When Nick and Schanke entered the morgue, they found Natalie bent over the yellow pages, phone in hand.
"Hey Nat," Schanke greeted her. "What are you looking for? Whatever it is, we can put an APB on it."
Natalie laughed but shook her head. "I wish it was that easy. It's hopeless to find a decent hotel at short notice during Festival time."
"Are you expecting a visitor?" Nick asked, his eyes narrowing.
"No it's for me." When both detectives looked at her questioningly, she explained. "I had a pipe rupture in my apartment. The landlord already arranged for it to be fixed, but the entire floor has to be renovated. My place is uninhabitable until the work is done. And Grace is on vacation this week, so I'm looking for a hotel." Frustration was evident in her voice.
"I'd offer our guest room, but Myra's aunt is visiting this week," Schanke said. During the moment of silence that followed, Schanke nudged his partner in the side.
Nick, who had studied the floor pattern with great interest during the conversation, jumped slightly. "What?!"
Schanke cast him an exasperated glance. "Your cue, Nick." When Nick didn't respond, Schanke made shooing motions with his hands. "This is the part where you say ‘Why don't you stay at my place, Nat?'."
Taken off-guard, Nick regarded Natalie with a startled look. "Uh, I don't think she would want that. I mean, there's only one room, and – it wouldn't be proper."
"Not proper? Geez, Nick, it's the nineties –"
"I wouldn't mind," Natalie chimed in, receiving a surprised look from Nick.
"Schanke, would you give us a minute," he said.
"I'll be in the car."
"I'm sorry about the damage in your apartment, Nat," Nick began after Schanke had left. "Of course you can move into the loft. I'll just stay at the Raven."
Natalie stared at him. "I'm not going to evict you from your home, Nick. Of course I don't want to intrude. But after calling a dozen hotels in vain--"
"You're not intruding, Nat. You know what I mean. It's not safe."
Confused, Natalie reminded him, "I've spent a lot of time at your place, Nick. I've never felt threatened."
"You've never stayed the entire day, while I was asleep," Nick pointed out and shook his head. "You have no idea what it's like when I wake up. I cannot risk that."
"Nonsense. Schanke survived when he stayed at your place. So did Lisa and Emily Weiss. How often must I convince you that I trust you?"
"Schanke doesn't look as tasty as you do," Nick mumbled.
"Nothing. One day your trust in me may be your undoing," Nick sighed.
"Warning acknowledged if it makes you happy. So I may come?" Nat asked with a winning grin.
"As long as you feel comfortable," Nick conceded with a slight bow.
* * * *
Nick had a feeling of déjà vu as the lift arrived and Natalie pushed the door open, packed with two grocery bags in her arms and a duffle bag slung over her shoulder. At least she didn't bring any household items such as ugly lamps. He immediately went to relieve her of the bags and placed them on the kitchen table before retreating to the piano.
Natalie walked back into the lift and returned with Sydney's carrier. "I forgot to mention that I'm not on my own. I hope you don't mind that I brought Sydney, too?"
Nick's face fell slightly. "Usually Sydney is the one who minds me."
"Then this is a good opportunity for you two to become friends." She freed Sydney from his confines. The cat immediately began to explore the recesses of the loft in the opposite direction from Nick. Natalie proceeded to unload the grocery bags.
Nick watched from his position on the piano bench as she stored most of the items in the fridge next to the six bottles of blood. "Are you sure you don't mind the blood next to your salad?"
Natalie spared him an exasperated glance. "I work in a morgue, Nick. I'd be in the wrong line of work if I'd be bothered by body fluids." As an afterthought she added, "Of course, I would prefer protein shakes next to my salad."
"Nat," Nick said in a serious tone that caught her attention. "It might be best not to put any pressure on my diet while you're here."
"You mean you don't want an egg for breakfast?" Natalie joked.
"Definitely not," Nick shuddered.
When Nat had stored everything, she fetched up her duffle bag and placed it on the couch.
"You take the bedroom," Nick announced. "I've changed the sheets and moved my things into the downstairs bathroom."
"That's not necessary, Nick," Natalie frowned. "I'll be perfectly fine on the couch. I'm already intruding enough. You don't have to give up your bedroom."
"It is necessary," Nick insisted. "Don't take this for an act of chivalry." When Natalie regarded him questioningly, he admitted, "The couch is closer to the fridge. When I wake up hungry, and there's the choice between the fridge and you on the couch, I don't want to risk making the wrong decision in the half sleeping state I'm usually in. Lisa and Emily also stayed in the bedroom."
"But not Schanke," Natalie concluded.
"No, he slept on the couch – with the blinds open."
"I see. Well, if it makes you happy, you may have the couch." Natalie retrieved her bag and carried it upstairs into the bedroom.
* * * *
"Nick?" Natalie had changed into leggings and a comfy long shirt. As she stepped out of the bedroom, it took her a while to spot Nick in the dimly lit loft. He stood in front of his easel and stared at a new canvas, an empty green bottle in his left hand.
Natalie went into the kitchen, switched on the overhead light and prepared a sandwich. Upon fetching cheese from the fridge she noticed that the number of green bottles had decreased to four. She chose not to comment on that for the moment. Although she had tried to have Nick write down his blood intake so that she could keep track on any treatment effects, his documentation was rather inconsistent so that she still didn't know how much he needed on average. Her mind refused to believe that it was the equivalent of one body per night.
"Do you mind if I watch the news?" Nat asked and settled onto the couch.
"Go ahead," Nick nodded. Instead of joining her, he remained at his easel and picked up a brush.
Natalie paid little attention to the news and watched instead as he prepared several oil colours and started to apply random brush strokes on the canvas.
After finishing her sandwich, she rose and placed her plate into the dishwasher. "I think I'll call it a night."
"I'll stay up for a while longer," Nick announced. "Sleep well, Nat."
* * * *
When Natalie came down the stairs on the next evening, Nick was already dressed and talking on the phone. He acknowledged her with a wave of his hand and continued to speak in French into the receiver.
Natalie busied herself in the kitchen, catching only bits of the conversation. Half an hour later, Nick ended the call.
"Sorry about that. That was an old friend calling from France."
"No need to apologize, Nick. I should have waited until you'd finished before coming down. But I didn't understand a word anyway. Old friend, huh? Centuries old?"
Nick smiled slightly. "About three. Did you sleep well?"
"Like a baby." She pointed her knife at the canvas. "You've been busy. Did you sleep at all?"
"I kind of got caught up in painting," Nick replied evasively. He retrieved a half-filled goblet of blood from the piano and joined her at the kitchen table.
"Nick, if this doesn't work out for you, maybe I should try the hotels again, " Natalie suggested.
"It will be fine, Nat. I just have to take care of something," he assured her. Before Nat could ask what he meant by that, the lift motor engaged. Nick quickly downed the remains of his glass. "Schanke," he announced.
A moment later the detective walked into the loft. "How does the apartment sharing go?" He eyed the laid table. "Oh, actual food," he exclaimed with delight and snatched a slice of sausage from a plate.
"You're early," Nick observed.
"Well, I mentioned to Myra that Natalie had moved in here and she suggested I should check if you need anything. You know, Nick never has anything palatable around."
"I'm fine, Schanke," Natalie assured him.
Nick went to retrieve his gun holster and donned his jacket. "I'll probably see you during work," he said and shooed Schanke into the lift. Natalie waved as the door closed.
* * * *
It had been a quiet night. Neither had Natalie been called out to a crime scene nor had Nick and Schanke dropped by the morgue during their shift. Returning to the loft after work, Natalie heard the piano as the lift stopped on the second floor. After pushing the door open, she hesitated stepping into the loft. Nick wasn't alone. Sitting next to him on the piano bench was Janette.
While Natalie debated whether to close the door again and return to the lab for some overtime, Janette rose gracefully from her seat and walked towards her. "Bon soir, Natalie."
Natalie nodded in reply, finally stepping into the loft. "Janette." Turning to Nick she added. "I think I forgot something in the lab. I'll just head back –"
"Don't," Janette interrupted her. "I must be on my way. Sunrise is close."
Nick walked up next to her. "Merci pour votre aide," he murmured and squeezed her hand before raising it briefly to his lips.
Janette cast him a dazzling smile. "Toujours, mon cher. N'importe quand tu as faim. Je le chéris quand tu as besoin de moi." The next moment she vanished through the skylight.
"Nick, I'm sorry if I interrupted –" Natalie started to apologize.
"You didn't interrupt anything, Nat," Nick assured her and brushed the back of his hand across his lips. "Janette was just visiting." He cast her a breath-taking smile that caused Natalie's heart to beat faster. "Have you eaten? Do you want me to order something from your favourite take-out?"
Natalie pulled a box and chop-sticks from her bag. "Already taken care of."
"How about a movie?" Nick asked.
"Yeah," Natalie agreed, noting that he seemed much more relaxed than on the previous night. She fetched a soda from the fridge and carried her food over to the living room area.
Nick joined her, bringing a green bottle and a glass along.
* * * *
When Natalie came down the stairs the following evening, she heard the shower running in the downstairs bathroom. As she went about preparing her breakfast in the kitchen, a sudden hiss from Sydney alerted her. Turning around she found herself face to face with Lacroix.
He regarded her with a raised eyebrow. "So Nicholas is indeed sheltering a pet."
"Oh, Sydney is my cat," Natalie explained.
"I wasn't referring to the cat," he smirked.
Natalie stared at him in stunned silence as he placed a bottle on the table and proceeded to remove his long leather coat, hanging it neatly on the coat rack, apparently intending to stay. "Why are you here?" she managed.
In return she received a piercing glare. "Why, to visit my son of course. It's his night off, is it not?"
"Yes," she stammered. In order to evade the penetrating glance, she picked up the bottle to examine the ornate label only to have it taken from her hand immediately.
"Usually, Nicholas keeps nothing palatable around. My mistake," Lacroix shrugged. He retrieved a goblet from the board and walked to the living room area where he settled into the armchair next to the couch. "Good evening, Nicholas," he breathed.
Natalie turned and saw Nick appearing from the downstairs bathroom.
"Lacroix," he acknowledged the elder. "You're early."
"I was curious to observe your domestic scene. I am not interrupting anything, am I?"
"Natalie has a renovation going on in her apartment. She needed a place to stay," Nick explained.
"So Janette tells me."
"I wasn't aware that I'm the focus of vampire gossip," Natalie mumbled. She had decided to skip breakfast and merely drank her coffee, standing at the counter.
"Hardly, my dear. Nicholas, however, is," Lacroix informed her.
Natalie stared a moment at Nick. She had expected an argument; instead he was filling a goblet from a bottle out of his fridge and joined Lacroix on the couch. "Is it safe to leave Sydney with you two?" She rinsed out her coffee mug and grabbed her purse.
"I don't care for animal blood. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Nicholas," Lacroix stated.
"I never had cat!" Nick protested. Turning to Natalie, he assured her, "It's okay, Nat. I'll see you in the morning."
"U-huh." Natalie picked her coat from the rack and hurried through the door leading to the stairs.
* * * *
In the morning Natalie dreaded returning to the loft. She postponed leaving work until after sunrise. Would she find traces of a fight? Taking a deep breath, she pushed the elevator door aside and stepped into the loft. The lights were dimmed. For a moment she thought Nick wasn't home, but as her eyes adapted to the darkness she discovered him on the couch, while Sydney was curled up on the seat Lacroix had occupied earlier. Nick lay on his back, his arms crossed over his chest. Drawing closer, she studied him. The complete lack of breathing was unnerving and reminded her of her customers at the morgue. As she reached out to touch his skin, his eyes suddenly snapped open, revealing golden orbs. With a snarl he grabbed her wrist.
"Nick!" she screamed and tried to retract her arm.
It took a moment until his eyes cleared. Immediately he released her arm, sat up and regarded her in anguish. "I've hurt you," he observed as she rubbed her wrist.
"No, a little," Natalie admitted. "It's my fault. I should have let you sleep."
"I've told you I'm not safe to be around," Nick said gloomily and walked to the fridge. After opening it, he hesitated briefly before pulling out a bottle which he uncorked and upended in one fluid motion.
"And I didn't heed your warning about keeping my distance while you sleep," Natalie returned. "What did Lacroix want this evening? I was worried."
"He just came to visit. Nothing to worry about."
"Nothing to worry about?" Natalie repeated in disbelief. "Nick, from what you've told me, you usually end up in a fight."
"Only when we disagree on something. We're currently trying to avoid that by engaging in pastimes we both enjoy."
"We've been to the opera, the art gallery, last night we played chess," Nick enumerated.
"You mean you're voluntarily spending time with him?" Natalie found the mere thought disconcerting.
Nick shrugged. "We've come to some sort of understanding. He recently said what he wants is companionship. I'm providing it and in turn he lets me live my life as I want to."
"I guess he was thrilled to find me here," Natalie said sarcastically.
"Actually he approved," Nick shrugged.
"Now I find that hard to believe."
Nick pulled another bottle from the fridge and filled a glass. "He supports anything that increases my blood consumption. And your staying here definitely does that."
"Oh, Nick, that's horrible," Natalie exclaimed.
"It's what keeps you safe, Nat. Now is not the time to restrict my diet."
"I didn't know that it was that hard for you."
Nick's voice had a rough edge as he admitted, "I fight the urge to taste your blood every time you're close by, Nat. And I'm afraid that I might take you in a half awake state without being aware of it. That is why I need to be sated."
"I understand the need to be sated. But why me? We had you for two days on protein shakes a while ago and you didn't have any problems being around Schanke in the confines of the Caddy."
Nick took a long swig from his glass. "Because blood is more to us than a source of food. To partake of someone we lo—of someone we care about, is the equivalent of mortal intimacy. It's hard to resist."
Natalie blushed as the implication hit her. Her heart beat faster with joy. This was the closest Nick had ever come to a declaration of love. At the same time he had re-erected a distance between them because Nat knew all too well that they couldn't act on their feelings as long as he was a vampire. Seeing that his eyes were flecked with gold, she felt an unmistakable pull towards him. She had to break the mounting tension somehow before she found herself succumbing to a force of nature she had underestimated yet again.
"And I take it, you don't want to be intimate with Schanke," she concluded aloud.
Nick relaxed his stance and started coughing, the gold vanishing from his eyes. "No, I definitely don't want to be intimate with Schanke," he chuckled.
"Myra will be glad," Natalie grinned and made her way towards the stairs. "I'll see you tonight."
* * * *
Although Nick had only said it in a round-about way, Natalie felt elated by his admission. In consequence, she had a hard time falling asleep. After a light doze, she woke up again to the sounds of glassware clinking together. Deciding to warm up some milk with honey, she left the bedroom.
From the gallery she spotted Nick at the kitchen table which was filled with several dozen green bottles. She watched as Nick reached with a ladle into a large barrel and poured red liquid via a funnel into a bottle.
He stopped in mid-move as he became aware of her presence. "I was hoping you'd sleep through this," he stated with a guilty look on his face.
Natalie walked down the stairs. "I thought I heard something. It doesn't come in bottles?" she inquired curiously.
Nick shook his head. "Not this kind."
Noting his discomfort, Natalie decided against heating milk. She merely poured a glass of milk from the fridge and took it with her towards the stairs. "Good night, Nick," she said softly before heading upstairs.
* * * *
When Natalie came downstairs in the evening, she heard Nick's voice, apparently on the phone again, but she didn't see him immediately. Following the sound of his voice she spotted him perched comfortably on a high window sill several meters above the floor. A place that was accessible only by flight.
Fascinated, Natalie waited as he ended the call and floated effortlessly to the floor. He rarely displayed his abilities in front of her, so she hardly ever had the chance to catch a glimpse of what was so obviously second nature to him. "Hi," she greeted him.
"Hi. That was my financial advisor," Nick said in an apologetic tone and placed the phone on the table.
"U-huh." Natalie sometimes forgot that in addition to being a cop, he probably had an entire business to run. "You know, for someone who claims to be an outcast, you have a very busy social life," she observed. "In the past few days you've gotten more visitors and phone calls than I get in a month."
Nick smiled, slightly embarrassed. "Well, maybe I had a little bit more time to make acquaintances. And this isn't really the norm."
"Anyway, it seems to do you good. You seem more relaxed."
Nick stopped raising his glass to his lips in mid-motion and stared at it. "If I seem more relaxed it has nothing to do with my social life. That's for sure."
Natalie's face fell as she realized that it must be another effect of his increased blood intake. This was definitely something she needed to look further into. A sound from her pager interrupted her train of thought.
"See, your social life is intruding," Nick joked and handed her the phone.
Natalie called the number displayed on her pager. "That was my landlord," she announced after finishing the call. "Construction was completed this afternoon. I can move back in." The news brought on conflicting emotions in Nat. The doctor in her reasoned that Nick could go back to his restricted diet with her out of range while the woman in her regretted that their time of close proximity was over.
While she was preoccupied in trying to figure out which sentiment prevailed, she missed the flicker of relief passing over Nick's face.