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Phoenix Rising (1/12) K.D. Williams June 2000

Disclaimer: With the exception of Shay, none of these characters belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.

Feedback is greatly appreciated and may be sent to mpd527@cs.com

This is the third story in my Shay series. The first was Even in the Darkness There is Light, followed by Ghosts of the Past. You should at least read Even in the Darkness There is Light before you try this one. This story in its entirety as well as its predecessors can be found on my web site at http://searchgsd.tripod.com/fkfic.htm Special thanks to my beta-reader, Angela, for all of her help!

Permission granted to archive at FKFIC-L and Mel's web site. All others please ask.

***************

Shay sat in the center of the back seat of Nick's '62 Caddy watching the lights of the city speeding by the window. She felt like a child, dwarfed by the sheer size of the vehicle. The back seat alone was large enough that she could have easily stretched her 5'4 frame across it lengthwise with plenty of room to spare. In the front seat, Nick and Tracy were arguing over some meaningless details of a long-closed case. Shay smiled to herself as she listened to the two detectives. They were an interesting pair and, whether they knew it or not, they complemented one another perfectly. Tracy was outgoing, self-assured and fiercely independent. She was a good cop. She had spent five years in the uniform division before being transferred to investigations and being partnered with Nick. She had struggled against the assumptions of her co-workers that she had only received the promotion because of her father's position. Nick knew better, she deserved everything she'd gotten. Nick was as independent and strong-willed as Tracy. In addition, he had a fiercely protective streak, especially when it came to his partner. Under any other circumstances, Nick and Tracy probably would have strongly disliked one another, but partners in this line of work both needed to be just as headstrong and determined as the other simply to balance one another out.

Shay leaned forward resting her arms across the back of the Caddy's front seat. "Are you two always like this?" she asked already knowing the answer.

Both blondes went silent and turned to look at one another. Tracy grinned at Nick. "Most of the time," she answered, causing Nick to chuckle.

"And how long have you two been partners?"

"Two years," Nick answered without hesitation.

"Has it been that long?" Tracy thought back trying to remember exactly. Her whole life had changed that first night she'd been partnered with Nick. That had been the night she'd met Vachon.

"Doesn't seem like it, does it?" Nick remembered that day with the perfect clarity of the vampire's memory. Even without perfect recall it was a day he would never forget. Schanke's death always seemed fresh in his mind. Nick smiled to himself at the thought of Schanke. He still missed Schanke, he supposed he always would.

Shay sat back against the seat as Nick maneuvered the Caddy through the falling snow. The wiper steady rhythm against the window sounded like a mortal heartbeat. Shay admonished herself for letting her thoughts even stray there. Her vampire side was firmly under her control and she intended to keep it there.

A tiny economy car slipped into the only parking space in sight large enough for the Caddy causing Nick to curse under his breath.

"Nick, why don't you get something smaller?" Tracy asked, waving her hand at the dash.

Nick turned to her looking genuinely hurt. "Why should I?" he asked, as he spied a suitable parking place and slid the old car into it with practiced ease.

"Never mind," was Tracy's only answer as Nick smiled at her in triumph.

Shay smiled at their ongoing repartee. Yes, they were definitely quite a team.

Nick had parked in front of an old building that had once been the site of a trendy department store. Over the years, the store had become less and less profitable and at last it had been closed down for good. The building had remained vacant for a number of years and had been well on its way to becoming an eyesore when it was purchased by a non-profit organization and turned into a home for wayward youths. The Phoenix Center provided a warm and safe place for many teens that had nowhere else to turn.

"This is the place," Nick announced as he peered through the passenger's window over Tracy's shoulder. Tracy didn't comment. Instead, she stepped carefully from the car to the snow-packed sidewalk. Shay climbed out of the rear.

Shay had begged Nick to let her go to work with him for weeks. Finally Nick had given in and made arrangements for Shay to ride with him and Tracy for the night. She's signed a few release forms and they were off. Much to Shay's disappointment, the night had been excruciatingly uneventful. Shay had stood around the precinct bored to tears while Nick and Tracy did paperwork. Finally, just as Shay was about to give up and go home they had hit the streets. Though their destination wasn't much more interesting than the precinct had been. They had come to the Phoenix Center to interview a young boy who had discovered the body of a homicide victim the previous week. The boy wasn't a suspect and he hadn't seen anything of significance; the interview was really just a formality.

Shay followed Tracy through one of the glass doors left over from the building's previous incarnation. A copper cowbell had been attached to the inside door handle to inform the staff of visitors. The metallic clang echoed through the large lobby area. At the far end stood a folding table and two metal folding chairs. A few seconds later a young girl appeared from another door into the lobby. She wasn't much to look at, her light-brown hair hung straight onto her shoulders. The color was what was often referred to a dirty blonde. She wore no makeup to disguise her plain face but her warm brown eye radiated friendliness. Before the door closed behind her, Shay heard sneakers squeaking on wooden floors and a ball bouncing somewhere deep within the building.

"Hi, what can I do for you?" the girl strode confidently towards the trio; Nick and Tracy stepped forward to greet her.

Nick produced his badge for her to see. "I'm Detective Nick Knight. This is my partner, Detective Tracy Vetter. We called earlier about speaking with Michael Marsh."

"Oh, yeah, that's right. I was the one you spoke with, my name is Claire," she offered her hand first to Nick then to Tracy. Shay stood just far enough away from the detectives as to indicate that she was merely observing. Claire simply smiled and nodded politely at Shay.

"Michael is playing basketball with some of the others. If you'll follow me, we have a small conference room you can use if you like."

"Actually we shouldn't even need it. We just need to ask him a couple of general questions," Nick replied as the three fell into a line behind Claire.

Claire led them down a short hallway. The sounds of squeaking sneakers and bouncing basketballs grew louder, punctuated with the sounds of heavy breathing, mumbled curses and yelled encouragements. The hallway itself was covered with hundreds of snapshots pasted almost haphazardly along its length. Shay tried to look at them as they moved past, but it was impossible even for a vampire to see them all. Tracy too turned to look at the photographs as they passed while Nick seemed to ignore them completely.

The game came to an abrupt halt as the four walked through the door. Judging by the high ceilings, the basketball court stood where escalators once transported shoppers from one level to the next. Though it was obviously not a high-priced or fancy set-up it certainly served the purpose. The wooden floors showed obvious signs of wear and the nets hanging from the baskets were badly frayed. A group of six young boys turned to stare at the newcomers suspiciously. Claire turned to the young brown-headed boy who was holding the ball

"Michael, these the two detectives here to talk to you," she told him.

The boy nodded and tossed the ball to one of the other boys and they immediately resumed their game.

Nick and Tracy moved to a corner of the room with Michael following as Claire excused herself and disappeared.

Rather than following Nick and Tracy, Shay moved to stand with her back against the wall and turned her eyes to the boys on the court. They were all young that much was certain. The oldest couldn't have been more than eighteen. The youngest couldn't have been more that thirteen or fourteen at the most. They were not much younger than Shay yet she could see in their eyes wisdom beyond their years gained from the harsh reality of life on the streets.

Suddenly the ball escaped the control of one of the boys and careened towards Shay. She reached out and caught it effortlessly. Instead of tossing it back to the boys, however, she took a few steps forward and tossed it towards the nearest hoop. It flew through the air and glided through the hoop with perfect precision. The ball returned to the floor bouncing once before Shay recaptured it and tossed it back towards the boys with a warm smile.

"Hey, you wanna play?" one of the boys caught it and asked her. "We're short one player."

Shay shrugged her shoulders then glanced at Nick and Tracy. They seemed heavily involved in a conversation with Michael. Shay turned back to the group, "Sure, just until you friend comes back."

Shay had to concentrate to avoid using her vampiric powers, especially when she made a jump shot. Still, the boys seemed impressed with her abilities and soon she found herself laughing at their antics and generally enjoying the game. She had caught Nick glancing at her once or twice and smiling in approval.

All too soon, Shay felt Nick silently beckon for her through their link. Not nearly as breathless as a mortal would be after such physical exertion, she thanked the boys for allowing her join in. Several of them patted her on the back or shook her hand. Waving to them, Shay headed for the door where the two detectives were talking with a distinguished-looking gentleman who Shay had not seen enter.

Shay tried to give the impression of being a bit winded from the game as she joined them. The man turned to look at Shay with a warm smile. Nick turned to introduce her. "Shay, this is Phillip Henderson, the founder and director of the Phoenix Center."

Shay took his offered hand and shook it solidly.

"I watched you play with the boys, you seem to have enjoyed yourself." His blue-grey eyes twinkled at Shay as he spoke.

"Yeah, they were a lot of fun." Shay glanced back at the boys who had resumed their game since the return of their teammate, Michael.

"Yes, the boys can be enjoyable to work with. I only wish we could convince more people of that. We are always short on volunteers," he said sadly.

"Volunteers?" Shay asked a little surprised. She should have suspected as much but in truth, she hadn't thought too much about it.

"Yes. The facilities are supported in part by government and private grants but all of our staff are volunteers," Mr. Henderson explained as he led the group back into the hallway.

Shay only nodded with a distracted look on her face. Following Nick and Tracy along with Mr. Henderson back down hallway of photographs this time she hardly noticed them at all. Her mind was preoccupied with something else. Nick flashed her a knowing smile as they stopped in the lobby where Tracy was still talking with the long-winded Mr. Henderson. Nick could tell Shay was formulating a plan. As the saying goes, he could almost smell the rubber burning.

Tracy finally managed to wind up the conversation she'd been dragged into with Mr. Henderson. "I don't think we will need Michael for anything else," she was saying. "We just needed to get a formal statement from him." At last, she shook the friendly director's hand and he bid the trio a good night.

Tracy pulled her leather coat more tightly around her slight frame as they stepped onto the sidewalk. The snow had slowed to only a few flurries that landed delicately at their feet. By morning they would all be crushed by the citizens of Toronto as trudged through their daily lives.

Shay let her eyes wander across the exterior of the renovated building as Nick unlocked the Caddy's passenger door for Tracy. "Shay?" he asked her as he passed by on the way to the driver's side. "Huh?" Shay turned to him.

"Go ahead," Nick told her with a knowing smile.

Shay played dumb. "What?"

"Go ask if you can come back, I know you want to. We'll wait for you," he told her.

Shay ducked her head self consciously. Nick was her master now and with that came a strong bond through which Nick knew her feelings, emotions and desires. Shay's evident discomfort was not lost on Nick. "The link will fade in time, Shay," he whispered comfortingly. "And you'll learn to control what comes through it just like I did."

Shay nodded. It was hard knowing that someone else felt what you felt. Nick couldn't read her thoughts but he could easily detect her emotions and desires. She and Nick had worked on blocking one another out but it wasn't the easiest skill for Shay to master. If she concentrated, she had found she could hide her presence from Nick but if she was distracted, Nick could pick up on her feelings without even trying.

"Do you think it would be okay?" Shay asked, unsure of herself. Nick understood what concerned her. He had made an effort to keep her away from mortals, at least when he wasn't around to supervise her. She had been under his watchful eye for two months now. At first, he would barely let her out of the loft. Finally he let her meet some of his mortal as well as vampire friends and at last he'd allowed her to go into mortal establishments under his close supervision. She had proven that she was able to control her darker desires. It was time for Shay to venture out on her own a little.

Nick put his arm around her shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll be fine. You're control is better than most fledglings your age. You can handle it." He gave her a reassuring squeeze.

"Thanks, Nick," Shay gave him a quick hug then turned hurrying back into the building.

Tracy had been standing on the sidewalk waiting for Shay to climb in the back seat so she could resume her place in the front. She craned her head watching Shay's unexpected retreat then looked to Nick for an explanation as he made his way carefully across the patchy ice and snow to the driver's side of the Caddy.

Nick smiled like a Cheshire cat at Tracy's confused look. He thought briefly about not telling Tracy what Shay was up to just to get his partner riled up but in the end he decided to have pity on the young blonde detective. "She'll be right back. She wants to see about volunteering," he explained as he slipped into the drivers seat.

"Oh." Tracy climbed into car to escape the ravages of the cold, wet snow to await Shay's return.

"Is she okay to do that?" Tracy asked, rubbing her hands together in an effort to ward off the cold that felt like it was seeping into her very bones. Tracy knew that Shay was a vampire and a very young fledgling. Nick had decided that it was simply easier to tell Tracy the truth. He had lied to her too much already. He hadn't gotten into the nature of his relationship with Shay but he suspected Vachon had told her.

Nick smiled boyishly at Tracy. "You mean is she alright around mortals? You're not scared of her are you?"

Tracy shifted a little uncomfortably in her seat. "No, of course not. It's just that Vachon told me that young fledglings have less control...that they can...well that they can lose control."

"They do, and they can. Control around mortals increases with age. Some fledglings have more control than others; it's an individual thing. You know I wouldn't let her do this if I didn't think she could handle it."

Tracy nodded. Shay had never given her any reason to be frightened and she trusted Nick's judgment. Of course none of that kept Tracy from squeaking in surprise when Shay rapped on the window.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Shay apologized as she climbed into the back.

"It's okay, I'm used to it," Tracy admitted, sneaking up on her was one of Vachon's favorite pastimes.

"Well?" Nick asked as he whipped the Caddy out of the tight parking space.

"Well," Shay started, "I told them I could come back here tomorrow night."

Nick nodded in approval.

"There is one thing, Nick," Shay leaned forward resting her head on the back of the bench seat of the Caddy, "Can I borrow your car?"

Nick turned his head and glared at her.

"Not the Caddy, of course. How about that little Mustang you let me drive before? I mean you don't want me taking public transportation, do you? Stuffed into a tiny bus with all of those mortal heartbeats..." Shay grinned at him and winked at Tracy who stifled a laugh.

Nick sighed. He knew he was being set up. "The 'little Mustang' as you call it is a classic. I suppose you can take it but if you don't bring it back in one piece, I'll stake you myself."

"Nick has a classic Mustang? Are you serious?" Tracy chuckled at the mental image that popped into her head of her partner driving a Mustang. She glanced over at Nick and realized that wasn't such a bad image after all. Tracy shook her head. Where the hell did that come from?

"A 1969 Mach One, candy apple red with black racing stripes, black interior and a four twenty-eight Cobra Jet under the hood to be specific!" Shay bragged.

"And you drive this?" Tracy gestured at the Caddy and laughed.

"Trunk space," Nick replied with a sly grin.

***************

Over the rest of the evening, Shay found out the hard way that police work was in reality a lot of monotony mixed with just a tiny bit of excitement if you were lucky.

Shay was flipping through an outdated magazine watching Nick's co- workers filter in and out of the precinct when she overheard Nick tell Tracy he was heading for the morgue. Shay smiled to herself. He might really need to stop by the morgue for professional reasons for all she knew but even if he didn't he would have found some excuse to drop by anyway. Shay tossed her magazine on the empty desk she had commandeered as Nick headed her way.

"I'm heading off to the morgue. You want to come?"

Shay considered for a moment. "Nah, I think I'll avoid that tonight. Say 'Hi' to Nat for me though."

Nick grinned, his blue eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. He did need to pick up a report from Natalie but he had to admit he also had ulterior motives. It was just as well that Shay didn't care to join him.

Shay waited for Nick to disappear out the door before she shuffled to Tracy's desk and pulled up a nearby chair. Tracy's head was buried in a file, absorbed in her paperwork. She looked up at Shay questioningly when she sat down beside her.

"I've been wanting to ask you something, Tracy," Shay whispered quietly to her.

Tracy studied Shay's face for a moment. Whatever kind of relationship she and Nick had it seemed to have done Nick some good. He'd been much more pleasant to have around the past few months.

"Okay, but only if I can ask you something too," Tracy closed the folder in her hands and returned it to the desk.

"Sure, anything." Unlike Nick, Shay didn't mind talking about herself and her past. Of course, she changed a lot of the details if she was talking to someone who didn't know she was a vampire. Tracy, however, knew all about vampires so Shay had nothing to hide.

"Okay, you first," Tracy twisted slightly in her chair to face Shay.

"What's up with you and Vachon?"

Tracy nearly choked. "Vachon?" she managed to ask innocently.

"Come on, Tracy. Don't play innocent with me. I've seen you two at the Raven. He's got the hots for you, there's no doubt about it!"

Tracy felt herself blush. True she hung out at the Raven with Vachon but she hadn't realized that anyone thought they had any kind of 'relationship'. She did care for Vachon. A lot. But she had become so accustomed to hiding that small fact that it had become second nature to deny it. The truth was that she really did want to talk to someone that she didn't have to hide the truth from. Keeping it all inside had been wearing on her for a long time. She had considered going to Natalie but somehow she just hadn't felt comfortable or the time had never been right.

"I wish I knew," Tracy picked up a pen from her desk and began doodling on a scrap piece of paper. "I mean there's no future in a relationship with him. At least not for me, or so he says. I know I should just walk away but I just can't. I care too much for him." Tracy sighed and her shoulders slumped under the weight of her indecision.

Shay studied Tracy for a moment. "He's right about there not being a future," she said quietly. Then she looked around to make sure no one was within earshot. Choosing her words carefully, she leaned closer to Tracy and said, "Unless he brings you across that is."

Tracy turned her head and looked into Shay's deep brown eyes. She could see the compassion and sympathy there. She tore her gaze from Shay and looked down at the stack of paperwork on her desk. She didn't want Shay to see the tears that were threatening to well up in her eyes. "I know. I'm just not sure that's what I want yet."

"Don't rush it, Tracy. Just take your time and leave your options open," Shay bent her head over a little more trying to catch Tracy's eyes still focused on her desk. "If you want to talk about it, if there's anything you want to know, you know where to find me."

"Thanks, Shay," Tracy looked up at Shay and managed a half-hearted smile.

"Anytime, Tracy. Now what do you want to ask me?"

"I was going to ask if we could talk sometime...about certain things and you just answered that question."

************

Nick strutted into Natalie's office with a silly grin on his face. Natalie was tapping on her keyboard trying to make a dent in the endless paperwork that she'd let pile up over the past few days.

"Hey, Nick!" she called out to him as he entered and made his way to her desk. He cleared off some of her files on the corner and sat down looking at her with a of delight and mischief in his eyes.

"Hi," was all he said.

Natalie looked at him suspiciously. "What?" she asked at last nearly laughing at the silly look on his face. He had been so much happier the past few months. She never would have thought it was possible but she had fallen even deeper in love with him.

"You're off tomorrow night, right?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Because I'm off too and Shay won't be home," he stated matter-of- factly.

"And just what are you proposing, Detective Knight?" Natalie leaned back in her chair folding her arms across her chest.

"I thought you might like to come over. I'm sure we could find something to do to occupy our time."

Shay climbed into Nick's '69 Mustang. It was an incredible car even in its day. Now, nearly thirty years later it was virtually one of a kind. Nick had bought it new put less than thirty thousand miles on it then lost interest or decided he wanted something with more trunk space. Shay felt a little apprehensive about driving it. It was in mint condition. To a collector it was worth a fortune, to Shay it was a dream come true. Feeling as giddy as a teenager with her first car, she turned the key in the ignition. The powerful engine roared to life. "Oh, yeah. That's the ticket!" She slipped the transmission into reverse and rolled the car out of the garage.

The original radio had been replaced with a specially designed unit that looked exactly like the original but featured a cassette player instead of the outdated eight-track player. She popped in a cassette, rolled down the windows and pulled out into the night enjoying the feeling of freedom the car gave her and ignoring the strange looks she was getting for riding with the windows down in the middle of winter.

The drive to the Phoenix Center was far too short for Shay to really put the car through its paces. Nevertheless, she thoroughly enjoyed slipping in and out of the light traffic of the early Toronto evening. The car felt like it was a part of her, responsive and nimble under her guidance.

Careful to find a parking spot that was relatively safe and lit up by the abundant streetlights Shay slipped the car into the space and cut the engine. She was not fearful for her own safety in fact, it was the citizens of Toronto that should fear her, after all she was a vampire. However, a lighted parking spot would afford a little more security for the car. She would rather walk into the morning sun than tell Nick anything had happened to that car.

Butterflies were fluttering in her stomach as she pushed open the glass doors and entered the Phoenix Center. What had made her want to volunteer here anyway? The kids she'd seen here the night before had made an impact on her. Perhaps it was that fact that most of them were only a little younger than Megan had been. Perhaps it was her way of getting back a little bit of what she had lost when her little sister had been killed. Either way she had found herself offering to do anything she could to help out here.

"Shay, I'm glad you could make it!" Mr. Henderson greeted her as she walked through the door. His warm welcoming smile made Shay feel a little more at ease.

Phillip Henderson was something of an enigma in the community. He had plenty of money, in fact he was a self-made millionaire and a very successful businessman. He had given up his thriving business and dedicated himself to opening and running the Phoenix Center. He was a kind and generous man with a propensity to talk your ear off.

Shay took his extended hand and shook it with a smile.

"This is Claire," he gestured to the same young plain-faced girl that had been at the front desk the night before. "She's one of our residents."

Claire nodded her head and smiled warmly at Shay.

"Let me show you around and introduce you to everyone," Mr. Henderson took Shay by the arm and led her along.

Shay followed him around as he showed her the entire facility explaining how various areas of the building had been renovated by the youth themselves along with volunteers and donated resources. The center sprawled out encompassing every last bit of the three-story building. The first story Shay had seen most of the night before. The lobby, the basketball court and a few small rooms along with a large commercial-style kitchen and small eating area completed the lower level. The many photographs in the hallway, Mr. Henderson explained, were pictures of many of the youths that had come through the facility over the years. Shay wanted to study the images closer but Henderson dragged her along before she could get much more than a glimpse.

The second floor consisted of a few more small rooms furnished sparsely with folding tables and metal folding chairs. Shay had merely a change to glance in as Henderson led her along. A large room that Mr. Henderson called the common area seemed to be just that. It was furnished with what were obviously second hand couches and chairs, a big screen television complete with VCR and Nintendo along with two pool tables and a ping-pong table. A number of teens milled about the room some watching television, other talking amongst themselves or reading quietly. A group of boys and one girl glanced up from their pool game as she and Mr. Henderson peeked in the room. The girl smiled at Shay and she returned the smile.

The third floor, Henderson explained as they made their way up the stairs, was the sleeping quarters. The facility could comfortably house as many as seventy-five youths. During the cold months, they were often overcrowded with teens sleeping on the floors and sometimes even in the hallways. There were separate quarters for males and females designed like military-style dorms with bunk beds and a set of restroom facilities for both males and females. They didn't offer the residents much privacy but it was a huge improvement over the streets that were the only other option for many.

The last stop of the tour was Mr. Henderson's office. It was beautifully furnished with a huge oak desk and equally luxurious executive style leather chair. Upon closer inspection, Shay could tell that the furnishings had actually suffered from years of abuse and neglect. Perhaps they once belonged to the CEO of the department store that occupied the building. They had been lovingly restored to as close to their original beauty and elegance as possible without spending the money to replace them.

"Can I get you a cup of coffee?" Henderson asked her as he gestured to an equally worn but undamaged leather couch.

Shay almost said yes simply out of habit but she caught herself in time. "No, thanks," she declined politely wishing she could take him up on the offer but knowing that she'd never be able to ingest the liquid much less keep it down.

Mr. Henderson poured himself a cup of the steaming liquid while he continued to chat about the purpose of the center. Shay grimaced as the scent of fresh coffee assaulted her senses. She fought down a wave of nausea as she detected the scent of the cream and sugar he stirred into the liquid. When she was mortal, it would have made her mouth water, now it only made her nearly ill.

"You mentioned you have a background in psychology." Mr. Henderson settled down in the burgundy leather chair behind his desk.

"I studied psychology in college and received my degree a few months ago but I'm afraid I don't have any formal training." Shay hoped he didn't ask any details. She had indeed studied psychology but the accident had happened before she had received her degree. Nick had taken her to visit Aristotle who had set her up with a whole identity including a degree in psychology but she'd neglected to learn all of the details he'd included in her files.

"Do you think you'd feel comfortable leading some of the counseling sessions?" Henderson asked her before taking a tentative sip of hot coffee.

"Leading counseling sessions?" Shay echoed his words with surprise. "I'm not sure. I don't have any formal training or experience."

Henderson noted the doubt that was beginning to show on Shay's face. "Our mission here is not only to provide a hot meal and shelter for these kids. Our goal is to help them and their parents overcome their differences and become a family as they were meant to be. We provide counseling for both the youth and the parents in an effort to help them resolve their problems. Of course it doesn't always work. Many times the gaps between them are simply too wide, some are not even willing to try. If that is the case we simply do the best we can, help them in other ways but the ultimate goal is to reunite the family. That is what these kids really need."

"Without formal training, I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable-"

Henderson cut her off. "You really don't need any training for this type of thing, Shay. You're really just acting as a mediator between the kids and the parents. If they need anything more we have trained volunteers that you can refer them to for more in depth counseling. You'd just be there to help them communicate."

Shay thought for a moment. True counseling was not something she was all that comfortable with but acting as a mediator, now that was a little different. "I'll give it a try," she told him at last, still a little unsure.

"Wonderful!" Mr. Henderson exclaimed enthusiastically. "There are, of course, many other things to be done as well but with your background the counseling will be your main responsibility when you're here."

"There is one little problem, Mr. Henderson," Shay started reluctantly.

Henderson looked at her, fearful that his newest and desperately-needed volunteer might not work out after all. He gestured for Shay to continue.

"I would be happy to help in any way I can," Shay explained, "but I can only be here in the evenings. I have a skin disorder that makes me extremely sensitive to sunlight. Once the sun is down, I'm all yours but until sunset I'm unavailable."

Henderson let out a breath. "I was afraid you'd changed your mind!"

"No, not at all!" Shay exclaimed. "I'm really looking forward to it."

Henderson smiled brightly at her. "Actually we need volunteers at night more than during the day anyway. Most of our volunteers have full time jobs and families. It's hard to find anyone who can be here at late at night, which is often when we need the most help. Especially during the cold months. Many of the youth are runaways who end up living on the streets. When night falls and the temperature drops they often end up on our doorsteps." Shay watched as he stared into space as if he were grasping for some long forgotten memory. "In fact," he continued after a moment, "we had another volunteer a number of years ago that suffered from a disorder similar to yours. Nice fellow. The kids really liked him. He just up and disappeared one day. He left a note but never mentioned where he'd gone. Odd sort of fellow but he was a great help around the place. We even set up a room for him in the basement where he could stay the day if he couldn't get out before sunrise. I'm sure it needs a little cleaning up but you're more than welcome to use it if you ever need to."

"Hopefully that won't be necessary but it's good to know it's there just in case." Shay wondered if the man could have been a vampire. A sunlight allergy then a sudden disappearance sounded suspiciously vampire-like.

Mr. Henderson clapped his hands together and grinned at Shay with anticipation. "Alright then, it's all settled. Tonight would probably be a good time for you just to get a feel for the place," he told her. "Mingle with the kids. Just remember, many of them have been hurt by adults. It takes them a long time to start to trust again. Don't take it personally if they brush you off, just give them time."

"Sounds great," Shay told him with more confidence than she felt. She had felt so comfortable with the kids on the basketball court the night before but now she wasn't so sure.

Mr. Henderson sent her off with instructions to 'mingle' and 'make yourself at home'. She headed back down to the first level intent on closely examining the photographs posted in the hallway outside the lobby. Henderson had explained during her tour of the facility that he had grown up largely on the streets of Toronto trying to escape his alcoholic father. He had struggled and clawed his way out of the poverty and repression of his youth to rise to the position of a wealthy businessman. His fortune made, he still found something missing from his life. Then, he found his true calling. He used his fortune along with donations from private organizations and government grants to create this place, the Phoenix Center. His generosity had provided many a homeless youth with the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing over the past seven years. In addition to the basic necessities, the Phoenix Center provided something that was even more important; it provided the wayward youth of Toronto with the opportunity to make something of themselves, to rise above their meager beginnings to strive for something better.

Shay studied the photos on the walls of the dimly lit hallway with a completely different viewpoint than she had glanced at them night before. They didn't seem to be in any sort of recognizable order. They were simply posted along the wall mostly at eye level some overlapping others in a kaleidoscope of colors and faces. Shay studied them moving from one to the next. Mr. Henderson was in a number of them his arms resting on the shoulders of unnamed youth of varying ages. Most of the kids had smiles on their faces but even in the photographs, Shay could see the worn and tired eyes they hid behind their smiles. It was, obviously, a photographic testimony to the successes of the Phoenix Center.

A number of residents were still up despite the late hour. Shay trudged up the stairs and made her way back to the common area. She could hear the television blaring from the room mixed with snippets of conversations. She stood in the doorway for a moment watching the interaction between the youth. The group she'd seen earlier was still at the pool table. The three boys were watching the girl as she prepared to shoot. Another group meandered around the television. One stretched out on one of the old worn couches, several others were seemingly absorbed in the movie playing on the VCR. The three boys looked up at Shay as she stood watching them. Shay smiled at them warmly and moved to stand near the table as the young girl studied it looking for a decent shot. She glanced up at Shay with a hint of a smile on her face. Shay moved to stand beside her, bending over to study the table.

"There," Shay told her pointing at the table, "Eleven ball, corner pocket."

A look of relief crossed the girl's face as she saw the shot Shay pointed out. "Yeah, okay," she said. Shay stepped back as the girl set up for the shot. Drawing the cue stick back she sent the cue ball spinning across the table striking the eleven ball causing it to slip gracefully into the corner pocket. She turned back to Shay, "Hey, thanks!"

Shay smiled at her and the three boys turned to her as well. "I've played pool since I was a kid. My name is Shay."

"I'm Kelly, this is Ricky, Mitch and Billy." she indicated the boys who each nodded their heads in greeting.

"Wanna play the winner?" one of the boys asked her.

"Sure." Shay stepped back and watched as they finished the game.

One of the boys shook his head at the other. "I don't think I'll ever be able to beat you." He turned to Shay. "It's nice to meet you, Shay," he said handing her his cue stick. "I've gotta work in the morning, I'm gonna hit the sack."

"See ya, Billy," Kelly chirped as he disappeared through the door. She turned to Shay, "How about us girls against the boys?" she gave the remaining two boys a challenging glare.

"You sure they can handle it?" Shay asked leaning close to her and grinning as they both stared at the boys mockingly.

Kelly giggled, "I doubt it!"

The boys only groaned in response as one of them started to rack the balls.

"I was afraid everyone would have hit the sack by now. I half expected a boring night here." Shay admitted as she set up to break.

The crack of the cue ball against the other balls on the table echoed through the room before one of the boys answered. "Most of us work pretty late. We usually stay up till two or three to relax first. The mornings are usually pretty quiet, we all sleep till noon or so."

Shay nodded as she aimed, hoping to make an unlikely shot. The ball nearly rolled into the side pocket but came to a stop just before it reached the edge. Shay shook her head in mock frustration. The boy who'd spoken turned to the other, "Go ahead, Mitch."

Mitch seemed to be a young man of few words. He had short-cropped brown hair and emerald green eyes. He made a shot that a professional would have been impressed with. Shay knew then that she was way out of her league.

They played a couple of games, each team winning one apiece. At the end of the second game, Kelly replaced her cue stick in the holder mounted on the wall. "Well, guys, I've got to get outta here," she sighed. "I've got a paper due the end of the week that I haven't even started." She turned to Shay and asked hopefully, "Will you be back tomorrow?"

Shay nodded as she helped the boys gather up the balls and clean up the table. "Yep, sometime after sunset."

"After sunset?" Kelly asked curiously.

Shay hadn't meant to say it quite like that, it had just slipped out. She wasn't planning on mentioning why she only showed up after dark unless someone asked. "Yeah, I'm real sensitive to sunlight. I only come out after dark." She responded as casually as she could.

Mitch laughed, "A vampire, huh?" he said teasingly.

"Yep," Shay responded without hesitation grinning madly at him. If he only knew, she thought.

Shay bid goodnight to Kelly and the boys who soon followed. Finally, she settled down on one of the worn couches to watch television with the few who remained, introducing herself and making small talk with them. They all seemed nice enough if a little reserved. Still she didn't blame them for having reservations. She suspected they had all had a very tough life.

***************

Natalie was humming to herself as the lift creaked and groaned its way to Nick's loft. She'd been in an especially good mood since Nick had invited her over the previous night. Between their often conflicting work schedules and Nick's responsibilities to Shay, they had spent precious little time together. The fact that they had finally faced their fears and declared their love for one another had made it seem even more difficult to be apart. Nick had tried his best to make a special effort to spend time with Natalie and for that Natalie was grateful. For the first time in far too long, tonight Nick was hers and she did not intend to share him with anyone.

When the loft came to a halt and Natalie pushed open the heavy door, all her hopes for a quiet romantic evening alone with Nick were dashed. Nick sat in his usual spot on the black leather couch holding a glass of what Natalie knew was human blood in his hand. Across from him in the matching leather chair sat LaCroix.

"Hey, Nat," Nick said cheerfully as he stood and turned towards the lift. His expression changed as his eyes met with Natalie's disapproval. He glanced back at LaCroix, who was studying Natalie as she stood in the doorway, a smug grin on his face. Nick sat his glass on the coffee table and made his way to Natalie. He kissed her on the forehead before whispering in her ear, "It's alright, Nat. He just stopped by to see how things were going with Shay. Everything's fine."

Natalie nodded and forced a smile allowing Nick to take her coat before guiding her to the couch.

"Dr. Lambert, it's a pleasure to see you," LaCroix said sweetly not bothering to get up from his seat.

"LaCroix," Natalie nodded at him curtly.

LaCroix was not dissuaded by her cold shoulder. "Please, sit down and join our conversation."

Natalie sat uncomfortably beside Nick. He smiled encouragingly at her and rested his arm on the back of the couch, not quite touching Natalie's shoulders.

"We were just talking about you," LaCroix stared pointedly at Natalie.

"Is that so?" Natalie asked frigidly.

LaCroix sighed and stood setting his empty glass on the table next to Nick's. Nick stared down at his lap. Natalie was taunting LaCroix, whether she knew it or not she was only making the situation worse. He mentally braced himself, fully expecting LaCroix to explode in rage at Natalie's openly disrespectful manner.

"Dr. Lambert, I sense your dislike of me. Considering our history, I suppose it is to be expected. However, I would like to let bygones be bygones."

Natalie only glared at him suspiciously. Nick looked at LaCroix with astonishment. That wasn't the reaction he'd come to expect from his father.

LaCroix ignored both of their glances and continued. "I have no intention to harm you. I have assured Nicholas of that." He moved to Nick's piano and ran his hands across the smooth ebony surface.

Natalie seemed at a loss for words. Nick took his arm from behind Natalie's shoulders and took her hand in his own as LaCroix continued, "Nicholas tells me that you have regained your memory of the night we spent at Azure." He turned to Natalie his face a cold mask of indifference.

"Oh, I remember all of it, I assure you," she answered, angrily.

"You are a strong willed woman, doctor. I respect that. In fact," he turned back to the piano, "as much as it pains me to admit it, you have earned a great deal of respect from me. You should feel honored. It is rare for me to feel anything but dislike for mortals."

Natalie was taken aback his unexpected confession. She turned to Nick who simply shrugged his shoulders and smiled at her innocently. LaCroix turned back to Natalie, judging her reaction. She tried her best to hide her astonishment but LaCroix saw straight through her. An amused smile crossed his lips for only a split second. LaCroix returned to the chair he'd occupied previously and lifted the empty glass sitting on the table nearby. He handed it to Nick who without a word took it silently and disappeared into the kitchen leaving Natalie alone.

"Nicholas tells me you are considering joining us?" LaCroix crossed his legs regally and smoothed out the wrinkles in his black slacks.

"We've talked about it," Natalie admitted.

"He also tells me that you would like to know more about our kind before you make your decision." Nick returned, handing the now full glass to LaCroix before returning to Natalie's side on the couch without a word.

"Nick thinks that would be best."

"Of course he does. I'm afraid he was not fully aware of the consequences himself. I don't expect we would be having this conversation if he had been. But that is all in the past." LaCroix raised the glass to his lips and closed his eyes savoring the liquid.

Natalie turned to Nick. He was studying his hands resting lightly in his lap. Natalie took one of his cool hands in her own giving it a light squeeze. He smiled at her accepting her comforting gesture.

LaCroix found that he was unexpectedly touched by Natalie's simple gestures towards his son. She obviously made him very happy, happier than he'd been in centuries. It was all he'd ever wanted, to see Nicholas happy and content. He'd spent most of the past eight hundred years trying to get Nicholas to accept himself thinking that would bring the boy happiness and contentment. LaCroix studied Natalie's face. After only a few years, she had accomplished what he had been unable to do for nearly eight centuries. Shay's presence and LaCroix's promise to allow Nicholas to live his life without interference had simply been the last piece of the puzzle. LaCroix smiled at his own wandering musings. He was getting as bad as Nicholas.

"I came her tonight simply to check on Shay's progress but since you are here I would like to extend my personal invitation to join us at the Raven for our community gathering in two weeks." LaCroix paused to judge the effect of his words. "You are welcome, and safe, there anytime of course. I will see any questions you may have are answered, within reason you understand."

"Of course." Natalie conceded. Nick had warned her that there were some things she would not be allowed knowledge of or simply could not understand unless she did decide to come across. It was a fact that she reluctantly accepted.

"Very well, then. I shall leave you both to enjoy your evening together." LaCroix drained the remnants of his glass before he rose to his feet. He nodded at both of them, then, with a whoosh of air, he was gone.

Natalie was on her feet the second that LaCroix was gone. She stood glaring at Nick with her hands planted firmly on her hips. "What the hell was that all about?" she demanded.

Nick smiled at her innocently. Natalie didn't buy it so he changed tactics. "Calm down, Nat."

"Calm down? You want me to calm down?" LaCroix had ruffled her feathers there was no doubt. "He intended to kill not so long ago and now he want me to let bygones be bygones? Who does he thing he's fooling?"

"Nat," Nick lowered his voice forcing her to quiet to hear his words, "if he really wanted to hurt you he would have already."

Natalie sighed in resignation. Nick was right on that account. If LaCroix truly wanted her dead, she certainly wouldn't be standing here now.

Natalie fell back onto the sofa heavily folding her arms across her chest.

"Nat, please don't be angry." Nick gave her his best innocent smile.

Natalie sighed in resignation. LaCroix had been civil. Maybe they should put the past to rest. "What's this community gathering in two weeks?" she asked.

"Once every few months or so the Raven closes to mortals and opens its doors to the community alone."

"Like a community meeting?"

"Not exactly. It's more like a big vampire party," Nick shrugged his shoulders. "I rarely go."

"Why not, Nick? Surly you must miss the feeling of belonging at least a little."

"I've tried to distance myself from the community in the past. I didn't really want to have anything to do with vampires in general and the truth is that they didn't want to have much to do with me either. A vampire who doesn't want to be a vampire doesn't gain a lot of respect. I haven't really felt like I belonged in a long time." Nick moved to the fire. He poked at it absently, causing the embers to dance and pop. "I suppose I should go this time though, Shay needs to be formally introduced to the community."

"Will you take me with you?"

Nick didn't answer her for a moment as if he were unsure of his answer. "Are you sure you want to go? You'll likely be the only mortal there," he asked her without turning from the fire.

"I said I wanted to learn more. You wanted me to learn more."

"I know," Nick sat back down beside turning towards her he took her hands in his own. "Natalie, you have to understand that vampires behave differently around their own kind than they do around mortals. It won't be like going to the Raven under normal circumstances."

"What exactly are you telling me to expect, Nick?"

"No one will hide their true nature, Natalie. You won't be in any danger but it may be a little disconcerting. The main thing is that...well vampires can be very sensual creatures especially with their own kind. Many things that are taboo in mortal society are the norm for vampires. Masters and fledglings share blood as do siblings and even friends. I've told you that before but I didn't mention that the sex of either party is irrelevant. And they're not shy about it, Nat. They'll do it right there on the dance floor. It's not unusual to see it happen in small groups."

"Vampire orgies?"

Nick smiled at her sheepishly, "You could call it that."

"Nick, do you...?" She asked cautiously.

"Not in several centuries, Nat, but yes I have. It's hard to explain, Nat its just a part of being a vampire. You wanted to hear the truth. That's part of it." He looked deep into her eyes hoping to find some sort of acceptance there.

"It's okay, Nick," she leaned in and brushed her lips against his. "I want to understand. I'm glad you told me."

"Do you still want to go?" Part of him hoped that she did while another part hoped that she would choose to steer clear of vampires altogether.

"Of course I do. But you have to promise to stay close to me."

"You couldn't pry me away," he whispered to her his blue eyes sparkling with delight. He leaned in towards her then he felt her hand on his chest stopping him.

"There is one thing that bothers me, Nick," her face took on a serious look. "Could this be one of LaCroix's tricks to get me into the Raven?"

"No, I don't think so, Nat." Nick pulled back away from her slightly shaking his head.

"What do you think he wants?"

"I'm not sure." Nick admitted reluctantly as he stood and began pacing around the loft. "Would you believe me if I told you that I'm starting to believe that he's changed?" he stopped and turned to Natalie.

"Changed? I don't know. I'd find that hard to believe."

"Me too," he collapsed back down on the couch beside Natalie and stared at the ceiling.

"But you do believe it don't you?" Natalie could see it in his eyes.

"Maybe I just want to believe it. Maybe it's true," Nick turned to face her. "He's lost everything that has ever meant anything to him. He's spent two thousand years losing things. Everything he's ever done to me was done in an effort to keep me close to him."

"A misguided effort," Natalie retorted.

"True. Still, he's lost Janette, he lost his mortal daughter not once but twice and he lost Fleur. And his efforts to keep me have only driven me away. Maybe he's finally come to realize that."

They both sat in silence for a moment considering the possibility. Natalie's experiences with LaCroix had always been less than pleasant but tonight he had seemed different, almost sincere. "I guess it would be hard for him," Natalie admitted.

Nick nodded in agreement.

Natalie's expression softened. "I'm sure things were a lot different when he was mortal. He's still a Roman general; I suppose that's all he knows. It doesn't seem to matter how long a vampire survives, they always retain a part of themselves as they were when they were mortal."

Nick looked at her quizzically. "What do you mean?"

Natalie smiled at his innocence. "Nick, I've watched you. You may be living in the twentieth century but deep down inside you're still a thirteenth century crusader." Natalie punctuated her last few words with a poke to Nick's sides.

"Is that good or bad?" he asked her, flinching away from her assaults.

"Depends on the situation. Do you trust him, Nick?"

"I think so, Natalie. He's been there for me for eight hundred years. I may not like the way he does it but he's always provided for me, taught me, protected me. Everything he has ever done has been, in his opinion, in my best interest. He would never let me come to any harm if he could prevent it."

"But he objects to you living among mortals even when he knows it's what you want. Doesn't he understand that hurts you?" Natalie's voice softened.

"He's looking at things in the long term. He knows that eventually the mortals I surround myself with will have to be left behind. If I never get involved to begin with I won't suffer the pain of watching them grow old and die or the pain of leaving them behind. He's just trying to prevent that suffering. Once I started to look at the things he's done to me and Janette without resentment, I could see his reasoning."

"Maybe. You think it's safe for me to go to the Raven then?"

"If he promised to keep you safe, he will do just that. LaCroix may be a lot of things but he never ever breaks a promise," Nick assured her. "Why don't we go there tonight? You can get a feel for the place while it's not packed with vampires. That is if you feel up to it."

*************************

Shay waltzed into the Raven as if she owned the place. She had discovered that being the daughter of the second oldest vampire in Toronto afforded her some special privileges. Well, then again maybe it was just because she was a vampire that the bouncer at the door let her in without question.

Her first few visits to the Raven had not been pleasant experiences. Then that was before Nick had made her his daughter. Now things had changed drastically. She found herself accepted as part of the community. The other vampires were friendly and helpful to her and seemed genuinely glad to see her. She waved at a few of them as she made her way through the crowd packed with both vampires and mortals towards the bar.

"Well if it isn't Miss Shay. And just how are we this fine evening?" Callen was one of the regular bartenders at the Raven. Shay had liked his friendly demeanor and cheerful mannerisms from the first time she'd met him.

"Hi, Callen. I'm doing fine and yourself?" Shay slipped up on a barstool. The pulsating beat of the music Vachon's band played seemed to penetrate her entire body.

"Not bad, not bad. The General seems to be in an exceptionally good mood and that makes for a much more pleasant evening." Callen placed a glass of a special blend set aside just for fledglings of Shay's tender age atop the bar for her.

"Yeah, I thought it seemed a little more cheerful than normal in here," Shay grinned at him as she took a sip of her beverage.

"Nick's here," she stated. She could feel Nick's presence close by through their link but she had yet to spot him through the dense crowds.

"Yep, that he is," Callen confirmed.

"Where is he?" she asked, scanning the club.

"You can find him, Shay. Look for him," Callen teased her as he poured a drink for another patron.

"I'm trying, Callen, but I don't see him."

"Don't look with your eyes, child!" he tapped his temple when she turned back to him, "Look with your mind!"

Shay grinned at him submissively. It seemed as though the entire community was involved in the education of a fledgling in some manner. Shay wondered if it was simply because she was Nick's daughter or if all young fledglings were treated this way. It was as if they all had a part to play.

Shay reached out with her senses searching for Nick. Callen was right, it didn't take her long to find him. She was a bit surprised, however, to find Natalie sitting beside him in a hidden corner booth. Shay watched them from a distance before she approached. Natalie was leaning against Nick; her head nestled on his shoulder, Nick's arm draped across her back caressing her gently. Nick was whispering to her.

"Shay's here," Nick whispered in Natalie's ear. "She's watching us."

"Maybe we should give her something to watch." Natalie said suggestively immediately wondering where that had come from. It probably had something to do with the three glasses of wine she had drunk.

Nick placed a kiss atop her head. "Too many mortals around," he chuckled.

Nick looked up and caught Shay's eyes. Shay smiled sheepishly and made her way through the crowd.

"I didn't expect to run into you two here." Shay sat down across the table from Nick and Natalie.

Natalie lifted her head from Nick's shoulder and reached for her glass of wine. "We just couldn't turn down a personal invitation from LaCroix."

Shay raised her eyebrows in surprise.

"What are you doing here anyway? I thought you'd still be at the Phoenix Center," Nick asked her.

Shay took a drink from the glass she'd brought from the bar. "I just left there a little while ago. Things were quiet so I left early."

"So how did it go?" Natalie could tell Shay was just dying to talk about her experience.

Shay eagerly told Nick and Natalie all about her night at the Phoenix Center. Family counseling was only the beginning of what the center provided. The residents were required to attend classes provided by volunteer teachers. Many of the youth had done poorly in school and had often been labeled as learning-disabled in the past. Even those seemed to perform better in the less structured environment at the center. In addition to attending classes, many of the residents held down part- time jobs. In between school, work and their social lives they were also expected to help around the center cleaning, cooking or assisting with administrative tasks. It was a lot of work but many seemed to thrive whereas before they'd come to the center they struggled to simply survive.

As the evening grew later, the crowd began to thin. The three had spent several hours talking about not only the Phoenix Center but a variety of other things as well. Shay had shared stories of her childhood and her relationship with her younger sister Megan. Even Nick had relented and spoken of his sister, Fleur. As the night had worn on, several vampires had drifted by, joining them for a short time to share drinks and conversation. Natalie had been astonished at how friendly and open they had been. The word that Natalie Lambert was to be welcomed into the community, despite being mortal, had obviously gotten around. Many had even expressed their gratitude for her part in saving the community from the deadly fever. At last, the vampires began to disappear seeking their customary shelter from the coming day. Shay too began to feel the impending dawn.

"I think I'm going to head home. As much as I've enjoyed the evening, I really don't want to be stuck here for the whole day." Shay announced as she drained the remainder of her drink.

Nick nodded in agreement. "Nat, you ready to go?" he whispered to Natalie who'd laid her head against his shoulder cuddling close to him. "It's late, we need to get home." Nick told her reluctantly. She felt so right there lying against to him, close and safe in his arms.

"Okay," Natalie answered sleepily as she raised her head. Nick caught her chin in his hand and turned her face towards his. Natalie smiled as he placed a tender kiss on her lips.

From the far side of the club LaCroix watched. Though he had been aware of his son's presence he had not interfered with his evening. Yes, it was good to see his son happy. Nick felt his father's eyes on him. He glanced towards LaCroix as he escorted Natalie towards the door. LaCroix did not approach the couple; instead he merely smiled at Nick and raised the glass in his hand in a rare gesture of approval. Nick felt his master's satisfaction across their link and smiled back.

********************

The following night at the Phoenix Center was much the same as the last. Shay mingled among the youth talking and laughing with them hoping to gain their trust. Many of them seemed to be unimpressed with her presence while a few of the other seemed genuinely glad to meet her.

Claire had asked Shay to help her with an English paper she was working on and since she had front desk duty Shay had pulled up a chair in the lobby. She liked Claire. Her first impression of the young girl had been that of a quiet and shy teenager. Once Shay had gotten to know her a little more she had discovered that Claire was very articulate and easy-going. She reminded Shay a lot of Megan.

Shay was just about to point out a mistake Claire had made in her grammar when her vampiric hearing detected a car pulling up outside of the entrance. Claire followed her gaze towards the door as a uniformed police officer accompanied by a young boy started up the stairs.

"Uh oh, looks like they're about to dump a newbie on us," Claire said with a hint of concern in her voice. It usually wasn't a good sign when the police brought someone in.

Shay's vampiric senses were on full alert as the pair entered the lobby. Instantly Shay detected the elevated heartbeat of the young boy, and the smell of his fear assaulted her nostrils. Fortunately, the vampire remained at bay as the officer tipped his hat. "Evenin' ladies." his gentlemanly mannerisms and rugged good looks were having an obvious effect on Claire. Shay elbowed her in the side, hoping she'd close her gaping mouth.

"Good evening officer, what can we do for you?" Shay asked him sweetly. He looked familiar though Shay couldn't quite place him. She suspected she had met him at the precinct. He was tall with dark hair and dark expressive eyes. His neatly pressed uniform accentuated his athletic build.

The boy stood uncomfortably beside him shifting his weight from one foot to the next nervously. He looked barely fourteen though he was nearly as tall as Shay. His brown hair was in bad need of a trim and hung in an untidy mop in his round baby face.

"I was hoping you ladies might be able to help this young man out. I caught him trying to break into a vending machine a few blocks away." He glared down at the young boy with a disapproving expression. "I ought to take him in but I told him I wouldn't if he'd come here."

Shay studied the boy as the sweet, musky scent of his blood filled her nostrils. His clothing was tattered and torn. He wore a light jacket that would offer him little protection against the cold Toronto nights.

"You won't get away with a stunt like that here," Shay told him matter- of-factly. The Phoenix Center did not tolerate any criminal activity and would not hesitate to notify the authorities of any problems in that respect.

The boy didn't lift his eyes to meet hers but answered in a small voice, "I just wanted some change to buy somethin' to eat."

Shay looked back to the officer. He gave her a 'see what I mean' look. Shay nodded in understanding.

"What's your name?" Shay stood and moved towards the boy. He looked like he hadn't had a decent meal in months.

"Stevie," he answered, his eyes still glued to the floor.

Shay turned to Claire. "Claire, would you take Stevie back to one of the interview rooms and get him something to eat. I'll be right there."

"Sure," Claire answered as she motioned Stevie to follow, "This way," she said, smiling warmly at him.

Shay waited for Claire and Stevie to disappear through the doorway before she turned back to the officer. He was studying Shay closely.

"Don't I know you?" he asked quizzically.

Shay smiled at him. "Probably. I'm Nick Knight's cousin. I think I've seen you around the precinct a few times."

"That's right!" He extended his hand, "Jason Murray."

Shay took his hand, "Shay Jenkins."

"So you're new in Toronto?"

He was making small talk and Shay had a bad feeling about where this was going. "Yeah, I've been here about two months now. I'm still trying to get settled down."

"Where were you living before you came to Toronto?"

Shay hesitated unsure how much was she prepared to reveal about her past. "Seattle," she answered deciding not to offer any more.

"It must be hard relocating like that. I can't imagine leaving everything behind, friends, family, everything familiar."

"Well, I've got Nick here and a lot of new friends. It was tough at first but it's getting better day by day." He had no idea how true his statement was.

"Maybe we can go out for dinner sometime. I can show you around the town?"

That was it. Shay had felt it coming but she hadn't formulated a response. It wasn't that she didn't find him attractive. In fact, if she were mortal she would have jumped at the chance to go out with him. But she wasn't mortal and he was. She was a predator and he was the prey. It could never happen. Maybe later, when she'd gotten older and had more control she could consider it but it was far too soon. She smiled warmly at him. "I'm flattered Jason, I really am but I left Seattle because of a good relationship gone bad. I just don't think I'm ready yet." At least it was partially true, Shay thought, she wasn't ready.

He returned her smile. "That's okay. I can understand. I've been there."

No, you haven't Shay thought.

"You know where to find me, give me a call if you change your mind." His warmth and sincerity was touching.

"Thanks, Jason. And thanks for bringing Stevie in."

Jason tipped his hat at Shay and disappeared out the door leaving Shay standing alone in the lobby. Sobered, she turned and headed back where Stevie was be waiting.

Stevie sat looking uncomfortable in the small room where Claire had left him. Shay smiled warmly at him and took a seat at the worn wooden.

"My name is Shay, by the way." Shay extended her hand across the table towards the boy. He took it cautiously almost as if he was afraid she was going to bite him. He seemed to startle slightly at the coldness of her touch but he said nothing.

"Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself, Stevie."

Stevie opened his mouth to speak but stopped abruptly when Claire entered the room carrying a tray with sandwiches, chips, and a soft drink. Stevie eyed the food, nearly drooling. He reached for a sandwich before Claire could even set the tray down.

Shay chuckled lightly and Claire smiled. She leaned over towards Shay. "There's someone here to see you."

"Me?" Shay asked, surprised. "Who?"

"The guy you were her with the other night." Claire didn't want to spook Stevie by letting on that Shay was friends with a police officer. If he'd been in trouble before, he might be reluctant to open up to Shay if he knew she was in any way connected with the police.

"Tall good looking blonde with blue eyes?" Shay asked lightheartedly.

Claire nearly drooled. "Yeah, that's him."

"He's too old for you girl!" Shay teased her laughingly. "Would you show him back?"

"My pleasure," Claire replied and disappeared. You should see him when he's all vamped out, Shay thought to herself.

Stevie had already devoured one sandwich and was starting on the second when Nick strode into the room.

"Hey, Nick! What's up?"

"Hi, Shay. Tracy wanted to stop for dinner a few blocks from here. I thought I'd stop by and see how things were going while I was waiting on her." Nick looked at Stevie who had barely glanced up from his long overdue meal.

"I was just about to tell Stevie here about the Phoenix Center." Shay smiled at Stevie who was now drinking his cola.

Shay wondered if Nick might be able to give her some hints on interview techniques. She didn't want to treat these kids like criminals but there was probably a good way to get them to open up. Nick was just about to speak when a head appeared in the doorway.

"Stevie, is that you?" a young voice asked in surprise. Shay recognized the boy as Mitch the quiet one she'd played pool with the night before.

Stevie grinned from ear to ear. "Mitch, hey! What are you doing here?"

"A whole lot more that I was doing on the street. You gonna stick around?"

"I don't know," Stevie replied.

"Take it from me Stevie, this is a cool place. They'll take care of ya. Just watch out for her," Mitch nodded towards Shay, "she's a vampire you know."

Shay felt her heart sink into her stomach as Nick jerked his head around to stare at Mitch in disbelief. Mitch grinned and waved before disappearing from the doorway.

Nick glared at Shay who withered under his glance. "Stevie, if you'll excuse me, I'll be right back." Shay pulled Nick down the hallway out of earshot.

"What was that about?" Nick asked in a disapproving tone.

Shay couldn't stop the grin that spread across her face. "I didn't tell him a thing, Nick. It's a joke, that's all."

"I don't find it very funny."

"Nick, I told him about my 'sun allergy' and he came up with that out of the blue. Don't be so uptight."

Nick continued to glare at her then he broke into a smile. "Just don't encourage him, okay?" he said at last.

"Okay," Shay whispered as she reached up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He hugged her quickly.

"I've got to go or Tracy will think I forgot about her." He took Shay's hand and gave it a light squeeze, "I'll see you later." then he turned and disappeared.

Shay smiled evilly. She could have so much fun with the vampire jokes but Nick would be so mad at her. She wondered if it would be worth it. Allison would have just played along. Of course, Allison's theory was that there was no better place to hide than in plain view. Allison was the type that would have jumped at the chance to go to a Halloween party dressed as a vampire straight out of a horror movie. No one would have ever known that the fangs she wore were far from fakes and she would have laughed about it for days.

Stevie seemed to feel a little more at ease by the time Shay returned. The food had obviously done him some good along with Mitch's assurances that the Phoenix Center was indeed a 'cool' place.

Shay spent nearly an hour talking with Stevie. The story he told was disturbing. His father had been abusive for as long as he could remember. After his mother had died several years ago the abuse had become more and more severe. Stevie had often been beaten severely for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His father blamed everything that went wrong on the young boy. A few months ago he had been fired for drinking on the job. He blamed Stevie, saying that it was the boy's fault that he drank. When he had stumbled in the door late that night he had taken his frustrations out on his son, beating him with a broomstick. When not abusing Stevie physically, he had told the boy over and over again how worthless he was. Stevie admitted to running away several times in a effort to escape his father's wrath. Each time the police had picked him up and returned him home. The last he'd run away his father had come looking for him. Unfortunately for Stevie, his father had found him. When Shay had asked Stevie what his father had done to punish him after finding him on the streets, Stevie had only shook his head sadly and refused to elaborate. Two weeks ago, Stevie had slipped away yet again. He'd lived on the streets scrounging for scraps of food around the back doors of clubs and restaurants. He was terrified that his father would come looking for him again, terrified that he would be lurking around every corner.

When Shay had asked if Family Services was aware of the situation Stevie had merely shook his head insisting that they couldn't or wouldn't help him. He'd tried going to the police but in the end he always ended back under his father's roof. Shay knew that given time Family Services could probably do something for Stevie, but it would take months to sort through all the court orders and appeals. Stevie was scared. He needed something to be done now; he didn't deserve to suffer for months while the sluggish system went through the paces.

"Will he be able to find me here?" Stevie asked, his voice filled with fear.

"No, I don't think he'll find you here, Stevie." Shay tried her best to assure him of his safety as she led him to the sleeping quarters. "He'd be a fool to come for you here. There's too many people around."

"Safety in numbers?" Stevie forced a smile.

"I guess you could say that. You'll be safe here and everything will work out just fine, I promise."

*****************

Shay leaned heavily against the wall of the lift as it slowly ascended to her apartment just below Nick's loft. She dragged herself inside wearily. It had been a long drawn out process to determine Stevie's needs and how the center could best help him. She peeled off her heavy coat and tossed it haphazardly on the sofa, then went straight for the fridge. Her mouth watered as the thick red liquid oozed into the mug. She popped it in the microwave, setting the timer for just long enough to take the chill off of it. The beeping of the microwave, indicating it had completed its cycle, was drowned out by the shrill ringing of the phone.

"Hello?" Shay answered stifling a yawn.

"Shay, hi, it's Tracy."

"Hey, Tracy. What's up?" Shay asked as she retrieved her mug from the microwave.

Tracy recognized the sound of the microwave over the phone. "Umm...am I interrupting your dinner?"

"Nah, just a late night snack," she answered.

"Oh, good. Listen, I'm off tomorrow night. I was wondering if you'd like to get together. I'd like to take you up on your offer the other night," Tracy rattled on nervously.

"Sure. It's not really something to discuss in public though. Why don't you just meet me here, say around eight or so. Maybe we can go to the Raven later or something."

Shay and Tracy chatted for a few more minutes about this and that. Shay finally broke off the conversation telling Tracy, truthfully, that she could barely keep her eyes open. Shay made a quick call to the Phoenix Center to say that she wouldn't be coming that evening, then she headed for bed. Her last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of Tracy. So, she wanted to know more. Shay had told her that she'd be happy to answer any of her questions. She only hoped she could live up to that promise. After all, she was pretty new at being a vampire herself.

**************************

Surveying her apartment one last time Shay was satisfied it was presentable for company. She'd made it a point to clean and dust everything even though most of the things had barely been there long enough to collect even a speck of dust. Still, it was the first time she was having company here and she wanted everything to be perfect. Back in Seattle, she had enjoyed entertaining her friends. She never did anything fancy like gourmet dinners or big parties. Sometimes she'd have friends over just for a movie or something. She'd provide the chips and beer and they'd provide the company. Shay missed those days. So many things were different now. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

Shortly after eight, Shay heard the lift engage. Tracy was right on time. Shay pulled open the heavy door of the lift the second it came to a halt.

"Welcome to my humble abode," Shay gestured elaborately.

Tracy chuckled at Shay's exaggerated antics. "Why thank you," she replied in a posh British accent. Stepping into the small apartment, Tracy looked around taking in every detail. The apartment was small but quaint. Unlike Nick's loft, it was a simple single story apartment. Despite the lack of high ceilings, it was open and airy. Splashes of pastel blues and grays tied the décor together.

"This is really nice, Shay! I'm so glad to see that it has a little more color than Nick's place. I was afraid an affinity for dark dreary colors might be a vampire thing."

Shay took Tracy's heavy coat as she slid out of it and hung it from the coat rack near the door.

"It is a 'vampire thing' in a way," Shay explained "I used to like really bright colors but now I prefer colors a little toned down. We have very sensitive eyesight and darker colors and pastels are just easier on the eyes."

Tracy nodded. That did make sense.

"I'd offer you something to drink but I'm afraid I don't have anything suitable."

Tracy turned to her and grinned. "I didn't expect you to, I brought my own" She held up a grocery bag she held in her hands.

"Fridge?" Shay asked taking the bag from Tracy's grasp.

"Yep," Tracy replied as she started examining the various knick-knacks decorating Shay's home. As Shay returned from the kitchen, Tracy was standing before the bookshelf against the far wall and laughing.

"I can't believe you have all of Emily Weiss' books! The whole series!"

Shay laughed. "Yeah, Nick just groaned when he saw them!" Shay got an evil grin on her face, "You want to see something else, Nick would die if he saw this!"

"What?" Tracy asked following her into a far corner of the room designed to serve as an office area. A state of the art computer, complete with flat screen monitor, was set up atop a modern design desk. Nearby a tall cabinet had been built into the wall. The doors sat flush against the wall and the only thing that indicated that it was a cabinet at all was the small round marble handles. Shay pulled open both of the doors at once with great flourish. Tracy's mouth gaped at the contents. She was left speechless for a moment then she burst into hysterical laughter.

"This is my collection of vampire paraphernalia." Shay explained between giggles. The cabinet was filled with quite an impressive collection of everything from stuffed bats to movie posters to figurines. Another shelf was nearly sagging beneath the weight of what must have been every book ever written regarding vampires both fiction and non-fiction.

"Shay, you're terrible!" Tracy teased her between fits of laughter. "What on earth possessed you to collect all this stuff?"

"Call it an obsession," Shay closed the cabinet and moved to sit on the couch. "I started collecting it when I discovered the truth about vampires. The myths and folklore are fascinating. Did you know there are references to vampires in virtually every single culture from Europe to Asia, South American, even the Native Americans? The details vary but the basic idea is still there."

"You know, I've thought about that," Tracy shook her head in genuine amazement. "Who knows how long vampires have been around. Probably as long as humans, yet they've managed to remain nothing more than a myth."

"Most vampires live on the fringes of human society. It's easier to avoid detection that way. Only a few choose to live among mortals to the extent Nick does. It's not an easy thing to do, as I'm just beginning to understand."

"Shay, what do you miss the most?"

"About being mortal?"

Tracy nodded.

Shay shook her head. There were so many things. "It's hard to say, Tracy. It changes from day to day. Sometimes I really miss being able to eat food. Other times of course I miss the sunlight." Shay paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "Today I found out something else I missed."

"What's that?"

"You know Jason Murray?"

"From uniform division?"

"Yeah, that's the one."

Tracy nodded head. "I've seen him around a few times. He's hard to miss."

"He brought a kid by the center and asked me out."

"No kidding!"

"But, I had to turn him down, Tracy."

"Oh, yeah. I guess so." Tracy replied. "I hadn't really thought about that aspect."

"This is the first time I've really thought about it myself. I guess I realized that as a vampire I'd have to live on the fringes of society and that my social life would change drastically, but this was the first time I've really had to face it head on." Shay stood and moved to her bookshelf, "It's not like we'd have anything in common anyway, it's just that being a vampire really narrows the field a lot."

"Yeah, I guess it would. How many vampires are there in Toronto anyway?"

Shay shrugged her shoulders and turned to face the lift on the far side of the apartment. "I don't have any idea but one of them is on his way up."

Tracy looked at her quizzically then she understood as she heard the lift start its trek upwards. "Nick? Oh, shit."

"What?"

"Just don't tell him why I'm here, I don't think he'd approve."

Shay grinned in understanding. "You're probably right."

Seconds later the lift door slid open just enough for Nick to peak his head in.

"Shay?" he called out, scanning the room for the mortal heartbeat his vampiric senses detected.

"Come on in, Nick." Shay answered from the sofa. Nick slid the door closed behind him and stepped into the apartment.

"Tracy, what are you doing here?" he asked, a little surprised at his partner's presence in his daughter's home.

"Just visiting with Shay. Is that a problem?" Tracy's voice hinted that she didn't approve of him questioning her about her personal life. Shay was her friend whether Nick liked it or not. Shay began to feel a sensation she could only classify as dread filter across the link she shared with Nick. Something was wrong.

"No, it's not a problem," Nick answered quickly. He turned to Shay and too her by the shoulders, guiding her to the sofa.

"Sit down, Shay." The apprehension she felt through the link was now obvious in his voice.

"What is it, Nick? What's wrong?" she asked, unsure she wanted to hear the answer.

"The boy that was at the Phoenix Center last night when I stopped by..."

"Stevie? What about him?"

"He's dead."

Shay's stared at him in utter disbelief. "Dead? What do you mean dead?" Shay shook her head; that was a stupid question.

"Dead, like no longer alive."

"How?"

"It looks like he was beaten to death. Natalie is working on it now. We can't get hold of the father and since you talked to him at length last night, we need you to come down and identify the body and tell me everything he told you."

Shay was dumbstruck. Beaten to death? Why? Who?

"Do you need me to come in, Nick?" Tracy asked Nick softly. She had the night off after she'd worked her regular night off earlier in the week for another detective who'd called in sick.

"No, I've got it under control, Trace. Thanks." Nick managed a weak smile.

"Okay, if you're sure. I'll get out of your way." Tracy looked at Shay, she was obviously shocked by Nick's news. "If you need me, call me okay?" Tracy laid a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder.

"Yeah, Tracy. Thanks," Shay nodded absently as Tracy slipped on her coat and disappeared into the lift.

"Shay?" Nick looked at Shay worriedly. This seemed to be affecting her harder than he'd expected.

Shay looked at him in disbelief. "Damn, Nick. I promised him everything was going to be all right. He believed me," Suddenly she was beginning to feel the guilt weighing down on her. "Do you have any suspects?"

"Come on, we'll talk about it in the car."

******************

Stevie's body had been found in a dumpster not far from the Phoenix Center. So far, they had found no witnesses or at least none that would talk. A caretaker had seen the body when he'd taken out the trash. Natalie's preliminary report put the time of death sometime early that afternoon, less than eight hours after Shay had promised him everything would be fine.

Shay followed Nick reluctantly down the long hallway towards the morgue.

"When was the last time you fed?" he whispered, just before he opened the door.

"Fine time to ask, Nick." Shay could already smell the scent of fresh human blood taunting her, calling to her but she managed to force the beast back into submission. "I think I'll be okay." She sounded much more certain than she felt.

"We'll keep the door closed just in case," he told her quietly as he pushed the door open.

Natalie looked up and gave Shay a forced smile as she and Nick came through the door. In the center of the room was a gurney on which lay a small body covered respectfully with a white sheet. The sheet did nothing to hide the tragedy, it only hid the results.

"Hi, Shay," Natalie said quietly.

"How bad is it?" Shay asked her eyes riveted on the gurney.

"It's pretty bad. Are you sure you're okay with this?" Natalie had directed the question at Shay, but she was searching for reassurance on Nick's face. Shay looked up at Natalie and nodded her head. Truthfully, she wasn't at all sure about this, but she needed to she what had become of the young boy. Nick watched her carefully.

Shay looked up at Natalie and nodded her head. Truthfully, she wasn't at all sure about this but she needed to see what had become of the young boy. Nick stood behind her watching her carefully.

Natalie slowly pulled the sheet back, watching Shay out of the corner of her eye all the while. She had cleaned the boy up a little to make it easier for Shay, but the abuse he had suffered was simply impossible to hide.

Shay grimaced as Natalie revealed Stevie's once angelic face. It was horribly bruised and swollen. His shaggy brown hair was matted with dried blood and dirt. A huge ugly gash ran across one cheek. Though his face was hard to recognize, due to the excessive swelling, Shay had no doubt that it was Stevie. She recognized the scent of his blood made stronger by the open wounds on his body. His blood carried the same scent she had detected the night before, musky and sweet. Only last night his blood had been warm and alive, now it was cold and dead.

The scent combined with the sight was suddenly nauseating. Nick needn't worry about her losing control around fresh blood in this case. She was doing good not to lose her dinner. Gathering her courage, Shay took the edge of the sheet and pulled it further back, revealing the boy's battered torso. If the boys face was battered, the rest of his boy had been totally ravaged. Stevie hadn't only been beaten to death; he'd been beaten to a pulp, almost literally. Shay dropped the sheet and took a sudden step backwards, colliding with Nick and bringing her back to reality. She turned away from the ravaged body. Collapsing into his embrace, she began sobbing uncontrollably.

Natalie watched as Nick comforted his vampire daughter mumbling words of support and encouragement. There was no jealously lurking beneath the surface. The relationship Nick had with Shay was that of father and daughter, nothing more, nothing less. Natalie had, in fact, come to see Shay as something like a little sister. At some point Nick would bring her across and Shay would in be a sister to Natalie. Some day...

Natalie wheeled the gurney away. When she returned, Shay had regained control of her emotions.

"I'm sorry," she sniffled wiping her eyes with her hands and smearing the trails of blood tears across her face. "I'm not usually that emotional. I don't know what came over me."

"I would have been more worried if you hadn't reacted to this, Shay." Nick told her quietly. Shay nodded.

"Come on," Natalie took Shay by the arm and led her to the sink. "Wash your face before someone comes in."

Nick wandered over to Natalie's desk and perched on the corner. Natalie joined him, pushing even more files and papers off of her desk. Nick put his arm around her shoulders and drew her close. "Are you okay?" he whispered as she lay her head against his shoulder.

"Yeah, I'm okay." Her words weren't very convincing. She pulled away from Nick's comforting embrace as Shay returned.

"Did you find anything that might help us, Nat?" Nick picked up a paperclip from the desk and began twisting it out of shape.

Natalie switched to her professional persona. "It's pretty cut and dried really. Cause of death is pretty obvious. Blunt trauma. His skull has a small fracture indicating his head was smashed against something hard, most likely pavement. Numerous broken bones and such. There is some bruising that looks like it was caused by hands holding him down. They'll give you an indication of the size and strength of the perpetrator. My guess would be a male of fairly average size and strength. The kid put up a fight, there's no doubt. The perp didn't walk away without a few injuries himself. I found blood and skin tissue under his nails. If you can find this sorry excuse for a human being, we can put him away with that alone."

Shay dried her face and listened as Natalie rattled off the list of injuries Stevie had suffered. She briefly wondered why anyone would, how anyone could do such a thing. The hows and whys were irrelevant. The deed was done and the answers to those questions, if they even existed, couldn't undo anything.

"It was his father," Shay announced.

Nick tossed the paperclip back on the desk and stood. "We don't know that Shay. The boy ran away, the father didn't know where he was. In fact the father reported him missing three days ago."

"Three days ago, Nick? Stevie told me he'd ran away almost two weeks ago. Do you suppose the father just discovered his fourteen year old son was missing or did he just not care enough to bother calling the police any sooner?"

"We haven't ruled anyone out yet, Stevie's father included. Why don't we go back to the loft and you can tell me everything that Stevie told you last night, then we'll go from there."

Shay nodded at Nick's suggestion. She didn't relish the idea of going over all the details Stevie had told her in a cold dreary interview room at the prescient. Besides, she needed a drink.

Nick move to Natalie and kissed her forehead. "Stop by the loft after shift?" he asked her quietly.

Natalie nodded. "See you later."

Nick listened, appalled by the treatment Stevie had told Shay he had endured from his father. Stevie was not only a victim of his father's abuse; he was a victim of the system.

"Nick, I just don't see why anyone would want to kill a fourteen year old boy like Stevie." Shay told Nick. "He wasn't a threat to anyone, except maybe his father. Stan Brooks saw Stevie as a liability, a thorn in his side."

"I don't disagree with you, Shay, but you know how these things work. It's my job to find out and prove who killed Stevie, not to speculate no matter how obvious it seems. We've got to have proof, but we'll get it. We will find out who is responsible."

"I know, Nick. It's just that...well, I keep thinking back to what happened in Seattle. My first kill was that man who was threatening his wife and baby. If Allison and I hadn't been there, that woman and her baby would have ended up just like Stevie." Shay looked at Nick with deep regret in her eyes. "Why didn't I see this coming, Nick? I told Stevie that everything was going to be fine and now he's dead. I could have prevented this. Stevie could still be alive if only..."

Nick interrupted her, "Shay, you couldn't have prevented this. This is not your fault, neither is it your responsibility to prevent things like this from happening. You did everything you could."

Shay ran a hand through her dark hair. She opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. She wasn't sure she agreed with Nick. She still felt there must have been something she could have done but she didn't have the strength left to argue with him. The stress of the past few nights was beginning to take its toll so she simply nodded in agreement. "Nick, I'm exhausted. Do you need anything else from me?" she asked.

"No, you've told me enough for us to at least question Stevie's father. Why don't you go to bed and get some rest. Things will look better after a good day's sleep." Nick gave her a reassuring smile.

Shay retreated to the familiar, safe surroundings of her apartment. It was still several hours until sunrise, yet she felt as if she'd been up for days on end. As she lay in bed waiting patiently for sleep to overcome her, she thought again of Stevie.

************************

The snow that had fallen the two previous nights had been pushed along side of the streets. In their wake, the plows had left piles of mush tainted by the dirt and grime of the Toronto streets. As she drove to the loft, Natalie was amazed that something so beautiful could turn into something so ugly at the hands of modern machinery.

Nick was sitting on the couch, reviewing his notes regarding Stevie's case when the lift delivered Natalie to the top floor of the building. Nick glanced up when she walked in. "Hi, Nat." He smiled warmly at her as she took off her coat and deposited it along with her purse on the kitchen table.

"Hi. How's Shay?" she asked as she joined him on the couch.

Nick sighed and gathered up his papers, tossing them on the coffee table. "She's okay."

Natalie detected a bit of concern in Nick's words. "Just okay?" she asked.

"I think she's feeling a little guilty."

"Guilty? Why? Nothing was her fault."

"Deep down she knows that it wasn't but she feels like she should have been able to do something. She promised the boy everything would be all right. She feels like she let him down."

"You never make promises you can't keep. I learned that from experience."

Nick thought he detected a hint of regret in her voice. Did she regret knowing him? Did she feel like she'd let him down by not finding a cure? Natalie stood and made her way to the kitchen. Nick followed her silently, unsure what to say.

"When I was an intern I worked in a hospital ER." Natalie shook her head at the memory as she set about making a pot of coffee. "One afternoon a man came in that had been in a severe auto accident. He was in bad shape, but he was conscious and aware of what was going on around him. He asked me if he was going to live. What was I supposed to do? Tell him no? I did what most anyone would have done; I assured him that he was going to be fine. I was wrong. He died a few hours later."

Nick stepped up behind her and encircled her waist with his arms. A part of him was relieved that it wasn't him she was thinking of when she spoken of regrets and broken promises. A larger part of him sympathized with her. "I would have done the same thing, Nat," he whispered in her ear.

"Like I said, most anyone would have." She leaned back into his embrace, enjoying the feel of his cool chest against her back. "The point is that it wasn't within my power to keep that promise to him. All I could do was my best and that's what I should have promised him. Instead, I gave him a false hope and denied him the chance to come to grips with things. But, that was a long time ago. I learned my lesson."

Nick pulled back as Natalie filled the coffee maker with water and switched it on. "I don't want Shay to have to learn everything the hard way like that, like I did. I want to spare her from the guilt that's plagued me for so many years."

"Nick, your guilt stems from something else entirely."

"Some of it does but not entirely. I learned a long time ago that the vampire's powers could be used for more than killing. We can be the predator or the protector. Or at least we can pretend to be the protector. But, living up to the reputation of the protector is not easy. It's hard to accept that you can't be everywhere for everyone all of the time."

Natalie looked at him strangely. "Are you feeling alright, Nick?" She reached up to feel his forehead. No, she thought, he wasn't feverish.

"Yeah...why?" he asked, confused by her reaction. He felt fine, why would she think otherwise? They hadn't even talked about a cure much less tried anything since Shay had come into the picture. That had been part of the deal, for all of them.

"I just never thought I'd hear you admit that, Nick." Natalie smiled at him.

"Admit what, Nat? What did I say?"

"You just described yourself to a 't', Nick. How many times have you tried to protect everyone around you? Me, Tracy, Shay, everyone. How many times have you felt like you've let us down when anything went wrong? Hell, you even found a way to blame yourself for Schanke and Cohen being on that plane so you could feel guilty about it. You just said it yourself, Nick. Even vampires are only human. I wish you'd believe that about yourself once in a while." Natalie poked his chest with her finger to emphasize her point.

Nick smiled meekly at her. "Guilty as charged," he told her as he pulled her into his arms. "What do you think is a fitting punishment for my crime?"

Natalie wrapped her arms around his neck as she fell into his embrace, relishing the closeness for a moment before she pulled back slightly to look into his sparkling blue eyes. "Well, let's see...for starters..." she said with mock seriousness as she leaned in and pressed her lips to his. Nick pulled her closer, deepening the kiss and the world melted around them.

*********************

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink, Shay thought as she flipped through the multitude of channels on the television for the third time. It never seemed to matter how many channels there were to choose from, there was never anything worth watching. She had thought about going to the Phoenix Center, but decided against it. The kids probably needed to talk and even though most of the kids had seemed to like her she felt they would feel more comfortable grieving with the volunteers they knew. Besides, she felt like she needed the time to deal with things herself and a quiet evening alone had sounded like just the thing.

Her mind wandered to Nick as she flipped through the channels again, oblivious to the images on the screen. He and Tracy would be heading over to the Brooks residence soon. Shay was convinced that Nick and Tracy were bound to leave there with Brooks in custody. She would have given anything to see the look on the man's face when Nick slapped the cuffs on him.

She froze as a thought came to her. Why not be there to see Brooks being arrested? After all, she was a vampire. She could easily conceal herself in the shadows where she could watch the events unfold unseen. At least, unseen by mortals. Nick would know she was near and likely not be pleased. Unless, that is, she could block her presence from him. She would have to concentrate, but it was possible. She had done it before. Her decisions made, Shay flipped off the television and headed out into the Toronto darkness. *******************

"Nice neighborhood," Tracy said sarcastically as Nick steered the Caddy through the poorly lit streets in search of the address they had for Stan Brooks.

Nick squinted as they passed row after row of run-down houses. Even with his vampiric vision he was having trouble reading the worn numbers on the boxes.

"There!" Tracy's sudden outburst made Nick jump. Luckily, she was concentrating on the house in front of them and didn't seem to notice. "Yuck," she said with disgust as she surveyed the house.

Nick wrinkled his nose at the deplorable conditions evident even from the street. "If I lived here, I'd run away, too," he said as he pulled the Caddy into a muddy patch of ground in front of the house where the snow had been cleared away.

The illumination provided by the Caddy's headlights did little to improve Nick and Tracy's first impression of the house. It was in desperate need of repainting. Flakes of peeling blue paint hung from the wood siding. A few sections of the gutters had broken loose from their fastenings and hung limply from the roof. Off to the side sat a dilapidated old car. One of the side rear windows had been replaced with cardboard and duct tape.

********************** Shay watched from the shadows across the street as Tracy and Nick picked their way through the scattered rubbish in the yard towards the front door. She tensed as she watched a scrawny dog approach the pair silently from behind. She clamped her hand over her mouth as she nearly yelled a warning.

Nick stopped in his tracks, his sensitive hearing picked up the dog's approach. Shay heard him whisper, "Trace, don't move. There's a dog behind us and I don't think he's pleased with our intrusion."

Tracy froze in place as Nick turned ever so carefully to face the dog. He was well aware of the varying reaction dogs had to vampires. They sensed, it seemed, something different right away. Some ran in fear, while others approached in the same friendly manner as they would approach a human, and still others were foolish enough to bare their teeth in challenge. This particular dog seemed to have some sense. Once Nick turned and acknowledged its presence, the dog backed away slowly keeping a wary eye on the vampire. Tracy turned her head cautiously and watched the near showdown with curious humor. "Guess you won that little battle." Tracy teased him as the dog retreated.

Before Nick had the chance to respond, the door opened revealing a man that looked nearly as decrepit as the house. His dingy tank top did nothing to hide his beer belly overflowing his beltline. He glared at Nick and Tracy with beady eyes.

"There somethin' you want?" Shay heard him snarl at the two detectives.

Shay's vantage point gave her a clear view as Nick introduced himself and Tracy. A moment later, the two detectives disappeared into the house. Shay sighed. She'd hoped Nick would slap the cuffs on him right there where she could watch. She didn't dare move any closer in an attempt to peek in the window. It was taking most of her concentration to block her presence from Nick. Moving closer would likely get her caught and Nick probably wouldn't approve of her presence. She would just have to settle for seeing the man led to the car in cuffs.

Shay strained in an attempt to hear what was being said inside the tiny house but it was impossible, even with her enhanced senses.

As she waited, huddling in the shadows, a light breeze blew through the trees above her head causing them to groan under the weight of the snow on their branches. The dog that had sulked away from Nick had returned to the porch and was sniffing around the area where the vampire had stood. Apparently satisfied, it lumbered its way in Shay's direction. The breeze blew in her face preventing the dog from detecting her scent. Shay remained utterly still as only a vampire can, as the dog moved closer. She considered her options for a moment. She certainly didn't mean the scrawny mutt any harm but it was just too tempting. She waited until the dog had moved only a few feet from her before she allowed her eyes to turn a golden amber and her fangs to descend. Then, without warning she jumped towards the dog, moving only a few inches, and let out a menacing hiss. The dog froze for a split second, unsure of what action to take. Shay's movements had stirred up the air just enough for the dog to catch her scent. The second the dog registered the scent of a vampire it tore back across the street, emitting a piercing yelp. Shay stifled a laugh before she began to feel a little guilty of her treatment of the helpless animal. It had done her no harm. Then again, instilling that sort of fear of vampires in the dog may well save its life should it cross the path of some carouche looking for a quick meal.

Shay froze, and then moved back deeper into the shadows when her sensitive hearing detected Nick's voice across the street. She watched with anticipation as the front door opened and Tracy emerged closely followed by Nick. That hadn't been what she'd expected. Stan Brooks should have been between the two detectives, bound in cuffs. Instead, Shay realized with dismay, Nick and Tracy were leaving without him. Why didn't they arrest him? Shay considered the possibilities as Nick backed the Caddy into the street. She listened, trying to hear what Nick and Tracy were saying inside the car. All she could hear was Nick complaining about the mud the Caddy had picked up from the driveway.

Suddenly, Shay was overcome with anger. Stevie should never have been forced to live with his father to begin with. If the system had done its job, Stevie would still be alive. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became.

The Caddy's taillights disappeared into the darkness. Shay thought about following it but something told her to stay. Something about the way Stan Brooks had watched Nick ease the Caddy out of the drive, something in his smug grin told Shay that watching this man closely would be the wisest move.

Her fear of detection by Nick no longer an issue, Shay moved across the street closer to the house. The scrawny mutt she'd frightened earlier peered around the corner as she approached but quickly disappeared. Ever so quietly, Shay moved closer and closer to the house. The predator that lay dormant within her had awakened and was stalking its prey. Shay was revealing in the pleasure of the hunt though she didn't even realize it.

She moved closer and positioned herself near a window at the rear of the house. Listening closely with her enhanced hearing, she heard Stan Brooks mumbling to himself.

"Damn blasted kid," Shay heard him mutter under his breath. "Finally get rid of him and now the cops are pokin' around."

Shay squeezed her eyes shut tightly, struggling to control her growing anger. The fool had all but admitted his guilt! Forcing her anger under control, Shay opened her eyes and moved a fraction to peer into the window. Brooks stood on the far side of the room, idly rubbing the knuckles of one hand with the fingertips of the other.

"Damn near broke my hand on his face…" he continued his mumblings.

That last statement was all that Shay needed to hear. She slipped from the window and slumped down on the cold frozen ground next to the house. She was right, he confirmed her suspicions. It was a shame that confessions overheard by vampires weren't admissible in court. The urge to bust through a window and drain the vile man was becoming harder to resist.

It would be so easy, just like her first kill. She, along with Allison, had saved a young woman and her child from her abusive boyfriend. The woman had thanked them for giving her freedom back to her just before Allison had erased her memories. If she'd been in the right place at the right time, she could have saved Stevie the same way. Would Stevie have thanked her too? Perhaps, but that was a moot point now. The slamming of the front door brought Shay out of her musings. Pulling herself together, she moved to the side of the house and peeked around the corner. Brooks was loading the trunk of the decrepit vehicle sitting in the yard. It was becoming obvious that he was planning on leaving. He knew that it would take time for the police to secure a warrant for his arrest. He apparently had intentions to be long gone before that could ever happen.

Shay's options were limited. She could call Nick, but she was certain that if he had enough evidence he would have already arrested the man. Besides, if she called Nick she would have to tell him that she'd been here to begin with. No, calling Nick would only complicate things.

Shay felt her control beginning to slip from her grasp. The thrill of stalking Brooks had awoken her darker instincts and the vampire was feeding on her increasing anger as well as the anger and fear she sensed from Brooks.

*********************

"If his alibi pans out we're back to square one," Tracy was saying as Nick navigated the Caddy through the darkened streets.

"The only problem is that I think he did it." Nick wasn't pleased with the way this investigation was going. Brooks claimed he had an alibi and they discovered no concrete evidence linking him to Stevie's murder. Still, Nick tended to agree with Shay; Stan Brooks was the most likely suspect. Nick suspected that Brooks had only kept Stevie around for the increased government subsidies he received for support of his offspring. Apparently, the boy had become more trouble than he'd been worth to his father, becoming a liability instead of an asset. "Of course we can't arrest him unless we have some kind of evidence. Let's just hope that Natalie can come up with something."

Nick had barely finished his sentence when his cell phone rang. He snatched it out of his pocket before it had a chance to ring a second time.

"Knight," he snapped into the receiver. Suddenly, he was beginning to feel very agitated.

"Nick, it's Nat." Natalie's soft voice soothed Nick's agitation.

"Nat, we were just talking about you."

"I hope you were saying something good about me." Her soft laughter caused Nick to smile.

"Actually we were hoping you might have some good news on the Brooks case."

"You're in luck then! That's exactly why I was calling. The blood type I found under Stevie's nails is fairly uncommon. Stan Brooks has a criminal record so I checked it for his blood type and guess what?"

"Brooks just happens to have that blood type?" Nick felt another wave of agitation wash over him, but he dismissed it for the second time.

"Give the man a prize! It won't be enough for a conviction, but it's certainly enough to bring him in for questioning."

"Thanks, Nat. You're incredible."

"And don't you forget it."

"Oh, don't worry, I won't," Nick told her before disconnecting and slipping the phone back into his coat pocket.

"Well?" Tracy asked excitedly. Even thought she'd only heard half of the conversation, it was enough for her to know it was good news for their case.

Nick didn't answer; instead he made a very sudden, and very illegal U- turn leaving a trail of smoke in the Caddy's wake. Once he'd gotten the oversized car headed back in the direction he wanted it to go, he glanced over at Tracy. She was holding onto the door handle with all of her might, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.

"Tracy?" Nick asked, a little concerned.

Tracy opened one eye and glared at him. "Is it over?"

"Is what over?"

"Your moment of insanity."

Nick grinned. "You mean my U-turn?"

"Yeah, your U-turn. You may be indestructible but I'm not!"

"Sorry. Natalie said that the blood on Stevie's body is rare and just happens to be the same type that Brooks has. It's enough to bring him in for questioning."

Tracy's expression turned serious. "Let's just hope he's still there."

Nick only nodded in response as Tracy placed the light on the dash and flipped it on along with the siren.

*******

Shay watched as Brooks locked the door to the house and headed for the car. She didn't consciously make the decision go after him. The vampire had taken control and the vampire was angry. She refused to let him get away. He had to pay for what he'd done to Stevie. Stan Brooks suddenly found himself being shoved against his own car, the impact hard enough to dent the metal, and pinned in place by something he could not begin to describe.

"Going somewhere?" The beast snarled at him, fangs glistening in the moonlight.

Speechless, he simply stared at her.

"Cat got your tongue? Why don't we step inside and maybe you can come up with something to say." Shay dragged him bodily up the steps to the house. Not bothering with the doorknob, she simply ripped the rickety old door from its hinges. Brooks found himself shoved roughly down onto his ratty old couch. He stared at Shay, completely dumbstruck before he managed to ask shakily, "What the hell…"

Shay didn't allow him to finish his question. "What am I? Is that what you want to know?"

He nodded, eyes wide in terror.

"I'm your worst nightmare, and Stevie's revenge." She stepped closer, her golden eyes tinged with red glared at him menacingly. "You remember Stevie don't you? Your son. Your own flesh and blood."

"I didn't do nothin' to that boy!"

******

Nick floored the Caddy causing it lurch forward suddenly and the tires to squeal in protest.

"Nick!" Tracy exclaimed as the force of the Caddy's sudden acceleration pressed her against the seat.

"Shay is there, she's going to kill him!" He could feel his daughter's unrestrained anger through their link.

Tracy detected the panic in Nick's normally calm voice. She stared at him in horror. She knew vampires killed. It was a fact of life, but knowing it and actually seeing it happen was something entirely different.

The Caddy fishtailed slightly as they rounded the curve then slid to a stop in front of the house. Nick was out of the car before Tracy could even reach to unfasten her seatbelt.

"Shay!" Nick screamed as he entered the house. Shay was nearly upon Brooks. He lay cowering on the couch as she towered over him, poised to strike.

Shay spun around, fully vamped out, at the sound of her master's voice. She was momentarily startled by his presence. She realized all too late that she had let her anger get the best of her, causing her concentration to falter and thereby opening the link she shared with Nick. She'd been caught red handed.

"Shay, back away from him. Leave him alone!" Nick's voice was low and steady, commanding and forceful.

Shay stared at him with uncontrolled anger. "Leave him alone? He took the life of an innocent boy after torturing him his entire life!"

"You can't do this Shay, you have no right to decide his punishment." Nick spoke calmly hoping his voice would soothe her bring her back to her senses.

"An eye for an eye, Nick. It's simple. Stevie didn't deserve to die why should he deserve to live? How can you defend him?" Shay's asked, venomously.

"Because that's how things work, Shay. I don't deny that he deserves to be punished, but it's not your place to determine what that punishment should be, nor is it your place to dole out that punishment."

Shay's eyes still glowed with an eerie golden hue, seething with anger. "He was leaving, Nick. If I hadn't stopped him he would have been long gone before the 'system' got around to making things right."

"We were on our way back here to pick him up, Shay," Tracy stepped forward from the shadows. Nick gave her a disapproving look. She was out of his immediate reach, preventing him from stopping her without moving across the room. Nick tensed, ready to spring into action. Shay was on the very edge, like a wild animal driven mad by anger, she was prepared to strike out at anything in her path. Even a sudden movement could set her off and Tracy was entirely too close. Tracy took another tentative step towards the out of control vampire. She was not afraid of Shay; in fact, she was mesmerized by her.

"The blood tests came back, Shay. The blood on Stevie's body is a rare type, a type that he," Tracy gestured at the cringing man, "just happens to have."

Shay looked at Nick, then back to Tracy, and finally back to Nick again.

"Shay, you can not do this," Nick pushed into the link commanding her to relinquish her prey, demanding she obey him as her master.

"If I don't, what will happen to him?" Shay felt Nick's presence in her mind. She felt him compelling her, constraining her, insistent and demanding. He was her master, she felt his power, his forcefulness, and she found she could do little but obey.

"If we can prove his guilt he'll go to prison, probably for the rest of his life."

"Probably?" Shay spat at Nick.

"I won't lie to you, Shay. I can't make promises I can't keep, but you know Tracy and I will do everything we can to make sure he gets put away for good," Nick's voice softened, he had felt Shay's surrender through their link.

Shay turned back to Brooks where he was still cowering under her golden and menacing gaze, then back to Nick. "He deserves to die, Nick. But, I'll do it your way this time."

Shay turned back to Brooks for the last time and snarled at him, her fangs glistening in the dim light, "Mark my words, I'll be watching. You had better hope they don't let you out or your first night of freedom will be your last." With that said, Shay pushed past Nick and Tracy and disappeared into the night.

CONTINUED...