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One Loss Too Many

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One Loss Too Many
By PJ
May 2017

His lips devoured her mouth, his tongue worshipping the lower portion of her chin. It didn't matter that she hung rather lifeless in his arms without responding to his caresses. The mere flavour of her skin was ambrosia to him, a promising aperitif to what awaited him beneath the surface. Hungrily his lips moved lower towards her neck. He paused a moment, his golden eyes focusing on the vein that held her precious life fluid. He licked his lips as if to check the status of his descended fangs. Then he reared back his head in preparation to strike.

"No!"

Nick's eyes shot open and he sat up in bed, his own cry an echo of Lacroix's demand weeks ago on that fateful night at Azure. He had come so close to biting Natalie then. Although he had intended to merely bluff, his actions had aroused his passion and he would have gone through with taking her if Lacroix hadn't stopped him.

Since then Natalie had refrained from coming to the loft. He wasn't sure if she was responding to his efforts in distancing himself from her or if she remembered his assertion that he did not love her, although Lacroix had successfully dazed her at the time.

Still, the longing to taste her remained and he had dreamed frequently of taking her. He always woke hungry, unfulfilled and on edge.

With a sigh he wiped the blood sweat from his brow and licked the red fluid off his fingers. Then he bolted from the bed, flew down the stairs and ripped the refrigerator door open. He grabbed a green bottle. Feeling the urge to bite something, he sank his fangs into the cork and pulled it out. After spitting it into his hand, he upended the bottle and drank deeply. The cold bovine blood didn't compare to the rich fluid he actually craved, but it sufficed to calm his immediate hunger.

* * * *

Later that night, Nick and Schanke dropped by the morgue.

"Oo-la-la Dr. Lambert, is that the new department dress code?" Schanke commented as he stepped into the lab ahead of Nick.

"I just got in from an early supper and didn't have time yet to change into scrubs," Natalie explained.

"So you're back on nights now?" Schanke concluded.

For the past two weeks Natalie had worked dayshift because her statement was required at court. It had been a major case and she had been called repeatedly to the stand to explain the autopsy results.

"Yeah. I was supposed to begin tomorrow, but Zang is down with a stomach bug, so they called me in. What can I do for you?"

Nick took in her attire. She wore a knee-length black cocktail dress. A matching short jacket covered her arms. Her hair fell in curly waves on her shoulders. She looked absolutely stunning. He took a step towards her in order to breathe in her unique scent, but stopped abruptly. Instead of the familiar aroma, all he perceived was garlic. She never had done that to him before!

Noting his reaction and accusing glare, Natalie's hand shot to her mouth. "I'm sorry, Nick. I was having Italian. I didn't expect to see you tonight."

"I bet it was fantastic," Schanke remarked. "Never mind that guy and his odd allergies. I love garlic. We're here for the Anderson report. Grace said it would be ready."

Natalie turned towards the desk and picked up a manila folder. "Here it is. The tox panel will be done by tomorrow." She handed it to Schanke as Nick had already skipped from the lab.

* * * *

"So what do you think?" Schanke broke the silence that had filled the Caddy since they had left the morgue.

"About what?"

Schanke rolled his eyes. "Obviously Nat had dinner with someone. And obviously it wasn't you."

"No it wasn't me," Nick said softly with a touch of longing in his voice. "Why shouldn't she?"

"Why shouldn't she? I thought you were –"

"We're just friends, Schanke," Nick interrupted him quickly.

"Yeah, right. Tell that to your grandmother. I saw the look on your face, Knight. You were virtually undressing her with your eyes."

Nick grabbed the steering wheel tighter. "Nat is better off with someone who can take her out for dinner during the day, trust me," he muttered.

"But aren't you curious?"

"It's her life, Schanke. She doesn't take interference well, so I'm not going to do anything."

As they arrived at the precinct, Nick turned the motor off, effectively ending the conversation.

* * * *

At the end of his shift, Nick left the Caddy in the precinct parking lot and flew back to the morgue. He landed in the shadows and leaned against the outer wall of the lab from where he could clearly hear the sound of the phone ringing inside.

"Lambert. –– Oh, hi Stu –– almost done –– sure, breakfast sounds great –– where? –– Fine, I'll meet you there. Bye."

Fifteen minutes later Natalie left the morgue and walked to her car. Nick followed her car as she drove home. He landed on her balcony and watched through the half closed blinds as she prepared a dish for Sydney, then disappeared into the bedroom from where she returned twenty minutes later dressed in jeans and a burgundy woolen turtle neck sweater. By the time she left the apartment, Nick felt the heat of the approaching sun. Instead of following her, he needed to get back to the loft. The idea to simply seek shelter in her apartment was tempting. But he knew from experience that Natalie didn't take this kind of intrusion well, especially when she brought company home.

Releasing a growl of frustration, Nick propelled himself into the sky and headed home.

* * * *

After sunset, Nick was back at Natalie's apartment. When he didn't detect any inhabitants except for Sydney, Nick let himself in. He extended his senses, taking in Natalie's lingering scent. Much to his relief he didn't find any foreign fragrances. His mood fell, however, upon seeing a vase filled with red roses on the sideboard, which hadn't been there on the previous morning.

* * * *

"Where have you been?" Schanke asked in a complaining tone. "Your car was in the lot when I arrived an hour ago."

"I was checking out a lead," Nick provided. "Didn't pan out. Let's head over to the morgue and see if the tox panel provides any clues."

As they approached the lab, they saw Natalie engaged in an amicable conversation with a tall man in his thirties, dressed in a custom-tailored business suit.

"Hey, Nat," Schanke greeted her while Nick merely glared at the stranger.

"Hi, you two. Here for the tox report?"

"I won't hold you up any longer, Nat," the man excused himself. "Breakfast's on me. 7 a.m., Le Marché at BCE Place."

"Stu, these are Detectives Don Schanke and Nick Knight from the 96th," Natalie introduced the detectives. "And this is Stuart Markham. He was the acting Crown attorney assigned to the Robinson case."

Stuart nodded at both men in acknowledgement. "You are very lucky to have such a competent pathologist on your team. I was totally impressed by the details she provided on the Robinson case. Without her input we wouldn't have been able to put him behind bars."

"Just doing my job," Natalie warded off the compliment with a blush.

"No, it's more than that. You believe in what you do. Your enthusiasm is palpable."

Natalie swatted his arm. "Yours isn't bad either. Stu is currently compiling evidence against a corrupt city official."

"Just doing my job," Stuart replied with a wink. "I really need to go. I'll see you in a couple of hours, Nat."

Schanke noticed the beam on Natalie's face which stood in complete contrast to the murderous look on Nick's as his eyes followed Stuart's retreating form. "Now where did you find that jewel, Nat?"

Natalie's blush intensified. "We worked together the past couple of weeks on the Robinson case. I think I like him." Noting Nick's tense posture, she quickly retrieved another manila folder from her desk. "Here's the tox screen. The paracetamol levels in her blood match the empty blister packs found in the trash bin."

"Suicide?" Schanke asked.

"Nope. Her fingerprints didn't match those found on the blisters. Find the right person and you have your killer."

"Thanks, Nat. And enjoy your breakfast." Schanke left the lab and caught up with his partner who had already left without a word.

* * * *

"He seems like a nice guy," Schanke commented when they were in the car.

"Indeed," Nick agreed. He would do a thorough background check on Stuart Markham as soon as he was back at his desk. Nat didn't have the best track record when it came to romance. For all he knew she had a tendency to date serial killers, himself included. The least he could do was to protect her from another disappointment.

"You know Nick, if I were you, I would do something or you might actually lose her."

"Why, what should I do?"

"Jeez, Nick, she's been waiting for you to come around for years. Now she's about to move on with someone else. Buy her flowers. Show her that you're interested in her."

"She's already got flowers," Nick mumbled.

"She did? I didn't see any in the lab. Wait –– you've been in her apartment? You spied on her? You are jealous! I knew it!"

"I'm not," Nick insisted although everything inside him screamed to claim her as his own. If this Stuart turned out to be good for Nat, he would move on and set her free.

* * * *

The background check Nick ran on Stuart Markham didn't provide anything suspicious. He had transferred from Ottawa a year ago and won the majority of cases since he had started at the Crown's office. Judging from his biography, he was an excellent match.

"Is the computer giving you troubles again?" Schanke broke into his contemplation. "Because you look like you want to kill someone."

Nick closed his eyes and tried to relax his features. "Have you found a match for the prints in the database?" he asked in an effort to turn his mind back on the case.

"Nothing. Which means we have to interview all of Anderson's acquaintances and see if anyone acts suspicious and has a motive," Schanke sighed wearily.

"Might as well start now," Nick suggested and rose. Maybe being out on the street would keep his mind off Nat's breakfast date.

"Maybe someone is going to make a run," Schanke added hopefully. "Although they all might if you keep looking like that."

* * * *

Near the end of their shift Nick tossed Schanke the car keys. "Would you mind taking the car back to the precinct and sign me out? I need to check on something."

Schanke furrowed his brow. "How are you going to get there?"

"I'll take a cab." Without waiting for a reply, Nick walked around a corner and took to the air.

Several minutes later he landed on the roof of the building opposite from the Yonge Street entrance of Le Marché. A few minutes after 7 a.m., he saw Nat hurrying down Yonge Street. As she approached the entrance, Stuart Markham opened the door from inside, having obviously already waited for her. Nick's eyes turned yellow as he observed the intimate greeting they exchanged.

"Has your pet gone astray, Nicholas?" a mocking voice broke into his inner rage.

Nick turned around to find Lacroix standing next to him, observing the scene at the BCE Place entrance with interest. "What do you want?" he hissed.

"I was curious. All night I sensed the oddest inklings from you, Nicholas. If I didn't know better I would have assumed you were out hunting."

"I'm not."

Lacroix studied him with a penetrating glance. "Ah, but you want to," he concluded.

Clenching his fists, Nick forced his eyes to return to blue. "No," he emphasized.

"You disappoint me, Nicholas," Lacroix drawled. "There was a time when you would not have stood by when another touched your intended prey."

"She's not my prey, and I'm not that man anymore."

"Oh? I recall that you came to her defense further down the street quite recently." Lacroix indicated Front Street with his arm. The Azure was merely three blocks away.

"I checked him out. She's not in danger," Nick stated more in an effort to convince himself than Lacroix.

"I see. If that is so, why are you here, Nicholas? To torture yourself with the view of the object of your desire dating someone else, or to remove that rival for good?" When Nick remained silent, he continued. "You are an open book to me, Nicholas. What you want is to sink your teeth into his neck and rip his head off."

Nick stared at Lacroix in horror. Out of instinct, the thought had indeed occurred to him briefly, but he had quickly suppressed it, reminding himself that he was not a ruthless killer anymore. He preferred not to reply and rose into the sky, heading towards the Raven. He needed something stronger tonight than his refrigerator offered or he might act on his feelings after all.

* * * *

"Leave the bottle," Nick demanded after the bartender had poured a glass of human blood for him. He sat alone at the bar, exuding waves of rage that kept the other patrons at bay.

A gloved hand touched his arm. "Nicolas, you're scaring away my customers," Janette observed. "What has you so enraged?"

"It's nothing." Nick emptied his glass and refilled it, brushing Janette's hand off his arm.

"It's not 'nothing'. I haven't felt these sentiments from you in centuries."

About to take another slug, Nick's fingers pressed too strongly, causing the glass to crack. The contents spilled over the sleeve of his shirt and jacket, while two shards embedded themselves in his hand.

Cursing under his breath, he reached for a napkin. While he wiped the spilled blood from the bar's surface, Janette reached for his hand. She removed the shards from his palm and leaned down to lick at the blood rising from the cuts. "Stay the day, Nicolas, and let me distract you."

Nick shook his head. "No, leave me alone." He grabbed the half full bottle and retreated into a secluded booth where he drank straight from the bottle. When it was empty he signalled to the bartender to bring another.

* * * *

Natalie was confused. She had enjoyed her breakfast with Stuart and accepted his offer to drive her home. At the curb in front of her apartment complex she remained seated, debating whether she should ask him to come up.

Before she made up her mind, Stuart leaned forward and kissed her lips. After the initial surprise, Natalie responded, but soon pulled away. Stuart's kiss was deeper than the occasional chaste kisses Nick had shared with her, but it didn't evoke any passion. "I'm sorry," she mumbled and exited the car, seeking refuge in her apartment.

She spent the entire morning on the couch, sorting out her feelings. She liked Stuart. He made her laugh. She enjoyed the attention he lavished on her. But his kiss hadn't enflamed any feelings in her. She just wasn't in love with him, she realized.

His attitude reminded her of Richard. Was that it? Did she see him more as a brother than a potential lover? Or was something wrong with her? Sometimes she woke from a vivid dream where her mouth was devoured by fiery lips, leaving a hot trail of passion on her skin before moving to her neck. That was the kind of kiss she longed for. Natalie tensed as her hand shot to her neck. That was how she imagined the kiss of a vampire to be. Instead from the vampire she knew she received hardly more than a short peck on her cheek.

Now she finally met a man who would kiss her on the mouth and she couldn't bring herself to feel anything but friendship for him. With a frustrated groan, Natalie hugged a pillow to her chest and lay down on her couch. She resolved to visit Stuart before her shift and explain her feelings. She didn't want to lose his friendship and hoped he would be content with that.

* * * *

Nick stirred. He was still in the booth, half a dozen empty bottles scattered around him. The club was empty and his senses told him that the sun was about to set. He had barely enough time to fly home and change before going to work.

He had just entered the loft through the skylight when Schanke stepped in from the elevator.

"Hey, I thought I'd give you a ride since you left your car with me." Schanke stopped and regarded his partner closer. Something seemed different. "Did you work out or something?"

Nick furrowed his brow. "No. Why?"

"You look so – I don't know – rosy. Not as pale as usual. Hey, is that blood on your sleeve?"

Nick looked down at his sleeve. "It's nothing. I was just clumsy," he mumbled. "Give me a minute." He hurried upstairs to his bedroom and quickly changed into a black shirt. After grabbing his leather coat from the rack, he followed Schanke into the elevator.

* * * *

"81-KILO, homicide at 394 Palmerston Boulevard. Please respond," the radio blared to life.

Schanke reached for the speaker. "81-KILO responding."

As they arrived at the scene, Nick noticed Natalie's car already parked in front of the house. However, as they entered, Dr. Zang, Natalie's substitute, met them in the hallway.

"I thought I saw Dr. Lambert's car outside," Nick commented.

Dr. Zang's eyes widened. "Haven't you heard? She's the one who called it in."

"Who's the victim?" Schanke asked with an ill foreboding.

"Stuart Markham," Dr. Zang informed them.

Nick immediately took off to search for Nat. He found her seated in the kitchen next to a female officer, a torn Kleenex in her hands and her eyes red from crying. The moment she saw him entering, her eyes widened and she stood, backing up against the wall.

Startled by Natalie's reaction, Nick asked the officer, "Would you give us a moment." When the officer hesitated in response to Natalie's behaviour, Nick focused on her heartbeat. ">>Leave<<," he intoned. Wordless, the officer left the room. "Nat?" Nick asked uncertainly. He had never seen her frightened of him.

"Please tell me you didn't have anything to do with this," she begged.

Nick stared at her dumbfounded. "Why would you think that?"

"There's not enough blood. He might have been drained. You look like you had a lot to drink recently."

Nick regarded her with a guilty expression as he recalled his indulgence on the previous night. At the same time he was upset that she thought him capable of murdering her lover. Perhaps she finally saw him for what he really was. "Did you find bite marks?" he asked.

Natalie shook her head. "If there were any, they were well concealed. His head has been chopped off," she choked.

Nick swallowed. All he wanted was to take her into his arms and console her. But with her accusation, he doubted she'd feel comfortable near him. Instead he said darkly, "I can assure you, had I killed him, there would be no body to find." Turning on his heel, he walked out to assess the crime scene for himself.

He exited the house through the back door where he found Schanke in conversation with Dr. Zang. They were standing in the empty swimming pool that took up a huge portion of the garden. Nick joined them and got a first glimpse of the body. Stuart Markham lay crumpled on his side, his head turned in an awkward angle due to the huge gap at his throat. There was a lot of blood where the tissue had been severed, but not as much as a wound this severe would have suggested. Nick brushed his hand over his lips, as he understood Natalie's reasoning. "What can you tell us, Dr. Zang?"

Dr. Zang held up a huge plastic bag. "We believe he was killed with this axe. It was found in the bushes near the deck chairs." He indicated a group of three Muskoka chairs at the head of the pool. "There were traces of a fight. It started near the back door and ended in the pool."

"Shouldn't there be more blood?" Nick felt it safe to ask because he didn't detect any scent of a vampire on the body.

"A very justified question, Detective," Dr. Zang said and bent down to lift the torso slightly from the ground, uncovering the pool's drain. "He fell just onto the drain. Any blood that was spilled was neatly washed down."

Nick nodded, clearly relieved.

"How's Natalie holding up?" Schanke inquired.

Nick tensed. "I think she's in shock."

When they returned into the house, they were met by Captain Cohen who was leading Natalie away. "Finish up here, Detectives. I'm taking Dr. Lambert to the precinct. Come as soon as you can so that she can give her statement and go home," she instructed.

Natalie walked in a daze as the Captain guided her from the house.

"Okay, we need a forensic team to go over all this stuff," Schanke announced. Nick noticed only now that part of the house was in complete disarray as if someone had searched for something.

* * * *

Two hours later they entered the interview room where Natalie sat in front of a mug of tea. An officer had already typed up her statement.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Nat." Schanke sat down across from her and scanned the initial report. "Are you up to answering a couple of questions?"

Natalie nodded, briefly looking up at Nick who remained standing, leaning with his back against the wall.

"What time did you arrive at the house?" Schanke asked.

"About 6 p.m. I rang the bell. When nobody answered, I used the key Stuart had given me. That's when I noticed something was wrong. The drawers in the hallway were all open and the contents strewn on the floor. When I saw that the back door was open, I thought of breaking and entering. But then I discovered Stuart in the pool." Natalie stopped and pulled out a handkerchief.

Nick frowned. She already had access to his home? How far advanced was their relationship?

"When did you last see him? I recall that you were supposed to meet for breakfast?" Schanke continued his line of questioning.

Natalie blew her nose. "Yeah. He drove me home afterwards and left around 9:30 a.m."

Schanke nodded. "Zang's preliminary estimation places the time of death between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m."

"That's during the day," Nick emphasized, causing Natalie to gaze up at him.

"Yes, we all can read the clock, Knight," Schanke remarked. "He was probably killed immediately after he got home."

Natalie covered her mouth with her hand to gulp back a sob.

"What is it, Nat?" Nick inquired.

"If I hadn't pushed him away, he may still be alive," Natalie realized.

Nick's features softened at her statement. They hadn't spent the morning together as he had assumed.

His train of thought was interrupted as Cohen entered the interview room. "Forensics finished their search of the house. They came to the conclusion that the killer didn't find what they were looking for. Dr. Lambert, if the killer knew of your connection to Mr. Markham, it might be best to have an officer positioned at your place or we can set you up at a safe house."

"You should stay at my place, Nat," Nick offered.

"I don't know." Natalie glanced at Cohen. "Do you really think that's necessary?"

"At this moment, we have no clue who is behind this. The city lost a CA; we cannot afford to lose a coroner, too."

Natalie nodded. "I'll stay with Nick then."

* * * *

"I take it I'm not under suspicion anymore," Nick stated softly as he drove Natalie to her apartment to pick up a change of clothes.

"I'm sorry, Nick. I guess I wasn't thinking clearly."

"No need to apologize, Nat. Your conclusion was only natural given what I am."

"But you don't kill anymore."

"That doesn't mean that the urge isn't still there."

They drove the remaining distance in silence. Nick parked near the entrance to Natalie's apartment building and accompanied her upstairs. He remained seated in the living-room while Natalie started to pack an overnight bag.

"You know, when I walked down Yonge Street this morning, I had a feeling of being followed."

"That was probably me," Nick said sheepishly.

"I thought so. And later when I got back home and Stu drove off I had the same feeling although it was after sunrise."

Nick looked up in alarm. "After you arrived at the restaurant, I went straight to the Raven and stayed the day." He moved to the window and scanned the street. "Maybe you or Stuart were being followed. Cohen might not be so far off to suggest protection for you."

Natalie stopped in her preparations. "Then they might follow us to the loft."

"Not necessarily," Nick smiled.

When she had finished packing, she handed Nick the duffle bag and turned to the door.

However, Nick detained her, motioning towards the balcony. "This way."

Natalie's eyes grew wide and her heart rate increased as she realized what Nick had in mind.

"Trust me?" he whispered after slipping onto the balcony.

Natalie nodded.

He slung the duffle bag over his shoulder and reached for her. Before Natalie could adjust her arms around his neck they were airborne. She closed her eyes as the cold wind caused her eyes to water. Finally her rebelling stomach told her that they were descending. Instead of the hard impact Natalie had expected, Nick set her softly on her feet. As she opened her eyes, she found herself in the loft.

"Are you alright?" Nick asked concerned when she still clung to him.

Natalie stared at him. In the beginning she had always wanted him to take her flying. Yet she had never asked because when they worked on a cure, she had made it a point that he use his abilities as little as possible. Encouraging him to take her flying would have been a step in the wrong direction. Now she couldn't deny the thrill this experience brought.

Noting that she had been staring at him for the better part of a minute, she let go off him. "Yeah, nothing wrong with a little kick of adrenaline before bedtime."

Nick smiled knowingly. "You'll be more comfortable in the bedroom. I'll crash on the couch."

Nodding, Natalie took her bag from Nick and headed upstairs. Upon entering the bedroom she froze. Discarded on the bed was one of Nick's shirts with a blood-soaked sleeve. She blanched. What if Zang's assessment of the time of death was wrong? 'That doesn't mean that the urge to kill isn't still there,' Nick had said. Natalie didn't want to believe it, but all the evidence spoke against him: the lack of blood at the crime scene, Nick's rosy complexion when he arrived. She shivered involuntarily. There was only one way to erase her doubts. She had to examine the blood on the shirt.

Natalie waited until Nick was asleep.

* * * *

Around noon she ventured out of the room and tiptoed down the stairs, shoes in her hand and the shirt tucked into her purse. As she had expected, Nick lay on the couch, apparently dead to the world. Before reaching the door to the staircase, she turned back to the couch to assure herself that he was still asleep. Much to her shock, the couch was empty. Turning back to the staircase door, she found her way barred by Nick who regarded her questioningly.

"Nat?"

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to wake you. I need to go to the lab," Natalie stated.

"Now? Can't it wait until sunset?"

"No, it's important. I forgot that I had a test running which I need to check on."

"Can't dayshift handle that?"

"No. I need to check it personally. It's about a test I ran with your blood."

Nick nodded in understanding. "Then let me at least call Schanke to accompany you, although I'd rather you would wait until sunset even if that means no progress in your research."

Natalie considered. If she was wrong, which she hoped, she might place Schanke in danger. No it was safer to have Nick accompany her to the morgue. "Fine. I'll wait until sunset."

Nick nodded. "We'll leave immediately after sunset. Try to get some sleep."

* * * *

"Are you sure you don't want to eat anything?" Nick asked when Natalie signalled that she was ready to depart.

"I'm not hungry," she declined, eager to get to the lab. "Are we going to fly again?"

Nick smiled. "Unless you prefer a cab?"

"Flying is fine," Natalie grinned. In spite of her suspicions, she liked the idea of being in Nick's arms.

Nick picked her up and a moment later they left the loft through the skylight.

Ten minutes later they landed in a side alley near the morgue. Nick led her around the building and they reached their destination without incident.

"You better guard the door," Natalie instructed. "I'll be needing about two hours."

As soon as the door had closed behind Nick, Natalie feverishly went to work. She pulled the shirt from her purse and extracted some of the blood and prepared a sample. Next she needed a sample of Stuart's blood. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door to the cooler, knowing his body would be stored there. Hesitantly she lifted the white linen and pulled out an arm. Switching completely into a detached mode, she quickly extracted a sample and returned the arm to its former position.

After she had prepared the test, she settled down at her desk, waiting for the results.

* * * *

"Nat?" Nick poked his head into the lab. He hadn't heard any movement for the better part of an hour.

"Almost done," Nat informed him, a rather anxious tone in her voice. She picked up two print-outs and studied them.

"Is everything okay?" Nick asked concerned as he picked up her elevated heartbeat.

Natalie let out a sigh of relief. The blood on Nick's sleeve was human, but it wasn't Stu's. In addition, the analysis showed a high content of alcohol in the sample. Probably the mixture of blood and wine they served at the Raven, Natalie concluded. "Yes, everything's okay, I guess."

"Good. Cohen called. She has some more questions for you. We should head to the precinct when you're done."

Natalie locked the print-outs into her desk drawer.

"So what's the verdict?" Nick asked indicating the drawer.

"The test was negative," Natalie informed him.

"And that's good?" Nick asked doubtfully.

"Yes," Natalie nodded enthusiastically. She rose on her toes and placed a kiss on his cheek.

* * * *

As they exited the morgue, Nick heard a whizzing sound. A split second later he felt the impact of a bullet in his chest. Immediately he shielded Natalie with his body and shoved her back into the building. "I've been shot. There's a sniper on the opposite building," he explained.

"Go after him, I'm fine here," Natalie urged.

"No," Nick shook his head. "I'm not leaving your side." He pulled out his cell phone and informed the precinct about the incident.

"Did the bullet pass through?" Natalie asked.

"No, it's stuck in front of a rib."

Natalie pulled him into the lab and motioned him to sit on the examining table. She retrieved tweezers and a scalpel while Nick unbuttoned his shirt. When Natalie turned back to him, she took a moment to admire his chest before focusing on the small indentation that hinted at the entrance wound. She made a small cut and used the tweezers to extract the bullet. Nick hissed briefly as the offending object came out. The unexpected sound caused Natalie to drop the bullet, but Nick's hand shot out and caught it from midair. Startled by the sudden movement Natalie ran the scalpel into the palm of her right hand.

"Ouch!" she exclaimed and pulled off her gloves to examine the wound.

"I'm sorry," Nick stated hoarsely as he reached for her hand and stared mesmerized at the blood that pooled in her palm.

Before Natalie could retract her hand, Nick leaned down and lapped his tongue across her palm. Then he closed his lip over the wound and sucked firmly.

Natalie's mouth went dry as desire welled up inside her at the sensation. How could a gesture like that feel more erotic than Stu's kiss on her mouth?

Nick abruptly ceased his actions and wiped the blood from his lips. The next moment the lab door opened and Schanke barged in.

"Hey, are you two alright?" he asked. "We're having officers search the area and the building across –– " he stopped in midsentence as he took in Nick seated on the examining table, his shirt undone to reveal his bare chest while Natalie stood in front of him, her face inflamed with a deep blush. "Do I want to know what you were just doing?"

Nick cleared his throat. "I thought I was hit. But as you can see, not a scratch," he jumped from the table and buttoned his shirt.

Natalie caught a quick glance at the unblemished skin on his chest where she had removed the bullet. About to retrieve a band aid for her hand, she noticed that she didn't need one. The bleeding had stopped and the wound was already clotted over. Amazed she looked up at Nick.

"I'm driving you over to the precinct," Schanke interrupted. "You need to make a statement and Cohen has some news for you."

* * * *

After they had given a report about the attack in front of the coroner's building, Nick asked Cohen, "What did you want to see us about?"

"Dr. Lambert, I'm afraid there's been a disturbance in your apartment."

Natalie stood from her seat. "What happened? Is Sydney alright?"

"A neighbor called it in. She found your cat in the staircase. When she wanted to return him, she noticed that your apartment door was broken in and called 911. We sent a unit and forensics, but we need you to check if anything is missing."

* * * *

"Oh god," Natalie groaned as she entered her apartment, accompanied by Nick and Schanke who had driven them over. The floor was covered with papers which originally belonged in her drawers.

"Nat, did Stuart Markham give you anything to hold onto?" Nick asked. "It's clear that the killer is looking for any papers or folders. You mentioned that he was compiling evidence against a city official. Did he mention who?"

Natalie shook her head. "He didn't. We never talked about details from our cases. Wait a minute," she reached for her purse. "He gave me his keys. We used to meet at his place to prepare the Robinson case. He was often delayed at his office and didn't want me waiting in the dark outside." After rummaging in her purse for a while she held up a set of keys.

Nick walked over and examined them. "This looks like a key to a deposit box," he indicated a smaller flat key. "Schanke, take it to the precinct and try to find out from which bank. I'm taking Nat back to the loft. Call me if you have something."

* * * *

"It's healed," Natalie remarked as she examined her hand back at the loft. She sat at the kitchen table, a mug of tea in front of her. "How did that come about?"

Nick leaned at the kitchen counter, sipping from a glass of blood. "It's a consequence of what I did," he explained.

Natalie regarded him curiously. "You mean it healed so well because you lapped over the wound?"

"It was a little more than that." Nick took a larger sip from his glass.

Natalie blushed as she recalled the sensation his actions had evoked.

"Applying saliva to a wound initiates the healing process," Nick explained.

"I've analysed your saliva. I didn't find any extra enzymes that would explain this."

"It's transient. It works only after blood has been taken actively."

Natalie nodded in understanding, her blush deepening at the reminder. "That's handy – and totally fascinating."

Nick placed his glass on the counter. "You're not repulsed by it?"

Natalie slowly shook her head. "It was incredible. Does it always feel like that?"

"More or less," Nick smiled slightly.

Natalie's eyes widened. "More?"

"It depends on the location."

"Oh," Natalie scratched her neck absent-mindedly – the location a vampire would usually bite.

"Nat, I'm sorry about the death of your friend," Nick said, distracting her from her line of thoughts. He fidgeted with his fingers. "I don't think I've expressed my condolences yet," he added in an apologetic tone.

Natalie nodded. "I guess I saw Richard in him. I realized that the morning he was killed. He felt like a brother to me. There was no reason for you to be jealous, Nick."

"I know," Nick whispered. "I also know that you thought it was me, especially after finding blood on my shirt. That's why you wanted to go to the morgue."

Natalie stared at him. "How do you --?"

"I've seen it in your blood."

"In my blood?" Natalie asked, intrigued.

"When we take someone's blood, it's like reading a book. Your whole life is ingrained in your blood, every thought, every desire. That's what makes it so alluring."

Natalie felt the blood rising in her cheeks. "You mean from that little bit you know –"

"I know what you desire, Natalie," Nick said hoarsely, holding her gaze a long moment. Then he shook his head. "What I don't know though is, why? You know what I am, how can you possibly desire this?" he indicated himself.

Natalie shrugged. "Because you're more than what you are, Nick. I love you because of who you are."

"But I can't give you a normal life. If you truly seek a relationship with me, you will either die or become what I am."

"I'm aware of that. And if you say you can read my blood, you know that I have considered the latter."

"You would risk becoming a killer?"

Natalie shook her head. "I don't have to kill. There's bottled blood available."

"You won't be able to resist the lure of fresh blood," Nick argued.

"Nick, I'm a doctor. I've taken the oath to do no harm. Nothing will ever tempt me to break that oath."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Nick said softly.

"I've lost about everyone I cared about. Richard, Cynthia, now Stu. I can't take anymore," Nat cried out desperately. "I don't want to lose anyone ever again."

"Nat, if you live eternally, people around you will die, naturally or otherwise," Nick pointed out.

"But I won't lose you," she insisted. She stepped up to him and placed her hand over his heart.

Nick took her hand and placed a kiss on her palm. "No, you won't lose me." Then his lips claimed her mouth, initiating a kiss that caused Natalie to moan with desire. After a while of tongue duelling, Nick's lips moved along her cheekbone towards her neck, where he lingered precariously close to her carotid artery.

The ringing phone caused him to freeze. Taking a shuddering breath, he released Natalie and reached for the phone. "Knight," he hissed around extended fangs.

"The techs found out that the key belongs to a deposit box from the Bank of Montreal on King Street," Schanke informed him. "The box contained evidence against a Wallace McDermitt, director of the Toronto Building Division. Looks like he took bribes from a construction company and secured projects for them. They want to demolish everything in the Distillery District and build condos, although City Council voted with a majority to have the area restored as a heritage site. Cohen procured a warrant; we're about to head out and make an arrest."

"Do you think he's the killer?" Nick asked.

"He doesn't seem the type to get his hands dirty," Schanke replied. "We might need your interrogation skills to find out whom he hired."

"I'll be in the precinct in thirty minutes," Nick announced and hung up. Turning back to Natalie he asked, "Would you mind staying at the Raven while I help with the arrest?"

Natalie regarded him, surprised.

* * * *

During the flight to the Raven, Natalie pressed herself closer to Nick. As they entered the club, she noticed that the patrons gave her curious stares. They met Janette at the bar who also took a second look at Natalie.

"Now this is an unexpected surprise," she commented.

"Can you keep an eye out for Natalie while I'm away?" Nick requested.

"You know quite well that no one would dare touching her now, Nicolas," Janette remarked much to Natalie's confusion.

"I'm not talking about vampires, Janette."

"Oh. Bien sûr."

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Nick said and softly kissed Natalie's temple.

"Now what have you gotten yourself into?" Janette asked after Nick had left.

"A close friend of mine was murdered and now the killer is after me," Natalie summarized, trying to keep her emotions in check. She hadn't had time yet to deal with Stuart's death emotionally and wouldn't start now with Nick's former lover watching.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Natalie. I suppose this friend of yours was the reason for Nicolas' recent binge?" At Natalie's surprised look, she continued, "He scared off all my customers, and not only the mortal clientele. Nicolas does not take well to rivals. No wonder he marked you."

"He did what?" Natalie asked.

"He took your blood, didn't he?" Janette said with certainty.

Natalie blushed. "How do you know?"

"You carry his aura," Janette smiled and indicated the crowd. "Everybody here can sense it and know that you're off-limits."

Natalie's blush intensified as she remembered how intimate that moment had felt. "Well, that explains the curious looks," she muttered, feeling uncomfortably exposed.

Janette patted her arm. "No need to be embarrassed, ma chère. It's just not something people would expect from Nicolas given his lifestyle over the last hundred years."

* * * *

After arriving at the precinct, Nick joined Cohen in the observation room. Through the one-way glass he saw Schanke interviewing the suspect.

"Anything, Captain?" he asked Cohen.

She shook her head. "Turned out he has an alibi. He claims he has nothing to do with Markham's murder and wants to speak to his lawyer. He should be here any minute."

"Let me talk to him," Nick said and slipped from the room.

"Has my lawyer arrived?" McDermitt asked as Nick stepped into the interrogation room.

"Not yet, Mr. McDermitt," Nick replied. "Which means we have a few more minutes for you to tell us what we want to know."

"I've already told you, I won't say anything without my lawyer. I didn't kill anyone."

"No, you aren't the type to do the dirty work." Nick leaned onto the table and caught McDermitt's gaze. He smiled slightly as McDermitt's eyes glazed over and he relished the power he had over the mortal whose heartbeat thundered in his ears. "Who did you contract to do the deed for you?"

"My cousin. He needed money for his divorce."

"A name," Nick pressed.

"Ron McKenzie."

Nick nodded and released him. He left the room followed by Schanke.

"How did you do that?" Schanke wanted to know. "I interrogated him twenty minutes and got nada."

Nick shrugged. "Just a few well-placed words."

They met Cohen in the bull-pen. "Good work, gentlemen. Ron McKenzie is on file. He's ex-military and has a commendation for long-distance marksmanship. You're lucky that he missed you, Nick. Bring him in." She handed them a paper that contained McKenzie's current address.

* * * *

Nick had been gone over two hours and Natalie was beginning to feel tired after the evening's events and her enlightening conversation with Janette. "Do you serve coffee here?" she asked the bartender.

Much to her surprise the bartender nodded and prepared a mug of instant coffee. After he had placed the steaming mug of black coffee in front of her, he turned to attend to other patrons.

Looking for the sugar dispenser, Natalie spotted it out of her reach at the end of the bar. "Excuse me," she addressed the man who sat at that side of the bar. "Could you pass me the sugar?"

Instead of passing it towards her, the man left his place and carried the sugar over to her.

"Thank you," Natalie said and poured a spoonful into her mug. From the corner of her eye she noticed that the man had settled onto the bar stool next to her. He retrieved his half full wine glass and took a sip from the red liquid inside. Natalie noticed pale hands and a pale complexion. Everything about him screamed 'vampire'. She wondered briefly if she should be concerned, but Nick had assured her that she would be safe at the Raven.

"Dr. Lambert, I presume," the man stated. "Natalie, if I may."

As Natalie looked up at him in surprise he picked up her right hand and examined her palm, brushing his thumb over the spot where she had cut herself earlier.

"So Nicholas has finally claimed you as his own," he observed in a smooth voice.

Natalie withdrew her hand startled. "You're Lacroix," she recognized the voice from the radio.

He gave a hint of a smile. "The pleasure is all mine."

Natalie stiffened as she realized who she was talking to. "Nick said no other vampire would dare touch me. Does that include you?"

"That depends on what his intentions are towards you."

Natalie cast her eyes down. "Um, we haven't really talked about that yet. But I have considered being brought across."

"Have you?" Lacroix turned his full attention to her and raised an eyebrow. "You're applying to become a member of my family? Has Nicholas explained the consequences?"

"Uh, as I said, we haven't really talked about it yet. I'm aware of course that I will need to give up the sunlight and drink blood."

"Those are minor details," Lacroix brushed her off. "Before you choose to join us, my dear, you should be aware that I am the head of this family. My word is law. If you violate the Code, you will answer to me."

Natalie refused to be intimidated. "Yes, Nick mentioned similarities to the Cosa Nostra. So what do I get in return?"

Lacroix regarded her a moment in silence, apparently impressed by her fearless attitude. "My eternal protection," he finally answered.

"That doesn't sound too bad," Natalie remarked and took a sip from her coffee, wishing she had ordered something stronger to calm her frayed nerves.

* * * *

Accompanied by several uniformed officers Nick and Schanke approached the door where Ron McKenzie lived. Nick could hear a single heartbeat inside the apartment. When everybody was in position, Schanke banged at the door. "Ron McKenzie? Metro Police. Open up!"

Nick heard running footsteps. "He's trying to escape," he said and kicked in the door. He rushed into the apartment ahead of Schanke and the other officers. Tracking down the heartbeat, he reached the living-room just in time to see the suspect opening the window in order to access the fire escape.

"Don't bother," Nick said calmly and pointed his gun at him. "The building is surrounded by cops. You won't get far."

McKenzie turned at the voice and froze. "I shot you!" he exclaimed. "How can you be alive?"

Schanke pulled out his handcuffs. "You missed, buddy. But we gladly acknowledge the confession. Ron McKenzie, you're under arrest for the murder of Stuart Markham and assault on a police officer."

When the uniforms had taken McKenzie into custody, Nick turned to his partner. "Can you finish up here? I don't want to leave Nat alone too long."

"Sure, but don't expect me to do the paper work all by myself."

* * * *

As Nick returned to the Raven he noticed with concern the company Natalie had. When Schanke had called, the Raven had seemed the best option to keep Natalie safe. He had hoped he would be back before Lacroix finished his nightly broadcast. Apparently the elder had returned earlier. "Lacroix," he acknowledged him before turning to Natalie. "Are you all right?"

Natalie nodded.

"I believe negotiations are due, don't you think?" Lacroix addressed his son. He rose from his seat and walked towards the office.

"I better get this over with," Nick squeezed Natalie's hand and followed his master. After closing the door, Nick waited anxiously with a feeling of impending doom.

"You've consumed more human blood during the last couple of days than during the previous year, even fed from a living source. I must say I rather like the side the good doctor brings out in you, Nicholas," Lacroix stated. "I might feel inclined to allow you to continue this relationship."

Nick couldn't hide the flash of hope appearing on his face.

"Under certain conditions, of course," Lacroix continued, causing Nick to frown.

"Which are?"

"You will continue to feed properly. I would hate to have you mourning her demise for the next half century if you accidentally drained her in a malnourished state. It can become quite dull."

"I won't make the same mistake with her as I did with her brother," Nick agreed.

"I'm pleased that you've come to your senses. When she eventually tires of you, you will not interfere if she chooses someone else."

"Why would she tire of me?"

Lacroix smiled indulgently. "Eternity is a long time, mon fils. Even your Janette had enough of you after 97 years. I highly doubt that Dr. Lambert will last that long."

"We shall prove you wrong," Nick said determined. "Anything else?"

"You will make sure that she adheres to the Code and accepts her place in the family. If I notice any breach, I will personally see to her education."

Nick nodded. He had no intention of letting Nat out of his sight once she was his. "Agreed." He turned towards the door but hesitated before opening it. "What's the catch? Why the sudden change in attitude?" he needed to know.

Lacroix regarded him benevolently. "No catch. I'm simply not convinced that she's the love of your life. That's all."

Nick held his gaze a moment, feeling an odd vibration in their link. Then he shook his head. "If you think so." He slipped out of the office and returned to Natalie, a broad grin on his face.

"Everything okay?" she asked.

Nick reached for her hand and placed a tender kiss on its back. "Yes. I've got the official permission to court you."

"You needed permission? From him?"

"It's a long story. Goes back to 1229," Nick said and led her from the club.

FIN