The poem "Portrait" by Katie St. James (katystj@usa.net) can not be reproduced in whole or in part by any means without the express written permission of the author.

Devastation
by Judith Freudenthal

Natalie arrived home after a long, tiring shift. A giant knot formed in her stomach upon seeing the blinking light on her answering machine. Her heart leapt into her throat, just as it had these past several days each time she saw the machine flashing.

What if it is bad news? Flashed through her brain. She took a deep breath, pushing out the many horrible thoughts that filled her mind. She wasn't sure she was ready to listen to the message, and pressed the play button hesitantly.

"Natalie, this is Dr. Banks. Call me as soon as you get in."

She heard the concealed grimness in his voice and felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. Shakily, she dialed his office, fighting back her tears. She didn't want to call him, instinctively knowing it wasn't what she wanted to hear. She knew that if she didn't call, she would be too preoccupied to accomplish anything, even sleeping.

His secretary answered and put her through to him.

"Dr. Banks."

"Hi. This is Natalie Lambert." She bit her lip and pushed back the tears that fought for release. Natalie didn't want to say the words, but she had to know. "The results came back positive, didn't they?"

"How did you know? Are you feeling okay?" He asked, concerned.

"I feel fine. Somehow I just knew."

"Can you come in tomorrow to be retested?"

"What time?"

"I'll be in the office until about seven pm."

"I'll try to be there before then." She paused a moment before continuing. "I don't want anyone here in Toronto to know."

"I understand. I'll keep the record separate."

"Thanks."

"No problem."

They hung up. Natalie could no longer keep the tears from freely flowing down her cheeks. She knew the retest would show the same result, no matter how much she hoped it wouldn't. After a few minutes, she wiped away the tears and headed for her computer.

She tried to access Collins' records but could not. They had been sealed. She knew it could only mean one thing. He had tested positive as well. She needed to know how far along he was, so she could know what to expect.

"Damn you!!" She muttered, furiously. He had attacked her yet again. The next words out of her mouth would've shocked a sailor.

She knew she had to talk to someone and headed for Nick's.

Nick was awakened when he heard the elevator door open and the familiar beat of her heart. He threw on his robe and walked down the stairs.

She was sitting on his couch staring at nothing in particular, the dried tear tracks still visible. The grief in her eyes was as evident as the anger.

"You received the test results, didn't you?" He knew she had, but gave her the opening to talk about her feelings.

"Yes. I'm going to be retested before I go in to work tomorrow. The test I was given is called ELISA. You don't want to know the full clinical name. It has been known to give false positives. The other test will be more sensitive. The Western Blot test does not give false positives. If I test positive there, I am infected with HIV." She tried to remain detached from what she was saying, knowing it was the only way she would be able to get the information out without breaking down.

"What will happen then?" He asked, seeing her doubt. He also, somehow, felt the retest would come back positive, despite how fervently he wished he would be wrong. Her facade of detachment did not escape his notice.

"I'll start taking AZT and another drug or two in the hopes of keeping the disease from progressing for as long as possible. Other than that, there isn't much that can be done until I start showing symptoms. When that happens, I'll just have to figure out the best way to handle each one. I'll do whatever I can to stay healthy," she said, the depression evident in her voice.

Nick approached, arms outstretched but she backed away. She noticed the confused, hurt look on his face.

"I'm dying from a disease that there is no cure for. How can you want to hold me? Or even touch me?" She asked, frustrated, angry, scared, and confused, yet needing his arms around her. Logically, she knew that neither HIV nor AIDS could be transmitted by hugging someone who was infected, not even a vampire. But at the present moment, Natalie couldn't think calmly or logically.

"Because I love you. Because you need it." He sensed she was feeling tainted because of the disease and wanted to show her that it did not matter to him.

Nick again approached, noticing that she didn't pull away, and took her in his arms. No sooner had she responded by wrapping her arms around him than she burst into tears. He held her and let her cry on his shoulder as he gently rubbed her back. A single blood tear traced its way down his cheek. He quickly wiped it away, not wanting her to see it. He had to be there for her. She would need him now even more than she had during much of the last six months. Her tears escalated to sobs which wracked her entire body. He continued to gently rub her back, soothing her, feeling her relax as the sobs slowly eased.

After a long while, she pulled back and dried her eyes with her sleeve.

"Oh, my God!" She panicked. "Nick, we made love." She hadn't even thought of the possible danger to him, until just then.

"It's okay. No disease has ever hurt me." He reassured her. When he saw the lingering doubts and fear he continued. "Not the plague or anything I've come across in 800 years."

"I'm glad. It would kill me to know that this damn disease has harmed someone I...I..." Natalie's voice stumbled as Nick held her tighter, her sobs buried into the folds of his robe. She was tremendously relieved that her need hadn't infected him as well.

"I know."

"I hope I didn't wake you. I didn't want to be alone."

"I had just gone to bed. It's no problem."

"Whatever happens Schanke must never know. It would break his heart. Myra's too. I know you told him about my panic attacks. It was okay. He needed to know. Promise me you'll never tell him this. No matter how insistent he gets. I couldn't handle it if they turned on me because of this." She knew that was the real reason she did not want the Schankes to learn of her disease.

"I promise." He wondered how his partner would take such news. Probably not too well. Would he see her as a threat to his family? Would he avoid her? Would he be too uncomfortable around her? Would Myra have the same reactions? Concerned, Nick asked, "do you want to stay here today?

"Yes. Would you stay with me until I fall asleep?" She asked, wanting to feel his strong arms comforting her. The last time she had needed his strength and comfort so strongly was immediately after the rape.

"Why don't we go upstairs? You'll be much more comfortable there."

"I can't kick you out of your bed. I'll be fine here."

"I insist."

She reluctantly gave in, hearing the firm gentleness in his tone.

They climbed the stairs, his arm draped across her shoulder. Just outside his door she turned towards him, giving him a chance to back out. He gently nudged her towards the door. She took the hint and entered with him right behind her.

He handed her a spare pair of his black silk pajamas and left so she could change. As she slipped into the pajamas, Natalie caught her reflection in the mirror. She remembered just a few months ago thinking that she needed to shed a few pounds and gave an ironic grin as her thoughts turned to her future. Images of herself extremely thin, her skin blotched from the disease and medications bombarded her brain. She forced them out of her mind.

Nick knocked on the door and entered at her invitation. He turned down the bed for her. She crawled under the covers, lying on her side. He sat next to her and gently rubbed her back until his hearing informed him that she was sound asleep. He continued to soothe her for a time then lay down next to her. Her rhythmic breathing lulled him to sleep.

The next night Natalie went in for the retest before work, causing her to be a half hour late for her shift. Get a hold of yourself. You'll be a basket case before long if you don't. She felt that everything would be okay as long as no one found out. She wondered what it would feel like if her coworkers found out, and she was no longer safe or welcome there. She didn't even want to think about the possibilities if the truth did come out.

She felt people watching her, but knew it was only her imagination. She felt a little like someone who didn't quite belong, but knew that she did still belong as much as anyone else did.

She pushed her uneasiness aside and prepared herself for her first autopsy. She wore two pairs of latex gloves as part of her commitment to be extra careful with all lab work or autopsies. She knew all it would take was one victim falsely showing up as HIV positive for tests to be run on the staff. She knew she might come in contact with something that would speed along the progression of her disease, if she didn't take extra precautions. After all, dead bodies were carriers for all sorts of bacteria, viruses and sometimes poisons.

She put all her spare work time into Nick's cure. It helped keep her mind off the waiting, something at which she had never been particularly good.

Nick was almost as worried as she was and helped keep both their minds occupied by letting her choose the movies they watched during the next week, when they were not being forced to work overtime. For once neither minded the extra hours.

Natalie gratefully accepted Nick's offer to stay at his loft under the condition that she would sleep on the couch. She did not want to be alone. She was unsettled all week, knowing deep down inside that the results would again be positive. She tried to be optimistic, and found it to be very hard, if not impossible.

Nick understood perfectly, not wanting to be alone either. He reluctantly agreed to her one condition, knowing that he would not be able to persuade her otherwise.

Natalie entered her apartment just over a week later, after her shift had ended. She found her message machine blinking its red light at her. Fear gripped her as she reluctantly hit the play button, knowing this was it. Her life would be forever altered by the message awaiting her. A knot once again formed in her stomach.

"Natalie, this is Dr. Banks. I need to see you as soon as possible." Her stomach started to flip flop.

She looked at her watch, saw that it was after eight am. A part of her did not want to make the call and looked for any excuse to postpone it, but the other part knew that she had to if she wanted to be able to do anything. She also knew that the longer she put it off the harder it would be. She picked up the phone, her hand trembling slightly and dialed his office.

"Dr. Banks, please," she said, hoping his secretary did not detect the slight shakiness of her voice. Natalie's call was quickly transferred.

"Dr. Banks here."

"This is Natalie Lambert. I just got your message." She had to work to get the next part out. "I have it... don't I?"

"Yes. Can you come by? I have the next hour free," he said, sympathetically.

"I'll be right over." She knew that she would not be able to get any sleep anyway. The trembling in her hand increased as the shock set in.

Tears threatened to burst out as she hung up the phone. She pushed her tears back, promising herself to let it all out when she got home. She left her apartment in a bit of a daze. She walked to her car on autopilot, and was a little startled to suddenly find herself in the garage, right next to her car.

Natalie entered Dr. Thomas Banks office suite and was shown to his private office. He saw her and motioned for her to have a seat as he shut the door behind her.

Dr. Bank's fiery red hair passed Natalie's blurred vision as she sat. Looking up, she saw the concern in his green eyes and wondered how many times he had to look through them while delivering the bad news to other patients.

It also occurred to Natalie at this moment that Dr. Banks appeared older than his age of thirty-nine. Pronounced wrinkles around his eyes and forehead told the story of worry and dead patients. His tall, athletic body awkwardly slouched in his chair as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He offered her a cup of coffee which she gratefully accepted. He let her sip it and gather herself together before he started.

"What do you know about the disease?" Dr. Banks asked, respecting his patient's medical knowledge. He would try and make this session go as easily as he could, knowing that this diagnosis often overwhelmed the calmest, coolest and most educated people.

"I do have some knowledge of it. I had a friend die from it. How soon will I get sick?" She asked with a clinical detachment, knowing it was the only way she could get through it without losing her composure. Her eyes betraying the emotional turmoil within.

"As of your most recent examination you were perfectly healthy. Your CD4 level is 800, which is normal for a healthy immune system. For now, your immune system seems to be the only affected part. You are now in what is called the antibody positive asymptomatic phase. You can stay like this for months or years. The average time before the symptoms start is eight years. I've read about patients who are going on twenty years in this phase," he said, giving her a few moments for it to sink in.

"I understand. What about my T-Cells?" Natalie knew that they played an important part in the immune system.

"Your T-Cell count will start to drop at some point. The exact time when it will can't really be pinpointed. Once your CD4 level does drop, we will work together to manage it the best we can. Our goal for now is to keep you healthy, which should keep you asymptomatic for as long as possible. The healthier you stay, the better."

"Okay." She sipped more coffee.

Dr. Banks noticed that she seemed to be handling it well, at least on the surface.

"How will I know when it's changed?" She asked with her same clinical detachment.

"Your CD4 level will most likely have dropped to somewhere between 500 - 600. Around that time you might start having intermittent fevers without any other symptoms, begin losing weight for no reason, feel fatigued from non-work causes, or get Montezuma's revenge which does not go away." He paused a moment before continuing with the list of possible symptoms. "If you wake up soaking wet for no reason, have frequent, unexplained headaches, lack of appetite, trouble swallowing, any new skin conditions, confusion or trouble remembering, change in vision, sores or white patches in your mouth, chronic yeast infection, or any problem with your reproductive system. If there's a cough, shortness of breath, tightness or pressure in the chest. If you experience any of these I need to know right away."

"How do I stay healthy?" Natalie asked, trying to keep some of her professional detachment intact. Hearing all those possible symptoms nearly overwhelmed her. She had to struggle to keep control over her emotions. She didn't want to break down and cry, not here, not now.

"You need to eat properly, take a good multi-vitamin, make sure you get plenty of rest and exercise. A positive mental attitude is also very important."

"What about medication?" She appreciated the way he was treating her as a colleague, not talking down to her. She couldn't have stood the condescension she'd received from that hotshot doctor after her rape.

"I want to start you on the standard treatment. You'll be taking several drugs, AZT, ddI and ZDU. Do you have a preferred pharmacy?"

"Yes, one outside of the area I live and work in. I don't want anyone outside of Nick to know."

"No problem. I'll call it in now and it should be ready by the time we're finished."

He called in the prescriptions to a pharmacy about half an hour from where Natalie lived and worked.

"I think I'll start you on the medication now. When was the last time you ate?"

"About four or five hours ago. Why?"

"The ddI requires that don't eat sooner than two hours on either side of taking it. It has to be taken on an empty stomach."

"Okay."

He gave her almost a dozen pills to take along with a glass of water. Six of the pills were the AZT. She swallowed them, washing them down with the water.

"The info sheets with the prescriptions should answer most of your questions. If not, let me know. I will also need to know if you have any adverse reactions to any of the medications."

"I'll let you know."

"The AZT has some toxic side effects, one of them being that it suppresses bone marrow. It helps keep the virus from multiplying as fast. It should keep you asymptomatic for as long as possible."

She knew that bone marrow was where blood cells were produced, and if she suppressed that production, then her immune system would be further compromised.

He told her about the other drugs he wanted her to take, ZDU and ddI.

"Do you have any questions?"

"Not at the moment." Her mind was spinning in a thousand different directions. The information she'd received still had not fully sunk in.

"Feel free to call me whenever you have questions."

"I will," Natalie said, a bit dazed.

He kept her about twenty minutes longer. Once he determined there was no adverse reaction to the drug he allowed her to leave.

Natalie left Dr. Banks office, picked up her prescription and was unsure whether to go home or to Nick's. Her need for a sympathetic, non-judgmental listener caused her to head for Nick's loft.

Nick was about to head up to bed when she entered. From her expression and the prescription bags in her hand he knew the results. He felt that phantom stake slice its way through his heart yet again, but kept his reaction from his face.

"Nick..." she said, trying to be strong. Tears welled in her eyes as she dropped her purse and prescription bags onto the kitchen table. She draped her jacket over the chair.

Nick walked over to her, put his arm around her shoulders and escorted her to the couch. He noticed that the diagnosis was overwhelming her. He saw little of the calm, cool, confident Natalie he knew. Instead he saw a frightened, angry, stunned and desperately sad friend. She wrapped her arms around him and let the tears flow. Nick held her and let her cry, gently rubbing her back, knowing how much it helped. He was grateful she couldn't see the bloody tears which made their way down his cheeks. He wiped them away before she could see them. He held her as the sobs racked her body yet again. It seemed like forever before she had no more tears left to cry.

"I'm sorry," she said, congestion marring her voice.

"It's okay. I would've been worried if you had shown no reaction."

"There is some good news. Even though I am infected I'm not showing any symptoms. I am in good health and intend to stay that way. My immune system is still as strong as an uninfected persons. Dr. Banks told me that there are people who are going on twenty years without showing any symptoms. He told me what to watch for," she said. She hated to see the sadness in his eyes grow as she listed off the symptoms. She knew he needed to know everything if he was to be her support system. She was everlastingly grateful that he was there for her as she didn't think she could do it on her own.

"Promise me that you'll let me know as soon as your condition changes." He was relieved that she would have a few years before the symptoms started.

"I promise," she said, before she told him what else Dr. Banks had told her.

She looked into his eyes. "I want you to promise me, you won't treat me any differently."

"I promise," He said, looking into her eyes, hating the sadness he saw there.

"If you start treating me differently, others will wonder what's wrong. I don't want anyone else to know."

"I understand. It's the least I can do, you've never treated me differently."

"I guess we both have our secrets now."

He sadly nodded.

"Can I use your computer? There's something I need to check."

"Sure." Nick answered, confused. Knowing she wasn't thinking rationally he decided against questioning her motives. Nick walked over to the laptop, booted it up and entered his password before moving out of the way.

Natalie took a seat in front of it and accessed the medical program she had on her own computer. She was determined to access Sam Collins' records to prove that she had, indeed, been infected by him. Her hands shaking slightly as they hit key after key.

She quickly grew frustrated as trick after trick failed to gain her access. Nick was surprised at her computer prowess then realized that he had never seen her on any computer outside of work or the medical program on her computer at home. She was on her last trick when she saw 'access granted' flash across the screen. A small grin of satisfaction spread across her face before she became serious again.

She typed in Samuel Collins' name and waited for the information to be displayed. Her fears were confirmed. He had also recently been diagnosed as HIV positive and was asymptomatic as well. The next words out of her mouth shocked Nick. He had not thought she knew such language. She slammed her hand into the table so hard it made Nick jump.

"You bastard!!!!" Natalie shouted at the screen, having calmed down somewhat and exhausted her vocabulary of more colorful words. "Nick, he did it to me again!" she exclaimed. "Wouldn't it be ironic for me to find your cure, and you to outlive me as a mortal!?"

"I don't even want to think about that now. Let's not think about the future. We'll worry about it when we must." He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"Oh, that's easy for you to say. You have eternity!" She shrugged off his hand. Her jealousy over his immortality came through clearly, along with some bitterness. "You don't have to look forward to the pain or the endless medications just to be able to function. Me not worry about the future? What future?" She paused, her anger and frustration quite evident. "Nick, I have nothing! Nothing but the damn disease and death."

"Nat, you have a few years before all of that will start."

"Can you guarantee that?" She saw his silence. "I thought so." She took a deep breath to help her calm down.

"Okay, so you'll get very sick. You can either do nothing and wait for it to happen or you can make the best of the time you have. If it were me..."

"If it were you, you'd be in worse shape than I am. You'd blame yourself and feel that you were getting what you deserved." She angrily cut him off.

He was shocked, but knew she was right. He hated that fact. "You're right. I'm sorry," he said humbly.

He purposely gave her his biggest, best innocent childlike pout. The one she could never stay mad at. She knew it but could not resist him.

"I don't intend to give up without one hell of a fight."

"Don't I know it." He grinned. He was glad to see that her fighting spirit had returned. He knew she'd need every ounce of it to fight this horrendous disease.

He couldn't deny that she was infected. He did not want to lose her. He knew he could not bring her across or even offer that option to her. It would be unfair to offer something he could not go through with. But, then Nick began to think about the suffering Natalie would have to endure when the disease progressed. How could he place one hell above the other? For the moment, he tabled the fears, knowing that this was not the time to voice them. He felt a surge of anger, not at Natalie, but at Collins for giving her this terrible disease.

"Nick, we can't be afraid to talk to each other about our feelings." Natalie seemed to read his mind. "Especially since we're not telling anyone about my being HIV positive. It will add a lot of strain to our relationship. Can you handle it?"

"Yes. I know it won't be easy. I will be there for you. Can you handle it?"

"Yes." Natalie had a momentary doubt. "We are making the right decision, aren't we?"

"I think we are. But it is really your decision."

"I think we are too. At least I hope we are."

"Nat, if things get too tough, there are people out there to talk to."

"I know. I don't want to talk to strangers unless I have to."

"Okay." He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. She enjoyed being close to him, knowing that whatever happened she could not pass the disease on to him. He could see the tremendous relief in her eyes that his vampiric nature gave him immunity. He also noticed the tiny part of her that wondered if their research did make him the least bit susceptible to the disease. He wondered too, but didn't let it bother him as he had more important things to think about, namely Natalie.

She noticed he didn't offer to bring her across, which somehow didn't surprise her. She knew how he felt about his vampirism. She realized that she wasn't sure if she would've taken him up on it if he had offered. After a moment of consideration, she realized that she didn't want to be brought across as long as she was healthy. As for what happened once her health started to decline, she didn't know, but didn't bother to worry about it. She would deal with it when the time came.

Natalie walked back to the table and removed the info sheets from the prescription bags. She took them over to the couch to read.

"What's that?"

"The information on the drugs I've started taking."

After she finished reading one of the sheets she passed it over to Nick so he could read it.

He read the information, wanting to know about every phase of her illness. He intended to be there for her as he had been throughout her recovery from the rape and trial. The pages he held in his hands made the fact that she was truly infected sink in. He did not want to lose her.

During her shift that evening, Natalie went over her mental checklist of all the things she had to do, the changes she had to make to her life to give herself the best shot at healthy, long term survival. She knew she would need rest, the proper diet and exercise. Medications and vitamins would be vital to combat the effects of the disease. Also, she was determined to keep up on the latest research to ensure that she would have the most effective treatments possible. I need to keep a positive attitude and not give up without one hell of a fight.

She looked in her PDR for all the available information on the drugs she was taking. Grace entered the room just as Natalie returned the book to its place on the shelf.

"How about some lunch?" Grace asked.

"What did you have in mind?" Natalie asked, a bit uneasily. She did a quick mental check of when her last dose had been and when her next dose was due, realizing she had plenty of time for lunch.

"I thought we'd try the new cafe a couple of blocks over."

"I don't know. I have a few files I want to finish."

Grace noticed that something seemed to be bothering her friend, but didn't inquire, knowing that Natalie would tell her only when she was ready to.

"It's a slow night. The files will still be there when we get back. You need to eat."

"Okay." Natalie knew that if she didn't go, Grace might suspect something. She didn't want to risk losing her best friend (mortal one, anyway) by having Grace question her and possibly figure it out.

Natalie and Grace were shown to a table and handed menus. Natalie knew that HIV/AIDS could not be contracted from going to a restaurant, yet the eyes of everyone in the place seemed to burn into her skin as if they knew her secret.

"What are you going to have?" Grace asked. She noticed Natalie seemed a little too quiet, like something was wrong.

"I don't know. I've been thinking of trying to eat healthier. Our hours don't always lead to the proper diet."

"This is true." Grace said. "Is everything okay?" Grace's concern came through in her voice.

"Yes. Why?" Natalie forced herself to relax.

"You're too quiet."

"Sorry. Nick and I had a fight earlier," She said, hoping Grace would believe it, as it was the truth. "Yes, we made up."

"I'm glad. It's over, so forget it. Okay?"

"Okay." Natalie wished all of it could be forgotten so easily, but knew the HIV diagnosis would always be there.

Later in her shift she was checking through her recent journals for the latest HIV/AIDS research information. She found a few articles on the new drugs that were just now entering first trials. Drugs that would hopefully improve the quality of life for those with AIDS, as well as prolonging life. Maybe they'll be approved by the time I need them. She found an article on the latest findings on the virus itself.

After her shift was over, she went to Nick's loft. He had promised to cook her dinner. She couldn't wait to see this! He could barely boil water.

She arrived at his loft before he did, quickly growing worried because sunrise was only a few minutes away.

She settled herself onto the couch and heard the door open. The sight of a vampire carrying in bags of groceries made her smile.

"Can I help?"

"No. I've got it."

She moved closer to watch him try and figure out what went into the fridge and what didn't. He did pretty well.

"What's for dinner?" She asked, curiously.

"I thought I'd start with a stir fry. It seems simple enough."

Nick started preparations for dinner. He washed then cut up the vegetables before moving onto the meat.

She remembered how he had fixed simple meals for her during that first week after the rape, when she didn't eat take out.

"Can I help?"

"No. I want to do this for you. Call it my part in helping you fight it."

"Okay. Besides, it's nice not to have to cook for myself every day."

"This won't interfere with your medication schedule, will it?"

"No. It's fine."

He set the table, quite elegantly, making sure that everything was in the proper place. She noticed, and was impressed..

"Will you join me?" She asked, trying not to be too pushy about it.

"I will try a little of everything, just for you," he said with a small grin.

"I now understand how you feel everyday. Trying to fit in, yet feeling like an outsider. Praying that no one discovers your secret."

"Did something happen?" He asked, concerned. He thought it was interesting, and maybe a little strange, how she compared their secrets. In a twisted sense, he liked it. It did give them one more thing in common, things they both wished they didn't share.

"Not really. Grace insisted that we go out for lunch. Since work was slow, I couldn't really refuse. While we were waiting to place our orders, it felt as if everyone was staring at me because they all knew. It was a most unsettling feeling." She shuddered as she remembered it.

"No one here, outside of the two of us knows. Relax, or you'll end up like me." His tone lightening as he spoke about himself, trying to cheer her up.

"We wouldn't want that would we?" She teased, going along with his attempt to make her feel better.

About half an hour later they were eating a healthy, colorful meal.

"This is terrific. I will have to let you cook more often. How did you learn to do this?" His culinary expertise had caught her completely by surprise.

He was pleased she enjoyed the product of his effort. He found the few bites he ate to be barely tolerable. "I've watched a few master chefs over the years. Although, I didn't spend much time watching Italian cooks."

"Because of their love of garlic?" She asked with a wicked grin.

"Yes." He matched her grin with one of his own. "I've been reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows. I didn't want my first real effort to poison you."

Natalie didn't know what to say. Instead she let her very large warm smile do her talking. She gently caressed the side of his face in a silent thank you, loving the smile it brought to his lips.

After dinner and a killer chocolate dessert they cuddled up together on the couch to watch a movie. Both of them savoring their time together, knowing that her disease could worsen at any time.

They had watched two movies before he noticed that she was yawning.

"What?" She asked, curiously.

"Nothing. I'm just surprised you're not asleep by now."

"I don't seem to be able to sleep. I was warned that I might have trouble sleeping. A mild side effect of the medication, which should stop in a week or two as my body gets used to it. In the meantime, I hope you don't mind watching a lot of movies."

"What if it doesn't stop?"

"Then they'll play with the dosage. Or something."

"I don't mind watching movies, as long as you're here." He knew he'd do anything he could to make things easier for her.

A few nights later, Grace noticed that Natalie was a bit tired during her shift.

"Natalie honey, is anything wrong?"

"No. I didn't get much sleep."

"Were you doing something..." Grace teased.

"Nothing like that. I couldn't get to sleep. I tried every known remedy without success."

"Everyone has nights where nothing seems to put them to sleep. This wasn't the first time either was it?"

"No. I've been having trouble sleeping for the last few nights. I'm sure it will pass. I even tried reading the latest journals with no luck."

"If you need to talk about anything, let me know."

"I will. Thanks. Don't worry. I'm sure in a day or two I'll be sleeping like a baby again." Or so I hope.

After their shifts finished, Natalie once again stopped by Nick's loft. It had become a routine both enjoyed. She disliked cooking and eating alone, and he found he enjoyed cooking, even if he couldn't eat it. The pleasure of seeing her smile at each new creation made it worth the effort. She knew it was his way of feeling as if he were helping, and he was.

She sat down on the couch and saw a small festively wrapped box on the coffee table.

"For me?"

"Yes. Open it."

He sat down next to her and watched as she opened the present. Inside the box she found a beautiful sterling silver pill box. Every exterior surface was covered with an exquisitely engraved design. She opened the lid and saw the inscription which read 'Nat, don't forget to take these, Love Nick'.

"It's gorgeous. It's nicer than the one I gave you. Where did you find it?" She was impressed that it said 'Love, Nick' and not his usual cop-out 'With Affection'.

"I was digging through some of my old boxes and found it. I had it cleaned and engraved just for you. I thought you might like to have something nice to carry your medication in."

"Thank you." She kissed his cheek as another way of thanking him. "So, did you catch any more cooking shows?"

"Yes. I caught an Italian one this afternoon. She fixed a dish without any garlic in it."

"When do I get to taste it?"

"Maybe tomorrow night, if I can gather everything up, and not ruin it."

Natalie smiled, knowing he was still a little unsure of his culinary talents, but enjoyed the challenge.

"Did I ever tell you, I like having my own personal chef," she teased.

"Wait until you see what Chez Nick's house special is," he teased back with a lousy French accent, which made her giggle.

She headed for her purse and pulled a gift wrapped box from it.

"I thought you might like this," she said as she handed the present to him.

He ripped the wrapping paper off it like a child at Christmas. He grinned upon seeing that it was a cooking video.

"Thanks. This is great. Didn't they have a chocolate one?" He teased. He knew Chinese food was her other addiction.

"They were out of it," she said slightly blushing. "I thought you might like this one."

"I'd like anything you gave me." He loved watching the blush deepen.

Two weeks after Natalie had started on the medication she and Nick were watching videos again. Nick noticed that she had fallen asleep during the second movie as she usually did. He was pleased to see that she had been right, that once her body had adjusted, the insomnia had stopped.

He knew she might be a little annoyed with him as he scooped her up into his arms, careful not to wake her, and carried her upstairs to his bed. He gently laid her down and tucked her in.

He went back downstairs where he grabbed a blanket and pillow from the closet and soon was asleep on the couch.

That afternoon Natalie dressed trying to look both professional and stylish. She had agreed to talk about her job with a group of high school students. The teacher thought his students might enjoy hearing about different careers from people who actually worked in the fields, rather than from some career counselor or public relations person.

She made sure that her hair and makeup was just the way she wanted it before she left. She didn't wear much makeup to work, but did need a little since she didn't get out into the sun as much as she used to.

Although she decided that she looked fine, Natalie did not feel fine. Physically, she was okay, but something inside her made her queasy as if she were going to be put on display. Natalie, get a hold of yourself. This is nothing that you haven't done before. Just act normal.

Natalie double checked that she had all the information she needed in her briefcase before she headed out.

During the drive to the high school Natalie felt the butterflies in her stomach turn into elephants. Relax Lambert. No one knows. You can't hurt them by casual contact. She had given at least two dozen speeches in the last two years, but she hadn't been this nervous since the first one.

Before long Natalie entered the high school and checked in with the office. They directed her to the classroom.

Natalie entered the room along with the students, stopping to talk to the teacher as the teens found their seats.

Natalie's butterflies were still there, but had eased slightly. Talking about her job was one thing she did well. She focused on that fact and felt the butterflies ease even more.

Natalie looked at the full room of about sixty students and momentarily wondered if she should've held it in a bigger room. She hated to use a microphone as it limited what she could do during her lecture. She hated auditorium like rooms because then the lecture became too formal and that often intimidated the teens to the point where they were too uneasy to ask questions. She liked the more personal touch a classroom gave her.

"Class, I'd like to introduce today's speaker, Dr. Natalie Lambert. She's one of the Toronto Police Department's top forensic pathologists."

Natalie quickly set out her stacks of information for the class, as it helped her relax and focus.

"Hi. I thought I'd tell you a bit about my job as a medical examiner and then answer any questions you might have. I brought along some info I thought you might find interesting and will be passing it around later."

She paused for a sip of water from the Styrofoam cup that had been left on the table for her. Looking down at the water, she suddenly stopped, thinking that her germs would be on the cup. Her thoughts wandered to what the students would think if they knew that one of Toronto's finest was HIV positive.

Seeing a raised hand gave her an excuse to set the cup down untouched.

"Yes?"

"Are you going to show any gross slides?" One blonde haired girl asked.

"No, I'm not." Natalie watched as a mixture of expressions crossed the faces of her young audience, everything from relief to disappointment. That broke the ice and the butterflies disappeared.

That night Grace entered Natalie's office and saw her friend filling out the paperwork for one of their recent cases.

"You look better tonight."

"I feel much better. I slept like a baby last night."

"I'm glad. I was getting worried."

"I know. Thanks."

"By the way, how did your speech go?"

"It went great. The students were quite receptive. They were full of questions. I stayed an extra hour talking with them. The teacher said he might have me back again sometime soon," Natalie said with a smile. She loved sharing her knowledge with others, especially students.

Two months later was Natalie's thirty-fourth birthday. Nick knew how much she liked birthday parties and had decided to throw her a surprise party. He invited all her friends, both from work and outside it. Grace, Don and Myra Schanke were the first guests invited.

He planned a very festive party with an elegance that even Janette would admire, which was good, because he had both consulted and invited her. Janette knew he was hopeless at such things and wanted the party to be a hit, so she made several suggestions. She said that she might stop by to see how everything turned out.

Nick found the hardest part was finding two perfect gifts for Natalie. One to give her, publicly, at the party and a second he intended to give her when they were alone.

Nick was glad that Natalie had errands to run that would keep her busy most of the day because he knew it would take that long to put up all the decorations, something he wanted to do himself, rather than hire someone to do it for him. The caterer brought the food right before he had to leave for his shift. Nick didn't trust his cooking skills enough to make party food for a large group. Cooking for Natalie was different.

He remembered to place his food into a cooler on the far side of his bed alongside the wall where no one should find it, reinforcing the ice around the bottles with blue ice for maximum effect.

Once he was satisfied with the way everything looked, he headed for the precinct, hoping Natalie would not stop by the loft and ruin the surprise. He thought about changing the door code, but knew it would make her suspicious and probably a bit angry.

Nick entered the precinct and saw Natalie already there.

"Natalie, what brings you by so early in the shift?" Schanke asked.

"I found a few reports you had been waiting for on my desk and decided to bring them over."

"Thanks."

Natalie noticed that neither of them mentioned her birthday. It only added to the mild depression that had settled in that morning. She couldn't be happy because it meant she was that much closer to her disease progressing.

Nick noticed the sadness in her eyes, and understood. He hoped the party would brighten her spirits and not backfire, forcing her deeper into her depression.

During the night very few people wished her a happy birthday, which surprised her. At least this way she didn't have to force a polite smile as they offered her birthday greetings, sometimes a card as well. She wondered if those who had wished her a happy birthday, would've if they'd known her secret.

Around the middle of Natalie's shift, Grace entered Natalie's lab. Natalie looked up just in time to see her friend pull a gift from behind her back. Grace was one of the few that could cheer her up, no matter what.

"Happy Birthday, Natalie."

"Thanks, Grace."

Natalie unwrapped the box, and pulled out a mug filled with dark chocolate candies. 'In case of emergency, fill with chocolate' was printed on the white ceramic mug in a chocolate brown color.

"It's great. Thanks." She smiled, handing a chocolate to Grace before consuming one herself. Dark chocolate was her favorite.

Grace saw wisps of sadness cross her friend's eyes. "This is your birthday. You're supposed to be happy, not sad. Do you want to talk about it?"

"Sorry. I think working on my birthday is getting to me. It seems like I wind up working this day every year." Natalie wondered how Grace would react if she knew. Would she still be there for her or would she turn on her?

"Maybe you'll get lucky next year."

Natalie couldn't help but wonder how healthy she'd be next year. "I hope so." She tried to think positively. A small grin crossed her face as she realized that if she hadn't worked late on her twenty-eighth birthday she wouldn't have met Nick.

"That's more like it," Grace said as she left.

Schanke stopped by the loft after his shift. He had been assigned the task of making sure everyone arrived before Nick and Natalie did. He punched in the alarm code, which hadn't changed from when he stayed there. When he entered the loft, he was impressed with the decorations.

There was a very nice 'Happy Birthday Natalie' banner stretched across the railing on the upper stair landing, outside Nick's bedroom. Dozens of helium balloons of every color were anchored around the loft, their bright ribbons added to the very colorful, festive feeling. Red, yellow and pink roses decorated the table tops, since they were her favorite flower. Nick had purposely avoided the white variety, knowing the unpleasant memories and feelings it might bring back.

The guests began to arrive a few minutes later. They too were impressed with the elegance of the decor.

Back at the coroner's office, Natalie saw Grace passing by in the hall.

"Grace, how about we go out to dinner tonight? My treat."

"I'm sorry. I can't. I have a date."

"Do I know this person?" Natalie asked with a grin.

"Yes. I'm sorry but I've gotta run or I'll be late."

"Go on. I want to hear about it tomorrow."

"Sure." Grace was looking forward to seeing the expression on her friend's face. She hoped it would lift Natalie from her birthday funk.

Nick called Schanke at the prearranged time to make sure everything was still on schedule, pleased when it was. After he hung up he slipped his phone back into his pocket and entered the coroner's building. Once inside he headed for Natalie's office.

"Hi, Nat. You ready?" He saw the same sadness and depression in her eyes and wished there was something more he could do. Some way to ease it for more than just a few hours.

"Sure." She tried to sound cheerful, but didn't fully succeed.

She was a little surprised that neither he nor Schanke had mentioned her birthday. Nick had forgotten once before, she knew, but she was surprised that Schanke hadn't mentioned it. He had not forgotten her birthday once in the last five years. She wondered if something was afoot, but doubted it.

Nick and Natalie quietly rode up in the elevator together, with little to say to the other. As she leaned against the elevator's back, she glanced sideways at Nick. When the elevator stopped, Nick opened the door. Before they could get more than a step into the room, the lights came on and Natalie heard "surprise" being shouted by at least a dozen of her friends.

Natalie's eyes grew wide, stunned by the sight before her. A moment later she scanned the room, seeing almost all of her friends there brought a smile to her face.

"Thank you all," Natalie said, overjoyed. Yet, there was a hint of sadness buried deep in her eyes. "The loft looks great!" She was impressed.

"Happy birthday, Nat," Nick said, as he kissed her on the cheek.

Her friends wished her a happy birthday as well. Several hugged the birthday girl. Natalie forced herself to relax when ambushed the first time, knowing the disease could not be transmitted that way. She knew that if she pulled back she'd have to explain and didn't want to go into that territory. It would only ruin the festive mood around her.

Natalie began to wonder how many more birthdays she would see, how many before she would be too sick to care. She also wondered how they would react if they knew that she was HIV positive. Would they even be here? Would they want to touch her or consume the refreshments? She banished such thoughts from her mind not wanting to spoil the party.

Nick saw the far off look in her eyes and suspected she was thinking about the future and if her friends found out. He wondered if she was considering asking him to bring her across, or when and if he would make the offer on his own. He didn't have an answer and hoped he didn't need one.

"Nick, did you do all this yourself?" Natalie asked, pleasantly surprised.

"I had a little help from Janette. I don't know anything about party planning."

"It was all his idea, he just needed a little help in making sure everything turned out just so," Janette said as she entered.

Natalie turned around and saw Janette stepping off the elevator dressed in an elegant red velvet dress that was quite flattering.

"Welcome, Janette. Thanks for helping him. It's absolutely gorgeous."

"Happy birthday, Natalie," Janette said as she handed her a small beautifully wrapped present.

Nick escorted Natalie over to the couch where she found a mound of presents on the coffee table. The guests crowded around behind the couch. Janette took the chair near the couch and Nick sat on the couch next to the birthday girl.

Natalie opened Janette's present first. She pulled out a sterling silver hair barrette with a very ornate and stylish design etched into the surface. It looked like an antique, yet it also had a modern look to it. She found herself wondering how old it was and where Janette had picked it up.

"It's beautiful. Thank you, Janette."

Janette saw the question in Natalie's eyes was it an antique? She gave a subtle nod to say that it was. Natalie gave a small grin in response. She hoped Janette would tell her where she had found it and when. Janette was surprised when she noticed a hint of depression in Natalie's large blue eyes.

Nick handed Natalie a random gift from the table. She looked at the tag and saw it was from her friends at work. She opened the festive balloon and streamer print paper covering the box and found a black leather waist pouch inside.

"It's perfect. Now, when I go for my walks, I won't have to drag my purse with me. Thanks, guys."

"Exactly," Grace said, she'd been in charge of choosing the gift.

Natalie was totally enjoying herself, momentarily forgetting about her disease. She was feeling like she belonged. Not an outcast, but a person simply enjoying the company of her friends.

Next, Natalie was handed one of the three gifts Schanke had brought. It was tucked inside a gift bag that very colorfully said 'Happy Birthday'. From his expression Natalie could tell he had picked it out himself. She reached through the shredded paper and pulled out a mug which said "Top Notch Doctor" on it and had a toy stethoscope inside.

"Thanks, Schank. It'll come in handy. Mine always seems to be dirty." She playfully added the toy stethoscope to her attire, letting it hang down her front.

She saw Grace's eyes twinkling and shot her a kind warning look. Grace got the message, but her eyes didn't stop twinkling. Natalie's repressed grin, didn't go unnoticed by Grace.

The next brightly wrapped present Nick handed her was from Myra. She unwrapped it, finding a lovely royal blue silk blouse inside which would bring out her blue eyes.

"It's beautiful. Tell her thanks. Where is she?"

"She's sorry she couldn't be here, but Jenny has a few friends sleeping over. She didn't realize the conflict until earlier today. I'll tell her."

"I'm sorry she couldn't be here."

Next Natalie opened a gift from Jenny. It was a handmade paperweight that was star shaped. It was blue with silver and gold glitter sprinkled over it like stars in the sky.

"It's lovely. Thank her for me, would you?"

"I will. She'll be thrilled that you liked it." Schanke saw in Natalie's eyes that she really liked Jenny's gift.

Natalie opened each present as Nick handed them to her, making sure she thanked the friend responsible. After going through the pile, she came to the last present, Nick's gift to her.

Natalie noticed that everyone was curious to see what he would give her. They wondered would it be from a friend or something a bit more romantic. She was just as curious to see what he had chosen for her.

Inside the box were a pair of tickets to 'Phantom of the Opera', very good seats. The perfect gift. It could be from a friend or a lover. Natalie's face lit up as she pulled the tickets from the box, showing them to everyone gathered around.

"This is one of my favorite plays. Thank you, Nick." She rewarded him with a kiss on the cheek. "How did you get these? They've been sold out for months."

"I bought them as soon as they went on sale. I knew it was one of your favorites."

Nick picked up the pile of wrapping paper and was stopped by Nancy, one of Natalie's medical school friends. Nancy took the bows off the paper and headed for Natalie. Nick dumped the paper into the trash can. A frown crossed Natalie's face as her mind once again wandered.

Natalie saw Nancy approach and attempted to back away.

"Nat, you know the tradition."

"Oh, all right," Natalie said, not wanting to disappoint her friend. At least now she could explain the somber look on her face, if she had to.

Nancy proceeded to decorate the birthday girl with bows, putting most of them in her hair, and a matching pair on her shoulders. Natalie could hear the giggles coming from the guests, which lifted her spirits.

"Back in med school we would have a party for each other and decorate the birthday person with bows," Natalie explained.

"Did alcohol play a part in the start of this tradition?" Grace asked, teasingly.

"Yes, we were a bit drunk the first time. Bonnie made sure that everyone else went through it each year on their birthday."

"I like it," Nick teased. "A new fashion statement."

"Nick, your birthday will be here in a few months, as will yours, Grace," Natalie said with a wicked grin. Mischief dancing in her eyes. She loved the panicked look that momentarily crossed Nick's face and the huge grin on Grace's. "Everyone eat, drink, have fun."

The guests mingled, taking time to talk to the birthday girl. Nick received several compliments on the food and decor. Nick brought a plate full of goodies over to Natalie. She noticed he had a second plate with a few goodies on it causing her eyebrows to rise in the question 'are you going to try those?'

Nick ate the three or four items on his plate eliciting a large warm smile from Natalie and a disgusted look from Janette. He ignored Janette's look, but did notice the surprise mingled with the disgust.

"Janette, can I get you something?" Nick walked over to his old friend.

"I don't suspect you have anything I might like?"

"Actually, I did put something aside for you."

Nick left, returning shortly with a wine glass full of Janette's preferred beverage. She graciously took it from him and proceeded to sip it. Natalie joined Nick and Janette, who had wandered from the main crowd.

"Natalie, I picked up the barrette in a little boutique in Paris about fifty years ago."

Natalie smiled, "I had wondered. Thank you for telling me."

A short time later Natalie excused herself, needing to use the powder room, and take her latest round of medications. On her way back to the party she found herself staring out the window, once again lost in thought. What if Schanke found out? Grace? Nancy? How many here would suddenly become too uncomfortable to be around me? Too afraid? Her eyes seemed to look through the window, yet they didn't see anything out there.

Across the room Janette recognized the despondency radiating from Natalie's facial expressions and wondered why someone would feel like an outcast in the middle of their own party, especially someone that had been having a great time earlier in the night. Janette turned her attention to her brother, noticing a well hidden sadness in those immortal blue eyes, causing her to wonder why.

Grace approached Natalie, concerned that her friend was too quiet and withdrawn in the middle of her own party. She didn't like the somberness radiating from her friend. She found herself wondering if this was somehow related to the emotional aftermath of the rape.

"Natalie, honey, is something wrong?" Grace quietly asked.

"What?" Natalie was startled back to the present by the familiar voice.

"Are you okay?" Grace gently laid her hand on her friend's arm.

"I'm fine." Natalie smiled, one that didn't quite reach all the way up to her eyes.

"You sure don't look fine to me."

"I'm fine. I think the last few cases are catching up with me, as are the extra hours." She smiled again, this time she was more convincing. "Thanks for your concern. It's nice to know you worry about me."

Grace reluctantly accepted that answer knowing that she wouldn't get anything else until Natalie was ready to talk about it.

"I know adults don't usually play games at birthday parties, but..." Grace said with a wickedly mischievous grin. One that didn't go unnoticed by Natalie. "This party needs a little spicing up. Natalie, come with me."

Natalie was both curious and a little worried. She followed Grace to a spot by Nick's staircase. Nick was amused by Natalie's reactions.

"Wait here."

Grace walked over to Nick. "Now, it's your turn. Follow me."

Nick allowed Grace to lead him to a spot by the elevator door. Natalie enjoyed seeing the mix of emotions which crossed his face.

"Now that the umm, target is in place, as is the first umm, opponent, I will explain the game." Grace said enjoying the nervous looks on her friend's faces. "The game is pin the badge on the detective." Grace withdrew a kids police badge and showed the Velcro on the backside. "I couldn't have anyone hurting him, now could I?"

Grace walked back over to Natalie, blindfolded her and pressed the badge into her hand. Next she spun the forensic pathologist around a few times.

"Grace, one more spin and I'm going to be sick," Natalie said, gently warning her friend.

Grace removed her hands from the rather dizzy coroner's shoulders and Natalie staggered towards the direction she hoped Nick was.

"Nick?"

Grace's glare kept Nick silent. "He's not allowed to clue you in."

"How am I going to find him? This is a big loft."

"Okay. I'll give you one hint. You're heading the right direction." Grace knew that left a lot of territory to cover.

Janette found the whole situation most amusing, as did everyone else there.

Natalie staggered less as the effects of the spinning wore off. Her hands were out in front of her as she moved, not wanting to smack into anything face first.

She hit one of the dining room chairs and knew where she was. From there she knew exactly which direction Nick was in. She approached the door and was a foot too far to the left. A quick examination of the area showed her which way to go. A moment later an exploring hand found it's target. She ran her hands over his chest to the muffled giggles of her friends. She found where the badge would go on a standard uniform and attached it. She stepped back and pulled off the blindfold.

"Very good job," Grace said.

Nick saw that the game had indeed lightened her mood and was pleased.

"Do I get a prize?" Natalie teased.

"I think the physical exam you gave Nick is a good enough prize, but who was the main beneficiary of it?" Nancy teased.

Natalie blushed. Nick grinned. Everyone else giggled.

Several hours later the tired partygoers, said their good-byes and thank you's before leaving. Several wished Natalie one last happy birthday on their way out.

Grace and Schanke were the last to leave.

"Can we help you clean up?" Schanke asked.

"Is there anything we can do to help?"

"No, things are pretty much under control. Thanks for asking," Nick said.

They took the hint and left, both wondering what was going to go on now.

Nick heard the cars start and motioned for Natalie to sit on the couch. He made a quick dash upstairs and returned with another festively wrapped present. He joined her on the couch, handing the box to her.

"Happy Birthday, Nat. Here's your real present."

"You didn't have to."

"I know. I wanted to."

"You know for a moment today I thought both you and Schanke had forgotten."

"Did we surprise you?"

"I was surprised because he had never forgotten before, but I know you did once. The party took me completely by surprise. Thank you."

"I wanted to make this a birthday you'd never forget."

"I won't forget it." Natalie said with a smile that reached all the way up to her eyes.

Natalie opened her present, seeing the look on his face, a mixture of curiosity and concern.

Upon opening the box she found an old document inside. She lifted the antique wooden frame out of its tissue paper cradle. Upon closer inspection she discovered that it was an old medical license. The name on it was 'Nicholas Wright'.

"Was this yours?"

"Yes. I thought you might like to have it."

"I would. But, I can't accept it. It must be worth a fortune."

"Not really. The last I heard it was worth about a thousand dollars."

"What was it like to be a doctor back in..." She looked at the date on the license and it said 1853.

"It was quite primitive. Appendectomies and cataract surgeries had been done. We knew some anatomy, but most of it was still guesswork. Hypodermic syringes were used for the first time that year. The year before plaster impregnated bandages were invented. In 1851, the opthalmascope was invented."

"This is the best gift I've ever received. Thank you," She said, giving him one of her warmest smiles and a hug.

"I'm glad you like it," he said with that grin that always made her melt inside.

They were drawn into a sweet, tender kiss. One that came from friendship more than passion.

After the kiss broke off a thought occurred to her, could I accidentally infect him? He's not the full vampire he was when we met.

"Nat, you can't hurt me," He said reassuringly, seeing her concern, as he gently caressed her cheek.

"I know." She smiled, allowing his words to soothe her fears. "But sometimes I wonder..."

"I know. The vampire would have to be a lot weaker in order for you to be a danger to me."

A few nights later Natalie had decided to experience more of life, while she still could, and to drag Nick along for the fun of it.

She entered his loft hoping her first attempt at this would succeed. She saw him finishing up a painting and approached. She couldn't wait to see what he'd created this time.

"Nick, how about a concert under the stars? They're playing Beethoven." Natalie said as she caught her first glimpse of the work. It was a sun shining brightly over a field of wildflowers.

"Sounds good. Do I have time for a quick cleanup?" He asked as he set down his paintbrush. "What do you think?"

"Don't take too long. I like it." Natalie smiled as she continued to study the latest sun painting.

A grin graced his lips as he cleaned up the essential items. He left his brushes soaking and quickly changed out of his paint spattered clothes.

Moments later Nick and Natalie were out the door. She had him stop by the grocery store on the way to the concert so she could pick up some snacks and bug repellent. There was only one bloodsucker she would consider granting access to her body.

Once they had parked and headed out to the concert grounds, they looked for the perfect spot. They found one that was centered and far enough away from the speakers that they would not feel like they were at a rock concert.

Nick spread out their blanket, onto which Natalie set the picnic basket, before settling herself onto the blanket. He joined her. She leaned against his chest as the concert started.

Nick wrapped his arms around her.

"Nat, this was a great idea. Thanks for dragging me out here." He gave her another of those grins where she felt the warmth all throughout her body.

She smiled back at him. "I'm glad you like it."

She wanted the moment to last forever. The peacefulness of the night almost made her forget she was HIV positive.

A few minutes later she reached into the picnic basket for a snack. She had found what she wanted for herself and casually handed him something as well. He tried it, almost without thinking about it. This fact did not go unnoticed by her. Moved by the music he ate several bites of the sandwich before he realized what he was doing. She suddenly realized what they had been doing wrong all this time. They had focused on his eating, making too big a deal out of it. Nick had balked like a little kid forced to do something he didn't want to do, but would do if left on his own. She loved the surprised look on his face and fought to keep from giggling.

"It wasn't so bad, was it?" She teased.

"Actually, it wasn't," he said, surprised.

Natalie had eagerly awaited tonight, as Nick would soon arrive to redeem her birthday present. She was glad that neither had been called in on their night off, and was just as glad that neither were on call that night.

Natalie added the finishing touches to her makeup before slipping into her new black dress, one she had bought just for tonight. The dress had thin shoulder straps and a matching jacket. She gave her hair a final inspection before adding a pair of pearl earrings set in gold and a pearl necklace she had bought with part of her first paycheck from the Coroner's Office.

She heard the doorbell as she stepped into her black heels. She grabbed her slim black clutch purse and headed for the door, and opened it, ready to go.

"Wow! We should go out more often." Nick smiled, looking her over. She was stunning in the sleek black dress. It came to just above her knees as did the matching jacket. Her hair flowed about her shoulders.

"You look quite handsome in your suit." Natalie smiled, noticing he wore a tie.

Before long they entered the theatre and saw the available souvenirs.

"Nat, do you have the soundtrack?"

"I don't have the full soundtrack. They always seemed to be out of it, and ordering it was too much trouble. I've nearly worn out my other version."

Nick escorted Natalie over to the table where he bought her both versions on CD.

"Can I have a T-shirt?" She asked, hopefully.

"You can have whatever you want." He grinned.

She picked out an extra large T-shirt for herself along with a matching baseball cap. They would be useful for her workouts. She picked up a second extra large shirt and held it in front of him. His expression showed her he knew what was on her mind.

"Nat, I'll never wear it."

"Why not? It's your favorite color."

"Okay. I'll try to wear it sometime." He was determined to make as much of life fun for her any way he could. And if wearing the shirt would help, he would do it. "I'll take a program too," He told the salesperson.

The salesperson added up all the stuff, startling Natalie with the total. She began to feel a little guilty. She saw in Nick's eyes that he'd willingly buy her the whole table if it made her happy and felt the guilt ease. Nick paid the saleslady.

"I'll be right back." Nick headed for the trunk to tuck their goodies safely away.

Natalie moved aside, not wanting to block the table. She noticed all the patrons. She felt them all staring at her, whispering about her. She knew it was all in her imagination, but she couldn't help it. She had never felt so much like an outsider looking in, wanting to belong. Would they all shy away from me if they knew? Would they stare? Would they intimidate me into leaving? Would they make me feel like a freak?

Nick returned. He felt her elevated heartbeat and saw the tension throughout her body. It was very subtle, but it was most definitely there.

"Nat, it's okay. No one knows." He whispered into her ear, startling her.

"I know. I know I'm no danger to them." She whispered back. "I can't help it."

He wrapped his arm around her waist and felt her entire body relax. A small grin brightened her face. She wrapped her arm around his waist and banished all negatives thoughts from her mind.

This is a night for fun. She reminded herself.

They headed into the theatre proper. An usher checked their tickets and handed them each a smaller different program from the one Nick had bought.

"You weren't kidding, these are great seats," Natalie said from her front row center balcony seat. They were high enough to see the entire stage, but not so far back that they couldn't see it. The railing hadn't quite come to her knees when she was standing, which unnerved her because it was a long way down, but would not be in her way when she sat.

Nick looked over at her from time to time during the performance and noticed that she was captivated by the production.

She looked over at him once or twice, unseen by him, and found him hooked by the action on stage.

The play made her both sad and happy at the same time. The death part of the story reminded her of her own, which would come much sooner than it should. Will he ever bring me across? She quickly banished all negative thoughts from her mind and focused on the play. The parts about love made her happy and reminded her of Nick. How did I get so lucky?

Nick's thoughts were very similar to hers.

During intermission they stretched their legs by wandering out to the lobby area.

"Thank you for the perfect evening."

"It's not over yet. At least I hope not." A small part of him feared that something was wrong.

"Of course not. I just wanted to thank you."

Natalie missed his very subtle relief that she was fine.

A chime announced that the second half would soon be starting causing everyone to return to their seats.

The second half of the play was as mesmerizing as the first, captivating both Nick and Natalie.

All too quickly the play ended. As they left the main auditorium, Natalie headed for the door to the street. Nick wrapped his hand around hers and gently tugged her away from the door. A little confused and definitely curious she followed his lead.

"I have a little surprise for you." He grinned. "How would you like to go backstage?"

"How..." was all she got out before he cut her off.

"I know a few people." To her look he quietly said, "No, there are none of my kind in the cast, or crew." He raised his voice back to a normal tone. "You didn't answer my question."

"Yes, I'd like that, very much."

Nick escorted Natalie to the backstage door where he was stopped by the guard. As soon as Nick gave his name, the door was opened and he was directed to the dressing rooms. Natalie and Nick had to wait a few minutes while the cast changed out of their costumes. One of the costars opened the dressing room door and motioned for their guests to enter. Nick heard Natalie's heart rate increase as well as seeing the subtle signs of her nervousness as they entered.

The cast members introduced themselves to their guests, shaking hands as they did so.

"I really enjoyed the performance. Phantom of the Opera is my favorite show. Something about it hooked me the first time I saw it years ago and it's still as enjoyable as it was then." Natalie was surprised at how nervous she was.

"I'm glad you enjoyed the show. I have to agree that there is something magical about it. Playing the Phantom is one of the best jobs I've ever had."

Natalie, Nick and the cast talked for quite a while longer as everyone was having a good time.

"Natalie, I have another surprise for you," Nick said as the male lead pulled a framed, autographed cast photo out from under a crumpled item of clothing and handed it to Natalie. Nick loved the slightly bewildered look on her face which was quickly replaced by a large smile as she examined the picture in her hands. She loved the fact that everyone was in full costume.

"Thank you. This is terrific," Natalie said, still a little stunned. She knew how hard these things were to get and wondered how Nick had accomplished it. She hadn't decided if she'd let him keep that little secret or would ask him about it later.

The cast and crew remembered Nick from when he had helped solve a series of killings at the theatre two years before. The owner had told him that if he ever needed anything to let him know, so Nick had arranged for the "package" he had given Natalie that evening. Nick had insisted on paying for the tickets and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. The cast was more than happy to meet with them and sign the picture for Natalie. It was the least they could do for him. The cast was pleased by Natalie's great enjoyment of the picture, as well as meeting them.

When Nick and Natalie left the theatre about ten minutes later, they headed for the Caddie.

"Nat, what do you feel like doing now?"

"How about going somewhere for a snack."

"Okay. Anywhere in particular?"

"No." She had a hunch he might've planned something, and really didn't care where they went.

Before long Natalie and Nick arrived at one of the nicest restaurants in town. He loved the look of surprise on her face.

"Should I ask how many more surprises you have planned?"

"No. Just enjoy them. Remember, I promised you a night on the town after the theatre."

"That you did." Natalie smiled, causing Nick to smile in response.

They entered the elegant restaurant and were shown to a quiet table. Nick surprised Natalie by ordering something without having to be prompted.

"This has been the best evening I can ever remember. Would you be doing all this if..."

Nick cut her off knowing where she was heading. "Yes, I would. I told you that I wouldn't treat you differently, and I'm not."

Natalie took her handful of medication while she waited for dinner to arrive. She was a little self-conscious as she did so. Nick noticed this and took his vitamins so that she wouldn't feel so alone. She smiled, wishing the timing had been better, but knew there was nothing she could've done about it. She was glad that it had one good side effect, Nick remembering to take his vitamins.

The food came and Natalie discovered she was hungrier than she had thought. Nick ate a few bites of his appetizer. It was all he had ordered. He watched as Natalie finished her main course and then hungrily eyed the dessert cart, debating what to have, as it all looked so good. As soon as the waiter mentioned the sampler plate, she knew her decision had been made for her. She finished most of the sampler plate before feeling like she was about to explode.

After they left the restaurant Nick headed for the park, seeing how beautiful the night was. Nick and Natalie slowly strolled through the park, enjoying this rare time alone with no distractions. Nick saw the clear starry sky overhead and began pointing out the various constellations, pleased when Natalie seemed as interested as he was.

Natalie debated whether or not she wanted to go dancing, but after a few moments decided that she really wasn't in the mood for that, so the question remained unasked.

After their long walk Nick dropped Natalie back at her apartment. She thanked him for a perfect evening and invited him in. He reluctantly turned down the invitation and headed home.

She took her last dose of medication, changed and crawled into bed. It had been a long day and night, but one she would remember for years to come. Her dreams were sweet that day due to the sheer enjoyment of their night out.

Nick entered his loft, grabbed a wine glass and one of his green bottles from the fridge. He poured himself a single glass before putting the bottle back into the fridge. He took the glass with him as he went up to bed. He downed the glass' contents before changing into his black silk pajamas. He climbed into bed and was asleep within moments. He too had pleasant dreams and for the very same reasons.

The next afternoon Natalie had a bridal shower to attend. An old college friend of hers was getting married. While she enjoyed herself at Teresa's shower, a part of her wished she and Nick would be able to marry at some point.

All such wishes did were to bring more negative thoughts to mind. How long would we have? What kind of wife would I be, always sick?. I don't want him having to do everything for me as the end approached. She forced all negative thoughts from her mind before anyone noticed. This was supposed to be a festive occasion. She didn't want to try and convince her friends that nothing was wrong.

Several nights later she dragged Nick out for another adventure. He wondered about the two rather large duffel bags she on the back seat of her car.

Natalie drove straight to the park, loving the growing curiosity on Nick's face. Natalie handed Nick a duffel bag right after they got out of the car.

"Nat, what are we doing?"

"It's a surprise. It'll be fun. Just follow what I do," she said. At least it's supposed to be fun.

She sat down on the bench and unzipped her bag. Out of the bag she pulled a pair of inline skates. She had always wanted to try rollerblading but had been too scared... until now. I'm dying, so what the hell does it matter? It's not like I have forever, she thought as a grim expression shadowed her face. Catching herself, she put on a painted smile for Nick.

He noticed, but didn't say anything. He knew it would only lead to her insistence that nothing was wrong, and possibly a fight. He didn't want to upset her.

She loved the mixture of emotions as he saw her skates, knowing that he had a pair in his bag.

She untied her sneakers, took them off and stuffed them into the duffel bag. She reached in and pulled out the knee pads and slid them on. In place of her shoes, she put on and laced up the skates. Nick watched her and copied what she did. He had seen people doing this before and knew that sometimes they got hurt. She slipped on her elbow and wrist guards, not wanting to break anything and have her secret revealed. The last thing she donned was her helmet, knowing how important it was.

"Do I have to wear the helmet? I feel ridiculous," Nick said, almost whining.

"Yes, you have to wear it. I don't want you scrambling your brains."

Once Natalie had everything in place, she zipped up the bag and headed for the car. Nick followed behind her. He had a bit of trouble with the skates, surprising them both. He wondered why she seemed to glide so effortlessly while his vampiric nature was the only thing keeping him from falling. They dumped their bags back into the car. She enjoyed watching him getting used to having wheels under his feet, and gloried in having found something she was better at than he.

"Why do you want to do this?" He liked the joy he saw in her eyes.

"I hear skating is an excellent form of exercise. It's supposed to be fun too," Natalie said, covering her true feelings. Who knows if I'll ever get to do this once I become sicker? I have to live for today, for this hour, for me, Natalie thought to herself. Although she knew that it might be years before she developed full blown AIDS, she was learning that time wasn't an item that could be easily tossed aside or wasted.

He just looked at her with that 'you've got to be kidding' expression. She noticed and couldn't help but grin.

"Try and catch me," she said with a wicked twinkle in her eyes as she took off down the sidewalk.

He knew he could catch her in a heartbeat, but that would be cheating, so he took off after her mortal style. He let her have a good sized lead for a while before slowly closing in on her. He could see she was enjoying the chase as much as he was. As he started to catch up to her, she occasionally threw in an additional burst of speed, just to keep him on his toes. When he caught up to her, he wrapped his arms around her from behind, pulling her close to him.

"Had enough?" She teased.

"Yeah. How about you?"

She checked her watch, seeing that they had been skating for forty-five minutes. "Yeah. Something to eat would be good about now."

"Where would you like to go?"

"I don't know. Somewhere different."

"Have you ever tried Thai food?"

"No." She was glad that she wouldn't have to take her next dose while out, this time.

The teacher from Natalie's last guest lecture had arranged for her to speak to another group of students about a career in forensic pathology. She enjoyed doing it, but it always made her nervous beforehand.

She made sure she had all her notes, handouts, everything she needed before she gave herself one quick last look in the mirror. Her suit looked nice, her hair hung down around her shoulders. She grabbed her purse, briefcase, and car keys on her way out. She still wondered what would happen if they knew she was HIV positive, but forced her mind onto other subjects. She knew that no one could tell just by looking at her.At least they can't now, but what about as it progresses? She thought. Snap out of it. You can't live your life wondering what if, she thought, mentally scolding herself.

Before long she entered the classroom. The usual butterflies hit her as she was introduced.

"Class, this is Doctor Natalie Lambert. One of Toronto's top medical examiners."

"Hi, I'd like to start by giving you a description of my job, and then I'll take your questions."

She watched them all squirm around in their seats, trying to get comfortable.

"I've been with the Coroner's Office for almost seven years now as a forensic pathologist. I am called out to the field whenever a dead body is found. I work closely with the police department to determine under what circumstances the victim died. I use the latest technology to help me in my search for the answers. I think I'll stop here and let you ask your questions." She paused to look through the handouts she'd brought with her. She approached one student, handing him the first stack, so that he could take one and pass it to the next student.

"How did you get interested in forensic medicine?"

"I've always liked challenges. Solving a case is very much like doing a puzzle. I saw forensics as a way to challenge myself." She handed the next stack of papers to the same student to share with his classmates. As she did so she noticed her initial uneasiness was gone.

"What happens when you get into the field?"

"Without disturbing the crime scene, I examine the body to see what the cause of death might have been. I note down any obvious wounds, bruises or anything that might tell me how the victim died, and when. Sometimes it can tell us if it is one of a string of similar crimes. I also examine the area around the body for clues. Once that is completed I give my preliminary report to the detectives in charge of the case. Then it's back to the lab."

"Is that where you dissect them?"

"Yes. The victim's clothing will have been removed and packaged as evidence before the body arrives on my table. Once it arrives, I do a thorough external examination of the victim both with and without the aid of magnification. I look for traces of evidence which might be the key to solving the crime. Once that's done I start the autopsy. I have a set procedure I follow to make sure that nothing gets overlooked. I dictate my observations into a tape recorder so that I won't have to try and accurately remember them later when I type up the report." She felt completely normal. She was just an average person answering the student's questions. Not someone who was left HIV positive by the man who both raped her and infected her.

"Did you get sick the first time you saw a dead body? Or the first time you cut into one?"

"Yes." She smiled. "The first time I saw a dead body I turned a bit green around the gills. I was sick for three days after I did my first autopsy in medical school. After that, I had less and less trouble with it. You learn to separate your emotions and feelings from the job. If you don't, you won't last long. Yet, you have to be careful not to completely cut them off or you're in as much trouble." She noticed a few students were looking a little unsettled.

"Are there any types of cases that you have trouble with? What do you do then?" The brunette student asked curiously.

"Yes. Everyone has problems with certain types of cases. For me, it is burn victims and children. I take a deep breath and push all thoughts not related to work out of my mind. It often still gets to me. It helps to have a friend you can talk to about it. Someone who understands."

"Is it harder being a woman?" asked a female member of the class.

"Yes, but once you prove yourself it often doesn't matter. Where I work, it's how good you are that counts." She smiled.

"What happens after you complete an autopsy?"

"I prepare my report for the detectives in charge while awaiting the test results. I generally run a full spectrum of tests covering everything from toxicology to PCR. I try to piece together the information I learn into a picture of the criminal. Once I've gone as far as I can, I hand over my completed report to the detectives in charge, answering questions as new evidence is found or theories come up." She liked seeing the interest showing on many of the faces, and understood the feelings of the few who were starting to look a little green.

"What is your average caseload?"

"I generally handle between six to twelve cases a night. Some are cases that the dayshift did not get to, and some are new cases that come in during the course of my shift."

Natalie continued to answer questions for another hour before the class was over. She stayed after class talking to several interested students. She wondered if she was talking to future forensic pathologists or just curious students exploring their options.

Before Nick and Natalie knew it, Thanksgiving arrived, reminding them that they both had much to be thankful for. One of those blessings being that she had passed her latest checkup with flying colors.

Myra had invited them to Thanksgiving dinner, via her husband and would not take no for an answer.

Nick and Natalie arrived at the Schanke's on time. Under their coats, Nick had on a dark suit while Natalie had on a stylish royal blue dress. Nick had a bottle of wine in one hand, as a gift for their friends.

Don opened the door, motioning for them to enter. Nick handed him the wine as they entered.

"Nice selection, partner," Schanke said, knowing it had cost a few bucks. Don was dressed in one of his nicer suits, for the occasion.

"Make yourselves comfortable. Can I get anyone anything?" Don asked as took their coats. He lead them to the family room before heading off.

"I'm fine for now," both Natalie and Nick replied.

"Myra, can I do anything to help?" Natalie called out.

"No. I've got everything under control. I'll be out shortly. Thanks for the offer," Myra responded.

Nick and Natalie sat on the couch. Moments later Schanke returned and lounged in his favorite chair. Jenny bounced in and out of the room, talking with Nick and Natalie for a few minutes, then she grew restless and bored as the conversation became more adult. Natalie thought Jenny looked cute in her maroon dress, matching tights and black patent leather shoes. The youngster's long brown hair was nicely combed.

Before long Myra announced that dinner was ready. Everyone gathered around the table. Jenny was pleased to be seated between Nick and Natalie.

Schanke carried out the large, perfectly cooked turkey, setting it down in front of Nick.

"Partner, I'd like you to do the honors. No offense, Natalie."

"None taken," she said, lightly.

"Dad, you forgot the tradition," Jenny reminded him.

"Thanks honey. In our house before we eat we state at least one thing we're grateful for. I'll go first, if no one has any objections." Schanke looked around and saw none. "I'm grateful for my wonderful family, a great partner and a terrific friend named Natalie. And that everyone here is healthy."

Myra was next, "I'm grateful for a wonderful husband, a great daughter and two very good friends. I'm also grateful that we're all alive and healthy."

"I'm grateful to have two great parents and to know Nick and Natalie. Who are really cool."

"I'm grateful to be surrounded by wonderful friends," Nick said, feeling more like he belonged than he had in a very long time.

Natalie saw the happiness in Nick's eyes, something she didn't see there often enough. He had finally accepted that he belonged here, that he fit in, that he was loved.

"I'm grateful to have such wonderful, caring friends and to be here right now," Natalie said.

Both Nick and Natalie were grateful that she was still symptom free.

"Natalie, you're looking better than ever these days. What's your secret?" Myra asked.

"I've been eating healthier and getting regular exercise. If you stick to it, it's amazing how fast you can get into shape. I've only been at it for the last couple of months. I make sure I get a little each day, and a full workout three or four times a week."

"I have to start doing that," Myra said.

"Myra, I wouldn't mind the company," Natalie said, knowing it was more fun to exercise with a friend.

"I might just take you up on that."

"Natalie, I had noticed it, but didn't know if I should comment," Don said a little uncertain.

"A woman always likes to know when she looks good," Natalie teased. She felt normal, a feeling which gave her a great sense of peace. It allowed her to enjoy the evening without worrying about the disease. This did not go undetected by Nick, who was pleased to see her relaxing and enjoying herself.

Everyone at the table, with the exception of Nick, stuffed themselves until they thought they would pop. Nick had surprised everyone by trying a bite or two of everything Natalie ate.

"I thought you were on a restricted diet, partner. I'm glad to see you at least trying to eat."

"I am. It all looked so good I figured a few bites wouldn't hurt me. Besides, there's a doctor at the table," he said with grin. "It was delicious."

They moved into the family room to talk. About an hour later dessert and coffee were served. Shortly thereafter, Jenny fell asleep curled up in one corner of the couch.

"Let her be," Myra whispered to her husband. Myra knew that Jenny would feel like she was a part of things, even if she was asleep.

Two hours later Natalie excused herself and headed for the bathroom. She was glad to see paper cups in there as it was time for her to take her medications. She took the handful of pills, including the drug she had to take either two hours before or after eating.

A few hours later the adults were yawning. Nick and Natalie said good-bye and left. It had been a wonderful evening for everyone.

Nick dropped Natalie off at home before heading for his loft.

Nick entered his loft, heading straight for his fridge. He grabbed one of his wine bottles and a glass from the cabinet on his way to the couch.

He flopped down, poured himself a glass, and relaxed against the black leather of the couch. Great sadness crossed his face as thoughts of the future came to him. He knew that it was only a matter of time before Natalie was quite sick. They were both trying to pretend that wasn't the case, for the other's benefit.

Nick felt another's arrival and opened his eyes, hoping that it was not his father.

"Nicola, what has you so upset?" Janette asked, concerned about her brother. When Nick didn't respond she continued. "Does it have to do with Natalie?" She approached him.

Nick nodded, hoping Natalie would understand his need to talk to someone. Especially someone who had helped her after the rape.

"Is she okay?" She liked Natalie and hoped it wasn't anything too serious, but knew that it likely was due to the concern on Nick's face. She sat next to him on the couch.

"For now she is." Sadness coming through as he spoke. "The bastard who raped her also infected her with HIV." Nick noticed Janette was nearly as shocked as he had been when Natalie told him.

"I am so sorry, Nicola. What are the two of you doing about it?" She laid her hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

"She doesn't want anyone to know. We're going on as normally as possible. So far she's healthy and asymptomatic, so there isn't much that can be done outside of medications to slow down the progress of the disease."

"Have you discussed the possibility of her becoming one of us?"

"Not really. They tested her for HIV after the rape. While she was awaiting the results, she asked me if I would consider it if the results came back positive. I told her I didn't know. The test came back negative, so we didn't have to deal with it. After six months passed, she took a follow up test to be sure, and it came back positive. She even had herself retested to rule out a false positive, and it came back positive again."

"How are you both handling it?" Janette asked concerned. She knew how her brother tended to take bad news, especially where Natalie was concerned. She felt him tense up and removed her hand from his shoulder.

Nick took a deep breath, and spoke. "Janette, when I found out about it, I wanted that rapist dead. It would be so easy for me to get him. In my rage I could taste his blood, see his crumpled, drained body at my feet. How dare he do this to her!" Nick's fists were clenched as he spoke. Then he continued. "But I knew in my heart that getting sick and dying of AIDS, alone, would be more suffering than I could ever inflict on him."

Janette watched him. She knew he was speaking the truth, and how it hurt him to admit it. She saw his fists slowly uncurl as he took a sip from his wineglass. He offered it to her, but she shook her head.

"How is she doing?"

"She's doing okay, for now. They have her taking three different medications which are supposed to delay the onset of the symptoms and the serious illnesses. But the drugs aren't without their side effects. She takes a handful of pills several times a day."

"How's she doing emotionally?" She had seen how much trouble he had with the fact that Natalie would come down with AIDS.

"Natalie hasn't had an easy time of it. She tries to act like everything is okay, but I see the look in her eyes. It is the look of an outsider looking in, wanting to belong. When she first learned about it, she was devastated. First there were the tears, then the anger. She was mad at the rapist for infecting her, and at me because I'd live forever. I couldn't offer to bring her across then, she was too vulnerable and might regret making a hasty decision." Nick took another deep breath and continued. "The longer she stays healthy and symptom-free, the easier it is to believe that it will last for a long time."

"Are you willing to bring her across?"

"I don't know. I don't want to condemn her to this hell." He said, his heart breaking. "Then I think about the hell she'll go through as the disease worsens." Nick sighed, shook his head, then mumbled before taking a long drink from his glass, "Which is the lesser of two evils."

Janette remembered when he had loved her this much, knowing that Natalie was a very lucky woman.

"Listen to your heart. It will tell you what to do." Janette offered. "Listen to Natalie. Really listen."

"Thank you." He said as he gave her a quick kiss. He loved the surprise his action brought to her features.

"If you find that you can not bring Natalie across for one reason or another, I would be glad to do it for you. With her consent, of course." She wasn't sure how he would take that offer.

"Again, thank you. I will keep it in mind," He said, knowing she was looking out for both his and Natalie's best interests.

"Any time you need someone to talk to..." Janette said, knowing how hard it is to be alone.

"I will."

A few nights later, Natalie once again met Nick at the Caddie for their latest adventure. She couldn't wait to see what he thought of this one. He had the heater on making the car nice and toasty. She gave him the address and grinned at his surprised and slightly panicked look.

They arrived at the skating rink and parked. She wondered if he would be any better on ice skates than he had been with the rollerblades. He too was curious about his abilities..

They entered the rink and headed for the rental counter. With skates in hand, they headed for the nearest empty bench and slipped into the skates. This time they both had trouble walking in them. As soon as they reached the wall outlining the rink, they grabbed hold.

Cautiously, Natalie stepped onto the ice. It took her a few moments to get used to its slickness. Once she felt confident, she moved out of the doorway, still holding on to the wall for security.

Nick was ready to catch her if she fell. He knew it was his turn to step out onto the ice. He stepped out and had one foot on the ice and was about to set the other down when his foot slipped out from under him. He landed right on his butt.

Natalie almost fell as she nearly doubled over with laughter. The look on his face was priceless. She used her grip on the wall to stabilize herself while working to get the laughter under control.

As Nick picked himself up, Natalie could tell how much he wanted to leave, but was determined to keep him on the ice with her. He wanted to be anywhere else, and stayed only for her.

"I see I found another thing I'm better at," she said, having gotten the laughter down to a giggle.

They both knew that laughter was good medicine. It was one of the main reasons why Nick tried again. He hung onto the wall until he got the hang of it. Natalie was skating around him without much trouble. She didn't try anything fancy, not wanting to fall and break something.

Within a few minutes, Nick felt confident enough to move away from the wall, towards the outer edge of the main throng of skaters, where the slower skaters were practicing. He was tempted to hold onto Natalie for support. The ice skates felt even stranger than the inline skates had. He couldn't believe people enjoyed balancing on a thin metal blade. He couldn't believe that his vampiric abilities were totally useless here.

"Come on Nick, you can't tell me you're not having fun," she teased. She marveled at how normal he made her feel. Maybe it was the fact that they were both outsiders, and by banding together neither was alone. They were insiders in their own exclusive little group.

"I'm having more fun than I was a few minutes ago. I think I finally got the hang of it. Shall we venture into the crowd?"

"Sure."

Nick and Natalie moved into the main throng of skaters looping the rink, some at a rather fast speed. Neither had too much trouble keeping up with the crowd.

Natalie and Nick watched the various skaters, taking note of a young hotshot speeding around the rink showing off. They enjoyed watching the more advanced skaters in the center of the ice, the ones who were doing fancy spins, jumps and whatever they felt like doing.

About an hour later Nick noticed Natalie was tiring and motioned towards the edge of the rink. He saw her nod in response. They wove their way through the crowd, nearly reaching the edge of the ice, when the young hotshot slammed into them. The hotshot barely kept his balance while Nick and Natalie went down in a tangled heap.

"Ow!" Natalie cried out, pain leaping into her left wrist as she fell with most of her weight on it. Nick offered his hand to her, pleased when she took it. His strong, steady support allowed her to climb unsteadily to her feet without using her injured wrist. He wrapped his arm around her waist and escorted her to the edge of the rink, stabilizing her as she stepped off the ice.

Once off the ice they headed for the nearest empty bench. No sooner had she sat down, than he tried to squat down in front of her and found himself unceremoniously dumped onto his behind. She giggled despite her pain. He quickly untied and unlaced her skates before she could even attempt it. Her left wrist hurt so badly that she didn't want to move it or even touch it. It was already beginning to swell.

"Thanks, Nick."

He put her sneakers on for her and tied them, earning him a small, pain filled grin of appreciation. He took off his skates, slipped into his shoes and returned the skates.

Natalie touched her wrist, nearly hitting the ceiling as she touched what seemed to be the most tender spot. A wave of nausea hit which she forced back. She continued to gently examine her left wrist, wincing whenever she touched it. She hoped nothing was broken, six weeks of paperwork would drive her crazy.

Nick returned with a bag of ice and a couple of paper towels. He handed it to her, not wanting to hurt her by placing it on her injured wrist. She took the bag from him, wrapped one of the paper towels around it, and placed the icepack on her wrist for maximum effect, wincing when it made contact. The pressure of the ice hurt, but at the same time the cold felt good.

"This wasn't the way I had planned for things to go." She frowned. "I thought that after this we would go somewhere and have some hot chocolate and relax. Maybe catch a movie or just take another walk through the park." She paused for a moment as if considering things. "We still can do that."

"Nat, I think a trip to the ER is first. Then we'll see."

"Nick, I don't want to spend all evening waiting for them to tell me I just sprained it." His look told her that he wasn't buying her excuse. "I don't think anything's broken. I would be able to tell if it was."

"Natalie," He said firmly, before being cut off.

"The ice will keep the swelling down. All it needs is an elastic bandage and rest." A large jolt of pain along with another wave of nausea hit as her left arm was bumped.

"You're going." Nick said, seeing Natalie jump as the guy bumped into her.

"I don't want to."

"Don't make me pick you up and take you."

"You would too, wouldn't you?" She knew if she continued to fight him, he would carry out his threat. "Okay. Let's go," she said reluctantly, hoping that her being infected with HIV would remain their secret.

When Nick and Natalie entered the ER, they were pleased to see they had hit it during a brief lull so they only had to wait a few minutes before being seen. Natalie tossed the melted bag of ice into the nearest trash can.

Natalie had a seat on the exam bed. A few minutes later the doctor entered. She nearly hit the ceiling when Dr. Vincent touched the most sensitive spot, and winced when he touched anywhere else in the swollen, discolored area. He suspected there might be a fracture due to the extreme sensitivity, high amount of swelling and the fact that it was already turning yellow, green and purple.

Natalie was sent for x-rays. When she and the nurse entered the x-ray room, Natalie was directed to sit on the stool next to the machine and place her wrist on the top of the equipment's flat surface. A lead shield was draped across her midsection and she was asked if she were pregnant. The nurse seemed relieved when Natalie answered "no".

The nurse gently manipulated Natalie's wrist so that it was in the proper position for the x-ray, stepped behind the shield and activated the machine. The nurse returned to her patient and changed the position of Natalie's wrist to get another shot. Once that x-ray had been taken, the heavy lead shield was removed from Natalie's midsection, and she was led back to the exam room where Nick was waiting.

The nurse handed Natalie an icepack for her wrist before leaving. Natalie applied it. She and Nick talked to pass the time. Nick could see how uneasy she was and tried to keep her mind occupied.

About thirty minutes later the x-rays came back, showing no fracture, not even a hairline one. The nurse applied a splint to Natalie's wrist which would keep it immobile as it healed. Natalie winced as the nurse fastened the splint, due to the pressure against her very sore wrist. Natalie was grateful that she hadn't cut herself or that no bloodwork had been necessary.

"Dr. Lambert, your wrist seems to be badly sprained. You need to leave the splint on for the next three or four days. Then you can replace the splint with an elastic bandage." Dr. Vincent said. "Keep it elevated for the next twenty-four hours. Keep ice on it for the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. I'm sure you know that drill. I'll give you a couple of Tylenol to ease the pain. Take a couple as you normally would for the next few days."

"Okay, thanks."

"If your wrist gets worse, I want to see you back here." Dr. Vincent knew that every now and then an injury was more serious than it appeared to be. Since she was a doctor, he didn't have to spell out the symptoms she'd display in that case.

"She'll be back," Nick said.

The nurse tried to get Natalie's injured wrist into a sling, but she refused. Nick knew that if she didn't want it, he couldn't change her mind, at least not without a fight. He didn't want to fight with her, so he let it go. He reminded himself that she was a doctor and a big girl. She knew what she was doing.

Once Nick and Natalie were back in the car, Natalie could see the guilt written all over Nick's face.

"It's not your fault. Besides, I'll be fine in a week, two tops. The splint is just to help it heal faster, that's all. The less it's moved, the faster it will heal. I've had worse injuries before."

"But when we fell we got all tangled up. Maybe if that hadn't happened, you wouldn't be hurt. Will this affect your fighting the disease?"

"No. It won't have any effect on that fight. Did you ever think that maybe our getting tangled up prevented me from getting hurt worse?" Off his confused look she continued, "Maybe if you hadn't been there I might have broken my wrist or maybe even my arm. Besides, if you don't lighten up we will be going back to the ER, and I won't be the patient."

"I'll try." He got her message.

"Besides it will look strange for you to be too worried over a rather minor injury."

"What about work?"

"Well, the criminals are behaving themselves due to the cold, so maybe I won't be busy for the next few days. If not, then someone else can handle the autopsies until my wrist feels better. At least it's not my writing hand."

"Why don't you take some time off?"

"No. I need to work. If I didn't, I'd go nuts." She had considered taking some time off, but knew she would need her accumulated time later when she began to get sick. She also knew that she would be bored staying home knowing she had chores to do, but wouldn't be able to do many of them. Besides, she wouldn't be in the mood for cleaning anyway.

"The old saying is true. Doctors are the worst patients," Nick grinned.

She playfully smacked him in the arm.

They went back to the loft where he prepared her a mug of hot chocolate with lots of mini marshmallows, just the way she liked it. He fixed an icepack for her wrist. They popped in a movie and cuddled up together.

Later when she fell asleep, he stretched her out on the couch, propped her splinted wrist up on a pillow, and covered her with a blanket. He brushed her hair out of her face being careful not to wake her and gently kissed her on the forehead before heading up to bed.

Late that afternoon when Natalie awoke, Nick drove her back to her apartment. He offered to wait and drive her into work, but she refused, stating she could drive herself.

The very first thing Natalie did was to take her medication and a couple of Tylenol. Then she stripped off her clothes, removed the elastic bandage and splint, turned on the shower, giving her wrist a quick examination while she waited for the water to warm up. It was about the same as the night before, the bruising was a bit more colorful, but that was to be expected.

Natalie didn't realize how much harder everything was to do one handed. As soon as she finished in the shower and had dried off, she put the splint and elastic bandage back in place. She slipped into a silk blouse, her blazer and a pair of pants because they were the simplest things she could find. This way she could get away without wearing her pantyhose. She slipped into her low pumps, grabbed her purse and headed out the door.

She decided she'd grab something to eat on the way in. It would be easier than trying to fix something.

Grace entered Natalie's office shortly after the ME had arrived and saw Natalie working on a report. She also saw the icepack and splint on her friend's wrist.

"Natalie, honey, what did you do to yourself?" Grace asked, concerned.

"Nick and I went ice skating. You should've been there. As soon as he got onto the ice, he fell on his butt." She smiled at the memory. "We had been skating for about an hour and were heading for the edge of the rink when some young hotshot plowed into us. Of course he didn't fall. Nick and I wound up in a tangled heap. I sprained my wrist as a result." She saw the disbelieving look Grace gave her. "We went to the ER and had it x-rayed. The doctor said that it was badly sprained and would be fine in a week or two. The splint is to help it heal faster."

"Uh, huh." Grace changed the subject. "So what made you decide to go ice skating?"

"I don't know. I used to enjoy it when I was little. I guess I just felt like it."

Later in the shift Nick and Schanke dropped by to pick up a few reports.

"Hi, Natalie. What happened to your wrist?" Schanke asked, concerned.

Natalie told him, leaving out the little detail of Nick's entrance onto the ice.

"I'm glad to hear it isn't serious. Be careful. We're not as young as we used to be."

"Thanks. I will try. What did you guys drop by for?"

"The Porter and Lord cases. Have you finished the reports?"

"I was working on them right before you came in. I have the Porter report done, and if you can wait about five minutes, I'll have the Lord report finished.

"No problem," Schanke said. "So, Nick, whatever possessed you to go ice skating?"

"It was Nat's idea. It was fun, until the mishap."

"Natalie, did he take good care of you afterwards?" Schanke asked with a mischievous hint to it.

"Yes, he did," she said.

The quick look between Nick and Natalie and their small grins told Schanke all he needed to know.

Natalie was glad that Nick was still cooking her dinner every night. She wasn't in the mood to try and fix some for herself one handed.

Two afternoons later Natalie threw a birthday party for Nancy. Her splinted wrist hampered her decorating a bit but gave her the chance to drag Grace in to help. Grace and Natalie had fun decorating Natalie's apartment, talking as they worked. From the way Natalie avoided using her injured wrist as much as possible, Grace could tell it was still quite sore.

When they finished, they stepped back and examined their work. The decor was lots of balloons with contrasting ribbons and a happy birthday banner. Next they set about putting out the food. They had chips and dip, finger sandwiches, cookies, and of course a birthday cake complete with the proper number of candles. There was soda, tea, and coffee to wash it all down with.

Natalie invited Grace to stay and enjoy the party, which Grace did with a little encouragement knowing Natalie might need some assistance.

Natalie had to answer the question "what happened" several times during the party. At one point she felt like making an announcement to get it over with all at once. She told her friends the same version she had used for Schanke.

Nancy enjoyed all the gifts she received, especially the small crystal vase Natalie gave her.

After the gifts had been opened Natalie enjoyed decorating Nancy with the gift bows, according to tradition. Most of the bows found themselves adhering to Nancy's hair with a matching pair attached to her shoulders.

After the party was over, Grace stayed behind and helped Natalie clean up. Grace saw the gratitude in Natalie's eyes before her friend's thank you.

After Grace left, Natalie's thoughts drifted to her thirtieth birthday party. She remembered her embarrassment when Grace and her fellow co-workers had given her the black teddy for her birthday, then Grace suggested she model it for 'that special someone'. Back then Nick and her were nothing more than friends, so the teddy was wasted. Now she had a lot more to worry about. Being infected with HIV sure puts everything into perspective. The only bigger problem she could think of at the moment was when the HIV became AIDS, and when she eventually would become too sick to do anything but lie in bed and wait for death.

A few days later, Natalie arrived home after a long, tiring shift and found her answering machine blinking. Fear ran through her, causing her to wonder has the disease progressed? She knew she had to listen to the message before her imagination conjured up all sorts of things she'd rather not think about. She reluctantly pressed play.

"Natalie, this is Scott Anderson. I'm calling to remind you that the opening of the new pediatric wing is next Friday at three pm. My number's 555-4453. I look forward to seeing you again."

Natalie breathed a sigh of relief as Scott's message played.

She smiled remembering Scott. They had been in the same class in med school and were friends. He was a brilliant doctor and had a special gift when it came to dealing with children. They had celebrated his appointment as Head of Pediatrics with a top notch night on the town. She had let him smooth talk her into agreeing to attend the opening. He knew of her fondness for children and used it.

Natalie was startled out of her reverie by her doorbell. She opened the door, allowing Nick to enter. She saw the grocery bags in his arms and followed him to the kitchen. It was then she remembered that he was going to cook here tonight so that she wouldn't have to drive home afterwards. She knew the other reason was that he had to work later than she had so it made more sense for him to come here than for her to wait there.

Before Natalie knew it, she was picking out which dress to wear to the opening. She chose a simple, yet elegant royal blue cocktail length dress. Once that task was done she slipped into the shower. Her next task was to get her thick mane blow dried and looking as good as possible. After debating whether she should wear her hair loose, pulled back, or up in a bun, Natalie decided to let it cascade over her shoulders. It looked best that way with the dress she had chosen to wear.

She was glad her wrist had healed well enough that she only needed the extra support of an elastic bandage when she was shopping or cleaning. She knew that it had healed quickly because she had put ice on it immediately after the injury and had followed the doctor's instructions.

She applied her makeup, using a little more than she wore at work. She knew people would give her some scrutiny as she wasn't completely unknown. She had managed to develop a pretty good reputation for herself due to her excellent work as a forensic pathologist for the Toronto police department. Before the HIV she would not have minded the scrutiny, but now it made her nervous. She was always afraid that people would be able to tell.

You're healthy and symptom free. No one can tell just by looking at you. She reminded herself.

The fact that the board members would be under even more intense scrutiny helped relieve some of the uneasiness she felt.

She slipped on her pantyhose, slip and then finally her dress. She fastened her simple gold necklace and slipped her gold hoop earrings through the holes before giving her hair one final brushing. After stepping into her blue pumps, she examined the full picture in her mirror. She was glad she had left the elastic bandage off, as it did not go with her outfit. Once she was satisfied with how she looked, Natalie grabbed her coat and headed out.

Before long she arrived at the hospital and was heading for the ceremony site. Due to the cold weather the ceremony was held in the first floor recreation area, as it was the largest space available in the wing. There was a raised stage with a neutral colored skirt covering its legs at the far end of the room. In the middle of the stage there was a podium with a microphone. Rows of hard folding chairs faced the stage. Some were already occupied. A banner sporting "Congratulations on the new Pediatric Wing" was hung across the wall directly behind the stage. Balloons and streamers tastefully decorated the ceiling and posts of the room.

Natalie saw other invitee's there and was glad that she was not the first to arrive, nor the last. She noticed the wealthy society women in their diamonds and expensive, one of a kind, designer dresses. She also noticed those who worked for a living, just as she did. They looked nice in their cocktail dresses or suits, with more subtle jewelry. The men from both groups were decked out in their suits and ties, looking much the same.

Across the room, Scott spotted Natalie and headed towards her, a large smile on his face. She saw him and returned the smile. They embraced each other.

"Natalie, I'm glad you came," Scott said excited, and a little nervous.

"I wouldn't miss your biggest and best achievement yet."

"What have you been up to since the last time we saw each other?"

"Pretty much the same. I'm still lecturing high school students, trying to explain to them what I do. And hopefully inspiring a few to be a part of the next generation of forensic pathologists. What about you?"

"This project has taken up all my spare time. Parts of it were a nightmare, but other's were wonderful. The best part of it is that it will provide a nice comfortable setting for pediatric AIDS patients."

Natalie started to panic and quickly slammed the lid on those feelings. She did not want to have to explain her reaction. She wanted to come up with any excuse why she couldn't stay, but knew that not only would it hurt Scott's feelings terribly, but he'd want to know why. He wouldn't settle for a simple explanation.

"We'll treat a wide range of pediatric illnesses and injuries, including trauma. We have a state of the art wing. All the professionals here enjoy working with children, and are some of the tops in their fields."

"I'm impressed. But then you never were one to do things less than the best." She was glad that he was too excited about his achievement to have noticed her slight panic.

"Natalie, is there anyone special in your life?" Scott asked curiously. He was more like a big brother than a potential romantic suitor.

"Yes. His name's Nick. He would've come with me, but he had to work tonight." A part of her was glad Nick had to work, yet a part of her wished he were here with her.

"He couldn't get the night off? What does he do?"

"He's a homicide detective. He and his partner had a few things that couldn't be put off until tomorrow night."

"I never could understand how you could be so happy working nights. But, now I can see one of the attractions." Scott grinned.

"I like the night. I'm not sure what it is about it that appeals to me." She grinned as she realized that her first sentence could also be taken as a pun.

"What?"

"His last name is Knight."

He grinned, catching the pun as well.

"Well, as much as I'd love to spend the whole afternoon talking with you, I really should mingle."

"I don't want to monopolize you on your big night."

Scott headed over towards a small group of guests.

Natalie found a seat out of the way, but near enough that she was still in the midst of things. She knew she was not ready to deal with seeing the pediatric AIDS patients and their parents. She had enough trouble dealing with the fact that she was infected and would die much sooner than she should. She knew she'd do anything to get out of having to stay, and wished she hadn't left her beeper at home.

You're here so deal with it. If you leave, Scott will be deeply hurt and want to know why. Are you ready to tell him, and possibly have everyone else find out why?

She didn't want to hurt him, or have her secret accidentally leak out. It left her with only one choice, to stay and tough it out.

Out of the corner of her eye some movement caught her attention. She turned to face it and saw several children playing and giggling. She estimated that they ranged in age from three to ten. She studied them for a few minutes, watching them act like the kids they were. The older ones were trying to play soccer with a fallen balloon while the younger ones were trying to grab hold of another fallen balloon which kept evading their attempts. Soon, their mothers came and led them away by the hand.

Natalie looked around and saw that everyone was finding a seat for the presentation, and did so herself. Her seat was not among the dozen or so chairs that had been set out on stage for the ceremony, but among the audience instead. She was grateful that she did not have to be up there. Once everyone was seated, she noticed that there were families up on stage with Scott.

Each adult on stage made a speech, some longer than others. The parents were there to give their support and thanks. They told their stories of how the new wing would help their families.

Natalie found these stories much more interesting than the boring speeches by the hospital bigwigs. She enjoyed Scott's speech. Her heart went out to the families, especially those who's children had AIDS. One story really tore at her heart. The parents didn't know they were infected until their son was born. Now they're all battling different stages of the disease. For once Natalie did not mind the fact that her parents and brother were dead, at least she would not break their hearts as she progressed and eventually died.

After the ceremony everyone crowded around the main entrance to the new wing for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Scott cut the ribbon and lead the crowd on a tour of the new area. He pointed out the high points as the tour progressed.

After the tour, there was a reception. Food and drink was elegantly laid out. A band played softly in the background.

Natalie filled her plate and looked for an available table. Scott motioned her over to join him. Moments after she had sat down, a family joined them. Natalie remembered hearing that their six year old daughter was a pediatric AIDS patient. Natalie wished she had some excuse to be anywhere but at the table. She mentally scolded herself, knowing that she of all people should not shy away from them. She decided it was because she wasn't ready to truly face having HIV.

The little girl with curly light brown hair was a bit thin for her age, but other than that she showed no outward sign of the disease. Her parents were pretty average looking. The father was about forty with brown hair and seemed to be pretty fit. The mother was maybe a few years younger, with blonde hair and was also pretty fit. There was a definite sadness deep in their eyes, yet there was a joy there too. They knew that time was precious and savored every moment with their daughter.

Natalie found she had a hard time feeling as sorry for herself as she had been. She saw the little girl before her, one who would never do the things she had done, go to her first school dance, go to college or fall in love.

"Natalie, I'd like you to meet Kevin, Amanda and Christine Parsons. Kevin, Amanda and Christine, I'd like you to meet Dr. Natalie Lambert."

"Nice to meet you." They said to each other.

"Dr. Lambert, what's your specialty?" Amanda asked.

"Natalie, please. I'm a forensic pathologist. I work with the police department."

"I've seen your name in the papers a few times," Kevin said.

Natalie hoped it wasn't only during that time she'd rather forget. The months that changed her life forever. "Yeah?"

"You solved a few tough cases."

"I didn't do it all on my own," Natalie said modestly. "I had a lot of help from the homicide detectives."

"What's a forensic pathologist?" Christine asked, stumbling over the larger words.

"I find out why someone died," Natalie said, trying to put it into words that the youngster could understand, yet not be patronizing.

"Do you go out with the police?" Christine asked.

"Yes, sometimes. Usually only when there's a dead body at a crime scene. A few times I've helped them because the case needed someone with medical knowledge."

"Are you a real doctor?" Christine asked, not knowing exactly how to phrase it.

Natalie understood her question. "Yes. I'm a real doctor." She answered with a grin.

"Natalie, what did you think of the speeches?" Scott asked, trying to get off the subject of death.

"I liked your speech, but then I am a little biased," she grinned. "I thought all the parents' speeches were quite moving. The brass' speeches were a bit dull."

"See mom, she thought they were boring too," Christine said, making the adults smile.

The next evening, at work, Natalie found a newspaper on her desk, her picture showing. She and Scott had been photographed during one of their chats that evening. Grace entered and saw Natalie examining the paper.

"What drew you to the opening? I thought you hated those things more than paperwork."

"I do. Scott is an old med school friend. More of a big brother. He talked me into attending before I realized it. It would've hurt him too much if I had backed out."

"He's cute. Was there ever anything between the two of you?" Grace said, her tone curiously inquiring.

"Nothing romantic. From the start we were friends. One day one of our other friends pointed out that we were like brother and sister. It was nice having a friend I could depend on, without having to worry about romance creeping in and ruining it."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

"A few months back. That's when he convinced me to attend the opening. I wouldn't have missed it, but I wasn't going to let him know." She grinned.

"He probably knew anyway."

"Yeah. There were few secrets between us. We knew each other too well." This thought scared Natalie. What if he figures it out? She knew the last time she'd seen him was after she'd started putting her life back together again, a few weeks after Collins' arrest.

Later on that evening Natalie had to drop some files off at the precinct and had to answer the same questions from Schanke and Nick.

Schanke observed Nick's reactions, pleased to see no jealousy. Nick actually seemed happy that Natalie had seen an old, male friend of hers.

"Natalie, you looked beautiful as usual." Nick commented. "How was it?" He asked genuinely interested.

"It was interesting, for the most part. Scott was so proud of his accomplishment. I'm quite proud of him myself," Natalie said beaming.

Nick sensed there was more to it, and made a mental note to ask her about it later. He detected the slight sadness in the back of her eyes.

Both Nick and Schanke enjoyed watching Natalie's face light up as she talked about Scott.

Something about the pediatric AIDS patients Natalie had met at the wing opening had touched her deep inside. So deeply that she was on their floor of the new wing two afternoons later.

Natalie looked around a bit nervously. She was still unnerved by being around them, but knew that she could no longer run from her fears. She was HIV positive and had to face it. She and Nick had been avoiding dealing with it because she was symptom-free.

She saw the mothers and fathers rocking their sick children to sleep, being as tender and loving as possible. She saw the silent heartbreak in their eyes. She wanted children, but could not knowingly put them through this. She noticed a surprising number of fathers there, actively involved in their children's lives.

She saw other children playing with each other. She could tell how sick some of them were. Some of the sicker children, who weren't in bed, were dragging their I.V. poles with them in a way that seemed very natural. They didn't allow the poles to bother them one bit.

A very thin, blonde haired little girl about six years old approached Natalie. She wore a t-shirt, leggings and bunny slippers. Natalie noticed a few dark spots on her skin and quickly identified them as the legions from Karposi's syndrome, a cancer that AIDS patients sometimes developed.

"Hi. I'm Anna. What's your name?"

"Natalie."

"Would you like to see my painting?" Asked the eager little girl.

"Sure." Natalie followed Anna over to a table. There were three other children there painting.

Anna proudly pointed to her picture.

"That's very nice. Is that a policeman?"

"Yes. That's what I wanted to be when I grew up."

Natalie was surprised by the lack of self pity coming from Anna. It was as if she had accepted the fact that she would not live long enough to grow up. She seemed like such a contrast, a child with a very grown up streak in her. There was such optimism and hope coming from her, even with that knowledge.

One by one the other children showed Natalie their paintings, each one was different. One little red headed girl had amazing talent. Natalie heard what each child dreamed of doing when they grew up. One wanted to be an astronaut, one a lawyer, and the other wanted to be a fireman. Anna seemed to be the only one of the four that truly knew she would never grow up. They ran off to do some other activity, having finished their picture.

Natalie found a little boy over in the corner crying. He was about eight years old with light brown hair. She was drawn to him.

"What's wrong?" She asked as she sat down next to him.

"I'm scared. I don't want to die," the little boy said through his tears. "What's your name?"

"Natalie. What's yours?"

"Aaron. Why do I have to die?"

Natalie was caught off guard. Her throat seemed to tighten as she fought back tears.

"Everyone dies. It's a part of life. Some of us have to go sooner than others." When she saw that wasn't helping she tried another tact. "Maybe the lucky people get to die earlier. Maybe they get to go somewhere really neat. Somewhere where there is no pain, no sickness. Nothing but love and happiness."

"Is that what happens in heaven?" Aaron asked, his features brightening slightly.

"I believe so. My brother's there, so are my parents."

"Who takes care of you when you're sick or just need a hug?" he asked, his tears almost forgotten.

"My two best friends do. My other friends help too."

"When I die, who will take care of my parents and my sister?" He wiped his face with the bottom of his t-shirt.

"They will take care of each other. Your aunts, uncles, grandparents will help take care of them. Their friends will help, too. They will be okay."

"Thank you." Aaron said as he gave her a hug.

She held him tightly and stroked his fine, baby-like hair. Not wanting to let him go, Natalie gave Aaron a final squeeze and released the fragile, but active youth.

"I'm glad I could help." She watched him run off to play with the other children.

Scott approached her.

"Natalie, that was beautiful. Would you like to help out whenever you can? I'm afraid I can't offer a paycheck or a staff position."

"That's okay. I think I'd like that." She felt better about herself than she had when she arrived. "They're so optimistic, even the ones that know they don't have much longer. They're more worried about their family's feelings than their own."

"They can be incredibly mature for their age, yet they're still kids. Sometimes we forget that."

"We can learn a lot from them," Natalie said, realizing that she had no right feeling sorry for herself when these kids were in worse shape and didn't feel sorry for themselves. She noticed the same lack of self pity in the parents.

As Natalie looked around the room she noticed the parents cherishing their time with their children, rather than feeling sorry because they'd lose them soon. There was a deep sadness haunting the eyes of those same parents, but it didn't rule their lives.

That evening when Natalie entered Nick's loft for their movie night there was something different about her. Nick was painting and noticed her attitude was somewhat more positive.

"Nick, I just had the most amazing afternoon." She said. "I found myself drawn back to the new wing. I spent the afternoon on the pediatric AIDS floor. I was nervous at first. I didn't want to see sick kids suffering. I did see that, but I saw such hope and optimism coming from them, even the terminally ill ones. Many of them were more concerned about how their families would take it, than the fact that they were dying."

Nick enjoyed hearing the excitement in her voice as she told him about her visit. But, he could hear some sadness also.

"I could never have a child knowing that they would go through all that. I watched the mothers and fathers rocking their sick kids to sleep. The little bundle in their arms was the most important thing in their world. I saw the heartbreak in their eyes, but it didn't affect how they were with their kids. The fathers were as involved with their kids as the mothers were."

He loved her more than ever. She still managed to amaze him, time and time again.

"Scott saw me helping a little boy overcome his fears of dying and leaving his family alone and was impressed. He offered me a volunteer position. I told him I'd take it. Being around him and the children made me feel better about myself."

"I'm glad it helped. I think you'll make a great volunteer. You're good with kids."

The next afternoon Natalie returned to the pediatric AIDS floor. She had a few hours before her shift. One of the first people she saw was a young girl sketching a mother rocking her child nearby. Looking at the girl more closely, she estimated her age to be around fifteen. She knew that was a tough age, especially when one is seriously ill.

"That's very good," Natalie said as she approached. She saw the teen blush.

"Thanks. I'm Katie. I'm sort of the senior resident here."

"I'm Natalie. I'm sort of the new volunteer here."

"The one who's an old friend of Dr. Scott's?"

"That's me. Why?"

"Just curious." Katie said with a grin.

"We're just friends. He's like an older brother." Natalie caught the subtleness of Katie's response. "Does everyone call him Dr. Scott?"

"Yeah. He likes to make his patients more comfortable. It's easier for the younger ones to pronounce."

"What drew you to sketching?"

"When you have full blown AIDS you don't have much energy, so it was either that, reading or watching TV. I found I was pretty good at it. It also gives me a chance to be around others."

Natalie was surprised by Katie's openness. She should be looking forward to her first date, learning to drive, her first high school trip, thinking about college, not dying.

"What do you do with your sketches?" Natalie asked needing to get her mind off what Katie said. She wasn't ready to accept that the teenager before her was dying. What chance will I have when I develop full blown AIDS?

"Sometimes I keep them, but mostly I give them away. Once in a while someone gives me a few dollars to make a sketch for them. At least this way I'll be remembered. I usually use the money to go to the movies with my friends, when I feel up to it. The few friends that weren't scared off, or were allowed to see me."

"When you said resident... do you live here?" Natalie asked curiously.

"It seems that way. I spend most of my time here. My parents both have demanding careers, and I have other siblings. I don't mind. I can come and go as I wish. I just have to check with one of the doctors first. I go to school when I feel well enough to. I usually spend the weekends at home, when I'm not sick. I figure it's like going off to camp or college. I'm trying to live one more year so I can get my diploma. I used to want to go to college, be part of NASA. Now, I just want to graduate high school. If I'm still alive, I'll apply to college." Katie realized she was rambling. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. I found it interesting." Natalie realized that Katie was going to graduate at sixteen. "I didn't graduate until I was eighteen. You must be pretty smart."

"I've had a lot of time to read. My teachers have been great. They allow me to progress at my own speed, rather than having to wait for the rest of the class. I don't know if I'm all that smart, just determined. Some of them have given up afternoons and an occasional Saturday to help me. They say I inspire them and remind them what they got into teaching for, to help students learn."

"I'd say that was pretty impressive. Not many fifteen year olds have that sort of determination. I hope you succeed."

"Thanks."

Katie finished her sketch, signed it and excused herself. She headed over to her subject and handed the sketch to her. Natalie saw the mother embrace Katie. Katie returned with a great big smile. "That's another reason I do it. What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a forensic pathologist."

Katie laughed. "I think you're a little early. And on the wrong floor."

Natalie smiled. "I see someone else has as dark a sense of humor as I do. You did ask." She saw Katie grin.

"What made you chose that field?" Katie started sketching again, changing her position slightly.

"I don't know. I love a good challenge. In med school I didn't have a very good bedside manner."

"What's it like working with stiffs all day?"

"Actually, I work with them all night. It's interesting, except for the paperwork. That could bore a person to death. Each body is a mystery waiting to be solved. I use a mixture of investigation, low tech and high tech means to help the police solve their cases. I have access to the latest technology. You can learn a lot about a person from examining something as simple as a piece of hair under a microscope."

"That sounds fascinating." Katie said before asking something she'd been wondering ever since she saw Natalie with Aaron. "What brought you here?"

"I don't know. I was drawn to the place yesterday. After spending the afternoon here I felt better about myself." She didn't know why she was being so honest with Katie, but it seemed so natural.

Katie knew she might offend Natalie with her next questions, but she had to know. "Can I ask you something really personal?"

"Sure." Natalie had a hunch what Katie was going to ask.

"Do you have it?"

Natalie felt like someone had just kicked her in the gut, knocking the wind out of her.

"Yes, I'm HIV positive. I was diagnosed earlier this year. How did you know?" Natalie felt a great sense of relief. She had told someone and survived. Katie had not run away from her, but had actually helped her admit it.

"I don't really know. I think it was seeing you here yesterday and again today. How you quickly lost your initial uneasiness. How you're not repulsed by this place, and by us. How helping Aaron made you feel better. The sadness hidden deep within your eyes." She saw Natalie start to panic. "Don't worry, only someone with it would recognize it. I noticed you were rather nervous during the opening. I take it very few people, if any, know? Don't worry, I won't say anything."

"Thank you. I'm sorry, but I didn't see you there."

"I wasn't actually at the ceremony, but I was watching. I like seeing everyone dressed up. You looked great."

"Thanks. One of my best friends is the only one that knows. I needed someone to talk to..."

"If you ever need someone else..."

"Thank you. I'll probably take you up on that one day soon," Natalie said. She still couldn't believe the spunk and optimism Katie had. She was dying and had accepted it. Not only that, she was determined to enjoy what time she had left. She's a fighter, too.

She saw Katie smile.

"Telling that first person is hard, isn't it?" Katie said remembering how hard it had been for both her and her family.

"Yes. I didn't want anyone else to know, yet telling you seemed so natural." Natalie no longer felt sorry for herself, but was determined to be more like Katie, to make the most of her life.

Natalie caught a glimpse of the time and realized that if she didn't leave she'd be late to work.

"I have to leave. Work beckons."

"Can you wait one more minute?" Katie asked, not quite pleading.

"Sure."

Katie quickly finished her sketch, checked it over to make sure she was satisfied with it and signed it.

"This is for you." Katie showed Natalie the drawing. "Your face just cried out to be sketched." She loved the surprised smile that spread across Natalie's face.

"This is beautiful," Natalie said stunned. "You have real talent."

"Thanks." Katie blushed. "I'm glad you like it."

As Natalie did her Christmas shopping, she found herself wondering how many more years she would be able to shop for presents. How many more years before she would be too sick to care if it was Christmas. Christmas had always been her favorite holiday.

Natalie thought about Katie and how sick she was. Natalie knew she was lucky, compared to Katie and the other children she'd spent time with. At least she was still healthy. These thoughts perked her up, especially when she remembered their optimism.

Natalie was glad that her wrist was pretty much healed. She had seen the relief on Nick's face as it healed. Shopping was one of the few times she still wore the elastic bandage, as her wrist was still a little tender when overused.

Both Nick and Natalie wanted to find the perfect gift for the other, but didn't know what that was. She knew he had almost everything he wanted or needed, at least materially.

Nick's eyes showed his determination to make this Christmas the best one ever for Natalie as he looked for the perfect tree. He had many of the same thoughts as she about how long she might remain well.

Nick dug around in his crates down in the basement and found several boxes of trinkets from his past. He knew they had never, originally, been intended for use as Christmas tree ornaments, but, with a little creativity, they would make lovely decorations. He also found some modern ornaments Natalie had given him over the years to decorate his tree.

Nick carefully set the last box he had retrieved from the basement on the floor of his loft then left to find a tree. Nick bought the biggest tree he could find and had just finished setting it into its stand, when Natalie arrived.

He saw her surprised look at all the variously sized boxes littering the floor near the tree.

"How about helping me decorate this huge thing?" Nick asked.

"Sure." She tried to find the box containing the lights. "Do you remember where we put the lights? We're not going to have nearly enough."

"I don't know about that?" Nick grinned and pulled a plastic bag from the far end of the couch. "I figured we might need a few more strings." He handed them to her, having to bend down to where she was comfortably seated on his floor.

She smiled as she unpacked the new ones so they could be added to the older ones. A moment later she found the requested box at her feet. She opened it and frowned at the tangled mess within. Not wanting to deal with it she handed the box to Nick.

"These need to be untangled. Carefully."

Nick took the mass of lights and sat down on the floor near her and stared at the blob, hoping to figure out where to start. He found what looked like a good starting place and began untangling the lights.

She smiled at the intense look of concentration on his face as he slowly made progress with the mess before him.

Natalie checked the new light strings first, then the older ones as they were untangled and handed to her. She was careful to place each set in its own neat little pile so they wouldn't become tangled again.

A curious, confused look on Nick's face made her grin. She loved how he could look very much like a little boy sometimes. It always surprised her how he could be so old yet get so young at times.

"Nat, why are you checking the lights?"

"I for one don't want to string the tree and then find out the lights don't work."

"Good point."

Natalie handed Nick one end of the first string of lights, instructing him on how to wrap them around the tree. They kept this up until they had gone as far as they could reach.

She had just picked up another string of lights and was about to ask how they were going to do the rest of the tree when he slipped his arms around her and held her securely. Before she could blink, she was floating above the floor, her heart beating a little faster than normal. He had taken her completely by surprise, bringing a grin to his face.

It was slightly disorienting at first, but she quickly discovered she liked hovering and floating while being securely held in his arms.

He had expected a protest from her, but received none. In fact she seemed to be enjoying his little surprise. He loved being able to give her that little gift.

She wrapped the light set around the tree, instructing him which way to move next. He would set her down only long enough for her to grab the next set. Before long they had all the lights strung on the tree.

Natalie looked through the boxes Nick had brought up, finding the contents both fascinating and beautiful. She prodded him for the stories behind each fragile ornament as they hung it. She loved hearing each story as much as he enjoyed telling them.

About half an hour later they had finished decorating the bottom third of the tree, as far as they could reach. She hoped he would again assist her as they decorated the top two thirds of the tree, and wasn't disappointed. Neither could believe the enjoyment they both received from this simple gesture on his part.

He allowed her to do most of the decorating, offering a suggestion here and there so that each ornament would be hung in the perfect spot.

About an hour later they had finished decorating the rest of the tree. She grinned as he flew them across the room so they could see the entire tree at once. She was surprised by her own reaction, knowing that normally she would've scolded him for using his powers, but somehow she couldn't do it this time. Maybe it was because he'd done it as a gesture of love.

The grin he saw on her face and the slight rise in her heart rate showed him that she loved this surprise as well. The fact that she hadn't objected or scolded him meant that she had accepted it in the loving spirit it had been given, which made him feel great.

Once the tree had been decorated, the aerial view checked out, she had him put her down so they could plug in the tree to see how well they had done lighting the tree. After she plugged in the tree, she walked back across the room to him and wrapped her arm around his waist. She found his arm wrapping itself around her shoulders. They admired their tree, glancing at each other from time to time, gauging their reactions to their efforts.

"I'd say we did a pretty good job," Natalie said.

"I'd have to agree."

"How about we add the finishing touches?" She asked. "A few decorations around the loft would help make it cheerier."

"What did you have in mind?"

She once again looked through his boxes, handing him items from time to time. When she had found all she thought would be useful, she began to hang the various decorations throughout the loft, asking his opinion as she went.

Before long they'd finished and examined their handy work from both the main doorway and the living room area. They were pleased with the tasteful arrangement of holiday cheer. A large wreath hung on the railing where the first landing was. Two embroidered Christmas stockings had been hung from the mantle, one with each of their names stitched across the front near the top.

The next evening as soon as the sun had set they headed out to search for the perfect tree for her apartment. Because her ceilings were of regular height, they picked a much smaller tree. As soon as they had set the tree up in her apartment Nick excused himself for a moment, returning with a wrapped box in his hand.

He handed it to Natalie. She set the box down on the nearest solid surface and opened it. Inside were some of Nick's best ornaments, their age and intricate beauty leaving her momentarily speechless.

"Nat, I want you to keep these."

"Thank you. They're beautiful."

Again she asked him their history and he gladly told her.

Nick helped her check out the lights before stringing the tree. Once that was done they set about decorating it.

As they decorated her tree, he asked her about her older ornaments and delighted as much in hearing her stories as she did in telling them.

"What about this one?" Nick asked as he lifted up a small ceramic star which had lost some of its glitter over the years.

"This one was bought when I was born. My parents decided that they would buy an ornament when each child was born." She picked up a little ceramic boy and sadness momentarily clouded her eyes. "This one was bought when Richie was born."

"What about this one?" Nick asked as she placed a miniature book on the tree.

"This was bought when I started school. Our folks had expanded the tradition to include major milestones in our lives."

The next one she selected had obviously been made by a child. He wasn't sure what it was supposed to be.

"I made that in first grade." She hung the clay star on the tree with pride. It was a bit lopsided and barely resembled a star.

Nick found a tree which had been cut out of paper, the green had faded a bit over the years. In the center was a picture of a young girl with curly brown hair, big blue eyes and that same smile that melted his cool vampiric heart.

"You were cute." He grinned as he held the paper tree in his hand.

"We used school pictures to make ornaments for our mothers. I was about eight when that was taken." She grinned as she looked at the paper ornament. "Why don't you pick a spot for that one."

Nick studied the Christmas tree for a moment and found the perfect spot to hang the paper tree.

Before long she pulled out the ornament that marked her beginning junior high while he carefully removed the high school ornament.

"Let me guess, graduation?" Nick said as he held a little girl in a graduation cap."

"Yes. My dad bought that one. My mom died a few days after my high school graduation. They discovered she had ovarian cancer too late to save her. They hadn't expected her to live to see me graduate. She did and somehow made it to the ceremony. She was in incredible pain, and yet she was there to see her baby girl graduate." Tears welled in her eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry. I never meant for this to be so painful. You don't have to continue." He said as he wrapped his arms around her. He hadn't meant to make her sad, and was glad he was there with her while she faced these memories. She seemed glad too.

Moments later she left his embrace to continue decorating the tree. He gently wiped a single tear from her cheek with his thumb

"I like doing this. Some of it is painful, but a lot of it is happy. Like this one. Dad bought it the day I was accepted to college." She picked up a small plastic book. "And this one he bought upon my graduation." She picked up a brown haired girl in a cap and gown. "Dad bought me this one when I was accepted to medical school. He was so pleased," she said as she picked up a star which had a lab coat painted on it. Her eyes became sad again. "He was killed in a car crash during my senior year. Richie bought me the little doctor when I graduated." This time she wiped away the tear that ran down her cheek.

"Was he the last of your family?"

"Yes. Outside of Sarah and Amy there are no more of us." She frowned. She knew her sister-in-law and niece must miss Richard as much as she still did.

"You won't be forgotten as long as I'm alive. Your family and your stories will live on through me."

Natalie smiled knowing she would be remembered. A depression settled in as the thought of not having any family of her own to remember her, no children of her own, crossed her mind. The same thoughts made her a little afraid.

"What about this ornament?" Nick asked as he picked up a little angel. He was surprised to see her tense slightly.

"My grandmother gave me that one. I loved her, yet I hated what she did to me." A brief flicker of anger crossed her face.

"What did she do?" He saw resentment and love in her eyes.

Natalie grew silent, looking away, unsure if she wanted to tell Nick about this dark chapter of her childhood. One she worked hard to forget about. It was the concern she saw in his eyes that convinced her to tell her story.

"When I was little, Richie and I used to go stay with Nana when our parents had to go out of town. She used to hit me when I made typical kid mistakes and messes." Natalie couldn't look Nick in the face as she told the story, choosing a floorboard to examine instead.

Nick placed his thumb under her chin and tilted her face up so they were eye to eye. He saw a flash of anger in her eyes. Natalie wanted to see his reaction, yet she was afraid to look into his eyes. Reluctantly she did, seeing love and a hint of anger. She knew it wasn't directed at her but at her nana.

"I always resented that. It got so I hated to go over there as I never knew when she would hurt me and when she wouldn't. When she didn't hurt me we had a great time. I loved those times. We would make cookies together and talk." A bittersweet smile spread across her face as she reminisced.

"It sounds like she loved you, but her idea of discipline was harsher than most people's. Were you as spirited back then as you are now?" He grinned.

"Yes."

"Maybe she didn't know how to handle you." Nick knew all too well the sort of scars abuse could leave behind. A part of him wanted to hurt nana as much as she had hurt Natalie.

"All I ever wanted to know was why. She died before I could ask her. By the time I was a teen she was sick and dying. I resented her too much to go see her, yet I still loved her because she was my nana. I wanted to hear her say she was sorry for hurting me, and mean it. I wanted to hear her say she loved me."

He embraced her, glad she had been able to overcome the effects of her Nana's harsh discipline. That it had not prevented her from being the warm, giving woman he loved.

His arms around her felt great, just what she needed. She returned the embrace, breaking it off after a few moments. She wiped away a stray tear with her fingers.

Next, she added the ornaments Nick gave her earlier to the tree, making sure that each one had a special spot.

Before long they discovered that her tree was finished. She plugged it in and they stepped back to admire it.

Next they decorated her apartment making it quite festive, but not overdone.

Talking about her past with him had brought them closer together, as sharing his past with her had done. This year they had been through so much together which had forged a new, stronger bond between them.

Neither seemed to feel the aloneness and depression that they had sometimes felt during past holiday seasons. They had each found that special person with whom to share their lives.

Natalie's friends all noticed a positive change in her. Nick noticed the most change. Natalie didn't feel sorry for herself as she had previously. Nick hadn't blamed Natalie for feeling that way, knowing he would've felt the same it were him. He was glad to see that she had moved past that into what seemed to be acceptance, yet she had the same fighting spirit in her eyes as always.

Natalie was at Eton Center shopping for a gift for Jenny, one for Katie, and some for Amy. Natalie enjoyed doing it, yet it made her sad at the same time. Thanks to Collins she would never have any children of her own. She would not risk infecting an innocent child. She had never decided whether or not she had wanted to have children, but the option had always been there, now it wasn't.

Seeing all the mothers shopping with their children hurt. A part of her wished she could be one of them, but she knew that was impossible. Thoughts of adoption crossed her mind and were quickly dismissed. She couldn't adopt a child when she knew she would die before the child was in high school. She could not knowingly put any child through losing another parent, especially after they'd already lost their birth parents.

I wonder if they realize how lucky they are to have happy, healthy children? Natalie thought as she observed life around her. She knew that every parent with a child on the pediatric AIDS ward wished that their children could be as healthy as those in the mall. That their lives would be that simple once again. Are any of the kids, or their parents infected with it? Natalie wondered as she continued to watch those around her.

On her next day off, Natalie found her self with the sick children at the hospital once more. She didn't have any plans for that evening, so she thought she'd see if she could help out.

While she consoled children, time passed quickly. Natalie hadn't even noticed that evening had arrived.

Nick arrived at the hospital shortly after the sun had set, knowing he'd most likely find Natalie there. When he walked into the play area, he watched as Natalie read to a little girl. The small child's mop of black hair swayed back and forth as they rocked. Nick smiled as he stared in wonderment knowing that Natalie would have made a wonderful mother; she was a natural with kids. A pang of sadness hit him because she would never become a mother. Anger hit as well, but not aimed at her. It was aimed directly at Collins.

Katie was busy sketching the various people and noticed Nick's arrival. She found herself hoping he'd stay long enough for her to sketch him. He's cute, Katie thought to herself.

A little girl wandered over to Nick.

"Hi. I'm Lucy. What's your name?"

Nick smiled at the tiny blonde before him. He squatted down to be at her eye level. "Hi. I'm Nick."

"Do you want to see my picture?"

"Sure." Kids scared him, yet at the same time they filled him with amazement. They were so little, joyous, generous and trusting.

Nick followed the little girl over to a table where she had drawn a picture of her family.

"This is my mommy, my daddy, and my brother." The blonde five year old said as she pointed to the three figures standing next to a house. "This is me," she said as she pointed to the figure up in the clouds. "I will be able to see them. I won't be sick anymore. They won't hurt as much."

Nick was stunned. Here was a cheerful little person who knew she was dying yet had accepted it. She seemed way too mature for her years.

Lucy wandered off to find something else that interested her.

Nick looked around seeing the same things Natalie had described to him. He saw one very sick little boy of approximately four years old being rocked by his mother. In her eyes he saw such love and pain. Who's worse off them, or me? Nick wondered. Who's the truly cursed? He didn't want to be caught staring so he continued looking around the room. He saw Natalie working her magic on the little one in her arms.

Natalie had been too wrapped up to notice Nick's arrival. Moments later, the child hugged Natalie and scampered off to join the others. Natalie stood and looked around, surprised to see Nick. She headed for him.

"Nick, what are you doing here?" She asked lightheartedly.

"I thought I'd see what keeps you coming back here."

"How'd you know I'd be here?"

"I had a strong hunch I'd find you here."

"I have someone I want you to meet. Remember the sketch I gave you?"

"Yes. It was absolutely stunning."

They walked over to where Katie was working. She smiled as she saw them approach.

"Katie, I'd like you to meet Nick. Nick, Katie did the sketch."

"It's nice to meet you. Your sketch was beautiful. It captured her perfectly," Nick smiled.

Katie blushed. She loved the praise. "Thank you. You two make a great looking couple."

Natalie blushed slightly. "Katie, I hope you don't mind, but I gave Nick the sketch you did. I didn't have a place to hang it, but he did."

Now it was Katie's turn to blush, again. "You hung it on your wall?" She was a bit surprised, but most definitely pleased.

"Yes. I hung it so I could see it from all over my loft." Nick loved the huge smile that crossed Katie's face. Her eyes were twinkling with delight. He thought she might bounce up and down, if it had been dignified for a fifteen year old to do so.

Natalie saw Aaron pointing to her and talking to the woman next to him. She excused herself and approached Aaron.

"Hi Aaron, how are you today?"

"I'm much better. This is my mom." Aaron said as he headed off to play.

"Hi, I'm Natalie."

"I'm Belinda. Thank you for helping Aaron the other day. We thought he had accepted it, but we caught him crying a few times, wanting to know why he had to die, and who'd look after us. He wouldn't talk to the professionals here."

"I'm glad I could help. He's a very sweet child," Natalie said.

"I know. He seems as concerned about us as we are about him. He keeps surprising us."

"I find all the kids here amazing."

"They are amazing. They encourage each other, and offer sympathy when needed. They don't limit themselves to each other. I've seen them all, even the youngest ones, try to comfort us adults. They try to keep our spirits high."

Aaron returned to tug his mother away. She happily went with him.

Natalie wandered back over to Nick. She found the mixture of emotions in his eyes to be quite interesting. She saw sadness, happiness and confusion there.

Katie approached Nick and Natalie, a newly finished sketch in her hands. "Here." She handed the sketch to Natalie.

Nick and Natalie were stunned by what they saw. It was the two of them. They could see the love between them jumping out of the picture.

"This is gorgeous. Thank you." They both stammered, overwhelmed by the depth of the sketch.

Nick pulled five twenties out of his pocket and handed them to Katie. He loved the stunned look on her face.

"I can't take it. No one's ever given me this much before."

"We insist." Nick said. When she refused to accept it he asked, "is there anything you'd like instead?"

"A new sketchpad?"

"Okay."

"If you'll excuse me, I need some sleep," Katie said, looking exhausted.

"Good night. Sleep well."

Nick and Natalie left, noticing that many people around them were falling asleep. Children and parents were asleep in the same beds, the children asleep in their parents arms, and the parents beginning to doze off themselves.

During the drive back to his loft, Nick looked at Natalie, once again amazed by her. Here she was fighting the same disease yet instead of backing off from the kids, she seemed drawn to them.

"I see why you like going there. I couldn't help but wonder which of us had it worse? Which of us were the truly cursed?"

Natalie turned to look at him, caught off guard by his comments. Maybe there was hope for him after all. She smiled one of her warmest smiles at him.

The next evening Nick and Natalie arrived at the pediatric AIDS ward and saw Katie again busy sketching away. They headed for her, Nick carrying a good sized, festively wrapped box.

Katie took the box and set it down on the nearest table. She eagerly unwrapped it and lifted off the lid. Inside were various sketch pads, and an assortment of pencils. She was overwhelmed. A huge smile lit up her face, reaching all the way up to her eyes which sparkled with delight.

"Thank you. You didn't have to."

"It was the least we could do. " Nick said.

"I have another sketch for you guys." Katie retrieved the sketch from her book and handed it to Nick. Natalie looked over his shoulder.

"I think you captured him perfectly," Natalie said, still amazed at Katie's talent.

"Would you mind if I gave it to Natalie?" Nick asked.

"Not at all."

"I have a spot in my living room that needs a different picture and this will go perfectly."

A few days later, Natalie had a baby shower to attend for an old college friend of hers. She was surprised when she felt sad during the party because she would never have children of her own. She pushed her feelings aside. It was a party, and she didn't want to spoil it for Helene. She enjoyed seeing her old friends again. She had lost contact with some of them. She was glad her wrist had fully healed so she didn't have to answer the "what happened" question any more. It had become tiresome after about the twentieth time.

Natalie and Nick were doing the last of their Christmas shopping when they both saw the line of kids waiting to talk to Santa. Natalie turned to Nick, excitement sparkling in her eyes and radiating from her entire body.

"I want to get something special for Katie and the other kids. It's awful to be in the hospital over Christmas."

"What do you want to get?" Nick loved seeing the childlike glee coming from the woman he loved.

"I don't know. I heard that Katie wants a notebook computer, and maybe a computer for the ward? How about a few video games? Can we do this anonymously?"

"I think it's a wonderful idea! Make a list of what you want and I'll have it delivered as a gift from the deBrabant Foundation. Okay?"

Natalie's smile got brighter as he agreed. Her love for Nick grew more and more each day.

Both the Coroner's Office and the precinct threw their annual Christmas parties. Natalie and Grace exchanged small presents. Natalie had given Grace a mug with an angel on it, for always being there for her. Grace had given Natalie a candy jar in the shape of a skull complete with chocolates for Natalie to keep on her desk. Natalie had delighted in the morbid humor.

Nick had arranged for a Christmas Eve movie to be shown to the children in the Pediatric AIDS ward. It was to be shown outside the ward, so that while the movie was being shown, the presents could be delivered to the recreation room and piled around the tree without spoiling the surprise.

Nick wanted to be there to see this, so he rode in the trunk all the way to the hospital parking garage. The room with the tree had no windows, so he was safe. There was just over an hour left until sunset.

Nick and Natalie were adding the final touches when they heard the sound of children's voices and the patter of little feet. Natalie and Nick loved the surprised looks, smiles and giggles the mound of brightly wrapped packages brought out in the sick little children. The kids started bouncing around excitedly. Things did not calm down when Santa entered, in fact the kids grew even more excited and animated.

Nick and Natalie helped Santa pass out the gifts. They had tried to pick out something each child wanted, but the parents couldn't afford. Nick and Natalie felt great seeing all the happy faces, just the way it was supposed to be at Christmas time. Even the sickest little faces brightened up. The parents looked happy as well, both because their child was having a great time and because they were getting a gift they truly wanted.

Katie was stunned to find a top of the line laptop computer of her very own inside her package, complete with a very nice bundle of software. Aaron was delighted to have his very own video game system along with several games for it. The presents around the tree contained two brand new top of the line computers with a large collection of CD ROM's, a video game system with game cartridges, and several smaller hand held video game units complete with a selection of game cartridges.

Nick noticed the clock and nudged Natalie. She saw that they had to leave or they'd be late to the Schanke's, where they had been invited to spend Christmas Eve.

In the car Natalie looked at Nick, seeing a peaceful happiness there. He glanced over at her seeing a serenely delighted look. She saw him watching her and gave him one of her warmest smiles, seeing a matching smile spread across his lips.

"Thank you."

"It was nothing."

"You made a lot of seriously ill children extremely happy. Not a lot of people would've done that."

"It wasn't all my idea, if you remember?"

"I know. But, without your help it would still be only an idea," Natalie said. "Thanks to you I was able to give Katie a truly exceptional gift, rather than some small gift I would've picked out."

Nick and Natalie arrived at the Schanke residence. With packages in hand, Nick rang the doorbell, and both were welcomed inside with warm embraces.

Once their presents and coats had been deposited, they made themselves comfortable on the couch. Myra and Don noticed the great mood their guests were in and were pleased.

"Hi Nick, Natalie," Jenny said, excited.

"I bet you're looking forward to seeing what Santa's going to bring you," Natalie said, remembering her childhood. "I used to get so excited I had trouble sleeping. My parents used to tell my brother and me that if we weren't asleep when Santa came he wouldn't stop and leave presents. We had to stay in our rooms and be quiet until eight am."

"That sounds like what I have to do."

"If we didn't set a time she'd be up before the crack of dawn, that is if she went to sleep," Don said, lightly.

The sadness again crossed Natalie's features as she was reminded that she would never be a mother. She wondered if Don and Myra knew how lucky they were that Jenny was a perfectly normal, healthy child.

"Natalie, are you okay?" Don asked, a little concerned by her sudden mood change.

"I'm okay. Having no real family sometimes gets to me around the holidays."

"You're a part of our family, Natalie," Don said. "You too, partner."

"Enough of this gloominess. Jenny, would you like to open your gift now, if it is okay with your parents," Natalie said.

Don saw the eager little face of his daughter looking up at him and couldn't say no. He nodded his approval.

Jenny quickly zeroed in on her gift from Natalie and tore open the wrap as quickly as she could. Her face lit up when she saw the doll inside.

"Natalie, thank you. It's just what I wanted. How did you know?"

"A little elf told me," Natalie said with a smile. "I'm glad you like it."

"Why don't you go ahead and open the one from me," Nick said.

Jenny quickly found it and ripped open the paper. Inside was an art kit containing paints, colored pencils and markers. Jenny was impressed that it wasn't a children's set, but one for any age.

"This is neat, Nick. Thanks."

"I'm glad you like it."

"Would you two like to open your gifts now? At least the ones from me?" Jenny asked.

"Sure," Nick and Natalie said at the same time.

Jenny handed them each the gift she had made for them and wrapped all by herself. She was beaming with pride at her accomplishments.

Nick and Natalie opened their gifts and were touched by the fact that they were handmade. They both received ceramic pencil holders which had a nice design carved into them before they had been painted.

"It's beautiful. Thank you," Natalie said to Jenny.

"It's very nice. Thank you," Nick said.

Jenny's smile became even larger as they complimented her work.

Copious tears began to slide down Natalie's face. She was completely unnerved at how hard being unable to have a child was hitting her. She thought she had accepted that part of her life. She wondered why it was bothering her so much and if spending all that time on the pediatric AIDS ward was part of it.

"Natalie, are you sure you're okay?" Myra asked deeply concerned.

Nick was worried as well, believing that she had accepted it.

"I'm sorry. I didn't expect this reaction. I recently learned that I can't have children. I hadn't really even thought about having any. That's why I'm surprised by my reactions tonight," Natalie knew they expected an answer and would question her until they got the truth out of her. It was a slight manipulation of the truth, but it was the best she could do short of telling the Schankes that she was HIV positive.

Nick wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze. Don placed his hand on hers in a show of sympathy.

"I didn't mean to spoil your evening." Natalie struggled to get her emotions back under control and quickly succeeded. Her tears stopped and she brushed the remaining wetness from her face with her fingertips, accepting a tissue from Myra. Natalie blew her nose then tucked the tissue into her pocket.

"You didn't," Myra said, placing her hand on Natalie's to let her friend know she understood.

Natalie saw the sadness in Jenny's face. "Hey, Jenny, it's not your fault. Okay? I want to see a smile on that pretty face of yours." Natalie forced a smile onto her face as she spoke.

Jenny nodded. "But I remind you of what you can't have."

"Yes. But that is okay. I have you for a friend, and that is good enough for me," Natalie said with a grin, this time it was a natural one. She didn't want Jenny to feel it was her fault. She knew that eight year olds sometimes thought such things were their fault.

"I'm glad you're my friend, Natalie," Jenny said, happily.

"Natalie, any time you have an overwhelming motherly urge, I'm sure Jenny wouldn't mind spending some time with you," Myra said, knowing how hard it must be on Natalie. She remembered when they had had trouble conceiving.

"Natalie, I would like that," Jenny said with a smile. She had enjoyed the few occasions they had done things together.

"Thank you," Natalie said, feeling lucky to have such terrific friends. Would they still feel this way if they knew? Natalie wondered, before being snapped out of her reverie by Myra's voice.

"Nick, Natalie, would you like to open your gifts now or after dinner?"

"Now would be fine," Nick said, noting the avid curiosity on Jenny's face.

Jenny passed out the gifts for her parents from Nick and Natalie and the ones to Nick and Natalie from her parents.

Natalie received a beautiful beaded necklace from Don and Myra and thanked them for it. Nick received a red and black plaid scarf and thanked them for their thoughtful gift.

Natalie had picked out a silk scarf for Myra and a pair of fine leather gloves for Don. She was pleased when they both seemed to really enjoy their gifts.

Nick gave them a pair of tickets to the opera because he remembered Schanke once mentioning that they liked going there. Along with the tickets was an IOU for a night of baby-sitting. Their smiles pleased Nick, showing him that both parts of his gift were appreciated.

After exchanging gifts they moved to the dinner table where all but Nick proceeded to stuff themselves with Myra's excellent cooking. Nick did try a few bites of everything Natalie ate, once again surprising everyone at the table. It nauseated Nick, but the smile on Natalie's face, and the surprise on everyone else's was worth it.

Shortly homemade Christmas cookies and coffee were served, with milk for Jenny.

Natalie excused herself and headed for the powder room as it was time for her next round of medication. She knew she could've explained away one or two pills, but not the handful she had to take several times a day.

They soon relocated to the family room and visited for hours. Jenny curled up in a chair and was asleep within minutes. Before they knew it the wee hours of the morning were upon them. Nick and Natalie said their good-nights and headed out.

Myra and Don picked up the dirty dishes and carried them into the kitchen.

"Don, do you think that Natalie's problem is why they haven't gotten together?" Myra was concerned about her friends. She knew it would be a real shame if Nick and Natalie let that problem keep them apart. She had never seen two people so much in love, and so deserving. They were perfect for each other.

"I hope not. Do you want me to see what I can find out?"

"Would you, honey?"

Don tenderly kissed his wife as they finished cleaning the dishes. Don picked his daughter up and carried her upstairs, being careful not to wake her. Myra was right behind him turning out the downstairs lights they passed.

Meanwhile in the Caddy, Nick looked over at Natalie. She was staring out the front window gazing at the stars, a hint of a smile on her face.

"Did you have a nice time?"

"Yeah. Did you?" She looked over at him, seeing him watching the road ahead of them.

"Yes."

"I hope I didn't ruin the evening," Natalie said.

"You didn't. They understood. Even Jenny did," Nick said, hoping his words were as reassuring as he meant them to be.

"I hope you're right. I couldn't tell them. I didn't want to ruin their Christmas."

"You didn't." Nick's expression brightened. "Keep this up and you'll be like me," he teased.

"We can't have that, now can we?" She responded with the same teasing tone. "Thank you. I do tend to get wrapped up in the negative side. There's so much to think about, worry about, so much that can go wrong."

"I know. If you spend all your time thinking about those things you'll wind up as big a mess as I am. Whatever is going to happen, will happen. You can either accept it to a certain degree, or be miserable like I was before I met you." His hand caressed the side of her face, making her momentarily smile.

"I know. Sometimes it's so hard to look beyond it all. I wonder if it would be easier if I weren't a doctor? Probably not. Knowing what my future holds is scary, but I refuse to be taken completely by surprise. How do I plan? I have some plans, but will they work out?"

"Nat, I'm 800 years old and even I can't fully plan for the future. No one can. Everyone has plans that don't work out, for various reasons." Nick knew it was good for her to be voicing her concerns, but he didn't want her wallowing during her favorite holiday. Changing the subject, Nick asked, "How about a little music?"

"Sure. Can I pick the station?" She appreciated his attempts at lightening her mood. This is your favorite holiday, so lighten up. You can go back to this afterwards. Thoughts of the kids at the hospital came to mind making her feel guilty for her indulging her angst side.

She turned on the radio, not surprised to find it set to CERK. She quickly turned the radio's knob hoping to find some cheerier Christmas music knowing the Nightcrawler would do nothing to improve either of their moods.

She started laughing at the song she found.

"Nat, that's sick." He soon found himself laughing at the song as well.

"I know," She said, her spirits lifted considerably from earlier. "What are the chances of reindeer running over someone? Especially if they're in a car on the way to visit relatives?" She said lightly. "That's what makes the song so funny."

"You have a good point there."

I wouldn't mind a certain master vampire suffering the same fate, Natalie thought to herself, hoping Nick didn't figure out what she was thinking.

Soon, they found themselves at Nick's building. Nick pulled the car into the garage and parked.

They entered the elevator with their arms wrapped around each other's waist, and waited for it to reach his loft. When the elevator stopped, Natalie opened the door. A moment later, she noticed a sprig of mistletoe hanging just above the opening and smiled. Nick leaned in to kiss Natalie. She was surprised but definitely pleased, and gave in to his tender, passionate kiss.

"Would you like to open your gift now?" Nick asked when he released her from their embrace.

"Sure. How about you?"

"Sure."

They were both anxious to see if they had chosen the perfect gift.

"Merry Christmas, Nat," Nick said with a smile.

"Merry Christmas, Nick," Natalie said, returning the smile.

They walked to the tree hand in hand where each picked up a colorfully wrapped gift before heading for the couch. Once seated, they exchanged boxes.

"You go first," Nick said.

Natalie carefully undid the paper and ribbon from the box. She opened it, pushed aside the tissue paper, pulled the garment from the box and saw it was a leather jacket. Tenderly, she touched the butter soft material. It was the softest black leather she had ever felt. She stood and tried it on. The jacket hung down to just above her knees. It fit like a glove and felt better than anything she had ever owned.

"Thank you. It's lovely, and so soft."

"You're welcome. I'm glad you like it."

She took it off not wanting to soil it and carefully hung it over the chair next to the couch.

She motioned for him to open his gift. When he did, Nick discovered a small sculpture which he recognized from her apartment. It was an interesting pyramid design, not an Egyptian pyramid as one would think at first glance. It was glass and had the most unique color combinations as an integral part of the piece. It was beautiful, yet unusual at the same time. There was some engraving on it, but nothing that could be read.

"Isn't this your favorite piece?" Nick asked.

"I know how much you like it."

"Thank you. It's the best gift I've ever received," he said, touched by the gesture. "I'll keep it with me always." He set the sculpture on the coffee table far enough from the edge that it wouldn't accidentally get knocked off.

Nick looked at the beautiful woman seated next to him. The woman who had captured his heart and soul like no other woman had before. "Nat, have I told you recently how much I love you?" He gently caressed her cheek.

"No. And I love you too." She ran her hand across his cheek, admiring the man that had completely changed her world, showing her all that she had missed. At the same time filling a void in her that she never knew existed.

Their lips were drawn together as if by a magnetic force. This time only a man and a woman kissed. Not a vampire detective and a mortal coroner. Just two souls in love.

A few days later, it was New Year's Eve. Both Nick and Natalie had to work so they watched the ball fall on her portable television while listening to the celebration. Each held a glass of non-alcoholic grape juice with which to toast the new year.

"Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday," Natalie said, knowing that it wasn't Nick's real birthday, but it was the one he celebrated in this life. Worry clouded her emotions as she thought about the new year and the uncertainty it would no doubt bring.

"Thanks. Happy New Year." He suspected why she was depressed, even though she tried to hide it.

As Natalie sipped her drink her mind wandered. Will I become sicker this year? Will I even live through this year... The doctor side of her knew that it could be years before the AIDS virus would even be detected, but the vulnerable human side was terrified of growing very sick and dying.

Nick took another sip which went down easier than he thought it would. He was concerned about her, knowing that the new year couldn't help but bring up the fact that at some point she would get sick. The sooner time passed, the sooner she would die. He saw the sadness and depression in her eyes and body language.

She saw the concerned look in his eyes and hated that this damn disease caused him so much pain. How ironic, Natalie began to think. Before the disease, it would have been Nick to say he was the one causing pain. But, through the disease, it had showed her how much he truly cared about her.

Later that shift, Natalie decided to throw a party for Nick. She knew that he didn't like big fancy parties, especially those in his honor. She also knew that the sooner she did it the less able he would be to wriggle out of it. Natalie was pleased that both she and Nick had the next night off.

She issued the invitations verbally to Schanke and told him to bring Myra along, Grace, who couldn't attend due to a previous commitment and finally she told Nick.

Nick didn't want the party but saw how much she wanted to do it and agreed. Also because everyone had already been invited, which he wasn't happy about, but knew it was probably for the best.

Natalie stopped by the Raven on her way home to invite Janette. Natalie was pleased when the raven haired vampire said she'd attend, and wondered if she would actually show.

The next afternoon, Natalie told Nick that she had to run a few errands before coming over, which was partly true. She had to pick up a few last minute things for his party. She was glad he had a few errands to take care of so she wouldn't have to come up with some excuse to get him out of the loft for a while. Even though he knew about the party, she didn't want him there while she decorated.

Natalie made sure he was gone before entering. Once there, she gave the loft a quick once over and started decorating. She discovered that it helped ease the remaining mild depression the new year had brought.

Natalie loved being able to get her mind off herself for a while and do something to show Nick how much she appreciated everything he had done for her, not to mention all the wonderful things he still did for her. She wanted him to know how deeply she loved him.

After the two dozen balloons with festive ribbons trailing from them were hung along with the birthday banner and the snacks put on the table, Natalie surveyed the room. The loft was quite festive, but the decorations were nowhere near as elegant or elaborate as they had been for her party. Natalie was pleased with how well it had turned out and stretched out on the couch with a magazine, awaiting the arrival of Don and Myra, as well as Nick's return.

Nick arrived home a short time later to find Natalie waiting for him. He was surprised by the decorations and smiled.

"You did a nice job decorating the place." He still didn't really want a party, but if it made her happy then he'd go along with it. "Nat, you shouldn't have gone to all this trouble."

"Thanks. I know. I wanted to. Don't worry I didn't invite many people."

"When did you plan all this? How did you arrange it all?" He couldn't believe that she'd pulled it off with only a few hours time and effort.

"Vampires are not the only sneaky people," she said with a wicked grin.

They heard the elevator start. Moments later Schanke entered the loft carrying two gifts.

"Natalie, the place looks good. Myra sends her apologies." Schanke noticed Natalie had set out some chips and dip, cheese, cold cut cubes, and store bought cookies.

"How's Jenny?" Nick asked.

"She's okay. The stitches come out at the end of the week and the cast comes off in about six weeks."

"What happened? Why didn't I hear about this?" Natalie asked stunned, wondering how she had missed hearing about Jenny's accident.

Schanke was quick to explain. "She was out sledding with some friends. Somehow the sled tipped over and caught her wrist the wrong way. It's a simple fracture. The metal edge of the sled left a gash on her chin that required four stitches. It happened the night before last. I thought I had mentioned it," Schanke said. "Myra freaked when Jenny came home bloody, cradling her wrist and trying not to cry. I helped keep everyone calm and drove them to the ER."

Nick and Natalie knew it was more likely that Don had freaked and Myra was the calm one, but they weren't going to contradict him.

"I'm glad she's okay. Tell her to get well soon. I remember that happening to me when I was little. Probably pretty close to her age," Natalie said.

"What happened?" Nick asked, curious.

"I was out sledding with my brother and some of our friends. The sled hit a bump, flipped over and somehow caught my wrist wrong too. I wonder how many kids have had that same problem? I have a small scar under my chin from the sled and four stitches. Neither my parents or Nana wanted to let me go sledding anymore. Finally my dad gave in, knowing that it had been an accident, and a fairly common one according to the doctor."

"Nick, did you ever get hurt sledding?" Schanke asked, curiously. "I have a nasty scar on my knee from sledding, but never broke anything. Ten stitches."

"Yes. I also broke my wrist when I was about eight or nine. Six stitches under my chin. I couldn't stop and hit a bump the wrong way," Nick said, knowing how much medicine had changed since the thirteenth century, in some ways, but not very much in others. Modern broken bones were treated not all that differently from way back then with the standard treatment being realignment and immobilization. He remembered the pain of his mom sewing up the gash in his chin without the benefit of modern anesthetics.

"Happy birthday, partner," Schanke said, feeling a bit guilty about taking the attention away from Nick at his own party.

"Thanks, Schank."

The elevator door opened admitting Janette, who was decked out in a sleek black dress with every jet black hair in place.

"I'm glad you could make it, Janette," Natalie said genuinely.

"I couldn't miss Nichola's birthday, now could I?" Her voice carried a slight teasing tone.

Schanke smiled at the sight, drawing grins from Nick and Natalie. Schanke didn't know why he found himself drawn to Janette's beauty, but would never cheat on Myra. He loved his wife too much.

Nick cleared his throat breaking Schanke's admiration.

"Sorry, partner," Schanke said a little embarrassed.

Schanke handed Nick his two presents. Nick sat on the couch to open them with Natalie seated near him while Schanke helped himself to the food before taking a seat in the armchair. Janette took the remaining end of the couch as her seat, placing her wrapped gift on the coffee table.

Nick was pleased to see that Natalie had not left his vampiric sibling out of the party. He was still surprised that they got along as well as they did, sometimes a little more than he would've liked.

"Happy birthday, Nick," Natalie said, suddenly feeling much more in a party mood. Her brightened mood didn't escape Nick's notice.

Janette echoed the sentiment.

"Nick, how old does this make you?" Schanke asked.

"Um, thirty-six," Nick said as he quickly glanced at Natalie for confirmation. She gave a barely noticeable nod.

Both Nick and Natalie noticed Janette hiding a small smirk, that showed in her eyes, if you knew where to look.

Nick opened the gift from Myra and Don. Inside the box he found a beautiful royal blue shirt in his size. He knew Myra had picked it out.

"It's lovely, Schank. Thank Myra would you, please."

"Sure. We thought your wardrobe could use some color."

Next he opened the one that looked like it had been wrapped by a child. Inside he found a handmade paperweight. It had been decorated with glitter and paint.

"Thank Jenny for me too. It's great," Nick said with a smile. There was a hint of sadness in his eyes. He had dreamed that Natalie would cure him and then they would be able to start their own family. Collins had ripped Nick's one dream from him.

Natalie didn't want him getting lost in thought, so she handed him her present.

Nick opened the gift and found a very stylish aqua blue silk robe wrapped within the box's tissue.

Schanke's eyebrows shot up. As did Janette's.

"It's not like she's never seen me in my robe before. She did stay here for a couple of weeks." Nick immediately realized he might've triggered memories of the rape's aftermath. He was relieved when Natalie placed her hand on his, reassuring him that she was fine.

"I forgot that. So there's nothing..." Schanke wondered.

"Only a deep friendship. Sorry, Schank," Natalie said. She wished they could tell everyone of their true feelings, but until he was cured or he brought her across, they couldn't. It would be too complicated. She silently cursed Collins for infecting her. He stole her dream to someday have a family with Nick. She quickly brushed those feelings aside, not wanting to spoil the party.

Janette detected those quickly hidden feelings, but decided not to say anything, at least not for the moment.

"Nat, it's beautiful. Thank you." The sincerity in his voice was not lost to those around them.

"Nicola, here's a little something for you." Janette handed Nick a small box.

Nick ripped open the paper, removed the top from the box and was quite surprised to find, resting on the cotton padding, one of his old rings. One which she had refused to return when she had left him almost 350 years go. He slipped the silver ring onto his finger, not surprised that it still fit. After all, vampires did not change that much over the years.

"Thanks, Janette." Nick hoped he kept most of the surprise from his face. Natalie detected it and made a mental note to ask him about it later.

Schanke and Natalie examined the ring, noting the simple elegance in the design work. There was some engraving which left an old French design around the band.

"I must be off. After all, I have a club to attend," Janette said.

"Thanks for coming," Nick said.

Schanke watched Janette as she said goodbye to Nick, and Natalie, walked to the elevator, and entered. He was a happily married man, yet he couldn't resist watching her.

Schanke noticed the subtle glances between Nick and Natalie, as well as the growing quietness of the room and realized they wanted to be alone. He saw the love between Nick and Natalie, knowing their relationship was something more than a deep friendship, but not quite romance. He had noticed some cool embers between Nick and Janette, and hoped they stayed that way. He was surprised by the lack of jealousy from Natalie.

"I've gotta go relieve Myra. She has to do a bunch of errands and doesn't want to wake Jenny."

"See ya, Schank. Thanks for coming. Tell Myra we missed her," Nick said as Schanke entered the elevator.

"See ya, Schank." was all Natalie had time to say before the elevator door closed.

Natalie walked over to where she had draped her coat over one of the kitchen chairs and removed a smaller box from its hiding place. She walked back to the couch and handed the box to Nick.

"Here's your real present." She smiled at the excitement dancing in his eyes.

"You shouldn't have."

Nick opened the gift and pulled out a beautiful calligraphic note. She saw the question in his eyes did you do this? and answered it with a simple nod of her head. It had taken her a few tries as she was a bit out of practice.

"Nick, In honor of your birthday I will not make you drink a protein shake or eat for a week. I will also try not to get after you about your diet. Love, Nat." A large smile spread across Nick's face as he read the paper out loud.

"I wanted to get you something really special, but I couldn't find anything suitable. I mean, what do you get someone who's 800 years old?"

"I like this, just fine." He said as he kissed her.

Natalie and Nick both continued to spend time at the pediatric AIDS ward, where they saw that their gifts were greatly appreciated by both the children and the adults. They felt great knowing they'd brightened several lives.

The children never failed to make Nick and Natalie feel better. The kids optimism and endless hope, even that of those who knew they did not have much time left, was contagious.

Nick and Natalie felt lucky to know their special friends. Natalie was grateful to still be asymptomatic, knowing how sick she could be.

Seeing the children only reinforced the fact that time was a precious gift, one that should be savored, not taken for granted as too many people did.

Natalie hoped that when she became that ill, that she'd have half the optimism of her young friends, and that Nick would handle it as well as the parents here did.

During Natalie's next visit to the hospital she saw Katie anxiously awaiting her arrival. Natalie headed straight for the spunky teen.

"Hi, Natalie. How are you tonight?"

"Hi, Katie. I'm doing good. How about you?"

"Good." Katie hesitated slightly before continuing. "If I can get permission, can I watch you work sometime?"

"Sure. I think I can get my boss to agree. I can't make any guarantees as to what you'll see. I hope you have a strong stomach." Natalie didn't think Terri could turn down a dying teen's request.

"I do. Thanks." Katie said. "How about some skating? You said we'd do it some day."

Natalie couldn't turn down the eager face in front of her. "Okay. I don't have to be at work for a few hours yet."

"Can we go?" Katie asked, hoping for a yes.

"Sure."

"Let me tell Pam where we're going."

Katie scurried off to let the head nurse know where she was going, grabbed her jacket and duffel bag before heading back to where Natalie was.

"All set?" Natalie inquired.

"Yeah. Do you have your skates with you?"

"They're in my trunk. I was going to do some skating either later today or tomorrow. Nick will be glad I'm not dragging him along this time." Natalie grinned.

"He doesn't like it?"

"He doesn't seem to like it much. Too bad, he's actually pretty good at it." Her grin broadened as she thought about Nick on skates.

About ten minutes later, Natalie and Katie arrived at the park. They sat in the car to put their inline skates, helmet and pads on.

"You ready?" Katie playfully asked as she started to skate around.

"Yeah," Natalie said as she locked the car door.

"Last one to the bench is a rotten egg," Katie said as she took off.

"Cheater," Natalie called out teasingly. She took off after Katie.

Katie just barely beat Natalie to the bench.

"Did you let me win?"

"No. You had a good sized head start," Natalie said. "How about a rematch?"

"You're on."

"First one to the ice cream vendor wins," Natalie said. "Go." She started skating, Katie right behind her. She barely won this time.

"How about some ice cream?"

"Sure."

They skated while eating their ice cream. After they were done eating they talked, told jokes, laughed as they exercised. Natalie kept an eye on Katie so she wouldn't overtire herself. About an hour later they tired and returned to the car, where they took off their equipment and changed back into their sneakers.

"Are you hungry?" Natalie asked.

"A little."

"Any dietary restrictions?"

"Nope. How about some pizza?" Katie asked as she caught a glimpse of the time. "I missed dinner by about five minutes."

"I'm sorry."

"That's okay. The food stinks, but you sorta get used to it. Scary, eh?" Katie let out a small giggle.

"Yeah. That is scary. Pizza it is," Natalie said with a smile.

Natalie and Katie walked down the street about a block to the Double Diamond Pizza place. Natalie let Katie pick the toppings. The two of them enjoyed a medium pizza with everything but mushrooms, anchovies and peppers on it. Along with the pizza they had fries and large sodas.

After they finished, Natalie drove Katie back to the hospital. After escorting Katie back to the ward, seeing that she told Pam she was back, and saying goodbye, Natalie left. When she got outside, she checked her watch, seeing she'd just have time to quickly shower and change before work.

Natalie entered her office, checked her desk pleased to discover no bodies awaiting her immediate attention, and headed for her supervisor's office.

Natalie knocked on Terri's door and saw her boss motion for her to enter.

"Natalie, what can I do for you?" Terri asked as she looked up from her paperwork.

"I have a rather strange request to make and would like you to hear me out."

"Okay."

"I know a teen who's dying, and she'd like to see what I do. Would you have any objection to her spending a few hours with me here during a shift?"

"It is a bit odd, but I don't see what it can hurt, providing you get her parents and her doctor's permission." Terri said. "Does this have anything to do with your recent picture in the paper?"

"Yes. I met her through my friend Scott, the head of the new children's wing."

"It sounds like you're doing a bit of volunteer work there." Terri was curious but proud of her forensic pathologist. She knew how hectic Natalie's schedule was and for her to spend her little free time volunteering was surprising.

"I am. The kids are amazing. They're so optimistic, especially Katie. They can teach us so much."

"I think it's great. I wish more of my staff would do volunteer work."

"Thank you," Natalie said as she headed back to her office.

Later, Natalie was seated at her desk, the latest file open in front of her, but her mind wasn't on work. She was thinking about Katie. She realized that if things had gone differently, Katie might've been her daughter, following in her mother's footsteps. But, now she'd never know because of Collins. She would always be haunted by the question - would her daughter have followed in her footsteps?

Two nights later, Natalie picked up Katie on her way in for her shift. Natalie found her teen friend's excited state to be rather amusing, and reminded her a bit of herself at that age.

Natalie and Katie entered the Coroner's office, running into Grace in the hallway.

"Natalie, please don't tell me she's a new intern. If so then I'm really getting old," Grace cheerfully said.

"She's not. Grace, this is Katie. Katie, Grace is my assistant."

"Nice to meet you," both Katie and Grace said at the same time.

"Katie, would you like some hot chocolate?" Grace asked. She knew Natalie would be heading for the coffee pot in a just a moment.

"That would be great. Thanks."

Right on schedule Natalie headed for the coffee pot, needing the caffeinated fluid to start off her shift. Natalie dragged an extra chair into her office so that Katie could have a seat somewhere other than the steel autopsy table.

While she sipped at her coffee and Katie drank her hot chocolate Natalie looked through the small stack of files on her desk, glad that there wasn't anything that couldn't wait until later.

"How about a quick tour of the room before you examine some blood samples? Then if you're still interested, some tissue samples." Katie's grin and eager nod were her answer.

Natalie showed Katie the various pieces of equipment, explaining what each one did, showed her the freezer where the corpses were stored and the computer. She enjoyed satisfying the teen's curiosity.

Natalie fetched some blood samples she had finished examining just the other night and placed the first one under the microscope.

"Take a look."

Katie examined that sample and several others, asking questions as she went. Natalie enjoyed answering them and asking a few of her own. She liked challenging her bright new friend.

Natalie wondered if experiences like this could've changed Katie's mind about the career she'd wanted.

"Natalie, do you have any more slides?" Katie asked.

"What?" Natalie asked, her reverie broken.

"Do you have any more slides?"

"I think so. Let me look around." Natalie checked around, but couldn't find any new ones. "How would you like to make some?"

"Cool. Blood or tissue ones?" Katie eagerly asked.

"I think we'll start with a few blood ones. If that goes well, then we'll move onto the tissue ones." Natalie enjoyed Katie's eager curiosity. She handed Katie a pair of latex gloves and donned a pair herself.

Natalie guided Katie through each step, letting her do the work herself. Katie found it fascinating.

"What do you see?" Natalie asked, wishing she had some abnormal blood for Katie to examine.

"I see regular looking blood cells. Nothing unusual here."

Natalie took a frozen specimen from the freezer. "You ready to try a few tissue samples?"

"Yeah. What's that gross thing?" Katie asked totally disgusted, but not about to quit.

"It's a lung. I'm not saying anymore now."

Natalie walked Katie through the process of slicing the tissue and preparing it for the slide. Katie was a little hesitant, but only at first. Once they had several sections prepared, Katie took them over to the microscope.

"It looks all stringy inside. All gross."

"That's not very professional sounding," Natalie teased.

Katie reexamined the first slide. "Please tell me this isn't what my lungs look like."

"Don't worry, your lungs don't look like that. What else do you see?"

"They look like they couldn't work, or work very well. They seem to be destroyed."

"You're right. Do you have any guess as to what did that?"

"No. What was it?"

"I would guess two packs of cigarettes a day for about fifteen years."

"Is that what killed him?"

"No. He was shot in the chest." Natalie didn't want to make Katie sick with all the gory details. "Ready to try some more?"

"Sure."

Natalie looked around for any samples she had stored, or any tissues she could use. She found a few items from each category and was pleased. She loved watching Katie eagerly examining everything she was shown and giving her opinion on it.

While Katie was examining the last slide, Natalie grabbed her mug, filled it with water and took her handful of pills, hoping Grace wouldn't enter.

About an hour later, the phone rang. Natalie answered it and scribbled down the address before replacing the receiver into it's cradle.

"You ready to see what field work is like?" Natalie asked.

"Sure."

Shortly, they arrived at the address Natalie had scribbled down.

"You can watch, but I need you to stay out of my way and that of the cops. If one of us tells you something, listen. Okay?" Natalie said as they approached the scene.

"Sure. No problem." Katie hoped she didn't sound too excited. She had never been to a crime scene and wondered what she'd see. Would it be like it was on TV? Katie wondered.

Natalie hoped it wasn't too gruesome a scene. The two ladies arrived on the scene and approached the victim.

"Hi, Nat. Hi, Katie," Nick said. Natalie had told him Katie was joining her at work tonight.

"Hi, Nick."

"Katie, this is Det. Schanke, Nick's partner."

"Hi, Katie. Nice to meet you."

"Hi, Det. Schanke. Nice to meet you, too," Katie said.

Natalie examined the body, pointing out various things about the crime scene to Katie. She kept a close eye on the teen, not wanting to overtire her or make her lose her lunch.

Katie was fascinated, yet a little disgusted at the same time. She had seen death, but never like this.

"I'd estimate time of death to be six hours ago, give or take an hour. Cause of death, gunshot wound to the chest, most likely at close range. From the noticeable bruising I'd say that the victim put up a struggle first. I'll know more after I get him back to the lab. Do we have an ID on him?"

"From his ID it said that his name's Jim Porter and he's from Montreal."

Katie watched Nick, Natalie and Schanke working. She watched the activity, noticing how everyone seemed to really know what they were doing, especially Natalie.

Schanke was curious why Natalie had brought a teenager with her to work. Nick had only told him that it was a friend of theirs. Schanke noticed how Katie was watching everything, paying particular attention to Natalie and his partner.

Natalie and her "student" went back to the morgue, where they changed into scrubs and gowns. Katie was handed a cap, a pair of protective goggles, mask and two pairs of latex gloves.

Natalie slipped into her magnifying goggles, mask and two pairs of latex gloves. She saw the curiosity on Katie's face and handed her a pair of the magnifying goggles.

"Don't touch anything. Look around and tell me what you see. Okay?"

Katie nodded.

"If at any time this becomes too much for you, don't be afraid to leave the room. Grace is around and will show you the rest of the labs."

They examined the body. Katie watched as Natalie dictated her findings into her tape recorder, sometimes stopping her recording to point something out or further explain its significance. Once the exterior of the body had been thoroughly examined Natalie prepared for the internal examination.

"This is where it gets nasty. I'm going to cut him open here to here." Natalie gestured from his breast bone to below the belly button. Then I will examine the internal organs. I will also remove and weigh them. One of the staff here will make tissue slides from them, like we did earlier."

Katie was beginning to look a little green around the edges as Natalie made her first incision, but was determined to hang in there.

Natalie looked up at Katie before continuing, wanting to make sure the teen wasn't about to become ill or pass out. When all seemed okay, Natalie completed the Y incision opening up the victim. She examined the chest wound, carefully removing the lungs.

Katie left the room rather quickly, looking quite green around the gills. Natalie had a hunch that Katie wouldn't make it through the entire autopsy, but was impressed with how long she had remained in the room. Katie had lasted longer than some med school students did and most cops.

Natalie completed her autopsy and finished dictating her notes. She stripped off her gloves, mask, gown and slipped into her lab coat before heading out of her lab. She found Grace seated at her desk, alone.

"Where's Katie? Is she okay?"

"She's in the lounge. She looked a bit ill, but soon recovered. I'm surprised she lasted as long as she did."

"Me too. Did you show her around?"

"Yes. She found the various departments quite interesting. She liked being able to fire the .45 into the collection tube."

"Thanks, Grace."

"No problem. She's a nice kid. It's too bad she's dying."

"I wouldn't let her hear you say that," Natalie said lightly, yet there was a seriousness to it as well.

Natalie headed into the lounge and saw Katie sound asleep on the cot. She hated to wake her but knew Katie would probably be more comfortable in her own bed.

"Katie." Natalie quietly said as she gently shook the teen's shoulder. "Time to go home."

Katie woke, rubbing her eyes as she sat up. "I don't want to go back. I want to see what else you do. I'm sorry I couldn't stay there."

"You did better than I did my first time." Natalie said with a laugh. "The first time I saw a body I turned a bit green. The first time I had to do an autopsy I was sick for three days."

"Really?" Katie asked, surprised.

"Really. During my training I learned how to push my feelings aside and do the job. Yes, it still gets to me sometimes." Natalie said. "Since I don't think you'd be interested in watching me fill out paperwork, why don't we go over to the precinct, before I take you back to the hospital?"

"Okay," Katie said. "Do cops ever watch? Do they get sick? Has Nick or his partner lost their lunch?"

"Most cops don't last as long as you did. Some can get through a little more than you did, but they eventually bolt. Very few make it through the entire thing. Nick has seen one, and managed to make it all the way through. Schanke tries to avoid them whenever he can." Natalie said. "Are you ready to go?"

"I need to go to the bathroom. I'll be right back." She knew it was time for her next round of medication and went to take the rather large handful of pills. She took even more than Natalie did, due to having AIDS. She had to take drugs to fight off infections and deal with those she might have.

Grace entered as Natalie was sorting out the files she needed to take over to the precinct.

"What's Katie dying from?" Grace asked, unable to contain her curiosity any longer.

Natalie suddenly became quite nervous and tried to keep it from showing. She fiddled with her files while trying to come up with another way of phrasing AIDS. "She's dying due to several systemic failures. One of which is her immune system."

"I'm dying of AIDS," Katie said. She had entered right after Grace's question, but stayed out of sight. She wanted to observe Natalie's reaction and was disappointed with her friend's answers. Katie noticed that the M.E. looked like she was about to jump out of her skin.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Grace said, sincerely. She was surprised, but didn't pull away from Katie. Instead her heart went out to the teen.

"Thanks." Katie could see Grace's curiosity. "I contracted it from a bad blood transfusion when I was almost five. I had appendicitis. Back then blood wasn't as carefully tested as it is now, because not as much was known about the disease."

Grace was a little curious as to why Natalie would chose a teen with full blown AIDS to befriend, knowing Katie would die within a year, maybe two.

"Good-bye, Katie. I enjoyed meeting you. I hope to see you again sometime." Grace wrapped the teen in a big bear hug.

Natalie nervously stacked up her selected files, wondering if Grace would treat her that way if she found out that she was HIV positive.

"Grace I'll be at the precinct for a while. Then I have to take Katie back to the hospital. I may or may not make it back here tonight," Natalie said, hoping her growing unease didn't show. She hoped Grace wouldn't ask too many questions about why she and Katie were friends, why she had given the answer she had or why she seemed a bit nervous now.

Natalie grabbed her coat and bolted, with Katie right behind her.

Grace noticed something was bothering Natalie and suspected it had to do with Katie. Grace's mind began to wander and she let it.

Natalie was trying to pay close attention to the road, but was distracted by what had just happened in the morgue.

"Is Grace always that friendly?" Katie asked, liking Natalie's assistant.

"Yeah. She loves to hug. She's great," Natalie said with a big smile.

"I like how she wasn't afraid to touch me, even after she knew. It didn't seem to matter to her."

When Natalie remained silent, Katie looked at the files, finding them rather boring, the exception being the photographs, some of which made her a little green.

"You're afraid to tell your friends, aren't you?" Katie asked.

Natalie's silence showed Katie she was right. "I don't want them to worry. There's nothing they can do to help. I couldn't stand it if they turned away from me."

"Don't you know *they* are your lifeline." Katie said.

"What if they couldn't handle it? I don't want to lose them."

"If they're your true friends, you won't lose them. It may take a few of them some time to accept it, but they won't turn their back on you for good. There are always a few that can't handle it or are too afraid. Your real friends will be there for you." Katie said. "It will make life a lot easier and a lot more rewarding for both you and your friends. You won't have to lie to them, then remember which lie you told to who. Don't forget what stress can do."

Natalie knew Katie was right, that too much stress could cause her condition to worsen quicker than she'd like. Katie knew the expression she saw on her friend's face meant that Natalie was listening and thinking about what she was hearing.

"Look how well Grace accepted my condition, and she barely knows me," Katie said. "Would you want to know if your friend had HIV or AIDS? What would you do if you learned that about one of them?"

"I would want to know. I would want them to know I was there for them. I would want to know so I could make time to spend with them, instead of saying 'we'll get together soon' and allowing it to be put off for no good reason, and then suddenly it would be too late."

Natalie couldn't believe how the teen sitting next to her could reach into her soul and know exactly what her fears were. Not to mention getting her to examine them and try to help her overcome them. She contemplated telling Grace.

Before long they entered the precinct and were approaching Nick and Schanke's desks.

"Katie, how about a tour?" Nick asked, watching Natalie deposit a stack of folders on his desk.

"Sure. I've never been inside a police station before."

Nick took Katie on a tour of the precinct, stopping at the various departments. He explained what each one did. Out of all the departments, Katie especially liked booking. Since it was momentarily slow, the officer in charge told her about his department, took her mug shot and fingerprinted her. She got a kick out of that and thanked him for his time. Nick also showed her lockup, allowed her to try on a bulletproof vest, and then took her to the shooting range.

While Nick was showing Katie around Schanke had a few questions for Natalie.

"Natalie, how did you and Katie meet? How does Nick know her?"

"I met Katie through Scott. I was touched by the stories I heard at the opening and decided to do a little volunteer work. The kids are amazing. We can learn so much from them. Nick saw how much I enjoyed my volunteer work and tried it one night." She paused for a moment seeing the unasked question on Schanke's face 'why did she come to work with you?', and thought a moment before continuing. "Katie's terminally ill and wanted to see where I worked."

"Natalie, you are something else. I don't know many people who put in the kind of hours you do and then volunteer to spend your time off with sick and dying children. I would think that after spending all those hours around stiffs you would want to do something life affirming offshift."

"The children are life affirming. They may be sick or dying but they are enjoying what time they have left, making the most of every day. They're refusing to go down without a fight. Their optimism is amazing, even from the sickest ones."

"What are the kids dying from?"

"Pneumonia, cancer, immunological disorders, encephalitis, massive systemic failures, take your pick."

"What's Katie dying from?"

Natalie wanted to tell Schanke, but the words just wouldn't come. "She's dying of several systemic failures, one of which is her immune system."

"Should she even be here? There are so many germs around," Schanke asked concerned.

"It's okay." Natalie tried to reassure him.

Nick had to convince the range attendant to let Katie in. He handed her a pair of ear protectors and took one for himself. He also handed her a pair of protective goggles, which she put on. He put up a target for her and showed her how to shoot, then handed her his weapon. She was startled the first time she fired it as it had quite a kick to it. It was different from doing it in the forensics lab, where the gun was mounted on a frame so all she had to do was pull the trigger. Here she held the gun in her own two hands, feeling the force of the recoil all throughout her slender body. When she had emptied the clip he reclaimed his gun, ejecting the empty clip and inserting a full one, before reholstering it. He brought her target up so that she could examine it. Several of the bullets hit various areas of the human anatomy, and a few strayed outside the body outline.

"Not bad for a first try," Nick said with a grin.

Katie smiled.

They headed back for the bullpen, Katie happily carrying her souvenirs with her.

"So, how did it go?" Schanke asked.

"I had my mug shot taken and my fingerprints done. Nick let me fire off a clip. See." Katie proudly showed off her goodies, starting with her target.

"Not bad," Schanke said.

"Natalie, have you ever shot a gun?"

"I have. Since the ME's office is part of the police department we were required to learn how to fire a weapon. I have to practice a couple of times a year. I'm supposed to do it more often, but usually find some excuse not to."

"Thank you all for giving me a night I'll never forget." Katie stifled a yawn.

"How about I give you a ride back in my car?" Nick asked.

"Cool. Can we run the lights and siren?"

"For a moment or two."

Natalie and Nick left with Katie out in front. She was surprised to see Nick's car.

"This is your police car?"

"Yeah. Would you rather ride in a squad car?"

"No. This is a much cooler car. Too bad it's too cold to have the top down."

"Thanks." Nick grinned. "Why don't you ride up front. Natalie will ride in the back."

They piled into the car and pulled out of the lot. Nick allowed her to flip on the lights and siren for a moment, as promised. Her grin of delight brought one nearly as large to Nick's face.

They were halfway to the hospital when they came across an accident. Nick and Natalie went to check out the accident while Katie remained in the car.

A patrol car arrived and took over, allowing Nick, Natalie, and Katie to continue on their way.

Within minutes they arrived at the hospital. They walked Katie up to her room and saw that she was checked back in by Pam. They said their good-byes and left.

Katie quickly fell asleep, exhausted from her busy night.

Later, when Natalie was getting ready for bed she found herself wondering how long she would be able to keep up the pretense. How long before this charade crumbles around me? How long before Grace and Schanke get curious, suspicious, or both? A deep sigh escaped as her thoughts stayed on the future. How do I tell them and when?

Two nights later a package arrived at the coroner's office for Natalie, piquing her curiosity. She opened the package and found several sketches inside, along with a note.

"Natalie, thank you for giving me such a wonderful night. I did these from memory and hope you like them. I'm going home for a while and will see you soon. Thank Grace, Nick and Schanke for me." Natalie read the note silently to herself.

She examined the sketches. She found two sketches of her and Nick, showing the love between them. They were the same picture, but two handmade copies. There was one of Nick and Schanke, and one of Nick, Natalie, Schanke and Grace in a group portrait because they had made Katie's evening so special. There was also a sketch of Grace by herself.

Natalie was quite touched by all of Katie's hard work.

Natalie had the sketches framed and passed them out according to Katie's note. She gave Schanke the one of him and Nick, Nick received a copy of the sketch of her and him, and Grace received her portrait. Natalie kept the group portrait for herself.

Schanke and Grace had been blown away by the excellent likenesses in their sketches. Myra had been impressed when Don showed her the picture. Myra couldn't believe that the artist was only fifteen years old.

Natalie continued to use her spare time at work in her search for Nick's cure. It helped her to feel like she was doing something positive. In her mind, she knew it was too late for a cure for herself, but it wasn't too late for Nick.

She decided to see if she could find any useful clues to her disease, but did not know where to start looking. She had been doing her best to keep current, but there was so much to read in both her field and AIDS research.

She read about the latest breakthroughs, but nothing that lead her to believe there might be a cure within her lifetime.

"Is this how Nick feels?" she wondered aloud, pausing her reading. This realization left her feeling both powerless and helpless, feelings she despised.

She wound up taking journals with AIDS information home with her to read, while she read the forensic ones at work. She didn't want to be caught reading too many AIDS articles as it might arouse suspicion, especially Grace's.

When she had started reading the AIDS articles, she had bought a notebook where she frequently jotted down notes, ideas, or anything that was related to her disease, Nick's condition, or a cure for either one of them.

While out on patrol a distressed Schanke looked over at his partner, "Nick..." He didn't know what to say next.

"Yeah, Schank?"

"Myra's concerned about you and Natalie. A person would have to be blind not to see how much you two love each other, and not in the platonic way you insist." He loved the stunned look on his partner's face. Schanke paused before continuing, deciding how to phrase his next question. "Is Natalie's inability to have children the reason you two haven't gotten closer?"

Nick hesitated, then simply said, "No, it isn't." Not knowing what more he should say, Nick paused for a few moments. Nick knew his partner. Schanke would not let go of this until he had some answers. Focusing on the road before him, Nick stated, "I'm the reason." He wondered if their love was that transparent, at least to those who knew them well.

"What do you mean? If it's your allergy, I don't see why it should keep you two apart. Is there more to it than you've told me?" Schanke asked concerned.

Thoughts of all the things Nick wished he could tell his partner ran through his mind. Things like Natalie being HIV positive, his being a vampire, his and Nat's inability to consummate their love due to that. Nick knew he had to tell his partner something.

"I don't want to take the sun away from her. If we did get closer, nights are all I'd be able to offer her." Nick's pain and love for Natalie came through as he tried his best to explain things, without giving too much away. He didn't have to say how much he loved her. It was clearly evident from what he was saying, as well as how he said it. It felt good for him to be able to trust his friend with the truth, even if it was only a tiny part of it.

"She could still go out in the sun. In case you haven't noticed, she doesn't seem to mind the night, especially when you're around. She was working nights when I met her. It didn't seem to bother her. She seemed to enjoy it." Schanke offered this as a reassurance that Nick wasn't making Natalie do anything she didn't want to do.

"Yeah, I guess you're right. She'd have to enjoy the sun all by herself."

"Well, now that the problem of daylight savings time is solved..." Schanke said. He was pleased to see Nick's slight grin. "Have you considered adoption?"

"Yes. Neither of us are really ready for a child anyway."

"Myra had trouble conceiving. We were about to give up hope when Myra learned she was pregnant with Jenny." Schanke's slightly depressed tone cheered up as he told the story. His love for his family came through clearly.

Schanke, if it were only that simple with Nat, Nick thought to himself as the rest of Schanke's words flew by like the buildings they passed.

Later that evening Schanke dropped by the morgue to see Natalie. She looked up from her paperwork, a little surprised to see him there by himself.

"Schanke, how can I help you?"

"I just came by to ask you something. Actually..."

"What is it?" She knew his concerned tone of voice. A small wave of panic hit her, did he suspect something?

"I want to know the real story," Schanke said, too caught up in his concern to notice Natalie's slight panic. Before she could say anything, she heard his next words. "If I couldn't see the love between you and Nick, I'd have to turn in my badge and pick up one of those white canes the blind use." Once again he missed her relief that it wasn't about her condition. "Myra and I... hell, most of the precinct can see you two love each other. And not just what friends feel for each other."

He liked her surprised look. He remembered Nick's being more of a stunned reaction. With hesitation, Schanke continued, "Myra's concerned that your inability to conceive is keeping you and Nick apart."

Natalie tried to recover from Schanke's bluntness. "You can tell her that it has nothing to do with why Nick and I haven't gotten together. Neither of us are ready for that sort of commitment." She knew he was as concerned as Myra was, if not more. She liked that they considered her a part of their family. She knew it was a great confidence booster to Nick, that he too was accepted by the Schankes as a part of the family.

Schanke could see that there was more to it. "Natalie?"

"It's nothing really." She hoped she could stall him long enough to come up something believable to tell him.

"Natalie?"

"I know we could always adopt. Is it fair to adopt a child knowing that his father could be killed at any time in the line of duty?" Natalie said, somewhat bittersweet. Or one who's mother will die within a few years?

Schanke was still concerned by the sadness he detected in his friend's eyes.

"Besides, neither of us are ready for a family." Natalie knew there was a small bit of truth to her statement, so she didn't feel as if she was totally lying to her friend.

Schanke repeated the story about his and Myra's trouble having Jenny, hoping it would help somehow.

"Tell Myra I appreciate her concern. Yours too." She smiled, knowing they were only looking out for her.

That morning Schanke arrived home and was greeted at the door by Myra.

"Don, did you talk to them?" She asked concerned.

"Yeah. They are something. Do I smell your special pancakes?"

"Yes, you do. I was just about to throw yours on the griddle."

They walked over to the table as Don relayed his chats with both Nick and Natalie. Myra was glad to hear that Natalie's problem wasn't the cause of their not taking that next step. She knew how hard it was on a relationship.

"Honey, I know you want to help, but they have to work it out for themselves." Don said as he gave Myra a quick kiss, while eyeing his pancakes on the griddle.

Myra knew her husband was correct. Only Nick and Natalie could decide when they were ready to make any sort of further commitment to each other. But, Myra couldn't help but wonder why she had the nagging feeling there was more to the couple's stories.

Propping her chin in the palm of her hand, she watched Don devour the syrup drenched pancakes stacked on his plate. I know you're right, but there is more to this. And whatever it is, it is keeping two people who love each other apart. Two people that I intend to see together, Myra thought to herself as she smiled at her husband.

Before Nick and Natalie knew it the first anniversary of her diagnosis rolled around.

Natalie arrived home after spending the afternoon running a bunch of errands. She entered her bedroom quite surprised to discover a stunning royal blue silk dress, it's hanger carefully hung over the slightly opened white folding door. She knew it had not been there when she left that afternoon. The sun had only been down a short while. A smile graced her face knowing who had placed the exquisite garment in her closet. Her eyes glanced downward, finding matching shoes on the floor below the dress.

Excitedly, she took her next round of medication, hurriedly showered, then slipped into the dress, surprised to see that it fit her perfectly.

She was putting on her earrings, three small single diamonds set into cascading gold strands and heard the doorbell. She answered the door, finding Nick there, right on time. He was decked out in a dark suit, crisp white shirt, and a matching dark tie, which was something he rarely wore.

He was stunned when he saw her. She looked more beautiful and radiant than he had ever seen her before.

"Is something wrong?" She motioned for him to enter, which he did, shutting the door behind him.

"No. You look gorgeous." He smiled as the color crept into her cheeks. Her comment caused him to realize he'd been staring.

"Thank you. It feels like a second skin. How..."

Nick cut her off. "I've picked up a few skills over the centuries, besides I remembered your size from the few times I've brought you clothes. Are you ready to go?" He was pleased the tailor had been able to fit the dress so perfectly without her there to try it on.

"Yes. I'm starving."

He helped her into the long leather coat he had given her. The blue of the dress was a nice contrast with the black of her coat, as was the silk against the leather.

"Nick, I want tonight to be as positive as possible. If I start getting all angsty, stop me. Okay?"

"Okay. I expect you to do the same for me."

"I will."

About twenty minutes later, Nick and Natalie arrived at one of the finest restaurants in Toronto and had been shown to a prime table.

Nick ordered a bottle of a sparkling non-alcoholic cider knowing that Natalie did not drink, mainly because she did not want to interfere with her medication.

"You know, in spite of it, I feel better than I have in a long time. It's probably because I'm taking better care of myself," Natalie said.

The waiter brought over the sparkling cider and filled their two champagne flutes with it before leaving.

"You look magnificent. Here's to another healthy year," Nick said as he raised his flute in a toast.

"I'll drink to that." Natalie raised her flute in acknowledgment. How many more years will there be? She thought before banishing that and all other negative thoughts from her mind.

Nick caught her moment of angst, and knew what she was thinking. He wondered the same thing.

"What do you think?" Nick said, making a small gesture to indicate he wanted her opinion of the restaurant.

"I hear they have a chocolate dish that's fantastic." Natalie's answer brought a smile to Nick's face, which in turn caused one to form on her own face.

He loved her smile.

They both hoped it was another healthy year. They knew the longer she stayed asymptomatic the better.

Natalie was pleased when he not only ordered without being reminded, but also ate a couple of bites. She knew his higher tolerance for food was a good sign. It gave them hope that maybe he would regain his mortality. But would it be before she was too sick for it to matter whether she found the cure?

He knew it made her happy to see him eat, even though it often nauseated him. He also knew that if he ate he didn't have to drink those awful protein shakes of hers, even though she tried to make them tastier... without success.

Later that evening they returned to his loft to watch a few movies. She changed into something much more casual and noticed he did as well. It was times like this that she almost forgot about being HIV positive. When she was with Nick, she didn't feel like an outcast and figured it was because he too was one.

In between the first and second movies she had to take her medications. They were one of her frequent reminders of having HIV. She really hated the ones she had nicknamed "horse pills" because of their large size, as they were the hardest ones to get down. She refused to let her medication spoil her evening.

Natalie noticed that Nick had started taking both his vitamin E and his garlic pills much more regularly. Sometimes when she took her pills, causing her to wonder if she was having a positive influence on him. A part of her hoped so.

Two weeks passed. Natalie underwent another checkup. Both she and Nick still worried after each doctor's visit until the results came back, knowing that her condition could change at any time.

Their friends noticed a slight uncertainty, often almost a slight edginess in the couple, but ignored it, knowing it was probably related to their relationship and really was none of their business.

Two days later Natalie's test results came back showing no change in her condition. Both she and Nick were greatly relieved, dreading the first time they heard that her T-Cell count had dropped.

Natalie and Nick knew they couldn't dwell on that aspect, but had to enjoy life here and now.

Their friends were pleased when they noticed the couple's edginess was gone and the uncertainty was nearly gone.

Natalie decided that she wasn't going to let the fact that she had HIV prevent her from living as normal a life as possible. She was healthy and hoped to remain that way throughout the year and for many to come. She allowed the fact that she was infected with the virus to fade into the background. Her medication schedule had become second nature and wasn't anything she paid more attention to than was absolutely necessary. She and Nick worked on keeping their new communication skills in tune, knowing they needed them now as much as ever, and would be needing them more than ever as her health deteriorated.

During her second year with the virus, Natalie enjoyed trying new activities. Frequently, she dragged Nick along, sometimes kicking and screaming, but mostly he went willingly, knowing why she was doing it. He knew her adventures were very important to her and didn't want to hurt her. Also, he got a kick out of seeing what wild idea she'd come up with next as she savored each day, never knowing what the next would hold.

Natalie enjoyed learning to line dance, something that Nick had been less than enthusiastic about trying. Once he knew what he was doing, he enjoyed it, much to his surprise.

They went to festivals, carnivals, anything that appealed to her.

One night they attended a local fair, where Nick saw the pie eating contest and knew it was his turn for some fun.

"Nat, any interest in the contest?" Nick said as he pointed to the sign.

"Maybe. Think I have a chance to win?"

"Maybe. If its a chocolate pie, I'd say the odds are in your favor." He teased.

She saw the wicked grin on his face and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes and let out a quick giggle.

"You don't think I'd enter, do you?"

"No. I don't."

Natalie pinned back her somewhat unruly mass of curls as she headed for the contest. She took her place on stage. The fact that she'd have limited contact with the other participants helped her relax and enjoy the contest.

Nick almost exploded with laughter watching Natalie dig into the chocolate cream pie with a vengeance. The fact that she wasn't allowed to use her hands made it all the more fun to watch. She finished off five pies before time ran out. The winner finished seven.

She gladly accepted the damp towel as her face from her cheeks down felt sticky. She even had some of the pie on the end of her nose. She cleaned the pie residue off her face and then used one of those premoistened wipes to remove the stickiness.

She took her second place ribbon, the twenty dollar prize and headed for Nick.

"Nicely done," Nick said, with a huge grin.

"Thanks. I'm stuffed."

"I'm not surprised. How many pies did you eat? Five wasn't it?" He teased.

"Yes. If it had been a drinking contest, how many bottles would you have consumed? Probably at least that many?" She returned the tease.

"You might have a point there," He conceded, playfully.

The next evening, Natalie returned to her office having finished the latest crime scene investigation, only to find a chocolate cream pie on her desk. She wondered which of her friends had left it, and was determined to find out.

Grace entered to ask Natalie a question and found the forensic pathologist doing a little pie dissection. Natalie noticed Grace's desire for a slice.

"Did you leave this here?" The coroner inquired.

"No. Why?"

Natalie knew Grace had heard the story, due to the slight grin on her face.

"Do you know who did?"

"No."

Natalie rewarded Grace's answers with a big fat slice, which Grace took and hurried off to consume.

A few minutes later Natalie was finishing off her piece when Nick and Schanke entered.

"Hi guys."

"That looks good. You bought a whole pie? At least you're using a fork this time," Schanke teased.

"It's quite good. Would you like a slice? I have Nick to thank for the pie, right?"

"With deductive reasoning skills like that you should be a detective," Nick said.

"A slice would be terrific. Thanks."

Natalie cut Schanke a good sized piece and handed it to him with a fork. She then stuck the remaining half of the pie into the fridge, making sure the box lid was shut.

"This is good. Nick, you'll have to give Myra the name of the bakery," Schanke said between bites.

"Was there a reason you two stopped by?"

"Do you have the Benson results back yet?"

"No. They should be back any time now."

Time flew by as Grace's birthday approached. Natalie felt like celebrating and Grace's birthday was the perfect reason for a surprise party.

Natalie decorated her apartment quite festively with balloons in every color of the rainbow, with contrasting ribbons hanging down, and the requisite Happy Birthday banner hung from her living room curtain rod. After a final once over, she grabbed her jacket and headed out for work.

During her shift she reminded Grace that they were having dinner tonight. Grace remembered, commenting that she was looking forward to it.

Near the end of their shift Natalie called Nick, reminding him to go set out the refreshments and make sure all the guests arrived before she and Grace did.

Natalie made a quick call home at the end of her shift to make sure everything was still on schedule, before she and Grace left, pleased when it was.

Natalie told Grace that she needed to stop by her apartment first, if it was okay. Grace didn't find it too odd and told her friend it was okay.

Grace was stunned when she and Natalie entered the forensic pathologists apartment and heard "surprise" shouted by Grace's friends. Natalie loved the huge smile that spread across her friend's face.

Grace noticed her favorite foods laid out nicely on the dining room table. She really appreciated the effort Natalie had put into the party. Especially if her suspicions were correct.

After everyone had a chance to eat, drink and mingle, Natalie escorted the birthday girl over to the couch where the stack of presents awaited her. Once everyone had found somewhere to either sit or stand, Natalie handed the birthday girl her first gift.

Grace opened the festively wrapped present, finding a little ceramic figurine of a boy in bunny pj's inside and thanked Natalie for her perfect gift. It was one of the few she did not have from that collection as it was one of the harder ones to find.

Nick handed her his gift, which she quickly unwrapped. Inside she found a baseball hat for her favorite team, tucked inside the hat was a pair of tickets to the next three games along with parking passes. Grace noticed that they were not the cheap nosebleed section of the stadium, but the best seats. She loved the tickets and promised she'd take them each to one of the games. Nick was glad she liked the gift, as he hadn't known what to get her.

Grace continued to open gifts as they were handed to her, thanking the recipient. Grace blushed when she received a sexy teddy from her friends at work, knowing how Natalie had felt that time they'd given her a similar gift. She looked over and saw a mischievous grin on Natalie's face.

That May Natalie and Nick were inside the high school auditorium for Katie's graduation ceremony. Since the ceremony didn't start until late afternoon, the sun would be low in the sky, and the overcast day helped even more.

Natalie and Nick were as proud of Katie as Katie's own parents were, and as proud as Katie, herself was.

Katie's condition had worsened slightly over the last eight months. The huge smile that lit up the teen's face as she collected her diploma was as bright as the sun. Her mom took several shots as the teen received the diploma. Her dad videotaped the entire thing.

After the ceremony Nick and Natalie approached Katie. They exchanged embraces and smiles.

"I told you I would do it," Katie said, bursting with excitement. She was a little tired from all the excitement, but refused to let it spoil her day.

"I knew you would," Natalie said, lightly.

"Me too," Nick said, cheerfully.

"Congratulations!" Natalie handed Katie a small wrapped box. "Go ahead. It's from both of us."

"Congratulations! You did great," Nick said with a smile.

Natalie held Katie's diploma and hat while the teen opened the box. Inside was an elegant yet simple gold chain with a charm holder hanging from it. Hanging from the holder was a graduation charm, a medical symbol, a tiny pair of handcuffs, and an artist's palette.

Katie's eyes went wide as she saw the necklace. "Thank you. It's gorgeous." She immediately knew the significance of each charm. The memories brought a smile to her face. "Nick, how can you be here?" Katie whispered, not wanting anyone to overhear.

"The storm helps block out the sun, as does the time of day. We got a really good spot right outside the door." Nick left out the fact that he'd moved at vampiric speed so he wouldn't be exposed to enough sunlight to cause a problem.

Katie's dad videotaped Katie talking with Nick and Natalie, as well as each of them alone with Katie. Katie's mom had her daughter, Nick and Natalie pose together for pictures. Nick took pictures of the family, knowing how important pictures were, especially when a loved one wasn't around anymore.

Several days later, Natalie arrived at the pediatric ward and saw Aaron's mother in tears. Natalie approached.

"Aaron passed away a few minutes ago," his mother said through her tears. "He went to sleep and never woke up."

"I'm so sorry." Natalie took Belinda into her arms, seeing how much she needed it. Belinda cried on Natalie's shoulder, as tears ran down Natalie's face as well.

Natalie felt like someone had hit her in the gut. She had gotten to know Aaron and his family over the last year. Has it really been that long? Natalie asked herself, surprised. She had seen him growing weaker each day over the last month and knew that death would come soon, but somehow it still managed to take her by surprise. How many of these kids will die before me? She knew that a good many of them would.

Slowly the tears stopped and both women separated.

"He will be missed by all who knew him," Natalie said. "I know I'll miss him."

"Thank you."

Belinda wandered away and Natalie didn't follow, knowing that the grieving mother needed time alone to deal with her son's death.

Natalie sat down on one of the couches, a part of her wanting to run and never come back, not ready to face the death of an innocent little angel, while the other part knew that death was inevitable, unless you were a vampire, and even they died.

"Are you crying over Aaron?" Asked Cathy, a perky redheaded five year old.

Natalie looked at the cute little face, and saw the sadness there. "Yes."

"I'll miss my friend."

Natalie saw the tears trickle down Cathy's face and scooped her up, settling the child on her lap. She felt the small arms wrap around her, once again reawakening her sadness over remaining childless. She wrapped one arm around Cathy and stroked the child's red hair with her other hand.

"I'll miss him too."

"At least he's not sick anymore. He won't hurt anymore either."

A small sad grin spread across Natalie's face. She was amazed at how such a small person could be so wise. "I know."

Natalie went straight to the loft about an hour later. She needed to get away from there, and all the unpleasant reminders of her future.

Nick was doing some painting, surprised when he heard the elevator motor start, and then caught her heartbeat.

Natalie stepped into the loft moments later, her cheeks wet with new tears.

"What's wrong?" Nick asked fearfully, hoping she wasn't sick.

"Aaron died a little over two hours ago. He was so little, so innocent."

Nick put down his brush, wiped his hands and headed for her. He wrapped her in a loving embrace, feeling her arms wrapping around him.

"I know," He said, the sadness clearly evident in his voice, as he gently stroked her chestnut hair, hiding the tears in his eyes. It was an unwanted reminder that some day, long before her time, he'd lose her to the same damn disease.

Natalie pulled away and looked up into his face, seeing the tears in his eyes. She saw one make its way down his cheek.

"It's so hard to see someone so young struggle so much for something we take for granted... life. Then to see it end."

Nick wrapped his arm around her waist and escorted her to the couch. She sat next to him, her head resting on his shoulder, his arm wrapped around her body.

"He's now in peace. No more pain, or sickness," Nick said trying to reassure her.

"I know. I feel guilty when I think that it is the best thing for him," Natalie said.

"Every life is important. But how much should a person have to suffer before the end comes? Is a life of nothing but pain and suffering much of a life?" Nick asked, not having the answers.

"I don't know. I think there has to be a balance between life and the amount of suffering. If there's nothing but great pain and suffering, then it's not really living, is it?"

"No, it isn't."

Nick and Natalie sat quietly on his couch. They grieved for those who were dying of AIDS, especially the children because they had not had the chance to grow and learn about the world and who they were as a person. They were grateful that she was still healthy, still asymptomatic. They knew not having children of their own was the right thing. The ten percent or higher chance that their child would be like all those on the ward was too high a risk.

Nick made sure that Natalie ate a nutritious breakfast, cooked by her personal chef. He fixed her whatever she wanted to eat, knowing it was important for her to make sure she kept her body fueled with the proper foods.

She yawned her way through breakfast, curling up on the couch afterwards. She was asleep almost as soon as she stretched out. He covered her with a blanket and very quietly cleaned up the few painting items that could not be put off until evening. Once that was done he headed up to bed.

Three weeks later, Nick asked Natalie what she wanted to do for her second anniversary. A moonlight cruise was her answer. Nick rented a decent sized yacht for the evening and made sure that dinner would be nothing short of five stars.

Natalie arrived at the pier expecting tickets on one of those harbor cruises. Nick loved the extreme surprise on her face as she saw the yacht.

"Nick, once again you've outdone yourself," Natalie said, a bit stunned.

"You said you wanted a cruise, and a cruise is what you shall get," he said with a large grin.

The cruise was soon underway. Natalie looked at the skyline, noticing how it merged with the stars. She enjoyed the gentle breeze drifting off Lake Ontario.

The steward brought them a champagne flute of the sparkling cider she enjoyed.

"Here's to another healthy year," Nick said as he raised his glass.

Natalie raised hers in support. As she sipped, she thought about all the little things in life that most people took for granted. She realized that this was what life was all about. It wasn't important how much time one had, but it mattered how that person lived.

They had agreed to ban all negative thoughts of the future or the past for the evening. They knew that each anniversary brought more uncertainty with it. They knew they had to live for the present and not dwell on the what ifs and when was it going to happen or they would miss too much.

A short time later, the steward returned to tell them that dinner was ready. Dinner consisted of prime rib, lobster tails, creamry potatoes drowning in melted butter, with a sinfully rich chocolate mousse for dessert.

Nick watched Natalie take her time and enjoy her dinner. He tried a bite of everything to please her. He found the mousse too sweet for his taste and offered her his mousse, which she happily finished off, not wanting something that delicious to go to waste. Nick had his dinner put into the refrigerator for later, knowing Natalie would enjoy having it as a late morning snack or as lunch before she went in to work.

After dinner they went back out on deck. The night was too beautiful to stay below. Natalie looked over the railing at the stars' reflections on the water. They sparkled like diamonds set against a black velvet backdrop.

Nick loved the way the moonlight reflected off Natalie's hair, and lost himself in her bright blue eyes which sparkled in the starlight.

Natalie looked deeply into his eyes thinking nearly the same thoughts as Nick. She too enjoyed the way the light played off his hair and handsome face.

Nick leaned in, his lips gently meeting hers, finding no resistance. His nose gently rubbed against hers, between soft, gentle, passionate kisses.

Her arms slipped around him as his wrapped around her. He buried his hands in her hair, caressing her gently. They looked as happy as any two people in love could be. Unfortunately, it did not last as the vampire threatened to overwhelm him. Nick broke off the embrace and moved back a step or two. Natalie understood and said nothing.

Nick began pointing out various constellations, telling her the stories behind them. She loved hearing his stories.

The next evening Grace entered Natalie's office to hand her the latest cases and saw the smiling, distant look in her friend's eyes. Grace was glad to see that any remaining traces of the rape's aftermath had healed. She knew that Natalie would never truly forget it, but now it was no longer in the forefront of her mind. Natalie had been able to shove it into the background and move forward with her life. She knew that Nick had been one of the main reasons Natalie recovered so well. He had made her feel safe and loved, which allowed her to deal with her grief and be able to face life again.

"It looks like someone had a good night." Grace said, curiously, with a touch of teasing in her tone.

"Yes. I finally got that moonlight cruise. It was lovely," Natalie said with a large grin.

"Did a certain detective take you?" Grace asked, in the same tone, only this time there was a bit more teasing to it.

"Yes. Nothing happened! We're just good friends," Natalie said, still smiling over the memories.

"And I'm the Easter Bunny," Grace teased.

"We do love each other, but as very good friends." Natalie said, hoping Grace would believe her.

"Uh, huh," Grace said, disbelieving.

Natalie knew it was hopeless to try and persuade Grace otherwise. Besides, she wasn't sure she really wanted to.

Meanwhile, that same night at the precinct, Schanke saw Nick enter with a smile on his face and knew he had to get in some good natured partner ribbing.

"Woohoo hoo! Well, well, Detective Knight. Had a late night did we?"

"I took a friend on a moonlight cruise. She's wanted to take one for a while," Nick said hurriedly while busying himself with paperwork to hide his smile as memories of Natalie in the moonlight washed over him like a warm shower of water.

"Someone we both know?" Schanke teased.

"Yes." Nick saw Schanke's expression. "Nothing romantic. Just two very good friends going out for an evening."

"Yeah, right."

Natalie was filling out the latest batch of reports when her phone rang. She answered it, grateful for the distraction.

"Lambert."

"Nat, can you come by the loft after your shift?" Nick asked.

"Sure. What's up?" Natalie heard something in his voice, but wasn't quite sure what it was.

"Nothing."

She heard it again that time. She suspected he had something up his sleeve, but decided to play along.

Meanwhile at the precinct, Schanke watched his partner as he talked with Natalie. He had a hunch as to what Nick was up to and hoped he was right.

Several hours later, Natalie arrived at Nick's loft. His shift had ended half an hour before hers did. He opened the door as soon as he heard the elevator stop.

"Nick, what's up?" She asked concerned.

"Nothing." He led her over to the couch. She sat down and waited for him to take the seat next to her as he often did.

She saw a mixture of emotions on his face and grew a little more concerned. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes... no... I don't know." He saw her growing concern. "I'm okay, at least I think I am."

"Nick, you're losing me. What's wrong?"

Nick got down on one knee before her. "Natalie, will you marry me?"

Tears ran down her cheeks as a large smile crossed her face. Natalie held up a hand, her smile fading. Sadness taking it's place. "Nick, don't... don't say that."

"Nat," he gently caressed her cheek with his hand, making her smile. "Remember, the wedding vows say 'in sickness and in health'. I want to be there for you. I want to show you how much I love you."

Natalie's smile faded as she sifted through his words. She held a hand up, "Wait. Let me see if I heard you correctly." She walked over to the window and stared out it. After a moment of silence she sharply turned around. She tried to understand why a man who could want for nothing wanted to marry her. At the same time she was trying to understand why he wouldn't bring her across, other than her request to remain mortal. He hadn't even offered that option to her.

"You want to marry me... a person who will end up not even being able to feed herself. Someone..." she began as tears fell, "Someone who is afraid to touch a human, who can't even tell her best friends that she is HIV positive."

Natalie's thoughts were blackened with anger as she turned to look back out into the night's darkness. "Why now, Nick?" She turned to face him, wanting to see his face. "You have had years to show me your love. Is it out of some sense of duty, of honor?" Her next words stung his soul, "Or is it part of some great plan in your quest for atonement?"

Nick fought back his own bloody tears as he stood and approached her. She saw the pain in his eyes.

Tenderly he took one of her hands, "I love you, Natalie. So many times I wanted to ask you. I was afraid of the darkness I would be leading you into. I've since learned that I was only afraid of myself." He paused to examine her face for clues that his words were being heard. "I wanted to ask you after Collins was in jail. But, I could see how fragile you were and then..." Nick caressed her knuckles.

Natalie swallowed hard then finished his sentence, "Then the test results came back." Nick nodded.

"Natalie, Collins stole a part of our dreams. But it's not all gone. We're both still here, still alive. Let's not let him steal the rest." He saw her carefully thinking about what he just said and gave her a moment before he continued. "I love you, Natalie. Will you marry me?"

Natalie tightly wrapped her arms around the man she loved, then looked into his eyes. "You don't know how long I've waited to hear those words." Tears streamed from her eyes.

She wiped away her tears and nodded. "Yes, I'll marry you. I don't know what I did to deserve you." She grinned. "I love you more than you'll ever know."

Nick pulled an antique ring from his pocket and slipped it on her finger. Natalie lost her breath when she saw the ring. The stone wasn't huge, but it came from him, and that was all that mattered.

"Is it okay?" He asked a little uncertain.

"It's beautiful. It looks old." Natalie saw the nervous joy in his eyes.

"It is. It was my mother's, then my sister's and now yours. When I heard that Fleur had died, I arranged to claim a few of her possessions." He loved the surprised look on her face.

"Why didn't she pass it on to one of her children?"

"She had two sons who both died in service to their king before they could marry."

"That's so sad," Natalie said. Gently, she caressed the ring with the tip of her finger. "I'll always cherish this ring. It's the most personal gift you've ever given me," Natalie said happily as a few more tears streamed down her face.

Blood tears ran down Nick's cheeks, showing his overwhelming joy that she had not only accepted his proposal, but she loved his ring as well.

Natalie was overjoyed that not only had Nick finally admitted he loved her, but he was making a serious commitment to her as well. It had been worth all their struggles. Is it worth dying for? her mind asked.

"Have you eaten?" Nick asked.

"No, I thought I'd grab something on the way home," Natalie said as she wiped away her tears and then his. Her gesture made Nick cup her chin in his hands and kiss her thoroughly.

"What would you like?" Nick asked.

"How about some Chinese food. I know it doesn't seem like the right thing for such an occasion, but it's what I'm in the mood for," Natalie said slightly apologetic.

"If that's what you want, then it's the perfect thing for this occasion," Nick said lightly.

Nick called in the take out order and arranged for delivery.

Nick noticed a sudden look of panic overtake Natalie's features. "What's wrong?" he asked concerned.

"It just hit me how much work there is to planning a wedding. We haven't even picked a date yet."

Nick laughed earning a playful slap on the arm for it. "Pick any date you wish."

"How about an August wedding? I don't want a fall wedding."

"Why not?"

"It's too far away. Also, did you know June is the most popular month for weddings? That and Valentine's Day."

"I didn't know that. August sounds fine. I don't want to wait until fall either."

"How about an August twenty-seventh wedding? That should give us enough time to plan a small wedding."

"You don't want a large, fancy wedding?" Nick asked, hoping he would have the chance to go all out to make their wedding extraordinary.

She saw his expression. "Just because it's small doesn't mean it can't be fabulous," she said with a grin. She wanted something simple and elegant. But if he wanted to go all out, she'd let him... to a point.

"First we need to make a list of everything there is to do, then decide where to start."

Just then the Chinese food arrived. Nick let the delivery man up and tipped him.

Nick set the container of beef lo mein on the counter, and Natalie quickly helped herself. She loved trying to eat with chopsticks, succeeding only about half the time. The other half of the time she wished she had a pair of forceps.

Nick got too close and as soon as he opened his mouth to say something he found it full of beef and noodles.

"Don't even think about spitting it out."

Nick reluctantly chewed the mouthful before attempting to choke it down.

"Very good." Natalie smiled at him. "Just for that you won't have to drink a shake today." She loved the surprised grin that spread across his lips. "How about trying another bite?"

Nick reluctantly opened his mouth, so she could stick some more of the rather nauseating food into it. It wasn't that dish in particular, it was mortal food in general, that upset his stomach. He chewed it and swallowed it, barely managing to keep it down.

"This is progress." She saw the slight signs it was making him sick and decided it wouldn't do to have him throw up by making him eat any more.

The next evening Natalie entered her office, stuck her purse into the bottom drawer of her desk and headed for the coffee machine. She knew it was bad for her, but it was one addiction she couldn't give up.

Slightly shaking her head, Natalie chided herself as she looked at the coffee cup in her hand. I guess I shouldn't be so hard on Nick. Addictions are so hard to kick.

No sooner had Natalie settled herself in her chair, than Grace entered holding a bundle of folders in her arms.

"Good evening, Grace."

"You're in a great mood this evening. What's up?"

"Not much," Natalie said cheerfully as she took the stack of files from Grace, curious to see if her friend would notice the engagement ring.

"Natalie, is that what I think that is?" Grace asked as she waited for her friend to put down the files.

"What?" Natalie teased.

"Did he..." Grace asked as she took hold of her friend's hand to get a closer look at her ring. "He did... didn't he?"

"Yes. He did," Natalie said beaming.

"Did you two set a date yet?" Grace inquired quite curious.

"Yes. August twenty-seventh."

"You're not wasting any time are you?"

Natalie's smile softened and a tear threatened to fall as Grace's question took hold of her thoughts. Get a grip before she suspects something's wrong. Natalie knew that would lead to uncomfortable questions. Taking a breath, she rose and walked around her desk to where Grace stood.

"Grace, would you be my Matron of Honor?" Natalie asked, loving the stunned look on her friend's face.

"I'd be honored," Grace stammered, still somewhat stunned from the whole thing. "I can't believe it."

"Neither can I," Natalie said.

Grace wrapped her friend in a big bear hug. Natalie was a little uncomfortable, but knew that she was just being silly. She couldn't hurt Grace by hugging her. When they broke off the embrace, Grace's eyes became fixed upon Natalie's ring.

"Your ring looks like an antique. He must really love you."

"It is. It was his mother's. It has been in his family for a very long time." Natalie loved how she could tell the whole truth about it, not having to fudge any of it.

"Natalie, have you started making any plans?"

"It's going to be a small wedding. I know Nick wants to make it something special."

"You deserve it."

Meanwhile at the precinct, Schanke looked up and saw the grin on his partner's face that was mirrored by a happiness he rarely saw in his partner's usually sad blue eyes.

"What has you so happy tonight?" Schanke asked before it hit him. "Did you pop the question?"

"Yes," Nick said, a bit surprised that Schanke had figured it out. "How'd you know?"

"I thought so. Let's just say that I know the look of someone about to take a walk down the aisle." Seeing the questioning look in Nick's eyes, Schanke quickly answered before his partner had a chance to ask, "No, Natalie hasn't been here tonight, and no she didn't say anything about it" Schanke said. "Congratulations, partner! When's the big day?"

"August twenty-seventh."

"That's quick. Is there any special reason for it?" Schanke said with a hinting tone.

"No reason. No, Nat's not pregnant," Nick quickly replied, answering Schanke's own unasked question. Sadness briefly crossed Nick's face.

"Nick, I'm so sorry. I forgot." Schanke wanted to kick himself for that.

"It's okay." Nick knew it was a lie, but he couldn't let his partner beat himself up for what was an innocent mistake. He decided to lighten the mood. "Would you be my Best Man?"

A stunned Schanke was speechless for a moment. "You better believe I will!" He burst out. Then gathering up his dignity he proudly asserted. "Yes. It will be my pleasure."

Later that evening Nick and Schanke stopped by the morgue to pay a visit to the bride to be.

"Natalie, congratulations! It's about time you two finally figured out that you belong together." Schanke said as soon as he entered her office. He wrapped the coroner in a big bear hug before releasing her. The fact that she was still uneasy when hugged by her friends surprised her. She knew that she couldn't spread her disease that way.

"Thanks, Schank," Natalie said, regaining her breath. "I have a really big favor to ask."

"Ask away."

"Would you do me the honor of walking me down the aisle?"

Schanke was completely overwhelmed by her request. He stood there speechless.

"Schanke?" Natalie asked amused and a little concerned.

"Sorry." He mumbled as he snapped out of his daze. "I'd be glad to. I'm honored that you asked."

"Outside of Sarah and Amy, you, Myra, Jenny, Grace and Nick are the closest I have to family. I couldn't get married without having a good friend walk me down the aisle, now could I?"

"I guess not. Just wait until Myra hears this! Are you having a big wedding?"

"No. I want it to be a small one with just close friends and family."

Schanke approached his front door, tired from his shift, but in a great mood because he was going to be a very busy man in a month.

Myra turned off the alarm system and opened the door for her husband.

"What has you in such a great mood?"

"Nothing," he said playfully. "Just the fact that I'm going to be both best man and give away the bride at Nick and Natalie's wedding next month." He loved the surprised and very pleased look on his beautiful wife's face.

"That's terrific! I knew they belonged together! I can't wait to congratulate them." Myra smiled and giggled, "And they really thought they were fooling us." As she walked into the kitchen to make coffee, she wondered out loud, "I wonder if she needs any help with the wedding."

Don yelled back, "I'm sure Natalie would love for you to help especially when she only has a month to plan everything."

From the kitchen, Myra poked her head out and shook her head, "A month? That's not long at all!"

Don walked to Myra and gave her a quick kiss. He smiled and said, "I guess they decided they'd waited long enough."

Late the next afternoon Natalie was getting ready for work when her phone rang.

"Lambert."

"Hi, Natalie. I guess that will be changing soon, eh?" Myra said, joyfully with a slight teasing tone.

"Hi, Myra. What's up? I see Don told you," Natalie said almost as cheerfully.

"Yes. I am so happy for you and Nick. Which leads me to why I called. Do you need any help with the preparations?"

"Yes. There's so much to do and not much time. I thought you, me, and Grace could meet at Nick's loft so we could get started planning. I'm going to try and drag him into it as well. How about tomorrow afternoon about two?" She purposely scheduled it during the day so Nick wouldn't be able to escape, unless he hid in his bedroom.

"Sounds good. How long will we have?"

"Several hours."

Natalie stopped by Katie's house on her on her way in to work. It was somewhat out of the way, but she wanted to see her friend's face as she heard the news. Katie was busy sketching away as usual. A huge smile lit up her face when she saw Natalie.

"Hi, Natalie. What brings you here?" Katie said very happily.

"I thought you might like to come to my wedding," She said lightly.

Natalie found it very amusing how everyone seemed to be left speechless. Did they think it that unlikely she and Nick would ever marry?

"I'd love to. Thanks! When is it?"

"August twenty-seventh."

Katie jumped up and pushed through her stuff looking for something. "Here it is." Katie handed her friend a very recent issue of one of the bridal magazines. "I like looking at the pictures. Besides, if you two hadn't figured out you belonged together, I was going to send you both copies as a not so subtle hint."

"I knew it, but he was the one who had to realize it. I think the fact that I'm not going to live forever hit him. He realized that he had better act now."

Katie looked like she wanted to ask something, but wasn't sure how. Natalie knew what she was thinking.

"How did I know that he wasn't doing it for reasons other than love?" She saw Katie nod. "I didn't." Natalie let out a small chuckle. "I blew up at him after he proposed, when he mentioned that the wedding vows said 'in sickness and in health'. He said he wanted to be there for me."

"What happened?" Katie asked, her body leaning forward hanging onto Natalie's words.

"I hurt him with the things I said to him, but he didn't turn away. Instead, he made me see that he was doing it out of love, that he wanted to be my husband, no matter how bad things became. Even after I told him how bad things would get. When I saw the sincerity in his eyes, I had to say yes. I had waited years for this, and sometimes wondered if it would ever happen."

"That is so romantic," Katie said, in that way teenagers talk about love.

Natalie paused, taking Katie's hand into her own with a gentle squeeze.

Katie saw the engagement ring and pulled Natalie's hand up where she could examine it more closely.

"I love your ring. It's so cool. Antiques are in right now."

"Thanks. It's a family heirloom. He told me it was his mother's," Natalie said, beaming with pride.

"That's so cool. It means that he *does* really love you." Katie loved seeing the glow of true love emanating from every pore of her friend's body.

"Don't forget to bring your sketchbook to the ceremony," Natalie said.

"You really want me to do a sketch of you on such an important day?"

"Yes. I can't think of a better wedding present." Natalie smiled, loving the dazed look Katie had.

"You really know how to make someone feel special."

Natalie thought that the teen would start bouncing off the walls at any moment or explode out of joy.

"Let me guess, Grace is your Maid of Honor and Schanke's the best man. Who's giving you away?"

"Very good," Natalie said, surprised at Katie's guesses. She hadn't realized how much Katie had paid attention to her friendships with Grace and Schanke. "Schanke's doing double duty."

"Cool."

"Have you picked out your dress, invitations, place?"

"Not yet. I have an idea of what sort of dress I want." Natalie quickly flipped through the book looking for one like she wanted and found it near the back of the book.

"You'll knock them all dead in that one. It'll look great on you."

"Thanks." Natalie smiled even though she knew her wedding might be one of the last big events in her friend's life.

"You know a month is not much time to get everything done."

"I know." Natalie put an arm around Katie and smiled. "But I know it will come together beautifully with help from my friends."

The next afternoon Natalie arrived at Nick's loft early, purposely neglecting to inform him of the invading force that would soon arrive.

"Nat, what are you doing here?" Nick wondered as he looked up from his paints, caught by the unexpected visit.

"I...umm... invited Grace and Myra over here this afternoon." She noticed his surprised expression. "I hope you don't mind. I wanted you to be a part of all the wedding preparations and knew this was the easiest way to do it."

"That's fine." He smiled. "You thought if you told me before now, I might find somewhere else to be?"

"Yeah."

"It would be tempting, but I'd probably stay awhile out of curiosity" Nick said. "This does bring up several questions we have to answer. The first being where are we going to live? And the second is what name are you going to go by?" Natalie started to say something and felt his cool fingers against her warm lips. "I have no problem with you keeping Lambert for work because you've worked hard on your reputation." He removed his fingers as he was finished.

"I like the sound of Natalie Knight for personal things." She said with a large smile on her lips. "I was hoping you'd understand my not wanting to change my work name. Also, it will be less confusing at work. If we were both at a crime scene under Knight..."

He cut her off, "then they'd have to use Doctor or detective..."

"Yeah. Also, out of habit they'd still call me Lambert, then feel bad about it."

"You're so smart," he teased, earning him a playful slap on the arm. "That just leaves the question of where to live."

"I think my apartment is a little small for the two of us, and we don't have time to find somewhere else," She said. "I've grown to consider this a second home. Even with the bad memories," She watched his expression change.

"There is room enough here for both of us. We can remodel it to suit our needs. There's plenty of room for expansion as I own the whole building. Don't worry, it's not under my name, only the loft is."

"I don't think we'll need that much room. All we need is another bedroom, and more closet space."

They both knew that they would have to live together, since it would look odd otherwise. They also knew that they couldn't share the same bed, her heartbeat and scent would be too tempting day after day.

"We couldn't have guests sleeping on the couch." Natalie said. "Could we share a bedroom? Or should we add one for me?"

"I honestly don't know. I think if we had separate beds, we could share a room."

Nick knew he owed her complete honesty. Natalie was pleased that he didn't evade the question.

"More kitchen cabinets are needed too. Maybe another bathroom. Wouldn't it be easier to move?" Natalie asked.

"Yeah, it probably would be. Would you be happier somewhere new?"

"I don't care where I live, as long as it's with you," she said, softly and somewhat seductively as she wrapped her arms around him.

They were drawn into a kiss, which was quickly disturbed by the intercom's buzz.

Natalie walked over to the intercom and heard Grace's voice. She pressed the elevator release button.

Moments after Grace stepped off the elevator the intercom buzzer sounded again. Natalie released the elevator allowing Myra to enter.

"Nick, I'm glad to see you finally realized what Don and I've known for a long time," Myra said, slightly teasingly. "I was wondering if the two of you would ever admit you loved each other as more than friends. I'm glad you finally did."

The three women took seats around Nick's coffee table. Grace had several different bride magazines which she pulled out of a canvas tote bag and laid on the table. Myra pulled a notebook from her bag and opened it to a list she had made up of all the things they had to accomplish. Natalie pulled out her list, and they compared notes. Grace found the page she had marked in one of the magazines because of the wedding checklist. The three of them saw many things that they had forgotten to include among their individual lists.

Nick watched them, and was surprised when it made him happy rather than bored. He couldn't understand why most men were bored by wedding planning, then again most brides weren't dying. Watching Natalie plan for an event they both thought would never happen made it all the more interesting.

"Nick, aren't you going to join us? You are a part of the wedding." Natalie called out.

Nick brought over coffee for his friends and took the empty seat on the couch next to Natalie.

"Nick, thanks for having us over," Grace said.

"It was all Nat's idea."

"Let's start at the beginning. Have you decided on what sort of a dress you want?" Myra asked.

"Yes." Natalie showed them a picture of the one she liked.

"Great choice," Grace said.

Nick knew Natalie would be stunning in whatever she wore. He caught a glimpse of the dress she wanted and smiled as it would be particularly flattering on her.

As the afternoon sun melted into early evening, Natalie excused herself to the powder room. She had to take her latest round of medication. Moments later she returned, taking her same seat. Before long a location was decided upon, as was the time of the wedding. When the discussion turned to the location of the wedding reception, Nick insisted on the best restaurant in town and arranging the decoration of their wedding site. The women were impressed with how involved he became on his own.

"When Don and I were planning our wedding, I practically had to tie him to the chair in order to get him to help pick the site, menu and time. He told me to take care of things. I'm glad you're taking an active interest in it, Nick. It will make the event even more joyous."

Nick couldn't believe how much planning there was for a simple wedding, and found himself glad that she hadn't taken his suggestion for an all out wedding.

Neither the ladies nor Nick himself could believe how involved he had become in the planning. He was determined to make the wedding as elegant and elaborate as Natalie would allow. Grace and Myra loved watching the two lovers debate each decision they made.

Flower arrangements were discussed, and soon decided upon. They decided to see what the local card stores had for invitations as it would take too long to have them printed and they needed nowhere near the 500 minimum for printing.

When the subject of a honeymoon came up, Nick said that he had already arranged it. When the ladies tried to question him, he told them that it was a secret, and no one would know until he and Natalie arrived there.

Nick excused himself for a few minutes and headed up towards his bedroom. He hoped the women assumed he was going to use the bathroom, instead he was arranging a surprise.

About an hour later the women were talking about wrapping up for the day and began thinking about food.

"Ladies, I made dinner reservations at Chez Francais. It's on me." Nick loved their stunned expressions.

"Nick, that's so sweet of you," Natalie said as she rewarded him with a very nice, long kiss. When they separated, they heard cheers from their friends.

"Nick, I can't let you spend that much on dinner," Myra said, knowing what his salary was.

"I insist. I have a small inheritance, so it isn't that much of a financial drain," Nick said with a big smile.

"Okay," Myra said, giving in. She knew if she continued to protest, she'd only hurt his feelings, which was the last thing she wanted to do. "Thank you."

"I thought you three might like a ladies night out."

The next afternoon Natalie, Grace and Myra went dress shopping. They didn't spend much time looking at wedding dresses since Nick was having Natalie's dress tailor made. Natalie saw the slightly envious looks and grinned.

The main purpose of this outing was for Grace and Myra to find something to wear to the wedding. They knew that shopping was more fun with someone than alone. Grace wanted to make sure her dress met with Natalie's approval as she would be standing next to the bride.

Later that evening Natalie and Nick stopped by his tailor, who was one of the people Nick had helped in the past. Nick had helped him and his wife overcome an extortionist's threats. For this the elderly couple accommodated Nick's quirks and saw him whenever he needed new items for his wardrobe. They had become friends as well. Nick made sure that they always had enough money either through his purchases and tips, or referrals.

Nick wanted his and Natalie's wedding attire to fit perfectly. He introduced Natalie to the tailor and his wife and explained what he wanted. The elderly couple were more than happy to help, acting a little like parents as they were excited about the upcoming wedding.

"Nick, I won't have you here while I'm being fitted for the dress. Don't you know it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride's dress before the wedding?" Natalie wasn't superstitious, but with the luck they had had, she wasn't taking any chances.

"Okay. We do need all the luck we can get," He said lightly, knowing how bad their luck had been.

They happily took Natalie's measurements so that the gown would fit her every curve perfectly.

The next afternoon Natalie returned to the tailor to pick out the material for her dress. She brought a picture of the dress she wanted with her. When she showed it to them, they agreed that it was an excellent choice. Natalie couldn't believe how many different kinds of lace there were, as she tried to find the perfect one for her dress.

When Natalie finished at the tailor shop, she headed for the loft because she and Nick had some remodeling to plan. Nick heard the elevator start and was waiting for her at the door, opening it when he heard the motor stop.

"Hi. How'd it go at the tailor?"

"Very good. Remember no peeking."

"I promise I won't peek." Nick held up his hand in the way one does when giving an oath in court. "Where do you want to start?"

"How about with the upstairs? I think the two new bedrooms should go there." Natalie pointed to the wall where Nick's bedroom was, she wanted all three rooms placed one after the other. "It will keep the loft nice and spacious. The kitchen definitely needs a major renovation."

Nick just watched, nodding his approval.

"Since the plumbing's there we'll have to keep the sink there. We'll stick a dishwasher next to it. There should be an island here with a cooktop and lots of counter space."

Natalie pointed to a space in front of the sink. "The fridge will have to stay since it's built into the wall. The two ovens can go over here." She pointed to an area at a ninety degree angle from the sink. "Cabinets will go here and here. Under the island as well." She pointed to the spaces between the sink and future oven location, as well as what would be above the oven. "Maybe some more on this side."

Nick grinned.

"What?"

"Nothing." Off her look he continued. "You know, you could have a second career as a remodeler or an interior decorator."

She saw he was being completely serious. "Medicine's enough, but this is fun." She smiled. "Men don't understand the importance of enough storage space, vampiric ones especially."

"I suppose that's true. I keep most of my stuff in storage, but I know what you mean." He knew she was talking about places to keep all the groceries, pots, pans, and dishes mortals required.

"I forgot about that. Sorry."

"No problem," He smiled and dropped a quick kiss onto the top of her head. The intercom interrupted them. "Did I tell you I arranged an appointment with an architect for tonight?

"No, you didn't. Is that him?"

"It should be." Nick walked over to the intercom. "Hello?"

"Daniel Reade. I'm the architect you hired."

Nick buzzed the man in.

"Nick, are you sure sharing a room won't be too tempting?"

"It'll be fine. I don't think I'd like not having you in the same room." The smile she gave him warmed his cold heart.

"Can we remodel your room as well? If we're going to share it, it will need more closet space and a larger bathroom."

"You can do anything you want to the loft." He dropped another quick kiss onto her on the cheek.

Before long the architect entered the loft and was introduced to Natalie. Once the greetings were over Daniel set up his notebook computer on the kitchen table and was ready to work.

Natalie described the changes she wanted to the architect and watched as he entered it into a computerized version of the existing floor plan. She started with the renovations to Nick's room. Nick insisted the room have both a shower and a Jacuzzi, which would double as a bathtub. She didn't protest because she had always wanted one of them.

Natalie pointed out where she wanted the bathroom and closets in each bedroom, and the size of each item. She made all three bedrooms the same width, so that the rooms would line up smoothly from the downstairs view.

When Nick and Natalie had finished with their ideas the architect double checked everything. Daniel showed a three-dimensional version of the finished product, pleased when they both smiled. "I don't see any problems with the design. Mr. Knight, I'll get back to you about scheduling." Nick had told Daniel not to mention the financial stuff, not wanting Natalie to worry about the cost.

"Okay."

The architect packed up his computer and left. Natalie waited until the elevator was well on its way down before voicing a concern she had.

"Nick, this is going to take at least a month, probably longer. You know my place isn't sun proof."

"I hope you don't mind but I arranged for them to come tomorrow night. I know you have to work. I wanted to get it done as soon as possible so that it won't hold up construction here." He saw the uneasiness throughout her body. "I'll stay with them as long as anyone's there."

"Thanks." She knew he understood her apprehension at having strangers in her apartment. Ever since the rape she'd been even more hesitant to allow repairmen into her apartment, and never allowed them in when she wasn't home. When she was home she tried to have Nick or a friend with her.

The next night Nick kept an eye on the workers who were installing his special shutters on Natalie's apartment windows. He read while he watched. The workmen had been used by the Community many times before. They were always very well paid for their work, and if something was stolen or the workmanship was shoddy the crewmembers responsible disappeared.

Natalie stopped by her apartment on her dinner break to check up on things and saw that they were making good progress. Her living room and bedroom had been finished, leaving just the kitchen to do.

Nick and Natalie stopped by the Raven the next evening, on their way to work.

Janette spotted them as soon as they entered and was surprised to see them.

Nick and Natalie approached Janette, who was seated at the bar.

"Natalie, Nicola, what brings you by?" Janette asked quite curious.

"We came to invite you to our wedding," Natalie said. She and Nick decided that she should be the one to offer the invitation, so Janette would know it was truly from both of them.

"Congratulations." Janette motioned for drinks.

Two filled champagne flutes and a wine glass with a dark colored substance were set upon the bar. Janette handed Nick and Natalie each a glass of sparkling cider while she took the wine glass, knowing that Natalie's medications prevented her from drinking champagne, or any alcohol. She raised her glass in salute. Natalie and Nick followed suit.

"When is the wedding?" Janette asked.

"August twenty-seventh." Natalie handed Janette an envelope containing the official invitation.

"That's so quick." Janette examined the invitation. It was printed on white paper with wedding bells in one corner and a white ribbon trailing down the side. Janette figured that Natalie's condition was one of the main reasons for the date they'd picked.

"We realized we'd waited long enough, and wanted to marry as soon as possible," Natalie said.

At Janette's inquiring look, Nick said, "We finally admitted we loved each other and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together." Nick saw Janette's eyebrows rise in surprise. "No, we're not ready for that step yet."

Janette understood what he meant, and wondered how long before Natalie was brought across. Janette picked up Natalie's hand to get a close look at the engagement ring and recognized it.

"Natalie, did he tell you the history of your ring?"

"Yes," Natalie said with a smile.

"He never gave this ring to me. I remember seeing it a very long time ago. I'm glad he finally found the right woman to give it to."

"Thank you, Janette," Natalie said.

"Can we count on your attendance?" Nick asked, hoping his vampiric sister would be there for him.

"As long as it isn't being held in a church." Janette knew that they both wanted her there, and it did pique her curiosity.

"It's not. Neither of us wanted it held there," Natalie said. She knew churches still bothered Nick. Also, she had trouble believing in any God after all the disasters in her life, especially the rape and now the HIV.

Nick happened to glance at his watch, "Janette, we hate to invite and run, but we have one other stop to make before work," Nick said, uneasy. He knew the trouble this might stir up, but had to risk it.

"You're inviting him? This will be most interesting," Janette said trying to keep from letting them know they had once again surprised her. She had detected her sibling's apprehension and now knew why.

"Yes," Natalie said.

"I know if we don't, he'll do something to ruin the day. Besides, he should be there," Nick said.

"How I wish I could be there to see the look on his face," Janette said. "Don't worry, I won't go."

Once out of the Raven, Natalie and Nick headed for CERK. Before long they arrived and were shown to LaCroix's private office.

As they entered they saw LaCroix seated behind his desk, indulging in his favorite vintage.

"What brings the two of you here?"

"We came to invite you to our wedding," Natalie said, hiding the uneasiness she always felt around the ancient vampire.

Both Natalie and Nick were rewarded with a split second look of complete surprise on the master vampire's face, before the usual neutral mask slipped back into place.

"Nicholas, have you learned nothing?" LaCroix taunted.

"I have. I won't be attempting to bring her across on our wedding night." Nick was glad he had told Natalie about Alyssa.

Natalie handed LaCroix an invitation. He examined it with that annoyingly neutral expression of his.

"Why so quickly? Did the good doctor accidentally wind up with child, and you're doing the honorable thing?"

"No. I'm not pregnant," Natalie said, quite surprised and a little annoyed. "We're doing it out of love."

Nick knew that this move might threaten Natalie's life, but it was better than having the wedding ruined by one of LaCroix's nasty scenes.

LaCroix was most curious as to why Nick would do this, especially with the bargain still between them. I have to find out why. LaCroix silently told himself.

"Will you be attending?" Nick asked. His glare warning his master that he would tolerate no disruption of the event.

"I will attend, out of simple curiosity."

Natalie faked their blood test results to hide both their secrets. She didn't want any trouble because of her HIV status and Nick's blood would raise too many questions.

They spent their nights off selecting a justice of the peace to perform the ceremony, a photographer, a videographer, and a band to play at the reception. They had to pick a song for their wedding and another one for them to have the first dance to at their reception.

They had to pick a restaurant at which to hold the wedding reception, then figure out how many would be attending as well as the menu. They also had to order the wedding cake. Neither Nick nor Natalie realized how many different types of wedding cakes there were to chose from.

The short time span between the proposal and wedding date created a few problems, some of which could not be solved with a heavy cash bonus.

A few days later, Natalie arrived for her latest dress fitting. She was surprised by how much progress they had made. The body of the dress was sewn together. The sleeves had yet to be added. The lace and beading had yet to be applied.

Nick met her there after her fitting because they were to go pick up their marriage license and pick out wedding rings.

After looking in several stores Nick and Natalie found a pair of simple matching rings they liked. The ring had a gold band around the top and the bottom with a band of platinum in the middle. They skipped the engraving, neither feeling it was necessary as they knew in their hearts all they needed to know. There was also the time constraint, especially since the jeweler was backlogged for several weeks.

During the week, Nick moved his furniture to the storage area in the basement of his building, packed up the rest of his stuff, most of which was carried down to the storage area. He set aside his clothing and his most valuable stuff to take to Natalie's apartment.

While Nick had been doing that Natalie had been going through her stuff seeing what she could pack away to make room for Nick. He had offered to share his storage space with her, an offer she quickly snapped up knowing how hard it was to find good, safe storage space. Her own tiny storage space in the basement of her building was full.

Nick and Natalie spent their next two night's dinner breaks carrying boxes from her apartment to his car, transporting them to his storage area and arranging them so she could get at them whenever she needed to. She had worn her scrubs so she wouldn't get her suit dirty. Squabbles broke out whenever he tried to give her only the easy things to carry. She protested, stating that she was still fully capable of helping. He knew she was right, but couldn't help himself.

Natalie arrived at Nick's the next night, dressed in jeans and an oversized sweatshirt, sneakers completing the outfit. Her hair was confined by a scrunchi.

Both were glad it was their night off so they could move Nick's stuff in one shot.

"Nick, where do you want to start?" Natalie noticed the loft was almost empty. There were a few boxes scattered around the loft. "Where did the furniture go?"

"I moved it to the basement storage area," Nick said. "How much room did you make for me?"

"Enough, I hope," Natalie responded.

"How about carrying that box to the car. It's not too heavy." Nick pointed to a box over by the kitchen

Natalie picked up the box noticing that it was quite light. "Nick, I thought we settled this last night. I can carry heavier stuff."

"I know. I don't want to tire you out on the first load. Don't forget what's loaded has to be unloaded."

"Okay."

About two and a half hours later, Nick and Natalie had both cars packed with the essential things he was bringing over to her place. Essential being clothing and his most valuable possessions.

They headed for her apartment, Nick following behind Natalie. They parked, and started carrying the boxes to the main elevator. When they had a full load they took it up her apartment. Since it was late night, they knew they could tie up the elevator because not too many people would be using it at that hour.

Natalie had forgotten how hard lugging such stuff was and tired near the end of the job. Nick noticed.

"Nat, why don't you take some of the lighter stuff and keep an eye on the stuff inside."

Natalie wanted to complain, and got as far as opening her mouth before realizing that he was just trying to look out for her. He was right, why shouldn't he carry the heavier stuff? He could do it much easier than she could.

Natalie heated up a frozen dinner after she'd brought up her last load. Dinner had almost finished heating by the time Nick brought up the last of his stuff.

"Where do I stow my stuff?" Nick inquired, as he looked around her box filled apartment. His clothes were draped across her couch.

Natalie showed him the space she had made for him in the closet as well as the drawer space she cleared out for him.

"Is that all the space I get?" He teased.

"You try making space in a closet this size," she said, her voice holding the same tone as his had. "Have you ever thought about slimming down your wardrobe?"

"I could ask you the same thing." Nick was enjoying their bantering and could tell she was as well.

Natalie's dinner beeped. She was starving and quickly retrieved her food. She brought her dinner into the bedroom so she could watch him unpack and try to fit his clothes within the allotted space.

His green wine bottles were stored in a small area off to the side of her fridge alongside her food.

Two hours later Natalie couldn't keep from yawning, something which caught Nick's attention.

"Nat, why don't you get some sleep. I can do the rest of the unpacking tomorrow."

"Sounds good." Natalie stifled a yawn. "I hope you don't mind the couch."

"I don't. We don't get sore from sleeping the wrong way."

Natalie figured that was logical and headed into her bedroom. "Good night, Nick."

"Night, Nat."

She brushed her teeth and took her medication before changing for bed. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Nick grabbed the pillow and blanket from the coat closet and made up the couch. He didn't mind. He closed the shutters as the sky was just beginning to lighten and settled himself on the couch, falling asleep to the sound of Natalie's heartbeat.

The next afternoon both Nick and Natalie awoke around the same time. Nick knew Natalie needed her coffee first thing in the morning and had a pot ready when she entered the kitchen a few minutes later.

"Thanks." Natalie said as she poured herself a cup. "Who gets the bathroom first?" She sipped her coffee, needing the caffeine to jump start both her body and her mind.

"Why don't you take it first. I'd hate to accidentally use up all the hot water," he said. A small grin spread across his lips as he looked at his lovely bride to be.

"Thanks. I'll try to save you some." When he continued to stare at her, she had to ask "what?"

"Sorry. You look great first thing in the morning."

"I do not." She knew her hair was a mess, and cotton pajamas were anything but romantic. "I'm a mess." She said as she sipped more of her coffee.

"No you're not." Nick kissed her on the forehead before nudging her towards the bathroom.

Natalie showered and brushed her teeth before taking her morning pills. She hated the big, fat capsules as they were the hardest to get down, even with lots of water. The others weren't as bad, even though there were more of them, because they were much smaller.

She let Nick have the bathroom while she dressed.

They stopped by the loft on their way into work because construction had started that morning, and they wanted to check on how it was going.

Over the next few days, Natalie signed up for the Bridal Registry in her favorite stores, remembering how she hated the times she'd been invited to friend's weddings where the bride hadn't done that, leaving her with no idea what to get the happy couple.

Natalie mailed the invitations to her friends, hoping that the short notice wouldn't prevent them from attending.

Nick arranged for Natalie's friends to stay at a fine hotel near the wedding location as well as transportation for them.

Every night Nick stopped by the loft on his way to work, and at least once during his shift to check on things. If time permitted he also checked on it after work, on his way back to Natalie's. Natalie checked on it on her way home and again sometime in the afternoon. They wanted to make sure they caught any errors, hopefully, in time to fix them without causing any major problems or delays.

Unknown to her, Nick had hinted at the fact that if the construction crew did a great job there would be a good sized bonus for everyone. He noticed the workers making sure they did their absolute best, wanting the bonus. They used the best quality materials, as specified in the plans, and didn't cheat as they often did on other sites.

Nick made sure that all the wedding preparations went as smoothly as possible knowing Natalie had enough on her mind, but also knew that she'd worry about it no matter what he did.

He and Natalie still had a lot to do. They had to finalize things with the photographer, videographer, band, the justice of the peace who was doing the ceremony. They also had to finalize the sites for the wedding and reception.

She had to change her drivers license, bank accounts, credit cards, and social security to Natalie Lambert Knight. This way she could use either Natalie Lambert or Natalie Knight and be covered.

It was a week before the wedding and both Nick and Natalie were showing signs of premarital jitters, not to mention cold feet. They squabbled with each other, and with those around them.

Schanke laughed at them once and was nearly killed by the not so happy couple. He remembered when he and Myra were going through that phase.

Whenever Nick and Natalie had a disagreement in Natalie's office, Grace made them kiss and makeup before she'd let either leave the room. Once or twice it took a bit of coaxing and once it took a threat before Nick and Natalie made up. Most of the fights were over trivial stuff, little things that were usually briefly mentioned and easily worked out.

The next afternoon Natalie tried on her dress for the last time before taking it to Grace's. She didn't want Nick to accidentally see it.

She still couldn't believe how beautiful she looked in her dress, and couldn't wait to see Nick's reaction. It looked better than any of the dresses she had seen in the magazines. It fit her body perfectly, which was the point of having it tailor made.

The tailor and his wife were thrilled by Natalie's reaction to their efforts. They had to agree that the dress and her were perfectly matched.

The following afternoon Grace held the bridal shower at her apartment. Paper bells and streamers decorated the room. The dining room table was covered with a selection of different foods, most of them Natalie's favorites. Grace had picked a few others that matched the occasion.

Natalie's friends were there to celebrate the upcoming wedding. Most of them had no problem coming in early so they could attend the bridal shower. Myra and Katie were there as well.

The first thing Grace did was to suggest that Natalie take a seat on the couch so she could open the small mound of gifts.

Natalie opened the one from Grace first and found a really sexy royal blue nightie. Her friends grinned at the blush it brought to the medical examiner's cheeks.

"Thanks, Grace," Natalie said, wondering if Nick would ever get to see her in it.

Natalie opened Nancy's gift next and found a copy of "How To Have A Fun, Exciting Marriage" inside. Natalie's cheeks turned a bit more red, eliciting giggles from her friends. Nancy passed the book around so that everyone could check it out, especially the parts about keeping one's love life sizzling.

"Thanks, Nancy. I'll remember this," Natalie teased, mischievously.

Katie pouted because the adults wouldn't let her see the book. Natalie picked it up off the coffee table and handed it Katie, to the shock of everyone else. Natalie knew Katie would never get to experience any of it, so at least she could check out the book. That thought brought a sadness to her eyes as she was reminded that she too would be terminally ill at some point in the not too distant future.

"Nat, is everything okay?" Grace asked, more curious than ever. She truly wondered if there was something seriously wrong with her friend.

"I'm okay." Natalie knew the best way to change the subject, and felt a little guilty for what she was about to do. "Katie, how's the book?" She teased, loving the extreme blush that had spread across the her young friend's face.

Grace knew Natalie had purposely changed the subject and wasn't going to spoil the party by upsetting the guest of honor. Her curiosity would wait until another day.

"It... it's ... interesting," Katie stammered quite embarrassed.

Grace remembered that Katie was dying and knew why Natalie had handed her the book. She found that scene amusing, and felt a little sorry for Katie. If she hadn't asked Natalie if she was okay then Katie wouldn't have been embarrassed.

Natalie opened Myra's gift next, giving Katie a break. Tucked inside the gift box Natalie found a very sexy blue teddy and a very seductive pair of men's briefs. Both the teddy and brief's came with a matching robe

"We can't allow him to have all the fun, can we?" Myra teased, seeing Natalie's slight confusion.

"No, we can't," all the adults agreed.

Natalie started to unwrap Katie's gift and noticed Katie felt a little out of place as her gift wasn't like the others.

A large smile crossed Natalie's face as she found a framed drawing of Nick on his knee proposing to Natalie. Katie had kept the background plain so it wouldn't detract from the main action. Natalie and Nick's love clearly shown through.

"Katie, this is gorgeous. Thank you." Natalie showed the framed sketch to the gathered group. She was deeply touched by the gift. "It's just like what happened. He was all nervous, had me concerned that something was wrong and led me to the couch. When I sat down he got down on one knee and proposed to me."

"Cool." Katie said excitedly, nearly bouncing.

Katie once again blushed as everyone complimented her work. They couldn't believe how talented she was.

"I'm glad you like it. I didn't know what to get you. This is my first bridal shower."

"The secret to a good gift is to either pick something from the bridal registry or even better is to give a gift from the heart," Natalie said. "I couldn't have asked for a better gift than this. I can't wait to show it to Nick."

Katie heard the sincerity in the words, her smile growing until it could grow no further. Her eyes twinkled with joy.

Bonnie's gift was a selection of lotions to make the honeymoon night special. Once again Natalie blushed. Natalie passed them around, while Bonnie told everyone to rub a little onto their hand, breathe on it and taste it. After watching the other's Katie even did it, and found it most interesting. She never knew lotion could heat up or be that tasty.

Janette dropped by as soon as the sun went down with the explanation of business meetings keeping her swamped all day.

Janette handed Natalie her gift, enjoying the surprised look on Natalie and Grace's faces. She knew that neither had expected her to come.

"I couldn't miss the fun," Janette said. "Natalie's taking one of the biggest steps in her life and needs all her friends around."

Natalie saw the wicked gleam in Janette's eyes and tried not to grin. She undid the velvety maroon ribbon holding the package closed and lifted off the lid. Inside was a beautiful wooden jewelry box. The top was covered with an exquisite inlaid design. It definitely was an antique, but was in pristine condition.

"It's gorgeous. Thank you, Janette."

"I do have one more gift, but this one is for both you and Nick." Janette said a she handed another gift to Natalie.

Natalie noticed it was rather large and rather heavy. She removed the ribbon and bow holding the box closed. She opened the box, pushing aside the tissue paper. Her cheeks turned their brightest shade of red yet as she saw the title. She looked at Janette and saw a big mischievous grin playing across the vampire's face.

"I don't know what to say."

"Enjoy." Janette said as she watched Natalie's face grow even redder.

"What is it?" Nancy asked.

Bonnie pulled the box away from Natalie, which wasn't too hard to do as their friend was a bit stunned. Bonnie pulled the book out of the box and held it up for all to see. It was the Kama Sutra.

Grins and some giggles broke out across the room, with the exception of Katie who looked confused. The book was passed around as everyone mortal was curious about this book. All the mortals but Katie had heard of it. No mortal there had ever seen it. This time they allowed Katie to see it, knowing that it was okay with Natalie. Katie was stunned by the pictures, as television and movies was the only sex she'd ever seen.

Becky's gift was next. Natalie opened the small flat box and found a gift certificate for dinner for two at Azure. Natalie was momentarily stunned when she saw the name, wondering if Nick would take her there. She remembered her last visit there, even though Nick and LaCroix thought she didn't.

"Thanks, Becky."

Janette noticed the spark of recognition, wondering if either Nick or LaCroix knew Natalie remembered. She wouldn't mention it as it was none of her business.

Natalie opened the rest of her gifts, thanking each friend.

After all the gifts were opened, and Natalie had been suitably attired with the bows, the food table was descended upon by the hungry ladies.

They chatted while they ate.

Janette saw Natalie standing over by the food, looking a bit depressed and knew the best cure.

Natalie saw Janette approach and wasn't sure what was coming next.

"Relax. I'm sorry if my gift embarrassed you. I thought the two of you might enjoy it." Janette said as she mentioned a few of the better positions from the book. She loved watching Natalie's face turn red again.

"Thanks for the gift. It took me by surprise. Who knows, maybe there's something in there Nick and I can use."

"There are." Janette's wicked grin was back. She was glad to see that she had brightened her friend's spirit.

Bonnie approached. "Natalie, you have to tell us how well the books and other gifts work."

"Well, if she comes to work happy every night I'd say they work," Grace teased.

"If she and Nick become parents, then it will work," Carol said.

Myra knew that statement would upset her friend. One look at Natalie's face told her that she was right.

"Did I say something wrong?" Carol asked as she saw the sudden sadness cross Natalie's face.

"No." Natalie wasn't sure she wanted them to know she couldn't have children. When she saw that no one believed her she knew it was the best way to end the questioning. "I can't have children."

"I'm so sorry. I never meant to upset you," Carol said, feeling bad for upsetting her friend.

"It's okay. You couldn't have known."

Grace knew it was time for a game.

"I thought we'd have a little fun by having the guest of honor sing her favorite love song." Grace loved the horrified look on Natalie's face. "Just kidding." Grace enjoyed the tremendous wave of relief which swept over her friend, grinning at the light threat of revenge Natalie's eyes expressed

When the party was over, Natalie thanked Grace, knowing the how much trouble a party was. Especially one that had to be thrown together without much notice.

Natalie's friends helped her carry the gifts to her car since they were heading that direction anyway.

The night before the wedding approached. Grace and Schanke were sure the couple would jump out of their skin before the happy event. Either that or call it off due to an extreme case of nerves and cold feet.

Grace had invited Natalie to stay over at her apartment, which Natalie happily accepted as they hadn't had much time to talk outside of work. They relaxed, talked and enjoyed themselves. Grace made sure Natalie went to bed early enough so she wouldn't be overtired for her wedding.

Meanwhile Nick was being escorted to his bachelor party. He hoped Schanke had the good sense not to do anything too wild. Both Nick and Schanke knew that Natalie and Myra, would kill them if they messed up the wedding due to being hung over or oversleeping.

Nick entered a conference room at a local hotel. He saw a bar at one end and a small snack selection on a table next to the bar. There was a large screen TV at the other end of the room and several padded metal chairs in front of the screen.

"Schanke, you didn't have to do this," Nick said.

"Yes, I did. You're here to celebrate your last night of freedom."

"Something I'm happily giving up for the woman I love."

"Wise choice of words, but they're not needed here. After all, many of us have been where you are."

Nick's coworkers congratulated him. Some patting him on the back while others just offered advice. They enjoyed seeing how nervous the groom was, as little seemed to faze Nick one way or another most of the time.

Schanke shoved the videocassette into the VCR and hit play. Tacky music filled the air as an adult movie started.

The mortal men made use of the cash bar and snacks. Nick had a glass of red wine so that he wouldn't look out of place.

Nick felt a presence, he turned to see his father standing just inside the doorway. Nick's glare told LaCroix that he had better behave himself.

Nick reluctantly introduced LaCroix as an old family friend. Schanke and the rest of the guys in attendance were surprised by this tiny glimpse into Nick's private life.

LaCroix was very polite the entire evening, even joined his son in a glass of pure red wine.

Later in the evening a chestnut haired lady in doctor's scrubs and a lab coat entered the room. Music played as she began to dance, slowly removing her attire. She focused most of her attention on Nick, who tolerated it because it was the mortal thing to do. LaCroix had a very small amused grin on his face. He enjoyed watching the stupid mortals with their mindless diversions, and his son trying to fit in with them.

When Natalie and Grace awoke the next afternoon, Grace fixed Natalie a light breakfast, knowing that if she ate a heavy breakfast it might make her sick. She didn't want her best friend throwing up because she ate too much, Nat's stomach growling in the middle of the ceremony, or her own making that dreadful rumbling noise. When Natalie wasn't hungry Grace convinced her to eat, saying it wouldn't do for the bride to pass out at her own wedding due to lack of food. Natalie chuckled, having to agree with that.

She was grateful to Grace for making her feel normal. For the time she was there she was able to forget about the deadly virus within and enjoy herself, except for the three times she had to take her medication.

As they dressed that morning Natalie heard a knock on her door.

"Natalie, you dressed?"

"Yes. Come in."

Grace entered with a small velvety box in her hand. "I couldn't let you get married without following the old traditions."

Natalie looked at her confused, then it hit her. "I have something old, something new, I need something borrowed and something blue."

"I can solve the something borrowed part," Grace said as she handed Natalie the box.

Natalie took the box and opened it, a smile spreading across her lips as she saw the beautiful pearl earrings inside.

"Thank you. They're gorgeous."

"Don't worry about the something blue. That's easy enough to take care of."

"Okay. I won't."

Grace, Natalie, Nick and Schanke all arrived at the old building on time. Grace and Schanke had agreed to keep the happy couple apart until time for the ceremony. Myra and Jenny arrived a few minutes later.

The outside of the building was rather drab, not exactly the cheerful sort of place you'd expect a wedding to be held.

Natalie, Grace and Myra were surprised when they entered the dressing room, as it had been filled with a mixture of roses and wild flowers, white roses being absent from the arrangement. Against one wall there was a full length mirror so the bride could make sure she looked perfect before walking down the aisle.

Jenny was thrilled she had been given the important task of helping Amanda Cohen greet the small number of invited guests. Jenny's job was to take their coats and show them to their seats. Amanda enjoyed watching the happy young girl eagerly doing her job.

Bonnie, Nancy, Katie, Becky, Kim, and several other of Natalie's old friends arrived. Both Katie and Jenny were glad that there was another young person around. Janette and LaCroix arrived, her arm tucked through his. Katie had on a beautiful royal blue dress, with the necklace and charm holder Natalie and Nick gave her. She also had on simple gold hoop earrings. Jenny had on a fancy floral print dress with white tights and patent leather shoes, but she didn't look completely comfortable or happy in her attire.

Janette was dressed in a sleek dark maroon silk dress. LaCroix was dressed in a sharp looking black tux.

In the dressing room Grace helped Natalie zip up the back of her dress. Grace was already dressed for the ceremony, in a peach colored dress. The silky fabric fell to just below her knees.

"Natalie, you are going to knock him off his feet," Grace said with a smile.

Natalie's dress was white and came down to the floor, but was lacking a train. It was too formal for their occasion and always seemed to be in the way. The dress had a wide v neckline showing just a hint of cleavage. The entire body of the dress was covered in lace, tiny glass beads and pearls. The sleeves were lace and had a very slight puff to them at the top and then were straight, stopping at the wrist.

Natalie had the barrette Janette had given her a couple of years ago for her birthday holding back some of her hair as the something old, Grace's pearls as the something borrowed, her dress was the something new.

"Natalie, here." Myra gave Natalie a blue garter, causing the bride to smile.

"Now I'm all set." Natalie said as she slipped the garter half way up her thigh.

In the groom's dressing room Nick was a nervous wreck. It had been a very long time since he had last been preparing to wed. Schanke helped Nick tie his bout, a little surprised that Nick had opted for the real thing rather than a clip on one.

"You ready, partner?" Schanke asked, already decked out in his tux.

"Yes." Nick said. "Do you have the ring?" Nick started to panic, being unable to remember what he'd done with the ring.

"It's tucked away nice and safe in my pocket." Schanke patted his pocket to double check for himself and reassure Nick. He saw Nick breathe a sigh of relief.

"How about heading down to the Justice of the Peace and I'll go get the bride?

Before long there was a knock on the door to the bride's dressing room.

"Natalie, you ready?" Schanke asked through the door.

Myra opened the door and stood back. Don's jaw dropped as he got his first look at the bride.

"Wow!" was all he could say. He saw a slight blush creeping across her cheeks and grinned.

"Thanks," Natalie said with a nervous smile. She felt the butterflies in her stomach momentarily ease before increasing in intensity. This is it, Natalie thought as she took a deep breath.

Myra knew that was her cue to head out to her seat. As she entered the main room she motioned for the music to start.

Grace headed down the aisle, her eyes filled with joy, and took her place.

When Natalie and Don approached the main room she hooked her arm in his. She saw the pride on his face as he escorted her down the aisle. The wedding march playing in the background. He saw the sheer joy in her eyes during their walk to the groom. Her bouquet was the same mixture of roses and wildflowers that had been in the dressing room.

She was stunned to see the two hundred lighted candles, their flames softly illuminating the room. Roses of every color, but white, decorated the base of each candle holder and the sides of the aisle. Wildflowers mixed with the roses decorated the arch under which the bride and groom would stand.

This is so romantic, Natalie thought. She now understood why Nick had said he'd take care of the interior of the site.

All eyes focused on Natalie. All this attention made her a little uneasy, but she relaxed and enjoyed herself. She had waited far too long to let anything spoil this evening.

As Nick saw his wife-to-be a look of complete joy overtook him. He was stunned at her beauty. She looked more gorgeous than he'd ever seen her before.

Natalie's smiled widened and her joy grew as she observed her soon-to-be-husband's reaction. It was exactly the reaction she had hoped for.

When the bride and Best Man reached the groom, Don took his place beside Nick.

A different piece of music started. A young male friend of theirs sang 'More Than You'll Ever Know'.

The Justice of the Peace began. "Dearly beloved we are gathered together today to join two people in holy matrimony." He paused a moment before continuing. "Nick and Natalie have chosen to write their own vows, and will now recite them."

"Natalie, you are my one true love. I never knew I could feel such love before I met you. You filled a dark empty void within me. You touched me in ways I never thought possible. I love your smile, your laughter, your intelligence, your humor and your beauty. It is a beauty that comes from within as well as without." Nick paused a moment. "I will do everything in my power to see that your life is filled with the best I have to offer. You have me body and soul... forever."

Nick, you are my soulmate, the half that makes me feel whole. You touched me in ways I never thought possible. I love your smile, your gentleness, the way you can always make me feel good about myself, your intelligence and your humor. I knew you were special from the moment I met you. It was then that I knew we were meant to be together." She paused a moment, wiping away a stray tear. "I will do my best to see that our every day is filled with love. I give myself to you body and soul... forever."

Grace, Myra, and Katie found themselves wiping the tears from their eyes as they heard their friends' heartfelt pledges of love. Janette looked pleased while LaCroix had his neutral mask firmly in place to hide his true feelings.

"Do you Natalie Lambert take Nicholas Knight to be your husband?" The Justice asked.

"I do."

Natalie took the gold band from Grace's hand and lovingly slipped it onto her husband's finger.

"Do you Nicholas Knight take Natalie Lambert to be your wife?"

"I do."

Right on cue Don handed Nick the gold ring he held in his hand. Nick took the ring and lovingly slipped it on his bride's finger.

"Then I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride."

Large smiles spread across not only Nick and Natalie's faces, but those of their friends as well. All but LaCroix's.

Nick and Natalie met in a tender, passionate kiss. One that went on for at least a minute before they parted.

"I now announce Mr. and Mrs. Knight." The Justice said as his last official act of the ceremony.

Nick and Natalie walked down the aisle towards the door. Rice was tossed at them as they walked out the door towards the horse and carriage awaiting them.

It was a little cool outside but neither minded. Nick helped Natalie into the horse drawn carriage, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. The back of the carriage had a colorful sign reading "just married".

"Nick, thank you for the perfect wedding," Natalie said, tears streaming from her eyes.

"You're welcome." He gently wiped the tears from her cheeks.

About twenty minutes later the carriage arrived at the restaurant which was the reception site. Nick and Natalie noticed their friends' vehicles in the parking lot on their way in.

When the Maitre'D saw Natalie in her gown and Nick in his tux they knew which room to lead them to. Nick and Natalie entered their reception to the cheers of their friends and family, all but LaCroix.

"Thank you. Eat, drink, enjoy," Nick said.

The newlyweds headed for the buffet line as they were supposed to take the first servings. Natalie filled up her plate with her favorites as well as a few of the other items while Nick only took a tiny bit of a few things.

Once the couple had served themselves everyone else filled their plates, noticing that there were a few of everyone's favorites as part of the selections.

The buffet had been chosen so that the guests as well as the happy couple could mingle as they pleased rather than being tied to a specific seat at a certain table.

After everyone was finished with dinner the wedding cake was brought in. It was three tiers of white frosting decorated with perfect red, yellow and pink frosting roses. The figures on top of the cake had a little badge on the blonde groom and a caduceus on the brown haired bride.

"Okay, who did this?" Natalie inquired playfully. "It's cute."

No one owned up to modifying the cake figures, which was no surprise to the group.

Nick and Natalie approached and were handed the knife. Natalie gripped it with Nick's hand over hers. They cut the first slice. Natalie scooped it onto a plate held by Nick. Each took the fork handed them and dug into the cake.

They fed each other a bite of cake, Nick missing Natalie's mouth the first time, leaving a blob of frosting on the tip of her nose. Her smile turned mischievous as she allowed the fork to find it's mark the first time, Nick's mouth. Her other hand grabbed a bite and before anyone knew it, Nick found the handful smashed into his face. Nick wasn't about to let that go unchallenged and grabbed a chunk from the plate and was about to get revenge when he heard.

"Don't you even think about it," Natalie warned. She grew concerned when it only caused his grin to grow even more mischievous.

Before she could say anything else she felt frosting and cake making contact with her face.

She kissed him spreading the mess further across their faces. When the beast threatened to surface Nick broke the kiss and tried not to pull too far away, not wanting to draw attention to it.

He grabbed a napkin and began wiping the cake off his lovely bride's face. They both excused themselves a moment and headed for the restrooms.

"Now don't be gone too long," Grace teased causing the couple to blush.

Nick and Natalie returned a few minutes later with no traces of frosting or cake remaining. They were pleased to see their friends eating the cake.

A few minutes later the band began to play. Natalie gathered all the single females in the room for the bouquet toss. They all gathered with Grace and Katie up front, along with Nancy and Bonnie. Janette hung in the back, having been coaxed into playing along. Natalie turned her back to the crowd and tossed the bouquet over her shoulder. When Natalie turned back around she saw the huge smile on Katie's face and the flowers in her hand. She was glad her aim had been accurate.

The other ladies congratulated Katie and teased her. Katie looked over at Natalie, who had big grin on her face.

A chair was placed near Natalie, which she sat on. Don was blushing as he was supposed to remove the garter belt. Natalie wore a wicked grin as well as a slight blush. Don was a little embarrassed as he reached up to remove the garter, accompanied by stripping music from the band. A moment later he had the garment in hand, to his great relief.

Nick led Katie over to the seat which Natalie vacated and motioned for her to sit down. She had a vague idea what was going to happen and turned bright red. Schanke took pity on her because she was only a few years older than his daughter and placed the garter belt just above her knee.

Next it was time for the bride and groom to have the first dance. 'Love of My Life' played and Nick escorted Natalie out onto the dance floor. They danced as if they were one, their love radiating from every pore.

After the song was over everyone paired up and hit the dance floor.

LaCroix approached Natalie drawing the concern of both the bride and groom.

"Natalie, would you honor me with a dance?" LaCroix said being the perfect gentleman.

"I'd be honored," Natalie said, playing along with him, hoping he wasn't going to do anything to ruin the celebration.

Janette distracted Nick with a dance while Natalie and LaCroix danced. LaCroix was nothing but the perfect gentleman.

Grace and Myra noticed the chemistry between Nick and Janette but weren't too worried because they saw much more love between Nick and Natalie.

Nick danced the next song with Katie while Natalie borrowed Don for a dance. Nick loved Katie's expression as they danced. The teen was having the time of her life, one that was much too short.

Nick disappeared for a moment. As he returned to his bride, the song "Can I Have This Dance For the Rest of My Life" began to play. Nick looked at Natalie, who nodded. They danced, totally lost in the other.

Their friends looked on, quite pleased.

During the evening Nick danced with Jenny, Myra and Grace. Natalie talked with those around her, loving the chance to chat with her out-of-state friends. LaCroix and Janette danced.

When the band took a break, LaCroix raised a champagne flute.

"I'd like to propose a toast," the ancient vampire said, greatly enjoying the worried looks of the newlyweds. "I hope Nicholas and Natalie's love lasts forever."

"Hear, hear," came from the crowd.

Nick and Natalie knew the hidden message in the completely innocent sounding toast.

"Thank you."

Shortly, Natalie and Nick left to change into more appropriate clothing for their trip home. Nick was in his black leather jacket, blue silk shirt and black slacks. Natalie wore a royal blue suit with a plain white silk blouse and matching pumps.

Out in the horse drawn carriage that would take newlyweds back to Natalie's apartment, Natalie asked Nick, "are you going to tell me where we're going tomorrow night?"

"No. I told you it was a surprise." He recognized her expression. "You know that I'm not going to tell you."

"I know. And you know how much that frustrates me."

"Yeah. It will be worth it, trust me."

"Like I have a choice?" she teased. "I'm glad that everyone's having a great time at the party."

"Me too."

"I have to admit I'm a bit surprised LaCroix behaved so well," Natalie said.

"Me too. Either he's playing a new game with us or he knew ruining our night would drive me further away."

"I hope it was the latter, although I suspect it might be the other one."

"I don't think we'll know one way or another until he makes his next move. I for one am not going to worry about it."

"Neither am I."

Each knew the other would worry about what LaCroix was up to.

Before long they arrived at her apartment building. They climbed out of the carriage and headed for the door. Once inside they took the elevator up to the apartment and walked down the hall, stopping at the apartment door.

Natalie unlocked the door, pushed it open and was about to enter when she felt herself scooped up into Nick's arms as he carried her across the threshold. Once they were inside he closed and locked the door, all the while still holding his wife.

Both had huge smiles on their faces, but uncertainty danced in their eyes. This was something neither had expected. They never thought they'd be husband and wife. They also never expected her to by dying of AIDS. At that thought, both were glad that her HIV was still asymptomatic.

"Are you going to stand there holding me all day?" Natalie said lightly, trying to break the gloomy mood which had settled in.

"I wouldn't mind, but I suppose I should put you down." He said matching her tone, as he set her down.

"Umm..." Natalie nervously said before being cut off by a cool finger across her lips.

Nick knew what was supposed to happen on the wedding night and could tell she wondered what was going to happen tonight. He didn't think he could make love to her, which saddened him.

"Why don't you go slip into something more comfortable," he said with a grin.

"Okay."

As soon as he saw her door shut he headed for the kitchen. He reached into the fridge and pulled out a bottle he had tucked into the back of his supplies. He popped the cork and took a long drink, feeling the thick salty liquid slide down his throat. He enjoyed the taste of the human blood, yet despised himself for drinking it. He knew he'd need every ounce of control he could master if he was to be that close to her tonight. He hoped the blood would help him with his control. It would ease his nearly constant hunger, even if only for a little while.

He took one final swallow as he heard the door open. He quickly stuck the mostly empty bottle back into it's place in the refrigerator.

She knew that while the night had been joyous it had also been hard on him. She knew how hard it was for him to be close to her without the beast trying to break free and knew that he would have to drink if they were to have any sort of a pleasant evening. She hoped the outfit she had slipped into didn't make matters worse. It was what she suspected he wanted to see her in.

Nick reentered the living room just in time to see her approach. She was a vision of beauty in the royal blue teddy and matching robe that hung open. The color of the teddy brought out the blue of her eyes. Nick just stood there staring. He loved her nervousness as they'd never been this bold before.

"You'd better not be lost in the past."

"What?" When he saw the slight annoyance in her eyes he knew the reason. "I wasn't lost in the past. You look stunning. That's what had me so captivated." He enjoyed watching the color creep into her cheeks as he spoke.

"It's your turn to change. I left your clothes on the bed."

He loved the wicked grin she wore, yet a part of it worried him. That grin often meant she was up to something, or had done something that he probably wouldn't like.

He headed into the bedroom and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the outfit awaiting him. It was a smallish pair of men's briefs and matching robe. They too were in the same royal blue as her outfit.

Natalie was seated on the couch when she heard the door open. She stood to meet him and felt the smile spread across her lips as she saw him.

He too was nervous, both because of the outfit and because he was afraid he might accidentally hurt her, or worse.

"I'll have to thank Myra for her gift," Natalie said as she blinked. It was then she realized she'd been staring. She swore she saw him blush ever so slightly.

Each knew the other was posing the unasked question, 'what next?'

"Why don't you go get comfortable and I'll be right in." Nick said, knowing he needed the rest of that bottle if he were to make it through the day without bolting.

"Okay." She could see that he was already fighting the beast and wouldn't question him.

Once Nick polished off the rest of the bottle of human blood he felt mostly satisfied and grimaced as he downed half a bottle of cow blood. He hoped that would be enough as he returned the half empty bottle to the fridge, rinsed out the empty one and stuck it in the recycling bin.

On his way to the bedroom he grabbed one of the lotions from the stack of gifts piled on her kitchen table. He hoped the smell of it would help keep the beast at bay.

He entered her bedroom and saw her sitting on the bed waiting for him. He heard her heart beating faster than normal and sensed her nervousness.

"Before we begin there are a few things we have to discuss." He pulled her to her feet and lovingly wrapped his arms around her, seeing the radiant happiness in her eyes along with the uncertainty. But there was no real fear.

"I know." She wrapped her arms around him.

"My eyes will very likely change and my fangs will most likely drop. It happens when we're aroused."

"I know."

"I didn't want you to be scared when it happened."

"I won't be."

"I don't know how much control I'll have. I may have to leave suddenly. I don't want to hurt you, tonight especially." He gently caressed the side of her face as he spoke.

"I know. If you have to leave, I'll understand." Her warm hand caressed his face. She knew that this would be very difficult for him, if not impossible.

He was very hesitant to voice what he had to ask next. He couldn't look at her. He felt her warm fingers lifting his chin up to face her.

"If you lose control, I would rather come across than die." She placed her finger on his lips to silence his protest. "I know you fear that, but if it happens we will deal with it. Okay?" She left her finger in place so he could only nod. "I know I said I wasn't ready yet, but I would rather become a creature of the darkness than die. If I die then there's no future for us. That would hurt me too much. I can't leave you alone like that."

He felt her finger leave, and grabbed hold of her hand, placing a tender kiss on the palm of it.

"I will honor your wish, if it should come to that." He knew that hadn't been any easier for her to say than it was for him to hear it.

He gently pushed her silky robe off her shoulders, his hands gently caressing the bare skin.

She followed his lead and pushed the robe off his shoulders as well.

They just stood there taking in the beauty of each other's body.

"Nick... ummmm... we need to practice safe sex. I don't know..." She felt his lips covering hers, drowning out her protests.

When he broke off the kiss he said "I have that covered. Anything else?" his tone turning teasing. He showed her the little foil envelope.

"No," she said in the same tone.

They both knew they were charting new territory, and there were bound to be dangers as well as frustrations along with the pleasure. They knew that the last time they'd made love was completely different because it was done as much out of need as it was support. This time it was pure passion, which made it all the more dangerous.

They both knew that the more they kissed the more dangerous it was so they worked on other ways of pleasuring their mate.

She felt his cool touch as her straps were pushed off her shoulders. She smelled the coconut scent of the pina colada lotion as his hands tenderly rubbed the lotion onto her shoulders.

He felt the silky smooth skin under his fingers, smelling her own cinnamon apple scent mingling with the coconut one from the lotion.

Natalie's hand caressed his cool, smooth chest. She played with the few blonde hairs on his chest, feeling his body involuntarily tense.

Nick eased his wife down onto the bed and lay down beside her. He gently ran one of his hands down her front feeling the silky material of the teddy as it hugged her figure, noticing she tensed slightly when he caressed her breast. He wondered if she'd always react that way, hating how the memory of the rapist doing that to her would always be there in the way back of her mind.

Natalie ran her hands down his back ever so slowly and gently, stopping to explore a scar she found there.

"Battle wound?" She asked quite curious.

"Yes. My opponent's spear."

He pushed down the teddy exposing more of his bride's beautiful smooth skin. He squirted more of the lotion onto his hands and gently caressed the newly exposed area, loving the feeling of her warm skin against his cooler one.

She picked up the bottle and squirted some onto her own hands, testing it on a small area of his chest. When he didn't seem to have an allergic reaction she rubbed it into his chest as she worked her way down.

His eyes changed. He tried to close them so she wouldn't see it and become alarmed.

"It's okay. I want to see."

It still spooked her when he changed so suddenly, but was determined to overcome it. They both knew they had to deal with it if their relationship was to grow and thrive.

He looked at her seeing only love reflected in her eyes.

"How can you look at me when I'm like this?"

"It's a part of who you are. Just like the rape and HIV are a part of me."

"Once again, you're right." He knew she hated those parts of her as much as he hated his vampiric nature.

She felt his cool hands slowly pulling the teddy off her body and lifted herself off the bed just enough to assist him. Her hands went to the top of his briefs and slowly worked them down. She didn't need her hands to notice his arousal.

She saw the small bulges in his upper lip and knew his fangs had descended. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss someone with fangs, but didn't act on it knowing it would be too dangerous. Maybe in the future as they grew more accustomed to living together.

She felt his cool hands spreading the lotion where ever they explored. With her teddy having been dropped onto the floor there was nowhere that couldn't be explored. She worked his briefs down to his knees and watched as he did the rest himself.

Their nervousness grew as they had only bared themselves to each other once before and knew that a different kind of appraisal was going on this time. Their eyes lovingly studied their mate as they'd longed to do for so many years now. Hands followed where the eyes led them.

Both could tell the other was deeply aroused. Natalie's natural scent grew stronger the more aroused she became. Natalie was startled as she noticed the fine sheen of blood sweat here and there on his anatomy. She knew they sweated blood but somehow she'd never paid it much attention before.

Nick felt the beast straining against his willpower and fought back. He wasn't sure how much further they could go without the vampire posing an unacceptable danger.

Natalie sensed that he was nearing the limit and wasn't sure if she should let him pull away first or if she should.

Nick forced himself to the other side of the room and grabbed his robe from the closet. "I'm sorry," he said as he left the room.

"It's okay," she said, understandingly, knowing he would be able to hear her in the other room.

She stood up and headed for the bathroom, needing a cold shower. A glance at the clock showed that it would soon be time for her next round of medication.

Nick headed straight for the fridge, yanking a cork out of the wine bottle he retrieved. After finishing the bottle he headed for the closet to grab the pillow and blanket.

Natalie laid in her bed staring at the door wondering what Nick was thinking.

Nick stretched out on the couch and stared at Natalie's bedroom door wondering what was going through her mind. Does she truly understand?

Later that afternoon Nick heard movement inside Natalie's room and lightly knocked on the door.

"Come in."

"I'm sorry about last night. I wanted so much to make our wedding night special. I wanted..."

"It's okay. You did make it special. Except for that one time, we've never been able to go that far." When she noticed he seemed unconvinced she continued. "I wouldn't have traded last night for anything."

The certainty and love he saw in her eyes convinced him that she was telling the truth. He walked over to her, sat on the edge of the bed and drew her to him. Their kiss threatened to ignite the sheets beneath them.

When she reluctantly broke away needing to breathe she smiled her warmest smile as she looked into her husband's eyes.

"What time's our flight?"

"In about two hours. Are you packed Mrs. Knight," he smiled loving the fact that she was now his wife.

"I'm all set, how about you?"

"Same here. Why don't you get dressed."

Half an hour later it was safe for Nick to be outside so they headed for the airport. They drove Natalie's car for the simple fact it was the easiest and fastest way to get to the airport.

While waiting in the airline's private club area, they sat on the couch holding hands. It felt great to no longer have to hide their feelings from the world.

"Why are we going to Belgium?" Natalie asked.

"You'll see."

She knew she wouldn't get anything more out of him, on that subject and found herself actually enjoying the mystery.

Natalie was surprised to see they were on the Concord. Natalie enjoyed flying first class, something she could never afford to do. The few times she could she found it to be a waste of money, but this time was special. She and Nick enjoyed the movie as the plane crossed the ocean. Many of the passengers slept as it was a night flight. Natalie took her medication, right on schedule, unnoticed by anyone.

When they landed and had claimed their baggage they headed out to find the car Nick had rented.

"Are you sure you can drive over here?"

"Don't you trust me?" He asked, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "It's only been forty years," he whispered into her ear causing her to grin.

They quickly found their car, loaded the trunk with the bags and were off.

A while later Natalie spotted a sign welcoming them to Brabant.

He loved her expression as she figured it out.

They checked into their accommodations as the sun would be rising soon. Nick had booked them a room at a small inn. Unknown to her it was one that catered to both the living and the undead.

Nick carried Natalie over the threshold of their room, setting her down on the other side. Nick tipped the bell boy, who quickly left.

"Why don't we unpack and then see what we feel like doing."

"Sounds good," Natalie said.

They hung up their clothes, sticking their other items either in the drawers or the bathroom.

Natalie caught Nick trying to hide a vial and syringes from her. She approached. "What is that?"

Nick knew she'd be extremely angry if he lied or beat around the bush so he handed her the vial. He expected some sort of explosion from her.

"Nick, are you out of your mind?!" Natalie said, her anger growing. She couldn't believe he had brought Lytoveuterine B with him. "What are you doing with this? You know what it does to you!"

"Nat, I was only planning on one dose. I wanted to be able to show you where I grew up." Nick hoped she'd understand.

"It's a really sweet thing you want to do, but is it worth the risk?" She was both deeply touched and equally concerned, something that wasn't lost on him.

"Yes, it is. If you think the risk is too great, we'll go at night, but you won't be able to see much."

"One dose?"

"Yes."

"Okay. When do you want to do it?"

"If you're not too tired, how about today?"

"I'm fine. I caught some sleep on the plane." Natalie motioned for Nick to get comfortable on the bed. She positioned a wastebasket nearby, just in case it made him sick. "At least we know what to expect, I hope."

He stretched out on the bed and rolled up his sleeve as she filled the syringe, both hoping they weren't making a huge mistake.

"You have to make me a promise, first," Natalie said completely serious.

"What?"

"While the effects of this drug last we can not be intimate. I don't want to risk infecting you."

"Nat..."

"No," Natalie said deadly serious. "We don't know for sure that when the drug wears off, you'd be cured. I won't risk your life for one afternoon's pleasure."

"I promise we won't do anything that would put me at risk, okay?" He knew she wouldn't budge on this one, and wasn't going to anger her by further questioning her.

"Okay. Thank you." Natalie's expression asked him if he was ready and his said he was.

Natalie inserted the needle into a vein and pushed down the plunger.

They both awaited the nasty side effects as the drug began to work. Moments later Nick curled up in a ball, wicked pains and severe nausea wracked his body. Natalie gently stroked his hair as she kept a close eye on him for any unexpected complications.

Both were extremely relieved as the pain and nausea tapered off and then stopped completely.

"Is everything okay?" Natalie asked, concerned.

"I'm fine. Shall we go?"

"I need to take the next round first."

"Okay."

She quickly downed her handful of pills and grabbed a light jacket. She tucked Nick's drug and a few spare syringes into her purse, just in case.

After an hour's drive through the beautiful scenery they arrived at the castle which used to be Nick's mortal home.

"The scenery is absolutely stunning."

"I'm glad you think so."

"So this is where you grew up?" She grinned.

"Yes. I've made sure it was properly cared for all these years. Care to go inside?"

"Yes."

"I've thought about turning it into an inn or maybe opening it to the public." Nick said.

Nick and Natalie entered the ancient castle. He loved the look of awe on her face as he showed her around, pointing out what each room was used for. The castle was devoid of furniture or tapestries.

"What was it like growing up here?" Natalie asked quite curious.

"It was a simple life, at least compared to today. From the time I was about four or five I had chores to do. Simple ones at first, but as I grew older they changed accordingly. When I was about ten I started training to be a warrior."

"How? Did you like it?"

"I was trained in the weaponry of the day, but not until I was old enough to handle each weapon. I learned how to defend myself and my family. I learned hand to hand combat, how to use a knife and a bow and arrow. The training wasn't too intense until I reached thirteen. Then it was several hours a day." Nick said, remembering his childhood like it was yesterday, not almost 800 years ago. " I did enjoy most of it. It made me feel like an adult. My father and I used to go hunting with the other men. It was how the children practiced and refined their skills.

"What did you do for fun?"

"We would play with the others in the town. We didn't have too many toys, just what we made for ourselves, or what someone made for us."

Nick reached the room that used to be his bedroom, Natalie at his side holding his hand.

"This was my room," He said.

Nick moved in front of Natalie and took both her hands in his. He looked at the beautiful face of his wife and smiled.

"I Nicholas deBrabant promise to make each day of your life special. I want you to know that you touched this dark ancient soul in a way I never thought possible. You brought light into it and showed me that there was hope and love out there. You showed me that there was goodness in me. That there was humanity there as well. You've stood by me through my worst times, reminding me that there's more to life than feeling sorry for myself. You accepted me for who and what I am. You refused to let me use the vampire as an excuse for feeling sorry for myself or for any of my failures."

Nick wiped a tear from her cheek as he continued, "You gave me this day in the sun. I want to devote the rest of my life to making you as happy as you've made me. I know things will not always run smoothly but it doesn't matter as long as we're together."

Natalie had tears streaming down her face, having waited so many years for him to express his feelings for her and now he no longer seemed afraid to do so. She wiped the wetness from her face, hoping he knew they were tears of joy. From the peacefulness she felt radiating from him she knew he understood.

"You taught me how to love again, something I thought had been driven out by the vampire. Thank you for not giving up on me when I couldn't express how I felt. I was afraid that if you knew, you might run away. I didn't want to hurt you. I still don't. I'm afraid I will without meaning to. Losing you will hurt more than a stake or the sun could ever hurt." He noticed how his honesty brought a new round of joyous tears to his lovely wife's face.

"You taught me a lot too. You showed me there was more to the world than most people realized. You've shared your deepest thoughts and feelings with me. You gave me a unique view of history, which I shall always cherish. You brought excitement, danger and mystery to my dull life. Or at least dull compared with yours. You showed me there were still gentlemen out there. I was so afraid if you knew how much I loved you, you'd leave without saying goodbye. That you'd do it to protect me from yourself. I didn't need protection from you. Somehow I knew you'd never hurt me." She saw the tears welling in his eyes.

"Somehow I knew we belonged together. That we were each half of a whole. There were times I almost gave up, but then you did something totally unselfish and I couldn't stay angry with you. I knew that you'd express your feelings for me when you were ready to and hoped they would match my feelings for you. You made me feel beautiful, something I never believed of myself. You appreciated me for what was inside, and not just what I looked like. I too want to spend the rest of my life making you happy. How could I not love all of you? It's who you are. It's the man I fell in love with," Natalie said seeing the joy in his eyes from her complete honesty.

She saw a clear tear run down his cheek and was quite surprised. She wiped it away and showed it to him, surprising him as well.

"As I got to know you I saw someone who needed a little kindness to bring out the goodness within. As I learned of your past I knew that I had been right, you had endured a brutal father and yet you could still love. You still had your humanity after nearly 800 years."

"You are an amazing woman Natalie Knight. I don't know what I did to deserve you."

"You are as amazing Nicholas deBrabant. I too don't know what I did to deserve you. I think we were destined to be together in this lifetime," Natalie said.

They both knew she generally didn't believe in the supernatural, at least outside of the vampiric parts of it.

Nick drew his wife closer, wrapping her in a loving embrace. One that she happily responded to.

"How about we go explore the rest of the castle?" Natalie said lightly.

Nick smiled and led her to the next room. Again they walked hand in hand. They explored the last few rooms of the castle, Nick telling stories as they looked around.

When they finished the interior of the castle, they started walking around the grounds, looking at all the beautiful flowers, trees, green grass, and enjoying their day in the sun. They knew that it would all be over way too soon.

"Nick, how are you feeling?"

"Okay. How about you?"

"Okay. I think we shouldn't overdo it. I have no idea how long the Lytoveuterine will last."

"There's just one more thing I want to do, then we can go back to the hotel. Okay?"

"Okay. Do I get a hint?"

"I'll be right back." Nick said as he kissed her cheek before heading back the way they had come.

Natalie examined the plant life around her, enjoying the beautiful flowers. She liked how the setting had been kept very natural, yet well maintained.

About twenty minutes later Nick returned. "Close your eyes," He said hiding behind a large bush.

"Okay," she said, hearing the slight mischievousness in his voice. She closed her eyes and heard rustling in front of her.

"You can open them now," he said.

Natalie opened her eyes, stunned to see a gourmet picnic laid out on the cloth before her. There was a bottle of sparkling cider, various cheeses and crackers along with strawberries dipped in chocolate.

"How? When?" Natalie asked before being cut off by Nick.

"I arranged for it to be loaded into the car before we left. I wanted to surprise you." Nick said. "I've dreamed of sharing a sunlit picnic with you."

Nick motioned for her to have a seat, which she did. He sat opposite her and opened the cider, pouring it into two wine glasses.

"I too have dreamed of spending a day with you in the sun and sharing a picnic basket."

"To my beautiful, intelligent wife. May we remain in love for a long time to come. May we never forget that our love is more important than any outside problems." Nick raised his glass in a salute.

"To my handsome, intelligent husband, with whom I totally agree. At least on this toast," Natalie said, grinning, a slight hint of mischievousness creeping into the last sentence of her toast.

They ate the cheese and crackers while sipping at the cider. Each offering a new kind of cheese for the other to try. She enjoyed watching his expressions as he encountered all these new taste sensations. Nick enjoyed trying all the new foods, not knowing if he would ever get the chance to do so again.

Natalie took her next dose right on time, pleased with the coincidence. Slightly wondering if it was truly one or if the timing had been planned.

When they had finished with the cheeses Nick picked up one of the strawberries and teased her lips with it. She playfully took a bite. She picked a berry up and traced his lips with it, enjoying his reaction. He ate half the strawberry, discovering that he liked it, not to mention the way it had been presented. They took turns seductively feeding each other the berries, stopping only long enough for sips of cider to wash the chocolate dipped strawberries down.

After they finished off the strawberries they rested a few minutes before packing up the empty dishes and heading back for the car.

Once they arrived back at the inn, they cuddled up on the couch with a movie. Halfway through the movie Nick felt the vampire returning and headed for the mini fridge in the room. Natalie watched him but didn't say anything.

Nick returned to the couch, coffee mug in hand to retake his seat behind his wife. She was only too happy to let him back into his spot.

After the movie ended they headed for the bedroom, wanting to know if they could share a room, and even a bed. Nick slipped into his black silk jammies while Natalie slipped into a long t-shirt and a pair of leggings.

"Aren't we the romantic duo," she joked.

Natalie took her final round of medication before crawling under the covers. Nick crawled into the other side of the bed. They were unsure whether they should attempt to cuddle or remain on their own sides, and decided on the latter to be on the safe side.

Nick found it hard to sleep because it went against the vampiric nature to sleep at night. He was tempted by Natalie's scent and how close her blood was, but pushed any thoughts of hurting her from his mind as he watched her sleep. Before long he was asleep.

Late the next afternoon, Nick awoke before Natalie and slipped out of bed carefully so he wouldn't wake her. He headed for the living room. He made a few phone calls and had breakfast before settling on the couch with the newspaper.

About an hour later Natalie entered the living room and joined her husband on the couch.

"Good afternoon. How'd you sleep?" She asked.

"Good. How about you?" He asked.

"Like a baby."

"What would you like to do this afternoon?" Nick asked.

"Do we have plans for tonight?"

"Yes. I thought we'd spend a few nights in Paris before returning home." He loved the surprised look that spread across her face and the smile which formed as well. "I take it you approve?" He teased.

She nodded. "As for this afternoon, I thought maybe a nice lunch and another video?"

"Sounds good to me," Nick said.

After their movie they packed and left the inn, once again heading for the airport. They boarded their plane a short time later and before they knew it they landed at Orly airport in Paris.

As soon as they entered the airport arrival area Natalie was surprised to see a man dressed in a chauffeur's uniform holding up a sign that read "Knight". They approached the man and followed him to the baggage claim area. There he took their luggage claim checks, retrieved their bags from the conveyor belt, and took them out to the sleek black limo waiting by the curb.

Nick loved the smile Natalie gave him as they walked to their transportation.

The driver opened the door for them. Nick motioned for Natalie to enter first, which she did. Nick slipped in next to her.

As they approached their hotel Natalie turned to Nick and quietly asked, "when was the last time you were here?"

"About seventy-five years ago," Nick replied quietly.

"Do you mind coming back here?"

"Not at all. If I did, I wouldn't have brought you here." Nick knew it would bring back memories of that night in 1228 as well as others, but he didn't mind because they were in the distant past. "I can't wait to see the city through your eyes. In a way it will be like seeing it for the very first time."

"Can we start as soon as we check in? There's so much to see."

"Sure. You don't have to try and see everything at once. Remember we have the rest of week."

A thought hit her. "How long do we have the limo?"

"The limo is ours for the week."

"It doesn't seem like enough time, does it?"

Nick and Natalie arrived at the hotel. Natalie wasn't surprised to see that it had a five star rating, everything so far had been first rate.

A bellboy showed them to their suite. Nick tipped the man as he left.

Natalie looked around the one bedroom suite, stunned by the sheer elegance of the place, yet it also had a cozy, intimate feel to it. The furnishings were a mixture of the old and the new, both looking like they belonged there. She saw the antique dining table off to the far right side and the bedroom off to the left. The middle had two very comfortable looking modern couches, end tables and a coffee table. There was also a television, VCR and stereo in a large, ornate, dark wooden cabinet against the side wall. The back wall was taken up with the large sliding glass doors.

"Shall we head out?" Nick asked, seeing that his lovely bride was eager to get her first look at Paris. "I want to show you something." Nick headed for the balcony, pulling open the drapes to show Natalie the beautiful lights of Paris.

Curious, Natalie approached her husband, smiling as she saw all the gorgeous multi-colored sparkles lighting up the city. "It's beautiful."

"Shall we go?" Nick asked.

"Yes."

Nick and Natalie spent the rest of the night walking through the streets of Paris, stopping whenever something captured her attention. They stopped at a cafe so that Natalie could try the different pastries they offered.

Nick loved the look on her face when the first cup of coffee she ordered arrived. It wasn't the standard mug or coffee cup she was used to but something much smaller, like a large thimble. He worked to keep the grin from showing. Natalie had two more thimbles full of coffee before she was ready to continue on with their explorations.

Natalie did have to pass on one batch of goodies due to her medication schedule, promising herself that she would return there first thing the next evening. It was times like this that she really hated the ddI as she had to take it on an empty stomach and couldn't eat for two hours either before or after taking it.

Nick enjoyed watching Natalie every time she found something new to examine. He had been right, seeing the city through her eyes was indeed a special treat. She saw things that he had never noticed.

When the cafes and the few open shops closed, Nick and Natalie headed back to the hotel.

Back in the room Natalie realized she was tired, but wasn't quite ready for bed yet. She entered the bedroom saw the large, very comfortable looking king sized bed, with it's much more plush comforter than the ones she was used to in hotels. In the bathroom she saw the marble Jacuzzi and couldn't wait to use it. There was a telephone there as well as a small television set.

She changed into her pajamas and robe, noticing that Nick did the same. She took her final round of medication for the day and went out to watch some television. She flipped through the available channels surprised by the racy and freaky things she saw, so she turned it off.

Nick came out and sat next to her on the sofa. Natalie started to giggle, drawing a confused look from Nick.

"Sorry. Back home they probably think we're only doing one thing. Imagine their surprise if they learned the truth."

"I'm sorry I can't..."

"None of that. It's okay." Natalie saw that he didn't believe her. "Honest."

"Are you sure?" Nick said, still not fully convinced. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer to him.

She loved being in his arms, resting against his chest. She felt his cool breath on the top of her head and the gentle kiss he planted there.

"I'm sure. No one said a honeymoon had to be nothing but non-stop lovemaking. Even if you were mortal and I was healthy, I don't think we'd be doing that. I think we'd be doing just what we're doing now."

"I think you're right," Nick said, having been convinced by the way she had given her explanation as much as what she said. "Did you sample enough chocolate tonight?" He teased.

"One can never sample enough chocolate. Especially the delicious ones here," Natalie said, returning the tease.

"How many chocolate shops did we visit?" He grinned.

"I don't know, maybe six. Which reminds me... where did we put my goodies?"

"Check on the bar."

Natalie headed for the bar and returned with a decent sized shopping bag. She sat down next to Nick and unloaded smaller bags onto the coffee table. Each bag contained a different assortment of chocolates. She picked up one of the small bags, opened it and sampled one of the pieces.

Nick loved the contented grin that spread across her face as she ate another piece.

Nick turned the TV on and, after flipping through the channels, found a movie they both thought looked interesting. Natalie couldn't understand the French, but loved the sound of Nick's voice as he translated it for her. The soothing sound of his voice quickly lulled her to sleep. Nick still marveled at how she could be so trusting as to fall asleep in his arms, knowing full well what he was. He loved how peaceful and beautiful she looked as she slept. Before long he himself grew sleepy, and he carefully picked her up and carried her into the bedroom.

He pulled down the covers, being careful not to wake her, gently placed her on the bed and tucked her in. She rolled onto her side and continued with her deep, peaceful slumber.

Nick headed out to the mini fridge, pulled out one of his dark green wine bottles and downed half of it. As much as he was enjoying spending this much time so close to her, it was also difficult. The hardest part was sleeping next to her. He feared what might happen in his sleep. He knew that they would have to sleep in separate beds, as planned. Even that would be tempting, but tolerable, as long as he didn't starve himself. After he finished dining he headed back into the bedroom and climbed into bed, being careful not to wake Natalie.

The next afternoon Natalie awoke first and was in the living room looking at the newspaper that had been slipped under the door. She could make out some words here and there, but most of it she couldn't understand. I wish I'd kept up with my French after college, she thought, knowing that medical school had left her little time for French lessons.

Nick woke and silently watched Natalie from the doorway, amused as she studied the paper.

"Good afternoon," Nick finally said.

"Hi. How'd you sleep?" Natalie asked.

"Good. And you?"

"Great." Natalie looked at the newspaper, then at her husband. "Can you teach me some French?"

"Sure. What do you want to know?"

" I remember a little from school, but not much. I want to be able to handle a simple conversation. You do know modern French, right?" Natalie asked, that thought just occurring to her.

"Yes, I know modern French," Nick said, with one of the warm smiles she loved so much. "Shall we start now?"

"Please."

Nick started by teaching her a few very basic phrases such as "my name is", "how are you" and so on. When she caught onto those, he taught her some new ones. The phrases grew more complex each time she mastered the previous ones.

By the time the sun had set, Natalie had a handful of phrases she could confidently use. They weren't the perfect French you learn in school, but the real French spoken by the natives. She knew how important it was to attempt to speak their language, to say Bonjour when you enter somewhere and Au revoir or Bonne nuit when you left. Also, to address people as Monsieur or Madame/Mademoiselle.

After dinner they continued with their window shopping. Natalie enjoyed using the few phrases she had learned earlier in the day. As the night wore on, Nick taught her more phrases while they walked down street after street.

They started the night with dinner at the cafe she had to pass on the night before. Natalie found a heavenly dessert. It was a rich chocolate cake with sinfully delicious chocolate mousse spread thickly between the layers of cake, a dark fudgy frosting covered the cake with dark chocolate shavings across the top of the cake. Large, thin dark chocolate wedges stuck up from the top of the cake. Nick loved watching his wife's expressions as she savored her dessert.

After dinner they strolled down one of the more scenic streets so she could walk off the calories from that heavenly cake, looking in the shop windows along the way. The limo met them at the end of the street because their next destination was too far to walk to.

Natalie was amazed to see cars pulling onto the sidewalk for a quick fill up of gas. She couldn't believe that the gas station buildings looked like a regular store front, and often were right in the middle of a bunch of stores. The pumps at the curb did not resemble ours at all.

They were dropped off at Eiffel Tower, it's size catching Natalie off guard. She had seen pictures of it, but seeing it in person was very different. The beauty of the 1,050 foot tall monument aglow with the 292,000 watt illumination took her breath away. She found the electronic sign which hung from the second level, showing how many days were left until the year 2000 fascinating. They approached the entrance and were disappointed to see that the tower closed at midnight.

Nick wrapped his arm around her waist, escorting her deeper into the shadows. He wrapped his arms around her waist, looked around, and took to the air. He loved his wife's startlement. Moments later he set them both down inside the railing of the second deck, almost halfway up the tower.

"I thought you'd like to see the city lights from a new perspective."

Natalie playfully smacked his arm. "Warn me next time. Okay?" She said with a hint of teasing in her tone.

"Sorry," he said, giving her his best puppy dog look, knowing how it melted her.

"It's gorgeous up here. Thank you." She couldn't believe how wonderful the city looked with all the lights sparkling below them.

He loved watching how all the things he took for granted were brand new to her. Her joy at seeing all the city had to offer brought a deep contentment to his ancient soul.

"Would you care to see the sights from the top level?" He asked.

"This is perfect."

When she had enough of the view, he lowered them back to the ground, warning her this time.

Nick had the limo driver head for Montmartre so that he could show her another view of the city. He knew one of the buildings, Sacre Coeur, was white domed old church, that was no longer used as such.

Once they arrived, they had to climb the very long set of stairs to the top. Once Natalie saw the view, she knew why Nick had brought her here. They admired the artists' paintings and other items for sale, complimenting them on their work.

They once again returned to the hotel when the city began to shut down for the night and she tired. Back in their suite, Natalie noticed a tentative look on Nick's face and had an idea what he wanted.

"Nat, I want you to see Paris in the daylight. I want you to be able to visit places that aren't open at night." Nick hoped what he was about to propose wouldn't turn into a major fight. "I want one more day in the sun with you."

"Nick, I want that too. What about the risks? You know each time you take that stuff it will be less effective."

"I know. I'm prepared for the risks. It's been three days since I last took it. I promise this will be the last time I will ask this."

When he looked at her with that super boyish charm how could she refuse him? She couldn't.

"Okay. But, I want to know the second there's even the slightest hint of a problem. Understand?"

"I understand. Thanks!" He pulled her into an embrace and kissed her as passionately as he could, thrilled when she responded with an equal passion. He knew it was the best way he could thank her for once again granting him his wish.

When she broke away, only because she was in serious need of oxygen, she saw the joy in his eyes. "Remember the rest of the deal?" She asked, seeing him nod. "I'll need a few hours sleep first. You should get some too."

"Fair enough."

Natalie took her medication and curled up in bed. Before long she felt Nick join her. She found it interesting that he managed to drop the temperature under the covers by several degrees. She mentally giggled at the fact that his feet were literally cold and startled her every time they brushed against her.

The next morning after they had showered and dressed, Natalie dug the Lytoveuterine B out of Nick's shaving kit and prepared the injection, once again hoping nothing unforeseen went wrong. Nick made himself comfortable on the bed, knowing the nasty side effects he'd feel as the drug took effect. Natalie injected him and kept a close eye on him during the transformation.

They had breakfast together at a little cafe Natalie had taken a liking to. She had learned to order several coffees, especially first thing in the morning. During breakfast, Nick taught her more French, pleased with how quickly she picked it up. That surprised her as well, as foreign languages had never been her best subject.

The first place Nick insisted they go was a walk through one of the many beautiful parks located around the city. He used it as a living classroom, teaching her the names of things that they passed. After that the limo took them to the Arc de Triomphe where they climbed to the top. Nick and Natalie walked out onto the observation area, glad it was a nice clear day so they could see incredibly far into the distance. They saw the Eiffel Tower some distance away. On the way down they explored the small museum inside the Arc.

Next they again strolled the streets, looking in the various shops as they headed for the Eiffel Tower, her lessons continuing. Nick teased Natalie whenever they entered another chocolate shop. After a few streets the limo met them for the short drive to the Eiffel Tower.

They toured the Eiffel Tower, browsing in the shops and having a late lunch in one of the restaurants there. Natalie enjoyed being able to order in French and understand almost all the waiter's questions. After lunch, they walked to one of the edges of the tower's second level. Natalie loved the view as she could see most of the city from there. It was so different than it had been the night before. This time they went all the way up to the top observation level, so she could have a bird's eye view without leaving the ground.

Natalie enjoyed watching the various street performers whose talents spanned the arts of juggling, mime, music, serious drama and magic. Nick dropped a few bucks into each performer's contribution container be it an open guitar case, a hat or just a simple jar.

Nick loved seeing the city through Natalie's eyes, it made the ancient city new again for Nick.

When the afternoon was wearing on towards evening, he felt the first stirrings of the change and didn't want to return to the hotel. Which she would insist upon, if she knew.

"How about we visit the Louvre next?" He inquired as they entered their limo.

"Sure." She noticed that something seemed to be on his mind. "Is the Lytoveuterine wearing off?"

"Not yet, but real soon."

"Can you be in the museum safely? If not I don't have to see it."

"I'll be okay."

By the time they arrived at the museum Nick looked slightly sunburned. Natalie realized that they had arrived just in time. She was surprised by the huge glass pyramid that was the entrance to the museum.

"You okay?" She quietly asked.

"I'm okay," he responded just as quietly.

They entered the pyramid knowing they had to get out of there as soon as possible. Nick paid their admission and led Natalie to the entrance of one branch of the museum. There was no direct sunlight coming in as they walked through the history of the museum exhibit and headed for the restrooms.

Once there, Natalie handed Nick a flask she had tucked into her purse that morning, knowing he might need it later.

"Thanks," Nick said as he quickly drained the metal container.

"Will that be enough? We can always go back to the hotel, and return later."

"It's enough."

Nick lead Natalie towards the Medieval collection so he could show her things from his time, including a real moat. He told her stories about the items that weren't known to most scholars, careful to keep his voice at a level that couldn't easily be heard by others. She grinned. She loved hearing Nick's special details.

When they had finished there, Nick asked Natalie if she had anything in particular she wanted to see.

"I'd love to see the Mona Lisa. Other than that, there's really nothing I have to see."

"Then you will see it," he said with a grin.

He led her towards the statue of Venus de Milo on the next floor. Natalie was surprised by the beautiful marble floor and the intricate, colorful patterns underfoot.

He made sure she saw the most famous French sculptures, wanting her to have as full an experience as could be had in one afternoon and evening.

They moved onto the next floor where Nick showed her some Italian paintings from the thirteenth to fifteen centuries on their journey toward the Mona Lisa, as promised. They spent several minutes admiring the painting before moving on to some large-format French paintings.

Natalie loved her personal tour of the museum, especially knowing that he had probably seen many of the paintings, sculptures and other artifacts when they were first created. She was amazed at the enormous amount of history she was seeing. She was viewing the masterpieces she had only seen in photographs, or heard about, or read about in books.

Nick enjoyed being able to share his stories about each artist with her, making sure they could not be overheard when it came to facts that weren't generally known to historians. He loved her grin each time, indicating she enjoyed those facts best.

Nick escorted her to the apartments of Napoleon III so she could see firsthand what the living conditions of the very wealthy were like then. He answered her questions as she asked them. They looked at a few Renaissance works before heading up to the next floor.

On the top floor Nick wanted Natalie to see the Medici Gallery. He told her a few stories about the famous family, enjoying her pleasure in his tales.

An employee told them that the gallery was closing because the museum would be closing shortly. Nick and Natalie were glad they were able to see so much of the museum before closing time.

"Did you know it would take at least three months to see the entire museum?" Nick told her.

"I'm not surprised."

When they arrived back at the glass pyramid, Natalie was pleased to have a few minutes to look in the gift shop. She picked up a few items for both herself and certain friends.

They stopped by a cafe so Natalie could have a bite to eat. She surprised herself by how hungry she was. She had a large snack, more of a meal, than dessert. Nick teasing her about it. She quickly shut him up by sticking a fork full of food into his mouth when it was open. He knew he had better swallow it or be faced with even more to eat. She had a few pastries wrapped up to take back to the hotel, for breakfast.

Afterwards, they headed back to the hotel. Nick knew Natalie's feet must be tired and sore from all the walking they had done.

As soon as they entered their suite Nick disappeared for a moment.

"Did you have a nice time?" He asked his beautiful wife as he reentered the room.

"Yes, I did. My feet are killing me." She looked him over, trying to guess what he was thinking. "Did you?"

"Yes. It's been a long time since I saw Paris in the daylight. I couldn't have asked for a better companion to share it with."

"I couldn't ask for a better tour guide." She smiled.

Nick led her over to the couch where he removed her shoes and massaged her feet, one at a time. Her sighs of relief and contentment brought a smile to his face, knowing it had been exactly what she needed.

When he was finished, he took her hand and led her to the bathroom. The marble Jacuzzi had been transformed into a scented bubble bath. Steam wafted up from the tub, frosting the mirrors and leaving its mark on the air.

"Jasmine, my favorite," Natalie said. "Join me?" She asked with a wicked grin, noticing how the tub was big enough for two.

"Maybe later. I want you to relax," he said.

She pouted, causing him to grin. "Okay, okay. You soak for a few minutes, then I'll join you." He was rewarded with one of her smiles.

Nick left her alone to enjoy her bath.

Natalie took her latest dose of medication before stripping off her clothes, pinning up her hair and slipping into the warm water. She lay back against the smooth marble, closed her eyes, let her body relax and her mind go blank.

Out in the living room Nick was at the bar downing an entire bottle of human blood, hoping Natalie did not pick that moment to come out of the bedroom. He needed to feed well if he was to be as close to her as she wanted.

Natalie sighed and said to herself "perfect," as the water began to bubble, this time from the air jets imbedded along the walls of the tub.

About twenty minutes later, he heard the sound of the faucet running and knew that was his cue to join her. He quickly gulped down half of another bottle before he entered the bathroom.

"I thought you'd forgotten," Natalie said.

"No. I thought I'd let you enjoy the peace and quiet until the water cooled down. Then I'd join you and keep you busy while it warmed up." Nick said as he removed his clothes. "Scoot forward," he said loving the questioning look on her face as she did so.

He slipped in behind her, finding the bubbling water a little strange against his skin, but pleasant, relaxing even. He grabbed the washcloth from the edge of the tub. Once the cloth was nice and soapy he gently washed her neck, shoulders and arms, drawing sighs from her, before moving on to her back, drawing more sighs from her.

"Very nice," she said, totally relaxed, enjoying his attentions.

When he had tenderly caressed as far as he could go, she turned around, taking the wash cloth from him. She lovingly ran the cloth across his neck and shoulders, down his chest, stopping at his waistline, not ready to go any farther at the moment.

Nick kissed her tenderly at first. As he felt her fire growing he increased the passion of the kiss to match the heat he felt from her.

He scooped her up and stood, climbing out of the tub. He grabbed the nearest clean towel, drying her off with gentle care. She reached for another towel, drying him off with equal tenderness.

They walked into the bedroom, arms wrapped around each other's waist, wearing nothing but their towels.

His arms wrapped around her, pulling her closer as his lips met hers. Her arms wrapped around him as she returned his kiss with an equal passion.

She resented her body's need for oxygen which forced her to break their kiss. When she looked into his eyes, she was momentarily startled at the golden ones staring back at her.

Nick was pleased at how well she accepted both parts of him, especially at these times. He knew there was a little fear, and a part of him was glad. Her love for him was what shone the brightest.

"We don't have to go further..." Natalie said, knowing how much control he must be exerting. She knew that she could either press him and spend the night alone, or end things now and spend some time just being with him.

"I think it would be for the best."

"If you were to taste someone's blood, but not directly from their body... would it still cause the same reaction?" She asked, her curiosity in full gear.

"It would be strong, but not as overpowering."

"Would it increase your desire to take the person?"

"I don't know."

"I want to know if the drugs I'm taking would act as an appetite suppressant."

"I've never thought about it that way."

"There's only one way to find out," Natalie said as she entered the bathroom.

She retrieved a syringe from Nick's shaving kit and withdrew enough of her blood to fill the syringe. She knew the drugs had been in her system long enough to be in full force. She carefully set the syringe down on the counter and used a cotton ball to apply pressure to the puncture site. It quickly stopped bleeding, and she covered it with a small plastic bandage. She picked up the syringe and squirted the blood into one of the unused glasses by the sink.

Taking a deep breath, she reentered the bedroom and handed him the glass.

He took it, savoring her apples and cinnamon scent before drinking. A peaceful expression spread across his face, a huge smile on his lips, as he savored the memories, feelings, and especially her tremendous love for him.

"Well...?" Natalie asked.

"The drugs do help, but not enough to make it safe." He tried to find words to express their effect on him. "It's like eating something bitter, yet knowing there is a wonderful sweetness there too. Knowing that makes the bitterness tolerable. In larger doses, that bitterness might make me nauseous, but there's no way to know." He saw her biting her lower lip, as she often did when trying to work out a puzzle. "I will not risk your life to test the theory."

"But if it works..."

"It's not worth it." Off her hurt look he continued. "Maybe after we're more used to living together. But for now, it's too dangerous." He didn't want to have to tell her how hard it was on him. He suspected she already knew.

"I know. I was just hoping..." Natalie said, not wanting him to feel badly, or think she was upset with him. "I know how hard this is on you. I don't want to make it harder."

"I do have to thank you for your special gift," Nick grinned, and gave her a quick hug and kiss.

The next evening Nick was the first one up and made a few phone calls, wanting to surprise Natalie.

Before long she awoke and headed for the living room.

"Are you hungry?" Nick asked.

"Yes. Where should we dine tonight?"

"I have that all arranged. We're dining at one of the finest restaurants in town." He saw her questioning look. "Yes, I will try to eat." He loved the grin that brought out.

"I didn't pack anything that fancy."

"Check your closet again," he said with a devilish grin.

Natalie did as she was told and was surprised to find a gorgeous dress hanging in the closet.

"How did you do that?"

"I know what you like and your size. The rest was easy."

"What time is our reservation?"

"Nine-thirty."

"I have to get ready," Natalie said as she headed for the bedroom. Nick followed her in, wanting to dress at the same time so they could take in one museum before dinner.

Before long Nick was attired in a dark suit and tie. Natalie's emerald green dress looked wonderful on her. The silk of it flowing beautifully right down to her knees. Her hair flowed over her shoulders, the soft curls framed her face beautifully.

They left for the Rodin Museum, making it there with half an hour to spare. Natalie enjoyed seeing The Kiss, one of the more well known pieces. After the interior closed, they strolled through the garden taking in the 200 different varieties of roses. They saw The Thinker, who was quite at home in the breathtakingly beautiful garden. After they had wandered through all the beautiful flowers for about half an hour, they had to leave in order to make it to the restaurant on time.

The restaurant was elegant. The low lights made it seem quite cozy. The waiters walked the fine line between excellent service and being a nuisance. Nick and Natalie had a non-alcoholic wine with dinner. Natalie was surprised by the volume of food that came with the three course dinner. She was almost too full for dessert. Something Nick delighted in teasing her about. She ordered the most decadent looking chocolate dessert they had, and made Nick order something. He choked down a bite of his dessert before setting his fork down. Natalie ate hers and half of his, because it's a crime to let good chocolate go to waste. She sipped her coffee as she savored the goodies before her.

After dinner the limo dropped them off a few blocks before their destination, a midnight cruise on the Seine.

They enjoyed their walk. The path took them over one of the bridges to the departure point for the cruise.

The boat had a roof over part of it, but most of it was open. Nick and Natalie sat in a middle row, not wanting to be at either end, their hands intertwined. The tour guide pointed out the sights, including Notre Dame, as they passed.

After the cruise they walked for a while before meeting the limo at the prearranged location.

"Nick, thank you for a wonderful night."

"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. I too had a great time."

"Thank you for a wonderful week."

"I couldn't have done it alone," he said as he kissed her cheek.

Natalie had learned enough French to hold a conversation, and enjoyed doing so. She and Nick practiced as they walked through the streets during their last two nights in Paris. She enjoyed being able to confidently talk to store owners, waiters, anyone she wanted to, in their native language.

All too soon it was time for the honeymooners to return to the real world. They packed their suitcases and headed for the airport. They were both a little sad to be leaving, but they were also looking forward to being home again.

At the airport things went smoothly and several hours later their plane touched down in Toronto, right on time. They picked up their bags from the luggage area and headed for her car.

Nick wished he had time to stop by the loft on the way home from the airport, but that would be cutting things too close.

"Nick, I'll drop by the loft and let you know how things are, okay? You can wait until tonight."

"Thanks."

Natalie dropped Nick off at her apartment before heading for the loft. She found the crew arriving for work. They greeted her before going on with their work.

Natalie looked around, pleased with the excellent progress they were making. They had the kitchen almost finished, the cabinet fronts were missing. She walked up the stairs to check out the bedrooms and saw that they were nearly completed. The master bathroom needed the tile floor and the countertop then it was done. The other two needed a bit more work.

The foreman approached.

"Welcome back."

"Thanks. It's good to be back."

"Unless any unforeseen problems come up, we should be able to finish right on schedule."

"That's great news."

Natalie headed home for some much needed sleep. She entered her apartment and found Nick waiting for her. He set down his coffee mug.

"Well?"

"Rick said that they should be finished on schedule. They seem to be done with the heavy construction and are doing the finish work. I know you'll stop by later."

"Probably on my way to work." Nick saw she was tired. "Why don't you catch some sleep?"

He approached her, wrapped his arms around her, drawing her close. She kissed him passionately, pleased when he responded with an equal passion. Before long the vampire once again came between them forcing them to break off the kiss, and Nick to pull back. They were used to this happening, knowing it was the price they had to pay for their relationship.

Nick turned her around and gently nudged her towards the bedroom, knowing she was exhausted from the flight and all the activity from the last week. Natalie took the hint and headed into her bedroom where she took her last dose of the day before crawling into bed.

That evening Nick and Natalie had to return to work, which neither minded. They stopped by the loft on the way in.

Nick was pleased at the progress, noticing that it wouldn't be more than another week before the renovations would be finished.

Grace was doing chores which kept her near the door to the Coroner's Office. She was anxious to hear how the honeymoon had gone.

"Hi, Grace," Natalie said with a smile as she entered. "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine. You look like you had a great time."

"I did," Natalie entered her lab and took off her coat before pulling an elegantly wrapped box out of a dark canvas tote bag. "This is for you. Paris is a great city for shopping."

"Paris is such a romantic city. How was it?" Grace set the box on the table and quickly had it unwrapped.

"It was beautiful. The view from the Eiffel Tower was spectacular. I even brushed up on my French."

Grace was glad to see Natalie had a great time. If anyone deserves to be happy, it's those two, Grace thought.

"Well...?" Natalie teased as Grace seemed to be too busy questioning her to finish opening her gift.

"Sorry," Grace said as she blushed slightly. She pulled the stunning pair of antique silver earrings out of the box. "They're gorgeous. Thank you." Grace wrapped her friend in a huge bear hug.

Natalie was pleased Grace liked the gift. "Nick helped pick them."

"I'll have to thank him the next time I see him." Grace had so many questions she wanted to ask.

"Grace, why don't we go out for lunch later and I'll tell you all about it. Okay?"

"Sounds great!"

At the precinct, Schanke was working on a report while awaiting Nick's arrival. He didn't have to wait too long.

"Welcome back, Partner." Schanke grinned as he slapped Nick on the back.

"Thanks."

"So, how's married life treating you so far?"

"Great."

"You look well rested."

Nick cut his partner off. "We explored Paris."

"Yeah, what about during the day?"

"We watched movies together." Nick knew what his partner wanted and was going to have some fun teasing him.

"You went to the most romantic city around and all you did was look around and watch movies?" Schanke said stunned by his partner's seriousness.

"Now did I say that was all we did?"

"That's more like it."

Several hours later, Grace stuck her head into Natalie's office. "You ready for lunch?"

"I'm ready." Natalie knew that if she didn't tell Grace all about her honeymoon soon her friend might just explode from curiosity.

They walked to a nearby restaurant. They were shown to a table and talked while they waited for their lunch.

"So..."

"It was fantastic. Paris is great. Very much like what you hear."

"You know that's not what I'm asking about."

"He was great. Very romantic." Natalie smiled remembering her wedding night and her honeymoon.

Grace loved seeing her friend so happy. After all Natalie had been through, she deserved to be happy. "So, how much of the outdoors did you see?"

"Grace!" Natalie said, chuckling. "We saw enough of the outdoors.

"But more of the bedroom?"

"We did see quite a bit of the bedroom. No, we didn't spend all our time working undercover."

"And why not?" Grace teased.

"Because we had to get some sleep. Not to mention eating to keep up our strength," Natalie said returning the tease. She was enjoying having a little fun while Grace tried to get all the details. "Also, it would be a shame to go to such a romantic spot and never leave the room."

Later in her shift, Natalie had to bring some files over to the precinct. She knew Schanke was going to want to know all about the honeymoon, even after quizzing his partner about it. She didn't mind.

Natalie entered the precinct and dropped off the files before heading to see her husband.

"Hi guys," Natalie said.

"Welcome back, Natalie," Schanke said. "How was Paris?"

"It was very nice," Natalie said with a smile. "I picked up a few things for you, Myra and Jenny." Natalie handed the tote bag to Schanke, after pulling his gift out.

Thanks." He eagerly opened his gift, finding an embroidered patch for a French police uniform in a small plastic bag taped to a very fine bottle of French wine. "Thanks, guys. I'll save it for a special occasion

That weekend on their way in to work, Nick and Natalie examined the loft for any problems, pleased when the craftsmanship was excellent. The renovations looked better than they had imagined.

"Nick, when can we move in?" Natalie asked anxiously.

"How about Friday? We both have it off."

"Okay. How are we going to get all our furniture in here?"

"I arranged for movers. All we have to do is tell them where to put everything." Nick knew it was the easiest way to prevent disagreements about her ability to help with the move. He knew she was still healthy and was fully able to help.

"What about packing up my place?"

He didn't see why they had to do it themselves when they could hire movers just as easily.

"I arranged for them to do that. I thought you'd like to do the unpacking yourself." Nick took her hand in his. "I want to show you something.

Nick led Natalie upstairs and into the middle room. A good portion of the far wall was covered with shelves.

"These are yours to put whatever you want on them. You can utilize these and the ones downstairs however you wish. I thought you might like having your books nearby."

"Thank you. This is so sweet."

Before they knew it moving day arrived. Movers arrived mid morning and began to pack. Natalie felt a little uneasy having someone else pack her stuff while she was still capable of doing so herself.

By nightfall her apartment had been packed and the truck was being loaded. Natalie stayed in the apartment to monitor things while Nick monitored it from the street.

Three hours later the truck was on its way to Nick's loft. The movers were pleased to see that the elevator went straight to his living room, but weren't at all happy with the narrow stairs leading up to the bedrooms.

Nick watched as the boxes and furniture were removed from the truck. Inside Natalie directed each item to it's proper location. When the bedroom furniture and accessories were being brought in she stayed upstairs and directed the movers from the walkway.

When the movers left Nick ordered dinner. Once they had eaten, Natalie started unpacking her clothing. She wanted to be able to find what she needed for work tomorrow night, without having to dig through a dozen boxes. She saw that Nick wanted to help and let him. She knew that with the two of them working, things would get done twice as fast.

She had the bedroom and bathroom boxes unpacked before she tired. She took her medication, crawled into bed and was soon asleep. She fell asleep wondering if the separate beds would work, or if she'd wind up moving into the next room.

Nick climbed into his bed and fell asleep wondering the same thing.

The next evening, Natalie arrived at her office and quickly checked her desk to make sure no new crucial cases had come in. When none had, she switched to her research projects, vowing only to spend an hour, two tops, before doing the work the city paid her to do. She reread her latest notes on Nick's cure and started where she left off.

After their shift was over they arrived home, each driving their own car. They both enjoyed the fact that this was no longer his loft, but their home. It was a little strange, but it also felt great.

After a quick dinner they unpacked a few more boxes, starting in the kitchen. Eating out of whatever they could find, using paper plates and cups or the takeout containers were okay for a day or two, but it would get annoying quickly.

Nick now had to share his fridge with her food, as well as his own. He enjoyed seeing real food in there. It would help with his cover as well.

The next afternoon Natalie headed over to Katie's house, knowing her teen friend would enjoy hearing about Paris. She also had a few gifts for her, as well as something for her parents.

Katie was thrilled that Natalie was home and lead her to the family room so she could hear all about Natalie's trip.

"I brought you something," Natalie said as she handed Katie a heavy box.

Katie eagerly ripped the paper off and opened the box. Inside was a very nice full color book about the Louve.

"This is so cool! He took you to Paris?"

"Yes. It was great."

Natalie gave Katie her other two gifts.

They spent the entire afternoon talking about Paris, Natalie showing off the pictures she had done the one hour developing on, not wanting her film out of the store, for fear it might get lost.

By the end of the week they had unpacked and put away all of her things as well as his boxes he retrieved from storage. The loft now reflected both their tastes and no longer looked like "a fortress of solitude". It looked warm and inviting instead. This gave their marriage and new living arrangement a certain finality, making it seem more real.

Both were glad that they were able to share a bedroom. They knew that as long as he didn't starve himself, and ate before bed it would work.

They decided not to put the second bed into the master bedroom until after their housewarming party, not wanting to answer the awkward questions that would result from it. Natalie slept in the middle bedroom until after the party.

On their first night off they threw a small party, knowing their friends were curious too see what the renovated loft looked like. Grace, Katie and the Schanke family came. Don enjoyed teasing the newlyweds about how it took Natalie's touch to change the "high tech dungeon of doom" into a warm inviting home. Everyone was impressed, especially when Nick gave the "grand tour", explaining that his lovely bride designed it all. Natalie loved all the compliments she received.

On their next night off, Natalie and Nick were watching their first video in the newly remodeled loft. He noticed that something was bothering her and knew to wait until she was ready to talk about it.

"Nick. I want you to teach me how to ride a motorcycle."

He was quite surprised. He studied her face, thinking she was joking. When he saw she was serious he said, "You can't be serious. Do you know how dangerous it is?"

"It can't be that dangerous. Millions of people do it. Besides, I didn't say I wanted to turn into a biker."

He knew that he couldn't change her mind. "Okay. When do you want to do this?"

"Tonight if possible." She didn't want to give him the chance to talk her out of it.

"Okay. Let's see if we can find a place."

After checking out a few shops they found one that would rent them a new bike. They rode to the shop on his bike, both decked out in jeans and leather jackets. She held onto him, her arms wrapped around his waist. She was a little nervous about being on a bike, but loving it at the same time. He made her wear sunglasses and his old helmet, not wanting her to be injured by any flying debris that the bike or passing vehicles kicked up.

Natalie picked out the bike she wanted, with some guidance from Nick, a smaller Harley. Before Nick paid the rental fee he made sure she would be able to handle the bike. Nick insisted that she have a proper helmet, not the old one she had used earlier.

There was an empty parking lot two doors down. He had her walk the bike there. Once in the lot, he had her climb onto and start the bike. Once that had been accomplished he showed her how the controls worked and had her try it. He was ready to help her if she needed it.

After a slightly wobbly start, she quickly got the hang of it. When she could successfully circle the parking lot a few times, he reluctantly let her out on the road.

She loved the feeling of the wind against her body and the feeling of the bike under her. She felt free, understanding how people became addicted to it.

When it was time to turn the bike in she found she couldn't.

"Nick, I want to keep it. I know I probably won't ride it often." She said, hopeful.

"You can't keep it. We'll order you one, Okay?" He hoped his answer would be good enough, as there wasn't anything else he could do about it.

"Okay." She reluctantly accepted the fact that she would have to wait until her bike came in. "Is there room to store two bikes at the loft?"

"Yes."

Several nights later Natalie's car was giving her trouble, and the perfect excuse to ride her new bike, if it had come in. She called the dealer, pleased when it had arrived. She hoped they could pick it up on their way in for their shift. She couldn't wait to see her co-workers reactions.

Nick found Natalie's decision quite amusing and couldn't wait to see their reactions either. He happily gave her a lift to the dealer and paid for the bike.

About half an hour later Natalie arrived at her office about the same time as Grace. Grace did a double take when Natalie took off her helmet and shook out her hair.

"Natalie, what's gotten into you?" Grace asked, quite surprised.

"Nothing. I thought it looked like fun, and it is. Besides, my car refused to start this morning." She pulled off her gloves, stuffing them into the pocket of her old beat up waist length leather jacket. She had found it stashed in the very back of her closet during the move.

"How long have you had this thing?"

"I picked it up on the way here. Isn't it great?" Natalie said, quite enthusiastically.

"I think you need a long vacation. This isn't you," Grace said concerned.

"I didn't think so at first either. Then curiosity got the better of me and I was hooked," she said with a smile.

"I still say you're nuts. You could kill yourself on that thing." Grace said, trying not to sound too much like a mother hen.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to take up biking full time," Natalie said with a grin. I'm going to die anyway, so does it really matter if I die in a bike accident or from this damn disease?

"Natalie, you okay?" Grace saw the sadness flickering in her friend's eyes, and grew concerned.

"What?" Natalie asked as her mind snapped back to the present. The concerned look on Grace's face made her uneasy. "I'm fine. I was just thinking about Katie. She'd probably love a ride on this."

"You'd take Katie on that thing?" Grace said quite surprised.

She loved the surprised look on Grace's face. "Yeah, I would. If her mother okays it."

They walked into the building together and entered Natalie's office. Natalie set her helmet on the file cabinet, pulled off her boots and exchanged them for a pair of low pumps she left in her bottom drawer where the boots were now tucked away.

Grace saw Natalie's joy over her new vehicle and knew she wouldn't be able to convince her friend of the dangers. Then again, she's probably seen the dangers first hand on her table. She hoped Natalie would use caution riding that thing.

"Grace, don't worry. I'll be fine." Natalie saw the slight worry that still lingered on her friend's face.

"Well, just be careful motorcycle mama."

Natalie laughed.

Later, Schanke and Nick came by just as Natalie was preparing to leave. She was changing into her boots and stowing the shoes in the drawer again, ready for the next time. She had her leather jacket on.

"Who's Harley?" Schanke asked. "That is one fine piece of machinery."

"Mine," Natalie said, totally serious.

"No way." Schanke was totally confused, sure it was some sort of a joke. "You're not the biker type." He noticed her helmet on the file cabinet.

"Why not?" Nick asked, getting in on the fun.

"She's too..." Schanke tried to find the right words. "Intelligent, classy. It's just not her."

"Thanks, Schank. It's fun. You should try it sometime." Natalie smiled at him.

The conversation continued as she gave the guys the file they wanted. She grabbed her helmet as they headed for the parking lot still discussing it.

Schanke saw her slip on her gloves and strap on her helmet before starting her bike. Somehow he still couldn't accept it. He could believe Nick rode one, but not her.

What is going on with her? Is this because of the rape? Did it change her more than anyone realized? Schanke wondered. Or is there some other reason? He hoped it was just a phase and that she'd outgrow it.

The next afternoon Natalie dropped by Katie's house as promised. Katie was waiting on the front steps when Natalie pulled up on her Harley. Natalie turned off the motor, stuck her helmet on the handlebar, and headed for the front porch. Katie saw the beat up waist length leather jacket, jeans, high top sneakers, and teal t-shirt Natalie had on.

"I can't believe that's your bike. It's so cool!" Katie was dressed for the occasion in her own leather jacket, t-shirt, hi top sneakers, and jeans.

"Why does everyone sound so surprised?" Natalie asked. "I'm just following your advice... to live each day to the fullest."

Katie smiled, loving the idea that a grown up, especially one that wasn't related to her, was following advice she'd given.

At that moment Katie's mom, Stephanie, walked out onto the porch.

"Hi, Natalie. Katie, be careful and do whatever Natalie says. Okay?" Steph said as she fooled with her daughter's ponytail and kissed the top of her head.

"Hi, Steph." Natalie noticed Steph was a little worried, then again she too would be worried if her terminally ill fifteen year old were hopping onto the back of a motorcycle. "I promise to take good care of her."

"I know. It's a mother thing," Steph said with a grin.

"We'll see you later," Katie cheerily said as she hugged her mom and headed towards Natalie's bike.

"Don't stay out too late."

"She won't," Natalie said, knowing that Katie tired quickly these days. She enjoyed spending time with her young friend, but hated the fact that she would die soon, probably within a few months. She also hated how she was seeing her own future.

Katie strapped on the spare helmet Natalie handed her and waited until her friend had started the bike. She climbed onto the back of the bike. Natalie had shown her where to place her feet, and where not to because she'd get burned.

Steph pulled her camera out of her pocket and snapped off a few shots. She wished she had the videocamera, but knew Katie wouldn't like that. Steph was amused at how Katie was at that age where she didn't want her mom taking pictures every time she did something or videotaping it. Despite her daughter's illness, Katie was very much the typical teen. Katie tolerated her parent's frequent picture taking and videotaping only because of her terminal illness.

"Wrap your arms around my waist and hold on tight," She shouted so that Katie could hear her over the sound of the motor.

She felt Katie's arms grip her tightly, a little too tightly.

"A little looser will be okay. The driver needs to breathe."

"Sorry." Katie loosened her grip. "Is this better?"

"Yes. You ready?"

"Yes."

Natalie took off gently so she wouldn't spook her passenger. As soon as they were out on the road Katie had a huge smile on her face, loving the adventure.

The next evening Natalie's car was working again so she took it to work. Her first stop was the precinct as she had some paperwork to drop off.

She approached Nick and Schanke.

"How's our very own biker M.E.?" Schanke teased.

"Just fine. I drove my car to work today, for your information."

"So when do you get the biker jacket and the tattoo?" Schanke teased.

"I already have a leather jacket. I'll skip the tattoo."

"You need a biker jacket to go with the bike," Nick said, joining in.

"Oh, yeah!" Schanke agreed.

Natalie just chuckled.

A few nights later Natalie entered the precinct, wearing her waist length black leather jacket, helmet in one hand, reports in the other. She loved the surprised looks she received, and thought most of the precinct and Coroner's Office already knew.

She headed straight for Nick's desk, where she set down her helmet. She didn't leave it outside, not wanting it stolen. She knew the parking lot was safe, it had become a habit to take it in with her where ever she went.

Cohen came out of her office at the same time, having heard about Natalie's bike, but didn't believe it, until now.

"Knight, Schanke, do you have the Bronson report for me? Hello, Dr. Lambert."

"Not yet, Captain. We're still waiting on forensics," Nick said as he saw Natalie pull a folder from the middle of her stack and hand it to him. When he saw the name of the folder, he responded, "We'll try to have the report ready by the end of the shift."

"Okay." Cohen turned her attention to Natalie. "Dr. Lambert, is it true? Have you become a biker?" She asked both curious and amused.

"I do own a Harley, but I don't think I'm a true biker. It's a great backup vehicle," Natalie said, grinning. "I don't know what inspired me to buy one, but it's fun."

"I never pictured you as the type," Cohen said.

"No seems to be able to. I think that's part of what makes it so much fun."

"Just be careful, okay?" Cohen said lightly.

"Okay," Natalie said with a grin.

Five weeks later, Natalie arrived at Katie's house to take her out for another motorcycle ride. It had become a weekly ritual both enjoyed. They would go to a movie, to the park, grab something to eat, shop, whatever they felt like doing. This time it was special, as it was Katie's sixteenth birthday.

Natalie had noticed the decline in her friend's health, seeing how she was weaker each week and knew she wouldn't live more than month. This deeply saddened her, but she quickly shoved it aside, not wanting Katie to detect it.

Katie hugged her mom and eagerly headed towards Natalie. She was quickly settled with her helmet securely in place.

"Where to today?" Natalie said before starting the motor.

"How about the mall? Mom gave me some money for my birthday."

"Sounds great." Natalie started the engine and they were off.

They spent the next two hours looking around the mall. Katie bought a few CD's, a couple of books, and a hot pair of sunglasses.

When Katie had to use the ladies room, Natalie made a phone call, pleased with what Nick told her. She barely got the phone tucked away before Katie approached.

"What now?" Natalie asked.

"I don't know. Any ideas?"

"How about going back to the loft and talking?" Natalie saw Katie was beginning to tire.

"Sounds good. Should we grab something to eat?"

"Nah. Nick will probably want to fix us something. He's become quite a good cook."

"Okay."

Natalie secured Katie's packages before they headed out.

About fifteen minutes later Natalie and Katie were in the elevator, quickly approaching the loft.

Natalie opened the loft door. "Surprise!" everyone inside shouted. Natalie loved the stunned look on Katie's face.

"Now I know why you wanted to come back here. Very sneaky."

"Thank you," Natalie said with a grin. "Happy birthday, Katie." Natalie embraced her friend.

Katie took in the decor, noting the three dozen or so balloons with their colorful ribbons, the 'happy 16th birthday' banner draped over the railing where the upstairs landing was. There was a mound of presents on the coffee table. The kitchen table was completely covered with all of Katie's favorites. She saw all her friends there.

Nick started the CD player, which had been loaded with Katie's favorite music.

"Does the birthday girl want to eat first or open her gifts?" Nick asked.

"Tough choice. I think I'll have a quick snack then open the presents. Then I'll eat more."

As soon as Katie had filled her plate with food, everyone else helped themselves. Nick even took a small amount, not wanting to look out of place.

Katie talked with her teen friends while she ate. Nick, Natalie and Steph sat off to the side and talked. They also watched Katie animatedly talking with her friends, and them responding just as enthusiastically.

About twenty minutes later things quieted down slightly as the teens put aside their snacks to get down to the serious business of Katie opening her gifts.

Susan handed Katie her present. Katie tore off the wrapping paper pleased with the CD inside. "Thanks, Suz."

Next, Jennifer handed her gift to the birthday girl. Inside was a colorful t-shirt. "Thanks, Jen."

Katie opened most of her other presents and thanked the friend responsible for it. She was accumulating a nice stack of CD's, bracelets, earrings, and a t-shirt or two. Katie loved how her friends bought stuff for her, knowing she was terminally ill, yet it didn't seem to affect the gifts.

Katie picked Natalie's next. She ripped off the colorful paper, lifted the top off the medium sized box only to find it full of colorful Scrunchi's. Katie laughed at the gift.

"There's more," Natalie said.

Katie curiously rifled through the box, looking to see what goodies were hidden below the mass of colorful hair ties. Her fingers felt something solid and carefully brought it to the surface, spilling only a couple of the Scrunchi's onto her lap.

"Oh my God!" Katie squealed excitedly as she examined the two concert tickets. "Natalie, how'd you get these? They're sold out?"

"Open Nick's," Natalie said.

Next Katie opened the gift from Nick. Inside the small box, resting on a bed of tissue paper were two more tickets and four backstage passes for the concert. Katie's excitement grew to the point where everyone thought she might explode or bounce off the walls.

"How... how... did you get those?" Katie said, nearly speechless.

"Some friends of mine are doing security. I told them I wanted a special gift for an important person in my life. They gave me the tickets and backstage passes. Natalie heard that they were in town from one of the new interns and knew how much you liked the band."

"I can't believe it." Katie gave both Nick and Natalie a hug, not caring what her friends thought.

"We're glad you like them," Natalie said.

Katie immediately asked her teen friends if they wanted to go. Squeals of delight rang through the room as her friends all said they would go. They couldn't wait until tomorrow night, and hoped they would get to meet the band.

Nick and Natalie had offered to play chaperone for the evening, knowing Katie would probably find that more acceptable than having her parents do it. Katie happily accepted, knowing they would keep an eye on them, but wouldn't be overprotective.

Nick and Natalie were amused at the excitement level of the teens. Natalie remembered back to her first concert when she was young.

Each teen purchased a t-shirt as a souvenir.

The teens were escorted to the VIP section, while Nick had managed to get him and Natalie seats nearby. Close enough to keep an eye on their charges, but far enough away so it wouldn't seem like they were being too parental.

Nick and Natalie enjoyed the concert even though it wasn't really their style. Most of the people around them were screaming, cheering and having a great time.

After the concert, Katie and her three friends were allowed to go backstage. A few minutes later they were escorted into the band's dressing room. Katie and her friends were quite nervous as they entered.

"Katie, isn't it?" Max said. As he shook her hand.

"Yes." Katie couldn't believe that the lead singer was talking to her. "Nice to meet you."

"Happy belated birthday."

"Thanks." Katie felt a finger poke her in the side, reminding her that she hadn't introduced her friends. "This is Susan, Jennifer, and Amy."

"Hi ladies. Nice to meet you," Max said as he shook their hands as they were introduced. He loved the stunned looks on their faces, remembering having a similar one on his when he'd met his favorite musicians.

The rest of the band introduced themselves. Once the formalities were over the four teens were escorted to the couches on the far side of the room. Once all were seated they talked for a while.

Their manager entered and let Max know that it was safe for them to go back to their hotel.

"Would you ladies like to join us? Your escorts are welcome as well." Max knew they hadn't driven themselves, and as a parent himself wouldn't want his child going off with strangers.

"We'd be honored," Katie said, trying to sound as normal as possible, even though she was about to bounce off the walls.

"Why don't you go get them and bring them back here. Give them these." Max said as Mel handed Katie a pair of back stage passes.

Katie and her friends left the room, waiting until they got outside and the door had closed to happily bound off in search of Nick and Natalie.

None of the band could believe that Katie was terminally ill. She was so spunky and full of life. They remembered agreeing to meet her and her friends, and in doing so had taken a liking to Katie. Max and Mel knew that they had to make this night truly special for her, that's what they would want for their children, if God forbid one of their kids were that sick.

Meanwhile, backstage, Katie, Susan, Jennifer and Amy found their escorts talking to one of the security people, the one responsible for making this a memorable night for Katie.

"Nick, Natalie. Max invited all of us, you two also, back to his hotel. Can we please go?" Katie asked, trying hard not to beg.

"Sure." He knew how much Katie and her friends wanted to go.

"Oh, these are for you," Katie said as she handed Nick and Natalie the passes.

"Thanks."

Katie led the group back to the dressing room, knocked on the door, entering when the door was opened by Mel.

"This is Nick and Natalie, our escorts, and my friends."

"It's nice to meet you," the adults said, shaking hands as they were introduced to each other.

Katie really enjoyed the ride in the limo, as did her friends. They'd never been in one before.

Before long they arrived back at the hotel and were escorted to their suites. The four teens were surprised that they took a back elevator up to the band's floor, and that a special key card was needed for access to the floor. Mel explained that it was for both their safety and that of their families, not to mention the fans as well.

Max and Mel greeted their wives and kids, surprising the teens. Max and Mel introduced the teens and their escorts to their families.

A few minutes later dinner arrived, having been ordered on the way to the hotel. Katie and her friends joined the group, as did Nick and Natalie.

After dinner, pictures were taken, autographs given, and then the six guests said good night and thanked the band for their generosity.

In the Caddy, Katie and her friend animatedly squealed, chatted about their night. They couldn't believe all the goodies they'd left with. They had crew shirts, autographed CD's, pictures to be developed, and lots of great memories to treasure, not to mention stories to share.

Nick received lots of thanks for the special night. Katie quietly reminded them that it was as much Natalie's doing as Nick's. Natalie received lots of thanks as well.

Katie was the last one dropped off. She hugged her friends, again thanking them for the wonderful evening.

"Did you tell them..." Katie had wondered, and knew she had to ask.

"No." Nick knew if the was honest that Katie would think it was all planned because of her condition. He knew that only the initial meeting had been planned. "They did everything on their own."

Katie hugged her friends again thanking them for the perfect evening before she tiredly, yet excitedly headed for her front door where her mom was waiting.

Both Nick and Natalie saw how exhausted Katie was, and were very pleased she'd had such a good time. They were also glad the band had been so generous with themselves.

Two weeks later, Natalie received a phone call at work.

"Lambert, forensics."

"Natalie?" The female voice on the other end said.

"Yes." She grew concerned by the sadness she heard through the phone line.

"This is Steph, Katie's mom. Can you and Nick stop by later?"

"Sure. We don't get off until four am." Natalie said, not wanting to wake them up.

"That's okay. We'll be waiting."

Natalie sensed that Katie was dying, if she hadn't died already. She had seen her friend grow continually weaker as the days had passed. Katie had remained at home, as that was where she wanted to die.

As soon as Natalie hung up, she called Nick and filled him in. Nick heard the slight sadness and concern in her voice. He hoped his suspicions were wrong. Neither could fully concentrate for the rest of their shift.

Nick and Natalie knocked on the front door of Katie's house shortly after their shift had ended. Within moments Steph and Rick ushered their guests in, embraced them, and lead them to the family room. Katie's parents and their guests seated themselves on the couch and surrounding chairs.

"Katie died earlier this afternoon. She went to sleep and never woke up. She didn't want me to call either of you until after sunset, but she wouldn't say why." Steph said, her voice thick with grief. She had shed her tears earlier that afternoon.

Nick and Natalie exchanged a quick glance. Did she somehow figure it out? Both thought.

"I'm so sorry," Natalie said, tears running down her cheeks.

"You have my deepest condolences," Nick said, fighting the blood tears that were aching to be released. He wrapped his arm around Natalie's shoulder and felt her arm go around his waist.

"Rick and I will never be able to thank you enough for your friendship with her. It meant so much to her. Every time she'd go somewhere with either of you, she'd talk about it for hours, sometimes days. Seeing where you worked and attending your wedding were two of the best nights of her life. We're all pleased you came to her graduation." Steph knew she had said much of it before, but it needed to be repeated. "It let her do more than she could've otherwise." Steph knew she had to mention one other thing. "Because of your birthday present to her, two of the band members wrote to her. They thanked her for the nice thank you note and the sketches. She talked about the night of the concert and the letter for days. Thank you."

Rick momentarily left the room, returning with a package for their guests. He handed it to Natalie. "Katie left this for the two of you. She said that you weren't to open it until you were home."

"Did Katie ever tell you..." Natalie couldn't finish as the sadness totally overcame her. "I know, she'd hate my crying over her death like this." She tried to muster a weak grin. Natalie took a deep breath and slowly let it out before continuing. "Did she ever tell you that I'm HIV positive?"

"No, she didn't. I'm sorry. If I could have one wish, it would be that no one else would lose a loved one to this damn disease."

"That's a wonderful wish. Maybe someday no one else will," Natalie said, a small grin poking through as her tears eased.

"That would be my wish too," Nick said.

"If either of you ever need someone to talk to, I hope you'll contact us."

"Katie helped me see that I had so much living to do. That I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and enjoy each day as a gift. And that I should let my friends in as they're what makes life special."

"She showed me that there are people out there who have terminal illnesses yet go on with life, savoring each moment. That what seems like a major crisis is really relatively minor when compared with her and the others on the pediatric AIDS ward." Nick said trying to express the hope and light Katie brought into his dark world.

"It's late. We really should be going," Natalie saw how exhausted the parents were and didn't want to overstay their welcome.

Nick and Natalie were walked to the door by Rick and Steph. The foursome embraced before the guests left.

Before long the Caddy pulled into the garage. As soon as they entered the elevator, bloody tears streaked their way down Nick's cheeks. Natalie's cheeks were wet from her own tears as they poured down her cheeks.

They embraced each other, needing to feel that closeness.

The elevator stopped. Nick opened the door and they entered the loft, heading straight for the couch.

Once seated Natalie opened the package Katie had left them. Inside was the necklace she had received as a graduation present, her mug shot, a bunch of other photos, and a videotape.

Natalie fingered the necklace and it's charms, remembering when she picked it out for Katie. Nick remembered having the handcuff charm made for the necklace, when none could be found elsewhere. She noticed three additional charms, which she had not given to Katie... a simple gold band, a small motorcycle, and a music note.

She showed it to Nick. Both were touched by the new charms

"I never realized how much those events meant to her," Natalie said, her voice choked with emotion.

Nick wrapped his arm around her and kissed her cheek. "I guess she wanted to make sure you didn't forget."

"How could I?"

Nick leaned forward, picking up the mug shot while his mind went back to that night and the joy on her face as it was taken.

"It was amusing to see someone so happy to have their mug shot taken."

Nick wondered if she might've become a cop, if she had lived long enough to become an adult.

They looked through the pictures, remembering each event forever captured on paper. There were graduation pictures, wedding pictures, ones of her and Natalie on the motorcycle, and from the night of the concert.

Nick turned on his entertainment system and inserted the tape into the VCR. Katie's face appeared on the screen.

"Hi, Natalie, Nick. I wanted to say good-bye and knew this was the only way to make sure I could." Katie was dressed in her favorite blue and white tie-dyed like t-shirt, and blue jeans. Her hair was held back in it's usual ponytail. Her skin was blotched from the medications she took. She looked weak, pale and tired, but her fighting spirit showed in her eyes.

Natalie rested her head on Nick's shoulder while he leaned his head against hers. Their arms wrapping around the other.

"I want to thank you for being my friends. You made the last year of my life special. I never forgot the night I spent with you at work, attending your wedding, the ride in the Caddie or on the back of the Harley. Not to mention the concert and surprises afterwards. Those were the coolest nights of my life. Thank you."

Natalie sniffled.

"Nick, it took me a long time to figure out your secret. I figured it out a few days ago while watching a movie. Very cool. No, I never told anyone."

"I'm glad you came to my graduation. It meant a lot to me. Being invited to your wedding also meant a lot to me."

"We wouldn't have missed it," Nick said, his voice not much more than a whisper.

"Thank you for not treating me different because of my disease."

"Thank you for all you taught me about living with it." Natalie whispered, her voice thick with emotion.

"Nick, Natalie, I want you to remember how precious life is, and how short it is, especially for those of us with this disease. I hope you'll be there for each other until the end. You two belong together, more than any other couple I've ever seen."

"We will." They both quietly said at the same time.

"Enough of this depressing stuff. Natalie, I hope you continue to enjoy life to the max. Nick, don't give her too much of a hassle when she wants to try new things." There was a light teasing tone to her voice, one that was shared by the twinkle in her eyes.

As the tape continued, Katie made them laugh. Nick and Natalie watched the rest of the tape cuddled up together on the couch.

One night few weeks later, Natalie and Nick were watching TV, when she grabbed the phone book during a commercial break. The rather intense concentration on her face as well as her biting her lower lip told him that she was searching for something. She soon found the page she was looking for, and a mischievous grin spread across her face. Nick scanned the page before realizing why she was grinning so hard.

"No way, Nat," Nick said, slightly panicking.

"Why not? It'll be fun." She inquired playfully.

"I'm sorry, but I don't consider jumping off a tower with a rubber band strapped to my ankles fun."

"Party pooper. It can't hurt you to give it a try." She pretended to pout.

"No. But it could hurt you," He said concerned.

"I'll be careful where we go."

"Where *we* go?" He asked, cutting her off.

"You don't think I'm going to do this alone do you? Hmmm?" Her voice had a mischievous tone to it.

"Nat, this is crazy."

"I want to know what it feels like to soar through the air."

"That's not soaring. That's a suicidal plunge."

The show came back on disturbing their discussion. During the next commercial break the discussion continued.

"Nat, I'm concerned. You seem to have turned into a wild child. I'm afraid that you're going to hurt yourself," he said concerned.

"I know what I'm doing. I'm finally taking risks and enjoying life to the fullest. It feels great."

The next evening found Nick and Natalie at the only licensed bungee place that agreed to be open late, providing Nick supplied the proper lighting equipment and overtime for the employees.

"Nat, are you sure you won't reconsider?"

"I'm sure," she said, hoping she was. She wanted to do it, but was getting more nervous as she got closer.

"I don't want you trying to rescue me unless something unforeseen happens, which I don't expect."

"All right, whatever you say."

They were helped into the harnesses, which wrapped around their waist and butt, taken by a lift up to the top of the tower where each had the bungee strap attached to the harness, and then around their ankles. Natalie noticed that it was an awfully long way down to the bottom. The airbag below did little help her growing case of nerves. Nick and Natalie strapped on their helmets and stepped over the protective rim, grabbing hold of each other. Upon mutual agreement, they leaned over, letting gravity do its job.

They plummeted towards the ground. Natalie's scream turned into a laugh as the cord jerked them partially back up and then let them fall again, more softly the second time. They were each caught by two employees and the cord was quickly disconnected from the harness before they were helped with righting themselves so they were standing back on the ground again. They were helped out of the harnesses before they headed back to the chairs they'd left their shoes under.

"That was fun," Natalie said with huge grin.

"Don't tell me you want to do that again?"

"I might." Her eyes twinkled with mischief. "What did you think of it?"

"Not something I'd particularly want to repeat. It reminds me too much of when I first learned a certain skill."

"He didn't?" She was somewhat stunned, yet she could picture LaCroix doing something like that.

"He did, and without the cord."

"Figures. I told you it would be fun."

"Do you really want to go again?"

"Yeah. This time I want to try it on my own. Okay?"

"That's fine with me." Nick could see in her eyes how much she wanted the second run. "I'll be waiting here for you." He knew he was fast enough to catch her if anything went wrong.

Natalie was quickly reharnessed and before long the elevator had her at the top of the platform. She was excited and nervous. Somehow it seemed different, scarier without Nick next to her. She slipped on her helmet. Once they reattached the cord, she stepped over the safety lip and once again let gravity do it's job. This time her scream was one of celebration. She had done it all by herself and it felt great.

They caught her and unhooked the cord before helping her out of the harness. She hurried over to Nick, a huge smile lighting up her face, her eyes twinkling with delight.

"That was fun." Off Nick's look she chuckled. "No, I don't want to go again. You ready to go do something else?"

"Sure. What did you have in mind?"

"I don't know. How about we discuss it over a snack?"

"Sure."

The next evening Natalie was changing into her scrubs when Grace entered the locker room. She saw several small bruises on Natalie's back which looked disturbingly like fingerprints.

"Natalie honey, how did you pick up those bruises on your back?"

"It's not what you think. Nick and I went bungee jumping last night. I had this strange, overwhelming desire to try it. Must've been the show we watched. He was scared and must've held on tighter than he thought he did."

"Uh, huh."

"It was the greatest feeling to soar through the sky." Upon Grace's look she continued. "Okay, to plummet to the ground in freefall. The weightlessness was a wonderful feeling. It was exhilarating!"

"Natalie, what has gotten into you?"

"Nothing. I decided to try a few new things to spice up my life. Come on, haven't you ever wanted to try something wild?"

"Yes, but..."

"What would you do?" Natalie cut her friend off before she could finish her protest.

"I've always thought it would be fun to try karaoke sometime," Grace said, shyly.

"Then let's do it. I believe our days off match next week."

"Why not?" she shrugged, smiling.

Nick and Schanke entered Natalie's office, talking.

"Bungee jumping? No way."

"Yes."

Natalie couldn't resist joining the conversation.

"Schank, it was breathtaking. It was the most exciting thing I've ever done."

"A friend of mine told me you and Nick were at his place last night. I can't believe it."

"Why not? I just wanted to try something different," Natalie said.

"I don't know. Isn't it dangerous?" Schanke asked.

"If you pick someone uncertified, it can be," Nick said.

"Natalie, are you okay?" Schanke asked.

"I'm fine. I just needed to do something wild. Something to show that I'm still alive. I spend so much time surrounded by death, and it finally caught up to me."

Schanke thought about that a moment, accepting it as a logical reason for Natalie's recent behavior. He remembered that Katie had died only a few weeks ago, wondering if that was one of the factors in his friend's wild behavior.

A few days later, Natalie sat behind her desk and what once was an endless sea of files. With a sigh of relief, she unbuttoned the top of her white blouse and looked at the finally finished pile of paperwork that had desperately needed her attention. Although the tedious work had cost her her day of, she had no doubts that all her new adventures had been worth the price.

She started to file the old paperwork, letting her mind wander as she did so. Her mind was hurriedly brought back to the present as Grace, Nick, and Schanke entered the room.

"Natalie, what's on your shoulder?" Grace asked, seeing the back of her friend. She noticed there was something under her friend's shirt. "You didn't get a tattoo did you?"

Natalie blushed, feeling it go all the way down to her toes. She had been running late and forgot to check if it was noticeable when she dressed.

"I want to see it," Grace said with a large grin.

Nick was enjoying it all as he loved seeing her turn bright red like that.

"Me too," Schanke said. "I thought I saw your bike outside this evening."

Natalie lowered one side of the back of her blouse just enough for them to see the tattoo of a bright, colorful bird perched on a branch full of equally vibrant flowers that covered about half of her left shoulder blade area. It's long tail hanging down, curving just below the main group of flowers.

Grace and Schanke were stunned, as Nick had been stunned that morning when he saw it.

"Isn't that risky?" Grace asked, knowing that both hepatitis and HIV/AIDS could be contracted from dirty needles. "I can't believe it."

"What do you guys think?" Natalie asked, touched that her friends worried about her.

"It's pretty, but I have to admit I'm amazed. What has gotten into you lately?" Grace asked.

"Katie's death reminded me of how short life could be. She made me realize that I wanted more out of life than work." Natalie saw the sadness creep into her friend's faces. "We deal with death every night and it got to me. I've decided to live like she did and celebrate life. Is there anything wrong with that?" She saw her friends shake their heads.

"It's a nice choice," Nick said, worried. Not just because she had done something so out of character, but she could catch something her immune system might not be able to handle. He didn't know when she had had the work done as he had seen her in her towel just the other day.

"When did you get it done?" Grace asked. "Nick, what do you think of it? Why did you let her do it?"

"I like it." He grinned. "She's a big girl and can do whatever she wants."

Schanke wasn't sure what to say. He, too, was concerned about her. She was doing too many things that were very unlike her.

"Relax guys, it's only temporary. It'll come off in about a week. I passed by a display rack and couldn't resist. I don't know why. I thought this was a really cool design." She saw her friends' obvious relief. "Grace, I would never get a real one. First off there is the risk of infection, not to mention the pain and healing time. I don't have that high a pain tolerance."

"Don't scare us like that," Grace admonished, but there was a lightness to it. "A temporary tattoo could be fun."

"It is, at least judging from your reactions." Natalie's smile curled into an evil grin, "How about it Grace? Maybe a dragon?"

Waving her hands, Grace laughed. No, no, no. I think I'll leave it to the pros."

"Guys, how about you? Nick, how about a nice sword design? Schanke, how about a small pair of handcuffs? Or maybe a heart?" She loved the stunned look on their faces and how Schanke seemed to take a small step back.

"I don't think so," both men said at the same time.

"I think they'd look cute with tattoos," Grace chuckled.

"So, Natalie, when are you going to join a biker gang?" Schanke asked jokingly.

"How do you know I haven't?" Natalie asked with mock seriousness. She saw the shock on Schanke's face. "Just kidding, Schanke. I have no intention of joining any biker group. It is nice to have a back up vehicle, especially since my car has been acting up again."

She saw the relief on everyone's face. She wondered what they'd think if they knew that she had considered getting a small tattoo that could be easily concealed. She was disappointed that the virus had prevented her from seriously considering a tattoo. She knew the instruments were sanitized between uses, but she also knew that tattooing drew blood and did not want to expose the person doing the tattooing or any future clients to the risk of contracting HIV. There was also the pain factor.

She handed the guys the files they needed and watched them leave. Her mind wandered back to that afternoon. ********

Natalie awoke to the sound of the alarm clock and hit the off button. She noticed Nick wasn't there, and figured he was downstairs. She grabbed her handful of morning medications and headed for the bathroom, where she downed them with a glass of water. She hated the large ones as they were hard to swallow. Once that had been done she stepped into the shower.

After her shower she headed for her dresser, clad only in her towel, her hair wet. She rummaged through a drawer before grinning triumphantly. She returned to the bathroom, opened the small plastic package in her hand, withdrew the sheet. She neatly cut between the two designs, slipping the extra one back into the package.

Grabbing a clean washcloth she wet it down before peeling the backing off the temporary tattoo. She carefully placed it on her shoulder, making sure it was straight. She wet the backing until it slid off the tattoo on it's own. She lightly washed the design with soap and water to make it look more realistic, grinning as she examined it. *********

Nick and Schanke were in the Caddy on their way back to the precinct.

"Nick, is she okay?" Schanke asked concerned.

"She's okay. I think Katie's death shook her up more than she realized."

"Keep an eye on her, okay? I don't want her accidentally hurting herself."

"I will, Schank." Nick's mind wandered to earlier that afternoon. ************

Nick entered the bedroom, having heard the shower go off. He had finished breakfast and needed a quick shower before dressing.

Natalie headed for her closet, still clad only in her towel.

"It's all yours," she said smiling. She couldn't wait to see Nick's reaction to her body art.

"Natalie, when did you get that?" Nick asked, stunned. He couldn't believe she had a tattoo, and such a large, elegant one.

"Recently," she teased. "Do you like it?"

"It's lovely. Isn't it risky? You could..."

"I know. I couldn't resist," Natalie said, cutting him off. She knew she'd have to tell him it wasn't real, sooner or later, but was going to have fun meanwhile.

"I'm worried about you. I'm afraid you're going to hurt yourself."

"Don't worry. I won't. I just want to have some fun," she said. While I still can.

"Are you going to let Grace and Schanke know?" Nick asked, curiously.

"Maybe," Natalie said, a mischievous grin spreading across her lips. "You'd better get in the shower or you're gonna be late." ********

Nick was snapped out of his reverie by Schanke.

"Earth to Nick."

"What, Schanke?"

"I was just asking if you wanted to stop off and pick up some lunch? I know you don't eat, but I'm hungry."

"Sure. Where do you want to stop?" Nick asked. "I do eat, but it's a very restricted diet due to my allergies. It's easier to eat before work and after I get home."

The next evening Natalie entered her office as usual and was quite startled to find a nameplate on her desk that read "Natalie Lambert, Biker Doc". She smiled, wondering who's idea it was. She figured it was either Schanke or Grace.

Times like these made her feel normal again. For a short time she was able to forget about the time bomb inside her waiting to go off. She didn't feel like an outsider. She had friends who loved her like family.

During Grace and Natalie's next night off they went to a bar with a Karaoke machine. Natalie saw the nervousness throughout Grace's body mirrored on her face.

"Natalie, I'm not sure I'm ready for this."

"Grace, you'll do just fine."

"Would you do a duet?"

"Maybe, after you do one by yourself."

Grace chose Alabama's 'Forty Hour Week". When the music began she started singing, right on cue. When no one booed her off the stage she felt nearly every muscle in her body relax.

Natalie watched her friend letting loose and having fun. She was surprised at Grace's talent. She knew that Grace would probably succeed in dragging her up there.

Before long Grace finished to a round of enthusiastic applause, Natalie's being the loudest.

"Natalie, how did I do?" Grace asked as she rejoined her friend.

"You did great. I didn't know you could sing like that." She saw Grace blush slightly, causing her smile to grow.

"How about the two of us doing a duet?" She saw the uncertainty in Natalie's eyes. "Come on. It's fun."

"Okay. One song," Natalie said, a little reluctant, yet curious. She knew that Grace probably wouldn't give up until she'd won.

They quickly picked Rick Springfield's 'Celebrate Life', walked up on stage and began to sing as the music played. Natalie was nervous at first but relaxed as she quickly discovered how much fun it was. Before long the song was over and applause echoed through the place. The two ladies headed off stage with large smiles on their faces.

"You're not so bad yourself." Grace said.

"Thanks. It was fun."

Natalie stunned Grace and Schanke by coming into work a month later in a serious biker jacket. One that belonged to the Victorious, a local club.

"I thought you weren't going to join up?" Schanke asked.

"Well, so did I. They're really not a bad group."

"They're doing a bikeathon to raise money for a local children's shelter this weekend." Nick said. Natalie had told him about it, unsure if she wanted to get involved. Once she did get involved she kept him updated on what they were doing.

"I thought it would be a fun way to ride and help a worthy cause." Natalie said with a smile, which was lost when she continued. "The shelter houses children who have either lost their parents due to AIDS or are suffering from the disease themselves."

Natalie saw them examining her jacket and turned in a slow circle, pretending to be a model so they could get a good look at the wonderful artwork on her jacket. They smiled at her mock impersonation of a model, which made her smile.

"Where'd you get the jacket?" Grace asked. "And when?"

"Last night during the last planning meeting. They had the jacket specially designed for me and told me I was an honorary member. I've worked with them for the past month, helping them set up the bikeathon. Can I count on all of you for pledges?"

"Of course," her friends said.

"I think it's great you worked with them to make the idea a reality," Grace said. "The artwork's beautiful."

Natalie was pleased to see her friends take one of the flyers she left on the corner of her desk. The flyers contained all the information about the bikeathon, the shelter and the reasons the shelter was needed. The shelter was needed because the number of children who have lost their parents to the horrendous disease or were infected themselves was going to double, or even triple in the years to come. It mentioned how many foster homes will not accept children with either HIV or AIDS, and there was no where near enough shelters that would accept them.

Before Natalie knew it, the weekend she had been anxiously looking forward to had arrived. Around 200 bikers showed up on a wide assortment of bikes, both old and new. Natalie was there, dressed in her jeans, t-shirt, boots, and the jacket her biker friends had given her. Most of the bikers wore helmets, including Natalie as she was not about to splatter her brains all over the pavement if she should have her first mishap.

Grace came to watch as well as Schanke and his family. Standing next to her husband, Myra tried to control their ecstatic daughter. Jenny stood as close as her parents would allow and peered at the bay of bikers trying to find Natalie.

"There she is! Over there," the excited child whooped and pointed to Natalie.

Myra noticed that Natalie looked quite natural and at home on her Harley. Glancing over at his wife, Don was surprised to find that Myra didn't think Natalie's biking all that strange. Then he remembered that his dare-devil wife liked to do things such as rock climbing.

As the sun rays' danced off her bike, Natalie's thoughts drifted to Nick alone at the loft. She wished Nick could've been there but the daylight made it impossible.

Before sadness could firmly get its grip into her, the announcer's voice caught her attention, "Welcome to the first annual Victorious Biker's Run for The Sheridan Children's Shelter. A big thank you to all the bikers and the audience for your participation." The announcer paused then raised a cap gun in the air, "Biker's start your motors!" A bang, then hundreds of bikers roared by Grace, Jenny and her parents. Jenny had her fingers in her ears, startled by how loud all the bikes were.

The route Natalie and the Victorious members she worked with had laid out would take them on a grand tour of the city before returning to their starting point about three hours later. By the time it was all over they had raised $65,000 from individual and small businesses. From larger businesses they raised another $750,000. Natalie had raised about $1,000 from her coworkers while Nick had raised about that much from his.

After Natalie had returned, she was surrounded by friends and questions. One of those questions Natalie never expected.

"Natalie...um...could you take me for a ride?" Grace asked, a bit uncertain. Up to now she had never had the courage to ask, but had been curious for a while and wanted to ask before she lost her nerve.

"Sure. Hop on. Be sure to keep your feet on this thing here and hold on."

Grace climbed onto the bike behind Natalie. One of Natalie's biker friends handed Grace his helmet, which she put on before wrapping her arms around Natalie.

Once Grace was all set Natalie set the bike into motion, slowly at first so she wouldn't scare her friend. She circled the block before returning to the rest of her friends. Grace climbed off and handed back the helmet.

"So, what did you think?" Natalie asked curiously.

"It sure is noisy. It was interesting, but I think I'll stick to my car."

"Anyone else want a ride? How about you, Schank," Natalie asked teasingly. She wished Nick could be there to see this, then realized Myra was catching it all on her videocamera.

"I don't know."

"Oh, go on Schank." Grace encouraged.

"Okay."

"Daddy, can I ride?"

"Maybe later," Schanke wasn't sure he wanted his daughter riding on a motorcycle.

Schanke had trouble getting on and wasn't sure where to put his hands. Schanke plopped the helmet onto his head before fastening it into place.

"Wrap your hands around my waist. Trust me. You'll be glad you did."

Schanke did as instructed. Natalie took off slowly, knowing he was probably a little easier to spook. Again she circled the block before returning.

"That was fun. I don't think I could handle one on my own. I don't think I have that good a sense of balance."

"Daddy, can I ride?" Jenny asked, nearly begging.

"I don't want you riding without a helmet and I'm afraid this one's too big."

Jenny pouted. One of Natalie's new biker friends saw Jenny's reaction and approached Natalie.

"She can use my daughter's helmet. I had hoped she would come today, but she had other plans. She's about her size."

"Daddy, can I?" Jenny asked begging.

"Okay. I want you to do everything Natalie says."

Jenny smiled as she put on the helmet and approached Natalie.

Schanke helped her climb onto the bike and made sure she was properly settled. Once Jenny was settled and ready Natalie again took off slowly and cruised around the block. When Natalie returned Schanke helped Jenny off the bike and couldn't miss the large smile on her face. It reminded her of Katie, and how much she had enjoyed their rides.

"That was really cool. Thanks, Natalie. Can I have another ride sometime?"

"That's up to your dad."

"Wait till I tell my friends." Jenny was quite excited about the mini adventure.

Natalie was happy as she watched Jenny's eyes glimmer with excitement. She smiled thinking that for this one day, she was normal, if there was such a thing. Quickly, she banished any negative thoughts and chose to enjoy this day with her friends.

"Can I have a ride?" Myra asked, curiously.

"Sure. Hop on."

Myra handed her video camera to Grace, strapped on the helmet handed to her, and wrapped her arms around Natalie's waist. Natalie again took off carefully. She knew Myra would probably be the hardest to spook, but didn't want to scare her. After a trip around the block, Natalie returned, Myra hopped off and returned the helmet.

"That was fun. Can we do it again sometime?"

"Sure," Natalie said, pleased.

That evening Natalie and Nick watched the tape. The happiness he saw in her eyes filled him with a rare joy. They laughed watching her and Grace convince Schanke to get on the bike. Then watching him mount, grab on as if it was a bucking bronco, and then later dismount. Myra had done an excellent job of capturing the event. Grace also did just fine when she captured Myra's ride.

Nick noticed the excitement of the day had tired Natalie, and now that it was all over, she stifled a yawn, not wanting Nick to know that she was sleepy. He was worried about her taking on too much and didn't want her new enthusiasm for life to have an adverse effect on her health.

"Natalie, I'm glad you had a great day, but I don't want you to take it so far it hurts you."

"Oh, excuse me. That's right you're the expert on my disease. The very one that doesn't have to worry about dying!" Her heavy, nasty sarcasm turned into a genuine hurt mixed with anger as she continued. "Can't you just be happy for me, that I actually had *one day* where I felt normal!"

"I'm sorry. I just don't want to see you accidentally hurting yourself. I'm very glad you had such a terrific day."

She saw the sincerity in his face, his eyes especially, and heard the sentiment echoed in his voice. How could she stay mad at him when she knew he was only looking out for her. She loved him even more for it.

"I'm sorry, too. I know you're just looking out for me. I'm glad, too." She smiled.

"Did you remember your pills?" Nick asked, hoping it wouldn't ignite another fight.

"Yes. It was hard taking them without being spotted, but I did." Natalie understood and didn't make a big deal of his question.

Nick was amazed at the things he did not know about his wife. He was surprised to learn Natalie was a hockey fan. A fact he discovered when he entered her office while she was watching a game during lunch. A few nights later she surprised him with tickets to a night game.

They both enjoyed the game and decided to catch any night games being played on their nights off. Nick usually picked up the tickets.

By the time the third anniversary of her diagnosis arrived, she was still healthy and asymptomatic. They began to truly believe she would go on for many years before the symptoms would start. They rarely thought about her disease anymore. Her health kick had become a way of life that she did not give much conscious thought to. Her CD4 level had remained stable, right around 800.

Natalie knew too much about the disease to be overly optimistic, but was determined to try anyway. She saw the hope and uncertainty in Nick's eyes and remembered when he did not have any hope at all.

She could tell that sometimes he felt badly being about being the one who would live forever. That he wished he could share that with her without turning her into what he was.

Natalie and Nick had become used to the strain of her extra doctor visits, blood work, the waiting to see if her T-cell level remained stable and she remained asymptomatic. This strain, added to the regular problems of life, caused them to have disagreements from time to time, but they could not stay mad at each other for long, knowing how precious and short life was.

They were surprised by the fact they were still making adjustments to being husband and wife. They figured they would've had most things worked out by now and life would be pretty routine, at least the marriage aspect of it. Disagreements about who was driving when they went out, or where they went or wouldn't go, purchases for the loft and things like that caused a few disagreements.

Natalie's continuing wild streak also caused some arguments as Nick still worried that she'd try to do too much and cause the disease to progress faster. He understood why she was doing all she was, but it also made him wonder how far she'd go. She understood his concern and tried to reassure him that she was being careful, that she had no secret death wish.

Some of the toughest times for them were right after each doctor's visit while they awaited the latest results.

They were surprised how little interference they had from LaCroix. They figured that he was watching and waiting for the right opportunity to try and convince Nick to bring her across, or possibly do the job himself.

Her sometimes outrageous ideas for new adventures had been tamed somewhat by the passing time and the fact that Grace and Schanke, even Nick to some extent, were beginning to wonder if she had lost her mind. Nick knew why she did most of the stuff, but still had a little trouble believing that she was capable of dreaming up some of the ideas she did.

Natalie's wildest adventures that year had been water sports: riding a jetski, windsurfing and water-skiing. It had been a hot summer and the cool water had felt great. Since these things can only be done during the day, she was forced to do them without Nick. She had dragged Grace along to videotape her escapades so Nick could enjoy them as well.

Grace thought Natalie had lost her mind, but on the other hand she was glad Natalie was enjoying life, and was getting out of the lab more often. Nick loved watching the tapes, watching his wife slowly getting the hang of each activity, glad he wasn't out there with her. This fact did not go unnoticed by Natalie, but she couldn't get mad at him, she couldn't blame him either as she had startled herself a few times with her ideas.

One afternoon during the early fall Natalie called the Schanke residence.

"Hi, Myra. Do you have a few minutes?"

"Hi, Natalie. What's up?"

"Do you still have your mountain climbing gear?" Natalie asked, hoping Myra did.

"Yes. Are you taking up climbing?" Myra asked, curiously.

"I'm thinking about it."

"Natalie, are you free this afternoon?" Myra asked, more curious than ever.

"I don't have to be at work until seven. Why?" Now it was Natalie's turn to be curious.

"Meet me at the Shamrock Gym in thirty minutes. Okay?"

"Sure." Natalie couldn't wait to see what Myra had planned.

"Come prepared for a workout." Myra said before she hung up.

Half an hour later Natalie entered the Shamrock Gym, dressed in leggings, sneakers and a long t-shirt. She had a lightweight windbreaker over her shirt. Natalie saw Myra just inside the entrance and approached her.

"Hi. Why are we here?"

"Hi. I thought you might like to learn how to climb in a safe environment."

"Thanks." Natalie motioned for Myra to lead the way.

Natalie followed Myra into one of the large rooms, where she noticed that one wall was covered with a rock like surface.

"Myra, good to see you again. It's been a while," Kevin said. He was about Nick's height with dark brown hair and looked to be quite fit.

"Thanks, Kevin. This is Natalie. She wants to learn to climb."

Kevin explained the fees and how the lessons were structured. Natalie had to fill out a form listing her name, address, phone number and who to contact in case of an emergency.

"Myra, are you up for a climb?" Kevin asked.

"Sure."

"Do want someone to supervise you?" Kevin asked, knowing Myra was a capable climber.

"I think I can handle things."

"Okay."

Kevin motioned for Natalie to follow him as he headed for the beginner's section of the climbing wall. As soon as both he and Natalie were at the wall he handed her a safety harness. She fastened the belt around her waist and felt him clipping a safety line to the back of her belt.

"All you have to do is climb to the top. Look for the best hand and foot holds you can find. The safety line will catch you if you fall."

Natalie hesitated a moment, watching Myra scaling the intermediate part of the wall. Natalie noticed that Myra also wore a safety harness.

Natalie knew she had to start and looked for her first foot and hand holds. The first step was easy. The further up she climbed the harder it was. The cracks became harder to find, and the spacing was more awkward as well.

About half way up she lost her footing. The safety harness caught her. Kevin lowered her safely to the ground.

"Not bad for a first try. Care to try again?"

"Sure." Natalie said as she started back up the wall. This time she knew one pitfall to avoid.

Natalie was a little more sure of herself this time. She was careful when she reached the spot she fell from. She made sure she found a secure hand hold and foot hold before progressing.

The last third was the most difficult part of the climb, forcing her to look around for her next foot and hand hold. By the time she'd reached the top of the fifty foot wall she was tired and felt great. She couldn't believe she'd made it to the top.

Natalie was glad she'd be repelling down, rather than climbing as it would be a very difficult climb.

"You climbed up here and now you're going to repel down." She whispered to herself.

She grabbed hold of the rope, made sure it was in place, her grip was correct and then pushed off from the wall. She was surprised at how fast she went down. She pushed off the rock each time she found herself close enough to touch it. She didn't land as well as she hoped to, frustrating her.

Kevin saw the frustration playing across her features. "Don't worry about it. That's why we use the safety line."

"Thanks. The line made me feel more secure. I knew that I could try harder and not have to worry about getting hurt when I fell."

"Are you up for another go at it?" Kevin asked.

"I think I've done enough for today. I don't want to overdo it the first time out." Natalie knew she would likely be sore either later or tomorrow.

"That's very wise. You wouldn't believe how many people overdo the first time and then don't come back."

"I can believe it. I'll be back."

Myra approached. "Natalie, how about a quick bite before heading home?"

"Sure. What do have in mind?"

"How about the diner on third street?"

"Sounds good. Let's walk. It's only two blocks," Natalie said, feeling great.

"That's fine with me," Myra said. "I saw some of your climb. You did well."

"Thanks. I saw some of yours too. You're much better than I am."

"I fell the first time I tried, both going up and coming back down. You'll get the hang of it in no time."

Natalie arrived at work right on time. Nick and Schanke were awaiting her arrival as they needed a few test results before they could finish up some paperwork. Grace entered with Natalie.

"Hi guys. What's up?" Natalie asked.

"Where'd you go this afternoon?" Nick asked. Natalie was gone when he woke and she didn't return before he had to leave for his shift.

"Myra and I went out."

"Myra said something about meeting you at the gym," Schanke said.

"Have you taken up pumping iron?" Grace teased.

"No," Natalie said. "I went mountain climbing and didn't do half bad."

Natalie loved the stunned looks on her friend's faces.

"The gym had a climbing wall so I could practice with a minimum of risk." Off her friends disbelieving looks she continued. "They hook you to a safety harness so when you fall they lower you safely to the ground. It felt great when I reached the top of the fifty foot wall." Natalie noticed her friends still seemed to be unconvinced. "Schank, Myra does it and you don't think she's nuts."

"I did at first, but I get your point."

Natalie was a little sore when she changed for bed, but it wasn't anything she hadn't felt after a long, busy shift.

Nick noticed. "Why don't you stretch out and I'll give you a massage."

Natalie smiled, loving the sound of that. She stretched out and soon felt his cool touch through her nightshirt. His touch was magic. She completely relaxed as she felt the soreness easing. Before long she fell asleep. Nick finished the massage and then went to bed himself.

Natalie awoke the next morning feeling great. She rewarded Nick with a passionate kiss and matching embrace.

Natalie and Myra went climbing at every opportunity they had. Both enjoyed it, especially since they had each other.

By the fourth anniversary of her diagnosis they both strongly believed that she might be one of those who went ten or even twenty years without any symptoms showing. They began to relax. Although the thought of the next phase was never truly out of their minds, especially since they both knew women became sicker sooner than men. Thoughts of her future tended to stay in that dark corner where they had been pushed.

That year they celebrated their second wedding anniversary with a night out on the town. She had let him pick how they were celebrating that year. Nick had booked them reservations at the finest restaurant in town as well as excellent tickets to the hottest play, after that it was up to her. Her zest for life and adventure had been contagious. Nick tried his best to fulfill all her desires. They both knew there was still a wish neither one could hope to fulfill.

Grace teased Natalie every time she came into work with one of those 'cat that ate the canary smiles' on her face. Grace made sure Nick received his fair share of the teasing. She was pleased to see the thriving relationship between Nick and Natalie. She was pretty sure this would be one marriage that lasted until they died. Or until one died well before her time.

Schanke enjoyed ribbing his partner whenever he arrived in an usually good mood. Nick let Schanke get in his teasing. Schanke enjoyed seeing the thriving relationship between his partner and the forensic pathologist. He too was sure the marriage would last for the rest of their lives. He too didn't know how short one of those lives would be. Schanke enjoyed seeing new sides to his partner, and was a little surprised by a few of them.

Schanke did his fair share of ribbing Natalie as well, especially after he'd heard about her latest outrageous activity. Natalie's growing wild streak had him concerned as it was so different from the reserved woman he had known. In the time he had known her, he had never seen her act as she had in the last few years. He was glad to see her get out and enjoy life, especially when she dragged Nick with her, kicking and screaming. He couldn't shake the feeling that this new zest for adventure was somehow a residual effect of the rape. Her recovery amazed him, and he knew that Nick's support was a large part of it. Or that it was related to Katie's death. A nagging feeling in the back of his mind told him that there was something not quite right with the picture. He felt like he had a puzzle with a few crucial pieces missing. Pieces that only Nick and Natalie had.

Natalie kept up her mountain climbing with Myra. Both had worked their way up to the advanced wall. It was an accurate simulation of a real climb. It was the hardest climb the club offered, and was rated as extremely difficult.

Natalie enjoyed the muscles it helped her build, as well as helping her keep her body in shape. She felt great. She also found it easier to lift the corpses to and from her autopsy table, with someone to help her.

Both she and Myra enjoyed each other's company as they climbed. They started investigating local mountain climbing groups. Both were unsure if they were ready for a real climb but were intrigued by the idea.

Before they could do anything further about it Natalie became preoccupied with work. She had to help the police track down a serial killer.

On the fifth anniversary of her diagnosis, Nick and Natalie entered the elevator with movies and dinner in hand, as they had decided to spend this one at home. As they approached the loft, Nick noticed the presence of another vampire and went on the alert. Natalie noticed and grew tense, awaiting the unknown danger. As soon as the elevator door opened they discovered that an unwanted intruder had made himself quite at home on the couch.

"What are you doing here, LaCroix?" Nick asked, not at all pleased to see his master.

"I came to have a talk with you. You look quite well Dr. Lambert, considering your condition that is."

"How did you find out?" Natalie asked, curiously and a little angered that he had invaded this very private part of her life.

Both she and Nick were surprised that he knew, or more particularly, had bothered to find out. Nick wondered if Janette had been forced to betray him, yet again.

"I have my ways, lest we forget," LaCroix sneered, then remembered the purpose of his visit. "Nicholas, I trust you have considered the possibility of bringing the good doctor across?" LaCroix slowly walked behind Nick and spoke as if Natalie was not there, "The hour glass is running short of sand, Nicholas. You have the power to cure her. You must know she will not stay healthy forever." An evil smile crept onto LaCroix's lips as he reveled, "My poor son. Choices. They are your downfall."

Nick fought to keep his composure. He took Natalie's hand into his and answered. "We have, and I will not do it. I won't condemn her to this existence."

"I have not asked him to. I am well and plan to stay that way for many years to come," Natalie added, finally making her voice known.

"Nicholas, you are willing to watch her suffer? To watch her slowly fade away? Are you willing to stand by and do nothing as she suffers one agonizing moment after another until the painful end, knowing that all that time you had it within you to stop it?" LaCroix paused to see what effect his questions were having. Nick looked unhappy but resolute. Underestimating his son's stubbornness once more, LaCroix shifted his attention to Natalie. "Dr. Lambert, do you really want to suffer the ravages of this disease when you could so easily escape?"

"Yes."

"We have made our decisions. She does not want to be rescued," Nick interjected.

"I want to live each day to the fullest for as long as I can. Even when this damn disease robs me of life's simplest tasks."

LaCroix knew he would likely fail in this attempt. He knew that Natalie would one day be very sick. It would be in those days, his son would grow weak and then maybe Nick could be convinced to bring her across. He was curious as to how long it would take for them to agree that she should join their family, and how much persuasion it would take.

Perhaps watching her suffer will help change his mind. I shall finally have my revenge, one way or another, LaCroix thought.

LaCroix took off through the skylight.

A moment later Natalie let out a sigh of relief and relaxed. Confrontations with LaCroix always made her tense and edgy as she had to be completely on guard, never knowing what he would try.

Nick took her in his arms. He felt the slight trembling of her body.

"I'm surprised it took him so long to find out. Why did he even bother?" Natalie said curious and annoyed.

"Because he knew it would annoy us. Because messing up my life is his hobby." Nick said. "He must've sensed something."

"But what? Maybe it was the fact that we've remained happily married for three years now? But why tonight?" Natalie couldn't figure it out. "Why this night out of all the other nights of the year?"

"I don't know. Maybe he grew curious as to what we celebrate on this night?"

"Do you think he'd..." Natalie's thought's trailed off.

"No. I don't think he'll bring you across against your wishes." Nick said. "Remember the story I told you about him and Fleur?"

"Yes. But..."

"I think he's using this as fulfillment of that promise. That's why I believe he won't bring you across..." Nick's voice trailed off. He knew he had to voice the other option. "Or kill you."

"Will he keep showing up to taunt us?" Natalie suspected he would, when it suited his mood or purpose.

"Probably. He does seem to enjoy making my life miserable."

"And he wonders why no one likes him," Natalie joked trying to lighten the mood.

Nick felt her slight trembling cease. "Go figure," he said, playfully sarcastic.

"Are we going to let him ruin our evening? I, for one, am not!"

Six months had passed. At five of twelve, Natalie was once again in Dr. Banks office, filling out the standard paperwork. She dreaded every appointment, fearing the news that the disease had progressed. It was harder this time because her appointment was on the same day as the anniversary of the rape. Natalie still wasn't sure why she had agreed to come. Maybe she needed to know that she was okay, or as okay as she could be under the present circumstances.

The nurse stuck her head out the door, "Natalie, your turn."

Natalie walked into the hallway and down to the empty examination room.

"Dr. Banks will be with you shortly."

Natalie knew the routine. She reluctantly changed into the paper thin gown that was open in the back and sat on the exam table. Her legs swung back and forth, trying to disguise her nervousness.

A few minutes later Becky entered the room. She put on latex gloves, picked up a needle, unwrapped it and cleaned a spot on Natalie's arm. Natalie nervously bit her lower lip. Although she was in the medical profession, Natalie had despised needles sticking her ever since she was a little girl, and she despised them even more now. Now, instead of providing helpful inoculations each needle would tell her if she'd moved closer to her death.

"I'm not thrilled by them either." Becky grinned.

Natalie couldn't help but grin back. Then she flinched as the needle punctured her skin. She could feel it inside her.

Would his fangs feel like this? Would it hurt? Would I care if it did? She knew the answer to the last question was no. Her questions surprised her.

"How's married life?" Becky asked with a slight teasing tone.

"It's great." Natalie's smile lit up her eyes. "There are the little things that creep up now and then, but they keep life interesting."

"That they do," Becky agreed, knowing exactly what Natalie was talking about. "I wouldn't trade any of the little problems for anything."

"Me either." She loved Nick, even when he was at his most exasperating. She wouldn't trade anything of their life together, except maybe not having this disease.

Becky drew four large tubes of blood for testing. Natalie always dreaded this, fearing that the test might come back showing that her CD-4 count had dropped and soon she would no longer be symptom free. She knew Nick was not looking forward to it either. He was a tremendous support, one she didn't think she could do without.

Becky removed the needle and had Natalie hold a small gauze pad over the puncture to stop the bleeding. It quickly stopped, and Becky covered the spot with a plastic bandage.

Dr. Banks entered shutting the door behind him. He knew this day was never easy for her and had wondered why she had agreed to come in today, rather than waiting until her scheduled appointment at the end of the week.

"Hello, Natalie. How are you?"

"Okay. And you?"

"Pretty good. Do you have any medical complaints?"

"No," Natalie said. She liked him. He had never judged her. Never made her feel badly about being a rape victim. Or because she was HIV positive due to the rape. He was very supportive.

"How are you doing emotionally?" He asked as he slipped into a pair of latex gloves and began the examination. He knew that emotions played an important part in a patient's well being. .

"I'm fine. Nothing really to report."

"I hear you've been trying to get more out of life. What's this about you taking up motorcycling and mountain climbing?" He asked with a grin. "That doesn't seem much like you."

"I didn't think so either, but when I tried both I became hooked. My old car's temperamental, so it's nice to have a back up vehicle. It's also fun to see people's reactions as they discover that its me on the Harley," she said with a grin. "The climbing is a great workout. I feel great when ever I make it to the top of the advanced wall."

"What do you think of married life so far?"

"I'm enjoying it, even the little hassles."

He continued with the thorough examination as they talked. She made sure he always had a copy of her gynecological results.

"Well?" She asked, a little anxiously.

"From what I can see here, you're in good health. I'll know for sure when the test results come back. I'll call you when I get them."

"Thanks, I appreciate the way you always call me yourself."

"You'll be getting some new information this time. We've started tracking each patient's viral load. It's a clearer indication of the amount of viral activity in the bloodstream.

Several days later, Natalie arrived home to a blinking light on the answering machine, her stomach suddenly developed a giant knot. "Okay Lambert, we can't go through this every time that light is blinking. Just push the play button and what ever happens, we can deal with it..." She pushed all negative thoughts aside and listened to the messages, prepared to write down any that were for Nick. Most were sales pitches, but the last one caught her attention.

"Natalie, this is Dr. Banks. Call me as soon as you get in. I have good news."

She was relieved and dialed his number.

"Dr. Banks."

"Hi, this is Natalie Lambert."

"Are you feeling okay?" He heard the nervousness she tried to keep from her voice.

"I feel fine. It hasn't progressed has it?"

"No. You're still quite healthy. The latest blood tests showed no changes in your T-cell level. Your viral load is still low."

"Thanks for letting me know."

She hung up, greatly relieved. Suddenly she needed to get out of there, but she did not know where she wanted to go. Nick was working so she had to find someone else to go out with. She went into her bedroom and slipped into a sleek black dress which came to just above her knees. She added a black blazer and called Grace.

"Hi, Grace."

"Natalie, what's up?"

"I thought I'd call and see if you wanted to do something tonight. I thought maybe we'd go dancing."

Grace was quite surprised. She didn't think Natalie was into the night club scene, but then again the last few years had been full of surprises.

"Okay. Do you want to meet somewhere?"

"How about I pick you up? That way we only have to take one car." She knew Nick would kill her when he found out where they were going. It was the best dance spot in town, or so she'd heard. A part of her didn't care.

About twenty minutes later they were off to the Raven. Dressed in a black dress which came down past her knees, Grace shifted her black jacket as they sped past downtown. Natalie had told her that dark colors were best where they were going.

"So, where are we going?"

"A place that's a little different. The Raven."

"Have you ever been there before?"

"Only on business. I do have to warn you that a rather strange crowd has been known to hang out there, so watch yourself." Natalie knew Grace deserved a warning. That was the best she could do without saying that it was a vampire haven.

"Are you sure it's safe?"

"Janette's the owner. She keeps a close eye on things." She knew that Janette would do her best to see that no one hurt them.

"She's the owner? I'm not sure if I should be surprised or not," Grace said.

Natalie couldn't help but grin at that remark.

"This isn't the best part of town." Grace noticed the area as Natalie found a parking spot right in front of the club.

"It isn't the worst either."

They approached the bouncer and were allowed to enter, much to Grace's surprise. Not to mention the surprise of the rather long line waiting to get into the bar.

"Are you sure you haven't been here before?"

"Okay, I've been here once or twice, but only to speak to the owner." Natalie wasn't ready to tell Grace about the twisted web she'd wound up in since she'd met Nick and other members of that community. She also wasn't sure Grace would believe her.

Grace noticed the dark atmosphere of the club. The clientele and the chains didn't do anything to reassure her. She wasn't sure she either of them should be here. She drew her jacket closer around her as she stuck close to Natalie. She watched Natalie as they made their way through the club, noticing that her friend was on the alert, but no where near as uneasy as she was.

Natalie lead the way over to one of the few empty tables. No sooner were they seated when a waitress approached, looking like a cross between punk and gothic.

"I'll have a non-alcoholic wine," Natalie said.

"I'll have the same." Grace said. She'd never tried one of those, but it sounded interesting. She was curious as to why Natalie would chose that, wondering if the club had something to do with it.

Natalie saw Miklos at the bar. He saw her and nodded.

Grace carefully let her eyes peer over one shoulder then the other. A feeling that countless eyes were staring at her was giving her the creeps. After a moment she had a distinct feeling that a few were watching Natalie closely.

The wine arrived and Natalie took out her wallet to pay for it.

"It's on the house."

"Tell Janette thanks."

"It is my pleasure," a French accented female voice responded.

"Janette, it's nice to see you again."

"Same here," both Grace and Janette said.

"Natalie, does Nicola know you're here?" Janette saw Natalie's quick expression change. "I didn't think so."

Grace was wondering why Nick didn't want Natalie here, outside of the strangeness of the place.

"Natalie, what brings you here?" Janette asked.

"I needed to do something different. Nick had to work, so I brought Grace." She had seen the unasked question in Janette's eyes.

Janette looked most amused but said nothing. She had heard about Natalie's excursions on the wild side from Nick. She found his participation in them to be most amusing.

"If you need anything let either Miklos or myself know," Janette said, directing it to Natalie. "Enjoy your evening."

Janette headed back across the room to the bar where she found a filled wine glass awaiting her. She thought Natalie looked quite good despite what Nick had told her. She would never have known otherwise. It did make Natalie's wild streak understandable.

"Natalie, why doesn't Nick like you coming here? If it's the crowd, I can understand that."

"That's the reason. That and the location." Natalie knew she couldn't say anything about the clientele.

"You should listen to him. By the way, who's Miklos?"

"Miklos is the bartender."

Natalie finished her wine and stood. "Care to join me on the dance floor?"

Grace was unsure, but somehow she felt safer sticking with Natalie.

Natalie knew that Janette's appearance had been only partially social, the rest of it was to show the others that she and Grace were not on the menu.

Natalie enjoyed the music the club played and made a mental note to ask Janette about it.

Once on the dance floor, Natalie and Grace had no trouble finding dance partners. Natalie kept an eye on Grace, just in case. She saw Janette still seated at the bar watching over the crowd, two of the patrons in particular. Natalie smiled and nodded to show her appreciation.

After several songs Grace tired and headed back to their table, wondering where Natalie found the energy. Grace knew she weighed about forty pounds more than Natalie, knowing that was why her friend had so much more energy. She watched Natalie enjoying herself and grinned, remembering back a few years to when Natalie jumped whenever any man but Nick or Schanke were around. Now, there was no visible trace of that fear, although she knew that there were some invisible ones buried deep in Natalie's mind.

A couple of songs later Natalie tired of dancing and headed for the bar.

"You won't tell Nick, will you?" Natalie asked, uneasily.

"No." Janette saw her friend relax with the reassurance.

"Thanks." Natalie smiled and thought of how times do indeed change... She and Janette had become friends over the years, something she would never have believed if anyone would've told her.

"How are you doing?" Janette asked. "Any marital problems?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary, except for our sleeping in separate beds. I thought we might have a few more adjustment problems, but things are going pretty smoothly. I'm doing okay. My condition hasn't changed, and I hope it doesn't for a long while yet." Natalie was a little surprised not to detect any jealousy from the vampiress. She truly was happy for them, as she had said the last time they talked. "I'm glad Nick turned to you. He needed someone to talk to."

"If you ever need someone to talk to..."

"Thanks." Natalie said, sincerely.

Janette nodded and seemed to consider something. She nodded, then lightly took hold of Natalie's hand preventing her from leaving. Looking into Natalie's eyes, Janette's voice carried a sincerity her face mirrored, "If you ever decide you want to join us, and can't get Nicola to do it, call me."

Natalie was quite surprised by the offer. "Janette, thank you, really. But you and I both know he..."

"Actually, he might not have that big a problem with it." Off Natalie's slightly confused look Janette continued. "I mentioned it to him and he didn't seem too upset by it. He loves you and I think he would honor your decision."

"I know." Natalie grew silent for a moment considering how hard it must be for her once rival to make such an offer. Then she smiled and said, "Thank you, Janette... for everything." Natalie picked up her two non alcoholic wines. "I have to get back to Grace before she gets curious. She doesn't know about my condition and I don't want her to."

"Yes, of course. Do not worry. I will keep your secret, just as you have kept mine and Nicola's."

After bidding Janette a good evening, Natalie headed back towards Grace, setting the wine glasses on the table.

"What was that about?"

"Nothing, just chatting."

When Natalie arrived home Nick was seated on the couch, reading a book.

"Did wait up for me?" Natalie asked curious. She took off her coat, hung it over a kitchen chair, and walked over to the couch. She sat down next to him.

"Yes. I was worried. You were out so late, and you didn't say where you went." His arm went around her shoulders.

"I'm sorry. I never meant to worry you. After the latest results came back I had to get out of here. I had to do something physical." Upon seeing his concern she quickly continued. "I'm fine. There's no change in my condition." She saw his sigh of relief.

"Did you have a nice time?" He asked before he recognized a scent on her clothes.

"Grace and I had a great time."

"How could you take Grace to the Raven? How could you go there?" Nick asked furious. He didn't want her pulling stunts like that, which endangered both her and Grace. Especially Grace, who was completely unaware of the dangers there.

"Relax. I needed to do something different, and it was the first place that came to mind. The atmosphere matched my mood. It's a great dance spot. Grace doesn't know that it's a haven for your kind. I went there to dance. Janette came over and talked with us. She was at the bar the whole time we were there." It hit her that she hadn't told him where she'd been. "How'd you know?"

"I smelled Janette's scent on you." Nick was calming down as she explained things to him. He knew she was level headed and trusted her judgment. He also knew she would never purposely endanger Grace.

"You and those vampiric senses," Natalie said rather amused. "We talked a little, while I waited for Grace and my wine refills." She saw his expression change. "Don't worry. I made sure they were non alcoholic wines."

She headed for the kitchen as she needed a snack. Before long she returned with a bowl of prepopped white cheddar popcorn and a glass of ice water. She plopped herself back down next to him.

"It's not like I've never been there before."

"What?" Nick asked, startled. Has she been there before and not told me? He was making a mental note to question Janette about this when her voice and a gentle finger in the ribs broke through his thoughts.

"I've never gone dancing there, but how many times did we go there for work reasons? Or to update Janette on how I was doing? Not to mention the few times I had to go there because you'd had too much to drink and were acting crazy, out of control."

Nick realized she was right and calmed down. Natalie had been there numerous times, a few of them without him.

"In a way, Grace is probably safer now than she was before. The Community now knows she's off limits, where before she was just another mortal."

Once again Nick realized she was right, and the remaining tension dissipated.

"Try and stay away from there, okay? I worry about you."

"I will. I like that you worry about me," Natalie said with a slight grin.

"I didn't really think of the benefits of it until just now." Natalie changed the subject. "How about some inline skating tomorrow night?"

"Um, I have a mountain of paperwork to do."

Natalie saw the slightly panicked look on his face and giggled. "It wasn't that bad, was it?"

"Actually, the ice skating was worse." He saw her grin grow.

"Okay. I'll go by myself."

Nick didn't want her out by herself, especially at night.

"I guess I could keep you company. I have heard that exercising is supposed to be more fun with a friend."

The next evening, before work they slipped into their skates. He followed her, passing her from time to time.

Natalie noticed that Nick looked more comfortable this time. They skated around the park, racing each other from time to time. After they finished skating, He bought her dinner before they returned to the loft to shower and change for work.

A few months later, Natalie was one of the speakers at the annual forensic pathologists' conference. She had been asked to give a paper on some of the innovative solutions she had come up with for her most difficult cases. She was nervous, even though she had thoroughly prepared herself.

Nick, Schanke and Grace had reassured her that she would knock them dead as they had all read her paper. She had used them as guinea pigs for her lecture. Some of the ideas in her paper had amazed her friends with their creativity. Nick knew the secret behind them, and liked how she had concealed the real reason, yet let the beauty of the ideas show through.

Nick gave her a simple gold bracelet as a reminder of his love and faith in her, since he couldn't be in Seattle with her.

The first morning of the conference was Natalie's session. Dr. Lambert nervously stood at the podium, yet a part of her was quite calm. She was very good in her field, but hated having to speak in front of large groups, or to the press. She looked down at her bracelet and felt Nick's loving support. She took a deep breath and started.

As she spoke she saw various emotions play across the faces of the other forensic pathologists there. She surprised, amazed and impressed her colleagues. She surprised herself with how much she was truly enjoying the experience.

After she finished with her paper she answered their questions. As she did this she found herself wondering what her colleagues would think if they knew what had sparked her creativity on more than a couple of occasions.

She and Nick spoke on the phone each night, missing the company of the other. Nick loved hearing her tell of the day's events, and Natalie enjoyed hearing him do the same.

During that week many of her colleagues approached her with questions and stories of their own. She was flattered by the interest and enjoyed hearing the stories from her peers.

She attended a few classes to keep her knowledge up to date, knowing how crucial it was.

A few of the other lectures she attended were incredibly dull, some due to subject matter and at least two due to the speaker's flat monotone voice and lack of a sense of humor.

She also collected a ton of printed matter, everything from sample copies of journals to new books. She even managed to find a journal with some cutting edge AIDS information that she had not yet heard about.

Just over week later, Natalie arrived home from testifying in court all day and decided it was time to access Sam Collins' records again. She was glad Nick wasn't home yet because she didn't want him to know.

She sat down, booted up her computer and accessed his file. The file showed he had been exhibiting symptoms for the past ten months, and some of the nastier ones too. Ones she hoped to avoid. She realized that this was only the fourth time she had checked his records. The second time since her wedding.

A small sense of relief spread through her as she realized that he was not getting off easily, that he would pay for what he had done to her. At the same time it terrified her. She knew she could get that sick, or sicker at any time. Again, she cursed Collins for giving her the damn disease.

Two months later, Natalie arrived home from work, set down her briefcase, took off her coat, and kicked off her shoes. The answering machine was blinking. She nervously hit the play button. She felt her stomach once again knot up as the message tape rewound.

"Natalie, this is Dr. Banks. Drop by my office later."

Natalie's heart sank. Her shoulders slumped. Tears welled in her eyes. The disease had finally progressed. Just under six years was all the time she would have symptom free. Tears ran down her cheeks, but were quickly brushed away.

"Damn you!" Natalie said, angrily. She erased the message, not wanting Nick to find out about it that way.

She changed into something more casual before calling Dr. Banks office. Relief swept over her as she learned he could see her. She headed out, knowing she would be unable to sleep, or accomplish anything until she knew how much her condition had deteriorated. She hated the fact that women usually became sick sooner than men did.

She also wanted to get out of the loft before Nick arrived, which he would be doing any time now. She couldn't face him now, not knowing exactly how drastically her condition had changed.

Natalie arrived at Dr. Banks office and headed straight for the receptionist.

"Natalie, he's expecting you. Go on in. He's in his office."

Natalie headed for his office and knocked on the door frame.

"Natalie, have a seat," Dr. Banks said as he closed the door behind her. He saw the sadness in her eyes, along with anxiousness and a slight touch of depression.

"It's progressed hasn't it?"

"Yes. Your T-Cell count has started to fall. It's currently just under 700. Your viral load has increased as well. Have any symptoms appeared yet?"

"No. Or at least none that I'm aware of." She knew the symptoms would start any time now and that it could be months or years before she had her first opportunistic infection.

"I know you're probably aware that Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia is the most common opportunistic infection." He knew she most likely had read up on HIV and AIDS and knew what was in store for her. He saw the depression the news had brought to her eyes, even as she tried to keep it off her face. "How's Nick handling it all?"

"He's been amazingly strong. He's there whenever I need support. I can see he does have trouble with it all from time to time. He does talk with me about it. And when he can't do that, he has a friend he turns to."

"Does he know you're here?"

"No. He wasn't home when I left. I wanted to see you before I told him."

"Do you have any questions?"

"So, what now?" She knew there wasn't really anything more that could be done, other than joining first trials, but needed to hear that from Dr. Banks. She knew her viral load level would be very closely tracked as it showed the amount of viral activity in her bloodstream.

"Other than tracking your CD4 and viral load levels, there isn't anything we can do. Keep doing what you've been doing and let me know of any changes." Dr. Banks wondered if she'd considered her other alternative. "Have you considered first trials?" He knew it went against medical advice, but had to offer it as an alternative.

"Yes. They go against everything I ever learned." She knew that they were necessary for speedy drug approval.

As soon as Natalie left the doctor's office she headed straight home, knowing Nick would be there and was grateful.

Nick was working on a painting when she arrived. He grew concerned upon seeing the expression on her face.

"What's wrong?"

"My T-Cell count took it's first fall. It's down to just under 700. My viral load is up. I don't have any symptoms yet."

She despised seeing the sadness which crept into his eyes as he heard the news.

He walked over to her and wrapped her in an embrace. Her arms wrapped around him. They just stood there consoling each other. When they finally separated he said, "We knew this would happen one day."

"I know. I had hoped to have a few more years."

"I know. So did I." Nick gently caressed the side of her face. "We'll get through this like we have everything else."

"I don't know what I'd do without you."

The next evening at work Schanke noticed that both Nick and Natalie seemed to be a little down, but didn't know if he should say anything about it. He saw the tiny flickers of sorrow in their eyes. He knew that if they didn't want to talk about it he would get absolutely nothing from them. He hoped they weren't having marital problems.

Natalie rode her bike to work more often, needing the sense of freedom it gave her. The breeze made her feel more alive. When questioned about it, she said that her car was acting up, often refusing to start. She liked wearing her biker jacket with it. When asked why she didn't ride in with Nick she commented that she needed a way to get to crime scenes.

Natalie continued to use whatever spare time she had at work for research into Nick's cure. Nick sometimes complained about feeling like a pin cushion, but she knew it was all talk. She made no major progress, only a few minute discoveries. She also had yet to find a protein shake formula he would drink.

She had tried at least two dozen recipes in the last two weeks. Once she thought she had been close, but she couldn't get him to drink that formulation a second time. She thought he seemed to like it well enough the first time. Did he drink it just to please me? she wondered.

He had seen how hard she worked at coming up with new formulas and would sometimes force himself to drink them without complaint, even though they often nauseated him.

She finally asked him what he thought was missing from them, other than blood. He couldn't really answer her as he himself couldn't figure out what was missing.

Natalie arrived at the crime scene and approached the victim, a woman in her mid forties who had been brutally beaten to death. As the M.E. examined the victim, she knew that the pale, thin woman was not a vampire because there was a body to examine. She couldn't give any other reason for the woman to be that thin, as there were too many medical conditions that it could be a result of.

Back at the office, Natalie slipped into her scrubs and began the autopsy on the woman, sending out the blood and tissue samples for testing.

Grace entered with the first test results as Natalie finished the autopsy. Grace left the files on the desk, as, she noticed her friend was a little busy at the moment. After Grace left, Natalie read the report, her face growing grimmer the further into the report she read. The victim had Retrovir, ddI, SMP-TMX, and ZDU running through her system, making the forensic pathologist wonder how far along the woman was and if the disease was the real cause of her violent death. When the blood test results failed to show the CD4 Lymphocyte level Natalie ran a quick and somewhat crude T-Cell count, finding the level to be just under fifty. This told her that the victim had AIDS and her nearly non existent immune system suggested, she probably had only a few months to live. She wished she could've done a viral load count, but knew it would be very high from the indicators she'd already noticed

Natalie wasn't looking forward to the near future when she would have to take more drugs to try and prevent opportunistic infections. She knew that when she did, it would mean she would probably be almost too far along to continue working. She wiped away the single tear which ran down her cheek and forced her mind back on her work.

Natalie found her mind wandering. If anyone found out, how would they treat me? Would I find myself on someone's table? What would the report say?

The days passed. Natalie continued to enjoy life, knowing that some time in the not too distant future she would slowly become too ill to do so. That life would become a struggle just to live. She was grateful that her T-Cell count was still high enough that she felt as good as ever, and that her viral load was still relatively low.

She and Nick still visited the pediatric AIDS patients. She found herself there more often than Nick, and figured it was because she wasn't strictly limited to nighttime visits. The children still amazed her. It hurt to watch some of them grow sicker. She cried when those she had grown to know well died. Even Nick shed a tear for them, because they were the true innocents.

The one thing that helped Nick and Natalie accept the death of those so young was that the kids would no longer suffer, nor would their families. Once they had grieved for their losses the families would go on with their lives, always missing their lost child, but relieved that their loved one was no longer in pain and would never have to deal with sickness again.

It also reminded Nick and Natalie how precious life was. It was something to be savored, not postponed until it was more convenient. It helped them put their problems and disagreements into prospective.

One afternoon when Natalie awoke, she sat down, booted up her computer and accessed Collins' file. She saw that he was dying from AIDS. As she read his records, terror and a grim satisfaction crept into her. He had had Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, subacute encephalitis, and was now suffering from Karposi's syndrome and another case of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. He had only days to live.

Is this what my future holds for me? If I were this sick would Nick... Natalie wondered, her thought trailing off as she examined the records again. She hoped she didn't disturb Nick with her typing.

A strange sense of relief came over her as she realized that Collins had not gotten off easily. On the other hand, she was not sure if she should be more terrified by how quickly he had progressed from HIV to full blown AIDS.

"Will I progress so rapidly? What infections will I get? What will eventually do me in?" She thought out loud. The fact that women became sick sooner than men was anything but reassuring. She hated that fact.

"Nat, we can't dwell on that. Whatever happens will happen." Nick heard her as he walked down the stairs.

"I know. I can't help but wonder what the future holds."

"Me too." He said as he put his hands on her shoulders, feeling her warm ones cover his cool ones.

A week later she was at Dr. Banks office again for another routine checkup. He could see that something was bothering her. There was a sadness and depression he didn't usually see in her eyes.

"What's wrong?" He asked, concerned.

"I just found out that the man who infected me is dead. I'm wondering how..."

"Fast you'll progress and what will kill you?"

She nodded.

"Everyone is different. It could be months or years before you have your first opportunistic infection."

"I know. I guess I just needed to hear it."

"Do you have any medical complaints?"

"I've been feeling tired for the last few days. Other than that, I feel as well as possible, under the circumstances." She knew Nick noticed it as well, but hadn't said anything about it.

Dr. Banks ordered another CD4 count, afraid that her T-cells had taken another drop. He also wanted to check her viral load, fearing that it had risen.

Natalie was depressed by the fact that she now tired more easily and knew her decline had started. Remember, a positive attitude is important. I won't give up without a hell of a fight. She found herself reminding herself again and again.

She was completely wiped out after each of the few forty-eight hour shifts she had to pull when others were out sick or there were major accidents. She used to be able to get through them with moderate to slightly more severe exhaustion, now she was falling on her face exhausted after each one.

She was grateful for Nick on those days, as he would fix her dinner so she wouldn't be going to bed hungry, or with a frozen dinner as her meal. He also took care of most of the general household chores, once she had taught him the finer points of housekeeping.

She and Nick watched their favorite comedies whenever she felt down, knowing that laughter had been proven to be effective medicine.

He saw how much all the little things he did for her were appreciated. He was determined to make things as easy for her as he could.

She made sure she acted like her old self at work, hiding any tiredness she felt, not wanting to raise any suspicions. She knew she could handle them finding out, unless they pitied her, then she'd lose it. Pity was the only emotion she could not handle. She did not want to be feared or be threatened because she was infected with the virus.

Nick fixed her dinner every night after her shift, even if it meant having dinner catered. He could see the appreciation in her eyes and the wonderful smile she had. She had even found a way to improve the taste of the protein shakes. The shakes were tolerable now, as long as he didn't overindulge.

Natalie was at home sorting through a stack of paperwork and flicked on the radio, forgetting what station it was set to.

"Gentle listeners, tonight's topic is the journey from life to death. Often this journey is a long and uneventful one, leading to quiet, endless slumber. This is quite sad. But for a few, the obstacles of life's journey, while viewed by them as a curse, are in fact, the challenge they need to grow beyond this mortal life. Sometimes facing death makes one hold onto life more dearly. Sometimes this means going beyond what convention and normal behavior allows. Sometimes this means doing anything to survive."

Natalie found herself somehow compelled to listen to the musings of the Nightcrawler. It had been a long, long time since she had listened to him. I wonder if Nick's listening to him? she thought.

Natalie was spooked by the way he seemed to know many of her thoughts and feelings. A part of her wanted to turn him off but she found herself compelled to listen.

Nick was in his caddie, on his way home when he heard the monologue. It stirred many emotions and thoughts in him, which he wasn't prepared to deal with.

Over the next six months Natalie found that some days were better than others. Some days she felt fine and took advantage of that feeling, while on others she was tired and did only what had to be done. These were usually the day or two following a hectic two day shift, although sometimes she just felt tired because of the slowly progressing disease. She despised the fact that she never knew for sure which kind of a day it would be until she awoke. It was another daily frustration she added to her growing list. She grew more and more grateful for Nick's help around the house, as it eased some of the frustrations.

She made sure she kept up the regimen that had gotten her this far - good nutrition, exercise, proper rest and a good attitude. Some days the attitude was the hardest part, especially when she felt the extra tiredness. At other times it was the lack of sleep brought on by a serious, multiple injury accident or an active serial killer that made things difficult.

She didn't know what she would do without the thoughtful little things Nick did for her. Fixing dinner for her every night meant there was one less thing she had to think about. He would sometimes surprise her with lunch, or do something as simple as leave a single rose on her desk to show he was thinking about her. He always seemed to know when she needed a hug, or just to feel loved.

She tried to make sure he felt just as loved. She worked hard on improving the taste of the protein shake even further, trying to find the perfect formula. She would leave him little notes on his desk, sometimes nothing more than a smiley face or the three little words 'I love you' written on them. Those never failed to brighten his night and remind him that she loved him, vampire and all.

Natalie was at Dr. Banks for her latest appointment. She quickly was shown to one of the examination rooms where she changed into the paper gown. Shortly afterwards, Becky entered to draw blood, as usual. They talked while Becky worked.

Dr. Banks entered right as Becky left. Natalie underwent another complete physical as they talked. She noticed no extra concern in his features when he finished, and hoped it meant he hadn't found any problems.

"Is everything okay?" Natalie asked a little concerned.

"Outside of the blood test results, I don't see any problems."

Natalie was relieved, yet she was still apprehensive as the blood test results would reveal as much as the exam had, maybe more.

"Do you have any questions?"

"Not at the moment."

"Feel free to call me whenever you have questions."

"I will. Thanks."

Dr. Banks hated to see the mild depression in his patient's eyes as the disease slowly progressed. He wondered if it was harder being a doctor and knowing what lay ahead or if not knowing what the future held was harder.

Nick detected his wife's mild depression, her growing frustrations as her disease slowly progressed and it hurt. He knew that things would only get worse from here. He found himself wondering how long before she had her first serious illness. The fact that he would be there to care for her was a slight comfort, as was the fact that she wouldn't go through it alone.

He took her out to dinner, knowing how Chinese food often helped when she was feeling down. He hoped it worked. She felt the slight depression and some of the frustrations ease as she ate.

After dinner he took her somewhere else for dessert, surprising her with the most decadent chocolate mousse cake he could find. When she smiled, he felt the relief in his cold vampiric heart. His plan had worked.

A few days later Natalie received her latest blood test results. Since she was a doctor she was able to get them over the phone when her schedule prohibited her from going in person. A single tear ran down her cheek as she learned that her CD4 level had once again dropped and was currently just above 500. Her viral load was up as well.

She knew that the lower her T-cell level dropped and the higher her viral load was the sooner she'd come down with her first opportunistic infection. The quicker her T-cell level dropped the more serious the situation, because each larger drop meant that the disease was very quickly destroying her immune system. With less of an immune system, her viral load would rise quickly. The higher the viral load the more of the active virus there was in her body.

She saw the sadness in Nick's eyes each time she informed him of the latest results. She hated to hurt him so much.

During the year Natalie's T-cell count continued to drop due to the disease's growing activity. Her viral load went up as well, not seriously up, but up enough to concern her.

Sometimes she felt run down, that lousy feeling she always got when she had a cold or the flu, but without the other symptoms. After forty-eight hours she felt like she had gone sixty hours without sleep. She had real trouble concentrating after forty-five hours, not to mention fighting the urge to sleep.

It hurt every time she saw the growing concern in Nick's eyes. She was extremely glad he was there for her, knowing how very difficult it would be to go through this alone. She even detected a slight concern in Schanke's eyes lately. She wondered if he suspected something was wrong with her. She also noticed the same mild concern in Grace's eyes, and wondered if her friend suspected that she was infected.

The next evening Natalie didn't notice Grace enter as she was trying to get through the mountain of paperwork on her desk, so she could switch to her own research. Natalie was ignoring the aches and pains throughout her body, the kind she always got when she had the flu. She despised the fact that another symptom had shown up that morning. She had seen Nick's concern when she'd taken her temperature. She told him it was just to be on the safe side. Both were relieved when it was only slightly elevated. She knew the elevation wasn't serious enough to be of concern, but she would keep an eye on it anyway.

She remembered Nick's concern when he had noticed her slightly elevated body temperature as well as the aches and pains. He had wanted her to book off, but she refused to, stating she was fine.

"Natalie, you okay? You look tired," Grace said, concerned.

"Yeah, I'm okay. I just didn't sleep well last night."

"Or did you not sleep for other reasons?" Grace teased.

"It wasn't anything like that." She returned the tease. "Neither of us slept well last night and we don't know why."

"How are you doing?" Grace asked, slightly concerned.

"Pretty good, why?" Natalie said trying to sound like her old self.

"You seem a little down."

Wouldn't you be if your HIV had progressed and was making you feel miserable? If you didn't know what symptoms you'd get next or when. If you knew that sometime within the next year you'd come down with your first opportunistic infection. Not to mention knowing that afterwards you probably did not have more than four years to live and they would not be fun years, Natalie thought to herself.

"I'm okay." She said lightly, trying to reassure Grace.

Grace didn't believe her.

"A friend of mine is seriously ill, but improving." Natalie thought about Mary, an old college friend who was currently in the hospital battling Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.

"I'm sorry to hear that." Grace put her hand on Natalie's to comfort her.

"Natalie, you feel a little warm."

"Maybe I'm coming down with the flu that's going around. I hope not," Natalie said, hoping she was not getting sick. If she did, it would likely mean that she had progressed to AIDS. That thought terrified her. She pushed it out of her mind for the time being.

"Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and take some extra vitamin C."

"That sounds like good advice," Natalie said as she reached into her desk drawer and pulled out the bottle of Vitamin C she kept there. "Want one?"

"Sure. It can't hurt."

Natalie shook a tablet into Grace's hand and two into her own. She swallowed them, washing them down with water from the bottle on her desk.

Grace handed her the stack of files and left her to work. Grace hated the suspicion that was forming in the back of her mind and pushed it aside.

Later that evening, Schanke entered Natalie's office at the morgue. He saw that she once again looked tired. She'd been tired way too often lately.

"Natalie, you okay?" Schanke asked, concerned.

"I'm okay."

"Are you sure? You look beat."

"It's been a rough night."

"This isn't the first night I've seen you this tired."

"Schanke, I'm fine. All the overtime is catching up with me." She hoped she sounded reassuring. "I'll catch up on my sleep this weekend. I have the entire weekend off." She grinned at that thought. It had been a while since she had an entire weekend off.

"I just wanted..."

"Thanks for your concern. I DO appreciate it."

"Tell Nick, I said to let you get some sleep now and then." He teased. He loved the slight blush that crept into her cheeks.

"Schanke!" She scolded him, but there was a lightness to it.

"Do you have the Johnson report?" He asked.

"Right here."

Their hands touched briefly. He noticed her skin was slightly warm and knew that if he said anything, he'd only hear her say she was fine.

Schanke entered the precinct and headed straight for the coffee pot, dropping the file in his hand onto his desk on the way.

Nick noticed that Schanke seemed concerned and a little distracted.

"Schank, what's up?" Nick asked once his partner had returned from the coffee machine.

"Is Natalie okay?"

Nick was startled by the question and worked to prevent that from showing on his face.

"She's fine. Why?"

"She's been looking tired lately."

"She's been putting in a lot of extra hours due to the fact that the other ME's out sick with a nasty case of the flu. She's been doing his work and her work. And before that..." He was a little surprised when he was cut off mid sentence by Schanke. At least Schanke seemed to be buying that excuse, maybe it was because most of it was true.

"I get the picture. She works too hard. Or is it that you two have forgotten that a bed can be used for sleeping." Schanke paused a moment to take a sip of his coffee and enjoy Nick's reaction. He swore he saw a slight blush color his partner's cheeks.

"We do get plenty of sleep. There is time for both if you start early enough." Nick returned Schanke's tease, enjoying the fact that Schanke was startled enough to choke on his sip of coffee.

"Our hands brushed together when she handed me the Johnson file, and she seemed too warm," he said once he recovered from inhaling his coffee.

"Maybe yours hadn't fully warmed up from being outside." Nick knew it was a flimsy excuse and wondered how Natalie was able to be so convincing, even before the virus. He could tell that his partner wasn't buying it. "Maybe she's coming down with a cold or the flu." Nick hoped not. He didn't want to see her get that sick so soon.

By the time Natalie came into work the next night the fever was gone, but the aches remained. She knew she would have the fevers on and off again until her first opportunistic infection. She wished her body aches would stop.

She was pleased to see no new files on her desk and quickly finished up the three from the other night. As soon as she was caught up she started working on her own research projects. She was working on a lead that might benefit both herself and Nick.

A couple of hours before the end of her shift the phone rang.

"Lambert. Forensics."

"Hi. My name is Dee Andrews. Is this Dr. Natalie Lambert?"

"Yes."

"I'm a close friend of Mary Peters. She died last night of complications from pneumonia. She wanted all of her friends to know, you especially."

Natalie felt as though she had been punched in the stomach.

"She seemed to be improving," Natalie said, sadly.

"She was. She began to have trouble breathing, then shortly went into cardiac arrest and died. She had left DNR orders."

"Thank you for calling," Natalie said, in shock.

"Sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news."

Natalie hung up the phone, stunned. She had lost her second friend to AIDS. It tore her up inside. Somehow it hurt worse because she too was a victim of the disease. She rested her head on her arms and let the tears flow, knowing she would be unable to hold them back, if she had wanted to. All her fears of death came rushing to the foreground, terrifying her. She knew that some day her friends would get such a call.

Grace entered and saw Natalie hunched over, her arms on the desk with her head resting on them. She could tell that Natalie was crying and instantly became concerned.

"Natalie, honey, what's wrong?" Grace asked as she approached her friend, stopping in front of the desk.

Natalie wiped her face as she looked up at Grace.

"I lost an old friend. We went through college together. She was my age."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Do you want to talk about it?"

"She was sick and had been improving. Her death was very sudden and unexpected."

Grace walked over to Natalie, put her arm around her friend's shoulders and gave her a squeeze.

"When's the funeral?"

"In a few days. I will be attending."

"Why don't you go home early, get some rest, and if you don't feel like coming in tomorrow, stay home?"

"No. I need to work."

"Okay. Why don't you take a few minutes and relax before jumping back in?"

"Okay. Thanks, Grace."

Grace left to allow Natalie some time alone. Natalie walked over to the sink and splashed some cold water on her face, drying it with a paper towel. Grace reentered with a chocolate bar which she silently gave to Natalie. Natalie's thanks was the small grin she gave Grace.

Natalie leaned back in her chair while she consumed the chocolate bar and forced herself to relax.

Nick entered right after Natalie had disposed of the candy wrapper. He could still smell the remaining chocolate molecules in the air.

"Hi. Did Grace call you?"

"Yes. She thought you might need my special touch." He held out his arms, and she walked into his embrace.

He noticed the chocolate added the same interesting touch to Natalie's usual apples and cinnamon scent as it did every time she had consumed chocolate around him. The scent wasn't anything Natalie used to cover the smell of formaldehyde, but was her natural scent, the scent of her blood.

"I don't want to die. I'm scared, Nick."

He held onto her. "Shhh, it's okay. Everyone gets scared. I don't want you to die. I too, get scared sometimes. We'll get through this together. Okay?"

"Okay. Thanks. I don't know what I'd do without you." She was amazed how his presence had such a calming effect on her.

He too was amazed how easily she relaxed in his arms, how his touch was so soothing to her. She had the same effect on him, even in his worst times. He remembered several times where her voice was the only thing that calmed the raging beast within. What did I do to deserve her?

A few minutes later Grace entered and found Natalie seated at her desk looking much better, with Nick seated on the corner of the desk. They were talking about the phone call which had started her tears.

Grace was still amazed at the power they had over the other, it was like nothing she'd ever seen before. She hoped to find a love that deep, someday.

"Natalie, honey, are you okay?"

"I'm okay. Thanks." Natalie sounded more cheerful, reassuring Grace that she was okay.

Three days later, Natalie attended the funeral. All of Mary's friends from college, work and life in general were there, a few of whom Natalie knew. Natalie knew that Bonnie had been HIV positive for ten years and wondered if she was still symptom free. Bonnie was another old college friend of both Mary's and Natalie's.

Natalie wished Nick had accompanied her, knowing that his vampirism prevented it.

Bonnie spotted Natalie and approached her. Natalie wondered if Bonnie would be able to tell that she was infected as well. The two friends embraced.

"Natalie, I'm glad you could come. Mary would be pleased."

"I had to come. How are you doing?"

"I'm doing okay. You look tired."

"I am a little tired. My work keeps me pretty busy."

"How's married life?" Bonnie asked.

"It's great. I don't even mind the little disagreements."

"I bet making up is the best part," Bonnie teased.

"He's good at that," Natalie said returning the tease. "How can you stay mad at someone who knowingly gives you their best lost little boy look. He's so cute when he does that."

"You've got it bad. I'm glad. I've never seen a couple who belonged together more than you do. I guess it's true, opposites attract."

Natalie found Bonnie's statements amusing, but couldn't respond. I don't think you can get more opposite than a vampire and a mortal.

"You okay? You look a little pale."

"I work nights so I don't get out into the sun much. I'm okay."

"And you're too busy during the day," Bonnie teased, loving the blush which crept across Natalie's cheeks.

Bonnie knew that something was different. She hadn't seen Natalie since the wedding due their demanding careers

How's the job going? You still the Medical Examiner?"

"Yes. It's going well. I still enjoy solving puzzles. How's work?"

"You didn't hear, did you? I switched careers. I was burned out on the legal system and started a craft shop. I sell my pottery and make a good living at it, too."

"That sounds like a lot of fun. I should do something like that, but I enjoy my work too much. I have been trying to curb my workaholic tendencies for the last five or six years."

Bonnie feigned surprise upon hearing Natalie talk about curbing her workaholic tendencies, making Natalie grin in response.

"I even learned to ride a Harley," Natalie said with a wicked smile.

"Somehow I'm not surprised. I knew there was a wild streak in you. Next you'll be telling me you learned to bungee jump." Bonnie saw the twinkle in Natalie's eyes. "You didn't?"

"I did...twice. It was fun, but a bit scary. Nick didn't enjoy it, so I had to solo the second time. You're the first one not to be surprised I'd taken up biking."

Bonnie closely examined her friend, trying to put her finger on the difference while Natalie examined Bonnie with her critical doctor's eye for any signs that her disease had progressed, and found none.

"I'm still one of the long-term survivors. No symptoms yet."

Natalie was a little jealous and angry. Why is she still asymptomatic while I've moved on? She's had it longer than me, Natalie thought.

"Natalie, are you infected with it, too?" Bonnie asked, hoping she was wrong. She recognized the look of jealousy and anger in her friend's eyes.

Sadly Natalie nodded. "Yes." She went into the story of her rape and her battle with HIV so far.

"I'm so sorry." Bonnie gave Natalie a hug of support. "Are you going to tell anyone?"

"No. I want to be remembered for what I did, not because of this."

"I understand. How's Nick handling it?" Bonnie asked. "Does anyone else know?"

"He's been great. I don't know what I'd do without him." Natalie said, her love for Nick shining like a beacon. "A friend of Nick and mine knows. He talks with her when he needs someone to talk to."

"How's that spunky teen who was at your wedding? I think her name was Katie."

"She died several months after the wedding." Natalie saw the unasked question in Bonnie's eyes. "Yes, she died from AIDS. She knew."

"That's too bad. She was really sweet."

"She was. She taught me so much about living for now and not worrying about the future," Natalie said as a bittersweet smile crossed her face.

"I'm available any time you need someone to talk to."

"Thanks. If you need anyone to talk to, I'm here."

A few weeks later, Natalie again had a fever but no illness and was grateful. She had accepted the symptoms as an annoying part of her life and tried to keep them from interfering with life as best she could. The tiredness was the hardest one to deal with. That seemed to be a constant factor these days. How tired she was depended on how busy work had been, if she'd pulled a double shift, and her stress level. The next most difficult symptom to deal with was the aches and pains.

Nick's concern grew every time a new symptom appeared, or the fevers returned. He knew most of the fevers were harmless, but worried about the day when it meant she had come down with her first opportunistic infection.

Natalie was dressing for work and slipped into her skirt, noticing how it seemed to be a little loose. It didn't fit as snugly as it usually did, leaving her wondering if it was a new symptom or just natural weight loss from being busier lately.

Great, she thought, less than pleased, knowing it most likely was a new symptom she'd have to contend with.

Nick noticed, but didn't say anything, not wanting to further upset her. He knew another symptom had appeared, this one much more serious than the others. He also knew that this one might reveal her secret, if she lost enough weight.

Natalie decided to increase her food intake, mostly in the proteins and carbohydrates along with some fats and sugars to see if she could slow down the weight loss, not knowing if it would work.

Natalie entered her office and was pleased to find no work piled up. As soon as she sat down to plan out her evening Grace entered with a handful of files.

"So much for a peaceful evening," Natalie said.

Grace's hand brushed against Natalie's during the file transfer.

"You okay? You seem a little warm."

"I'm okay."

"You know, several staff members are out with colds and flues."

"I heard. I hope I'm not coming down with anything," Natalie said, hating how good she had become with the cover stories. She realized that many of them were actually just variations of the truth, which made her feel better as she wasn't lying to her friends, just twisting the truth a little.

Grace returned around lunch time to bring Natalie a few more files and saw the huge lunch her friend was consuming.

"What happened to the health kick?"

"I decided to splurge today. I had a craving for a chocolate milkshake and fries. The chicken salad is nutritious, the shake is too, for the most part" Natalie said, defending her new diet.

"How was the walk?"

"Pretty good. Today it was skating." Natalie found it harder to exercise these days due to her chronic tiredness. She forced herself to, knowing it was a big part of the formula that had kept her healthy over seven years. She did whatever form of exercise appealed to her each day, be it swimming, inline skating, mountain climbing, or just walking. The nasty weather frustrated her as it forced her to use a treadmill for her walks, it was so boring. She knew she could do aerobics, but would rather do just about anything instead.

Over the next week, Natalie's concern grew as she noticed a little more room in the waistline of her clothing, knowing it would only get worse from this point on. She knew how thin she could get and did not want to look like a famine victim. She knew that the thinner she became, the more Nick would worry about her. A part of her was concerned that this symptom could reveal her disease, or make her friends and coworkers think she was anorexic. Or possibly think she had cancer. She wasn't sure which was worse.

Natalie drank at least two of those supplemental meals in a can during the day, in between meals. She also ate candy bars, chips, anything she could think of, to put on weight, or more likely, to slow down the weight loss. Nothing seemed to work. She ate the high calorie, high protein, high fat dinners and breakfasts Nick made her knowing what she was trying to accomplish. He too didn't want to see her become emaciated.

She found it incredibly ironic that before the diagnosis she had thought about trying to lose a few pounds, now she wished she'd gain weight.

By the end of the next week, she switched to her pants and jacket outfits because she could use a belt to hold up her pants, and the blazers helped camouflage the weight loss she knew would be noticeable soon. Some nights she added a vest, for variety and camouflage, surprised by how well they worked.

Nick tried to reassure her that she looked fine, which helped some, even though she knew that he wasn't going to be completely honest with her as he didn't want to hurt her feelings. She saw the truth in his eyes, hating the pain and worry she saw there.

That evening, Grace noticed the change in her friend and knew she had to say something. "Natalie, have you lost weight?"

"A few pounds," Natalie said, trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice.

"You look good."

"Thanks."

"What diet did you use?"

"I don't remember the name. You know I don't believe in diets. A friend insisted I try it," Natalie said, unable to come up with a credible diet because she had never dieted. If only she knew. The only fatal diet, Natalie thought.

"What does Nick think of your weight loss?"

"He thinks I was fine just the way I was, but hasn't said anything but nice things about it." Natalie knew she couldn't say the truth, that her continued weight loss hurt him as it was an indicator of her failing health. A look at all the bad things to come.

"Smart man," Grace grinned.

Natalie once again increased her intake of all the basic food groups, but nothing helped. She didn't really believe anything would help, but she had to try. She was grateful for the nutritional supplements, especially since they looked like chocolate milk she could consume as many as she needed to without anyone growing suspicious, she hoped. She had switched to the enhanced ones because they offered more of everything than the regular ones did.

Shortly after Natalie arrived home, her doorbell rang. She stopped her videotape, and headed for the door. She looked out the peephole and saw a delivery person decked out in a white tuxedo.

"Mr. Knight sent me."

Natalie opened the door, allowing the guy in.

"Where would you like this set up?"

"The coffee table is fine," Natalie said, staying where she could easily escape, if necessary.

The guy spread a navy blue tablecloth over her coffee table, being careful in moving her books and equipment controls. Once that had been done he transferred the various dishes from the cart, uncovering them as he went.

"Enjoy. Will two hours be long enough, or do you wish longer?"

"Two hours will be fine."

He let himself out. Natalie locked her door before sitting down to enjoy the quite lavish meal. She restarted her movie and hungrily devoured her dinner, starting with the twelve ounce prime rib, cooked to a perfect medium rare. The large baked potato was swimming with melted butter and the string beans were at the peak of freshness. She eagerly eyed the sinful looking moist chocolate mousse cake topped with whipped cream and dark chocolate curls. Showing quite a bit of willpower she saved the cake for last, when she could thoroughly enjoy every bite.

Every bite was delicious, and just what she needed. Before too long the only remaining item was the cake. She took her first bite, savoring the taste. It was heavenly, and possibly the best chocolate mousse cake she'd ever tasted. She had a little trouble finishing off the last couple bites of cake, but it was too wonderful to let it go to waste.

The delivery person arrived right on time and took all the dirty dishes with him. She loved the fact that there wasn't a single dish to clean. Once he left, Natalie took her medication and crashed. She missed Nick. He had needed to talk to Janette last night, while she worked. She understood, knowing how hard all this was on him. He had insisted on staying away from home during the day to give her some time for herself, sensing that she needed it.

Around the middle of the afternoon Natalie awoke feeling chilly, quickly realizing it was because she was soaking wet. She couldn't remember ever sweating that much, which scared her. She knew it was another symptom to contend with, another reminder that the disease was progressing.

Just what I need, another problem to deal with, she thought sarcastically. Another addition to her daily frustration list.

She reluctantly got up, stripped off her wet sleepwear, dried herself off, changed into something warm and dry, and started back to bed, only to find her sheets were wet as well. She was not in the mood to change sheets, so she pulled them off the bed, grabbed her pillow and headed for the guest room. The first one's bed wasn't made so she headed for the next one. She was pleased to see that the bed was made and sleepily crawled under the covers. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Her alarm clock went off about three hours later. Nick entered about ninety minutes after that and was surprised to hear her heartbeat. From the steady heartbeat and her slow regular breathing he knew she was still asleep, and late for work. Fear began to grip him. Was something wrong?

He walked into their bedroom surprised to find it empty and her sheets in a heap on the floor. He immediately noticed her pillow was missing. He hadn't seen her on the couch so he checked the first guest room and upon finding it empty he checked other guest room. He approached his sleeping beauty and gently caressed her cheek. She doesn't feel any warmer.

He saw her slowly waking.

"Hi," she said with a smile. As her eyes focused she saw him dressed and began to panic, which quickly increased when she saw the time. "Oh no! I'm late."

"Are you feeling okay?" He asked concerned. It wasn't like her to oversleep.

"I'm okay. I didn't hear my alarm clock." She saw the concern in his eyes. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm sleeping here, eh?"

"Yes."

"Another symptom showed up last night. I woke up soaking wet this afternoon and was too tired to put new sheets on the bed so I crashed here after changing clothes. It's the only other room with sheets on the bed."

"You could've slept in my bed."

"I know. I didn't want to get your bed wet as well."

"Why don't you get ready for work and I'll drop you by on my way into the precinct. Okay?"

"Okay."

They saw the sadness reflected in the other's eyes. They knew that each new symptom meant that her health would only get worse from then on. They both wondered how long until she had her first serious illness.

"You'd better get a move on or you'll be even later," he said lightly as he gave her a quick kiss on the lips.

She took her medication before stepping into the shower in their bedroom.

She stared at her closet trying to find something to wear. It was getting harder to find clothes that fit. She added yet another thing to her daily frustration list, hating how quickly it was growing these days, knowing it would be growing even faster if she didn't have Nick there. She put on another jacket and pants outfit, fastening the belt one notch tighter. She threw a vest on as well, as they seemed to hide her thinness better than just the jacket and pants did. She knew she would have to spend her next day off at the mall.

Nick forced Natalie to have something to eat, even if they picked it up on the way in. She knew he was right, so they stopped at the drive through window of her favorite fast food place, where Natalie ordered breakfast for two. Before long, Nick kissed Natalie right before she hopped out of the car. Natalie entered the Coroner's office and headed for her office, hoping that no one would notice she was two and a half hours late.

"Good evening," Grace said as she saw Natalie near her office. Grace's suspicions were growing stronger, and she hated what they were telling her. She wondered if Nick knew, especially since they were now husband and wife. She figured that he most likely did as he was Natalie's main confidant during her recovery from the rape. If it was true, and if Nick did know then maybe they weren't sleeping together. That was too depressing a thought so she shoved it into the mental trash can.

"Sorry. My alarm clock didn't go off and Nick was out." She saw the concern on Grace's face and the temporarily glazed eyes. Does she know? flickered in Natalie's mind.

"You've lost more weight. You look good, but it's almost too much. I hope you're not planning on losing much more."

"Thanks. I'm not planning on it," Natalie said, knowing that she most likely would whether or not she wanted to. She knew she would have to consume more than the two extra strength nutritional supplements she drank during her shift, not to mention boosting her meals and snacks as well.

Natalie set the takeout bag down on her desk and quickly had it unpacked. She had planned to consume both meals, "Grace, care to join me?" She knew that it would look odd for her to eat them both herself, especially if Grace had the suspicions Natalie suspected she might.

"Sure. Thanks."

Natalie worked overtime to make up for being late. It bothered her that she had been so busy she did not have time for either research project. With time growing shorter, every moment was important. She did not want to let Nick down.

When Nick returned home after his shift he threw her sheets into the washer so that they'd be done by the time she returned. As soon as they went into the dryer he threw the set from the guest room into the washer. When her sheets were done he made her bed for her.

He was in the kitchen fixing her dinner when she finally arrived home. When he saw the lift door open he approached his wife. She saw the increasing concern on his features, but mostly in his eyes and hated to cause him more pain, but at the same time she felt so grateful that he was there every morning when she came home.

He wrapped his arms around her, feeling hers willingly wrapping around him. They briefly kissed, before the vampire threatened to show itself. He wanted her to have as normal a marriage as was possible with both their conditions interfering.

"Nat, I'm concerned about you. You're dropping too much weight too fast."

"I know. I don't mean to. I'm doing everything I can to try and stall it, or regain some of it."

"I know." Nick didn't mean to make her feel bad about something she had no control over, knowing She felt badly enough as it were. "Dinner's just about ready. I'm trying something new tonight. I'm not going to tell you anymore, until you taste it."

"It smells great. Is this your own creation?" A slight teasing tone had crept into her voice.

"Yes." He grinned, hoping it turned out okay.

"I can't believe what a great chef you've turned into, especially since you can't eat."

"I keep surprising myself. Part of it is the great feedback I receive." Nick headed back to the kitchen to check on dinner, pleased to see it had finished. "Where would you like to eat?"

"How about we watch something funny while we eat?"

"That's fine with me. Why don't you pick something out while I finish up here."

Natalie picked out one of her favorite movies, knowing Nick was going to hate it, at least until he relaxed.

Nick brought over their plates and noticed the movie. "Don't you ever get tired of that one?"

"Nah. It's fun. You even enjoy it, once you relax," she teased.

"I know. I still can't believe they wrote a movie about a tan vampire. No self respecting vampire would dress or act like that," Nick protested, lightheartedly.

"That's probably part of what makes it so funny, at least to me."

"Same here."

Natalie sat on the floor so she could use the coffee table as a dining table, and leaned back against the couch for support. Nick had learned to join her, because she usually knew what she was doing.

She saw that he was eagerly, and a bit anxiously awaiting her commentary on his latest effort, picked up the first bite. A smile quickly spread across her lips. "This is delicious. I don't think I've ever tasted anything like it."

"I'm glad you like it. I was looking at a Hawaiian cookbook and thought I could blend together that, Polynesian, and Oriental. I wasn't sure it would work out."

"I hope you either wrote down the recipe, or have it stored in that perfect vampiric memory."

"I wrote it down, just to be on the safe side."

He was pleased as she quickly devoured her dinner as they enjoyed the movie.

Shortly after the movie finished she helped Nick clean up the kitchen, ignoring his protests, stating that it was only fair. By the time they finished she was yawning and decided it was time for bed. She could tell that Nick was tired as well. They soon fell asleep in their own beds and slept through the day without any problems.

The next evening Nick made sure she was up on time. While she showered he fixed her a big breakfast. They ate and left for work right on time.

With all the extra food she was consuming she thought she would explode. She was up to four extra strength nutritional supplements, as well as a few more between meal snacks.

Late the next afternoon he awoke and saw that she was still asleep. He was careful not to disturb her, knowing how much she needed the rest. He was glad they both had the night off.

She came downstairs about an hour later, dressed in her pajamas, thick pink terry robe and slippers. While Nick fixed her breakfast she told him of her plans to go to the mall. He offered to accompany her, pleased when she smiled, liking the idea.

Before long they arrived at the mall. Nick stayed in the background as Natalie looked over the available selection. She reminded herself to stay at the less expensive end because she would most likely be replacing them with smaller sizes in a couple of weeks. She was surprised to learn she had dropped two dress sizes, and wondered how many more she'd lose before her weight stabilized. She picked out styles that were slightly different than her current wardrobe, hoping it would take some of the attention away from the weight loss. And if she was really lucky, it might even make her look several pounds heavier.

Nick gave his opinion when asked. It was something that scared him more than the sun or stakes did. He didn't want to accidentally say the wrong thing and hurt her.

It took her two stores before she found clothing that she liked, at prices she was willing to pay. She had her purchases rung up and was reaching for her wallet when Nick handed his credit card to the sales clerk. Natalie didn't object, knowing Nick was trying to do what he could to help. She didn't really mind as it was one less bill she'd have to pay.

On their way to the car he reminded her that everything he had was hers, if she wanted it.

Two afternoons later, Natalie again woke up soaked and chilled from her night sweats, growing more annoyed each time. All it did was make extra work for them, which was the last thing they needed. She was tired enough these days and was increasingly grateful for Nick's taking over almost all of the housework. He did the extra laundry without complaint.

Nick heard her grumbling as she headed for the shower.

After her shower, she put on one of her new outfits and checked out how she looked in the full length mirror. She was pleased to see that her face had not lost as much weight as the rest of her had. She had actually begun to avoid the mirror until she was dressed, hating how it showed her weight losses so clearly.

Nick hurt each time he noticed she'd lost more weight. He felt it each time he wrapped his arms around his beautiful wife. He knew it meant that she would only grow sicker as time went on. He wondered how long before she had her first opportunistic infection, and knew she often wondered the same thing. He saw the fears she tried to keep hidden, even though they showed in her eyes, at least to him they did. He was sure she saw his fears, even though he tried to keep them buried when around her.

Natalie arrived at work and ran into Grace, who looked her over, noticing the changes. She was pretty sure Natalie was infected with HIV, but didn't know how to ask her. She didn't want to ask Nick, in case Natalie hadn't told him. She hoped they were being careful as not to infect Nick.

"Natalie, I'm a little concerned. You're getting a little too skinny. I like the new outfit."

"I think it's partially the outfit," Natalie lied. She knew she would be making another trip to the mall to try again. She had to find something that would camouflage the thirty pounds she had lost over the last three weeks. "I'll be careful. Don't worry, I know better than to get into the anorexia trap. My diet just dropped the weight a little faster than I expected."

"Since when do you diet?" Grace asked, playing along. She didn't want to come right out and ask Natalie if she was infected. She knew that if she asked Natalie too many questions she would become defensive, clam up and claim she was fine. At least this way she had a chance of finding out some information.

"It's not really a diet. I'm trying a new eating plan. I don't believe in diets, remember?"

The next afternoon Natalie had showered and was beginning to dress when tears began to pour down her cheeks. She sat down on the end of her bed and let herself cry, knowing that she couldn't stop the tears if she wanted to. She knew the reason behind the tears and once again cursed Collins and the disease.

She had tried to deny the fact that the major weight loss mixed with the intermittent fevers was one of the AIDS defining illnesses, but could no longer. She had to face the fact that she now had AIDS. She thought she wouldn't have to face that fact until her first opportunistic infection and was grateful that she had yet to have her first serious illness. She hoped it wouldn't occur for months or years, even though she suspected it would be months rather than years.

When she had cried herself out she wiped her face on her terrycloth robe and headed to the guest bathroom to splash cold water on her face. She knew how concerned Nick would become when he saw that she'd been crying, especially since he would soon come to the same conclusion as she had. All he had learned about her disease, could only lead him to the same conclusion she'd reached. She loved how he'd read about her disease so he could be there for her, and understand what was happening to her, and what could happen to her as the disease progressed. Also, she did not want to arrive at work with puffy eyes and a red nose. Not only would Grace want to know why, but Schanke would also.

At the same time, Nick was showering when thoughts of Natalie came to mind. He smiled before his vampiric memory brought up her recent weight loss, fevers and the medical reason. A few bloody tears streaked down his face as he let the shower wash them away. He couldn't believe or accept that she now had AIDS. He thought that he wouldn't have to face that until she had her first opportunistic infection.

Natalie arrived at work on time and changed into her scrubs and gown first thing, knowing she had autopsies to perform. She also wanted to get changed before too many people came onshift, not wanting anyone to see how thin she truly was. She didn't want to have to answer questions about her possibly having an eating disorder like Anorexia. She knew that with the symptoms she was displaying could be mistaken for a Cancer patient and didn't know if that was better than her true illness or not. She knew Grace would give her the third degree, but it would be done out of love and concern. Also the busier she stayed the less time she'd have to dwell on that afternoon's truth.

Grace saw her enter the office, noticing the deep sadness hidden deep within her eyes. She knew that she couldn't ask about it without getting the standard "I'm fine," or some other story. Grace hated how her suspicions were practically screaming at her, forcing her to work harder to ignore them. She wasn't ready to face the fact that her best friend had HIV and possibly AIDS.

"You do look better today. I would keep an eye on the weight loss though." Grace knew she had to comment, both out of concern and to hide her suspicions.

"I will. Thanks." Natalie waited for Grace to leave before heading for the mirror in the ladies room. She realized that her scrubs and gown made her look heavier and decided to wear them as much as she could.

Schanke again grew concerned as he had noticed the weight loss. He'd seen her eat and knew that she should not be losing so much weight. He had been debating whether or not he should say something to Natalie about it. He wished Nick had not insisted on accompanying him when he went out.

The two detectives entered Natalie's office just in time to see her finishing up an autopsy. Schanke noticed that Natalie looked heavier and was beginning to doubt himself.

"Hi, guys. I'll be right with you." Natalie finished up her autopsy and stripped off her latex gloves. "What can I do for you?"

"We stopped by for the Weston report," Nick said.

"Natalie, you look good lately. I'm concerned you might be taking the weight loss a little too far," Schanke said, his nervousness coming through in his voice.

"Thanks, Schank. I'm being careful. The pounds dropped off quicker than I expected. I'm trying to add a few back. Okay?"

"Yeah. I just don't want to see you hurt yourself."

"I do appreciate your concern."

Later when they were in the Caddy, Schanke nervously asked Nick. "Is everything okay with Natalie? She's too skinny. She's losing weight much too fast."

"You heard her. Do you think I'd let her do anything that would hurt her?" Nick said hoping he'd be able to convince his partner that there wasn't anything wrong with Natalie. "Her friend insisted she try this new way of eating. It was supposed to make her feel like a kid again. Instead she lost more weight than she expected. It happened rather quickly."

"I hope Natalie's stopped the diet." Schanke's concern came through clearly.

"She did. This is just the remaining effects of it. I think it was the heavy activity combined with the new way of eating that caused the pounds to drop off faster than we expected."

"She looks like she's lost twenty, maybe twenty-five or so pounds."

"Nah, I'd say no more than fifteen," Nick lied. He knew she'd lost just over thirty pounds.

"Are you sure? It seems like more than that." Schanke wasn't fully convinced.

"I'm sure. Remember, I see a lot more of her and would know if she'd lost as much as you suggest." Nick hoped that would convince Schanke that Natalie was fine.

"Okay. I guess you're right," Schanke said with a sly grin. "You sure do see more of her, partner."

At the precinct, Cohen approached Schanke's desk, while Nick was out. Schanke looked up from his paperwork.

"Schanke, is Natalie okay?" Cohen asked concerned.

"Yeah. A friend convinced her to try some new eating plan that was supposed to make her feel like a kid again. They told me it was the new eating plan combined with her heavy work load that caused the weight to drop off much faster than she expected. "

"Do you believe it?" Cohen hoped Natalie wasn't getting caught in an eating disorder. She believed Natalie was too smart for that. Or that she didn't have something more serious like Cancer.

"Yeah. Besides, Nick wouldn't let her do anything to hurt herself," Schanke said, believing it for the most part. There was a tiny doubt in his mind. Also, a tiny suspicion. "She's too smart to get caught up in the Anorexia trap."

Later that week, Natalie was pleased that the weight loss seemed to have halted. She couldn't believe she'd lost thirty-nine pounds, yet she knew it was true. She saw the relief in Nick's eyes as her weight finally stabilized, and knew he saw the same in hers.

It had taken a few tries before she had the right combination where her wardrobe looked professional and made her look heavier. She could tell when she had succeeded as no one voiced concern over her thinness. She was pleased to see that the scrubs and gown still made her look heavier. Nick's reassurances were a major confidence booster as he had promised not to lie about how she looked, when asked, even if it wasn't what she wanted to hear.

Her face showed quite a bit of the change, but no where near as much a her body did. She was grateful that the shower fogged the bathroom mirror so she did not have to face her too thin body every afternoon.

She moved the full length mirror from her closet so she would not have to look at herself until after she was dressed. Seeing herself so skinny depressed her as it was only the latest, continual reminder of her failing health, and an unwanted reminder at that.

Nick frequently saw her in her towel, his heart breaking at the extent of the weight loss. It was as clearly evident when he'd see her in her robe. He felt it every time he wrapped his arms around her.

Natalie knew how hard this was on him, which made her even more grateful for his loving support. He did not withdraw from her but made sure she felt even more loved, knowing that the weight loss made her feel more self-conscious about her appearance.

She still tried to eat more to build back her weight, believing that the extra calories she had taken in had helped keep her from looking emaciated. She had been up to four nutritional supplements along with many snacks and her four calorie intense meals a day. Nick had sought out the meals that were the absolute worst for those watching their weight and cooked them for her hoping they'd help. He made her double portions of dinner, putting away any leftovers for a snack.

Natalie remembered how Mary had been on the border of looking emaciated before her last illness. Mary had been nothing more than skin and bones. It terrified Natalie. She did not want to look like a famine victim. She wondered how long it would be before she was terminally ill.

Natalie awoke naturally, enjoying the fact that it was her night off. Nick sensed she was depressed, fixed her a special breakfast, slipped her favorite comedy into the VCR and cuddled up next to her as she ate. They quickly found themselves laughing, both feeling better by the time the tape was over. Natalie stuck in another comedy, knowing laughter helped the body fight invaders as well as making her feel better psychologically.

Nick did all the laundry, including the extra caused by her night sweats. He wouldn't let her think about doing it. Her appreciation blazed in her eyes along with her love for him.

She missed doing crazy things, but couldn't think of a single thing she wanted to try. He was glad she had finally settled down. He had been terrified that she'd accidentally hurt herself during one of her adventures.

The next afternoon she and Myra went climbing again.

Two afternoons later, Natalie heard of a new store which sold nothing but leather and sexy lingerie. She showered and headed out, glad Nick was still asleep and couldn't follow her. She left him a note so he wouldn't worry.

She wore a white button up shirt, the long leather jacket Nick had given her, jeans and black, mid calf leather boots so that she would blend in better, wishing she had the energy to ride her Harley. She let her hair hang loose around her shoulders.

Maybe he'll get a nice surprise tonight, the devilish thought crossed her mind as she entered the shop.

The inside of the store was quite a sight. Natalie hadn't seen anything like it since a case she and Nick had been assigned to years ago. She had to admit that this store was more tastefully decorated than that one had been. She ignored the curious looks from the store personnel.

They wondered if the disgustingly slim woman had new diet secrets, an eating disorder or something like cancer.

Natalie looked through the displays, finding a few things she liked. She also noticed the jealous looks from a few of the salesgirls, due mostly to her thinness. They wouldn't be so jealous, if they knew why, she thought. They probably wouldn't want to help me if they knew.

She finally decided on a few lingerie items, nothing too scandalous but things that weren't her usual style, yet was daring enough that it would raise the eyebrows of both Nick and Grace. It was more daring than the black silk teddy Grace and her coworkers had given her for her birthday years ago, and as daring as some of the gifts she'd received during her bridal shower. She knew Nick would get a great deal of pleasure teasing her when he found out. She was still debating whether or not she was going show it to him tonight or wait until a special occasion.

The next Monday she entered the doctor's office for her latest appointment, hating how they were more often these days. She filled out the necessary paperwork before entering the exam room, where she changed into the thin paper gown and sat on the exam table, her swinging legs betraying her nervousness.

Becky took the usual blood samples while talking with Natalie.

Dr. Banks entered and was concerned with how skinny she was. He quickly hid such feelings, knowing they would only worry her. He knew how hard she had been trying to minimize the weight loss, and regain what she'd lost.

"Natalie, how are you doing?" Dr. Banks asked, cheerily.

"Okay. It's becoming tougher to act like nothing's wrong. I don't know what I'd do without Nick." Natalie's gratitude for Nick's support came through clearly. "It's been hard to cover the weight loss. I had to do a lot of quick thinking. I'm sure a few of my coworkers think I'm anorexic. Luckily, none of them have seen me change. I did discover that my scrubs and gown make me look heavier. I think I finally fixed my wardrobe so I look heavier. The night sweats are a royal pain. Nick's a big help there by keeping up with the extra laundry they produce."

"How are the fevers? The aches and pains?"

"They come and go. I usually pretend that I might be coming down with a cold or the flu whenever anyone notices that I feel warm to the touch. The body aches can be annoying but they haven't been any worse than anything I've felt during the flu."

"Do you have any other symptoms or complaints?" He could see how hard the realization that she had AIDS had hit her. It was never an easy thing to accept. He admired how well she seemed to have accepted it.

"No. How soon will I come down with my first opportunistic infection?" She asked concerned.

"No one knows. I would guess sometime within the next year." He answered as honestly as he could.

He motioned towards the scale, which Natalie reluctantly stepped onto, so her weight could be tracked. She was pleased to see that she had not lost any more weight since her last check up two weeks ago. She had gained two pounds which brought her weight up to 102, which was way too skinny for her five foot six inch frame.

He found no congestion in her lungs and no other signs that her condition had worsened. The blood test would tell if her T-Cells had taken another drop. Each drop was bad news because it meant that her immune system was that much weaker. The weaker it became the easier it would be for opportunistic infections to take hold, the same infections that would eventually kill her. He knew the blood test would also tell if her viral load was up. Each rise meant that there was that much more of the disease attacking her body.

Natalie picked up her prescription refills while running a few other errands. It was a bit out of the way, but it gave her a chance to shop at stores she didn't usually have a chance to get to. Every time she paid for her prescriptions she was grateful for Canada's healthcare system. It might not be perfect, but it kept her from going broke. The medication, doctors visits, and bloodwork would otherwise eat away a major chunk of her paycheck. She didn't know how people did it without the subsidization.

Two days later, Natalie was in a bad mood, having just received her latest blood test results. Her T-Cell count had dropped. The drop was small, leaving her T-Cell level about 450. She and Nick were relieved it was not a major drop. Her viral load was up, which was more bad news. They knew her time would grow shorter very soon. She was terrified that she would not able to fulfill her promise to Nick.

Natalie found herself snapping at people then apologizing a lot during the next few days. She knew that her anger over the latest developments in her life were to blame, and that taking it out on her friends and coworkers was not the answer. Nick often bore the brunt of it. She felt badly for taking it out on him as he was usually the closest person. Nick accepted it, knowing that she had to take her frustrations out on someone, and he was probably the safest one.

Nick arrived home one night shortly before sunrise and one look at his wife told him that she was *not* in a good mood.

"Nat, what's wrong?" He asked, concerned.

"What's wrong?!" She angrily said. "I'm going to die in a few years. That's what's wrong. It's going to be slow, painful and very unpleasant."

"Nat, how do you know you won't go on for years as you are now?" Nick knew the chances of that were pretty slim.

"You know better than that. Then again what does it matter. You'll go on as you have for 763 years. I'll just be another painful memory," she said, a mixture of angrily, bitterly and sarcastically.

"Nat, you know it matters." He said in his concerned, soothing tone.

"Do I matter enough to you, that you would bring me across?"

"We've already discussed this. I don't know if I can. I don't want to condemn you to my hell. You matter to me more than anyone has in centuries." He hoped she knew that this was as hard for him, as it was for her, at least emotionally.

"Well you sure have a funny way of showing it."

"Nat, that's not fair. Usually when things get tough I move on. I didn't do that this time. I stayed here with you." He pointed out, in his own defense.

"I know. I'm sorry." She realized that once again she wound up taking her frustrations out on him, which wasn't fair to him.

"It's okay. I understand." He approached her and took her in his arms.

Being in his arms felt so good. After a while she broke contact with him.

"I need to do something physical. Maybe it will help." She said, hopefully.

"Name it and we'll do it." He said, lightly. He wished he could do more for her, without bringing her across. He knew neither of them were ready for that step.

"Dancing at the Raven. You'll be there to keep an eye on me. So will Janette."

"Okay." He wasn't thrilled about her choice, but she was right, they would look out for her. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"

"Yeah, but a girl can never hear that enough," she said as their foreheads met.

Before Natalie knew it she felt his cool lips touching her warmer ones. She returned the kiss needing this to show her that everything was okay, or at least as okay as it could be under the circumstances.

Before long Nick and Natalie entered the Raven. Janette spotted them, surprised that Nick would bring her here for a social reason. She suspected it had been Natalie's idea. As she noticed Natalie's thinness a slight sadness crept through her. She did not want to see Natalie suffer as the disease progressed, and wondered why they were so determined that Natalie not be brought across. She did admire Natalie's courage and strength.

Janette headed for them. Once she reached their table they had a pleasant conversation, until bar business required Janette's attention.

As soon as Janette left Natalie pulled Nick onto the dance floor with her. They were quite a sight on the dance floor, both quite good. When they danced there was an electricity between them.

Nick could see the anger and frustration draining from Natalie as she danced.

They danced the night away, taking momentary breaks when she needed to rest for a few minutes before continuing. Janette made sure their table always had something appropriate for each to drink when they were thirsty. Natalie awoke the next afternoon feeling frustrated and angry. She thought she'd released it all the night before. She knew she had to do something about it before she accidentally drove everyone away from her, especially her husband. Losing all her friends was the one thing she feared more than the disease, outside of being unable to find Nick's cure in time. She was beginning to feel like she was the only one to have the disease, even though she knew that way too many people were infected as well. Somehow Nick wasn't able to be as comforting as he used to be. He was still a great comfort, but he didn't have the disease. A fact she was grateful for. After she showered and dressed she made a phone call. "Dr. Banks' office." "Hi. This is Natalie Lambert. Is he in?" "Yes. Would you like me to put you through?" "Please." She was put on hold as the call was transferred. Before long she heard a familiar male voice. "Natalie, is something wrong?" "Yes, but it's nothing medical." She wanted to alleviate his concern. "I'm glad to hear that. What can I do for you?" "I need to talk to someone. I blew up at Nick for no good reason the other day. I've been short tempered with everyone lately. I don't want to talk to a counselor." "Would you like me to give you the names of a few support groups?" "Thanks." He read off the locations of several groups and the times they met. She asked him for support group information for family and friends of the sick one. He read off several more locations and times. She again thanked him and hung up. Nick came down the stairs fresh from his shower and saw her fixing breakfast. She handed him a glass of his usual beverage while she had a plate full of scrambled eggs with cream cheese and bacon. A good look at her face showed him that the frustration was back along with the anger, but there was something else there as well. "I'm sorry for blowing up at you yesterday. It made me think about a few things," she said. "You don't need to apologize again. I accepted the one you gave me yesterday." He hoped she'd stop beating herself up about it. He wondered if she'd been hanging around him too long and his angst and guilt were rubbing off on her. "I know. I'm thinking of joining a support group. You're a tremendous help, but there are parts of it you can't help me with." She hoped he'd understand. "I know. I think it will be good for you. You need someone who can fully understand what you're going through." "You might want to consider joining one too. I can see how much you hold back. They have groups for the family and friends." "I don't know, Nat." "I won't push. I'll leave the location and times of a few groups here on the desk and if you want to go, great. If not, okay." She laid the list on his desk. "I think your vampirism has made you understand more than other people who aren't infected would." Nick smiled, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled and rested her head against his shoulder. Every day he found himself admiring her courage and strength more and more. The next afternoon Natalie decided to try the group listed in the town where she had her prescriptions filled. She spent a good part of the thirty minute drive there trying to reassure herself that this was a good idea.

She bit her lip, nervous about going through with it. She knew how much it would help. She knew they were all like her, victims of the disease. She pulled open the main door to the building, taking a deep breath before she entered. She could feel the butterflies in her stomach as she approached the room housing the support group.

When she reached the room's door she found herself hesitating, unsure as to why. A part of her knew it was because inside were others who had the same damn disease and she wasn't sure she was ready to face them. She brushed those thoughts aside, you didn't just drive half an hour to turn back now, she reminded herself. She took a deep breath and opened the door. She slowly walked into the room, allowing the door to close behind her and saw several people seated in a circle. There were men and women there, all about her age. This fact helped her feel more comfortable as they would truly understand what she was feeling. She couldn't help wonder how sick each of them were. "Hi. Welcome. Grab a cup of coffee, a couple of cookies, and a seat," Mel said with a warm smile. His brown eyes mirrored the warmth of his smile. "Hi," Natalie said as she helped herself to coffee and a pair of chocolate chip cookies. She found an empty chair and saw the circle widen so she could fit her chair in. "My name's Mel. Anytime you want to say something or ask a question just jump in." He was pretty average, until you reached his face. There was something about it that captured her attention. He had an intensity about him, yet she sensed the playfulness of a little boy. Natalie's uncertainty did not go unnoticed, causing each member of the group to remember their first night here. "I'm Paul. I've been HIV positive for twelve years and remain asymptomatic. I contracted it from a blood transfusion, back before there was massive testing." He was dark haired with brown eyes and a nice smile. He seemed to be fit and a little taller than Nick. "I'm Natalie. I've been HIV positive for seven years and have been showing symptoms for the last six months. I contracted it from the man who raped me." She couldn't believe how good it felt to tell someone. "I've recently had my first AIDS defining illness, the massive weight loss." She felt Lisa and Mel's hands rest on hers, offering their silent support. "I'm Lisa. I'm HIV positive and contracted it from my lover six years ago. I just recently learned it has progressed." Lisa was a petite redhead. She was cute, yet not overly cute. Her emerald green eyes were a nice contrast to the fiery color of her hair. "Natalie, how do you feel about having AIDS?" Ray asked. "By the way I have AIDS. I was HIV positive for eleven years before the symptoms started. Two years later I had my first opportunistic infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Six months ago I had my second opportunistic infection. I contracted it from a lover." Ray was tall, thin from rapid weight loss, and had hazel eyes. His light brown hair was kept cut right around his collar. "I hate it. I still can't believe I have AIDS. I didn't think I'd have to deal that fact until I came down with my first opportunistic infection. I kept trying to deny it. One afternoon I could no longer deny it."

"How do you feel about the man who did this to you?" Lisa asked.

"I despise the bastard! He had no right to do what he did to me. I hate the fact that I can never have children because of him. There's so much I'll never do because of it." She grinned and continued. "There's a lot of things I would never have tried if it wasn't for the virus." "What brought you here?" Mel asked. "I've been feeling more and more frustrated and angry lately. I've been cranky and short tempered as well. I blew up at my husband for no reason. He saved my life and helped me through the emotional aftermath of the rape. He's still helping me handle things. I realized that I need to talk with someone who fully understands what I'm going through." "We all understand that all too well. When I found out I cried for what seemed like hours," Lisa said. "I did too. The test right after the rape came back negative so I was stunned by the positive result during the retest. Nick's been very supportive. He even proposed to me knowing what our future would be like. I turned him down because of the future, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. He made me see that it was okay, that he'd be there no matter what, that he loved me." Natalie said.

"Don't let him go," Lisa said, with a playful grin.

"I don't plan to," Natalie said, with an equally playful grin. "I was angry, sad and hated the world," Paul said. "I was terrified," Mel said. "I was afraid my friends would leave, that I would lose my job, that I would be blamed for it." "I've felt the fear, anger and sadness. I haven't hated the world, yet. Every time I go for a checkup I'm worried I'll learn that my CD4 level has taken another drop and that my viral load is up. I'm determined not to go down without one hell of a fight," Natalie said, her eyes twinkling with determination. She was relieved to have found people who truly understood and would not treat her like a freak because she had AIDS, or try to run her out of town due to ignorance and fear. "That's the proper attitude," Mel said with a smile.

Natalie felt much of her frustration, anger and fear melt away as she talked with those around her. She knew things would be better between her and Nick, and better at work because of this. She told them about Katie and how her young friend had helped her accept her disease and taught her how to celebrate life. The week had been tough. Natalie had to face several suicides and the murder of a young girl. She also had her latest doctor's visit. Natalie arrived at her support group, needing to be with those that unfortunately could understand, and entered the room. Smiles greeted her as she found an empty chair. They could tell something was bothering her by the look on her face. "Hi. What brings you here tonight?" Mel asked, a little concerned because it wasn't either of her normal nights. "I needed someone to talk to. This morning I learned my T-Cell count has undergone another small drop. It's now 420. My viral load is up, but only slightly. No new symptoms have shown up, which I'm grateful for." Mel gave her a quick embrace, which was exactly what she needed. "How do you feel about it?" Ray asked. "I'm scared. I wonder how serious the symptoms will become. How soon I'll get my first opportunistic infection. How soon will life as I know it end? How soon before I'm too sick to take care of myself?" Natalie's fear and uncertainty washed over her and was quite noticeable in her face and voice. She had read many medical articles and knew that her future was quite uncertain. "I've seen friends suffer though this and it scares the hell out of me. I don't want to get that weak and helpless." That part scared her more than anything as it meant she would lose her independence. She didn't want to become a burden to Nick or see him suffer as she became too sick to care for herself. "How are you feeling right now?" "Outside of the symptoms, no different than I have for the seven years since the diagnosis." "Hold onto that feeling. Keep on going like you have been. I still don't feel too bad," Lisa said, offering whatever reassurances she could. "Thanks, guys." "I have my good days and my bad days. Unfortunately the bad days are beginning to outnumber the good days. I look upon each day as a gift and try to make the most of it," Ray said. Natalie arrived at work a few minutes late, which she blamed on traffic. That excuse would have been harder to believe if she had listened to her heart and taken her bike. She read the first file from the stack on her desk before slipping into her scrubs. It was going to be another long night.

She didn't mind the long busy nights as they kept her mind off her own problems. The only problem she had with them was when they kept her so busy she didn't have time for her own research. Nick wanted to do something to cheer Natalie up. He knew she needed something to take her mind off her problems, even if only for a short time. A look at the calendar showed him that her birthday was fast approaching. Nick entered the morgue, knowing he needed some help if he was going to pull his plan off. He had already recruited Schanke, who was more than happy to help. He saw Grace heading down the hall, folders in hand. "Grace, where's Natalie?" "She went out to grab some dinner. What's up?" "I need your help." Nick escorted Grace into Natalie's lab so they wouldn't be overheard. Grace found this most curious. "What's up?" "I'm planning a surprise party for Natalie. I thought it might help cheer her up." "Do you know why she's been rather moody lately?" Grace asked, curious if Nick knew anything she didn't. "Not really. What do you think of renting a suite for the weekend, catering the food, all her favorites of course. Have it stylishly decorated." "Sounds good. How are you going to get her there, without raising suspicion?" "That's where you come in. I need you to give her a message about a murder there and her being needed onsite." "What if it's her night off? She might not respond to a phone call or her beeper." "I'll take care of that." "Remember to wish her a happy birthday, or at least have Schanke do it. Otherwise she'll become suspicious," Grace said. "Thanks for the reminder." A week later Natalie entered her office extra cranky due to the fact that she had to once again work on her birthday. She wished she could have it off once in a while. Her mind wandered back to her twenty-eighth birthday, the night she met Nick. Grace entered and saw Natalie lost in thought. "Earth to Natalie." "What?" Natalie asked, a little startled. "What had you lost in thought? Or should I say who?" "I was thinking back to when Nick and I first met." "That's right. I forgot you two met on your birthday. I guess that makes the night even more special?" "Yeah. It does." "Happy Birthday, Natalie," Grace said as she pulled an envelope from inside a manila folder she was carrying. She handed it to Natalie. Natalie opened the card and was touched by the verse inside. "Thanks, Grace. This is really sweet." Grace left for a moment and returned with a smallish package which she handed to her friend. Natalie took the gift, set it on the desk and quickly ripped the paper off it. Inside she found a mug filled with individually wrapped Swiss chocolates. On the side of the mug it said - Official Chocolate Inspector. "I know, a mug's the last thing you need. I couldn't think of anything else. I'm sorry." "No problem. Chocolates are always a good gift." Natalie loved the phrase on her mug. Grace was glad to see that her card and gift had dramatically improved her friend's mood. Near the end of their shift Grace entered Natalie's office with a message about a dead body. Natalie grabbed her coat and left. She hoped it would be the last thing she did that shift. As soon as Grace saw Natalie's car pull out she called Nick and then hightailed it out of there herself. Natalie quickly arrived at the hotel, stopping by the desk for the concierge key. She'd been in that hotel before and knew she would not be able to access that floor without it. Once she had the key she headed for the elevator. Before long she entered the suite. She looked around seeing a few officers inspecting the scene. One of the officers approached, and started explaining the crime scene to Natalie. With a little cleverness he maneuvered her so that she was facing the front door, allowing everyone else to sneak into the main room from the bedroom. Natalie turned around to head for the bedroom when she heard "Surprise." She couldn't believe they'd gotten her a second time. She knew that getting the officers to make the party look like a crime scene took planning and coordination, not to mention having Grace send her here, just like another case. She didn't mind that there were no fancy decorations like the last time. "Happy Birthday, Natalie," Everyone said. "Thanks, guys. This suite is gorgeous." Natalie looked at Grace. "Grace, you were in on this." "Nick needed help to get you here, without you suspecting anything," Grace said. "Let me guess, the room is registered to Schanke." Schanke and Myra nodded. "If I found the room, it would look like you two were having a night away from home." She saw them nod again. "Nat, you hungry?" "Yes. I was going to grab something on the way home." Before Natalie knew it a plate filled with her favorites was handed to her. She smiled at Nick as she took the plate from him. As she ate she looked around seeing all her friends. A flicker of sadness crossed her face as she wondered how many more birthdays she would see. How many before she was too sick to care. Her gaze caught Nick's, and she saw the same thoughts and feelings echoed there. It didn't escape Grace's attention, furthering her suspicions. "I think it's time for the birthday girl to open her gifts." Nick led Natalie over to the couch. Don, Myra, Nancy, Grace, and Bonnie carried the gifts out from the bedroom, setting them on the coffee table. Natalie's co-workers gave her another lacy black teddy, causing her to turn the most interesting shade of red. Nick grinned as he saw how it embarrassed her. "It's beautiful. Thanks." "Are you going to model it for a certain someone?" "Grace!" Natalie admonished, her cheeks becoming a brighter shade of red. "Maybe, maybe not." A mischievous grin broke out when she saw Nick's pout. Next she opened the gift from Don and Myra. It was a simple gold bracelet. "It's gorgeous. Thank you both." "I'm glad you like it," Myra said while Don looked on. Nick helped her put the bracelet on. It fit perfectly. Natalie opened the gift Jenny had sent with her parents. Carefully packed into a cardboard box was a nice ceramic vase. Natalie read the note attached to the vase. "I can't be there to give this to you in person, and can only hope you like it. Yes, I made it, just for you." "Thank her, will you? She's quite talented." "I don't know where that particular talent comes from, neither Myra or myself could create anything like that." Nick handed her the next gift. It was from him. She ripped the paper off the box, only to find a hotel key inside. Nick saw her questioning look. "This suite is yours for the weekend. Anything you wish is yours this weekend."

Nick and Natalie noticed the smiles that statement prompted, causing Natalie to once again blush. "Nick, how can you afford it?" Don asked right before he received a not so subtle jab in the ribs from Myra. "I made a few good investments. Besides, I think she's worth it." He smiled and kissed her on the lips. She responded, gaining cheers and whistles from the crowd. They remained in the lip lock until she needed to break away to breathe. "Lucky you," Grace teased. Grace handed Natalie the gift she had for her.

"Grace, you already gave me a gift."

"I know. That was just a little something to make sure you didn't suspect what your husband had planned."

Natalie quickly removed the wrapping paper and found a beautifully framed photo of her and Nick. They were dancing, their love for each other clearly showed through. "When did you take this?" "During the policeman's ball last month. You both looked terrific." Natalie opened the rest of her presents, thanking the giver for their wonderful gift. As soon as that was finished, Nancy decorated Natalie with bows as was the tradition. This time Natalie did not fight it, she actually enjoyed it. Nick tried his best to enjoy the party and not think about the future. He wondered if Natalie had any idea what was in store for her that weekend. Seeing her so happy, at least for the moment, made him feel that way as well. He hoped it would help ease the constant frustrations she faced. The cake was brought in. It was a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Red roses made of frosting decorated the top along with the 'Happy Birthday Natalie' message written in blue gel. Natalie approached the well lit cake while those around her sang Happy Birthday to her. She took in a lungful of air and did her best to blow out all the candles at once, making her wish as she did so. She almost didn't get them all out. She used her last bit of air to blow out the last one. "What did you wish for?" Nancy asked. "You know she's not allowed to tell or it won't come true," Bonnie said. "I wouldn't tell you anyway," Natalie said, mischievously. Nick wondered what her wish was. He knew of a few things she might wish for such as to find his cure, or a cure for AIDS, or even his bringing her across. He knew she would never tell him which it was. After a couple of hours everyone was partied out. The food had been devoured, everyone had caught up with each other, and they began heading out after wishing the birthday girl one last happy birthday. As soon as the guests were gone and the mess had been cleaned up Natalie headed into the bedroom Nick indicated was hers. It was very elegant. She wanted to take a hot bath before climbing into bed and entered the bathroom to start the water, only to find the tub full of wonderful smelling bubbles. The room was lit by dozens of candles, like something out of a movie. It reminded her of their candlelit wedding. "Nick, you've once again outdone yourself. Thank you." She felt his hands wrap around her from behind, pulling her against him. She put her hands on his arms. "I'm glad you like it. I have one more surprise for you." She wondered what it could be, but wanted to get into the bath before the water cooled. "I'll give it to you after you've had your soak." He kissed the top of her head and left her to enjoy the bubble bath. He kept an ear on her to make sure she didn't fall asleep and drown. He saw how tired she was and knew that a weekend of pampering would do her a world of good. About half an hour later Natalie came out to the living area dressed in a thick white terrycloth robe. "That felt great. I loved the apples and cinnamon scent. The candles were the perfect touch."

She didn't know that he had chosen those scents as they were her scent. That was what he smelled every time she was near him. She took a seat next to him, noticing that he too had changed into his matching robe. She also saw a large package on the table. "Go on. Open it." Natalie eagerly tore into the colorful wrap, finding a plain white box underneath. She opened the white box and found tissue paper, lots of it. She saw the grin on Nick's face and couldn't help but smile back at him. She dug through the tissue paper finding another box. This was a dingy brown box that looked as if it had seen better days. She opened it wondering how many more she would find. Inside the box, carefully settled on an accenting piece of velvet was an antique necklace. Nick loved the stunned look on Natalie's face. "Nick, you shouldn't have. It's beautiful." "My mother gave me the necklace and told me to give it to the woman I love. The one who touches me like no one else. I've never found the right person, before now." "Nick, thank you." A tear of joy ran down her cheek. Nick tenderly wiped it away as his finger caressed her cheek. Natalie lifted the beautifully crafted gold necklace out of the box so she could examine it more closely. The linked hearts were gold with a small diamond where the two hearts overlapped. Nick saw her yawning heavily and sent her off to bed with a long passionate kiss on the lips. She eagerly responded. When she awoke twelve hours later she found Nick in the living room area reading. "Hello, sleepyhead," Nick teased. Before long there was a knock on the door. A masseur entered, bringing his table with him. Natalie looked at Nick questioningly. "I told you I was going to make this a weekend you'd never forget." "That you did." She was actually looking forward to the massage. Nick watched as Natalie melted under the masseur's touch. She felt every muscle in her body being tended to, knots she didn't know she had being worked out. Nick had made her feel beautiful, even with the weight loss. It was because of this that she wasn't too self conscious about the masseur seeing her thinness. Shortly after the masseuse left there was another knock at the door, leaving Natalie wondering what was next. Nick let in the next pamperer. Natalie found herself undergoing a full manicure and pedicure. Before long, another person arrived and gave Natalie a facial. Nick saw Natalie's initial hesitation, but now she was enjoying every second of the pampering. He knew that she wasn't the type to spend too much time on such things. That was part of what made it a special treat for his wife.

When the last pamperer left, Nick approached his wife, wrapping his arms around her from behind.

"Are you hungry?"

"Yes. What do you have planned?"

"I thought that since you look stunning, we'd go out for dinner." He loved seeing the slight blush that crept across her cheeks.

"I didn't pack anything." She saw the twinkling in his blue eyes. "But that doesn't matter, does it? I'll bet there's the perfect dress waiting for me in the closet. Right?"

"You do know me well, don't you?" Nick grinned.

Before long they were both dressed and ready for dinner.

Nick smiled as he saw how beautiful she was, and how his reaction made her blush.

"Shall we go?" Nick asked.

"Yes, I'm starving."

They headed off to Le Bistro, one of the finest restaurants in Toronto. The atmosphere was rather romantic with the soft lighting and the soothing music. Nick again demonstrated his slightly higher food tolerance as he nibbled at his dinner, not eating more than a bite or two of anything.

When they were done there, they stopped by the local video store and rented enough movies to keep them busy for the weekend. Natalie stocked up on bags of popcorn and chocolate. Nick hoped that his supplies would be there by the time they got back to their suite.

They spent the rest of the weekend watching movies and ordering room service whenever Natalie was hungry. Nick was pleased that his gift had the desired effect. Natalie was much more relaxed and seemed a lot less tired. He enjoyed the chance to relax as well.

A month later, Myra invited Natalie to lunch, knowing it was one way to make sure they had a chance to talk. They sat in the family room talking as they sipped at their coffee.

"Are you planning anything for her sixteenth birthday?" Natalie asked. "I can't believe she's that old."

""You're not the only one," Myra said with a grin. "She's not sure she wants a party. She's not sure how she wants to celebrate. I'll be happy to include you in whatever plans need to be made."

"Thanks. I'd enjoy it."

They were still talking when Jenny arrived home from school.

"Hi, Mom, Natalie."

"Hi, Jenny."

"How was school?" Myra asked.

"Pretty good. Natalie, what are you doing here?"

"Your mom invited me for lunch."

"Cool."

Natalie motioned for Jenny to join them, which she did.

"Natalie, could we do something together one night?" Jenny enjoyed spending time with her friend, even if she was an adult.

"Sure. I'll let you know what nights I have off this week."

Myra was glad that Jenny and Natalie got along so well. She knew they both benefited from the friendship.

"Have you given any thought to what you want to do for your birthday?" Natalie asked.

"I don't know. I know I should have a party, but I don't know what kind. I want it to be something really fun, yet I don't want it to be a kiddie party."

"You don't have to have a party, just because everyone else does," Myra said, trying to reassure her daughter.

"I know. If I did have one, I'd like it to be a boy/girl party." Jenny watched her mother to see how she'd take the request.

"I have no problem with that, as long as there was no alcohol, drugs, or as you call it 'making out'."

"Mom," Jenny said embarrassed, her cheeks coloring slightly.

Two weeks later, Natalie was at the Schanke residence helping Myra decorate for the party.

Natalie was a bit surprised when Katie came to mind. She and Jenny would've really liked each other. Natalie pushed all sad thoughts from her mind, not wanting to have to explain her momentary blues to Myra.

About two and a half hours later, the family room had been decorated and the food, all but the cake, had been laid out.

Fifteen minutes later, Jenny and some her friends entered, Nick behind them. Schanke and more of Jenny's friends entered moments later.

"It looks really cool," Jenny said as she looked around the family room. There were streamers, balloons with equally bright ribbons hanging down, the happy sixteenth birthday banner. She noticed her favorite music coming from the stereo at a decent volume. She was surprised that the decorations didn't look juvenile, like she thought they would.

All her friends dropped their gifts onto the coffee table.

"Which do you want to do first, eat or open your gifts?"

"How about both. They can eat while I open and I can eat afterwards."

"Okay."

Jenny's friends attacked the snack table in a way that only a pack of hungry teens can. Once they had their plates full they headed back to Jenny.

They started handing her gifts one at a time. She happily opened them and thanked each friend. Before long she had a nice stack of CD's, two pairs of earrings, and a ying/yang necklace.

Nick handed the birthday girl her gift. Jenny was quite curious to see what was inside. She found two small black jewelry boxes. She opened the first one and found a set of gold hoop earrings. When she opened the second one, it revealed a pair of gold knots for when she needed something smaller.

"Thanks, Nick. These are great."

Natalie handed her gift to Jenny. Before long Jenny was pushing aside the tissue paper, surprised to see another jewelry box inside. She pulled out the medium sized black box and opened it. She found a gorgeous gold necklace inside.

"Natalie, thank you so much. It's beautiful."

Myra pointed to a large box that had appeared in the corner. Jenny eagerly went over to the box, ripped the paper off, stunned to see a brand new twenty-seven inch television. "Thanks, Mom and Dad. This is so cool!" My old one has been acting as if it was about to die."

"We know, that's why we bought the new one. We thought you'd like something a little bigger than the one you had." They knew she had a fifteen inch currently.

"How about some cake?" Myra asked.

"Sure."

Myra quickly returned with the lit cake. Everyone there embarrassed Jenny by singing happy birthday to her.

Jenny made a wish an blew out every candle without a problem. Three months later Natalie awoke with a general achiness throughout her body, feeling worse than her usual tiredness. She didn't want to get up, but knew she had to. When she finally stumbled into the bathroom she took her temperature and was not at all happy to learn that she had a low fever. She suspected this one was different. If so, she had to go to work so that she could get some more work done on Nick's cure. She knew she couldn't afford to waste any time because if this was her first serious illness she would not feel like working on his cure for days, and possibly weeks.

Nick had her breakfast ready for her when she came downstairs. Their hands touched causing him to realize that her temperature was slightly elevated. He also noticed that she didn't seem to be feeling well. He was worried that she was starting her first opportunistic infection.

"Nat, what's wrong?" Nick asked concerned.

She wanted to tell him nothing, but knew she couldn't lie to him. "I'm not sure. I'm feeling tired, sore and have a slight fever. Before you start, I'm going in to work. I need the distraction."

"Natalie..." He said, almost pleading.

"Nick, if I am getting sick, there are a few things I need to do while I still feel like it. Trust me, please."

"Okay." He kissed her, and was pleased when she responded.

She arrived at her office on time. As her shift wore on she began to feel worse and hoped this was not the start of her first opportunistic infection. She was not ready to face that, but sensed she would have to face it sooner than she would like to. Her CD4 level was around 250, which was about when the opportunistic infections tended to start. Her viral load was up, slightly. She was glad Nick had been kept busy as she wasn't ready to debate whether or not she should be working. She had won that morning, but wasn't so sure she'd win this time. Grace entered, noticing that Natalie looked a little ragged. "Natalie. You okay? You don't look so good." "Thanks. I think after all those attempts at fighting off the flu, I lost this one," Natalie said as she popped a couple of vitamin C tablets into her mouth and washed them down with water from the bottle on her desk. She offered a couple of tablets to Grace, who took them. Grace noticed that Natalie felt a little warm to the touch, warmer than usual. "Why don't you go home. Someone can handle the autopsies for you. Your paperwork will still be here for you. If you don't feel good tomorrow, don't come in." "That sounds good, but I have a few things I have to finish first," Natalie said. She noticed the stern, yet concerned look Grace gave her. "I promise I'll go home and to bed as soon as I finish them. Don't you even think about telling Nick." Grace gave her another stern look before leaving her to her work, knowing that the sooner Natalie was alone, the sooner she would finish her work. She also knew that once Natalie made up her mind, it was quite difficult to change it. If she did call Nick, Natalie would be mad at her. Since Natalie almost always kept her word, she'd leave it be.

Natalie finished up the critical files on her desk before polishing off several in the important category. The rest needed test results before any more could be done with them.

Since there wasn't much more she could do there she switched to Nick's cure. She had a lead she hoped would pan out. A while later Natalie started coughing, causing Grace to enter. She wanted to make sure everything was okay as it wouldn't do to have the M.E. choke to death in the morgue. "Natalie, are you okay?" "I'm fine. I just swallowed wrong." She knew it was a lie. She could feel the congestion starting to build in her lungs. She fought down the fear and depression the congestion brought with it. She knew she couldn't repress the feelings for long.

Grace accepted Natalie's answer and went on about her own business.

Natalie's eyes filled with a sadness as she struggled to deny the fact that she was most likely coming down with her first opportunistic infection. Along with that came the fear over how sick would she become and would she recover. The depression wasn't far behind. A few hours later Natalie's entire body hurt worse than it had earlier. She was more congested, but not too noticeably, yet. She was tired. She was coughing more due to the congestion.

Her lead had bombed like every other one she had discovered so far. That didn't help the depression she already felt, due to the oncoming illness.

Grace heard the coughing and entered Natalie's office, determined to convince her friend to go home. "Natalie, don't tell me you keep swallowing wrong. I'm not buying it. I think you were right earlier, that the flu bug found you. Go home." "Okay," Natalie said, in mock surrender. She knew Grace's sternness was out of love. She had no new leads to follow up or any idea where to go next in her search for Nick's cure, so she might as well go home. She didn't feel like working, and the idea of curling up in bed was becoming more and more appealing.

Nick knew the disease had progressed when he heard her coughing as he entered. Sadness filled his eyes as he knew she would very likely be quite ill by later today or tomorrow. "I hope you're on your way home to bed." Nick tried to keep the sadness from showing. He too suspected that Grace might have some suspicions of her own and didn't want to add to them. "I am. I plan on going straight to bed."

"If you'll wait a moment, I'll give you a lift home."

"Thanks." She didn't feel like driving and suspected Nick knew this. "Grace, will you let Schanke know?"

"Sure. Natalie, take care of yourself."

"I will. Thanks."

Natalie entered the loft, with Nick right behind her. She dropped her purse onto the table, kicked off her shoes and headed straight for their bedroom to change into her comfortable clothes. She hated the thought of climbing the stairs as it would take more energy and effort than she wanted to devote to it. Nick sensed this and swept her into his arms. She wasn't sure whether to thank him or be mad at him.

He set her down at the top of the stairs and waited there for her to change. She came out of the bedroom in a long sleeved oversized sweatshirt and leggings with thick socks on her feet. Natalie nodded her answer to his unasked question 'did she want him to carry her back downstairs' and he did as requested, setting her down at the foot of the stairs.

Before long the door buzzer sounded. Nick let the deliveryman up. Nick paid him and took the bag. Natalie was pleased to see it was from her favorite Chinese food restaurant. Nick headed over to the kitchen and dumped half the container of beef lo mein onto a plate and stuck the remainder into the fridge for later, grabbed a fork and her drink and headed for the couch where she had settled herself. He brought her medication over. She took it about twenty minutes early so that she wouldn't fall asleep and miss a dose.

Her coughing was still rather mild and both knew it would not stay that way.

He sat down next to her and encouraged her to lean back against him as she ate, which she eagerly did. He allowed her to flip through the channels as she ate. When she couldn't find anything he slipped in her favorite tape. After she finished eating she set the plate on the coffee table and stretched out on the couch, her head resting on a pillow on his lap. He gently caressed her hair and her arm, soothing her. Within moments she was asleep. His heart once again breaking as he heard the slowly increasing congestion. He knew that the next several days, maybe even the next couple of weeks would be quite rough.

When he was sure she was soundly asleep he carefully picked her up and carried her upstairs. He laid her down on her bed and covered her with an extra blanket from the closet. She immediately rolled onto her side.

Nick went back downstairs where he grabbed a wine glass full of cow blood and plopped himself down on the couch. He stared into his glass.

What if this is it? He asked himself. Are you willing to let her die? He knew he couldn't bring her across, yet he did not want her to die. Could I let Janette bring her across?

He wolfed down his drink and headed for their bedroom. He hoped he could push all of his feelings down while he slept. He knew he wouldn't sleep well as he would be keeping an ear on her breathing. She looked rather peaceful as she slept, something he knew might last only a couple of hours.

When Natalie awoke several hours later, Nick brought her her next dose, which she took. She found that she had trouble falling asleep as her congestion and coughing had worsened. She asked him to stay with her while she fell asleep. He did, rubbing her back as she tried to fall asleep. Before long she was in a deep sleep. Her alarm clock sounded awakening her at the usual late afternoon time. She reached over and smacked it. She was coughing her head off, had chills and a fever. She felt like she'd been body checked by the entire Toronto Maple Leaf team. She grew more concerned when she noticed her fingernails had a very light purplish tinge to them. She could no longer deny that this was her first opportunistic infection and that it was most likely Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Fear and depression threatened to overwhelm her. She was not ready to deal with it.

Nick heard she was awake and entered, having showered in the end bedroom, not wanting to disturb her. He'd quietly dressed as he watched her sleep.

"You're not thinking of going in today, are you?" Nick asked concerned, with no hint of accusation in his voice. His concern grew when he noticed her lips were ever so slightly purple.

"No," she said tiredly.

"You should get yourself checked out." He said, knowing that the longer she went the worse she'd get.

"If I don't feel better by the time your shift is over I will. Okay?"

"Okay. Do you want me to book off?"

"No. I just want to sleep."

"Okay. Call me if you start to feel worse."

"I will." She said seeing the concern in his eyes and hearing it in his voice. Once again she was grateful she wasn't alone. She called her office to let them know she would not be in. Grace answered the phone, "Forensics. Grace." "Grace, it's Natalie." Congestion came through in her voice as did how terrible she felt. "You sound horrible. I do hope you're planning to stay home," Grace said, concerned. She know knew for sure that Natalie had AIDS and silently cursed Collins. She suspected that Natalie was starting her first opportunistic infection. "Yes. That's why I called. I won't be in today and probably tomorrow too." "Take it easy and rest. Drink lots of fluids. You know the drill. Do you want me to bring you something?" "No. Thanks anyway." "Let me know if there's anything I can do for you." Grace hoped Natalie survived, and recovered enough to return to work. She knew how important Natalie's work was to her. "I will." Natalie started coughing. "I've gotta go."

"Before you hang up, put Nick on."

Natalie handed the phone to Nick.

"Grace?"

"You'd better take good care of her, or you'll have to deal with me."

"I'll take good care of her," Nick said with a smile. He was glad Natalie had such good friends. Nick hung up. He sat with his wife while she tried to go back to sleep, only to fail, as she couldn't find a comfortable position, one where she didn't cough. She finally gave up and settled for laying on her side. He gently rubbed her back as he told her a story. After a while she fell asleep.

He honored her request and went in for his shift. He hoped she'd be okay until he returned.

A couple of hours later, she awoke coughing her head off more congested than ever. She remembered the deep sadness and pain she'd seen in his eyes as he had lulled her to sleep and hated how the disease caused him so much emotional distress. He had so much pain in his long life and here she was adding to it. That fact made her feel her bad. More pain and sadness was the last thing she wanted to make him feel. She changed into a smaller t-shirt so she could tuck it into her leggings to prevent the cold air from going up her back and further chilling her. Over that she threw on large, baggy, heavy duty sweats. took her latest doses and tried to find something to watch, finding only game shows, stupid sitcoms and infomercials. She grew more concerned when she suddenly began having trouble breathing, and when it hurt to breathe. She slipped into her sneakers, grabbed her jacket and purse before realizing that she was in no shape to drive. She reluctantly called Nick. She noticed her fingernails had more of a purplish tint to them. "Detective Knight," Nick said. "Nick, I need your help." He could hear her labored breathing through the phone as well as her increased heart rate and knew he had to get there. He knew he never should've left her alone. "I'll be there as soon as I can." She heard the concern in his voice. "I need you to take me to an out of town hospital." "Okay." Schanke watched Nick's concern grow and knew he was talking to Natalie. He was more certain that there was something serious going on that they weren't telling him about. He wondered if she had cancer or some other disease. "Schank, I have to go out for a while. Cover for me?" "Sure thing." Nick entered the loft, his concern grew into alarm as soon as he saw her seated on the couch looking like she might pass out on him. Her breathing was more labored than it had been earlier, her lips had a more distinct purple tint to them and her heart rate was up. He scooped her into his arms and took off through the skylight, knowing it was the quickest way to get her to the hospital. She was too sick to protest. He could feel that she was far too warm, yet she was shivering too, even with his jacket wrapped around her. He hoped the wind didn't make her sicker as he did his best to shield her from the brunt of it.

He knew that her CD4 level was mid 200's and that was when the opportunistic infections could start. Had started, according to the symptoms she was displaying. Her viral load was slowly rising, which meant that the disease was becoming more active and her immune system was becoming that much weaker. Before long Nick and Natalie landed a short distance from the emergency entrance to a hospital about half an hour outside of town. She motioned for him to put her down, which he reluctantly did. She managed to walk into the ER with him right beside her to catch her if she should stumble. Her breathing had become even more labored. He was surprised she had stayed on her feet and attributed it to her stubbornness. Natalie's very labored breathing, extreme congestion and purple lips quickly caught the attention of a nurse. The nurse motioned them over to an examination bed and helped Natalie out of both jackets. Natalie refused to lie back as that only made it worse. "What seems to be the problem?" The nurse asked. "I think I have Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia," Natalie said, between labored breaths. A dark haired doctor about Nick's height and build approached. "I'm Dr. Farnsworth. What seems to be the problem?" "I'm Dr. Natalie Lambert." She said as she struggled to get the information out between extremely labored breaths.

Nick wanted to help. "She had her first AIDS defining illness five months ago. It was rapid weight loss with intermittent fevers,"

Natalie said between breaths. "I believe I have Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia." Dr. Farnsworth noted her rather labored breathing, the heavy congestion and the purple tinge of her lips and fingernails. He hooked her up to oxygen. The plastic tubing ran across her face and over the tops of her ears, meeting down in front of her throat. She found it a mildly annoying, but it did help her breathe a little easier. "Is that better?" "A little." She started coughing. It was the same dry, unproductive cough she'd had for most of the last twenty-four hours.

"She's had HIV for just under eight years now and has been showing symptoms for a little over eighteen months." Nick said, helping Natalie to fill the doctor in. "Sir, I'm afraid you'll have to wait in the waiting area." He saw the love between them and their matching wedding bands. "You can see your wife after she's settled into her room." Natalie nodded to Nick that it was okay. He reluctantly left. Dr. Farnsworth pulled the drapes around the bed. "I need you to take off your sweatshirt." Natalie removed the nasal cannula and took off her sweatshirt, leaving only the t-shirt behind which left her quite chilly. "It'll only be a few minutes then you can put it back on." She readjusted the nasal cannula while the doctor warmed the end of his stethoscope. He listened to the heavy congestion in her lungs. He was interrupted by an intense coughing fit. The nurse took her temperature. No sooner had the nurse removed the thermometer than another coughing fit took over momentarily. "Her temperature is 102.6."

The nurse proceeded to clean a spot on Natalie's inner arm, by her elbow. Natalie winced as the needle went in, as she did every time she was stuck. "Dr. Lambert, what are your symptoms?" "Increasing difficulty breathing due to intense congestion. Severe coughing fits, fever, chills, aches and pains. The cough is a non productive one. Purple fingernails." "You are very congested. I have to agree with your diagnosis. Is this your first such infection "Yes. I've been healthy up to this point." When the nurse finished she had Natalie hold a gauze pad over the site for a moment in case of any bleeding, then covered the site with a small plastic bandage. "Who's your doctor?" "Dr. Thomas Banks," Natalie said as she gave him the phone number. "I want to admit you, run a few more tests, and start you on antibiotics immediately. You'll be taking TMP-SMX which is used for treating PCP." Natalie's heart sank, knowing that she would be very sick for the next week or two, maybe even longer. She knew there was a chance she would not fully recover. "How long will I be here?" "It depends on how well you respond to treatment. Since this is your first infection, and you seem healthy otherwise, you should do fairly well. I would guess a week or two. You do have to fill out some paperwork. I will need to know what drugs you're currently taking so we can keep your treatment consistent." The nurse handed Natalie a clipboard and pen. She filled the doctor in on her current medication as she filled in the forms, handing them back to the nurse after she completed them. Out in the waiting room Nick, once again, felt as if someone had driven a stake into his heart, and had twisted it. He held back the blood tears, knowing that he would lose her much sooner than he had been prepared for. He knew that if they were lucky they would have a few years, probably no more than four or five years. And that the weaker her immune system became, the harder it would become for her to stay healthy. Each illness would drastically shorten her life span and take a bigger toll on her overall.

Natalie climbed into bed exhausted from the flight, examination, x-rays, and illness, being careful not to disturb the I.V. line. The nurse hooked up the nasal cannula so that Natalie would be able to breathe a little easier and left. Natalie found it annoying but left it alone, for the time being anyway. She found the I.V. line just as annoying. She knew it was what was providing the drugs to help her body fight off the invading germs. She hoped that all the tests would show that it was indeed PCP so they wouldn't have to put her under and do a bronchoscopy. She didn't want anyone sticking anything down her nasal passage or down her throat if she had any say in the matter. Natalie knew she had to call into work before she fell asleep. "Coroner's Office." "Grace, it's Natalie," she said, her voice raspy from the congestion. "You sound like hell. Have you seen a doctor?" Grace heard the exhaustion in her friend's voice, which both worried her and saddened her. "Yes. I feel as bad as I sound. I have a bad case of bronchitis. Can you put me through to Terri?" Natalie said as a small coughing fit took over. "Sure. Feel better!" Grace was pretty sure Natalie was not at home, but in the hospital. At least she'd better be, if she knows what's good for her, Grace thought. Grace was pretty sure that Nick would force her to be where she'd get proper attention. "Thanks." Natalie had wondered for a couple of months if Grace knew. She thought she might, but couldn't be sure. She didn't know if it was better that Grace thought she had cancer or AIDS. The next voice Natalie heard was that of her supervisor, Terri. "Natalie, Grace filled me in. I don't want to see your face here or at the precinct for at least a week." "You won't get any arguments here," Natalie said as another small coughing fit took over. "I don't want you returning before you're fully recovered. Bronchitis is serious business. I hope you feel better." "Thanks. I've gotta go." Natalie saw her husband enter the room and hung up the phone.

Nick saw the tears welling in her eyes and sat on the bed next to her. She pulled off the nasal cannula when she started crying. She knew that crying was the last thing she needed to do as it would only make her congestion worse. But it would help her psychologically, so she allowed the tears to fall. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her as she let it all out. She was terrified that her disease would either progress too quickly to do much more research or she would get sick enough to make life a living hell and would linger there. She knew she should have four or five more years to live, if she stayed healthy, which was going to be harder and harder to do. She didn't want Nick to spend the next few years doing nothing but taking care of her, he deserved better than that. Nick gently rubbed her back as he held her. He knew what she was thinking as many of the same thoughts went through his mind. Seeing her this sick made him momentarily question their decision for him not to bring her across. He knew that he would be there for her, taking care of her full-time if that became necessary. "I'm scared. I don't want to die." "I know. I don't want to lose you." He felt her trembling. It hurt knowing there was nothing he could do, outside of bringing her across. He knew that neither of them were ready for that step. She knew it was too early for him to even consider bringing her across. After a few minutes she pushed away from Nick, her trembling had eased. She blew her nose and settled the nasal cannula back into place, knowing she needed it. He gently set her back against her pillow. "Would you stay with me, at least until I fall asleep?" "Sure. Close your eyes."

"Tell me another story, please."

"Okay. But you must close your eyes and keep them closed." Natalie reluctantly closed her eyes. Nick started another story, getting about halfway through it before her rhythmic breathing told him that she had fallen asleep. He quietly left, knowing he had to get back to work before anyone grew suspicious. The depth of the pain her suffering caused him could be seen haunting his ancient blue eyes. For a moment he looked every one of his 800 years. Nick reentered the precinct and reseated himself at his desk. He handed Schanke a greasy paper bag. "What's this?" Schanke asked surprised. "I thought you might be hungry." "Thanks." Schanke saw the deep worry in his partner's eyes and knew something was wrong. "What's wrong?" "Natalie has a bad case of bronchitis. She woke up having trouble breathing and wanted me to take her to the doctor. She didn't want me to say anything." "I hope she'll stay home and take care of herself." "She will."

"Why don't you book off and take care of her?" Schanke said, knowing what it's like to have your spouse sick.

"She told me that she doesn't want me there. She wants to sleep."

"That's probably for the best." Several hours later Natalie found herself being awakened by a nurse. Natalie was once again drenched from the night sweats, soaking both her nightgown and the sheets. "How are you feeling?" the nurse asked, seeing the dried tear tracks on her cheeks. "It could be worse," Natalie said as she managed a weak grin. "I'll get you something dry." "Can you bring a robe and some pants while you're at it?" "Sure." The nurse quickly reentered, gave Natalie the dry night clothes and untied the back of Natalie's gown before leaving. Natalie was a little wobbly as she stood, slipped into the dry gown, pants and robe. Finally, she didn't feel so chilly. She was glad her thick socks hadn't been drenched because she didn't want to deal with having freezing feet. Feeling so weak and helpless only served to make her frustrated and angry as well. She sat down in the chair not too far from the bed, dragging her I.V. pole with her, still feeling a little wobbly. An orderly entered with fresh linen and changed her sheets. While the orderly was working, lunch arrived. Natalie took one look at it and had to force herself to eat it, remembering why she despised hospital food. She knew she needed the nourishment to fight off the Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. After lunch the nurse took Natalie's temperature, and was not surprised to see that it had risen slightly, which was to be expected as her body fought off the pneumonia. Natalie settled back into bed feeling quite tired, hating how she had to drag the I.V. pole around with her. She slipped the nasal cannula back into place, knowing she needed its help. She tried to find a comfortable position which would disturb neither the I.V. line nor the nasal cannula. Before long she had managed to find such a position and was once again asleep. A few hours later Grace stuck her head into the room. She was shocked by how pale and sick her friend looked. It was at that point that Grace could no longer deny the fact that Natalie had AIDS, not cancer as the rumors suggested, and would probably die within four or five years. Grace quietly left not wanting to disturb her sleeping friend. She wondered if Nick knew, believing he had to. She knew that Natalie couldn't have reached the hospital without help. She wondered when Natalie had told him. A terrifying thought occurred to her, was he infected as well? She truly hoped not as she couldn't deal with losing two friends to that horrific disease. She found an empty waiting area and sat down. Tears streamed down her face. The only thing that came to mind was why Natalie? What had she done wrong to deserve to suffer like that? Natalie was the kindest and most gentle person Grace knew. Natalie had a big heart and was always putting her friends first. Why was someone holding that against her? Grace let all the tears flow, knowing that Natalie would not want her friend crying over her. Grace left knowing that Natalie would probably sleep for most of the next day or two.

After his shift ended, Nick went home. Somehow the loft seemed so empty and depressing. He grabbed one of his dark green wine bottles and a crystal wine glass. He walked over to the couch and plopped down on it. Blood tears fell down his cheeks. No sooner had he gulped down his first glass than he felt the presence of another of his kind. He was in no mood to face LaCroix.

"Nicola, has something happened to Natalie?" Janette asked concerned.

Nick wiped away the blood tears as she came around from behind the couch. She sat next to him.

"She's in the hospital. She has Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia," His voice carried the deep sadness he felt.

"I'm sorry. Will she recover?"

"She should. She looks so fragile, so pale, so helpless. She was having so much trouble breathing due to the heavy congestion."

"Have you considered..." Janette asked curiously.

"I can't. She hasn't asked me to. I don't want to see her suffer. It wasn't her fault. Why her?" He asked desperately.

"I don't know. You know how to end her suffering."

"I can't. I can't condemn her to this existence."

"Would you like me to bring her across?" Janette offered. She didn't like the idea of Natalie suffering needlessly.

"No. Not unless she asks you to. If she does ask, make sure it is what she really wants, and isn't agreeing to escape her illness." Nick said. He knew he couldn't make Natalie's decision for her. Every time he had done so in the past it had only led to major blowups.

Janette took him in her arms and gently stroked his wavy blonde hair. She noticed that he resembled a hurt, lost little boy. He wrapped his arms around her, needing her comfort.

Natalie slept through most of the next twenty-four hours, except when she was awakened for examinations, food or medication. Twice she had awakened due to the night sweats leaving her drenched and freezing.

Every time she awoke she felt absolutely horrible and knew she would not feel better for the next few days.

Shortly after sunset Janette poked her head into Natalie's room. She didn't want to accidentally disturb Natalie.

Natalie spotted her and motioned for her to enter. Janette headed for her, noticing how truly sick, pale and fragile she looked.

"How are you doing?" Janette asked genuinely concerned.

"A little better," Natalie said surprised to see Janette. "Did Nick tell you?" She was glad that Nick was talking to her about his feelings.

"Yes. You know you don't have to suffer like this." Janette said, compassion filling her voice. She liked Natalie's intelligence and spunk. The M.E. was good for Nick.

"I know. I don't want to come across yet. Nick's not ready to bring me across and may never be." Sadness flooded her face as a single tear fell down her cheek and was quickly wiped away by her fingertips. A wicked coughing fit took over.

"Remember when I offered to bring you across?"

Natalie nodded, waiting for the coughing fit to pass before continuing, knowing that if she didn't wait she would only make it worse. Slowly, the fit eased.

"I'm not ready yet. I will survive this and go on with life. I still have too much living as a mortal to do. Maybe in a year or two..."

Janette understood and respected Natalie's decision. "If you ever change your mind..."

Natalie was glad Janette understood. "Thanks, Janette. I'll let you know." Another wicked coughing fit took over.

"I'll let you rest. Take care."

"Thanks." Natalie said between coughs.

Janette left seeing how exhausted Natalie was. Natalie fell asleep as soon as the coughing fit subsided. Schanke knew something was up and knew that if Nick and Natalie wanted him to know they'd tell him. Still he was concerned and followed Nick that evening. He knew Natalie had the week off due to her bronchitis and noticed that Nick seemed more worried than he should be. He had heard all the rumors, not believing the anorexia one, but was having more and more trouble denying the cancer one. He had seen cancer patients before and knew that there were a lot of similarities between them and Natalie recently. Schanke followed his partner to an out of town hospital, parked and entered. He lost track of Nick but knew he might yet have a chance. He headed straight for the nurse's desk. "Hi. I wrote down the room Natalie was in, but I seem to have misplaced it. Could you please give me her room number again?" Schanke searched his pockets looking for the information. "What's her last name?" The nurse asked, seeing how sincere he looked. "Lambert." He knew he had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. "Room 1121." "Thanks." Schanke headed for Natalie's room, making sure he wasn't spotted. He stopped outside the room, hearing a nasty coughing fit and two sets of voices. It was hard to make out any words. After listening for a few minutes, catching a word here and there, he heard them say goodnight and took off before Nick could catch him. He hid around a corner and watched Nick leave, seeing the much greater sadness and worry on his face. Once he saw that Nick was safely out of sight, he opened Natalie's door a crack and peered in. When he saw her asleep, he opened the door a tiny bit further. He was stunned when he saw how pale and sick she was. Seeing the oxygen and I.V. made him certain she did not have bronchitis. He wondered why she was being treated so far from home and why no one outside of Nick knew where she was. He now knew why Nick had seemed more out of it than usual.

Does she have cancer and doesn't want anyone to know, or does she have something else? He wondered. The next day Natalie still felt terrible but managed to stay awake for a few hours at a time. She found very little worth watching on TV. She found herself watching a few standup comedians because they made her laugh, which wound up making her cough. After a particularly nasty coughing fit she decided she'd better turn to another channel. She heard a knock on the door. "Come in," she rasped. Grace entered with a bag. "Hi. How are you feeling?" Grace asked worried. She saw the surprise, and the sadness on Natalie's face. "How'd you find me?" "It wasn't easy. I brought you some homemade chicken noodle soup." "Thanks. I'm glad you came," Natalie said, sincerely. "You didn't answer my question. You look like hell. You don't sound much better," Grace teased. "Thanks," Natalie said, returning the tease. "I'm feeling a little better." A wicked coughing fit picked that time to strike. "Yes, I know. I would have to be pretty stupid not to figure it out. Don't worry. I don't think anyone else knows," Grace said seeing both the question and then the panic on Natalie's face. "This was what made me sure. It is Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, right?" Natalie nodded, her coughing fit easing. "Damn him. I'd like to kill him for doing this to you." "He was already damned. He's been dead a few years now. He was hit by it much harder than I have been so far." "How do you know all this?" "I hacked into his file," Natalie said with a weak, sheepish grin. Grace grinned back, not at all surprised that Natalie had hacked into the file. "I'm doing okay. Since this is my first opportunistic infection I should survive it without too much trouble. They should be releasing me in about a week." "Will you be returning to work?" "Yes. I need it and my friends to keep me going." "I don't want you rushing back before you're ready. You know what will happen if you do." "Yes. I don't want to spend any more time here than I absolutely have to." Natalie said, truthfully. "What are the current office rumors?"

"Not much new. Some think you have anorexia and others think it's cancer." Natalie slowly ate the soup. "This is delicious, thanks." "Why didn't you tell me? You did tell Nick, right?" "I didn't want to hurt you. I had considered telling you, many times, but decided that I wouldn't until this happened. And, yes, Nick's known from the very beginning."

"You were afraid I might not want to be around you once I knew, weren't you?" Grace asked, concerned. There was no hint of hurt feelings or scolding in her voice.

"Yes. I didn't want to lose you. It would hurt too much."

"Honey, you could never lose me like that. I'm your friend for good or bad." Grace reassured. She saw that it worked as a small weak smile spread across her friend's face. Grace laid her hand on Natalie's hand to let her know she wasn't afraid to touch her. A single tear ran down Natalie's cheek, matched by one running down Grace's cheek as well. "How are you doing?" Natalie asked as another coughing fit took control. "That's enough talking for now," Grace could see Natalie was tiring. "I'm doing okay. I want you to know that I'm here for you if you ever want to talk about it. Do you want me to keep an eye on Nick while you're here?" "Thanks. He'll need someone to talk to."

"Natalie," Grace took a deep breath, "Is Nick infected too?" She hoped he wasn't.

"No, he's not." Natalie saw Grace's entire body relax, relieved that she wouldn't lose him as well. "After the rape I wasn't ready to let anyone that close, then I learned I had HIV. I couldn't risk passing it on to him."

"Some day I hope to find someone as loving as Nick."

"You will," Natalie said as she managed a small smile.

It hit Grace that Natalie and Nick hadn't consummated their marriage. "Are you and Nick..."

"Not in the traditional sense. We've found creative ways around it, that are plenty satisfying," Natalie said with a wicked grin on her face. She told Grace about how Nick had proposed to her and the ensuing fight.

"I'm glad neither of you let your conditions stop you from marrying. You two belong together more than any other couple I've seen. Anyone looking at you can see the love."

"Really? It's that obvious?" Natalie asked as another strong coughing fit took control.

"Yes. That's enough talking," Grace said worried about her friend.

Natalie worked to get her coughing under control and felt the fit slowly easing. "I'll leave and let you rest. I'll stop by again tomorrow if you'd like." She saw Natalie was having trouble staying awake. She was pleased to see her coughing fit ease. "I'd like that," Natalie said with a weak smile. Grace embraced Natalie before leaving, knowing that her friend needed all the love and support she could get. Grace took the empty bowl with her and left. She took one last look at the weak, pale, exhausted woman in the bed that was her best friend. It hurt. She noticed that Natalie was already asleep and quietly let herself out. Grace now understood where Natalie's wild behavior had come from, a simple desire to experience life before she was too sick to do so. She also understood why Nick went out of his way to make birthdays and Christmases special. Why he went along with all her crazy ideas. She was extremely relieved that Nick had not been infected. She didn't think she could handle losing two good friends to AIDS. Watching Natalie slowly deteriorate was hard enough. She remembered Katie, and now understood what had drawn them together. Grace's respect for Nick went way up, knowing that he had married her knowing what the future held for them. She knew very few guys would do so, most would run as far and as fast as they could. Grace headed for Nick and Natalie's loft. She needed to talk to someone. Nick was playing the piano, waiting for the sun to set and was surprised when the door buzzer sounded. He saw it was Grace and let her up. As soon as Grace entered the loft, Nick noticed she looked a little uncertain as well as quite sad. "I suspected Natalie was HIV positive, but I wasn't sure until now. She has AIDS, doesn't she? Is she going to be okay?" She needed to hear the confirmation. "Yes, she has AIDS. She should be fine. She's strong and quite the fighter." "That she is." Nick took Grace in his arms. They stood there comforting each other for what seemed an eternity before they separated. "Are you okay?" Nick asked, concerned. "I'm okay. Why her?" "I don't know. I've asked that question a thousand times already." "How are you doing?" Grace asked. She hated to see them going through all this, especially after all they've already been through. "Okay. I hate to see her like that. It hurts." "I know. At least she doesn't have to face it alone. Thank you for being there for her." Grace gently kissed Nick's cheek. She loved the slightly surprised look that elicited from him. "She needs me. How could I be anywhere else?" The love he felt for Natalie radiating from him like a sun. "Thank you for not turning your back on her now that you know." "I could never do that to her." Grace said knowing how much Natalie's friendship meant to her, and hers to Natalie. "I hope to find love as special as that between the two of you." "You will."

"Thank you for loving her enough to marry her, knowing she was HIV positive."

I married her because I wanted the whole world to know how much I loved her." Nick grinned remembering the proposal. "Do you know she turned me down, because of it. I had to convince her that I loved her and would be there for her no matter what."

"I'm glad you were able to convince her. You two were made for each other and I'm glad you finally realized that."

"I suppose she sent you here to check up on me?" He asked, trying to lighten the mood. "Yeah. I think she wanted to make sure we both had someone to talk with. It's amazing that as sick as she is, she's still taking care of everyone else. It's so unfair." "I know," Nick said. "You know, we make a pretty good team - you looking after her at night and me by day." Grace grinned. "You're right." The next evening Schanke saw Nick sitting at his desk trying to concentrate on paperwork. "Hi, partner. How's Natalie?" "She's doing a little better." "Do you think she'd mind if I stopped by with some home made soup?" Nick was again caught off guard. "She's staying with a friend. Besides, you don't want to expose yourself, do you?" Schanke now knew that there was something much more serious going on. He knew he shouldn't pry, but he was worried about Natalie, and to some extent, Nick. Schanke again followed his partner to the hospital and up to Natalie's room. He heard Nick and Natalie talking, but couldn't make out all the words. "How are you feeling?" "I'm feeling a little better." She yawned. "Did you know there's nothing on TV during the day or very late at night?" "Yes. I've discovered that. That's why VCR's were invented." She had a slightly less intense coughing fit. "Nat, I think Schanke suspects there's more going on than just bronchitis." "I didn't want anyone but the three of us to know. Do you think I should tell him?" Schanke wondered who the third person was. He didn't think there was a baby involved due to the fact that they couldn't have children. Nick detected a familiar heartbeat and had the door open in a flash. He stepped outside before Schanke could react. "Schanke, what are you doing here?" Nick asked, a little annoyed. "I'm visiting a sick friend. She's in 1129." Nick grabbed Schanke's arm and dragged him into the room. "I found him outside. He may have overheard our conversation." Natalie's coughing fit faded. "I'm sorry. Natalie, I'm worried about you. Nick was acting stranger than usual, and it made me concerned. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, which by the way, is next to impossible to do through these doors or walls." Schanke was rambling like an idiot due to his extreme nervousness and embarrassment. He did notice that Natalie looked worse than she did the other night when he had a quick peek. "Schanke, I didn't want anyone but Nick to know. But I might as well tell you." She knew he'd poke around and might accidentally expose her secret. "Before I do, I would like you to promise not to tell anyone." She hoped what she was about to tell him wouldn't negatively affect their friendship. "Okay. It's the least I can do." "You were right, there was something wrong with me." Natalie gestured to the empty chair in the room. Schanke sat on it seeing as he might need it. "Collins infected me with HIV, which became AIDS about five months ago. I have Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia." Schanke felt as though someone had hit him in the stomach with a bowling ball. He wanted to know how someone as nice as Natalie could be given something so horrible. "Does anyone else know?" Schanke inquired. It suddenly hit him that she had lost all that weight about five months ago. "Grace figured it out the other day. She's the only other person that knew, until now." She hoped she wasn't overwhelming her friend. "Schank, you okay?" Natalie asked, concerned about her friend. Schanke looked a little pale, not to mentioned stunned. "It's just a lot to take in at once. I'll be okay." Schanke knew very little about the disease and had a million questions racing through his mind. "From the rumors and the way you've been looking over the past year, year and a half, I thought maybe you had cancer," he offered. "I didn't expect to hear you have AIDS." Natalie had a wicked coughing fit, making Schanke see how truly sick and weak she was. Natalie rolled over on her side to try and ease the coughing. Nick gently rubbed her back trying to soothe her.

"Nick, umm... don't take this the wrong way, okay?" Schanke nervously took a deep breath, "are you... umm... infected too?" He waited anxiously to see what their reaction was.

"No, I'm not."

Both Nick and Natalie saw the huge wave of relief wash over Schanke.

"Schanke, we were never..." Natalie intimated, hoping he would get the meaning. Which he did a moment or two later. "After the rape I wasn't ready to let anyone that close, then I learned I had HIV. I couldn't risk passing it on to him."

Schanke was still amazed at the tenderness he saw before him. He did not know many men that would stick around and be as supportive as Nick was, even if they were married. Schanke knew Nick and Natalie's relationship was a very loving one, built upon a deep friendship.

"I'm sorry for all the times I teased you guys about..."

"No problem," Nick said, cutting his partner off. Natalie nodded her agreement. "Besides, there's more than one way to show how much you love someone."

"It just takes a little creativity," Natalie teased. She loved the embarrassed blush which quickly colored Schanke's face.

"You two are amazing." "How'd you find us?" Nick asked curiously. "I... ummm... followed you. Can you forgive me?" "Schank, it was none of your business," Nick said, rather annoyed. "I know. I was concerned about the two of you. Natalie, you're a much better liar than he is." Natalie started to laugh, but it only made her cough more. "What?" "Nothing," both Nick and Natalie said, trying to sound completely innocent. "Is your wanting it to remain a secret the reason you're so far out of town?" Natalie nodded, not wanting to give the waning coughing fit an excuse to start up again. "Schank, we need to go. She needs her sleep." "I'll wait for you by the elevators. Natalie, I hope you're feeling better real soon." Schanke held Natalie's hand as he spoke, wanting her to know that he was still her friend. "Thanks." Schanke left. Out in the hallway he stood, stunned, for a moment. She was so pale and sick. He heard the extreme congestion and wondered if she would recover. He forced himself to head for the elevator. He was grateful that he wouldn't lose both his good friends to this insidious disease, but it hurt more than he could believe that Natalie would die from it. And all because that scum had raped her. Inside the room Nick gently kissed Natalie on the forehead as he lulled her to sleep with the back rub. Once he was sure she was asleep he left. "Schanke, are you all right with all of this?" Nick asked, concerned. He knew how stunning the news was and how hard it was to accept. Schanke saw how tired this was making Nick. "I'll be okay with it. I just need some time for it to sink in. How is she *really* doing?" Schanke said, still a bit stunned. "She's weak, but since it's her first opportunistic infection she should recover. Within two to three weeks she should be almost back to her old self. This will take a little out of her, but she should be fine otherwise. They will probably release her at the end of the week." "That's great. How are you holding up?" "I'm doing okay. It's hard, but Nat and I knew this would happen at some point." Nick could see all the conflicting emotions in Schanke's eye. "If you have any questions, Grace, Natalie or myself will be glad to answer them." "Thanks. I do have a few." A realization hit Schanke. "That's why she's been doing all those crazy thing. She was trying to get the most out of life while she could." "Yeah." "That's why you went along with them." He saw Nick nod. "And why she was so upset that Christmas." Again Nick nodded.

"Did Katie have AIDS?" Again Nick nodded. "And why she and Katie were drawn together? And why she got so much out of her volunteer work."

Again Nick nodded. "Katie taught Nat to appreciate life and to get the most out if while she could."

"So, she's responsible for Natalie's wild streak. Or least the inspiration behind it."

Nick grinned remembering his wife's wildest adventures.

"Did you volunteer for the same reasons?"

"Pretty much. The kids made me appreciate life. They gave me such hope and optimism. Natalie's such a natural with them."

"Is what she has contagious?"

"No. People with normal immune systems are immune to the type of pneumonia she has." Nick had Schanke come back to the loft with him and answered many of his questions about the disease and how they were dealing with it. Nick could see the relief in Schanke's eyes as he learned more about the disease. Nick confirmed Schanke's strong hunch that the disease was the real reason why Natalie couldn't have children, she didn't want to risk infecting them. Schanke told Nick of his admiration for him for marrying her and sticking with her through all of this. Nick told him the same story he had told Grace about his proposal. Schanke told Nick he was glad he'd convinced Natalie to accept as he'd never seen the two of them happier. The next afternoon Natalie's friends from the support group stopped by to see her. They were surprised that it hit her so hard, so soon. Their visit greatly cheered her up. Nick arrived the next evening for his nightly visit only to find a visitor waiting for him outside Natalie's room. "LaCroix, what are you doing here?" Nick asked, concerned.

"I just came to check up on the good doctor."

"What is the real reason?" Nick asked, suspicion filling his voice, along with a hint of anger. "I told you she would not stay healthy forever. She is quite sick, is she not?" LaCroix said, avoiding his son's question. "How do you know?" "I have my ways. Remember what I told you?" "I won't make her one of us. I can't." "That isn't your choice to make."

"She doesn't know what it's like. I don't want her making the choice only because she's sick." "Nick, would you get in here. Bring him with you," Natalie weakly said, knowing he could hear her. The door opened and the two vampires entered her room. "Nat, what's wrong?" Nick asked, concerned. "If you're going to argue, don't do it in the hall," Natalie said, annoyed. "Could you hear what we had to say?" Nick asked. "Not really. I caught a word here and there." "I was discussing a few things with my son." "LaCroix, don't even think about bringing me across," Natalie said sternly, before a coughing fit attacked. "Look what you did," Nick hissed.

"Are you sure? It would end this foolish suffering." Natalie placed her hand on Nick's arm to calm him. It worked.

The glare she gave LaCroix could've frozen hell. She didn't want to talk and worsen the coughing fit now that it was easing. Once it had eased, she knew she had to say something. "When and if I decide to come across it will be MY decision. Understand?" The anger tingeing her voice made both vampires nod. "I will recover from this and go on with my life. Things will be very much like they were." She saw their doubting looks. "Okay, a few things will change."

"Why do you insist on suffering like this when you don't have to?"

"Because it shows I'm still alive. Because I want to enjoy life, even the bad times. I want to be able to do whatever I want to, without worrying about if the sun is up. I want to be able to eat all the foods I love, without them making me sick. I don't want to consider my friends as lunch."

A wicked coughing fit struck forcing her to roll over onto her side. Nick tenderly rubbed her back, soothing her as they waited for it to pass.

Later that evening Schanke dropped by Natalie's hospital room before heading in for his shift. It still hurt to see her so sick and weak, instead of the strong, vibrant woman he'd known. He knocked on her door.

"Come in."

Schanke entered. "Did I disturb you?"

"No. How are you doing?" Natalie asked concerned.

"I'm doing okay. It's not easy to accept."

"I know. Everyone thinks they'll live forever. Nick and Grace had some trouble accepting it too. I did as well." A pretty intense coughing fit started.

Schanke put his hand on her arm. "I want you to know that I'll be there for you." "Thank you. You don't know how much that means to me. Does Myra know?" She said as the coughing fit eased, hoping it wouldn't start another one. "No. I didn't tell her. I told you I'd keep your secret and I have." "You can if you want to." She knew he would need someone to talk to. Also she didn't want her secret to cause any trouble in his marriage. "Thanks. She was concerned when I was late coming home last night, and then was a bit distracted on top of it. I told her it was work. Would you mind if she came by to see you?"

"No. I'd like that." Natalie managed a small, weak grin.

Don was met at his front door by Myra. She noticed that her husband was once again depressed, causing her concern to grow. She wondered what was going on at work that left him feeling so glum.

"Don, what's wrong? I'm worried about you."

"Why don't we go inside." He saw the worry in her eyes.

He led them towards the couch. Once they were seated he rubbed his face with his hands and started. "I learned why Natalie was doing all those crazy things, why she was so upset that Christmas, why she lost all that weight, why Nick goes out of his way to make the holidays so special for her."

"Is she sick?"

"Yeah. She's very sick," Don said, sadly.

"Is she going to recover?" Myra asked, hoping their friend didn't have cancer.

"Yeah, at least that's what Nick and Natalie say. She has pneumonia." Schanke didn't know how to tell Myra the rest so he just continued. "She has AIDS."

Myra was stunned. Several minutes passed before she was able to speak. "How..."

"From that bastard!" Schanke said outraged. He saw his wife's confused look, as well as her surprise at his outburst of anger. "From the bastard who raped her. Why do bad things always seem to happen to the good guys? Natalie did nothing to deserve this." A tear escaped and ran down his cheek.

"I know. Maybe this is hell and the lucky ones get out sooner than the rest of us." She said hoping it would soothe him, but it didn't. "This is why you've been so down, isn't it?"

"Yeah. Natalie made me promise not to tell anyone. Tonight she told me I could tell you. She didn't want her secret to come between us." Don let out a small sad grin. "As sick as she is, she's still trying to take care of her friends."

He took hold of Myra's hand and just held it, feeling like the luckiest man alive. His family was healthy. This made him feel sad for Nick and Natalie who weren't so lucky.

"She looked so pale, weak, so sick. She has these wicked coughing fits from the heavy congestion. She's exhausted. They're giving her oxygen so she can breathe easier. It broke my heart to see her so frail and sick." He sighed before continuing, "she has Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, which is apparently warded off if we're healthy, but with her weakened immune system..."

Myra's arm went around her husband's shoulders.

"Do you think she'd mind if I paid her a visit?"

"She'd like that."

"How did you find out?" Myra had a hunch that he had snooped around.

"I've noticed the changes in Natalie over the last eight years. They tried to convince me that nothing was wrong, and pretty much succeeded. I knew that there was something they were keeping between them." Myra's expression showed Don that he didn't answer her question, so he continued. "A couple of nights ago Nick got a phone call that really upset him. He nearly bolted from the station. He said that Natalie had a bad case of bronchitis. He was more upset and depressed than he should've been. The next night I followed him. I stayed out of sight until after he left, then I took a peek into the room. Last night he caught me. She told me, a little reluctantly. She doesn't want anyone to know. I can't say I blame her for that."

"I don't blame her either. Is she going to be able to return to work?"

"She should be able to. According to Nick, this was her first serious illness. After we left Natalie's room I went back to the loft with him. I had a lot of questions and he was able to answer them."

"Why didn't we notice anything, until she began losing weight?"

Don explained what Nick had told him about the progression of her disease, and what the future held for her.

A horrible idea struck Myra. "Nick, he isn't infected is he?"

"No. They've never..." Schanke explained to his wife what Natalie told him. He also told her Nick's story about the proposal.

Myra was impressed, knowing it took a special kind of love and courage to stay together in such adversity. She was also impressed by their creativity.

"I'm glad he's not infected. I couldn't handle losing them both."

"I know. Neither could I."

Don drew his wife into a long embrace, once again thanking the gods that his family was healthy.

That afternoon Myra gently knocked on Natalie's door as she stuck her head in. She had a paper bag in her hand.

"Come in," Natalie rasped.

Myra entered, shocked to see that her husband wasn't exaggerating. Natalie truly looked as bad as he had said. Myra's heart broke seeing their vibrant friend so sick, especially when she realized how much worse Natalie must've been earlier in the week.

Myra embraced Natalie, wanting to show her that she wasn't going to turn her back on her just because she had AIDS, through no fault of hers. The smile Natalie gave Myra brightened both their spirits.

Natalie was glad to see the few close friends who knew weren't turning on her because of the disease. It would make life easier as she wouldn't have to come up with all those cover stories. Katie, you were right. They are my lifeline.

"I thought you might like some home made soup. I know what the food's like around here."

"That would be great. The food is horrible."

"I didn't know what you'd feel like eating so I brought chicken noodle soup." She saw Natalie grin and was pleased.

Natalie consumed the soup as they talked. She complimented Myra on it and saw her friend smile.

As they talked Natalie had several intense coughing fits. Myra would talk while Natalie waited for the fit to pass. Natalie was glad Myra didn't make a big deal out of it.

Grace and Nick knew how important it was for Natalie to eat, if she wanted to beat the illness. Grace knew how bad hospital food was, and that Nat might not eat enough of it for that reason. It was those reasons that they brought her whatever she wanted to eat when they stopped by for their daily visits. Since their visits were at different times, they knew Natalie would have two good meals a day, three on the days Myra could make it. Same for Don.

Natalie understood that Myra couldn't visit every day due to having a family to tend to. When Myra felt bad for not being able to come as often as the others, Natalie made sure Myra knew it was okay and that her family should come first. She told Don the same thing when he felt bad for not visiting her often enough, at least in his mind.

Natalie's support group stopped by to cheer her up, be there to listen to her fears and try to ease them. They also brought food for Natalie, knowing how bad the hospital food was. Nick missed the vibrant healthy woman he loved. As the week passed, his sensitive hearing informed him that she was slowly fighting off the Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. He was grateful that she would recover, this time. A new fear gripped him, fear of the future. He knew that anything could happen, including the fact that he could lose her suddenly.

Near the end of the week, Grace was a little surprised when Natalie wanted her latest medical journals. Grace was pleased, as it meant her friend was indeed feeling better. That or the boredom was really getting to her.

A little over a week after her admission, the Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia symptoms had cleared up, earning Natalie her much desired release from the hospital. All her friends noticed how much better she was looking and feeling, knowing how anxious she was to sleep in her own bed again.

Her doctor ordered her to take it easy for the next few days if she didn't want to wind up right back in the hospital with a relapse, or worse. He ignored her protests when she learned she wasn't allowed back to work until the end of the week at the earliest. Since Natalie's release was in the morning, Grace gave Natalie a ride home. Natalie hadn't wanted to bother either Don or Myra, and Grace offered, so she accepted. "Natalie, honey, is there anything we need to pick up on the way home?" Grace asked, pleased to see her friend both feeling and looking better. "Other than my prescriptions, I can't think of anything," Natalie said, thrilled to be going home again. "Thank you for giving me lift home."

"It's no problem. I'm glad you're doing better."

"You're not the only one," Nat said with a grin, trying to lighten the mood. She was pleased when she saw Grace's slight grin.

"I bet," Grace said, lightly. "I would be if I had someone there to give me all the TLC you're going to get."

Natalie smiled at the thought of Nick going out of his way to make sure she had everything she wanted or needed for the next week. Before long, Grace and Natalie entered the loft. Natalie dropped her suitcase inside the door, hung up her jacket and kicked off her shoes. Grace took off her jacket as well. "Can I get you anything?" Grace asked, knowing her friend probably didn't feel like working in the kitchen. She knew she wouldn't if she had been that sick. She knew Nick was asleep and needed his rest. "No. I'm fine. You don't have to baby-sit me." Natalie headed for the couch. She hoped they didn't wake Nick as she knew how much he needed his rest. "I know. I just thought you might want some company." Grace said as she sat on an overstuffed chair near the couch. "That would be nice. Thanks for everything. Especially for not making a big deal out it." "No problem. I want you to talk to me when things are bothering you. Okay?" Grace asked, concerned. "Okay. But only as long as you'll talk to me or Nick." "Okay."

Nick had awakened from the voices below, but went back to sleep knowing Natalie was in good hands. He knew she needed some time alone with Grace.

A look at the clock told Natalie it was time for her latest round of medication, so she headed for the kitchen where she kept her medication. She also kept a supply in her bedroom. Natalie dispensed her various pills, adding her latest ones to it, and tossed them all into a paper cup, glad she no longer had to hide them from her friends. She filled a glass with water and headed back to the couch, where she poured the pills into her hand.

"You have to take all of those?" Grace said, surprised by the large handful of pills, and the size of one of capsules.

"Yes, several times a day. It's not too bad, once you get used to it, except for this one," Natalie said, pointing to the horse sized one. "These here are the TMP-SMX. They're antibiotics to prevent another infection from setting in while I recover from the PCP. I have to take them for another two weeks. These are the AZT, and this one is the ddI." She pointed out each pill as she named it. "I could take some in liquid form, but the pills are easier."

"PCP?"

"Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia."

Grace felt stupid for not realizing what abbreviation was for.

"How do you swallow the ddI?" Grace asked, seeing that the big white pill was about the size of a coat button.

"I don't, thank God. It's chewable and is supposed to taste like mandarin oranges."

Grace noticed her friend kept the biggest pill for last, surprised at how many pills she could take at once.

"How long have you been taking them?"

"Since the tests came back positive. About six months after the rape."

Later that afternoon after Grace had left, Nick came downstairs pleased to see Natalie looking better than she did the night before. This renewed his hope that she would recover and return to work. "You're looking good tonight. Is there anything you need?" I do need a few things from the grocery store." His panicked look brought a smile to her face. "Don't worry, I'll give you a list."

Natalie listed down the most important things and the aisle or area of the store where they could be found. She never remembered the aisle numbers so she listed a few of the main things in the aisle. An hour later Nick returned, both of his arms full of groceries. He noticed Natalie was still stretched out on the couch like she had been when he left. This told him that she still didn't feel completely well. A tired and weak Natalie watched him unpack, not feeling up to helping him. "Are you hungry?" Nick asked. "Yes." "What would you like me to fix you?" "Surprise me." She hoped she didn't regret that. "Okay." He grinned. "So, what's up?" Natalie asked. "Not much. Work's been a little slow." "I can't believe how many infomercials there are," Natalie said as she continued to flip through the stations. "They are annoying, aren't they." A minute or two later he had Natalie's turkey breast sandwich finished and was heading towards the couch when he noticed she was sound asleep. He did a 180 back to the kitchen where he covered the sandwich with plastic wrap and stuck it into the fridge. He scribbled her a note and covered her with a comforter before heading out for his shift. He knew the rest would was good for her. Several hours later, Natalie woke, immediately noticing the loft was too quiet, causing her to look all around. She found the note on the coffee table and read it, 'your sandwich is in the fridge. I'll stop by later to check on you. Nick'. Natalie took her medications, grabbed her sandwich and popped in a favorite movie to pass the time. She curled up on the couch and enjoyed the movie. She didn't know what she'd do without her husband or all her friends. She was grateful that none of them had turned against her due to the disease. Later the next afternoon Grace let herself in, having been given the entry code.

"Hi, Grace. What brings you by?" Natalie asked, pleased to see her friend.

"I thought you might like some company. I miss eating lunch with you. Things are a bit dull at work."

Natalie fixed her and Grace some tuna with mayonnaise for lunch. She served it on some lettuce with a slice of bread on the side. It was a quick, easy lunch. She thought it was only fair since Grace had done so much for her. Grace hated watching her good friend's health failing as it had been over the last few years and hoped Natalie's condition would stabilize for a while. She was glad Nick was there for Natalie, knowing that their love for each other would help them through this. About an hour before sunset Don and Myra rang the loft's doorbell and were let in by her. Myra wouldn't let Don enter the code, as it wasn't polite. They were pleased that Natalie was looking much better than she had in the hospital. "Hi, Natalie. I just wanted to see if you needed anything," Myra said as she embraced her friend. Then Don embraced Natalie. They wanted her to know they were still friends. That she was still a part of the family, like they had said several Christmases ago. "I'm okay. Nick's taking care of things. Thanks anyway." Natalie said as they all took seats in the living room. "Nick should be down shortly. He's getting ready for work." "How are you?" Don asked, concerned. "Better. I'm taking it easy and regaining my strength. How are you two doing?" She saw the sadness hidden deep in their eyes, and hated to be the cause of it. "Okay," Don said. "I miss seeing you around the precinct."

"Do you feel up to some home cooking?" Myra asked, knowing that Natalie probably didn't feel up to cooking and Nick could probably use a break. "That would be great. I don't want either of you to go to any trouble." "It's no trouble." Myra said.

Don and Myra noticed Natalie's relief. How could I turn against her? It wasn't her fault. Myra thought.

Nick came down, pleased to see his friends there, especially now that they knew the secret he and Natalie hid all those years.

"Partner, how are you doing?"

"I'm doing okay, especially now that she's recovering," Nick said as he sat next to his wife.

"Is the old saying true? Are doctors the worst patients?" Don teasingly asked.

"Yes to both," Nick said, earning a playful slap on the shoulder.

"Thanks," Natalie said playfully sarcastic.

Myra and Don were glad to see that Natalie's recent illness hadn't robbed the couple of their sense of humor.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Myra asked.

"We didn't want to worry you," Natalie said. "Does Jenny know?"

"No. I thought that if you wanted her to know, you'd tell her," Don said.

"Thanks. I don't know if I should tell her or wait until my health deteriorates further. I don't want her to worry about me more than she already does. I will tell her sometime. I don't want to suddenly not be there," Natalie said. "Has she mentioned anything to you? Does she suspect anything?"

"She hasn't said anything to me. I'm not sure she would say anything if she did suspect something. How would you tell your mom that you think an adult friend of the family has AIDS?" Myra said.

Don shook his head to indicate that his daughter hadn't mentioned any suspicions to him.

"Good point. Maybe I'll call her later and see if she wants to go out to dinner, a movie or just take a walk and talk. I can't believe how much she's grown. She's gorgeous."

"I know. It's hard to believe they grow up so fast. I'm glad she doesn't use her looks as a tool to get what she wants."

Jenny Schanke had seen the changes in her friend over the years and wondered what was going on with Natalie. She had enjoyed hearing all the stories about how Nat had turned into a wild child.

She looked around the house for her mom, finding her in the kitchen.

"Hi, Jenny. What's up?" Myra couldn't believe that her daughter was now sixteen.

"I tried calling Natalie over the last few days but there's been no one home. She always returns my calls."

"Maybe she went away for a few days?" Myra said, not wanting to burden her daughter with the truth. Should I tell her? Or is it up to Natalie? Myra decided that if Natalie wanted her to know, she'd tell Jenny herself.

"Thanks, Mom." Jenny said, hiding her suspicions.

Jenny was in her room flipping through the television channels when a talk show caught her attention. It brought to mind something from school. She remembered first learning it in the fifth grade, and learning more details earlier this year. She couldn't turn away from the show no matter how hard she tried. If she changed channels she quickly returned to the one with that show on it.

"Oh my God," Jenny said stunned as she realized that much of what the lady onscreen was saying fit what she'd seen in Nat since she was a child. She knew she couldn't do anything until she talked to her friend about it. She figured her parents wouldn't tell her what she wanted to know either because they didn't know or because they had promised not to.

The next afternoon, Jenny was dropped off at the loft so she could pay Natalie a quick visit. Jenny buzzed and was let up. Before long the elevator door opened and Jenny walked into the loft.

Nick and Natalie were seated on the couch talking. Jenny noticed that Nat looked tired, a little pale and slightly weak.

"Natalie, I was worried about you. You weren't home and weren't returning my calls."

"I'm sorry. I was sick and didn't feel like talking to anyone. When I did, it made me have wicked coughing fits."

"She did a lot of sleeping. I'm sorry I didn't call. I forgot."

"Nick, can I talk with Natalie alone for a while?" Jenny asked, hoping she could. It would be hard enough to confront Nat with her suspicions without Nick being there.

"Sure. I'll go pick up something for dinner. Are you joining us?"

"I don't know. It depends on when mom gets back."

"I'll pick you up something, just in case. If you don't eat it, I'm sure Nat will later." Nick could see the suspicion in Jenny's eyes as well as her slight nervousness. He could also hear it in her heartbeat, which had slightly increased.

As soon as Nick left, Jenny sat on the couch near Natalie.

"I missed you," Jenny said.

"I missed you, too." Natalie saw that her young friend had something on her mind. "What's bothering you?"

"Some stuff I learned in school. Or should I say, more details on stuff I learned last year." Jenny looked at her friend before continuing. "As I've grown up, I've noticed a lot of changes in you, and I don't just mean the wild stuff."

Natalie wondered how much Jenny had figured out, and guessed she was about to learn the answer.

"I've seen you lose too much weight, and now your illness. I thought you might have cancer, then I saw this show on TV the other day..." Jenny took a deep breath and continued, "do you have AIDS?"

"Yes." Natalie knew that she owed Jenny an honest answer. She knew that Jenny probably would start avoiding her, a fact which hurt, even though she knew it was a completely natural reaction for a sixteen year old.

"What did you really have? Who else knows?" Jenny tried her best to cover her feelings, not wanting them to show.

"I had Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Grace figured it out. So did your dad. Your mom knows because your dad told her."

"That sounds serious."

"It is, but only if your immune system is impaired by HIV, AIDS, cancer or other illnesses like that. If your immune system is normal then you won't catch it."

"Were you in the hospital?"

"Yes. I spent just over a week there."

"Was this from your attack?"

"Yes. How do you know about that? You weren't quite eight when it happened."

"I remember hearing things both then and as I grew up. Not to mention the fact that it did make the papers." She couldn't believe it. "Did he give it to you? Are you scared?"

"Yes, he did. I'm not as scared now as I was when I first learned I was HIV positive, or when it became AIDS. I was really scared when I became sick."

"Are you going to die soon?" Jenny asked, scared she was going to lose her friend.

"I hope not. I plan on sticking around until you graduate college." Natalie knew she most likely would not live that long. She would probably die within the next couple of years.

"You're the only adult who takes me seriously." She realized that she'd left someone important out, "Nick does too, but it's different."

"Your parents take you seriously. I know, it's not the same."

"Are you going back to work?"

"Yeah. In a few days. I just need to rest and regain my strength. I should be back to normal in a week or two."

"I'm glad." A thought occurred to Jenny. "Does Nick have it?"

"No. We've found other ways to show our love, than making love." She knew Jenny deserved to know they practiced safe sex, just like the kids were taught in school. She was careful to phrase it appropriately for a sixteen year old.

"When did he find out? How did he?"

"I told him. When the first test came back positive, six months after the attack, I was stunned and needed someone to talk to. Since he'd been so helpful during those six months, I turned to him. Since then, he's been very loving and supportive."

The loft door slid open and Nick entered. "Can I come in?"

"Sure," Jenny said. "Nick, you're even cooler than I thought."

Natalie loved the surprised look on Nick's face and the grin it brought out.

"How come?" He asked.

"Because you married her, knowing she had HIV."

"What mattered was that I loved her and she loved me," Nick said. "There almost wasn't a wedding."

"How come?"

"Because I wasn't sure if he was proposing because he loved me or because he felt he should. I wanted to make him understand that things would get worse over time," Natalie said. "I knew he loved me."

"I had to convince her that I was doing it out of love and that I'd be there for her no matter what happened. I knew that she would grow sicker over time."

"Once I saw in his eyes that he was doing it out of love I accepted."

"I'm glad. You two belong together."

Natalie continued to feel better as the week progressed. She was starting to climb the walls and contemplated returning to work in a day or two. She and her husband discussed it. Nick trusted his wife not to return before she was ready.

Natalie called Terri, who was pleased to hear her top ME sounding much better than she had the last time they'd spoken. Once Terri had been assured by Natalie that it was okay for her to return to work at the end of the week she scheduled a Friday return for the forensic pathologist. She told Natalie that if she wasn't feeling good she shouldn't show up or stay. "How are you feeling?" Nick asked as he entered the living room. "Other than climbing the walls?" "Better." She said. "Can't we go out for a short walk? I'm going nuts. I've read all the articles of interest from the last six months worth of journals, done several web searches for the latest information. I even read a few boring articles just to have something to do. I finished the novel I've been wanting to read for months now."

"I get the point," Nick said lightly, cutting her off, knowing what it was like to be cooped up with nothing to do. "Okay. I want you to make sure you dress warmly enough."

"Yes, mom." She grinned. She loved how he had stuck with her throughout her illness. She'd seen how hard it was for him.

"I'm lucky to have so many great friends," She said, knowing that it hadn't been easy for any of her friend's to watch her health decline and then see her so sick. "It's not luck. They realized what I did, you're a kind, gentle, loving person." Natalie headed for the closet to grab a jacket. When she returned she found Nick staring out the window. She approached him and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Nick, what's wrong?" "It's nothing." "Nick." He motioned for her to head over to the couch. He sat down next to her. "I'm worried about you. I don't want to lose you. It's not fair." "I know. I'm glad that you're there for me." She laid her hand on his knee. She heard the deep concern in his voice. "I don't know what I'd do without you." "When I saw you so sick it felt like someone drove a stake through my heart. I wanted to kill Collins so many times, but I knew that his dying slowly and alone would be far worse than anything I could do to him." Sadness filled his blue eyes. "I know. I've wanted to kill him too, but didn't. Mostly for the same reasons." He gently caressed her cheek. She leaned into the caress, loving the feel of his cool skin against her warmer skin. He wrapped his arms around her, needing the feel of her against him. She happily complied and leaned against him.

"How about that walk?" He said, not wanting things to become too depressing.

"How about stopping at that little cafe over by the park?"

"Sure."

While they were out he kept a close eye on her, not wanting her to overtire herself or get too cold. Natalie was going out of her mind with boredom. She had done a few more web searches turning up nothing useful for either research project, read the novels Grace and Nick had given her, and rewatched her two favorite movies. She couldn't stand to be cooped up in the loft any longer as it had been cold and rainy for the last couple of nights. She was growing crankier with each passing night, even though she tried not to, drawing teases from Nick and her friends about doctors truly making the worst patients.

Finally Friday came.

Nick wrapped his arms around her from behind as she dressed. "At least try to take it easy your first day or two back. Okay?" Nick knew he couldn't change her mind, but was glad that Grace would be there to keep an eye on her.

"Okay. I'll try."

Natalie made sure that she looked as good as possible, without going overboard, before she left for work. She asked Nick for his opinion, pleased when he told her she looked just fine. Natalie was surprised to see the small welcome back party as she entered her office with Nick right behind her. Grace and Schanke were among the small crowd in attendance. A colorful 'Welcome Back Natalie' banner had been taped across her blackboard. She found a heavenly looking chocolate cake with chocolate frosting sitting on her desk. She smiled, knowing that her friends had missed her as much as she had missed them. It felt good to be back. She hung up her jacket and cut the cake, dishing it out to her friends. They all waited for her to take the first bite, as it was her party. She did and found it quite delicious.

Since everyone had work to do, they expressed their happiness she was back, before returning to their duties.

Natalie looked at the pile of folders on her desk. "Welcome back. You look pretty good," Grace said, knowing she was repeating her welcome. "Welcome back, Natalie. You look good." Schanke said. "Are you sure you're not rushing back?"

"It's okay, Schank. I know what I'm doing." She saw him relax. "Welcome back," Nick said, before planting a quick kiss on Natalie's lips. "I feel pretty good. Thanks, guys." Natalie wasn't feeling quite like she had before her illness and knew that she probably wouldn't feel that good again. She knew that her three friends noticed this, and was grateful they hadn't said anything about it.

The two guys left so that Natalie could get to work. "It's good to have you back. Your replacement was a bit uptight. He would get cranky if things didn't go as he wanted them to." "And things rarely went that way, I take it. It's good to be back." Grace embraced Natalie on her way out. Natalie finished a couple of her most important files, surprised that there wasn't more waiting for her. Once she had the crucial stuff taken care of she switched to her research. She had lost two weeks worth of time and wasn't going to lose much more if she could help it. She knew time was growing short, boosting her determination to find the cure for Nick before she died. She wanted to be able to fulfill that one promise to him. Two nights later Natalie was dressing for work when she found herself sitting on the bed crying. She was unsure why, but let herself cry. She hated the way her condition was slowly deteriorating. Her frustration level still rose. She hated feeling helpless as it only served to anger her and make her frustration level rise even higher. She hated how Nick would know she was crying, and hoped he'd let her cry without trying to comfort her.

She hated for her husband and her friends to watch her health deteriorate. She could see how much it hurt them every time she saw them. She was incredibly thankful as well as grateful that her friends had not turned away once they knew the truth.

Nick heard her crying but didn't enter. He knew she wanted to be alone and would let her cry in peace. He too had cried many times during the course of her disease, especially lately. A bloody tear streaked its way down his cheek, and was quickly wiped away by his fingertips. He didn't want her to see it, knowing it would only increase her sadness. She called her office to let them know something had come up and she would be a little late. She knew Grace would worry about her. She told Nick she had to go out for a while and she'd be at work later. He understood and knew where she was going. Natalie headed for her support group, needing to talk with them. She used the half hour drive to sort out a few things that had been bothering her. When she entered the room she noticed a face was missing, Lisa wasn't there. She hoped it wasn't anything serious. Ray looked more tired, weak and a little pale. Mel still looked good. She was greeted with hugs. They noticed she looked a little weak, tired, but otherwise okay. "Welcome back. We missed you," Mel said. "I missed you all too. Thanks for coming by to see me. It meant a lot. Where's Lisa?" "She's been having a battle with Montezuma. She hasn't been able to leave her house for the last two days, not knowing when it will strike," Mel said. "I'm glad I missed that symptom," Natalie said. "I missed that one also," Ray said. "And I'm glad I did too." "How are you feeling?" Mel asked. "Pretty good. I couldn't believe how horrible I felt," Natalie said. "I was relieved to know my friends didn't turn on me when they learned I have AIDS."

Later that evening at the Coroner's Office, Natalie was busily scribbling away when Grace entered.

"Natalie, what has you so preoccupied?" Grace asked.

Natalie was startled, jumping at the sound of Grace's voice. She tried to quickly cover up what she had been working on.

Grace laughed watching her friend trying to hide the notebook, like a child caught passing a note in class. Natalie's expression only made Grace laugh harder.

"What?"

"You reminded me of a kid caught passing notes in school."

"If I show you this, will you promise not to tell anyone?" Natalie said, completely serious.

"I promise," Grace said equally serious.

"This is the first poem I've ever written. I want your opinion."

"Okay."

Grace read the poem to herself, hearing Natalie's voice.

Portrait by Natasha Chevalier
I am the face of AIDS
I am your daughter, your son,
your closest and dearest friend.

I am your brother,
your sister, your cousin,
your nephew, your niece.

I am your wife, your husband.
I am the person you love
or the one you hate.

I am your boyfriend,
your girlfriend, or
your lover and mate.

I am the child with
the sunken face that longs
for love and a warm embrace.

I am the person you pass
in the store, on the beach
or while crossing the street.

I am the person that has
no flowers on the grave
you walked by yesterday.

I am you.

Don't turn me away, for
I am the face of AIDS.

Grace wiped a few stray tears from her face as she finished the poem.

"Natalie, it's beautiful. I think you should get it published. How did you come up with Chevalier?"

"It's French for Knight. You really liked it? Natalie asked unsure.

"Yes. I did. It might very well open a few eyes."

Nick and Schanke entered.

"What's going on?" Schanke asked. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," Natalie said. She knew she'd have to show them the poem. "I want your opinion on something. I don't want anyone to know about this."

Natalie uneasily handed her poem to the guys. She watched their faces as they read it. She saw that it deeply touched both men.

"Natalie, I know you want no one else to read it, but can I show it Myra? She'd appreciate it more," Schanke asked.

"Okay. No one else."

"Sure. I understand," Schanke said. "I liked the poem."

"Nat, it was quite touching. I never knew you wrote poetry."

"I don't. This was my first one."

Later the next afternoon, Myra dropped by the loft to see how her friends were doing. She was also there to return Natalie's poem.

The elevator door opened allowing Myra to enter. She saw Natalie busy in the kitchen and approached.

"Natalie, you wrote a very touching poem. Have you thought about publishing it?"

"Thanks. I have thought about it. I'm not sure I'm ready for that, yet."

"It could open many eyes. I thought the pseudonym was very clever."

"I'm glad you liked it. Would you like a cup of coffee?" Natalie asked as she popped her dinner into the oven.

"Sure." She knew she could use one. Also, she didn't want Nat thinking that she was afraid to drink out of her dishes, just because of the disease.

Natalie poured them each a cup of coffee before they headed for the couches. They sat and talked while sipping their coffee. Just under a week later Natalie was able to toss out an empty pill bottle as she had finished the twenty-one days of TMP-SMX treatment for the Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. She was still taking the AZT and ddI, and would until they lost their effectiveness or until she died. It felt good not to have to take so many pills, as she already took a handful of them several times a day.

She still didn't feel as good as she had beforehand, and reluctantly accepted the fact that she wouldn't fully recover. She knew she had to use whatever time she had to the fullest, just like she had before her illness. Only now it was more crucial as she wouldn't know when she'd become too sick to work.

Natalie woke up that afternoon soaking wet, chilly, tired, and with a low fever. She saw that Nick was already awake. She heard the faint signs of the shower next door being used. She grumbled as she slipped out of her wet night clothes, dried herself off, and into a long t-shirt, and sat on Nick's bed, wrapping the covers around her. She began to feel warmer as soon as she'd slipped on the dry shirt.

As soon as she heard the shower go off she entered their bathroom, took her medication, slipped out of her nightshirt and into the shower.

Nick had dressed by the time she finished in the shower. He stripped the wet bedding off her bed and replaced it with dry stuff, before carting the wet linen to the washer.

She was trying to figure out what to wear when he reentered the room. He walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her towel clad body.

"Good afternoon," He said.

"Good afternoon," she said as she turned around so she was facing him, wrapping her arms around him.

"You're a little warm. Did you take your temperature?"

"Yes. It's only slightly elevated. I don't have any other symptoms. I'm okay... just a little tired."

"Why don't you stay home and rest? I'll fix you a nice breakfast." He quickly kissed her.

"That does sound nice," Natalie said, not really wanting to run her errands, but knowing she had to. "But, I have a few things I must do."

"Are you sure you're up to it?"

"Nick, I appreciate the gesture, but I'm not helpless." She pushed herself away from him.

"I know."

"Then stop treating me that way, okay?" Natalie said a bit crankier than she meant to.

"I'm just concerned about you."

"Enough so that you'd bring me across?" She asked still cranky. The look on his face told her all she needed to know.

"Nat, you're not ready yet."

"How the hell can you know that?"

"I just do. We'll both know when the time is right."

"Ah yes, another one of your mystical vampire secrets. Right?"

"No. It comes from knowing you as well as I do." Nick knew that her anger was a result of her condition and let her vent.

"That's a load of crap," she angrily said. "When will be the right time? When I'm on my deathbed?"

"Maybe."

"What if the 'right' time doesn't come? Would you let me die?"

"No, not unless you asked me to let you die." He knew she was terrified of her very uncertain future. It scared him.

"How's the research going?" Nick hoped the change of subject would help.

"I thought I had a promising lead, but it fizzled out like every other one has. Actually, both projects aren't going anywhere."

"Why don't you give up on my cure and concentrate on your own."

Natalie looked stunned. "Why? Do you think my having AIDS interferes with my ability to conduct research?" She said the anger back in her voice.

"No. I just want you to spend your time on the more likely one."

"Nick, they've been trying to find a cure for both HIV and AIDS for the last twenty-five years and aren't much closer today than they were back then. I have made some significant progress in the search for your cure."

"Natalie, I'm just trying to be practical."

"No. You're trying to make things easier for me. I never asked you for that. I promised you I'd find your cure, and I will."

"Nat, I want you to enjoy life, not spend it slaving away in the lab."

"Why can't I continue to do both?"

"Because, the more you push yourself the bigger the possibility that your disease will progress faster."

"That's a load of crap and you know it," She said angrily, then forced herself to calm down. She knew he was just looking out for her. "It's when I give up that I'll die quickly. Being busy is what keeps me alive."

"Do you call coming home from work as tired as you do, living?"

"Yes." She felt the anger rising again. "Not all of us have your perfect vampire physiology. I used to come home from work tired before this damn disease and never got this reaction."

"There's a difference."

"Yeah, I have AIDS." She looked hurt and upset along with the anger. "You promised me that you wouldn't treat me differently. You lied."

"I don't treat you differently."

"You question me every time I feel warm, if I lose any weight, if I'm tired, have I taken my latest batch of medication, am I okay."

"I worry about you, because I love you."

"I'm okay. Haven't I been honest with you so far?"

"Yes."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem is that you keep pushing yourself. You still have that wild streak, just waiting for the next idea to come along. You're trying to pretend that everything is fine, which it isn't."

"Don't you think I know it isn't!?" she stated quite angrily. "What am I supposed to do? Quit work and sit around the house waiting to die? I'm sorry, I won't do that."

"Natalie..."

"I think I know my limits."

He just looked at her, knowing anything he said would only make her angrier.

"I don't have the perfect vampiric immune system you do. Mine is being destroyed by AIDS and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. You've shown me that."

"That's unfair."

"Is it?" She angrily asked. "I got this damn disease because some scum decided he wanted sex with me. Maybe I would've been better off if he had killed me."

"Now you're being unfair."

"How?"

"Has your life been that bad all these years?" He saw her start to protest and raised his hand for her to be quiet and let him finish. "Outside of having HIV or AIDS."

"Nick, I can't separate the disease from my life. It is an integral part of it." She tried to make him understand. "Has your life been so bad? Outside of the vampiric aspects?"

"Nat, that's not fair."

"Why not? You're asking me to do the same thing, separate out a part of me that I can't."

"It's different."

"No. It's not."

"Natalie, please live your life and don't waste it finding my cure."

"I've spent the last fourteen years of my life searching for it. If I stop now, all that will have been wasted." She hadn't realized she'd spent so long in the search. "That's a long time to us mortals."

"Natalie..."

"I don't want to hear it."

"Nat..."

"We talked about this not so long ago, remember?" She saw him start to zone out and smacked him, a little harder than she should've. "Don't you dare zone out on me while I'm talking to you."

"I remember."

"We agreed to continue the research into your cure. It was *both* our decisions."

"Things have changed."

"Yes, they have. But life has to go on for us mortals. Especially those of us with limited lifetimes due to disease."

"I don't want you wasting..."

"I'm not wasting my life. I'm doing what I want to do. If you can't understand that, then everything you've told me about wanting to make every day of my life special was a lie."

"I meant everything I said. I just didn't expect to be feeling the way I am."

"Life's a bitch, ain't it?" Natalie sat on the bed. "More so for some of us."

"Natalie..." Nick didn't know what to say so he left. He knew that if the fight continued, both would say worse things they'd later regret.

Natalie slipped into her jeans and a sweater, headed for the kitchen needing something to eat. When she examined the contents of the fridge she realized she wasn't hungry. Tears began to stream down her cheeks.

Some time later, Schanke rang the buzzer and heard the sound of the door being released. He opened the door and went in. He took the elevator up to the loft and before long opened the door.

Natalie was seated on the couch and didn't bother to approach her friend.

"What do you want, Schank," She wasn't in the mood for visitors.

Schanke saw the fresh tear tracks and knew something was wrong. "Natalie, you okay?"

"No. But that's not why you're here, is it?"

"No, it's not. Is Nick here?"

Natalie sort of snorted, "I haven't seen him for a while."

"Did you two have a fight?"

"Boy did we," Natalie said as she headed back for the couch, where she plopped herself onto it.

"What about? If you want to talk about it." Schanke said trying not to pry. He was concerned about them. He knew that as Natalie's disease had worsened it had put more stress on her and Nick's marriage.

Natalie knew Schanke was only trying to help, and maybe talking to him would help.

"What else? My health," she said wearily. "I know it hasn't been easy for him, or for any of my friends. I warned him how tough it would get when he proposed. I thought he could handle it. He thinks it's his fault. He promised he'd be there for me... until the very end." A tear ran down her cheek, which she quickly wiped away.

"Natalie, he loves you so much. Maybe he just needs some time alone to think," Schanke hoped that helped. He didn't know what else to say. "Why don't I drop you off at my house. Myra's better at this sort of problem than I am."

"Thanks. I think I'd like that."

I'm going to go kill that selfish SOB, Schanke fumed, silently to himself.

Natalie grabbed her purse and jacket as she and Schanke left. He dropped her off at his house, hating to see her in such pain. Myra met them at the door. She wrapped Natalie in a comforting embrace before leading her friend inside.

Myra led Nat to the family room sofa, where they both sat.

"Can I get you a cup of coffee, or maybe some hot chocolate?" Myra asked.

"No, thanks."

"What happened?"

"Nick and I had a terrible fight."

Schanke arrived at the Raven, parked and entered. He pushed through the strange clientele, heading straight for the bar.

"I'm looking for Nick Knight. Have you seen him?"

"He's over there in the corner," Miklos said as he pointed out the blonde detective.

Schanke's anger grew as he saw Nick and Janette sharing the booth. It looked like much more than friendship, especially the way her hand was on top of his.

"Janette, I'd like a word alone with Nick."

Janette sensed the waves of anger radiating from Don and left the table before any of them were turned on her.

"Nick, you have one hell of a nerve walking out on Natalie!" Schanke nearly growled as he threw himself into the seat across from Nick.

"It's not your business so stay out if it!" Nick growled back in response. "At least I didn't run out on my wife." Nick remembered when his partner had left Myra because of a fight.

"It is my business when Natalie's hurt. You're both my friends. I'd be talking to her like this if she'd walked out on you," Schanke said. He knew Nick was right, he had run out on Myra the last time they had a major blowout, which now seemed so insignificant, especially with all that Nick and Natalie had to face on a daily basis. Don was grateful Nick hadn't done that as it would've hurt Natalie even worse.

"You don't understand..."

"Understand what?" Schanke asked, cutting Nick off. "That your wife is growing sicker with each day? It hurts to see her health failing, knowing she doesn't deserve to be that ill." He looked at Nick and the half empty wine glass in front of him. "You have some nerve walking out on her when she needs you most."

"I didn't think it would be so hard."

"Welcome to the real world. This is what commitment is all about. When you married her, you knew she would grow sicker as time passed." Schanke was cut off before he could continue.

"You're not there with her day and night. You don't know what it's like to wonder if she'll wake up, when she'll get too sick to do more than just lie in bed day after day waiting for death. You don't have to hear her crying because she's growing sicker and is scared. She thinks she's letting me down." Nick fought back the blood tears. "Watching her go to work each day knowing that she'll be asleep not long after she gets home and will wake tired the next day. Watching her struggle each and every day."

"You forget, partner, that I do see her every day. I see her struggle. It breaks my heart," Schanke said. "I'm not going to let you run out on her because you can't handle it. She needs you now more than ever. And whether or not you know it, you need her too."

"I know she needs me. I'm scared of losing her."

"I know. She's counting on you to live up to your promise to be there for her until the very end."

"I know."

"How do you think she feels? She's the one who's dying, not you." Schanke's eyes were misting up. He felt such compassion for both of them. Marriage was hard enough without the added stresses of one being terminally ill. "If I were her I'd be terrified. I'd want all the love and support I could get, especially from my spouse."

Nick finished off the glass before him, not wanting to think about the pain he caused her.

"Drinking's not going to help matters any." Schanke said. "Why don't you tell me what the fight was about."

"She's been trying to help me overcome my sun allergy. I told her I didn't want her to waste her remaining time on what's probably a hopeless cause. She blew up at me."

"Did you ever think that maybe that's what keeps her going? Work is work, nothing that she'd push herself that hard for, at least not these days."

Nick hadn't realized that. His expression didn't escape Schanke's notice.

"I'm sure she's been asking you to do things. Doctor's always do. Have you been doing them?"

"She has, and I tend to get lax when I don't see any results or when it's difficult."

"More difficult than the hell she's been through?" He wasn't about to let Nick off easy.

"No. I keep disappointing her. I know it hurts her but I can't stop myself from doing it."

"Why?"

Both men were silent for several moments before Nick spoke.

"Because I'm afraid of failure. I don't want it to hurt her even more. If I don't try so hard then it's not her fault if it doesn't work."

"Did you ever stop and think that if you gave it some effort, it might actually work?"

That's what I'm afraid of, Nick thought to himself. He knew that if it did work he would not be able to bring her across someday.

"Yes."

Across town at the Schanke residence a similar conversation was going on.

"Natalie, what happened?"

"I don't know."

Myra held her friend's hand, offering silent support.

"I know it hasn't been easy for any of you, Nick especially. I never wanted any of you to watch me suffer like this."

"Natalie, we're your friends. We're not going to leave just because it gets rough."

"I know he worries a lot about me and about the future." A tear ran down her cheek, which she quickly wiped away. "We both knew it wouldn't be easy as my disease worsened." She wiped away another tear. "It hurts to see him in such pain. He blames himself for it."

"What started the fight?"

"He told me to give up the search for the cure for his sun allergy. It's what makes me get out of bed every afternoon. I promised him I would find it. He said he didn't want me wasting my remaining time on it." Natalie saw the sadness this thought brought to Myra and hated causing her friend even more pain. "If I stopped now, everything I've done since I met him would be a waste."

"Did you tell him this?"

"I tried to. He wouldn't listen."

"Marriage isn't without its problems." Myra saw Natalie nod. "Especially when one has a terminal illness."

"I know."

"I think Nick's acting like a lot of men do. When they're faced with something they don't know how to handle, or it's more difficult than they expected, they tend to run. Sometimes they do it emotionally or sometimes it's physically."

"Do you think he'll ever be back?" Natalie asked, tears in her eyes.

"Natalie, he loves you. He'll be back. He just needs some time to think." Myra saw that Natalie was still unsure. "Remember, he married you knowing that your health would worsen over time.

"I know." A small sad grin momentarily crossed Natalie's lips. "Myra, I'm scared."

"I know. It's okay to be scared. Everyone is scared sometimes, whether they're healthy or not."

"Thanks."

"Remember when Don left?" Myra saw Natalie nod and continued. "I was sure I'd lost him for good. When I think back on it, it seems so insignificant." Myra was glad to see her friend brighten a little. Especially with all you and Nick have been through, and have ahead of you.

Back at the Raven, Nick and Schanke were still in the booth talking.

"Schank, how can I go back to her?"

"Go back. The sooner the better. Talk from your heart. She'll listen."

"What if she won't?"

"If she wants to yell, let her. Listen to her, really listen. She's as scared as you are, if not more," Schanke said. "When I went back to Myra it was hard, but I knew I had to because she's the love of my life. I was afraid she wouldn't take me back. I did all the things I just told you to do."

Half an hour later Don Schanke arrived home with Nick in tow. The portly detective entered first, motioning for Nick to wait in the foyer.

Don went on in looking for his wife and Natalie. He found them seated on the family room couch.

"How are things here?"

"Okay," Natalie said, showing the effects of the night.

Both her friends could see how tired she was, how much the fight had taken out of her.

"Myra, can I see you in the kitchen?"

Both women knew something was up. Myra and Don went into the kitchen.

Nick took that as his cue to approach.

"Natalie, I'm sorry." Nick said, honestly. "I'm sorry for not trying harder, for upsetting you, for running out."

"I'm sorry for coming down on you so hard. You scared the hell out of me. I thought I'd lost you."

"You could never lose me. I was scared and didn't know how to react. I've never been this close to anyone."

"Neither have I. I'm scared too." Natalie wiped a tear from her cheek. "I need you. I can't do this alone."

"You won't have to. I'll be there for you. I promise."

"How can I be sure you won't run out on me again. I won't be getting any better."

"I know. All I can do is offer the words from my heart and hope you believe me. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't." Nick hoped his sincerity would win her back. "I need you. You're the only one who truly believes in me. Who loves me for who and what I am. I love you."

Natalie saw the blood tears welling in his eyes and the sincerity in his voice. She saw the pain and sorrow in his eyes.

"If you ever run out on me again..." The next words were said loud enough for him alone to hear "I will stake you."

He heard the anger fading and knew she'd forgiven him. A part of him wondered if she really would do it.

"No flowers or chocolate?" She said trying to lighten the mood. She knew he'd punished himself enough, and would probably keep punishing himself for this.

"I didn't want you to think I was trying to bribe my way back into your heart." He knew what she was trying to do, but wanted to be honest with her. "If you want we can stop by the florist and candy store on the way home. I'll buy you whatever you want."

Don and Myra knew that was their cue to reenter the room.

"Is everything okay?" Myra asked concerned.

"It will be. Thank you both for your help," Natalie said.

"I'm not letting you leave here until you kiss and I know you'll be okay," Myra said.

Nick swept his wife into his arms and kissed her, allowing all the love he felt for her to pass from his body to hers. She embraced him, sending all her love to him through their kiss.

When the kiss finally broke off Don couldn't resist teasing them. "I think they set a new world record."

Nick and Natalie grinned. Myra playfully swatted her husband on the arm.

"Go home. Don't let the little things get to you. Your love and marriage is the most important thing to remember," Don said.

"We will try to remember that," Nick said. "We need to go."

Neither of the Schankes' argued with him, seeing how Natalie was totally wiped out.

Don gave them a lift home, seeing as neither Knight had a car there. Natalie fell asleep in Nick's arms during the trip to the loft.

Nick carried Natalie in and upstairs to their room. He pulled off her shoes and tucked her in. Kissing her forehead before he changed for bed. He didn't want to risk waking her by trying to get her into her pajamas.

The next morning Nick woke before Natalie and snuck downstairs. When he heard her stir he reentered their room carrying breakfast for her.

"Nick, you didn't have to," she said lovingly.

"I know. I just wanted to make up for my stupid behavior last night. I was scared and didn't know how to react."

"I know. I'm scared too. Together we can get through this."

"I know. Have I told you lately that you're the best thing to ever happen to me?" He set the tray down across her body.

She saw chocolate chip pancakes, a breakfast steak, orange juice, coffee, and a single perfect red rose in an elegant crystal vase and smiled warmly at him. The next evening, Nick was at home alone on his night off. He didn't know why he couldn't focus on anything, finding himself pacing the floor instead. Before long he knew it had to be related to Natalie's recent illness and the progression of her disease. He walked over to the drawer where he had stuck the list of support groups Natalie had given him. He wasn't sure if it would work for him, but he needed someone he could talk to. He didn't want to burden Grace or Schanke as they both had enough to deal with. Janette couldn't fully understand as she'd never loved anyone like he loved Natalie. Sure, they'd loved each other but they knew that they would never truly lose each other due to their immortality.

Nick again felt guilty that he couldn't share his curse with Natalie. He couldn't condemn her to his lifestyle. Nick took flight, needing the freedom it gave him. He allowed the flight to help him sort out his thoughts and feelings as he too had chosen an out of town group. Before long Nick landed in the shadows beside the building and entered. He quickly located the room and was outside the door. He hesitated momentarily before entering. Nick saw about a dozen people seated in a circle. They looked up and smiled when they saw him. They saw his nervousness and understood, having been there themselves. "Come in. I'm Henry." He saw Nick enter. "Grab a brownie and a cup of coffee. Join us. By the way, my wife has AIDS." Everyone scooted their chairs out a little so that Nick could squeeze his in. Nick still felt a little uneasy, and hoped this helped. "I'm Cynthia. My son has AIDS." "I'm Rick. My girlfriend is HIV positive." "Hi. I'm Brent. My significant other has HIV." "Hi. I'm Nick. My wife has AIDS. She recently had her first opportunistic infection. Until then I could believe that she would be one of those that went for years without getting sick. I'm scared. I don't want to lose her." "We all understand those feelings," Henry said. "It hurt to see her health deteriorate over the last couple of years. Nothing hurt more than seeing her lying there so sick," Nick said. "I remember the first time my wife was sick. It terrified me. I was sure I was going to lose her," Henry said, knowing exactly how Nick felt. "Nat's always been so full of life. She still is, but now we both know that she will only live a few more years. We know that it will get harder as she grows weaker and has more opportunistic infections. I was terrified when she came down with PCP. I don't know which of us was more scared." "Do many people know?" Stephanie asked. "No. She didn't want anyone but me to know. Three of our friends figured it out during her recent illness." "How do you handle it on a daily basis?" Brent asked. "At first we thought about it a lot, but over time it faded into the background. She went almost six years before the symptoms started. We try to live as normally as possible, except for when she comes up with outrageous things she wants to try." "I remember that phase. We went scuba diving, parasailing, on a helicopter tour and she took up Tae Kwon Do." "Natalie wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle. That was her first adventure. She was hooked on it. Then there was the temporary tattoo, the bungee jumping, ice skating, inline skating, water-skiing, mountain climbing, among others." "How did you deal with it once the symptoms started?" "Pretty much the same as before. I tried to do little things to help, like fixing dinner for her, bringing home a movie, being there when she needed to talk, or just be with someone." He felt better the more he talked, the uneasiness had passed. "I feel so helpless and frustrated. I feel great anger, but not at her." "Carrie, contracted it from a bad blood transfusion. We learned she was HIV positive when we had the premarital blood testing done. We've been married thirteen years now. She's had AIDS for the last two years." "Amy caught it from the man who raped her." Nick was surprised that someone else caught it the same way and wondered if Collins had infected her as well. "Nat was infected by the man who raped her. We thought we were in the clear because the first test, right after the assault, came back negative." "So did we." "I didn't know I was infected until Bryan was born HIV positive."

"Were you married before she was diagnosed?" Brent asked Nick.

"No. I didn't propose to her until two years after the diagnosis. Too much had happened too quickly and I didn't want to overwhelm her by proposing before either of us were truly ready." A small sad smile crossed his face. "I was the first, and only person she told. She told me as soon as she had received the six month retest results back."

"Did she tell you how rough things were going to become as her condition worsens?" Henry asked.

"Yes. She told me when I proposed. We had a little fight then." Nick said as he told them the story behind it. He couldn't believe he was being so open and honest with these strangers, but knew that it was the right thing to do. The more he opened up to them the better he felt. He told them how much they had learned from Katie.

That morning, shortly before sunrise, Natalie was fixing herself a snack when she saw a new peacefulness about Nick as he entered the loft. He noticed. He walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She spun around so she faced him.

"I went to a support group last night. You're right, they do help."

"I'm glad." She knew how much he would need that support as her condition worsened. "So, what else did you do last night?" She inquired, her tone lighter.

"After spending a couple of hours talking with my group, I did some thinking."

"Driving or flying?" She joked.

"Flying. I needed the feeling of freedom it gives me." He was glad to see she had no problem with that.

Nick, Grace and the Schankes were glad Natalie was feeling better but continued to keep a very close eye on her. She forced them to stop hovering over her because she was fine according to her most recent checkup. They backed off, but still kept a subtle eye on her which was fine with her. It felt great to have friends concerned about her. Ones who weren't frightened off by the disease.

Natalie had tried to schedule some with Jenny, but the teen had been busy every time. Natalie knew that Jenny was likely avoiding her, and that it was a perfectly natural reaction for her age.

Myra invited Nick and Natalie over to dinner that night. It was a spur of the moment thing, but something she sensed they all needed.

Jenny arrived home from school and headed for the kitchen to grab her snack as usual.

"Have a good sized snack, we're eating later than usual tonight."

"Why?"

"We're having company."

"Who?"

"Nick and Natalie," Myra said, suspecting Jenny would have a ready excuse.

"I promised Missy I'd study with her tonight," Jenny said, nervously.

"Why don't you invite Missy over," Myra said, calling her daughter's bluff.

"I can't. She has books we need to use. Too many to drag over here."

"You can go over there after dinner."

"It will be too late then. Her parents go to bed early."

"Jenny, Natalie needs your friendship, now more than ever."

"I know. I want to spend time with her, but something in me hates the idea of it. I wish things were like they were."

"I know. But they're not. It's hard for all of us, but she's our friend and Don and I are not going to let her having AIDS stop us from being her friend," Myra said. She knew what Jenny was going through. "How do you think she feels? She's the one who has to deal with it and people's reactions to it."

"Mom, I still want to be her friend, but it hurts too much. Can't you understand?" Jenny asked quite upset, wishing her mom understood. "Every time I see her, I see how much worse she is. I can't watch her slowly die."

"I know. It's very hard on me too. Why don't you say hi to Natalie and then go over to Missy's. Okay?" She knew if she didn't let Jenny go, she'd be too uncomfortable and spend the rest of the night hiding in her room. She remembered back when she was around Jenny's age and a friend of hers was dying. She couldn't face her friend either.

"Thanks, mom. You do understand." Jenny hugged her mom as she headed upstairs to her room.

"Hi, dad," Jenny said as she passed her father on the stairs.

"Hi, honey."

Don headed for the kitchen to grab another cup of coffee.

"Honey, why are there only four place settings?"

"Jenny's eating at Missy's tonight. They have to work on a project for school."

"I thought she'd want to be here to see her friends."

"She does, but the project is a good sized chunk of her final grade. Missy's busy the next couple of nights."

"Okay." He knew better than to argue with his wife. He was glad to see his daughter's school work taking precedence over social activities, but wished she could spare some time for the Knights.

Don headed upstairs to see his daughter. He knocked on her open door.

"Come in," Jenny said as she turned from her computer.

"I'm glad to see you taking your homework seriously, but can't you spare a few minutes for your friends? They'd love to see you."

"I wish I could."

"When's your project due?"

"Project. Umm... not until the end of next week."

"Jenny, you can't keep ignoring Natalie."

"I'm not."

"Then why are you busy every time she wants to see you?"

"I have a lot to do."

"Jenny, we both know that's an excuse. I would think you'd want to spend time with her."

"I want to. I can't."

"Jenny, she needs us. You're going to spend some time with us tonight."

"I can't," Jenny said upset.

"Why not?"

"I just can't," Jenny didn't think her dad would understand. "Being around her makes me uncomfortable."

"She's still your friend. She needs to know that. "

"I know."

"Do you know what one of her biggest fears is?"

"No."

"That her friends will turn against her because she has AIDS."

"I'm not turning against her. I just can't see her right now."

"You will go down there when they arrive and talk with them."

"I can't. I can't watch her die."

"Jennifer."

"I can't!" Jenny said angrily, tears in her eyes. "Every time I see her it makes me think of you and mom dying. Or me dying. I can't handle that right now!"

Jenny stormed out of her room slamming the door behind her, tears streaming down her cheeks." She went into the guest bedroom and slammed the door, locking it behind her.

Don was stunned. He knew she was having problems accepting it, but he never guessed she had those fears.

Don gently knocked on the door. "Can I come in?"

"Are you going to make me go down there?"

"No. You're a big girl and I'll leave it up to you."

"Thank you." Jenny unlocked the door and saw her father standing there. She wrapped her arms around him, surprising him. He returned the embrace.

"You okay?" Don asked concerned.

"I will be as okay as possible. Why do good people have to suffer and die?"

"I don't know."

Jenny pushed herself away, wiped her eyes and headed for her bathroom. She splashed some cold water on her face.

Don went downstairs to see if he could be of any help.

"Myra, did you know about Jenny's feelings?"

"Not until earlier this afternoon. I knew she was having trouble, but not as bad as what I heard just a few minutes ago."

"I wouldn't be a teen again, especially these days, no matter how much you paid me."

"Neither would I. Is she all right?"

"Yeah. She'll be okay."

Jenny sat down at her desk, shuffled the items in her drawer until she found the card she wanted.

Jenny knew Natalie deserved to know why she'd been avoiding her and knew she'd never be able to tell her to her face.

Just as Jenny finished she heard the doorbell.

Myra came out of the kitchen to greet her guests. She opened the front door and let them in.

"Can I get you anything? Dinner will be ready shortly."

"No, we're fine," Natalie said.

Don motioned for his guests to make themselves comfortable in the family room, following them in.

Jenny came downstairs, dropped her backpack at the front door and headed for the family room. She took a deep breath before she entered, envelope in hand.

"Hi Nick, Natalie."

"Hi Jenny," both the Knights said at nearly the same time.

"Natalie, you look good. You too Nick."

"Thanks, Jenny," Natalie said with a grin. "I like the nails."

"Thanks. Mom let me get them done when I brought home a great report card last week. Four A's and three B's."

"I'm impressed," Nick said.

"Me too," Natalie said.

"Sorry I can't stick around for dinner, but I have to go work on a school project. It's the only day Missy and I can get together. It's 40% of my grade." Jenny said as she handed Natalie the card. "Don't open it until I leave." She was pleased when Natalie nodded her agreement.

"That's okay. We'll get together another time," Natalie said.

Jenny heard a horn honk and headed for the front door. She grabbed her backpack and left.

Natalie read the front, which said, 'thinking of you'. She opened it and read the message, hearing Jenny's voice as she did so. "Natalie, I'm still your friend and always will be. I still care for you as much as I always did. It's very hard for me to see you like this. It hurts to see you slowly dying. It reminds me that anyone can die at anytime, friends, parents, myself. I'm not ready to face that yet. Please give me the time I need to deal with it. I didn't want to hurt you anymore. This was the only way I could say what I had to."

Nick, Don and Myra were concerned when they saw the tears running down Natalie's cheeks.

"Would it be okay if I called you sometime to talk? We'll see if that works better than face to face, at least for now. Love, Jenny."

"Nat, you okay?" Nick asked.

"I'm fine," Natalie said as she forced a weak grin. "Jenny let me know that she's still my friend and that she still cares for me."

Two days later Myra brought in the mail, saw an envelope for her daughter and gave it to her.

Jenny opened the envelope on her way to her room. She pulled the card out, noticing that the front said 'thinking of you'. She opened it and immediately recognized the handwriting. She heard Natalie's voice as she read what her friend had written.

"Jenny, thank you for the lovely card. It meant a lot to me to know you're still my friend and still care about me. I know this is hard on you. It's hard on me, Nick, your parents and Grace. You would think I would've accepted things by now, but how do you accept something so unfair? I will let you contact me whenever you're ready to. I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful card and to say that I understand. Love, Natalie. PS, How about doing something with Nick one night? He misses you too."

Jenny wiped the tears from her face as she carefully tucked the card into her desk drawer, pleased that her friend had understood.

A week later Nick picked Jenny up for dinner and a visit to the local video game arcade. They had been doing that since the first night he had babysat her almost eight years ago.

Jenny liked being able to chose where they ate, especially since she was the only one to eat. Once in a while Nick would surprise her and eat a couple of fries smothered in ketchup.

During dinner they talked about what Jenny had been up to, her school project, her friends, anything but Natalie. Nick told her one story as he had always done. Jenny never knew that they were his real life stories.

"You should consider writing your stories down and publishing them." She loved his surprised grin.

After dinner they stopped by the local ice cream parlor for dessert. Jenny still ordered the largest sundae on the menu.

"I don't see how you can eat all that and still look great," Nick teased.

"A great metabolism and being on the soccer team helps. Not to mention the Kung Fu classes," Jenny teased back.

"That would do it," Nick grinned.

When Jenny had finished off the huge sundae they headed for the arcade.

Nick and Jenny enjoyed challenging each other. Nick made sure he played like a mortal so he wouldn't hurt her feelings or accidentally give himself away to the very bright teen he was with.

Near the end of their outing Jenny asked, "Does Natalie understand? Do you?"

"Yes. We both understand. We both know how hard it is for ourselves and others to deal with. If you ever need to talk to someone..."

"Thanks, Nick."

"Natalie and I both go to support groups. They help us deal with what we're feeling."

Jenny wasn't sure about her next question. "Do they have one for teens? I'm not saying I'd go, but..."

"I'll find out. Okay?"

"Thanks."

A few days later Nick called Jenny with the information, as promised. Jenny was torn between going and sticking the names into her desk drawer. She didn't think she was ready to talk with other teens in similar, or worse situations. She put the info into the drawer, where she'd be able to find it in case she changed her mind.

Three weeks later, Nick and Schanke were at the precinct filling out the paperwork required for their latest case.

"Schanke, in my office, now," Cohen said, loudly.

The two partners looked at each other, both wondering what he had done wrong.

Schanke nervously entered the Captain's office. Cohen motioned for him to shut the door and have a seat, so he did.

"Detective, can I see your badge?"

"Sure, Captain," Schanke said quite confused. He handed it to her. "Am I in trouble?"

"No." Cohen looked at his badge before it slipped out of her hand. She bent over and picked it up. "Here you go." She handed it back to him.

Schanke went to slip it into his pocket when he noticed the outer cover was different. "Captain, this isn't my badge."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Mine was more used looking."

"Open it." Cohen said.

Schanke did as requested, confused by the whole thing.

Cohen smiled when she saw the shock register on his face. "Congratulations, Captain Schanke."

"When... When... did this come through? Why didn't I know about it?"

"It just came through. I wanted to surprise you."

"That you did. When will I be transferred?" A thought hit him, "I will be transferred, right?"

"Yes. Finish up whatever cases you can in the next four nights. Then you'll be transferred to the forty-fifth precinct."

"So, Nick gets to work alone again. Good Luck."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that. And I don't have to worry about any of that. I've been promoted as well."

"Congratulations."

"Thank you, Captain Schanke." She loved the smile which crossed his face. She could tell that he was still a little stunned by the news.

"Can I tell Nick, before everyone else knows."

"Sure."

Schanke left Cohen's office and tried really hard to look miserable.

"Partner, what do you say we take a drive. I'm hungry."

"Sure." Nick had overheard the entire conversation, even though he had tried not to eavesdrop. He wasn't going to spoil his friend's fun.

They were in the Caddy, heading for Schanke's favorite souvlaki shop.

"What did the Captain want?"

"She wanted to see my badge. She replaced it with this nice one," Schanke said as he flipped open his new one, while the light was red.

"Congratulations, Schank. Or should that be Captain Schanke?" Nick said playfully. "When is your transfer?"

"I have four nights to wrap up what I can. Then it's off to the forty-fifth. I can't believe it."

"You earned it. You're one of the best detectives I know."

"Thanks, Partner. I guess I won't be calling you that anymore." Schanke said, a little sadly. "I guess I should tell Myra. Maybe take her out to dinner."

"That would be a good idea. Don't worry, Schanke, we'll still see each other. The extra pay will help with Jenny's college fund."

Schanke smiled. "You're right, Nick."

Nick and his temporary new partner, Tracy Vetter, were out on patrol. He wasn't happy when Captain Reese assigned a new detective for Nick to baby-sit when Schanke was promoted to Captain. Tracy was about twenty-five, blonde, tall, slender, and quite perky. She also happened to be the Commissioner's daughter.

About three weeks later, Nick and Natalie were seated on their couch, she leaning against his chest. They cherished their time together knowing how precious it was.

"What do you think of your new partner?" She asked.

"She definitely needs some work, but I see good instincts buried deep inside her youth. She also needs a little more self confidence. How about you?"

"I'm not so sure. I don't know. Maybe it's just the way she questioned my competency. I'll give her a chance. I remember what it was like to be young and inexperienced. Not to mention being unsure of yourself. I don't want her to know about the rape or the AIDS."

"No problem. Is it just me or is she rather perky?"

"It's not you. She's too perky for that time of night."

Nick and Tracy arrived at a crime scene. As they walked towards the building's entrance Nick spotted something off to the side. As he and Tracy approached, the object turned out to be a white rat with a large hole in one side.

Nick picked up the rat not paying attention to where he touched, sticking his thumb into the bloody hole. He sealed the rat into an evidence bag before heading into the building. Tracy followed behind him.

Inside Natalie was examining the female victim, apparently a woman in her late thirties, early forties with dark hair. The lab coat told Natalie that the woman, Lynda Wyatt, worked here, and the position of the body indicated that she had fallen down the stairs.

At the same time Nick was questioning Dan, Lynda Wyatt's assistant. When shown the rat and asked if it belonged to the lab, Dan admitted to Nick that the lab housed some things that could wipe out the entire city if they got loose, and for that reason they were very security conscious. He also explained that Lynda Wyatt was working on cloning a benign virus that attacks HIV, something she thought she'd accomplished.

Nick wandered over to Natalie, to see what she had to report. Natalie told him that the landing was over waxed and it was possible that Wyatt had taken a skate down the stairs.

Nick and Natalie headed for Tracy, who was looking through the dead doctor's appointment calendar. Calvin Tucker was one of the people who had an after hours appointment.

Natalie surprised her two friends by recognizing Cal's name. She explained how he would've been the Head of Surgery at Metro General had he not been infected with AIDS.

At the precinct, Cal was being questioned by Natalie. Nick and Tracy were staying in the background. Cal looked twenty years older than his actual thirty-five years. He was thin, pale, and exhausted looking due to battling AIDS for four years. Cal looked much worse than Natalie did

How long before I look that bad? Natalie silently asked herself.

Nick also wondered the same thing and hoped it was a long time, knowing it wouldn't be.

Cal admitted he was a guinea pig in Linda Wyatt's first trials for her possible HIV cure. Natalie questioned him on why he would allow himself to participate, knowing the risks involved. She knew that participating in first trials went against all good medical advice.

Cal went on to state how long he'd been sick, that he'd outlived half a dozen friends who were diagnosed at the same time and that he was looking for a miracle. He told Natalie he knew better than to participate in first trials, but approval for the drug would've taken two years, four years, ten years... more time than he had.

Nick knew that Natalie was taking this case harder because she too had AIDS. He found himself wondering if Natalie's tiredness meant that her condition was worsening, or if she was just tired from too much work. He hoped with all his heart it was the latter. Will she go looking for a miracle treatment, or cure? Nick wondered. He could tell that she wasn't all right, but he couldn't say anything with Tracy there. A short time later Nick, Natalie, and Tracy were out in the squad room. Tracy commented on how if the drug worked it would be worth millions. Natalie commented that it would be worth a Nobel prize.

"Nat, I'm sorry about your friend," Nick said sincerely.

"He's thirty-five and he looks fifty-five. He's dying. Is it any wonder he'd latch onto anyone with a theory... any kind of a treatment or magic crystal," Natalie said, trying to express her frustration as she slipped into her long brown coat.

"Nat," Nick said concerned.

"I'm all right," Natalie said trying to reassure Nick. "I'm just tired." She shrugged. "Why don't you have some samples of whatever Linda Wyatt was working on sent over and I'll take a look tomorrow and see if there was anything worth stealing."

"Sure. Is there anything else you need?" Tracy asked.

"Right now," she let out a small tired laugh, "sleep." Natalie left.

"Nick, is she going to be okay?" Tracy asked a little concerned.

"Oh yeah," Nick lied. "We should head home too." He walked away before Tracy could question him further. Seeing Natalie like that hurt. They both knew it was her future, her near future.

Tracy searched out Vachon, and before she could say much to him she was attacked by a bald blur. Vachon deflected Screed, who went on about "first kill, any kill". When Tracy didn't understand, Vachon filled her in on the first hunger and how you woke up so hungry you'd take anyone - friend, enemy or lover. He also told her that if a vampire's first kill wasn't human then they don't crave human blood.

Vachon examined Screed trying to discount Tracy's idea that Screed was sick, but he couldn't. Screed bit his own hand trying to get blood, showing Vachon that his bald friend was starving. Vachon offered his wrist to his rat chomping friend, knowing that he was probably the one who dined on the lab rat Nick found.

Nick and Natalie were talking in the morgue, discussing all the diseases that don't affect vampires when Natalie brought up AIDS. Even though they'd already discussed it, she wanted to make sure that nothing had changed since then.

Natalie seated herself in her chair while stating that they've gone deeper into the rainforest, and are discovering new medications and diseases everyday.

"What if Lynda Wyatt made it?" Nick asked.

Natalie examined Screed, in his sewer home, and drew a blood sample. She had found out about Screed's illness from Nick, who had been contacted by Vachon. As she was packing up her bag she softly said to Nick, "He has a high fever, extreme hunger, delirium. If he was human, I'd prescribe antibiotics. With a multiplying retrovirus the cell walls start to break down. The lungs and abdomen fill with fluid, blood in his case." She was completely sympathetic to her patient, knowing what it was like to be dying. "He's in the final stage. He's bleeding out."

She told Nick she'd examine the sample but didn't know what to look for.

Both Nick and Natalie knew that someday she'd be dying, and hoped it would be much more peaceful than what Screed was going through. The thought of her suffering like that was too much for either of them to think about.

Nick and Tracy again questioned Cal, curious if he had found out he was being given a placebo and maybe killed the doctor out of rage. Cal was stunned and upset to learn he had been receiving saline instead of the treatment. He thought that the treatment was working because he hadn't had an opportunistic infection in six months and his T-cells were up. He admitted to knowing he went against all good medical advice, even his own in doing the study.

In the morgue parking lot, Nick's knees momentarily buckled, drawing Tracy's concern. He reassured her he was fine. He ignored her blood calling him.

At Screed's lair, Vachon held his old friend as the virus took its final toll on him. Vachon promised to uphold Screed's final request - to be buried down by the water, deep in the sand because he never felt right on land.

Nick paid a visit to his master to warn him of this new vampire killing virus, but LaCroix seriously denied it, even laughed it off as one of Nick's concocted fantasies. He was surprised when his son took his glass of human blood and drank from it, like it was an everyday occurrence. Nick did this several times during their conversation.

Tracy went to visit Vachon at the church and was seduced by him, hearing that her blood had the scent of apricots and callalilies. And how each drop of blood told its story. Unknown to her, he was infected with the virus. Before Tracy knew it Vachon had swept her fine blonde hair back and was about to sink his fangs into her neck. Vachon stopped himself just in time, shoving Tracy away from him, yelling at her to get out of there before he did hurt her. He explained that it was the first hunger, and menacingly growled at her, scaring her out of the church.

The next evening Natalie was testing Linda Wyatt's experimental drug, finding it to have a very low viability. Natalie couldn't get more than fragmented samples. Tracy entered to check and see what progress the forensic pathologist had made. Natalie told her what she'd discovered.

"It's really hard to watch him you... You know. He's not the first. You start to wonder who else you're gonna lose. I just feel like I should be able to do something." Natalie's own condition was making her feel even more helpless and powerless. It was frustrating the hell out of her.

Tracy saw the blood cooler near the steel table and swiped a couple of the bags inside, tucking them into her jacket.

"Well, I guess everybody must feel that way... when someone they care about is sick," Tracy said, not knowing how close to home she had hit.

Natalie knew Nick, Grace and the Schankes must be going through the same things because of her. She hated to make them feel so bad.

"Yeah, well, I wonder if everyone feels quite as useless as I do right now." Natalie said feeling quite despondent, knowing Nick was feeling much that way, and Grace was too. In a way she was glad Grace was on vacation this week so she wouldn't have to deal with the case, and the reminders of the fact that Natalie was dying. For the same reasons she was glad that since Schanke's promotion she didn't have as frequent contact with him or his family.

Natalie wondered out loud if it would've made a difference if she had graduated medical school after all the AIDS stuff broke, and if she would've gone into research like Lynda Wyatt had so she could help people before it was too late, rather than trying to do it after they'd died.

Tracy reassured Natalie that her work was important as well. Natalie knew it was, but couldn't help feeling a whole mix of emotions because of the disease. Seeing the possible cure go up in smoke right in front of her face hadn't helped any.

"I'm thinking about calling Cal. He's been taking the stuff for six months. I might get a better breakdown of this stuff from his blood. See if it's having any effect on the HIV."

"Didn't Nick tell you? He's not on the stuff. He's a control," Tracy said.

Natalie was stunned. "You're kidding." She saw Tracy shake her head. "It's stupid. I know." She sighed. "I of all people should know better. But.." She shrugged, looking at the floor, then anywhere but at Tracy. "I was hoping it was working. I was hoping Cal..." She couldn't continue, knowing that her best hope of a possible cure had just gone up in smoke. She had hoped that the drug would've worked and it would've been approved in time to help her.

"Hoping he'd live?" Tracy finished for her. She couldn't understand Natalie's extreme frustration, almost desperation. She knew it had to be more than just Cal that was bothering her. She remembered Natalie saying he wasn't the first one.

Natalie couldn't tell Tracy that having the disease herself made the entire case harder on her. That she had seen what could've been a cure go up in smoke right in front of her eyes. Natalie knew that some day soon she would be as sick as Cal and her other friends.

Right now Natalie had several problems to deal with and would have to put off any self pity until later, after the case. She had to find out who had killed Linda Wyatt and why. She also had to find a cure for the new HIV-like disease that was killing off vampires. Natalie had seen it kill Vachon's friend, Screed.

Nick entered Natalie's office as Tracy left. Everything about him made the alarm bells go off in Natalie's mind.

"Is something wrong?" Natalie asked concerned.

"I'm hungry and I'm hot," Nick said, using a tone she wasn't familiar with.

Natalie slipped off her latex glove and felt his forehead, surprised to see blood on her fingers. They both knew it meant he too, was infected with the vampire killing virus. Somehow, he was fighting it off better than the others had. She wondered why he was healthier than the others.

She took his temperature, finding it registering at ninety-eight degrees, quite warm for him, but not quite human normal.

She knew that unless she found the cure soon he would die before she did. She would *not* lose him like that.

As she worked to keep him from feeding on either the blood supply there or her own, she realized that it was his restricted intake of blood which had slowed down the virus' activity in him, causing him to live longer and be a little healthier. This made her realize that the virus could only live in blood, not saline, or anything else.

She explained this to Nick along with the fact that the virus bound itself to the vampire element in the blood and multiplied as blood was consumed. The more blood consumed the quicker the victim perished. She realized that the disease was spread through simple contact, which endangered every vampire in Toronto.

Nick didn't remember if he touched the lab rat, when questioned about it by Natalie.

Nick inquired if honoring Natalie's request for him to not drink would cure him. She stated that it would only slow down the progress of the disease, give him more time.

"Slow or fast. What's the difference?" Nick asked.

"Nick, it does make a difference. Look at me. I'm doing everything I can to slow down my own death. I want to enjoy life for as long as I can."

"Maybe this was meant to be, Nat. What if Nature has had enough of creatures feeding on this world? What if this is Nature's way of getting rid of us?" Nick asked. "What if this is divine justice?"

Natalie snapped. She couldn't believe that he was giving up on her.

"Don't you dare! What? God sent sickness to punish the wicked. To wipe the unnatural from the earth. What about Calvin? What about me? I've seen too many good friends with AIDS, with cancer, with pneumonia. *God does not choose*," Natalie shouted at Nick, upset and angry at him.

"I do not claim to know what God does. I stepped out of that light too long ago. But whoever sent this, however it came about. This plague does Nature's work. It kills vampires."

"It's killing you. Is this the kind of mortality you've been looking for?" She was even more upset and angered by his having given up.

"Maybe it's the only kind I'm allowed."

"Don't give me that crap! How can you stand there and not care if you die. Not care how that's going to make me feel. Maybe you'd like to explain that to someone like Cal. Someone who would give anything in the world just to live a little longer. Do I deserve to die?" Her assertions startled Nick. He knew how he would feel when she died. He was already hurting knowing she would die long before her time from a variation of the disease he had.

Tracy took her borrowed blood bags to Vachon, hoping they'd help him with the first hunger. When she offered them to him, he was no longer hungry. He was tucked into his bed, looking very much like a sick little boy, not a 450 year old vampire. There was a light coating of bloodsweat on his forehead.

They talked about wishing they had the time to get to know each other better and how burying friends never got easier, even after four and a half centuries. Vachon wondered what it would feel like to do like his master and join the moon rather than the sun, as she had done.

Both Nick and Natalie had their radio's on, hers in the lab and his in the Caddie. Both happened to be tuned to the same station which didn't happen often. Out of their radios came the soft, seductive voice of the Nightcrawler.

"They say the three stages of man are denial, awareness and acceptance. The young man believes he will live forever, the middle aged man knows he won't and an old man is ready. What about those taken out of sequence? How then to prepare them for the bitter end?" The Nightcrawler asked.

Natalie wondered if he was talking about her or more likely all the dying vampires.

"The man who knows he won't die is a young man. He's kept young by the knowledge that death shall have no dominion." LaCroix had a small coughing fit. "There's nothing as hard as watching that die."

Natalie again wondered if this monologue was aimed at her or the Community.

"A dozen in a single night. My children, and my people who should've lived forever living their last."

Natalie realized he was talking about all the dying and soon to be dying vampires, wondering how many would die.

"Who ever would've believed that they'd die. My people, my children." He momentarily paused. "One short sleep to past we wake eternally." His tone turned angry. "And death shall be no more. And death though shalt die. We will survive."

Nick approached the lab where Dan worked, meaning to question him again. No sooner had he parked the Caddie than he heard an alarm sounding and shouts for help coming from within.

Nick quickly entered the room, hearing warnings of poison gas. A quick survey of the room showed signs of a struggle, one that had left Dan not only dead but frozen from slamming into the liquid nitrogen tank. He dragged Cal out of the room.

Later Nick and Natalie watched as her friend Cal confessed to his part in the crime and to what had led up Dan's untimely death.

Cal and Dan had discovered that Wyatt's drug only worked in the test tube and that HIV overwhelmed it in the body. They had lost everything. Cal was running back to Metro General but Dan wouldn't allow it, as it would leave him with nothing.

Cal admitted that he thought the cure worked, until he learned it only worked in the test tube. That he would've done anything and paid any price for a cure. He could've had it available nationwide in eighteen months, with his connections, not ten years like the other pharmaceutical companies would've taken.

When asked if he had done it for the money or the credit he explained that he just wanted people to live.

Natalie felt sad and alone as she watched from the other side of the one way glass. Nick knew exactly how she was feeling, he too was feeling those things.

She asked Reese, who was there with her, if they had to charge Cal. Reese told her he wasn't any happier about it than she was, but they had to because of the charges. Reese told her he'd release Cal on his own recognizance because he didn't see him as a flight risk and he was cooperating. He went on to comment that with the court system the way it was he might not make it to trial.

That was the very last thing Natalie needed to hear. The case had disturbed her enough, with its reminders of her near future, but she didn't need to be reminded how close death could be. She already knew that.

A short time later Nick entered the room and saw her still in there, alone this time.

On her way out she said, "You're still dying."

"I know. Maybe you'll outlive me after all," Nick said with a small sad smile. "This has given me a greater respect for you. And how you live with this." He understood much more about how she had felt when she had Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, and how she managed to get through each day.

Cal was seated on the couch in his living room when he found an unwanted intruder in his apartment. A very pale, angry man with very short blonde hair.

"You have faced human justice tonight and it has released you."

Cal turned to face the intruder, surprised. "Who are you?"

"One of the damned. One of your damned." Cal approached as LaCroix hissed out his answer. "Your search for a cure to your harmless little virus has brought my people to their knees."

LaCroix slowly advanced on Cal. "How many deaths will be on your conscience? A dozen? A hundred? A whole race? A race that dare not speak its name, that cannot turn to medicine for help. They die silently. Invisibly. Out of the light. I am their only voice and my people cry out for revenge," LaCroix angrily said as he grabbed Cal, sinking his fangs into the doctor's throat.

Nick followed Natalie into the morgue, as she carried two rat cages from Dr. Wyatt's lab, setting them down near her workbench.

"At least I can get a better viable dose from these. Get a better look at what you're facing."

They noticed LaCroix standing next to the covered body on Natalie's autopsy table.

"What do you want, LaCroix?" Nick asked, knowing his master was up to something.

"Oh nothing much. I just thought that now at the hour of our death, the good doctor might like to see the results of her hypocrisy."

Natalie moved next to Nick, wanting his comfort, yet not wanting to that fact to show.

"You proffer modern medicine as religion," LaCroix said.

Nick and Natalie exchanged a quick glance.

"And that faith and technology will not be defeated," LaCroix sarcastically snarled as he ripped the cover from the corpse... it was Cal.

Natalie was stunned and upset as she slowly moved towards the body.

"It's a false promise. A lie. You can't save your friend. You can't save us. And you can't save yourself. You're powerless." LaCroix was pleased to see that this was having the desired effect.

"Why are you so angry? You're not sick." Natalie asked, confused, angered and saddened.

Nick stepped forward. "But, you were sick, LaCroix. What happened?" Nick leaned against the autopsy table to support himself.

"I looked into that abyss, Nicholas. I have faced death this night. And I have called his bluff," LaCroix said smugly.

"You killed him? You drank his blood?" Natalie asked as it sunk in.

"Yes. A reward for the plague he visited upon my house." LaCroix said pleased, almost mocking.

"Oh my God... Oh my God. That's the answer. Cal said it in the precinct. HIV overwhelms it in the body," Natalie said as the realizations sank in. She couldn't believe she missed anything that obvious.

"So, the killer is the cure," LaCroix said pleased. "Isn't that fascinating. His tainted blood will be our salvation."

"You drained him." Natalie pointed out.

"True. But your blood banks will have an ample supply."

LaCroix left to organize the effort to rescue HIV positive blood from destruction.

Natalie took off her coat and threw it over her chair as she hurried to one of the cabinets. She grabbed a syringe, rubber strip and alcohol prep pad. She didn't know how much blood it would take, and hoped it wouldn't take much.

Once Nick saw her push up her sleeve he helped her by tying the rubber strip around her arm, like she did to him when she drew samples. Natalie wiped an area by the crook of her elbow and stuck herself with the needle.

"I hate these things," she joked as she filled the needle with her blood. "This is a switch, my saving your life."

"It's not the first time, but I'll owe you the most for this one."

Nick took the filled syringe and held it while Natalie pressed on the injection site with a gauze pad until it stopped bleeding, then covered it with a plastic bandage. She pushed down her sleeve before taking the needle from Nick and injecting him with it.

She could see his condition improving over the next several minutes. She drew a blood sample to check and make sure the virus had been eradicated. She smiled as the microscope showed no sign of the virus.

Nick was busy savoring her blood, enjoying the memories it held as well as the scent of it. He had dreamed about tasting her blood once again and it had been worth every second of the wait, even with the medications running through her system.

Both of them found it ironic that the disease which was killing her saved him. She was pleased that her tainted blood could do some good.

Tracy dropped by the church to check on Vachon, and found him even sicker. He looked like a very sick little boy. Tracy sat down on the side of his bed. He informed her that he wouldn't make another night, a fact Tracy found extremely unfair.

Vachon felt the presence of another vampire and thanked Tracy for coming. He said that he didn't want her to see the end because it wouldn't be pretty. She kissed Vachon before leaving.

Nick approached with a grin on his face and a syringe in his hand. Vachon joked about Nick being there to give him last rights and looked as nervous as a little boy at the doctor's office when Nick told him to push up his sleeve. Nick's grin grew as the syringe became more apparent.

Nick injected Vachon and waited until he saw Vachon had recovered.

Natalie and Nick were at Cal's grave. Natalie wanted to pay her final respects. Nick was shoveling the final bit of dirt around the tree they planted in Cal's memory.

They walked away from the grave, Natalie in the lead.

"Natalie," he said, almost questioningly and concerned as he caught up with her. "When LaCroix asked you why?"

"Why save vampires?" Natalie paused a moment before continuing. "Why not let them die?... You know, there are still some people who think AIDS isn't worth curing. That people like Calvin Tucker... or myself... aren't worth saving." She took a deep breath as her tone turned slightly more angry. "Who are they to decide?..." She turned to face Nick, her shoulders giving a small shrug. "Who am I?"

She started to walk away.

Nick again caught up with her.

"I know," Nick said. "I once again owe you my life. And for the gift you gave me."

"If the blood banks, and donors, only knew the good that came from their HIV infected blood."

This case had caused them both a lot of pain, something that was quite evident by the sadness which weighed them both down. Their eyes mirrored that sadness and pain.

During the ride back to the loft her mind wandered to the morgue and what LaCroix had said. He had been right, she was powerless. She refused to believe that it was true about her entire life. If it was, what the point of fighting the disease? She immediately snapped herself out of such thoughts, knowing they were part of LaCroix's mind games.

Back at the loft he fixed her something to eat and dined himself. The meal was quiet as they both couldn't shake the case.

After dinner Nick couldn't take seeing her so sad anymore. "Grab your coat."

"Where are we going?"

"Anywhere you wish." He helped her on with her coat, then planted a quick kiss on her cheek.

"How about a comedy club? They say laughter's the best medicine."

"If that's what the doctor orders, then how can I argue," Nick teased.

Before long they arrived at the club. Nick paid the cover charge and they entered. They found a table about a third of the way back. At first the jokes didn't make them laugh, as they were too caught up in their own thoughts.

"This is the happy hour, the depressed hour doesn't start until four."

Nick and Natalie were startled by the comedian, each wondering if their expressions were that bad. The sheepish looks on their face was all the comedian needed to go back to his routine.

Nick and Natalie found themselves laughing in no time. The more they laughed the better they felt.

A few days later, Nick entered Natalie's office and saw her busy typing away at her keyboard.

"Hi, Nat," Nick said.

She turned around to face him. "Hi, Nick. What brings you here?"

"I was in the neighborhood..."

"And you decided to stop by," she said, cutting him off.

"I'm curious to see if your opinion of Tracy has changed. She hasn't grown suspicious that there's something different about us, other than my having a sun allergy, or at least she hasn't mentioned it to either Vachon or myself."

"She hasn't mentioned anything to me either. My opinion is changing as I see her growing and maturing under your tutelage. It's been a while since she's made the same stupid mistakes she used to do so often. She hasn't questioned my competency in the last few months. When she does, she handles it tactfully."

"She has grown quite a bit. She still sees vampires behind every shadow. Even that part she seems to be handling well."

The next evening about an hour before sunset, Tracy entered the Coroner's office looking for Natalie and found the ME's office empty. Tracy ran into Grace as she neared the exit.

"Grace, has Natalie come in yet?"

Grace saw her friend's Harley pull into a spot near the door and smiled. Grace was glad Natalie had pulled the bike out of storage, knowing how much pleasure riding brought her. She also knew it meant she was feeling better, stronger.

"She just pulled in."

Tracy looked out the door and didn't see Natalie's car.

"Are you..." Tracy stopped, amazed when she saw the biker take off her helmet. "I never would've figured her for a biker. How long has she had it? How often does she ride it to work?"

"A few years now. She hasn't ridden it for several months. She used to ride it to work a couple times a month. More often if her car was acting up. I was just as surprised the first time I saw her arrive on it. So was Schanke."

"What about Nick?"

"He was the one who reluctantly taught her to ride. A few years back she wanted to learn and convinced him to teach her how." Grace laughed.

Tracy watched as Natalie slipped off her gloves, ran her hands through her hair before stashing her gloves in the pockets of her black leather biker jacket, the very one the biker group had given her.

Natalie was curious when she entered her office, helmet in hand, and found Tracy there waiting with a curious smile on her face. Tracy was surprised by the jacket, wondering if Natalie was indeed a member. She quickly shrugged off the idea knowing it was not the forensic pathologist's type.

"What?" Natalie asked, curious.

"Now I understand the Biker Doc nameplate. I always thought it was some joke. You know like calling someone short, stretch. It doesn't seem like you."

"Why not?" She asked with a grin as she set the helmet on top of the filing cabinet.

"I don't know. You seem to be too... classy, intelligent, it just doesn't seem like you."

"Someone else once used those words," Natalie said with a grin. She fished her work shoes out of the bottom desk drawer and pulled off her boots.

"Who?"

"Schanke."

"That's a nice jacket."

"Thanks. It was a gift. A few years ago I helped them put together a ride for charity and this was their thanks."

"I remember hearing about that on the news. I didn't hear your name though."

"I let them have the credit. I didn't need it." she shrugged.

"Were either Nick or you there?"

"I was. He couldn't be there due to his allergy. It was fun."

Tracy just shook her head amused.

Natalie rode her bike more often, needing to feel the freedom it gave her. A few days later she was out for a ride when another motorcyclist pulled up beside her. His long black hair and jeans gave him away. He motioned for her to follow him, which she did.

After a few minutes they stopped by the park. Natalie shut off the engine and removed her helmet so she could hear him, but did not dismount.

"Tracy had told me you were into motorcycles, but I had trouble believing it. Until now."

"Everyone's surprised. They think it's not me. That I'm crazy for doing it. That I'm too intelligent and classy for it."

Vachon had been walking around the Harley while listening to her and was impressed by her choice. She saw him nodding as if he was agreeing with what the others had said.

"That is one mean machine," he said with a grin. "Nice jacket."

"Thanks," she said, grinning back at him, moving her hair out of the way so he could get a better look at the back of her jacket.

"You a member?" He asked, seriously.

"No." She told him the story and noticed he seemed amused by it.

"Could I take her for a spin?" Vachon asked, a little nervously.

"Sure. Your bike is pretty cool."

"Why don't you take her out for a spin."

The two of them swapped bikes and rode around town for awhile before returning to the park.

Tracy heard about them riding together and was a little jealous. Vachon was her man and she didn't like the idea of Natalie and Vachon getting too chummy. This jealousy surprised her. She was pretty sure Natalie wouldn't try to steal Vachon from her, especially since Natalie was very happily married to Nick.

At the Schanke household Jenny was in her room working on her computer. Over the last few months she'd tried to avoid seeing Natalie, once in a while talking with her on the phone or sending her another card, but she still couldn't handle the fact that her friend was dying of AIDS. She'd hoped that by avoiding Natalie her fears would go away, but they hadn't, they had only grown stronger.

She pulled the list of support groups for teens Nick had given her and looked it over. She knew her parents went to a group once a week and it helped them.

She walked downstairs and found her mom in the kitchen working on dinner.

"Hi, honey. What's up?" Myra asked.

"Does the group you and dad go to help?" Jenny asked a bit uncertain.

"Yes. It allows us to talk about it with others who are going through the same thing. It helps us to see that we aren't alone and to deal with our feelings. Why?"

"A while ago I asked Nick for a list of support groups for teens. I thought some day I might be ready to go to one. I wanted to see if they helped you."

"When you're ready to go, I'll be glad to take you."

"Even if the one I chose is out of town?"

"Yes. Don and I go to one out of town."

"Do you have to talk?"

"You don't have to talk, but it does help. Everyone there is there for the same reason, to have someone to talk to who understands what you're going through. You only have to give your first name. You can just say a friend of mine has AIDS."

"Would you take me to one tonight, after dad goes to work?" Jenny asked, afraid she'd lose her nerve if she waited.

"Sure." Myra had planned on taking care of some stuff around the house, but knew this was much more important. She sensed her daughter's uncertainty and didn't want to see her change her mind because she was scared.

"Can we not tell anyone, even dad? I want to see how it goes first."

"Okay."

About two and a half hours later Jenny approached the room listed on her paper. She stood outside the door, unsure if she really wanted to go in. She figured she'd better go in since they had driven almost half an hour to get there.

She opened the door slowly, still unsure if she was ready for this.

"Hi. Come on in. I'm Kelly," said a red haired girl about Jenny's age.

"I'm not sure I'm in the right place," Jenny said, starting to change her mind.

"We were all as nervous as you are. Why don't you come in and if you don't like it, you can leave." Maria said, her curly black hair hanging down to her shoulders.

Jenny hesitantly entered, shutting the door behind her.

"Grab yourself a couple of cookies, a soda and a chair," Amy said. Her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"All of you know people with AIDS?" Jenny asked.

"Yes," Bobby said. He had short curly brown hair and brown eyes.

"So do I," Jenny said as she helped herself to the refreshments. "She's a good friend."

"My best friend has AIDS," Maria said. "How are you handling it?"

"I want to be around her but can't. It hurts too much. It reminds me that anyone can die at anytime."

"I remember feeling that way. Have you told her how you felt?" Maria said.

"Yes, but I had to write it in a card. She wrote back saying she understood."

"That's a good start. How about trying to see her. If it makes you too uncomfortable to talk about it, then talk about anything else," Amy said.

"I don't know," Jenny said, uncertain. "I do miss her."

Thanksgiving approached making both Natalie and Nick sad, making them wonder how many more Natalie would see.

"Nat, we do have something to be thankful for." When he saw her questioning look he continued. "If you had not figured out the cure for the vampire virus then I would not be celebrating Thanksgiving with you."

"You're right. We do have something to be thankful for."

Both their spirits were lightened a little by the fact that they were both alive and healthy, at least for now.

"I want to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year." She saw Nick start to protest but held up her hand to silence him. "I know it's a lot of work, but with your help, we can do it."

"Okay. Just tell me what you want me to do." He could see how much she wanted to do it and couldn't say no.

"We'll invite Don, Myra, Jenny and Grace."

Natalie stopped by the forty-fifth precinct the next night on her way to work. She headed straight for Schanke's office.

He saw her and waved her in.

"What brings you by, Natalie?" Schanke asked pleased to see her.

"I'm cooking a big Thanksgiving feast and would love it if you, Myra and Jenny would come."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Nick's helping me out so it's no problem. You've invited us so many times, it was time for us to invite you."

"We'll be there."

"Great. I'll call Myra with the details as it gets closer."

Natalie left glad that part had gone smoothly. She hoped Jenny would come. Jenny had slowly been able to spend time with Natalie, after hearing that she was riding her motorcycle again.

Natalie entered her office, only to find Grace there dropping off files.

"Just the person I was looking for. I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner, with a little help from Nick. We'd love it if you'd come. The Schankes' are coming."

"I'd love to come." Grace hoped her friend wasn't pushing herself too hard."

Natalie did what she could the day before so she would not have to get up quite as early on Thanksgiving. She had Nick do some of the simpler but time consuming tasks. She called her friends to let them know what time to arrive tomorrow afternoon. She also made them promise that her disease would not be discussed because she wanted it to be a fun gathering, pleased when all agreed to her one request.

On Thanksgiving morning they awoke and slipped into something casual for cooking. She would shower and dress after she had the bird in the oven and the vegetables cooking. She was planning on cheating by using pre-made stuffing.

Right on time Grace and the Schankes' arrived. Nick was pleased to see that Jenny had accompanied her parents. Nick hung their coats in the closet while Natalie checked on dinner.

They talked until it was time to eat. Natalie knew that her friends were checking her over to see if she was doing as well as they had said she was. Natalie could tell that she had passed inspection when they relaxed. Even Jenny seemed a bit more relaxed and was enjoying herself.

When dinner was ready everyone took their seats at the table, as directed by Nick. He carried the turkey over to the table and set it in front of Don.

"I hope you don't mind doing the honors," Natalie asked.

"I'd be happy to." Don picked up the knife and cut into the bird.

"Before we eat, I thought we'd go around the room and have everyone state one thing they're grateful for," Natalie said, remembering how important the tradition was to Jenny. She was rewarded with a smile from the teen.

"I'll start," Nick said. "I'm grateful to have all my friends, and my beautiful wife here with me tonight."

"I'm grateful that all my friends are still here with me tonight, and that I'm married to a wonderful man," Natalie said.

"I'm grateful to be included in this group of truly special people," Grace said.

"I'll just second what everyone has said," Don said.

"Same here," Myra said.

"I'm grateful to have such wonderful parents and friends. To have grown up with lots of love and such great role models," Jenny said.

No one wanted to spoil the festive mood, by bringing up the topic of everyone being alive and healthy, at least for the moment. Thoughts of how many more such occasions there might be was quickly pushed aside in favor of the festivity of the feast.

The various dishes were passed around as wine glasses were filled. When Nick passed by Jenny's she frowned.

"Okay, one glass," Myra relented. It was a special occasion and Jenny was old enough to learn responsible drinking. She'd rather her daughter have a glass at times like this than go to a party and drink.

Jenny smiled as Nick filled her glass with wine. It made her feel like a grown up to be included. She knew that she was still too young to legally drink and wouldn't violate her parent's trust, as long as they respected the fact that she was growing up.

Nick once again tried a little of everything at the table. By now his friends were used to his nibbling and didn't give it much attention. Nick enjoyed that, as it made him feel even more human, more a part of the group. He was able to eat slightly more before it began to truly nauseate him.

When everyone had finished dinner, Nick motioned for everyone to move to the family room where they could talk more comfortably.

"Natalie, let me help you with the dishes," Myra said, not wanting to leave the mess for her friend to deal with.

"I'd like to help too," Grace said.

"It's fine. I'll stick most of them in the dishwasher, and the rest Nick and I can handle. Husbands are great for such things," Natalie joked, enjoying the guys reactions. Her female friends all grinned.

About an hour later Jenny helped Natalie serve the coffee and dessert. More conversation ensued as the delicious pies were consumed.

A few days later, Natalie woke up feeling like she had to get out of there but didn't know where she wanted to go. Nick had already gone in for his shift and Grace had gone out of town for the weekend, so she was on her own. She showered, put on her best night on the town dress and couldn't believe what she did next. She dialed a number, not sure she had made the right choice.

"Hello," came a perky voice from the other end.

"Hi, its Natalie. You busy?"

"Hi. Not really. I was going to go out. Would you like to come along?"

"Where to?"

"To a club where a friend hangs out."

"I don't want to intrude on your evening with Vachon." Maybe a little of the perkiness would rub off on her. Besides, if she could survive being in love with a vampire for over a decade now, she could survive one night with Tracy.

"You wouldn't be."

Natalie wasn't sure she wanted to go to the Raven and was even less sure she wanted Tracy for a companion. The Raven did suit her mood even though she did not feel like sparring with LaCroix.

"Okay. I'll meet you at the Raven, right?"

"Yes."

As Natalie was preparing to leave she considered which vehicle to take. She decided to take her car to the club as she wasn't in the biking mood. Besides, it was hard to ride the Harley in a dress.

About twenty minutes later, Natalie walked into the Raven. Vachon was seated at the bar sipping on a glass of something red. Natalie wondered what he drank and then decided that she didn't really want to know. She did not see Tracy anywhere and decided to approach Vachon.

Vachon noticed her and cleared off the seat next to him. As she approached he motioned for her to join him. Her black dress, maroon jacket with a black lace design caught his eye, as did the long, plain, black beaded necklace, black stockings, and black heels.

"What brings you in here?" Vachon asked, quite curious. He didn't remember her ever coming in here for purely social reasons as long as he had been in town.

"I felt the need to go out and this place matched my mood."

"You look really hot," Vachon said with a smile.

"Thank you," Natalie blushed. She had never thought herself to be all that beautiful, not totally believing Nick when he had said she had a natural beauty that came from inside as well as outside. The disease had done nothing to make her feel beautiful, in fact it had done just the opposite.

"What can I get you to drink?" The bartender asked.

Natalie wondered if he was mortal or a vampire. "A non alcoholic white wine, thank you."

"Would you care to dance?" Vachon asked, noticing she was a little upset about something.

"I don't know."

She couldn't resist his expression, reluctantly gave in and headed for the dance floor. They were enjoying themselves when someone approached from behind Vachon.

"Hi. You two look great," Tracy said, both a little surprised and a little jealous. She had never seen this side of either of them. She didn't expect either to be good dancers, discovering Natalie was quite good.

"I don't normally do this," Natalie said, trying not to show her embarrassment.

"It's okay. You look great," Tracy said, in her usual cheery way. She did wonder what they were doing together.

"I can't stay too late."

"No problem."

Natalie arrived home a few hours later, tired but more relaxed. The dancing had served its purpose. She headed upstairs to change, not wanting Nick to detect where she'd been. One look at her husband told her that he knew and was not in a good mood.

"What's wrong?"

"I thought you said you'd stay away from the Raven. Especially now that LaCroix is in charge. I don't want you around him. I don't trust him."

"I needed to do something. You were working. Grace's out of town. Besides I wanted it to be a girls night out so I called Tracy. She suggested going to the Raven. She was meeting Vachon there. I didn't want to see LaCroix. I don't trust him either."

"I don't want you going there when Vachon isn't around."

"I have no desire to be there then."

"Was LaCroix there?"

"I didn't see him."

They both wondered why LaCroix had kept his distance. Was he too busy elsewhere to notice?

Natalie was grateful for Grace's support and continued friendship. Not to mention the fact that Grace did not treat her any differently, for which she was thankful. She appreciated how Grace would try and cheer her up whenever she was feeling down. Sometimes it was something as simple as a funny card left on her desk.

Their frequent talks helped as there were some things Grace understood better than the support group did. Natalie made sure that Grace expressed her feelings and didn't just listen to Natalie's. Grace made sure that Natalie received at least one hug a day, usually sometime during their chat. She was pleased to hear that Grace had found a support group she liked.

Grace also made sure Nick received plenty of support, knowing that he had to be hurting much more than she was.

Natalie was depressed when she again had to stow her bike because she didn't really feel like riding it. She really enjoyed the freedom, or at least the sense of freedom that it gave her and hated to store it. She knew that if she didn't she might have an accident and wanted to avoid spending any more time in the hospital than she absolutely had to, or she might get killed. She remembered her promise to Nick that she would not ride it if she didn't feel up to it.

The next evening found Natalie once again at her support group. She needed to talk with friends who could truly understand what she was going through because they had been there or had friends who had been there, or would be there themselves shortly.

"I had hoped that I would have more time. That I would progress as slowly as I did while asymptomatic, or even once the symptoms started. I don't want to die," Natalie said, as a tear ran down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. "I always thought I had a strong immune system. I was never sick much, before this."

"Maybe that's why you've progressed slowly up to this point," Mel said.

Natalie accepted that reasoning, as it certainly was a good possibility.

Tracy was waiting in Natalie's office for her arrival.

"What can I do for you?" Natalie asked as she took off her jacket and quickly looked over the stack of files on her desk.

"I was wondering if you wanted to catch a movie later?"

"I'm sorry, I can't. I have other commitments to keep," Natalie said, knowing it was one of the nights she went to her support group.

"While I'm here, do you have the Ford report?"

"It's right here." Natalie handed the folder to Tracy. Their hands touched briefly.

"Natalie, you seem a little warm. Are you okay?"

"I hope its not the flu that's going around. I feel fine."

"Are you sure? You look a little tired."

"I'm sure. I've probably been working too hard," Natalie said, knowing she was feeling as good as possible under the present circumstances.

A few days later Natalie had her latest doctor's appointment.

Natalie was seated on the exam table, her legs swinging nervously. Becky had just finished drawing the standard blood sample when Dr. Banks entered.

"Hi. How are you doing?" Dr. Banks asked, cheerily.

"So-so. I just read about protease inhibiting drugs and how they seem to help some AIDS patients. Could I try them?" Natalie asked, hopeful.

"I don't see why not. I'll need you to report any side effects to me immediately."

"No problem."

Natalie stepped onto the dreaded scale, pleased to learn that she had gained four pounds since her last checkup, bringing her weight up to 110.

"Very good. Are you still eating as much as possible?"

"I had to cut back some as I was about to explode. Besides, people were beginning to notice. It was hard to eat that much all the time."

Dr. Banks examined Natalie, finding nothing physically wrong with her. He started her on Crixivan , which went by the brand name of Indinavir and kept her on the AZT and the ddI.

"Two of the possible side effects are severe nausea and headaches. You do know that not everyone responds to this new class of drugs."

"Yes. I know," she sighed. "It's worth a try."

"If this combination doesn't work, we'll try another."

When he saw no signs of any side effects he let her get on with her day.

Nick stopped by Natalie's office to see how her checkup had gone and was pleased to hear the good news. He hoped the new drugs would give her some relief, even if it was only temporary.

About a week after Natalie had started on the protease inhibiting drugs she noticed a distinct improvement. She felt much better. She was thrilled to have gone a whole week without waking up soaking wet once. The aches and pains, fever, and tiredness were almost unnoticeable, making her wonder if they would fully disappear.

Nick had noticed as well. He was thrilled with the improvements and hoped it lasted a long time. He saw the new sense of joy in her eyes as she felt better.

At work Grace quickly noticed the improvement. She could see Nick's relief as well. She was happy for both of them, as they deserved as much happiness as there was out there.

That evening Natalie arrived at work and saw Grace approaching.

"Natalie, you're looking much better tonight," Grace said, once they had entered Natalie's office.

"It's the new drug. The protease inhibitor seems to be helping quite a bit. I feel more like my old self."

"Are you going to pull your bike out of storage?" Grace teased.

"If I keep feeling this good I will. I love the freedom it gives me."

Natalie knew she would devote as much time as she could to Nick's cure. She would also spend a little time on her own cure.

She had discovered the drawbacks to the new treatment regimen, more pills and a stricter schedule for taking them. She knew it was worth it, if it kept her feeling as good as she did now.

One sunny afternoon Natalie dusted off her inline skates and went out for some exercise. She missed the variety her routines used to have.

Natalie had just started skating when Tracy whizzed by, did a U-turn and came back.

"Natalie?"

"What?"

"You're looking great these days. I didn't know you did this."

"Thanks. I've been doing this on and off for years."

"Want some company? How about lunch afterwards?"

"Okay to both, as long as it isn't fast food."

"No problem."

The two women skated and talked.

The next afternoon Natalie paid a visit to her support group. Everyone looked pretty much the same as they had last week.

"Natalie, you look great," Mel said.

"Thanks," Natalie said as she grabbed a seat. "I've been taking one of the new protease inhibitors and it seems to agree with me."

The door opened and a young woman barely out of her teens stuck her head in the door.

"Is this the HIV support group?" The petite dark haired young woman asked, a bit nervously.

"Yes. Come on in. Grab yourself a cup of coffee, a brownie and a seat," Mel said. "I'm Mel."

"Welcome," Natalie said, remembering how she felt the first time. "I'm Natalie."

Everyone smiled at the young lady, remembering that they had all been that nervous at one point. The young woman relaxed slightly seeing all the friendly faces.

"Hi. I'm Michelle." The young woman said as she fit her chair into the space Mel and Natalie had made for her. "I just learned I'm HIV positive," Michelle said, her nervousness came through in her voice.

"I've had HIV for thirteen years with no symptoms," Mel said.

"I don't have any symptoms yet. How long can one go without them?" Michelle asked.

"The record is twenty years," Mel said.

"I have had AIDS now for almost a year. I've been battling the disease for about nine years," Natalie said before continuing. "After my HIV diagnosis I was symptom free for almost six years. It wasn't until after my T-Cell count began to fall that the symptoms started to appear. The symptoms appeared one at a time over the next few months. I developed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia almost nine months ago, which is an AIDS related opportunistic infection."

Natalie had another question and answer session with some high school students the next afternoon. She enjoyed sharing her experience with them. She knew she would once again enjoy it even more, now that she felt better.

She was surprised at how nervous she still became as she did her final preparations, and later when she was introduced. Once she was talking and answering their questions she felt fine.

Once again she stayed afterwards to answer more questions.

The next evening Natalie was glad to see Nick stick his head in the door as she had her latest protein drink ready for him to try. She had added a drop of blood, knowing that such a tiny amount would have no effect on their research. She hoped he didn't detect it, and that it made the shake more palatable.

"Nick, I'm glad you're here."

Nick knew that expression and reluctantly walked over to her desk. He took the mug she offered him and hesitantly took a sip. When it seemed tastier than usual he took another sip and before long had finished off the mug, surprising them both.

"Very good, Nick."

"I think you've finally hit upon the right recipe."

"Care to try another mug full?"

Nick debated for a moment before answering. "I don't think I want to push it. Let's see how well I tolerate this much."

Since she was in a good mood she didn't push it, especially since that was the most he had been able to consume so far.

Their phones rang, summoning them to the field.

Later when Nick and Tracy returned to the precinct, Nick found a mug full of sunny wildflowers sitting on his desk. Both were quite curious as to who sent them, though Nick had an idea.

Nick looked at the card, seeing only 'Nick, Thanks. N' on it. He grinned because she had signed the card the way he always did. He saw an envelope with her handwriting on it sitting on his desk, near the flowers.

"Are they from Natalie?" Tracy asked.

"Yes."

Nick opened the envelope and saw two tickets to a play. He was glad she was feeling more like her old self.

The next evening Natalie dusted her Harley off and took it to work, pleased to be feeling so good again. She had indulged herself that morning in another temporary tattoo, this one was the same colorful design as the last time.

Grace saw Natalie pull into the parking lot on her bike and knew that the new drug was working great. Grace locked her car and the two women walked into work together.

Inside her office, Natalie took off her jacket and hung it up. Before the forensic pathologist could slip into her lab coat Grace noticed something through her friend's shirt.

"Are you wearing another one?"

"Another one?" Natalie asked, a bit confused.

"Tattoo."

"Oh." Once again Natalie realized she forgot to check if it showed through her blouse. It hit her that she'd been distracted that morning, not that she had minded. She remembered his grin as she'd asked him for help applying it, as it was easier to do with two people.

"Yeah. I haven't really felt much like it until this morning. I think the last time I wore one was that time you, Nick and Schanke saw it."

"Just as long as you don't go getting any real ones."

"I won't. I don't have that high a pain tolerance." They both knew the other unspoken reason, that she didn't want anyone coming in contact with her blood.

Tracy and Nick entered.

"Nat, do you have the Thompson report? I thought I'd save you a trip to the precinct," Nick asked.

Natalie had been distracted and had not yet slipped into her lab coat. She checked for the report.

"I'm not sure if all the test results are in yet. I think most are."

Nick repressed a grin, seeing the tattoo and wondering if Tracy would spot it.

Grace was hanging around for the same reason, to see Natalie's reaction when and if Tracy noticed it.

"Natalie, do you have a tattoo?" Tracy asked, hesitantly.

Natalie was surprised then realized she had never slipped into her lab coat, having been distracted once again.

"Umm," Natalie stammered unsure what to say. She blushed a little.

"Can I see it?"

Natalie could tell that Grace and Nick were enjoying themselves and realized she could have some fun with Tracy, like she had had with them. She unbuttoned the top button, allowing her blouse to slip down in the back, but just enough to reveal the brightly colored bird with the long bright tail perched on a branch full of colorful flowers.

"Natalie, that's a nice one. I am a bit surprised though."

"I don't seem like the type, right," Natalie said with a little mischievousness in her voice.

"Yeah." Tracy said. "Nick, what do you think of it?"

"I like it. I too was surprised the first time I saw it."

"Me, too," said Grace.

"Tracy, I don't suppose you have any?" Natalie asked, curious, loving how Tracy turned bright red and looked quite surprised. Natalie pulled her shirt up to once again conceal it and made sure she slipped into her lab coat, not really wanting anyone else to find out and redid her shirt button.

"I do," Tracy said blushing. "I suppose you'd like to see it?"

Natalie, Nick and Grace nodded with big grins on their faces.

Tracy undid the top two buttons on her blouse and let the back of her shirt fall down enough to reveal her shoulder blade. In about the same location as Natalie's temporary one was Tracy's real one.

"Very nice," Natalie said as she saw the small heart tattoo. "I bet your parents didn't like it."

"They had a fit. Mom hates it. She keeps trying to get me to have it removed. Dad thought it was a stupid thing to do."

"When did you get it done?" Natalie asked.

"A few years ago. I was going through a really rebellious phase. They were always on my back about something. They wanted me to take sides, which I won't do. So I guess I got it to piss them off. I told them they should be glad it wasn't something larger like a dragon. They did not like that either."

"Did it hurt?" Grace asked.

"A little, but not too badly." Tracy said as she pulled her shirt back up.

"I heard the ones on the ankle really hurt because of the bone and all the nerve endings there. I think the other most painful place is the wrist, for the same reasons. There are even more nerves running through the wrist," Natalie said.

A couple of nights later Natalie was out on her bike when Vachon spotted her. He pulled up next to her and motioned for her to follow him, she did.

Before long they arrived at the loft.

Natalie turned off her engine and removed her helmet. "Why did you bring me here?"

"I need your services, but didn't want to risk Tracy walking in on us."

"Good idea."

They headed for loft, entering it moments later. She hung up her jacket on the brass coat rack.

Natalie knew something else was up when she caught a tiny grin as he looked at her back. Somehow she knew it had nothing to do with the vampiric part of him.

"What's the problem?"

Vachon looked momentarily confused.

"The reason you're here?"

"Oh. Sorry. I need you to dig a slug out of my shoulder. I picked it up last night, while doing a couple of errands out of town. It's really irritating me, something that should not be happening." Vachon didn't want to tell her that it was causing him pain.

"Okay. Have a seat at the kitchen table while I grab my things." She could tell how much it was bothering him, from his expression and body language.

Natalie retrieved her doctor's bag from the nearby closet and returned to the kitchen. She saw a shirtless Vachon straddling a chair and noticed he was quite muscular. He had an ancient design tattooed on his left shoulder. She found herself wondering if Tracy knew about it.

"I need you to show me where the bullet is." She said as she slipped out of her jacket.

Vachon pointed to the spot on his right shoulder blade. Natalie made a clean incision and quickly found it. She had to do a little cutting to free it from the surrounding tissue. He had not winced once.

"How does that feel?"

"There's still something irritating me."

"I'll see what I can do about that." She picked up a cup of water from the table and a paper towel, knowing she had to work fast, before the incision closed itself. She wet the towel and wiped out the wound.

"Thanks. That feels much better."

Natalie sealed the bullet in a baggie so she could analyze tomorrow night to see what made it itch.

Vachon got up and watched as Natalie put everything back away.

"Tracy was right. I didn't believe her when she said that you had a tattoo. Can I see it?"

Natalie wasn't sure, but knew he'd probably keep asking until she gave in. They sure were curious creatures. She undid the top button and allowed the blouse to once again slip down over her shoulder, revealing the design.

"Nice. But it's a fake. A very real looking one, though."

"I know. How'd you know so quickly?" She remembered the design on his shoulder.

"Experience," He said with that quirky grin of his. "Where'd you get it?"

"I found a display of them in some store I was in." Natalie tried to remember the name of the store, but couldn't. "Why?"

"Has Tracy shown you hers?" Vachon grinned.

"Yes. It's nice. The first time I asked her, during a recent case, she lied. She answered just a little too quickly. She said that she knew the tattoo artist because of work he had done on a friend."

"Do you mind if I tell her its a fake?"

"No. Actually, I think she might be relieved." Natalie knew she was going to be teasing Tracy about her tattoo, and lying about it at some point.

Vachon saw the clock on the wall. "I've gotta run. Tracy's probably looking for me. Thanks for the help."

"No problem. I'll let you know what I find on the bullet."

"Thanks."

Natalie walked Vachon to the door, preferring him to exit that way. When she opened the door she found a rather surprised Nick there.

Nick entered after Vachon left.

"What was he doing here?"

"He needed a bullet removed. No, he didn't say how it got there. He didn't want to go to the church or the morgue in case Tracy dropped by. Coming here was his suggestion." She saw the concern in his eyes. "I don't let any old vampire come here."

Nick was relieved to hear that. **********

The next evening Natalie was finishing up with her latest customer when she saw Tracy enter.

"Hi Tracy. What's up?"

"Why didn't you tell me it wasn't real?"

"I don't know. I guess I was enjoying your reaction too much." Natalie detected a slight mischievous glint in Tracy's eyes.

Natalie noticed that Tracy had avoided looking at the body the entire time she'd been in the room. Natalie finished with the victim, covered him, stripped off her latex gloves and gown.

She dropped her gown into the hamper on her way to her desk. She could see the relief on Tracy's face that the autopsy was over.

Nick entered, a little surprised to see Tracy there.

"Nick, what are you doing here?" Tracy asked.

"Natalie wanted to see me."

"Nick, I haven't had a chance to get to it yet." Natalie saw the small grin. "You're not getting off that easy."

"What's going on?"

"You know about my food allergies, right?" He saw Tracy nod. "Natalie, is working with me to see if we can't overcome some of them."

"I'm also working on an easier and tastier way for him to get the nutrition he needs," Natalie said as she pulled out the blender and several jars. She knew that she would have to leave out the secret ingredient, because of Tracy's presence.

Before long Natalie handed Nick a mug of the protein shake. Nick took a large sip, tried to swallow it and nearly gagged. He tried a smaller sip and knew that something was missing.

"Are you sure you put everything in it? It isn't nearly as good the last one."

"I think so."

"Can I try it?" Tracy asked.

"Sure." Natalie said, surprising Nick. She poured another mug full and handed it to Tracy.

"Not too bad, but it needs something to give it a little zing. Maybe a little more chocolate."

Later in the evening, Vachon stopped by to see if Natalie had made any progress on why the bullet had irritated him. He saw her examining something under her microscope and waited until she finished.

"Vachon, someone coated the bullet with a mixture of garlic and holy water."

"That would explain it." He saw the concern written across her face. "He won't be hunting anyone else. I made sure of that. If I hadn't the Enforcers would've."

"I know. In a way I'm glad you took care of it."

Nick and Natalie spent the next two months going to plays, movies, out to dinner. They rode their bikes around town enjoying what they had started calling her remission.

Natalie saw the relief in Nick's eyes each night he saw her looking healthier. She was pleased to have gained several pounds, bringing her weight up to 115.

The Schankes' were pleased, knowing that their friends deserved it, after all the bad things that had happened to them. Jenny still didn't spend as much time with Natalie as she did before she learned the truth. The healthier Nat looked the easier it was for Jenny to spend time with Natalie. Nat was careful not to take her pills in front of Jenny, not wanting to remind her of her illness.

Natalie also saw the relief and joy in Grace's eyes. Natalie was glad she had friends who worried about her, just like family.

Natalie threw Grace a killer birthday party, wanting to show her thanks for all her friend's unconditional loving support. Grace was surprised and touched by the party.

Nick knew their anniversary was approaching and couldn't believe they'd been married for five years. He was determined to make this night special, one she'd always remember.

Natalie realized their anniversary would be here in a few days and also couldn't believe it had been five years since their wedding. She wondered what he had planned, knowing it would be something fantastic, as it always was.

Nick was driving in the Caddy when it hit him, causing a smile to spread across his face. He knew what the perfect gift would be.

At the same time the anniversary brought sadness and uncertainty. Neither knew how many more years they would have together, or how soon she'd be too sick to take care of herself. They knew it would only be a couple more years, time that would be savored.

Nick planned an elegant dinner for two to start the celebration and had elicited Grace's help in keeping Natalie away from the loft until he was ready. Grace was more than happy to help.

Nick cooked Natalie's favorite appetizer and entree, making sure there were two exquisite chocolate dishes for dessert. While dinner was cooking, he set the table perfectly. The mixture of wildflowers and roses set in a crystal vase comprised the centerpiece. A white tapered candle in an ancient, elegant silver candle holder was placed on each side of the centerpiece, providing light to dine by.

Nick placed a quick call to Grace. He knew she'd want to know all about the evening and would leave the telling of it to Natalie.

Nick made any other final preparations before waiting by the door for his wife's arrival.

Natalie was stunned when the elevator door opened revealing the loft lit only by the soft glow of candlelight. She heard the soft music in the background setting the perfect mood.

"Nick. You've outdone yourself again." Natalie said, loving him more with each day. "It reminds me of one of the happiest nights of my life."

"I'm glad you like it. It was also one of the happiest nights of my life." Nick approached, taking her in his arms and kissing her. "I left you something to wear on your bed."

She loved the mischievous grin he wore. He looked stunning in the royal blue shirt and black pants. He released her from the embrace and nudged her towards the stairs. She took the hint, curious to see what he had picked out for her.

She entered their bedroom, flipped on the light switch. She was surprised by the soft glow coming from the usually brighter fixtures. On the bed she saw a dress laid out for her. She slipped out of her peach suit and into the very elegant looking creation she held in her hands.

The royal blue dress felt wonderful as it slid down her body, stopping right above her knees. It fit like a second skin. She brushed her hair making it glow. She opened her jewelry box, taking out his mother's necklace and fastening it around her neck. She put on her favorite pair of earrings, and added some lipstick before heading back downstairs.

Nick stared stunned as she reentered the room looking absolutely gorgeous.

"Nick, you okay?" Natalie asked, loving how beautiful he made her feel without saying a single word.

"I'm fine." He loved watching her blush.

Once she was again in his arms and he kissed her passionately. Before long the vampire threatened to surface, and he knew she needed to catch her breath so they separated.

"Would you like to eat first, or open your gift first?"

"My gift, if the food can wait," Natalie said, surprised at how tough the decision had been.

Nick lead her over to the couch where he handed her an elegantly wrapped box. She ripped the paper off and lifted the lid, finding two airline tickets tucked into the tissue paper.

"Nick, thank you!" She couldn't believe that she was finally going to see County Cork, Ireland. She didn't think he had been paying attention when she'd mentioned wanting to visit there sometime. She rewarded him with an embrace and a kiss.

She looked at the tickets and was stunned to see the departure date. "I suppose you've arranged it so our vacation starts tomorrow." There was a slight playful teasing to her tone.

"Of course," he said using the same playful tone she had.

"How long have you been planning this?" She asked curiously.

"A while. I just needed the perfect opportunity." He loved it when they engaged in their playful bantering.

Natalie pulled a smallish flat box out from under the couch. "Now it's your turn to open your gift."

Nick quickly opened his gift. As he pushed aside the tissue paper he saw a framed certificate. He picked it up and read it, a little confused.

"I thought I'd give you something you can see no matter where you are," Natalie said. "Someone once told me about this company where you can name a star." She saw the look of comprehension dawning on his face. "I figured it's probably something you didn't already have."

"I definitely don't have this. You chose my birth name. I'm honored." Nick loved the idea of being able to look at the star named de Brabant and be reminded of his own shining star, Natalie.

"I figured that it was the one name that would always be you, no matter what identity you were living under."

"Thank you. I don't think I've ever received such a special gift." He pulled her close and kissed her. He put some extra passion into it.

Before long they broke off the kiss due to her needing to breathe and the vampire once again threatening to surface. "How about some dinner?"

"Sounds good. I'm starving." She couldn't wait to see what gourmet delicacies he had cooked up for her.

He led her over to the table and held out her chair for her.

Nick served the appetizer first, loving her surprised look. Natalie tasted the crab cake, smiling when it was as delicious as the last time he fixed it for her. He poured them both a glass of her favorite non-alcoholic wine.

"To the most beautiful, smart, loving wife a man could have," Nick said, loving the blush that colored his wife's cheeks.

"To the most handsome, smart and loving husband a woman could have," Natalie said, swearing she saw him blush ever so slightly.

They both sipped at their wine, enjoying its flavor.

The main course was served shortly. Nick set the steaming plate of chicken, beef, shrimp, and lobster meat mixed with assorted oriental vegetables before her.

"I see you've fixed my favorites so far. Thank you."

Natalie tried the first bite, seeing the eager questioning look on Nick's face. "It's delicious." She loved his smile. It lit up his beautiful blue eyes.

Nick picked at his food like he usually did and tried to eat a little more than usual. Natalie smiled knowing how hard it was for him to eat the same food she did. He loved her beautiful smile as it lit up her whole face and made her eyes sparkle.

Throughout dinner he kept their glasses full of the non-alcoholic wine. When she finished he removed the dishes.

"Are you ready for dessert and coffee?"

"Yes. Dinner was wonderful. Thank you."

"It was my pleasure. I'm glad you enjoyed it."

Nick set a plate in front of her with a serving of the two chocolate dishes he had prepared. One was a rich chocolate cake and the other was a sinfully rich chocolate mousse. Both had a large blob of fresh whipped cream on top of them. He loved the expression on her face and new that he probably wouldn't hear anything from her until she had finished every last morsel.

Natalie stabbed a bite of cake and ran it through the mousse and whipped cream. She eyed it hungrily, savoring the taste as it exploded upon her tastebuds. "This is fantastic."

Nick tried not to laugh as she savored each bite like it was a tiny piece of heaven, which he knew she considered it to be. He knew that if he laughed, she'd make him eat some of it, or get mad. He didn't want either to happen.

Natalie finished her dessert too soon for her liking. "Thank you for a terrific meal. The company was great too." She smiled.

"May I have this dance?" Nick asked with a grin.

"I'd be honored."

Nick lead Natalie into the living room where they danced, their arms wrapped around the other, their bodies barely moving. They were enjoying the simple pleasure of being together.

After several dances Natalie tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn, not wanting the day to end. Nick noticed, also not wanting their special time together to end.

"Why don't you go upstairs. I'll be right up."

"Okay. Don't be too long," she teased.

Natalie headed upstairs where she changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth and took her final dose of medication for the day.

Nick piled all the dishes into the dishwasher and started it. He downed an entire bottle of human blood before heading upstairs to join his wife.

He entered the bedroom, grabbed a bottle of Natalie's favorite massage lotion off the dresser and approached his wife.

"I thought you'd never join me," she teased.

"Sorry. I had to do a little cleaning in the kitchen."

She pulled him down onto his bed, kissing him as passionately as she knew how to, hoping he'd return the heat.

Nick hungrily returned her kisses. He kissed her lips, chin and down her neck. He pulled the t-shirt off her body and kissed his way down to her collarbone. He felt her blood calling out to him and ignored it's call. He kissed his way down her chest, giving each breast equal attention.

She moaned with pleasure as his cool lips worked their way down her warm body.

She unbuttoned his shirt by feel and then pushed it off his shoulders and down his arms.

She ran her hand through his hair loving the silkiness of it.

Nick's hands and lips caressed her most sensitive spots, knowing how to bring her to the brink of ecstasy. He caressed her skin rubbing the lotion as his hands covered her body, hoping its scent would help keep the vampire at bay. He could feel the vampire trying to assert itself, but refused to allow it to. For once the man was going to do what they said couldn't be done.

Natalie caressed Nick's back, pressing him closer, loving the coolness of his skin pressed against her warm skin.

Nick's eyes changed and his fangs dropped.

Natalie felt the tips of his fangs brushing against her body as he pleasured her, causing her to wonder if he would bite her. She wasn't afraid as they had done this several times during the course of their marriage. Each time hoping they would be able to go further than the time before.

Nick suddenly bolted from the room.

Natalie didn't mind as she knew it would be the most likely outcome of their latest attempt at making love.

She headed into the bathroom for a cold shower. She was pleased because they had lasted a little longer and gone a little further than their last attempt.

Nick opened the fridge, grabbed a bottle of human blood and quickly drained it. Only then did he feel confident enough to head back upstairs. When he heard the shower go off he entered the middle bedroom's shower. He stood there under the cold spray pleased at how they had gone further this time and lasted longer.

Nick entered the bedroom and saw that Natalie was sound asleep on her bed. He was surprised to find clean sheets on his bed and smiled at her loving gesture.

The next night they left for the airport as soon as the sun was down. They caught a direct flight to Cork, Ireland. Natalie was surprised at how beautiful the Cork airport was. It was a modern brass and glass building with a fountain, garden and horses as a part of it. Since she was hungry they headed for the closest food place. Natalie was quite surprised to find herself eating first class gourmet food rather than the average to not so good food airports are known for. After they ate they headed for the luggage claim area, then the rental car counter. They knew they were cutting things close but knew that there was no way he could survive the day in the airport, there were far too many huge windows and skylights.

They made it to the Bed and Breakfast just as the sun was starting to rise over the horizon. They went inside and checked in. Nick hated how Natalie had to bring in the bags due to the risen sun.

The Bed and Breakfast was one of the best ones in the county. The antique furniture the old house was furnished with gave the entry a nice touch of elegance. The dark wood contrasting nicely with the white walls.

Nick helped Natalie carry the bags up to their room. He took most of them, leaving her with the smaller two.

Natalie entered their room first, with Nick right behind her. There was a couch, antique coffee table and matching end tables over near the heavily curtained windows. The bedroom had the same white walls and darkly stained wood furniture of the entry. Natalie smiled when she saw the elegant antique four poster bed on the other side of the room. The dark wood it was made of seemed perfect for the setting.

"Nick, there's only one bed."

Natalie headed straight for the windows and shut the drapes. She was glad to see that were dark and heavy enough to protect Nick from the daylight.

"I know. They didn't have anything else available. It will be okay as long as I make sure to eat before bed." Nick smiled. "Besides, I've grown used to having you nearby as I sleep."

Natalie smiled.

He wrapped his arm around her waist and she wrapped hers around his waist.

"Happy anniversary," Nick said as he pulled her around to face him and kissed her on the lips. She happily responded. They soon separated knowing that the more they pushed it the bigger a chance Nick would have to spend the night on the couch, which wasn't fair to either of them.

Natalie yawned.

"Why don't you get changed. We both need some sleep."

Natalie nodded and dug her pajamas out of her suitcase while Nick did the same.

Once Natalie was changed and had climbed into bed, Nick joined her.

"How about a massage?"

"That would be great," Natalie said as she rolled over onto her stomach.

Nick started up at her neck and slowly worked his way across her shoulders before starting down her back, making sure every muscle was relaxed before he moved on. He heard her sighs of contentment as he worked.

He was halfway down her back when her slow, steady breathing informed him that she was sound asleep. He continued on until he was done before laying down next to her. He quickly fell into a deep sleep.

Late that afternoon they both awoke refreshed. They quickly unpacked and went down for a late lunch. Nick picked at his food while Natalie hungrily gobbled hers down.

After lunch Nick insisted that Natalie take a walk outside to see the beautiful countryside by daylight.

Natalie was amazed at the beautiful color of the grass. It was a beautiful emerald green, and was like nothing she had ever seen before. She looked out at the trees, hills, and mountains in the background and felt herself relax. The cool air was nice and clean.

When it started to rain she went back inside, not wanting to wind up drenched.

She headed for Nick, who had moved into the rather cozy family room. There was the same dark antique furniture along with the white walls. The room had wooden bookshelves along one wall and a stone fireplace against another. The wall around the fireplace was stone giving the room much of it's coziness. The roaring fire added to the overall relaxing feeling.

"It's gorgeous outside," Natalie said as she sat on the couch next to Nick. "I don't think I've ever seen that shade of emerald green before. Thank you for bringing me here."

Nick put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him. "I'm glad you're enjoying it so far."

Natalie snuggled against Nick as they sat on one of the couches in front of the fireplace and talked. They enjoyed not having to worry about being called into work. Natalie noticed Nick relaxing as the afternoon wore on. She hadn't seen him this relaxed since their honeymoon.

That night dinner was Irish stew. Natalie had eaten it a few times over the years, but it had never been as good as this one was. She noticed it was mostly potatoes and onions with pieces of mutton, all cooked in a covered pot. Nick tried it but couldn't eat much of it.

After dinner they headed out to check out the local nightlife armed with a few suggestions from the B&B's owner.

Nick and Natalie enjoyed their first taste of Irish nightlife as they walked down some of the nearby streets, looking in shop windows and stopping into a pub when they needed to take a breather.

Natalie's only small regret was that she couldn't taste the local brews, the Irish whiskey or even have an Irish coffee. She wasn't a big beer fan but would try one from time to time when a friend suggested she do so. She used to enjoy an Irish coffee from time to time.

They listened to the local music for a long while, captivated by the beauty of it. When Natalie started yawning they headed back to the Bed and Breakfast where they were staying.

As they were getting ready for bed, Natalie discovered Nick had brought along the Lytoveuterine. She wasn't happy, but understood why he had. She was scared of what it would do to him this time.

After a brief discussion they decided on one dose, and only because he wanted to take her sightseeing in the daylight.

"Nat, how about we go kiss the Blarney stone? You can't come here an not do so."

"Sure. It's not like either of us need any help in that area." She loved the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

He smiled, noticing the matching mischievous twinkle enter her eyes.

"First, we need a few hours sleep," Natalie said.

They quickly fell asleep after having set the alarm clock to wake them mid morning.

They awoke, showered and dressed before Natalie insisted Nick stretch out on the bed while she took her morning round of pills. She filled the syringe with the proper dose of the drug and injected it into the vein in his arm. She gently stroked his hair and talked to him as he rode out the pain and nausea, keeping a close eye on him at the same time, not wanting any unforeseen nasty side effects to ruin their vacation.

When Natalie was certain that Nick was okay they left to see as much as they could. She did tuck the bottle and a couple of spare syringes into her purse, just in case.

Nick made sure that Blarney castle was the first thing they saw. It was located slightly to the north-east or Cork City and was one of the most famous buildings in Ireland, due to the stone embedded in the wall that is said to give the power of eloquence to those who kiss it.

Natalie noticed that there was two parts to the ruins, a slender peel tower and a much larger stone mass that was several stories tall. The larger mass was square, about five stories tall and had a much shorter square building attached to it's side. It looked very much like pictures of old castles from books.

Nick led her up to where the stone was located and wanted to see if she could figure out how to kiss the stone. He was amused as she seriously studied the area.

Before long, Natalie had an idea of how to kiss the stone. "Nick, will you hold onto my feet?"

"Sure." Nick hoped he would be strong enough to do so without the vampire element at full strength.

Nick grabbed hold of Natalie's legs as she eased herself down over the lip and kissed the stone. "Okay, Nick. Pull me up." Natalie helped Nick pull her back up.

Once she was again standing next to him she looked at him with a wicked grin. "Your turn."

"I'll pass. Maybe tonight."

Natalie stuck her tongue out at him, but knew he was right, she might not be strong enough to hold him. "Okay. But tonight you do it like I did."

"Fair enough."

Since Natalie wasn't much into caves they passed on exploring the castle further or the surrounding caves. Instead they looked at the beautiful view. The top of the castle was the perfect vantage point.

The castle was set just south of where the Martin joins the Blarney river, and was therefore immediately south of the village.

"It's so beautiful up here," Natalie said as she looked out at the pastoral countryside.

The rich and fertile countryside, with its rolling hills and trees dotting the landscape.

As Nick and Natalie headed back for their car she bent down to pick a four leaf clover she'd spotted causing him to grin. She grinned back at him holding the clover out for his examination.

"Hey, we can use all the luck we can get," she teased.

Nick and Natalie checked out the local shops on North Main street where they purchased souvenirs for their friends and a few things for themselves. They loved how friendly the natives were. They heard stories how this was one of the oldest shopping areas in the city, and that it was home to many old family businesses.

Soon Nick and Natalie stopped for lunch in a nearby pub. Nick enjoyed trying some of the native foods almost as much as Natalie did. She was able to take her handful of medication without anyone noticing. They soon found themselves engaged in conversations with several natives. They were enjoying themselves as they learned more about the people and the area.

After lunch Nick and Natalie made a quick visit to the English Market, vowing to return another day for a more extensive exploration of the area.

Their next stop was Cork Heritage Park. They walked through the park down the various walks, enjoying the six acres of beautiful gardens. They looked around the restored nineteenth century courtyard which housed a museum, archive, photographic galleries, and an environmental center. They enjoyed walking through the museum and photo galleries learning more of the history of the area.

Nick could see that they both needed a break so they headed for the cafe there where they had something cold and non-alcoholic to drink along with a small snack.

They arrived back at the B&B just as the Lytoveuterine was wearing off. Natalie noticed. Nick headed upstairs to their room for some proper nourishment.

That night's dinner was a traditional Irish meal consisting of boiled salt pork, cabbage and potatoes. Natalie didn't like it as much as the stew, but was glad she had tried it. Nick tried a little but mainly picked at it.

That night Nick and Nat checked a local dance group that did traditional Irish dances, and had a really good time. Shortly after the performance ended, Natalie was trying to suppress a yawn which did not go unnoticed by Nick.

They went back to the B&B where Nick gave Natalie a massage, knowing that with all the walking they had done she would probably feel it the next afternoon. She was asleep before he was halfway finished with the back rub. As soon as he finished he laid down beside her was asleep almost instantly.

The next day Nick handed Natalie a gift when she had finished dressing. She was surprised to find a camcorder inside. Nick explained that it was for her to videotape the sightseeing tour he had arranged for her so they could both watch it later. Natalie tried to protest but knew it would do no good. She knew he wanted her to see as much as she could during their week their, without the restrictions his vampirism forced on him.

A friend of the proprietor's, Brianna, showed Natalie around, making sure she saw the best sites, both historical and beautiful. They had a wonderful day, having hit it off right from the start. During lunch, Natalie excused herself to the ladies room so she could take her pills without Brianna asking questions.

After lunch they hit the English Market again where Natalie picked up a few more goodies for herself, Nick and their friends back home. She also picked up a small thank you for the proprietor of the B&B, Erin, for all her help and understanding of their odd hours due to Nick's sun allergy.

Natalie enjoyed sharing the videotape she had made of her sightseeing tour with Nick as much, if not more than, she had enjoyed the tour itself.

That night after dinner Nick and Natalie went to the Opera. They saw a local production of Taming of the Shrew. The play was well done and made the audience laugh.

After the play Nick and Natalie headed out for a pub so that Natalie could have a late night snack.

When they arrived back at their room in the B&B Natalie changed, took her medication and stretched out in bed, hoping for another massage. Nick was more than happy to comply. Again she fell asleep to his wonderful fingers working their magic.

They took it easy for their last night in town. They sat around the family room by the fire and talked with the other guests as well as their gracious hosts.

The next night it was time for them to leave County Cork and return home. Natalie was glad that she was able to see the area before she became to sick to do so. Nick could see how much the trip had meant to her and was glad he was able to make her happy. She saw the joy in his eyes as she enjoyed herself and was pleased he it brought him that much happiness.

They arrived at the Toronto airport at sunrise. Natalie was glad they had parked in the covered parking garage. When the coast was clear Nick climbed into the Caddy's trunk while the luggage occupied the backseat. Natalie steered the Caddy towards the loft.

As soon as the loft's garage door came down Nick climbed out of the trunk and carried the luggage to the elevator then up to the bedroom. Natalie decided that unpacking could wait until morning. She was glad she had arranged to have the gifts for her friends shipped directly to them as it would be one less thing to worry about dragging from County Cork to Toronto then handing them out.

Natalie flopped into bed exhausted from the trip, glad to be home again. Nick too was tired as sleeping next to her all week had used up more energy than she knew.

They had to be in to work that night. Nick had hoped to get them one more night off but had been unable to arrange that.

When Natalie arrived at the Coroner's Office she was greeted by a happy Grace.

"I want to hear all about your trip. Thank you for the wonderful gifts." Grace excitedly said as she hugged her friend.

"Can you wait until lunch?"

"Sure. I'm looking forward to hearing all about it."

Nick saw Schanke look up from his desk.

"Welcome back Partner. It looks like you had a great time. By the way, thanks for the gifts."

Later when Natalie stopped by to drop off some reports Schanke thanked her for the presents.

Two nights later Nick and Natalie arrived at the Schanke residence as they had been invited to dinner so the twosome could tell the Schankes all about their trip. The Schankes loved hearing the story of their friend's trip and seeing all the pictures Natalie brought with her. They even watching the videotape she had made for Nick during her daytime sightseeing tour. ************

A few weeks after her return from Ireland, Natalie was on her way out of the coroner's building when one of her coworkers approached. Natalie smiled as she noticed her friend.

"Hi, Donna."

"Hi, Natalie." Donna said, looking a bit nervous. She had done some research to see which rumors were true and was stunned by her findings.

"Is something wrong?"

"Yes. I need to talk to you about it." Donna motioned towards Natalie's office.

Natalie followed Donna. Once inside the coroner's lab, Donna closed the door, being careful to avoid touching Natalie. Natalie had a suspicion about what Donna wanted to discuss.

"I know you have AIDS. Why are you still working here? You could contaminate our cases, or catch something." Or give it to us was Donna's unspoken concern. She knew that Natalie might accidentally contaminate with her tainted blood and might not even realize it until too late.

"Yes, I have AIDS. I'm working because I enjoy my job. I'm taking extra care so that I don't accidentally contaminate a case or catch something. I don't want either to happen."

"You should quit. What if others found out?"

"I'm not going to quit. If they find out, I'll deal with it." Natalie hid the hurt her friend turning against her caused, as she didn't want Donna to see it.

"I don't want to work with you."

"You don't have to. I'm not a threat to anyone. You should know that." Natalie knew that all members of the staff had taken a full day course on work safety, and the ways AIDS, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and other diseases they might come across via work were transmitted.

"I bet you either gave it to your husband or caught it from him."

Natalie was torn between saying nothing and protecting Nick from a similar hassle. She didn't want the other cops to start wondering if he had it or if he were a danger to them. Once the seed of doubt had been planted, it would be impossible for it to be erased.

"Neither, actually. Collins infected me." Natalie didn't want to share that, but knew that if she didn't there would be lots of erroneous speculation and rumors about how she contracted it, at least among the newer staff who did not know about the rape. She saw Donna's rather blank look. "The bastard who raped me."

"Oh."

Donna was relieved when Natalie's phone rang because she could slip out of there without having to come up with some cheesy excuse.

Natalie scribbled down the address, grabbed her coat and headed for the crime scene.

At the crime scene Natalie noticed the strange looks she and Nick received. The officers were trying to be subtle, but some of them really could use lessons in the art of subtlety.

After Natalie examined the body and gave her initial report to Nick and Tracy, she pulled Nick aside.

"Do they know?"

"I don't know. I noticed the first strange looks shortly after my illness," Nick said, not wanting to bring up Cal and upset his wife.

"Does Tracy know?"

"I don't think so. She hasn't said anything. Besides, Vachon usually warns me when her latest inquiry involves me, the Community, or anything that could be risky."

"What are we going to do if they figure it out? How do we explain your illness?" Nat asked.

"That's up to you. I don't think many people noticed I was sick, so we might not have to say anything."

"Donna knows. She confronted me earlier. I don't know if she'll tell others."

Natalie and Nick saw Tracy growing anxious to leave the crime scene.

"You'd better go. We'll talk about this later," Natalie said.

Nick headed for his partner and Natalie headed for her car.

Back at the morgue, Natalie noticed the same odd looks coming from her coworkers. Do they know? If so, why aren't they saying anything?

Natalie conducted the autopsy, ignoring her suspicions about her coworkers.

Natalie needed a file from Donna and didn't want to make scene by retrieving it herself.

"Grace, can you see if the Dobson report is ready?"

"Sure."

Natalie found her mind wandering and let it. Katie came to mind. *************

"Natalie, I know you're scared to tell people. It won't be easy. It wasn't when my family started telling those that needed to know. Then others learned. People would stare at me, avoid me, afraid that if they talked to me, that they would catch it. No one wanted to touch me. When people hugged me they were often crying. Some of my friends couldn't handle it and avoid me. Others had to stop being my friends because their parents were too fearful, and too ignorant to know I wasn't a threat. They didn't care to learn the truth. That really hurt."

"No one should have to go through that," Natalie said, sympathetically, her voice tinged with a touch of anger.

"I know. Things are a little better than they were five, ten years ago, but not as much progress as I thought there would be."

"People can be really slow to change."

"I know. In school they're not allowed to teach us about how a condom can save your life. The school board forbids them to use the words needed. The board thinks that if we 'innocent' children hear such words we'll become hormone crazed and have to go out and have sex all the time. Do they know how many lives that would save? The students have no where to get accurate information, so they can only go by whatever they hear from friends or the media, which leaves the accuracy seriously in question."

"I know. Unfortunately it probably won't change until an important person or their family is infected by it due to lack of knowledge. Then maybe things will change," Natalie said, a bit distressed.

"Once everyone at school knew I had the disease, I had to get up in front of everyone and talk about it. I didn't want to be singled out, but it did give me the chance to clear up a few things. I almost got suspended for that," Katie said with a grin.

"What happened?"

"I told them the things they wanted to know but the adults either couldn't or wouldn't tell them. The principal got in trouble from the board. My parents helped me defend myself. They pointed out that I was ordered to talk to the students about AIDS, how it's transmitted and how it's not. That sort of stuff. Well, I guess they expected me to be too shy or embarrassed not to discuss safe sex. I did and was pulled off stage very quickly. Once they realized that they had set themselves up, they really couldn't do much about it."

"I'm glad you were open with your peers. How did they react?"

"They started coming to me for information. Some were hesitant at first, some were so shy they would leave notes in my books. As long as I didn't advertise, or set up official meetings no one could stop me from meeting with my peers and talking to them. I'd talk to them outside during lunch, or between classes, whenever someone needed help. I believe that I helped prevent someone from becoming another victim of the disease."

"Good for you," Natalie cheerfully said. She was feeling a bit guilty for her own attitudes. ********

"Here's the Dobson report," Grace said before detecting her friend was a thousand miles away. She waved the report in front of her friends eyes. "Earth to Natalie?."

"What? Sorry."

"I guess Nick's zoning is contagious," Grace teased, pleased when she saw Natalie grin.

"Am I that bad?" Natalie said lightly.

"Not usually. Everything okay?"

"I don't know." She saw the worry on Grace's face. "I'm fine." When Grace didn't seem convinced Natalie smiled and said, "Really."

"Okay," Grace said, knowing she wouldn't get any answers from Nat until she was ready to give them. Grace was reassured by the fact that Nat looked okay.

At the precinct, Nick listened in on a few of the conversations going on around him. He was displeased with the whispered rumors that he and his wife had AIDS. A few thought they shouldn't be working if the rumors were true. A few others disagreed, believing she had cancer.

Nick looked across his desk at his partner, wondering if she believed the rumors. Would she care if she learned the truth? Before Tracy could catch him staring at her, he forced his mind back onto his paperwork. He couldn't do anything about his fellow officer's beliefs, at least not at the moment.

That morning when Nick and Natalie arrived home, they knew they had some important decisions to make. Ones that would affect both their lives. In the elevator, she filled him in on her confrontation with Donna.

"Nick, should we tell them? What if more react the way she did? I don't want to be driven out of work because they can't handle it," Nat said as she and her husband headed for the couch.

"Like I said earlier, it is your decision. You are the one who will be most affected."

"Have you been eavesdropping on the precinct gossip?" She asked curiously, knowing that he did sometimes.

"Yes. They suspect we both have AIDS. Some suspect you have cancer." She took a seat on the couch facing him, and he did likewise.

"I know there will be some who won't be able to handle it. But it would simplify my life, not having to come up with a reason for being tired, the intermittent fevers and so on. They might use it as a way to get rid of me." Nat said, "I know I can't be fired because I have AIDS. But, I don't want to work somewhere where everyone's turned against me."

"It's going to be tough either way. If we keep quiet, there will always be the gossip, which could get out of hand. If we let people know, then what you fear might happen. Either way Tracy might get caught up in it all accidentally. She is my partner." Nick said, "If it gets too rough, we can always leave," he said, taking her hand in his.

"I won't let anyone drive me away from here," Natalie said determinedly. "If we do tell the truth... there will be a lot of uncomfortable questions. They will want to know if you have it, how come you don't if we're intimate. if we're intimate, what sort of a marriage do we have. Not to mention our feelings about it all. Questions may arise about your sun allergy."

"I know. I can handle it. I've been through worse. Can you handle it?" He asked concerned, studying her face for his answers.

"As long as they don't pity me, I can. I've had to deal with a lot of hassles throughout my career. It isn't easy to be the chief medical examiner for Toronto and be a woman."

"I know. I think that strength is what drew me to you."

The next afternoon, Natalie arrived for work, knowing the stares she would get, the whispered gossip behind her back, the uneasiness whenever she was around.

No sooner had Natalie entered her office, hung up her jacket and taken a seat, than Grace entered.

"Hi, Natalie." Grace said all cheerily, as she handed her friend a mug of hot coffee, just the way Nat liked it.

"Hi. Thanks."

"What's wrong?" Grace said, noticing the slight depression in her friend's voice and in her body language.

"Donna confronted me about having AIDS. She doesn't want to have anything to do with me. She doesn't even want me working here. She's afraid I'll either contaminate a body, catch something, or give it to her. She didn't actually say the last one, she didn't have to."

"Have you decided what to do?"

"Yes. Nick and I talked about it this morning. At the precinct they're gossiping about him having it as well. I'm going to tell everyone."

"Are you sure that's wise?" Grace asked concerned.

"Probably not, but I'd rather everyone knew the truth than believed the rumors floating around," off Grace's expression she continued, "I've heard a rumor or two and that's enough for me."

"I'll be there for support."

"Thanks. Things might get a bit rough. Not just for Nick and myself, but for you too."

"I know. I don't care."

"Thanks, Grace," Natalie said with a large smile.

Later that shift, Natalie entered the break room needing a snack from the vending machine. She saw several of her coworkers seated, talking over coffee and lunch.

"Natalie, can you settle something for us?" Anna asked.

"What is it?" Natalie asked, knowing what the next question most likely was.

"Do you have cancer or AIDS?" Marie asked.

"I have AIDS." Natalie inserted her change into the vending machine and pressed the correct button.

"Does Nick have it too?" Anna asked.

"No, he doesn't."

"Is he HIV positive?" Marie asked.

"No." She picked up her candy bar from the machine's tray.

"How can that be?" Marie asked again.

"I have a corpse to get back to. I'll answer your questions later." Natalie left.

Nat headed straight for her supervisor's office and knocked on the door.

"Teri, I need you to set up a staff meeting as soon as possible. More people will attend if the memo comes from you."

"Okay. What is the subject of the meeting?"

"Me." Natalie took a deep breath before continuing. "I know you've heard the rumors, and they're partially true. I don't have cancer, but I do have AIDS. Nick doesn't. He also is not HIV positive. I want to talk with the staff before things get out of hand."

"Okay. I'll try to set one up for Wednesday. Do you want to speak just to the night shift, or to the day shift as well?"

"I'd like to talk with both." Natalie saw the unasked questions on her boss' face. "I'm doing this because people are figuring it out for themselves. I've been asked a few times already. It will be easier to answer everyone's questions if we're all together, rather than me answering them every time someone hears a new rumor. I also don't want a lot of grossly false rumors floating around making things more difficult than they need to be."

"I understand. I'll let you know the exact time of the meetings."

"Thanks. By the way, I'll probably have to talk with Nick's precinct, and any others that want to know about AIDS."

"Just let me know when, and if you're not scheduled for court, there's no problem. Just don't let your work suffer."

"I won't. Thanks again."

Teri sadly wondered how much longer her chief medical examiner had. She admired Natalie's strength and courage. Teri knew she probably would not be brave enough to admit her coworkers that she had AIDS. She was grateful she didn't have the disease. Teri also hoped this wouldn't cause too many problems between the staff and her best forensic pathologist. She wondered how she'd solve them if it did.

Tracy stopped by the old church Vachon called home. She needed to talk to someone and he was the only one she could discuss this with because he wouldn't tell anyone, she hoped.

"Vachon, you here?" Tracy called out as she entered.

"Hi, Trace," Vachon said, suddenly appearing right behind her.

Tracy turned around and nearly screamed, instead she smacked his chest. "Stop that!"

"What do you need my help with this time?"

"I need someone to talk to."

He could tell that something was bothering her and escorted her down to his lair. They sat on the couch.

"What's bothering you?" He asked concerned.

"Have you noticed anything different about Natalie or Nick?"

"Nick's allergic to the sun, but other than that... no. I haven't noticed anything really different about Natalie. She's been looking really good lately."

Tracy gave him a nasty look.

"You asked. Are you jealous," he teased, sensing she was.

"No. Why would I be." Jealousy tinted her voice as she spoke. "They're happily married."

"What's going on?"

"I'm trying to figure out what's going on. I keep hearing so many different rumors and don't know what to believe. I don't know how to ask them if it true."

"What sort of rumors?" Vachon asked curious if they had anything to do with Nick's true nature.

"Some people think Natalie has cancer. Others think it's AIDS, and Nick has it too. I hope none of that is true."

I wish I could tell you that Nick can't have AIDS. Vachon thought.

"How do you ask someone this? You can't just go up to them and say 'hey Nat, do you have cancer or AIDS? Does Nick?' Or ask Nick if he and Nat have AIDS or if she has cancer."

"Why not," Vachon asked. "They are your friends. They would understand."

"What if it's it true? What do I say? Gee, I'm sorry you're going to die, isn't the right thing."

"You don't have to say anything. Something as simple as touching a hand or giving someone a hug can say it better." Vachon noticed her uneasiness. "Are you afraid to do that?"

"I don't know. I've never been very good around sick people. I ignored my best friend when she developed MS and lost her sight. I couldn't handle it."

"And..." Vachon detected more to the story.

"I wound up talking to her due to a case. We renewed our friendship shortly before she moved to the states. I felt so stupid, so silly. First for not being able to deal with it and then for letting it come between us."

"Use what you learned to help you in this situation," Vachon said. "How would you want your friends to react if you were in Natalie's place? Providing the rumors are true."

"I'd want them to stick by me. I'd be afraid they'd turn away." Tracy realized that that's what she should do if the rumors turned out true. "Thanks, Vachon." Tracy smiled.

At the precinct while Tracy was out, Reese approached Nick.

"Knight, where's your partner?"

"She said she had something important to do and she'd be back as soon as she could."

Reese muttered something about partners under his breath, so softly that not even Nick's vampiric hearing could make it out.

"Brooks, I want you and Knight to bring in Martin Watson. Pick up the warrant on your way down."

"I can't."

"This isn't a request. It's an order. Unless you want to tell me why."

"I can't work with someone who has AIDS."

Reese was stunned. "Nick, what's he talking about?"

"One of the rumors floating around."

"Nick, what's going on?" Reese asked, confused.

"People seem to think that Natalie has cancer or AIDS. I don't have either. I'm not HIV positive."

"Brooks, why did you think he had AIDS?"

"Because his wife does."

"Nick?" Reese said, hating to be out of the loop.

"Yes, Nat has AIDS. She contracted it from the bastard who raped her."

"Brooks, how do you know?" Reese asked.

"It's all over the Coroner's Office. Apparently she admitted both last night as well as earlier tonight."

"She only told one person last night. Someone who confronted her with it," Nick said.

"Brooks, you and Knight go pick up the warrant and Martin Watson. Brooks, I don't want to hear your objections. Do it." Reese sternly said. His voice softened when he continued. "Nick, I want to see you when you have a few minutes."

"Sure, Captain." Reese hoped this bombshell wouldn't explode and tear the squad room apart. He also hoped Tracy wouldn't get caught in the middle. He didn't even want to think what the Commissioner would say when he heard the news. Reese had a great deal of admiration and respect for Nick and Natalie's courage and strength, knowing that it could not have been easy, and would get harder as time passed. Reese was very grateful that he and his family were healthy. I don't want to be here when... Reese thought unable to finish the thought, knowing Nick would be a complete basket case when he lost Natalie, possibly before that. Every time he saw Nick and Natalie he saw the intense love between them. They were mature enough and secure enough that they didn't have to flaunt it.

About forty-five minutes later Nick and Brooks returned, perp in tow. They turned him over to the booking officer and headed for their desks.

Nick knocked on Reese's door and saw the Captain motion for him to enter.

"You wanted to see me?" Nick asked concerned.

"Close the door," Reese said as he motioned for Nick to have a seat.

Nick shut the door before seating himself in one of the chairs in front of Reese's desk.

"I just wanted to let you know that I will not tolerate anyone giving you, Natalie or Tracy grief because of this."

"Thank you, Captain."

"How are things? If things get too rough you can talk to the department shrink."

"Things are going good right now. Natalie's healthy and doing well. We have support groups we talk to."

"I'm glad. If you ever need time off, let me know. I don't want you out in the field when your mind is on her."

"Thank you. I wouldn't put her in danger," Nick said, as he thought about how he had done just that with Schanke, not meaning to."

"Anytime you or Natalie need anything, let me know."

"We will. Thanks again, Captain."

"I have a lot of respect for the both of you. Marriage is hard enough without all the problems you've had." A thought hit Reese. "You don't have to answer this if it's too personal. Did you know about it before you proposed?"

"Yes. She turned me down at first," Nick said with a chuckle as he told Reese the basic story.

"I'm glad you two worked it out. You were made for each other. I can see it every time you're in the same room. I'm proud of you for following your heart and not letting anything stop you." Reese swore he saw a slight blush on Nick's pale cheeks. "That's all I had to say. Now go get back to work."

"Yes, Captain."

Nick left the Captain's office, noticing the stares he received and ignored them. He headed for his desk, sat down and looked through the stack of folders in front of him.

Tracy entered and quickly joined Nick at his desk. From her nervousness, Nick knew something was bothering her.

Natalie entered and headed straight for Tracy and Nick's desks, noticing the stares and whispers. She figured they must know.

Nick had heard her coming and forced himself to keep working on his paperwork until she neared. As he looked up at her he saw the question in her eyes do they know? and subtly nodded.

"Hi, guys," Natalie said, cheerfully.

Tracy was distracted by her observations of the other officer's reactions to Nat's arrival.

"Hi, Nat. What brings you by?" Nick asked.

"I came to drop off some files."

"Trace, you okay?" Nat asked, a little concerned.

"What?" Tracy asked startled.

"You okay, Trace?" Nat asked again.

"Yeah. Did I miss something while I was out?"

"Yeah, you did." Nat hoped what she was about to say wouldn't end her and Tracy's growing friendship.

"While you were out, Brooks wouldn't accompany me on an arrest because he thought I had AIDS." Nick saw his wife's relief as he started the story.

"Do you?"

"No. I'm not HIV positive either."

"I don't have cancer, but I do have AIDS," Natalie said.

"How...?" Tracy asked stunned. It was one thing to suspect it but a totally different thing when your friend admits it. Somehow it made her a little uneasy, but she didn't want to turn her back on another friend.

"Why don't we take a drive? I'll answer your questions."

"Nick, you coming?" Tracy asked.

"If you two want me to."

"Yes," Tracy said.

The three of them left. As soon as the car was in motion, Tracy started with the questions. They noticed her slight nervousness.

"How?"

"Nine years ago I was raped and contracted it from the bastard."

"Nick, was this before the two of you were married?" Tracy asked, making a mental note to pull up the files for that case.

"Yes. I proposed to her a little over two years after the diagnosis. Things were too chaotic to think about marriage, until then," Nick said.

"Nick, I think it's great that you married her knowing she was HIV positive." Tracy asked. "Nick, how can you be uninfected if..." She hoped her question wasn't too invasive.

"Safe sex," Nick said.

"We've found other ways to express our love, and fulfill our desires," Natalie said.

"Nat, could you tell me about some of them? Maybe they'd work for me." Off their concerned looks Tracy quickly continued, "I don't have it, but it might help me and a special friend."

Nick nearly choked, but quickly got it under control.

"Sure," Natalie said, having no real choice. "Are you okay with all of this?"

"I will be. I just need a little time for it all to sink in."

"Tracy, things might get a little rough for you. If they get too tough, I won't be upset if you request a new partner," Nick said, knowing she could die if their fellow officers refused to back them up. He did not want to be responsible for her death.

"I won't bail on you. If they get rough, hey I'm used to it. It's not easy being the Commissioner's daughter."

"Thank you," both Nick and Natalie said.

"Nick, you're one of the few who ever gave me a fair shot. You judged me on my own merits, not who my father is. Natalie, you didn't get too mad at me when I made mistakes and unintentionally questioned your competency. You took the time to help me understand things when I didn't. For this I thank you both."

They continued to talk. Tracy asking questions about the wedding, where they went on their honeymoon, and how they were dealing with things. Nick and Natalie answered her questions as best they could, glad that she wasn't scared off by the truth.

Late the next afternoon Natalie was in her bedroom dressing, her mind went back to when she had to tell Scott she had AIDS. **********

Natalie knew Scott might have figured out her condition and needed to talk to him about it.

"Anderson."

"Scott, this is Natalie."

"Natalie, how are you doing?"

"Pretty good. And you?"

"Good. I can't believe how popular you are with the kids. They really enjoy your visits and look forward to your next one. But I'm sure that's not why you called."

"Thanks for really brightening my day. I called to see if you wanted to come over for dinner tonight."

"Okay. I get off in about three hours. What time would you like me there and do you want me to bring anything?"

"Whenever you get off is fine, and if you feel you must bring something, how about some flowers."

"Sounds good. I'll see you then." Scott suspected what she was going to tell him. He knew the symptoms of AIDS, but also knew it could be cancer.

"I'll see you later," Natalie said. She hung up and turned to face Nick.

"What would you like me to fix for dinner?"

"Surprise me," Natalie said confident enough with her husband's cooking to know he'd do something good.

Nick smiled pleased that she trusted his skills and judgement enough to let him pick the menu. "Very well."

Natalie showered and dressed, something she had put off doing until she knew that Scott was coming for dinner.

She headed back downstairs to see if she could give Nick a hand with dinner and was shooed out of the kitchen. She still found it amusing how he loved to cook, yet couldn't eat much of his own work.

Natalie stretched out on the couch with a stack of journals to do some catch-up reading. She loved the fact that for once she had no errands to run.

A few hours later the door buzzer sounded, Natalie buzzed Scott in. She opened the door for him when she heard the motor stop.

"Natalie, you look good."

"So do you, Scott. I'm glad you could come."

"Thanks for having me over. It's been way too long since we last did this. I brought you these." Scott handed Natalie a bright cheerful bouquet of flowers.

"Thank you. They're beautiful."

"Scott, can I get you anything to drink?" Nick asked, as he approached.

"I'm fine."

Natalie headed for the kitchen to find a vase for the flowers. Once she had them settled into their vase she put it on the coffee table for everyone to enjoy.

Nick brought over some hors d'oeuvres for Natalie and Scott to munch on while he finished dinner. He noticed his wife's slight nervousness.

"Natalie, I think I know why you invited me over. I've seen the changes in you and know that you're sick. I've narrowed it down to either cancer or AIDS." Scott noticed the different emotions that flickered across her face with each sentence he had spoken, from fear and panic to relief.

"It's AIDS. You really do know me well, don't you," she grinned. "Yeah. I guess I do. How are you doing?" Scott asked as he sampled Nick's work.

"I'm doing good." Natalie went on to tell him the history of her battle with the disease as she munched on the snacks. She was pleased that he had no problems being around her, knowing the truth.

"Now I know what drew you there, and why I sensed the uneasiness you tried so hard to hide at the opening of the new wing."

"I don't know why I was drawn there, but I'm glad I was. Katie figured it out by my second visit."

"Nick, I'm impressed that you knew about it and still wanted to marry her. You know things will get worse over time."

"I know. I've known that since she first told me she was HIV positive."

Natalie told Scott the story of the proposal and how she turned him down at first.

"Natalie never was one to let anyone feel sorry for her. She's one of the strongest people I know. Also one of the most compassionate."

"Have you ever seen her temper?" Nick teased.

"Yeah. I used to tease her about how she should've been a redhead."

"I would tease him back about it being my being part Irish and part Russian." **********

The next evening, two hours before the scheduled start of her shift, Natalie entered the Coroner's Office building. She wished Nick could've come, but knew he couldn't arrive for at least an hour. She dropped her coat and purse in her office, grabbed her coffee mug, filled it, and headed for the building's largest conference room. She took a deep breath then entered.

Once inside the room, she walked straight to the front, ignoring the stares and whispers. Seeing Grace in the front row helped her relax, knowing she wouldn't be doing this all alone. She set her mug down on the table next to her and leaned against the heavy table. She saw a mixture of both day shift and night shift, which pleased her as she might only have to go through this once, rather than twice.

"I want to thank all of you for coming. I had Teri call the meeting so we could talk. I wanted to clear up a few things before the rumors and gossip got out of hand. I have a few things to say, then I'll do my best to answer all of your questions." Natalie said, pleased that no one had left.

Schanke slipped into the room, quickly taking a seat, not wanting everyone to see him, at least not yet. He had heard what happened and wanted to be there to offer his friend moral support, and if need be a few supportive words.

"Those of you who've been here for many years will probably remember when I was raped. I came home after my shift ended and he was hiding around the corner. He grabbed me and forced me into my apartment before I could do anything. His grip had me in such a way that if I struggled he would've snapped my neck. I've always been careful to make sure that no one's around as I approach my door. I live in a pretty secure building, so he must've snuck in somehow." Natalie hated reliving the nightmare, but knew it had to be done.

Schanke listened, hating for her to have to dredge up all those horrific memories. He heard her fighting back the strong emotions the memories still carried with them.

"Collins was brutal and nearly killed me. Nick's dropping by to see if I wanted to watch some movies saved my life. I was tested for HIV and the test came back negative. I was struggling to overcome the emotional hell Collins put me through by shattering every aspect of my life with his violent assault. I was also physically healing from the severe beating I received during the assault."

Natalie sipped from her mug. "Six months after the rape I underwent a second HIV test wanting to be sure that I had not been infected. I was completely stunned when the test result was positive. I needed someone to talk to and went to see Nick. I underwent a second more reliable test and it too came back positive. Again, I turned to Nick for support. He's been a great help since the night of the rape. Grace was a big help with my recovery from the rape. As was Captain Schanke."

Natalie looked over the crowd, curious to see their reactions. She hadn't meant to go into so much detail, but wanted to clear up any new rumors that she was in any way responsible for the assault.

"I had nearly six years without any symptoms. The noticeable symptoms were the intermittent fevers and the weight loss. The weight loss was when it became AIDS. I know many of you suspected I was anorexic, and I let you think so because it was easier than explaining I had AIDS. I was still getting used to that idea, and wasn't ready to explain it to anyone else."

Natalie knew she could either continue talking or take their questions. She saw a few faces that seemed quite uneasy and worried that people might start to leave, or shut her out if she kept talking.

"I'll answer any questions," Natalie said.

"Does Nick have it?" Tamara asked.

"No. He doesn't have either HIV or AIDS."

"Did anyone other than Nick know about it?" Marie asked.

"Not at first. A few of my friends didn't learn until I had my first opportunistic illness."

"How did they take it when they learned the truth?"

"They were stunned. I'm happy to say that they're still my friends."

"Aren't they afraid they'll catch it?" Marie asked.

"You can't catch HIV or AIDS from casual contact. I thought you all would know that by now. HIV is spread through contact with bodily fluids, blood and semen. You can also contract it through sharing dirty needles. Using a latex condom will help prevent transmission of the virus. Non-latex condoms do not work because the virus can pass through the pores of the material. In order for it to be passed through blood, it must enter through a cut or some other sort of opening in the body."

Grace stood up and turned to face her peers. "I am not afraid of catching it from her. I know that I can't catch it from hugging her, or having dinner at her apartment. I have been her friend since shortly after we met and will always be her friend," Grace said proudly as she embraced Natalie to show that she meant what she said.

Natalie smiled, knowing that one gesture would probably do more than all the words she could say.

"I'm not afraid either." Schanke said as he stood up, loving the surprised look on Natalie's face. "Natalie and my daughter were friends and remain friends. I have no problem letting Jenny stay at Natalie's apartment for the night when Myra and I went out, had to go away for some reason, or just because Jenny wanted to visit her friend. We will always be her friend. What happened to her was grossly unfair and we couldn't blame her for something that wasn't her fault. She's our friend and we're there for her." Schanke was pleased to see Natalie's smile grow as he spoke.

Natalie hoped Schanke knew what sort of a mess he might've just gotten himself into.

"How can we be sure that you won't accidentally contaminate a sample? Or even an entire body?"

"I'm following the latest prevention guidelines, not wanting there to be any accidental contamination."

"When you were out sick, had you recovered before returning to work?"

"Yes. By the time I returned I had recovered. I had to finish out the course of antibiotic, but that's no different from any non-infected person having to finish a course of antibiotics."

"What did you have? Was it contagious?"

"I had Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. It is something that does not infect people with a healthy, normal immune system, so no, I was not contagious."

"Aren't you afraid of catching something?"

"A little, but no more than before the HIV. It's a fact of life for a coroner. I'm confident that as long as I take the proper precautions I won't catch anything from one of my customers."

"How do we know that your having AIDS won't compromise the quality of your work?"

"I will only work as long as I can do so without compromising the quality. I will know when it's time to resign, and will do so at that time." Natalie was surprised and definitely pleased at the intelligent nature of the questions.

"Has Nick ever expressed his feelings about it?"

"Yes, he has," Nick said, surprising everyone, Natalie especially.

"Nick, I thought you couldn't be out in the sunlight?"

"I can't. But since it's nearly dark I can be out for short periods of time. My car roof helped to protect me, as did my sunglasses, hat and coat." He was glad to see both Schanke and Grace there.

"I was probably as stunned as Natalie was when she first told me about it. She told me shortly after she learned she was HIV positive. It felt as if someone ripped my heart in two. Why something like that would happen to one of the nicest people I know was beyond me, it still is. I was her shoulder to lean on, and she was mine. It took me a while to get used to the fact that she would die long before her time. I still have trouble with it sometimes."

"Nick, how can you not have it?" Marie asked.

"We practice safe sex, and have found other ways to express our love for each other."

The next evening, Tracy arrived at work early so she could spend some time in the file room. After a small search she found the file she wanted. She sat down at the small table and started reading. She came across the pictures first, stunned at how bad her friend looked. Next she pulled up the hospital report, involuntarily wincing as she read the list of injuries Natalie had.

"Oh my God," she said as she read Natalie's statement. Her heart going out to her friend, surprised at how well she'd recovered.

Tracy stood up to stretch before settling in to read the transcripts of the trial. She had just finished it when she looked at her watch and panicked. She was due for her shift an hour ago.

Tracy stuck the file back into the cabinet and headed upstairs. Her mind still reeling from all she'd just read.

Reese saw her. "Nice of you to join us tonight, Detective."

"I was out chasing down a lead. It didn't pan out," Tracy lied.

A month later Natalie was seated at her desk in the morgue finishing a report that the Captain wanted as soon as possible when the phone rang.

"Lambert."

"Dr. Lambert, a dead body's been found," an officer's voice told her before giving her the address.

She was out the door, jacket and purse in hand, as soon as she had hung up.

Natalie quickly arrived on the scene and approached the first officer she saw. He pointed her to the body. It was a dark haired male about mid-forties. Natalie squatted down to examine him. Before long she had finished the preliminary examination.

Tracy watched Natalie, knowing that the medical examiner would approach her sooner or later. She saw Natalie head for her and fought to keep her emotions in check.

"That guy looks like Swiss cheese. What happened?" Natalie asked as she began to examine the gash on Tracy's forehead. She saw that it was not too deep and turned her attention to Tracy's bloody shoulder.

"Nick and I were following up on a tip when all a sudden it was raining bullets. I took one in the shoulder. I must've hit my head when Nick knocked me out of the way. He saved my life. That one over there was already dead when we arrived on the scene. What's your take on him?"

"He's been dead less than an hour. I would say cause of death is multiple gun shot wounds. I counted at least eleven bullet holes. I'll know more after I get him on my table."

Natalie realized she hadn't seen or heard Nick since she arrived. She wondered if the stunned look on Tracy's face was from something other than her own injuries.

"Where's Nick?" Natalie asked, beginning to panic. She started in the direction Tracy had been staring. She must've somehow missed the officer down bulletin.

Tracy tried to stop her but couldn't. "Natalie, you don't want to go down there." Tracy was trying to hold back her tears.

"I have to see him," Natalie said. She couldn't believe Nick was laying down there badly injured.

Natalie walked over to where Nick was lying. She had to make sure he was alive.

"Tracy, I need you to remember as much about what happened as you can," Natalie said, trying not to panic and barely succeeding.

"We arrived and everything seemed fine. It wasn't until we got over here that all hell broke loose. It was a trap, and we fell into it. Nick risked his life to save mine. He put himself into the line of fire for me. Before I could react, the bullets hit him."

Natalie examined Nick's body, her panic rising several notches when she saw the open wounds. She knew they should've closed up by now. She counted four bullet holes in his clothing, one where his heart was, one in his lower shoulder where his lung would be and two in the abdomen.

"Natalie, he never had a chance. He was probably dead before he hit the ground," Tracy said, devastated, yet trying to hold it all together and barely managing to. She couldn't even begin to understand how Natalie must be feeling as she examined her dead husband. Tracy knew she could never be that strong.

Tears ran down Natalie's face despite her attempt to stop them. She wasn't entirely sure why she was crying. Was it because Nick would be forced to move on and leave her behind? Was it because she would have to face the disease without him? Was it because Nick wasn't healing like he should've been? Is this from our research? Did it make him too vulnerable?

Natalie completed her onsite investigation, too in shock to fall apart.

"Take the bodies to my lab. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Natalie?" Tracy asked, surprised and quite concerned.

Natalie didn't respond, but headed for her car instead.

Natalie quickly arrived back at the coroner's building and changed into her scrubs. She found Nick's sheet draped body on her table. Memories of their first meeting flooded her brain. She allowed herself a brief smile before pushing the memories back down.

Terri entered, seeing how distraught the forensic pathologist was, amazed at how well she was holding up. Terri knew that if that had been her, she would've lost it already.

"Dr. Lambert, I can't let you perform this autopsy. It goes against all the rules."

"Terri, please. It's the last thing I can do for him. Let me find out who did this. You've told me many times that I'm one of the best in the county. Doesn't he deserve that?"

Terri thought that over, knowing the other M.E. on duty had a fraction of Natalie's experience and expertise. Detective Knight did deserve the very best.

"Okay. On the condition that you make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. I don't want this coming back to bite us both on the behind."

"No problem. Thank you," Natalie said, greatly relieved. She slipped into her smock and latex gloves. She was so grateful that she didn't have to do a real autopsy on her husband, knowing that she probably couldn't do that, not without completely losing it.

Terri left. She couldn't believe she'd agreed to that. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to have to autopsy your own husband. She hoped she never found out.

Natalie took a deep breath before pulling the sheet from the body. It scared her that he still had not started to heal. Their first meeting once again came to mind. She pushed it aside knowing she had important things to do and little time in which to accomplish them.

She grabbed a unit of the emergency blood and a large bore needle. She jabbed the needle into Nick's stomach and squeezed the blood into him, praying that no one entered.

After that Dr. Lambert took a closer look at the wounds, unable to learn anything further. She removed one of the abdominal bullets for closer examination, stunned that they were partly composed of wood. She quickly removed the other abdominal bullet along with the one lodged in his lung. She hoped her hands were steady enough to retrieve the one just digging into the outer edge of his heart. She carefully removed that one, pleased to see that his heart seemed to have escaped serious damage. She irrigated each wound after she removed the bullet. She used her magnifying goggles to make sure she had not left any wood splinters behind.

As soon as the heart slug was removed, Natalie grabbed another unit of blood to hand him in case he woke starving.

Dr. Lambert moved to her desk to fill out the required paperwork and figure out how to make it work without the tissue, blood and organ samples. Those would have to get "lost" in the system somehow. The paperwork would have to be strong enough to stand on its own. She kept an eye on Nick the entire time, not needing any new surprises in her life.

She knew she needed help and picked up the phone, dialing a number.

"Hello," came a relaxed male voice.

"Vachon, I need your help. How fast can you get to the morgue? No one should see you enter."

"I'll be there before you know it."

End

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