the hand? Of course, a reprimand pretty much ended her chance of promoting through the ranks, but she hadn't wanted a career in Starfleet anyway.
"I'm also entering that it is as much my fault," Janeway said. Her tone was still biting. She was going to be as hard on herself as anyone else. Maybe harder. "I should have known you would do something like this. I should not have given you the opportunity."
"Captain, I am sorry that I betrayed your trust, but I am not sorry that I did it. I would do it again, too. I love him. I really love him. And it was the right thing to do. I think, that deep down, you agree with me."
Janeway froze in her furious pacing. She exhaled deeply, rolling the tension out of her shoulders. "How is Nick?"
"Pretty bad, Captain. He'll recover. They tortured him. And it wasn't for any idealistic notion of curing the Liat. They were trying to find a miracle cure for their wounded soldiers so they could win the war. They don't give a damn about the Liat."
Slowly, Janeway turned around and faced her. She concealed her anger and forced a smile. It came out more of a grimace, but B'Elanna didn't mind. The captain placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. She did understand. Even if she never admitted it, B'Elanna felt that she really did understand. "Come then. Let us pay a visit to sick bay."
LaCroix followed Chakotay. The lights in sickbay had obligingly been dimmed to vampire comfort levels. The holographic doctor indicated a vacant bed, not even waiting for LaCroix to lay the patient down before running his medical scans.
"You should find a wooden splinter in his thigh," LaCroix said. "They half starved him, but now I suspect he mostly requires rest."
"I see," the holograph stated flatly. "And you received your medical degree from where?"
"I studied with Galen, an early student of Hypocrites. Where did you receive yours?" LaCroix controlled his anger at the impertinent program. Only Nicholas mattered.
The doctor flashed a small light in each of Nick's eyes, but it did not cause him to awaken. "Did you hypnotize him?" the doctor asked curiously. "I didn't know he could be hypnotized."
"It takes a master."
The doctor glanced from Nick to the other mortals in the room. Then he looked at LaCroix. "Normally, I would have to restrain him before attempting to operate. Is this not necessary now?"
LaCroix pulled up a chair beside the biobed and took Nick's hand in his own. He stroked the back of the hand gently. "No. It is not necessary now. However, I shall remain here until he is well, doctor."
The unspoken message was that LaCroix would protect them from his son. The doctor nodded his assent. He began at once to cut away the garment covering his leg, then the soiled bandages.
The injury had not healed. It remained a raw, open puncture wound piercing clear through his leg. Using the scanner, he was able to quickly locate the small splinter and remove it. He irrigated the wound with a saltwater wash, and watched closely as it grew steadily smaller until it was no longer visible.
Nick's hands looked bony, the fingers thinner than he remembered. The doctor pushed back the loose sleeve. The arm beneath was bone-thin, the pale white flesh loose and shriveled. Growing alarmed, he lifted the shirt. Nick was merely a shadow of his former self. His abdomen was concave, every rib clearly visible, the flesh almost translucent. When Nick's vampire heart pulsed, it was visible through the emaciated chest wall. B'Elanna and Janeway entered and gasped at the grotesque form.
But Nick had only been gone a week! No human could have lost that much body weight that quickly! But then, no human would have survived at all.
Janeway turned her attention to the vampire beside Nick. She disliked him intensely, although he seemed unaware of her presence at all. He held Nick's hand, gently stroking it with his thumb. The look in his eyes was one of such grief over his son's suffering. A single red tear hung on the porcelain face, just as unmoving as its creator.
The doctor gathered several units of blood, preparing to give them to Nick, but LaCroix stirred from his trance and prevented him. "Surely he needs this!" the doctor insisted.
LaCroix shook his head. "No, doctor. Mortal blood is sufficient for most needs, but when the injury is severe, only the blood of a vampire will heal. If you will leave us, I will provide for him."
"Not on your life," Janeway said. She was not ever going to leave Nick alone with this being, if she could help it.
"You are just a hologram! What can you possibly do for him!"
LaCroix narrowed his eyes at the inferior beings and their inherent stupidity. They really had no concept. Vampirism went beyond their two dimensional understanding of the universe. It could not be explained scientifically, and yet, here he was. Holding Nick's hand, he could truly feel his son. And weakly, he could feel his son reaching out to him.
Slowly, he unbuttoned the cuff of his sleeve and rolled it back, baring his wrist. He cradled Nick's head against his shoulder. He pressed a kiss on his precious child, then, as his fangs descended, he tore into his flesh to bring up a fount of dark, healing blood. Although the red substance was produced with empty holograms, he poured himself into it. He knew it would heal.
At first, his son did not respond. Already his wrist was healing. Whispering into his ear, LaCroix urged him to wake. Twice more he bit his wrist, dripping a few drops onto the pale, still lips. Then Nick moved.
Weakly, at first, he licked at the red fluid as it dripped into his mouth. As his own fangs fell into place, he sank them into the offered wrist and drank deeply. He clung to the arm of his sire and master with a desperation that seemed almost tragic.
Janeway felt aroused. It was oddly sensual, this giving of blood. She wasn't sure what bothered her more- that she gaped at them in this intimate union or that she found it so enticing.
LaCroix glared at her with feral eyes, blood red and glowing, and hissed. She nodded curtly at him, then touched B'Elanna, Tuvok, and the doctor, gesturing that they move away. She would not leave LaCroix unattended, but she could at least grant him a measure of privacy.
B'Elanna flushed a deep crimson and avoided looking at Janeway entirely. So she'd felt it, too, the captain thought. "Well, we don't both need to be here," Janeway said. "You want to be with Nick, and I need to confront LaCroix. Call me when... they are... um." Janeway fumbled.
"Yes, Captain," B'Elanna said. "I will."
LaCroix reached for one of the blood packets the doctor had intended for his son and drained it. Nick was so hungry, but the ancient hadn't prepared for this. He hadn't fed well, and projecting himself through time and space to inhabit this holographic form was exhausting. He finished the rest of the packets in short order.
At last, he felt his son's teeth withdraw, although Nick's hold on him had not lessened. He sensed his son's fear and turmoil now. Holding him close, LaCroix whispered softly into his ear. French phrases, meant to comfort, terms of endearment. Over and over he whispered, his familiar voice a soothing balm to the tortured spirit. He remained for over an hour, before the grip loosened. Nick slipped into a deep slumber, finally at peace. He stood, and tenderly pulled a cover over his son. Then he glowered at the holographic doctor hovering nearby.
LaCroix removed the device from his arm and passed it to the doctor. "Thank you," he said formerly. "It was your emitter that allowed us to rescue my son. You are as much the hero."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," the doctor muttered.
B'Elanna brushed at Nick's hair, much the same way that LaCroix often did. He wondered briefly what it was about Nick that compelled one to want to care for him? Nick had always had this effect on others. It wasn't just the innocent, little boy face. It was more than that. There was still an innocence about him, even though he'd been a creature of the night for over a millennia. Nick was capable of such evil. He had killed, lied, cheated, and stole. But there was something good in him. It was not that he had retained some part of his mortal soul, for mortals were not inherently good, either. It was something unknown. Nick was uniquely himself, and LaCroix wouldn't have him any other way.
"The captain will want to speak with you," the doctor was saying, interrupting LaCroix's musings. "Shall I transfer you to the holodeck?"
LaCroix offered a brief nod. "Tell her that I must rest. I will speak with her ten hours from now."
The doctor returned the nod. He felt curiously sad at the vampire's leaving. "Fare well."
Chapter 26: Lessons from the Liat
"Captain, please, you've got to turn this ship around," Nick insisted.
Janeway smiled at the lieutenant. He looked much improved this morning, although he was still too thin. He was back in uniform and ready to return to duty. "It is not customary for Starfleet to interfere with pre-warp civilizations, and you know that," she said.
"But captain, we didn't interfere! Not first, anyway. The Ryeta did- and very clumsily. Now it is a planet of orphans, captain! They are just children- thousands of them! Even the few adult Liat are little more than children themselves, having grown up without anyone to teach them the ways of their people. They need our help! We must repair only the damage done to their civilization- not replace it!"
It did make sense. And there were precedents- times when captains of the past had interfered only in some attempt to restore what had been lost through clumsy outside interference. Even Captain Picard had done so at least once. "Tell me, Nick, why is this so important to you?"
"Because they are children," he retorted.
"Yes. But there is more to it."
Nick turned away from her. The refugee children had been in his memories for weeks, the twelve children he'd rescued from the Cardassians, then rescued from Captain Picard, only to find them a lovely home less than a year before the Cardassians destroyed all life on that planet. The children were dead. Another one of Nick's great failures. It was painful to face. But if he could save the Liat, perhaps it would help to ease his grief.
"After the Cardassians tried to kill "Ambassador Thomas", I went underground and helped refugees escape an inhospitable environment," he began. He went on to tell her briefly about his time with Captain Picard, and how he hid the children with Chakotay's tribe. "I failed them, Captain. They died, anyway. And maybe, maybe the Cardassians knew the children were there. Maybe they targeted Chakotay's people, because of me- because of what I'd done. Can you know what it's like to be responsible for the deaths of an entire planet!"
Janeway placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and urged him to turn back to her. "You didn't kill those people, Nick. And the Cardassians targeted the planet because of its location. It had nothing to do with twelve children."
Nick made no response, not really believing her. He'd carried this guilt for nearly ten years. It wouldn't abate with a few kind words.
"My father was the Ambassador before you, Nick. He devoted years to trying to defuse the bombs of war. I know about the peace talks that relocated boundaries, plunging Chakotay's people into danger. This was a situation out of control- nothing you did or said could have changed it."
"But they are all dead," he murmured.
"Nick, you rescued them from harm. You gave them love, peace, and a home. Whether they lived another year or an entire lifetime, they were better off for having known you. Maybe because of your immortality, you believe that we should all live forever, but we don't. We are mortal. Every moment after our birth brings us ever closer to the final breath. The importance isn't how many breaths we take, but how we live the time allotted to us, and you gave them the chance to live, Nick!"
Nick lifted his chin, daring to look at her. Twin rivers of red flowed down his pale face. "Please, let us save these children. Don't turn your back on them, like Starfleet did to those refugees."
She nodded her assent. "We will return."
For three weeks Voyager orbited the Liat planet. They went out into the world in groups of two, teaching the children every where they went. They taught hygiene, nutrition, and survival skills. They learned music. The Liat taught them how to sing with their hearts, how to dance with the wind, how to play again with childish abandon.
All the time they remained with the Liat, not one Ryeta official ever came to show his face.
"I wish we could give them books," Janeway remarked over a cup of coffee with Chakotay one evening as they relaxed in a nearly empty mess hall.
"True. But how do you teach a people to read, who have no language? No understanding of words?"
"There must be a way," she said. "If we could leave them a library, with records of history, law, philosophy, medicine, art, literature, then I would feel more encouraged for their future."
"A written language is highly abstract. If they have no concept of words, how can they read?"
"Teach them Chinese," Tom interjected, as he stood over them with his own coffee mug.
Chakotay snorted derisively, but Janeway turned to him with interest. "You aren't serious, are you?"
Tom turned a chair around backwards and straddled it. "Well, sort of. I mean, the ideographs of earth's ancient oriental languages were pictures- concepts- not really an alphabet. It was a challenging language to read, because there were more than 3000 characters, compared to the 26 of our standard alphabet. But, if these kids are picture thinkers, then a picture alphabet might be what they need."
"Tom, you're brilliant," Janeway exclaimed, as she slapped his back. "Do you think you can create an alphabet for them?"
Tom pulled back. "Ah, captain, Nick speaks Chinese. He'd be a much better target."
Chakotay laughed. "Still have it in for him, do you?"
The ensign grinned his infamous lopsided grin. "Nah. But a little revenge helps."
Nick and Tuvok worked together on creating an alphabet for the Liat, drafting Kittim as their guinea pig. Nick knew the adolescent boy was still only six, and even human boys sometimes struggled to read at that age, but he felt that if Kittim could learn it, then all the Liat would.
"This is futile," Seven insisted, as she came to offer assistance.
"Not really. It's been done before. Sequoyah and the Cherokee, North Carolina 1821, I think. Or was it Tennessee?"
Seven eyed him coolly, unimpressed. "Assimilation is more effective."
"Children, if you will cease the quibbling and return to the task at hand, we will be more productive," Tuvok said. Nick laughed. It was amusing to be called a child by a man who was barely over a hundred. Still, the quicker he completed this task, the better. It had been his idea to stay and help the children, but now it was keeping him from B'Elanna. Thoughts of her in that filmy negligée she'd worn briefly last night stirred his cold heart and warmed him.
"Lieutenant Knight, you are dismissed," Tuvok said.
Nick looked at him with surprise. "Why?"
"Go. Your hormones are radiating from you. Return tomorrow, prepared to work."
Nick was too eager to comply to take offense at Tuvok's reprimand. "Sure thing," he said agreeably, and fairly raced from the room.
B'Elanna was in his loft, redecorating it a little as she moved some of her things around. She was out of the uniform that sometimes seemed too much a part of her and comfortably dressed in a loose fitting sheer gown that fell to her ankles. Nick just watched her for a few moments, enjoying the way the fabric slipped over her smooth, long legs, the way it caressed the flat stomach and tightened at the breast. His thoughts grew more passionate, tipping away his presence. B'Elanna whirled around and ran into his arms.
"Nick! I've missed you so! Hold me tight."
"Let's get married," he said, as he pulled her into an embrace and waltzed across the room.
"You already asked me that. And I said yes," she said, laughingly.
"I mean now! Tonight!"
"But we haven't planned anything. These things take time."
"I'm not big on plans. You aren't either. Let's go "spontaneous"!"
"You're serious, aren't you," B'Elanna said, pulling away from him.
Nick laughed, trying to draw her back. "I thought I was being romantic, B'El."
"Nick. I want you to invite your father to come."
That stopped him in his tracks. The smile faded; the impulsive thoughts died.
"I know you two have a past and a lot of unresolved issues. But believe me, you don't want to just ignore it. My dad contacted me before I joined the Maquis and I refused to go meet him. Maybe I'll have a chance to see him again, maybe I won't. But the pain of not knowing, that he could die and not know how much I love him, or that I've forgiven him, is almost unbearable. I can't just stand by and watch you make the same mistakes."
"LaCroix isn't mortal, B'El."
"No, he isn't. But do you really want to spend eternity fighting with him? Nick, please. I want to marry you tonight. We'll do it in the holodeck, so LaCroix and the doctor can both attend. And I want to do it on your land, the castle in Brabant."
Nick lowered his gaze, feeling oddly humbled. "If that is what the lady wants, then that is what she will have." He kissed her hands then.
"Good. You go talk to him and arrange the holodeck. I'll get the captain."
Two hours later Nick stood in the main hall of his castle with LaCroix at his side. They both were clothed in traditional tuxedos in their favorite shade of black, with only a single crimson rose pinned at their lapels to add a touch of color. The hall was filled with bouquets and rose petals were scattered on the stone floor. Garlands draped across the hearth. Tom played something on the harpsichord, but Nick wasn't listening. He fidgeted impatiently, eager for it all to be over.
"Relax, Nicholas," LaCroix admonished.
Nick quirked a half smile. "I am relaxed."
LaCroix pulled a small flask from his breast pocket. Pulling the cork, he offered it to his son. Nick never even hesitated. He tossed back the contents absently, and passed it back to his father empty. The ancient scowled at the flask before returning it to his pocket.
"I do approve of your mate," LaCroix replied.
That got Nick's attention. "Why?"
"She's neither a coward nor a fool. She's too impulsive and emotional for my taste, but she seems to suit you. And, if she'll bring you happiness, then I will accept her into our tight little family and extend the arm of my protection around her."
Nick put his hands on LaCroix's shoulders for support, momentarily stunned speechless. "Thank you, father," he whispered. Then he hugged his master to him. They were thus entwined when the doors parted and Captain Janeway entered. LaCroix just eyed her coolly. Then he pulled out of the embrace and straightened his son's lapels. "It is time, my son."
Nick turned around and smiled nervously at the captain.
The castle was filled with guests. Nick didn't even notice them. The doctor, Seven, Tuvok, Chakotay, Paulus, they were all present, their heartbeats adding to the backdrop of sights and sounds. The doors parted again as little Naomi Wildman came, dressed in a full gown of pale yellow. She waved at Nick, then continued to walk slowly and purposefully towards him, scattering more rose petals as she went. Finally, B'Elanna was there.
Nick stared, unable to tear his eyes away.
The gown was unusual. Nick had never seen one like it. Floor length, and made of a crimson velvety fabric, it fell off her shoulders and barely covered her full breasts, crossed with golden braid and jewels. Long lace gloves encased her slender hands, up over the elbows and stopping just short of the shoulder. A black cape was loosely tied, the heavy brocade fabric followed her as she moved, enveloped her, matching her to him, and him to her. They had not planned a thing, and yet, they were perfect together.
Clearly, passionately, they spoke unrehearsed vows to one another. Paulus sang a sweet song about eternal love, and the captain pronounced them husband and wife.
Beyond that, Nick couldn't remember a thing. The album of pictures would reveal that they were congratulated by everyone. They cut another of Neelix's cakes- a huge creation supported on pillars and decorated with crimson frosting roses. Their eager crewmates gave them assorted treasures for their new life together. They waltzed. Food was served, like it was at all mortal functions, and Neelix saw that Nick's glass was never empty.
Finally, Nick swept B'Elanna into his arms and carried her from the holodeck. Tom jumped up from the harpsichord and grabbed a tambourine, winking at Kim as he followed them. B'Elanna looked over Nick's shoulder with concern as an entire musical troupe fell in behind. Kim and his clarinet, others carrying drums, violins, an accordion, and some instruments she couldn't even name, all started playing loudly in the narrow corridors. She didn't think it could get much worse until they put words to the music, words of a rather bawdy nature.
"What's this all about," she whispered nervously.
Nick grinned broadly, and answered in the Irish lilt she'd heard before. "'Tis a shivarie, my luvely lass."
The doors to Nick's loft, their loft, parted and Nick stepped inside, carrying her over the threshold and into their new life together. "'Tis custom, luv. They'll stand 'ere and sing, makin' for certain we consummate the weddin'."
"That's crude! That's barbaric!" she spluttered indignantly.
"Aye, and if it 'tis, then for sure'n it must be a Klingon fancy, too." Ignoring the lewd song, Nick flew up to his loft with his prize in his arms. Slowly, he let her down and began to loosen the ties of her cape. "'Tis luv'ly," he whispered, meaning more than just his bride.
"You like it? It is just like the gown my mother wore at her wedding. I don't know why, but I knew I had to wear it."
"It's perfect," Nick said with complete understanding. Then, all thoughts of the shivarie, their parents, the Liat, and the Delta quadrant were gone as the vampire and the half-Klingon woman found true joy in married love for the first time in their combined lives.
Much later she snuggled into his shoulder, trailing a finger across the cool, hard planes of his chest. "So, tell me about this shivarie. Does it have a meaning, like the wedding rings?"
Nick's laugh rumbled deep in his chest; she felt it as much as heard. "Aye, lass," he said. "The purpose of marriage in most cultures is the ensure the survival of the species through procreation. The drums and tambourine are to scare away evil spirits, and the witnesses ensure the bride doesn't chicken out at the last minute."
"You're making this up," B'Elanna charged. Nick just laughed again. "By the way, now is probably a little late, but, how do you feel about becoming a father?"
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