Transitions
by Judith Freudenthal

Within two minutes Vachon entered Natalie's office. He saw her standing by the steel table caressing Nick's cheek, fighting back tears.

"What happened?" he asked concerned when he saw how devastated she was.

"They walked into a trap. Nick pushed Tracy out of the way, saving her life, but ..." Natalie said visibly upset.

"And you need my help getting him out of here. Is Tracy okay?" Vachon asked, concerned, seeing the open wounds on Nick's body.

"She'll be fine. I need you to whammy an orderly into believing he picked up the samples and have him sign this form."

Just then the door rattled. Vachon threw the sheet back over Nick's face. An orderly entered, surprised to see a stranger in the morgue. Vachon saw that Natalie did not much care for him, it was not obvious, but it subtly came through.

Vachon caught the orderly's eyes and matched his heartbeat to the mortal's.

"You did not see me here. You will sign the form on the desk and take the sample case with you."

The orderly signed the form and picked up the sample case, unaware it was empty. Natalie despised having to do that, but she had no choice. She had promised Nick she would protect his secret and was not about to let him down.

"You will leave now. You will remember only that you picked up the samples and signed the proper paperwork. You will put this case down somewhere it will get mixed in with many others," Vachon said right before he broke contact with the orderly.

The orderly left, taking the empty sample case with him. He set it down in another lab where a bunch of other sample cases were on a counter. He left the lab to continue on with his work.

Natalie and Vachon were still in her office talking.

"I know that an injured vampire heals better with another's blood," Natalie said, very concerned that Nick's condition had not changed. "The bullets that hit him were partially composed of wood. There was one in the outer layer of his heart."

"That would explain his unconsciousness. Any trauma to the heart like that takes another's blood to heal." Vachon saw the fear in her eyes along with the sadness. He knew the fear was that Nick would not recover.

Vachon bit his wrist and held it up to Nick's mouth. After the first few drops dripped into Nick's mouth, Nick grabbed Vachon's wrist and sucked until Vachon pulled away.

Natalie found it a little hard to watch, but at the same time completely fascinating. These creatures required no medication, just the blood of another for near instantaneous healing. Nothing short of the sun, sharp sticks, fire or decapitation could kill them, or one disease she thought sadly.

She watched as Nick's wounds closed, leaving the skin unblemished.

Natalie handed Vachon a bag of their emergency blood supply, glad the expiration date had just passed so she would not have to explain where it went. When Vachon still seemed hungry she handed him a second bag.

"Thanks. You won't get in trouble for this will you?"

"No. Take the empties with you. Okay?"

"Sure. No problem."

Natalie handed Vachon her keys which she had dug out of her purse while he tended to Nick. Vachon nodded his understanding and took off at vamp speed with Nick slung over his shoulder, not wanting anyone in the morgue to see him and ask questions. Natalie had wanted to wait for Nick to regain consciousness, but could not risk anyone walking in on that scene.

Natalie knew Tracy would probably head for the church as soon as she was released from the hospital, and then the loft to talk to her. Natalie was glad Tracy did not have the access code because she was in no way ready to deal with Tracy learning the truth and being furious that everyone lied to her. It was the only reason Nick's return to the loft was safe, or at least safer than the church.

Natalie made sure the paperwork on Nick was as close to perfect as possible under the circumstances. She tried to keep her mind off the fact that their life here was over, knowing that if she did not she would never be able to finish what she had to without totally loosing it. She forced back the tears threatening a flood, and tried to ignore the growing ache in her heart. She worked to keep her hand from shaking as she signed the last report. Signing his death certificate was the hardest, most heartbreaking thing she ever had to do.

Once done, Natalie stripped off her gown and headed for the changing room, knowing that the other coroner on duty could handle the autopsies on the other two bodies from the crime scene. She could not believe what she had just written up. It had to be the biggest fabrication of her whole career. And might well be the last one if she missed anything.

She ran into Grace in the hallway just outside the changing room.

"Natalie, I'm so sorry. I just heard. I was at dinner or I would've been here for you," Grace said, a tear running down her cheek. She was stunned. She could see the heartbreak in her friend's eyes. Grace wrapped Natalie in a big bear hug knowing she needed it.

"I'm okay. I want to turn in the report and go home."

"Report? Don't tell me you..." Grace said stunned.

"I had to. He deserved the best."

"How..." Grace did not know how Natalie could possibly do the autopsy on her husband or how their boss would have allowed it. Grace was now concerned for Natalie for new reasons, wondering what sort of psychological effects this would have on her friend.

"I refused to let myself think of who it was, or look at his face. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I *never* want to have to do something like that again," Natalie said, barely able to contain the tears in her eyes. "I... I have to go... now."

"Do you want some company?" Grace asked, quite concerned, seeing the deep sadness in her friends eyes, not to mention the tears fighting for release. Her heart broke for Natalie as she gave her another big bear hug. She felt Natalie return it, taking strength from her friend.

"No. I need to be alone." Upon seeing her friend's expression grow more worried she said, "I'll call if I need to talk. I promise."

"Are you sure you're up to driving? It wouldn't be a problem for me to drop you off at home."

"I'll be okay."

Grace nodded, knowing it was only partly true.

Natalie continued on her way, wiping at her eyes, forcing the tears back, knowing she could shed them all later. Natalie ran into Terri a short ways down the hall. She had hope to avoid her boss, only because she was not in the mood to talk to anyone.

"Are you okay?" Terri asked, concerned by the deep pain she saw in Natalie's eyes.

"I'll be okay. Here's the report. Do you mind if I book off a little early?"

"No. I'm surprised you came back at all. Take as long as you need."

"Thanks."

Natalie quickly changed into her clothes, wanting to get out of there before she lost it completely, not knowing how much longer she could keep from crying. She could feel the full impact of it all starting to hit, and knew that when it did, she would not be able to control her reaction.

No sooner had she left the parking lot than the tears started. She had to pull into another parking lot because she was crying so hard she could not see. She let all the tears out, not wanting Nick to see her crying like this.

After a while the tears let up and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose before heading home. She opened the windows to allow the cool air to help alleviate her red nose and puffy eyes, not wanting Nick to see them.

The drive to the loft never seemed as long as it did that night.

Natalie entered the loft, unsure what she would find there. She had so many different emotions running through her that she did not know what to feel. She was terrified that he might not be okay, that he would have to leave her, that feeling also made her incredibly sad. She was terrified of being on her own here now that everyone knew her secret. She was mad at him for getting himself killed, but glad he had saved Tracy. She was mad at Tracy for not being more careful, even though she knew it was not Tracy's fault. She was just plain furious that her life with Nick here in Toronto was over, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Natalie saw Vachon looking around, being careful not to touch anything fragile.

"How is he?" She asked, her worry clearly evident on her face.

"He'll be fine. He's awake and has fed. You can go in there. I'll take off in a few minutes. Tracy will probably need me." He saw the evidence of her tears as her eyes were still a little puffy and her nose a little red.

"Thanks for everything, Vachon," Natalie said, her gratitude coming through in her voice.

"No problem. I'm sorry it had to go this way."

"So am I." Natalie turned and entered her bedroom.

She saw Nick lying on the bed with his eyes closed and started to leave. A tear trickled down her cheek, which she quickly wiped away, not wanting Nick to see it.

"Nat, don't go," he said, softly.

"You okay?" She asked as she walked over to the bed.

"I'm a little sore, but I'll be fine in another hour or two. Nice work," he said with a grin.

He sat up and motioned for her to join him on the bed, noticing the remnants of her tears. He held his hand out to her.

She had to grin at his comment. Not many of her patients were able to compliment her work.

She took his extended hand and sat down next to Nick. Leaning against his chest, she felt his arm wrap around her.

"You scared the hell out of me."

"I'm sorry." "I didn't even suspect it was a trap. I'm sorry I set our work back, and that I..."

"I told Vachon to feed you. I knew it was what you needed. I'm the one who set our work back. But that's life. We'll just have to make a few adjustments to compensate for it," Natalie said.

Each knew the other was avoiding the truth, that he had to leave. Neither wanted to be the first to admit it.

He enjoyed the feeling of her in his arms and silently held her. She pulled him closer, relishing the sensation of being so close to him. Both enjoyed the other's company as much now as when they'd said their marriage vows. When he released her he saw the tears streaming down her face and tenderly wiped them away with his fingertips. She gently wiped the blood tears from his cheeks with her hand.

"I don't want you to leave." She sighed, knowing they couldn't avoid the truth any longer. "I know you have to."

"I didn't want it to end this way. Would you consider coming with me?"

"I didn't want it to end this way either, but we don't have a choice. If I disappeared right after your death, Grace, Don, Myra and Jenny would think something had happened to me. They wouldn't want me to be alone now, especially knowing I have AIDS. There could be some really unpleasant questions at work because there is only paperwork to show I did your autopsy." Natalie said trying to keep her voice steady. "I do want to go with you, but a small part of me isn't ready to give up this life. Maybe in a few monthsÉ"

Nick heard the pain in Natalie's voice as she spoke, and saw it in her eyes. Nick tightened his hold on Natalie. Natalie saw the pain in Nick's beautiful blue eyes and hated to be the cause for it. She held onto him harder, not ready to let go of their life together.

"I understand. You're right," Nick said, sadly.

She could hear the pain in his voice.

"I'm glad they will be here to help you through it. At least you have them and your support group to turn to," Nick said, relieved she had people to help her through it.

"I'm grateful for that, but it won't be the same. I had hoped we would've had more time together."

"I know. Me too."

"How long ..." She could not finish her sentence.

"However long it takes for the arrangements to be made," he said, sadly. She was the best friend he'd had in a very, very long time. He did not want to leave her any more than she wanted him to leave. "You know, I would've had to move on in another year or two tops."

"I know. I would've been prepared for that. Maybe I would've even been ready to go with you then. Will you be okay?" She knew he had no one to comfort him, which only made her sadder.

"Yeah. It will take some time, but I'll survive," Nick said, sadly.

"Maybe if we'd told Tracy, then she would've covered for you. We could've had one more year together," Natalie said, grabbing any last hope she could find.

"I know. But I'm not sure she could've handled having a vampire for a partner. Remember, she didn't handle it to well when she learned Vachon was one of us."

"You're right. We did the right thing. I just had to ask."

"I'm glad you did. I had wondered the same thing."

"Can I help you pack?"

"Sure," he said, knowing she wanted to be with him as much as she could before he had to leave. He wanted to make as many memories as he could to take him through the long endless nights before him. He would miss the closeness they had developed over the years, especially since their wedding. "What about work?"

"With some effort, I convinced Terri that because of my experience I was the best person to do your autopsy. The paperwork should stand up to intense scrutiny. It has to be my best fabrication to date. Signing your death certificate was the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

Nick saw how much that had hurt and once again tightened his hold on her her, rubbing her back to soothe her and felt her arms tighten around him as she melted against his body.

"I know. I'm sorry you had to go through that," he said, looking down into her eyes.

Her eyes met his and she knew she'd miss seeing those beautiful blue eyes.

"It's another reason why I can't leave now. If I did all sorts of speculations would run rampant. Ones about if I had covered up anything. If everything had been too much for you and you had committed suicide, or if I was running off to do so, now that I was without you. Tracy and Grace would be stuck in the middle with no real answers to tell anyone."

"Once again, you're right. I don't want to see them hurt like that."

"You can stay here for as long as you need to." She hoped it would be several days, but knew it probably wouldn't be more than a day or two.

"What about the people stopping by to offer their condolences?"

"They won't stay long."

Almost if on cue the doorbell rang.

"Natalie, I know you're up there. Please let me up," Tracy's voice sounded through the intercom panel.

"It's Tracy," Nick said.

Natalie reluctantly pried herself from Nick's arms and headed downstairs. Nick stayed in their bedroom while Natalie answered the door.

"Tracy, what are you doing here? You should be in the hospital or at least at home resting." Natalie noticed the bandage above Tracy's left eye and the sling supporting her right arm.

"I'm okay. They just released me. I couldn't sleep. I thought you might need someone to talk to," Tracy said with tears welling in her eyes. She had never lost a partner before and it was tearing her up inside.

Natalie embraced Tracy, being careful not to hurt Tracy's injured shoulder. Natalie led Tracy to the couch.

"Trace, how are you doing?" Natalie asked, concerned, suspecting Tracy had signed herself out. It was the only way she would be out so soon.

"I'm okay. The bullet didn't cause any permanent damage, but required thirteen stitches. No concussion. It took six stitches to close the gash on my forehead. These steri-strips are much better than the stitches in my shoulder. They patched me up and let me go. Reese ordered me to take the next few days off," Tracy said, knowing Natalie was concerned about her. "I can't believe he's gone. I can't believe he gave up his life for mine. I feel so... I don't know. Maybe if I hadn't missed some obvious clue..."

"Tracy, it wasn't your fault. The officers who did the follow-up told me it was a trap." Natalie wished she could tell Tracy that Nick was fine, but she could not handle that battle right now. It was bad enough that she had to go on without Nick, but having Tracy mad at her would be too much.

"I know. I've never lost a partner before. I've lost very few friends this suddenly."

"It never gets easier," Natalie said, having lost more than her share of friends and family. "It doesn't hurt any less when you're prepared for it."

Tracy noticed the deep sadness in Natalie's eyes that came from losing many loved ones. She could not imagine how much that must hurt, especially adding Nick's death to that pain.

"How are you holding up?" Tracy asked concerned. She laid her hand on Nat's arm for comfort. She'd heard the sadness in Natalie's voice.

"It feels like someone cut out my heart, but I'll be okay. Eventually," Natalie said as a few tears ran down her cheeks and were immediately wiped away.

"Natalie, you don't have to be strong for me. It's not healthy to hold it all in."

"I know. I'm just not ready to think about life alone yet."

"You're not going to be alone. All your friends will be here for you. I know it's not the same as having Nick there, but we will do our best."

"I don't know what I'd do without them, without you."

Tracy could not imagine having AIDS and losing your husband. She knew that Natalie would be a mess for a while yet and knew that she would not be handling it half as well if it were her. Tracy had heard the stories of how Nick and Natalie were meant for each other, and had to agree. She had seen the intense love between them and knew that they were each other's main support in her battle with AIDS.

At the forty-fifth precinct Captain Schanke heard a knock on his door.

"Yes, Jeffers?"

"Here's something that might interest you." Jeffers nervously handed the Captain a slip of paper then left, not wanting to be there when his boss read the report.

Schanke's face paled as he read the sheet. "No..." he said stunned, his voice barely more than a whisper. He knew Natalie must be devastated. He did not know whether to go straight to the loft or to tell his wife and have them go together. He grabbed his jacket and headed home.

Myra heard the door open and headed for it, not expecting anyone.

"Don, what's wrong? Is Natalie okay?" Myra asked, worried. She saw how pale and upset her husband was. She noticed the single tear track on his cheek.

"Physically, yes. I don't know about emotionally." Don took a deep breath and motioned for his wife to have a seat. "Nick was killed in the field earlier tonight. I don't have any of the details."

"Oh my God!" Myra said stunned, and deeply upset. Tears welled in her eyes, and one slipped down her cheek. She knew Natalie would probably be a complete wreck.

Tracy entered the old church which Vachon called home and found him strumming his guitar in a candle lit basement room.

"Tracy, what happened?" Vachon asked upon seeing that Tracy was injured.

"Nick's dead. He died saving my life," Tracy said, breaking down into tears. "I can't believe he gave his life to save mine."

Vachon wrapped his arms around her, careful not to hurt her injured shoulder. He wished she knew the truth, but could not tell her.

"Are you okay?" He asked concerned.

"I'll be okay." Tracy sighed. "It was a trap. Why didn't we suspect a trap? Why did he have to die to save me?"

"I don't know. Sometimes it's how things are meant to be." He knew it was a lie. He knew Nick and Natalie were meant to be together for eternity. A part of him wished he would find his soul mate.

"It's not fair. Nick and Natalie been through so much. They deserved a little happiness," Tracy said with more than a touch of anger in her voice.

"I know."

"I don't think I could handle it, if it was me. What is she going to do without him? It can't be easy having a disease that makes you an outcast, and then losing the one closest to you."

"She'll go on because she has to. It won't be easy. She will really need all the loving support she can get," Vachon said, wondering if Natalie would leave with Nick.

The loft's buzzer sounded about an hour after Tracy had left.

"Natalie, please let us up," Don said, sadness in his voice.

Once again Natalie reluctantly pulled herself out of her husband's arms and headed downstairs. She released the elevator, allowing her guests to arrive. When the door opened, Natalie saw both Don and Myra. They quickly entered the loft and embraced Natalie. Natalie returned their embrace, needing their support.

"Natalie, I'm so sorry," Don said upset. He could not believe Nick was dead.

"I know, Don. Thanks for coming over. Come in," Natalie said, as she escorted them to the couch. She and Myra sat on the couch, with Don in the overstuffed chair near it.

"How are you doing?" Myra asked, worried.

"I'll be okay. I'm not ready to think about being alone. I'm going to miss him so much," Natalie said with a little sob. She knew Nick was listening to every word and did not want to make him feel worse, but she couldn't help herself with these two, their closest friends.

"You're not alone. You never will be," Myra said as she placed her hand on Natalie's. "I know nothing can take his place."

"I don't know what I'd do without you two."

A few tears ran down Natalie's cheek, which were quickly wiped away.

"I'm here whenever you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to talk to. About anything," Myra said as she gave Nat's hand a gentle squeeze.

Both ladies knew that if they hugged they'd completely lose it.

"Same goes for me too, although I think she's probably the better listener. If you need a hug, though, I'm always available." Don said as he tried to keep from sniffling. He was trying to be strong for both his friend and his wife.

"I appreciate that. Where's Jenny?"

"She's spending the night with a friend, and doesn't know yet. I'll tell her in the morning. Would you mind if she wanted to come over?" Myra said. She knew her husband was having almost as hard a time with Nick's death as Natalie was.

"No, I'm always happy to see her." Natalie wondered if this would undo all the progress she and Jenny had made.

"How are you two handling it?" Natalie asked, sadly.

"I can't believe he's gone," Don said still in shock.

"I can't believe it either," Myra said.

Both Don and Myra wondered what sort of an effect this would have on their friend's battle with AIDS and hoped it would not have a drastic negative one.

Later, Nick and Natalie were packing up his most treasured possessions, being careful not to pack the most visible artifacts, so she would not have to explain why they were not in their usual place. She noticed the care he took in packing the small sculpture she had given him. She listened, fascinated, as Nick once again told her the stories behind each item. He would tell her the stories as many times as she wanted to hear them.

The intercom buzzed. They did not know whether or not to answer. Natalie didn't feel like talking to any of their friends. She and Nick wanted to spend as much of their remaining time together as they could.

"Natalie, I know you're in there."

"I guess I have to let her up. Hide. I'll get rid of her."

Nick nodded and headed for their bedroom. Once he was safely out of sight, Natalie pushed the elevator release button. A minute or two later Tracy entered the loft.

"I heard you'd been granted a short leave of absence."

"Yeah. I thought it was best that way. If I went in I wouldn't be able to concentrate. I'd just be in everyone's way." Natalie said, still upset over the fact that Nick would be leaving her life way too soon for her liking. "I heard you've also been given a short leave."

"Yeah," Tracy grumbled. "It's partly because of my injuries and partly due to..." Tracy didn't continue, not wanting to further upset Natalie. Also, she had trouble saying that Nick was dead.

"It's for the best. You know that," Natalie said.

"I know," Tracy grumbled.

Tracy looked around and saw that Natalie was packing some stuff up.

"Do you want some help?" Tracy asked, remembering how sad she had been when Vachon had nearly died.

"I need to do this myself. Do you understand?"

"I think so. If you need to talk, call me." Tracy continued, "I always liked how Nick never treated me special because of my dad. He expected me to pull my own weight and take the blame for my own mistakes. I miss him."

"Me too," Natalie said, before changing the subject before it got too painful for both of them. "How's the shoulder?"

"It's doing fine. I should get the stitches out beginning of next week." Tracy decided that she would leave Natalie in peace to finish packing. "You're not leaving town are you?"

"No. Just packing up some stuff."

Tracy didn't know what to say so she silently walked to the elevator and took it down to her car.

Once Nick was sure Tracy was gone he came back downstairs.

"How are you doing, Nat?" Nick asked, concerned. He saw the pain in her eyes. He gently caressed her cheek with his fingers as he spoke.

"It hurts. I know you have to leave, but I wish you didn't." A part of her was glad he was leaving before she grew sick again, as it would make their parting a little easier. She touched his cheek with her palm causing him to lean into her simple gesture of love.

He wondered if part of the reason for her not coming with him was because she did not want him to watch her growing sicker over time. He wondered how long the drugs would work and how quickly her condition would worsen once the virus was immune to the drugs.

"You do know that I'd never willingly leave you... no matter how bad things became." He again wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, pleased to feel her arms tighten around him. He kissed her on the lips as proof he meant what he said.

"I know. It's one of the reasons I love you so much." Natalie said as she returned his kiss, then rested her head against his chest.

Late the next morning at the Schanke household, Jenny entered, worried when she saw her mom's sadness.

"Is dad okay?"

"He's fine, honey," Myra said as she wrapped her arm around her daughter's shoulder and escorted her to the family room couch.

"What's wrong?" Jenny asked relieved to see her dad sitting on the couch staring out into space.

"Nick was killed last night," Myra said.

"NO!" Jenny cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Is Natalie okay?"

"It happened while he and his partner were out investigating. Natalie's heartbroken and it's going to take her a while to recover," Don said, settling next to his daughter.

"Dad, I'm so glad you no longer have to go out into the field every night. I used to worry..."

"I know." Don said as he hugged his daughter.

"I thought I'd hear this about Natalie first," Jenny said. "Why Nick? Natalie needs him. How's she going to handle everything?"

"With help from her friends."

"I'll miss him," Jenny said, a fresh batch of tears streaming down her face.

Don hugged her and gently rubbed her back, trying to comfort his little girl.

Nick and Natalie talked as he hid out at home. They would spend hours at a time discussing anything and everything. Natalie was trying to store memories for herself, just as Nick was. They would both really miss spending time together.

That night they fell asleep on the couch in each other's arms, not wanting to waste a moment of togetherness.

The next night there was a knock on the stairway door. Nick knew it was for him when he sensed an unfamiliar vampire on the other side of the door. Natalie insisted on answering the door.

"You're supposed to be dead. Remember?"

A small sad grin formed on his face, matching the one on hers as he said, "I forgot."

She opened the door, blocking any view into the loft, and was handed a large manila envelope. Before she could say anything the messenger was gone. She closed the door and walked over to Nick, sadness filling her large blue eyes.

"I thought we would have more time together."

"I had hoped so myself." Nick did not want to see the end of Nick Knight. He had been happier here than he could remember being for a *very* long time.

Natalie detected his feelings. She understood what he was feeling as she was feeling much the same way. He had made some of the worst times of her life bearable, sometimes even joyful.

"When you leave, will I ever hear from you again?"

"Yes. How could I forget the best friend I've had in centuries?" He gently caressed the side of her face causing her to smile. "How could I forget my beautiful, loving wife?" He loved seeing her blush slightly. He kissed her on the lips, pleased when she responded.

"I love you, Nick. I always have, and I always will. You're a warm, loving, sensitive husband." She reached up and ran her hand across his cheek. Followed by a kiss on the lips.

They knew they were heading into dangerous emotional territory and retreated to safer topics, neither wanting a tearful goodbye.

"Do you still want to help me find the cure? I'll still keep in contact either way. I'll take care of all your expenses."

"I promised you I would find the cure and I will not go back on it." She ran her fingertips over his cheek and down his face towards his chin. "I will still need blood samples, though."

"I'm not supposed to have contact with this life but I will give you an address to reach me at. I'll send the samples whenever you need them. If you ever need anything, please let me know." He gently caressed the side of her face with his hand and she leaned into the caress. "You know I will always love you. I want you to be happy."

"You're leaving. How can I be happy?"

"You will be in time." Nick said.

"I love you, and I always will." Natalie said before kissing him again on the lips.

He happily responded to her kiss.

They both knew they were soulmates and would remain committed to their love for each other as long as they lived, and possibly well into the next world. They had never felt as loved and fulfilled as they had since the moment they realized they were meant to be together for eternity.

Sadness filled them both. Again, Nick felt guilty for not being able to prevent the attack. She saw that look in his eyes and tilted his chin up to face her.

"I thought we agreed that neither of us would feel guilty about the rape. There was nothing either of us could have done any differently."

"You're right. I'm sorry."

Nick opened the envelope and looked at the information. He had her scribble down his new name and address so his handwriting could not be traced.

"We have two hours before I have to leave. When I get settled I'll set up an account for your research. It'll be through the deBrabant Foundation. I'll send you all the information as soon as everything is set up. If you ever need any money for yourself, don't hesitate to use that account, or to contact me."

"Thanks. You will continue to take your pills, drink the protein shakes and try to eat won't you?" She asked, having given him her recipe.

"Yes. You will take good care of yourself, won't you? Promise me you'll let me know if you progress."

"I promise," Natalie said, knowing it was most likely a matter of time before the protease inhibitors no longer worked. Part of her was glad he would not be around to see that.

Nick wrapped his arms around her and held her. He sensed that she needed this as much as he did.

"Are you sure you won't come with me?"

"I'm sure. I'm not ready to leave here yet. There would be too many questions, rumors... Maybe in a few months."

Nick saw Natalie lost in thought, wondering what had her so captivated.

"Nick, please make love to me one more time."

He too wanted that closeness one last time, and swept her up into his arms in a wordless response.

Their lips met as he carried her into their bedroom. Their kisses grew in intensity.

Nick kissed her eyes, her forehead and the tip of her nose before kissing her cheeks. He kissed her lips again, avoiding her neck, knowing it would only stir the beast within.

Natalie savored every second of contact. She pulled off his shirt and trailed kisses down his chest, loving the feel of his cool skin pressing against her warm lips.

Nick removed her shirt and bra, slowly kissing his way down her front. He kissed all the little sensitive places he'd discovered during their many nights together. He gave extra attention to the ones that gave her the most pleasure, the ones that caused her to moan in ecstasy. His hands caressed those same spots adding to her pleasure.

Nick savored every moment of contact, knowing that this would be their final time together, maybe forever, maybe only until she found his cure, if she succeeded. Or until they were both ready for her to come across, if the disease did not claim her first.

Natalie was enjoying his loving attention one final time, wishing he did not have to go. Hoping she would see him again before she died, and that when they saw each other again, they would both be ready for her to join his world. She loved how his very skilled hands lightly caressed her body, making it feel more alive than it had ever felt.

Nick fought down the beast as it tried to rise, not wanting to spoil this for Natalie. One more afternoon of pleasure was the least he could do for her.

Both were quickly becoming more and more aroused. They knew that the further it went, the more dangerous it became. Nick's eyes turned gold and his fangs dropped, a sight which no longer bothered Natalie, as she had grown used to it over the years. They both had accepted that the change was a part of their attempts to make love.

Nick was having great difficulty keeping the beast at bay and suddenly bolted from the bedroom. Natalie had sensed this, especially when the change came over him.

Nick drained two bottles and took a cold shower before he felt confident to return to their bedroom. He found her tucking in her shirt, her hair still damp from her cold shower.

They both knew it was the emotional turmoil from the past few days which had thwarted their latest attempt. Their emotional state had both increased the intensity of their feelings as well as drawn the beast to the surface quicker than usual.

He wrapped his arms around her, and she did likewise. He escorted her over to the bed where they sat down. They cuddled against each other, doing nothing the least bit romantic.

Soon Nick sensed it was time to leave. She knew it, too.

"One last thing before I go," Nick said, before leaning in and kissing her as passionately as he could.

She did not resist, giving into the feeling, kissing him as passionately as she knew how.

A few minutes later, which seemed all too brief, he broke off resisting the beast that was trying to surface. His breaking heart gave the beast more strength. It wanted to savor the love running through Natalie's blood. Nick would not allow that part of him to hurt her.

"Nat... " Once again words failed the 800-year-old vampire.

Natalie could not fault him. Words failed her as well. She could see the anguish in his eyes and knew he could see the same in her eyes as well.

Nick quickly took to the sky, by means of the skylight.

Natalie stood at the window staring up at the sky long after he had gone. Tears streamed down her face as she looked out at the empty black sky.

She headed upstairs and curled up on his bed, letting the grief overtake her. Her entire body shook as she let the tears flow.

When there were no more tears to be shed, she fell asleep. His scent soothing her.

A few hours later, Natalie began to toss and turn as her dreams about Nick turned into a horrific nightmare.

Nick walked into his new apartment and barely noticed the spartan dŽcor. His heart, mind and soul were still in Toronto, while his body was in Boston.

"I'm surprised the good doctor stayed behind."

LaCroix's voice broke Nick out of his revelry.

"We had no choice. It would've raised too many questions if she'd left with me."

"I warned you about getting involved with them. It only leads to pain," LaCroix said. "I'm surprised she has not asked you to bring her across."

LaCroix knew quite well that neither of them were ready for that step yet and wondered if they would be before the disease claimed Natalie's life. Watching the drama unfold before his very eyes would be very amusing, he realized.

"How did you find me?" Nick asked a little surprised. Natalie was the only person outside of Aristotle who knew his current location.

"I have my ways."

"You didn't..." Nick said before his father's look cut him off.

"I had no need to ask her. She would never have told me. No, Aristotle didn't break his vow."

LaCroix was not about to admit he'd carefully rifled through the loft to find the information he wanted.

Nick wanted to pursue the topic, but the truly evil glare his master gave him ended the discussion. Nick decided that he wasn't going to spar with LaCroix and withdrew.

LaCroix sensed that he wouldn't have any further pleasure from his son that evening so he left. He knew the sun would be rising soon and did not want to have to spend the day with his moping son.

Nick knew his furniture would not be arriving until tomorrow night so he laid down on the bare floor and tried to sleep.

Images of Natalie filled his dreams, starting with the night he proposed to her.

The next afternoon back at Natalie's loft, the buzzer sounded. Natalie did not want to see anyone.

"Natalie, I need to see you," said the sad voice of Jenny Schanke.

The elevator door opened and Jenny hesitantly stepped into the loft, fighting her feelings.

"Hi," Jenny said. A part of her did not want to be there because of all the fears she had about death. Another part wanted to be there for Natalie, who was one of her best friends.

"Hi," Natalie said, pleased that the teen had come.

"I'm so sorry about Nick. I miss him," Jenny said trying to hold back the tears.

"I miss him too." Natalie wanted to wrap her arms around Jenny but did not know if that would cause her to flee.

"I won't ask you the same stupid questions. I can see how much you're hurting," Jenny said, a tear running down her cheek as she approached her friend. "Would you like me to stay awhile?"

"I'd love that," Natalie said as she wiped a tear from Jenny's cheek.

Jenny surprised her friend by hugging her, knowing that's what she would want if the situation was reversed. Outside of her husband being alive and there.

A few moments later Jenny released Natalie, and headed over to the couch. Natalie sat down beside her.

"I still want to be your friend. I'm just a little..." Jenny could not find the right words.

"I know what you're trying to say. It's okay." Natalie's small smile reassured Jenny that she did indeed understand.

That night, Natalie had Vachon give her a hand disassembling her bed and donating it to a local battered woman's shelter. She did not need two beds in the room anymore.

She slept in Nick's bed because it made her feel closer to him.

Nick woke shortly before sunset, showered, dressed and fed. Once that was done he headed out to the small college where he would once again enjoy being a professor. This time history was his subject.

Nick arrived at the campus, found the faculty parking without too much trouble. He pulled his thirteen year old black Mercedes 300 SD into the spot marked Nick Baldulf. The windows were tinted as heavily as the law allowed. He was grateful for the ample trunk space it had.

The Caddy had remained with Natalie, since it's disappearance would cause questions. He knew that barring any unforeseen incidents, he would eventually get it back, hopefully when Natalie was finally able to join him. The other alternative was to purchase it back after... he didn't want to think about that option.

He headed to the administration building to get the keys to his new office. He remembered their surprise when he requested an office without a window. He hoped his class schedule would be ready and accurate. He had requested night classes, and had to teach one late afternoon class. He'd spend the night scoping out the best routes around the campus using the underground passageway system that seemed to be present in many colleges and universities.

Nick entered the administration building and found his way to the division head's office. He knocked on the door before entering. He saw the short redheaded assistant seated at her desk typing away at the computer keyboard.

"I'm Nick Baldulf. I'm here to pick up the keys to my office and my class schedule."

"Welcome." " The assistant asked, turning her attention from the computer screen to Nick. "How do you prefer to be addressed?" A small grin spread across her face.

"Nick is fine," he said, knowing it would take a few days for him to get used to his new last name. He was so used to hearing Knight.

The assistant moved around files on the desk, pulling a paper from here and there. "I'm Tiffiney. Here's your schedule." She dug around in her desk drawer. "Here's the key to your office and one for the main door."

"Thank you. Is there anything else I should know?"

"I don't think so. If you have any questions feel free to call or drop by."

"Thank you, I will," Nick said with a grin.

Nick left Tiffiney's office and headed for his office.

Nick unlocked his office door, noticing the name plate on the wall next to the door, with the room number right above his name.

He turned on the light as he entered. A quick visual survey showed a small, empty, windowless room.

He glanced at his schedule. Classes started on Monday. He knew he still had a lot of work to do to prepare, but almost a week in which to do so He locked his office and headed out to seek out the book he wanted his students to use and procure enough copies. He also had lessons to plan, a course outline to construct. He knew the guidelines he had to follow, but that left him plenty of room to work.

The next afternoon, Natalie was fixing lunch when thoughts of Sarah and Amy came to mind. She had not seen them in a while, life had been too hectic for one reason or another. She wondered if they were going to come to Nick's memorial service. Just the thought of the service made her shiver. She knew he was not dead, but Nick Knight was. Still, knowing he was alive, but not being able to be with him was as hard, if not harder than if he had truly been dead. The only bright spot was that they might be able to reunite sometime in the future.

Natalie's mind wandered back to when she had told Sarah and Amy she had AIDS.

********

Natalie had gone up to see Sarah and Amy for the weekend. Since her brother, Richard, had died she had seen less of them than before. Nick had encouraged her to go, knowing it was a good idea.

Natalie figured that she felt guilty about forcing Nick to turn him into a vampire to give him a second chance and had avoided them as much as possible since then. Natalie prayed that Sarah never remembered the monster Richard became, as it was hard enough for her to live with the memories, and the guilt for badgering Nick into bringing him across when she should have listened to Nick.

She remembered how hard it was to tell Sarah and Amy that she had AIDS. She had done it shortly after her first illness, not wanting them to find out some other way.

Natalie, Sarah and Amy were sitting in the family room, after lunch.

"Natalie, are you okay? You seem much thinner than you should be, and you seem tired, maybe a little depressed."

"I am and I'm not. I have something I need to tell you. Yes, I'm thinner than I'd like to be, but there's a reason for it. It's also why I'm tired." Natalie took a deep breath and continued. "I have AIDS."

"Oh my God!" Sarah said stunned.

Amy did not say anything, she just sat there stunned.

"I am a little depressed. I just recovered from my first serious illness. I'm okay. Both the tiredness and depression will disappear shortly. Being around family is a big help."

"Does Nick know?"

"Yes. He's known from the beginning."

"I hope you don't mind me asking this but..."

"How did I get it?" Natalie said, cutting Sarah off, knowing where she was headed. She saw Sarah and Amy both nod. "I contracted it from the bastard who raped me.

"How come we couldn't detect it?" Amy asked.

"I was symptom free for almost six years after the diagnosis, then they started showing up one by one, but no one outside of Nick, noticed anything until after I had lost a few pounds.

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

The memories brought some comfort as neither Sarah nor Amy had stopped visiting, calling or writing once they knew.

The following evening was the memorial service. Natalie was dressed in black, dreading the service. She was not in the mood to face everyone. She would have to thank everyone for their offerings of sorrow and support. It made Nick's not being there anymore seem too final. She had explained having the ceremony at night because that was where his life was spent, and because a few members of his family had the same condition he had, and by having it at night, they could attend.

It was a full honors ceremony since Nick had died in the line of duty. Natalie had requested a closed casket, a wish that was honored. A picture of Nick in a dark wooden frame sat atop the casket, along with the flag and wild flowers.

Natalie had ordered wild flowers for the ceremony as they had always been Nick's favorite flowers. There were a few roses in every color but white mixed in. She still associated white roses with the horrible night at Azure.

A figure dressed all in black hid in the shadows at the back of the cemetery.

Natalie had attended several of these over the years and it had never affected her as deeply as this one did, even when it had been a good friend. Seeing some of her close friends wearing their dress uniforms in honor of her husband nearly caused her to break down into tears. The tears welled in her eyes, but she would not let them fall.

Tracy was in tears, still having trouble accepting the fact that Nick gave his life to save hers. Natalie saw Don, Myra and Jenny there. Don was trying not to cry, knowing it was not the "manly" thing to do. Sarah knew how Natalie must be feeling, having lost her husband many years earlier. Amy did not know what it was like to lose a husband as she was only a teen, but she knew what it felt like to lose her father. Natalie found herself sadder and more depressed than she expected. A tear rolled down her cheek about halfway through the ceremony. As the ceremony continued, tears silently rolled down Natalie's cheeks.

Nick was pleased that all those he considered friends had come to say goodbye to him. He hated to see them in so much pain, but knew it could not be avoided without revealing his secret.

At the end of the ceremony, Natalie wiped away the tears, not wanting to face her friends like that.

Don Schanke sniffled and wiped away a stray tear, not wanting anyone to see it. He knew life would be very different without Nick. He'd truly miss his friend.

Meanwhile, Natalie's friends approached to offer their condolences and see if she would be all right.

Natalie faced Reese for the first time since he had lost one of his best officers.

"Natalie, I'm so sorry. I know this isn't much, but I put Nick in for a medal of valor."

"Thank you."

"Are you gonna be okay?"

"Yeah. I just need some time," Natalie said trying to sound more cheerful and hopeful than she felt.

Sarah and Amy approached, taking turns embracing Natalie.

"Natalie, I'm so sorry. If there's anything we can do to help, just let us know," Sarah said. "Why don't you come spend some time with us."

"I'd love to but I can't. I have too much to do here. I hope you understand."

"I do. If you change your mind, or just need to talk, call me. Anytime."

"Thanks, Sarah."

"Natalie, I really liked him. You two belonged together."

"Thanks, Sarah."

"What mom said goes for me too. I'll listen anytime you need someone to talk to. I do hope you'll come visit us sometime. I miss you."

"Thank you. I might just do that."

Sarah and Amy headed back to their car, knowing that Natalie had to talk to other people.

Natalie knew she had to face Cohen and Commissioner Vetter. She did not mind talking to Cohen, but was not in the mood to face the Commissioner.

When the crowd thinned out Myra approached Natalie.

"We want you to come home with us. You need a good hot meal."

"I don't want to be any trouble."

"You won't be any trouble. We have to eat. I know you won't feel up to cooking, so why not let me do that for you?"

"I won't be very good company."

"No one expects you to be."

"Okay. I need to go home and grab a few things. I'll be over later."

As Nick flew away, a small sense of relief washed over him. Natalie would not be grieving alone.

Natalie headed home, trying to hold back the tears until she was in the elevator. As soon as she had shut the door the tears she had struggled to hold back earlier at the ceremony broke free. When the elevator stopped she opened the door and walked into the loft, letting the door slam shut behind her. She curled up on the couch and cried until there were no more tears to cry.

As she wiped her eyes and blew her nose she realized how alone she was and how empty the loft was. She headed upstairs to pack, knowing that if she did not show up at the Schankes' soon, they would become worried.

She decided to splash some cold water on her face before packing, but first she had to change out of the clothes she had on. She slipped into her favorite sweater and a pair of jeans, her sneakers completing the outfit. She entered the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face, not wanting her friends to see her puffy red eyes and red nose.

She threw a few changes of clothes, her pajamas and what she hoped was an ample supply of medication into her bag, zipped it up and headed for the door.

As she drove to the Schanke residence, her mind wandered back to when her coworkers learned of her disease. Most of her coworkers understood that she was no danger to them, or to her own work and did not treat her any differently, or at least tried not to. There was a handful that gave her a rough time for a while. She was grateful that no one tried to force them to deal with her before they were ready to, as it would have made things worse. Slowly, most of those few learned to believe that she was not a danger to them. A few still would not have anything to do with her and were scheduled so they had as little contact with her as possible. Natalie was glad that most of her coworkers did not turn against her. It hurt that any of them did, especially after her open discussion with everyone.

Before long, Natalie arrived at the Schanke residence and knocked on the front door, bag in hand.

Myra answered the door, having changed since the service. She hugged her friend and motioned for her to enter.

"Come on in. Make yourself at home. I'll be right back. Your room is the one next to Jenny's."

"Thanks. Remember, I don't want to be a bother."

"You're not, nor will you ever be. You're family, Nat." Myra showed Natalie she meant what she said with a big hug, which was returned by a grateful Nat.

Natalie walked upstairs and towards the only spare bedroom the three bedroom house had.

"Hi Jenny," Natalie said as she passed by the teen's room.

"Hi Natalie. I'm glad you're staying with us for a while."

Natalie's spirit brightened when she heard that. She remembered how much Jenny had tried to hide her uneasiness the other afternoon in the loft.

At dinner that night Natalie did not eat, she just pushed the food around on her plate. There was not much conversation, and no one tried to coax Natalie into talking if she did not feel like it.

"Natalie, you need to eat," Myra said concerned.

"I know. I don't have any appetite." Natalie knew that her body needed fuel to continue it's battle with her disease.

Natalie ate several bites before putting her fork down, earning a small grin of approval from Myra. Myra and Jenny cleared the dishes.

"Don, what are we going to do without him?" Natalie asked, sadly.

"We'll miss him a lot, but we have to go on."

"I know."

"I'll really miss his teasing. That's how I knew he cared," Don said.

Everyone headed into the family room to relax after dinner. Natalie sat off by herself and was quiet. Myra, Don and Jenny let her be. They too were a bit subdued as it had been a difficult afternoon.

About two hours later, Natalie said, "I think I'm going to try and get some sleep, if you don't mind."

"Not at all."

Jenny, Don and Myra all hugged Natalie, pleased to see their embraces returned.

"See you in the morning," Natalie said, trying to hide how brokenhearted she was.

It was obvious to Natalie's friends exactly how devastated she was by Nick's death. There was no light in her eyes. Her usual spunk was gone.

Natalie entered her room and shut the door. She washed her face, brushed her teeth and changed into Nick's black silk pajamas. She didn't care if anyone knew they were Nick's. She crawled into bed and turned out the light.

She tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Tears ran down her cheeks as her mind replayed scenes from their life together, starting with the night he proposed to her.

About a hour later she was fast asleep.

Two nights later, Natalie paid a visit to her support group. She saw the concern on their faces as she entered.

"We were worried because you hadn't been here in a while. We heard about Nick," Mel said. "I'm so sorry."

"Thank you for the flowers. I'm sorry to worry everyone. Things have been so hectic I haven't had the chance to come here. I did miss you."

The other group members expressed their sympathy. Natalie was pleased to have friends like them.

"Did I miss anything important?"

"Not really. How are you?" Lisa asked, concerned.

"I'm surviving. Our friends always told us that we were meant for each other. I feel like I'm missing half of myself. I miss him so much."

Everyone gave Natalie an embrace, knowing it's what they would want in a similar situation. She returned every one, gaining strength from her friends.

"Thank you all. How is everyone here?"

"I'm about the same. Only a slight drop in my cell count."

No one had any massive changes, which Natalie was relieved to hear.

"How are you doing?" Mel asked.

"No changes so far. The drugs are working well. I feel good, physically," Natalie said.

Three nights later, Don was settling down to watch his favorite show. He saw Natalie walk by.

"Hey, Nat. I could use some company. How about it?" He knew that angle often worked best, and not just on Natalie.

"I don't feel like it right now. Sorry."

"Come on. Don't make me watch Jeannie all alone."

"Don, please."

"I'll share my secret chocolate stash. But, you have to promise not to tell Myra."

"Dark chocolate?"

"There is some dark and some milk." Don hoped his trick helped. He knew that sometimes laughter and chocolate were the best medicine for grief and depression. It wasn't a cure, but sometimes getting your mind off the problem for a while helped.

"Oh okay." Natalie reluctantly gave in, knowing what her friend was trying to do. Maybe it would help.

Natalie settled herself in the recliner next to Don. He passed her the dark chocolate.

Before Natalie knew it she giggled at the antics, then laughed.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

The two of them sat there and watched another episode.

After a week with the Schankes, Natalie knew it was time for her to try to spend a night in her loft.

After breakfast, Natalie packed her bag and dropped it by the door. She saw Myra tidying up the family room.

"Thank you for all the hospitality and understanding. It helped more than you'll ever know."

Myra knew how much it had helped. She'd seen Natalie slowly start interacting with her, Don and Jenny a little more each time. Natalie had even laughed at I Dream of Jeannie the other night. She knew her friend had a lot of healing, grieving yet to do, but knew that she'd be fine, eventually.

"Remember, anytime you need company, you're more than welcome here. No calling ahead needed."

Natalie removed the Schanke house key from her pocket and handed it to Myra.

"No. Keep it. If you ever need it, feel free to use it."

"Thank you doesn't even begin to cover it," Natalie said as she hugged Myra.

"You look like you're going back to work."

"I am. It's time."

Myra saw more of the light back in Natalie's eyes, as well as the spunk reemerging.

Natalie entered the morgue knowing she had to get on with her life and the longer she waited the harder it would become.

"Natalie, are you sure you're ready to come back?" Grace asked concerned. She knew her friend had a habit of rushing back to work too soon.

"Yes. I need to be around my friends, and I need to get back to work. I have to do something before I lose my mind." Natalie hoped her words and small grin were convincing.

"Okay." Grace knew she could not change her friend's mind. Maybe having something else to focus on will help. She was concerned that being around death all night might have a negative impact, and hoped not.

That morning Natalie entered her loft, her suitcase in hand. She shuddered, feeling how big and empty the loft was now. Glad that it wasn't as barren as it had been before their marriage. She knew that if it had been that way she never could've returned as it would've been too gloomy.

She nuked herself dinner, stuck their favorite movie into the VCR, turned the TV and made herself comfortable. She still really missed him.

After the movie was over she turned everything off and headed off to bed, hoping for sweet dreams of him. She hoped he was doing all right in his new life. She slipped into his black silk pajamas and curled up in bed, holding onto the other king sized pillow as if it was a person.

She laid there thinking of him, missing him, and the tears started. She knew the first night back in the loft would be the hardest. After a while she fell asleep out of exhaustion and the tears stopped.

Each day and night became a little easier. She felt more of the good memories surrounding her, which helped ease the pain. When she saw the archeological artifacts he'd left behind she heard his voice in her head telling her the story behind each piece, causing her to smile. She sometimes wore one of the two shirts he'd left behind to make her feel closer to him.

Myra made sure that Natalie continued to eat properly, even if she had to take the food to the morgue. Myra quickly discovered that she hated being in the room, especially if she entered while Natalie had her hands in someone.

Myra could tell how much Natalie appreciated the gesture. She knew it was probably the only reason Natalie ate, or ate more than fast food.

Natalie was determined to get on with her life, knowing it was what Nick wanted, and what she needed to do to stay sane. As a part of this she continued her weekly rock climbing sessions with Myra at least once a week, twice when they had the time.

The only sessions they had missed were when Natalie had been sick with pneumonia and the two weeks afterwards. They loved the new wall their gym had because it tilted in various directions and moved while they climbed making the climb even more challenging. She and Myra loved the extra challenges it provided.

It helped Natalie release her frustrations and helped her stay in shape. The concentration required gave her a nice mental release from all the stress in her life.

Natalie caught a glimpse of the calendar as she dressed for work, noticing that three months had passed. She would have known this date without looking at the calendar. She knew it because of the depression that settled in every year on this date, the anniversary of when she had been raped ten years ago. The depression was heavier this year because she was alone. She knew her friends would be there for her and was grateful for that fact, but she needed Nick.

When Natalie heard the phone ring she picked up the receiver, not really in the mood to talk to anyone.

"Hello?"

"This is Dr. Banks office. We've had a cancellation for today and was wondering if you would like an earlier appointment?"

Natalie thought about it for a moment before responding. "What time?"

"Noon."

"I'll take it." Natalie was glad to get her doctor's appointment over with even sooner. It would fit in perfectly to her lunch break.

At five of twelve, Natalie was filling out the standard paperwork while waiting to be seen by Dr. Banks. She dreaded every appointment, fearing the news that the disease had progressed. It was harder this time, it being the anniversary of the rape, her first one without Nick.

The nurse stuck her head out the door, "Natalie, your turn."

Natalie walked into the hallway and down it to the examination room.

"Dr. Banks will be with you shortly."

Natalie knew the routine. She reluctantly changed into the paper thin gown that was open in the back and sat on the exam table. Her legs swung back and forth betraying her nervousness.

Becky entered, smiled, slipped into latex gloves, picked up a needle, unwrapped it and cleaned a spot on Natalie's arm. Natalie looked a bit nervous. She still did not like needles. In fact, she detested them even more now. She flinched as the needle punctured her skin. She could feel it inside her.

"Natalie, how are you doing?"

"It's tough, but I'm doing okay. I miss his support," Natalie said, a little sad. "Thanks for the flowers."

"Nick seemed like a nice guy. One of the few out there."

"He was great. Sure he had his little quirks, but who doesn't?" Natalie responded.

Becky drew four large tubes of blood for testing. Natalie always dreaded this, fearing that the results might come back showing that the disease had progressed, and that the protease inhibitors would no longer be effective.

Becky removed the needle and had Natalie hold a small gauze pad there to stop the bleeding. It quickly stopped and Becky covered the spot with a small bandage.

Dr. Banks entered, shutting the door behind him. He knew this day was never easy for her and had wondered why she had chosen it for her examination.

"Hello, Natalie. How are you?"

"Okay. And you?"

"Pretty good. Do you have any medical complaints?"

"No," Natalie said. She liked him. He was very supportive.

"How are you doing emotionally?" He asked, having heard the bad news. He knew that emotions played an important part in a patient's well being. He had met Nick a few times and liked him.

"I'll survive."

"I was sorry to hear about Nick."

"The flowers were beautiful, thanks," Natalie said. "I'm alone now, which only makes it harder."

Thomas put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her. "What about your other friends?"

"They're still there for me, but it's not the same."

"I know. If you want to talk, I'll listen."

"You have been doing that since we met, haven't you? I really do appreciate that." Natalie said with a grin which was gone when she continued. "I miss him so much. How I want his arms around me now, telling me that everything will be okay." A single tear ran down her cheek. She brushed it away. "We were together for over eleven years and now...."

Thomas handed her a tissue, which she gladly took.

"I know how hard that is. I remember when my best friend died. We had grown up together. She was killed in a head on."

After a moment's silence Thomas decided to change the subject. He slipped into a pair of latex gloves and began the examination.

"I see the drugs are still working quite well. Any side effects or medical complaints?"

"Yes, they're still working well, and no problems or complaints to report."

"That's what I like to hear," Thomas said with a grin.

He continued with the thorough examination, except for the gynecological part. She still could not let a man conduct that exam.

"Well?" She asked, a little anxiously.

"From what I can see here you're in good health. I'll know for sure when the test results come back. I'll call you when I get them."

"Thanks. I appreciate how you always call me yourself."

A few hours later at the morgue, Natalie was seated in front of her computer, unable to concentrate on the screen in front of her.

Natalie heard something which snapped her back to the present.

"Natalie, are you okay?" Tracy asked, concerned, knowing what day it was, and that Nick wasn't there for her as he had always been.

"I'm fine. I was just thinking."

"About Nick?"

"Yeah," Natalie said, trying to sound a bit cheerful.

"I miss him too."

"What brings you here?" Natalie asked, changing the subject. She could see the concern in Tracy's eyes, pleased that her friends truly cared for her, even after learning she had AIDS.

"I came to see if you had the Heath report finished yet. How do you like being on the day shift? I love it. I never could quite get used to the nightshift."

"I like seeing the sunshine. It helps make it a little less depressing. But somehow it just doesn't seem normal to be working days. I guess I spent too many years working nights. I'll have the report for you in a few minutes. Do you mind waiting?"

"No. I heard I have to break in a new rookie. I remember how nervous I was. I feel sorry for whoever it is."

"I remember when I was new here. It is a horrible feeling. You want so much to fit in, but you don't and hope that will change over time," Natalie said, thinking back on Tracy's growth over the last few years. "I remember when you were the rookie. You've really grown and become quite a detective."

"Thanks. I owe most of it to Nick. He taught me so much. It seemed so natural to him. He was so knowledgeable and patient. He never treated me like I was stupid, even when I made dumb mistakes."

"He liked helping people."

"You didn't either. I know there were a few times I probably accidentally insulted you or questioned your competency without realizing it. You never got mad at me."

"Like I said, we were all new at one point. The important thing is you were not afraid to ask questions and to learn from your mistakes."

Natalie finished the report and handed it to Tracy.

"I'll drop by later if you like," Tracy said.

"I'm leaving early tonight. Maybe some other night." Natalie knew she did not want company tonight. She wanted to be alone. She hoped Nick would remember the significance of today's date and call. She *needed* him to call.

Tracy saw that Natalie was once again lost in thought and left without disturbing her. A small sad grin crossed Tracy's face as she was reminded of Nick and how he used to 'space out' at any time and any place.

Natalie thought about the real reason she had switched to days. It had been too painful working nights and expecting Nick to walk through her office door, knowing he would not. She had hoped that the day shift would help her forget, but it didn't. At first she had trouble readjusting her biological clock. She had also found that she wasn't used to all that sunlight. She had worked the occasional day shift before but she had not spent as much time outside during the day as she had during most of the last two and a half months.

Natalie's coworkers who remembered the rape knew that this week would be hard for her, especially since it was the first anniversary of it without her husband. Those that had been around since then, knew how much those two meant to each other and how much he had helped her through that horrible ordeal. They understood any crankiness or if she seemed short tempered, and helped the others to understand it as well. They knew it would probably be much harder for her this year than in the past.

Natalie was home after her shift, seated on the couch, having changed out of her work clothes. The phone's ring startled her. She snatched up the receiver as soon as the first ring finished, hoping against hope that it was Nick on the other end.

"Hello," Natalie said.

"Hi. I thought you might need someone to talk to," Nick's warm voice said, knowing it was once again the anniversary of the rape.

"Hi. Thanks for remembering."

"How could I forget?"

"How's your new life?" Natalie asked, knowing they'd both be in trouble if the conversation lingered too long on their feelings. She hoped her question led them to safer ground.

"Pretty good. I'm teaching history at a local college. It's not a very big school but they have a large night school population... of mostly mortals." His grin came through in his voice. He knew and understood why Nat had changed the subject.

"You should be an excellent teacher. You're very good with people. Besides, you don't have to rely on books for your information," she said, teasingly. She remembered how much he loved his last job as a professor.

"That is true. But I only know about what I witnessed. My students seem to appreciate my stories, even if they don't know I saw them first hand. They say it makes learning fun. Some of them even do more research on the various subjects we talk about. It makes me feel like I'm making a difference. A few of the other professors are impressed by my students' enthusiasm for history and for learning." He paused, "I miss you terribly."

"I miss you terribly, too." She sighed, knowing they were once again straying into emotional grounds that neither of them should go to. She changed the subject. "I'm still giving speeches to students. I still enjoy telling them about being a forensic pathologist and watching a face or two light up with interest. I usually have to answer an AIDS question or two, but I don't mind. I'd rather they hear accurate information from me than learn inaccurate info from their friends. I'm still volunteering at the Ped AIDS wing. By the way, I saw Tracy today. She also misses you. She credits you with making her a fine detective. She's doing well and breaking in a new rookie. Grace is doing fine as well and still misses you, too. The Schankes' are fine and miss you as well."

"I'm glad they remember me. Have you seen Dr. Banks lately?" He knew she would have her monthly exam sometime soon.

"Yes, earlier today. They called about an earlier appointment due to a cancellation and I took it. Dr. Banks said that outside of the virus being present, I seem to be healthy. We'll know for sure when the test results come back. You'd think I'd be used to it by now."

"I'm glad you're doing well. I think there are some things you never get used to." Nick knew he still wasn't used to the idea that she was going to die well before her time.

"The drugs are still working. I still feel good." She knew he'd want to know.

"I'm glad." He hoped they continued to work for a long time.

"Have you been a good boy?"

"Yes, I have. How's the research going?"

"Slowly. I am trying something and will hopefully have some results for you soon. I will need another sample in about a week. The other research isn't going as well."

"I'm glad the work on my cure is going well, but am sorry to hear that the work on yours isn't." He knew how important both projects were to her. "I want you to concentrate on getting yourself well. Don't worry about me. Okay?"

"Nick, I made you a promise and I have every intention of keeping it."

"Natalie, you're what matters to me. I want you to take care of yourself. Devote your time to the search for your cure."

She detected the concern in his voice. "No. I have a better chance of finding your cure than mine."

"Okay." He knew he couldn't change her mind. He also remembered what happened the last time he tried to insist she give up trying to find his cure. He had nearly lost her that time and did not want to take that risk again.

"I'll send the sample in a few days. I hate to cut this short but I took a big risk calling you," He said.

"I know. I don't want you getting in trouble because of me."

"I love you."

"I love you, too," Natalie said.

They both hung up, feeling happy but also sad, knowing that there was so much they really wanted to say to each other, but couldn't. Each greatly enjoyed hearing the other's voice even though it reminded them that they couldn't see each other again until she found his cure. And then for how long before the disease reared its ugly head and took her from him?

Natalie climbed into bed when she tired and was asleep almost instantly. A while later, she began tossing and turning.

******

Natalie approached her door as she did everyday, when she suddenly felt a presence behind her. Before she could turn around two powerful arms had encased her. Fear rose up inside her as her arms were pinned to her sides and her mouth was covered. She could feel his hot breath on her ear as a man's voice was loud enough for her alone to hear.

"I want us to go into your apartment very quietly. I will not hesitate to break your neck if you give me any trouble," he whispered into her ear, the threat coming through clearly.

Natalie nodded, pushing down her fear. She had no intention of letting him know he frightened her, refusing to give him that satisfaction. Her medical training and common sense told her that with the hold he had on her, he could easily break her neck. She had no intention of allowing that to happen. She unlocked her door and entered, still in his overwhelming grip.

Once inside he quickly locked and chained her door one-handedly. She felt trapped, doomed, but refused to give in to those feelings or her steadily increasing fear. If she did she probably would not survive whatever was in store for her.

"If you scream, you die. Understand?"

He felt her nod and released her, stepping back to take a look at his prize.

She turned around and observed that he was about six inches taller than she was, dark-haired, and was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. He smelled of cigarette smoke and had a haunted dead look in his eyes.

He circled her, taking a full measuring look at her, and smiled, pleased with himself for choosing so well. Her apparent lack of fear amused him.

"You are beautiful. Intelligent too, I'll bet. Let me guess, lawyer."

Natalie knew that her best chance for survival with minimal injures was to treat him as she treated vampires. She would show him no fear or weakness. She said nothing.

"Come on. Talk to me," the man said, with false politeness.

"IÕm not a lawyer," Natalie said, noticing the dangerous look in his eyes. Her fear continued to grow, but she refused to let it show. Thoughts of all the things he could do to her ran through her mind, chilling her to the bone, and were quickly brushed aside as she focused on the threat before her.

"A pretty voice, too. Professor? Nope, not the type. Um. Why donÕt you tell me?"

"IÕm a Medical Examiner," Natalie said, her mind working on a way out.

Natalie felt his hands grab hold of her arms. He pulled her close while tugging her suit jacket off. She felt it slide off her shoulders and down her arms. A new wave of fear crashed though her as she fully realized what was in store for her. Any hope of a robbery or her just being beaten up was dashed by his next move.

********

Her sleep grew more restless as she remembered more of that horrendous night.

********

Revulsion washed over her as he crudely ran his hands down her body, checking out her curves. She was careful to keep her face neutral as she did not want to anger him.

She felt him grab a large handful of her curly brown hair and use it to hold her head in position. He pressed his lips roughly against hers in a desperately hungry but passionless kiss.

She attempted to pull away, but could not. She felt his free hand roving across her breasts.

She felt as if she were going to throw up as he ripped her shirt open and ran his hand across her breast, caressing the lace bra and the exposed flesh.

Her mind was torn between the desire to fight, even if she got hurt badly, and her reason which told her not to struggle so she would not get hurt.

She slugged him in the stomach as hard as she could, thus solving the mental dilemma. She was a fighter and could do nothing else when faced with trouble. He was startled enough to release her. She wasted no time in rushing towards the door. She had the lock opened and was reaching for the chain when she felt his arm close around her, spinning her around and slamming her into the door. The lock was relocked.

"So you want to play rough, huh. I like it that way."

"No," she said, refusing to cower before him.

"Then behave yourself," he said as he slapped her hard across the face.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she felt the sting from his hand, but she pushed them back. She would not allow him to see her pain. To show any emotions would only egg him on. She tried to shut down all her emotions, to detach herself from the situation.

"Stop it," she protested firmly, knowing it would be ignored.

She felt his hand caress the side of her face before she felt herself pushed to the floor. Before she could move she felt a heavy weight upon her abdomen and thighs. The way he straddled her pinned her legs to the floor.

She saw him lowering his head for another kiss and struggled against it. She felt the sting of his hand as he slapped her again and roughly grabbed a handful of her hair. He held her head still until he planted his lips firmly on hers for another deep, hungry, desperate, passionless kiss.

She wanted to get him off guard so she gently bit his lip and saw him relax a little. He had liked it. She bit his lip really hard at the same time she drew her nails across his cheek leaving a serious set of scratches behind.

"You bitch!" He yelled as he punched her in the ribs, fully employing the power in his solidly muscled arms. He followed that up with another slap across her face which snapped her head sideways to impact solidly against the floor.

Natalie felt the first wave of nausea and intense pain as his fist slammed into her ribs. A single tear ran down her cheek. Her cheek stung from the most recent impact and was red. She felt blood dripping from her nose onto her upper lip.

********

Natalie's mind and body were at war, leaving her unable to awaken and leave the nightmare where it belonged. She started to thrash about in the bed, as if to subconsciously fight off her attacker.

*********

She felt him rip open her bra, exposing her breasts. She fought back the revulsion as he roughly fondled her breasts with his hands. She felt sick as he explored her breasts with his mouth. A shudder went through her body as his tongue examined the surface of each breast. She had to fight back the next wave of nausea and revulsion as he licked his way down her body from the valley between her breasts down onto her abdomen and toward her pubic region.

He unzipped his pants before pulling down her underwear.

She felt him painfully enter her and struggled not to throw up on him, knowing it would only lead to a severe beating and most likely a fatal one. She tried to disconnect her mind from her body, but could not. She could no longer hold back the flood of tears. They freely flowed down her cheeks. Where was Nick when she needed him, flashed through her mind.

After what seemed like an eternity Natalie felt the rapist pull himself from inside her and was terrified of what would happen next.

The rapist looked at her face and saw the tears. "Stop it!"

Natalie tried but the tears would not cease. She saw the anger in his eyes and felt a stronger pain in her ribs as his boot made contact very close to where he had punched her. She refused to cry out even though her side felt as if it was on fire. She could not ever remember hurting this much.

"Get up!" He demanded.

Natalie tried to but her body would not respond. She felt the pain as he grabbed her hard by both the hair and the arm and roughly jerked her to her feet. She felt as if she were about to pass out as a wave of dizziness swept over her along with an intense wave of nausea. He threw her across the room where she landed just right to hit her head on the corner of the coffee table. The pain of that impact was the last thing she felt as the world went black.

********

She bolted upright, shaking, breathing hard and soaked, this time from the nightmare rather than her disease. Tears began to stream down her face as Nick wasn't there to calm her this time.

She knew she needed to talk to someone that had been there as she went through hell and back, but didn't want to wake Grace.

Reluctantly, she dialed Grace's phone number and waited for her friend to pick up.

"Hello?" Grace's sleepy voice muttered.

"Grace...." Natalie's voice held her fear and tears.

"Natalie, honey, what's wrong?" Grace asked concerned.

"I had a VERY bad nightmare."

"How long has it been since your last one? Do you want me to come over?" She remembered that the day before had been the anniversary of the rape. That mixed with Nick's death, and her current condition was the explanation for the nightmare.

"It's been several years. Probably about the time I learned I was HIV positive." Natalie wanted her friend's company, but felt guilty dragging her across town.

"I'll be there shortly. Will you be okay?" Grace heard the panic in her friend's voice and grew concerned. She hadn't heard Natalie so upset and scared since the weeks following the rape.

"Yeah." Natalie didn't sound too convincing.

Natalie hung up the phone and just sat there, leaning against the headboard, her knees drawn up against her chest. Tears continued to stream down her face.

About twenty minutes later Grace buzzed and was let in by Natalie. Grace saw the few remaining tears as they trickled down Nat's cheeks and enveloped her friend in a big bear hug, and felt her friend trembling. Natalie returned the embrace, feeling all the fear drain from her. Grace felt her friend stop shaking.

"Thanks for coming. I didn't want to drag you across town," Natalie said, both pleased Grace was there, and feeling guilty that she was here and not home in her own bed asleep.

"I couldn't not come over, especially after hearing how upset you were," Grace said, worried. She changed the subject by holding up the grocery bag in her hand. "Comfort food."

"Perfect." Natalie smiled, nodded and headed for the kitchen.

Natalie unpacked, curious to see what goodies Grace had brought with her, thankful that Grace had done so as she didn't keep junk food around because it was too tempting. There was a package of chocolate cookies with lots of white creamy stuff in the middle, a container of rocky road ice cream, gourmet hot chocolate and a bag of mini marshmallows.

They brought their mugs of hot chocolate with little marshmallows, the cookies and a bowl of ice cream with them to the family room. Natalie knew that was the worst thing she could eat, but didn't care. She needed her comfort foods. She promised herself that she'd eat extra fruit tomorrow, and nothing sugary to make up for it.

They talked as they ate. Grace could see her friend slowly relaxing as she related her nightmare. Before long the food had been polished off and both women were sleepy.

Grace escorted Natalie into her bedroom and tucked her in.

"Would you like me to stay?"

"Please." Natalie started to get up, so that she could fix one of the guest rooms for Grace, but her friend wouldn't let her. "I was in the middle of changing the sheets, so you'll probably have to put some on the bed."

"Rest. I'll take care of it. Is everything still in the same place?"

Natalie sleepily nodded.

Grace sat on the end of the bed, until she was sure her friend was soundly asleep. Once she was sure, she headed for the closet where she grabbed a set of sheets, a blanket and pillow. Grace made up the bed in the middle room, so she'd be close to Natalie, and crawled under the covers. Within seconds she too was soundly asleep.

Natalie's sleep was slightly restless throughout the day. Nothing that woke either woman.

Later that afternoon, both women awoke.

"How about some breakfast? It's the least I can do after dragging you over here in the middle of the night." Natalie asked as she saw Grace enter the hallway about the same time she did.

"That would be nice. Want some help?" Grace asked. "It wasn't a problem. You needed to talk and I was happy to listen."

"Thank you. It's the first time Nick hasn't been here to comfort me. I guess it freaked me out a little more because of that."

"I would've been worried if it hadn't bothered you."

The two women entered the kitchen and set about to fix their breakfast. Grace started the coffee while Natalie started the bacon.

"Do you have any plans for tonight?" Grace.

"Not really. How about you?"

"Nope."

"Would you like to do something? Maybe go shopping, or to a movie," Natalie said as she removed the bacon from the frying pan.

"Sounds good," Grace said as she started the toast.

"How do you like your eggs?" Natalie asked.

"However you want to do them is fine."

"I'm feeling a bit creative, so, how about scrambled with some cream cheese mixed in?"

"Sounds good."

Before long the food was ready and both friends took their plates and coffee mugs to the table. They talked as they ate. A short debate ensued when Grace insisted on washing the sheets she had used, Grace winning out.

After the sheets were done and both ladies had showered and dressed, they headed out for an evening's relaxation.

Natalie was at work a few days later and had trouble concentrating on her paperwork. She found herself wishing for a body to autopsy, or a summons to the field, to take her mind off her troubles. She missed Nick more than she let on. She was growing more concerned that her checkups would give her bad news, especially since women tended to get sick sooner than men did.

She switched her attention to Nick's cure. At least she could concentrate on that. She had received Nick's latest blood sample the night before along with a short note from him. She examined a slide, not seeing any major changes, only a very minor one which she noted in her journal.

After recording her notes, she thought back to the note and was pleased by how he seemed to be enjoying his new life, noticing the unsaid fact that it would be a lot better if she was there to share it with him. She loved his hopefulness that her research would soon yield the cure, or at least the key to it, and hoped she'd find it within her lifetime.

She missed seeing Grace's face and her cheeriness around the office. Other than Nick, Grace was the person she missed most since her switch to day shifts. At least they did see each other socially a few times a week.

At lunch time she still took nice, long walks and generally had a healthy, well balanced lunch in a real restaurant, instead of eating something from the vending machine as she hunched over her paperwork or computer screen. If she didn't, either Grace or Myra would make sure she ate properly. Sometimes, though, work forced her to bring her lunch back with her, so she could finish her work before she got too far behind.

Most of the time she left when her shift was over. Once in a while she stayed late to finish up important paperwork or when duty called out in the field. Even preparations for speaking to students could keep her late. So could losing herself in her research. She felt a little guilty cutting back from her workaholic habits, but knew her health was more important.

Natalie also had dinners with friends, parties and showers to attend from time to time. Myra made sure Natalie joined her family for dinner at least once a week, sometimes two or three times a week. Grace made sure she spent time with Natalie at least once a week. Natalie continued to fix herself a healthy dinner instead of popping a frozen dinner into the microwave and ate it in front of the television as she watched a movie.

Natalie spent at least one afternoon a week at the pediatric AIDS wing, often two, knowing how much the kids looked forward to her visits. She enjoyed the warm fuzzy feelings it gave her each time she went. It helped her keep things in perspective. It also gave her a chance to chat with Scott for a few minutes. From the moment she'd met him in med school, she knew he'd be a fantastic doctor. One who truly cared about his small patients as people, not just the latest patient in his care. He knew how important family involvement was in the child's care and made sure to include them in every way possible.

Natalie looked at the wall of the living room, smiling at the painting hanging there. It was one of Nick's sun paintings. It had been hung where she could see it from the living room and kitchen. Right next to it was the sketch of her and Nick that Katie had done for them.

********

Nick and Natalie had been packing up his paintings when she saw a particular sun painting.

"Can I have this one? I really like it." She remembered telling him she liked it when she'd first seen it.

"Sure." Nick was a little surprised, but definitely pleased.

He helped her decide where to hang it. Not to mention holding it while she hammered in the nail and then hung it on the nail, making sure it was level and stable.

********

Natalie was in the park during lunch rollerblading and saw Tracy. Tracy was a little surprised to see her friend there, but wasn't too surprised to see her wearing all the proper equipment as in helmet, elbow, wrist and knee pads.

"Natalie, I didn't know you were into this."

"I thought I'd vary my usual routine a bit. I haven't done this for quite a while."

"I know that feeling. How about lunch after this?" Tracy replied.

"Okay. Where? No fast food, please."

"No problem. How about Mario's?"

"Sounds good," Natalie said.

"What's your usual routine?" Tracy asked curiously. She couldn't picture Natalie doing aerobics or jogging.

"Rock climbing," Natalie loved the stunned look on Tracy's face. "Myra Schanke hooked me on it. We do it at the gym at least once a week."

"Have you ever climbed outside of the gym?"

"We've thought about it, but never had the time, or money to do it for real. That takes months of planning."

"What level are you two at?"

"We're at the advanced level. The club has this wall that moves and tilts as you climb to make it more difficult. It's great."

"Maybe I'll try that sometime."

"It's harder than you think. But, anytime you want to give it a shot, let me know. I'll see that you're properly introduced to both my teacher and the sport."

"Thanks."

Natalie liked the way Tracy had matured. The instincts Nick had sensed in her had developed. She had grown into a good detective and a pretty nice person. One of the biggest changes was that Tracy was now confident in herself and her abilities. Natalie had grown to like Tracy over the years and even considered her a friend. It helped to have a friend who tended to work the same hours she did. Another she could talk to about anything but vampires.

"How're the folks?" Natalie asked.

"They're still going at it like cats and dogs. I wonder if they'll continue that way until one dies. Then I'll probably wind up listening to the survivor complaining about the same old stuff," Tracy said, having learned to tune out the problem. "Why don't you come over for dinner sometime?"

"Some night I will." Natalie smiled.

"How about Friday night?" Tracy responded.

"Sure, why not," Natalie said after a quick mental check to make sure she wasn't supposed to be elsewhere then.

Natalie noticed Vachon was keeping an eye on her, always being discreet, but if he hadn't wanted her to know, she wouldn't have known. He had been doing so ever since Nick left causing Natalie to wonder if he was doing it on his own or if Nick had asked him to.

Natalie's thoughts drifted to the conversations she and Vachon had had over the last couple of years. She had gotten to know him better, and found him interesting. She easily understood what Tracy saw in him. He was not like Nick, Janette or LaCroix. He seemed more at ease with his vampirism and even seemed to enjoy it in a way that none of the others she had known did.

Natalie found herself wondering if Nick had reunited with Janette.

The next morning Natalie caught a glimpse of the date and realized it was once again her birthday. She had never felt so alone before in her life as she did at that moment. It wasn't the first, nor would it be the last time she would be alone on her birthday, but this was the first one in over twelve years without Nick. She wondered how many more birthdays she would see and how many more before she was too sick to care. She also found herself a bit stunned when she realized how long she had been with him.

As she headed for the bathroom she started talking to herself, "Tonight I'm going to buy myself the nicest steak and the best chocolate dish I can find. Not to mention the funniest comedy." Her attempt to cheer herself up barely worked.

She took her medication, as she had done every morning for the last seven years, before stepping into the shower. She looked through her closet and picked out something a little different from what she usually wore. She again changed her mind about her outfit as she decided to take her bike to work for a change.

Before long she was dressed and heading out the door, helmet in hand. As she opened the door a package fell at her feet. She picked it up curiously and headed for the couch, closing the door behind her.

She saw no return address on the package but recognized the camouflaged handwriting. She knew he was too far away to have delivered it himself. She quickly opened the outer box and found both a card and an elegantly wrapped present inside. The fact that he had sent her a gift warmed her heart and melted away most of the depression. She was still sad, but she did not feel so alone now. She opened the card. The sweet and sentimental verse pulled at her heart.

The card read, 'Happy Birthday,' on the front and on the inside it said, 'Though distance may keep us apart, the love that is between us shall never fade. On this day you're especially in my thoughts. As much as I wish we could be together I know that in our hearts we are. Wishing you every happiness on this and every day.' It was signed, 'Love, Nick'. There was a p.s. that said, 'I miss you'.

I miss you, too.

She ripped the wrapping paper from the small box and discovered a black jewelry box. A tear ran down her cheek when she saw the beautiful pair of earrings inside. Each was a delicate gold heart containing a single small diamond in the center. Under the platform that held the earrings in place was a note which read 'To help you remember that you're never far from my heart. Love, Nick.' Several tears ran down her cheek which she quickly wiped away.

Natalie took off the earrings she had been wearing and put on Nick's gift. They matched perfectly with the heart necklace he had given her for her last birthday. She checked her makeup in the mirror before grabbing her helmet on the way out.

Tracy was waiting in Natalie's office for her friend to arrive, knowing she might need some cheering up.

"Happy Birthday, Natalie," Tracy said, as Natalie entered. Tracy handed her friend an envelope.

"Thanks, Trace," Natalie said as set down her helmet before opening the envelope. She pulled out a funny birthday card and smiled while reading it, moving aside the gift certificate. After she had read the card she examined the certificate, noting that it was from her favorite store.

"I didn't know what to get you."

"Thanks. This is just what I needed. Both the card and gift certificate. I needed a laugh."

"I thought you might need a funny card to cheer you up. How are you doing?"

"I'm okay. I miss him," Natalie said as her hand subconsciously went to her necklace.

"So do I. Those are beautiful earrings. Are they new?"

Natalie nodded. "Apparently Nick had ordered them several months ago. He must've arranged for them to be delivered on my birthday."

"They match perfectly."

"They do, don't they?"

"Are you doing anything tonight?"

"I was planning a nice quiet dinner."

"Would you like to go out, my treat?"

"Sure, why not," Natalie said, pleased not to be spending her birthday alone.

"I'll pick you up at the end of your shift. Okay?"

"Sounds good."

During the lunch hour Grace entered Natalie's office to take her out for a birthday lunch. Grace figured Natalie would need some cheering up since it was her first birthday without Nick.

"Those are nice earrings. They match your necklace beautifully. New?"

"Yes. Apparently Nick had ordered them several months ago, and had requested they be delivered on my birthday." Natalie fingered the heart hanging around her neck.

"How romantic," Grace said.

"Yeah, it is. He could be so romantic when he wanted to."

They enjoyed lunch at their favorite restaurant. Grace loved watching her friend turn bright red as all the waiters in the restaurant came over to sing to her. The large slice of chocolate fudge cake had a lit candle in it. Natalie made her wish and blew out the candle.

The rest of the afternoon was hectic, as the morning had been. Natalie couldn't believe she had to work late on her birthday. Why not? It fits perfectly with the rest of the day.

Several of the nightshift workers entered Natalie's office for an impromptu birthday party. Grace was in the lead holding the oversized chocolate chip cookie taking the place of a normal cake, a bunch of lit candles stuck into it. For the occasion Grace had armed the crowd with Serpentines.

Natalie quickly counted all the candles and realized that there were not quite as many candles as there should be.

"Happy birthday to you," the crowd began to sing. They added a humorous verse in an effort to cheer her up.

Natalie smiled and relaxed. As soon as they were finished singing she made her wish and blew out the candles.

"We were nice this year and didn't put a candle for every year. If we did the cake would've exploded," Grace teased.

"Hey, I'm not that old. Just wait until your birthday," Natalie said, returning the tease.

Natalie eagerly opened the gift that Grace handed her, knowing it was from the whole group. Inside was another waist pack and a twenty dollar gift certificate for Harrison Athletics.

"We figured you'd probably worn out the old one by now."

"I had. Thanks."

The giant cookie was cut up and served to everyone there. Each person took a piece of the cookie and headed back to their work. Grace disappeared a moment and returned with a gift wrapped box.

"Not another mug, I hope," Natalie teased.

"No. I think you have plenty of those," Grace said with a smile.

Natalie unwrapped her gift with childlike glee and then smiled as she pulled out a pair of black leather gloves.

"Thanks. The others were getting a little worn out." She tried them on and noticed that they were incredibly soft, almost like a second skin. "They feel great."

"I'm glad you like them," Grace said. "By the way, I decided that if I'd stuck a four and a zero on your cake, I'd be the next one on your table," Grace teased.

"Yup," Natalie said, a wicked twinkle in her eyes.

"Welcome to the big four-oh," Grace teased as she quickly retreated from the room.

Natalie chuckled, not really sure how she felt about hitting forty. She didn't feel like doing any heavy emotional soul searching while she ate her cookie slice so she let her mind wander to lighter things.

After she finished her snack, she settled down and opened the first folder on the pile in the corner of her desk.

Natalie found that she was able to get the crucial work done within two hours, and the rest would wait until morning.

Tracy stopped by the morgue to pick up the birthday girl. She and Natalie went to a local Italian restaurant where they talked over plates of pasta.

"This is nice. Thanks. Sorry it's so late, though."

"No problem. I didn't think you should have to be alone on your birthday."

Natalie smiled a bittersweet smile as she remembered her 28th birthday, the night she met Nick.

"What?" Tracy asked, curious.

"Did I ever tell you I met Nick on my birthday?"

"No. You didn't. How did you two meet?"

"He came by to pick up a file, had to wait a moment or two and we talked while waiting for it to print," Natalie lied. She wasn't ready to tell Tracy the whole truth.

"I guess it makes the day harder, because it reminds you of that."

"Yeah."

Natalie stopped by the Schanke residence on her way home from work.

Myra saw Natalie pull into the driveway and had the front door open for her as she approached.

"Happy Birthday!" Myra cheerfully said as she hugged her friend.

"Thank you," Natalie said with a smile as she returned the embrace.

Myra ushered Natalie into the family room where Don and Jenny were waiting for her.

Both of them hugged Natalie and wished her a happy birthday. They inquired about Natalie's necklace. Natalie told them the same story she'd told Grace. The three Schanke's thought it was a really sweet, romantic gift.

Natalie sat next to Jenny on the couch, and was soon handed her first present to open.

Natalie tore off the paper, a smile on her face. As she carefully opened the box she found a chocolate heart and a chocolate brain, both anatomically correct.

"Thanks, Jenny. I love it!"

Natalie's smile caused Jenny's to grow. Jenny was pleased Natalie liked her gift as much as she hoped she would.

"I see your sense of humor takes more after your mom," Natalie teased.

Don handed Natalie the next present, his present. Natalie unwrapped it, curious to see what he picked out. Natalie saw two movies, Maverick and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

"Two of my favorites. Than you!" She'd watched her copies so many times she'd nearly worn them out.

Myra handed Natalie her gift. Inside the package, Natalie found a new climbing harness.

"Thanks. This is perfect. I almost bought one last week, but work kept me too busy."

"I heard. I'm glad you like it," Myra said with a smile. "Mine was just about worn out and knew yours probably was too.

"Excuse me a moment," Myra said as she stood and headed for the kitchen.

A couple minutes later Myra came out of the kitchen with a chocolate frosted cake full of lit candles. Her friends sang 'Happy Birthday' to her, causing her to smile even bigger.

Natalie made a wish and blew out the candles, getting all twenty in one breath.

Myra set the cake on the coffee table before handing Natalie the knife. Natalie cut everyone a generous slice, saving the first one for herself.

They ate their cake and enjoyed each other's company.

A couple hours later Natalie was yawning and said thank you and goodnight to her friends before heading out.

A few days later, Natalie arrived home from her twelve hour shift exhausted. She grabbed her mail on the way to the elevator. As soon as she entered the loft, she kicked off her shoes, set down her purse, briefcase and black medical bag. She quickly flipped through the mail.

She saw a large envelope from the deBrabant Foundation and ripped it open. Inside was a small stack of paperwork containing the information she needed to know about her new research account. She quickly scanned the information, being too tired to read it all. Her eyes grew larger and her jaw dropped as she saw how much money Nick had given her - ten million dollars. He had set it up so that she would never have to pay taxes on the money. She could not believe it.

Natalie put that paperwork in a safe spot, not wanting anyone to find it and start questioning her or worse, investigate. She knew it was completely legit but would rather not have that can of worms opened.

She looked through the rest of her mail and found a typewritten envelope that somehow caught her attention. There was nothing noteworthy about it. She opened it, and found a type written note on Foundation stationary.

'Dear Natalie,

You should by now have the paperwork. The money has been deposited into the account. Checks for your use will be arriving within a day or so. Please use this money to cover all research costs, as well as any or all personal expenses you incur. I don't want you to worry about the little things... take care of yourself first, and the rest will follow. Your research is invaluable to so many people.

If you like, I have made an assistant available to you through the Foundation, someone trustworthy who will help you in whatever capacity you need. Simply call Meg at 555-1228, and she'll take care of any supplies, research equipment, or other requirements. I think you'll like her.

If you ever need anything let me know.

Sincerely,

Nicholas deBrabant.'

A tear rolled down her cheek as it again hit her how much she missed him. He had seen to it that she would be taken care of until they could be together again. She quickly wiped away the tear.

Natalie was glad Nick had not only set up their joint account after their marriage but arranged for all the bills to be paid automatically each month. It was nice not to have to worry if she'd paid her bills on time. The biggest relief was not having to worry about rent payments.

"Thank you, Nick," she said, knowing he couldn't hear her, but it made her feel better. What would my friends think if they knew about the ten million? Natalie wondered with a small grin. Quickly the grin turned to sadness as she knew the money was no substitute for Nick being here. She'd rather have him.

She wiped away a new tear before it could complete its journey down her cheek, before carefully filing away Nick's letter. She headed for the bedroom to change. While she was slipping out of her work clothes and into something more comfortable, her mind wandered.

********

Natalie was in her office for the first time after Nick left. It had taken her a week to be able to return to work. She knew he would want her to get on with her life. Besides, she was curious about the fact that two of the vampires she knew had been hit with bullets that were mostly composed of wood.

She compared the slugs she had pulled out of Vachon and Nick, seeing a few similarities, but enough differences to tell her that they were from two completely different weapons. And two completely different hunters. This thought sent shivers down her back. She remembered that Vachon had taken care of his hunter. That left Nick's and however many others that were out there somewhere. Liam O'Neil came to mind, but she discounted him as Nick's shooter because Nick had saved his life. The bullets she'd pulled from Nick had not been coated with either garlic or holy water.

"Who would know what they are? How would they know?" Natalie asked herself.

She looked at the slugs again, looking for anything she might've accidentally overlooked, but found nothing new.

"Why would one hunter coat his bullets and the other not?" She asked herself, before stumbling onto the answer. "Maybe Vachon's shooting was revenge and Nick's was a hunter doing his job." A chilling thought hit her. "What if Nick's was to force him to move on, not to kill him?"

Natalie grabbed her jacket and stormed out of the morgue. "I should stake that SOB," she muttered under her breath.

Before long Natalie entered the Raven. She pushed her way through the crowd and headed straight for LaCroix, who had just finished his nightly broadcast.

"Dr. Lambert, what brings you here?" LaCroix asked.

"Were you behind Nick's shooting?" Natalie asked, her anger barely hidden behind the calm exterior she projected.

"Why would I shoot my son, and nearly kill him?"

"To force him to move on. To force him to leave me behind. To leave this life he enjoyed."

"You misunderstand me. I enjoy having my children near me. I would not harm my son as you suggest I might have."

Natalie realized that she was getting absolutely nowhere and changed the subject. "In that case, there is a hunter out there. Have there been any other vampire shootings?"

"That is no concern of yours, Doctor."

"So, there have been." Natalie noticed his slight hostility. She had seen that particular tone used when he didn't want to reveal information. "How many? Did they all survive?"

"As I've already said, it is of no concern to you."

********

Natalie felt a hand on her shoulder and jumped, startled.

"Natalie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you," Grace said, remembering how Nick used to zone out. "Oh boy were you lost out there somewhere."

"I was thinking about a few things. What do you need, Grace?"

"Would any of those things be Nick?"

"No. Just some other people I know."

"I thought you might want the Thompson results."

"Thanks."

Grace handed the forensic pathologist the file and went on about her duties.

Natalie gave the file the once over but found herself distracted. Her mind was drifting back to the hunter.

********

Natalie was conducting an experiment, hoping it would yield some usable results. She was curious why wooden stakes were so deadly to vampires. She had picked up some very finely ground sawdust on her way back to the lab.

She transferred a small sample of Nick's blood to a small beaker, to which she added a pinch of sawdust. She smeared a tiny amount onto a slide and stuck it under her microscope.

She couldn't believe what she saw. The sawdust was actually attacking the blood cells, causing the cell membranes to rupture. As she examined the slide she documented that even the cells that had no direct contact with the sawdust were rupturing as well. Moments later every vampiric blood cell was dead.

She remembered when Nick had staked Spark on her bed. Now she knew why Spark had been in agony as he died.

She heard someone enter and looked up, startled to see LaCroix standing just inside the doorway. He looked as imposing as ever.

Natalie gave him the once-over and detected that there was something wrong with him.

"LaCroix, what are you doing here?"

"I find that I am in need of your services, doctor." It looked as if it pained him to ask her for help.

"Someone stake you?" She wisecracked.

"Close, doctor." LaCroix said, pain beginning to show on his face.

"I thought you said the hunter was none of my concern?"

"If you're not going to help me..." LaCroix suddenly looked quite pale, even for a vampire.

Natalie rushed over to him, reaching him just in time to prevent him from crashing into the floor.

"I can't get you on the table all by myself, and I don't think it would be a good idea to summon help." Natalie said as she dragged the ancient vampire to the autopsy table.

"I suppose this is where Nicholas laid during your ridiculous treatments."

"Yes."

She helped him onto the table and began to unbutton his shirt. Once she had it open she could see one bullet wound in his shoulder and one that was most likely lodged in his lung.

She headed back for her desk and made a quick phone call.

"Vachon."

"Vachon, it's Natalie. I need you to bring several bottles over to my office. Don't let them see you enter."

"I'll be right there. I need to make a quick stop at the Raven first."

Natalie hung up and headed back for her patient. She examined the wounds much more carefully.

"Do you want to tell me how you were shot?"

"Not particularly." He saw her growing annoyance and decided it might be in his best interest to talk. "I was out for a walk when I felt a sudden stinging in my shoulder, then one in my chest. I couldn't see who was responsible."

"Do you still think the hunter is none of my concern?"

"It may very well be your concern. None of us have the necessary skills to remove bullets lodged around the heart."

"I'm not a cardiac surgeon, but I'll do my best. So far none of my patients, dead or undead have complained." She grinned.

He could tell that a part of her was enjoying seeing him injured and in pain, needing her help to recover.

Vachon arrived wooden crate in hand, surprised to learn who the patient was.

"Vachon, warn the others that there is a hunter out there. Find out what they know." LaCroix ordered.

"Where do you want this?" Vachon asked.

"How about right behind the desk." She wanted it so it was out of immediate sight, but was close enough to get to.

"Natalie, I'll stick around if you'd like," Vachon offered as he set down the crate and took a seat in her chair.

"Thanks. I know how cranky you guys can get when injured." She tried to sound lighthearted.

Natalie picked up her scalpel and prepared to make the incision over the lung wound. "This might hurt. I still haven't figured out what does and doesn't cause you guys pain. I need you to lay very still." With that warning she cut into his chest. She removed the bullet from his lung, after making sure it would come out relatively intact, grateful that they did not bleed like mortals did.

She slipped on her magnifying goggles and examined the wound for any wooden fragments left behind. When she did not see any fragments, she pushed the goggles up and out of the way before she cleaned out the wound, just to be on the safe side.

She moved onto the one in his shoulder. Once again she made an incision over the entry site and extracted the slug. She pulled the magnifying goggles back into place and examined the wound, making sure no fragments had broken off during impact and been missed due to their small size. She cleaned out the wound before it could heal.

"All done."

LaCroix was impressed with her skill. She had been very thorough and a lot more gentle than he thought she might be.

Vachon handed her one of the green wine bottles from the case and she handed it to LaCroix. LaCroix quickly drained the bottle. His two wounds closed, almost instantly.

Natalie still found the whole process amazing, even after the number of times she'd seen them heal themselves.

"Doctor, I will keep you informed on the hunter. I hope you will inform me of any other victims that find their way here."

"I will. I would prefer if they went to you, rather than here. It might raise a few unwanted questions if people show up here to be treated by me. I don't have the necessary supplies to take care of a hungry, injured vampire." Natalie said as LaCroix drank a second bottle.

"That is easy enough to do." LaCroix stated. "Thank you for taking care of my little problem."

"You're welcome." She was a little surprised that he had thanked her.

LaCroix and Vachon left, taking the crate with them.

Natalie examined the slugs from LaCroix under the microscope, noting that they matched the ones from Nick's shooting.

Could someone be after both of them? Is Nick still in danger? flashed through her mind. She hoped Nick would be safe.

**********

At the Schanke residence, Jenny grabbed the mail on her way in, and handed it to her mom. Myra flipped through it sorting it out. She handed Jenny a large envelope addressed to the entire family.

"Why don't you open that one," Myra said.

Jenny opened it and pulled out two more envelopes. She handed her mom the one labeled "Don and Myra" and kept the one labeled "Jenny" for herself.

Both ladies opened their envelopes. Upon reading the documents, both had an equally large stunned reaction on their faces.

"You and dad don't have to worry about paying for college. According to this, the tuition, books, room and board, and any other expenses will be paid for by the deBrabant Foundation. It says that it will cover all schooling, not just a four year degree."

"I think we need to check into this before anyone gets too excited," Myra said suspicious that it might be some sort of scam.

Myra called Natalie.

"Natalie, hi. Sorry to disturb you, but have you ever heard of the deBrabant Foundation?"

"Hi, Myra. Yes, I have. They're a very reputable place. They provide scholarships, and other financial help to those they find deserving. Why?"

"It seems they've taken in interest in us. Jenny received an all expense paid college education, for as high of a degree as she wants to go."

"That's terrific." Natalie happily said, knowing that Nick was behind it all, and wishing she could tell Myra.

"They also paid off our mortgage and all our credit cards. Is there some catch?" Myra asked, hating to sound suspicious. "When Don retires, there will be a monthly payment to make sure we can live comfortably."

"No, there's no catch. I would guess they found Don's work, and your volunteer work, worthy of recognition." Natalie hoped they bought that shaky excuse. She had been curious to see what Nick would do for them. "I guess someone put in a very good word or two."

"Natalie?"

"Don't look at me. I didn't have anything to do with it."

"This is too weird."

"Maybe someone he helped out wanted to thank you, but wanted to remain anonymous. I would be thrilled," Natalie said. "Just so you don't feel so alone, I had something similar happen."

"I am grateful. Not having to worry about such things will be a great help. What did you get?"

"My rent's been paid, and so have all my credit card bills. When I can no longer work, I'll start receiving income to make sure I can live as I'm used to," Natalie said. not to mention the ten million in financing for both research projects.

Shortly Don arrived home, and noticed his two loved ones reading over a stack of papers.

"What's up? Did we win the lottery or something?" He joked.

"Something like that. The deBrabant Foundation has... here... look for yourself," Myra said as she handed him the two cover letters.

He was stunned as he read them. He had remembered the Foundation from hearing it mentioned a few years back, during a case. He had made a few inquiries and had been pleased when all checked it. It had a solid reputation.

"Since I hadn't heard of it, I called Natalie to see if she knew anything." Myra related her conversation with Natalie to her husband.

"This is terrific. I might be able to retire in a few years, after all."

"We should thank the Foundation," Myra said.

Natalie had just arrived home from a hard day at the morgue. She wasn't sure if she wanted to keep the day shift or go back to the night shift. Dayshift was a nice change, but it was much busier and she didn't have as much time to work on her research, which wouldn't bother her as much if she didn't have AIDS.

She set down her keys and purse, kicked off her shoes and hung up her jacket before heading for the kitchen for a quick dinner.

No sooner had she popped her dinner into the microwave then the phone rang.

"Hello."

"Dr. Natalie Lambert?"

"Yes. Who's this?"

"My name's Chris Peterson. I'm with family services and need your help."

Natalie dreaded that when children were involved.

"Please, tell me you're not calling about a dead child."

"No. They're all very much alive." Chris heard Natalie's large sigh of relief. "I have a six year old who needs foster placement. The shelters and foster homes are either full or won't take her."

"I've never been a foster parent before."

"I know. Your name was given to me by a friend. Will you help?"

"Why won't the shelters take her?" Natalie asked, hoping that the answer wasn't that the child had AIDS. Or that it wasn't any sort of serious disability or a serious behavior problem.

"She has AIDS. We thought with your medical background and having the disease yourself that you might take her while we make other arrangements."

Natalie wasn't sure what to do. She knew that her life needed that spark that had been missing since Nick left but she wasn't sure she could handle watching the little girl slowly die. On the other hand, she could help the little girl by showing her that you can still enjoy life even though you have AIDS.

"You still there?" Natalie asked.

"Yes. I was about to ask you the same question."

"I'll take her. Can I see her medical records?"

"They'll be waiting for you at Toronto General. Her name is Megan."

"I'll be there in about 20 minutes," Natalie said.

"Thank you."

They hung up. Natalie wolfed down her dinner and quickly changed into a sweater and jeans. She didn't want Megan to think she was another social worker just because she was in a suit.

Natalie arrived at Toronto General right on time, entered the main lobby where she headed straight for the elevator.

She pushed the button for the pediatric floor and before long the doors opened. From there she knew which way to the pediatric AIDS wing. As soon as she entered several children approached happy to see her again.

She hugged all the little bodies that wanted a hug.

"I'm sorry but I don't have time to play. I'm here to see Megan." When Natalie saw their sad little faces she knew she had to do something. "Okay, one story." She saw their faces brighten as they all sat down on the floor around her. She joined them and read the first book handed to her.

The social worker, Chris, thought she heard the name Natalie and stepped out of Megan's room to see what the commotion was. She saw Natalie reading to a group of children and smiled, knowing she had done the right thing.

Scott walked by and saw Natalie surrounded by the children and knew he had done the right thing in recommending that she be given custody of Megan.

Natalie finished the book and stood up to go see Megan.

"Natalie, will we see more of you later?" Amanda asked.

"I don't think so. Sorry, guys." She saw their sad little faces. "I will try to stop by again in a few days." She was pleased when that seemed to perk them up a bit.

Natalie headed for Chris, who was waiting by the nurse's station. Chris handed Natalie a thick folder.

"Here are all of Megan's records as promised."

"Thank you."

Natalie headed for a nearby chair to read Megan's records, wanting to know more about the little girl she was about to take into her life.

Megan lost her mom three years ago in a car accident, and her father accidentally infected her when he had turned around to check on her after the crash and their blood accidentally came in contact with each other's. Megan was diagnosed with AIDS two and a half years ago when a regular checkup showed a good sized drop in her white blood cell count along with the fact that she had lost a few pounds rather than gained them. Her father and her had come down with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia within days of each other. He was too sick to care for her when she became sick. He was currently hospitalized in another wing of Toronto General. It was his second serious illness and her first.

Natalie was relieved when she learned Megan's PCP had not been severe. She had been hospitalized both as a precaution and because she had nowhere else to go.

Natalie finished the last few pages in the file, closed it and headed back to Chris.

"Does she know her father's going to die?" Natalie asked, as she handed the file back to Chris, hoping she wouldn't have to break the bad news to Megan.

"Yes. They had a long talk about it when they both became sick. She knows she can't stay with him any longer because he's so sick." She could see Natalie's nervousness and asked, "would you like to meet her?"

"Yes."

Natalie and Chris entered Megan's room and found her stuffing a large teddy bear into her bag. Megan was a little thin for her age. She had shoulder length brown hair which had a mild waviness to it and big brown eyes.

"Megan, this is Natalie," Chris said.

"Hi." Both Megan and Natalie said at the same time.

"Chris said I'm going home with you."

"I'm looking forward to spending time with you," Natalie said cheerfully.

"Why do you want a kid that's dying?" Megan asked, a bit curious and unsure why anyone would want her.

"Because you need someone and so do I. I lost someone very special to me and thought that we could help each other out."

Megan looked at Natalie and thought about what she had said. "Did he die of AIDS?"

"No. He was a cop. He was killed while working."

"Do you have it?"

"Yes. But I'm healthy. I'll take good care of you." Natalie knew how scary it would be to find yourself going home with a stranger.

Megan stopped again to consider this new piece of information.

"Chris, did you call her because she has it?"

"Yes. I thought you might like to stay with someone who knows what it's like to have AIDS."

Megan thought about it. "I like you Natalie. Do you have room for me?"

"I have two spare bedrooms. You can have either one you like."

"Cool. Have you ever done this before?"

"No. But I think we'll do okay. We can figure it out together." Natalie smiled at Megan. She knew honesty was the best thing, in most cases. It was very hard to build trust on a foundation of half truths and lies. "You ready to go?"

"Yes." Megan was excited to see her new home, even if it might only be temporary. "Can we see my daddy first?"

"Sure."

Natalie took Megan's bag and they headed for her father's room.

Megan knocked on the door before entering. "Daddy?"

She saw him watching TV and walked over to him, motioning for Natalie to enter.

"Hi, Pumpkin. How are you?"

"I'm okay. They're sending me home with Natalie," Megan said as she pointed to her new foster mom. "She seems really nice."

"That's good. Hi, Natalie. I'm Peter."

"Hi, Peter." Natalie handed the father one of her business cards. Natalie knew from looking at him that he probably didn't have much more time left. "Feel free to call whenever you want to talk to Megan."

"Thank you for taking her in," Peter said, sincerely relieved that his daughter would be well cared for.

"I'll wait outside and let you two have some time alone."

"Thank you," Peter said. He saw the door close as Natalie left and turned to his daughter. "Megan, I want you to remember that I love you."

"I love you too, daddy. Can I call you?"

"I'd love to hear from you."

"Can I come back and see you?"

"That's something you'll have to ask Natalie. I'd love to see you."

Megan gave her dad a big hug, which he happily returned.

"I want you to go with Natalie and do what she says. Okay?"

"Okay," Megan said, a bit reluctantly. She knew she had to but wanted to stay with her daddy. "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too."

Peter hugged his daughter again before she hopped down off the bed and headed for the door.

Megan walked outside where she found Natalie leaning against the wall.

"I'm ready to go. Can we come back and visit him?"

"Sure." Natalie knew she couldn't deny Megan the right to see her dad before he died. She would want to see her father if she was Megan.

Natalie and Megan headed for the car.

Before long Natalie and Megan arrived at the loft. Natalie loved the look on Megan's face as they approached the building, then pulled into the garage.

"You live here?" Megan asked surprised.

"Yes. This was Nick's home, then it became ours. Now it's yours."

"How do you get inside?"

"I'll show you," Natalie said as she lead Megan to the elevator. She loved the look of surprise when there were very few buttons on the panel.

"Is this just for us?"

"Yes."

"Is the motorcycle yours?"

"Yes."

"Can I have a ride sometime?"

"We'll see," Natalie said, noticing Megan's frown. "I don't have a helmet your size." That seemed to brighten up her young charge a bit.

"You can buy me one."

"When I find the right one."

A moment or two later, the elevator stopped and Natalie slid open the door. Megan cautiously peered into the large cargo elevator before entering. Natalie entered behind her, allowing the door to shut behind them and pushed the button for the loft. When the elevator reached it's floor it stopped. Natalie pulled open the door.

Megan peered into the room a moment before entering it.

"This is cool," Megan said with a smile as she started looking around, bag in hand.

Natalie smiled, "I'm glad you like it. Would you like to see the bedrooms?"

"Sure."

"Why don't you head on upstairs. I'll be right behind you."

Natalie put away Megan's medication and then headed upstairs.

Megan looked in each room, trying to decide which one she wanted.

Natalie approached from behind. "That's my room."

"I thought it might be. Can I still look around?"

"Sure." She wanted Megan to feel at home.

Megan saw a picture of Nick and Natalie on Natalie's dresser. "Is that Nick?"

"Yes."

"He's cute." Megan giggled.

"Yes, he is," Natalie said with a smile. She remembered that one had been taken about a month before he'd been forced to move on. They'd been in County Cork, Ireland celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary.

Megan looked around the room before moving onto the next one.

"You like to read. I do too."

"Yes, I do. I'm glad you do too."

Megan moved onto the next room. She looked around, having a hard time deciding which room she wanted. She went back into the middle room and then back to the end room.

"Can I have the this room? It has more windows."

"Sure. Why don't we put your stuff away, and then have some dinner." Natalie had suspected Megan would take that room. She was glad she didn't have to move her books and other stuff from the middle room as it would've been quite a chore.

"Okay."

They quickly had her bag unpacked and the clothing hung up, or neatly placed into a drawer. The teddy bear sat at the head of the bed.

Natalie knew that she and Megan would have to go retrieve the rest of her stuff soon. She hoped that would make her feel more at home here.

Natalie and Megan headed downstairs to see what they could find for dinner. Upon checking the refrigerator and cupboards they found nothing Megan liked.

"How about going out to dinner and picking up a movie on the way back?" Natalie said, momentarily reminded of Nick and when they used to watch videos together.

"Okay."

"I need to make a phone call first, then we can go. What would you like to do?"

"Can I watch TV?"

"Okay, but we'll pick the show together. I'll let you know when I'm ready."

"Okay." Megan grabbed the remote and had trouble figuring out which button turned on the TV. "Natalie, how do I work it?"

Natalie showed her which button to press.

Together they flipped through the channels until they found something that Megan liked and Natalie thought was appropriate for her to watch.

"Can I put my feet on the couch?" Megan asked.

"As long as you take your shoes off first."

Megan set the remote on the coffee table, took off her shoes and curled up on the couch to enjoy her cartoon.

Natalie headed for her bedroom, picked up the phone and called work.

"Terri, this is Natalie. I need to change my work hours?" She hoped her boss would agree, especially on such short notice.

"Are you okay?" Terri asked concerned. Natalie sounded okay.

"I'm fine. I just need to adjust them so they coincide with school hours. I became a foster mom tonight."

Terri was stunned. "Sure. It will take me a few days to rearrange the schedule. We have a day care center if you're interested. How old is she?"

"She's six. Thank you." Natalie hung up, knowing she needed to make one more call before they left.

"Hello," Myra said.

"Hi, Myra. It's Natalie. I hope I'm not calling too late."

"No. We haven't gone to bed early for years. You know that."

"I know. I just wanted to make sure things hadn't changed."

"What's up?"

"I need to ask a favor of either you or Jenny."

"Sure. What is it?"

"I need someone to pick Megan up and bring her over to the morgue tomorrow after school." Natalie knew Myra must have a million questions she wanted to ask. "Yes, you heard right," Natalie teased.

"Natalie, what's going on?"

"I became a foster mom tonight. She's a really sweet little girl. Would you mind if we stopped by on our way to dinner so you can meet each other? I know I'm asking a lot, but..."

"One of us will pick her up tomorrow. Just let us know where and when. We'd love to have you come by. How old is she?"

"She's six. Thanks a lot, Myra."

"Glad I could help."

Natalie hung up and went downstairs to check on Megan. She saw the little girl curled up, totally engrossed in her cartoon and giggling. Natalie sat down beside her and was soon giggling herself.

Shortly the show ended and Natalie reached for the remote to turn off the TV. She saw Megan frown.

"We have to get some dinner, remember?"

"Yeah." Megan sat up and put her sneakers back on, and tried to tie a bow but couldn't. Megan lifted her right foot so Natalie could reach the laces easier.

"On the way we're going to stop and see a friend of mine. I have to work tomorrow and she's going to pick you up from school and bring you to me. Okay?" Natalie tied Megan's shoe laces as she spoke.

"I guess. Is she nice?"

"Yes. She's a mom too." Natalie knew it was a lot for Megan to take in all at once.

Natalie pulled into the Schanke's driveway.

Natalie and Megan walked up to the front door where Natalie rang the bell.

Within moments Myra opened the door. She saw Natalie and Megan.

"Hi, Natalie. You must be Megan. Hi."

"Hi." Megan said a little shy.

Myra motioned for them to enter, which they did. Myra lead them to the family room where Jenny and Don were watching a rerun of 'I Dream of Jeannie'.

"Megan, this is my husband Don and my daughter, Jenny," Myra said. "This is Megan. Natalie's foster daughter."

"Hi, Megan. You got a cool mom there," Jenny said. "How old are you?"

"Six."

"I've known Natalie since I was about your age. I'm now seventeen."

"Hi, Megan. Jenny's right. Natalie's really nice," Don said.

"Can I get you anything?" Myra asked.

"No. We just stopped by so Megan could meet you all. We're on our way to dinner." Natalie squatted down next to her daughter. "What time do you get out of school?"

"Three. My teacher's name is Mrs. Anderson."

"Thank you."

"Jenny, could you pick up Megan tomorrow? I forgot I have a dental appointment at two-thirty."

"Sure, I'll stop by. But, they won't let her go with me."

"I'll make sure the school is expecting you. If you have a piece of paper handy, I'll write a note you can take with you."

"Thanks. They've tightened up security over the last couple of years," Jenny said as she handed her friend a notepad and pen.

Natalie scribbled a quick note giving Jenny or Myra permission to pick up Megan, then signed it.

While Jenny and Natalie worked out the details, Myra and Don talked with the shy Megan. Megan found the sitcom funny. She quickly warmed up to the Schankes'.

Shortly Natalie and Megan said their good-byes and left.

Myra sat next to her husband and leaned against his shoulder. Don wrapped his arm around her.

"I can't believe it. I didn't think they'd let her become a foster parent because of her illness," Myra said a bit surprised but happy for her friend. "I think it'll be great for her. She's been too lonely since..." Just the memory of Nick's death brought sadness with it.

"I know. I didn't think they'd allow it either, but I'm glad they did. I think she'll be a great mother," Don said. "I think it was what she needed."

"I know this may seem like an odd question, but what if Megan has it as well? Maybe that's why they were paired up. In a way, I hope I'm wrong because Natalie's had more than her share of loved ones die and I don't want to see her get hurt again," Jenny said. Something about Megan had brought the question to mind.

Myra and Don wondered if their daughter was right.

Natalie and Megan were in the car, heading towards the video store.

"What would you like to eat?"

"Pizza," Megan cheerfully said. "Ice cream."

Natalie chuckled. Are you sure you're not related to Schanke? Natalie thought. When Megan looked at her funny Natalie said, "you remind me of Don." When Megan seemed confused she continued. "The man you just met."

"He likes pizza?"

"He loves pizza, donuts, all sorts of junk food."

"Cool."

Natalie knew that pizza and ice cream were not good for their bodies, especially since they had AIDS, but as a special treat once in a while it was okay. She knew the sugar was the perfect breeding ground for germs, which could lead to opportunistic infections.

"We'll pick out the movie first, then grab the pizza and ice cream on the way home."

Shortly, they arrived at the video store. Megan eagerly ran to the children's section to see what there was to choose from.

"How many movies can we get?" Megan asked seeing several she liked.

"Two. When we watch those we can bring them back and get more." Natalie watched Megan examine the cases. "How about one you've never seen before. The other can be new or a favorite."

When Megan had picked her two movies they headed to the counter. Natalie paid for the movies and let Megan carry the bag to the car.

They stopped by the pizza place and took home a small cheese and pepperoni pizza.

Their last stop was the ice cream shop.

"What kind of ice cream would you like?"

"Bubble gum."

"Not before bedtime. How about a different flavor?"

"Chocolate brownie."

"That sounds good. Two singles to go, please," Natalie said. She held the bag with their ice cream.

Before long Natalie and Megan arrived home. Natalie had Megan stack the magazines from the coffee table onto the floor next to it while she fixed the drinks and served up the pizza.

"Are we eating in here?" Megan asked, a little surprised.

"Yes. I thought we'd eat while we watched the movie. Which one do you want to watch tonight?"

"The Mask."

"Do you know how to put it in?"

"Yes. Can I?"

"Sure."

Natalie carried the food and drinks over and set them on the coffee table while Megan stuck the tape into the VCR and turned on the TV.

She saw Megan wonder where she was supposed to sit. Natalie sat on the floor sticking her legs under the table and leaning back against the couch. She pulled a pillow down and leaned it against the couch so Megan would be comfortable and close to the table.

"Do you often eat like this?" Megan asked as she sat next to Natalie.

"Yes. Nick and I used to eat like this while watching movies. It's easier than trying to balance the plate in your lap, or hold onto it."

Megan started the movie then attacked her slice of pizza hungrily.

"I like eating like this," Megan said.

When Megan finished two slices of pizza, which was all she wanted, Natalie dished up the ice cream.

Both ladies enjoyed their ice cream.

"This is good," Natalie said after hitting her first brownie chunk.

Megan grinned as she shoveled another spoonful into her mouth.

After the movie, Natalie saw Megan yawning. Natalie gave her new charge her final dose of medication and sent her upstairs to change and brush her teeth.

A few minutes later, Natalie went upstairs and honored Megan's request for a story before bed. Since Megan didn't want to hear either of her two books, Natalie told her a story. It was one of the ones Nick had told her about his past. Megan enjoyed it and wanted another one. Natalie promised her a story every night if she wished, to which Megan eagerly agreed.

The next morning Natalie awoke, got Megan up and dressing before heading down to make their breakfast. She laid out their medications before looking in the fridge for something to eat, finding little that Megan would like.

A few minutes later Megan came down, all dressed for school. She had on an orange long sleeved T-shirt with a purple one underneath it, jeans, mismatched purple and orange socks. Her sneakers in her hand.

Natalie tried not to giggle, remembering a few of her more unique outfits.

"Are you sure that's what you want to wear? Do you know your socks don't match?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry there isn't much for breakfast. How about stopping off for something? We'll stop by the grocery store on the way home."

"Okay. What about lunch?"

"It looks like you'll have to buy lunch today." Natalie fished around in her purse for couple of Loonies. "Do you have somewhere safe to keep these?"

Megan nodded, took the two one dollar coins and stuffed them into her pocket.

"You can use the extra money for a snack, if they have them."

"Thanks, Natalie."

"Don't forget that either Myra or Jenny are going to pick you up after school. They'll bring you to my office, where you'll go to daycare until I'm done with work."

"Okay. What will it be like?"

"There will be toys and games, and other children to play with."

"That sounds fun."

Natalie and Megan both took their medications.

They headed downstairs to the car, where Natalie helped Megan get settled and belted into the backseat.

Before long Natalie walked Megan into her classroom, at Megan's insistence.

All the children crowded around them.

"Welcome back, Megan. We all missed you." The teacher said. It was also echoed by her friends.

"This is Natalie. She's my new foster mom. She's taking care of me because my daddy's too sick to."

"Don't you miss your daddy?" asked Michael.

"Yes. But I still get to see him."

"Hi." Natalie said to the class.

"Hi, I'm Liz Anderson. I'm Megan's teacher."

"Hi. I'm Natalie Lambert. I'm glad I got a chance to meet you. I'm working out my schedule so it'll match hers more closely, but until then I'll be having either Myra or Jenny Schanke pick her up from school. There might be a time or two when Don Schanke might come as well." Natalie didn't think he would be coming, but figured she might as well include him.

"Okay. Thanks for letting me know. We've tightened security over the years due to all the potential problems." Liz looked over at Megan and then back to Natalie. "How is she?"

"She's fine. By the way, if you ever need to reach me, I'll be at one of these numbers. If not, they'll know how to reach me." Natalie said as she handed the teacher a business card.

"Thanks. I'll turn it into the office. The only other thing we'll need is your address."

Natalie took the card back and scribbled 101 Gateway Lane along with the zip code on the back side of it before returning it to the teacher.

"Yes, we know she has AIDS. Her father told us last year when they enrolled her." Liz had seen the question in Natalie's eyes.

Liz had her first good look at Natalie's card. "You're a coroner?"

"Yes. I'm a forensic pathologist." Natalie smiled. She still enjoyed seeing the surprise on people's faces when they learned what she did for a living.

Natalie motioned for Megan to come over, which the little girl did.

"You okay now?"

"Yeah. I just wanted everyone to meet you."

"I'll see you later. Be a good girl."

"I will. Bye."

Natalie made a quick stop at the school nurse's office to make sure Megan had an adequate supply of medication at school, and that she took it when she was supposed to. Natalie was pleased that there was enough medication, that she'd be notified when a refill was needed and that the nurse made sure Megan took each dose on time.

Natalie headed for work. No sooner had she entered the coroner's building when she ran into Grace.

"Natalie, what's this about you becoming a foster mom?"

Natalie told Grace the story of how it came about. Grace listened not sure if it was a good idea or not. The more her friend talked about being a mom, the more Grace decided it was a good thing as it would give her someone to care for. Some reason to get up each morning.

"I think it's great. When do I get to meet her?" Grace knew Natalie's heart would again be shattered when the little girl was either moved to another placement, or died. She knew she couldn't worry about that now.

"After school. Jenny or Myra are bringing her by. I hope there's space for her in daycare." It hit Natalie that Grace was there during the day. "Whatare you doing here now?"

"I switched to the day shift. I needed a change. I missed seeing you."

"Thanks. I've missed you too."

"How's it going?" Grace asked.

"Pretty good. But it's only been one night. Terri's supposed to adjust my schedule so it coincides with Megan's school schedule as much as possible. If not, to arrange it so I can pick her up from school and bring her to the daycare center."

"Sounds like you have things pretty much taken care of. If you ever need a sitter, I'll be glad to help out."

"Thanks. I might just take you up on that sometime."

Several hours later, Natalie's phone rang. It was the front desk telling her she had visitors. Natalie glanced at the clock. She couldn't believe that it was mid afternoon already. The day shift usually went by much faster than the night shift used to. The only downside was that she didn't have the free time to work on Nick's cure.

Natalie went out to the front desk where Jenny and Megan were waiting.

"Are either of you hungry?" Natalie asked.

"I am," Megan said.

"I guess I am," Jenny said not sure where Natalie was going with her inquiry. She and Natalie had worked things out since Nick's death. She thought that it was good for Natalie to be caring for Megan because Natalie was good with children.

"How about I buy us all something to eat at Panda Palace?"

"Sounds great. Let me check in at home first."

Natalie saw Grace in the hallway and motioned for her to join them, which she did.

"Grace, Jenny, Megan and I are going to the Panda Palace. Care to join us?"

Grace wasn't sure if she should.

"Come on, it'll be fun," Jenny said. Over the years she'd gotten to know Grace and liked her a lot.

"Okay. Let me drop off my files and grab my purse."

"Great," Natalie said. "Megan, this is my friend Grace. Grace this Megan, my foster daughter."

"Hi. Nice to meet you," Both Grace and Megan said.

When Grace met Megan, she was reminded of Katie.

The four girls were soon seated at a table in the Chinese restaurant. Natalie helped Megan remember which dish she liked by describing the various ones as she named them.

They enjoyed their early dinner before Jenny headed home and the other three headed back to the Coroner's Office.

When Natalie returned to the Coroner's building, she asked Katrina where the daycare center was, knowing she had a daughter enrolled there. Natalie couldn't believe that with all the years she'd worked there, she didn't know where it was.

Natalie escorted Megan into the daycare center.

"Can I help you?" asked Pam, the head of the place.

"I'd like to enroll Megan," Natalie said, hoping there was room.

"I think we can accommodate you. I need you to fill out some paperwork."

Pam turned to Megan. "Why don't you go play with the other children?"

Natalie squatted down in front of Megan. "It's okay. I'll be right over there in the office."

Megan hesitantly headed for the main part of the room.

Natalie and Pam headed into the office.

"I'm Pam Richards. I'm the head of the center."

"I'm Natalie Lambert."

"Dr. Lambert, I didn't know you had a six year old," Pam said quite surprised. She had heard about Natalie being raped and having AIDS as a result from it.

"I didn't until the other day. I'm her foster mom." Natalie noticed the surprise on Pam's face.

Natalie filled out all the required paperwork, providing documentation proving her to be Megan's legal guardian. She explained that she was working on matching her schedule to Megan's as close as possible, but would still need daycare arrangements for those times when they couldn't coincide.

Pam knew that Natalie was probably going through what every other mom she'd seen in here went through, that they could make the two completely different schedules match. She was also surprised that Natalie would be given a child to care for, given her health problems. It was then she began to wonder if Megan had similar problems.

"Does Megan have any special needs?" Upon seeing Natalie's curious expression she continued. "I ask that of every mother because you can't always tell just by looking at the child."

"Yes, she does. She's on a pretty strict medication regimen." Natalie was deciding exactly how much to tell Pam about Megan's health. She didn't want the insidious disease to cause Megan trouble. "I have it worked out so that we both take our medication at the same time. It's easier that way."

"If you ever change your mind you can leave the medication along with instructions. Can I ask what her health problem is?"

"She has AIDS." Natalie carefully watched Pam's reaction.

"Oh," Pam said a little surprised. She now understood why they had been paired up.

"Is this going to pose a problem?" Natalie asked.

"I don't think so." Pam knew that all but the newest staff had learned about AIDS when Natalie had talked with the staff about having the disease. "Everyone has gotten used to you having it, and it shouldn't pose a problem."

Before long, Natalie was back in the main room looking for Megan. She spotted her over by the book area and headed for her.

"Hi," Natalie said as she sat down on the bean bag next to Megan.

"Hi. I like this place. There's a lot to do and the people are nice."

"I'm glad. I have to get back to work. I'll stop by later."

"Can I see your office sometime?"

"Sure. I'll be right back."

Natalie placed a quick call to Grace to see if there were any customers needing urgent attention, pleased that there weren't any.

Natalie walked back over to Megan. "How would you like to go now?" Natalie figured she might as well show Megan her office while things were a little slow.

"Okay."

Natalie told Pam that Megan would be back shortly.

A couple of minutes later Megan and Natalie entered Natalie's office.

"What do you do?"

"I find out why people died and who killed them."

"When I die, will I come here?"

"No. This is only for those who die because someone killed them. I see people who were shot, stabbed, or many other things."

"Is that your desk?"

"Yes. See that pile of stuff on it?" Megan nodded. "That's all my work."

"Wow. You have a lot of work. You must be good."

Natalie tried not to laugh, but she did smile. "I am."

"Can I look around?"

"Okay, but don't touch anything. I don't want you accidentally getting hurt."

Natalie went around with Megan and pointed out a few interesting things. They walked into the cooler together, and Natalie explained that is where the people she had to examine were stored so they wouldn't stink. Megan was most impressed by the fact that Natalie had a computer.

After the tour Natalie gave Megan her latest dose of medication, then took her own, before returning her daughter to the daycare center so she could finish her own work.

Natalie still couldn't believe she was a mother.

A few hours later, Natalie finished the most crucial reports and knew it was time to take Megan home. They stopped by the hospital for a visit with her father. Natalie let Megan enter her dad's room alone.

"Hi, sweetie. How's my big girl today?" Peter weakly said to Megan.

"Okay. School was okay. Natalie took me to the daycare center at work and it's really cool," Megan said as she climbed up onto the edge of the bed and hugged her dad, pleased when he hugged her back.

"That's good, honey. How do you like Natalie?"

"She's really nice. Her bedtime stories are almost as good as yours."

"What sort of stories does she tell?"

"Last night's was about a knight and his lady. How the knight's evil step-dad kept them apart for a very long time. I don't know what story is tonight. I'll tell you tomorrow."

"This has to be our last visit."

"No!" Megan cried upset. "I wanna see you again."

"Remember when we had our talk?" He saw her nod and continued. "We both knew this day would come."

"I know, daddy. I don't want you to die."

"I know you don't. Sometimes it just can't be helped."

Peter held his sobbing daughter in his arms and let her cry.

"I'm not getting any better. I won't be able to talk to you after tonight."

"That's okay."

"No, it isn't. I don't want you to remember me as being this sick. I want you to remember the happier times."

"I will. I love you daddy. I always will."

"I love you too, sweetie. I always will."

Megan gave him a big hug. She tried not to cry but couldn't help it. Her daddy was dying and she was going to miss him.

"Can you ask Natalie to come in here?"

Megan nodded, hopped down from the bed and went to the door. She opened it and saw Natalie sitting in a chair a few feet down the hallway. She approached her new mom, wiping her eyes with her sleeves.

"Natalie, dad wants to see you," Megan said.

Curiously Natalie stood and followed Megan back into the room.

"Hi, Peter. What did you want to see me about?"

Peter pulled a key and a slip of paper from the nightstand table and handed it to Natalie.

"This is to my house, the alarm code is on the paper. I'm sure Megan would like her clothes, toys, books..."

"Thank you."

"I told Megan this was our last visit. I don't want her to watch me die. I don't want those to be her last memories of me."

Natalie now understood the cry she'd heard and the tears she saw Megan wipe from her face earlier. Natalie knew that after their visit tonight, he wouldn't be able to talk because they were going to hook him up to a ventilator to help him breathe, until his body completely failed.

"Thank you for telling me."

"Thank you for taking care of her for me."

"It's not a problem. She's a really sweet little girl." Natalie said as she wrapped her arms around Megan, who was still standing in front of her looking at her dad.

"Pumpkin, can you wait outside for a few minutes. I want to talk to Natalie alone.

"Okay," Megan said, not really wanting to leave. She reluctantly opened the door and left.

"I need to know if you'd take care of her, for whatever time she has left."

"Yes. Like I said, she's a great little girl. I'd love to make her my own," Natalie said. "I'll make sure she remembers you."

"I have something which can help with that. I've been putting together a scrapbook for Megan. It has pictures and stories of her life. With it are a couple of videotapes my wife and I made over the years. Will you see that she gets them?"

"I will. Where are they?"

"They're in a box in my closet, top shelf. It's wrapped like a present. I was going to give it to her for her birthday."

"I'll make sure she gets it. Do you want me to wait until her birthday, or give it to her when I think the time is right?"

"I'll leave that decision up to you," Peter said. "I made a list of Megan's favorite foods, books, etc. I thought it might help."

"Thank you. It will be a big help."

Peter handed Natalie two sheets of paper full of writing.

"Can you please get Megan for me?"

"Sure.

Natalie walked over to the door and opened it. Megan was leaning against the wall right outside the door.

"Sweetie, your dad wants to see you."

Megan re-entered the room and approached her dad's bed.

Peter was feeling quite drowsy and knew it was time for their final good-byes.

Natalie sensed this and stepped back to give them some space.

Megan and Peter hugged each other.

"Good-bye, daddy. I'll miss you," Megan said, barely holding back a fresh batch of tears.

"Good-bye, sweetie. I'll miss you too. I love you."

"I love you, daddy."

After one more hug, Peter said. "It's time."

Megan reluctantly climbed off the bed and followed Natalie out of the room.

"Would you like to go get your things now, or tomorrow?"

"Can we go now? Please."

"Sure.

On their way to Peter's house, Natalie listened as Megan told Natalie how much she already missed her daddy and wished he didn't have to die. Natalie did her best to comfort the little girl.

Once they arrived at Megan's old home, she led Natalie to the door and waited while the door was unlocked. As soon as they entered Natalie disarmed the alarm system using the code Peter had provided.

Megan quietly led Natalie to her bedroom.

"This is a nice room," Natalie said as she looked around. The walls were white, but covered with pictures of all sorts. The furniture was designed to grow as Megan did.

"Where would you like to start?" Natalie asked, knowing how hard it had been for her and Nick. She wondered if it would be harder for Megan.

"How about with my clothes. Daddy kept the suitcases in the storage closet. Follow me."

Megan lead Natalie to the closet where a lot of different things had been stored.

Natalie knew that sometimes such closets were overstuffed and hazardous to open, and wondered if she was about to be caught in an avalanche.

"They're in here." Megan said before wandering off to her dad's bedroom.

Natalie opened the door and was able to jump out of the way of the small avalanche.

"That one's broken," Megan said as she pointed to a black suitcase in the far corner of the closet.

"Thanks for the warning." Natalie pulled two suitcases out of the closet.

Natalie and Megan each pulled one towards the little girl's bedroom. Natalie set the first bag on the bed and quickly filled it. Megan was quiet as she examined her toys. Natalie knew there were more clothes somewhere, because there was nothing out of season in the room.

"Where do you keep your winter clothes?"

"Follow me."

Natalie took the second suitcase with her as she and Megan went down the hallway, to a large closet.

"In here."

"Thanks."

Natalie quickly filled the second suitcase with her foster daughter's winter wardrobe. She saw a small box containing boots and pulled out the two pairs that weren't Megan's and set them back on the floor where the box had been.

"Is that all of your clothes?"

"All but the dirty stuff." Megan looked over at her bed. "What about my sheets and comforter?"

"We'll take those," Natalie said as she stripped off the bed linens, knowing the twin sheets wouldn't fit the full sized bed back in the loft. She knew the top sheet and comforter could be used as a cover.

Natalie headed back to the hall closet to see if there was another suitcase there, other than the broken one. She didn't find one, but she did find a large, empty plastic bag.

Natalie returned to Megan's bedroom with the plastic bag and loaded the sheets and comforter into the bag and tied the top.

"Do you want any of your furniture?"

"Yes. Can we take it all? Please."

"We can't take it with us now, *but*, I'll arrange for movers to bring it to the loft. Okay?"

"Okay, I guess. When will I be able to sleep in my bed again?"

"I don't know. Probably in a few days."

Natalie knew the laundry room was likely off the kitchen so she headed downstairs. She was a little surprised when Megan didn't follow her. Natalie grabbed a plastic garbage bag from the box on the laundry room counter and began sticking Megan's clothing in it, from the hamper. When done she made sure to wash her hands, tied up the bag, grabbed an empty cardboard box, and headed back upstairs. She wanted to keep the clean clothes separate from the dirty. Natalie stuck the bag in with the boots and gloves in the box.

She entered Megan's room and found her studying her toys. She seemed more upset than she had been earlier.

"Why do I have to go elsewhere? Why can't I stay here."

"Because your dad is too sick to take care of you. This is his house, your home. Because it isn't mine, we have to go back to the loft, which is mine." Natalie was pretty sure Megan knew the answer, but probably needed to be reassured why she couldn't live in her own bedroom anymore.

"How about helping me put your books in here nicely?"

Megan shrugged her shoulders and helped Natalie empty off the bookshelf. On top of the books they put her other toys and stuffed animals.

"I don't want to go. I want to stay here," Megan angrily pouted.

"You can't."

Megan didn't like that answer and proceeded to throw a temper tantrum.

Natalie was surprised and didn't quite know what to do. She thought back to what Sarah used to do when Amy had a temper tantrums. She hoped one was enough to go by.

Natalie got up and continued to pack Megan's stuff, hoping that by ignoring her tantrum, Megan would stop and help Natalie pack.

Megan quickly realized her temper tantrum wasn't having any effect so she stopped.

Natalie looked around the nearly bare room before turning her attention to Megan.

"Is there anything else we need? Anything we forgot? We probably won't be back."

Megan carefully looked around her room, not finding anything left out of the boxes. She ran from the room into her dad's room.

Megan looked around and grabbed two picture frames. One of her and her dad and one of her parents and her.

"Is there anything else you'd like?"

Megan nodded her head and walked towards the staircase, before going down to the first floor. Once there, she headed straight to the family room and the photo albums on the shelf.

"Can we take these?" Megan asked.

"Do you have any other relatives that might like them?" Natalie asked.

"No. They're all either dead or don't want anything to do with us since we got sick," Megan sadly said. "Why don't they love me anymore?"

Natalie felt her heart sink. "They still love you deep down, but they're scared of our disease. Some people still believe you can catch it by talking to us, hugging us, eating off the dishes in our cabinets."

"That's silly."

"I know." Natalie saw Megan flipping through the pictures. "Put them by the front door so we won't forget them. Anything else?"

"Do you think I could have one of daddy's t-shirts?" Megan said, hoping Natalie would say yes.

"I think so," Natalie said, knowing it was so she could remember her dad, and be close to him through his shirt. She'd slept in Nick's bed, on his black silk sheets for the same reason.

Megan suddenly dashed out of the room. "I almost forgot my tapes."

Natalie quickly located Peter's final gift to his daughter and slipped it into a bag, hoping Megan won't see it before she was ready to give it to her. Then she headed downstairs to find Megan.

In the family room, Megan opened up the two doors under the TV and pulled out several videotapes. Natalie set down the box so Megan could pile her tapes into them.

"When will I die?"

"I saw your medical records and it looks like it will be a long time before you die. You had a mild case of pneumonia while your dad has a very severe case. Your immune system is in much better shape than his is."

"When will you die?"

"Not for a long time. I'm healthy and my immune system is in good shape, like yours." Natalie saw Megan's curious look. "Yes, our immune systems have been weakened by AIDS but they're still relatively strong."

"I'm glad. I don't want you to die because then who would take care of me?"

"Chris would."

"I'm hungry. Can we go?" Megan asked, changing the subject like only a young child can do.

"If you're sure you have everything you want from here."

Natalie followed Megan around the house as the little girl looked around each room, making sure she'd left nothing important behind.

"I'm sure," Megan said as they wound up back in the family room.

"Okay, then, why don't you go have a seat in the car while I load up the trunk."

"Okay," Megan said. "Can I help?"

Natalie knew Megan wanted to show what a big girl she was. "Sure. How about wheeling one of the suitcases out to the car. Then you can come back and get the other one."

Megan smiled as she grabbed hold of the luggage and tipped it so she could wheel it out to the car.

Natalie followed behind her with a cardboard box full of toys, games, and books.

After one more trip they had everything of Megan's in the car. Natalie reset the alarm and locked the door.

They made a quick stop at the grocery store on the way home and picked up dinner.

"Can we watch a movie while we eat?" Megan asked, as they entered the loft.

"Okay, but only one."

"Okay," Megan sighed.

Megan stuck in her favorite movie as Natalie brought over their drinks and paper plates. Natalie fixed them each a turkey breast sandwich,

"It's time to get ready for bed," Natalie said right after the movie ended. "I'll run your bath. Do you need any help?"

"I can do it myself," Megan proudly said.

Once Megan had bathed, brushed her teeth, dressed in her pajamas and was tucked into bed, Natalie told Megan one story as promised. She then kissed her forehead and went to her room to do a little paperwork, via her laptop, before turning in.

In the middle of the night Megan woke up screaming. It took a moment for Natalie to understand what was going on. As soon as Natalie realized it was Megan she was out of bed and on her way towards the far bedroom.

She rushed over to Megan's bedside where she sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms around the sobbing little girl. She felt Megan's little arms wrap around her and hold her tightly.

"Shhhh. It's okay. You're safe. Do you want to tell me about your bad dream?" Natalie asked in her most soothing tone.

"No. It's too scary," Megan said scared.

"Sometimes it helps. I used to talk to Nick when I had nightmares. I used to have some really, really bad ones. He always made me feel better, by holding me as I told him what had scared me."

"You did?" Megan asked, feeling better. She was pleased to see that even grown-ups had bad dreams. "What were they about?"

"Tell you what. I'll tell you about my nightmares if you'll tell me about yours. Deal?"

"Okay. Can I go first?"

"Sure, honey."

"I dreamed that daddy died. He and mommy were mad at me because I wasn't there. They said it was my fault. It wasn't was it?"

Natalie hugged Megan tighter, then handed her a tissue to dry her face with. "No. It wasn't your fault. Mommy and daddy know that. They're not mad at you. They still love you." Natalie wondered if her father had died, knowing that sometimes family members could sense it, even if they didn't know they were.

"Your turn."

"A very bad man hurt me a long time ago. Nick stopped the man from hurting me further. Every time I went to sleep, if I could sleep, I would see him hurting me again. Nick comforted me every time I woke up screaming and crying. After a while the nightmares eased and then went away."

"Did they catch the bad man?"

"Yes, they did. He won't ever hurt anyone again."

"I'm sorry he hurt you. Are you okay now?"

"Yes." Natalie knew it was partially a lie. If it hadn't been for that bastard she wouldn't be dying now.

"Can you stay with me?" Megan asked scared.

"Sure. How about another story?" Natalie remembered how Nick telling her the stories helped her relax and fall asleep when she had been sick. She laid down next to Megan and kept her arm protectively draped over the little girl.

"I'd really like that."

Natalie told Megan another story, pleased that it put her right to sleep.

A part of Natalie wondered if she hadn't been raped, would Nick and she have had the same relationship they'd had because of it? What if she didn't have AIDS? Over the years she had wondered how much of a part in their lives the AIDS had played. Had it been the wake-up call Nick needed to express his true feelings for her, or would he have done so anyway, eventually? Realizing that she would probably never learn the answer, she closed her eyes and tried to get some sleep.

Both Megan and Natalie slept peacefully the rest of the night.

The next morning, Natalie received word that Peter had died during the night. She shuddered when Megan's nightmare came to mind. Both had occurred at the same time.

Natalie motioned for her daughter to join her on the couch. She wrapped her arm around the little girl. "Your dad died last night. He went to sleep and never woke up."

Megan began to cry, wrapping her arms around Natalie the best she could. Natalie scooped Megan up, setting her on her lap so she could wrap both arms around the crying child, trying to soothe her as best she could.

"What happens to me now?" Megan said between sobs.

"You'll stay here with me. Okay?"

Megan nodded.

Natalie could see Megan's relief as she relaxed into Natalie's warm, soothing embrace.

When Megan stopped crying, Natalie grabbed the phone from the table behind the couch, called both her office and Megan's school to inform them that neither would be in today due to the death. Terri gave Natalie the next week off, which was a relief to Natalie as she didn't have to worry about work while consoling Megan.

Natalie gently stroked Megan's hair as the little girl's sobs started again. "Shhh. I know how much it hurts."

They just sat there like that until Megan wiped her face with her sleeve and looked up at Natalie.

"Tell me a story please."

"I have a better idea. How about you tell me a story, then I'll tell you one." Natalie sensed that Megan needed to talk about her dad.

"Okay. I remember when mom, dad and me went to the beach. It was fun. We built sand castles, played in the water and had fun. We kept going even after mom died. Dad and I would make the sand castles and wait for the water to flood it. Sometimes we helped the water knock it down. I miss them both."

"I know. I still miss my parents even though they died many years ago."

"You said you'd tell me a story," Megan said.

"One year for my birthday, Nick planned a special weekend for us. He kept it a secret so the surprise would be even greater. He got help from Grace and Don, and a few other friends. I thought I was going to a crime scene. When I entered the hotel suite, I saw what looked like a crime scene, complete with cops. It wasn't until I walked into the next room that I saw Nick and all my friends there. They shouted surprise."

"That sounds really cool. What's a hotel suite?"

"It depends on the hotel, but usually it's a living room and a couple of bedrooms all together in what's called a suite. They call it that because it's a suite of room, or a bunch of rooms."

"What happened next?"

"They were pleased that they'd been able to surprise me. We had cake and presents. Once all the guests left it was just Nick and me in the room. He had arranged for me to have whatever I wanted that weekend. All I had to do was ask for it."

"Wow." Megan looked at Natalie. "You could've eaten chocolate ice cream all weekend, in your pajamas in bed? You could've been watching TV all weekend without him saying anything?"

"Yes," she said with a chuckle. "I think I would've made myself sick if I ate that much ice cream," she said lightly.

"Wow. He did love you."

"Yeah, he did."

Natalie and Megan spent the rest of the day talking, doing whatever Megan wanted to do. Natalie knew how hard it was for her daughter. She also knew that she was now a more important part of Megan's world, as she was the closest thing her daughter had to family.

Before dinner, Natalie disappeared for a moment, returning with the package Peter had left for his daughter.

Megan's sad little eyes lit up when she saw the gift. "Is that for me?"

"Yes. It's from your dad."

New tears ran down Megan's cheeks as Natalie set the box on the coffee table. She wiped them away with her sleeve and opened the box. She pulled out the 3 videotapes and the scrapbook, confusion on her face.

"Your dad filled the book with pictures and stories so you wouldn't forget him or your mom. The tapes are ones they made as you grew up."

Megan opened the book and started looking at the pictures. It made her both happy and sad.

"Would you like to see the pictures?" Megan asked.

"I'd love to," Natalie said, wanting to know as much about Megan as she could learn. The more she knew, the better a parent she could be.

Natalie sat down next to Megan and listened as Megan either read the story written on the page, needing help with a word here and there, or told Natalie about the picture in her own words.

Almost two hours later they finished the book. Megan stifled a yawn.

"Can we watch the tapes?"

"Not tonight. You need your sleep."

"Please."

"One tape," Natalie said, unable to resist the pleading look Megan gave her.

Megan stuck in tape number one. She leaned against Natalie as the tape started. Natalie wrapped her arm around the little girl.

About ten minutes into the tape Natalie saw Megan struggling to stay awake. A few minutes later Megan was sound asleep.

Natalie stopped the tape, backed it up a ways, then ejected it. Next, she turned all the equipment off. She picked up Megan and carried her upstairs where she laid her down on her bed, and covered her up with a quilt.

Natalie then headed to her own room to climb under the covers.

Megan had more nightmares that night. Natalie soothed her as she listened to Megan's retelling of her nightmares. They were very much the same as they had been the night before.

Natalie listened to Megan's stories and told a couple of her own before her little one was asleep in her arms. She wondered if it had been like this for Nick back when she had the horrible night terrors.

The next afternoon was the memorial service. Megan said her final tearful good-byes to her father, with Natalie nearby for emotional security. Megan was scared to face the body all alone.

"I'll miss you, daddy. I love you." She was spooked by seeing her dad there so still and pale.

Megan's social worker, Chris, was there to offer her condolences to Megan, and see how she was doing.

After the memorial service Natalie and Megan returned to the loft.

Megan watched the first tape again from the beginning.

While Megan was doing that, Natalie called the movers and arranged for Megan's bedroom furniture to be delivered to the loft and the rest of the stuff put into the storage area underneath the loft. They would also move the current bedroom furniture down to the storage area. Natalie knew that Megan might want some of her parent's stuff when she grew up and wanted it to be there for her.

Early the next afternoon Natalie and Megan were seated on the couch reading a book when they heard the door buzzer sound.

"Natalie, it's Chris Peterson."

Natalie let her up, hoping that it wasn't bad news.

When Natalie heard the lift stop, she opened the heavy steel door and motioned for Chris to enter.

Chris noticed the concern on Natalie's face. "Relax, I'm not here to take Megan away. I just stopped by to see how things were going."

"Hi Chris," Megan said looking up from the drawing she was working on.

"Hi, Megan. How about showing me your new room?" Chris asked.

"Okay. We don't have the stuff from my old room in there yet."

"That's okay."

Megan got up from where she'd been seated at the coffee table and led Chris up the stairs to her room.

Once inside the room, Chris looked around, liking what she saw. "How do you like it here?"

"I like it. Natalie's really nice. She tells me a story every night. Sometimes she asks me to tell her a story. She likes it when I tell her one." Megan suddenly wondered what was going on. "Please don't take me away," Megan said, nearly begging.

"I'm not going to. I just wanted to make sure you were okay here."

"Natalie takes good care of me. She makes sure I take my medication on time."

"I'm glad to hear that. Can you stay up here and play for a little while so I can talk to Natalie?" Chris saw Megan's concern. "I just need to ask her how she's doing."

"Okay."

Chris headed back down to the family room where she saw Natalie seated on the couch reading a medical journal.

"It looks like you're doing a great job with Megan."

"Thanks. It was scary at first, but I think I'm getting the hang of it."

"Parenting is always scary at first."

"At least she's able to tell me what she needs and wants, unlike an infant," Natalie said. "It's not always easy balancing work and motherhood, especially with both of us having AIDS. She does give me a good reason not to be the workaholic I used to be. She makes me feel truly alive and happy again, something I haven't felt since Nick died."

Natalie wasn't sure why she was telling Chris this, but knew she needed to make sure Chris knew she truly cared about Megan and didn't want to loose her.

"Megan, can you come down here a moment?" Chris loudly called out.

A moment later Megan came trotting down the stairs.

"Is something wrong?"

"Natalie, I can tell from the little I've seen you two together, that taking Megan out of here would be wrong. It would do more damage than it would fix by giving her a foster home with two parents without AIDS. You two belong together."

"I get to stay with her?" Megan asked hopefully.

"For as long as you want," Chris said.

"Yay! Thank you!" Megan happily said.

Natalie was quite relived. Losing Megan to another family had been something she'd dreaded.

The next morning, Natalie and Megan emptied out the dresser and any other place Megan had put her stuff because the movers were due shortly. Before long the movers arrived and moved the furniture out of Megan's bedroom. They stored it in one of the storage areas in the basement of the building. Next they brought in Megan's bedroom furniture and set it up in her bedroom. Megan started to put her toys away on the shelves she could reach while Natalie kept an eye on the movers as they moved the rest of Peter's furnishings into a different basement area.

Over the next few days, Natalie made sure she was available whenever her young charge needed to talk, or to help her talk about things when she couldn't figure out how to ask her questions or say what she wanted to.

Natalie knew how hard grief was to handle as an adult, and knew it had to be harder on a child.

That night after tucking Megan in Natalie composed her latest letter to Nick, wanting to share her good news with him.

Nick,

You won't believe this, but I'm a mother. I thought my having AIDS would prevent me from ever becoming one. Before you panic, I'm not pregnant, and haven't been. I wouldn't risk it. Even a ten or twenty percent chance of passing it on, is too great a risk. Well... on with the story. I had just come home from a long, tiring shift and was waiting for my dinner to finish being nuked when the phone rang. Someone needed me as an emergency foster mother. It seems that no shelters or other foster care either was available or would take Megan. Scott recommended I be given custody.

I don't know why I took her, but it seemed the natural thing to do. Yes, I knew what I was getting into, because I read her entire file before accepting.

Megan's a wonderful little girl. She's six years old and full of life, despite having AIDS. The fact that we both have it is why we were paired up. Scott figured we could help each other through it.

We're both healthy and happy. It was a little rough in spots, but we're doing okay. After her father died, I learned what you must've gone through when I was having the wicked nightmares. Thank you for being there for me.

Myra's been a big help when I need advice. Myra now has an extra person to feed when we go over for our weekly dinner with the Schankes. She doesn't mind at all. Jenny seems to have adopted Megan as the little sister she never had.

I wish you could meet Megan. You'd love her. Since you can't, I'm doing the next best thing.

Otherwise, things are going great. Myra, Grace, Don, Jenny and Tracy are all fine. They still miss you, as do I. They tell me that I'm a great mom and it really seems to agree with me. Being a mom makes me feel great, more alive than I've felt since you left.

Jenny and I have worked things out and are again seeing each other as often as we can.

Don, Myra and Jenny are very grateful for the financial support you provided. Myra called me after she received the paperwork, wanting to know if I ever heard of the Foundation. I reassured her it was a very reputable place, but didn't give away any secrets. That was very sweet of you.

Enough about me. How are you? Are you still following the program? How's teaching?

I will need another sample soon. I haven't had as much of a chance to work on your cure because of the switch to the day shift, and now motherhood. I will still find your cure, as promised. It is as important to me as it is to you.

I love you and miss you, incredibly.

Love, Natalie.

Natalie slipped in a photo of her and Megan, taken before her father's death, along with a recent one of the Schankes, then sealed the envelope and addressed it.

On the fourth morning, Natalie entered Megan's bedroom, gently waking her.

"What would you like to do today?"

"I don't know."

"Do you want to stay home? Do you feel like going to school, or daycare?"

Megan couldn't decide what she wanted to do. She liked being at home with Natalie, but she missed her friends. She knew that if she went to school she'd have to do her work.

"I want to stay home one more day. Please."

"Okay. How about we go to the mall?"

"Okay." Megan became sad.

"What's wrong?" Natalie asked concerned.

"I miss my daddy."

"It's okay. I still miss Nick. You'll always miss your dad, but over time the pain will go away."

"Has yours gone away?"

"Yes. There are still a few days where it hurts more." When Natalie saw Megan's curious look she continued. "I miss him more on his birthday, my birthday, the day he died and our wedding anniversary."

"At least you're not alone any more."

"No, I'm not." Natalie smiled and hugged Megan. "Neither of us are alone anymore."

Megan smiled. "Can we go to the bookstore, computer store and toy store?"

"Sure." Natalie knew she should get Megan her own computer, as it would help with her schoolwork. Also, then she wouldn't have to wait until night to use her own notebook computer.

Natalie and Megan arrived at the mall. They started walking towards the bookstore.

In the bookstore Megan wanted a large stack of books, causing Natalie to limit her to five. Natalie enjoyed watching Megan narrow it down and pick out the ones she really wanted. Natalie looked through the parenting books, not finding anything she really liked. Do I really need these? She decided she didn't and moved on to another section. Natalie picked out a book or two she wanted before they headed for the cashier.

Natalie and Megan head towards the food court for lunch, skipping over most of the offerings because of their special dietary needs. They both had a grilled turkey sandwich on lettuce with water to drink.

Next they headed for the toy store. Natalie loved the look of pure joy that spread across Megan's face as she entered and began roaming the aisles looking at all the new toys. She began to find all sorts of toys she wanted, ranging from inexpensive to expensive. Natalie now understood Don and Myra's comments about kids and toy stores. She let Megan pick two board games or puzzles. Megan had a hard time choosing but did.

Natalie and Megan took their bags out to the car before doing some shopping Natalie needed to take care of. Natalie had to buy Grace a birthday present, and needed a few things for herself.

As they walked through the children's department Megan found an outfit she really liked. Natalie knew that she'd have to get used to shopping for two, and let Megan look around and see if there was anything else she wanted. Megan found a few more shirts and jeans she liked.

Natalie looked in the back of Megan's shirt to get an idea what size she wore. Natalie knew she would have to learn them so she could shop without Megan sometimes. Natalie loved all the cute little outfits. After Megan picked out what she wanted and Natalie made sure they were the right size, they headed towards the dressing room.

"I can dress myself," Megan stated firmly.

"Okay. I'll be out here." Natalie hid her grin, remembering back when she had said that to her mom.

After Megan had changed into each of the new items she came out into the dressing room's hallway so Natalie could check out the item. If the item fit, Megan handed it out to Natalie to hold onto. If it didn't, she left it in the room. By the time they were done, all but one item fit, impressing Natalie. She was amused by how Megan didn't like having to try on a nice dress.

When everything was rung up, she was surprised by how much the clothes cost. How long before she outgrows all this? Natalie found herself thinking.

They passed the children's shoe store and Natalie figured Megan could probably use another pair. She remembered hearing Don griping about how Jenny seemed to go through her shoes about once a month, when she was Megan's age. Natalie hoped that was just an exaggeration. She let Megan pick out a dress pair and an everyday pair of shoes.

They made another trip out to the car to drop off their packages. On the way down to the next store Natalie needed to go to, they stopped off at the food court for a snack. Because of their bodies' need for high protein, low sugar foods, finding a snack became a harder task than for most people. They shared a turkey pita and each had a bottle of water.

After their brief rest Natalie and Megan picked up a few items Natalie needed. She could tell that her young one was tiring and knew that they would only be able to make one, maybe two stops after this.

The next store they stopped at was the computer store. It was one of the major chains, so Natalie was sure she'd get a discount.

"In here I need to talk to the sales people."

"Okay."

Natalie and Megan looked at the computers. Do I want to get myself a new one, the latest technology and give Megan Nick's old one? Do I want to keep Nick's and get her a new one, but not such a high tech one?

Natalie tried to find the answer as she looked at the various models, notebooks, desktop and mini tower models. She saw one that captured her attention. When she saw all it's features and the reasonable price, she decided to buy that for herself. She knew Nick would understand her giving her computer to her daughter, and would probably do it himself, if he had been there.

Natalie bought the laptop and allowed Megan to pick out one educational and one fun software program. She knew she was spoiling her rotten, but why not make the rest of her life enjoyable? That thought brought to mind another one, who would die first? A part of her hoped it was Megan, so that the little girl would not have to loose any more people close to her, then she felt bad for wishing that.

In the car on the way home, Natalie said, "Megan, I want you to understand that you won't get that many things each time we go shopping."

"How come?"

"Because this time was special. Because I thought you might like a few new things that were yours for your room, things that we picked out together as the start of our life together. Also, because sometimes when I'm sad going shopping with someone I care about helps me feel better."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Back at the loft, Natalie whipped them up a healthy dinner, knowing it was easier to fix it yourself than to try and find something in a restaurant that wasn't full of sugar, which could cause an opportunistic infection to more easily take hold.

Natalie made sure they both took their medication on time.

Natalie and Megan ate dinner while watching one of the movies they'd retrieved from Peter's house.

A few days later, Natalie was looking through the mail and found a small package with her name and address scribbled on it in recognizable handwriting. She waited until Megan ran off to play, before she opened it.

Natalie popped the blood sample into the back of the freezer. She took the letter over to the couch and began to read.

Natalie,

I was surprised to hear about your motherhood, but am thrilled to hear you're doing so well. Scott really is a good friend.

I'm not surprised that you're a great mother. I knew you had it in you. You were always mothering everyone around. I'm glad Megan helps fill the emptiness my untimely departure caused.

I hope you and Megan have many wonderful years together. From the picture you sent, she is a beautiful little girl. She even looks a little like you. You're still as beautiful as ever.

Thank you for the picture of the Schankes. Jenny's growing up to be a beautiful young lady.

I'm glad you and her worked things out. I think it's great she and Megan get along so well.

I'm glad my friends have not forgotten me. That is my favorite form of immortality. The only kind that truly matters.

I'm glad the money was appreciated. I owe the Schanke's so much. They always treated me like family. I did get a nice thank you letter from each of them. What good is having money if you can't share it with those you love?

I've enclosed the latest sample. Yes, I'm still on the program, but sometimes it's not easy. Do whatever work you can, when time allows.

Megan should be the most important thing in your life now. You and the Schanke's helped me remember that loved ones should come first, over work. Don't forget to set aside some time for yourself. Maybe take Megan on a vacation.

Things here are going well. I've become the professor to have if you want history to come alive. It seems my stories and passion for teaching makes history more than just a dull subject taught out of old text books. The scheduling office is still trying to figure out why so many students want to take night history courses all of a sudden.

I love you and miss you more than you'll ever know. I look forward to a time when we can be together again.

Love, Nick

Natalie quickly wiped the lone tear from her cheek, not wanting Megan to see it. Natalie headed upstairs to check on her daughter, and put the letter with the others, in a secure place.

Each day they spent together, Natalie and Megan learned more about each other. The more they learned, the closer they grew.

Natalie knew Megan wanted to help so she let Megan help make her school lunch. Natalie had to talk Megan out of a few strange combinations, and a couple of items that would spoil before lunch.

Natalie was relieved, and somewhat pleased that Megan enjoyed spending her afternoons at the daycare center. She couldn't help feeling a little guilty about work being the cause of it, but a part of her knew it was good for Megan to be around kids as much as possible. There weren't many for Megan to play with in the area around the loft.

Natalie and Myra spent hours on the phone talking about various parenting issues. Myra was more than happy to share her experiences, knowing how hard it was to be a parent. She knew it would be even harder since Natalie hadn't had the pregnancy to prepare her for motherhood. Myra enjoyed watching Natalie and Megan blossom as they grew closer together as mother and daughter. Natalie was a natural as a mother.

Natalie and Myra enjoyed their weekly lunches because it gave them a chance to talk about anything they wanted to: work, life, motherhood, whatever. It also gave them a chance to get away from work, the house, the kids.

Natalie and Myra enjoyed their weekly climbs, knowing how important exercise was for them.

Jenny and Megan had their weekly outing then. They did whatever they felt like doing, anything from a walk in the park to watching videos or seeing the latest kid-friendly movie. Sometimes they went to the library and spent the time reading.

Natalie and Myra still went on their weekly climbs, sometimes taking Megan with them, and sometimes leaving her with Jenny.

Natalie tried to stop by the Pediatric AIDS ward at least once a week to visit the kids. She knew how important her visits were to them. They helped her remember what was truly important, family, friends, and living life to the max.

Three weeks later, Natalie and Megan were in the kitchen. Natalie had set out their medications and handed Megan her cherry flavored syrup. It was how the Retrovir was given to pediatric patients.

"I don't want it!" Megan crankily said.

"You know you have to take it," Natalie said trying to be calm. She had known that Megan would start testing the limits at some point.

"No!"

Natalie set the special dosage spoon onto the counter and led Megan to the couch. She hoped they could talk about it, rather than her pull a motherly power trip and start a fight that would get them nowhere.

"Why don't you want to take it?" Natalie asked trying to sound both neutral and interested.

"I hate this stupid disease. I hate all the medications. It makes me different from everyone else. I want to be like my friends," Megan complained. "I hate not being able to eat ice cream and cookies like my friends do."

"I know. I hate the disease too. I also hate taking all the medications. I've been taking them a lot longer than you have. I also wish I could eat all those foods, as chocolate is one of my favorite foods," Natalie tried to think of something that would help Megan feel better. "There are other kids who take medications. Some take it for asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, antibiotics when they have strep throat, and many other reasons."

"Do kids with asthma, epilepsy and diabetes have to take as much as I do? As often?"

"I honestly don't know. I know they have to take it at least once a day, maybe twice. Diabetics have to give themselves shots a couple of times a day, as well as carefully monitoring the amount of sugar in their blood. If they get too much or two little it can really hurt them, even kill them."

"They're the ones that can't eat sugar, right?"

"Right.

"Jimmy has that. He has to go see the nurse every day like I do."

"You're not the only one that can't eat all the things you'd like to."

"I know. But it's still frustrating. I hate all the medications."

"I know. But at least now you know you're not the only one that has to take medication to stay healthy." Natalie could see Megan's frustrations easing.

"But their diseases aren't fatal like ours."

"No, theirs aren't usually fatal. Diabetics can die if they either don't get enough insulin or too much insulin. Asthmatics can die from a severe attack." Natalie wondered if things had just made a U-turn. "I remember how upset I was when I first learned I was HIV positive. I didn't know what to do. Nick helped me see that I could either live each day to the fullest or waste my life worrying about tomorrow. Then Scott invited me to the opening of the Ped AIDS wing and I saw all the kids there. That's where I met Katie. She really helped me learn to make the most of every moment."

"I think I was too little to be upset then. Dad was very upset. He told me but I didn't really understand." Megan said. "How did Nick take it?"

"He was very upset too. He tried to hide it, not wanting to make me feel bad, but I could tell how much he was hurting. We found that talking to each other about our feelings helped. Just like you and I are doing now."

"Why do I have to be different?"

"I don't know." Natalie wished she had a better answer. "Most people think they will never die so they never do many of the things they really want to do. We know we don't have as long as they do, so we make sure to do those things. Who do you think is happier?"

"We are?" Megan asked, hoping it was the right answer.

"Right. We're not afraid to try new things, are we?"

"No."

"How about later, we bring home something special for dinner?"

"Can we have spaghetti?"

"How about some eel to go with it?" Natalie said with a teasing tone. She knew they'd need more protein than the spaghetti provided and would throw in some meat or tofu.

"Ewwww. You'd eat that?" Megan giggled.

"No. But it made you laugh."

"How about a snake?"

"Ewww. Would you eat it?"

"No." Megan said, feeling better.

"Will you take your medication?" Natalie knew they were already late to work and school, but this was more important.

"Okay," Megan reluctantly said. "Can I have one of the candies after, please." She didn't know the hard candies were sugar free.

"Okay, just today." Natalie gave the youngster a big hug, pleased when it was eagerly returned. "The next time you're feeling like you're the only one who's different, just remember all your friends at the hospital."

"I will. I am lucky to be healthier than many of them are," Megan said. "Will you tell me about Katie?"

"Sure. But first you have to take your medication."

"Okay."

Natalie wondered if she could find somewhere Megan could go for a day or a week and feel like a normal kid. Somewhere where the other children had AIDS and were currently healthy.

Natalie lead Megan back over to the kitchen counter and handed her the liquid medicine, which Megan took. Natalie took her first pill. Natalie hope that doing it together would make it a little easier for them both. She gave Megan the sugar free candy, as promised.

"You promised to tell me about Katie."

"Okay. She was a beautiful fifteen year old girl I met at the opening. Just talking to her showed how much she loved life. She drew the picture of Nick and me on the wall over there. She was an incredibly gifted artist. She had AIDS. She quickly figured out I had it. We talked and she helped me stop feeling sorry for myself. We became friends. She came the wedding. She drew that picture," Natalie said pointing to the picture of her and Nick hanging on the wall. "Would you like to see a picture of her?"

"Yes. That's a great picture."

Natalie pulled out her photo album and flipped to Katie's picture.

"She was pretty. Will you show me the rest of the pictures?"

"Some other time. You have to get to school, and I have to get to work. We're both late as it is."

"Okay."

They headed out. Natalie parked in a visitor's spot at school and escorted Megan into the school's office.

"Hi. I don't know the procedure for kids that are late."

"Why is she late?"

"We had a little trouble getting going this morning."

"Okay," the lady knew how hard it was to get kids ready some mornings, and knew it had to be harder when one had a terminal illness. "Megan, give this to your teacher. Okay?"

"Okay."

Outside the office Nat squatted down in front of Megan. "Do you want me to walk you to your class, or do you want to go there on your own?"

"I want to go on my own. I'll see you later." Megan said as she started walking towards her classroom.

Natalie watched until Megan entered her classroom, then headed for work.

Natalie entered the morgue and saw Grace dropping off files.

"Is everything okay?" Grace asked concerned.

"Yeah. Megan had a case of the 'I hate this stupid disease' blues. She didn't want to take her medication and wanted to know why she had to be different. We talked about it and I hope it helped."

"I remember you feeling that way a time or two. Sure, you didn't express it the same way, but I could tell."

"How?"

"Sometimes you'd do something crazy, other times you'd just be a bit depressed."

After work Natalie dropped by the daycare center. Megan ran over to her.

"You ready to go?" Natalie asked as she squatted down in front of her daughter.

"Yes. Where are we going?"

"How about going to Eaton Centre and looking in a few shops then grabbing something for dinner?"

"Okay. Can I pick out a new book?" Megan asked as they walked out to the car.

"Sure." Natalie knew Megan had already read her books and wanted to encourage her eagerness to read.

"Is this what you do when you're depressed?" Megan asked.

"Sometimes. Other times I talked with Nick or Grace. Sometimes Myra. I used to take my bike out for a drive. I used to use chocolate to make me feel better, but I can't anymore." She knew that she still ate it now and then when she really needed it, despite it being bad for her.

Megan and Natalie arrived at Eaton Centre and started looking in all the fun shops as they headed for the bookstore.

"Can we go in?" Megan asked as they passed a costume shop that was open year round.

"Sure." Natalie knew she was probably spoiling Megan a bit, but as long as there was love and discipline, a little spoiling never hurt anyone.

Inside they tried on funny sunglasses, each picking the pair the other tried on. When each had found a pair they liked they moved onto the next part of the store. When Megan didn't find anything she liked, that Natalie would allow her to have, they paid for their sunglasses and left.

They headed for the bookstore. Natalie let Megan pick out three new books.

Over the next couple of weeks, there were a few minor skirmishes over what Megan would and would not be wearing to school, or what she would or wouldn't eat. There were a few bedtime battles, a few battles over homework, watching TV and working on the computer.

In most situations, Natalie and Megan would discuss each problem and work out a solution that was acceptable to both. Sometimes Natalie had to be stern and say 'no' and stick to it. She knew that Megan was trying to learn the limits. Both were late to work and school a time or two due to these disagreements.

Megan also fought Natalie a time or two when it came to her frequent doctor visits. She hated needles. Natalie sympathized with her, explaining that she hated that part the most too, but it was something they had to do. After each appointment she and Megan did something fun, of her daughter's choosing. Sometimes was as simple as the latest kid appropriate movie, or a comic book. Other times it was a couple new books or an extra hour of television, or two videos in a row.

One night Megan approached Natalie, a little unsure how to ask her question.

"Hi sweetie," Natalie said.

"Can you tell me more about AIDS?"

Natalie was a bit surprised, and wondered what caused Megan to ask.

"Sure."

Megan sat down next to Natalie, turning to face her.

"What did your dad tell you?"

"He told me that he was sick. That he had AIDS. And that he would die from it in a year or two. Then he told me he had accidentally given it to me during the crash," Megan said a bit sadly, remembering what her father had told her. "His hand was bleeding. He didn't know my knee was when he touched me. That's how I got the scar here," Megan said as she pointed to the scar which ran across her knee.

"Do you know how he contracted AIDS?" Natalie asked, curious.

"He said it was something he shouldn't have done. I remember him and mom fighting. After a long time they seemed to like each other again."

Natalie wondered if Megan's dad had contracted it from an affair.

"He said that one night cost him his life, and was now going to take mine. What did he mean?"

Natalie's curiosity if an affair was how Peter contracted it grew. She was a bit more sure that was what he meant.

Natalie wasn't quite sure how to explain it to Megan without knowing exactly what her father had done. "I don't know what he did, but it seems to be where he was infected with HIV. What he meant was that when he accidentally infected you during the crash, he took away your chance to grow up."

"When will I die?" Megan asked, a little scared. She knew she would, but wasn't ready to.

"No one knows. Outside of having AIDS, you're healthy. As long as you take your medicine, eat nutritiously, get enough sleep it will help you stay healthy. You also need to stay away from friends who are sick. Even if they're just sniffling."

Megan wasn't satisfied with that answer. "Do you know when you'll die?"

"No. I hope neither of us dies for a long time." Natalie knew that within five years most likely they'd both be dead. She hated how women progressed faster than men did. It wasn't fair.

"How does AIDS kill?" Megan asked.

"The virus keeps attacking your immune system, making it less and less able to prevent you from getting sick. Remember when we first met?" Natalie saw Megan nod and continued, "You were sick with a type of pneumonia that people with healthy immune systems don't get."

"Why not?"

"Because it doesn't affect them. Our impaired immune systems don't protect us as well from the billions of germs, bacteria, and virus' floating through the air all the time. Their immune systems do protect them, most of the time."

"Eww."

"Do you know why I make sure you wash your hands before you eat or handle anything in the kitchen?" She saw her daughter shake her head. "Because that kills the germs, virus' and bacteria on your hands."

"But how does it kill?"

"Everyone with AIDS gets opportunistic infections. Sometimes they're not life threatening and sometimes they are. Our immune systems get weaker and weaker. At one point we will be living without much, if any of a working immune system." Natalie hoped she wasn't giving Megan too much info, or scaring her too badly. "At some point someone with AIDS will get sick and not get better. Their body is worn out and can no longer fight. They may still want to live, but the disease has made the body to weak to do so. They die."

"What kills them?"

"The pneumonia we've both had, Cancer, Meningitis. All very bad things to get."

"Why do we have to take all that medicine?"

"To help the immune system fight the virus. The more we help it with the drugs the less virus is produced. The less virus produced, the healthier we stay."

"How does the doctor see the virus? What does it look like?"

"He looks at your blood under the microscope. It makes tiny things look much bigger. Remember when you looked at your hand with the magnifying glass?"

Megan nodded. "It was cool. Everything looked really big."

"Well, a microscope makes things so tiny you can't see them, like a virus, big enough to see."

Natalie headed over to the bookshelf on the far war and pulled down a medical book. She returned to the couch and flipped through the book until she found the page she was looking for.

"This is what it looks like," Natalie said as she pointed to the picture of the HIV virus. It was a hollow blue ball with pink things dotted around the edge like pins in a Christmas ball.

"Cool."

Megan's birthday approached. Natalie wanted to throw her daughter a party she would never forget, yet not overwhelm her. She wanted to bring her daughter the same happiness Nick had brought her every year.

Natalie enlisted the help of both Myra and Megan. Myra was more than happy to help Natalie plan the perfect party, and suggested Natalie involve Megan as much as possible so she'd feel like it really was her party.

Natalie let Megan pick out the invitations, fill them out and pick out the decorations. Natalie wanted a few surprises so she picked out the cake and an extra game or two.

Natalie enlisted Grace's help as a babysitter so she and Myra could go shopping. Natalie wanted experienced help in picking out appropriate gifts.

Grace arrived right on time. Natalie gave Megan a few daughterly reminders about behaving herself and listening to Grace. Megan promised she would be a good girl and would listen to Grace. It was then that Natalie left.

Grace and Megan started their evening by popping some popcorn. Megan chose a board game for them to play. She loved the fact that she beat Grace. They played one more game, this time Grace won. Grace knew Megan needed to do something quieter so they sat down to watch Megan's favorite video, The Mask. Megan couldn't believe that Grace had never seen the movie. Grace was laughing along with Megan at all the craziness, but was a little surprised that the rest of the movie didn't bore Megan as it went over her head.

After the movie, Grace escorted Megan to the kitchen for her final dose of medication for the day. Natalie had left detailed instructions for Grace. Grace made sure Megan took her medication before ushering a reluctant six year old up to bed. Megan brushed her teeth and changed into her pajamas. Megan climbed into bed and had to settle for a story from a book as Grace didn't know any that were suitable for a child.

Grace grabbed a snack and settled down to quietly watch TV until Natalie returned. She grinned as she realized how much she'd enjoyed playing mom for the evening and wondered if she truly wanted children. She wasn't sure and didn't feel like dwelling on the subject.

About an hour later Natalie returned. From the four bags in Natalie's hands, Grace knew the shopping trip had been successful. Grace reported that all went well and Megan was the perfect little angel. The two friends talked over a cup of coffee before Grace left.

Natalie took the packages upstairs to her room then checked on Megan. When her little one was soundly sleeping Natalie returned to her room, shut and locked the door and began to wrap Megan's gifts. As soon as she finished she opened her door and checked on Megan again. After that Natalie changed into her pajamas, took her final dose, brushed her teeth, washed her face, and climbed into bed.

Natalie was grateful when Myra offered to help out with the party, knowing that two people made the event a whole lot less stressful.

The night before her birthday Megan had trouble getting to sleep. She couldn't wait to turn seven and have her party.

Once Natalie was sure Megan was asleep she hid items for the surprise scavenger hunt. She had a blast trying to find the perfect spot for each trinket. She had picked up a bunch of glittery bracelets, stickers, candy, rings, and so on for the hunt.

Natalie had considered confining the hunt to the first floor, but there were not a ton of places to hide stuff, so she expanded the territory. She realized it meant a little extra work childproofing the place, but also knew it was worth it.

Megan awoke in the morning to find an envelope propped up on her dresser and hopped out of bed eager to see what she'd find inside. She ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. The front made her smile, while the inside made her giggle.

She dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.

"Happy Birthday," Natalie said as soon as she saw her daughter.

"Thanks. I found the card."

"I thought you might like to see that when you woke."

"I did."

"You get your present later, before your party."

Megan's pout made Natalie smile.

"Have a seat," Natalie said.

When Megan was seated at the table, Natalie brought over the scrambled eggs with cream cheese mixed in. And set one plate in front of Megan, and one in front of herself.

"Don't forget to bring the cookies later."

"I won't."

After they ate, Natalie set the dishes in the sink and ran some water over them while Megan grabbed her backpack. Before long, the two headed out.

Natalie dropped Megan off at school before returning home. She had a lot to do and little time in which to get it done.

Megan entered her classroom and saw a sign taped to her desk proclaiming her the birthday girl and smiled.

Megan couldn't wait for the last half hour of class as that's when the teacher said they could stop work and eat the cookies Natalie would be bringing by.

Natalie started on Megan's next surprise. Natalie spent the next two hours painting Megan's bathroom sky blue. She painted puffy white clouds on top of the blue paint, being careful not to smear it or blend the colors.

Natalie caught sight of the clock and realized she had to quickly clean both herself and her work area, and brushes up as Myra was due any minute now to help her decorate the rest of the loft for the party.

Natalie had just finished her clean up when Myra buzzed from downstairs. Natalie let her up.

"Thank you for agreeing to help."

"It's no problem. I sorta miss having a youngster around."

Myra handed Natalie a large plastic plate full of cookies.

"Thanks. You're a lifesaver."

Natalie knew she owed Myra big time for making the sugar free cookies for her. Natalie knew that if she hadn't had to put in the extra three hours yesterday, because the nightshift coroner had a family emergency, she would've made the cookies herself.

"I know that emergencies come up. I'm glad I could help."

The two ladies talked as they decorated for the party.

A couple of hours later, Natalie entered Megan's classroom.

"Hi. I hope I'm not too early," Natalie said to the teacher.

"Right on time. The birthday girl has been eagerly awaiting your arrival," Ms. Anderson said.

"Hi, Natalie," Megan cheerfully said.

"Hi, sweetie," Natalie said as she took the plastic wrap off the cookie plate.

"One at a time you may come up and get your snack," the teacher said. "You may have two cookies if you wish. If there are leftovers you may return for another cookie."

The students knew that if they all rushed up there, they would be sent back to their seats and possibly not get any cookies at all, so they went up one at a time, starting with the birthday girl.

The teacher lead the class in singing happy birthday to Megan. Megan loved all the attention.

When all the kids finished their cookies Natalie carried the trash can around so they could drop their trash into it.

The bell rang. The teacher dismissed the class.

Natalie and Megan headed back to the loft to prepare for the party.

Natalie and Megan entered the loft. Megan was surprised at all the decorations Natalie and Myra had put up.

There were streamers hung from the staircase to the light over the kitchen table, and to the entertainment center. Balloons were hung in small groups all around the room, some were regular colorful balloons while a couple were Mylar ones. There was a Happy Birthday Megan banner low on the far wall of the loft.

"Hi, Myra," Megan said. "It looks great."

"Hi, Megan. Thanks. Natalie helped me decorate," Myra said. "Hi, Natalie."

"Hi, Myra. Is everything all set?"

"Yes."

Natalie prepared her and Megan's next dose of medication, as it was time. Megan knew she had to take it before her party so she did without complaint. Natalie took hers after Megan had finished taking hers.

"Would you like your present from me now, during the party or afterwards?" Natalie was pretty sure what the answer would be as she could see the excitement in her daughter's entire body.

"Now, please."

"Okay. It's on the coffee table."

"You knew didn't you?"

"Yeah. I couldn't wait either when I was your age," Natalie said with a smile.

Mother and daughter sat on the couch next to each other while Myra sat in the overstuffed chair nearby.

Natalie looked at Megan. "Close your eyes." She saw Megan trying to peek. "No peeking."

When Natalie was sure Megan's eyes were closed she gently set the motorcycle helmet on her daughter's head, loving the stunned reaction it garnered.

"Cool! Does this mean you'll take me for a ride?"

"Yes, but not today."

Myra was a little surprised, but knew Megan had probably asked to go for a ride and Natalie had told her they couldn't until she had a helmet.

Megan opened up the present with the sparkly blue paper, ripping the paper off, eager to see what was inside. She pulled out three books about a young wizard.

"How'd you know?"

"A little fairy told me," Natalie said with a grin.

"Thank you!"

Next, Megan tackled a large box. The multicolored box had just a ribbon tied around it, and a big bow. Megan lifted off the lid and found an orange and green stuffed dragon inside.

"He's cute."

Megan opened the last present on the table. She ripped off the green paper, revealing a new computer game..

"Cool! Thanks!" Megan said, nearly bouncing, from all the goodies she just received.

"You're not done yet," Myra said as she pulled two presents from under the chair. "This one is from Don and myself. And this one is from Jenny."

Megan took Jenny's present from Myra first and eagerly ripped off the paper. Inside was a tie-dye shirt that was more blue than green, red or yellow.

"Neat!"

Megan opened Myra and Don's present next and found a child's portable CD player, with headphones.

"This is really cool. Thanks."

"You're welcome," Myra said, pleased Megan liked the gifts.

Megan went upstairs to put on her new t-shirt and go to the bathroom.

"Cool!" Megan said as she saw her bathroom wall.

Natalie walked up behind her daughter and squatted down beside her. "It needs to dry a little longer before you touch it."

"It's really pretty. Thank you." Megan gave her mom a huge hug.

"I'm glad you like it," Natalie said as she returned the hug.

The first of the guests pulled up to the building, wondering if it was okay to let their daughter inside. The mom escorted her daughter to the door and pressed the buzzer.

"Take the elevator up," Natalie said into the intercom. She knew that the parents might be concerned by building's appearance and location.

Natalie heard the lift stop and opened the door. Carol and Kelly stepped out into the loft. Natalie could see the relief on Carol's face that the inside looked much better than the outside had.

"I'm Natalie, Megan's mom."

"I'm Carol, Kelly's mom."

"You can stay if you wish."

"That's okay. I have some errands to run." Carol felt it was okay to leave her daughter in the hands of the two adults there. "Why do you live way out here?"

Natalie knew the loft was outside of the center of activity, but she didn't mind. "This was Nick's home. When we married, I moved here because it offered more space than my apartment."

"That makes sense," Carol said.

"I'm sorry I forgot to introduce Myra. She's a friend of ours and is going to help out with the party."

"Hi, Myra. Smart move."

"I've already been through this age with my own daughter and thought Natalie could use a hand."

The buzzer rang again.

Before long all eight of the kids were there. The presents had been stacked on the coffee table. Megan visually surveyed the pile, eagerly awaiting when she'd be allowed to open them.

Myra helped Natalie corral the group into their first game, pin the bow tie on the teddy bear.

Myra picked up the video camera to capture it all on tape.

Natalie spun each child just enough to make them slightly dizzy before turning them to face the target and letting go. Natalie was grateful for Velcro when Amanda accidentally tried to stick the bow tie on her and gently redirected the little girl. When it was Megan's turn, Myra spun her so that none of the kids could complain that Natalie made it easier for Megan to win. Both adults were amused by the game and the kids' reactions to it. Colleen's bow tie came the closest to the target. She won a small bouquet of lollipops as her prize.

"I want everyone to make a circle, facing the middle of it." Natalie saw the kids quickly do that. "Now, everyone put your right hand into the circle and grab someone else's hand." She loved the confused, puzzled looks. "Now do the same thing with your left hand."

The kids complied, but were wondering what to do next. Natalie waited a moment before she explained the goal of the game.

"Now, without letting go of anyone's hand, you have to untangle yourselves."

"How?" Molly asked.

"Any way you want, as long as you don't let go of anyone's hand."

The kids stepped over each other's arms, turned around, ducked under each other. Anything they could think of to untangle themselves. They would fall and pull each other down.

Myra and Natalie tried not to laugh as they watched the young ones trying to untangle themselves.

After about fifteen minutes of trying the partiers were still tangled, a few even worse than when they started.

"It can't be done," Megan said. "You tricked us."

"No, I didn't," Natalie teased. "I never said it could be done. I said, *try* to untangle yourselves." Natalie saw they weren't buying it. "Did you have fun?"

Nine heads nodded.

"That was the point, to have fun," Natalie said.

Myra kept the video camera pointed towards Megan and Natalie, but made sure to include the rest of the group for a good record of the day.

"Ready to try something new?" Natalie asked and saw nine heads bob enthusiastically. "Anyone hungry?" Again she saw all the small heads nodding.

"Head over to the plastic on the floor there," Myra said as she pointed to a corner of Nick's loft.

Natalie was glad that there was so much floor space for them to work with.

Natalie and Myra brought the individual containers of grape flavored sugar free Jell-O from the fridge on trays and set one down in front of each little girl.

"You might want to tie back your hair," Natalie said as she braided Megan's hair and secured the end with a pretty scrunchi.

Natalie handed a scrunchi to each girl. She and Myra either braided the hair of their guests, securing it with the scrunchi or just secured it with the tie.

"What is the Jell-O for?" Tammy asked.

"I thought you might enjoy a little Jell-O eating contest."

"What's so hard about that?" Kristen asked.

"The trick is you can't use your hands. They have to stay flat against the floor." Natalie loved all the stunned looks she received. "You have to completely clean the bowl."

Myra was capturing it all on videotape.

"Ready, set, eat," Natalie said as she watched the little girls enthusiastically wolfing down the Jell-O.

Natalie had put a unique decoration on each bowl and began calling the race, much like a car or horse race is called.

Myra tried not to laugh, knowing it would disturb the videotape. Also, it wouldn't be too polite, and the kids might not understand.

Megan and Molly were very close, with Megan just barely edging her out. Megan's face lit up when she realized she'd won.

With a smile, Natalie handed Megan a pair of glittery bracelets, one blue and the other clear. Megan eagerly slipped them on and then showed them off to her friends.

Natalie headed over to the sink and quickly returned with a bunch of wet paper towels and handed one to each girl who used to the towel clean the stickiness off their faces.

The next activity was a quieter one. Natalie led them over to the wall with the low hung birthday banner and set a large container of markers on the floor in front of the banner. The kids quickly got the idea and began decorating the banner.

Natalie took over video duty so Myra could start setting out the snacks.

Myra put the Moose Moss crispy squares and the peanut butter with toffee chips and chocolate chip cookies on the festively decorated kitchen table. Myra remembered how the Moss squares were Jenny's favorite when she was little because of the green coconut on top and the marshmallow crispy squares underneath. She also set out some star shaped sandwiches with various nutritious things inside. She stuck the candles into the twelve inch decorated chocolate chip cookie that was taking the place of a cake.

As soon as the kids detected the food they swarmed over to it. They probably wouldn't have touched it if they knew that all the white sugar had been replaced by a sugar substitute.

Natalie and Megan had tested the recipes the week before during their test run of party snacks.

Myra took the camcorder back. Natalie walked over to the counter that held the oversized cookie and lit the candles before carrying it over to the table. She set it down in a clear spot.

Megan stepped up to the cake made a wish and blew out all the candles as everyone sang Happy Birthday to her.

Natalie let her cut the cookie and give a piece to each of her guests.

The kids all giggled as they saw the green crispy squares, and giggled harder when they heard it was called Moose Moss. They loaded up their plates with the goodies and took seats around the table. Natalie and Myra let each child choose between the three different sugar free fruit punches they had, the blue, green or purple one.

Natalie and Myra knew that they'd need to do something active next as the kids were hyper from all the excitement. They were glad all nine little ones weren't full of sugar on top of all the excitement.

Once everyone had consumed most of the goodies and were full, they started to get antsy.

"The next activity is a treasure hunt. There are goodies hidden all around the loft, but no higher than your shoulders."

Natalie let Megan hand out the colorful goodie bags to her guests.

Natalie could see how eager they were to start so she didn't make them wait any longer. "Ready, set, hunt."

The nine children tore off, each going in a different direction to see how many goodies they could find. Amanda was the first to find anything. She found a black rubber bracelet.

Natalie and Myra could tell when someone had found one of the goodies by the "cool", "neat" and such sounds they heard.

Natalie wandered around the loft making sure everyone found at least one trinket. She was there as both Erin and Haley each found their first goody. Erin found a tiny jigsaw puzzle while Haley found a strip of stickers.

After the hunt was finished, Natalie and Myra gathered everyone together.

"Megan, it's time to open your gifts."

Megan made a bee line for the coffee table and was followed by her friends.

"Open mine first," Tammy said as she handed Megan her present.

Megan ripped the paper off revealing a red and blue friendship bracelet and a red sparkly bracelet draped over the head of a little stuffed bear.

"Cool. Thanks, Tammy." Megan said as she hugged Tammy.

Each of the other girls handed Megan their gifts, pleased to see she liked the medium sized Lego set, the two videotapes, the rather large sticker collection, complete with an album, a book about a young wizard, a small sea creature rubber stamp collection, and a golden necklace with a enamel dolphin hanging from the center of it.

Megan hugged each friend as she thanked them for their gift.

Before long the mothers arrived to pick up their children. The kids thanked Megan and Natalie for inviting them. Megan thanked them for coming and for the gifts.

Natalie and Myra cleaned up the mess while Megan checked out her gifts more closely.

Myra noticed that the three hour party had tired the two adults more than the kids.

"Myra, thanks for all the help," Natalie said.

"You're welcome. It was fun."

"Megan, did you have a nice time?" Natalie asked.

"I did. Thank you."

The next afternoon Megan balked at having to write thank you notes.

"Do I have to?"

"Yes. If you gave someone a gift, wouldn't you like it if they sent you a thank you note?"

"Yes. But I thanked them already."

"I know. But its just the way its done. You want them to give you a gift next time, right?"

Megan nodded. "Okay, okay. I'll go write them. What do I say?"

"Something like 'thank you for the lovely bracelets' or whatever they gave you. Make it sound like you mean it."

"Okay."

Megan went upstairs to her desk, sat down and started writing out her thank you's. About an hour later she finished and called Natalie upstairs to look at them.

Natalie walked upstairs, entered Megan's room and read each note.

"Very nice," Natalie said with a smile. "See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

"No."

Natalie helped Megan address each envelope.

When each thank you had been sealed in the right envelope and stamped, Natalie took them downstairs and put them near her briefcase so she'd remember to mail them in the morning, on her way to work.

Four months had passed since Natalie had become a mother. Natalie woke up with a killer headache. She felt the aches and pains as well and knew that the protease inhibitors were quickly losing their effectiveness. She was not happy because it would make motherhood much less fun, for both of them, not just her.

She called Dr. Banks to inform him and scheduled an appointment for later that morning, grateful that he could see her on such short notice.

She showered, dressed, and got Megan up, dressed, fed, and gave her the latest dose.

"Why aren't you taking your pills?"

"Because I have a doctor's appointment this morning and he might change my medication. By not taking my pills I can take any new ones, right away."

"Are you okay?" Megan asked concerned.

"I'm fine. This is just routine," Natalie said with a reassuring smile. She was pleased to see Megan accepted her explanation.

After dropping Megan off at school, Natalie headed for Dr. Bank's office, informing her office of the change enroute. She had to reassure them that it was just routine.

Natalie arrived at the doctor's office and was shown to an examination room. She changed and awaited Becky and the doctor's arrivals. She found herself wondering how sick will I become? How soon? How long before my next opportunistic infection? What will it be? How well will I recover? Will I recover? How long before I can't care for Megan? She hoped the answer to her questions was a long time from now, as much for Megan's sake as hers.

Becky entered to take Natalie's temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Natalie was relieved when all three were normal. Becky drew the standard blood sample to check Natalie's CD4 levels, viral load, and to make sure that there was no hidden infection.

"With all these samples I'm beginning to feel like a pin cushion." She realized how Nick must've felt.

Becky grinned.

Becky and Natalie talked about motherhood as Becky worked. Becky saw how much Natalie was enjoying it and was pleased for both her and Megan. Becky remembered how surprised she'd been when Natalie had told her about becoming a foster mom. She tried to remember when Natalie had told her, it had been during her monthly appointment about three or four months ago.

Once Becky had completed her work there, she left to tend to other patients.

Dr. Banks entered, noticing that his patient had a happiness about her he hadn't seen since before Nick's death. He knew her new daughter was responsible. He still had a little trouble believing she was a mom, but apparently it agreed with her.

"Hello. How are you?"

"Okay, except for this killer headache and the fact that the symptoms are returning. Everything was fine when I went to bed. This morning I awoke with the headache and the aches and pains."

"Any memory problems?" Dr. Banks asked, concerned.

"No."

"Any motor trouble?"

"No."

He listened to her lungs, pleased by what he heard. Her heart sounded strong and steady. "There's no signs of congestion."

"I think we'll discontinue the Crixivan and see if that's the culprit. If not, then we'll go back to it, and discontinue the Indinavir. If that doesn't work, then we'll discontinue both and go back to your old routine, with one exception. I want to try one other drug, Viramune. It just came out. Let me know if there are any problems and we'll reevaluate the treatment."

"Sounds good." She took the new prescription from him.

"When did you take your last dose?"

"Several hours ago."

He gave her her first dose of the new drug and kept her there to make sure there were no serious side effects. While she waited they talked about parenthood. He mentioned the positive effect it seem to have on her.

About thirty minutes later he sent her off to work since there were no immediate adverse affects to the new medication regimen. "I'll call when the results come back."

"Thanks," Natalie said.

Natalie stopped by the pharmacy she used before heading back to town, and work. Her prescription was waiting for her. She stuck it in her purse, so it wouldn't get misplaced or affected by the current weather conditions.

Natalie was sent out to the field as soon as she arrived at work, and in a way she was grateful as it would keep her mind off her recent doctor's appointment. It and Megan would keep her busy, so she wouldn't be able to think about Nick much or the wait for the test results.

Natalie was heading for the daycare center when Terri approached. Natalie knew she most likely would not like what her boss had to say by the expression she saw on Terri's face.

"Natalie, I know you're a single mom, but I really need you tonight. Patrick's come down with a nasty case of the stomach bug and can't come in."

"I can't."

"I know you have this weekend off. I'll make sure no one calls you unless there is an extreme disaster that calls everyone in the city in," Terri said, nearly begging.

"I'll work IF I can find someone to take Megan tonight," Natalie reluctantly said, knowing that someone had to be on duty at all times. "I don't want to leave her in daycare overnight."

"Fair enough. Let me know either way." Terri said on her way out.

Natalie called Myra.

"Myra, I just found out I have to work tonight. Is there anyway you could take Megan for the night?" Natalie hated to impose on her friends.

"No problem. Would you like one of us to come pick her up?" Myra knew that being either a medical examiner or a police officer led to unexpected overtime because it was an essential job, unlike many others where an absent employee doesn't really hurt the city.

"Thank you. You're a lifesaver, not to mention a sanity saver. If there's anything I do in exchange, let me know."

"I will," Myra said.

Natalie headed for the daycare center, needing to let Megan know what was going on.

"Natalie, hi." Megan said, seeing her walk in the door. "Are we going home?"

Natalie squatted down in front of Megan. "That's what I came to talk to you about. The person who was supposed to work tonight is sick, so I have to stay."

"Do I have to stay here?"

"No. You're going to go have a sleepover at the Schankes. If I don't get home in time to take you to school in the morning, Jenny will take you."

"What will I sleep in?"

"Jenny and Myra have the entry code to the loft and one of them will take you by there. Don't forget your bear, pajamas and toothbrush. Just in case I have to work through the morning, take whatever you want to wear tomorrow. Okay?"

"Okay. What about my story?"

"I can either tell you one right now, or you can have two tomorrow night."

"Can I have both?"

"No. You have to pick one."

"I want two tomorrow night."

Natalie grinned, pleased to see that Megan had taken the choice she thought she might. "You could ask Jenny if she knows any stories. I bet she does."

"Cool."

Natalie signed Megan out and they headed for the front door, where Myra was meeting them.

Natalie saw Myra arrive. "Hi, Myra. Thanks so much for helping out."

"No problem. It will be fun."

The three girls headed for Myra's car.

"Here's her medication and the schedule." Natalie said as she handed the small bag to Myra. Natalie had borrowed it from Megan's supply at daycare, promising to replace it tomorrow.

Myra quickly examined the containers and the schedule, pleased to see how clearly everything was either labeled or written out, before setting it on the middle console.

"I want you to be a good girl tonight. Listen to what Myra tells you to do," Natalie said to Megan.

"I will." Megan said as she hugged Natalie. Natalie happily returned the embrace.

Natalie helped Megan buckle her seatbelt, then shut the door after making sure Megan's hands and feet were inside the car.

Myra let herself and Megan into the loft, where she gave the little girl assistance with packing, but only as needed. She noticed that Megan seemed to be an interesting combination of mature for her age and very much a seven year old. She figured it was probably the AIDS that made her that way, as she had spent more time around adults and in hospitals than most kids her age did.

Before long Megan was ushered into the Schanke residence by Myra.

"How about a snack before bed?" Myra asked knowing it was close to Megan's set bedtime.

"Can I watch a little TV?"

"Okay, but only something appropriate for your age."

"I know. Natalie says that all the time."

Jenny came into the kitchen to grab herself a snack.

"Hi squirt."

"Hi, Jenny. Did your mom tell you, I get to spend the night here."

"Yeah, she did," Jenny said with a grin. "How would you like a story after you're in bed?"

"I'd love it."

Jenny knew she'd probably be able to come up with a story easier than her mom would.

"So, what have you been up to since last week?" Jenny said. She liked how mom had invited both Natalie and Megan to dinner any time they wanted to come, and how they came about once a week. She enjoyed the company of both of them, Megan being like the little sister she never had. She hated the fact that both her friends would die long before their time from AIDS.

Myra enjoyed watching the two girls together, pleased that they got along so well. She knew it was beneficial to both girls. She also knew how devastated her daughter would be when either Megan or Natalie died. Myra knew how much she'd hurt when it happened.

Jenny and Megan watched an episode of Happy Days together as they snacked. After the show ended, Myra entered.

"Megan, time for bed. Jenny, time to get back to your homework." She knew her daughter didn't need the reminder because she was an honor student, but didn't want to single Megan out, making her feel like a small child.

Megan went upstairs, brushed her teeth and changed into her pajamas.

Myra came upstairs to tuck her in and give her the medication Natalie had left for her. Megan took her medication without complaint. Then climbed into the guest bed.

"Did you know that Natalie has slept in this same bed?"

"No. Why?"

"After Nick died she was very sad and lonely. She missed Nick a lot. I invited her to spend time with us and she did."

"Did it help?"

"Yes. After a few days she felt a lot less sad, and a lot less lonely. She liked being around her friends. To feel loved." Myra looked at Megan's cute face and continued. "You're one of our friends. I hope you feel safe and loved here."

"I do. You're my friend too. Jenny and Don are too."

Myra saw Megan's expression change to a confused, concerned one. "What's wrong?"

"I love Natalie. Would my mom be hurt if I called someone else mom?"

Myra was a bit surprised and tried to cover it. "No. Your mom would understand. She would want you to be happy. That would make Natalie very happy."

"Thank you," Megan said as she gave Myra a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "You're really nice."

"Thank you, sweetie."

Jenny appeared in the doorway. "Ready for your story?"

"Yes. Natalie told me you might know a few stories."

"I do. When I was little, Nick and I would sometimes go out for an afternoon together. He would always tell me a story. I loved hearing those."

"I wish I had known him. He sounds really nice."

"He was. He was a really cool guy. He made Natalie very happy. He was also a really good partner to my dad."

"Megan, I'll see you in the morning," Myra said as she kissed the top of Megan's head.

"Night, Myra." Megan said.

"You have to lie down and close your eyes before I can start my story." Jenny said.

Megan quickly settled down and closed her eyes.

"This was one of my favorites," Jenny said as she started her story.

Jenny finished the story about the knight's search for the magical cup that would grant him his fondest desire right as she noticed Megan was soundly asleep. Smiling, she left the room.

Jenny went downstairs to find her mom.

"A part of me misses not having had a little sister, but a part of me liked having all the attention."

Myra smiled. "I know. Your dad and I had discussed giving you a sibling, but it just never happened."

"Were you too busy?" Jenny asked, hoping she wasn't prying too much.

"That was partially it, but there were other reasons too." Myra said, not sure how well Jenny would handle the truth. "Sit down and I'll tell you all about it."

Myra dried her hands and led her daughter to the family room couch.

"We wanted to have at least two, maybe three children. We had a lot of trouble conceiving you, so much that we thought we'd be one of those couples that couldn't have children." Off her daughter's worried look she continued, "it wasn't like most of the stories you see on TV or hear about. I just never seemed to become pregnant. About the time we were coming to the conclusion that it just wasn't going to happen, I became pregnant with you."

"Did I cause you trouble?"

"No. It was a normal pregnancy. We were so happy that we were going to be parents. Your dad was there when you were born, not caring what the staff thought. He helped out right from the start. At first holding such a tiny bundle terrified him. He was afraid he'd accidentally hurt you. Once he realized he couldn't, he loved taking care of you. I loved it because he was such a natural at it and it gave me time to get some much needed rest, and do some errands."

Jenny smiled. "Both of you have always been there for me. I know how lucky I am." Her expression changed. "I'm glad that Natalie and Megan are there for each other, and that we can help out when needed."

"So am I."

"When I first learned that Natalie had become Megan's foster mom, I wasn't sure it was a good idea. But, after watching them together, I can't think of a better pairing. Natalie's a great mom, which doesn't really surprise me. I knew she'd be one because she always took good care of me whenever you left me in her care," Jenny said.

"I too was surprised, but you're right. She's a great mom." Myra caught a glimpse of the time. "I'd better try and meet your father at the door. I couldn't catch him to let him know about our guest."

"Thanks for the talk," Jenny said as she gave her mom a quick hug. "I need to get back to studying."

Jenny went upstairs and Myra headed for the door.

A few minutes later, she saw the headlights and greeted her husband at the door with a warm embrace and a passionate kiss, which he all too happily returned.

"What has you in such a great mood?" He asked once the kiss broke off.

"We have a house guest tonight and she made me remember when Jenny was young."

"Megan? Is Natalie okay?" Don asked concerned, as he wrapped his arm around his wife and led her into the family room.

"She's fine. She had to work a double due to the flu hitting her department hard. She didn't want to leave Megan in daycare overnight." Myra said as she and her husband made themselves comfortable on the couch, his arm still wrapped around her shoulders.

"I'm glad that everything's okay. Does she make you want to have another one?"

"A little. It's nice having a little person around. Even Jenny likes it. Her comments about part of her wanting a sibling made me tell her about how we were about to give up on having a family when I became pregnant with her." Upon seeing her husband's surprised expression she continued, "don't worry. I didn't go into all the details. She really appreciated hearing about it."

"I knew Natalie would be a great mother. She has that great big loving heart."

Meanwhile, at a crime scene, Natalie shut her car door and headed for the officers. She noticed Vachon in the background watching over both herself and Tracy, a fact she found quite comforting.

Natalie approached the body and began her examination, jotting down notes as she went. A while later, Natalie finished her examination and headed for Tracy and her partner, Mark Roberts.

"It looks like a small caliber bullet entered the right temple. The bruises on her arms suggest a struggle. I'll have more for you later," Natalie said to Tracy and Mark.

"Thanks, Natalie," Tracy said. "How's motherhood?"

"I'm loving it. It's not perfect, but that's part of it's charm. She's a great little girl."

"I'm glad. It really agrees with you." Tracy was glad to see the light truly back in her friend's eyes. A light which had been missing since Nick's death.

"How is Megan doing? How are you?"

"We're both healthy and doing great."

"I'm glad. You two seem like you were meant for each other." Tracy noticed a fleeting sadness cross her friend's face. "I'm sorry if I reminded you of Nick."

"It's okay."

"What do you do on nights like this?"

"This is the first one. She's spending the night at the Schankes. It was better than leaving her in the daycare center." Natalie said. "I will have to work something out." Natalie knew that this wouldn't be an isolated occurrence.

Back at the coroner's office, Natalie found Vachon, seated in her chair, waiting for her.

"What can I do for you?" she asked.

"LaCroix wanted you to know that the hunter has been taken care of. The hunter tried to kill several of us at once, and that was his fatal mistake.

Natalie was a little surprised at the relief she felt, as well as the small sense of justice that the one that had forced Nick to move on had been dealt with so he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone else.

"I'm glad. Thanks for letting me know."

They talked for a few more minutes, motherhood creeping into the discussion. Vachon was glad to see her truly happy again, thinking she wouldn't be until she and Nick were reunited again.

The next afternoon, after a few hours of sleep, Natalie picked Megan up at school, as usual.

"How about taking a walk in the park? We could pick up some food and make a picnic out of it."

"Yes!" Megan said enthusiastically. She liked picnics.

They stopped at the grocery store to pick up Swiss cheese chunks and bottled water.

When they got to the park, Natalie pulled the emergency blanket out of her trunk and handed it to Megan. It was a soft, blue, thermal blanket. Natalie carried the food bag while Megan carried the blanket.

They walked around the park until they found a spot both liked.

"Unfold the blanket and swing it up in the air, like I do when putting on clean sheets," Natalie said. She knew how much Megan liked to help, so Natalielet her do as many simple things as she could.

Megan did what Natalie said but the blanket refused to lay out nicely.

"It doesn't work," she pouted.

"Try again," Natalie said encouragingly.

Megan tried again. It worked a little better this time. The blanket laid flat on the ground but was all bunched up.

"Good job. Now straighten the edges."

Megan straightened the edges of the cloth and then sat down on one side.

"Very nice," Natalie said as she sat down.

Natalie pulled their snack out of the bag. She took the top off the plastic cheese container. She opened Megan's water bottle before handing it to her, then opened her own.

"How was school?"

"Good. I got an A on my spelling test," Megan beamed.

"I'm proud of you," Natalie said, her tone reaffirming her words.

"I love you, mom," Megan said.

Natalie couldn't believe what she heard. It brought a tear to her eye. She wiped it away as it began its journey down her cheek.

"Did I say something wrong?" Megan asked concerned.

"No, sweetie. You made me very happy," Natalie said, a large smile on her face. She wrapped her daughter in a big bear hug.

"I love you too."

"I'm glad they paired us up," Megan said.

"Me too."

"Will you tell me a story?" Megan asked as she took a piece of cheese.

"Sure. What would you like to hear?"

"One of the stories you tell me at bedtime."

"Okay. Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess named Catherine who loved a handsome prince named Bryan. Bryan loved her as much as she loved him." Natalie popped a cheese cube into her mouth as she worked out the next part of the story.

Megan munched on the cheese as she eagerly listened to the fairy tale.

"One day the prince asked the princess to marry him. Catherine was *very* happy. She told Bryan she'd marry him. Now the prince was *very* happy. They told all their friends and family, who were glad to see them getting married. Everyone knew how much they loved each other. Catherine's mom and friends helped her get ready for the wedding." Natalie popped another cheese cube into her mouth, remembering her and Nick's wonderfully romantic wedding.

Natalie looked over at her daughter, pleased to see how engrossed in the story she was.

"Before long it was the day of the wedding. Both Catherine and Bryan were very nervous."

"Why? Didn't they want to get married?"

"They very much wanted to get married. Brides and grooms get nervous before a wedding."

"Did you get nervous? Did Nick?"

"Yes. I was very nervous. Once I was standing in front of the preacher I relaxed. The happiness I saw in Nick's face told me that everything would be okay. I also saw the same nervousness in his eyes as he saw in mine." Natalie thought a moment before continuing. "I think the reason we were nervous was because we knew we were doing what our hearts told us to, but a tiny part of our mind wasn't sure it was right, or that it would last."

"I think I understand. It's like I want ice cream, but I know its bad for me."

"I think its more like when you're excited about your birthday party, yet worried about it at the same time. Or when you know tomorrow is Christmas and you can't wait to see what Santa brought you. And wondering if you'll get the toys you want most."

"Okay. Now I understand. What happened in the story?"

"Bryan and Catherine arrived at the church for the wedding. Her friends helped her get her wedding dress on, her veil, made sure she looked great. Meanwhile his friends were helping him put on his tuxedo and fix his bow tie just right. Their family and friends arrived while the bride and groom were dressing. When Bryan was ready he took his place at the Altar. The music started to play. Catherine started to walk down the aisle, her father by her side. When they got to the Altar, he left and went to his seat. Catherine saw how handsome Bryan looked all dressed up. Bryan saw how beautiful Catherine looked in her wedding dress. She was holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers in her hands."

"Sounds pretty."

"It was. The church was decorated with a lot of lit candles providing soft light. Flowers decorated the seats, the aisles, the altar, and here and there around the room." Natalie said mixing her wedding with the expected fairy tale details. "Catherine and Bryan faced the preacher. He asked them if they loved each other and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. They both said yes. So the preacher said that they were now husband and wife. Catherine and Bryan kissed."

Natalie loved how Megan wrinkled her nose at that.

"What happened next?"

"They went to a big party being thrown for them. Got lots of gifts, had dinner, and then cut the wedding cake, sharing it with all their friends and family. Afterwards, they danced and after a few hours they left for their honeymoon."

"What's a honeymoon?"

"It's a trip that a new husband and wife take. They go somewhere they want to see. Nick and I went to Paris."

"Is that where that big tower is?"

"One of the big towers. This one is called the Eiffel Tower."

"That's the one I was thinking of. What other big towers are there?"

"There's Big Ben, the Tower of London, the CN Tower, and many more."

"Cool. What else do you do on a honeymoon."

"The husband and wife get to spend time alone together to do whatever they want. They can go sightseeing, they can have dinner in a fancy restaurant. They can sleep all day."

"Wow. How long do they get to do this?"

"Usually only a week or two. Then they have to go back to work."

"Does Catherine and Bryan live happily ever after?"

"Yes," Natalie said. At least in fairy tales they do.

"That was a great story, mom."

Natalie loved hearing 'mom'. After the diagnosis she was sure she'd never hear such a wonderful thing.

"Thanks. I've glad you liked it, sweetie. How about picking up the trash and then going over to the playground for a while?"

"Okay. Race you to the trash can," Megan said.

"You're on. You get a head start while I clean up."

"Okay."

Megan took off running while Natalie tossed the empty cheese container and water bottles back into the plastic bag. She hung the cloth over her arm.

Natalie ran to catch up with her daughter, but not pass her. She let Megan win, but not by much.

"I won!"

Natalie tossed the bag into the trash.

She and her daughter walked over to the playground.

"Will you push me on the swing?" Megan asked.

"Sure."

Megan surveyed the three empty swings and picked the one she liked best. She sat down, grabbed hold of the chain.

Natalie walked around behind her daughter and began to push her, gently. "Hold on tight."

"Okay. Harder, mom."

"Okay," Natalie said as she pushed Megan a bit harder.

Megan giggled as she pumped her legs to soar higher each time.

When Megan was doing just fine on her own, Natalie sat in the swing next to Megan and began to swing back and forth, pumping her legs to go higher. She watched as Megan tried to go as high as she could, giggling all the way. Natalie couldn't remember the last time she was on a swing. Natalie smiled enjoying the feeling of flying the swing gave her.

After a little while, Megan bored of swinging and ran to the monkey bars. Natalie followed behind her daughter. Megan climbed up the couple rungs and grabbed hold of the first overhead bar. She went hand over hand across the thing until she got halfway, then she fell, landing on her butt.

"You okay?" Natalie asked.

"I'm okay," Megan said as she stood. Her butt hurt a little but nothing worse than it did every time she'd fallen. "I want to make it across, just once."

"Want me to give you a lift so you can start where you left off?"

"Please."

Natalie wrapped her arms around her daughter's chest and lifted her up so she could grab onto the bars. As soon as she saw Megan had a secure grip she let go.

Megan made it the rest of the way across and climbed down the ladder on the other side.

"Good work," Natalie said.

"Thanks. I want to be able to go across without falling."

"Then I guess we'll just have to come here more often, won't we?" Natalie said playfully.

"Can we?"

"Sure."

Megan ran over to the towering play area. She climbed up to the very top, which was about nine feet off the ground. Once she was four feet up she had to cross a catwalk to get to the next ladder. It was totally enclosed, protecting her from falling. Megan climbed all the way to the top of the structure and crawled feet first into the twisty tube slide.

Natalie heard Megan giggling as she slid all the way down.

Megan started walking across the balance beam that was only inches from the ground and looked like a very elongated 's'. Her eyes lit up as it tilted from side to side as she walked causing her to fall off a couple of times. When she made it to the end she turned around and walked back, this time doing much better.

When she reached the end, Natalie applauded her. Megan smiled and headed back for the tower. She climbed up the tower a different way, walked across the catwalk and crawled into the slide feet first. Again she giggled as she slid down the spiral slide.

Natalie enjoyed watching Megan playing.

One night Nick was out for a walk and saw a mother and daughter walking down the street, laughing, enjoying being with each other. Nick guessed that the little girl was about Megan's age, while the mom was about Natalie's age.

Nick missed Natalie, but was glad she and Megan were happy. He knew it was the normal life she deserved to have, and the one thing he could not give her, a child. At least not one in the mortal sense.

A part of Nick wished he could meet Megan. That the three of them could be a happy family. He knew it could never be.

A month later Natalie woke up with a headache. She saw the concern in Megan's eyes as she helped Megan tie her shoe.

"You okay?" Megan asked, concerned.

"I'm okay. I just have a headache." Natalie said as she handed Megan her medication, one at a time.

Megan noticed that Natalie wasn't taking her medication. "Are you going to the doctor?"

"Yes. He'll probably give me some new medication to try." Natalie noticed that Megan was more concerned about her than the last time. Natalie explained to her in kid friendly terms how sometimes drugs and people don't match and it takes a few tries before the proper match was found.

Megan listened and wasn't sure what to think.

Natalie noticed Megan's uncertainty. "I promise I'll tell you when I get sick, or there is some other problem that will affect us both."

"Okay."

"Go get your backpack," Natalie said.

Natalie called into work while Megan went upstairs to grab her backpack. Grace answered and was concerned, but Natalie managed to reassure her that she and Megan were both fine.

After Natalie dropped Megan off at school she headed for Dr. Banks' office.

Dr. Banks did a thorough examination, including having Becky draw blood to rule out any possible opportunistic infections.

To Natalie's great relief, he found nothing wrong. She knew she'd have to wait for the blood test results to be assured that she was okay.

He decided to take her off the Indinavir but keep her on the Viramune, the Retrovir, the Epivir and the Videx because that combination seemed to be working fine. He told her that if she had any more problems to call him and they'd try another combination. And that if there were no problems, he'd see her next month.

Grace gave Natalie a thorough once over when her friend arrived at work.

"I'm fine, Grace. Really," Natalie said. "I just needed my medication adjusted. It happens."

"Okay. Promise me you'll tell me when..."

"I promise," Natalie said, cutting her friend off, knowing where she was going.

Grace was satisfied that Natalie and Megan were okay, and left to go about her work.

Natalie liked that her friends cared about her. They were the closest she had to family, outside of her late brother's wife and daughter.

The next morning at the morgue, Natalie was writing up the Parker case when she felt her mind wandering and decided not to fight it, curious to see where it would lead her.

When should I tell Nick? What should I tell him? I know I promised to inform him when my condition changed, but it will only make him worry more. He can't come back, she thought.

Tracy entered looking for a report.

"Hi, Natalie. Do you have the Anderson report?"

"I just got in. Give me a second," Natalie snapped, startling Tracy.

"Take your time."

"I'm sorry. It's been a rough two days," Natalie said, feeling bad for biting Tracy's head off without a reason.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I'm having some problems with the drugs I've been taking."

"Sorry to hear that. Is there anything they can do?"

"Just keep trying different combinations, and new drugs as they come out. What's new with you?"

"Not much. How do you know when it's true love?"

Natalie was caught totally by surprise and knew it probably showed on her face.

"Vachon?"

"Yes."

"I don't know. You just know. For me it was when I couldn't think of being with anyone else," Natalie said.

"I know that feeling. I don't know if he shares the same feeling. I know he likes me, but I don't know how deep the feelings go. There are the times I want to kill him for doing something stupid, or forgetting something important."

"I know those feelings well." Natalie grinned. "You can't push it. He'll show his feelings when he's ready. And in whatever fashion he feels comfortable doing it."

Natalie found the Anderson file and scanned it.

"I can have the report for you by tomorrow night."

"I'll stop by then. Thanks for the advice."

A few nights later Natalie was once again back at Dr. Banks' office due to more side effects. This time they were making her really nauseous, and generally miserable feeling. This one had Megan even more worried because it looked like her mom was getting sick. Natalie had had a hard time convincing Megan that she was okay, that it was the drugs making her feel bad.

Dr. Banks and Natalie decided to try one more combination. The new drug cocktail was Retrovir, Epivir, and Viracept. The Viracept was a protease inhibitor like the Crixivan had been. Dr. Banks made the necessary adjustment to Natalie's Retrovir dosage, due to the addition of Viracept.

Natalie was glad she no longer took the Videx as it had to be taken two hours before or after she ate, depending on how the dosing schedule worked out.

Both Natalie and Dr. Banks hoped this new combination worked as they were running out of options. The remaining drugs either didn't have much known about them, had a high incidence of serious adverse effects (including death). Another last hope choice was to go back to the original cocktail. The very last hope was that new and more powerful drugs would be created, without all the nasty adverse effects.

Over the next few days Natalie found herself becoming quite irritable. She snapped at Megan and then felt really bad. She apologized, explaining that it was her body getting used to the new combination, and that it would stop in a few days, once her body was used to the new drug cocktail. She was grateful when Megan understood. Natalie also found herself letting Megan watch a little extra TV or have an extra piece of sugar-free candy, whenever she snapped at her daughter for no reason. Natalie snapped at quite a few of her coworkers with no real provocation and quickly apologized.

Grace was concerned about her and approached Natalie in the parking lot.

"Hi, Grace. "

"Hi, Natalie. What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

Grace gave her that look which said, 'I don't believe you'.

"I'm running out of drugs combinations. All the recent ones have done is give me wicked headaches, make me nauseous, or feel miserable. They do nothing to help my fight."

"I'm sorry to hear that. What will happen now?"

"Now, it's just wait and see. As long this cocktail keeps working, I should be okay. If not, I'll have to try some of the newer ones with little known about them, or the ones with serious adverse effects. Maybe a new drug will be invented that I can tolerate and without all the nasty side effects."

"I hope they keep working. At least until something better comes along."

"Thanks. So do I."

That night Natalie asked Jenny to baby-sit so she could go see her support group. Jenny understood and agreed to help. Natalie really needed to talk to her group, especially since she had not been as often since becoming a mom. Part of the reason was the half hour commute each way.

"Hi, Natalie," all the regulars said as they saw her enter.

"We were just welcoming our newest member, Holly."

"Hi, Holly. I'm Natalie," she said as she grabbed a couple of sugar free chocolate chip cookies and cup of coffee.

Mel and Lisa pushed out their chairs to make room for Natalie. Mel grabbed the nearest chair and set it between them for her.

"I thought it couldn't happen to me. That I'd be able to tell if the guy I was sleeping with was infected. I was wrong. My boyfriend of two years had it but neither of us knew it. He looked healthy, completely normal. One night we forgot our protection. And now I'm going to pay for it with my life," Holly said a mixture of anger and sadness.

Lisa gave Holly a hug, sensing it was exactly what Holly needed. Holly's returning the embrace showed Lisa that her instinct had been right on target.

"The drugs they have now are much better than they did nine years ago, when I contracted HIV. They can slow down the progression, and in some cases prevent it from progressing," Natalie said. "Sometimes they can make the viral load undetectable. Even keep it at that level."

"How did you contract it?" Holly asked, hoping she wasn't out of line.

"I was raped," Natalie said, trying to sound as neutral as possible, and mostly succeeding.

"I think I remember reading about you in the paper. I remember reading about the attack and the trial. Wasn't there something more recent where you told your coworkers?" Holly inquired.

"Yes. They were figuring it out. I told everyone to counteract all the erroneous rumors floating around."

"How did they handle it?" Holly asked

"At first, they didn't know what to make of it. I held a staff meeting where I told them that I had AIDS, that I was no danger to them or my work, and then I answered all their questions. Most accepted that and went on like normal, but some wouldn't have anything to do with me. Most of those came around with time, but few still won't have anything to do with me. I don't regret it. It has made my life much simpler, as I don't have to come up with cover stories and then remember what I said to whom, or worry that they will find out and have to worry how they'll take the news."

"I admire you for pressing charges against your assailant, and recently, for publicly admitting you have AIDS."

"Thank you, Holly," Natalie said with a grin, which quickly faded as she continued. "How long have you known you're HIV positive?"

"About a month. I couldn't deal with it, and hoped that coming here would help. That it wouldn't be a major mistake."

"This group is great! They've helped me so much over the years," Natalie said. "I wish I had found out about them sooner."

"We try to help each other when we need it. We all know how difficult it is, either from personal experience or from watching a friend or loved one go through it," Lisa said.

"Are you and your boyfriend still together?" Natalie asked.

"Yes. We had a very rough period, but we decided that we truly loved each other and would stay together until the end."

"I'm glad to hear that," Mel said. He knew how many relationships were shattered by the diagnosis.

"Natalie, what brings you here tonight?" Mel knew she hadn't been here often since motherhood, and that it wasn't one of the usual nights.

"I needed to talk to you guys. The latest combination failed. It made me quite nauseous, and generally miserable. I'm trying a new combination, the last one before the unknown and undesirable drugs."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I hope this combination works," Lisa said. "How's motherhood? How's Megan doing?"

"It's great. It's not perfect, but I don't care. I love being a mom. Megan's doing great. Her counts are stable, at the high end of the midrange. She's now seven years old and loving every minute of it."

"Did you have a baby knowing you had AIDS?" Holly asked stunned.

"No. I'm a foster mom. There was no where for Megan to go, so I was asked if I'd take her. They knew I'd never been a foster mom before, but the recommendation of Megan's doctor, an old friend of mine was enough for them." Natalie knew what question Holly was about to ask. "Yes, Megan has AIDS. She caught it from her father during a car accident."

"I think it's great you took Megan in," Holly said. "Are there a lot of kids like Megan?"

"With AIDS or orphans because of it?" Natalie asked.

"Both."

"There are too many kids like Megan. Too many orphans from the disease," Natalie sadly said. "The last statistics I read were a few years back. Somewhere between 2010 and 2020 there will be over 40 million orphans due to AIDS. Each day 1,800 kids are infected around the world. It's the fifth leading cause of death for one to five year olds and the seventh leading cause of childhood death for fifteen to twenty-four year olds. Women are catching it more often than men these days."

"Wow, I didn't realize that," Holly said, somewhat stunned.

"Guys, do you know any place that allows kids with AIDS to get together in a non-medical setting? Megan needs to see that other kids have it, ones that aren't sick, that are enjoying their lives," Natalie asked.

"There are a couple of camps. Is Megan having a problem?" Lisa asked.

"Most of the time she's fine, but like us, it gets to her now and then. She wants to be a normal kid, but thinks that the disease prevents it. That the medications prevent it. We've talked about it and she seems to understand that she's not that different from those that have to take medications for other illnesses, diseases."

"I'll see what I can find out about the camps. Want me to send you the info?" Lisa asked.

"Please. Thank you." Natalie paused a moment before continuing. "Sometimes I wonder which of us will outlive the other. I know Megan thinks about it, having lost her dad to AIDS. I'm not sure if it would be better for me to outlive her or her to outlive me. I don't want to see her hurt like that. I know I'll probably outlive her. I don't want to see her suffer as the disease progresses."

A week later, Natalie was glad Megan wanted to spend the night at the Schankes' as she really needed to go out and do something a bit wild on her night off. Natalie found herself taking her Harley to the Raven. She hoped taking the bike was not a mistake. It did not offer the same protection as a car, but, on the other hand, it could go faster and was much more maneuverable. Then again, any vampire could out maneuver it.

Natalie needed to do something physical in the hopes of working off some of her anger and frustration. She hoped dancing would help. She was not looking forward to encountering LaCroix.

She approached the bouncer, who let her pass, much to the surprise of those in line. As she approached the bar, she saw Vachon and Tracy talking and altered her course to meet up with them. She handed her helmet and gloves to Miklos, who stashed them under the bar.

"Hi, Natalie. What brings you here?" Vachon asked as she neared. "You look beautiful."

"Thanks. I needed to do something different. Something physical." Natalie had not had anyone tell her she was beautiful in quite some time.

LaCroix left his sound booth and headed for the bar. Natalie could feel his approach. Cold shivers went down her spine as she steeled herself for the confrontation.

"Welcome, Natalie. May I get you something to drink?"

"I'm fine, thanks." She had been wary of him since he had drugged her that night in Azure.

"You're looking lovely tonight," LaCroix said.

Natalie found it odd that there was no hidden threat or any of his usual undercurrents in his voice. Also that he did not call her Doctor Lambert as he almost always did.

"Thank you."

"If you will excuse me, the commercials are ending and I must get back to my show," LaCroix said as he headed back for his recording studio.

Both Vachon and Tracy were surprised that Natalie and LaCroix knew each other. Vachon realized that it would have been strange for them not to have met considering how many years Nick and Natalie were together. He also picked up on the dislike between Natalie and LaCroix.

"How did you meet?" Tracy asked, not knowing that LaCroix was both a vampire and Nick's master.

"At a dinner party many years ago," Natalie said, stretching the truth a bit. She did not want to go into the whole story, especially not here and now. She was no longer afraid of what LaCroix might do to her. She knew the Schankes would look after Megan. Natalie knew that if LaCroix killed her, he would lose Nick forever. If he brought her across, she and Nick would deal with it. If he did nothing, things would continue on and she would likely die from AIDS. She wondered if LaCroix could hear her from inside his soundproof broadcasting booth.

"How well do you know him?" Tracy asked, curious.

"Not very well, and I'd like to keep it that way. I've run into him a few times over the years," Natalie said, hoping Tracy was not going to play matchmaker. And many of those times I'm sure my death or conversion was on his mind, she thought.

"Vachon, can I talk to you alone for a moment?" Natalie asked.

"Sure."

Vachon and Natalie walked out of Tracy's earshot.

"How much have you told her about your kind? I do not want her setting me up with LaCroix. It would be very unhealthy for me."

"She knows some, but much less than you do. What is between you and LaCroix?"

"You need to fill her in on a few things, for her own safety. LaCroix did not like my relationship with Nick, especially our marriage. And he liked the fact that I was helping Nick in his mortality quest even less. At the same time he finds me interesting, an intellectual challenge. I think he even likes how I've stood up to him a few times in the past."

"Now I'm beginning to see why Nick asked me to look after you. It was to protect you from our kind as well as others of yours. It would seem as if I should watch LaCroix especially."

"If he does anything to me, don't fight him. He can easily kill you. Contact Nick. Promise?" Natalie said seriously.

"I promise."

"I think we'd better get back to Tracy before she decides to come see what we're up to."

"Sometime you have to tell me the dinner story," Vachon said, his curiosity having been aroused by what he'd heard so far and what he knew about Natalie and LaCroix.

"Okay."

They headed back to Tracy. Natalie thought she detected a trace of jealousy in Tracy's expression.

"Sorry about that. Would either of you two lovely ladies like to dance?"

"Sure," both women replied.

The three of them headed for the dance floor. Vachon was not much into dancing but did want to make his companions happy. The three of them danced the night away.

Natalie relaxed and enjoyed herself, knowing that sometime in the near future she would not feel up to such things anymore. She pushed away the sadness, anger and frustration that idea brought out. She had nothing alcoholic to drink that night for a variety of reasons, including her near miss with Spark, Janette not being there to watch over her, she surely did not trust LaCroix, and she didn't want the alcohol to interfere with her medication. She realized that she missed Janette a bit. She knew Nick would be mad at her for purposely being in the Raven with LaCroix, but would be pleased that she was enjoying herself, and that Vachon was keeping an eye on her.

Tracy and Vachon were still a little surprised at this side of Natalie as well as the fact that she was a good dancer.

After several hours Natalie tired and knew it was time to leave. She felt much better than she had when she entered. She had worked out her anger and frustration, and would now be able to concentrate on the important things ahead, mainly staying healthy, being a good mom, finding the cure for Nick, and maybe a lead on one for Megan and herself.

"I've gotta run. This was fun."

"Be careful going home," Vachon said, to Natalie.

"I will be."

Natalie turned towards the door and found LaCroix standing in her path.

"Leaving so soon? I had hoped we could talk," LaCroix said. "About parenthood, among other things."

"I have to catch some sleep. I have a busy day tomorrow. Maybe some other time," Natalie said calmly. She wasn't about to discuss parenthood with him. Although, it might be interesting to hear his views, she thought, a little curious, but not enough to make her stay.

"Yes. Some other time."

Natalie walked past LaCroix, across the club, picked up her helmet and gloves as she passed the bar and thanked Miklos. She continued on until she was at her bike. She slipped on her gloves and helmet before starting her Harley and getting out of there, careful not to speed as she did not want LaCroix to sense anything out of the ordinary in her exit.

The next morning shortly before Natalie and Megan were due to leave for work and school, the phone rang.

"Lambert," Natalie said, answering on the third ring.

"Natalie, this is Terri. We need you back on nights." When Terri heard the silence she knew she had to do something. "It will give you more time to spend with Megan."

Natalie thought it over and realized Terri was right.

"Okay. When do you want me to start?"

"Tomorrow night?" Terri asked, hoping Natalie would agree.

"That will be tough. I'll see what I can do. If not then, I will be in the next night. I will let you know either way."

"Fair enough. Thanks."

As soon as Natalie hung up, she called Myra.

"Myra, I have a problem." Natalie knew Myra would think it was something medical. "Megan and I are fine. Honest. I have to go back to the nightshift tomorrow night, which means I'll be working while Megan's sleeping."

"Why don't you let her sleep here if she wants to. One more person won't be a problem. It will give her and Jenny more time together. I like having a youngster around, especially a bright one like Megan."

"Thank you. I wasn't sure what to do." Natalie realized that left one important chore. "Want me to swing by and drop her off at school?"

Myra knew Natalie would be finishing her shift and would be tired. "Don't bother. Jenny can drop her off on her way to school."

"Thanks. Thank Jenny for me. I'll pick Megan up after school."

Natalie picked Megan up at school on time and as they drove home Natalie wondered how to bring up the subject.

"Is something wrong?" Megan asked.

"No. I do have something to discuss with you." Natalie said before continuing. "They need me back on the night shift. This means I'd be working while you're sleeping. It would give us more time together during the day."

"How? When would you sleep?"

"I'd sleep while you're in school."

"Where would I sleep?"

"You can stay at the loft with a sitter, you can sleep at the daycare center or you can sleep at the Schankes."

"I'd like to stay at the Schankes. They're really nice."

"Yes, they are. Okay. Then I'll drop you off on my way to work and pick you up after school. Jenny will take you to school. Be a good girl. Okay?"

"I will. I promise."

"Listen to them like you would listen to me."

"I will."

The next evening shortly after dinner, Natalie helped Megan pack a few pairs of pajamas into a suitcase along with underwear, and her outfit for the next day. Megan made sure to grab her teddy bear before they left the loft.

Myra greeted Natalie and Megan at the door and ushered them into the family room.

"Welcome. Megan, I hope you'll feel at home here. If you ever want or need anything just ask. Okay?" Myra knew that this couldn't be easy on Megan, but at least she was staying somewhere she knew.

"Okay. Thank you."

"Myra, here's an ample supply of her medication along with instructions. If you have any questions, or problems feel free to call me," Natalie said as she handed her friend a small box.

"I will."

Jenny entered the family room, having just come home from Tyra's house.

"Welcome squirt. I'm glad you'll be staying here."

"Me too."

Natalie bent down in front of her daughter. "I have to go to work. I'll see you later this afternoon."

"Bye, mom," Megan said.

"Bye, sweetie," Natalie said, not wanting to make a big deal out of this so she hugged Megan and gave her a kiss.

Megan gave her mom a hug and kiss.

Myra and Natalie talked as they walked to the door.

"Thanks again for letting her spend the night here. I don't know what I would do without you guys."

"I'm glad we could help. As I said, I love having a little one around." Myra looked over at the two kids. "It's obvious they love it too."

As soon as Natalie left, Jenny motioned for Megan to follow her.

"Come on upstairs. I'll help you put your stuff away. We cleared out a drawer and some closet space for you."

"Will you tell me a story every night?" Megan asked. "I love your stories."

Jenny grinned. "Sure. But only after you've done everything you need to and are in bed with your eyes shut."

"Okay."

Tracy stopped by the Coroner's Office and heard that Natalie had been reassigned to the night shift. A part of Tracy was a little surprised and a part of her knew that Natalie and the night belonged together.

Once you work something for so many years, it's hard to switch, Tracy thought. She wondered how night shifts and parenthood would work.

Natalie had missed the quietness of the night, the emptiness of the building and the time to devote to her research.

Tracy stopped by the Coroner's Office again, on her way home and saw Natalie arriving.

"Hi, Natalie. I heard you're back to nights."

"Yeah. Terri needed me here, so I agreed to the switch. Besides, I found working days to be too alien. I missed the nights. Guess I worked them too long to switch."

"How is this going to affect yours and Megan's lives?"

"Not too much. She sleeps at the Schankes. Jenny drops her off at the elementary school on her way to the high school. I sleep while Megan's in school and pick her up afterwards, dropping her off at the Schankes' on my way in. Megan and I will probably wind up spending more time together than we did before. We'll have the whole afternoon and most of the evening together. Before it was just, from when I picked her up at school to when I dropped her at the day care center, part of the evening and a little time in the morning."

"That does sound like you two got the better end of the deal with the new shift."

"I agree."

Later that evening, Natalie was working on her paperwork when Grace entered.

"Welcome back to the graveyard shift, Natalie," Grace said with a smile.

"Thanks. Welcome back, yourself," Natalie said, returning the smile. She was glad Terri had kept the two of them together.

Natalie's beeper went off. She looked down and headed out to collect the test results. "Sorry to mess up your schedule again."

"No problem," Grace said as her friend headed down the hall. She and Natalie were a good team, so she didn't mind the switch back to nights. It was less hectic, which was fine with her.

Before long a body was brought in. Natalie examined the report before performing the autopsy.

Afterwards she and Grace headed for their favorite restaurant for dinner. Over dinner they talked about anything and everything, enjoying the chance for a somewhat relaxed dinner. Lunch was usually too hectic to do more than grab something quick, sometimes eating it at their desks or on the run.

It was a slow night in the Coroner's Office and Natalie was grateful, as it allowed her to catch up on her paperwork and do some work on both her side projects. Nick's cure was the highest priority. She did not want to die without fulfilling her promise to him.

Both projects were greatly frustrating Natalie, causing her to momentarily wonder why she worked on them at all. She knew how important both were. She had made some progress on Nick's cure and was testing her latest theory on his newest blood sample.

Natalie's mind wandered off, despite her efforts to keep it on track. She found herself missing Nick and wondering what he was up to at that exact moment.

The phone's ring startled Natalie back to the present. She answered it, scribbled down an address and grabbed her jacket.

Elsewhere, Nick was seated at his desk in his university office grading papers. He was really enjoying his new life, but really missed Natalie.

He opened his desk and pulled two pictures out of their hiding spot. One was of Natalie and the other was of Natalie and Megan. He smiled as he looked at it. He could see the love between mother and daughter, and their happiness at being a family. Next he pulled out the last tucked away picture, one of the Schankes'. As he looked at it, he remembered how they always made him feel like one of the family. He tucked the Schankes' picture back into its secret spot along with the one of Natalie and Megan, but kept Natalie's out. He propped it up against the stack of papers as he went back to work. He liked having her look at him while he worked. He wondered what she was doing.

Natalie had a surprise for Megan when she woke up. Megan went downstairs to watch her favorite cartoon and found Natalie in the kitchen fixing breakfast.

"Good morning," Natalie said with a smile. "I have a surprise for you."

"What?" Megan asked curiously. She loved surprises, unless they had to do with her illness.

"I thought we'd go on a trip."

"Where?"

"It's a surprise. We're leaving this afternoon."

"When are coming back?"

"In a week."

"Don't you have to work?"

"I have a lot of vacation time I never used. So I'm using some of it. Grace, Myra, Don, and my boss have been trying to get me to take a vacation for quite a while now." Natalie knew they needed a break. Some time away from work and school.

"I get to miss school?" Megan asked confused.

"Yes. Do you mind?"

"No. I will miss my friends, but not my homework."

Natalie tried really hard not to laugh, and succeeded.

Megan set the table while Natalie fixed breakfast.

After breakfast, Natalie and Megan worked to pack their suitcases. Natalie helped Megan, and Megan helped Natalie, with Natalie doing most of the work.

Natalie made sure they had plenty of their medication, in the original containers in case they had a problem with airport security.

They took their next dose before Natalie started carrying their three bags down to the car. Megan carried her own backpack down. Natalie checked the loft to make sure everything that was supposed to be off, was turned off. She knew her friends would stop by and check on things, but it helped her own peace of mind to know she wasn't leaving anything turned on that should've been off.

Megan grabbed her teddy bear and entered the lift with her mom. Once outside the loft, Natalie armed the security system, and headed for the car, Megan right beside her.

Once Natalie made sure Megan was safely buckled into the car, she started the engine and they headed out.

Natalie checked their two large bags to make travel much easier. She kept their medication in her carry on bag, not wanting to risk it getting lost. She knew they could've carried on their bags, but it would've been difficult, especially for Megan. Megan kept her backpack, which contained a couple of lightweight paperback books, her new CD player, three different music CD's, a small pad of paper and a box of thirty-two crayons to keep her busy as well as a couple of snacks.

Natalie was given the boarding passes for the round trip for both her and Megan.

Once that was done, she and Megan headed to the airline's private club. It would be a much better place for them to spend the next hour. Megan could watch TV while sitting on a nice soft padded chair.

She was thankful for Nick's gift because she could make their vacation truly enjoyable without having to worry about how she'd pay for it all later.

After the cartoon ended Megan grew bored and wandered over to the window. Natalie walked over to her.

"What do you see?"

"That plane," Megan pointed to a plane that was being pulled up to the gate next to the window. The gate on the other side of the window was empty. "That one's leaving," Megan said as she pointed to the one at the next gate.

Megan watched the planes fascinated by how the went really fast before the nose rose and then the rest of the plane lifted off from the ground, or how rear of the plane touched down before the nose did, completely the reverse of take off.

"Is that our plane?" Megan asked, pointing to the plane that had just arrived at the gate.

Natalie looked at her watch and saw that they had half an hour to go. "No. I bet ours will pull into this gate right here."

About fifteen minutes later, a plane pulled into the empty gate. That was Natalie's cue to keep a close eye on the time.

When it was almost time to leave, she asked Megan if she had to use the bathroom, reminding her that if she didn't go now, she'd have to wait until they were up in the air. Megan said she didn't have to go.

Megan watched all the people as they walked to the gate. She immediately headed over to the window, Natalie right beside her.

"What are they doing?"

"They're loading the luggage onto the plane."

"What are they doing?" Megan pointed towards the front of the plane.

"They're stocking the kitchen with food for us during the trip."

Natalie was allowed to board first because of Megan, and because they were flying first class. She figured she had the money, so why not?

They walked onto the plane and to their third row seat.

"Would you like the window or the aisle?"

"Window!" she enthusiastically called out.

"Okay," Natalie said with a slight chuckle. She didn't mind giving up her favorite seat because she'd be able to see over Megan's head just fine.

She helped Megan out of the backpack and showed her how to stow it under the seat in front of her.

"It has to stay there until we're up in the air. I'll let you know when you can pull it out."

Natalie stowed her soft sided bag under the seat in front of her. Next, she helped Megan get securely buckled into her seat, before fastening her own seat belt.

After a few moments Megan grew bored. There was nothing new to see out the window.

"Why don't you tell me a story?"

"Okay," Megan said as she thought up one. "I can't think of one," she pouted.

"That's okay."

Just then Megan felt the plane shake, and then it began to slowly move. Megan's attention was glued to the window as she saw them push away from the gate, head over to the runway.

"Chew this. It will help keep your ears from hurting."

"Okay," Megan said as she took the piece of sugar-free grape bubble gum from her mom. She unwrapped it and started chewing on it, seeing her mom do the same.

"No bubbles."

"Okay," Megan said pouting.

Before long the engines revved and the plane raced forward, lifting off. It climbed higher and higher.

Megan loved the view out the window as everything grew smaller and smaller until she could see nothing but clouds.

Natalie told Megan she could pull out her backpack, which she did. She pulled out a book and started to read, quietly to herself.

Natalie flipped through the inflight magazine, stopping now and then whenever Megan needed help with a word.

After a couple of hours they landed in Atlanta and had to change planes.

The next leg of the flight went as smoothly. They landed right on time. Natalie looked around to make sure they had everything. They left the plane and headed for the luggage claim area. They only had to wait a few minutes for their bags to come down the chute. Natalie was glad as she could see Megan getting figidty.

"Keep your eye out for our bags. As soon as we get them we can go to the hotel."

"Okay."

Shortly they had their bags and headed for the car rental counter. Natalie rented a full sized car.

They stowed their stuff in the trunk, stripped off their jackets, settled in, buckled their seatbelts and headed for the hotel. They had to go from the midpoint on the island to the far end where Sapphire Bay was located.

Natalie and Megan talked during the twenty minute drive to their hotel. Natalie told Megan about the island, and pointed out interesting plant life they passed, as well as the ocean when they could see it.

They checked in and carried their bags to their downstairs unit. Each until was a self-contained apartment with maid service, phone, tv, a full kitchen, all the things you find in a hotel, with the exception of room service.

"Can we go to the beach?" Megan asked.

"As soon as we change and have something to eat."

"Okay."

They dropped bags in the bedroom. Natalie unpacked their bathing suits and a long t-shirt and flip flops. Next she pulled out their medications, took out a single dose of each medication. When they had taken that one, she proceeded to repeat the process with each drug until they were finished. She tucked away the bottles back into the bag. She fetched a bucket of ice and poured most of it around the one that needed refrigeration, so that the mini cooler would keep it cold. Once the drugs had been properly stowed, she and Megan changed into their swimsuits.

They slipped into their flip flops, threw on their overshirts, sunglasses and headed down to the beach. Natalie made sure she had her camera and key before closing and locking the front door.

They made a pit stop at the gift shop to buy a strong, waterproof, non greasy sunscreen. Megan found a package consisting of bucket, shovel, molds for playing in the sand. She showed it to Natalie, who added it to the things they'd be buying. Natalie and Megan each picked out a hat they liked.

Natalie charged their purchases to the room and escorted Megan out of the shop.

As soon as they got outside onto the beach, Megan headed straight for the water. Natalie grabbed a couple of beach towels from the stack right outside the door. She looked for two empty chairs while keeping an eye on Megan.

"Come back here. You need sunscreen first. You don't want to get sunburned, do you? Then you'd have to spend the rest of the week in the room."

"I don't want that," Megan said as she slipped off her t-shirt. Her one piece swim suit was different shades of pink from top to bottom in a subtle color shift.

Megan dropped her shirt onto the chair before sitting down on it.

"Squirt this all over your arms and legs and rub it in so you don't see any of the color. Don't miss anywhere. Don't get it into your eyes because it will hurt."

"Okay."

Natalie handed Megan the bottle of kid suntan lotion. Megan squirted the lotion on her leg and made sure it turned blue all over. She rubbed it in so the blue disappeared before moving onto her other leg, then her arms.

Natalie took off her t-shirt revealing her one piece tie dye pattern. The suit was cut not too high at the thigh and not too low in the front. It had a racing back. She spread her sunscreen all over herself, not wanting to burn. She couldn't adequately do her back.

"Megan, can you squirt some onto my back. Make sure you rub it all over, including right under the edges of my suit, and the straps. Okay?"

"Okay." Megan took the bottle from Natalie and squirted a fair amount onto her back. She carefully rubbed it in all across her mom's back, going under the edges of her swimsuit, and under the straps.

"Thank you. Hand me your bottle and I'll do your back for you," Natalie said.

Megan handed her the bottle and Natalie spread the sunscreen all over Megan's back, shoulders, under her arms, her neck, and the tops of her feet. Anywhere she figured Megan might've missed.

"Close your eyes and keep them closed while I put this on your face."

Natalie squirted some into her hand, spreading it between her two hands she applied it to Megan's face, being sure to give her nose an extra good coating as that was usually one of the first places to burn.

"All done," Natalie said.

Megan grabbed her bucket and headed for the damp sand near the water. Natalie followed right behind her, snapping a shot or two of Megan with the waterproof camera she'd bought just for the trip.

"Have you ever made a sandcastle before?" Megan asked.

"Not for a very long time. Can I help?"

"Sure."

Mother and daughter played in the sand, building a large castle, patching up cracks as needed. It wouldn't win any beauty awards but they didn't care. They were having fun.

"I'm hungry," Megan said.

"Me too. Are we finished here?"

Megan surveyed their castle. "Yeah."

"Brush yourself off, go put on your shirt and shoes. You might want your hat and glasses too."

Both Megan and Natalie brushed the sand off their hands and legs as they stood. They headed back to their towel to grab their stuff.

They headed out in search of a restaurant that they could dine in as they were. They found the outdoor restaurant. They entered and were shown to a table for two. They looked around and noticed that at least half the crowd was dressed in beach attire.

They ordered a very late lunch. Megan liked having more foods to choose from. They washed their hands while they waited for the food to arrive.

The food came and they ate.

"What would you like to do after we eat?" Natalie asked Megan.

"Can we go back to the beach?"

"Sure." Natalie hoped they'd be down there long enough to see the sunset.

Megan was the first one done and couldn't wait to get back to the beach.

"This is a prettier beach than were my parents took me."

"I'm glad you like it. The Caribbean is known for its white beaches and clear water."

Natalie charged their meal to the room. Once that had been done she and Megan headed back to the beach.

Megan wandered down to the edge. She stood where the waves were just reaching and giggled as the water splashed up around her ankles then receded until the next small wave.

After a few waves Megan wandered a little deeper into the ocean. Natalie snapped a few shots of Megan, so they'd have something to show their friends.

"Don't go out past your hips," Natalie said, edging closer to her daughter, just in case.

Natalie loved the feel of the waves as they brushed against her feet then her calves.

Megan was startled to see fish swimming around her as if she was a part of the plant life. They were colorful fish, one was yellow, blue and green, and another was an iridescent rainbow.

"Mom, look." Megan pointed to the fish.

"I see them. Pretty, aren't they?"

"Yes."

Once the fish moved on Megan cooled herself off by splashing around in the water.

Natalie was pleased to see her daughter having such a great time.

After a while Megan went back to building a sand castle. Natalie helped. Just as they finished a wave came and wiped out one side of the castle. Megan knew that soon it would claim her entire work, decided to beat the wave to it and stomped on the castle, completely destroying it.

Natalie laughed as it reminded her of Godzilla. She still remembered her brother making her watch those awful movies as they grew up.

As the sun began to set, Megan grew tired. She slipped into her t-shirt and sat on the beach chair. Natalie was seated in the next one, wearing her t-shirt as well. They watched the sunset. It was a beautiful one full of pinks, oranges, blues, and even a touch of green.

"It's time for us to go back to the room, shower and change." Natalie knew it was also time for their next dose.

Natalie let Megan bathe first. While her daughter was occupied, Natalie pulled out clothing for both of them.

Megan was soon dried off and dressed and eager to see what was on tv. Natalie helped Megan find a suitable show to watch while she hopped into the shower.

Before long both of them were clean and dressed. Natalie called Megan over to the bathroom so they could take their next dose.

"I'm hungry."

"We'll get something to eat. Soon." Natalie knew that it was the peak dinner hour. "If we go to dinner now, we'll have to sit and wait a long time for a table. How about you read me a story and then we'll go to dinner?"

"Okay. Which story do you want to hear?"

"You pick."

Megan picked the story she and Natalie had been reading together. It was another story about a young wizard.

Megan climbed up onto the bed and sat next to her mom. Once comfortable she started reading. Natalie made Megan sound out the words she didn't know, only helping her when absolutely necessary.

After Megan finished the chapter she marked the page and closed the book. "Can we go now?"

Natalie looked at the clock. "One more chapter, okay?"

"Okay." Megan opened the book and started reading again.

When she finished the chapter, she again marked her place, closed the book and looked up at her mom.

"Yes, we can try now."

Natalie grabbed their room key and the two of them headed downstairs to see what sort of restaurants the hotel offered.

Natalie looked at the menu at each restaurant. The first one they came to was immediately eliminated due to the dress code, and no children's menu. Also, she didn't see anything Megan would like to eat.

The second restaurant looked promising, until she heard the wait for a table was forty-five minutes.

The third one was the most casual and only had a fifteen minute wait. Natalie put her name on the waiting list.

The gift shop was across the hall and a tiny ways down. Natalie and Megan walked over there to help pass the time. Natalie found one of the books she'd enjoyed playing with on trips. All the puzzles and games were done in invisible ink and you had to use a special pen to get the answers. She showed it to Megan, explaining what it was and how it worked. When Megan seemed interested she bought it for her, along with two decks of cards.

They went back to the restaurant to wait for their table. Natalie handed Megan the book and watched as her daughter eagerly unwrapped it. Megan flipped through the book until she found a page she liked. She pulled the cap off the pen and started on the first game. It was a connect the dots puzzle.

"Neat." Megan said as she saw the pen make a black line as she drew a line from dot to dot.

Ten minutes later, Natalie heard her name. She and Megan approached the man who'd taken their name. He gave the menus to a young lady, who was maybe twenty. She led them to their non-smoking table and handed them their menus.

Megan and Natalie ordered dinner.

Natalie noticed a few people watching them and noticing how well behaved Megan was.

After dinner Natalie and Megan went outside to look at the stars and the moon. The gentle breeze felt great.

When Megan tired of looking at the sky, she and Natalie went back to the room. Natalie retrieved some ice for the mini cooler while Megan waited for her in the room.

Megan flipped through the channels not finding anything she liked, or that Natalie would let her watch.

"How about we play cards?"

"Go fish?"

"Okay. Would you like to deal?" Natalie asked, knowing it was good counting practice for Megan.

"Okay."

After two games of Go Fish, Megan was yawning. It had been a long day. She was happy that she'd beat Natalie both times. The last time only by one card.

"Time for bed. Yes, you get your nightly story."

They took their final dose. Megan changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, bathroomed and climbed into bed.

Natalie told Megan a story, noticing that her little one fell asleep almost immediately.

Natalie played about a dozen games of solitaire before yawning. She got ready for bed and crawled into the other bed, after making sure the door was securely locked and chained.

The next morning Natalie and Megan woke up naturally, took their medication, and changed into their swimsuits. They grabbed a quick oceanside breakfast.

Megan hated having to wait before going swimming. Natalie used the time to apply sunscreen to both of them.

Megan enjoyed playing in the sand and the shallow part of the ocean. Natalie kept her daughter company whenever she was in the water, or even playing along the edge of it.

The only time they went back to the room was to take their next dose or to go to the bathroom.

Natalie made Megan spend time in the shade so she wouldn't get too hot. They made sure to drink enough so they wouldn't get dehydrated.

The next day Natalie and Megan went sightseeing. Since the island tour was an all day excursion, Natalie had to bring the mini cooler with them. She tucked in a couple bottles of water, along with one of Megan's medications. Natalie had 2 sets of medication for each of them in a small Ziploc bag tucked into her bag. She also had sunscreen.

Natalie and Megan enjoyed their sightseeing tour. Drake's seat offered a wonderful view of the island, the town of Charlotte Amalie and the ocean. Mountain top gave them an even better view. Natalie tried the banana daiquiri while Megan had the alcohol free version. Megan found it fascinating to see bananas growing on trees right by the side of the road. She also saw coconuts.

Another stop on the tour was Coral World. Megan and Natalie went to the Observation Tower and went down to the underwater observatory. It was fifteen feet below sea level and offered a three-hundred and sixty degree view of the undersea world. Megan loved watching the various sea creatures swim by. Natalie identified as many as she could.

After they tired of looking at the sea life, they went back upstairs and wandered around. They saw the shark shallows, the Caribbean Reef Encounter and the Touch Pool, which was Megan's favorite as she got to handle the creatures. She giggled as she held a starfish, a slate pencil urchin, a sea conch, a whelk and a sea cucumber. Natalie took her turn holding the creatures, and was almost as fascinated as her daughter.

The afternoon was spent on a submarine ride. They saw more of the undersea life. This time going down to a depth of ninety feet. Megan loved the certificate she received after the dive.

They picked up souvenirs for friends, sent postcards, and bought a few goodies for themselves.

That night they had dinner outside and listened to the steel band play.

When they tired they returned to the room and got ready for bed.

The next day they headed out early for their half day on a sailboat. Natalie had wanted to go sailing, but Toronto wasn't a good place for it. She figured Megan would enjoy being out on the water.

The day was perfect for sailing. Megan loved it when the Captain let her steer the boat for a few minutes. Later on, Natalie had her chance to steer. Pictures were taken of them throughout the day as souvenirs.

That afternoon Natalie and Megan checked out the main town, Charlotte Amalie. Natalie took Megan down to the dock so she could see a cruise ship close up. There were three big ships in the harbour.

Natalie loved looking around the historical town. It was full of small shops that carried all sorts of unique items. There were some jewelry stores where you could buy gold, silver, diamonds, and other items paying no sales tax and no duty.

Natalie bought herself and Megan a couple of new shirts and pants in a few beautiful Caribbean patterns.

As Megan and Natalie enjoyed their week away from all the hassles of life they grew closer. They enjoyed being able to do whatever they wanted to whenever. No alarm clocks to wake up to. No school or work to rush off to.

Natalie could tell it was exactly what they both needed. A release from the stress of daily life. To be able to fully relax and enjoy life.

On their last day, Natalie noticed that Megan looked a little unhappy.

"What's wrong?"

"Do we have to go home?"

"I thought you missed your friends and your room."

"I do. Its so nice here."

"I know it is. Maybe we'll come back here in a few months."

"I'd like that."

Natalie and Megan enjoyed their last day in paradise. They spent the entire day relaxing on the beach. Natalie didn't want to go back, yet she did miss her life in Toronto.

The next morning they packed up, took their morning dose, checked out and headed for the airport. Natalie had stored the cold pack in the completely full ice bucket over night so it would freeze and keep Megan's one medication cold until they returned home.

At the airport, Natalie returned their rental car and checked in at the ticket counter.

They had a three hour lay over in Atlanta and passed the time by looking in the various stores. Natalie had bought them each a new book.

They grabbed something to eat because Natalie knew they wouldn't be fed much on the plane.

They took their next dose while waiting in the private club. Megan had tired of looking in the stores, so they'd come to the club to wait. Megan watched a couple of cartoons on the TV while Natalie looked at a few of the magazines around the club.

They arrived back in Toronto around Megan's bed time. Since both were tired Natalie picked up a quick dinner on their way home. They ate, took their final dose for the day and went to sleep.

The next evening Natalie dropped Megan off a little early at the Schankes so they'd have a little time to talk with Don, Myra and Jenny.

Natalie and Megan gave their friends the souvenirs they'd brought back with them.

Natalie and Megan enjoyed telling their story as much as their friends enjoyed hearing about the trip. Natalie promised she'd have the pictures developed in the next day or two and would bring them over.

Natalie continued on to work. Grace saw Natalie enter and couldn't wait to hear about the trip. Natalie promised she'd tell her all about it over lunch.

A couple of hours later Natalie and Grace went to lunch. Natalie made good on her promise and told Grace all about their trip.

Before Natalie knew it, a month passed and it was Thanksgiving. She missed Nick, but didn't feel as lonely because of Megan.

Natalie was up early to prepare the holiday meal. Megan soon wandered downstairs.

"Can I help?"

"Sure. Just as soon as you take your next dose."

Megan took her medication and then looked up to her mom, wondering how she'd be able to help.

"First thing all cooks have to do is put on their apron and wash their hands," Natalie said as she pulled a clean apron from a drawer.

She slipped the top loop over Megan's head, adjusted the strap and tied the waist straps around Megan's body then tied them in a bow in the back. The apron was a bit big for her, but she made it work.

Natalie and Megan worked in the kitchen, daughter helping mom get the afternoon's feast ready. Natalie enlisted Megan's help with the stuffing. Megan poured in each item as Natalie asked for it. Natalie knew Megan would enjoy mixing it up more than she would and let her do it. Megan giggled as she squished the ripped up pieces of bread with the eggs, water and other stuffing ingredients.

"This feels funny," Megan said. "It's squishy and slimy.

Natalie watched her daughter working, enjoying herself. Before long the stuffing was completely mixed.

"Good job. How about washing your hands and setting the table? Remember, there will be seven of us."

"Okay. That was fun." She smiled at the compliment her mom gave her.

Megan set a napkin at each place, counting them as she went. Next she took enough forks out of the drawer and set one on each napkin. Then she did the same with the knives, being careful not to accidentally hurt herself.

"Do we need spoons?"

"Probably." Natalie noticed that Megan had everything in the right place. "Very good." She loved how the praise caused the little girl to smile.

Natalie put the ham into the oven to cook. The stuffing and sweet potatoes would go in later. She was glad she didn't have to worry about dessert as her friends were supplying that.

"Now we get ready for our company."

About an hour later mother and daughter had showered and dressed and were awaiting the arrival of their guests. Both were dressed with a casual elegance. They made sure everyone knew to dress comfortably and casually so that they could truly relax and have a good time.

The buzzer sounded and Megan stepped up on the stool to push the button upon hearing Grace's voice over the intercom. A few moments later Grace entered the loft and headed straight for her hosts.

"Hi, Natalie, Megan. Dinner smells great." "I helped mom make it," Megan said, beaming with pride.

"Mother's little helper, eh?" Grace smiled. She couldn't believe how perfectly suited mother and daughter were, outside of the horrible disease that brought them together. It was as if they were meant to be together. Both radiated happiness and love.

"Yeah."

"She's a great help. Make yourself at home. Is there anything I can get you?" Natalie said.

"No. Can I help?"

"No. I have everything under control. The only thing left to do is put the vegetables on to cook."

The buzzer sounded and Megan let Tracy up.

"I'm glad you could come," Natalie said when her friend entered.

"Thank you for inviting me. It will be the first peaceful Thanksgiving I've had in a very, very long time."

The buzzer sounded again. Megan let the Schanke family up.

"Natalie, you should've let me help. It's too much work for one person to do," Myra said.

"She didn't do it alone. I helped," Megan said.

"She was a big help," Natalie said. "Can I get anyone anything?"

Everyone shook their heads.

"Megan, would you like to help me put out the snacks?" Natalie asked.

"Yes."

The two hostesses entered the kitchen area and quickly returned carrying goodies. Megan was very carefully carrying a plate of appetizers, while Natalie had one in each hand.

The friends sat around and talked, enjoying their day together. Anything depressing or related to AIDS was forbidden.

Jenny had brought her video camera and set it up to record the day. She had asked Natalie if it was okay, beforehand. She knew Natalie might like to have the tape for later on.

"Jenny, any thoughts of a career in film or television?" Tracy asked.

"I am thinking about it. I think it would be a cool job. I'd get to see different parts of the world, and meet interesting people."

"Any particular interests in the area?" Grace asked.

"I think I'd like to do something behind the camera. Special effects are really cool. They'd probably be fun but a lot of work. Directing might be fun."

"You should be a writer. You're good at telling stories," Megan said.

"Thanks."

Natalie started the vegetables. She had them all cleaned and ready to throw into the pot and cook. Because of the layout of the loft, she didn't have to miss out on any of the conversation while she did so. She could also monitor everything in the kitchen from the family room area.

Before long it was time to eat. Megan showed everyone to their place, while Natalie removed the ham from the oven and brought it over to the table.

"Don, would you carve the ham?" Natalie asked, loving the surprised look on his face. "Jenny, would you like to be the first to tell what you're thankful for? Natalie remembered how important the ritual was to Jenny.

"I'm thankful that my parents are here. That I have a new friend named Megan. That Natalie and I are still friends," Jenny said.

"I'm thankful to have all my friends with me today. And to have a wonderful daughter," Natalie said as her hand caressed the top of Megan's head.

"I'm thankful to have a great mom and to have Jenny for a friend," Megan said.

"I'm thankful that all my friends are here. That Natalie and Megan were paired up," Grace said.

"I'm thankful to have both my family and friends here. That Jenny and Megan get along so well. And that Natalie and Megan bring each other the same joy that Don and Jenny bring me, and hopefully I bring them," Myra said.

"Myra said it better than I could've. I'm grateful for all of that, too," Don said.

"I'm thankful for all the above. I'm also thankful for my first nice, peaceful Thanksgiving in longer than I can remember," Tracy said.

Everyone there was used to seeing Natalie and Megan take one set of pills with their food, so no one paid it any attention.

The various dishes were passed around and everyone filled their plates.

"Natalie, you outdid yourself. The food is delicious," Myra said. A part of her was glad that she didn't have to make the feast again this year. As much as she loved it, it was a big undertaking, both the preparations and clean up.

"You have to let us help you clean up," Tracy said.

"I'm going to stick everything in the dishwasher, just like in the ads." Off their looks she continued, "no I don't usually do that, but it can't hurt."

"I wish I'd done that," Myra said. "You're right. Worse comes to worse, you'll have a cleaner pot to rewash."

"Nat, you'll have to give me the recipe for it all," Grace said.

"Sure. Anyone else want a copy?"

"I do," Myra said.

"Me too," Tracy said.

Everyone ate until they were about to explode and then returned to the family room to talk and rest until dessert time.

Natalie served the pecan pie, and the pumpkin pie with some help from her young assistant. Coffee was next, with everyone but Megan and Jenny partaking in the brewed bean drink.

After dessert Megan curled up in a chair, wanting to remain a part of things for as long as she could. She loved her new mom, and all the friends mom had as they were really nice. She felt as safe and secure here as she had with her other mom and dad. She was as happy here too. She still missed her parents, but no longer felt sad or lonely, or even afraid like she had before she met Natalie.

Jenny was the first to notice Megan had fallen asleep and smiled. "Does that remind you of anyone?"

"Yeah. You used to do that every Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas. You didn't want to miss anything," Don said with a grin.

"We left you there until after the company left. Sometimes until we were ready for bed ourselves," Myra said.

When the adults tired they said their good-byes and left for home.

Natalie stuffed the dishwasher in an orderly manner with as much as she could fit in. The remaining pot or two she left to soak overnight.

Natalie hated to wake Megan, but they both had one final dose of medication to take. A very sleepy Megan took her medication, with Natalie handing her each pill so she wouldn't drop it or take too many at once and choke. Once Natalie was done with her pills, she helped her sleepy seven year old up the stairs and onto the bed where she stripped off her shoes and tucked her in.

Natalie quickly changed into her pajamas and slipped under the covers. She was asleep instantly.

Natalie was at work the next night when Schanke stopped by the morgue.

"Hi. What brings you by?" Natalie asked, curiously. He didn't come by as often since his promotion. She knew he'd never really liked coming here and was probably quite relieved he didn't have to anymore, unless he chose to.

"Jenny wanted me to drop this off. She would've done it herself but she's really busy with school right now. Finals are coming up and all the teachers are burying their students with papers. She knew that if she waited to do it, you might not get it for a few weeks."

"Thank her for taping it. I really appreciate it. I hope you kept a copy."

"We did."

"Do you mind if I make a copy or two? Grace and Tracy might like one." And one for Nick.

"No. I don't think Jenny will mind either."

"Thanks."

Natalie dubbed the copies while she did her housework. When the first copy was done she stuck it into a small padded box. She sat down on the couch to compose the accompanying letter.

"Dear Nick,

I hope all is well with you. Everything is going well here. This letter will be short because a picture is worth a thousand words.

I thought you might enjoy the enclosed surprise.

I miss you and can't wait for the time when we can be reunited again. I wish you and Megan could know each other because you two would really like each other.

I love you so much it hurts.

Love, Natalie."

She stuck the letter into the box with the tape and sealed it.

A quick glance at the clock showed it was time to pick Megan up. She would have just enough time to drop the tape off on her way to the school.

A few nights later Nick arrived home to find a package in his mail which caused his heart to beat twice in a row. He quickly opened it, surprised to find a short letter and a videotape inside.

He quickly read the letter, missing her all the more. He stuck the videotape into his VCR and pushed play.

He hungrily drank in the images as he saw Natalie laughing, having fun with their friends. He was pleased to see that she was indeed doing as well as she said, at least on the outside. He was pleased to see how Jenny had blossomed into a beautiful young lady, both on the inside and the outside. Don was still very much himself. Myra had changed little as had Grace and Tracy. He did notice Tracy seemed more at peace with herself as well as more confident. He watched Megan, quickly noticing the bright spirit that had so captivated Natalie. They were perfectly matched, almost like they were biologically related. Both had the same qualities that had drawn him to Natalie.

When the tape ran out he rewound it, playing it again. It was almost like he was there, which both eased his loneliness yet it also made it hurt more.

A few days later, Natalie found a package in her mailbox, along with the regular mail. She didn't open that one item until Megan had run along to play with her computer.

Natalie sat on the couch and opened the package. She pulled the letter and a small box out of the package. Natalie loved Nick's letters because she could hear his voice talking to her as she read each and every word.

Dear Natalie,

Thank you for the very special gift you sent. I loved seeing my friends again, even if it was only through the magic of videotape. It was almost like being there. You were right, Megan is a special little girl. She reminds me a lot of you. I see a lot of similarities in the two of you, almost like you were her natural mother. Jenny has grown up into a lovely young lady.

I'm glad to see that everyone is doing so well.

There's not much news at this end. Things are pretty much the same as they were the last time. I just had to write and thank you. I must've watched the tape five times in a row the night it arrived.

Enclosed is a token of my love for you. If anyone asks, say you decided to buy yourself something new.

I still miss you so much it hurts. I love you more than you'll ever truly know.

Until we can be together againÉ

Love, Nick

Natalie tucked the letter safely away, with all the other ones he'd sent her over the years. Looks like I might have to find a new spot soon, she thought as she saw how full the small location was quickly becoming.

She opened the box and found a new necklace. It was a simple gold chain with a sun and moon design on the pendant. She wanted to put it on then and there, but knew she'd have to wait until the next time she dressed so she could pretend that it was new or she'd dug it out of one of her drawers. She knew Megan would immediately notice it and question her.

"Megan, would you like to see a videotape of Nick?" She called upstairs.

"Yes." Megan called back.

Natalie had avoided watching the videos since Megan arrived because they made her too sad and because she hadn't been ready to answer all the questions she knew Megan would ask. She was now ready. Something about the tape she'd sent Nick and his letter back, had made her ready.

Megan approached Natalie a few minutes later.

Natalie wasn't sure which tape to start with, the wedding or the one of them having fun with their friends. She decided to start with the wedding one as it would make her the saddest and then the other tape would help cheer her up.

"This is when we were married. If you get bored, let me know. Okay?"

"Okay."

Natalie started the tape. Megan sat on the couch next to her mom and watched.

"You were beautiful," Megan said seriously. "He looks hot." Megan couldn't help but giggle.

"Yes, he does," Natalie said. "Thank you. I felt more beautiful than everright there and then.

Natalie was surprised that Megan had watched the entire tape, captivated by it.

"That was so cool. Do you have any more?"

"I have one more tape. This one is much less serious."

Natalie knew that tape had her in the motorcycle rally, her giving her friends rides afterwards, and a few activities with her and Nick having fun. She could tell Megan was enjoying the tape by the giggles she heard and the occasional "wow, you did that?"

At the end of the tape Megan turned to Natalie and asked, "you said you'd take me for a ride sometime."

"I will soon, I promise." Natalie smiled. "First we have to get you a leather jacket. You can't be a biker without one."

"Cool!" Megan said excitedly. "I wish I'd known him. He seems really cool. He really loved you."

"He was. I really loved him. I still do."

Megan wrapped her arms around her mom and gave her a big hug, causing Natalie to smile and return the embrace.

Two afternoons later, Natalie and Megan were at the mall looking for a pint sized leather jacket. None of the stores they tried carried the type they were looking for, just the cute ones, or the colorful ones.

On their way out they spotted a new store and entered. It was full of stuff for motorcyclists.

Megan looked around her eyes growing wide at a few of the items she saw. Over to the left side of the store, a rack of leather jackets caught Megan's eye, causing her to head straight for them.

Natalie noticed her daughter heading straight for the jacket rack and followed. They looked through the various ones until they found one in Megan's size.

Megan eagerly slipped into the jacket. Once it was on Megan, Natalie played with it, making sure it fit properly. Megan looked around for the nearest mirror, finding one on the wall at the far end of the jacket rack.

Natalie followed Megan to the mirror and loved the smile that spread across her daughter's face, and causing one to spread across her own face.

"Cool! Can I have it?"

"If you don't see one you like better."

Megan looked through the pint sized jackets, but didn't find one she liked better. "Can I wear it home? Please."

"Okay." Natalie couldn't resist the puppy dog face Megan was giving her. "How about we go for a bike ride when we get home?"

"Yay!" Megan squealed as she bounced up and down.

A couple people looked at them. Some tried to hide their small grins while others didn't bother.

Natalie knew she had been putting off taking Megan on a ride, but didn't really know why.

Thoughts of Katie came to mind, causing Natalie some sadness. Natalie remembered how much Katie had loved her rides on the Harley. Natalie was glad she'd made the end of the teen's life more enjoyable. She still missed her friend.

"You okay?" Megan asked.

"Yeah. I was just thinking about Katie."

Megan remembered the drawing of her mom and Nick that Katie had done. She'd really liked the picture.

Natalie and Megan approached the cash register.

"Megan, he needs the jacket for a minute so he can scan the tag."

The guy saw Megan's reluctance to take off the jacket. "I promise I'll give it right back." He'd seen his son show the same reaction.

Megan reluctantly took off the jacket and handed it to Natalie because she was too short to reach the counter herself.

Natalie handed it to the guy who scanned it and removed the security tag before handing it down to Megan.

Megan took it from him with a small smile and quickly put it back on.

"Doesn't mom get a jacket?" He said a little playful.

"I already have two."

"What sort of bike do you have?" He'd overheard Natalie asking Megan if she wanted to go for a ride when they got home.

"Harley." Natalie loved the guy's surprised look.

"Nice bike," he said. "Will that be all?"

"No. I need child seat for a seven year old."

"Tyra, I need a medium child seat."

Tyra quickly returned with the large seat box and set it next to the register so it could be scanned. He scanned it right before he took Natalie's credit card from her, ran it through the scanner and handed it back.

"Thanks." Natalie signed the sales slip and left carrying the child seat box.

As soon as Natalie and Megan pulled into the garage, Megan had her seatbelt off. Natalie grinned at her daughter's eagerness.

"Before we go for a ride there are a few things we need to talk about," Natalie said as she turned off the engine.

"Okay," Megan said as she opened the car door and headed for the elevator.

Megan pushed the button and waited for Natalie to open the lift door.

"You have to wear your helmet and glasses at all times. You have to stay still or we'll lose our balance and fall over. You have to do what I say or we could get hurt. Okay?"

"Okay."

Natalie opened the lift door and both stepped in.

Moments later Natalie opened the door again and the two walked into the loft. Megan made a beeline for her helmet.

"Not so fast. We have medication to take first. Then we ride."

Both took their latest dose.

"I'm going to go get my jacket." Natalie couldn't wait to see Megan's face when she saw Natalie's real biker jacket.

Natalie went into the middle room's closet and pulled out her jacket. She'd stashed it in there because she didn't often wear it and didn't want it cluttering up her closet.

Natalie slipped into the jacket both pleased to be wearing it again and a little saddened because it reminded her of Nick.

Megan was waiting near the door when she saw her mom come down the stairs.

When Natalie was near the little girl she slowly turned all around so Megan could see the design on the back.

"Nice jacket."

"Thanks. I bet you're curious about the picture." Natalie saw Megan nod her head and began the story. "Many years ago I worked with a biker group called the Victorious to set up a bike ride through town to raise money for the Sheridan Children's Shelter. It's for children with AIDS who have no where to go.

"If you hadn't taken me, would I have gone there?"

"Probably."

Natalie grabbed her helmet and saw Megan do likewise.

Together they took the lift down to the garage where Natalie handed Megan her helmet and wheeled her bike out onto the driveway and set the kickstand.

"Don't climb on the bike because it could fall over and seriously hurt you. We have to install your seat before we can go."

Megan sat on the ground and watched as Natalie grabbed her tool box, opened the large seat box and attached the seat to the back of her Harley.

Once it was attached, Natalie tugged on it to make sure it was secure.

"Ready for a ride?" She cheerfully said, knowing the answer.

"Yes!" Was Megan's enthusiastic response.

Natalie helped Megan get her helmet on and adjusted correctly before doing the same with her own helmet. They both put on their sunglasses to protect their eyes from stones and other objects kicked up by the bike.

She zipped up Megan's jacket as it was cool outside and didn't want her to get cold.

"Aren't you gonna zip yours?"

"I was just about to," Natalie said as she zipped up her jacket.

Natalie helped Megan climb into her seat and fastened the safety belt. Once Megan was settled, Natalie climbed on and started the engine.

Natalie took off carefully, not wanting to spook Megan. Natalie stopped at a traffic light a few blocks away and checked on Megan in the rear view mirror, pleased to see the large grin plastered across the little girl's face.

Before long they pulled into the parking lot of the movie theater and parked. Natalie climbed off the Harley and helped Megan down.

She removed her helmet and hung it over a handlebar while she helped Megan off with hers.

"You have to keep track of your helmet and sunglasses while we're inside."

"Okay. That was really cool."

"I'm glad you liked it."

Natalie and Megan headed for the seafood restaurant a few doors down from the theater. They entered and were quickly shown to a table in the non-smoking section.

Natalie and Megan set their helmets on the seat beside them as they sat facing each other. Both Megan and Natalie put their sunglasses into a jacket pocket.

When they were finished eating, about an hour later, they left, helmet in hand.

They headed for the movie theater.

Natalie bought two tickets for the movie Megan wanted to see and was pleased that they could bypass the candy counter.

After the movie, Natalie and Megan headed for the Schanke residence.

Jenny heard the motorcycle, opened the front door and headed for Natalie and Megan.

Natalie climbed off her bike and helped Megan down.

"Hi guys. Natalie, do you have time to give me a ride?" Jenny asked as she helped Megan off with her helmet.

"Sure. Go grab your helmet while I say hi to your parents."

"Megan, I love your jacket."

"Thank you," Megan said smiling.

"Natalie, I'd forgotten how beautiful that jacket is," Jenny said.

"Thanks. I haven't worn it in a long time." Natalie knew she tended to wear her plain one, not wanting to mess up her fancy one.

The three girls headed into the house.

Natalie talked with Myra and Don for a moment or two while Jenny grabbed her helmet. Natalie loved how the Schankes' had practically adopted her and Megan as part of the family. It felt really good to have all the support she did.

Jenny bounced down the stairs wearing her waist length black leather jacket carrying her helmet.

"Ready?" Natalie asked. "We won't be gone too long."

Jenny nodded and the two ladies headed out.

Natalie climbed onto the bike before Jenny climbed on behind her. Both slipped into their helmets. When Natalie felt Jenny's arms around her waist she started the motor and took off.

About twenty minutes later they returned, a grocery bag strapped into Megan's seat.

"Thanks, that was fun."

"Tell your mom bye for me. I'll see you guys tomorrow afternoon."

Natalie knew she'd be cutting it close but couldn't deny Jenny a ride.

Natalie headed home to change and decided to take the bike to work.

The next afternoon, Natalie picked Megan up at school, having dropped by the Schankes' to pick up Megan's helmet.

"Your mom drives one of those?" Adam asked Megan.

"Yeah."

"Cool!"

Megan loved all the attention the Harley drew.

Natalie allowed Megan to climb onto the back with minimal help. Megan put on her helmet and let Natalie fasten it for her. Megan fastened her own seatbelt, which was then checked by Natalie.

Natalie slipped back into her helmet, climbed back onto the bike and started the engine.

Megan waved to all her friends as Natalie pulled away from the school.

Before Natalie knew it, the month was nearly over. She and Megan had gone costume shopping. Megan wanted matching mother and daughter costumes, which Natalie agreed to, especially after seeing the Megan's cute puppy dog face nearly begging mom to agree. Natalie made Megan pick out a costume that she'd wear over warm clothes. Megan was disappointed when she didn't find any she'd like.

As they passed the motorcycle accessory store, Megan's eyes lit up.

"I know what we can be. We can wear our jackets, helmets and go out on the bike."

"Great idea. How about a tattoo and a nose ring?" Natalie asked.

"Ow. No."

"What if they were fake?"

"Cool!"

Natalie and Megan headed for a shop that sold such things. They picked out a couple of fake piercings and a few packages of temporary tattoos.

Since they were going out trick or treating, Natalie knew she wouldn't need much candy, if any.

On Halloween day, Megan couldn't wait for the last hour of the school day.

After lunch Natalie arrived with Megan's costume and helped her change into it in the bathroom. Megan was glad Natalie had volunteered to help with the Halloween party that afternoon.

Natalie was enjoying this aspect of motherhood. She and Megan were very much like every other mother and daughter, despite the fact that they weren't biologically related and had AIDS.

Megan's teacher was pleased that Megan had really thrived, even with the loss of her father, and credited most of it to the love Natalie had shown Megan.

Natalie and Heather-Anne helped the little girls into their costumes, while Daniel helped his son and the other boys in the class into theirs.

Once all the kids were dressed, they lined up at the door for the parade to the other second grade classroom. This year the two grades had decided to have one joint party as the kids all knew each other and wanted to be with each other during the party.

The costumes were a nice mix, everything from a Power Ranger to a cowboy, fireman, astronaut to a princess, doctor, a few different monsters and aliens. Megan loved the fact that she was the only biker chick.

Natalie had made some sugar free cupcakes for the party, knowing there were at least three children that couldn't have sugar and didn't want them feeling left out of the party.

Natalie had arranged to have the night off from work so she could take Megan around trick-or-treating. They rode over to the Schankes' neighborhood on the Harley.

Natalie and Megan went door to door, Natalie standing down by the street most of the time, unless she knew the people in the house.

When Megan knocked on the Schankes' door, Jenny opened it.

"Trick or Treat," Megan called out.

"Hi Megan, Natalie. Wanna come in and warm up?" Jenny dropped some candy into Megan's bag. She gave Megan a few extra pieces, remembering how her goal was always to fill the bag.

"Mom, can we?"

"Sure," Natalie said. Sometimes she still had trouble believing she was a mom.

Jenny stepped aside so that Natalie and Megan could enter. She checked up and down the street, not seeing any more kids, then shut the door.

"Cute costumes," Jenny said.

Jenny loved how her friends had taken their bike jackets and made a whole costume around it. It was funny seeing Megan with a nose ring, and a bunch of earrings. Jenny didn't find Natalie's matching costume to be as surprising.

Jenny remembered when Natalie had liked temporary tattoos back when she'd been a kid. Natalie had even helped her apply one, freaking out her parents when they'd seen the small heart on her shoulder blade.

"I gotta take you picture," Jenny said as she ran off to get her camera.

Myra came out to see her friends.

"Great costumes," Myra said. "How about some coffee and hot chocolate?"

"Sounds great," Natalie said.

Megan just eagerly nodded as most of her attention was on her half full candy bag. Megan was checking out all the different types of candy she had.

Jenny returned with her camera.

"I have to get a couple of you two on the bike. But first, stand over by the fireplace."

Once Megan and Natalie were in place, Jenny told them to smile and say 'cheese'. They did. After that, they went outside. Natalie and Megan posed in front of the Harley, then seated on it, then each seated on it by themselves.

Once that was done they went back inside where Myra handed them a hot drink, coffee for the adults, and hot chocolate for the kids.

Natalie continued meeting with her support group at least once a week, twice if she could make it. She liked how they were still as supportive as ever, if not more so. They were almost like a second family to her. They helped her by listening to her as she talked about her feelings and any problems she had so that she could give her full attention to Megan, herself, friends and work without being preoccupied or overwhelmed.

Natalie didn't mind the half hour commute each way as it gave her time to think. She was grateful that Grace and the Schankes' took turns babysitting Megan, and knew Megan loved all the extra attention they gave her.

Natalie entered her support group's meeting room, saw her friends seated in the usual circle, having saved her a chair.

"Hi, guys," Natalie said.

"Hi, Natalie," the group said.

"My T-cell count dropped again. It's getting near the danger zone," Ray said. "I had to stop working a couple of days ago. I just didn't have the energy. I don't know what I would do without you all."

"You all make it much easier for me to feel normal again," Natalie said.

"Natalie, what else is bothering you?" Lisa asked.

"This will the first time in over fourteen years that I won't be with Nick on Christmas. I still miss Nick so much it hurts." Natalie took a deep calming breath, "On the positive side, it will be my first one as a mother."

"Holly, we were just planning our yearly Christmas party." Mel said after Holly had taken her seat, knowing it was Holly's first Christmas with the group. "We hold it on Christmas Eve. Any friends or relatives that know about your condition are welcome. Talk about the disease usually comes up at some point. Most of us don't have large families or many friends that know and the party helps us feel a little less lonely."

"I've seen too many friends die from this as well as other diseases. I'm scared of what the future holds for both Megan and myself. I hate not knowing what will happen or when, knowing I can't plan more than a few weeks ahead. I feel so helpless, so frustrated. I'm a doctor and I can't do a damn thing to help myself, Megan, or anyone else who's infected."

"We all understand the frustrations, the fears," Ray said. "They don't get any easier as you progress."

"Thanks to Megan and my friends I won't be alone this year."

A week later, Megan bit into an apple for her late afternoon snack. She was startled when she pulled it away and there was her loose tooth.

Natalie saw it. She'd wondered how long it would be before Megan lost it, especially since Megan liked to wiggle it with her tongue.

"It's okay. It was ready to come out anyway."

"I know. I didn't expect it to stick in the apple." Megan pulled her tooth out and studied it.

"Don't forget to put it under your pillow so the Tooth Fairy can come."

"Cool." Megan knew it was her first visit from the Tooth Fairy and wondered how much she'd find under her pillow in the morning.

Megan headed into the downstairs bathroom to see her new snaggle toothed grin.

That night Natalie snuck into Megan's room, carefully retrieved the tooth and left a five dollar bill in its place. She saw Megan begin to stir and quietly crept out of the room, not wanting to be discovered.

The next morning Natalie woke Megan. She watched as the first thing the little girl did was look under her pillow. Megan's eyes lit up as she saw the money.

"Cool!"

Before Natalie knew it December had arrived. A pang of sadness hit her as it would be her first Christmas without Nick.

Megan's bouncy entrance snapped Natalie out of her thoughts, and caused her to smile.

"Hi, sweetie," Natalie said. It won't be so bad, Natalie thought. She was looking forward to playing Santa for the first time.

"Do you know what happens later this month?"

Megan thought a moment. "Christmas!"

"Very good. How would you like to make a calendar so you can track how many days until Christmas?"

"Cool. How?"

"You'll see."

Natalie headed for the kitchen table and motioned for Megan to join her. Megan approached, quite curious.

Natalie had made a grid on a sheet of paper for Megan to decorate. Once Megan had done that, they moved onto the next step. Natalie showed Megan how to cut each drawn on door on the lines on a second sheet of paper. Megan did that. The next step was to glue the two pieces of paper together so that when each door was open Megan would see a new picture and would know that when the last door was opened it was the day before Christmas.

After Megan finished, they had to let the glue dry. Before it was hung on the wall, Natalie stuck a sticker into each window opening, being careful not to make the doors stay open prematurely.

One afternoon a week later, Don went with Natalie and Megan to pick out a Christmas tree, in case they needed some extra muscle or help setting it up.

Natalie let Megan pick out the tree, with a little guidance on what a good tree looks like.

Once they had found the perfect tree Natalie paid for it. The tree lot guy tied it onto the top of Don's car.

Once Natalie, Megan and Don arrived back at the loft. Natalie punched in the door code then went back to help Don with the tree. Megan called the elevator and then stepped out of the way.

The two adults maneuvered the tree into the elevator. Natalie closed the door because it was too heavy for Megan to pull shut. Megan pushed the button for the loft. Natalie opened the door when the lift arrived.

Megan was the first out so she could tell the other two if they were going to hit anything or trip over something.

Schanke held the tree while Natalie fastened the base around it.

"Thanks a lot, Don. You made it a lot easier."

"I'm glad I could help," Don said. "Megan, Jenny is waiting for you at home. Want to ride back with me?"

"Mom?"

"Go on. We'll decorate later." Natalie looked at her daughter, then over at her friend. He shrugged, answering her unasked question 'what did the kids have planned'.

Megan and Don left. Natalie started dinner, knowing Grace would arrive in about an hour.

Natalie answered the doorbell, letting Grace in. Grace took the opportunity to wrap Natalie in a big bear hug, seeing that her friend needed it.

"Thanks for the invitation. Where's Megan?"

"I'm glad you came. Dinner will be ready shortly. Make yourself comfortable." Natalie took Grace's coat and hung it in the closet for her. "She and Jenny went out to dinner together. They had some sort of special night planned and wouldn't tell me the details." Natalie grinned, pleased that the two girls got along so well.

Grace could see how hard the season was on Natalie, but she also knew Megan helped make things better.

"How are you really doing?" Grace asked.

"I'm doing okay. I miss him. I don't know what I'd do without Megan. She helps keep me laughing, enjoying life."

"I know. I miss him too. Megan is a great kid," Grace said, not wanting to think about how glum Natalie would be if it wasn't for the little girl.

"I'm not going to let anything spoil my favorite holiday. I do have a reason to celebrate this year. I get to play Santa." Natalie said with a grin. "Want something to drink?" She realized she was being a bad host.

"I like that attitude. You'll have a blast being Santa. I'm fine. Are we waiting for Megan's return before we decorate?"

"I thought we'd do it after dinner. They should be back then. Do you mind?"

"No. That's fine."

During dinner Grace and Natalie talked about many different subjects, something they didn't often have a chance to do at work.

Meanwhile at Eaton Centre Jenny and Megan were having a quick dinner by grabbing something from one of the stands in the food court.

"Thanks for bringing me here. I wanted to get mom something special to put on the tree. I wasn't sure what would happen, and things turned out great. I have a great mom andÉ" Megan stopped not sure how to describe the Schankes.

"It's turned out pretty good for me too. I got a little sister out of it. I haven't seen Natalie this happy since she and Nick were together."

"I got a big sister, which I always wanted. Your parents really like me."

"Yeah, they do. They like having you around. I think it reminds them of when I was little. I think they missed having a kid around."

After dinner Natalie and Grace carried the boxes of decorations up from her basement storage locker. Natalie took a smaller box from her closet, putting it with the rest of the decorations.

They stopped and had coffee while waiting for Megan and Jenny's arrival.

Soon the kids arrived. Megan tried to hide a box behind her back, but it was a little too big.

She approached Natalie. "I bought this for you mom. Jenny helped me pick it out because I wasn't sure what to get you." She handed Natalie the box.

Natalie opened the wrapped box and removed the inexpensive yet beautiful Christmas Ornament.

"Thank you sweetie. It's beautiful. We'll hang it on the tree right where everyone can see it," Natalie said before turning her attention to Jenny.

"Jenny, would you like to stay a while?" Natalie asked.

"I'd like to stay, but I have to call mom first."

Jenny called home and was pleased to be able to stay with her friends.

Natalie, Grace, Megan and Jenny decorated the tree while talking and listening to Christmas carols. Natalie missed Nick, but knew her two friends did as well. Grace noticed the ornaments from the smaller box were older, almost antiques and seemed special to Natalie.

"Nick gave these to me last year. He said they were some of his favorites. That they had been in his family for years."

"They're beautiful." Grace said. She wished she could find someone to love as much as Nick and Natalie loved each other. She also wished that Natalie still didn't hurt so much over losing Nick.

Natalie hung Nick's ornaments where she could see them from all over the loft.

"Megan, where should we hang my new ornament?" Natalie asked.

Megan studied the tree. "How about right here," she said pointing to a spot just above her eye level.

"That looks perfect. Would you like to hang it or should I?"

"It's your ornament."

Natalie hung the ornament in the spot Megan had pointed to. She looked at Megan to confirm its location and her daughter's smile was her answer.

Natalie reached into the box and pulled out an ornament.

"Why don't you hang this one?" Natalie said as she handed Megan the ornament.

Megan took it, a surprised smile crossing her face. "It has my name on it."

"Yes. I thought you might like to have your very own ornament for the tree."

"Thanks." Megan again studied the tree before hanging her ornament in the perfect spot.

Natalie allowed Megan to help her hang some of her newer ornaments, in case one was dropped.

Once the tree was finished the four girls turned their attention to the rest of the loft. Everyone was given a few decorations and went about their task of putting them where they thought they went best. Before long the entire place looked quite festive.

They rewarded themselves with hot chocolate with lots of mini marshmallows and the sugar-free chocolate cake Natalie had made.

The next afternoon, Natalie and Grace did some of their Christmas shopping together as it was more fun that way. Also it was a great way to pick up suggestions for the perfect gift. She enjoyed the search for the perfect gifts for Grace, Tracy, Myra, Don, Jenny, Sarah and Amy. She remembered to buy a gift for the office exchange and one for the party her support group was throwing in a few days. She knew she'd have to pick out Nick's gift later, when alone.

The next afternoon Natalie and Myra went shopping as Natalie had been unable to figure out what to get Megan.

Natalie and Megan made paper snowflakes to decorate the loft windows. Megan thought it was really cool how no two came out alike, just like real snowflakes.

Christmas Eve came, Natalie and Megan arrived at Natalie's support group's party. Natalie smiled as she saw all the festive decorations. She hoped there would be other children there for Megan to play with. She missed Nick terribly. She remembered the pleased look on Grace's face when her friend learned the ME had a party to attend that evening. Natalie had invited Grace but Grace had turned her down due to a previous commitment.

Megan looked around liking the decorations but not knowing what to expect.

Mel noticed Natalie's mood and brought her some eggnog and Megan some cookies. He liked Megan's smile as she took the cookies. Megan noticed one was shaped like a stocking and the other a tree, both decorated with red or green icing.

Megan saw some other children, looked up at her mom and scampered off to join them when Natalie nodded her consent.

"Merry Christmas. No long faces allowed tonight," he said as he gave Natalie a hug.

"Merry Christmas. Sorry. I was thinking about Nick. It is my first Christmas without him. The decorations look great." She returned the embrace, needing the unconditional love and support.

"Thanks. Lisa and I put them up. The first year is always the hardest."

With the help of her friends, Natalie managed to get into the spirit pretty quickly and enjoyed herself. They mingled, drank, ate and generally had fun. The kids enjoyed playing together. At 10pm the gifts were exchanged. Names were drawn out of a hat to see who would be trading gifts. The presents were supposed to be something inexpensive and silly to lighten the spirit. The gifts ranged from a can of silly string to squirt guns and silly putty, things that all but the most stuffy person got a kick out of. After cleaning up their mess, the party broke up about 11:30 pm. Most of the children were asleep on the mats in the corner.

Natalie and Megan arrived home and found a large package leaning against her door with no return address. Natalie recognized the vaguely familiar handwriting. She was glad Megan was asleep in her arms, as she wouldn't have to explain it.

Once inside, Natalie gently woke Megan. They both took their final doses before Natalie sent Megan upstairs to change.

Natalie opened the door, took the package inside, and knew opening it would reluctantly have to wait until she tucked Megan in.

Once Megan had been tucked in, told her promised story, Natalie went back downstairs, after giving a reminder that if she peeked, or didn't go to sleep that Santa wouldn't come.

Natalie opened the large box having no problems with technicalities as it was after midnight, making it Christmas morning.

She pulled out a note which read 'Natalie, hopefully some day in the not too distant future we can once again be together on this day. Until then you're never far from my heart. I miss you so much it hurts. Merry Christmas. Love, Nick.' Tears streamed down her face as she read his note.

She missed him so much it nearly killed her. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and pulled both the attractively wrapped presents out of the package. She set the one labeled "from Santa" under the tree, touched that he sent something for Megan. She ripped the gift wrap off of her present. Inside the box was a beautiful suit in her size. The royal blue of the material would bring out the blue in her eyes. She was pretty sure Nick had it tailor made for her and couldn't wait to wear it.

"Thank you, Nick for both the presents. The suit's beautiful," She said, knowing he couldn't hear her. "I hope you enjoy your gift." She had sent him avery fine leather briefcase to carry all his papers in.

She took the suit upstairs and hung it in her closet. Then she went down to the garage's storage area and pulled out an armful of presents, loaded them into the elevator and went back for another armful. Once she had them all in, she closed the door and headed back upstairs, being careful to gently open the door as not to awaken Megan and spoil the surprise.

As Natalie filled both their stockings, she knew she'd probably bought too many gifts, but she wanted Megan to have a wonderful holiday. Christmas was a child's favorite time of year, outside of Halloween. She remembered wondering how many gifts would be under the tree, barely able to wait until her parents gave her and her brother permission to head downstairs.

Natalie soon finished arranging the small mountain of gifts under the tree and headed upstairs to get some sleep, knowing Megan would be up at the crack of dawn, if not before. They'd agreed to wait until eight am before Megan could disturb her or go downstairs.

Meanwhile in Boston, Nick arrived home from teaching and found a package leaning against his door. A smile crossed his face as recognized the handwriting.

He picked it up, unlocked the door and entered his apartment.

He set down his old briefcase, mentally noting that he could use a new one, keys, and the package on the table by the door. He took off his jacket and hung it in the closet.

Nick picked up the package and headed for the couch. Once seated he opened the outer box finding a festively wrapped present inside along with a card.

He opened the card first. It had a silly, slightly bizarre picture of Santa and his reindeer, which caused him to chuckle. Inside the card said, Nick, I hope you're okay. I still miss you as much as ever. I love you and hope we can be together again on this day, someday. Love, Natalie.

Nick wiped a blood tear from his cheek. He set the card down on the coffee table and started to open the present before him. As soon as the wrapping paper was ripped off, he saw that there was a briefcase inside the cardboard box. He smiled, wondering how she'd known.

"Thanks, Nat."

Nick opened the cardboard box and pulled the very fine, black leather briefcase from the box. He ran his hand over the surface of the leather, finding it to be incredibly soft and smooth. He popped the latches and looked inside. It had been very nicely lined and had several pockets which would hold his papers as well as anything else he needed to carry.

He set the briefcase down and headed for the fridge.

He pulled out the necessary ingredients for the protein shake. He still could barely tolerate them, but she was slowly improving the taste and tolerability. He tossed all the ingredients into the blender and mixed it up.

He grabbed a glass from the cabinet, poured the contents into it and took a sip, grimacing. He forced down a quarter of the container before it threatened to come back up. He poured out the rest and rinsed out the glass.

He returned to the living room and flopped down onto the couch. His eyes closed and thoughts of Natalie came to mind. As he drifted off to sleep he dreamed of being with Natalie and Megan as a family.

Back at the loft, Megan woke, saw it was seven-thirty and headed for the hallway, curious to see what Santa had brought. Her eyes grew wide as she saw the small mountain of presents below. She sat on the floor of the hallway, by the railing studying the scene, eagerly waiting until she could wake her mom up.

At eight am, Natalie felt a pair of little hands on her shoulder pushing and pulling at her.

"Mommy, wake up."

Natalie stirred, rubbed her eyes and got up.

"I'm awake. Before you open your presents you have to take your medication." Natalie said as she slipped into her pink terrycloth robe and slippers. Natalie knew that if Megan got to the tree first, she'd never be able to pull her away, or at least not without a temper tantrum.

"Okay," Megan grumbled. Megan sat on the hall floor looking down at the all the goodies awaiting her.

Natalie started down the stairs with Megan bouncing down them ahead of her. "Be careful sweetie."

Megan headed for the kitchen, knowing the sooner she took her medication the sooner she could get to the tree.

Natalie gave Megan her medication at the same time she took hers. Natalie smiled at the speed at which her daughter took off for the tree as soon as she had finished the last pill.

"Don't you want to do your stocking first?" Natalie asked.

"Okay." Megan knew that there could be candy in there.

Natalie walked over to the fireplace and retrieved both their stockings. She sat down on the couch next to her daughter and set the little girl's stocking down in front of her.

She watched as Megan quickly pulled each item out of it, studied it a moment then moved onto the next one. When she found the first chocolate Santa she gobbled it down.

Natalie smiled as Megan reminded her a lot of herself at that age.

Natalie knew the chocolate wasn't good for them, but was going to momentarily forget that. It was Christmas and she was going to see that they both enjoyed it. Also, by giving Megan sweets from time to time helped prevent temper tantrums, and whining that she never got any and other kids did.

Megan looked at the pretty scrunchi's, the sparkly yo-yo, stickers, and other things she'd pulled out of the stocking, among them, the pile of chocolate Santas, sparkly bracelets, several pencils with different designs, some holographic and others were just painted. One had Scooby Doo on top. There was also a giant plastic M&M with a Santa hat on, filled with sugar free candy.

"You didn't empty your stocking."

Natalie grinned remembering how curious she was at that age. She had to see what everyone else had in their stockings. Natalie pulled a bottle of blood red nail polish out of her stocking, a new scrunchi, some chocolate santas, a sparkly pen, and a few other small items.

Megan walked over to the tree and fetched a gift for her mom, then went back for one for herself.

Natalie looked down at the gift on her lap, surprised to see it was from Megan. When she looked up she saw an anxious look on the little face watching her. Natalie ripped off the paper and carefully opened the medium sized box. Nestled inside some colorful tissue paper Natalie found a handmade plaster plaque with Megan's handprint right in the middle of it. Megan had written her name in the plaster, as well as having painted the plaque royal blue.

"It's beautiful. I love it. Thank you!" She loved the big smile on her daughter's face.

"We made them last week so that our parents would have something special for Christmas."

Megan ripped open the wrapping paper on her first gift, the one in her lap. Out of it she pulled a child friendly camera and two rolls of film.

"Cool. Now I can take pictures when ever I want to."

"I'm glad you like it. I thought you might like one of your own."

Natalie watched as her daughter tore through her gifts like she had when she was that age.

Megan stopped to examine each present before moving on to the next one.

By the time she was finished she had an interesting collection of toys, videos, and books. There were Lego sets, Barbie and accessories, some Goosebumps videos, a make your own scrapbook kit, a kid friendly microscope, and mini planetarium, along with a couple of art and craft kits. There were also two new software programs for her computer. One was a combination of educational and fun while the other was pure fun.

"Thank you, mom!" Megan said excitedly as she hugged Natalie.

"You're welcome. I'm glad you like your gifts," Natalie said. "Don't forget we're going to the Schankes' for dinner tonight."

"Cool!"

Megan spent the rest of the day playing with her new toys. She played with one for a while then moved onto the next one.

When Natalie saw Megan examining the microscope she approached.

"What are you going to look at under it first?" Natalie asked, curious.

"I don't know. What would look cool under there?"

"How about a leaf? Your finger? Anything you want to put under there."

"Cool!"

Megan stuck her finger under the microscope. "How do I adjust it?"

"You turn this knob right here until you see the object clearly." Natalie said as he pointed to the knob.

Megan turned the knob until she saw her finger clearly. "Cool! Is this what you do all night?"

"I do spend a lot of time looking through one of those every night. I mainly look at the insides of a person..."

"Ewww. Gross."

Natalie couldn't help but chuckle. "I thought so too when I was your age. I even thought so when I started work. I got used to it," Natalie said. "I also look at clothing, strands of hair, anything I'm given to look at."

Megan pulled out a strand of hair and put it under the microscope.

Natalie pulled out one of hers. "Put this next to it and see if you can see a difference," Natalie said.

"Mine won't stay put," Megan pouted.

Natalie picked up a slide from the box and slipped her hair inside it. She picked up a loose hair from the shoulder of Megan's pajama top and slipped it next to her sample. She put it under the microscope.

"Try it now. The slide will help hold the hairs in place. Do you know which is your hair?"

"Megan looked at them both. "I can't tell. They look funny. It's all rough. Eww." Megan looked up at her mom. "Can you tell which is my hair?"

"Yeah," Natalie said, hoping she was right.

Natalie looked through the microscope, adjusting the focus. She studied both hairs looking for any clues that would help her point out the differences to Megan. She remembered which side each sample was on.

When Natalie was finished with her examination she moved aside to let Megan back at the microscope.

"Look closely at the two samples again. Tell me anything you notice about them."

Megan refocused the scope and intensely studied the two hairs. "The right one is a little darker."

"Right." Natalie went on to explain in terms Megan could understand the differences between the two hairs.

"Cool!" Megan said as she saw what her mom was talking about.

Natalie's stomach rumbled telling her that it was time for lunch.

"Lunch will be ready in a few minutes," Natalie said as she headed for the kitchen.

Megan ate as quickly as she could without choking, took her medication and was back at her toy pile. She picked out another one of her goodies to play with.

A couple hours later, Natalie approached her daughter.

"It's time to get ready to go to the Schankes."

"No. I wanna play."

"You can play later."

"No!" Megan said crankily.

"Megan, you need to go upstairs and take a bath. Then get dressed."

"No!" Megan shouted, stomping her foot.

"I bet there are more gifts waiting for you at the Schankes'," Natalie said, hoping that would work. She was not in the mood to deal with a full fledged temper tantrum.

"Really?" Megan asked.

"There is only one way to find out."

"Okay," Megan reluctantly stopped playing with her Legos and marched up the stairs to the bathroom.

Natalie followed her up, glad that tactic had worked.

While Megan was picking out what to wear, and dressing herself, Natalie took a quick shower. Natalie entered Megan's room, toweling off her hair, checking to see how her daughter was doing. When everything was fine, Natalie went back to her room to dress.

Both of them were dressed casually, but nicely.

Natalie wore her new necklace. Megan noticed the sun and the moon hanging from her mom's neck.

"That's pretty," Megan said pointing to the necklace.

"Thank you. I thought so too."

"Is it new?"

"Yes. I bought it for myself while shopping for everyone's Christmas present." While Natalie had her daughter's attention. "You ready to go?"

"Yeah."

Natalie and Megan arrived at the Schankes', right on time, and were met at the door by Jenny. Jenny saw the three shopping bags full of presents that Natalie and Megan held.

Jenny escorted them inside and took their coats. Jenny missed seeing Nick, remembering how many Christmas' he'd come here with Natalie.

"Hi guys. Merry Christmas," Jenny said as she hugged both Natalie and Jenny.

"Merry Christmas," Natalie and Megan said.

The three girls headed off to the family room.

Don stood and hugged his friends as they entered the family room.

"I'm glad you two could make it."

"So am I," Natalie said.

"Me too," Megan chimed in.

"I'll be right back. I left your gifts at the front door."

"I'll give you a hand," Don said.

Both Natalie and Don were a little sad, remembering all the times she and Nick had come over for the holidays. Both were determined not to let it affect them today.

Don grabbed two of the shopping bags and Natalie carried the third one.

"You know you didn't have to bring so much," Don said.

"I know. I love Christmas and couldn't help myself."

Don left the bags in front of the tree so Natalie and Megan could arrange them. He reclaimed his chair.

Myra came out of the kitchen and headed for her friends.

"Sorry I didn't come out sooner. I was in the middle of checking on the roast." Myra hugged Natalie.

"That's okay. It smells great," Natalie said, returning Myra's embrace.

Myra hugged Megan next. Megan hugged her back.

"Can I get anyone anything?" Myra asked.

"We're fine," Natalie said as she and Megan settled into the couch.

Jenny sat near Megan.

"Megan, did you get a lot of good stuff from Santa?" Jenny asked.

"Yeah," Megan told everyone there about all the stuff she'd received.

Schanke chuckled when Megan mentioned the microscope and the scientific experiment they'd conducted.

"Trying to persuade her to follow in her mom's footsteps," Schanke teased, momentarily forgetting that both Natalie and Megan were living with AIDS.

Natalie chuckled. "Yeah."

"What did you get?" Megan asked Jenny.

"I got a few CD's, some movies, a really cool computer program and pretty sweater."

Myra noticed how Megan was eyeing the presents under the tree. She remembered when Jenny did that, and how her daughter still did that to some extent.

"How about we go ahead and open the gifts. Dinner has to cook another hour," Myra said. "Jenny, how about you and Megan hand out the gifts."

"Okay," the two girls said.

They headed for the tree and picked up gifts. They handed them to the proper recipient.

Natalie saw that she was the first to receive a gift, and that it was from Myra. She ripped off the paper revealing a pretty gold pair of earrings.

"Thank you, Myra. They're beautiful."

Myra noticed Natalie's necklace. "I'm glad you liked them. That's a pretty necklace you have on."

"Thanks. I saw it and couldn't resist." Natalie knew that sun and moon was how Nick often saw their relationship.

Schanke was given the gift Natalie had brought. Schanke opened the gift quite curious to see what his friend bought him this year. When he opened the box he saw a chocolate moose staring back at him and laughed.

"This is great." Don showed it to everyone else.

They couldn't believe they were seeing a chocolate moose head, antlers and little white frosting eyes with black frosting pupils.

"That's adorable," Myra said. "Where did you find it?"

"A store at Eaton Centre. Don't remember which one." Natalie grinned. "I thought it was a fitting gift. Goes with the moose jammies." Natalie remembered laughing when she'd seen those. It had been when she'd stayed here after Nick's memorial service.

Jenny handed out her gifts next.

Natalie was stunned when she pulled the silver Celtic weave bracelet out of the box. It looked like it was done by an experienced craftsman.

"Did you make this? It's gorgeous. Thank you."

"I made all my gifts again this year. Everyone seems to like those best."

"You really should try and sell some of your stuff. It's really good," Natalie said, loving the huge smile on Jenny's face along with the slight blushing.

"Thanks, Natalie. Maybe I will."

Myra opened her box, curious to see what her daughter had made her this year. She saw a beautiful pair of silver earrings. There was a blue non-precious jewel in the center of each earring.

"Thank you, sweetie. They're beautiful." Myra removed the earrings she had on and replaced it with her new ones.

Don opened his gift. He pulled the photo album out of the box and began to look through it. He saw pictures of his family through the years. Some of them he remembered, especially when he'd had thoughts of his job running and sometimes ruining his life. The pictures near the end were of Thanksgiving and Christmas' where Nick and Nat had come over. Those made him both happy and sad. He wished Nick was still here, more for Natalie's sake than his own. He really missed his friend. He saw the picture from Nick and Natalie's wedding. It brought a tear to his eye. He'd never seen them happier, or looking as great as they did that day.

Don noticed that there was some description along with each picture. It perfectly described each picture. There were a few decorative stickers to make the page look complete. The plastic cover over the each page protected the pictures wonderfully.

"Thank you sweetheart. It's one of the best gifts you've ever given me."

Megan opened hers. She loved the tie dye thermal shirt and pants. "Cool!"

"Since you don't wear jewelry I thought you'd enjoy these more."

"Did you make them?"

"Yes. I used all your favorite colors," Jenny said.

"Thank you."

Jenny and Megan handed out the next round of gifts.

Megan gave Don a pretty paperweight for his desk. She gave Myra a bracelet of shiny blue beads. Jenny received a silver chain with a Celtic knot pendant. Megan was about to explode with happiness when everyone loved the gifts she'd picked out.

Myra gave Megan a pair of Beanie Baby teddy bears. Don and Jenny had opened their gifts earlier. Megan loved the bears.

Natalie gave Myra a new pair of climbing gloves, knowing how worn out her old ones were. Myra loved the thoughtful gift.

Jenny received an art kit. Natalie also gave her a new CD of her favorite band.

Don fetched a large garbage bag in which everyone helped him stuff the paper.

Myra picked up the album and started looking at it. Megan and Natalie sat on either side of her. The three of them loved viewing all the pictures. Megan really liked any that had Natalie or Nick in them. Both Natalie and Myra were saddened because Nick was no longer around.

Right as they finished looking at the album, the oven timer started beeping. Myra put it down and went to the kitchen. Myra, Natalie and Megan all complimented Jenny on her excellent work.

Jenny looked at her album feeling sad as well because she too missed Nick. She was pleased that everyone liked her effort. It had taken many hours to find the perfect pictures, write the captions and decided what stickers completed the page.

Before long dinner was on the table. Everyone took their seats, ate and had a good time.

The next afternoon Jenny was looking after Megan while Myra and Natalie went for their weekly climbing session.

Jenny took Megan to the park for some sledding. Megan liked the feeling of flying down the hill, the wind chilling her cheeks. Jenny enjoyed that feeling as well, but also liked seeing Megan enjoy herself.

When they tired of sledding they returned to the Schanke residence where they made snow angels and built a snowman.

A couple of hours later Megan and Jenny were drinking hot chocolate and watching a movie while waiting for the adults to return.

Nick had spent the night wandering around, watching the New Years Eve celebrations and was returning home. He found a package leaning against his door. He smiled as he recognized the handwriting. He quickly unlocked his door and entered, quite curious to see what Natalie had sent him.

He set the keys down on the table and ripped open the box, pulled out the wrapped present and quickly tore off the paper. He opened the internal box and pulled out the tissue paper wrapped item. He carefully unwrapped the tissue paper, a little surprised to see a mug.

He read the message 'With love and hope, all things are possible' and knew it was true. The gift brought about a mix of emotions, both happy ones because she still loved him and sad ones because they were not together.

He looked inside the mug and found her latest recipe for protein shakes. He grinned, not at all surprised she'd slipped that into his gift.

He pulled the card out of the box and opened it. He saw a few loose photos inside, which he pushed aside, for now. As he read her message he heard her voice.

"Dear Nick, I too hope we can be together again sometime in the not too distant future. I can't help but think about you often. I too miss you so much it hurts. I thought you might need a little inspiration, hence the message on the mug. Happy Birthday. Love, Nat."

Nick looked at the pictures she'd enclosed. One was of Natalie, Grace and Tracy. Another was of Natalie and Megan. A third was the Schanke family. He was pleased to see his friends doing so well.

About a week later, Nat composed her latest letter to Nick.

"Nick, I hope all is well with you. I'm glad you still get a joy out of teaching. Your students don't know how lucky they are. I miss you more than ever.

The search for your cure goes on. Every time I think I'm close to one for you I hit that brick wall again. Every failure does help by ruling out the impossible. I'm trying another approach and will keep you updated. The search for a cure for HIV/AIDS is not going as well.

I do have some bad news. The protease inhibitors I was on started causing nasty side effects so I had to switch. I'm on the fourth one. If this one causes problems I'll have to risk some untested ones or go with ones with serious side effects. My only other treatment option is to go back on the original cocktail, or a variation of it. I'm sorry for not telling you before, but I couldn't. I know you would like to take me in your arms and reassure me that everything's okay, as much as I'd like it. We both know that is impossible as long as I remain in Toronto. I'm not ready to leave here yet.

Megan has seen the pictures of you and knows that we were married and you're dead. How would we explain it? I don't think she'd agree to leaving all her friends behind. The Schanke's have practically adopted us. Jenny and Megan are like sisters. It wouldn't be fair to separate them.

Tracy and Vachon are still together. I think Tracy's a little jealous the few times she's seen Vachon and me together. They remind me of a younger, more carefree version of us. She's beginning to wonder about it all. She's in love with him and isn't sure what to do about it. I suspect she will keep coming to me for advice. She's still unaware that I know. Vachon has not told her much of what she needs to know and I have the feeling that I will have to, for her own safety. She needs to understand what she's getting into. It would not have stopped me if I had known at the beginning all I learned during the fourteen years we spent together.

You're never far from my heart or my thoughts. I miss you so much it hurts.

Have you heard from Janette? LaCroix is leaving me alone. On the few occasions I have run into him, he has been very non-threatening. I'm beginning to wonder why. Grace is doing fine and has been a big help to me over the years. Tracy, Grace, and I still miss you. Birthdays and holidays are the hardest times. I still really miss not being able to share them with you.

Thank you for the perfect presents. Everyone liked the sun and moon pendant. The suit fits perfectly. Megan loved her gift. Thank you for thinking of her.

Until we can be together again.

Love, Natalie.

PS I will need another sample soon. I have seen improvements so do not give up."

A few days later Natalie received the blood sample and a letter. She popped the blood sample into her home fridge, until she left for her shift and opened the letter, reading it out loud.

"Natalie,

I hope that you stay as well as possible for as long as possible. I was deeply saddened to learn of your troubles with the protease inhibitors. We knew that was a distinct possibility. I hope the current cocktail continues to work for you, for a long time to come. I hope that your condition remains stable for a long while. I am a little hurt that you did not tell me sooner, but I do understand why. I hope Grace, Megan, the Schankes and your support group help. I regret that I cannot be there for you.

I miss you incredibly. Every holiday and birthday rips out little pieces of my heart.

I was glad to hear the update on my friends as well as the picture. I know you will do fine if you have to explain to Tracy what she needs to know about the Community. Prepare her for when Vachon has to move on, as well as the dangers of getting romantically involved. Feel free to discuss our relationship if it will help. I have not seen or heard from Janette since she left Toronto.

I have not given up. Any hope for progress on my cure is welcome news, as is any progress on the one for you.

Please keep me informed on the progress of the disease, for both you and Megan.

Thank you for the terrific gifts. I use the briefcase everyday and keep the mug near me so that whenever I feel frustrated I look at it and think of you. The new recipe is more palatable, thanks.

Enclosed please find the requested blood sample.

I miss you and think about you often.

Love, Nick."

She had tears running down her cheeks by the time she finished reading his letter. Luckily Megan was at the Schankes.

That evening Natalie found herself again having trouble concentrating. She had an open file in front of her but her mind was a million miles away as she wondered what Nick was doing, and how he was really doing. Grace entered with some new files and saw her friend lost in the ozone.

"Natalie honey, you okay?"

Natalie was startled. "I'm okay."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure. I was thinking about Nick. I still miss him."

"That will get you down," Grace said, sympathetically.

"It's not like he's the first family I've ever lost. It's not the first time I've lost a family member or good friend for a senseless and violent reason."

"Do you have the Hansen, Davies, and Anderson files?" Grace asked, changing the subject.

"I'm almost finished with the final reports. When does Samuels need them?"

"Yesterday."

"I'll talk to him."

Grace knew there wasn't much she could do for her friend, except be there when she needed to talk. Grace handed Natalie the files and left.

Natalie's mind wandered off. Why should I stay here? I could be with Nick. I could have my own lab where I could devote myself to the two cures. She knew the answers to her own questions. I'd miss Grace and my work too much. Nick would be a distraction. I don't know that I'd make faster progress even with full time effort. What would I have as a buffer when I hit those brick walls? With my work I feel like I've accomplished something. She knew she'd continue like she had been. Outside of the disease and Nick not being here, things aren't so bad. I have friends, a daughter, and a job I enjoy. Megan and I are healthy. She felt much better knowing she had some control over her life and the choices she made.

The next year passed by. Natalie and Megan stayed healthy. Their drug cocktails continued to work properly.

Their bond grew deeper with time. It was becoming more and more like Megan was Natalie's biological child and not just her foster one. They had their share of fights as Megan was discovering mom wasn't perfect. Megan started to push the boundaries more. She began wanting to spend more time with her friends and less with Natalie. In other words, she was a normal eight year old.

Natalie still lectured kids on a career in forensic pathology. She still made weekly visits to the Ped AIDS ward. She also found time to be more involved at Megan's school. She helped out with field trips when she could. Attended plays and other productions, as well as parent teacher meetings.

Natalie and Myra still went climbing every week. Enjoying the challenge of the club's newest and even more high tech climbing wall.

Natalie still missed Nick on her birthday and their anniversary. Her friends helped ease the feelings of loss. They threw her a great birthday party.

Megan had another great party this year.

Jenny spent a good part of the summer writing down the stories Nick had told her as a child. She was going to try and sell them as a series of children's books.

Jenny and Megan had fun that summer as they spent time together.

Megan spent two of the best weeks of her life at camp. She loved seeing that other children had AIDS and were as normal as she was. It helped reinforce the idea that one can do a very nice job of living with AIDS. Of not letting it take over your life.

Jenny started at the University of Toronto that fall. Since she had the full scholarship, her family didn't have to worry about where money for room, board, books or tuition would come from, or any of the extra expenses that crept up. Jenny was majoring in television and movie production, with a minor in arts. She had considered a double major but did want to have a little fun during college.

Jenny enjoyed dorm life, outside of the late night false fire alarms. She even let Megan come up to stay for a night during a weekend when she didn't have much studying to do and her roommate was out of town for the weekend. Megan loved seeing the campus, eating with all the big kids in the cafeteria and spending time alone with Jenny. Jenny made sure Megan took her medication right on schedule.

Natalie and Megan took another trip to St. Thomas as the weather began to get really cold and nasty in Toronto. They came back from their week in the sun all tan and rested. Ready to tackle reality again.

Jenny spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas at home with her parents. She wasn't ready to give up those traditions just yet.

The next year started off well. Outside of the small problems of life, Natalie and Megan were doing fine. Both were still healthy. Their drug cocktails still working well.

Jenny was an honor student in college. She was really enjoying her studies. When she had to make her first student film, she gave Megan a part in it, which delighted the little girl to no end.

Natalie still continued with all her projects from the year before, knowing how important each one was.

Jenny spent the early part of summer getting her stories published. She had received three rejection notices and was considering giving up when she received an acceptance note. She didn't mind that she wouldn't make a fortune, but it was still a decent amount per book for every book she could write.

Natalie's friends threw her another wonderful party. She was grateful for her friends, and for her daughter.

It wasn't until late summer that Megan and Natalie's health took it's first small downward step. Megan's treatment had to be changed because it lost most of its effectiveness. Their viral load rose, and their CD4 levels took a small drop.

Jenny received her first book back from the publisher and was so excited her mom thought she was going to explode. Jenny happily gave autographed copies to her parents and to Natalie and Megan. Grace received one as well. Jenny was curious when Natalie asked for one more copy, but didn't pry.

Natalie sent the book on to Nick with her next letter to him. He thanked her and loved how Jenny had taken the stories he'd told her and turned them into children's stories.

Megan had insisted on a more mature party that year. Instead of one like the last two years, she wanted it held at an amusement park. Natalie didn't see why she should object and set about to make the necessary arrangements. The party was a big success. Jenny had been Natalie's helper this year, because Megan didn't want two moms around. She didn't mind Jenny's helping out because they were friends.

Jenny started her second year at the University of Toronto. It was a bit more intense because she not only had class work, but she had field work as well.

Natalie knew there was a flu bug going around, as it had hit several people in her department. She worried about either Megan or herself catching it, knowing that with their weakened immune systems it could be life threatening. She also knew that she couldn't keep Megan home every time there was a new flu strain going around because it wouldn't be fair, but also it wouldn't be much protection. Natalie knew that she had as much of a chance of passing it along as did anyone else. She knew it was risky, but they had to live their lives, not hide every time someone sneezed.

Natalie made sure they both took their vitamins, as well as got plenty of rest and proper nutrition to help ward off any illnesses.

Natalie had seen the subtle signs that Megan's condition was worsening, especially since her medication had been changed due to intolerance. She knew the doctors were still learning which drugs worked best and in which doses on their pediatric patients, due to the fact that children's bodies metabolized the drugs very differently than adult's did.

A part of her hoped Megan's death was quick, not the slow lingering kind as she didn't deserve that.

Meanwhile, Megan had noticed the signs that her mom's health was deteriorating too.

Both were tiring more easily. Not too noticeably to outsiders, but to those that knew them well it was detectable.

Several days later Megan woke up not feeling too well. She wanted to go to school because they were having a party and she didn't want to miss it.

Natalie took Megan's temperature, seeing that there was no fever, reluctantly allowed her to go to school. She hoped it wouldn't turn into something major, but if it did, she didn't want Megan to regret missing the party.

Natalie was distracted all day, worried about how her daughter was doing. As soon as it was time to pick her up, Natalie was at school.

Megan headed for her mom, feeling worse than she did that morning.

"How was the party?" Natalie asked once Megan was seated in the car, her seat belt fastened.

"It was great. I won this," Megan said as she showed off her new bracelet.

"That's wonderful. How did you win it?"

"I wrote the best short story. Would you like me to read it to you?"

"I'd love to hear it." Natalie noticed that Megan wasn't feeling well, but didn't make a big issue out of it.

Megan read her short story and afterwards heard her mom's praise.

Natalie knew that if Megan was getting sick, there really wasn't much that could be done. They would just have to wait and see.

The afternoon went well. Natalie and Megan headed to the video store as it was their weekly take-out and movie night. Megan loved it as she got to pick where they went for dinner and which movie they watched.

Even though Megan was too big to be tucked in, she still enjoyed having her mom tell her a story on the nights she didn't sleep at the Schankes due to mom's work hours. She loved that tradition too much to give it up.

Natalie hoped Megan wouldn't become too sick. When she kissed Megan, she noticed Megan was a little warm and took her temperature noticing it was only a little elevated.

The next morning Megan was feeling worse and didn't want to go to school. Natalie called work to tell them that she wouldn't be in that night. Then she called Scott and arranged for an appointment.

Megan got up and dressed while Natalie did the same. They both took their medication knowing how important it was.

Megan was an excellent reader but wanted to hear her mom read to her. She didn't feel like reading her book herself. Natalie understood and read to her daughter.

A few hours later Megan started coughing, causing Natalie's concern to escalate.

Is it serious? Natalie worried.

Shortly they had to leave to meet Scott.

At the pediatric AIDS ward, Scott met them and took Megan into his office. From what he'd seen between mother and daughter over the last two years, he knew he'd been right when he suggested Natalie get custody of Megan. They had helped each other regain the joy of life.

Scott examined Megan, hearing the congestion in her lungs. He noted that she had a fever.

"Natalie, I believe she has Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia. It doesn't seem severe, but this is her second case of it."

"I know."

"Am I gonna die?" Megan asked scared and worried, both about dying and about hurting her mom. She was now old enough to understand more about her disease, and that she would die within the next couple of years.

"I don't know. You're probably going to get very sick." Scott believed in being honest with his patients, knowing that they often sensed the truth, and that if he was honest they were more cooperative.

"If I'm going to die, I don't want to be here. I want to be in my own bed. She's a doctor. She can take care of me."

"Natalie?" Scott asked, willing to respect Megan's wishes. She was old enough to make her own decisions, having a fair understanding of what was going on.

"Will you stop by?"

"Of course I will."

"Megan, are you sure this is what you want?" Natalie asked.

"Yes. I don't want to die alone. I don't want to be like the other kids, with all those machines controlling them."

"Okay," Natalie said, as she stroked Megan's hair. She couldn't believe how grown up her little girl sounded. She wondered if she'd be that brave when her time came. If her doctor would be so understanding.

"You know the system might not like it," Scott said to Natalie.

"I know. I'll deal with it. Can I count on you to back me up?"

"Yes." Scott said before turning his attention back to his patient. "Megan, I need to run a few more tests. One of them won't be very pleasant. Natalie can stay with you if you like." He saw Megan nod and grab hold of her mom's hand. Even at nine, she still needed her mom's comforting.

After the tests were finished, Scott released Megan. He gave Natalie instructions and the necessary prescriptions so she could care for Megan at home. The diagnosis was Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia.

On the way home, Natalie stopped to get the prescriptions filled and to stock up on supplies. She let Megan pick out some treats for herself.

Once home, Megan curled up on the couch and watched videos, leaning against her mom. Natalie knew how Megan must be feeling, having had a bout with Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia herself.

She fed Megan whenever she was hungry and let her eat whatever she felt like eating, knowing that something was better than nothing. She made sure that they both took their medications on time. Scott had started Natalie on the same antibiotics as Megan, as a preventative measure.

When Megan tired of videos, Natalie told Megan stories, most of them coming from what Nick had told her, but changed enough to be suitable for a nine year old.

When Megan didn't want to sleep alone, Natalie laid down beside her and draped her arm protectively around her daughter. Natalie found herself again wishing that if Megan had to die, that she would die peacefully, in her sleep, without a lot of pain beforehand.

The next morning Megan was feeling worse when she awoke. She was even more tired, and didn't feel like doing much. She didn't want Natalie to leave.

Natalie and Megan went downstairs and the younger one settled on the couch to watch more videos. Natalie fixed them both some breakfast and their medications.

Later that day, the buzzer rang. Natalie let Grace up.

"Hi Natalie, Megan. I thought I'd see if you needed anything. Also, I brought a few new videos Megan might like." Grace saw Megan smile.

"Thanks," Megan said.

"We're doing okay," Natalie said.

Grace noticed the concern in her eyes, but didn't say anything.

"How are things at work?"

"They're okay. Everyone said to tell you both hi, and they hope Megan gets well quickly."

Megan smiled, pleased to know her friends were thinking about her.

"I almost forgot. I have some stuff here for Megan." Grace pulled a large, stuffed manila envelope out of the bag she was holding and handed it to Megan. "These are from school."

Megan dumped the contents into her lap, her eyes lighting up at all the handmade pictures and cards.

"Tell them thank you," Megan said, pleased that she'd been remembered.

"I will." She handed Natalie the bag with the videos in it. "Natalie, would you like me to stay here for an hour or two while you take care of any errands?" She knew her friend probably needed a break.

Natalie looked over at Megan, "do we need anything?"

"More chocolate."

"Okay. I'll be back as soon as I can. If either of you need me, call me." Natalie laid her hand on her friend's shoulder. "Thanks, Grace."

Natalie left Grace and Megan behind to entertain themselves until she returned, pleased for the break.

At the grocery store, Natalie ran into Myra. Myra immediately noticed the worry in Natalie's eyes.

"Natalie, hi. Is everything okay?"

"Hi, Myra. Megan's sick."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?"

"Not right now. Grace stopped by, giving me a chance to restock. Megan doesn't want to be alone."

"I'll be glad to baby-sit whenever you need some time to yourself. I'm an old pro with sick kids."

"Thanks. Maybe tomorrow? I do have more errands to run, but don't want to stay away too long."

"Okay. Just let me know when. How are you doing food wise?"

"We're doing okay. I'm fixing whatever she wants to eat. She wanted more chocolate, which is why I'm here."

"If you need anything, let me know. Okay?"

"I will. Thanks. How's everyone at your house?"

"We're doing good. Tell Megan we hope she gets well quickly," Myra said. She had a hunch that it was serious and that Megan might not recover. She hoped she was wrong.

Natalie arrived back at the loft right as Scott was arriving for his afternoon checkup.

"How is she?" He asked.

"She's feeling worse. I don't know if it's natural or of it's a sign that she's getting worse."

Scott and Natalie entered the loft. Scott headed over for his young patient.

"Hi there. How are you feeling today?"

"I don't feel so good. Am I gonna get worse? Am I gonna die?"

"I don't know. You probably will feel worse." Scott pulled out his stethoscope. "I need you to take as deep of breathes as you can." Scott listened to her lungs as she did as requested. The deep breaths caused her to cough, but not the horrible coughing spells Natalie had during her last bought of Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia. "You are congested, but it doesn't sound too terrible."

Scott listened to Megan's heart next, pleased when it sounded strong.

He took her temperature, which was one hundred and one degrees.

Next he drew a blood sample. He needed it to get a clear picture of what was happening inside her body. Unlike most doctors he had kept in practice because sometimes his tiny patients wouldn't let anyone but him draw the blood. He didn't want to hurt them and lose their trust.

"Natalie, your turn," Scott said. He wanted to make sure he caught it early in case Natalie came down with it as well.

Natalie sat on the couch, at Megan's feet. Scott checked her lungs as well as her heart, and drew a blood sample. He also checked her temperature, pleased it was normal.

"Megan, keep eating and drinking as much as you can. That will help your body fight the PCP. Make sure you take all your medications on time. Get plenty of sleep. Other than that, we just have to wait and see what happens." Scott said. He'd seen kids this sick die, and he'd seen ones he was sure would die, recover. He tried to avoid offering false hope or totally gloomy prospects if he could help it.

"Natalie, your lungs sound clear and your heart is strong. Your temperature is normal. I'll stop by again later."

"Thanks, Scott," both Natalie and Megan said.

Natalie saw Scott out. Then she turned her attention to Grace.

"Grace, thank you for staying with her."

"It's no problem. Why don't you go keep her company while I whip you two up some lunch."

"You don't have to do that," Natalie said.

"I know. I want to."

"Thanks."

Natalie headed over to the couch to see what Megan was watching. Somehow she wasn't surprised that Megan was watching her latest favorite movie 'Men in Black'. She sat down next to her daughter and watched the movie.

Grace brought their lunch over when it was ready. She ate with them and then took her leave.

Early in the evening, Jenny stopped by to see how Megan was doing. She'd heard Megan was sick.

"Hi squirt. I hear you're not feeling so good," Jenny said.

"Hi, Jenny. I have PCP," Megan said, not quite able to pronounce Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia.

Jenny was a little scared. She hoped Megan survived, and if she had to die that it was as peaceful as possible.

"I brought one of my favorite movies and thought you might like to see it."

"What is it?"

"Starman."

"Sure."

Natalie noticed how Jenny's visit perked Megan up a bit.

"Megan, I have to go out for a little while. Jenny, call me on my cell phone if you need me. Okay?"

"Okay," Both girls said.

Natalie headed for Vachon's church. She entered and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust before climbing down the steps to his lair.

"Vachon, you here?"

Suddenly he was right in front of her. She playfully smacked his shoulder.

"Don't do that!" She said startled and a bit annoyed. "Why do you guys have to do that?"

"Because we can." Vachon teased.

Natalie just rolled her eyes.

"What brings you by?"

"I need your help."

"You know Nick would kill me if I brought you across."

"I know. I wouldn't ask that unless I had no other option and death was imminent."

"Then what?"

"Megan's sick. I don't think she's going to get better. I need you to help ease her symptoms so she can die peacefully. I do not want you to help her die, just make her more comfortable."

Vachon had to think about that for a moment before he understood. "Sure. When do you want me to do it?"

"Later tonight."

"I'm sorry to hear she's sick. I like her. She reminds me a lot of you."

"Thanks. I have to get back to the loft. She doesn't like it when I'm away for long."

Natalie headed back for the loft after a quick stop at the grocery store for basic necessities.

As she entered the loft, she noticed that the two girls were still watching the movie.

"Join us," Megan said.

Natalie sat down on the other side of Megan. She enjoyed the movie as it was one of her favorites. She'd loaned her tape out but never got it back and had forgotten about that until now.

Later that evening, Jenny left because she saw Megan was falling asleep and said good night to her. She knew Natalie would probably want to sleep while Megan did so she said good night to her as well.

Vachon arrived about an hour later. He and Natalie talked for a while before Natalie had to wake Megan for her last dose of medication for the night.

Megan was surprised to see Vachon there.

"Megan, you remember Vachon don't you?" Natalie said, knowing they'd only met a few times.

"Yeah. Hi." Megan thought he was kinda cute.

"I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes if I can," Vachon said.

"Okay."

Vachon and Megan headed over for the couch. He could see that she was sick and probably wouldn't get better. He remembered what he'd learned about AIDS and how it claims its victims.

He caught Megan's eyes and matched his heartbeat to hers. "You will not feel any pain. Your breathing will not get so bad you cannot breathe. IF your body decides it can no longer fight you will die peacefully in your sleep. You will let your mom know so both of you can say goodbye."

Vachon released Megan from his control. He knew he had to spend a few minutes talking to her, but wasn't quite sure what to say. He'd never had much experience with children.

Natalie called Megan away to take her medication. She could see her daughter was about to fall asleep again and didn't want to have to wake her up again.

As soon as Megan took her medication she headed up to bed. It was more comfortable than the couch.

"I'll be right up," Natalie called upstairs.

"I hope that's what you wanted. I hope it helps."

"It was. It will. Thank you," She kissed Vachon on the cheek, surprising him. "She has Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia and I didn't want her to suffer like I did the last time I had it."

Natalie turned around to let him out and he was gone. She headed upstairs to keep her daughter company. She completely understood her daughter not wanting to be alone as she felt the same way. Neither of them wanted to die alone.

Megan was still worse the next day, making her believe she was going to die. "Mom, I'm scared. I don't want to die. I don't want to leave you all alone. I don't want to hurt Jenny."

Natalie hugged her daughter, and rubbed her back. "I know. Dying is scary. Everyone dies. Some do it sooner than others. I'll be okay. I have Don, Myra, Jenny and Grace to help me through it. Jenny has all of us so she'll be okay. We all understand."

"Do you ever think about dying?"

"Yes. I too don't want to hurt my friends, but I know they'll understand. They'd know that we were okay. That we were no longer sick. That we were no longer suffering. That would make them feel better."

"Will you feel that way when I die?"

"Yes. I will be very sad because I love you, but I will be glad you're no longer sick. That you won't suffer any more. I will miss you."

"Like you miss Nick?"

"Yes."

"I left you a surprise on my computer. I don't want you to look before I die. Promise."

"I promise."

"I'm glad you were my mom. I love you."

"I love you too," Natalie said, suspecting this was the last day she'd spend with Megan. She didn't need a stethoscope to hear the congestion in her daughter's lungs. She heard it in Megan's breathing, a little in her speech. She could tell how worn out her nine year old body was. "Do you want me to call Jenny?"

"No. I don't want her to watch me die. I want her to remember me being alive and her little sister."

"Okay."

The door buzzer rang. Megan didn't want Natalie to leave her alone. Natalie lifted Megan up and carried her to the door, realizing that her daughter was getting too big to be carried. Natalie pushed the lift release and headed back for the couch.

Scott entered. One look at the two of them told him more than any medical diagnosis could. Megan was dying.

"Hi, Megan. I need to check you out." Scott said.

"Okay," Megan said.

Natalie set her daughter down on the couch.

Scott listened to Megan's lungs and heard the extreme congestion. He was surprised she could breathe, and that she wasn't gasping for air. Her temperature was up to one hundred and three. Her heart was still strong. He could tell from looking at her that her body was worn out. Her spirit was still as bright as ever but it knew its time was limited.

"When will I die?" Megan asked.

"I don't know. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow." Scott didn't think she had more than a few hours left, but had been proved wrong in the past.

"I need to examine your mom."

Megan reluctantly unwrapped her arms from around her mom and moved down to the end of the couch. She hugged her bear.

Scott checked out Natalie's lungs, pleased when there was no sign of congestion. Her heart was strong, her temperature was normal. He took a blood sample, hoping for better results than he'd seen in Megan's last sample.

"Would you like me to stay awhile?" Scott asked.

Megan nodded.

"Mom, can we look at the stars again. Will you tell me a story while we do?"

"Sure. What story would you like to hear?" She was glad she'd hooked Megan on the stars. She'd told her the same stories about the constellations that Nick had told her.

Megan loved seeing the stars. They'd gone out every clear night for the last six months.

"Any story. But not from a book."

"Okay." Natalie saw Scott sitting in the overstuffed chair watching them. "You're welcome to join us on the roof."

Scott knew he'd made the right decision. Megan and Natalie had brought the joy of living back to the other's life. He'd never seen either of them happier or healthier, until this illness. He'd loved how they never let having AIDS stop them from enjoying life. At every appointment Megan had always shared a tale of her and Natalie's latest adventure. He'd enjoyed hearing every single one of them.

"Thanks, but I think I'll stay inside. I don't much like heights."

"Sorry. I forgot that," Natalie said with a small grin.

Natalie helped Megan dress warmly. She had on her boots, jacket, gloves and a hat. Natalie dressed as warmly.

Natalie picked Megan up and carried her upstairs, once again realizing that nine year olds were not meant to be carried. At the top of the stairs she stopped to catch her breath before heading down the hall to the roof access. She climbed up the stairs and opened the roof door. Once out on the roof, she sat Megan down and went back inside to get their pillows and quilt. She put the pillows down and was pleased to see Megan claim hers. Natalie sat on one of hers with the other one tucked behind her. She wrapped the quilt around them both.

Megan leaned against her mom's shoulder. Natalie wrapped her arms around her daughter.

"Can you find Orion?" Natalie asked, almost immediately spotting the constellation.

Megan pointed to it, then pointed to another constellation. "There's the big dipper."

"Very good," Natalie said with a smile.

"It's so pretty up here."

"It is beautiful. Just like my daughter."

"No, like my mom."

They watched the stars for a few minutes before Megan said "can I have my story?"

"Sure."

Natalie told Megan a story about a knight and his lady. She could see how much Megan was enjoying the story.

"That was nice," Megan said after the story. "Tell me another one, please."

"Sure." Natalie stroked her daughter's hair, kissing her forehead.

The new story was one she'd told Megan long ago. One that Megan had really liked. As she told the story she saw Megan fall asleep. She noticed that each breath Megan took was shallower than the last and knew this was it. Tears streamed down her face. She'd known this would happen but had hoped for a few more years.

At the same time Natalie heard Megan's final breath, she saw a shooting star streak across the sky. A weak smile crossed her face as she believed Megan's soul, her spirit was on that star. I wish for a cure so no one else has to lose a loved one to this horrible disease, Natalie thought, knowing that if one wished on a shooting star, the wish would come true. She hoped this one did. She sat there for a few minutes not wanting to move, not wanting to disturb their peaceful scene.

After a few minutes the professional side of her brain kicked in and she knew what had to be done. By having Scott there when Megan died, there wouldn't have to be an autopsy. She couldn't bear the thought of someone cutting open her daughter to confirm the obvious cause of death.

She picked Megan up and carried her downstairs. Scott heard then come back in and met them at the upstairs landing. The tears still flowing down Natalie's cheeks told him that Megan had died.

"I'm sorry."

"Thanks. We all knew it would happen. I just didn't want it to be this soon."

"You made her very happy. She won't ever be in pain again," Scott said as tears began to fall down his cheeks. It hurt every time he lost a young one, especially when he knew them as well as he had gotten to know Megan.

"I'm grateful for that. There was a shooting star right at the moment she died. She's now off exploring the rest of the universe with it."

"That's a beautiful thought."

"Will you certify that you were here when she died."

"Sure. I was here." Scott also couldn't bear to think about someone autopsying Megan. He knew that since he'd been present, his stating that on the death certificate would prevent the autopsy.

Natalie knew her next toughest decision would be to bury her or cremate her and let the wind take her around the world. She wasn't ready to think about that so she shoved it off to the side.

"Would you like me to stay awhile?" Scott asked.

"No. I need to be alone."

"Okay." He took Megan from Natalie, seeing how much of a strain holding her was on his friend. " He saw Natalie nod. "Have you picked out a place yet?"

"No. I was going to soon. I wasn't expecting her to die yet." Natalie retrieved a tissue. "I also have to decide if I want to bury her or cremate her."

"That's up to you. Would you like me to call the funeral home?" Scott said as he laid Megan on the couch.

"Please."

Scott called one of the funeral homes that several of the parents had used.

Two men from the funeral home arrived. Natalie let them up. She let them take Megan's body. Natalie knew that Megan's spirit wasn't there anymore, that it was just the body. That didn't stop it from hurting.

"I need to go. I can come back later if you need me."

"Thanks for staying. I'll be okay," Natalie said, totally heartbroken. She didn't want anyone around her.

She walked Scott to the door. Once he left, she climbed back onto the roof. By staring out at the sky she could feel connected to Megan, and in a way connected to Nick.

"Nick, I could really use your arms around me right now." Natalie said.

"I'm not Nick, but will I do?" Vachon asked as he walked out onto the roof, not wanting to startle her by suddenly appearing in front of her.

"I guess. Thanks for not scaring me."

Vachon saw the tears running down Natalie's face and became worried. He sat down next to her and wrapped his arm around her. She wrapped her arms around him and a new torrent of tears started as she sobbed in his arms. He held her, letting her cry.

"Did MeganÉ" He felt subtle changes throughout her body, and then felt her nodding.

"I'll listen whenever you're ready to talk."

"Thanks," she whispered around her tears.

Before long Natalie cried herself out, at least for now. She wiped her face.

"I think she knew right from the start. Earlier tonight we had a chat about death. About leaving those we love behind. She wanted to come out here and look at the stars and wanted me to tell her stories. She died peacefully in my arms. Thank you for helping her do that."

"I didn't want to see her suffer."

"I'll be right back," Natalie said, realizing it was time for her next dose.

Natalie went inside and took her medication. Grabbed a cup of coffee for herself.

"Sorry I don't have anything to offer you. I couldn't keep blood aroundÉ"

"I understand. I'm fine."

"How did you hear me? I know your hearing is more sensitive but I didn't think you could hear that far away," Natalie said curiously.

"We can't. I was nearby and heard you."

"I miss her so much," Natalie wiped at a tear that ran down her cheek. "Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?"

"I don't know. Maybe being allowed to share Megan's life for the last couple of years was a reward."

Natalie just stared at Vachon.

"You said that you couldn't be a mother because of AIDS. Maybe someone recognized your abilities as well as your selflessness and gave you what you wanted, a child."

Natalie thought about that a moment.

"You knew from the start that she would die at some point. Does length of life matter over quality?"

"No. Quality is what's important. What good is living to be eighty if you had a miserable life? I'd rather have a few good years than a lot of not so good ones."

Natalie kissed Vachon on the cheek, surprising him.

"Thank you."

"I'm glad I could help."

"I think I'm going to head inside. It's getting cold out here. Care to join me?"

"Nah. I have to get going. I have a few things to do before sunrise."

"Okay."

Natalie went inside and knew Vachon was already gone. She pulled their pillows inside and locked up.

She went downstairs to try and think. She had a lot to figure out and very little time in which to do so.

Natalie was torn between calling her friends and being alone. Her dilemma was solved when the phone rang. She knew if she ignored it her friends would worry and she'd have to call them back later.

"Lambert," she said trying to hide the pain.

"Would you like me to come over?" Grace asked, recognizing that tone. "I'm so sorry."

"Thanks. If you want."

"Have you eaten recently?"

Natalie had to stop and think about that one.

"I'll bring something." Grace knew that if Natalie had to think about it the answer was most likely no.

"Thanks. Let yourself in," Natalie said.

Grace hung up, wanting to get to Natalie's as soon as she could.

Natalie wanted to see what Megan had left her, but it hurt too much. Maybe in a day or two. After the memorial service, Natalie thought.

Twenty minutes later Grace let herself into the loft. She found Natalie seated on the couch tightly hugging Megan's bear.

Natalie heard the lift door open and approached her friend, setting the bear back onto the couch, knowing she couldn't eat and hold onto the bear. That she was a grown up and wasn't supposed to need a stuffed animal for comfort.

Grace set the food on the kitchen table and wrapped her friend in a big bear hug. She hadn't seen Natalie so upset since Nick died. Grace was almost certain that Natalie was a little more devastated now, then she'd beenÉ she shuddered at the memory of Natalie performing the autopsy on Nick.

"It's too quiet around here," Natalie said as a fresh batch of tears fell.

"Why don't you gather up what you need and come spend a few days with me?" Grace had tears running down her cheeks too.

Natalie thought about Grace's offer. "Okay," she said with none of her fighting spirit showing.

Natalie threw a few changes of clothes into a bag, tossed in an ample supply of medication, being sure she grabbed just hers and not Megan's as well. She had been about to leave when she headed for the couch and grabbed Megan's bear. She set the bear on top of her bag so she wouldn't forget it.

"I need to tell Myra and Jenny."

"Okay. Would you like to stop by there? Call them?"

"Call. I'm not ready to face them," Natalie said, jealous and a little angry because Myra and Don still had a healthy, living daughter. "I also need to call work."

Natalie dialed her office and punched in Terri's extension.

"I... I need some time off," Natalie managed to get out without breaking down.

"Okay. Take all the time you need," Terri said, knowing of few things that upset her medical examiner that much. She had a hunch that Megan had died. "Is Grace there?"

Natalie held the phone out towards her friend. Grace took the phone.

"Hello?"

"Grace, this is Terri. Did Megan die?"

"Yes."

"How's Natalie taking it?"

"Not good. Sorry for calling in sick."

"I understand. I want you to stay with Natalie. She needs you more than we do here, right now." Terri knew they were shorthanded but knew that Natalie must be devastated. Terri couldn't understand why so many bad things kept happening to Natalie. She knew that her medical examiner was in no shape to work and Grace would want to be there for her friend.

"Thank you."

Grace handed the phone back to Natalie, who reluctantly took it.

"Terri?"

"I'm very sorry to hear about Megan."

"Thank you," Natalie felt herself about to lose control. "I have to go."

"I understand," Terri said.

Natalie hung up. She took a few deep breaths as she dialed the next number.

"Schanke residence," Jenny said.

Natalie hung up. "I can't tell her like this. I need to tell her in person. Tell them in person."

"We'll stop by there. First, you need to eat something."

"I'm not hungry."

"Your body needs food."

"I know."

Natalie flopped down on the couch. Grace unpacked the food and brought their plates over, quickly returning with their drinks.

Natalie picked at her food, eating just enough to keep Grace from nagging her to eat. She knew she needed to eat but didn't have any appetite.

Grace knew Natalie probably wouldn't eat her entire dinner, and would only nudge her so far. One look at her friend showed how shattered her spirit was by Megan's death.

After a while Natalie put down her fork and pushed aside her plate.

"I need to go see them," Natalie said, only half aware of what was going on.

She headed for the door.

"I'll drive," Grace said. "You're in no shape to."

"Thanks."

Natalie grabbed her jacket on the way down to the street. Grace followed right behind her, turning off lights and locking up.

The ride to the Schanke residence was quiet. Natalie wasn't in the mood to talk and Grace didn't push.

Natalie took a deep breath before she stepped out of the car, once Grace had parked in the Schanke's driveway.

Natalie headed for the front door, dreading the whole thing. Once there, she rang the doorbell.

Myra answered the door. One look at Natalie made words unnecessary.

"NoÉ" Myra said, very upset, both for Natalie being hurt this badly again, and for Megan. Myra wrapped her arm around Natalie's shoulders and escorted her friend inside.

"Grace, you're welcome to come inside," Myra said, spotting Grace in the car.

"Thanks," Grace said, then locked up the car.

Myra took both their jackets and hung it up in the closet along with her own. She wanted to make Natalie tell her everything, but knew she had to let Natalie do it in her own way.

"Don, Jenny come to the family room. Now."

Myra's tone had her family running to the family room.

"What's..." Don started to say before he spotted Natalie.

Don, Myra and Jenny all hugged Natalie, sharing their sorrow.

"Hi Grace," Don, Myra and Jenny said as they embraced her.

Myra escorted Natalie to the couch. She sat on one side of Natalie with Jenny on the other. Grace and Don took the chairs by the couch.

"When..." Jenny asked, tears running down her cheeks.

"Earlier tonight. She wanted to see the stars so we went up to the roof. She wanted to hear my stories, so I told her story after story as we watched the stars. She tired and went to sleep. Minutes laterÉ" Tears ran down Natalie's face. "At the same moment she died, there was a shooting star."

"How perfect. A bright light appearing as another dimmed," Jenny said, tears flooding her cheeks. "I miss her.

"So do I," Myra said, also in tears.

"So do I," Don said, unable to keep his tears from falling.

"Me too," Grace said, crying as well.

The room was silent for a moment.

"Natalie, will you stay with us for a few days?"

"No. I've already taken Grace up on her offer." Natalie couldn't stay in this house where Myra's daughter was alive and well. It was too painful a reminder of what she'd lost.

"Have you made any arrangements?" Don asked.

"No. I didn't expect her to... to die so soon."

"Would you like us to help?"

"No. I need to do it."

"I... I have to go," Natalie said, her voice choked with emotion. "I just came to tell you." Natalie found it too painful to stay any longer. She wanted to go somewhere she could be alone.

The Schankes' hugged Natalie and Grace. Myra escorted the two ladies to the door and helped them on with their coats. She was worried about Natalie who was almost zombie like.

"Call me in a few days," Myra said.

"She will," Grace said.

"Don't be afraid to call if you need anything," Myra said to both ladies.

Grace and Natalie left. The drive to Grace's apartment was quiet.

Inside the Schanke residence, the family hugged each other grateful that they were all alive and healthy.

"I just realized why Natalie wouldn't stay. We remind her of all she's just lost," Myra said, surprised she hadn't seen it before.

"I have to go upstairs. There's something I need to do."

Jenny bolted for her room, tears streaming down her face.

"Don, will Natalie and Jenny be okay?"

"We'll all be okay... in time."

Grace kept an eye on Natalie as they drove back to Grace's apartment. She was worried about her friend.

Why her? Why one horrible thing after another? Grace wondered. She believed it was so unfair that someone as warm hearted as Natalie suffered so many tragedies. Grace thought of a few people more deserving of such a fate.

When they arrived at Grace's apartment building, Grace pulled into her spot, parked and got out. She headed for her trunk where she removed Natalie's bag and teddy bear.

Natalie quietly followed Grace up to her apartment. Natalie carried her bag in one hand and clutched the bear in the other.

As they entered the apartment, Grace said "Make yourself at home." She knew she'd said it to Natalie in the past but sensed Natalie needed to hear it again now.

"Thanks."

Natalie dropped her bag in the guest room and went back out to the living room, where she plopped down on the couch.

Grace quickly sorted through her mail before joining her friend on the couch.

"Would you like to watch tv or a movie?"

"Sure... whatever you want to watch," Natalie said, her voice almost lifeless.

Grace's heart broke seeing Natalie so lost, so devastated. The last time she'd seen Natalie this depressed was after Nick's death.

Grace flipped on the tv hoping she'd find something they'd both like. Maybe a comedy. After a few minutes Grace found something they both liked.

Natalie watched the show, barely paying attention to it. Her own thoughts were too distracting.

After the show, Natalie seemed to pull away even more.

"I'm going to try and get some sleep, if it's okay," Natalie said.

"Sweet dreams," Grace said as she gave her friend a large bear hug, pleased when it was returned.

Natalie went into the guest room and shut the door. She took her medication and got ready for bed.

When she came out of her room she saw Katie sitting cross legged on the end of the bed, scaring the hell out of her.

Katie saw Natalie confusion and felt bad for scaring her.

"Sorry I scared you. No, I'm not of Nick's kind."

"How are you?" Natalie asked, not knowing which question to ask first... actually, Katie had answered the very first one.

"I'm fine. I found a cute guy and am helping others as an angel. That's one of the reasons I'm here."

"Good for you," Natalie said, pleased to see her friend again. Katie looked better than Natalie had ever seen her look.

"I have a couple of messages for you. Megan says to thank you for being her mom, for loving her as much as you did and for making her life wonderful. Her parents want to thank you for taking such good care of their daughter. For giving her the love she needed. And for helping her die in peace."

"Why didn't she tell me herself?"

"She can't do that yet. She has to go through a time of spiritual healing yet. Also, she's a little young to be an angel. She's enjoying being with her parents again. They'll help guide her down the right path."

"Will I ever see her again?"

"I wouldn't be surprised," Katie said. "You should be with Nick. You should let him bring you across. He's as miserable without you as you are without him."

"You've seen him? Has he seen you?"

"I saw him briefly, but he hasn't seen me yet. I'm not sure if he will. That's not my decision."

"I don't want him to watch me suffer. Neither of us are ready for that step."

"He loves you. You love him. You promised you'd be together forever."

"If I left town now I'd worry too many people. They'd think I was going off to die or commit suicide. I need their support. Don't worry, we'll be together again when the time is right," Natalie said.

"Don't forget to check Megan's computer for your surprise. I have to go."

"Will I ever see you again?" Natalie asked hopeful.

"You see me every time you look at the sketch on the wall, see a picture, think about me," Katie said. "Thank you for remembering me." She noticed that answer didn't satisfy Natalie she continued. "I honestly don't know. Anything is possible."

"I will always remember you, and Megan. Thanks for making me feel better." Natalie smiled for the first time since Megan's death.

Katie smiled then vanished.

Natalie wondered if that had been real or a grief induced hallucination. She quickly decided that she didn't care either way.

She crawled into bed clutching Megan's teddy bear and fell asleep out of exhaustion. Memories of the two little girls she'd lost to AIDS were her companions as she slept. She knew Katie hadn't been her daughter, but a good friend.

The next morning at the morgue, a man in a business suit carrying a briefcase entered the morgue, but didn't get farther than security.

"Can I see some ID please?" Asked the security officer.

"I need to see Natalie Lambert," the man said as he pulled out his business card.

"About what?" The guard asked. He liked Dr. Lambert and tried to make sure no one got through that would bother or hurt her.

"It's personal."

"I need something to work with."

"It has to do with Megan and her father. He'd arranged for her funeral. I was supposed to deliver the information, but it was misplaced until now."

"She's not here. If you'd like to leave your card, I'll give her the message."

"Okay. Thanks," the man said as he handed over his business card to the guard. He wondered if she was working, but figured she probably wasn't this soon after the little girl's death.

The next afternoon both women woke, Natalie about an hour after Grace. Natalie had gotten up earlier, but only long enough to take her morning dose.

Natalie took her next dose and dressed. She brushed her curly auburn hair.

Grace looked up from the book she was reading when she heard the bedroom door open and Natalie's footsteps.

"How are you this afternoon?" Grace asked concerned.

"Better," Natalie said a little less shattered than she'd been the night before.

Grace immediately noticed the change. A little of the fire had come back into Natalie's eyes. She seemed a little happier, more at peace. Grace knew there was still a lot of grieving to be done.

"I see." Grace teased. "What happened?" Grace's curiosity getting the better of her.

Natalie wasn't sure if Grace would understand. "Promise you won't laugh, or think I'm nuts?"

"I promise."

"Last night when I came out of the bathroom I saw Katie sitting on the end of my bed." Natalie loved the surprised but confused and curious look on her friend's face. Natalie repeated parts of her conversation with Katie that had to do with Megan or Katie.

"I thought I heard you talking to someone last night."

The phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Grace? This is Rick from the Coroner's Office. I'm looking for Natalie."

"Hold on," Grace covered the phone's microphone with her hand. "It's Rick from work. He wants to speak to you."

"I'll take it," Natalie said, knowing she'd have to talk to him sooner or later, especially since he was security.

She took the phone from Grace. "This is Natalie."

"There was a guy here earlier looking for you. Said his name was James Douglas and that he had some information about Peter and Megan. About Megan's funeral arrangements. Do you want his number?"

"Please. Thank you Rick."

"555-0241," Rick said. "I'm very sorry to hear about your daughter."

Natalie scribbled down the name and number.

"Thanks, Rick."

Rick hung up. Natalie did so as well.

"What was that all about?"

"It seems I might not have to worry about making Megan's funeral arrangements," Natalie said, some depression still evident in her voice. "Apparently Megan's father made them, and someone came by the office looking for me. I should call him and see what's up."

"He can come over if he needs to," Grace said.

"Thanks."

Natalie dialed the number Rick gave her and arranged for James Douglas to stop by.

Grace fixed lunch and was surprised when Natalie helped.

"It hurts, but I know she wouldn't want me to sit around grieving. She'd want me to get on with my life. I'm going to try, but I know it won't be easy," Natalie said. "I know she was only nine. She taught me a lot, just by being my daughter. She helped me remember how to be a kid again."

Natalie brushed away a tear. "Bear with me, okay?"

"I'll be there for you, always."

More tears ran down Natalie's cheek.

"What's wrong?"

"Nick said that to me so many times. I said that to Megan more times than I can remember," Natalie said as she wiped away her tears.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know," Grace said.

"It's not your fault. I miss them both so much," Natalie sobbed. "Why does everyone very close to me die? First my parents, then Richie, Nick, now Megan."

"I don't know. It's not your fault."

"I know," Natalie admitted. Her rational mind knew Grace was right, but the irrational part couldn't help but wonder.

Natalie and Grace took their plates and drinks over to the table. Grace was pleased to see Natalie finish off a lot more of her lunch than she had her dinner the night before, but didn't finish it.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the front door.

Natalie approached. "Who's there?"

"James Douglas. I'm looking for Natalie Lambert."

Natalie unlocked the door and let him in.

"I'm Natalie. I heard you were looking for me." Natalie led him over to the couch.

Grace stayed in the kitchen to give Natalie some privacy. She cleaned up the lunch dishes.

"I was informed that you had guardianship of Megan after her father's death."

"That's right."

"I'm here to let you know that Peter didn't want you to worry about or have to pay for Megan's funeral. He's arranged everything already. My job was to inform you."

"You sure did a hell of a job," Natalie snapped at him.

"It's not my fault. Unfortunately the paperwork was misplaced and just recently found its way to my desk."

"What if you hadn't found it in time?" Natalie asked annoyed. "How did you learn she'd died?"

"If we hadn't learned in time, we would've refunded his money. Or if there was no one to refund it to, donated it to charity in his name," James said, trying to soothe his client. "We were called by the funeral home. Megan has been moved to the one her father selected."

"What did he want for her?"

"Peter asked that her body be cremated. He left what to do with the ashes up to you. He tried to make things as easy as he could for you."

"I had thought about cremation if I had to take care of it all myself."

"Have you decided what to do with her ashes?" James asked.

"Yes," Natalie didn't feel the need to tell him.

"What I need to know is when do you want to hold the memorial service? When do you want the body cremated? What would you like for the ceremony?"

Natalie considered that a moment. Everyone was in town, with the exception of Sarah and Amy. She knew they'd come in for the service.

"I need seventy two hours. I'd like to hold it after dark. The body can be cremated at any time. I just need a room where I can put up a picture and some flowers."

"No problem. I'll work out the details and give you a call."

"Let me give you one of my cards. It has my numbers on it," Natalie said. She grabbed her purse and pulled out one of her business cards.

James Douglas did a double take when he saw her profession. He now understood why she seemed so calm and together.

Natalie still got a kick out of his reaction. She loved the surprise on people's faces as they learned she was a medical examiner.

He left.

Natalie started to cry as it all sunk in. Her little girl was about to be turned into a pile of ashes. She'd have to say goodbye at a memorial service, then take the ashes down to St. Thomas and set her free.

Grace hugged her friend, a few tears running down her own face as the thought of never again seeing Megan hit home.

Once Natalie knew the time and place of the memorial service she called all Megan's friends, as well as the Schankes'. She also notified Sarah and Amy. She remembered how much Amy and Sarah had enjoyed meeting Megan.

Next Natalie had Grace accompany her back to the loft so she could pick out a picture to blow up and place on an easel so everyone could say their good byes to Megan and have something to look at.

Natalie once again was reduced to tears as she looked at all the pictures. She found her favorite picture.

While Natalie was in the loft she retrieved Megan's computer. She couldn't stay in Megan's room... yet. She brought it down to the family room and booted it up. She searched the computer for the file Megan left behind and found it.

The program opened, displaying a file with both pictures and text.

Natalie looked at the first page. There was a picture of Megan and her parents. Natalie read the story out loud.

"Hi, My name is Megan. I have AIDS. That's me in the picture with my parents. I contracted AIDS when I was three. We were in a car crash. Mom died. Dad didn't know his hand was bleeding when he touched my knee. I had cut my knee. His blood and my blood came into contact. That's how dad passed it on to me."

Natalie moved on to the next page. It was a picture of Megan and her dad.

"Dad felt really bad for passing the disease to me. By the time I was six, dad began to get really sick. A few months before my seventh birthday I got sick. Dad got even sicker. So sick he could no longer take care of me. We both had a type of pneumonia that people without AIDS don't get."

Natalie wiped a tear from her cheek and moved onto the next page. She looked over at Grace, who also wiped away a tear.

"My doctor's name is Scott. He's really nice. He tells us the truth. He likes working with kids."

Natalie liked the picture of Scott. Natalie turned the page again and saw her picture, taking her a little by surprise.

"This is Scott's friend, Natalie. She's been coming to the Pediatric AIDS wing since it opened. Scott invited her to the opening. She reads to the kids, talks with them, comforts them. They really like her visits and eagerly await the next one.

When my dad got too sick to care for me, I had no where to go. The children's shelters and foster homes were all full or wouldn't take me. Scott told my social worker that Natalie would make a good foster mom. He was right.

Natalie took me home with her. She's very nice. A very loving mom."

Natalie had tears running down her face as she turned the page and saw a picture of her and Megan.

"Natalie and I were happy together. We loved each other very much. She treated me like a normal kid, which was great. It was what I wanted to be.

Since she has AIDS too, she understood what I was going through. She comforted me when I hated being different because I had AIDS. She helped me see I wasn't that different from every one else. Other kids had to take medication for other diseases like diabetes, asthma, epilepsy and many other diseases.

Shortly after I went to live with her my dad died. I was very sad. I missed him a lot. Natalie was there for me. Letting me cry. Helping me grieve. She understood how I felt because she too had lost her parents."

Natalie moved onto the next page. She saw a picture of Jenny.

"This is my friend Jenny. She's like my big sister. She's really cool. She doesn't treat me differently because I have AIDS. She and Natalie are friends too.

When Natalie's work hours changed from day time back to night time, I slept at Jenny's house. She told me a new story every night. She's a really good story teller."

Grace was crying almost as hard as Natalie as they read Megan's book. The next paged had a picture of Don, Myra and Jenny.

"The grown ups are Jenny's parents. They looked after me while mom worked. I started calling Natalie mom after a few months because she loved me and took care of me like my birth mom did before she died. Jenny's parents are really nice."

The next page had a picture of Grace on it, surprising Grace.

"This is mom's friend Grace. She would baby-sit me when mom needed to do things without me. We had a lot of fun together."

Natalie moved to the final page of the book. It had another picture of Natalie and Megan.

"I'm now nine years old. I've had AIDS for six years. I've been healthy for the almost all that time. The last time I was sick was when I met Natalie.

Both mom and I have been getting a little weaker as our immune systems are slowly destroyed by the AIDS virus. We get tired more easily.

I haven't been feeling well for a few days now. I know I'm getting sick again. I don't know if I'll die this time.

I went to see Scott and he told me I have the same type of pneumonia that I had the last time. This time it's much worse.

I think I'm not going to live much longer.

I wrote this book to help others learn that kids with AIDS want to be treated like normal kids. We want to enjoy our lives. We don't want to suffer. We're ready die when it's that time. Yes, we're scared of dying, but we know it will happen. We don't want to die alone."

Natalie and Grace were sobbing by the time they finished the last page.

Natalie moved to the next page and saw a note.

"Please finish my book by telling how I died."

Natalie typed "Megan knew she was dying and was afraid she'd hurt me and Jenny most when she died. She was afraid, but once we talked about death, about how her friends would be okay because they knew she was no longer sick or hurting. That she'd never be sick or suffer again.

She knew she was dying and wanted to see the stars. We started going out every clear night to look at them. She loved to look at the twinkling lights and hear me tell her a story about each constellation we found.

After looking at the stars for awhile she wanted me to tell her a story, which I did. After I'd finished with one, she wanted a second one. It was during the second story that she fell asleep in my arms. She died peacefully in her sleep. At the moment she died a shooting star appeared to carry her spirit all across the universe."

"Great ending, Natalie," Grace said as she wiped away the tears. "What picture are you going to use?"

"I'm not sure." Natalie saved her addition to the story. She wiped her eyes as the file saved itself.

Natalie grabbed the photo album off the shelves across the far wall and returned to the couch. She flipped through the book until she found one she liked. It was of Megan and herself taken only weeks before Megan's death.

"What do you think?"

"Perfect."

"I'll have to scan it in later." Natalie put the picture on the table.

Over the next two days Natalie grieved for the loss of Megan. Sometimes in bouts of tears brought about by the simplest things. She wondered why both Nick and Megan had been ripped from her life like that. She knew she could go to Nick, which did help, but on the other hand it made the loss of her daughter hurt more because it was final. She knew Megan was no longer suffering the ravages of AIDS and that was her only consolation.

Natalie was tempted to chuck it all and go to Nick. Would we be able to pick up where we left off? What if it doesn't work? Natalie couldn't bear the thought of that.

Natalie and Grace talked, helping the other deal with their loss. Natalie couldn't face Myra and Jenny yet, or even Don. Megan's book had helped her and Grace's healing process tremendously. Natalie knew she had to get it published somehow.

Natalie made a visit to her support group, needing their love even more now. They were all saddened by the news of Megan's death. They knew how hard it was for Natalie, seeing how close mother and daughter were. They offered their condolences and support.

Grace visited her support group as well. She didn't want to think about how bad she'd feel when Natalie died. The though of her friend dying truly scared her. She knew that Natalie would no longer be suffering then, but didn't want to face life without her friend. Grace snapped out of that angst fest and concentrated on the present. Natalie was healthy and alive.

At the Schanke residence, Don and Myra grieved almost as if their own child had been lost. They understood why Natalie had not been around. They knew they'd once again miss having a young child around. They were thankful that Jenny was alive and healthy.

They too needed the help of their support group as they came to terms with their loss.

Jenny spent more time at her computer working on a special project. She wouldn't let anyone see it until it was done. She was deeply feeling the loss of her little sister. She too understood why Natalie hadn't come for a visit.

Jenny did spend time with her parents, needing their love and comfort they provided. Jenny also visited her support group needing to talk with her friends there as they could understand her feelings better than her other friends, or even her parents.

Natalie awoke the next afternoon dreading that evening. She hated funerals, memorial services, wakes. The fact that this one was for Megan made her hate them even more. She didn't want to have to face everyone, but knew she'd have to sooner or later. She didn't want to have to say good bye to Megan all over again. She was ready to move on with her life.

Grace awoke about the same time Natalie did and headed for the kitchen. She needed her coffee first thing almost as much as Natalie did.

Shortly Natalie joined Grace in a cup of coffee, fully waking as she sipped at the hot beverage in her hands.

Together they fixed breakfast. As Natalie took her medication, she couldn't help but wonder how long before she too died, if she had not reunited with Nick by then.

Neither woman ate much breakfast. Grace managed to eat a bit more than Natalie.

After they ate and cleaned up the kitchen, they showered and dressed.

Before they knew it, it was time for them to leave. They had to arrive early to make sure everything was set up properly.

Natalie entered the room where the service would be held and was relieved when everything seemed to be in order. Grace was right behind Natalie and was also relieved to see things had been set up according to instructions. Natalie had wanted the room to be a little cheerier than the average adult memorial service because Megan brought light into everyone's life she came into contact with, and also because there would be a fair number of children attending and she didn't want to depress them more than they already were. She also didn't want to scare them with too solemn a room.

Shortly Megan's friends started to arrive, accompanied by one or both parents. Most were a little hesitant, as this was the first death they'd encountered. For some it was the first death of a peer. Something that only reminded them that they too could die, as could their siblings.

Jenny, Myra and Don arrived and hugged Natalie. They were relieved to see she didn't look nearly as despondent as she had a few nights ago when they'd last talked with her.

Sarah and Amy arrived. They hugged Natalie as they briefly talked with her.

Megan's social worker, Chris, entered. Right behind her Scott entered. Both offered condolences and a hug.

Once everyone was there, Natalie started the memorial service.

"I want to thank you all for coming. I'm sorry we have to be together for such a sad reason. Megan touched all our lives in different ways. I thought rather than having a preacher stand up here and speak, I'd let who ever wanted to tell everyone how Megan affected them."

When no one said anything, Natalie spoke first. "My husband died a few months before I met Megan," Natalie said, keeping it understandable for a child. "The day Chris called me to see if I wanted to become a foster mom had been a long hard one. I was tired and didn't really want to go out. It was my love for children that compelled me to go to Toronto General that night. I asked to see Megan's medical records before agreeing to take her on, wanting to know exactly what I was about to get myself into. I had been called because all the children's shelters and other foster homes were either full or wouldn't take her because she had AIDS."

Natalie looked around at the crowd before continuing. "After I finished reading her file, I was introduced to her. We were both nervous. As Megan and I talked we decided we liked each other and it might work. I told her I had never been a foster mom before but was willing to give it a try. Megan asked me why I wanted her. Why I wanted a child who was dying."

A small grin crossed Natalie's face as she remembered that night. "I told her that we both needed someone. That I'd lost someone important to me and thought we could help each other out. I didn't know how much we'd help each other over the next two and a half years. Megan asked me a few questions which I honestly answered. She learned I had AIDS and asked her social worker if that was why she I was going to be taking care of her. Once she knew I had room for her and wanted her, she agreed to come stay with me."

Natalie saw that she had everyone's attention, even the kids. "Her father was in the hospital dying. Megan had been hospitalized because she had been mildly sick, but mainly because there was no where else for her to go. I couldn't turn down Megan's request to see her father then, and two more times before he told her that was their last visit. She was heartbroken. I helped her as she dealt with the fact that her dad was going to die within a day or two. When he did die, I helped her by listening as she needed to talk, by letting her know that what she was feeling was normal. That when I'd lost my husband it had hurt as much."

Natalie wiped away a stray tear and continued. "As Megan and I spent more time together we got to know each other better. I quickly realized I was now mother to a bright, funny, wonderful child with an amazing love for life. She taught me so much. I began to look at the world in a whole new way. It made me want to love her as much as I could. I wanted her to have a full rich life, but I wanted it to be as normal as possible as well, as that was what she wanted. One of the best moments was when she called me Mom for the very first time."

A small smile crossed Natalie's face. "My love of life blossomed like never before. I truly enjoyed throwing Megan a party for her seventh birthday, with the help of a good friend. Seeing her excitement as Halloween approached. I had a blast shopping that first Christmas and seeing her face light up as she saw all the presents that first Christmas morning."

Natalie saw most of the parents wiping away tears, realizing it could very easily be them up there. They were also deeply touched by what Natalie was saying.

"Megan gave me something I truly wanted, but could never have because I had AIDS. Motherhood. That is one of the things I'm most thankful for. Even if it was only for a few short years, it was more than I would've had otherwise. I owe a lot to my friend Scott who suggested my name to Chris, and to Chris for giving a single woman with AIDS the chance to fulfill a dream. Thank you both. I know that doesn't even begin to say enough, but it's the best I can do."

Natalie's smile disappeared as she continued. "Megan knew almost from the moment she became sick that she might not survive. She faced death with great courage. She wanted to die at home and did not want any machines to keep her alive. She was a little scared of dying, but a large part of it was that she didn't want to hurt me or her friends. When I told her that we'd understand. That it was okay because she'd no longer be suffering."

Grace gave Natalie a couple of tissues, before taking a few for herself. Natalie wiped away the tears that were now streaming down her face.

"When Megan fully realized that she was going to die she wanted to spend one more night looking up at the stars. We went up to the roof where we almost always watched the sky. She'd loved the stories I'd told her as we located every constellation we could see. She wanted to hear some of the other stories I'd tell her. I told her stories until she fell asleep in my arms. A shooting star streaked across the sky at the same time she died, taking her spirit on a journey across the sky, to places we can only dream about."

Natalie took a deep breath to try and calm down a little so she could help others to express their stories.

"Who would like to go next?" Natalie asked. "You don't have to raise your hand, just start talking."

"When I first met Megan I was afraid. I'd been told she had AIDS. I knew it was something bad and I didn't want to get it. I was five. We were in the same class in first grade. The teacher explained to us that we could not catch it from being her friend. Also that if she was bleeding we were not to touch the blood or the boo boo, but to come get a teacher immediately," Tammy said, as she wiped away her tears, and sniffled. "I'm glad I didn't allow my fear to prevent me from getting to know her. From being her friend. She was a lot of fun to be around. We giggled and laughed a lot. I really miss her."

"I too am glad I became Megan's friend," Kristen said. "The only thing she asked was that we treat her like a normal kid. That was easy to do. Once you got to know her, you forgot she had such a horrible disease."

One by one Megan's friends from school and even from the years she was in daycare told their stories. Tissue boxes were emptied as more and more tears fell.

"When I first learned Natalie had AIDS I was afraid to be around my friend. I didn't want to watch her die. I missed her. She, her husband, and my parents all helped me see how much I was missing out on. How she needed my friendship as much, if not more than I did. Slowly I was able to overcome my fears and spend time with her like I used to. When she became Megan's foster mom, I was a little surprised because she had AIDS, but I also knew she'd be a great mom because of how well she'd taken care of me the times she'd baby-sat me. I was determined not to let my fears over losing another friend get in my way as I met Megan. From the start I really liked her. She had a lot of spunk. She quickly became my little sister. Even though we weren't related we really enjoyed spending time with each other. Over time, Natalie and Megan grew to be a family. A very loving one. I grew to love Megan as much as I would've loved a biological little sister."

Jenny stopped to wipe her eyes. "When Natalie's work hours changed so she had to once again work nights, I loved having Megan stay over every night Natalie had to work. It made it seem even more like we were siblings. Megan loved the stories I told her. They were ones Natalie's husband, Nick, had told me as I grew up. It hurt as I saw signs that both Natalie and Megan's conditions were worsening, but I still was there for them. I knew how important it was for them, and for me. I was with Megan after she was sick, but I wasn't totally prepared for her to die. I'd known she would from the day I met her, but it hurt as much as if we'd been born into the same family. I am grateful for knowing her. For experiencing the world through her eyes, and for having her as a little sister."

Myra spoke up next. "I had wanted for years to have another child, but for one reason or another it never happened. Then Megan came along. It was great to have youngster around again. She made me feel young again. I was grateful that Natalie asked me to watch over Megan while she worked nights, and to baby-sit whenever she needed my help." Myra wiped away a tear. "I feel as if I lost a child. I know Natalie is hurting much more than I am. I would not have changed anything of the last two and a half years. I do wish Megan had not been infected with AIDS, but I don't dwell on that as I can't change the facts. I also wish she had not died, but then wonder if she was truly meant to be here only a few years. Enough time to teach us the true meaning of life."

Myra wiped away more tears. "Every time I saw Megan and Natalie together I knew they were meant to be together. I hadn't seen Natalie that happy since her marriage to Nick. Megan and Natalie truly loved each other and enjoyed being mother and daughter."

"I share my wife's thoughts and feelings. She said it much better than I could've. The last time I saw two people so perfectly matched was Nick and Natalie," Don said as he sniffled and wiped the stray tears from his cheeks, trying hard not to cry. He knew he was loosing the battle but didn't truly care.

Scott was the next to speak. "I first met Natalie in medical school. We became friends over the years. I invited her to the opening of the new Pediatric AIDS wing, not realizing that she'd been diagnosed with HIV shortly before that. She kept being drawn back to the wing, and not just because she also had the disease. She loves kids. She does a great job interacting with them each time she visits. It was because of how natural she was with them that I suggested she be given custody of Megan. Every time I saw them together I was extremely pleased that they'd been given the other to look after. She and Megan looked like any other mother daughter."

"I was surprised that Natalie was given a foster daughter because she had AIDS, but as soon as I saw them together I knew it would be fine. It was as if Megan was Natalie's biological child. I knew Natalie would be devastated when Megan was relocated to another foster home, or when she died. But seeing them together as happy as they were made that a little easier to take," Grace said. "I love the times I stayed with Megan so Natalie could do stuff she needed to do."

When everyone had said what they needed to, Haley approached Natalie with a box full of pictures, stories and hand made cards.

"These are for you. They are our way of saying goodbye to Megan and to thank you for being her mom. She loved being your daughter." Haley sniffled. "I have known her since we both started school together."

Natalie gave Haley a hug.

"Thank you all for coming, for telling your stories, for the wonderful artwork. I will always treasure it," Natalie said.

Natalie embraced everyone as they left, knowing the healing powers a hug held. Natalie turned down invitations to stay at Sarah and Amy's or with Don, Myra and Jenny.

The attendees had found it a cathartic experience and were glad they'd attended.

After the service, James Douglas approached. "That was beautiful." He handed Natalie a small urn. "Here are Megan's ashes. Are you sure you wouldn't like this to be her final resting place?"

"I am." Natalie said as handed Grace the box of artwork and took the urn.

She and Grace left the building and headed for the only remaining car.

Natalie turned to Grace. "Grace, would you accompany me to St. Thomas?"

"I'd be honored," Grace said.

"Thanks. I don't really want to do this alone," Natalie said, relieved. "I made arrangements for an early flight tomorrow. I hope that's okay with you."

"It's fine."

"I thought we'd spend a few days down there afterwards. I know I could use a good vacation," Natalie said needing a break from reality even if it was only for a few days. She knew she'd always remember Megan. Going back to Megan's favorite place was the best way she could think of to honor her daughter's memory.

That night things were a bit happier at Grace's where Natalie was, and in the Schanke residence.

At Grace's apartment, Natalie looked over all the wonderful pictures, stories and hand made cards the children had made for her. They caused a fresh batch of tears. Natalie was deeply touched by every single item in the box. Especially those that had lost siblings to various diseases, accidents, or random acts of violence.

Early the next morning Natalie and Grace awoke and prepared for their trip. They had to stop by the loft so Natalie could properly pack.

Later that afternoon Natalie and Grace walked out onto the beach at Sapphire Bay. Natalie scattered some of Megan's ashes into the wind and the water, letting them start their journey around the world.

Next she built a sandcastle, getting Grace to help. She sprinkled a few of Megan's ashes on it and watched as the tide washed away their work.

The next morning was spent out on the ocean in a day sail. Natalie scattered Megan's remaining ashes into both the wind and the water. A tear trickled down Natalie's cheek. She wiped it away. Natalie knew that Megan's spirit was elsewhere and would approve of what she had done.

Once that had been done, the rest of the week was for relaxation and healing.

Each day they felt a little better. Natalie showed Grace all the sights she'd seen with Megan. Grace really enjoyed spending time with Natalie away from work, and was pleased she could help her friend heal from the latest tragedy.

Grace stayed at the loft with Natalie on their first night back from St. Thomas. She understood Natalie not wanting to face it alone her first night there. Natalie put the artwork Megan's friends had given her on a shelf where she could see it anytime she wanted.

The next evening, both Natalie and Grace returned to work. Natalie had told her friends that she needed to get on with her life and work was the best way she knew how. It was what Megan would want her to do.

Shortly Tracy entered. Natalie was glad for the distraction as she still couldn't concentrate.

Tracy noticed that Natalie seemed okay. There was still a deep sadness in Natalie's eyes, which Tracy knew would remain there for a long time to come.

"What can I for you?" Natalie said trying to be somewhat cheerful.

"How about grabbing a bite? I need to talk to you about a few things." She noticed that something was bothering Natalie and wondered if it was just Megan's death or something else. "You okay?"

"I'm okay. I still miss Megan. The loft is so quiet now," Natalie said as she changed the subject "I was just doing some thinking. Food sounds good about now."

Tracy didn't question Natalie, not wanting to accidentally upset her or make her cry.

The two of them left the morgue and headed for Tracy's apartment.

Tracy unlocked her door, turned on the light and motioned for Natalie to enter.

"I hope you don't mind coming here, but I wanted to be somewhere where we wouldn't be overheard."

This set off several alarm bells in Natalie's mind. She forced herself to remain calm, knowing she could handle just about anything Tracy threw at her.

"Can I get you anything?"

"I'm fine, thanks."

"Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to make myself some coffee. Are you sure you don't want any?"

"On second thought, I think I'll have a cup."

Natalie made herself comfortable on the couch while Tracy headed for the kitchen.

"What did you want to ask me? How are things between you and Vachon?" Natalie asked, believing that Vachon was to be the main topic.

"Pretty good. It is frustrating though. Do you believe in ..." Tracy broke off not sure if she should bring up the subject and sound stupid.

"Vampires?" Natalie asked as she seated herself on the couch. She repressed a small grin upon seeing the shock crossing Tracy's face.

"Yes," Tracy said stunned.

"Yes. Why?" Natalie asked, leaving it up to Tracy.

"What do you know about Vachon?" Tracy asked, curiously. She'd slowly started wondering if Natalie knew more than she let on.

"I know he's a vampire about 500 years old and that he cares for you almost as much as you care for him," she said, seeing that this was the only way the subject would be brought out into the open.

"How do you know this?" Tracy was dumbfounded. She couldn't believe it. Natalie had never given the slightest clue that she knew.

"I met one a long time ago." She smiled to herself for a moment. "They are very interesting and very dangerous."

"What about LaCroix? He gives me the creeps."

"LaCroix is not someone you want to mess with, EVER. He does not care for mortals being involved with their kind," Natalie said, firmly, with a hint of anger in her voice.

"You've had run ins with him?"

"Yes. Way too many. I would not suggest you do. It's difficult to survive. I'm still not sure why I have," Natalie said, sternly.

"Is he a vampire? Why did Nick listen to his program so much?"

"Has Vachon warned you of the dangers? About what happens to mortals who know too much?"

"Some. Nothing specific. How do you know so much?"

"Like I said, I met one years ago. Long before Vachon arrived." Tracy saw the slight change in Natalie's expression and suddenly had a hunch who that 'one' was. "Slowly, I was drawn into their Community. I'm the one who isolated the disease that was killing them years ago and helped find the cure for it."

"Thank you for saving Vachon." Tracy was truly grateful. The pieces began falling into place, confirming her hunch. She realized that Nick was a vampire. Nick had trusted Natalie, but not her. This made her angry. "Why is it that I was the only one not let in on Nick's secret? Didn't any of you trust me?"

"I didn't tell you because it was Nick's secret. I couldn't break his trust."

"How much do you know about the Community?" Tracy asked, more curious than ever.

"Enough. What I'm about to tell you might very well save your life. Generally mortals who know about vampires don't live long because the Community sees them as a threat to their survival. The vampire responsible for the breech is often given a choice - make them forget, bring them across or kill them. Sometimes the vampire will be killed for his or her sloppiness even after they have cleaned up their mess. There are vampire security enforcement personnel called Enforcers. You do NOT *EVER* want to meet up with them or it is death. No, I've never met one. Do you understand?" Natalie said, deadly serious.

"Yes. You didn't..."

"What I'm about to tell you, you cannot tell *anyone*." Natalie saw the question in Tracy's eyes as well as her nod of understanding. "LaCroix is a vampire almost 2,000 years old. He is very powerful and evil. He lives to make other people miserable, especially Nick. I'm not sure why Nick listens to him because it usually only depresses him."

"How old is Nick?"

"He's over 800 years old."

"Wow. Who brought him across? Was it LaCroix?"

"Yes."

"How did you and Nick meet? He is the one you met long ago, isn't he?"

"Yes. We met when he came across my table. He had been badly injured by a pipe bomb trying to help nearby mortals. I was told that there wasn't much of a face left. I never did get the whole story. I was giving him the preliminary examination, and had found no more of an injury than someone cutting themselves shaving. When the phone rang, I turned my back to the table to answer the phone and when I turned back around he was sitting up looking at me, almost completely healed."

"I first saw Vachon at the bus crash site."

Natalie nodded to show she knew which accident scene Tracy was talking about. She remembered that gruesome night well. It had been the biggest crash in years. A bus and train had collided killing over fifty people.

"I saw his eyes open. Reese told me that it was some sort of involuntary reaction. Then, I thought I had seen something move in the makeshift morgue. That's why I went back in there. I saw him rummaging through the body parts bag. I pulled my gun and told him to freeze. He turned around holding one hand in the other. He had lost one of his hands in the crash. He made a wisecrack about the fact that I actually said 'freeze' and my response was to faint."

Natalie smiled. "I was a little scared but I was more curious than anything. I asked him what he was. He thought of himself as evil but he wasn't. That was all LaCroix's brainwashing. Nick tried to make me forget but couldn't. We became friends as I helped him with a little problem, which I still haven't solved. We developed a very deep friendship. Slowly romance began to creep in and that's when things got tough."

"I was terrified when I came to and he was driving my car. He wound up taking a shower here. He kissed me. He also tried to make me forget and when he couldn't he called me a resistor. Was loving Nick frustrating? Can you and him..."

"It was very frustrating. There is a very deep love between us that can never be fully expressed unless he brings me across or kills me. He'll never do either, he feels that vampirism is a curse, that it is hell." Natalie wasn't sure how to answer Tracy's other question. She knew it was important to give Tracy some answer. "Normally, no we can't. The 'beast' is too powerful. Nick would never risk letting it hurt me."

"How did you deal with it?" Tracy wondered what Natalie was holding back. Had she and Nick been able to do it once, and didn't want to reveal it?

"We found other ways to express our love. Little touches, kisses, doing special things, even if they're as simple as leaving a box of candy or a rose on the other's desk can say as much as the physical intimacy can. Sometimes more." Natalie watched Tracy's expressions change as she pondered the information.

"Were you surprised when Nick proposed to you?"

"Very surprised. It took him several years to even admit he loved me. After that things seemed to remain the same, we remained friends, but there was that tension. It took him less time to propose than it did for him to admit he loved me." Natalie said, sadness crossing her features. Neither of us knew if I had that much time left, she thought.

"I guess he realized he didn't want to be without you any longer," Tracy said. Not knowing how much longer he might have you.

"He told me that his fear was what held him back. He had decided not to let it do so anymore. He was still scared but was willing to try and overcome his fear." Natalie changed the subject, not wanting to dwell on it and accidentally slip and reveal more than she wanted to. "You're lucky. Vachon doesn't seem so angst ridden about being one. Actually, he's the most well adjusted of all the ones I've met."

"How many have you met?"

Natalie counted up the number and surprised herself "Nine of them. How about you?"

"Five, counting Nick and LaCroix."

"Did Nick have any vampiric siblings?"

"Yes. He has a sister, Janette."

"Can a mortal and a vampire...."

"Any sort of sexual desire or passion brings out the bloodthirst. If you want to pursue your relationship with Vachon, do it very slowly. Watch for the eyes going yellow and the fangs, if you see those, stop or you might not like the results. Also avoid the neck or fangs as those are their key sexual arousal areas. We were always careful to avoid those in our attempts." She saw a small smirk beginning and the hopeful question in Tracy's eyes. "How far has your relationship with Vachon developed?"

"We've become friends. I know there is some romantic tension there but I'm not sure if I want to pursue it. I think he would like to, but doesn't because of the vampire. I'm not sure I'd like to become one. It would be neat to live forever, but I don't think I could drink blood or kill. By the way, did Nick drink human blood?"

"No. He drank cow blood."

Natalie had not wanted anyone but Nick to know what she was about to tell Tracy, and was only telling her because it might save her life.

"Remember the asteroid scare?" She saw Tracy nod. "I wanted to become a vampire so I would not die. I was terrified beyond belief at the thought of dying. Nick never believed that the asteroid was going to hit and refused to bring me across. He refused to give me an explanation for his refusal. Out of desperation I got drunk and nearly made a fatal mistake."

"What happened?"

"I flirted with a young, slimeball vampire who was willing to bring me across. Janette tried to protect me from myself, but being a bit intoxicated, I wouldn't listen. I wound up having to figure out a way to save my life. Luckily Nick showed up as I had run out of options, saved my life, trashing my bedroom in the process. I had a vampire staked on my bed. Nick left me alone to think. The next evening I told Nick he had been right. I hated him, and myself for that. Things were rough between us for a while as I had to sort out some major issues. I tell you this to show you how dangerous it can be, as well as how tough."

"I do have feelings for Vachon but don't know if it is worth it."

"Only you can answer that one. For Nick and me it was. Not all of our problems were vampire related. I would not have traded the time we spent together for anything. He was a great friend and husband. Vachon does have one thing in his favor, he doesn't have a master repeatedly trying to come between you."

"True. Sometimes, all I can think of is him. How I want to see him, touch him, you know. I don't think I could give him up," Tracy said, very much in love.

"I think you've made your choice."

"Did it ever bother you that Nick never ages? Vachon looks the same as he did when I met him, but I don't. Sometimes it gets to me. I hate seeing the signs of aging when I look into the mirror, while he still looks exactly the same."

"It did begin to bother me. I've never been one to spend a lot of money on makeup, clothes or to even consider surgery to stay young. I don't think it was that difference alone. It was many things, but mainly LaCroix's interference. Some days he really got to Nick and that's when I felt it. Nick would become more distant, but didn't think I'd notice. I think the first time it bothered me was around my birthday several years ago. Nick and I had fought the night before. I looked into the mirror, saw the slight signs of aging and had momentary doubts about spending the best years of my life with someone who lived centuries. For the most part it didn't bother me. I don't know what would've happened when I was 45 and he still looked 35, or when I was 50 or older. I don't think much would've changed between us. He would've had to move on by then anyway." And I'd be dead before then, anyway.

"Nick is okay, isn't he?" Tracy asked, hoping he was.

"Yeah. He's living a new life somewhere. As Vachon will have to do in less than 10 years, sooner if something unexpected happens." She saw the tremendous relief wash over Tracy's face. "If you and Vachon decide to make love make sure you both are prepared for the outcome. I've seen Nick struggle with his vampiric side. He spends a good portion of his time fighting his nature. He says it gets easier the older you get, but it never goes away. They are predators, NEVER forget that. They live on blood. They fight very hard for control over their temptations."

"How did Nick get out of the morgue and what really happened to the samples?"

"I had a little 'assistance' there. It's best that you don't know all the details." Natalie saw a growing anger in Tracy's eyes and prepared herself for the verbal lashing she was most likely about to receive.

Tracy had a feeling that Natalie was involved more deeply than she was willing to admit. Not having read any reports of fang marks she knew the M.E. had covered for Community members on more than a few occasions.

"You all let me think he was dead. You saw the pain I went through, yet you said nothing," Tracy angrily said.

"I'm sorry. It was for the best. Everyone had to believe he was dead, otherwise there would've been too many questions. People would've grown suspicious." Natalie sighed, "I went through as much pain as you did, if not more. I lost my best friend and the man I love. Not to mention the biggest part of my support system."

"But at least you knew he was alive."

"Don't you think that hurt even more? To know he was alive, yet I would never see him again. Or hear from him." Natalie said, anger creeping into her voice, even though she hadn't meant for it to.

"I didn't think of that. You're right." Tracy said, her anger drained.

"He didn't ask you to go with him?" Tracy asked stunned.

"He did. A part of me was ready to go, but the other part knew I couldn't. I had too much of a life here. All of my friends would've wondered what happened to me if I suddenly disappeared. There probably would've been an investigation into Nick's death and my part in it, as I did the autopsy. I couldn't leave you and Grace in the middle with no answers. I still miss him so much."

"I'm sorry you had to go through all that. Grace and I could've taken care of ourselves."

"I know, but I couldn't put you through it."

"He knows you have AIDS but won't bring you across? Why?"

"Neither of us was ready for that step. Outside of one illness I was doing good. I'm still enjoying being alive. Nick's no longer here."

"If someone like Vachon were to offer to bring you across, would you be ready?"

"I honestly don't know. Nick would not be at all happy with that vampire. Coming across is the most intimate thing two people can share."

"So you're just going to let the disease take its course?" Tracy asked confused. She knew she'd have asked Vachon to bring her across long before now, if she was dying from AIDS.

"For now, yes. I don't know what will happen in the future so I try not to think about it."

Tracy saw that she was not going to get more of an answer from Natalie.

"Thanks for being open and honest with me. I know it was not easy for you. One last question. How long were you and Nick together?"

"Over fifteen years. Eight of those as husband and wife." Natalie saw the surprise on Tracy's face and smiled.

"I hope Vachon and I are together that long."

Later Natalie was back at work, things were slow so she turned on the radio. While searching for a good station, she came across the Nightcrawler and for some reason found herself compelled to listen.

"Gentle listeners, I want to talk to you tonight about life. They say that good friends are what make life worth living, but what happens when a friendship, even a love is dangerous? When a friendship threatens the very life it is supposed to enrich? Tell me, true listeners: why are many of you on a first name basis with the devil? What is friendship? 'A friend in need...' But we all have needs. Do you trust your friends? With your car? With your secrets? With your life? What about with your lovers lives? How well do we know our friends... or ourselves?"

Natalie sat in her chair stunned. That son of a bitch was listening in.

"Is it a betrayal when two people who know parts of the same secret share what they know? Share and share alike, we are told. Is it a betrayal for the one who knows more to fill in the one who knows less? You may claim it is for their protection, but what of the ones the secret protects? Is it a violation of their trust? Their sacred trust?"

Natalie's anger grew as LaCroix used her chat with Tracy for his topic.

"If love is full of frustration and unfulfillment is that a sign that it never should have been? Were Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers or simply deluded fools, indulging in something that they should have known better than to try. If people are afraid to take that next step, should they call off their relationship? Is it a sign that it is a mistake? If love is intended it will flow naturally. Both parties will not be afraid to take that next step. If people are different, should they get together? They say that love can move mountains and cross rivers. That it can conquer all. I think not."

Natalie was torn between confronting the ancient vampire now or waiting until after he finished. She was curious to know what else he had to say.

"Loyalty is one of the highest virtues. One is loyal to their job, their political party, their friends and those they love. Trust and loyalty go together. Secrets that were not meant to be shared can not be shared without trust and loyalty suffering. Sometimes there is a fine line between loyalty and betrayal, and once crossed can have serious consequences. How does one regain the trust and loyalty of those they may have betrayed? Can they?"

How dare he, Natalie thought as she heard him sign off. She grabbed her coat and made a beeline for her car.

Natalie entered the Raven, pushed her way through the crowd until she reached the door to the private area. A young vampire approached.

"Ma'am, no one is allowed back there."

"I am an old friend of his. I will see him." Natalie's very angry glare and matching tone froze the younger vampire in his tracks.

"It's your funeral," the younger vampire said as he left.

Natalie pushed the door open, heading straight for the broadcasting booth. LaCroix opened the booth's door as she approached.

"Dr. Lambert, what brings you by?" He asked, curiously.

"You speak of loyalty and trust for others of the Community? What kind of trust did you show by eavesdropping on me? Look, I may not like you, actually, I know I don't like you, but that does not mean my private conversations need to be monitored. And why now? Because Vachon has a mortal friend?" She stared the elder vampire in the face, her anger showing clearly.

"All in good time, Doctor."

"What the HELL does that mean?" Her anger growing into a blind fury.

"Your little cop friend is going too far."

"Is that some sort of veiled threat?"

"Dr. Lambert, or may I call you Natalie?" He continued before she had a chance to reply. "Natalie, I do not make veiled threats. That you can be sure of, without a doubt."

"What do you want from me? Nick is no longer here. I won't threaten your Community. I've proved that countless times for well over a decade now. Covering for imbecilic vampires who can't clean up their own messes."

LaCroix's eyebrow raised in reaction to her comments.

"If your lackeys can completely recall the conversation I had with Tracy, you'll also know that I've given her sufficient warning. Whatever she decides to do is now her own choice. Hers and Vachon's. Not yours, not mine, and not the bloody Enforcers."

Natalie was not afraid of LaCroix. She wasn't sure if it was the illness that gave her the bravado to stand up to him like this or maybe she was just tired of him interfering in the lives of those around her. There was none of the wariness that had been present in their past encounters.

LaCroix found this new attitude rather interesting, intriguing even.

"Yes, your involvement within our Community is rather extensive. Perhaps it will not be long before you join us."

She looked up at him, locking glances, but not saying anything. She closed her eyes, hyperextended her neck and sighed. When she brought her head forward again she opened her eyes. "Not now, maybe not ever. But that is to be MY choice. Understood."

LaCroix gave a small nod, speaking as he left the room. "I never knew you were a fan of my show."

When Natalie returned to her office, she saw very few files on the desk and was relieved that it would be a light night. She picked up the first file and began reading it, knowing the sooner she started the sooner she could get on with her own research work. Grace entered with a few more folders for Natalie's stack.

"How are you tonight?" Grace asked, in her usual cheery manner. "You look tired."

"I am. I'm getting used to it. I hate feeling like this so much of the time," Natalie said, glad to have someone to talk to that knew her beforehand. "It's frustrating."

"I wish there was something more I could do to help," Grace said, nothing but compassion in her voice.

"You help a lot." Natalie took the folders from Grace. "How are you tonight?"

"Pretty good."

Grace left Natalie to her work.

They both knew that ever since Megan grew sick, Natalie's health had started to decline. Natalie had not picked up anything from her late daughter. It was the disease taking its own toll. Natalie had been tired from the night of Megan's death onward. It became a little more noticeable as time passed.

Several hours later Natalie had gone as far as she could with the cases she had and decided to take a research break. She knew she had to eat before she started her research or she would get so wrapped up that she would not remember to eat.

Natalie and Grace went out for dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. Grace was pleased to see Natalie getting on with her life. She knew Natalie would never truly get over Megan, like she'd never really gotten over loosing Nick.

After dinner they returned to the morgue.

Shortly after her return to the lab, Natalie pulled the test tube containing Nick's latest sample out of the fridge, removed a small amount and put the tube back into the fridge.

She did not notice when a drop or two landed on the paper cut on her index finger. She wasn't even aware she had a paper cut. She prepared a slide, examined it under her microscope and noted the changes in her journal. She found small changes in Nick's blood and was frustrated that she had yet to find the key to unlocking vampirism.

Looking through the microscope brought back her memories of teaching Megan how to use a microscope. This time instead of a flood of tears, a small sad grin crossed Natalie's face.

Her mind wandered off in another direction. She was almost jealous of Tracy and Vachon's relationship. Natalie had always found it interesting how Vachon seemed to enjoy his vampirism more than Nick did and Tracy had been accepting of it as well, Once she had become used to the new wrinkle in her reality. Natalie noticed how their relationship was a romance of the young at heart, unlike the more mature love between herself and Nick. She was sorry that Myra, Don and Jenny had to witness her declining health. She really missed Nick and the way he could make her laugh when she needed it. And boy could she use a laugh now. She missed Megan. The little girl had really brightened her life, when she'd needed it the most.

The ringing phone snapped her out of her mental wanderings.

Natalie awoke feeling a little better the next afternoon and figured it was one of her better days. She was pleased that she would be feeling better for one night.

She arrived at work on time and started on the pile that always seemed to be on her desk. She would finish one pile and another one would crop up, often before she could finish the first one. She had two autopsies lined up for the evening and changed into her scrubs.

A while later, Grace poked her head in the room to see how Natalie was doing and upon seeing her busy at work Grace left without being noticed.

It had taken Natalie most of her shift to complete her work. She started on her research after grabbing a quick bite to eat with Grace. She was beginning to feel a little tired but knew how important her research was so she pressed on. She had no real reason to go home. The loft was so empty feeling now.

She picked up a test tube she had put some of Nick's blood into, it slipped from her fingers and broke on the counter. She carefully picked up the pieces not noticing that she had cut her hand on one, until she saw more blood than could be accounted for.

She remained calm as her mind ran through the list of things she had to do. The first thing was to clean up her injury so she could see the severity of it. She used a paper towel to wipe the blood off her hand before examining the side of her palm, and was relieved to see that the cut was not very deep or very long. She removed the necessary items from the first aid kit, cleaned the cut with alcohol, biting her lower lip as it stung, and used a sterile gauze pad to apply pressure to stop the bleeding. It stopped pretty quickly and she once again cleaned the area, biting her lower lip again as it stung. She applied four steri strips to hold the edges together while it healed and covered those with a slightly larger plastic bandage than those that came in the common assortment. She picked a sheer one wanting to make the injury as unnoticeable and minor looking as she could. Next she carefully wiped up the spilled blood and put all the debris into a plastic bag. She cleaned the countertop and anything else that might have come in contact with the blood with a solvent which would kill the AIDS virus. She put those paper towels into the bag, tied it up and dumped it into the hazardous materials waste container.

She realized it was the first time she had been injured on the job since she had been diagnosed. She did not file any sort of injury report because it was a minor injury and not worth the paperwork. Also she did not want to have to answer any questions about it.

She wondered if any of his blood had entered the cut and what would happen if some had. She did not think that such a small amount would do her any harm and did not wish to bring attention to it by asking Nick or Vachon. She knew that Nick would only panic if he knew she had been exposed to his blood like that, and that his panic would probably have a negative impact on their project.

The next afternoon Natalie awoke feeling better, like she had before her pneumonia and it surprised her. She took her medication before examining the cut on her hand. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary she showered and dressed.

Could it be Nick's blood making me feel better? She wondered during her drive to the Schanke residence.

Jenny had called the night before needing to see Natalie. Natalie had agreed to come over before work.

Natalie soon arrived at the Schanke residence, parked and headed for the front door. Jenny met her there and walked her into the family room.

"What do you have there?" Jenny asked seeing a large manila envelope in Natalie's hand.

"Something I need you and your parent's permission on," Natalie said as she removed Megan's book from the envelope.

"When did she write this?" Jenny asked as she saw the cover.

"I don't know. Before she died she told me she left me a surprise on her computer. I had to promise her I wouldn't read it until after she died. She must've written it sometime in her last few days."

Jenny read the book, surprised by how touching the simple story was. Tears ran down Jenny's cheeks as she finished the book.

"You did a nice job finishing it," Jenny said as she wiped her face with her fingertips.

"Thank you. Megan asked me to finish it for her."

"It's a great book. I hope you're going to get it published. I'm honored that she included me. I have no problem with it being published just like it is."

Myra and Don came home and heard voices coming from the family room. As they drew closer they recognized Natalie's voice.

"Natalie, what brings you by?" Myra asked as she hugged her friend.

Don was the next to hug Natalie.

"I need your permission to publish something."

"Mom, Dad, you have to read it. It's wonderful."

Myra and Don sat on the couch and read Megan's book. They too had to wipe away a few tears by the time they finished.

"This is beautiful. She did a great job on it. Did you help her with more than just the ending?"

"No. I didn't even know she'd written it until after she died." Natalie told them what she'd earlier told Jenny.

"Your ending fits the style beautifully. I'm honored she included us," Myra said.

"Then I have your permission to publish it like it is?"

"Yes," Both Don and Myra said.

Natalie smiled as she pulled out three forms from the envelope. "I need you to sign these. I can't get it looked at without it."

Natalie was pleased when her friends signed the papers.

"Natalie, don't go yet. I have something to show you."

Jenny dashed upstairs to her room and returned with a stack of papers.

"I want to know what you all think of this. You're the first to read it."

Jenny handed the stack of papers to her mother who was seated between Natalie and Don on the couch.

The three adults were impressed with Jenny's book. It was titled "My Little Sister". There were photos of her and Megan, Natalie and Megan, Don, Myra, and various other combinations. The story was very similar to what Jenny had said at the memorial service. It was written for kids, but teens and adults would enjoy it as well.

"I started this right after Megan's death. It was my way of coping, and honoring her memory. I need your permission to use you and the pictures in the story."

"I'll happily sign the form," Natalie said.

Don and Myra nodded in agreement.

"Great." Jenny hoped the publisher would like her new book. "Would you like me to submit Megan's book?"

"Yes. I was hoping you'd ask."

Natalie caught a glimpse of the wall clock. "If you have the papers for your book I'll sign them. Then I have to get to work. Grace worries if I'm late."

"I'll be right back," Jenny said as she flashed upstairs to her room and returned with the forms.

"Thanks, guys," Jenny said.

Natalie, Don and Myra all signed the forms.

"Can I leave my copy of Megan's book here. I don't want it riding around in the car."

"No problem. I'll take good care of it," Jenny said.

Natalie hugged her friends and headed off to work.

They enjoyed seeing Natalie, but hated how her condition was deteriorating. It was slow for the moment, but they knew that at some point it would change drastically.

Upon entering her office, Natalie carefully drew a small sample from her fingertip and smeared it on a slide. She examined the slide under her microscope and was startled to see that there was a very small, but definite improvement. She noted this on a back page in the journal she kept for her vampirism research.

How long will it last? How much better can I feel? What if I purposely gave myself a small amount? That goes against every good principle of medicine. What if it could buy myself more time for my research? What are the risks? Natalie thought. The risks are I could become a vampire. I can live with that. Or I could become a hunter. I don't know if I could live with that.

Grace entered with the newest batch of cases for Natalie and noticed that her friend was lost in the ozone somewhere. She recognized the look on her face as her problem solving one.

"Earth to Natalie."

Natalie was startled. "What?"

"You were definitely out there somewhere. What happened to your hand?" Grace saw the bandage.

"I broke a glass last night. It's nothing serious."

"Be careful. Broken glass can be deceptively sharp and dangerous. Here's tonight's work."

"Thanks." Natalie said as she took the pile of folders from Grace.

As soon as Grace left, Natalie's thoughts strayed back to their earlier debate.

I saw the improvement. Should I use myself as a guinea pig? What if it makes me feel good enough to get through the day with less trouble? I will be able to devote more of my time to research. Will I be able to stop once I start? What will it look like to others? Will they think it is the disease or will they be curious? How much do I give myself? How often will I need it? What if it slowed or halted the disease? I can just see it now, vampire blood is the cure for AIDS. She smiled at the headline that would make. It would make sense, as HIV infected blood cured the vampire's disease.

Natalie decided to give it a try, remembering what one of her old friends had said. 'When you're staring at death in the face you'll try anything. Believe me.' She knew that she did not have that much to lose. I do, Cal.

At the end of her shift, she retrieved Nick's blood sample as she tried to guess how much had seeped into the cut, quickly realizing that was impossible to determine. What is the correct dose? How do I know if I give myself too little or two much? Natalie thought. She decided to start with a small amount, knowing she could always increase the amount. She knew if she started with too high a dose she could have side effects to deal with along with the possible unsuitability of further treatments.

She took a sealed syringe out of a cabinet along with one of those rubber strips which ties around the arm to make the veins show up better. She grabbed an alcohol prep pad and a plastic bandage. She transferred a small amount of Nick's blood to a smaller test tube before returning the main sample to the fridge.

She prepared the injection site on her left arm, just below the elbow. She sucked Nick's blood up into the syringe before making sure there were no air bubbles. She injected herself, wincing as the needle went in. She hated needles and was not pleased at having to stick herself. She slowly injected the blood into her vein, carefully removed the needle from her arm and applied the plastic bandage along with some pressure to stop any minor bleeding. She dropped the capped syringe into the hazardous waste container along with the alcohol prep pad. She cleaned up the test tube she used before leaving for home.

Once home she fixed herself dinner and watched a movie. The loft was still too quiet, but she was slowly getting used to it. She took her next batch of pills right on time and then crawled into bed for a good day's rest. Her dreams filled with Nick, Megan and herself as a happy family.

The next afternoon she awoke to her alarm clock, pleased to find herself feeling better than she had in a long time. She had no fever, no aches and pains, as well as no night sweats. She got ready for work as usual and left right on time.

At work she was able to do much more without feeling so tired, which allowed her to complete her work faster leaving her more time for her research. Before she left at the end of her shift she once again injected herself with another small dose of Nick's blood. She was afraid that Grace or someone else would enter and she'd have to explain what she was doing, especially if they saw the blood in the syringe or the tube of it on the counter.

Grace had noticed that Nat was a bit crankier, especially late in her shift. Grace mentally checked the list of dates Nat was usually cranky and found that none of them were near. She wondered if the disease had taken another turn for the worse.

By the end of the week Natalie noticed she felt as good as she did when she first learned her condition had progressed. She now had minimal symptoms and knew she had better take advantage of it and make the most of whatever time his blood would give her. She wondered how long it would help and how she'd feel afterwards.

Grace was afraid to say anything about Natalie's growing crankiness, sometimes bordering on hostility. Natalie had snapped at a few of her coworkers without provocation recently, and they began to avoid her. Nat's mood seemed to worsen during the second half of her shift.

Natalie was enjoying every second of what she'd dubbed her remission. She knew the virus was still destroying her immune system, so it wasn't a true remission in the medical sense of the word. She'd missed riding her Harley and pulled it out of it's storage spot in the back of the garage. She rode it to work. She had missed the freedom it provided.

Grace noticed it in the parking lot and knew Natalie must be feeling better. She was glad that her friend was doing better, if only for a little while.

Grace entered Natalie's office and saw her busy at work already. Nat looked like she was in a slightly better mood.

"You're looking much better."

"I feel better. I hope it lasts a while."

"I was beginning to worry about you."

"Thanks," Natalie said, glad to have someone care about her.

About halfway thought her shift Nat had finished with all the crucial stuff and switched to her research, determined to make the most of whatever time her new treatment gave her.

She withdrew another blood sample from herself and checked it under the microscope. It still looked good. There was another small improvement which she noted in the back of the journal she kept for Nick's cure. She knew it was still too early to become overly optimistic about how long the treatment would be beneficial. She wished she had a more powerful microscope and vowed to pay her friend with the tunneling electron microscope a visit.

Dammit! I wish I knew what component of Nick's blood did this. It might be the key to both diseases.

At the end of her shift she prepared her injection as usual. She still hated injecting herself, but knew the benefit was more than worth it.

After she cleaned up all the evidence, she went home to the loft. After dinner and a movie she went to bed.

Natalie rode her bike to work every day that week. She couldn't believe what a difference the tiny amount of vampire blood had made. She actually had energy to go out dancing, to take a long walk in the park, to do a marathon shopping session. She did anything she wanted to, knowing the effects could wear off tomorrow. She didn't want to regret not doing anything.

She had more energy for her and Myra's climbing session. She even convinced Myra to go twice that week.

The next morning Natalie's shift was over. She'd prepared her daily injection, but this time she put Nick's sample back into the fridge before injecting herself

Natalie had just punctured her skin with the needle when one of her fears came true, Grace entered. Grace didn't say anything until Natalie had finished injecting herself.

"Natalie, since when have you been injecting yourself?"

"About a week. I hate needles." Natalie said, trying to think up a good reason for what Grace saw.

"It looked like you were injecting yourself with blood. Why?"

Natalie wondered what Grace would think if she knew that she was right and that it was Nick's vampiric blood. She knew she couldn't tell Grace that.

"It's none of your damn business," Nat snapped, immediately regretting it. Her mind quickly came up with an alternative she hoped Grace would buy. She knew she would not be able to convince Grace that she hadn't seen blood in the syringe. "I'm sorry. I was. It's an unconventional therapy I'm trying. I'm still taking my medication, going to the doctor regularly and all that stuff. The blood was carefully checked for any infections, viruses, or diseases. I have been injecting myself with a tiny amount before I leave. It is supposed to help boost my immune system by introducing healthy cells into my bloodstream."

"It seems to be working, but it's also having some serious side effects."

Natalie glared at her, "What the hell do you know?"

"Natalie, it's making you very cranky, hostile even. That's not you."

"If you were dying from AIDS wouldn't you be cranky sometimes?"

Grace wasn't sure how to react to that. It was the first time she had heard such a statement from Natalie. Usually Natalie referred to it as living with AIDS.

"Yes, I probably would be. You've only been acting this way since you started this new treatment."

"How can you be so sure?" Nat snapped.

"I've been there for you through hell and back. I know your temper and what it takes to bring it out. No one who's head you've bitten off deserved it."

"Keep it up and you'll bring it out. I need this treatment. I feel better than I have in months."

Tracy entered saw how furious Natalie was and was about to inquire when she heard a very angry, "get out!" coming from the forensic pathologist. Tracy left stunned. She had heard the reports floating around about the change in Natalie and hadn't believed it until now.

"Natalie! Stop this right now!"

"Get out!"

"Natalie, you need to seriously consider changing or even dropping this treatment."

"Now!" Natalie shouted, raising her hand to slap her friend.

Grace left, for the first time fearing being around her friend. Something was *very* wrong. A part of her was glad Megan wasn't there to see it. If she had been, Grace would've been concerned for the little girl's saftey.

Natalie plopped down in her chair, a swirl of conflicting emotions running through her. She began to wonder if it was Nick's blood making her react this way. Is it some unexpected side effect?

An orderly hesitantly entered, dropped off a few files without looking Natalie in the face or staying a second longer than he had to. Natalie noticed the traces of fear on his face, scaring her. Is it really that bad?

She started to pace. "Dammit!" When that failed to help she started shoving chairs, tossing empty trays, books, whatever she could get her hands on. Before long she found herself in the corner, sliding down the wall crying. She hugged her knees to herself, rested her head on them and cried. She didn't want to go back to feeling bad.

Grace had been concerned by the destructive sounds coming from the room but knew Natalie had to release her feelings. Trashing her office wan't the best way, but it was better than taking it out on her coworkers. The sudden silence concerned Grace. She very quietly snuck in. She was torn between comforting her friend and leaving her to work it out herself. When she saw no evidence that Natalie had hurt herself she left.

About an hour later, the continued silence caused Grace's concern to jump a notch. She made another check on Natalie. She noticed no movement as she approached her friend and grew concerned. She very quietly said, "Natalie?" Her concern growing as there was no response. She gently touched Natalie's arm and saw the ME jump, causing her to jump as well.

Natalie looked up at her friend, wiping her face with her hands as she did so. "What?" Nat was a little groggy, like she'd been awoken suddenly.

"When I didn't hear anything I grew concerned."

"Don't worry, I won't hurt myself. I'm too busy fighting to live." Nat said, sounding both, defeated and sarcastic.

"You're exhausted. Let me take you home."

Natalie didn't really care one way or another. She let Grace help her off the floor, only to find out that her muscles were somewhat stiff.

The drive to the loft was silent. Grace escorted Natalie into the loft.

"I can take it from here. Thanks."

"Call me if you need anything."

"I will."

Grace left. Natalie took her medication and stretched out on the couch.

Several hours later the ringing phone woke her. She felt behind the couch and grabbed the receiver.

"Hello."

"Natalie, it's Terri."

"What do you want?"

"I think it would be best for everyone if you played hookey today. I think you need some time off."

"I don't want to stay home."

"Don't make me do this formally."

"Okay. Today only."

"Okay," Terri reluctantly agreed. "I don't know the details, and I don't want to know. All I've heard is that you've become very irritable lately. I don't want to see you here or at the precincts today."

"You won't," Natalie grumpily muttered into the phone before hanging up.

All those conflicting emotions were starting again. Could it be the blood?

She checked her watch, seeing it was time for her next medication bout and grudgingly got up and took them.

She dressed and headed out helmet in hand, needing to do something physical.

She rode her bike for a while before entering a bar.

She hadn't been there more than five minutes before a creep, albeit a well dressed creep, approached.

"Hi there. Can I buy you a drink?"

"No."

"How about we just talk."

"Not interested."

"I do love a challenge."

"Go away."

"Why would I want to leave such a beautiful woman?" He placed his hand on her shoulder and then began to move it down.

Natalie was disgusted and slugged him hard, right in the nose. She tossed a few dollars on the counter and left. The creep watched her leave, admiring her form, all the while he was trying to stop his nose from bleeding, wondering if she'd broken it.

Natalie climbed on her bike and tore out of there. She let herself drift before eventually winding up at the park. She parked the bike and wandered through it on foot, trying to sort everything out as she went.

Someone bumped into her. "Watch it!" Natalie angrily said.

When she tired of walking she sat on a bench, still trying to sort everything out. Her mood was not conducive to problem solving. Sitting there only made her feel worse so she headed for the small pond.

She looked around for all the small stones she could find and whipped them into the distance as hard as she could, hearing the splash as each landed in the pond.

I should stop the treatments, at least until I know for sure...

She hated the fact that if she stopped them she would feel as bad as she did before them.

Tossing the rocks had released some of the anger and frustration she felt, or at least enough that she wouldn't punch out the first person who annoyed her.

She mounted her bike, slipped on her helmet and took off. The feel of it under her and the feel of the air going by soothed her.

She headed for the gym she and Myra went to for their climbing sessions and changed into her workout gear. Instead of heading to the climbing wall, Natalie headed for the punching bags.

After abusing them for a while her anger and frustration had drained, as had her energy.

She quickly cleaned up and headed out. She stopped off at Godiva and bought herself two pounds of dark chocolate truffles, glad she hadn't had to worry about money since she married Nick.

That night she pigged out on the truffles, not caring if they were bad for her. She quoted the latest scientific reports stating that chocolate was actually good for you.

Dark chocolate had the same antioxidant that people were drinking red wine and tea to get, Flavinoids. Dark chocolate had four times the amount of the antioxidant than tea did. Dark chocolate was a very good source of Flavinoids because it had the least amount of sugar, milk, or anything else that diluted the antioxidant. There was also proof that chocolate was an antibiotic, it had Seratonin which helped the brain function, and provided the body with energy. That the female body craved chocolate for a physiological reason and not just a psychological one. She knew there were other benefits, but couldn't think of them at the moment.

The next evening she awoke feeling as tired as she had only a few weeks ago. She dragged herself out of bed, showered and dressed. She didn't feel like going to work so she asked Terri for another unofficial night off. Terri gave it to her without a problem, glad that she was staying home if she wasn't feeling up to working.

Natalie didn't really feel like riding her bike but needed that feeling of freedom, one last time.

She headed for the mall, feeling really guilty for how she treated her friends. She wanted to buy something for Grace, because she had taken the brunt of it all, and she had been the only one to confront her.

She treated herself to a nice dinner before she started shopping, knowing it was easier if one's stomach wasn't rumbling as they shopped. She needed the energy as well.

Natalie hit store after store looking for the right gift. She found it after about six stores. When she passed Godiva on her way back to her car she had to stop in and buy several boxes of it. She filled each box with that friend's favorites and had the salesperson mark the box before moving onto the next one.

The next evening Natalie arrived for work right on time. She had reluctantly stored her Harley and had driven.

Grace saw Natalie entered and followed, curious about the overnight bag in Natalie's hand.

"How are you doing?" Grace asked, concerned.

"Better. I stopped the treatment. I'm so sorry for how I treated you."

"I know it wasn't all your fault."

"Are we still friends?" Nat asked, hoping they were.

"Yes. It'll take a lot more than that to drive me away."

Natalie grinned as she unzipped the bag, removing a small gift wrapped box and handed it to Grace.

"Here. It's a peace offering, and a way of saying I'm sorry. I didn't realize I would react to the treatment like that. Thanks for having the courage to tell me I was behaving like a jerk."

Grace opened her gift and found a rubber brick inside. Her curious look prompted Natalie's response.

"Anytime you think I need it, feel free to throw it at me or just whack me with it."

Grace grinned.

"Where was that when Nick was here. I sure could've used it."

"Here's your real gift," Natalie said as she pulled out the one pound box of Godiva. She loved the huge smile spreading across Grace's face. "All your favorites are in there."

"Thank you!"

Grace hugged Natalie before leaving to show that there were no hard feelings. Natalie embraced her friend, glad that she could be forgiven for her recent nasty behavior.

Natalie started to work on the cases which had piled up during her two days off.

Later in her shift Tracy stopped by to pick up some reports, entering hesitantly.

"Come in, I won't bite," Natalie said, teasingly. "I'm sorry for yelling at you the other day. I was in a lousy mood and should not have taken it out on you."

"Everyone gets those now and then."

"How about I buy you dinner?"

"Okay." Tracy could see Natalie was trying to make it up to her. "Is everything okay?"

"It is now. I had a bad reaction to a drug I was taking. It's nothing serious."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Nat said, more cheerfully than she felt. "Ready to go?"

"Sure. Why not."

"Oh, I almost forgot. This is for you," Natalie said as she pulled the half pound box of Godiva out of her bag and handed it to Tracy.

"You didn't have to."

"I know. I wanted to."

"Thanks!" Tracy said with a big smile.

Natalie zipped up the bag and tucked it under her desk where it would be safe from prying eyes.

Natalie knew she had a doctor's appointment tomorrow afternoon and was concerned her recent experiment might show up in the blood test. She knew there was only one way to check that.

She prepared her fingertip, poked it and smeared a drop of blood onto the slide. She covered the small wound with a Band-Aid.

Natalie slipped the slide under her microscope and examined her blood for any evidence of Nick's blood or anything related to vampire characteristics in the blood.

She was relieved when there was nothing unusual in her blood. While she had the sample there she did a quick, rough T-Cell count.

It was lower than she'd like, but wasn't too surprising. Her condition had been deteriorating lately. She knew if she'd caught the disease any earlier she'd have been dead by now. It was the protease inhibitors that had helped keep the virus from running completely rampant. Sometimes she did wish she'd been infected a couple years later, then maybe she'd be healthier now.

The next afternoon, arrived at Dr. Banks' office for her appointment.

Natalie was seated on the exam table, her legs swinging.

Becky entered. They talked as Becky drew the standard blood sample. Natalie still hated needles, and hated having her blood drawn, but knew it was necessary.

"Hi. How are you doing?" Dr. Banks said as he entered.

Becky finished and left.

"So-so. No new medical complaints other than the increasing tiredness," Natalie said.

Dr. Banks examined Nat, finding nothing physically wrong with her. He could see the decline in her health over the last few months and knew it would continue. How rapid it would be, he couldn't tell.

A few days later Natalie heard that Ray was in the hospital with a bad case of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. She knew she was about to lose another friend and it hurt. She wanted to go see him, but knew that it was too risky. If her CD4 level had been higher or her viral load lower she would've gone.

She sent him a balloon bouquet, knowing he'd understand her reason for not visiting him. She did call him.

Two days later Natalie found out that he had died earlier, peacefully in his sleep. She wanted to cry for him, but knew he would not want that. She remembered what he had said to her the day before.

*****

"Natalie, when I die, do not cry for me. Make every moment count," Ray said very weakly.

"I'll do that. I promise," Natalie said, strong and reassuring.

*****

Natalie wondered if the rest of her support group knew. She pulled out her cellular phone and dialed their numbers. Starting with Mel, who gave directions to his house so that everyone could get together. Natalie passed on the directions as she told her friends the news. They were all saddened by the loss of a friend.

On the drive to Mel's, tears streamed down Natalie's face. She had lost another good friend and wondered how long before it was her turn to die. How many more friends would she loose?

Natalie parked and rang Mel's doorbell. The devastation clearly written in the dried tear tracks and visible in her sad blue eyes.

Mel answered the door and ushered her in. They embraced, sharing their pain.

"You're the first to arrive."

"Am I too early?"

"No. Make yourself comfortable. Is there anything I can get you?"

"A cup of coffee would be great."

Mel disappeared and quickly returned with two steaming mugs of coffee. He motioned for her to have a seat on the couch.

"We all knew this would happen sometime."

"I know. It's still hard to accept. I should be used to death."

"Why? Just because you're a coroner?"

"Yes. Somehow you never get used to it. I've lost Nick, Megan, and now Ray. It got me wondering how long before I die," Natalie said, sadly but accepting of the future. "I'm still determined to fight it to the bitter end and hope I die peacefully in my sleep." Or Nick brings me across.

"Ray was a fighter as well. His body just was overwhelmed and could no longer fight."

I wonder how soon I should tell Nick. I know its too soon for him to consider bringing me across, Natalie thought. "Ray told me not to cry for his passing but to make the most out of every moment. I am trying to do that, but it is so hard sometimes."

"I know."

Natalie wondered if she would have time to finish either cure before she too died. She was scared that she would not wake up one morning. She did not want to die, not when she knew that she did not have to.

With the extra tiredness she had to deal with, the commute to her support group failed to be as enjoyable, especially those weeks when she went two or three times. Her friends there became an even more important part of her life as they cheered her up and helped reassure her that she wasn't alone. That she would make it through this part, that everything she was going through was normal. Grace had been a great help as well. As had Don, Myra and Jenny.

Grace would often leave a funny card or something dark chocolate on Nat's desk to brighten her spirits. Nat appreciated the mornings Grace had her over to eat after work.

Grace would find little 'Thank You's' on her desk. Often in the form of chocolate or a cute little trinket. Sometimes accompanied by a card. Even without the card, Grace knew who they were from.

Natalie had dinner with the Schankes' at least once a week, often two or three times. She didn't know what she'd do without them. Occasionally she'd be too tired to drive home and would sleep in the guest room. Seeing reminders of Megan brought about a smile. It still made her a little sad, but the pleasant memories overwhelmed the sad ones.

Myra and Natalie still had their weekly climbing sessions and lunches out. Jenny and Natalie would get together as their schedules allowed. They'd do whatever they felt like, be it a movie or dinner, or just talking and a video. Don stopped by at least once a week to see how she was doing. He was glad he no longer had to view homicide victims.

A week later both Natalie and Jenny found pleasant surprises waiting for them at home. Jenny found a copy of her book "My Little Sister" and Natalie found a copy of Megan's book.

Natalie was pleased that Megan would not easily be forgotten. She hoped the two books helped at least one child, one family. They had already helped her, Grace, Don, Myra and Jenny.

Jenny and Natalie swapped copies of their books. Jenny gave Natalie one extra copy, curious to know where it went, but didn't ask.

Jenny donated copies of her books to the Pediatric AIDS wing. Natalie donated copies of Megan's book, knowing she'd want to share her book with her friends. Jenny and Natalie spent the afternoon reading to the kids. The tears they saw on the little faces gathered around them showed that the book had touched everyone there. The hugs they received further showed how much the stories had been enjoyed.

After being there that afternoon, Jenny understood what drew Natalie back year after year. She debated coming back again. She loved the attention she'd received, the enjoyment she'd both given and gotten back. The sick children were amazingly full of life. She knew they would all die at some point, which saddened her greatly. Jenny remembered what Megan had taught her, not with words, but with actions. It didn't matter how long you lived, but how good a life you had. Did you enjoy it or just aimlessly wander through trying to find that which would make your life meaningful. With that memory, she decided that she'd try to visit the kids as often as her schedule allowed.

The next night Natalie was walking through the park on her night off talking with Vachon.

"How much of the current stuff does he know about?" Vachon asked.

Natalie was a little surprised and wondered if she should tell him.

Vachon saw her expression, "How do you think all those packages get back and forth?" He grinned. "He didn't want you to know as a safety net."

"Thanks, Vachon. I don't think I would've been able to handle this without contact from him. Please don't tell him how tired I am. It would only worry him. I'll tell him soon."

"Okay. He is worried about you and misses you terribly. He does ask about you."

"I miss him terribly, too. You don't have to let him know I know who his courier is. If you do tell him, please let him know how much I miss him."

"I will. What are in all those packages? Are you still helping him find the cure?"

"Yes." She could see from Vachon's expression that he had figured it out. "There is also the occasional gift."

"How sick are you?"

"I am sick, but not deathly ill. My immune system is being destroyed by the AIDS virus. My symptoms have been fatigue, weight loss, intermittent fevers and body aches. I also have night sweats. Nothing life threatening. I survived my first opportunistic infection quite well. Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. I even had a temporary remission from some new drugs. It may be months or years before I have my next serious illness, no one knows. That one will be harder to recover from."

"I'm sorry for all the questions, but I'm curious and concerned."

"No problem. By the way, Tracy and I had a little chat and she knows that Nick's a vampire and that I've known about them for years. She kept asking about LaCroix so I had to tell her about him. I warned her to stay away from him."

"Thanks. How did she take it?"

"Quite well. She was a little surprised, not to mention a bit angry that no one told her about Nick, or that I knew."

"Is there any way I can help?"

"Thanks. Not right now. When I have my next opportunistic infection, I will probably need your help. I will be quite sick a good part of the time and will probably die within two years."

"Nick would kill me if I brought you across."

"I know and I wouldn't ask that. I would possibly ask you to look in on me as I recovered."

"I could do that."

"I don't think it is wise for anyone other than the two of us to know where Nick is, or that we know."

"I agree."

Vachon embraced Natalie, knowing how hard it was to fight on your own. He admired her strength and courage. He knew the reason she was still mortal was that Nick wasn't ready to bring her across, and he didn't know when or even if Nick would ever be ready. He could tell that Natalie wasn't ready either. Her fiery spirit showed him this every time they met. It would be a real shame if she died before they were ready for her to join them. If it was that close, he considered the possibility of doing it himself and then dealing with Nick later.

Natalie sent another short letter to Nick along with a copy of "My Little Sister" and Megan's book. She knew he'd enjoy them.

When Nick received the package he opened it, the letter both making him smile while making him miss her even more. The two books filled him with a variety of emotions, happiness, sadness, complete understanding... He thought both were very well written. He sent Natalie a short note thanking her for the books as well as telling her how much he had enjoyed the touching stories.

Nearly four years had passed since Nick had been forced to move on. Natalie had become used to being without him and had accepted that certain days would always be tough for her. It had been almost a year since Megan's death. She had slowly grown used to the loft being quiet, once again.

All of Natalie's coworkers and friends who knew about the rape ignored any cranky or irritable behavior that week as they did during the week of Nick's birthday and death day, or their wedding anniversary. Along with Megan's birthday and the day she died.

Grace and the Schankes' knew Natalie would be depressed on those days and tried to cheer her up or just be there for support.

Natalie's coworkers and friends tried to cheer her up on her birthday by throwing her a party. They gave her a few inexpensive silly gifts in addition to the serious one, a gift certificate for a day of pampering at a spa. Natalie loved the gifts. She knew she could really use the pampering.

Later in the shift her mood dropped. Memories of Nick and Megan came to mind. She missed the elegant surprises Nick had for her each year. She missed the simple but heartfelt gifts Megan had given her.

Natalie was tired most of the time. Some days she did not feel good but tried not to let it affect her work any more than she could help. She was glad Grace never made a big deal out of it. She appreciated all the little things Grace did to make life easier for her. Same for Don, Myra and Jenny. Her friends helped make life less frustrating and more enjoyable. They helped her in ways that didn't make her feel like she couldn't take care of herself.

Grace hated to see Natalie suffering, but admired her friend's strength. Natalie was grateful her friends were still there for her. She could and did talk to them about anything and everything... but vampires. Natalie was glad she and her friends were still meeting with their support groups. Natalie knew that the sicker she became the more they would need their support groups.

Every night, Natalie did the crucial cases first before switching to her research, concentrating on Nick's cure. It gave her direction, something to focus on, work towards. The fact that she had not found the cure in all these years did sometimes make her wonder if there was indeed a cure, or if LaCroix had been right and there was no cure. She forced those thoughts out of her mind, knowing she had more important things to think about.

A month later Natalie woke up not feeling as well as she had. She had different aches and pains along with the chills. She forced herself out of bed and into the bathroom where she promptly took her temperature. She suspected that it would show a mild fever. I hope I'm not coming down with something. After a minute passed she removed the thermometer, not at all happy to learn her temperature was slightly elevated.

Great.

She headed back out to her bed and flopped down on it. She knew that she would be coughing within a few hours, and would be in the hospital by sometime tomorrow, if not sooner. She was glad that she didn't have to come up with some excuse to cover her absence, that she could honestly tell Terri that she was sick and would be out for a week, probably two.

She forced herself back onto her feet and into the shower. The hot water did feel good and a part of her didn't want to get out of the shower.

She took her medication, dressed, ate and managed to head out to work on time.

Grace saw Natalie as soon as she entered, and hoped her suspicion was wrong. Natalie seemed quite ragged, much more than usual.

Natalie worked on the most important cases first, hoping she'd have some time to work on Nick's cure, if not her own. She knew that she'd lose at least two weeks and couldn't really afford to do so.

Grace entered, hearing Natalie coughing. She had a feeling Natalie was getting sick again. It broke her heart knowing this would be her second serious illness, and would hit her much harder.

"Natalie, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I just swallowed wrong." Seeing Grace's expression, she knew Grace suspected the truth.

"You sound like you're getting sick again."

"I am," Natalie said, not surprised Grace had seen through her excuse.

"Is there anything I can do?" Grace asked concerned. It hurt to see her friend getting sicker with the passing weeks and months.

"Not right now. I may need your help tomorrow, depending on how bad I feel."

"All you need to do is call."

"Thanks."

"I won't tell you to go home early and call in sick if you don't feel up to working, because you know all that," Grace said knowing that Natalie would do whatever she wanted to.

As the night wore on Natalie began to feel worse, but refused to give into it. She didn't feel the congestion beginning until near the end of her shift. She managed to get through her shift as always.

As soon as Natalie arrived home she changed into her sweats, ate, took her medication and crawled under the covers knowing what was in store for her when she awoke. She was not at all looking forward to feeling that bad again, or mostly likely worse. She knew that with her low CD4 count and high viral load things could get really bad, really quickly. This really scared her.

A few hours later, Natalie woke extremely congested, feeling worse than she had the last time she was sick. She was unable to take in a deep breath. Her chest ached with every cough, and the coughing fits were so bad she could barely catch her breath. Her lips and nails had a purplish tinge to them. She was terrified by how much faster she had reached this point in her illness. She slipped into her shoes and grabbed her jacket and purse before going out the door.

She headed for her car but knew she couldn't drive herself to the hospital. She felt too bad. She was exhausted and out of breath and she had just made it to her car. She pulled out her cellular phone and dialed Grace's number. Grace heard the congestion and coughing fit and didn't need to know any more.

About 20 minutes later Grace knocked on Natalie's car window, startling her. Natalie had fallen asleep while waiting. Natalie opened the door so they could talk easier.

"Which car?" Natalie asked as a wicked coughing fit hit. She leaned her head back against the headrest and waited for it to pass.

"How about my car? This way I won't have to drop yours off before going home?" Grace asked. She received a nod of approval as Natalie grabbed her purse, climbed out of the driver's seat, closed and locked the door. She shoved her keys back into her purse.

The same hospital as last time?" Grace asked, before seeing Natalie nod. She didn't have to ask how Natalie was, she could see how bad she looked and sounded. Her heart was breaking. Grace wondered how God, fate or whatever could be so cruel to one person.

Natalie slept during the half hour trip to the hospital, drawing Grace's concern. The purplish tinge to Nat's nails and lips caused Grace's concern to jump up a notch.

Natalie was surprised how quickly she tired on the walk from the emergency room entrance to the nurse's desk. She was exhausted from that short walk. It also scared her. She began to wonder exactly how sick she'd get and if she'd recover. A part of her wondered if she'd ever leave the hospital.

Grace stayed close in case she was needed, a fact Natalie was grateful for. Grace hated seeing her vibrant friend so very pale, weak and exhausted, not to mention coughing her head off. Seeing how the short trip into the ER had cost Natalie most of her energy terrified Grace. She did not want to lose her friend. She wasn't ready.

A nurse noticed how labored Natalie's breathing was, along with the purple tinge to her lips and approached pushing a wheelchair. Natalie felt too bad to fight it and accepted the ride.

"I need to see Dr. Farnsworth," Natalie said as she struggled to breathe. "He treated me the last time I was here."

"What is your name?" The nurse asked.

"Natalie Lambert."

"What is your problem?"

"I have Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia."

"How can you be sure?" The nurse had seen many people try and diagnose themselves, often being wrong.

"I'm a MD. I had it about five and a half years ago," Natalie said between painful breaths.

They reached the first available treatment room and entered.

"Have a seat on the bed there and I'll page Dr. Farnsworth. Your friend can wait for you in the waiting area."

The nurse slipped an oxygen mask over Natalie's face, concerned about the cyanosis she saw in her patient. She slipped a pulse ox monitor onto Natalie's finger, needing to monitor the blood oxygen level.

Natalie didn't want the nurse to attach the cardiac monitor's leads because then she'd have to take off her jacket and sweatshirt. She was too cold to do that. When the nurse was able to slip the leads down the collar of Natalie's shirt, Natalie didn't protest. As a doctor, Natalie knew the importance of proper monitoring.

Natalie sat on the bed and waited for the doctor's arrival. She hated how the solitude of the room as it made her think about the next week. The more she thought about it, the more scared she became. She had another intense coughing fit.

A nurse entered to draw a blood sample for testing. She needed an arterial blood sample and drew it from Natalie's wrist, causing her patient to wince at the pain. Once finished, the nurse took the sample off to the lab for arterial blood gas testing.

Dr. Farnsworth entered a moment later.

"Hello again, Dr. Lambert. What are your symptoms?" Dr. Farnsworth asked.

Natalie pulled off the oxygen mask so she could talk with the doctor. She held it over her nose and mouth between questions, needing the support.

"Intense congestion, severe dypsnea, shaking chills, cyanosis to my lips and nail beds, fever and intense coughing fits."

"Take off your jacket and sweatshirt while I check your lungs. Have you been healthy up until now?"

"Yes. I even had a brief remission thanks to protease inhibitors. I felt much better up until about four months ago. I didn't feel sick until last night. I had vague flu-like symptoms when went to bed. I felt horrible when I awoke and came straight here." The nurse helped her out of her jacket and sweatshirt, leaving only her t-shirt behind.

Dr. Farnsworth made sure his stethoscope was warm before touching her skin with it. Take deep breaths, in and out through your mouth," he instructed. As the air entered and exited from her lungs, he heard the severe congestion in her lungs, noting that it was much worse than the last time she had been in his hospital. Her body picked that time for it's latest wicked coughing fit, causing her to cough long and hard enough for her to vomit. She just missed the doctor.

Natalie hoped that all the tests would show that it was indeed PCP so they wouldn't have to put her under and do a bronchoscopy. She didn't want anyone sticking anything down her nasal passage or down her throat if she had any say in the matter.

Dr. Farnsworth ordered a chest x-ray.

"Are you still on the same treatment regimen?"

She quickly listed off her medications and their schedule. "I'm sorry about the mess," she said a bit embarrassed.

"It's okay. At least you missed me," he said with a grin. "You'll be on TMP/SMX again, along with Levaquin, which is a broad spectrum antibiotic."

The x-ray machine was wheeled in. Everyone cleared out while the picture was taken.

The developed film was quickly returned to the ER. One look at showed the severe congestion in Natalie's lungs, but no sign of other illnesses producing similar symptoms.

Shortly Natalie was snuggled into a hospital bed, feeling worse than she had ever felt in her entire life. She wanted Nick's arms around her, telling her that everything would be fine more than ever. She was too sick and exhausted to do any serious thinking, which she didn't mind because she'd just be thinking about if she'd recover and if she'd be able to return to work.

Natalie was too sick to even care that the oxygen mask was annoying, but it helped her breathe a little easier, allowing her to sleep without too much difficulty. The mask allowed them to give her more oxygen at one time. She knew that if the mask didn't work they'd have to hook her up to a ventilator and she would not allow that, unless there was absolutely no choice.

The IV was a little less annoying and was tolerated only because it was how they were giving her the antibiotics and fluid she needed to fight the pneumonia.

Natalie was tempted to call Nick but fell asleep before she could.

Grace looked in on her friend, but didn't stay long seeing how exhausted and weak Natalie was. It hurt to see her friend so sick. She knew Natalie might not recover this time, a fact supported by the oxygen mask. She hoped that if her friend had to die, that she die peacefully, without being stuck full of tubes and wires. That she wouldn't suffer too greatly.

Natalie slept most of the next 24 hours except when the staff disturbed her to eat, take her medication and the visits of nurses and Dr. Farnsworth. She wished they'd just leave her alone so she could sleep. She did appreciate the balloon bouquets she received from her friends. They cheered her up more than flowers would. Watching them wither and die would only remind her of her own mortality.

Grace stopped by to see Natalie after work. She was careful not to disturb her when she saw her friend was asleep. A single tear ran down Grace's cheek as she saw how sick and frail her formerly vibrant friend looked. Will she recover? Will she be able to return to work? Grace knew how much Natalie loved her job and how much it meant to her.

No sooner had Grace left than another visitor arrived. He entered silently, his heart breaking by the sight before him. He hated to see her suffering so. He also knew that he could be in big trouble for coming, but he couldn't stay away, not when she was so sick. He gently pushed her bangs out of her face. He had missed her so much it hurt. He heard someone approaching and gently kissed her forehead before leaving without being seen.

Natalie smiled, dreaming about Nick. The room door opened as a nurse entered. The nurse gently woke Natalie.

"Nick?" Natalie said as she woke. Depression filled her eyes as she saw that he wasn't there. Her dream had been so real, she could've sworn he was in the room with her.

The nurse handed Natalie the medication when she was as awake as was possible under the circumstances. "Maybe he'll come." She had heard her patient call out Nick's name a few times. The nurse took Natalie's pulse and temperature before she left.

Natalie quickly fell back asleep and didn't notice her visitors.

Nick was standing next to his wife's bedside, his heart breaking. He gently brushed a stray lock of curls off her forehead. He sensed a presence and looked up, surprised to see LaCroix standing near the door. Nick had been too wrapped up in his grief and guilt to sense his master's approach.

"Get out," Nick growled softly enough for only LaCroix to hear, not wanting to accidentally wake her. Yet a part of him wanted her to wake and see him.

LaCroix raised an eyebrow. "But Nicholas, don't you even want to know why I'm here?"

Nick knew he shouldn't listen to him. That his master always had a reason for everything he did. Maybe it was the sadness on his heart. Against his better judgement he asked, "Why?"

"I'm here to bring you a gift."

"What, to bring her across? We don't want your gift, LaCroix."

"No, Nicholas. I've brought you a choice," he replied simply. Nick looked at him, not understanding his words. "I will bring her across, or if your morality could not deal with that, I will give her a release."

Nick's eyes became wide with understanding, and rage. "No, never! I'll never let you touch her, LaCroix!" He softly, yet angrily hissed, just barely managing to keep from shouting.

LaCroix waited calmly until Nick saw he wasn't responding to his anger. Nick turned away and looked at the ground. "Now Nicholas, even you must admit that I've never enjoyed needless suffering. I realize this is something you can not do yourself, which is why I've come. To help you both." Nicholas said nothing. LaCroix's tone changed from soothing to scornful. "I don't understand why you are continuing on this path. She is in pain and she is not going to get better." He walked closer to Nick, standing just behind him, "And for what? She is blameless in this, being punished for someone else's crime. Where is the nobility in that?"

Nick's eyes remained focused on the floor, but his fists were squeezed tight.

LaCroix sighed and turned away. "I didn't expect you to make a decision now. Just be sure you aren't making her pay for your sins, Nicholas. Remember that as you watch her die."

He was gone. Nick wasn't even sure he had been there, that it hadn't been the screaming of his conscience. A part of him felt LaCroix was right, as another part of him cynically realized what LaCroix would enjoy doing if he made either choice. For not the first time in the long course of this disease, Nick Knight sat down and cried.

Natalie started coughing, another intense coughing fit hit, waking her. From the dim moonlight and light from the hallway she saw a sobbing figure seated across the room. Could it really be him? Could it be a dream? She was afraid to say anything and break the magic, but had to know. "Nick?" She hesitantly asked, the fit slowly easing.

The sound of her voice hit him causing him to wipe his face as he looked up. Her voice was lovely even through all the congestion and the oxygen mask.

"Nat, I didn't want you to see me like this."

She pulled off the mask so she could speak.

"I thought I heard two voices in my dream.... I guess it wasn't a dream," she said with a smile. "How about a hug for your wife?"

"Sure." They shared long hug. Nick surprised her by kissing her, knowing how much she wanted one but wouldn't ask.

"LaCroix was here." Nick hesitated and continued, knowing that the more questions she had to ask the more coughing fits she would have. "He saw how sick you are and offered me a choice.... he would bring you across if I couldn't...... or... he would... give you a release. I told him we didn't want either."

Natalie could tell there was more to it. "Thank you. What else did he say?"

"He said something I have wondered myself. Are we doing the right thing? Am I making you suffer needlessly because I can't bring you across? Are you paying for my sins?" He knew the only reason he was being so honest was he didn't want to upset her, anger her or induce any further coughing fits.

"I thought we got past all that. What happened to me is NOT your fault. I have asked you NOT to bring me across until I'm ready. If I am needlessly suffering, which by the way I'm not doing, it is because I'm not ready to come across yet. I'm not paying for your sins." Another wicked coughing fit started, forcing her to hold the mask over her face.

"I'm sorry. I never meant for you to see me. I just had to see you." At her look he silenced her with a raised hand. "I knew it would be too hard on you if you saw me, and I couldn't stay with you. I didn't want to hurt you."

"I know. I'm glad I woke. You were here the other night, weren't you?" She asked as the coughing slowly eased.

He nodded. "I heard you were back in the hospital and had to see how you were."

"How..." was all she could get out before she started coughing again.

"Vachon found out and told me. He didn't say how he found out."

"How would Grace find him? Unless she told Tracy," Natalie said between coughs.

"Maybe."

A nurse stuck her head in, hearing voices. She was surprised to see Nick.

"Sir, you'll have to leave. She needs her rest. You can come back during visiting hours."

"He can't. He has a severe sun allergy. Also, he came in from out of town to visit me."

"I shouldn't let him stay.... but... if you two keep the volume low, I'll let him stay." She knew how sick her patient was and, could see the love between them.

"We will, thank you," Natalie said.

"Don't keep her up all night. She needs her rest."

"I know. I won't," Nick said.

The nurse left.

Natalie yawned and her eyes started to close. "I'm sorry, but I think I'm about to fall asleep on you."

"How about I tell you a story?"

"I'd like that." She patted the edge of her bed, pleased when he sat there.

She loved it as he tenderly rubbed her back as she fell asleep.

The next afternoon Natalie needed to talk to a friend so she called Lisa.

Lisa stopped by and was concerned by how weak and pale she looked. She had heard the congestion in Natalie's voice and could see the dark circles around her eyes. She knew Natalie did not have more than two years at the very maximum. Lisa liked her spunk and how she was determined to beat the disease.

"Thanks for the balloons."

"I'm glad you liked them. How are you doing?" Lisa asked, concerned, yet cheerful.

"Not so well," Natalie said weakly with a cough or two. "How are you?"

"Better than you," She teased.

"That's not hard to do."

"Seriously, the symptoms are just now beginning to show. I have most of the same ones as you. I see why you hated the night sweats. They are a pain."

Natalie managed a weak grin.

"It's worse this time. I'm scared. I don't want to die. I have to much to do yet. I haven't kept my promise to a very good friend yet," Natalie said, her fear and sadness came through. "I wish Nick were here. I want his arms around me, comforting me, telling me everything will be okay. I miss him so much." A tear ran down her cheek which she quickly wiped away. She started coughing.

"I have only told two people, the one who infected me and my best friend. Tom and I are still together. I'm not sure if the infection helped boost the bond between us or if he's there because he feels guilty. As long as we still care for each other I don't care why."

Natalie heard a knock on her door.

"Come in," Natalie said between coughs. "Thanks for the great balloons!"

The door opened and Grace entered. She was surprised to see how bad Natalie still looked and sounded.

"I'm glad you liked them. I figured they'd brighten up both your mood and the room," Grace said, pleased to see Natalie reward her with a weak grin. "I brought your mini stereo, headphones and CD's. Am I interrupting?" She asked as she set it down on her night stand.

"Natalie, I'll be back later."

Natalie nodded before Grace left. Natalie's coughing fit intensified.

"I should let you get some rest. Call me if you need anything."

Natalie nodded as her coughing fit continued. She was tired. She wished the coughing would stop.

As soon as Lisa left Vachon knocked.

"Enter."

"Hi, Natalie. You look worse than one of us," Vachon said with a wicked twinkle in his eyes and grin.

"Thanks," She said returning the tease as she finally brought her coughing under control. "How'd you find me?" She asked as she pulled off the mask.

"You weren't at home or work. Tracy didn't see you at work. She asked Grace. Then she came to see me, needing someone to talk to," Vachon said, not admitting he'd told Nick. Besides, he pretty much figured Natalie knew that part. "I think he'll grant your wish. He does love you very much."

"I hope so. I know he does. I love him more than I thought I could ever love someone. I miss him so much it hurts. If I should die before I see him would you make sure he gets my research notebooks? I keep them buried in the bottom drawer of my desk."

"Yes. I'll personally deliver them to him."

She could see the unasked question in his eyes. "No, I don't expect to die yet, but it has made me think.

Vachon carefully gathered her in his arms and held her close. She leaned her cheek against his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him soaking in his scent, glad to be in a friend's arms.

He didn't say a thing when the tears poured down her cheeks, making his shoulder damp. When the tears stopped he gently settled her back against her pillow.

"Thank you. Sorry about your shirt."

"You looked like you needed it. Don't worry about it, it'll dry. Would you like me to pick you up when you're released? Can I bring you anything else?"

"I would like that. No, thanks anyway." Natalie's eyes started to close. She slipped the mask back over her face knowing how helpful it was.

"I've gotta be going anyway. I'll see you soon," Vachon said.

Natalie was asleep before he was out the door.

The next evening Natalie put on her stereo and listened to the Nightcrawler. She wasn't sure why she was listening to him.

"Welcome my children. Tonight's topic is how we struggle to prolong life and keep knowledge of the struggle from those who care. Death is a given from the moment one is born. Each has our own time, some have longer and others have shorter time. From the dawn of civilization man has looked for the cure to death, for a way to extend life, afraid of death. Is it better to struggle for a pitiful existence or is it better to let nature do as was intended? Is it better to let loved ones know or to suffer in silence? Is there a perfect time to tell a loved one? How do you tell someone that your time is becoming increasingly shorter? How do you keep a promise that never should have been made? One with no possible solution? Why do people keep deadly secrets from one another? Why do they long for things they could have if only they asked."

Natalie was a little unnerved. It was as if he was reading her mind. She found herself wondering if Nick still listened to the show. If he did, would he know how sick she was? Would he stay with her?

Natalie fell asleep to the soft voice of the Nightcrawler.

The next afternoon Grace poked her head into Natalie's room and was stunned at how bad she still looked and sounded. She heard a wicked coughing fit and grew more concerned.

"Natalie, do you feel up to a visitor?"

"Grace, come in." Natalie pulled off her oxygen mask.

"How are you doing?"

"Okay. I've felt better," Natalie said as she mustered up a weak smile. "I feel better than I did two days ago."

"You look better than you did then. Will you be coming back to work?"

"Yes. I need something to keep me busy. How are you?"

"I'm okay. I miss your company."

"Thanks. How's work?"

"Nothing real interesting, case wise."

Later that afternoon, the Schanke family dropped by. Myra quietly pushed open the door.

"You feel like seeing a few friends?" Myra asked.

"Sure. Come on in." Natalie pulled the mask off.

"Sorry we didn't stop by sooner, but we figured you'd be sleeping or not wanting to see visitors," Myra said as the family entered.

"Seems like we weren't the only one with this idea," Jenny said as she added their bunch of colorful balloons to the two bunches already there.

"The more the merrier," Natalie said.

Over the next few days Natalie began to feel better. She was not looking forward to the next illness, knowing that it would likely kill her or make her wish she was dead. Her congestion slowly cleared. She was switched from the oxygen mask to a nasal cannula, which was slightly annoying but at least she could talk or eat without it being in her way. The tubing ran across her face, over her ears and down across her neck. It interfered with her using her headphones.

Her friends paid her a daily visit. She loved seeing them as it was so boring otherwise. When they saw Natalie was no longer using the oxygen mask, it reassured them that she was slowly getting better.

It was a solid week before Natalie's congestion cleared and her fever broke. She was eagerly awaiting her release.

That happened the next morning. She quickly called Vachon to let him know she wouldn't need a lift home. Natalie happily packed and awaited the final release paperwork.

Grace parked her car outside the loft and rode up in the lift with Natalie, just to make sure her friend was settled in without a problem.

"Thanks, Grace. I'll be okay."

"You sure? You don't look so good."

"I'm just tired. I suspect I'll be looking somewhat like this from now on. I hope I'll feel a bit better in about a week."

"Can I get you anything?"

"No. I'm going to take my medication and go to sleep. Thanks, for the offer."

Grace left and Natalie made a quick phone call.

"Nita, it's Natalie. I won't be in tomorrow. I'm over the worst of it, but need another day before I'm ready for work."

"I'll tell Terri. Take care of yourself. Welcome home."

"Thanks. I will."

Natalie hung up and thought to herself What I really need is several more days, but I can't afford it.

She took her medication before slipping into something warm and comfortable and crawled into her bed. She liked the feeling of being in her bed again, with nothing to wake her up prematurely.

She slept through most of her day off, making sure she took her pills on time and fed herself properly. She was grateful that Grace brought her food.

Grace hated to see how weak Natalie was and knew her friend would not want her to dwell on it.

The next afternoon, Natalie dragged herself out of bed when the alarm clock went off. She was pleased that she could let some of her droopiness show. She forced herself into the shower, before she dressed, took her medication and ate.

Natalie arrived at her office only a few minutes late and sat down at her desk. She knew she should still be at home in bed, for at least two more days. She had promised herself to take it easy for the next two days, which she figured would be pretty easy to do as she did not feel like she had the strength to do much at all.

Grace observed Natalie that day and noticed how frail she looked and grew concerned. She knew Natalie had been right, that Natalie would not recover fully from her illness.

"Natalie, are you sure you're okay?" Grace asked as she was leaving. She wondered if Natalie had come back to work too soon, pretty sure she had.

"I'm still a little weak. I'll be fine in a day or two."

"Why didn't you stay home?"

"I didn't want to get any further behind. That and I was going nuts," she said her tiredness showing. She was as tired after 8 hours as she used to be after 24 straight hours at work.

"Why don't you go home. You're shift's finished anyway. I don't want you having a relapse." Grace knew one of Nat's cover stories when she heard it. She let it slide knowing that there was a little truth mixed in there and that it would only upset Natalie if she pressed on.

"Yes, mom. I want one less than you do," Natalie said truthfully. She could not afford to get sick again.

Natalie grabbed her jacket and purse and gratefully left. She liked the fact that Grace looked after her.

Myra dropped by with dinner for Natalie. She could tell how much her friend appreciated the gesture. She too could tell that this was probably about as recovered as Natalie would get.

While Natalie was eating dinner she started to think about the next couple of months. How much longer can I make it through the night? She wondered what sort of excuse she'd tell her friends when she left town to join Nick. She knew they'd worry about her when she left, which made her feel both good and a bit sad. She was pleased they cared about her but really hated to see them watch her health declining.

A while later, Natalie found herself nearly falling asleep and headed off to bed. She once again enjoyed curling up in her own bed with no one to wake her up, to stick her with needles, or use their cold stethoscope to check her lungs. She found an old rerun to watch, set the tv timer, and let her eyes close. She was asleep within minutes.

At work, Natalie did her top priority cases before switching to her search for Nick's cure. She was not going to let him down. They both had worked to hard for too long.

It was very tiring because she was still regaining both her strength and energy. She took Grace up on offers to check on test results or run files over to the precinct.

Tracy dropped by to see how her friend was doing. She took Natalie out to lunch, which gave them a chance to talk. Tracy was saddened by her friend's declining health.

Natalie was grateful it was a slow night. She hoped that in a few days she'd be up to handling more normal nights. She doubted she'd be ready for a demanding night for at least a week or two, probably longer.

Natalie had dinner with Myra, Jenny and Don just about every night. She didn't feel up to cooking and needed the company. They were pleased she came, but were saddened to see her so weak and tired. Natalie still had remnants of the dark circles under her eyes.

Natalie fell asleep there several nights, glad she'd thought to bring her medication with her. On a few nights her friends insisted she stay over because she was too tired to safely drive home, and she wouldn't let them drive her home.

Before Natalie knew it she had finished the twenty one days of treatment for the Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. She felt a little better but tired about half way through her shift. It frustrated her almost as much as the night sweats did.

Over the next several weeks Natalie had trouble dragging herself out of bed and making it to work on time. She quickly gave up trying to pretend that nothing was wrong because her friends and coworkers immediately saw through it. She was relieved that she could let how she was feeling show. She hated seeing her friends worrying about her. Most of all, she hated seeing the various odd and pitying looks some of her coworkers gave her, mostly the ones that had been against her working with AIDS.

Natalie had trouble making the commute to her support group due to the extra tiredness, but forced herself to go knowing how much it helped. The more AIDS destroyed her body, the more she needed her support group. She needed the contact with others that were going through what she was to make her feel normal, to help alleviate her fears that each new symptom, each new ache, anything different was something serious and probably fatal. She wasn't sure if having a medical degree was more of a help or a hindrance. She knew all that could go wrong.

Natalie's latest doctor's appointment showed that the pneumonia had fully cleared up. That other than the current symptoms, she was healthy. Natalie was disappointed but not totally surprised when her T-cell count made another drop, further frustrating her. It was now in around 150. Her viral load had again risen.

Natalie persuaded Myra that she was recovered enough to return to their rock climbing sessions. Natalie was pretty sure she could handle it, if she started out slowly and worked her way up again.

Natalie made it up the beginner wall and rapelled down. She had been on the advanced wall and now she could barely make it back down the beginner's. This saddened her the most as she had really enjoyed the challenge. It had worked muscles she didn't even know she had. She loved how it was a complete body workout without having to do aerobics and strength training to get the same benefits.

At work, Natalie was thankful for coffee and drank it by the mug full trying to give herself enough energy to get through her shift. Either she or Grace brought in a different flavored coffee each day. Their coworkers knew better than to try and swipe any of the brew.

After work, Natalie spent more and more time asleep as she couldn't seem to catch up. She missed her Harley.

She was grateful for the shopping and cleaning help her friends provided. They did it in a way that didn't make Natalie feel any more helpless than she already did. Natalie hated her body's betrayal, and was frustrated that she couldn't do a damn thing about it.

The next week work was particularly grueling as someone went on a murder spree. She had more cases than she could handle, leaving her no time for her research.

Grace did her best to help Natalie out by dropping off samples and picking up test results, by dropping files off at the precinct, and whatever other little things she could do.

Two months later she was seated at her desk totally wiped out and it wasn't even halfway through her shift. She stared down at what was her fifth cup of coffee and realized that the accessibility to her equipment just wasn't enough of an inducement. She was barely making it through her shifts this last week, and knew it would not get any better.

She was asleep at her desk at the end of her shift and had been for a good two hours. She did not hear Grace enter. Grace was fiddling with some folders and did not notice Natalie before she started to speak.

"Natalie, good news. No more new cases tonight." Grace saw Natalie's head buried in her arms on the desk and was concerned.

Natalie was startled awake by Grace's voice.

"Are you okay?" She felt bad for waking Natalie.

"I'm okay. My neighbors held an ear shattering rock concert all day yesterday so I didn't get much sleep. I didn't realize how tired I was. I must've just fallen asleep." Natalie stretched, feeling a tiny bit better after her nap.

"Why don't you knock off early. Try to get some sleep."

"Thanks, I think I will. See you tomorrow night."

Grace didn't question the story because she knew that Natalie was getting weaker. Seeing her vibrant friend growing weaker with the passing days and weeks broke her heart. She admired Natalie's courage and wondered if she could handle it as well as her friend had, figuring she probably couldn't.

Over the next two weeks Grace had seen Natalie asleep three time, twice she'd noticed before she'd awoken her friend, but the third time she'd accidentally awoken Natalie. The first two times Grace had prevented others from going into the office.

When she nearly fell asleep a few more times, Natalie reached the painful conclusion that it was time to resign. She'd promised her coworkers that she'd quit when she could no longer handle the work, and now it was time to make good on it. She didn't want to leave her job, her friends as they were what kept her going.

Natalie stopped by Terri's office before her shift started.

"Natalie, it's good to see you. How are you?"

"Okay. I have come to give notice. I need to get away from here. I've tried to put everything behind me but it still hurts, even after all these years."

"We will sorely miss you. You're one of the best M.E.'s in Ontario. Good luck. How long before you need to leave?"

"I'll fill out the two weeks. I'll miss it here."

Natalie handed the envelope containing her resignation to Terri and left.

Grace was waiting for Natalie in her office.

"Nat, what's wrong?"

"I just handed in my resignation," She said as she told Grace what she had told Terri.

"I'll miss you."

"I'll keep in contact. I'll miss you too." Natalie saw the sadness that Grace tried to keep off her face.

"You better keep in contact. I want to know how you're doing." Grace wondered how long it would be before AIDS claimed another victim. How much would Natalie suffer before she died?

Natalie spent her days off sleeping late and then apartment hunting. She had trouble finding a suitable apartment. Right before her last day at work she found a suitable place in a town about twenty minutes from her support group, and in the opposite direction from Toronto. It was a good forty minutes to the city.

On Natalie's last day at work her friends threw her a good-bye party. Tracy and Schanke had come. Both were still shocked that Natalie was leaving, but knew that it was the right thing. They both saw how weak and tired she was.

Natalie enjoyed seeing her friends for what would be the very last time, at least for most of them. She enjoyed the party. She opened her gifts and found them to be a mixture of both lighthearted and heartfelt. A tear rolled down her cheek as she said good-bye to everyone. She knew it was best this way. She wanted to be remembered for what she had accomplished, not because she had AIDS.

Don, Grace and Tracy had made Natalie promise to keep in touch before they'd let her out of her office.

Natalie wanted to pack up her apartment herself but did not have the energy. She hated how she was growing weaker as the weeks passed. She was frustrated by how tiring even the most basic chore was. Nat was relieved that she would no longer have to struggle every afternoon as she showered, dressed and headed for work. She packed up her research papers and things from her life with Nick and allowed movers to do the rest of the work. She took the few boxes she had packed in the car with her.

Natalie had found an old warehouse that had been converted to a loft upstairs with storage space downstairs. It wasn't in a great part of town, but it wasn't the worst part either. Several of the other buildings were occupied as residences. She signed a one year lease, a part of her wondering if she'd live that long. She had a top notch security system installed.

She paid the three pleasant young men, who'd moved her, to help her unpack. She told them that she had just finished a chemotherapy regimen and was wiped out. They understood and were happy to help her out. It took them several hours to unpack and put things where directed to. When it was down to just the few boxes Natalie had packed, she told them she could take it from there, and that it was personal papers. They understood. Natalie tipped the movers generously for their help. They appreciated it and told her to give them a call if she should need movers again.

Several members of her support group buzzed and were told by her to come on up. Mel, Lisa and Michelle entered bearing food and housewarming gifts.

"Hi Nat. I see you've decided to cut down on the travel time. Good idea," Mel said with a wicked grin.

"Yeah. It was getting to be too much."

"We thought you might need a few things, Lisa said holding a full grocery bag.

"Thanks. Just put it in the kitchen. The first doorway on the right."

Her friends stayed a while. They too had noticed the decline of Natalie's health. They knew that they would all be in her place sooner or later.

Lisa and Natalie fixed lunch for the group. Mel cleaned up, stating it was fair as they'd made the lunch.

She fell asleep on her couch that night and slept well. When she woke the next afternoon she headed out for the nearest computer store. She had read up on computers and knew exactly what she was looking for. She found the top of the line desktop and notebook computers she wanted and paid to have them delivered later that afternoon.

When she got home she knew she had to inform Nick of her move, but was not ready to tell him everything yet.

"Dear Nick,

I decided it was time to make a fresh start and have relocated. I found a place that reminds me of yours and have ordered some lab equipment so I can actively continue the research. Enclosed is my new address. I will continue to work on your cure until I succeed. I have lost some time in searching for a new home. I hope to have some good news soon." Natalie said as she put the words on paper.

"How are things going with you? Are you still enjoying your life there?

I miss you so much it hurts.

I need to concentrate on our research. If you moved here it would be a definite distraction.

We will be together soon enough. I still love you, and will always love you.

I will need a new blood sample soon as I had to destroy the last one. I could not leave any evidence behind. Love always, Natalie."

She knew Nick would be mad at her for not telling him the whole truth. She knew she had to tell him soon, it was only fair.

Over the next couple of days Natalie acclimated herself to the new city and began to feel at home there. She'd found a nearby grocery store and a pharmacy.

Natalie missed Myra's home cooking. She missed spending time with her friends. She knew she should invite them to her new loft, but wasn't ready for guests yet.

She did call them, reassuring them that she was fine and the move went well. She promised she'd have them over soon.

About a week later Natalie received Nick's latest blood sample and note.

"Dear Natalie,

I hope all is well with you. I too miss you so badly it hurts.

I wouldn't want to interfere with our research. Please let me know when I can see you again.

I still love you more than you will ever know.

I'm still enjoying being a professor. I like being able to shape the young minds of the future. One that we will hopefully share.

I am able to tolerate more food these days. I can now eat half a cheeseburger along with my whole container of fries. I have found some foods more tolerable than others.

Enclosed is the requested sample.

Love always, Nick." Natalie smiled as she read the letter out loud. "Soon Nick. We both need to be ready."

Natalie waited for the arrival of her laboratory equipment and upon its arrival set up shop in a second loft apartment, right next door. She'd had a door cut between lofts so she could easily access and close off the lab.

This way she could work on Nick's cure in her own lab without worrying about anyone finding out and firing her. She could work in the lab when she felt up to it and do other research and computer work when she didn't feel up to it.

Natalie knew that life would get much more difficult in the upcoming weeks. She also knew that she had less than a year to live. Even less if she came down with another opportunistic infection. She was not looking forward to growing steadily weaker over time.

Natalie began to tire more quickly and began to take frequent naps. Since she no longer had to work a specific shift, she could sleep, eat and work whenever she wanted to. Her medication schedule was the only one she had to follow.

Natalie would spend all the time she could in her lab. She had found a comfortable chair she could sit on so she would not have to stand while studying slides under the microscope. On the days where she felt too bad to do lab work she did computer based research. She did make progress on Nick's cure. Her own cure received a small portion of her time and energy because it showed much less promise.

Any remaining time was used for her latest project, a forensic pathology textbook. She had the experience to write one, and it would be both fun and an interesting challenge. She wanted to make it as comprehensive and up-to-date as possible. She had lots of interesting cases to draw upon as needed. She tried to make the reading both educational and entertaining. She remembered how much she'd hated certain textbooks because they were so dry and boring. They had the same effect as a sleeping pill without the drug side effects.

About two months later Natalie awoke with flu-like symptoms and a headache. She was not at all pleased at the thought of suffering through another bought of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. She had a hunch that she would not survive this round. If she did she would be too weak to do a whole lot.

Natalie decided to take it easy and worked on her forensics textbook in between naps. She was making good progress. She had only a couple more chapters to go until the first draft was finished.

Natalie slept for most of the next 12 hours, awaking only long enough to take her next dose.

When she awoke it had been over twenty four hours since she developed the first symptoms. She looked around her home with a slightly puzzled look on her face as she saw her things around her and slowly figured out that she was in her new loft. It scared her that she had forgotten where she was.

She felt rather weak, tired and still had her headache, one she wished would go away. She forced herself out of bed and headed for the kitchen to take her medication. She took everything right on schedule.

She dressed, not having the energy for a shower. She sat down at her computer, booted it up, and called up the medical search program and was a little frustrated because she could not remember her access code. It had been only two days since she'd last used the program.

She knew that something wasn't right, that her headache and memory trouble was part of some new illness. Ironically, she was glad for the new symptoms, as it meant she wasn't getting the dreaded pneumonia again. She tried looking up her symptoms but there were too many possible illnesses that matched.

Why can't I remember? Why won't my headache go away.

The next day she awoke, puzzlement again crossing her features as she looked around the room. She recognized a few things but not others. Slowly this cleared and she remembered where she was. She was even more scared than she had been the morning before.

She thought about what she did every morning and headed for what she hoped was the kitchen. It was. She read the labels on the prescription bottles and took what she was supposed to.

Afterwards she forced herself into a quick shower and then dressed. She headed for the living room and picked up her notebook. She looked over her notes and it was like she was seeing them for the very first time.

I know there's more to it than this, she thought as she searched her memory for the answers. Slowly they came to her. Nick's cure, now I remember. I'm scared. What if I die without telling him. I don't want to die.

She heard a knock on her door and answered it.

"Hi, I thought I'd stop by and see if you need anything," Mel said, sensing that something wasn't quite right with Natalie. She didn't look quite right, but he couldn't place his finger on exactly what was wrong.

"Hi, come in. I don't think there's anything I need, thanks anyway."

"Natalie, is everything all right?" Mel asked concerned.

"I'm fine. I just have a bit of a headache."

"I can't stay. I have a doctor's appointment. I'll see you soon."

Mel left and Natalie went over to her computer and had to think for a second before she remembered how to boot it up. Once it was running she accessed the medical program and again could not remember her password. She knew she'd written it down somewhere but for the life of her, she couldn't remember where. Frustration and fear crossed her face Why can't I remember? No one mentioned the fact that I would lose my mind. Maybe this is just a symptom of something else.

Natalie had known that dementia was a possibility, especially in the late stages. But, her mind wasn't working as well as it should've which prevented that info from being accessed.

Later Natalie was hungry and headed for the kitchen to fix herself lunch. She opened the fridge and pulled out a small container of yogurt. She quickly wolfed it down. She remembered to take her next dose while she was in the kitchen, as it was time.

She could not remember what she was going to do next and headed into the living room and plopped herself down on the couch. She saw her computer and decided to check it out. She had forgotten how to use it.

She decided that she'd been working too hard and needed a break. She turned on the tv and flipped channels until she found something she liked.

After a while, she was bored, as well as exhausted and decided to take a nap, but had trouble remembering where her bedroom was. Now, she wasn't just forgetting minute details, like her computer password... she was starting to forget where she was and what her loft was like. This really was frightening her. She wandered in the direction she believed was her bedroom, pleased to see she was right.

She flopped down on the bed and was quickly asleep. If she'd been thinking clearly she would've cried. She also would've been terrified that her mind seemed to be going.

Late that evening she awoke and did not recognize anything in her bedroom, even though she'd had that furniture for more years than she could remember. She had trouble walking even as far as the bathroom. Terror crossed her face. As soon as she was back in bed she tried to call someone but could not remember the phone number. She pulled her phone book out of the night stand drawer and dialed Mel's number.

"Mel, this is Natalie. Can you come over?"

He sensed the fear and uncertainty in her voice and knew something was wrong. "I'll be right over."

A few minutes later Natalie heard her doorbell ring and answered it.

"Hi, thanks for coming by?" Natalie asked.

"No problem. What's wrong?" Mel asked as he entered.

"I seem to be having trouble remembering things. It's the simple things that scare me," Natalie said, as she and Mel took a seat on the couch.

Mel noticed her slight difficulty in walking and knew there was something seriously wrong.

"Maybe you should check yourself into the hospital."

"No."

Natalie suddenly started shaking.

Mel laid her down flat on the couch, knowing she was having a seizure. His concern grew greatly as he kept an eye on her.

About three minutes later her seizure ran its course.

"Natalie, you're going to the hospital if I have to carry you there."

"Okay. What happened?" Natalie asked terrified. One moment she had been sitting down, the next she was lying on the couch. This was worse than forgetting where she was -- now she was losing whole blocks of time.

"You had a seizure of some sort."

Mel helped Natalie into the emergency room where they had to wait a few minutes before a nurse escorted Natalie to an empty examination bed.

"What seems to be the problem?" The doctor asked.

"I... I, seem to be having trouble remembering stuff, even simple things. I have had a headache for three days now as well as flu-like symptoms. I had a seizure earlier."

"What is your name?"

"Natalie Lambert."

Several feet away Dr. Farnsworth recognized Natalie's name and excused himself from his current patient. He headed for Natalie.

"Jim, I'll take this one. I've treated her twice before, why don't you take mine. The lady three beds down. She's complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath."

"Sure." Jim filled Farnsworth in on what Natalie had told him.

"Hello again. I'm glad to see that you don't have pneumonia again."

"Me too. What do I have?"

"I'm not sure just yet. Do you have any trouble walking?"

"Yes, a little."

"With your condition and symptoms, there are several possibilities. It could be toxoplasmosis, CMV, or even lymphoma, but the most likely possibility, I think, is subacute encephalitis. I'll need to run a few tests to confirm this. I'm going to admit you and start treatment."

"What is it?"

"You'll be receiving Acyclovir by IV for the next ten days."

"Will I survive?"

"You should, but I can't give any guarantees."

"How long will it take for this to pass?"

"It could take weeks or even months for you to go back to your baseline."

Natalie was devastated. She knew that she would most likely be very weak after this and might not be able to get back to her lab again. This really bothered her because she was so close to the cure.

A while later Natalie was settled into her room and the tears streamed down her face. She wanted to call Nick and tell him to come but could not remember his number.

The blood test had revealed her CD4 level to be hovering around a hundred, and the viral load had risen again. This was part of the reason Natalie cried herself to sleep. The rest was because of how sick she was and how much she wished Nick was there. If only she could remember his number, or Vachon's. No matter how bad things got, or how bad she felt, just being with Nick could make her feel better.

Mel stopped by to check on her and saw she was asleep so he left. He knew he would soon lose another good friend to this horrendous disease and it hurt. He would miss her spunk, her smile and her laugh. He would miss her slightly morbid sense of humor.

Over the next few days as the drug began to work Natalie's mind began to clear slowly. She found she was less confused and had an easier time remembering stuff. Now that she could think clearer, she became more terrified. She didn't know what was going to happen to her, and knew it was time to contact Nick. She still couldn't remember his phone number.

Her minor coordination problems annoyed her because she was used to doing basic things for herself without thinking about it. The more tired she was, the harder it was for her to do things. Sometimes it was so frustrating she cried herself to sleep. She had been a coroner, using her manual dexterity daily to perform autopsies, and now she had trouble walking or holding onto things.

She found herself watching bad TV shows as there was nothing better to do. She still wasn't quite herself. There was still some confusion and memory loss.

Her support group friends came by to see her which helped cheer her up. Their hearts broke as they saw her so sick. The fact that it would be them some day scared them more than they wanted to admit.

Natalie was relieved when the ten day treatment period was over. Natalie still had some minor confusion upon waking, a slight memory loss as well as minor trouble walking. Lisa knocked on Natalie's door frame and noticed that Natalie was still rather weak. It scared Lisa, knowing that she was seeing her probable future.

"Come in." Natalie was finishing her packing. She couldn't wait to get home. She hated hospitals and wanted to sleep in her own bed.

"You ready to go?"

"Yes."

Lisa made sure that Natalie got inside the loft without any problems.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Natalie asked.

"No. I have a few other things to do," Lisa lied, seeing how tired, pale and weak Natalie was.

"Okay. Thanks for the lift."

"No problem."

Natalie saw the door shut and plopped down on the couch. Tears streamed down her face as the realization hit that she was not going to get better this time. She knew she had only a few months if she stayed healthy. She knew she would have to tell Nick within the next two weeks.

She was glad the friends she'd left behind in Toronto had not known of her recent illness. She hated the pain she'd seen in their eyes over the years. Pain she'd caused. No, it isn't your fault, She quickly reminded herself that it was that bastard rapist who caused all this.

Natalie checked her voice mail, not too surprised by all the messages awaiting her. Most were from her Toronto friends. They were concerned because they hadn't heard from her in a couple of weeks.

Natalie called them one by one to reassure them that she was fine. She'd been visiting friends and family and had just returned. They weren't sure whether or not to believe Natalie, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. They could hear the increasing weakness in her voice and knew she was still getting sicker.

The next afternoon Natalie awoke, and for a moment did not recognize where she was. It scared her. She barely had the energy to get out of bed. She forced herself to turn on computer and took her pills while it booted up. Once it had booted up she backed up her most recent work onto floppies so she could work with her notebook computer. She also copied the medical program she used to her laptop computer.

She curled up on the couch with her computer and refamiliarized herself with her recent efforts. She concentrated on finding the cure before her time ran out.

She found herself turning off the computer before long and falling asleep, a tear running down her cheek.

Natalie was grateful for her support group friends' help over the next week. She was feeling more tired and weak as the days passed. They brought her food, helped her fix her meals and clean up the loft. They helped her with the laundry. Natalie hated feeling so helpless. She was used to taking care of herself, and now thanks to a stupid virus and her body's betrayal she could no longer do so. Natalie knew her friends tried to help in a way that didn't increase those feelings, for which she was grateful.

Lisa was making lunch for Natalie and herself. She had finished the sandwiches and brought them out to the couch where Natalie was.

"Lisa, thanks for all the help. I don't know what I'd do without you guys."

"Hey, no problem. We've all been there before or had friends there before. We try to help each other out when necessary."

Unknown to Natalie, Vachon had been keeping an eye on her ever since she left. He'd noticed Natalie's condition growing worse and knew that she did not have much longer.

He dropped by her loft that night, curious about why she had not called Nick home. He knocked on her door. She opened it and invited him in.

"When are you going to contact Nick?" Vachon asked concerned.

"Soon. I want to see how my latest lead pans out first." She said as she headed back for the couch.

"Natalie..." Vachon knew she was a little afraid to call him, and probably didn't know exactly what to say.

"I know. I know." Natalie sighed. "What am I supposed to say? Nick, come see me. I'm dying? That's nothing new."

"You could tell him that, or tell him about your progress, your latest lead."

"He knows of the progress."

Vachon knew that Natalie wanted to be the one to tell Nick, but he was worried she would wait until it was too late. So, later that night he paid Nick a surprise visit at his office.

"What are you doing here?" Nick asked as he looked up from grading papers.

"It's Natalie. Before you freak, she's okay. For now."

"Is it that close?" Nick asked worried. He had hoped Natalie would've called him home by now.

"I don't know. I think you should go to her as soon as you can. She's not getting any better." Vachon handed Nick a small envelope.

"What's this?"

"A key and the access code." Vachon wanted to warn Nick about Nat's appearance but he didn't know what to say or how to say it. Then Vachon wondered if the shock might not do them both some good, Nick especially.

"Thank you, Vachon. Thank you for watching over her and for coming tonight."

"She's a cool lady. She deserved much better than she got. I do hope she'll be joining our Community soon."

"That's what we have to talk about."

"I think she's ready and willing. Are you?"

"I don't know. I don't want to see her suffer, but I'm not sure this is any better?"

"You're such a mess you don't even see the obvious. Becoming one of us would be much better. For her. For you. For everyone."

Now that he had said what he had come to say, Vachon knew it was time to leave.

Nick wrote a note for his boss and taped the envelope to the door. He knew he'd have to leave as soon as the sun went down tomorrow. He didn't want to be too late, because then he'd never forgive himself.

Nick's phone rang as soon as he arrived home.

"Hello," Nick said as he grabbed the receiver, not wanting to miss a call from Natalie.

"Hi. I thought you might like to come home. I'm very close to the cure, and thought you'd like to be here when I make the final breakthrough. I'm tired of us being apart."

"I'll be there tomorrow night," Nick said both happy and saddened, wondering just how sick she truly was. "I've missed you more than you'll ever know. I can't wait to be home again." He was pleased that she had finally called. It was then that he'd recognized the weakness in her voice, even though she'd tried to hide it.

The next evening Nick arrived at Natalie's, surprised by the rather isolated location of her loft. He punched in the code, and opened the door. Once in the elevator he closed the door then pushed the up button.

Natalie was seated on the couch working on her laptop computer when she heard the elevator start, causing her to wonder how Nick found the code, or the key, then realized Vachon might've given it to him.

Natalie was tired from showering and dressing. She'd debated trying to make herself look a bit better than she normally did, but quickly realized he loved her for who she was, not how she looked. Besides, she didn't have the energy to spare.

Nick entered and was stunned to see Natalie looking worse than he did most nights. She looked much worse than she had the last time he'd seen her, when she'd been hospitalized for pneumonia.

Natalie was very thin, almost paler than him and looked very tired and weak. Her smooth porcelain like skin was blotched from her medications. Her eyes did not sparkle like they used to and there were dark circles around her eyes. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and looked like it had not been combed. Only the sound of her very mortal heartbeat reassured him. He was extremely concerned.

He knew that part of his mind had been correct. All the things he had heard from LaCroix, Vachon and others over the years were true. Suddenly he looked paler than usual and quite upset. He sat down in the chair closest to the couch.

"Why didn't you tell me?" He asked, hurt and angry. There was also a great deal of sadness in his eyes.

"I don't know. My condition worsened faster than I expected. I was having some memory trouble as a result. On the brighter side, I did get a bit of a reprieve from your blood." She saw the panic on his face. "Relax. I discovered it by accident and took very small amounts. I only used it for a few days."

Nick wondered why she'd stopped using his blood, if it made her feel that much better. Natalie saw the question in his eyes.

"I stopped using it because..." Natalie didn't know how to explain it without Nick going ballistic. "Grace was the one who pointed out... the side effects it was inducing."

"What were they?"

"I was becoming increasingly hostile, especially as it grew closer to time for a new dose. During a fight, I almost hit Grace. She was afraid of me. That scared the hell out of me. I trashed my lab, not wanting to believe it was true. Then I cried myself to sleep, seated on the floor of my lab. Grace thought I'd hurt myself because the lab went from a riot area to deadly quiet. I was given the next shift off. I did some serious thinking, and umm..." Natalie said a bit embarrassed by all her hostile actions that week.

She saw Nick's curious, concerned look and continued her tale. "This creep wouldn't leave me alone in a bar, so I slugged him, probably broke his nose. Skipping stones helped a little. But the best thing was the punching bag at the gym. I did stop the treatments. I bought Grace a couple of gifts the next day. I can't believe how nasty I was. Luckily, she forgave me. I also snapped at Tracy, that same time. I apologized to them both, and everything's fine." She hoped it wouldn't affect his bringing her across.

"You're not the first one to have those side effects. Not many mortals come in contact with our blood without becoming one of us. The negative reaction slipped my mind, that's why I never thought to mention it." He saw the concern in her eyes. "No, it won't have any effect on that." He noticed her obvious relief.

"I'm glad."

"How sick are you?"

"I don't think I'll live more than six months max. I don't have the energy to get out of bed most days. I'm afraid that I will get sick again and will not recover. That I will die in my sleep. That I won't be able to say good-bye to those I love. I've missed you so much."

"All you had to do was call. I would've been here. Why did you leave Toronto?"

"I kept falling asleep at my desk and knew it was time to leave. I didn't want those I loved to watch me die. Also, there were too many bad memories there. Too many deaths." She could see that Nick understood all too well. She hated to see such pain in his eyes.

"How's the support group?"

"Great. They've been incredibly helpful. They were one of the reasons I moved here. They're only about twenty minutes away. They're the best friends I have, outside of you, Grace, Don, Jenny and Myra. There were several times I was extremely tempted to call you. I've missed you not being around."

He moved over to the couch, took her in his arms and held her tight. She wrapped her arms around him. Both released tears of joy at their reunion. It seemed like they held each other for an eternity. They finally separated and he noticed the red stain on her shirt. He was so happy to be in her arms again that he did not really notice her extreme thinness.

"Sorry about your shirt. Where's the bedroom?"

"That's okay. It was more than worth it. At the end of the hall."

Nick grabbed her a dry shirt from her room and handed it to her. When he saw the effort taking off her shirt required, he wanted to help her but was afraid. He reached over, took her shirt and helped her into it. She knew it he was doing it out of love, not pity. Nick saw how thin she was. She was almost all skin and bones. He felt like someone had driven a flaming stake through his heart.

"Thank you." She hated to be the cause of the pain she saw in his eyes.

Natalie's door buzzer sounded. She stood with a bit of effort and walked over to the control panel.

"Who's there?"

"Lisa and Mel."

"Come on up." Natalie pushed the elevator release button. "Nick, you need to hide. They believe Nick Knight is dead, remember."

"No problem." He noticed that her coordination was affected, which caused him even more pain.

The elevator stopped and the door opened. Natalie greeted her friends with hugs, as usual.

"Nat, let us know if you need anything," Mel said.

"I will. Thanks again for all your help."

The headed over to the couch where they talked for a while.

Mel and Lisa left, seeing that Natalie was tiring. Nick came out of hiding as soon as he heard Mel's car drive off.

Natalie took a deep breath "Will you bring me across?"

"I don't want to see you die. I can't take you from one hell to another." A blood tear ran down his cheek.

"At least I'd be alive and better." She was a little mad at him, but a part of her did understand. A clear human tear ran down hers. She was not about to give up, and would try again when she was closer to death. "Nick, my T-cells are so low I'm basically just waiting to die. I have virtually no immune system. I know that sometime over the next few days, weeks, maybe months, I'll contract my final opportunistic infection. " She liked the slightly stunned reaction he tried to hide.

She tried to stand and found Nick's hand on her arm assisting her. She headed for the kitchen for the next round of medication. Nick watched her walk, seeing the slight trouble she had with it.

A few minutes later, Natalie returned to the couch. She sat down and leaned against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and. Sadness and pain filled his eyes. He looked down at her and saw she was soundly asleep in his arms.

Everything that Nick had seen sank in. It hurt to see the once vibrant woman he loved so frail and sick. He could tell her spirit was still there, fighting. He wanted to bring her across but was too afraid of another failure. That would kill him about as certainly as the disease was killing her. It felt so good to hold her in his arms again.

Several hours later, she awoke and looked around. She saw Nick holding her, and looked around the rest of the living room, but didn't immediately comprehend it all.

Nick noticed her confusion and grew more concerned, but quickly covered it over. Was this what she meant when she said she had memory trouble? Was it something more severe?

"Nick, am I really in your arms?"

"Yes." He smiled at her reassuringly.

"I'm hungry."

"What would you like?"

"I don't know. Why don't I go see what's there."

Nick tried to help her up but she pushed away his hand. She stood on her own and walked to the kitchen.

She looked in the fridge and saw a few interesting possibilities. She took the milk carton out of the fridge and it slipped out of her hand and crashed onto the floor, its contents leaking onto the tile.

"Damn it!"

Nick was in the doorway in an instant, afraid something had happened to her.

"That's the first time I've dropped something." Natalie said as she picked up the milk container.

"Why don't you tell me what you want and I'll fix it. After I clean up the milk."

"I can fix my own food," She snapped, instantly regretting it. "I'm sorry. I know you're trying to be helpful. It's just frustrating feeling so tired and weak all the time. Not being able to do the things I could just a few weeks ago."

"It's okay. How about we work together. I'll clean up the mess and you can fix your food."

"Sounds good. Are you going to eat anything?" She asked curious and teasing.

"It depends on what's in the fridge. I haven't tried everything yet." Nick said grabbing a handful of paper towels and soaking up the spill with them. Next he wiped over the area with a few soapy ones before drying the area.

"Nicely done."

"Thank you." Nick opened the fridge door and peered inside to see what was there. "What are you having?"

"A turkey breast sandwich, with lettuce and cheese."

"Sounds good. Make it two." He did not know if he could eat it but if it made her happy to see him try, he would.

Natalie fixed the two sandwiches and they sat at the kitchen table to eat. She smiled at Nick's efforts to eat. Nick nearly gagged on the first bite of sandwich, but swallowed it anyway. He even swallowed a second bite just to please her.

The next evening Nick awoke before Natalie. He had fallen asleep on the couch. He slipped out to grab a bit of his own nourishment, managing to get back before she awoke. He checked in on her, she was peacefully asleep with the dreamcatcher he had given her hanging on the wall above her head. She looked so fragile, so pale.

He sat down on the couch with one of her books and started reading. About an hour later he heard her approach.

"Are you missing any classes?"

"Yes. I took an emergency leave. I said that a family member was very ill."

"Would you drive me to my doctor's appointment? I'd like you to come inside with me. Would you mind if we visited a few friends while we were out?"

"Are you sure you're up to it?"

"No. But I'm used to that."

"Why do you want me to come inside?"

"If you're going to stay here with me you should know what is going on."

He couldn't argue with her there.

Nick and Natalie entered Dr. Banks office. Nick had his arm around Natalie's waist, supporting most of her weight. It hurt to see her like that. He had dyed his hair jet black and slipped into a pair of wire rim glasses so he'd be able to help Natalie without being recognized. He was dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and sneakers, figuring that would throw anyone who had known him previously.

The receptionist saw Natalie "Hi, Natalie you can go on in. Sir, you need to wait out here."

"No, I want him to stay with me."

"Okay."

Nick followed Natalie's lead. They went down the hallway into the same room she was usually in. Nick waited outside while she changed into the gown.

Becky entered to draw her usual blood sample. She eyed Nick, finding him cute. Natalie introduced Rick to Becky.

Natalie noticed the needle in the Becky's hand.

"Yuck."

"I know. I'll try to make it as quick and painless as possible."

The scent of blood caught Nick's attention. He forced his eyes to study the chart on the far wall.

Dr. Banks entered and Becky left. He was surprised to see Natalie had brought a man into the exam room. One he didn't know.

"Hi Thomas."

"Rick's an old friend. He's helping me out. I want him to know everything."

The two men shook hands.

"If that's what you want. How are you doing?"

"I'm slowly getting weaker. I don't feel like getting out of bed most mornings. I am still confused first thing when I wake. I still have the slight memory loss and minor trouble walking. I had a slight coordination problem with my hands yesterday, but I don't seem to have it today. Would you mind if Rick looked at my file?"

"No. Does he have any medical background?"

"I graduated from medical school but never practiced," Nick said.

Dr. Banks handed Nick her file. Nick took it and sat down to read it.

"Natalie, you know the drill," Thomas said as he pointed to the scale.

She reluctantly stepped onto it and was pleased to see that her weight had stabilized.

"Very good. Your weight seems to have stabilized at ninety-seven pounds. I would like to see you put on a few pounds. I know you try. I want you to walk across the room and back."

She did as instructed knowing he was observing her, checking her coordination.

"Not too bad. Have a seat."

Natalie sat on the table again so Dr. Banks could examine her heart and lungs.

"Very good. Everything seems sound. No congestion."

Natalie saw Nick totally engrossed in her file.

Nick felt his heart break as he finished reading the details of her second pneumocystis carinii pneumonia bout. He felt even worse as he read her struggle with subaccute encephalitis and the lingering effects, many of which he'd already seen. Her CD4 level was around 50 and her viral load was very high. A profound sadness crept over him. He had not realized how sick she truly was. Nick finished the file and handed it back to the doctor who took it and made notes from this visit. Nick looked over his shoulder.

"You're all set. I'll see you back here in two weeks. Nice to meet you Rick. Natalie, I'll call when the results come back."

"Nice to meet you also," Nick said.

"Thanks. You ready Rick?"

"Yes. I'll let you change."

Nick and Thomas left. Nick motioned for him to walk with him. They walked several feet down the hall before Nick stopped.

"How long do you think she has. Be honest."

"I really can't tell. She did tell the truth when I first met her. She said she wasn't going to die without giving it one hell of a fight, and she has. I would estimate anywhere from a few weeks to six months at the outside, providing she stays healthy."

"Thanks."

Nick walked back to the door of the room and waited for Natalie to come out. Which she did a few minutes later.

"Where to now?"

"Mercy General.

Nick and Natalie entered Mercy General. He still had his hand around her waist supporting her. He again followed her lead. They took the elevator up to the hospice area.

Nick noticed how the area had a comfortable, less hospital-like feel to it. There were no hospital gowns or nurse uniforms in sight. The chairs were overstuffed and very comfortable looking. There was a television facing the chairs. The colorful walls gave it a homey feeling.

Natalie and Nick entered one of the rooms. Nick noticed the bright sunny wallpaper, the colorful sheets, the television and VCR. He also noticed how the room had been personalized with posters, pictures and a small portable stereo. It looked remotely like a hospital room, the medical equipment being the main clue. Next, Nick's attention focused on the young man in the bed. He was very pale, and was even thinner than Natalie. His face and arms had lesions from Karposi's syndrome on them. A nasal cannula provided him with necessary oxygen.

"Natalie, I'm glad to see you. How are you?" Todd said.

"As good as can be expected. Not much has changed, except I'm growing weaker. How are you doing? By the way this is Rick. Rick this is Todd."

"Nice to meet you." Both men said.

Both Nick and Natalie heard the severe congestion as Todd spoke.

"Rick, do you have it? How long have you known Natalie?"

"No, I don't have it. I met her several years before she was infected." Nick was disturbed by Todd's appearance and extreme weakness.

"Natalie, I'm not doing too well. I don't think I'll see this weekend. My kidneys shut down, the cancer has spread and you can hear the congestion. How long do you have?"

"Six months, max, if I stay healthy," Natalie said noticing both Nick's unease and Todd's exhaustion. "Have you done any more sketching?"

"Yes. I finished one just the other day. I want you to have it. It's leaning against the wall.

Nick fetched it for Natalie and held it so all three could see it.

"It's terrific."

"I have to agree," Nick said. He thought it captured Natalie's spirit perfectly.

"Thanks Todd. I'll let you get some rest. I'll try to stop by again soon."

"See ya. Take care. Rick, take good care of her," Todd said.

"I will," Nick said.

"I will. You too."

"Nice meeting you Rick."

"Same here," Nick lied with a small smile.

Natalie visited a few more of her friends who had very advanced AIDS. They had days or months to live. They were all sicker than her. Nick was visibly disturbed by all he saw. Natalie was pleased to see it having the desired effect, but was sorry she had to put him through it.

When they left her fourth friend's room Nick stopped Natalie in the hallway and forced her into one of the chairs. He knelt down in front of her.

"Nat, why did you bring me here?" Nick asked deeply upset and a bit confused.

"I wanted to show you what will happen to me in the not too distant future. I have been nearly as sick as them before. When I was healthier I was able to fight off the illnesses, but I can't anymore. You saw my file. The next one will kill me. The encephalitis was supposed to kill me. It might still. I could develop a new infection today, tomorrow, next week or next month. Or not for several months."

Natalie was exhausted, but did not want Nick to know. He noticed and remembered when she could go over 24 hours without looking anywhere near as tired. He missed those days.

Natalie got up and lost her balance. Nick caught her.

"I think it's time to go home," he said as he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the car.

She was too tired to protest and fell asleep in his arms. He gently set her down in the passenger seat and fastened her seatbelt before climbing into the driver's seat and starting the engine. She slept all the way home. Once they got back to her loft he carried her inside.

He hated to wake her but knew she had medication to take. He laid her on the couch.

"Natalie, wake up. Time for your medication. Then you can go back to sleep. Come on."

She woke and dragged herself to the kitchen, shoving away Nick's attempts to help her. She took her pills and headed for her bed.

Nick was tempted to run, but his heart wouldn't let him. This was more than he could handle. He had not known it would be this hard. He dropped onto the couch exhausted. He found his thoughts drifting to all he had seen and heard the last couple of days. At the same time he kept an ear on her heartbeat. He knew he did not want to see her suffer like her friends were. It would break his heart to see her waste away to nothing. The more he thought about her death the more devastated he was. Blood tears ran down his cheek at the thought of Natalie suffering as much as any one of her friends.

Several hours later she awoke and called out to him, waking him. He entered her bedroom and sat on the end of her bed.

"How do you deal with it?"

"I have learned to take it one day at a time. To enjoy the few good days and to accept the bad days. I do have my computer to keep me busy."

"Don't you have any friends here, outside of the support group?"

"No. Who wants to befriend a dying person?" Off Nick's look she continued. "You can sit here and watch me die or you can do something about it." She knew how hard this was on him, which was one of the major reasons she did not call him home until now. "I'm dying and we both know that. How much longer, I don't know. A week, two weeks, a month tops." She knew they both knew the six month estimate was very unlikely.

Natalie saw the clock and knew it was time for her next round of drugs. Nick helped her up and followed her into the kitchen. She took her next dose, like she had for more years than she cared to remember.

Natalie headed back to bed with Nick right behind her. He sat on the edge of her bed. Shortly after she was settled in she started to violently shake. Nick realized she was having a seizure. He saw the fear on her face and started to panic. He knew he had to stay calm and keep his face calm and reassuring to ease Natalie's fear. He made sure there was nothing around for her to hurt herself on. He waited out the seizure. He wanted to call for help but knew that Natalie would not want that. Three minutes later it stopped as suddenly as it started, leaving Natalie wiped out.

"How often does that happen?"

"It's only the third one I've had. I had one when I had the encephalitis and one during my recovery." She saw the pain in his eyes.

Nick could see the question in her eyes. After all he had seen, read, and especially after her little speech earlier, he knew he could not refuse her request.

"I will do what you want. I can't bear to see you suffer any more. I don't want to see you waste away before my eyes. It would kill me. When do you want to do it?"

"I have a few things to save onto floppies yet. I want you to gather up all my notebooks, floppies, notes, and laptop computer and take them to a safe place. I'm ready whenever you are."

"Can you be ready by tonight? I'll make sure your research is safe as soon as the sun sets. Are you really as close as your letter said?"

"Yes. This won't harm you, will it?"

"No. I've killed many sick people, mostly without my knowledge. I have never become ill from it."

They both remembered the close call the Community had with the AIDS like virus which had killed off many vampires.

"Your having AIDS won't harm me."

Natalie let out a sigh of relief. She did not want to hurt him. She fell back asleep and Nick made sure her covers were tucked around her before he left the room.

He tried to get some sleep as well. He kept an ear on Natalie's heartbeat as he slept.

When she awoke several hours later she booted up her desktop computer and backed up all her information on Nick's condition. She also backed up her AIDS research just in case. She wiped her hard drive of all information relating to Nick's cure and handed Nick the package containing all the things they discussed earlier. She hoped the program she'd purchased lived up to its promise to make erased files unretrievable.

Nick took the package with him to their new home. It was a comfortable yet isolated place with a top notch security system. It came fully furnished. Nick hid her research results so that no one else would be able to find them and stocked the place with the necessary supplies. It was not a perfect place, but would do for their purposes. Once he felt everything was ready he returned to her.

Meanwhile, Natalie had crawled back into bed after shutting down her computer. She was not feeling well at all.

Nick entered and heard her coughing her head off. He could hear the very heavy congestion in her lungs, surprised that he had not heard it earlier. He entered her bedroom and saw her struggling to breathe. He could see the pain in her eyes. What she said earlier that day about the next infection hitting her at any time hit him like a sledgehammer causing a single blood tear to roll down his cheek. He wiped it away before she could see it.

He sat on the bed and held her in his arms. She wrapped hers around him. He felt her shivering even though the room was quite warm. He pulled her blanket up around her. Her skin was warmer to the touch than usual. She leaned against his chest as her coughing fit slowly eased. She had trouble breathing but did not worry. He could see the pain each breathe caused. Also how each breath was a struggle. He knew that she would need mechanical assistance to breathe within a matter of hours, if not sooner.

"I have all the symptoms of PCP." She knew she wouldn't be able to breathe on her own for much longer. "Nick, I will not die hooked up to machines." She labored to get out between coughs.

Nick knew she was right. He saw how weak she was, even when she tried to act strong. He saw how much effort her explanation took.

Nick knew that Nat would not survive, and didn't want her to suffer any longer. He had heard how much faster it had set in this time, and wasn't too surprised knowing that she was living without a functional immune system. A part of him was surprised she had lasted this long, knowing that her fighting spirit was a good part of the reason for her longevity.

"The first hunger is very intense. If it is not satisfied you will take *anyone* friend, lover, enemy, old or young. I wanted to make sure you had some warning so you weren't taken by surprise like I was."

"Thank you for the warning."

He heard her breathing becoming more labored as the congestion rapidly increased, knowing that they did not have much time. He hoped her disease ravaged body was not already too weak for the transition to succeed.

He brushed her hair back and sank his teeth into her neck as gently as he could. She made a slight moan and then was silent. He drank in her blood and was nauseated by all the drugs in her system.

Nick savored every memory her blood held. He saw her childhood, her college years, medical school, joining the Coroner's Office, their first meeting. Their growing friendship, that one Valentine's Day. He was quite surprised to learn she'd remembered it all. Memories of the rape flooded his senses as did everything from that point on. Some were good memories, but a lot were painful. The thing that shined the brightest through it all was her love for him.

He felt her heartbeat slowing and withdrew his fangs. He licked the wounds to stop the blood flow.

He bit his wrist and held it to her mouth.

"Drink."

He was relieved when she grabbed his wrist and started to drink.

She drank until he pulled his wrist away in self preservation. He allowed her to drink a little more than he should have because she was dangerously weak. He was pleased when he heard her telltale vampiric heartbeat. He anxiously awaited her next heartbeat, relieved when he heard it.

He hoped she would be okay. He found himself feeling guilty. Did I wait to long? Why couldn't I grant her one wish sooner? Will she survive? Why didn't she tell me sooner? He found himself mad at her for a few minutes, but knew she had been right. There was nothing he could have done for her before now. They both knew he would not have brought her across until it was her only remaining hope, until death was just around the corner.

Unknown to Nick, LaCroix had been watching them ever since Nick arrived. He smiled evily smile knowing how Nick had suffered. He was pleased to see that he was right again. He knew Nick would bring her across if she were truly dying then and there. He was surprised that Natalie had waited so long to tell him how sick she was. It did not surprise him that she had to do some serious convincing in order to get Nick to agree to it. He was somewhat surprised that Natalie was still alive after so long.

Nick headed for the fridge, feeling a little weak, grabbed a bottle of human vintage and settled down on the sofa. He gulped it down knowing he would need his strength to get them both to their new home. He kept an ear on her heartbeat, concerned because she was so weak. He examined Natalie's memories more closely wanting to know everything about the woman he loved more than life itself.

When everything seemed fine near the end of the evening he swept her up in his arms and took flight. He loved having her in his arms and was never, ever going to let her go again. Her blood had told him she felt the very same way.

The End

Sequel:  Rebirth.

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