Lost and Found
The night breeze coming through the front window screens wasn't the only thing that led Nick onto the porch of the house, but it was as good an excuse as any. "Just going out for a second," he called to Natalie, barely pausing to hear her muttered assent from the basement laundry room before he opened the screen door and stepped into the darkness.
The door thumped quietly against the frame behind him and he leaned against it until he heard it click--he had no intention of being kept awake tonight by the buzzing of an insect interloper. No, there were so many other things to keep him awake, weren't there? Centuries of 'to-do' lists containing items that he'd never quite gotten around to, fragile memories of ancient faces and locales whose identity eluded him with the onset of late-middle age.
Nick smiled at the last thought and walked to the edge of the porch. Seating himself on the stone steps, he looked up at the clear, summer night sky, wondering at the stars in it, feeling a pang that he'd forgotten so many of the names attached to them over time. And then there were the stars now lost to his naked eye--he'd talked Natalie and the kids into a field trip to the observatory once on the pretext of an educational outing just to wrangle himself a few minutes with the telescope, finding it important that those stars were still there, that those distant suns hadn't disappeared along with the night vision when he'd regained his mortality.
She'd said nothing, but Nat had seen through him--the barest shake of her head and a worried smile gave her away. Although they'd long ago made a thick and fast rule about allowing 'before' the least influence on their current lives, she'd indulged his whim without comment. It was yet another reason to love her.
As if he'd needed any more.
The porch was a retreat from the oven-like heat that had built up through the warm day inside the house. Enjoying the cool, night breeze, Nick eased back on his elbows and stared up into the vast blackness of the night sky, past the gutter-line of the porch roof. The silence was broken by the barking of a lone dog--the Colling's Shepherd, probably--and the late summer crickets. What the girls called music was almost blaring from one or both of their windows upstairs, just thunderous enough to rattle the screens every now and again, but not quite invading the tranquillity of the porch.
He entertained the thought of calling Nat outside to join him. They'd sit in the swing in companionable near-silence for an hour or so, drinking in a stolen moment of their own. Time enough for carpools and work, dinner plans, car maintenance, gutter cleaning, painting the dining room . . . they deserved a moment of peace all to themselves now and again, didn't they? He couldn't remember the last time they'd been alone when they'd simply talked to one another, a habit they'd lost. Their lives were all but arranged to avoid moments like this, moments where there was nothing to do but think and remember . . . .
The lump that rose in his throat reminded him why their lives had become an unending whirl of acting and for a moment the stars blurred, until he wiped his hand across his eyes. Better not to think, better to just do. Maybe if they got too busy to breathe, they wouldn't notice the gaping hole in their lives.
It worked, more often than not. When Natalie lay quietly sobbing beside him in their bed during the early morning hours, he pretended to be sound asleep, oblivious to her pain. And if he stopped halfway down the hall, pausing at the doorway of what was now a storage room, unable to move a foot further without at least touching the frame of the door, poking his head inside just to see if it had magically been remade to the way it had once been . . . she'd stop in mid-sentence and walk away, picking up the conversation again after he'd closed the door and joined her in the kitchen or the living room, or where ever it was they'd been heading. Past the point of that initial, shared, ragged grief, this conspiracy of false ignorance was the only comfort left to them.
No, better not to call her out onto the porch. Not tonight.
He pushed away those thoughts, concentrating instead on the lingering scent of the freshly cut grass, the hum of the insects, or the sound of a car engine roaring down a nearby street. The serenity of the summer night was a balm of sorts, soothing his soul. After all of those centuries of trying to escape the darkness, how odd it was to discover his peace only when the sun had set and the hustle of the daylight world passed into slumber.
The slightest crackle near the hedges might have eluded him on another night. If the music upstairs had been just a bit louder, if he wasn't so relaxed, if a car had chosen that moment to pass directly before the house . . . it was so slight a noise it could easily have been ignored. And he still had that choice, if he wished. He could pretend not to have heard it, pretend not to know that he was being watched, that a presence waited nearby.
No supernatural sense, this. Well, maybe the barest sliver remaining from a time when he physical senses had been the fine tuned instruments of a predator, or even the instincts that had been honed by endless hours of detective work. But these instincts ran deeper than the echoes of an ex-vampire's hunting habits or the repetitive and relentless search for a perpetrator on a detective's salary.
He heard the crackle of the twig because he was meant to hear it; he was a father.
And because he was a father, he knew enough to wait . . . and watch . . . and listen.
Minutes seemed to stretch beyond their normal span and then the shadow appeared at the hedge. From the street lamp he caught a glimpse of blonde hair much shorter than his own--that was the fashion for the younger men, now, to look like sheep shorn two weeks past. The shoulders were hunched slightly, tension made to look casual and failing miserably. And then came the voice, low, barely more audible than the snapping of that twig.
"Richie." More greeting than question, but a little of each in the response as his breath caught in his throat and he looked up to meet the eyes of his son. That's where they'd combined in this one--the eyes were his color, but the size and shape were Natalie's. It had been so wondrous, to see their love made reality in the tiny bundle of flesh, the little person that favored not one nor the other, but both together in appearance.
There was a smile, Richie's head ducked slightly back into shadow. "Nobody calls me that anymore."
"Then what does he . . . what are you called?" Nick saw the edge of the smile disappear at his blunder and held his breath--be careful, don't frighten him off, take it slow.
Take it slow.
Silence for a moment, then, "Richie's fine."
"Okay." Nick watched his son rub the side of an expensive Italian loafer against the concrete of the stoop, almost laughing as he found himself fighting the urge to tell the boy to stop, that he'd ruin the shoes. But his son wasn't a boy any longer. Hadn't been for some time. And by the time he'd realized that his son had long since passed the verge of manhood, Richie had moved even further beyond that, becoming . . . other.
They both looked up like guilty children at the faint sound from inside the house--a door closing, Natalie's voice humming.
"I should get your mother--"
Nick had barely gotten his arm straightened to push himself up from the porch before Richie's hand had appeared from nowhere. He knew what the strength of his son's grip would be like, but that still didn't prepare him for the reality of it. Even Richie seemed surprised, releasing him suddenly and stepping back into the shadow of the hedge.
"No," Richie repeated, as firmly as before, if less emotionally. "I can't--I don't think I can deal with her right now. I'm not ready. I shouldn't have--"
Nick rose slowly, telegraphing every move, knowing far better than his son did how quickly things could happen, how horribly wrong the world could turn with a split second of misjudgment. "You haven't fed."
His son looked up to the moon and the night, swallowing hard.
Nick nodded and backed away a step. "It's okay, Richie. You won't hurt any of us."
"But you don't know--"
Their eyes met for a moment, then Richie looked away again. It had been less than a split second, but Nick realized in that instant that he truly did know.
"It's not so bad, really," whispered his son, staring up into the night. "Not so bad. And he's . . . he's kind to me, in his way. He misses you. He hates you for leaving him, but he misses you. I'm not what he expected. I'm not . . . ."
Nick closed his eyes to blink back tears, turning away, remembering when the world had fallen in upon itself.
Nick had taken some small satisfaction in the slam of the screen door as he headed out onto the porch, the bang echoing his anger and frustration. Not even the faint sound of sobbing from inside the house could move him--was it Nat, or one of the girls? Did it matter?
Wrapping his fingers around the painted wrought iron handrail, he wished he still had the strength to twist the metal as if it were a paperclip. Better to take his anger out on the railing than his wife and daughters. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't his fault, either.
"It's never your fault, is it?"
The voice was soft, the tone non-threatening, but it still froze the blood in his veins. His mouth was suddenly too dry to answer, his muscles weak and watery as the fear swept through him. It was a voice he hadn't heard in a long time, had hoped never to hear again.
If he could manage to shout, get some sort of signal to Nat and the girls . . . .
The thought dissipated as he turned. LaCroix was leaning against one of the porch supports, between Nick and the door. If he ran for it, he'd never make it in time. If he called, they might come out and--
"What do you want?" he said, meeting LaCroix's gaze levelly and trying not to show his fear, although he knew the mortal stink of it would be more than evident.
The barest rise of an eyebrow, the hint of a smile--all too familiar. "You have nothing to fear from me, Nicholas. That's a promise I intend to keep." LaCroix took a step toward him, hands held wide, as if in supplication. "Neither you nor Natalie need fear any harm at my hands so long as either of you lives."
The words did nothing to ease the cold sweat that had broken out over him, but Nick stood his ground. He'd seen LaCroix make and break too many promises to take him at his word. As long as he doubted, he had a chance. "Fine. I remember. Now, what do you want?" The smile widened as LaCroix walked past him, along the length of the porch. "I'd hoped to offer my assistance, ease your minds. You must be frantic by now."
The words clicked into place like the pieces of a puzzle he hadn't know he'd half assembled in his sub-conscious. The answer had been there all along, hadn't it? His son's disappearance between the airport and arriving at the university suddenly made sense. This wasn't his son's half-assed bid for freedom from parental control as he'd suspected. This wasn't a robbery and murder by a stranger, or a serial killer, as Natalie had feared.
No, this was worse. Far worse.
Without thinking, he moved toward LaCroix, hand raised to strike him. "Where's my son? What have you done with him?"
The blow never landed--LaCroix caught Nick's wrist in mid air and held it immobile, his grip only as firm as it needed to be.
"Don't you mean our son?" When Nick met his eyes, LaCroix nodded ever so slightly, releasing his hold--Nick's arm fell to his side as if a dead weight. "Yes, Nicholas. Your flesh, my blood . . . quite a combination, isn't it?"
Nick turned away, gaze flicking to the door at a sound from inside the house--dear God, don't let Natalie come out onto the porch!
"The best of both worlds," continued LaCroix, moving to stand behind him. "It didn't take much to sway him. It was a mistake not to tell him about us. The sole thought of annoying and angering you was almost enough to completely convince him."
"He'd never agree--"
"Consent, freely given," LaCroix hissed in his ear. "His first feeding was a joy. His first kill . . . it was as if he'd been born to it."
His knees felt weak at the thought of his first born, his only son, willingly condemning himself to darkness and his soul to damnation, just to spite him. "I want to see him."
"That's not advisable."
"I don't care what--" Nick whirled on LaCroix, anger in his eyes . . . but stopped when that steely gaze met his evenly, emotionless save for the small glimmer of triumph. LaCroix was right--to make Richie face them now wouldn't only be an agony, it would be dangerous for all concerned. It would be hard to change the habits of a lifetime in a moment's notice. They'd bait one another, there'd be a confrontation . . . and then his son would tear out his heart with his fingernails or sink his fangs into his father's neck and drain him within seconds. Fledglings were like that.
His son was like that. Now.
Nick nodded however reluctantly. "You're right. There'll be time later." He looked out across the manicured lawn, heard the barking of a neighbor's dog and wondered how this mundane paradise could have been so easily twisted into hell. "You promised."
"Not to harm you or Natalie. Only you or Natalie. I kept my promise." LaCroix's hand fell onto his shoulder. "Think, Nicholas--now you know some part of you will still be immortal. Long after you and Natalie and your other children are dust, Richard will be walk the earth."
"He'd better. Because if anything happens to him," he glanced at LaCroix over his shoulder, "there won't be anywhere in the world dark or deep enough for you to hide. I'll find you. And I'll destroy you."
LaCroix's hand moved away, more in deference to him than out of any fear. "I wouldn't expect anything less." He nodded toward the house. "Should I be the one to break the news?"
"No," said Nick quickly, his tone harsh enough and sharp enough to make even LaCroix blink. He turned away, facing the door. "No. I have to do it."
He stood there for a long moment, not quite when LaCroix left. There was no sound, no brush of wind or indication of movement . . . just an absence, not so unlike the hole that had appeared in his soul when Natalie had called the university over his objections and discovered their son had disappeared.
"I have to do it," he repeated, steeling himself as he'd walked to the front door and gripped the handle. "After all, it's my fault . . . ."
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Richie. The note of accusation floated in his eyes just behind the blue. The gold was back there . . . somewhere. "Why didn't you tell me about you? Or LaCroix? Or Uncle Richard?"
Nick lowered his head, unable to face the mirror image in his son's eyes. "Your mom and I decided early on that we couldn't. Maybe when you were older. Maybe if something happened." He sighed, then looked up, out across the moonlit lawn. "You've only been at it a year, Richie. Think about what you've seen, what you've felt, what you've done."
There was no answer, just a faint intake of breath from his son.
"I'd give the world to know about it, but I remember what it's like. I know enough not to ask. Think about that, before you judge us." Nick forced himself to look up and over, into his son's eyes. "Think about that, before you tell me we were completely wrong."
"But you let Janette--Aunt Janette--visit. And you never said anything."
The slip almost passed him. Almost. Nick licked his lips and looked out over the lawn again. "Janette," he whispered. It'd been years since she'd dropped by; the old problem of aging had reared its ugly head when little Richie noticed that Aunt Janette never got any older and Aunt Janette never stopped by again on her way to Paris or New York or Chicago. He'd suspected that she'd fallen back into LaCroix's orbit, now that her master had become mortal. "You've seen her?"
"Yeah." Another pause, another intake of breath that was all too familiar, that hesitation when Richie was nailed for something he'd done, or felt guilty about something he hadn't been nailed for yet. "Dad, I--she and I . . . we . . . ."
"It's okay," he whispered, keeping his attention focused on the lawn. Feelings raced through him--anger at Janette for falling into old habits, at LaCroix for playing games with his 'children,' at Richie for not knowing ever better, at himself . . . at himself most of all. Jealousy lingered in the background, but grief quickly took center stage--his son should never have been placed in that position. "It's okay," he said again, this time with more force of will and sincerity, trying to drive the point home. "I know what it's like. It's different with . . . them. The same rules don't apply. But if you want to do us all a favor, don't ever mention this to your mother. I think she'd be tempted to leave your shades up in the morning, just to teach you a lesson."
There was a faint chuckle from his son, then a strained silence. "Dad, I'm not coming home. I only stopped by to . . . to talk. To let you know I was okay. And to see what was happening with everyone."
Reality crashed in again. No, his son wasn't home to stay. Nick knew that, however much his heart might have wanted to pretend otherwise. It wasn't safe. It wasn't practical. And-- "He doesn't know you're here, does he?"
He dared a glance at his son and found a rakish smile which Nat had once told him was proof that facial expressions must be inherited through DNA. "No. LaCroix said I shouldn't try to see you for at least a decade, if then."
It was both comforting and frightening to know that LaCroix was consistent, making the same mistakes with his son . . . and also a relief that none of his daughters had the fortune to look like Fleur, each favoring too much of Natalie for there to have been more than a passing resemblance.
"You're going to catch hell about this," warned Nick. "Better get back. And if you think he's suspicious or he asks you directly, face him down and tell him the truth. Lying only prolongs the inevitable and he might just let it pass if you stand up to him." When his son shook his head, dismissing his advice, Nick added quickly, "I had eight hundred years of practice. Took me that long to figure him out. Don't be as stupid as I was."
Nick's voice caught in his throat as the headlamp of a passing car illuminated his son's face for a second. The infant, the toddler, the schoolboy--they were all there behind the face of the young man, a pale visage that would never grow older, never flesh out into full adulthood. The loss of it was overwhelming and yet here he was talking to his son about LaCroix like a couple of college kids discussing how to survive a class with a difficult professor.
"It's not your fault, Richie," said Nick, finally getting up the nerve to touch his son's arm. Gripping it, finding it cold flesh and bone was heartening, when his past year had been filled with only insubstantial wisps of memory. He met his son's gaze. "You made a mistake, but don't keep kicking yourself because you didn't ask the right questions. Your mom and I tried to raise you the best we could. Go back to that. Stick to what you know is right. Survive. That's all you can do at this point."
"Survive . . . for what?" Richie looked back at the screen door nervously. "I don't want to be like this, dad. That's the other reason I came home--I want to be mortal again. LaCroix won't talk about how you did it. I saw something in Janette's blood, but she slapped me when I asked her about it. I want to come back, dad. Tell me how to do it."
His son's disappearance had torn a hole open in his soul. LaCroix's subsequent announcement that Richie had become a vampire had widened the abyss. With this simple request, his son cauterized the wound as it stood--now Nick knew it would never heal.
His hand fell from his son's shoulder and he took a step back. "I don't know."
Richie's expression darkened, his eyes narrowing slightly. "I said I was sorry, dad. And I am. Playtime's over. I was a bad boy and I've been punished--missing you and mom and Donna and Alice. What I've had to do to survive. I want to come home now. Tell me how."
"I don't know how," said Nick again. The disbelief in his son's gold-tinted eyes hurt him more than frightened him. Despite all of the remembered instincts that warned Richie was still too young to know his own strength or to be able to control the beast that lingered just beneath the surface, he grabbed his son's arm again. "Don't you think if I knew, I'd tell you? That I'd do anything I could to help, if not for your sake, than for your mother and your sisters? Damn it, you're my son!"
It took a moment for that to sink in, for the old habits to ease away into understanding. Richie lowered his eyes. "Dad--"
"It took me eight hundred years of searching before I found a way back across and I nearly killed your mother in the process. It wasn't until after Alice was born that your mom gave up trying to figure out exactly why it had happened, and only then because Janette was hinting that the wrong people were starting to ask questions about Nat's work." Nick lifted his hand from his son's arm. "If it's any help, I think your mom's started up her work again. She hasn't said anything to me, but she's been spending more time in the lab lately. Other than that . . . ."
"And if they realize what she's doing, they'll kill her, won't they?"
Nick nodded, surprised at his son's sudden insight. "They might. But that won't stop her."
"Then maybe this will." Richie grabbed Nick's wrist, holding it tightly. "You have to tell her that I don't want to come back, that I've gone all the way over. That I came by because I'd heard she might be working on a cure and that I'd turn her in if I thought it was true. Tell her, dad."
"No." Gritting his teeth against the pain of his pinioned wrist, Nick stood his ground. "I'm not going to lie to your mother, not even to save her life. I stopped that a long time ago--she almost left me once because of it and I don't want to risk that again. She deserves better than that. We both do."
And then Richie released him. Nick quickly moved the hand behind his back, knowing there'd be a mark there. His son turned away, facing the darkness. His voice was small and fragile, for all of his supernatural strength.
"Then there's no hope for me, is there?"
"There's always hope. There has to be hope. You're a lot less pig-headed than I am--at least your mother thinks you are. Maybe it won't take you eight hundred years to find your answer. Be smart. Have hope. Survive," added Nick, the last in a harsh whisper, placing his hand on his son's shoulder. "And remember that we'll always be there for you. We'll always love you."
Richie's head turned, his expression doubtful--the weight of guilt in his eyes for the deeds of the past year adding instantly to the burden on Nick's soul.
"We'll always love you," repeated Nick.
His son hugged him, something that hadn't happened since before Richie started high school. It only lasted for an instant, but suddenly that gap in his soul didn't seem as wide or as eternal as before. Nick stepped back as they found themselves in an awkward silence, then he gestured toward the screen door.
"Not right now." Richie cleared his throat, looking away--Nick saw the glint of gold in his eyes, reflected from the street lamp. "You were right, I haven't fed. And . . . I've got a lot to think about. I'll come back when my control is better. A couple of months, maybe. When I can get away."
Nick nodded his understanding, but added, "Just don't let it go for too long, okay? Months become years before you know it and then--" He stopped himself, then forced a smile, needing to steer Richie away from that inevitability for a moment--the unenviable choice of having to watch his family age and die before his eyes, or choosing to absent himself from them during their lifetime, wallowing in an eternity of regret.
It surprised him again, to see something of that knowledge already in his son's eyes, even as Richie faded back into the shadows.
"Survive," Nick whispered. "Survive, for as long as it takes."
A slight movement of air signaled Richie's departure; although Nick shaded his eyes and looked into the night sky, he couldn't see any sign of his son. To know that he'd been there, that he was alive, and that he was looking for a cure was enough. It would have to be enough, for now.