Warning: This story deals with events from Only the Lonely, I Will Repay, Be My Valentine, Feeding the Beast, and A More Permanent Hell. It is set between the second and third seasons.

Love
by Judith Freudenthal

"Take me, please," Natalie said, her voice barely more than a whisper.

"Are you sure?" Nick asked as he saw the pleading and the pain reflected in Natalie's green eyes.

"Yes," Natalie said, nodding for emphasis. "I'm dying. We both know that." She saw the sadness, uncertainty and guilt in his sparkling blue eyes.

The way he cradled her in his arms made it easy for her to look into them. It did not matter that they were in the Caddie, even if it was a little inconvenient, because she focused on the strong arms around her.

Nick noticed how Natalie's every breath, movement or sound required great effort and was not without tremendous pain. He saw it reflected in her eyes, heard it in her voice and her breathing. He tried to soothe her by softly caressing her thick, brown hair. He was simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the smell of her blood flowing from the gunshot wound. He knew his revulsion was from the awakening beast within, the one who did not care if she lived or died, all it wanted was the blood. He cared. He wanted her to live.

The bullet had ripped through the flesh and muscle of her chest, lodging itself dangerously near her heart.

They both knew that no ambulance would be able to reach her in time. Staying conscious as her body grew weaker was a battle in itself. Nick heard her breathing grow shallower and the slowing of her heartbeat with each passing second. He was glad for the early morning hour as the streets were not crowded, and no one had honked at him for still being in the same place in the intersection he had been several minutes ago when everything had gone so wrong.

Nick nodded his understanding of her reassurance as he fought his own guilt and self-hatred. How can I turn her down? raced through his mind as his logic told him he could not condemn the woman he loved more than anything else in this world to his eternal hell. She was the only thing that made his life enjoyable. His heart and soul cried out for him to save her. Would it be better out of love to bring her across or to let her die? He did not know the answer to that question, but he knew that he would honor her request.

Nick heard her heartbeat become erratic and knew time was quickly running out. He gently scooped her up in his arms and took flight. He spotted a secluded grassy spot under a large tree and landed. His fangs descended as he gently cradled her in his lap. Nick saw the pain of every movement reflected in Natalie's eyes as well as throughout her entire body as she tried unsuccessfully to keep the pain from showing. He let his fangs sink into the soft fragrant pale skin of her neck as gently as he could. She let out a slight sound then was silent. The apple-cinnamon scent of her blood made the taste sweeter and more exhilarating than he had imagined was possible. He thought the scent was perfectly fitting for her.

"Forgive me," Nick whispered to her limp form as he gently kissed her forehead. He still had doubts that this was the kinder thing to do.

Nick bit his wrist and held it to Natalie's mouth with the command, "Drink." Natalie hungrily drank from Nick's wrist until he pulled it away in self-preservation. He was relieved when he heard her telltale vampiric heartbeat.

"Sleep," Nick said softly, as he gently stroked her thick brown hair. He knew it was the best way for her to heal herself.

He savored her memories, wanting to know every facet of the woman he loved more than his own life.

********

The phone's ring startled Nick, bringing him back to the present. He grabbed the receiver off the table behind him.

"Knight."

"Nick, any word from Natalie?" Schanke asked, concerned.

"I heard from her. She's fine. She told me that the attempt on our lives had rattled her more than she realized and she had to get away," Nick lied, hoping Schanke would not notice. He had to buy them some time. He owed Natalie the chance to decide if she wanted to stay here or move on. "Any word on the plates?"

"Nothing yet. I can't believe that someone tried to shoot you two out in the open like that. I don't blame Natalie for leaving town for a few days. I probably would too."

"I'm just glad that I saw them in time to prevent either of us from being hurt, and that they were bad shots. You will let me know when you learn something?"

"Yes. How are you feeling?"

"A little better," Nick said, trying to sound quite sick. "I think it will be a couple more days."

"I can bring some of Myra's chicken soup by."

"No. That won't be necessary," Nick said, more near panic than he wanted Schanke to know. "I can't keep anything down. Besides, I don't want you to catch it or give it to your family. Excuse me," Nick said urgently, dropping the phone on the couch. In the background Schanke heard some serious worshipping of the porcelain god coming from Nick's end of the phone.

"Oh, man," Schanke said as he hung up. Nick really is sick.

That should buy me a couple of days, Nick thought as he hung up the receiver. He hated to lie to his friend but knew he had no choice. At least none, if he and Natalie were to remain here for a few more years.

Nick headed upstairs to check on Natalie because it had been a full day since her "death". Peering into his room he saw that she was still unconscious. He could not help but notice how peaceful she looked. The black silk of his pajama shirt and the sheets only emphasized her paleness.

As Nick studied her, he was glad he had called in sick and changed the door code to one only he knew. He was determined not to make the same mistakes as he had with her brother, knowing that if he had to kill her, it would destroy him. He would be here for her for as long as she needed him.

Guilt threatened to consume Nick for condemning Natalie to his lifestyle, for taking the sun and her innocence from her. A part of him hated the fact that he had done exactly what LaCroix had wanted him to do that night in Azure, while another part was glad they no longer had to hide their love from his master. LaCroix would be pleased that she was now apart of the family. The only thing that brought him any pleasure was the realization that he and Natalie could make love without him accidentally killing her in the heat of passion.

Nick's hunger and fatigue refused to be ignored any longer, forcing him to the refrigerator. Inside he saw a dozen of each human and cow blood and started to grab a bottle of the usual when he changed his mind and picked up a bottle of human instead, knowing he would need his full strength should Schanke drop by just as Natalie awoke. If that happened he would need every ounce of strength to save one friend while dealing with the First Hunger of the other. He hoped Schanke had listened, knowing that Schanke did not always take no as an answer.

Nick sat down on the couch and poured himself a glass, a little guilt swept over him but he quickly pushed it down. It was what was best for both Natalie and himself. After his first taste, he reflected on how rich and smooth the human blood was and how pale an imitation the cow blood was. He hoped Natalie would understand his breaking his diet in numerous ways. Janette's private stock was like a fine champagne and Nick had soon drained the whole bottle. It was the first time he had felt full and satisfied since Monica Howard had disillusioned him, causing his major fall off the wagon.

Nick lay down on the couch and promptly fell into a restless sleep as the sun rose high into the sky. Natalie's shooting invaded his dreams, forcing him to wonder if there was anything he could have done to prevent it.

******

Nick and Natalie were on the way to her apartment after their shifts and were stopped at the traffic light. A dark blue Ford sat at the other side of the intersection.

"Thanks for the lift, Nick."

"No problem. You know you really should consider a new car."

"I know."

Nick seemed in too good a mood causing Natalie to look over at him with a quizzical expression on her face.

"I love this time of night. The streets are quiet for a few minutes as the night people are home, and the day people haven't awoken yet."

"I never really noticed it, but you're right. It is nice and peaceful." Natalie saw the first glimmers of predawn light. "Aren't you cutting it a bit close?" she asked a bit concerned.

"It'll be fine."

Nick enjoyed the way the predawn light reflected off Natalie's face. It was the closest he would get to seeing her in daylight, outside of that brief time when he thought he was cured. He loved looking at her. She was beautiful, both inside and outside.

As the Ford drew nearer, the passenger pulled out a high powered rifle with a silencer and fired two perfect shots.

The first shot hit Natalie, lodging near her heart while the second shot hit Nick in the chest.

"Nick!" Natalie cried out, as the bullet tore through her body, bringing with it agonizing waves of pain.

"Play dead, Nat," Nick whispered into her ear, making sure he could identify the license plate, occupants and car before following his own advice.

Natalie knew if she lost consciousness she would die. She focused her remaining strength on the fight to stay conscious as she obediently closed her eyes and stayed as still as she could. She felt herself getting a bit fuzzy and focused on a mental image of Nick's smiling face.

A dark haired man hopped out of the Ford, hurried to the Caddy and checked on his victims. Since Nick was the only one he could reach without going around the car, he checked for a pulse.

"He's dead. She will be very shortly," he said to his partner as he hopped back into the Ford. The light changed and they sped off into the early morning shadows.

Every fiber of Nick's being told him to hunt them down, but his common sense and his heart told him to check on Natalie.

"Natalie," Nick said, concerned, as he opened his eyes. A wave of relief washed over him when her eyes opened and she looked up at him. Through his vampiric senses he heard the slowing of her heartbeat and how every breath she took was a real effort. He gently cradled her in his arms, not prepared to lose her like this, or this soon. The blood-soaked front of her blouse both attracted and repulsed him. Sadness, guilt and anger flooded through him.

"Take me, please," Natalie said, her voice barely more than a weak whisper.

Nick saw the pleading as well as the pain in her eyes. She was dying and they both knew it.

"Are you sure?" Nick asked, uncertain. Fear of what might happen flooded his mind and washed over his body as his memories of Elizabeth, Richard and Serena flashed through his mind. All had been disasters. Would Natalie be different, or would history repeat itself? He knew that if it did he would join her in death.

"Yes," Natalie said with a nod for emphasis. She seemed so sure, noted Nick.

He wondered if she knew all of what she was asking for.

Nick let his fangs descend and allowed them to sink into the soft flesh of her neck. Her blood was so sweet. He had dreamed of this moment, and at the same time had hoped he would never experience this sweet exhilaration.

*****

Nick awoke with a start, then remembered it had been thirty-six hours since Natalie's transformation had begun.

Nick walked over to the refrigerator to check his supplies, pleased to see a dozen bottles of each human and cow. He hoped Janette did not yet realize he had lied to her to acquire the human blood, and that she would not be too mad at him over the lie.

He had been pleased when Janette gave no indication she had picked up on his lie and remembered how pleased she had been when it seemed as if he might have come to his senses.

Nick shook his head and snapped out of his reverie. He knew there would be rough spots ahead, including teaching Natalie how to handle her hunting craving. He knew she had to become fluent in the necessary skills for her new life first. Then, for survival reasons, he would teach her how to hunt knowing he could not always be there with her. If he taught her too early, she would have greater trouble giving up the hunt. He was grateful she knew as much about vampires as she did because he would not have to start at the very beginning, but could start with more advanced lessons and fill in any gaps in her knowledge as they worked.

Nick felt the sun setting and knew she would awaken any time now. Through their link he felt her beginning to stir and grabbed four bottles of human blood from the fridge before heading upstairs.

Natalie opened her eyes. Slowly her vision cleared allowing her to focus on her surroundings, quickly realizing she was in Nick's bedroom. Her new night vision spooked her.

She was ravenous, which scared her because she had never been that hungry in her entire life. Her hunger quickly took control, forcing her to look around for any source of food.

Natalie felt a strange sensation and turned towards the door where she saw Nick holding several green bottles.

Natalie's eyes glowed red and her fangs were fully descended. Her mouth watering as she looked around for anything that would ease the First Hunger. It was so intense it was bordering on being physically painful.

Nick wordlessly handed her an uncorked green wine bottle, watching her hungrily gulp down the contents, wondering if she even realized what she was drinking. He knew if he had waited another moment she would have attacked him, due to the extreme hunger.

Natalie quickly drained the bottle. She found the taste strangely metallic, yet, smooth and rich. She liked the tasty, if somewhat salty fluid. The memories in the blood surprised her, causing her to realize what she was consuming.

Nick took the empty bottle and replaced it with an uncorked full one. Even after all these centuries he still remembered the First Hunger all too well, and knew that it must be satisfied.

Natalie gulped the second bottle down nearly as fast as the first one, and was handed a third, which she quickly finished off. Her eyes now the golden yellow color.

With less speed, Natalie finished a good part of the fourth bottle before she set it down on the night stand next to the other three empty ones. Her mind examining a few of the memories from the blood, surprised that she could feel what the donors felt, as well as see their whole lives and was relieved that the blood had been donated voluntarily. Her fangs retracted and her eyes lost their golden yellow color.

"Better?" Nick asked, breaking her reverie.

"Much. What happens now?" Natalie asked, a little unsure. A surge of fear swept though her. Nick noticed and took hold of her hand, calming her fears. "You never told me that a person's memories... their soul... are in the blood."

"I didn't know how to tell you. It's why the blood drinking is so addicting. It's how we experience life."

"What do you get from cows? Shouldn't it be peaceful grazing?" She said, partially teasing and partially curious.

"By the time I get the cow blood, there are no memories left. Besides, I don't believe their brains process memories like ours do."

"I didn't realize how intense the First Hunger was. If you had not handed me the bottle I probably would've attacked you," Natalie said a little embarrassed.

"I know. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. We've all been there. A fledgling suffering from the First Hunger will attack anything, even their best friend."

"I remember you telling me that, but I didn't fully understand until now. I guess you were right. I couldn't truly understand your life without being a vampire." She saw a frown and felt his guilt and angst. "Hey, none of that. I'm grateful to be alive." Her tone turned playful, teasing. "So, does this mean we're stuck with each other forever?"

"Yes. You're stuck with me forever," he replied likewise.

Natalie felt the silk against her skin and her mind flashed back to the last things she remembered - the pain from the gunshot wound, the twinge of discomfort as his fangs sank into her neck, the exhilarating feeling as her remaining blood was drained, then feeling nothing as she was dying. She also remembered drinking Nick's blood before she lost consciousness in the park. She recalled a few vague memories that Nick passed to her as his blood entered her system. She had been too weak then to give them much attention.

"You have many things to learn, but you do have a head start."

"What about my 'life'?"

"You can stay here and continue working the night shift or you can move on and start fresh. It's up to you." He knew the decision had to be hers. She could not base it on what he had planned.

"Does anyone know?"

"No. I told them that the attempt on your life had gotten to you more than you realized and you had gone away for a few days. I called myself in with a nasty case of the flu."

"How...."

"You'll learn to control the hunger. You have the necessary self control, if you didn't I would not have brought you across. I don't think that you should go in to work for at least a month. I know you have that much vacation time."

Natalie looked down at her chest where the bullet hole had been and noticed she was wearing one of Nick's pajama tops.

"I removed the bullet and didn't have anything else for you to wear. You can start your own 'evidence' collection."

Natalie unbuttoned the first button on the pajama top so she could thoroughly examine the area of her chest where the bullet had ripped through and found no trace of the wound, not even a scar. She ran her hand across the spot and could not feel a difference. It was as if she had never been injured.

"It's amazing, isn't it," Nick said in response to her expression.

Natalie nodded, words failing her. She could hardly believe she was a vampire. She did not feel that different. She had seen the proof with her own eyes and tasted it with her own mouth. Seeing it happen to Nick was one thing but it happening to her was something completely different, something she found a little hard to believe.

Nick sat on the bed next to Natalie and leaned back against the solid dark headboard. She leaned against his chest. She liked the comfort of being close to him, especially as he wrapped his strong arms around her, making her feel more secure. She noticed he no longer felt cold to her touch.

Nick's mind flashed back to their first meeting almost four years ago. He had been impressed that she had never shown fear around him, even when he had been drunk and taunted her. He also remembered when he had recently refused to bring her across and how that had led to a near tragedy. The memory still disturbed him, even though they both knew he had done the right thing at the time.

Nick looked down at her a boyish grin crossed his face loving the fact that they had all the time in the world. She looked up at him, her eyes reflecting the same thoughts.

Natalie was not sure if it was their closeness or the love she felt through their link that triggered her memory of Valentine's Day. She remembered receiving the dozen white roses along with the card signed "from a thirteenth century gentleman" and assumed it was from Nick.

Nick saw her glazed expression and knew she was remembering, causing part of him to both fear and welcome the memories' return. He had despised keeping that secret. It had hurt too much. He was ashamed of what he had to say and do to protect her.

Natalie's mind was a jumble of memories and emotions. There was the realization that LaCroix was her dining companion, the near terror she had felt as Nick and LaCroix had fought over her while she had been too drugged to do anything about it. Her anger that the ancient bastard had drugged her. The hurt she had felt when Nick had betrayed her by claiming he did not love her and was only going along with her to keep her quiet and working on his cure. She remembered not knowing if she wanted to die or kill him for hurting her more than she ever thought she could hurt.

She remembered the fear she felt when Nick had treated her like an object when he had roughly handled her, preparing to bring her across. The thing that had kept her heart from completely shattering had been the loving way he had hugged her tightly to him once the ancient S.O.B. had fled. That embrace had shown her how much he truly loved her. Her mind had been totally aware of everything, but her willpower had been reduced to almost nothing, and her body left limp until the drug had worn off late the next afternoon when she had awoken with a killer headache.

She wondered if he had just felt all that, hating to hurt him again.

Natalie knew he had when she saw the shame in his eyes as she grinned. "So, I guess I didn't drink too much, eh?"

"I'm sorry for what I said and did. I thought it was the only way to protect you."

"I know. Do you think he believed you?"

"I don't know. Maybe he enjoyed watching me suffer knowing I had to keep it from you."

"I don't want you to agonize over it any longer. You did what you had to. It's over."

At the precinct, Cohen came out of her office and headed straight for Schanke, who was seated at his desk filling out paperwork.

"Schanke, have you heard from Knight?"

"I called Nick. He's still *quite* sick. Our conversation ended abruptly when he had to go -"

"I get the point, Schanke," Cohen said, cutting him off before he got to the graphic details. "I haven't seen Dr. Lambert around here lately," she said with a little curiosity.

"Natalie took some time off. She seemed really disturbed by the near miss."

"That would be enough to bother anyone. Keep me posted." "I will."

Cohen headed back for her office knowing, from personal experience, if you lose your lunch while talking on the phone you're in no shape to work. She was a little surprised as Nick had not been out sick once since he was transferred to her precinct.

Schanke was not totally convinced that Nick was telling him the truth. He saw the love between Nick and Natalie as well as how they reacted to each other, despite their claims of being 'just good friends'. The fact that both Nick and Natalie had booked off at the same time caused Schanke to wonder if they had run off for a long weekend together. That idea was quickly dismissed because Schanke did not think Nick would fake an illness to get time off.

Schanke's mind turned to the possibility that they had been hit and were hiding it, but could not come up with a good reason why they would hide it. To put his mind at ease as well as satisfy his curiosity, Schanke called around to all the local hospitals and clinics, relieved when no one matching his friend's descriptions had been treated there.

Schanke wondered if Natalie would patch Nick and herself up if needed because she was a doctor. Again his inability to find a reason why they would hide being hurt came to mind, causing him to seriously doubt Nat would do that.

Just then a memory returned. He remembered the case where Lisa had witnessed a hit. Someone had tried to kill her on her way to protective custody at Nick's loft. Natalie had shown up later, and escorted Nick upstairs to deal with a pulled muscle. It was not until after the treatment that Nick had given him the ballistic evidence from the car. Could she have? Would she have? Schanke wondered. Nah, he thought shaking his head as he remembered Nick did not subconsciously favor that shoulder after Natalie's treatment, which he would have had he been shot.

Back at Nick's loft, Nick and Natalie were still snuggled together on the bed.

"I want you to teach me everything. I feel great. Weird, but great." Natalie knew it would take time to get used to her heightened senses, and everything else that came with being a vampire.

"You'll learn everything, my love." Nick was pleased she had not been revolted by what he had done to her.

"You know what this means, don't you?" she asked with a devilish grin, right before she kissed him. She knew that he had no more excuses for why they could not make love. No reason not to show her how much he loved her.

He kissed her back, continuing with what they had started in her apartment that February night he had said all those beautiful things to her.

"Umm, how do...." Natalie asked, a bit embarrassed.

Nick grinned as he nipped at her neck being careful to only graze the surface, not drawing any blood, yet.

Natalie found the nips to feel a little strange, but also quite enjoyable. She discovered that she liked giving the love bites as much as receiving them, and was careful not to draw blood, yet.

She undid the drawstring on his pants before he slid them off. He finished unbuttoning the pajama shirt she was wearing slid it off her, depositing it on the floor on top of his pants. His hands slid down to her underwear, and slid it down her legs, depositing it onto the floor with the rest of their clothes.

They playfully covered each other's body with the little vampiric kisses as each explored the bare skin of the other. Each noticing only love coming through their link, spurring further investigations and their rising passion.

Natalie felt her sexual lust building as well as the bloodlust and wondered what would happen when either got out of control. Will I hurt him? She remembered how intense her First Hunger had been and it scared her.

Nick detected her fears, sending reassurance through the link, pleased to see it had the desired effect of calming her nervousness, yet not affecting the rapidly escalating fires between them.

"You can't hurt me. The bloodlust is part of vampiric sex," he said soothingly. "The bloodlust is a part of us. A part of everything we do, feel and desire."

"Do I need to control it?" She asked, unsure if she could control herself yet.

"No. Making love is safe between us now." he reassured her.

She smiled, reassured.

"What do you think of your first taste of making love vampire style?" Nick asked teasingly.

"I love it. It is different, but very pleasing. What about the physical part?" She had dreamed of their bodies intertwining as they made love and hoped it would come true.

"Mortal style?" he teased, knowing exactly what she meant. He was looking forward to making his dreams of making love to her come true. He had dreamed of exploring her body with his and could not wait to do so.

"Yes."

"The ultimate expression of vampire love is to be at the peak of both sexual and vampiric arousal, the bloodlust, at the same time."

"What about the mortal desires?"

"We will indulge in both, my love," he said with a wicked gleam in his eyes.

Their kisses were intense as they were finally able to release years of bottled up desires, dreams and frustrations. Her fangs dropping startled her, but she knew it was a natural reaction to their passion, as she had seen it happen in him before. He gently caressed her fangs with his tongue sending spasms of ecstasy through her body. She returned the favor, enjoying the delight she felt ripple through his body. Neither left any part of the other's body unexplored by hands, lips, tongues, and fangs.

Before long, both near their sexual and bloodlust peaks. She let out a low moan as she felt him enter her tight inner core while their tongues dueled to caress the other's fangs, sending further waves of rapture through the other. When they had reached the peak he sank his fangs into her neck and drank from her at the same time as he released his seed into her. She made a slight moan as she felt him drinking in her essence. As he withdrew his fangs and she sank hers into his neck savoring the taste of his blood. Feeling his emotions, memories and thoughts. It felt as if each were one-half of a complete person made whole by their sharing.

When they were both totally sated and exhausted they separated, but she remained cuddled up next to him, his arm around her, holding her. Natalie had never dreamed making love could be so heavenly, so erotic, so completely fulfilling. She knew without a doubt that it had been worth every minute of the wait.

Nick could not believe that his and Natalie's lovemaking was better than it had ever been with Janette, and hoped Janette never learned that fact. He had never known such happiness in the entire eight hundred years of his existence.

Each was lost in their own thoughts, exploring the memories they had received from the other, wanting to know everything possible about the one they would spend eternity loving. Even the bad stuff.

Natalie felt the sun rising and found herself yawning, wondering if the two were related. Before long she was asleep in Nick's arms. They looked like any couple hopelessly in love, so at peace with themselves and the world around them.

Nick knew that during the next week Natalie would feel the effects of sunrise and sunset more than he did as her body completed the conversion.

Several hours later, Natalie awoke feeling a strange sensation which, on some instinctual level, she knew to be the setting sun. She found it quite interesting that she could now tell when the sun was either rising or setting, and realized it was vital to vampiric survival.

Natalie noticed the hunger she had felt the night before was back. It was not as bad as it had been that first night, but it was *so* compelling. She did not want to move and risk waking Nick, but she was so hungry. She carefully moved Nick's arm. When he did not stir she cautiously got up, slipped into his black silk robe and headed downstairs. Nick had also felt the sun setting. He wanted to give her some time to herself and watched from just inside the bedroom door, wearing only his red robe.

Natalie headed for the fridge where her first major decision confronted her, human or cow blood for breakfast. The human blood had been so rich and smooth, so tasty, but it would make the temptation greater. She reached for the bottle of cow and decided to take out a bottle for Nick as well, knowing he would soon awaken. She had removed the cork with a fang and was about to drink when she strongly felt a familiar presence behind her. Natalie turned around, eyes blazing yellow, fangs down, and greeted Nick with a small snarl.

Nick's eyes flashed yellow, his fangs descended as he snarled a return greeting before his eyes returned to their normal blue and his fangs retracted. He took the open bottle from her, reached into the fridge for a bottle of the other kind, and handed it to her. He put the unopened bottle of cow back into the fridge.

"You need to drink human for a while to build your strength. Then you can switch. You don't have to switch because of me."

"I know. But it will help me to know how the different kinds affect us. It'll show me which kind is best for me."

She took the bottle from him and uncorked it with a fang. She drank straight from the bottle, quickly draining it.

"It's not polite to drink straight from the bottle. A corkscrew does a good job and doesn't risk damage to the fangs." Nick said.

"How many times have I seen fang marks on the corks?" She asked with a hint of teasing in her voice.

"I'm older. Mine are stronger. Besides I only do it when I'm totally starved," Nick said, using the same tone she had.

"Good morning," Natalie said with a smirk.

"Good morning," Nick said. He grinned before becoming a bit more serious. "It isn't good to have the vampire showing unless absolutely necessary. If you get used to it you could slip and screw up the life you have built and have to move on. Not just here, but anywhere and any time."

"What is the lesson for tonight?"

Nick took a glass from the cupboard, filled it with cow blood from the bottle on the counter, and downed it.

"You need to pick up some clothes. I have something you can wear until then. You will be very tempted by all the mortal heartbeats, but you must resist the temptation. Using your powers is NOT allowed."

"I would like my own clothes," Natalie said, not really minding wearing his clothes because they held his scent.

Nick and Natalie approached her apartment door. Unknown to Natalie, an angry Sydney was waiting on the other side. He did not like her leaving Grace in charge of him and was going to let Natalie know this without a doubt. Sydney had already taken his anger out on Natalie's drapes and couch. He was perched on the small console table next to the door.

Natalie opened the door and was greeted by an angry furball with razor sharp claws. She felt the claws leave a nasty set of scratches across her cheek. Her vampiric instincts forced her fangs down and her eyes to turn yellow. She hissed at Sydney who bolted terrified from the room for a good hiding place.

"Natalie," Nick whispered sternly.

Natalie got hold of herself, retracted her fangs, and allowed her eyes to return to their normal green color.

"Sorry. Instinct. I promise I'll work on it," Natalie said, realizing that Sydney's attack had surprised her more than it had hurt her.

"It's okay. It takes work. Time. Even I have to fight instinct from time to time. All of us do."

"That's a relief."

"He's probably just afraid you'll be mad at him for scratching you," Nick said, seeing her reaction to Sydney's hasty departure.

Natalie looked into the mirror as she put her keys down, noticing the scratches ran just about the entire length of her cheek and were rather deep. They healed right before her eyes. Nick felt her amazement and grinned. Natalie ran her hand across the healed area and did not feel or see any sign that she had been injured there. She began to visually scan the room for Sydney.

"Being a vampire may be part of the reason he never liked you much. Guess I'll have to give him up. Can't have him behaving like that in front of others," She tried to sound lighthearted when she did not fully feel that way. She knew there would be sacrifices that went along with her being brought across. "I'll miss you, Sydney." A small red tear slid down her cheek and was wiped away by Nick.

He knew how important her feline companion was to her.

"I'll have Grace stop by and pick him up. Guess I won't have to worry about getting fat. Though I will miss chocolate."

"Maybe you can find a way to mix it in with the blood," Nick said, knowing that the sooner they left, the safer it was. They could not really afford to be seen yet, as she was too young a fledgling. "Get what you need. Shutters have to be installed before you can stay here."

Natalie looked through her closet and pushed several outfits out of her way because they were the wrong season, color, style, or fit. She packed mostly her comfortable off-the-job clothes along with two suits and a jacket and pants outfit, just in case. The only cosmetics she packed were her lipstick and mascara, the rest were no longer the right colors or shades.

"I will have to do some shopping."

"You can't look or act too differently. People might get suspicious."

"I know."

Natalie's two suitcases were so stuffed, they looked ready to explode.

"At least now I won't have a problem shutting them," she said using her new found strength to shut and latch the bulging suitcases.

Nick grinned.

"How will I know when it is time to move on?"

"It's a skill you develop. You'll know when it's time. Generally in about ten to fifteen years. Sometimes twenty."

"What happens if you have to leave suddenly?"

"It depends. Sometimes, you only have time to leave with just the clothes on your back, but that usually only happens when they find out and try to hunt you down. It happened more in the past than it does nowadays. More likely, you have enough time to take a few of your most important things with you. Generally, you'll have enough time to pack what you want to take when you leave and decide what you want to have shipped to you."

"How are we going to make sure that I don't have to work days? I can't use the same excuse you do."

"We'll come up with something. That's another skill you'll get good at."

"I'm not sure how good that is," Natalie said, a little teasingly.

"For mortals not good, for us a necessity."

"Will I learn how to whammy? Fly? I barely remember flying that night. I liked it."

"Yes. It's a wonderful feeling to freely soar above the city. Yes, I'll teach you how to whammy. But there are rules that go with the power." Nick decided to lighten the mood a bit, and tease her at the same time. "One rule being... avoid the airport, except on Christmas Eve when you can buzz the tower in a Santa suit and really mess with their minds."

Natalie's mouth dropped open then she began to laugh hysterically, having caught the joke. She smacked his arm.

"You're terrible, you know that," she teased back.

He just grinned.

They soon arrived back at the loft and set her suitcases off to the side of the elevator door.

"Can we go for a walk, please? It's such a beautiful night," Natalie said wanting to go back out where the stars twinkled in the cloudless sky.

Nick knew Natalie had to get out among mortals as soon as he felt she was ready. Natalie sensed his uncertainty and it hurt.

"You will be very tempted by all the mortal heartbeats. You must resist. You must not 'vamp out' in any way."

"I understand. I will be fine with you by my side," Natalie said, not feeling quite as confident as she tried to sound.

Nick and Natalie headed towards one of the less populated areas of town, hoping to avoid detection by anyone they knew, also the fewer mortals the less temptation she would face.

As they casually strolled through the park Nick enjoyed watching Natalie view the world like a child in a new place. She noticed how everything was different, more alive. She was like a child in a toy store.

All of Natalie's senses were heightened. She could see in the dark, hear the sounds of animal and human heartbeats, hear the sounds of mechanical things all over the city, hear nearby conversations. She could smell the scents of people, animals, traffic and the plant life all around her.

Nick kept a very close eye on Natalie, knowing how tempting all the heartbeats around them were. He remembered how tough it was for him as a fledgling, and that was back when he could kill. He knew she should still be full enough from breakfast that the temptation of the mortal heartbeats would be difficult to resist but possible. He could see her fight to resist in her eyes. He could feel it in their connection.

"It's amazing. I never knew the city was so alive," Natalie said, awed by all the sensory information bombarding her. Her body kept telling her that many of those sounds were lunch. She desired the warm, fresh human blood, but knew she could not have it.

"I'll teach you to use your senses to pinpoint a person or place," Nick said, feeling her happiness through the link. He saw it in her eyes and heard it in her voice as well.

"The sun will be up soon," Natalie said, feeling that strange sensation again. She knew that in time it would feel completely normal, but for now it was still a bit weird.

"Very good. We should be getting home." He saw the growing temptation in her eyes and felt it through their link.

Nick and Natalie entered the loft and saw her two overstuffed, bulging suitcases sitting just inside the door, off to the side.

"Guess I should make some room for you in the closet," Nick teased as he handed her a bottle of human blood and a wine glass.

"That would be nice," Natalie returned the tease.

Nick poured himself a glass of cow. "I want you to drink until you're full."

After both had fed, they took her luggage upstairs.

With some effort Nick managed to clean out one of his two average sized closets. Natalie pushed the folding doors out of her way as she unpacked and put away her hanging clothes while he worked to clean out a dresser drawer for her.

"And men think we have too much," Natalie kidded as Nick struggled to find space for her stuff.

"At least I have an excuse."

Natalie just stared at him with a 'you have got to be kidding' look.

"You should see Janette's closets. She has six or seven closets full of stuff. Most of it she hasn't worn in years," Nick said, trying to divert attention.

Natalie was a little surprised when she no longer felt the jealousy she used to feel whenever Nick mentioned Janette's name. Natalie figured it was because she knew Nick loved her, and was hers now.

"I hope you don't have anything you'd hate to ruin because this life can be hell on the wardrobe."

"I've noticed that," Natalie said lightly, a touch of humor in her voice.

Nick just looked at her with a grin.

"Teach me to fly."

Nick saw the curiosity and childlike joy on Natalie's face, nodded and headed for the living room. Natalie followed eager to learn this particular skill, wondering how difficult it would be, or if it was instinctive.

They stopped in the clear area between the kitchen table and the couch. The spot on the railing where Richard had taunted them caught her eye, causing a wave of sadness to wash over her at the memory of what had happened.

She had wanted so much to give her brother a second chance but he could not handle it. She was his sister, could she handle it any better?

Nick noticed where she was staring and was reminded of Richard also. He saw the sadness and the uncertainty in her eyes and felt it through the link. He tried to comfort her by placing his hand on her shoulder while sending reassurances through their link.

"You're doing just fine," Nick said encouragingly.

Natalie rested her hand on top of his reassured by his touch and the reassurances he sent through their link.

"Flying is one of the easier skills. Concentrate. Think about what you want to do. With practice it will become second nature," Nick said, as he rose several feet off the floor and hung there effortlessly.

Natalie had trouble elevating herself two inches off the floor, frustrating her. He makes it look so easy.

"Clear your mind. Think only about levitating yourself. Let go of your mortal ideas that tell you you can't fly."

Natalie forced all other thoughts out of her mind and concentrated on lifting herself up to Nick's height. She felt herself rising up off the floor. A large smile spread across her face as she floated upward. She stopped when she was at the same height as Nick. Her concentration wavered. She felt herself sinking and concentrated again.

"I did it." She found the weightless feeling to be rather strange, but one she could get used to.

"Flying is very similar except you're horizontal and moving," Nick said, as he soared across the loft and back effortlessly.

Natalie flew across the room and back, amazed by the weightless feeling. It was not a perfect flight, but was not bad for a first effort. She could not believe she was flying. She loved learning all these new skills and mastered them with only a small amount of difficulty. She wanted to go for a real flight but the rising sun prohibited it.

Nick watched her with the proud feeling of a parent watching his child do something for the first time. Nick loved being able to share his world and everything he was with her without the fear of accidentally scaring her off.

Natalie's self confidence was boosted by the feelings she sensed from him.

"I know a way to pass the day," Natalie said, a hint of mischief coming through in her voice, her green eyes twinkling.

Nick grinned, liking her playfulness. "I like the way you think." He then became a bit more serious when he saw her levitating. "Playtime's over. Time to act mortal. The easiest way to break any bad habits is not to start them in the first place."

Natalie lowered herself to the floor. "No using the vampire unless absolutely necessary."

"Right."

"What about..." She did not need to finish the sentence because her suggestively playful tone said it all.

"As long as we're securely alone there's no problem. Imagine Grace, Schanke or Cohen seeing one or both of us with our fangs buried in each other."

"We'd probably never hear the end of it. We would start finding plastic fangs and other kinky stuff left on our desks. Not to mention the jokes. Or they would become too uncomfortable around us. It would also raise some unwanted questions and suspicions, which would force us to relocate."

"Very good."

Natalie led Nick upstairs to the bedroom. A trail of discarded clothing littered the staircase behind them.

In the bedroom she kissed him passionately. The temperature in the room seemed to shoot up several degrees.

He released all his bottled up passion in his kiss.

She tenderly ran her fingers across his bare chest, once again exploring the pale, ancient, yet youthful skin beneath her fingertips. He gently caressed the soft smooth skin on the side of her face with his fingertips then worked his way down her neck and across her shoulders.

She gently nipped at his shoulder, then his ear. He carefully bit the side of her neck tasting her skin without puncturing it, continuing down toward her chest. He covered her breasts and stomach with both kisses and tiny love bites.

She kissed his cheek and then his neck and continued to kiss her way down his neck, down onto his chest. She mixed a few well placed nips in with the kisses. She enjoyed the taste of his skin, his scent and the feel of his skin against hers.

She was a bit more adventurous this time, knowing that she could not hurt him. She was also more relaxed and completely enjoyed every second of their lovemaking.

Nick could feel that she was more at ease and was fully relaxed himself. It had been a very long time since he had enjoyed these sensations so much.

Each felt their desires increase as they caressed the other. They continued teasing the other's body with gentle touches here, kisses there and nips in just the right places to bring about moans of intense pleasure.

She felt him enter her and welcomed his presence. It only added to the building fires within.

Each knew they could not hold out much longer or they would explode. They sank their fangs into each other's neck at the same moment. Nick released himself into Natalie as she clasped him more firmly between her thighs causing a soft moan to escape his lips. Their blood circulated, revealing their deepest thoughts and emotions to each other. The circle of the blood exchange made it seem as though there was only one being in the bed, a being totally at one with itself.

Natalie said with a grin, "I never knew it could be this good. It's more than just the physical. It's almost spiritual."

"It is. We connect not only physically, but spiritually through the exchange of blood. It enhances the experience because we are sharing everything we are with each other."

Nick and Natalie fell asleep, her back pressed against his chest and his arm draped protectively across her body, snuggling her close to him.

He loved being able to make love to her without the threat of accidentally killing her.

Evening had fallen. Nick made sure both Natalie and himself drank until full before leaving for their nightly walk. Nick felt their excursions were the best way to get Natalie used to being around mortals again without getting too close too soon. They were careful to stay away from anywhere they might be spotted by someone who knew them.

During their walk Nick found a suitable person for Natalie's next lesson, a homeless male about 45 years of age.

"Do you remember what I told you?" Nick asked Natalie before they approached her lesson.

"Yes."

The man looked up at Natalie as she approached. His eyes grew blank as she caught him in her gaze. She discovered keeping him in her gaze was not as easy as it looked. The hardest part was matching her heartbeat to his while still keeping their eyes locked together. Natalie had some trouble but managed to achieve her goal with a lot of concentration, effort, and some frustration.

"You will pat your head at the same time you rub your stomach. Afterwards you will not remember what you did, or that you saw us here," Natalie said, still holding his stare.

Nick grinned at her choice.

The homeless man patted his head and rubbed his stomach until Natalie said, "That's enough." The man stopped. Natalie broke contact with him and took off.

Nick was right beside her as they landed on a nearby rooftop and watched as the dazed man shook his head, as if to clear it.

"Very well done."

"It was harder than it looks. I had a little trouble coordinating the two parts. You make it look so easy."

"It gets easier with practice. Many fail their first attempt." Nick noticed the surprise on Natalie's face. "Despite what you might think, it takes time and effort to master all the necessary skills, including the hardest one, control of the bloodlust."

"I'm learning that. I know you tried to warn me, but I'm not sorry you brought me across."

"I'm glad. Neither am I."

The following night in Nick's loft Natalie was ready for her next lesson.

"Stay here. I'll be back," Nick said before he left.

He flew out of sensing range. Natalie could sense when he was not nearby and could tell when he was on his way back. She turned around when she felt his presence behind her.

"I could tell when you were near and when you weren't. Can all vampires sense each other?"

"For the most part, yes. It's how we know when others of our kind are around. There are a few who can prevent us from feeling their presence but they are mostly the older ones."

"Where shall we walk tonight?"

Nick and Natalie were out walking with mortals closer by. Nick kept a very close eye on Natalie even though he did not expect trouble. He was pleased that she had made excellent progress so far. He could both see and sense her fighting to control the temptation.

Maybe this time will be different, Nick thought, praying he was right. His mind flashed back to Elizabeth, Richard, Serena and a few others who had either gone rogue and had to be destroyed or were mistakes.

Natalie was too caught up in all the extremely tempting heartbeats around her to notice Nick's frown. Every heartbeat she heard called out to her, and she hungrily wanted them, even though she knew she could never have them.

Did I do the right thing? Natalie thought briefly before LaCroix's threat at Azure came to mind, reassuring her that she did. But, as much as she loved this new lifestyle because it allowed her to be with Nick, she missed the sun, Sydney, all her favorite foods and a few other pleasures of her past life. The memory of hers and Nick's first time together resurfaced and a smile spread across her face.

Nick noticed and could not help his curiosity, "And what has you so happy?"

"Just the memory of our first night together. You're not the only one who can get lost in the past," she said with a wicked grin.

"You ready to try something new?"

"Yes. What?"

"Learning to use your new senses. This is *NOT* a hunt. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

Nick picked out the nearby sound of a fire truck's siren and had her locate it. She had no trouble once she closed her eyes and concentrated. Nick picked a more difficult sound further away. Natalie identified it as a young couple giggling.

Nick switched to her visual senses. He picked out a fire about 10 blocks away. She soon found it and gave him the street names. He had her find a red Saturn, which she did with almost no problem. She gave him the license number.

Nick was teaching her the basics of hunting without her realizing it. He did not want to take her on a traditional hunt. He knew that she would make her first kill sometime; it was inevitable. He would give her the knowledge so that when the time came she would know how to hunt, if she had to.

Nick watched Natalie grow more proficient with each challenge and felt her rising confidence. He was proud of her accomplishments as a parent, friend and lover. He remembered how he had trouble learning to track LaCroix with his new senses. He knew that Natalie was already partially trained due to her profession, and was refining those skills along with adding a few new ones.

The next night Nick took Natalie up to the roof, earning a curious glance from her.

"Natalie, you have to learn to look around to make sure no one is watching before you take off or land," he said, teaching her how to gauge when to fly and when not to.

"How far away do I have to look?"

"Only as far as a mortal can see. If you don't see anyone within 150 feet you're safe. I tend to take off and land either behind buildings where it tends to be darker, or in alleys."

Natalie nodded, now realizing why they were on the roof.

Nick took off and she followed behind him, realizing this was her first real flight. She found soaring above the city completely amazing and breathtaking. The view was gorgeous.

Nick felt her joy as they flew, remembering back when he too had experienced his first flight.

When they were a good distance from the city Nick landed, pleased when Natalie set down right beside him.

"Flight is probably the best part of being a vampire. I love soaring above the city. It's so peaceful." He saw her questioning look. "I don't get to do it as much as I'd like to. I'm usually heading to some crisis and can't fully enjoy it."

"I love it. I feel so free. I still can't believe I can fly," Natalie cheerfully said.

"Ready for your first challenge tonight.?" Nick asked, pleased when he saw her eagerly nod. "You will close your eyes while I hide in one of these buildings, then you'll come find me."

"Sounds like fun, and like hide-and-seek."

"It is like that game, and it should be fun for both of us. Now close your eyes and no peeking."

As soon as Natalie closed her eyes, Nick took off and flew in several different directions to try and confuse her tracking sense. He did not want to make it too easy.

Natalie was startled when she heard him call her, but it was not vocally. She smiled while carefully checking to be sure it was safe, before taking off and heading for him. She still could not believe how wonderful it felt to soar freely above the city. The weightlessness and the feeling as she felt the air around her.

"Natalie." She heard him in her mind.

She used his clues and being able to sense when he was near to help her find him. She found him with only three wrong turns. He had hidden in the basement of an abandoned warehouse about 10 blocks away.

"Hello," Natalie said, as she entered the room he was in.

"Not bad for a first try. This time you're to stay here for about 30 seconds then come find me. I will be moving this time."

Nick knew this was the best way to learn to hunt without killing a mortal. He could not teach her the same way LaCroix had taught him. He would not torment and humiliate her like that. He wanted to make it as fun for her as possible, and if she did not realize exactly what she was learning, all the better, for now.

Nick took off. He flew a block away and waited until he saw Natalie before he continued. He led her on a wild goose chase around and through the buildings. She only lost him twice, and that was early on. The more she practiced the greater her proficiency became.

Nick ended the chase by landing. Natalie landed beside him momentarily.

"Can I hide? I want to see if you can find me."

Nick grinned. "Okay. I'll close my eyes and wait here."

"How do I contact you mentally? Like you contacted me earlier."

"Use our link to reach out to me."

"Okay."

Natalie grinned, checked to make sure it was safe to take off before doing so.

She looked around and found a good hiding place. She had hidden in the attic of an old house about 6 blocks away. The house was in great disrepair and had been condemned.

Nick was somewhat out of practice and had a little trouble finding her. He was pleased at how well she had hidden.

"Very good," he said as he landed behind her.

"Now do I get to lead you on a wild goose chase?"

"Yes," Nick said, proud of her accomplishments, like any parent would be.

Natalie took off and kept an eye out for Nick. As soon as she saw him she began to weave around and in and out of the various buildings. She lost him once which thrilled her.

Nick sensed her joy in trying to lose him. For a few minutes he was not the same angst-filled vampire but a happy one. Nick finally caught up to her and they landed. A brief pang of disappointment swept through their link when they realized it was time to go home, as they were having so much fun they did not want to stop.

Over the last couple of nights, Nick taught Natalie everything he knew. He did not hold any lessons back like LaCroix had done with him. He enjoyed teaching his pupil, his lover, his best friend. She managed to learn more of his past. The more he shared with her the closer she felt to him. She shared her past with him even though she felt it was no where near as interesting.

She was pleased when he seemed to want to know more about her. He was delighted when she was not repulsed by the things he had done. He had been afraid that once she truly knew what his past had been, she would not love him as much, if at all.

They spent the later part of the next evening seated on the grass, at a park, gazing up at the stars with mortals seated even closer this time.

Natalie was tempted by the heartbeats but resisted, having fed until full before leaving the loft. She looked into Nick's ancient blue eyes and saw more happiness in them than ever before, with the exception of their kiss on Valentine's Day. She also saw a little sadness and guilt.

"Nick, do you regret bringing me across?"

Nick was surprised and looked deeply into her eyes, seeing happiness and a tiny doubt. His senses backed up what he saw in her eyes.

"Only the part that makes you what I am."

"That is the part that makes everything we have done lately possible," Natalie said, a little hurt. Did he regret bringing me across? She had not sensed it in him until now. Have I done something wrong?

Nick sensed this, "I love how it brought us together, but I hate the price you paid for it."

"I didn't have many options, remember?"

"Yes."

"But what?" she asked, knowing there was more by his tone and his eyes, as well as what she felt through their link.

"You know how the others have worked out," Nick said, pausing a moment before he continued. "I couldn't take it if anything happened to you."

"I don't plan to go rogue. I just want to spend forever with you," Natalie said slightly teasingly, before she became more serious. "I couldn't take it if anything happened to you, either."

They found themselves drawn into a kiss. They looked like any other couple in love.

Some distance away someone observed Nick and Natalie with a bit of anger and disgust... and some pleasure.

Back in the loft Natalie was in the kitchen, where she took a quick blood sample from her arm while waiting for Nick to finish in the shower. She knew she would probably never have a better chance to study a new vampire. She put the marked vial in the freezer and wished she had thought to take a sample earlier on. Keep this up and you'll wind up as angst-ridden as Nick,' Natalie thought. She could tell from his blood that even though he was happy now it would eventually wear off and his dreams of being mortal again would return. At least now they would have plenty of time to research the cure.

Nick came downstairs, wrapped his arm around her and gave Natalie a big kiss before sending her upstairs to the shower. Her mug awaited her in the family room. Before long she joined him on the couch, sipping from her mug.

"You're doing extremely well. All of your skills are coming along a little ahead of schedule." Nick beamed.

"I have an excellent teacher." She enjoyed the praise she felt through their link and sent some of her own back his way.

They snuggled together on the couch not realizing it had been a week since Schanke heard Nick losing his lunch in the middle of their conversation. They both heard a sound from the ground floor.

"Nat, hide upstairs while I get rid of Schanke. We need more time."

"I'm ready to face him."

"I don't doubt that. Once he knows you're back it will be hard to explain our continued absence from work." He sent reassurances that he trusted her and knew she was ready to face him along their link, and was pleased with the loving response she returned.

Natalie knew he was right and reluctantly headed upstairs, taking her almost empty mug with her.

"Nick, you changed the code. Let me up." Schanke's voice sounded a little annoyed over the intercom.

Nick pressed the elevator release button and heard the elevator start before he realized he was still in his street clothes. He flashed upstairs, changed into his black silk pajamas and threw on his red silk robe. He messed up his hair, ignoring the accusing look he received from Natalie for using his powers, and returned to the living room.

Nick had just settled himself on the couch, after a quick check for incriminating evidence, when the elevator door opened. Schanke entered the loft carrying a covered pot. Nick could smell the garlic which made him feel a little nauseous. He allowed the nausea to show because he was supposed to be sick and tried to keep the joy of his and Natalie's relationship off his face.

"How are you feeling, partner? You don't look so hot," Schanke said as he approached the couch. He looked for any evidence that Nick had indeed been shot. Nick's robe and pajama top were open just enough so that if there had been any bandages on his shoulder or chest they would have shown. There was no limp, no favoring of an arm, nothing to suggest an injury. Schanke felt greatly relieved when he saw no evidence that Nick had been injured and decide to completely ignore the idea which had caused him to look in the first place, having proven it false.

"Not much better. I still can't hold much down. I have no energy. My entire body hurts," Nick said, knowing Schanke needed a complete report to be satisfied. Nick sneezed for emphasis then wiped his nose with a piece of crumpled Kleenex he found in his robe's pocket.

"Gesundheit."

"Thank you."

"I brought you some of Myra's chicken noodle soup. It should help you feel better. It always works for me."

"Put it on the kitchen counter. Thanks, Schank."

Schanke set the pot down and headed for the couch area.

"Have you seen a doctor?" Schanke asked concerned.

"Yes. He couldn't do anything. I had the flu and then contracted mono. I just have to ride it out."

"You look like hell. Take it easy, okay?" Schanke said.

"I will."

"Have you heard from Natalie?" Schanke asked, concerned.

"Yes. She called me the other day to tell me she had been granted a short leave of absence." Nick sneezed and wiped his nose again. "She's doing okay and trying to enjoy her time off."

"That's good. She almost never seems to take any time off, so it should do her some good," Schanke said, a little surprised that they had not found some way to be together, especially with Natalie as bothered by the near miss as she seemed to be.

Nick walked Schanke to the elevator.

"I almost forgot to tell you that they've traced that license plate you gave us. The plates were reported stolen a week ago down in the states."

"Thanks for the update."

Schanke entered the elevator and started his descent. Once Nick heard Schanke's car start he called up to Natalie, "Nat, it's safe now."

Nick picked up the covered soup pot and put it in the back of the fridge as Natalie came down the stairs. She was also nauseated by the lingering garlic scent.

"The sneezing was a good touch."

"He looked me over as if he were looking for something."

"You did tell him we were shot at. Maybe he was checking to make sure you weren't hit. He might've found it a little odd that we disappeared at the same time."

"I guess you're right. I hope he was convinced that I'm okay."

"I think he was. If not he would've asked a question or two." Natalie realized how easy it had been to eavesdrop. She was not sure if she had been trying to or not, it just happened. "I bet he wondered why we weren't off somewhere together, you comforting me." Natalie chuckled, "or doing a lot more."

"Yeah."

They did not notice the lone figure observing them from a distance.

That night when Schanke reported in for his shift he was met by Cohen. Schanke checked his watch, seeing he was on time and wondered what he had done wrong this time. Nothing came immediately to mind.

"Schanke, is Knight still sick? Have you seen Dr. Lambert recently?" Cohen asked, a bit curious.

"I saw Nick earlier today. He's still sick as a dog, but at least he didn't lose his dinner in front of me."

"Has he seen a doctor? It sounds like it might be something serious."

"Yes. He said that it started out as the flu but became mono. He can't do anything but ride it out. He didn't say when he'd be back. Natalie's been granted a short leave of absence. Nick's heard from her and she's doing okay."

"Keep me updated on Knight's condition. I hope Dr. Lambert will be okay."

"I will. She'll be fine."

The Captain headed for her office and Schanke began to speculate about what was really going on between those two. He wondered if they were taking advantage of Nick's being sick to slip away for a few days of romance, but then Nick would not have been home. He could have been about to leave. His mind suddenly looked at it from a different angle, was Natalie hiding upstairs, so they would not be caught together.

A week later Natalie had further refined her new skills and delighted in each new discovery. This delight seemed to lift Nick from his somewhat angst-ridden disposition. He enjoyed seeing the world through her new senses almost as much as she did. Their passion was still as hot as it had been that first night. They were learning more and more about the other each time they made love.

Natalie had grown used to their link and enjoyed the comfort and sense of security it provided. Neither felt overwhelmed by the intense closeness because they respected each other.

They allowed their link to close most of the way unless they were making love, this way each would not feel like they were loosing their own identities. Nick knew how much Natalie valued her independence and did not want her to feel like he was trying to control her, which he had no intention of trying to do. He did not think it could be done without breaking her spirit, and if he ever did that it would kill him. He knew it would most likely kill her.

Natalie took out a bottle of cow blood out of the fridge, knowing it was time to switch, poured herself a glass and nearly gagged on the first swallow. It lacked most of the richness that the human blood had. It would *definitely* take some getting used to. Her hunger commanded her to indulge even though it was not nearly as tasty. She quickly noticed there were no residual memories in the cow blood and. could not believe she had gotten used to sensing and to an extent enjoying the memories in each meal.

Nick had just poured himself a glass when they heard the intercom buzz.

"Nick, please give me the new code. This is getting annoying."

They gulped their drinks being careful not to spill any. Nick did not want Natalie to see Schanke on a totally empty stomach. He trusted her, but, did not see any reason to take extra chances. She quickly rinsed out the glasses and hid hers under the sink, not sure if she would have to hide again. She was reassured by the emotions she felt from Nick, and sent back her thanks.

"Let me stay this time. I'm ready."

"I believe you are. Remember the rules," Nick said as he pushed the elevator release button.

A minute or so later the elevator door opened and Schanke entered.

"I thought I'd find the two of you together. Sick, yeah right. Taking a few extra days for romance, eh?"

"I was sick. Today was the first day I felt like myself. I've been able to hold food down for three days now," Nick said, remembering Natalie telling him he should be feeling better or people would think it was something serious.

"You actually ate?" Schanke teased.

"Yes. I do eat. It's a rather restricted diet due to my allergies. I ate some stuff I shouldn't have, which was part of my problem."

"I got here a few minutes before you did. I stopped by on my way home to see how he was feeling," Natalie chimed in.

"And I'm a Nobel Prize winner," Schanke said, sarcastically. He was pleased that they had finally admitted their feelings to each other. He had thought they did around Valentine's Day but must have been mistaken.

"I did," Natalie exclaimed. "I got back into town about an hour ago. Why would I lie?" Natalie hoped Schanke would believe her this time.

"Natalie, how are you doing? Have you gotten over your near miss?"

"Yeah, Schank. I'm fine. I was really shaken when I left. The time off helped me realize it was a fluke and that I was fine."

"Nick, when are you coming back to work? You don't look sick. Well, no sicker than usual. Natalie, you look a little pale. You okay?"

"Yeah, Schank, I'm fine. I haven't been out in the sun much lately," Natalie said, knowing it was easiest and best to stick to the truth whenever and wherever possible.

"You wouldn't want me to have a relapse would you?" Nick asked, a hint of teasing in his voice.

"No. What do I tell Cohen?"

"Tell her he's still under a doctor's care," Natalie said with a slight grin.

Schanke looked at them with that "you lucky dog" expression on his face.

"It's not like that," Nick said.

"Yeah, right. It's written all over the both of you. You're in love. Admit it. I thought you two had run off for a long weekend and I was right. Only it appears you never left home, did you?" Schanke was still a little unsettled by the memory of Nick throwing up. Not to mention how sick Nick looked the last time he had been here.

"Schanke, keep it a secret. We both like and *need* our jobs. Okay?" Nick replied.

"Sure. I never stand in the way of true love," Schanke said. "Nat, you weren't here the last time I stopped by, were you?" He watched them closely, curious to see their reaction.

"No," Natalie said, trying to keep her voice, and expression neutral, hoping he would believe her.

Schanke was not sure whether or not to believe them. Since Natalie usually did not lie, he decided to believe her.

"How about the three of us going out for a bite?" Schanke asked.

Natalie had to bite her tongue to keep a giggle from escaping. If he only knew, she thought.

"We have plans for tonight. I'm going to venture outside and see how I fare. If all goes well I might be back sooner than you think."

"Natalie, why don't the two of us go out for lunch?"

"Sorry, Schank, I can't. I have other plans."

"He didn't get you to try his weird macrobiotic diet did he?"

"Yes, he did. It's not so bad once you get used to it. I guess you could say he converted me," Natalie said with a grin. She looked over at Nick who was working to conceal his.

"Oh great, another one that never eats."

"Why do you ask?" Nick asked, a little nervous.

"Just a hunch. Myra used to try out all these weird diets and she'd coax me into trying them too. It's a part of being in love."

"Ah, I see." Both Nick and Natalie said at the same time.

"Did the soup help?" Schanke asked.

"I tried some of it. It was good, but I discovered it contained a few things I'm allergic to."

"I'm sorry. If I had known. Myra insisted," Schanke said feeling bad, trying to both apologize and explain at the same time.

"It's okay, Schank. Don't tell Myra, it would only upset her. Tell her I liked it."

"Thanks, Nick."

Schanke looked at this watch. "I've gotta run. Someone has to catch the bad guys. Take care."

"We will."

"Schanke, don't tell Cohen that you saw me here. Tell her Nick spoke to me and I'm fine," Natalie said without using her vampiric powers.

"Don't forget this," Nick said as he handed Schanke Myra's soup pot.

"Thanks." Schanke said as he took the clean pot and headed for the elevator. Once Schanke had driven away Nick and Natalie relaxed. She pulled the half-empty bottle of cow blood out of the fridge and poured each of them a glass. She let out a shudder and drained hers.

"I'm proud of you. You did very well," Nick said.

"Yes. She did. I'm proud of you, Nicholas. You finally did it."

Both Nick and Natalie turned around stunned at the voice.

"LaCroix, what are you doing here?" Nick asked, anger tinting his voice.

"I came to see how the good Doctor is doing. Yes, I've known about it. I know when my children are happy which for you, Nicholas, is most rare." LaCroix paused as he headed for his son. "You should know by now that you can't hide anything from me."

"Who else knows?" Nick asked.

"No one in the Community, yet. Although I was tempted to tell Janette," LaCroix said as he grinned evilly. "Welcome to the family, Natalie. I am Lucien LaCroix."

"Thank you. I know who you are. I remember Azure."

"Has he taught you well?" LaCroix asked a little tauntingly.

"Yes. Very well," Natalie said firmly, but pleasantly.

"We'll see about that," LaCroix said somewhat threateningly.

"She's mine, LaCroix," Nick snarled, eyes golden and fangs descended.

"You're mine, so that makes her mine also," LaCroix snarled, eyes amber and fangs bared.

Natalie feared what would happen if they should fight over her. She knew LaCroix could kill Nick and then she would be easy prey. She had only one choice, to defuse the situation before it got any further out of hand.

"Stop it!" Natalie snarled annoyed, the vampire apparent in her. "Are all of you so juvenile?" She caught their attention. "I will not go with you, LaCroix."

"Natalie, there are things only I can teach you. Things you need to know for survival. Has he taught you how to hunt?"

"Yes."

"Have you made your first kill yet?"

"No. I don't intend to."

"You must learn the proper technique. If you don't teach her soon, I will," LaCroix threatened. "There is one way for me to be sure you've been properly trained."

LaCroix saw their concerned expressions. "It is not a hunt, but it does involve blood. Did Nick tell you that blood never lies?"

v"He did."

"I will not hurt you."

LaCroix saw that Natalie was hesitant to share her blood with him, sensing her distrust he offered his wrist to her.

Natalie gave Nick a quick glance and received a barely perceptible nod in response.

Natalie took hold of LaCroix's wrist and sank her fangs into his arm. She took a mouthful then withdrew her fangs, analyzing his blood. When she saw no deception and no outward hatred for her now that she was one of the family she offered him her wrist. A part of her wondered if he could conceal anything due to his age.

Nick watched, prepared to protect Natalie if necessary.

LaCroix sank his fangs into her wrist, taking one mouthful before withdrawing. He carefully analyzed the blood, surprised by the strength he felt from her, wondering if either of them truly realized her potential.

"You have trained her well, for now. Natalie, there are lessons you still need to learn." He knew that if he tried to teach her those now, he would only encounter anger and resistance. "You really should be eating a healthier diet. I can't believe you chose cow over human."

"It's not so bad once you get used to it. Nick has reassured me that I won't be starving myself."

LaCroix left via the skylight, disgusted that his son had passed along his abominable dining habits.

"I saw how much he never taught you." Natalie asked, eyes green and fangs retracted.

"I suspected he didn't teach me everything, just the bare basics so he could keep control."

"I did manage to pick up something from his blood." Natalie offered her wrist to Nick, pleased when he happily sank his fangs into her and drew on her new knowledge.

When he withdrew his fangs he gently licked the wound to help speed it's closure. "You were right. There was much he neglected to teach me."

"Thank you for not holding back," Natalie said. "For making learning fun."

"I wanted to make sure you started off with more knowledge than I did. It will make your life easier. I wanted you to enjoy this life like I did at first. I hope never to make you feel the pain I have felt."

Natalie knew that each of the lessons LaCroix had taught Nick had not been without pain and humiliation on Nick's part. "With you as my teacher I will never feel such pain. Thank you."

"We have to go see Janette. I owe her that much. I think you're ready for it. Remember, there are mortals there. Stay away from Janette's house special, it contains human blood. It will make it harder to resist the temptation," Nick said as he turned his blue eyed gaze to her.

"I understand." She was a little annoyed that he kept reminding her, but knew that he was looking out for her best interests. After all it had only been three weeks, not eight centuries. She no longer was jealous of Janette. Natalie knew that he loved her. He had proven it to her many times lately, most especially when he brought her across.

Nick and Natalie entered the Raven and approached Janette. Janette was shocked to feel the presence of fledgling, one with a faint link to her.

"Welcome, Natalie. Congratulations, Nicola. I will admit I am a little surprised."

"Isn't this what everyone wanted?" Nick asked angrily, just loud enough for the three of them alone to hear.

Miklos approached.

"Welcome, Doctor. What can I get you?"

"Two of Nick's favorite. Right?" Janette asked.

Miklos nodded with one eyebrow raised and soon had two glasses of the cow/wine mixture set on the bar.

Nick nodded to Natalie that it was okay. They picked up their glasses.

"Welcome to the family," Janette said.

Nick detected a hint of jealousy from Janette.

"What happened, Nicola? Passion get out of hand?"

"I asked him to do it."

Janette was amazed, both that Natalie would ask and that Nicolas would bring her across. Especially after the recent near disaster with Spark.

"Nicola, this *is* a surprise. Maybe all hope isn't lost yet."

"I had no choice. We were gunned down and she asked me to. I wasn't ready to lose her like that, or so soon," Nick said, knowing she would learn the truth soon anyway.

"So does this mean you've given up your quest? Are you ready to rejoin us?"

"No. I'm still looking for that."

"What about you, Natalie?" Janette asked, in her quizzical tone.

"While this life is quite interesting, I have joined his quest."

"Natalie, have you had your first hot meal yet?"

It took Natalie a moment to get it. "No."

"Nicola, you did start her on my private stock?" Janette asked, concern in her voice.

"Yes."

"I've since switched to Nick's. It's not as rich but it works just fine."

"So, Natalie, what do you think of your new lifestyle?"

"It's fascinating. Everything seems so alive. I never knew my senses could be this heightened."

"The enthusiasm of the young ones. It does fade a bit with time. You'll see," Janette said. "Have you two..."

"That's none of your business," Nick said.

"What did you think, Natalie? Nicola, was she all you dreamed she'd be?" Janette asked curious. She wanted to know if it was Natalie herself or just her mortality that had captured Nicolas' heart.

Natalie looked at Nick. He shrugged knowing that Janette would get her answer one way or another.

"It was incredible. I had never experienced anything that... spiritual... before," Natalie said, trying to find the right words to describe it.

Janette saw the happiness evident in both their eyes.

"It was very sweet," Nick said, referring to Natalie's blood. "She is everything I dreamed she would be."

Janette was a little jealous but was pleased to see Nicolas happier than he had been in centuries. She had her answer. It was Natalie herself who had made her Nicolas so happy.

"Natalie, you chose well. Not all are as lucky as you. Nicola will never hurt you," Janette said, a hint of bitterness in her voice. "I know he's taught you well."

Natalie could see in Janette's eyes that she had not been so fortunate. She remembered the stories Nick had told her, what she had learned from his blood, not to mention what she sensed in LaCroix's blood.

"He has. I know."

"Nicola, does LaCroix know?"

"Yes," Nick said with his I-do-not-want-to-talk-about-it tone.

Janette dropped the subject.

Since the necessary modifications had been made to Natalie's apartment, they spent the evening there, and fell asleep in each other's arms. The next afternoon, Natalie turned over, still wrapped in Nick's embrace and smiled at him. He smiled back at her and kissed her.

Natalie headed for her kitchen to fix breakfast. She smiled at the realization of how simple breakfast was now. Why couldn't it always have been this easy.'

Nick, still in Natalie's bedroom, pulled a small envelope out of a hiding place behind her dresser and headed for the kitchen.

He snuck up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She looked down at his hands and saw two symphony tickets, very good seats.

"What's this?"

"I thought you'd like a surprise. I thought you'd like a regular night out."

"Thank you. I would," Natalie said pleased, before a thought hit her. "Is this another test?"

"In a way. The show starts at 9."

"I've got a lot to do."

They quickly consumed their liquid nourishment before Nick split to dress at his place. Natalie showered and put on her makeup. She was still doing some fine tuning, trying to find just the right shade of foundation. She had gone a little darker after Schanke's comments.

Natalie looked through her closet and saw that she only had three dresses that were dressy enough. The first one she hated, it had never fit exactly right, but had been bought in an emergency. The second one was the one she wanted to wear, but it brought back unpleasant memories. The third one, the black one she had worn to Azure was at the cleaners.

Natalie remembered being drunk at the Raven, believing the world was going to end and picking up Spark on that painful night. She could not believe how stupid she had been. She had nearly wound up either dead, or with a master she did not know or want. The next few days had been very confusing and frustrating as she forced herself to do some seriously hard thinking about her life. She had been angry at both Nick and herself. She had been angry at him for turning down her request without so much as an explanation, and at herself for asking, then for going to the Raven. It had hurt when she realized Nick was right, that he had looked out for her best interests. How had he known so clearly? Did he know? Was he just reacting out of his hatred of himself? Natalie thought. Snap out of it or you'll be late.' She was glad he no longer hated himself as much as he had. The hatred having been replaced by their love for each other, which had given him the peace he had been searching for.

Out of desperation she went through her closet again and then tried to remember what she had left at Nick's. It was that dress or nothing. It was a sleek black knee length dress with a red jacket. There was black lace highlighting the jacket.

I hope he understands, Natalie thought as she dressed. She felt Nick's return and entered her living room. He looked smashing in his dark grey suit. Natalie carefully studied Nick's face as he noticed her dress. His reaction seemed mild, but he too remembered. She reached out to their connection and could feel the guilt he still carried from that event.

His refusal to bring her across had almost cost her her life. He had pushed her into Spark's arms. The sound of Natalie's voice startled him out of the past.

"I'm sorry. It was the only thing I had that's dressy enough. If it bothers you...."

"It's okay. It's in the past," Nick said, noticing she felt the same way. He made a mental note to take her shopping.

He sent her a reassuring wave of love and understanding through their link, pleased when she relaxed.

Nick and Natalie arrived at the symphony hall. It was a grand old place which, thanks to restoration, still looked like it had back in its heyday, which was around the turn of the century.

The lobby hummed with conversation as the patrons waited to enter the main hall.

Natalie heard the heartbeat of every mortal there and was glad she had had the extra two glasses of blood before dressing. She ignored the temptation, fighting for control, by busying herself studying the architecture.

Nick noticed, but let her be. He knew she would have to master the control on her own. All he could do now was offer her reassurance.

The hall's ceiling had elaborately carved moldings circling it, and a similar yet more detailed and grander design carved into it. There was a pale beige marble floor under her feet which matched the walls and ceiling. The main staircase was wide and split about half way up then each branch headed off towards opposite sides of the upper foyer area. From the upper area a good portion of the lower lobby could be seen.

"What was life like when this theater was new?" Natalie asked, gesturing around the hall's lobby.

"It was grand, elegant. Going to the symphony was a major social event. Everyone was dressed in their best clothes. The men in their black tail coats, white shirts with studs in place of buttons. The collars and cuffs were not attached to the shirts themselves; you had to pin them on. For occasions like this the collars had finely pleated, extremely starched fake shirt fronts. The ties were white. They wore gloves, top hats and capes." Nick winced slightly at the last word.

Natalie grinned, "You wore a cape. How perfectly fitting."

"Yes, that was the way wealthy male patrons dressed. The wealthy female patrons wore long trailing skirts over a tightly laced corsets with many petticoats, which rustled when they moved. It was very fashionable and appealing. The dresses had a low, square cut necklines with short gauzy sleeves. Even though the necklines were low, cleavage was considered vulgar and was not shown. Most of the dresses were in pale pastel colors, heavily embroidered, with lots of lace. If a woman was young and unmarried her clothes were often plainer than those of older married women. Their hair was piled up on top of their heads and swept forward to reveal the ears. Older women also wore more elaborate and expensive jewelry, sometimes 'chokers' of diamonds and/or pearls. Chokers were quite popular."

Natalie tried to picture it as Nick described it. "The women's clothing sounds rather uncomfortable."

"It must have been. Remember when we watched 'My Fair Lady'?" Nick asked. "Going to the symphony was a major social event. The symphony halls were large, grand, elegant structures."

Natalie nodded enjoying his enthusiasm through their connection as Nick related the story.

"That was what it was like back then. Well, it wasn't always that perfect," Nick said.

Soon a tone sounded to announce that it was time to be seated.

Nick and Natalie headed for the entrance to the hall when a rather obnoxious well-dressed man kept trying to get in their way. Nick could feel the subtle tensing of Natalie's muscles. As well as the annoyance and a little anger beginning to build within her.

"Where's the fire?" Natalie asked the man as he again bumped into her without a single apology.

The man just rudely stared at her.

Natalie felt the vampire in her want to kill him for his arrogance but refused to let him get to her. She was not about to let the jerk spoil her wonderful evening with Nick.

Nick felt Natalie relax and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Natalie was pleased with how well she was handling herself, and could feel that Nick felt the same way.

Once inside the hall Natalie found the same obnoxious man in her chair.

"Excuse me, sir, but you're in my seat," Natalie said, politely.

"I'm here so this makes it mine. Why don't you and the pretty beach boy find somewhere else to sit."

"We have tickets for these seats."

"My father donated the money for this hall so I don't need a ticket."

"Nick. I'm not going to argue with...." Natalie said, fighting her instincts.

"These are our seats. Please do not make me get the usher."

"Go right ahead," the man said smugly.

"These are our seats. You will apologize to the lady on your way to another chair," Nick said with a little vampiric assistance.

"I'm sorry. Please take them," said the man as he moved farther down the row and shook his head, as if to clear it.

"I could've done that," Natalie softly said as she and Nick took their seats.

"I know. I'm proud of you for not doing it," Nick said, just as softly.

Natalie felt the temptation ease, for the moment, and relaxed. Nick felt her relax and did so himself. They both enjoyed the evening's performance.

On the drive home, Nick turned to Natalie.

"I'm very pleased with the way you handled yourself tonight."

"Thank you. I thought it would've been harder with so many people so close." She knew he'd felt her fighting the temptation.

It had been hard but with him there by her side, it had given her something else to focus on. The music captivated her making it easier for her to ignore all the tempting heartbeats surrounding her.

When they arrived back at the loft he took her in his arms and kissed her. She hungrily responded. They shed their clothes as they climbed the stairs.

Natalie was even more daring this time, curious to see if she could further enhance the already unbelievable passion between her and Nick.

Over the next few hours she and Nick rose to new heights of ecstasy. Each attempt more fulfilling than the previous one. Neither could believe it. It was as if they were truly part of one another, both spiritually and physically.

Natalie fell asleep shortly after sunrise. It had been a long night for her, but a very enjoyable one.

Nick looked at the beautiful woman sleeping in his arms and still couldn't believe they were finally together.

It wasn't quite the way they'd planned it, but neither of them cared about that. All that mattered was that they were together.

The next evening, Nick sensed something was bothering Natalie. As he came up behind her he wrapped his arms around her waist and held her close.

"Nat, what's wrong?"

"How'd you know?"

"Your blood told me."

"I want to go back to work."

"I wish you'd wait another week or two. But I think you're ready. You handled the concert very well."

"There were a few times I was tempted."

"I know. The important thing is, you didn't act on it. You will always be tempted. It's a part of what we are. But the temptation will decrease as you gain experience."

"And age?" she asked with a grin. "I miss Grace, Schanke and my work."

"Yes. When would you like to start?"

"Tonight."

"Okay. Eat something. I want you to be full your first night back. I miss work also. And Schanke."

Natalie and Nick each downed most of a bottle before they left.

Nick and Natalie shared a long good-bye kiss as he dropped her off at the coroner's building.

Natalie knocked on her supervisor's door. Terry looked up from the papers she was gathering and motioned for Natalie to enter.

"Are you back?" Terry asked.

"Yes. Thanks."

"Welcome back. Did you work things out?"

"For the most part. I want to be permanently assigned to the night shift."

"No problem. You work most nights already. Are you willing to work any days?"

"No. Please don't ask."

"I won't. I have enough trouble getting people to show up nights," Terry said as a small grin formed. "It wouldn't have anything to do with a certain homicide detective who only works nights, would it?"

"Thanks. Does everyone know?" Natalie asked, a bit surprised.

"I know the look of love when I see it. Are you okay? You look a little pale."

"I'm fine. I just haven't been out in the sun much lately," Natalie said, knowing her black suit emphasized her paleness. She was quite glad she'd never been a sunworshipper so she didn't have to worry about going from tan to vampire white as it would've drawn even more attention to her new paleness.

In the squadroom Nick walked over to his desk and found Schanke grinning at him.

"What?" Nick asked, curious.

"How are things?"

"Good," Nick said with a grin.

"I don't think I've ever seen you so happy before. Whatever you do, don't let her go. She's the best thing that ever happened to you."

"I know. I won't."

"Is Natalie back?"

"Yes."

"I'm glad to hear it, partner," Schanke said. "How is she?"

"She's fine." Nick realized he had missed Schanke and work, and was glad to be back.

Schanke had missed both his friends. He was glad they were both okay.

The Captain heard Nick's voice and headed for him.

"Knight, how are you feeling?"

"Much better, Captain."

"Since you seem ready to get back to work...."

At the coroner's building Natalie passed Grace, on her way to her office.

"You all right? You look kind of pale."

"I'm fine. I've been too busy to go out in the sun. It's probably the suit." Natalie said, hearing the tempting sound of Grace's mortal heartbeat and forced herself to block it out. No. She's my friend. I will not hurt her.

"Being with Nick can have that effect," Grace said with a grin. "Don't give me that look. A person would have to be blind not to see the love between the two of you."

"Is it *that obvious?" Natalie asked, a bit surprised.

Grace nodded with a large smile on her face and asked, "How was it?"

"Better than I ever thought it could be," Natalie said, a huge smile on her face and her green eyes twinkling.

"Way to go, girl," Grace said with a smile. "Whatever you do, don't let him go. He's the best thing that's happened to you. I don't think I've ever seen you so happy."

"It has been wonderful," Natalie said, the joy coming through her voice. "I'm planning to hold onto him forever."

Natalie found herself caught up in a flashback to her and Nick's first night together. Grace noticed the glazed look and the grin on Natalie's face.

"True love."

Natalie's sensitive hearing caught Grace's voice.

"What?" Natalie asked as she returned to the present.

"You were off somewhere else. He *must* be good."

Natalie blushed, grinned and asked, "Who's the first contestant tonight?" She wanted to get back to work before she accidentally let something slip. She loved her life here and did not want to do something stupid and have to leave it.

Grace handed her a manila folder, "A Mr. John Doe. Here's the file and welcome back."

"Thanks."

"I saw you two in his Caddie earlier. Lucky you," Grace said teasingly.

Natalie blushed as Grace left grinning.

Natalie's heightened senses allowed her to smell all the blood in the room, which made her hungry. Natalie was glad Nick insisted she come in on a full stomach. This is going to be harder than I thought. She reminded herself, It will get easier. She tied back her massive and sometimes unruly mane of hair, walked over to John Doe, and began the autopsy.

She was okay until shortly after she made the Y incision. It wasn't until she opened the body cavity that she felt the temptation for a snack, but the victim's blood did not appeal to her, causing her to wonder why. She wandered over to the blood supply to see if there was anything outdated. Damn. She knew she couldn't take one of the good bags so she had to content herself with postponing her snack until later.

Later, Natalie had finished with John Doe and learned that the reason his blood had not appealed to her was the multiple infections ravaging his body, and the drugs some to treat those and others were of the more illegal variety. She knew she'd faced one of her hardest struggles and succeeded. She couldn't help but wonder how much more difficult it would be with a healthier corpse in front of her.

Her question was about to be answered as another body was brought in. This one had been dead less than an hour. Natalie smelled the nearly fresh blood and heard the heartbeat of the young orderly. Her desires rose. She forced them back down, but it was hard. She was so tempted. The blood called to her like nothing she'd ever experienced before, outside of the vampirism. But even there she'd never faced such a strong pull. She willed the yellow to stay out of her eyes and her fangs to stay in their retracted position, but she felt the fangs slip into place anyway.

The young orderly left to continue with his night's work. Natalie gave him a few seconds' head start and was at the door before she knew it. The vampire in her wanted to know what it felt like to hunt down her meal and make the kill.

No! Get a grip! Natalie thought as she bolted from the coroner's office in a panic. She had to get away from it all. She would not risk her whole life here.

She sat outside the building, careful to stay out of sight. Maybe Nick was right. Maybe it is too soon, flashed through her mind.

At the precinct, Nick was seated at his desk finishing a report when Natalie's turbulent emotions surged through their link. Her fear and panic caused his concern to grow. He hoped she hadn't lost control and wondered if he should've allowed her to return to work so soon.

"Uh, Schank, I have to run. I'll be back shortly."

"Nick..." Schanke started to protest but stopped when he realized that Nick was not listening. He hoped Nick was not having a relapse.

Nick left as fast as he could without drawing attention to himself. As soon as he was outside he found a safe spot from which to take flight.

Nick quickly located Natalie, landed right beside her, holding out his arms. She walked into his embrace, wrapping her arms around him and felt her whole body relaxed as soon as she was securely wrapped in his embrace. The reassurance he sent through their link helped soothe her. A few minutes later she pushed away from him and they took flight, landing at Nick's loft. He could feel how unsettled she still was.

Nick took down two crystal wine glasses and grabbed a bottle from the fridge. They walked over to the couch and sat down. Nick poured them each a glass of blood.

"I felt the panic, fear and desires rise in you."

"I didn't realize it would be so hard. I didn't do anything I would regret," Natalie said as she finished her glass. "But the fact that I almost did scared me."

"This is why I didn't want you returning so soon."

"Everything was manageable until the orderly brought in a body that had only been dead about an hour. Between the smell of the blood and the orderly's heartbeat..."

"I know the feeling. I still get those from time to time. Often I'm at a crime scene with Schanke. He doesn't make it any easier with his descriptions and questions about the case."

"The first autopsy I did was weird in that the blood didn't appeal to me. It wasn't until I was finished with it that I learned why," Natalie went on to explain her findings. "I thought we were attracted to all blood."

"We are attracted to all blood. Sometimes we're revolted at the same time. There are diseases and other conditions that make the blood almost repulsive."

"I think it was the two bodies one right after the other that got to me. I wasn't expecting that busy a night."

"You handled it well, just like I knew you would."

"Does everyone know we're in love?" Natalie asked.

"Why? Did Grace say something?" Nick asked as he poured Natalie another glass.

"Yes, she heartily approves. She saw us in the parking lot. Did Schanke say anything?" Natalie said as she sipped her drink.

"Yes. He too thinks it's great. How are you feeling?"

"Better. I suddenly had an almost overwhelming urge to hunt. I saw the orderly and actually gave him a few seconds' head start. As soon as I reached the door I realized I was risking everything. I left before I did anything I would regret."

"You're doing well. I'm proud of you for not giving in."

"I have to go back before I'm missed. What did you tell Schanke?"

"Not much. I sort of excused myself and left before he could protest. It wasn't like I hadn't done it before."

"My place this morning?" Natalie's smile added to her suggestive question.

A kiss was her answer.

"Are you going to be okay now?"

"I think so. I knew the first day would be rough."

"Would you like more?" Nick saw Natalie shake her head. "Ready to go back?"

"Yeah. The sooner I face it the better."

"Do you want me to come back with you?"

"No. I'll be okay." Natalie said as she sent him reassurances through their link.

"Okay," Nick said, knowing she was right. She had to work it out for herself. He would keep an eye on her, if only through their link.

Natalie put all her desires on hold and steeled herself for the autopsy she had to do. Once she was ready she entered her office. Thoughts of what awaited her after at home after her shift helped her relax enough to start the autopsy on the body which had caused the night's trouble.

Natalie noticed that she did not feel as in control as she had before her dietary switch from human to cow. Could it make that big a difference? She wondered. Her mind tried to find another explanation but could not. She had never seen Janette have a problem controlling her desires, but then again, she had not spent that much time around the female vampire.

Nick approached his desk again. Schanke looked up at him concerned.

"What was that all about?"

"I thought I was gonna be sick. False alarm," Nick said lightly.

"Are you sure you're all right? You're not holding something serious back on me, are you?" Schanke asked, concerned.

"No. I'm fine. I didn't get enough sleep last night."

Schanke got that grin again. "You know you two can sleep sometimes."

"Yeah, we know. We do get plenty of sleep."

Schanke just grinned. Nick could not help but grin himself. Life had been good lately. He had not been this happy in centuries.

Schanke was pleased to see his partner so happy. He had been worried about both Nick and Natalie because neither seemed to have a life outside of work. He thought that they worked too much.

Natalie managed to get through the autopsy without further problem, but it was not easy. She was a bit disturbed when ballistics matched the slugs pulled from her and Nick, which had been labeled as being from the Caddy, with the ones she had pulled from this victim.

Grace brought Natalie her favorites for lunch. She forced a smile when she saw what Grace had done. Normally she would have been grateful, but now the presence of food nauseated her. Grace noticed.

"Nat, you're not eating."

"I'm sorry. My stomach is a little upset."

"Maybe it's the flu that's going around."

"That could be it."

Natalie heard Grace's very strong mortal heartbeat and was both attracted to and repulsed by the temptation She forced herself to ignore it. She no longer tolerated the smells of her old favorite dishes, nor the food Grace was consuming.

Natalie knew she would have to find some way to look like she was eating or drinking while at work, without making herself sick or giving herself away.

Later that night Natalie brought a finished report to Nick and Schanke. She had to get out of the morgue, away from all the blood, but hearing all the officers' heartbeats in the squadroom did not help matters.

Schanke saw Natalie approach shortly after Nick felt her presence.

"Natalie's coming," Schanke said.

Nick looked up as Natalie approached their desks.

"Hi, Schank, Nick. I brought by the Johnson report."

"Natalie, you all right? You look a little pale," Schanke said.

"I'm fine. I guess I'm still adjusting to my diet. It could also be the suit." She was beginning to question the wisdom of wearing black. It had called out to her that morning. "I do have some disturbing news." Natalie told them about the matching ballistics, drawing concern from both men.

"Looks like we may be looking for a pro. But why try to hit you and Nat? Why hit Johnson?" Schanke asked.

"I don't know," Nick said.

"I want the two of you to be very careful. He may try to finish the job. I don't want to attend two funerals."

"We'll be careful. We don't want to die."

Cohen heard the three voices. "Schanke, Knight, Dr. Lambert, in my office now," she called out.

The three obediently, but not too happily entered her office, shutting the door when the Captain motioned for them to do so.

"What's the latest on the case?"

Nick filled the Captain in with Natalie filling in what she could add to the story.

"I want you two in protective custody," Cohen said, as she looked back and forth between Nick and Natalie.

"Captain, I don't think its necessary. I don't want it," Natalie said, not wanting to test her control yet, and having a mortal, maybe two or three, around twenty-four hours a day would stretch her newly acquired control to its limits and probably beyond.

"I agree. I don't think it is necessary. If they wanted us dead, they would have tried again before now. Also the precinct and coroner's office are pretty safe. My loft has a state of the art system." Nick hoped Cohen bought it as he did not want to be forced into convincing her, and Schanke that protective custody was not needed. He knew Natalie's control might not stand up to being that close to mortals twenty-four hours a day.

"Okay. I can't force either of you to accept protection. Just be careful, okay?"

"We will," Nick and Natalie said at nearly the same time.

Not long before the end of their shift, Nick and Schanke were called to the scene of a murder. Nick was paying close attention to Natalie, and trying to listen to Schanke at the same time.

"Earth to Nick," Schanke said.

"I was listening."

"What's up? You're acting weirder than usual. Does it have something to do with being sick, or with Natalie?"

Nick was startled by Schanke's question.

"I don't know."

"Maybe you should get checked out again by your doc," Schanke said, a little concerned.

"I went the other day. Everything checked out fine. He was waiting on one or two test results. He said that it might be another day or so before I feel totally myself again."

Schanke's relief showed in the rather large sigh he let out.

Natalie donned latex gloves to examine the female victim. The sight and smell of the blood excited her. It took all her willpower to keep the yellow from her eyes and to keep her fangs from dropping into place.

"Dr. Lambert?" asked a uniformed officer.

"What.... Oh," Natalie said, a bit startled. She quickly continued with her examination.

"The victim is a 30-35 year old female. It looks like death due to massive blood loss from the two gunshot wounds," Natalie said as she pointed to them. "One here in the chest and the other here in the abdomen."

The gunshot wound to the chest bothered Natalie more than she let on, as it reminded her of that night more than three weeks ago when she had been fatally shot.

Nick wanted to make sure Natalie was okay, but knew they both had to do their jobs. The jumbled emotions he was receiving through their connection were normal for a vampire as young as her.

After their shift finished Nick and Natalie were relaxing at her apartment. They were standing in the kitchen. Nick poured their dinner into two of her wine glasses.

"You did good tonight," He said, pleased with her response at the crime scene.

"It was hard. All that blood."

"And?" He asked, sensing there was more to it.

"And, it reminded me of what would've happened to me. Her injuries were the same as mine," Natalie said. "She was my age."

He put down the bottle and held his out his arms. She wanted to feel his strength around her and walked into his embrace. She felt so safe and calm there.

"I know. I felt it too," He said.

The next evening Nick, Natalie and Schanke were at a crime scene near the end of their shift. The male victim had been brutally stabbed to death.

Natalie smelled the blood and had to fight to keep the vampire under control. She wanted the blood badly. She felt a dull ache in her undescended fangs.

Nick felt her desires and was concerned by their strength.

"The victim, a male about 35 years of age, was stabbed to death. It looks like there are at least 7 visible stab wounds. I'll know more later," Natalie said, fighting the temptation. There were so many mortal heartbeats around her.

Natalie slipped away from the scene. She had to leave before she gave in to the temptation. Two brutal crime scenes in one night were one more than she could handle. This one was as bad as the other stabbing death she had dealt with earlier in the evening.

Nick sensed her absence. Her strong desires and emotional turmoil had him a bit distracted. He trusted her, but knew how strong the desire could be.

"Earth to Knight," Schanke said.

Nick was startled. "What?"

"Is something wrong?"

"No."

"Is Natalie okay? She seems a little distracted. She seems to be wearing darker colors. They just don't seem right somehow," Schanke said a bit concerned.

"She's okay. Maybe its just a fashion phase she's going through," Nick lied. He would have to talk to her about it. "She was nearly killed a few weeks ago, and that might be affecting her without her knowledge."

Schanke pondered that a moment. "I guess you're right. Let her know I'm concerned about her. Okay?"

"I will."

Natalie wandered blindly through the park, her mind a jumble of desires and questions. She heard the heartbeats of every living thing there, tempting her almost beyond control. She headed for the most sparsely populated part of the park to think.

How does he do this every night? Was he right? How long will it be before I have better control? How long before it gets the better of me? Natalie was so deeply concerned by that last question that she did not see or sense the man in his early forties until he bumped into her. Before Natalie knew it her fangs tore through the skin of his throat right into the pulsing artery.

Natalie felt the hot rich blood flow down her throat, intoxicating her with the smorgasbord of sensations. She could both feel and taste the man's fear. His blood energized her. It was more intoxicating than anything she had tasted. The experience was exhilarating. His memories rushed through her, filling her with new experiences. She was taken back by their vividness because these memories were MUCH stronger than the ones from the bottled human blood.

"What do you say we go...." Schanke saw Nick suddenly go even paler and stagger. "Are you okay?"

"I've gotta run. Meet you back at the station later," Nick said, trying to keep the deep concern he felt out of his voice as he ran from the scene. As soon as he was in the clear he took to the sky.

Nick knew what Natalie had done and had to get there before anyone else noticed. He was somewhat disappointed, but was not totally surprised. Her blood and her words had told him how much she craved the kill. He had been so pleased with her accomplishments that he had forgotten how young she truly was. He felt guilty for not listening to her more closely. Now she would have to live with some of the same guilt he did.

Natalie finished feeding. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by a strong sense of grief and guilt for what she had done. She had killed a man to satisfy her craving. She had never before harmed, much less killed, another living being. Suddenly she realized she did not know exactly what to do with the body. Nick had taught her but she was too shocked, too stunned to remember.

Nick landed behind her. Natalie sensed him but could not face him. She felt too embarrassed and guilty over giving in to her desires.

"I'm sorry, Nick. I don't know how it happened. I was just walking, trying to sort out a few things, then I was draining him."

Nick turned her around to face him. He put his hands on her shoulders to steady and comfort her. He also sent reassurances through their link, pleased to see that it helped calm her.

"All of us go through this at some point. I should've paid more attention to what you were going through, what you were feeling/"

"Is this what a hunt is like?"

"Yes and no. This is the end result. A hunt usually has a bit more stalking in it, like when we played among the buildings. You have to finish it. Break his neck."

Natalie snapped the man's neck with one quick twist.

"Now you disguise the bite to make it look like a slash mark." Nick said.

Natalie regretted the additional damage she had to do to her victim. It had been bad enough that she had killed him, but to have to further desecrate him to hide her dark secret disturbed her.

Natalie took out her small Swiss army knife and made a cut across the fang holes. She examined her work with a critical eye and found it satisfactory. She closed the knife and put it into a small plastic bag she found in her pocket, then put the bag into her purse, vowing to dump the knife into the river in the next town.

"Do you feel up to returning to work?" Nick asked. He was not sure that she should. "Maybe you should take the rest of the night off."

"No. I think I should go back to work," Natalie said, a little uncertain. It bothered her. She was a doctor, sworn to do no harm. Yet, she knew that the kill was important for survival. Nick's doubts about her ability to go back to work troubled her.

"How about I go back with you. I'll stay until you feel secure enough to continue, or decide to leave," Nick said, knowing that he could not change her mind.

"It felt so good, yet I feel guilty. I don't know how it happened."

"I felt your turmoil. I couldn't get away. This *CANNOT* happen again."

"I know. It won't."

"Schanke used to have fun picking on me the few times I showed a mild, seemingly mortal, reaction to a crime scene."

Natalie's mind wandered back to a conversation she and Nick had had during her training.

**********

"Why did I have to..."

Nick cut her off knowing the question. "If a person is killed by a vampire and not totally drained there is the possibility that they could come across on their own. Also, NEVER partially drain a victim and leave them alive. They will become vampire hunters."

"That's how O'Neal knew so much." Natalie suddenly realized.

"Yes."

**********

As soon as Nick and Natalie entered the morgue, her senses were assaulted by the corpse on the steel table. It was the body from the crime scene. The very one that had caused her to give in to her desires.

"You okay? You don't have to stay," Nick said, trying to comfort Natalie. He could feel how unsettled she was and did his best to reassure her via their link.

"I think so. I have to stay," Natalie said, tying up her mane before she slipped into the changing room and came out in her blue scrubs. She slipped into her white surgeon's smock and proceeded to examine the body. His reassurances did help her feel more confident.

Nick felt her fighting the same internal battle he had fought every day for a good part of the last eight hundred years. But he also sensed that her strong desires had been temporarily satisfied by her hot meal. Nick realized that this would remove LaCroix's threat of teaching her how to kill.

"You might want to wear lighter colors. Schanke asked me if you were okay. He noticed how you've been dressing in darker colors and doesn't think it's your style. I told him it might be an unconscious side effect from the shooting."

"I will try to vary my wardrobe more. I hope you reassured him that I'm fine."

"I tried my best."

Schanke entered and saw Nick seated at Natalie's desk reading a file while she worked on the autopsy. Schanke noticed that something was bothering Natalie, but let it pass guessing that it was the crime scene.

"Why am I not surprised to find you here?" Schanke asked Nick.

"I was a little shaky after the crime scene and Nick offered to drive me back here," Natalie said, not completely lying.

"It was a pretty brutal scene," Schanke said. "How are you now?"

"Better."

"Why don't we let her work while we try to catch some bad guys?"

"Nat, are you going to be okay?" Nick asked.

Natalie nodded then felt Nick's light touch through the link, trying to gage exactly what state she was in.

When Nick was satisfied that she would be okay alone, he gave her a quick kiss before he and Schanke left.

In the hallway Schanke just looked at Nick.

"What?"

"Is that how you kiss her good-bye?"

"What did you want me to do, sweep her off her feet and kiss her so hard she was left gasping for breath?"

"No. But something with a little more passion."

"We weren't alone." Nick knew the other reason was that passion might accidentally bring the vampire to the surface in Natalie.

At the end of her shift, Natalie was again called out to the field. Upon her arrival she was shown to the victim. Natalie's examination of the victim revealed his death to be most likely caused by the gunshot wound in his chest. She noticed the temptation was not as strong. Is it because of... or is it because that is the proper thing for me, not cow?

Nick studied Natalie momentarily, and when he sensed no trouble he continued on with what he was supposed to be doing there. Schanke was busy nearby questioning the person who found the body.

The next morning Natalie's phone rang. She answered it still half asleep and very unhappy to be awakened at that early hour. She checked to be sure it had not disturbed Nick before she answered.

"Yes?"

"Dr. Lambert, we need your help at a murder scene."

"I'm sorry I can't. Call Dr. Gibson. I have appointments I can't break."

Natalie hung up, rolled over and was a little disturbed by the fact that she was getting very good at lying. She knew it was necessary for survival, but did not like having to lie to her friends. She did not have the same trouble lying to other people.

Natalie found her thoughts drifting to the man she had killed. I'm glad he had no family. His girlfriend will think he ran out on her. I hate being the one to hurt her so much. Natalie thought as the guilt welled up in her. It's over. I can't do anything to change what happened. Keep this up and you'll be an emotional wreck like Nick in no time,' Natalie told herself, trying to ease her feelings of guilt. She should have known that she would have to kill sometime.

She hated how she could not shake the feelings of responsibility and guilt she felt. She refused to let them overwhelm her, yet they were always there in the back of her mind, reminding her of another sacrifice her being a vampire had demanded.

Nick felt her emotions and hated to see the pain it caused her, but knew she was right, that she had to work it out for herself.

That night Natalie caught her supervisor as she was about to leave her office.

"Can I help you?" Terry asked.

Natalie prayed her new powers would not fail her now as she caught Terry's gaze and matched her heartbeat with her supervisor's. She was a little nervous as this was only her second vampiric hypnosis.

"I thought we agreed that I would work nights only. No days. I will never be called in to work during the day."

"You will never be called in during the day."

Natalie broke the connection. Terry shook her head slightly, as if to clear it.

"Can I help you?" Terry asked.

"No. I forgot what I wanted to tell you," she said as she left. Natalie hated to do that, but had no choice. If she refused daytime calls people might get suspicious, and she could not allow that to happen. Natalie was both relieved and pleased that her powers did not fail, but knew how easy it could be to abuse that power.

The next evening a man dressed in dark clothes exited the stairwell onto the roof of the building across the street from the precinct's entrance. He quickly removed his high powered rifle from its case, assembled it, loaded it, and attached the top quality night scope to the top of it.

Schanke walked up the path from his car to the front door of the precinct, unaware of the assassin's presence. The dark clad man had Schanke in his sights and was about to pull the trigger when Nick saw a flash of something on the rooftop and landed behind the assassin.

Nick grabbed the gun and spun the man around to face him. An evil grin spread across Nick's face when he recognized him as the same man who had shot both himself and Natalie.

The assassin was stunned to see a dead man arresting him. Nick slapped on the handcuffs and read him his rights before he led the man down the stairs, across the street and into the precinct. Once the hitman was safely in the lockup Nick went to his desk. Schanke was seated at his own desk munching on a jelly donut and shoved the last bite into his mouth as Nick approached. Natalie arrived dressed in a royal blue outfit, it was dark enough to suit her new tastes but bright enough to hopefully show Schanke that she was fine.

"You really should be more careful," Nick said to Schanke.

Schanke examined his shirt and tie for any donut mess. When he didn't find anything he gave his partner a slightly confused look.

"I just brought in a perp who was about to..." Nick tried to find an easy way to tell Schanke, but failed, "to kill you."

"Kill me?" Schanke asked stunned.

"Yes."

"Where was he? I didn't see anyone."

"He was on the roof across the street."

"How'd you know?" Schanke asked.

"Informant."

"Thank him for me. By the way, thanks for saving my life."

Natalie gave Nick a curious look. She wondered if there was an informant or if Nick had seen him. Nick detected this.

Schanke noticed Natalie's color choice and let out a small grin. She knew she had finally chosen the right outfit that evening.

The hitman passed by Nick and Natalie on his way to the interrogation room and was stunned to see them both alive.

"I shot her in the chest. Him too. I saw the blood on her shirt. He was dead. He had no pulse," the hitman babbled before thinking.

"Thanks for the confession," Schanke said. "They sure don't look dead to me," Schanke wisecracked.

"You can't use that. My lawyer's not here."

"Captain. I caught him about to shoot Schanke."

"There is an easy way to settle this. Natalie, Nick, can I convince you to allow another officer and myself to see if you have any scars on your chest?"

Nick and Natalie exchanged a glance before nodding their cooperation.

The three ladies went into briefing room three where Natalie unbuttoned and opened her jacket. No scar was detected anywhere on her chest. Natalie rebuttoned her jacket before rejoining the others waiting in the squadroom.

Nick entered the briefing room and unbuttoned his shirt. Schanke and Cohen failed to see any scars on his chest. Schanke was glad to have his suspicions put to rest once and for all.

Nick, Cohen and Schanke shortly rejoined Natalie and the assassin in the squadroom.

"I have examined both Det. Knight and Dr. Lambert. Neither one has a recent scar, or any scars for that matter in the chest area. Besides if they had been shot they would've been in the hospital."

"I don't get it. I know what happened," said the confused assassin. "How do you know they weren't?"

"I saw Det. Knight in his apartment a few days afterwards. You can't get over an injury like that in two or three days. He showed no signs of any damage to his chest," Schanke said.

"Knight, Schanke, this confession won't stand up in court. Do you have anything else on this guy?"

"Captain, that's why I came over here. I just autopsied the latest shooting victim. I pulled a good set of prints off her glasses," Natalie said as she handed a file containing the preliminary report and prints to Nick. "I'd be willing to bet they'll match the guy who tried to kill Nick and myself."

"Good work, Doctor. Book him for three counts attempted murder. We may yet be able to add one count of murder if the prints match."

Later that night Nick dropped by the morgue, saw Natalie working at the computer, and approached. She turned to face him.

"Who was he really after?" Natalie asked.

"You, me, and Schanke. Remember the Parkson case?"

"Yes. It was a hit," Natalie said. "My death was another hit?"

"Yes."

"How'd you know it was him? Why was he after me?"

"I got a good look at him, his partner, the car and the plates," Nick said. "He's given up his partner. He was after you because you did the autopsy and wouldn't give in to their pressure to doctor your report. He was after me because I found him out back then. Apparently the hit on Schanke was new, just in case I had told him anything."

Nick sensed her feelings of guilt over her first kill and knew she had to work through it on her own. He was both pleased and a bit concerned that she was still feeling guilt over that event.

His cellular phone rang.

"Knight," Nick said. "I'll be there shortly." Nick hung up, nodded toward Natalie.

Her phone rang. She answered it knowing what the officer was going to say, having heard Nick's call.

They arrived at the crime scene. Nick was concerned. Natalie detected this and put her hand on his arm briefly to reassure him. She also sent reassurances through the link.

"I'm fine," she said.

He sensed no overwhelming desires in her and relaxed. He did keep an eye on her though.

Natalie headed for the body. She put on her latex gloves and began the examination. The victim was a real mess, blood was everywhere. She felt the beast stirring but with effort pushed it back. She was not going to let it interfere with her work again.

Nick and Schanke approached. She stood to give her report, turning away from the body as she did so.

"It looks like someone took a baseball bat or something of that nature to him. My guess is that he is in his early thirties. He will be hard to identify. His jaw has been broken and some teeth are missing. There's not much left of his face."

Schanke caught a good look at the victim and paled.

"I'll know more when I get him back to the lab," Natalie said. She knew she'd need a small snack before facing the victim if she was to get through the autopsy without a problem.

Nick could sense how much the victim was affecting Natalie, and understood because it was having an effect on him too, but to a much lesser extent.

Later, after their shift, Natalie and Nick entered her apartment only to find an uninvited and unwanted guest waiting for them.

"What are you doing here?" Nick asked, a hint of anger in his voice.

"I promised you I'd be back. I'm just checking on the good Doctor's progress."

"I'm doing just fine," Natalie stated, firmly but politely.

"Do you still want to become mortal, Nicholas?" LaCroix taunted, seated comfortably on her couch. "You have your precious Natalie."

"Yes," Nick answered.

"Same here," Natalie responded.

"Did you enjoy your first kill? It is intoxicating, isn't it."

"Yes and no. It was exhilarating and intoxicating, but I feel guilty for killing the man." Natalie knew LaCroix would know if she lied and use it against both her and Nick. "I am a doctor. I swore to do no harm."

"You are a vampire. We kill. We feed. It's as simple as that. Nicholas can tell you the dangers of guilt."

"I will not kill. I will take my food as Nick does. the same way most of the vampires here do. From a bottle."

As she spoke Nick could sense her feelings of guilt over her first kill. They were still boiling just beneath her surface composure. He knew she had to work through this on her own. He was pleased and a bit concerned that she was still feeling so much guilt over that event.

"I thought you showed promise, Natalie," LaCroix said, a bit disappointed. He refused to admit how much potential she still held, but knew he could not do anything right now. But... eternity was a very long time.

"She does, LaCroix."

"Natalie, don't you find the taste of human blood so much better than that revolting cow blood Nicholas insists on drinking?"

"Human blood is quite rich and smooth, much like a fine champagne. It is something to be saved for special occasions. I like the cow blood just fine." It was true. She was getting used to the taste, no longer shuddering as she drank it. Her control was a little better now. She still wondered which was better for her the human or cow blood.

"How did you know?" Nick asked.

"I have my ways," LaCroix responded cryptically.

"You've been watching us, haven't you," Natalie said, realizing it was the only way he could have known that quickly.

"Natalie, you and I must go out for a proper hunt sometime," LaCroix said with false civility.

"Perhaps someday."

"Natalie, a word of caution. Janette doesn't like competition," LaCroix said, both warning and taunting.

"But she does want what makes Nick happy. She sees that he's happy with me."

"I'll be keeping my eye on *all* my children," LaCroix said with more than a hint of threat in his voice as he left.

"Nat, I'm proud of the way you handled both the crime scene and LaCroix."

"I was tempted. I will not let that part of me interfere with my work. Does it ever get any easier? I refuse to let him tell me what to do."

"I don't know. It does get easier, but it does not go away. Maybe LaCroix would say differently, but..."

"How can you trust him?" Natalie finished, knowing his thoughts.

That night after they had finished their lovemaking, Natalie was still curled up in Nick's arms.

"Nat, are you drinking the cow blood for me, or because it is truly what you choose?" Nick had sensed her uncertainty about which was healthier for her.

"I don't know. I thought I was doing it for me. I'm no longer sure which is the best choice." She was a bit hesitant to ask what she needed to.

"If you needed to switch back I would understand. As long as it comes from a bottle." Nick saw her biting her lower lip as she always did when unsure or puzzling something out. "You need to do what is best for you."

"I was hoping you'd say that. I do want to switch back to human, at least for now. I've noticed that I do better after drinking human instead of cow. Maybe in a few months I'll try the cow again." She studied his face, and their connection, trying to determine his true feelings.

Nick made sure she felt his love for her, and felt her relief that her decision had not negatively affected their relationship.

At work the next night Natalie heard the mortal heartbeats of Grace and the others around her. She smelled the blood of recent arrivals and was still tempted, but not nearly as intensely. The human blood she'd dined on before dinner had significantly strengthened her control, helping to reassure her that she'd made the right choice nutrition wise.

Grace came in to give Natalie some files. Natalie took them with a smile. Grace was always so cheery.

"Another good night?" Grace teased.

"Yes and no," Natalie said, remembering LaCroix's visit. At Grace's look she said, "We had an uninvited guest. An old acquaintance of Nick's stopped by."

"I take it he was not too welcome."

Natalie nodded. "But things picked up after he left."

Grace grinned and departed.

Natalie noticed that she did not think about Grace's heartbeat once during their entire conversation. Another realization hit, yesterday's strong temptation for lunch was missing. After giving the matter some serious thought Nat realized that she had felt this way since her kill, and wondered how long it would be before she felt that overpowering desire again. Natalie hoped she was gaining the necessary control so she would never have to do that again, at least not in this lifetime. She found her vampiric desires to be both in control and bearable as long as she ate enough before she left home. Nat began to understand the way Nick must feel every night he was around mortals.

Natalie had never truly understood how much control Nick had used around her. She knew that mortals, love and vampirism did not mix. Nat found herself remembering Valentine's Day at her apartment. Remembering all the sweet things Nick had said to her in between their kisses, she was amazed at the amount of control he must have used. She knew she did not have that much control yet, and would not for a long, long time.

Nick entered the lab and noticed his lover seemed to be a million miles away. He knew his daughter was handling the guilt much better than he had done at such an early age.

"So, is that what I look like?" Nick asked playfully.

"What?" Natalie asked, her mind snapping back to the present. "How long have you been standing there?" She could not believe she had not sensed his presence.

"Just a moment or two. I got to see how I look when I'm lost in the past," Nick said. "How's it going?"

"Much better. Somehow the other night helped greatly. It's bearable now as long as I eat before work. The switch helped tremendously." She examined their link, as well as his expression before being reassured he was okay with her choice. "Now I understand how you feel every night. I can only imagine how much control you needed to be around me. How do you do it?"

"It gets easier with exposure and age. Remember, I've had a lot more experience. I still have trouble sometimes. Being around you was hard, but worth it. If I hadn't had as much control, I'm not sure I would've been able to spend so much time that close to you. I do it because my only other choice is the sort of life Janette and LaCroix live which is to distant for me."

You were right. It is a little easier. I don't think I could shut everyone out the way they do." Natalie said. "Has Schanke stopped asking you about the tests?"

"Yes. I told him that they all came back normal."

"I want to start you on the blood reduction and the protein shakes again."

"And when do you get to partake of these delights?" Nick asked, somewhat jokingly.

"The next time we make love," she teased back, curious to see if was the truth. She became a bit more serious. "When we both think I'm ready. At least now I have a new subject to study."

"I'm glad I won't be the only pincushion around here. I think that you'll be ready to try the protein drink within a couple of months. I wouldn't cut down on the blood for at least a year, maybe two. You need to build up your strength first. Once your desires are under control all the time then you will be ready. You will need to do it slower than I do." "Yes, doctor," Nat teased. She trusted him. He should know better than her in that respect, considering he had a lot more experience there.

Natalie took a blood sample from each of them and compared it under the microscope. She jotted down her findings in her journal. Will I find much of a difference between us? She knew that their sharing blood made any true research on the differences between a fledgling and the master next to impossible to conduct, but for the most part she didn't mind. She knew it wasn't the proper scientific attitude but for right now it was love that mattered.

Nick kissed her and left her to her work. Once Nick was gone Natalie headed for the freezer, removed the early sample she had taken from herself, and took out a small quantity before putting the rest back.

Natalie looked at the frozen blood sample under the microscope and noted her discoveries in her notebook. Each of the samples she examined showed slightly different characteristics. She noticed a few interesting changes and wondered what uncontaminated samples would have shown.

She vowed to take all three samples to her friend with the tunneling electron microscope on her next night off. Maybe it could give her an important clue. She still wished she had taken a sample from herself sooner. She would have liked to have seen what the first effects were on the body.

Her mind drifted off... if her research led to both a cure for them and a way to help medicine heal mortal bodies faster, better and without as much scarring it would be a major accomplishment. It might make up for my kill, she thought before she realized nothing could make up for that. She would have to learn to live with it as Nick lived with his guilt over killing. Meanwhile she would make sure she never killed again just to satisfy a craving.

THE END

PS - I do believe that Natalie remembers what happened at her apartment and at Azure. I chose not to have her remember the restaurant until she was brought across for purely dramatic reasons.

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