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The Measure of Love

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The Measure of Love
By PJ
November 2020

"Damn you, Nicholas!" Lacroix raised the wooden staff and waited.

When nothing happened in over a minute, Nick turned his head back at him. "What?" he demanded with a hint of impatience in his voice.

Lacroix lowered the staff, snapped it in half and tossed the pieces into the fireplace. "Did you really think I would fall for your melodramatics, Nicholas?"

"Lacroix, please!" Nick begged. "I meant what I said. You are my closest friend."

"Then show me in a more convincing manner than by asking me to end your existence." Lacroix held Nick's gaze, trying to find a flicker of those mutual feelings they had shared long ago.

For a brief moment their connection flared, then Nick shook his head.

Lacroix placed his hands on Nick's shoulders and breathed into his ear. "You're mine, Nicholas. I will never let you go. Especially not after a confession like that."

Nick wriggled from his grasp and stood. "I hate you!" he hissed.

"Whatever," Lacroix shrugged. "But do make up your mind. These unpredictable changes of heart to whatever sentiment suits you are becoming tiresome. Besides, your Captain is waiting downstairs. Sensing that you were otherwise occupied, I asked him to wait until you were available."

"Reese? What does he want?"

"He said he had a matter of great importance to impart and couldn't reach you over the phone. I suggest you go down and talk to him before he comes up and discovers your deed." Lacroix waved his hand at Natalie.

"I can't leave her here like this," Nick objected. What if Reese insisted on coming up? He must have seen her car parked out front.

"I will move her upstairs. You can deal with her later." Lacroix picked up Natalie's body and flew her into the bedroom. He placed her on the mattress and sat down next to her. A trickle of blood had issued forth from the bite marks on her neck. Curious about why his son was so captivated by this woman, Lacroix reached out, gathered the fluid on his index finger and licked it off. It surprised him that she had wanted to come across, given that she worked so ambitiously to 'cure' Nicholas. "Oh Nicholas, when will you ever learn to consider a woman's wish?" he muttered and bit into his wrist. He held the bleeding wound over Natalie's mouth and waited. It wouldn't be the first time that he brought someone back whom Nicholas had left for dead.

Lacroix smiled as he felt her lips move against his skin. Soon she was feeding fiercely on his wrist. He retracted his arm when Nick entered the room, remaining rooted by the door as he took in the tableau.

"Contrary to your assessment, she was not beyond saving, Nicholas," Lacroix informed him and brought his wrist to his own mouth, sealing the wound. "I did you a favour. Now you no longer have a reason to join her in death."

"But I didn't want to condemn her to this darkness," Nick whispered in shock.

"And you didn't. I did. Your conscience is clear in that regard, too. You're welcome."

Natalie opened her eyes, smiled and held out her hand to Nick. "You did it? Am I a vampire?"

Lacroix leaned closer to her. "Au contraire, my dear. You may thank me for that. Nicholas preferred to let you die."

Only now becoming aware of Lacroix's presence, Natalie scrambled away from him.

Nick stepped forward. "I'm so sorry, Natalie that I took too much. I never wanted this for you."

Natalie's eyes turned golden. "So you'd rather let me die? How could you!"

"Yes, Nicholas. How could you?" Lacroix crooned. Turning to his new daughter, he added, "Your temper is amusing, my dear. I'm looking forward to an eternity at your side."

Natalie shot him a glare and moved farther away from him. "I'm not going to spend eternity at your side, that's for sure!"

He chuckled. "We will discuss future living arrangements later. I suggest you rest now and allow your body to complete the change. When you wake up, you will be very hungry. As Nicholas merely has his swill in store, I will procure proper nourishment for you."

After Lacroix had left, Nick sat down on the bed next to Natalie and took her hand. "Tracy is alive, Nat. Reese just told me. She went into a temporary cardiac arrest. Her father had left orders to be informed of any change immediately. That's why they made that premature call."

"That's wonderful news, Nick," Natalie exclaimed. "I'm relieved. But what about us? Did you really rather let me die instead of bringing me across? Now we can finally be together, can't we?"

Nick let go of her hand and turned away. "Are you sure that you still want me, Nat?"

"Of course. Why would you think not?"

"I know you caught some glimpses from my past when I bit you. I could taste your horror at what you saw and your fear. That's what made your blood even more enticing to me so that I couldn't stop."

Natalie suppressed a shiver at the reminder. "Well, I admit that, although you kept hinting at your past, actually experiencing it when you bit me was shocking. But I won't be subjected to that anymore now that I've come across, will I?"

Nick frowned. "I'm afraid it's unavoidable if you want to be lovers, Nat," he said quietly. "Vampires achieve ultimate intimacy by the complete fusion of body and mind through the mutual sharing of blood. Biting each other is a very essential part of the act."

Natalie was both fascinated and slightly horrified. "I see. I must admit when I asked you to make love to me, I expected a little more than a kiss on the wrist and a bite in the neck."

Nick looked at her, aghast. Was she criticising his performance? "Of course that was not all I had planned," he muttered.

"So what went wrong?" she wanted to know.

Nick evaded her gaze again. "I merely wanted to taste you, to get a hint at your preferences. So that I wouldn't accidentally do anything that's unpleasant for you or that reminds you of being attacked by Roger Jameson. However, I had yearned to taste your blood for so long, it was utterly overwhelming."

"Nick, do me a favour," Nat said tiredly. "Next time you want to know anything about me, ask. A lot of misunderstandings can be wonderfully avoided by a simple conversation." Feeling exhausted, she lay back down and closed her eyes. She was asleep before Nick came up with a reply.

* * * *

Nick was pacing the floor when Lacroix returned shortly before sunrise, carrying two crates filled with labelled green bottles. Lacroix opened one bottle and filled a goblet. "Care to join me, Nicholas?"

"No," Nick replied curtly.

"Ah, that's right. You've already fed extensively on a far richer sustenance than these bottles could ever hope to convey. I suppose she was delicious, wasn't she?" He sauntered over to an armchair by the fireplace and sat down. "Her blood flavoured with her undying love for you and spiced with that tiny bit of fear as she realized what you were doing. There's nothing comparable to feeding directly from the source, wouldn't you agree?"

"Stop it!" Nick stopped his pacing in front of Lacroix and grabbed the glass from him, draining it in hasty swallows.

Lacroix smiled condescendingly, walked back to the kitchen and filled a new glass for himself. "I suppose due to the new situation we will have to postpone moving on for a bit until she has adapted to her new life," he said conversationally while resuming his seat. "The question is where are we going to raise her? As her own apartment will be hardly suitable for her new condition that leaves only your place or mine."

"Nat can stay with me. There's no reason why you shouldn't move on as planned," Nick snapped.

"Haven't you forgotten something? She is my daughter, not yours. I will personally oversee her education. Out of convenience, as my place is already packed up and in recognition of her familiarity with the loft, I would suggest moving both of our belongings here. If you think that's too much of an intrusion, I will put my place back in order and move with her there."

Nick stood rooted in front of him, processing what Lacroix had said. His greatest fear was that Lacroix would just vanish with her. "My place then," he decided spontaneously. When Lacroix raised an eyebrow he added, "Her baggage includes a cat. You wouldn't want it scratching your furniture."

"How thoughtful of you, Nicholas."

"I'm heading upstairs," Nick announced and walked into the kitchen to rinse out his glass. "You take the couch." Before Lacroix had opened his mouth to protest he added, "She won't wake up for several hours. As you keep reminding me that you can sense your children's needs, I'm sure you will notice when she stirs and come up then."

"If that is what you wish," Lacroix breathed. "Sweet dreams, Nicholas."

"Good day, Lacroix." Nick stepped into the bedroom. Natalie lay motionless on the left side of the bed. He changed into his pyjamas and stretched out next to her. Too much had happened over the past 24 hours and he couldn't find any sleep for a while.

* * * *

When Nick woke he felt wonderfully rested despite remembering falling into a fitful sleep. As he took in his surroundings, he tensed slightly. On his right, Natalie lay still asleep. On his left Lacroix was stretched out, one arm placed protectively on Nick's chest.

Nick grabbed the arm and moved it rather ungently out of the way so that he could sit up.

"Good evening, Nicholas." Lacroix sat up as well in a fluid motion.

"I thought we agreed that you would stay on the couch," Nick reminded him.

"We also agreed that I come up if I sensed anything," Lacroix returned.

Nick looked surprised at Nat. "Has she stirred yet? I haven't noticed anything."

"I wasn't referring to her," Lacroix pointed out. "You were having a nightmare."

"Oh," Nick frowned. He was distracted from the implication by a soft groan coming from Natalie.

She tried to sit up and clutched her stomach, obviously in pain. Nick swiftly filled a mug from the bottle on the nightstand and handed it to her. "Drink!"

Without questioning, Natalie raised the mug to her mouth and emptied it. Nick lost count of the number of times he refilled it. When he had opened the fourth bottle, Natalie paused and took in the row of empty green bottles. "Did I drink all that?"

Nick grinned at her and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek. "Good evening. How do you feel?"

"Wonderful. Full of energy."

"Good," Lacroix spoke from the door and handed her Nick's telephone. "You will call in sick tonight. We have some business to attend to."

"But I don't feel sick," Natalie protested.

"Nat, you can't go out among mortals yet. You need some time to adjust before it's safe," Nick explained.

She nodded in understanding and made the call. "What about you?" she asked and handed the phone to Nick.

"I'm afraid I'll have to go in for a couple of hours. Reese wants me to give a statement about the shooting. I also want to drop by the hospital and check on Tracy."

Natalie's eyes widened. "You want me to stay here with him?"

"You'll be fine, Nat. I'll be back as soon as I can. There're some things he has to teach you. I would only be in the way and distract you."

* * * *

Later Natalie sat at the kitchen table and became slightly nervous when Nick stepped into the elevator.

"Don't do anything she doesn't want," he warned Lacroix before the door closed.

Uncomfortably, Natalie found herself now the focus of the elder's attention. "So Natalie, I must say I find myself at a bit of a disadvantage. You see, usually when one is drained and brought back by drinking the master's blood, a connection is established between master and child. We do not have that connection yet because it was Nicholas who drained you. I plan to rectify that situation now."

Natalie cringed at his wording and shrunk away from him. Worse, he had a way of breathing her name that sent a frisson of pleasure down her back. "I'm not sure this connection is really necessary."

"It is essential for your survival. Otherwise you will feel lost and be considered a liability in the community. And we don't want that, do we?"

Natalie watched him suspiciously.

"It will also change your attitude towards me," he added.

"Why would I want to change my attitude towards you? A year ago you tried to kill me. You can't blame me for not trusting you and I really don't understand why Nick does all of a sudden."

"Not all of a sudden. Deep down Nicholas has always trusted me; he merely chose not to act on it."

Natalie cast him a doubtful glance, still struggling with the fact that Nick had left her alone with Lacroix. "How is this connection established?"

"I will take your blood and you will take mine in return."

Wasn't that what Nick had described as a vampire's act of intimacy? "I don't think so," she shook her head, glad that she wasn't able to blush anymore.

He chuckled at her obvious embarrassment. "I will be plain with you, Natalie. I have no interest in you whatsoever. I merely tolerate your presence because your existence is essential for Nicholas' survival. That being said, are you now willing to allow the procedure?"

She relaxed somewhat. "Fine," she consented. "Although yesterday's bite was rather painful."

"I shall be gentle," Lacroix promised. He drew her in front of him and opened the cufflink on his wrist. "Whenever your fangs drop, just bite," he instructed. Then he brushed her hair from her neck. Natalie tensed as she caught his manly fragrance and felt his lips on her skin. However, instead of the deep bite she remembered from Nick, Lacroix gently slid his fangs into her vein. She moaned softly at the unexpected pleasure of the sensation he created by drawing out her blood. Completely beyond her control Natalie found her body responding. All of a sudden her fangs dropped for the first time. Finding Lacroix's wrist in her red field of vision, she grabbed it and bit down. She came with the first taste of his blood. Then the suckling on her neck ceased as Lacroix broke the connection.

Natalie released his wrist and covered her mouth with her hand in total embarrassment at her reaction to him.

"No need to be embarrassed, my dear. It happens with most of my children," Lacroix informed her with a hint of amusement in his voice that annoyed Natalie to no end. "Nicholas may not be pleased though."

"Do we need to tell him?" Natalie would rather keep her reaction to herself.

"He does not need to be told. I'm quite certain he already knows."

"He knows?" Natalie's eyes went wide. "How?"

"The bond," Lacroix replied cryptically.

"Uh-huh." Natalie scratched her neck. "So Nick and I have this bond although I haven't taken his blood?"

"No," Lacroix shook his head. "Nicholas and I share a bond that is quite strong."

"And you had nothing better to do than to somehow transmit what has happened?" Natalie became furious.

"Au contraire, it was Nicholas who chose to listen in actively."

Natalie processed what he said. Nick probably wanted to make sure Lacroix didn't force her into anything she didn't want. "I don't understand why he didn't stay."

Lacroix hid a smile as he sipped from his glass. "I suppose he feared that his reaction may not be quite what you would expect." He rose from his seat and placed his glass on the mantel. "Now that we have established the bond between us, we can proceed with your training. As a member of my family I demand loyalty and obedience from you. When it comes to matters of the community, my word is law. Is that clear?"

Natalie stared at him. "Clear," she muttered. "But do not expect me to obey your whims if I don't find them reasonable."

Natalie found her eyes fixed by his gaze, a slightly perplexed expression on his face. She matched his stare, determined not to yield, and felt a small victory as he arched an eyebrow and turned to pick up his glass.

* * * *

After Nick had given a statement in the presence of Reese and two officers from Internal Affairs, he stopped at the hospital and spent some time in the ICU watching Tracy sleep before returning to the loft.

When he stepped from the lift the surrounding floor was covered with several bags, boxes and Sydney's carrier. Natalie was walking back and forth, scattering her belongings wherever she found an empty space while Lacroix sat in his favourite chair, with the cat purring on his lap.

"He never lets me as much as pet him," Nick observed, amazed at the cat's familiarity with the elder vampire.

"Perhaps he does not see me as a rival to the affections of his mistress," Lacroix suggested.

Nick glared at him. "I know what happened and I don't like it!"

"Indeed? Then the cat seems wiser than yourself, unless ––" Lacroix left the implication hanging in the air, holding Nick's gaze.

"Unless what?" Natalie broke the tension between them.

"Nothing," Nick replied quickly. "How was your night?"

"Eventful. I learned to fly, we picked up some of my stuff. I managed not to kill my neighbour when we met her on the stairs."

"Good," Nick smiled and held out his hand for her. "There's something I would like to show you before you become too tired." He drew her to him and kissed her deeply on the lips.

Startled at the display of intimacy in Lacroix's presence, Natalie hesitated to return the kiss, but followed eagerly as Nick led her up the stairs.

"May I watch?" Lacroix inquired and earned a glare from both in response.

* * * *

"Nick, what happened earlier with Lacroix, it wasn't intentional," Natalie assured him after Nick had closed the bedroom door.

He held his hand against her lips to silence her apology. "I'm in no position to hold it against you. Would you let me show you what I had intended to do last night?"

Natalie smiled and melted into his embrace. Nick covered her face with gentle kisses while his hands worked swiftly on the buttons of her blouse. After brushing the garment from her shoulders, Nick's lips eagerly devoured the newly exposed skin, his kisses increasing in passion. Natalie revelled in his attentions that were far more bold than the few almost shy kisses he had shared with her when she was mortal. Here was a man who had eight centuries of experience in pleasing women, she realized. His demeanour was quite different from the man who had always been afraid of hurting her. She matched his kisses with equal ardour and relieved him of his shirt. Soon her naked body touched the mattress with Nick hovering above her. For a moment she was captivated by his golden gaze, remembering briefly how this had always been the signal for him to break things off. Now he proceeded with passion, his deep thrusts sending her into blissful ecstasy. Yet she couldn't reach the peak.

"Bite me!" Nick urged her on and directed her head towards his neck. Instinctively she bit down and groaned a moment later in pain as Nick bit fiercely into her own neck. The pain was quickly overridden when the first taste of Nick's blood triggered her climax. While she swallowed hungrily, she again caught glimpses into Nick's life. When he had taken her blood the day before, she had been subjected to him biting nameless necks; this time she received a deeper glimpse into his emotions. His love for her was a balm, but there was also jealousy at her blood sharing with Lacroix. What confused her to the point of ceasing to drink was the direction of his jealousy. He wasn't overly bothered that Lacroix had taken her blood, he was jealous that she had taken Lacroix's! Before she could voice her astonishment, Nick had shifted and attacked the other side of her neck anew. The sensations became too much and she drifted into oblivion.

Nick felt her body relax after he had buried his fangs into her neck a second time. Reluctantly he retracted his teeth and dropped on his back next to her. He had hoped she would last longer. He was far from satisfied. Upon receiving a gentle brush against his mind he rose, donned his robe and left the room. His eyes turned gold as he perceived the scent of Lacroix's blood in the air.

"That was quick," Lacroix commented dryly. "Have you already exhausted her?" He stood at the kitchen counter holding out a goblet half filled with blood while licking his wrist.

"You were not supposed to listen in," Nick scolded and descended the stairs. "Nor get yourself turned on in the process!"

"But I so enjoy it when you fully commit yourself to your nature," Lacroix purred. "Would you care for an undiluted digestive? I know you crave it."

Mesmerized, Nick zoned in on the glass. In a matter of seconds he had snatched it and drained the contents.

"There's more where that came from," Lacroix offered, slightly craning his neck. "You only have to ask."

Nick squeezed his eyes shut and fought the urge to give in. "No, Nat would see it as betrayal. I'm done hurting her."

"She's a modern woman, Nicholas. I expect her to display the same generosity as Janette when it comes to sharing you."

"I don't intend to ––," Nick began.

"You may not have a choice in this matter, Nicholas. She's but young and tires easily. Are you intending to walk away from each encounter unsatisfied? Soon you will be irritable and intolerable to live with."

"I am not ––," Nick began to protest.

"I can sense it, Nicholas. Why don't you let me finish what she could not?"

Nick shook his head. "Not tonight." He turned on his heel and headed back upstairs where he shed his robe and slid under the covers.

About ten minutes later he felt the mattress shift as Lacroix slid in behind him.

"Get out!" Nick hissed around extended fangs.

"No," Lacroix responded. "You know quite well that you won't find any sleep until you have found some form of relief. And neither will I if you're going to continue projecting this tension."

"I don't want Nat to find out," Nick objected.

"It's a bit late for that, I'm afraid. If the hunger I sense in you is any indication, she must have been blind not to taste it in your blood." Reaching around, Lacroix offered his wrist. "Give in, Nicholas and take what you need!"

"What if she wakes up and sees us?"

"I highly doubt that she will stir before sunset given the intensity with which you have exhausted her," Lacroix remarked and took in a sharp breath as Nick plunged his teeth into his wrist.

Nick pulled out the rich blood in desperate need. After several swallows, he released the wrist, turned and buried his fangs into Lacroix's neck. Lacroix pulled him on top of him and pierced his shoulder, completing the circle. Their hips ground against each other as Nick raised his head and bit down once more. Again and again they tore into each other's flesh until Nick rested his head on Lacroix's chest, finally sated.

The elder brushed his hand through Nick's hair and drifted asleep with a smile on his lips.

* * * *

Natalie woke with the now familiar sensation of hunger. Noting a mug on the nightstand, she drained it. After several refills from the bottle placed next to it, she took in the rest of the room and froze. Next to her Nick was still asleep, his legs entangled with Lacroix's and the bed sheet. Lacroix's bare torso was propped up on his elbows and his gaze rested on her, for how long, she didn't know.

"Good evening, Natalie," he breathed smoothly.

Natalie drew the duvet up to her shoulders. "What are you doing here? You're naked," she observed, although the lower part of his body was covered by the sheet.

"And so are you," he countered. "Is that a problem?"

She was too stunned to voice anything aloud and merely nodded.

He raised an eyebrow. "After we shared something far more intimate than mere skin? Your mortal modesty is unbecoming, don't you think?"

She shook her head and remained tense.

"Very well, in that case I suppose I should get dressed."

Natalie watched wide-eyed as Lacroix rose from the bed, discarding the sheet in the process and walked out of the room. Her mind continued to linger on a body that undoubtedly had been steeled in battle and immortalized in its prime. Several minutes later she heard the shower going in the downstairs bathroom and knew she could use one herself. Her attention shifted to Nick whose eyes snapped open.

Smiling, he pulled her down for a kiss. "Hi," he grinned.

"Uh Nick? Did you know that Lacroix slept up here?" she stopped his advances.

Nick frowned. "I'm sorry. I hoped he would have left before you woke up."

Natalie stared at him. How could he shrug that off so indifferently? "You mean you knew he was here? You allowed that?"

Nick sat up and turned away from her. "There's something I never told you. You must have gained glimpses in my blood."

Natalie thought back about the blood exchange. The last she remembered before falling asleep was the awareness of Nick's jealousy. She scratched her earlobe. "When you said that you didn't like that Lacroix and I shared blood, you seemed to be jealous that I took his blood. Why?"

"I had deprived myself of it for so long. When you fell asleep this morning, I still craved blood. He offered and I couldn't refuse," Nick confessed.

Natalie took in his rambling explanation, which didn't explain why Lacroix spent the day in their bed and why he was naked. But apparently Nick had no intention of elaborating. "I certainly hope this isn't the norm. It's bad enough that he moved in here. Was that really necessary? I'm aware that I have to learn a few things, but you could teach me that as well."

Nick shook his head. "He's the one who brought you across, Nat. And frankly, I've never been a good teacher in these matters."

"Neither is Lacroix from what you've told me. To be honest, I'm terrified that he will turn violent and force me to do something I don't want to."

"He won't," Nick stated with conviction.

"How can you be so sure?"

"He knows that I would never forgive him." Nick emphasized his statement with a soft kiss on her hand, donned his robe and slipped from the room.

* * * *

Using the upstairs bathroom, Natalie took her time to shower and dress. When she stepped on the balcony both men turned to look at her. They sat at the kitchen table, a chess board between them. Natalie was amazed that they were comfortable in the confined space of the loft whereas she wished for a bit more privacy. She reasoned that they probably had centuries of experience living together and wondered what Nick had left out in his narrations from the past. Had he only related the bad times or had there also been times of harmony between them? Their current contentment seemed to hint in that direction.

Natalie walked to the refrigerator and studied the green bottles, some of them labelled, some plain. Assuming that the unlabelled bottles contained cow's blood, she pulled out one of those.

"Don't even think about it," Lacroix admonished her.

"Why? It's what Nick drinks, isn't it?"

"And you've experienced the consequence first hand," Lacroix reminded her.

Natalie looked at Nick for confirmation.

"I'm afraid he's right, Nat," he said. "At your age, your stomach wouldn't be able to tolerate it."

Nodding, Natalie put the bottle back and retrieved a labelled one. After pouring a mug, she joined the men at the table. "So who's winning?"

"That is yet undecided," Lacroix replied. "Do you play chess?"

She shook her head. "No. What's on tonight's agenda? Do you have to go to work?" she addressed Nick.

"No, I'm off duty until IA have concluded their assessment. I'll join you tonight." Natalie relaxed visibly.

"We will resume testing your control around mortals," Lacroix announced. "To do so, we will seek out places where they tend to crowd."

"We will go shopping," Nick translated with a grin.

* * * *

Natalie had expected that they would visit the Eaton Centre. Instead Lacroix guided her along Bloor Street and entered an exclusive boutique.

"How can I help you?" a sales lady addressed Natalie.

"My daughter requires a gown for a formal occasion, preferably dark colours," Lacroix announced smoothly.

"Er, excuse us a moment," Natalie snapped, irritated and turned to Lacroix. "You're mistaken if you think I would buy anything here," she informed him.

"When you packed your belongings yesterday, I noticed a certain lack of formal attire among your wardrobe," Lacroix remarked.

She had been overly irritated when he had watched her every move while she packed her belongings and now he had the guts to criticize her wardrobe? "I'm a night-shift coroner; I hardly ever have an opportunity to wear gowns. If anything, I could use a new business suit, which I'm certainly not going to buy in a store in this price range."

"Your circumstances have changed, my dear. As a member of my family I insist that you're properly attired when we attend certain events."

"What kind of events?" Natalie had no intention of attending anything with Lacroix.

Nick placed a hand on her shoulder. "Just humour him, Nat. And don't worry about the cost."

"May I remind you that the purpose of this outing is to test your control?" Lacroix stated. "The gown is merely a by-product that you may keep or not."

"Well in that case ––" Natalie turned back to the sales lady and smiled at her. "Looks like I'm looking for a gown."

After half an hour of trying various designs Natalie felt the stirrings of hunger. Whenever she had changed into a new gown and the sales lady came closer to arrange the fabric, Natalie found it harder to tune out her heartbeat. Instead she tried to focus on the task at hand. She found that all the gowns she had tried so far were a dream. Never before had she worn anything as exquisite. Nick seemed to agree with everything she presented to him, but Lacroix appeared to be more critical, finding flaws in everything she had tried on so far.

"Perhaps we should come back another time," Natalie suggested after he had shaken his head at the latest design.

Lacroix raised an eyebrow. "Are you tiring already?"

"Not exactly tiring, I'm a bit hungry."

"You've been here for less than an hour. How do you expect to make it through an entire work shift? I'm sure you can last a little bit longer. Why don't you try the blue one?"

Natalie glared at him, grabbed a gown of dark blue shades and stormed into the fitting room. As she watched herself in the mirror, her hunger was momentarily forgotten. The blue gown was a perfect fit. As she emerged, Nick's jaw dropped and he brushed his hand across his lips.

"You look absolutely stunning in this one," Nick said and looked questioningly at Lacroix.

The elder walked around her. "I quite agree, although the hem could be a centimetre or two shorter."

"You're right," the sales lady concurred and retrieved a box of needles. Crouching down, she began to pin the hem at the length Lacroix had suggested. Meanwhile Lacroix engaged her in a conversation about the designer of the gown until she accidentally pinched her finger instead of the fabric. Blood welled up and Natalie's eyes changed immediately at the scent.

Lacroix shook his head disapprovingly while Natalie squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to breathe. After what seemed several minutes, Natalie had her hunger back under control and opened her eyes. Oblivious to the discomfort she had caused her client, the sales lady finished her task and rose.

"Very well, that's it," Lacroix commented.

"The seamstress will have it finished tomorrow afternoon," the sales lady informed him and accepted the credit card he handed her.

Natalie returned to the fitting room and sank down on a chair, feeling utterly exhausted.

"Nat? Are you alright?" Nick stuck his head in.

When Natalie looked at him through golden eyes, he quickly stepped into the fitting room and held out his arm. "Take mine," he offered.

Natalie hesitated a moment, but her hunger was too great to deny the offer. She bit into his wrist and pulled out several mouthful of blood.

"Better?" Nick asked gently when she stopped.

Natalie nodded, her eyes normal again. "Thanks," she smiled and shooed him out of the fitting room.

When Natalie had switched back into her own clothes and joined the men, Lacroix raised an eyebrow. "I see that you have dined already."

"Fine, you've made your point," she grumbled while they strolled down Bloor Street.

"Which is?"

"I'm not ready yet to go back to work."

"I'm pleased that you share my opinion. Tomorrow we're going to attend the opera. We'll see how you fare in an auditorium full of mortals."

"The opera?" Natalie was impressed.

"Yes, it's opening night of The Flying Dutchman."

"Opening night? So that's what the gown is for?" Natalie wondered. "Has anyone considered what will happen if anyone from the morgue or the police sees me? I called in sick."

"A valid point. Perhaps it might be better if you quit your job?"

"No!" Natalie refused.

"Put in a vacation request," Nick suggested.

Natalie nodded.

Nick stopped in front of an exclusive jewellery store. "Let's stop here for a moment."

Natalie watched curiously as Nick had the clerk show him several pearl necklaces. After examining the quality of the snow-white pearls closely, he picked one necklace and fastened it around Natalie's neck. She gazed in awe at her reflection.

Nick nodded and grinned. "It will complement the gown perfectly."

"Nick, you can't just buy this. It's priceless," Natalie objected. "It's not even my birthday."

Leaning towards her, he kissed her temple. "Yes, I can," he replied and handed his credit card to the clerk.

"Feeling guilty, Nicholas?" Lacroix asked mockingly and earned a glare from his son.

The clerk finished the transaction and handed the card back. "Thank you very much, Mr. deBrabant."

When they were back on the street, Natalie gave Nick a hug and kissed his cheek. "Thank you, the pearls are wonderful." Turning to Lacroix she added at his raised eyebrow, "And thank you for the gown. I've never owned anything like that."

"The others you tried also looked very beautiful on you," Nick remarked.

"Oh they did, but they didn't fit the purpose," Lacroix stated.

"They were a perfect fit. They didn't even need any alteration," Nick said.

"Precisely."

Natalie stopped. "Wait a minute. You chose this gown because it required trimming? This was a test to gauge my reaction to fresh blood?"

"A test which you failed miserably," Lacroix confirmed.

"It was unexpected," Natalie said in defence.

"It will always be unexpected," he reminded her.

Natalie had to admit that he was right. She felt Nick's soothing hand on her shoulder. "It will get better with time," he consoled her.

She nodded and changed the topic. "I didn't know you have a card with your real name on it."

Nick shrugged. "It's an account I keep separate from the others. It would look suspicious if I spent several months of Detective Knight's salary on jewellery."

* * * *

By the time they returned to the loft, Natalie was exhausted. Nick looked clearly disappointed as she excused herself and headed upstairs.

"Not much stamina, has she? Neither in bed nor otherwise," Lacroix remarked while his eyes followed her retreating form.

"Lacroix!" Nick scolded.

"You on the other hand seem to be full of energy. I'm sure you had other plans for the rest of the evening. How disappointing that she's unable to comply with them. Of course, if she fed from me, it would probably raise her spirits again. But knowing your sensitivities on the matter, I chose not to offer."

"There will be other nights when she's not tired," Nick stated.

"Of course. Which leaves the question what are you going to do with tonight's pent-up excess energy I sense from you?"

Nick shot him a glare and moved to the piano where he started to play.

* * * *

Natalie woke to the sounds of piano music. The tune was full of passion, worthy of a concert pianist. She rose from the bed and pulled on her bathrobe. Stepping on the balcony, she watched as Nick's hands flew across the keys. She had heard him play on several occasions, but never a piece like this, which demanded absolute virtuosity from the performer. His solo audience sat captivated nearby. Natalie found something disturbing in the way Lacroix watched him, as if the passion Nick brought to the music was reflected in Lacroix's hungry gaze.

When Nick stopped abruptly and both men turned to her, she had the feeling of having intruded on something she was not supposed to witness. "Did I wake you?" Nick asked.

"That was beautiful, Nick. I've never heard you play like that before." She made her way to the refrigerator and retrieved a bottle.

"Yes, Nicholas is quite talented in the art of letting his hands dance on the keys as he would over a lover's skin," Lacroix stated hoarsely. "A firm touch here, intermingled with soft touches there to increase the overall sensation, wouldn't you agree?"

"I wouldn't know," Natalie replied, deliberately ignoring the allusion while Nick grabbed the glass of blood from the piano and drained it. "I don't play. I'm sorry if I interrupted anything."

"You didn't interrupt anything," Nick assured her quickly, fully aware that Lacroix would have had him on the floor had Nat come down five minutes later. "I was about to head upstairs in a few minutes."

Nodding, Natalie carried the bottle and her mug back to the bedroom. When Nick rose from the piano bench to follow, Lacroix reached for his hand and intercepted him. "Do you think that is wise?"

Nick looked at their interlaced hands. "Let go. I don't know what you're talking about."

"If you take her with the same passion that you devoted to your –– foreplay, you will hurt her."

Puzzled at Lacroix's concern for Nat, Nick stated, "It won't be the first time that I have restrained myself around her."

"And how satisfying is that?"

"It doesn't matter as long as she's happy."

"So altruistic," Lacroix drawled. He drew Nick's hand to his lips and kissed it softly. "If you require assistance, I will be waiting for you," he breathed before letting the hand go.

Nick stood a moment rooted in front of him, uncertain whether to go upstairs or remain. After a long moment he broke the gaze and flew upstairs. He found Natalie sitting against the headboard hugging her knees. "Are you okay?" he asked.

Nodding, Nat padded the mattress next to her, inviting him to sit down. "Can we talk about last night?"

"Did I do anything wrong?" Nick asked with a dreadful foreboding, while he perched on the bedside, leaving some space between them.

"You were quite impetuous," Natalie stated.

"Did I hurt you?" Nick's eyes went wide with worry.

Natalie reached for his hand. "I heard what Lacroix said. You were absolutely breathtaking, Nick. I have never experienced anything like it. Don't you dare restrain yourself again. I'm no longer a porcelain doll you have to worry about crushing." Lacroix's warning to Nick had surprised her. There was something consoling in the knowledge that he did care about her despite his former statement of having no interest in her whatsoever.

Relieved Nick picked up her hand and blew a soft kiss on its back. Sensing that she had more to say, he inquired, "But?"

"Well, while the physical part was overwhelming, I have to admit, I really have a problem with the biting. What I saw was like a cold shower shattering all the wonderful things you've done to me."

Nick abruptly turned away from her and tensed as he felt her hand on his shoulder.

"Nick, please understand, I know you aren't that man anymore, and I love you all the more for it. I just prefer not to be subjected to these images again if I can avoid it."

Nick turned back to her and grabbed her wrist. "Natalie, do you know what you're saying? If you refuse to take my blood, there's no way you can achieve climax."

"She could take mine," Lacroix offered from where he stood in the doorway.

Natalie laughed out loud. "Yeah sure. Nick and I make love while you sit next to us and hand over your wrist when we're done? No, thank you!"

"Oh I could do more than merely sit close beside you. I could actively participate in the act of arousing each of you," he breathed, stepping fully into the room and pausing behind Nick. Reaching out he used his index finger to lightly stroke the side of Nick's neck.

Natalie watched in stunned fascination as Nick closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. Lacroix's next words shattered the moment. "Have you never engaged in a threesome before?"

Although the question was uttered with genuine curiosity, Natalie found the mere suggestion just gross. At Nick's continued silence through the exchange and the way he leaned against Lacroix, something dawned on her. "But you have," she stated with conviction.

"You've already climaxed once when taking my blood. I'm sure you will do so again, especially with proper stimulation," Lacroix stated.

"Okay, out with you two. For once I wish to have the room for myself during the day," Natalie shooed them from the bed.

"But Nat ––," Nick protested.

Natalie pointed to the door. "Out! Both of you! I don't want to hear anything about threesomes or biting or whatever!" She drew the blanket over her head and turned away from them.

When she was certain that she was alone, she sat back up and drained a mug of blood while trying to get her thoughts in order. The suggestion was gross, that's what it was. And yet her curiosity was piqued. With whom had they done this in the past? With Janette? What surprised her was Nick's reaction. He didn't seem the least bothered when Lacroix had stroked his neck. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy it. How Nick could stand that after everything he had told her about Lacroix was beyond her understanding. She wondered if it was consensual at all or if Lacroix was forcing Nick to endure the touch.

Her train of thought was interrupted when her sensitive hearing picked up soft moans coming from downstairs. With a mixture of dread and curiosity Natalie rose from the bed and tiptoed to the balcony from where she glanced cautiously into the open space of the loft. Her breath caught as she saw their naked bodies glistening in the flickering light from the fireplace. Nick stood with his back to the wall while Lacroix's lips worshipped his chest. Natalie's mouth went dry as Lacroix moved lower and from Nick's increasing moans of pleasure she could only imagine what he did. When the elder left his crouched position after a while, Nick crushed his lips against Lacroix's in what Natalie recognized as the same impetuous passion he had displayed when he kissed her. Lacroix lifted him in his arms and without leaving his lips, positioned him on the rug in front of the fireplace. Natalie had to admit that she had to revoke her previous assessment. There was nothing forced about Lacroix's actions. On the contrary, he handled Nick like a most precious treasure. Wide-eyed she watched as they rolled on the floor until Nick came on top. With a roar of passion he impaled himself on Lacroix. Again they switched positions and Lacroix began to thrust, eliciting moans of increasing intensity from both. The ecstasy in the air was almost palpable and exploded as they buried their fangs into each other's necks. Their bodies shuddered in mutual climax and the loft reverberated from the sounds of their feeding. Over and over they tore into each other's necks until there was eerie silence. Lacroix turned on his back and drew Nick into his arms. Through her own red haze, Natalie found Lacroix's golden eyes fixed on her and a smile playing around his lips.

Shocked at being discovered she quickly retreated into the bedroom. As she slipped into bed and touched herself, she realized that she was wantonly wet. All she could think of was if Nick had 800 years of experience, what would it be like with someone who had 2000 years? Turning on her side, she whimpered and tried to get that last image out of her head.

* * * *

The sound of a beating heart roused Natalie from her sleep. Instinctively, she sat up and, bearing her fangs, hissed at the intruder. Sydney hissed back, jumped from the bed, rushed across the floor and jumped into Lacroix's arms.

"Good," Lacroix chuckled. "Your senses have alerted you to a mortal heartbeat while you slept."

"Poor Syd! I didn't mean to startle you." Glaring at Lacroix, Natalie muttered, "Why do all my male friends end up in your arms?" She turned to the nightstand and helped herself to a mug of blood.

Lacroix arched an eyebrow. "Do you really require a response to that?"

"In fact yes, but I would like to hear it from Nick."

"Nicholas is currently taking a shower. Your gown has been delivered," he nodded at the rectangular box on her bed. "We're leaving in two hours." Turning on his heel, he left her alone, taking Sydney with him.

Natalie removed the top of the box and brushed her hand in awe over the deep blue fabric. Refilling her mug, she sipped her breakfast while wondering what the night may have in store.

"Nat?" Nick roused her from her contemplation. He was dressed in his red robe, his hair still damp from the shower. "Lacroix said you wanted to talk to me?"

Natalie placed the mug back on the nightstand and turned towards him. "I want to understand."

Nick fidgeted with his fingers, looking anywhere but at her. "What exactly?"

Natalie exhaled audibly. "You and Lacroix are lovers. How can this be after everything you've told me?"

"We were lovers before we became enemies."

It was a simple statement, but it opened a whole new perspective on their relationship. "Are you drawn to him because he brought you across?" Natalie asked, remembering that Lacroix had told her, sharing blood with him would change her attitude towards him.

Nick shook his head. "I was already attracted to him when I was still mortal, since the first moment I laid eyes on him. At first I denied what I was feeling, because it went against everything I was brought up with. I focused completely on Janette. She often complained that I was swallowing her with my love. Lacroix was very patient with me. He explained that love between men was not uncommon in Roman times and bided his time. He never forced anything in that regard. Eventually I managed to discard my medieval inhibitions and found absolute bliss. When I began to question my nature we fell apart, but the feelings remained lingering under the surface."

Nick paused while Natalie digested what sounded to her like the biggest melodrama of the millennium. She had to admire Lacroix's tenacity. Not so long ago she had almost given up on Nick when he refused to come around after six years. "How do I fit into this? Did you rather want me dead than immortal so that you could be with him?"

"Nat, no!" Nick rushed to the bed and reached for her hand. "I do love you, never doubt that."

Natalie knew he spoke the truth. She had sensed his love for her in his blood. "And yet you go to him. Are you really expecting me to share you with him?"

"May I remind you that my claims are older?" Lacroix appeared in the doorway, dressed in a black tuxedo. "If anyone generously shares Nicholas, it will be me."

"I don't believe in archaic claims!" Natalie shot back, while her eyes lingered a moment longer admiringly on his exquisitely cut clothing.

"Stop it, both of you!" Nick hissed. "Nat, you said that you would rather not take my blood. But I can't make love to you when you won't bite me back. Under these circumstances Lacroix's offer seems to be the best way out of this dilemma. Perhaps you can find it in you to consider his proposal."

"Well, what will it be, Natalie? To endure the images from Nicholas' past, eternal celibacy, or a blissful tryst such as you have never experienced before?" Lacroix summarized her options.

Natalie covered her face with her hands. What had she gotten herself into?

"Perhaps knowing that my sole attention would be on Nicholas will facilitate your decision," Lacroix added.

Did that mean he wouldn't touch her? Natalie wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or offended. "I will take that into consideration," she stated. "But now I should probably get dressed."

Nick smiled at her and brushed a reverent kiss on the back of her hand. Then he moved to his cupboard and selected his wardrobe for the evening.

Natalie watched him a moment. "You've done that before, haven't you?" she asked when Lacroix had left. "With Janette?"

He stopped what he was doing and turned back to her. "Among others, yes." Natalie's eyes widened. "They usually enjoyed it," he added with a seductive smile that caused a stirring in Natalie's groin.

* * * *

Natalie tensed as she entered the lobby of the opera house, flanked by her handsomely dressed companions. Closing her eyes for a moment, she managed to tune out the many heartbeats from the mortal patrons that were assembled, waiting for the doors to the auditorium to open. She was glad to discover that they had a box of their own. Although the mortal audience presented a constant background noise, she wasn't as close to any beating heart as she had feared.

"Are you familiar with the plot?" Lacroix distracted her from her line of thoughts.

"Partly. It's about the captain of a ghost ship, isn't it?"

"It's a little more than that. It's about the measure of love and what one is willing to give up for it. You may find certain aspects more or less familiar."

As the performance progressed, Natalie watched in awe as the Dutchman, cursed with immortal life, sought the woman who would be willing to die for him in order to lift the curse from him. As he gave up his salvation out of love for her, Natalie's tears flowed freely.

"Compose yourself, my dear. You're making a delicious mess of yourself," Lacroix breathed into her ear and handed her a handkerchief. Reaching out he brushed a tear from her cheek and licked it off. "Make sure your face is clean when the lights go back on."

Only now did Natalie realize that her tears were most likely red. She dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief and found reassurance when Nick squeezed her hand.

"How do I look?" she asked when the applause began.

Nick leaned over and licked a remaining strain from her face. "Lovely. Don't worry; any remains will be reabsorbed by your skin."

"It was so sad, but so romantic," Natalie sighed.

"Well, not so long ago, you entertained the idea yourself to die in order to lift a curse from your beloved. A foolish concept, wouldn't you agree?" Lacroix remarked as they left the box and filed down into the lobby.

"I'm not sure. I like the idea of measuring love by what one is willing to give up for it."

"And what would you be willing to give up now that giving up your life is no longer an option?" Lacroix asked.

Natalie thought about that.

"Your objection to Lacroix's proposal perhaps?" Nick asked hopefully.

Natalie smiled, realizing how cleverly she had been manoeuvred into this position. How could she deny his request?

* * * *

"What about you?" Natalie addressed Lacroix after they returned to the loft. "What would you be willing to give up?"

Lacroix filled three glasses from a bottle. Finding two pairs of eyes fixed on him, he stated, "I don't believe in giving up. I rather take something on. A quarrelsome daughter for instance." He handed Nick a glass, their fingers touching a moment longer than necessary.

"And you?" Natalie turned to Nick.

He took a thoughtful sip from his glass. "My quest," he replied softly. "At least for a while."

"Oh Nick!" Natalie exclaimed. She hadn't given his quest to become mortal any thought since her conversion, but she had intended to continue searching.

Lacroix approached his son with a genuine smile on his face and kissed him full on the lips. Natalie quickly drained her glass. There was something genuinely arousing in the action.

"Should we retire upstairs?" Lacroix suggested after pulling away, leaving Nick wanting for more.

"Nat?" Nick asked hoarsely with gold-flecked eyes and held out his hand.

Hesitantly Natalie followed them as they climbed the stairs. As she stepped into the bedroom, Lacroix stood behind Nick and teased the side of his neck with his lips. "Your turn," he invited her.

Before she could take any initiative, Nick had pulled her close and kissed her deeply. She responded instinctively while her fingers worked to undo his shirt buttons. As soon as his shirt hung open, Lacroix removed it from his shoulders, exposing Nick's chest to her view. While she began to explore his uncovered skin, Lacroix stepped behind her. She halted briefly as she felt his hands on the back of her neck. He removed her necklace before slowly unzipping her gown. Then he resumed his position behind Nick and focused his attention on teasing a single sensitive nerve at the crook between neck and shoulder with the tips of his fangs.

Nick moaned and leaned into him while simultaneously arching his back in response to Nat's attentions on his chest. She was delighted to find his nipples hardened from her teasing. Nick gently pushed her open gown from her shoulders, so that it pooled at her feet. She quickly bent down and moved it out of the way. Meanwhile Lacroix reached around Nick's waist and undid his pants. In a fluid motion he pushed them down together with his briefs, exposing Nick to her hungry gaze. Licking her lips, Natalie knelt down in front of Nick.

Nick's moans increased as he felt himself engulfed in her moist cavern. Simultaneously he felt a probing finger slipping between his buttocks, applying a teasing message. He leaned against Lacroix for support, hardly able to stand on his own as he felt his need building. Lacroix nipped the surface of his shoulder, creating an additional stimulus by suckling on the wound. When he thought he was going to burst from the sensory overload, a wrist was offered and he bit down savagely.

Natalie was startled when a fountain of blood burst into her mouth. Realizing that Nick had climaxed, she swallowed instinctively. A moment later Nick sagged into Lacroix's arms. Natalie wiped her mouth and watched as Lacroix placed Nick on the mattress. "That went well, don't you think?" he stated.

Natalie nodded, slightly astonished at her own actions. She crawled next to Nick onto the mattress and smiled at him. Smiling back, he reached out and drew her down for a kiss. While the kiss intensified, hands on her back opened her bra. Nick tossed it haphazardly out of the way. The next instant Natalie found herself on her back and Nick devouring her skin with his lips and hands. At the edges of her vision she noticed that Lacroix had gotten rid of his clothes as well. He reclined against the headboard and watched. Her attention quickly returned to Nick who had slid his hand between her legs to tease her moist core. She pushed herself against his hand, needing to have the emptiness within her filled. However, he skilfully evaded her efforts, increasing her desire all the more. "Nick!" she demanded impatiently.

Immediately he switched his position and filled her completely. After she had sighed in bliss he began to thrust, taking her to new heights of passion. When she was ready to explode, she bit into the offered wrist while Nick plunged his fangs into the side of her neck. While his thrusting had been less desperate and more tender this time, he pulled out her blood more fiercely as if he wanted to get as much as possible from the heady blend of Natalie's and Lacroix's blood.

"My turn, Nicholas," Lacroix announced the moment Natalie had released his wrist and fallen into an exhausted sleep. Nick licked the bite marks on Natalie's neck closed and cast a golden stare full of desire at Lacroix. He moved from Natalie to position himself in a way that gave Lacroix easy access and sighed in bliss as Lacroix drove himself home. Their matching thrusts deepened after each withdrawal until they found release in each other's blood.

Nick rested his head on Lacroix's chest. "Lucien?"

"Hm?" the elder mumbled against his brow.

"I meant what I said. You are my closest friend."

"I know, Nicholas. I know."

FIN