Natalie entered her apartment, dropped her keys on the table by the door and set her briefcase on the floor. She headed for the bedroom to change. All she wanted to do was get out of her clothes and into the shower.
She let the water wash over her, hoping it would help her relax and forget her rough night. After she had lathered her hair and her body she rinsed off and then grabbed her towel and started drying. She sighed as the shower had barely helped her feel better.
As soon as she slipped into her sweats she picked up the phone and dialed Nick's number.
Nick's phone rang several times before the answering machine picked up.
"This is Nick Knight. I'm either out or incommunicado. Please leave a message after the beep."
"Damn it, Nick. Where are you?" Natalie asked quite upset. She heard the beep. "Nick, call me as soon as you get in. I really need to talk to you."
She hung up and tried his cell phone, only to get a message stating either he was out of the area or he did not have his phone turned on.
Did you move on without telling me? Natalie wondered. She remembered hearing comments over the last few weeks leading her to believe he was moving on soon.
It was then that Natalie remembered Nick was out of town for police business, and wondered if he would use that as a convenient way to leave… forever. A part of her wanted to go to the loft, but another part was too afraid of what she might find.
Thoughts of Nick about to bolt right after they had lost their good friend ran though her mind. If she had not overheard the comments at the precinct, she would have missed him. He was going to leave without saying good bye.
She rummaged around her kitchen but failed to find any dark chocolate. "Great," she grumbled. "I was sure I had some." She searched the entire kitchen again, annoyed and frustrated when she did not find a single piece. She saw the Scotch bottle in the cabinet and knew it was not the answer. All it would do was give her a nasty headache in the morning, as well as make her nauseous. Thoughts of Nick moving on still ran through her head, further annoying and frustrating her, as well as scaring her. She had let him closer than anyone in a very long time, and now he was running off without saying a word?
Natalie did not want to think about it any longer and turned on the television. She drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them, hugging them close. A couple of tears ran down her face.
The next night, Nick arrived back at the loft and immediately checked his phone messages. He was worried as Natalie had failed to pick him up at the airport. That was not like her.
He skipped past the junk messages trying to sell him everything from a vacation to Hawaii to life insurance. He knew it was just telemarketers trying to earn a living. He found the messages a bit ironic as he did not need any of the things offered.
Nat might like the Hawaiian vacation.
The final message caught his attention. It was not the words, but the desperation behind them.
"Nick, call me as soon as you get in. I really need to talk to you."
Nick was out the door almost faster than the human eye could see. He took off as soon as he saw the coast was clear.
Nick arrived at Natalie's apartment building and used her key to enter the outer security door. The wait for the elevator and the ride up to her floor seemed to take an eternity. He knocked on her apartment door, growing concerned when he heard her heartbeat but she did not answer. He heard noises in the background and let himself in. He was grateful that she had given him a set of keys years ago, shortly after he had given her the security code for the loft, and the key to the stairwell. Both had agreed that it was the right thing to do, in case of an emergency.
Inside Nick found the television on and Natalie sitting on the couch staring out at nothing. For a split second he thought she was lost in thought. When he studied her a bit closer, it did not seem as if she was there. Her blank expression scared him as did her gently rocking back and forth. He shut off the television, hoping that would get her attention. It did not.
He squatted down in front of her. "Natalie, it's Nick," he said softly in his most reassuring voice. She did not respond.
He gently laid his hand on hers and noticed the lack of response. He wondered if she could see or hear him. He waved his hand in front of her face and saw her eyes react to the light change. He brushed back her hair, relieved when he did not find any fang marks. He did not see a mark on her of any sort, which did not say much as she was in long sleeves and long pants.
He knew she needed help and debated calling 911. He knew that too many strangers hovering around her might scare her.
He debated trying to whammy her, wondering if her resistance was down. He knew it could backfire, but knew that it might help as well. He tilted her face up so that she was looking him in the eyes, but realized she was focused on some point behind his head. He hoped his voice would cause her to look at him, at least long enough to capture her heartbeat.
"You will look into my eyes, hearing only the sound of my voice. You will relax and tell me what happened."
Nothing changed. Nick began to panic. What did you see? He wondered what had been horrific enough to cause her to be completely unresponsive.
He scooped her up into his arms and took off. Before long he landed outside the Emergency Room. He walked in, noting the usual chaos.
"I need someone to examine my friend."
"What seems to be the problem?" The nurse asked evaluating the situation.
"I don't know," Nick said as he went on to explain how he had found her.
"Did you see any signs of physical trauma?"
"Have a seat and we'll get to you soon."
"You will treat her next," Nick said using his power of suggestion, knowing that he should not. He wanted to know what was wrong with Natalie now, not hours from now, knowing that sometimes time made all the difference. He did not know how long she had been this way. It could have been since she called. That terrified him. He hated the fact that he had not been there when she needed him. She had always been there for him.
"Follow me," the nurse said.
Nick followed the nurse to an empty examination room where he gently laid Natalie on the table and smoothed back her hair. The nurse checked Natalie's vital signs while waiting for the doctor's arrival. The nurse left briefly and returned with a clipboard full of forms for Nick to fill out, believing him to be her patient's husband due to his great tenderness with her. Nick answered what questions he could on the paperwork, hoping that would be good enough for them.
The doctor entered.
"I'm Dr. Morris. What seems to be the problem here?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that," Nick said. He knew what the doctor wanted. Nick told the doctor the same story he had told the nurse.
"What's her name?"
"Natalie. Can you hear me? If you can, look at your friend."
Natalie did nothing.
The doctor shined his penlight into Natalie's eyes. Her eyes responded to the light, but she would not track it. This concerned him. He did not see any obvious sign of a head injury, which added to his concern.
The doctor gently laid his hand on hers to make sure she would not freak out when touched. He noticed she did not seem aware that he was even there.
Dr. Morris checked Natalie's ears and saw no sign of damage to the inside, but knew there could be hidden damage.
"Can Natalie see and hear?"
"She could a couple days ago. We were watching a silly movie and laughing."
"Kathy, set up a CAT scan, x-rays, and a full blood workup, including toxicology," Dr. Morris said. He considered adding an audiological workup as well but knew that it would be difficult to obtain accurate results due to her current state.
The nurse drew a blood sample, a little surprised when her patient winced at the pain of the needle penetrating her skin.
No one knew if that was indeed an indication that Natalie was still in there, or if it was purely survival instinct. Nick was the only one who thought it was proof she was in there somewhere.
The orderly entered with a wheelchair to take Natalie down for her tests. Nick scooped Natalie up in his arms and set her in the chair.
Nick saw the fear in Natalie's eyes at the thought of being separated from Nick. It was the real only proof he had that she was still in there. A part of him wondered if it was instinctual and not actual proof.
"Can I stay with her?" Nick asked.
"Generally I wouldn't allow it, but you might have to answer some questions. Stay out of their way. Do what they say."
"Thank you," Nick said, as he saw the fear ease a little from Natalie's eyes.
These non-verbal reactions of Natalie's told both Dr. Morris and Nick that Natalie could indeed hear. Both men were relieved by this.
Each time Nick had to leave Natalie's side he reassured her he would be right outside and would be back in as soon as he could. He was not sure if she heard him or not, but he thought she might have.
During the CAT scan Nick was in the observation part of the room, where the doctor was watching the computer monitor as the scan was done. Upon close scrutiny of the screen, the doctor saw no signs of head trauma, no intracranial bleeding, no blood clots, no brain damage, no tumor, nothing at all to give a clue as to why his patient was completely nonresponsive.
About twenty minutes after Natalie was returned to the same treatment room, the x-rays came back. The doctor slipped the x-rays into the lightbox and found exactly what he thought he would. There was no sign of a skull fracture.
While the doctor waited for the blood test results, he finished his physical examination of Natalie. He saw no bruising, cuts, any sign of physical trauma anywhere on her body. This lead him to the conclusion that it was probably a psychological problem.
The blood test results came back showing a slightly low blood sugar, but other than that it was perfectly normal. There was no evidence of any sort of drug, poison, or anything that should not be there.
"Does she have a blood sugar problem?"
"Not that I'm aware of. Is there a problem?"
"Her blood sugar is a little low. But it could just be from not eating. We'll give her some orange juice and see if that helps."
The nurse left and shortly returned with a small cup of orange juice. She peeled off the foil lid and held it in front of her patient. When there was no reaction, she placed it into Natalie's hand. Still no reaction. The nurse took the orange juice cup and held it up to Natalie's mouth and tipped it a little, just enough to allow a small amount to go into Natalie's mouth.
Natalie reflexively swallowed.
The nurse knew that if they tried to get her to take larger mouthfuls of the juice, she could choke on it which would cause other problems, including possible aspiration of the juice. If they continued to give her a small sip at a time it would be at least half an hour before she finished the small glass, it would not affect the blood sugar level because they would not be able to get enough in her at one time.
"Does she have a favorite candy bar? Maybe she'll take that," the doctor said.
Nick headed out to the waiting area and bought Natalie's favorite candy before returning to her side.
Nick unwrapped the dark chocolate bar as he entered the room. He handed it to her. She continued to stare off into space unaware that the candy bar existed. He broke off a piece and fed her. She ate that piece willingly, and the rest of the bar as fast as Nick could feed it to her.
The doctor waited about ten minutes and took another blood sample.
"How long was it from the time she called you, until you found her?"
"About twenty-four hours. Maybe a little more. Why?"
"If she went that long without food, it would explain her blood sugar level." The doctor knew she had not shown any signs of hyperglycemia or diabetes, and apparently had no history of either. The last test had not shown any of the normal indicators of either illness.
"I think you should admit her to the psychiatric ward for observation. I can't find a medical reason for her withdrawal. Maybe they can," Dr. Morris said. He hated that he could not offer any more help than that.
Nick saw the fear in Natalie's eyes as the doctor spoke. More fear than when she had been taken for testing.
"You need to do what's right for her. We need to find out why she withdrew and try to reach her."
"I'm trying to do what's right for her. How is leaving her somewhere that terrifies her going to help? Won't that do more harm than good?"
"We can help ease her fears."
"Through medication?" Nick asked. He was not about to let them drug Nat. The staff would be the only ones to benefit from that.
The nurse entered with the latest blood test results. The doctor quickly studied them.
"Her blood sugar is back to normal, which indicates the low reading was caused by not eating."
"How do I sign her out?" Nick asked.
"Just sign right here. She really should stay."
"No. You didn't find anything wrong and she refuses to stay, so she's going home."
"What if she gets into trouble?" Dr. Morris said, trying to get the man to listen to reason. His friend needed psychiatric help.
"Then I'll bring her back."
"Try to get some food into her," the doctor said, having given up.
Nick signed Natalie out and swept her up in his arms, seeing some of the fear leave. He carried her out of the hospital, noticing the rest of the fear vanish from her eyes as soon as they were outside.
As soon as they entered the loft, Nick sat Natalie down on the couch and scrounged around for something to feed her. There was not much to choose from so he checked the expiration date on the milk before pouring her a big glass of it. He knew it was not the most filling thing, but it was nutritious. He could tell that she was tired, which usually meant she was not very hungry. He found some chocolate syrup and squirted what he figured was a good amount into the glass and stirred it up.
He offered her the glass, to which there was absolutely no response. He brought the glass up to her mouth and accidentally tipped it too far, spilling some down the front of her shirt. He set the glass down and headed back to the kitchen where he grabbed a few paper towels. He gently wiped her face and down her neck, and her shirt. He was more careful the next time he brought the glass to her lips, being careful not to accidentally choke her. After a few gulps he gave her a chance to breath before tipping the glass again so she could drink more. After she had emptied the glass, he took it into the kitchen where he rinsed it and set it in the sink. She obviously liked that more than the orange juice.
Nick saw how tired Natalie was and carried her up to his bed, changed her into a pair of his black pajamas and tucked her into bed. She rolled over onto her side and curled up into the fetal position. He brushed a few stray strands of hair from her face before gently kissing her cheek.
"I'm right here, and I'm not going anywhere as long as you need me. I want you to close your eyes and relax," he said as he sat next to her on the bed.
He stayed with her until she was asleep. Once he was sure it was a deep sleep he grabbed her dirty clothes and headed downstairs. He tossed her clothes into the laundry basket.
He walked to the fridge and grabbed one of his green wine bottles. He poured himself a glass and drank it down. After a second glass he rinsed out the glass and set it in the sink. He flopped down on the couch and soon fell into a restless sleep on the couch. His growing concern kept him from sleeping as soundly as he usually did.
When he woke he went up to check on her, he was further disturbed by the lack of change. His heart was breaking. He could do nothing to help her. Again, he felt really bad for not being there when she needed him. He wondered if he had been there, would she still have withdrawn? He wished he knew, but something in his gut told him she probably would not have. All of this second guessing only made him feel worse. Since he could not change the past he decided to focus on how he could help her now.
He could tell she was not sleeping, so he scooped her up into his arms and settled her on his lap, gently caressing her hair as he talked to her.
"Nat, it's Nick. I need you to come back to me. Whatever happened we can deal with it together. Please come back to me," he said, a tear rolling down his cheek. He tried to keep his voice strong for her, but it was extremely difficult to do.
He noticed that the repetitive motion seemed to soothe her so he continued to stroke her hair.
A while later, he set her back on the bed and rummaged through his closet for something for her to wear. He found a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and sweater that was not black and dressed her in them, making sure she wore thick socks so her feet would not be cold. He brushed her hair, loving the silky feel of it in his hands. He was careful not to hurt her whenever he encountered a tangle. When he finished, he carried her downstairs and set her on the couch. He propped her up with pillows behind her back and noticed that she kept her knees up close to her chest, as if protecting herself.
He poured water into a travel mug and snapped on the lid, not wanting a repeat of last night's accident with the milk. When he handed her the mug, she did not reach out for it. He placed her hands around it and noticed that she did not let go. Not only that, but she brought it up to her mouth and drank. He was pretty sure that was not instinct, but the first hopeful sign he had seen that she was in there somewhere.
He brought her a dark chocolate bar hoping it might have a positive effect on her. He had unwrapped part of it and handed it to her. She had stopped drinking so he took the cup from her, replacing it with the chocolate bar. She ate the part that was unwrapped, stopping when she reached the other part. Nick watched her for a minute or two before taking the bar and unwrapping the rest for her. She quickly finished it off. He was glad he did not have to feed her again.
Nick decided that if Natalie's body tolerated that he would feed her something more nutritious later. He was not sure what, but he would scrounge something up.
Natalie sat there and rocked back and forth, as if trying to comfort herself.
Nick felt completely useless and extremely frustrated that he was powerless to help her in this situation. Seeing his strong willed vibrant friend so withdrawn tore apart his heart. Knowing he was at least partially responsible for it did not help matters any.
Does she blame me for not being there? He wondered. He hoped not, as there was nothing he could have done.
Nick sat at the other end of the couch and watched Natalie for about an hour before he again scooped her up in his arms, settled her on his lap and began to rock her like a father rocks a child. He saw in her eyes and very subtly through her body that the action was extremely soothing to her. So soothing that she fell asleep in his arms. A few minutes later he stopped and felt her stir so he continued.
He knew the only way to learn what happened was to taste her blood. He also knew that he could not do that as it would be a violation of her, it might also push her farther away, maybe so far that no one would be able to reach her, and finally, that he was not sure he could stop with one taste. That left the only options being to help her come out of it and to find out what happened via their co-workers.
Several hours later Nick had switched to gently stroking Natalie's hair while talking to her. He now knew she was in there somewhere. He just had to find a way to reach her.
Natalie shocked him by getting up and walking straight to the bathroom.
Nick hoped this was a good sign. It was further proof that she was in there somewhere.
A few minutes later she returned to the couch and continued rocking. Nick's heart sank. He had hoped it had been a sign she was improving, but it had been nothing more than instinctual.
Nick scooped Natalie back into his lap and gently stroked her hair some more as he talked to her. He hoped she knew he was out here and that he did care for her.
Nick's door buzzed, startling him.
"Nick, I know you're in there. I'm not leaving until you talk to me," Tracy said a little annoyed with her partner.
Nick reluctantly set Natalie down on the couch, walked over to the control panel and buzzed Tracy in. A minute or two later the elevator door opened and Tracy entered, seeing Natalie rocking back and forth, staring off at some distant point. Suddenly Tracy became both quite concerned and quite uneasy.
"Nick, what happened?" Tracy asked quietly.
"I don't know. While I was gone she left a message on my machine for me to call her as soon as I got back. She was quite upset. When I heard the message, I went straight over to her apartment where found her like that. The hospital did x- rays, a CAT scan and a full blood workup including toxicology and say she's perfectly fine. They wanted to admit her to the psych ward for observation. When I saw the fear that suggestion caused, I couldn't let them do it. She's in there somewhere and I'm going to reach her, somehow."
"Reese and I were worried because neither of you showed up for work. He sent me over to investigate. Does she respond at all?"
"Yes. It's very subtle, but she does respond."
Tracy could see the toll this was taking on him. "How are you doing?"
"Okay. It's so hard... Not to mention frustrating."
Nick walked over to Natalie and began to gently stroke her hair again, causing her to stop rocking. Tracy noticed and approached the couch. She decided that she should at least say hello to her friend.
"Hi, Natalie." She did not know what else to say. "I've gotta run."
Tracy arrived back at the precinct and headed straight for the captain's office, where she knocked on his door.
"You found them?" Reese asked a little concerned by her expression.
"I found them. They were at his loft. I don't think either will be in for a while. He has his hands full at the moment. He found Natalie at her apartment totally withdrawn." Tracy went on to explain the medical tests and the rest of what Nick had told her.
"Catch up on your paperwork. I'll decide what to do about assigning you a temporary partner later."
Reese knew not to bother Nick right now. That he would not be coming in anytime soon, and if pressed, might just resign. He did not want to take that risk. Besides, Nick had taken so few days off that it should not pose an administrative problem.
Back at the loft, Nick examined the contents of his fridge for something to feed Natalie. He noticed some cheese she had brought over the night before he had left and hunted around for the crackers. Once he found them he fixed about a dozen, laying them out on a plate. He set the dish on the coffee table and went to refill the travel mug.
When he bought the mug back over he noticed she had not touched her food. In fact, she did not seem to know it was there. He knew she had to be hungry.
Nick picked up the plate and held it in front of her, well within her reach. She still did not seem to know it existed. Nick tried to put one of the crackers into her hand and could not get her to hold it. He fed it to her and she willingly ate it. He noticed that she would eat as long as he fed her. After a few crackers he placed her hands around the mug and watched as she drank. When she seemed finished he took the mug and fed her more crackers. He was not too surprised when she ate all twelve crackers, leaving him wondering if she was still hungry.
No sooner had he placed the mug back into her hands when the doorbell sounded.
"It's me and a friend." Tracy said.
Nick let them up, knowing that 'the friend' was probably Vachon as he sensed another vampire's presence.
Nick noticed Natalie was finished drinking and removed the travel mug from her hands. He had just set it on the table when the elevator door slid open.
"Nick, this is Vachon. I thought he might be able to help Natalie. He knows hypnosis."
"Vachon, I don't think it will help, but go ahead and try."
Nick crouched down in front of Natalie. "Nat, Vachon wants to try and help you."
Nick stood up and let Vachon take his spot in front of Natalie.
"Natalie, I want you to look at me," Vachon said. When she did not he stuck his fingers under her chin and tilted her face up so their eyes were level. He noticed she looked right through him.
"Natalie, I want you to look at me." Vachon said in his most soothing, hypnotic tone, but could not get her attention. "There's nothing I can do. Sorry," Vachon said to Nick and Tracy. Vachon knew Nick had tried and failed, which is why he had known it would not work. He had only gone along with it to keep Tracy from realizing the two vampires knew each other, and possibly that Nick was a vampire as well.
"Thanks for trying," Nick said to Vachon. "Tracy, I need you to pick up a few things at the store."
"Sure. Make a list of what you need."
"I'm not sure what I need. I need simple yet nutritious food. Things like cheese and crackers, dark chocolate, juice. Anything that can be put right into the microwave or oven." Nick took out five twenty dollar bills and handed them to Tracy.
"Nick, this is way too much. Isn't it?"
"I wanted to make sure you had enough. Spend as much of it as you need to."
Nick's attention again focused on Natalie as he scooped her up, settling her into his lap and began to gently, lovingly stroke her chestnut colored hair.
Tracy and Vachon saw Natalie's subtle reaction, giving them their first sign that Natalie was indeed in there somewhere. Tracy and Vachon left, allowing Nick to continue his efforts to reach Natalie, as well as to complete the task assigned to them.
"Nat, I love you. You have to come back to me. I need you." Nick said, trying to keep his voice as soothing as possible, holding back the pain. "How about I tell you a story?"
Nick searched his memory for any story he could remember. When he could not remember one he decided to make one up. "Once upon a time there was a handsome knight that met the most captivating lady." He could not tell what effect the story was having on her, but continued on anyway. "She was beautiful, bright and had an incredible desire to learn about the world around her. Very little scared her, and that which did, she refused to let it know it scared her. The more time the knight and lady spent together the more they found they had in common. He was as fascinated by her intelligence and large heart as she was by his. She enjoyed hearing stories of his travels as much as, if not more than he enjoyed telling them." Nick noticed Natalie had fallen asleep and held the rest of the story for another time.
About an hour later Tracy and Vachon returned with the food. Nick buzzed them up, Natalie cradled in his arms. When the elevator door opened, Tracy and Vachon saw Nick seated on the couch gently rocking Natalie. Nick held his finger to his lips, motioning for them to be quite as Nat was asleep. They set the grocery bags on the counter. Seeing as how Nick had his hands full tending to Natalie, Tracy quietly put away the refrigerator stuff and left Nick's change on the counter before she and Vachon left.
Shortly, Nick tried to get up without waking Natalie but found himself unable to. Every time he tried, she began to wake, so he settled himself on the couch and tried to figure out what did this to her and how to help her recover. He could not help but wonder if he was not in some way partially responsible for her withdrawal. Did she finally snap because of her involvement with me and the Community? A part of him knew that if that had been true she would not be responding now, instead she would withdraw further every time he touched her and was glad that was not the case. His mind had come up with several horrible possibilities but knew he would have to wait for either her to tell him what she had seen or to find out from some other outside source.
That evening he felt her stir.
"Good evening, Natalie." Nick said trying to sound both cheerful and soothing.
Once he saw that she was awake, he set her down on the couch. "Are you hungry?" he asked, knowing he would not receive an answer.
He headed into the kitchen to fix her something to eat. He looked through the cupboards and in the fridge, studying what Tracy had bought. He fixed chocolate milk and more cheese and crackers as they were the easiest things to make, and she seemed to like it well enough. He hoped that combination went together and that he had put enough chocolate into her milk.
He placed the travel mug and plate on the coffee table, picked Natalie up and cradled her in his lap. He started rocking her gently.
"Nat, I'm not going anywhere as long as you need me. I'll be here when you're ready to talk about it." He said soothingly, letting his love for her shine through.
He stopped rocking her and reached for her lidded mug. As soon as it was in her hands she drank. When she stopped he removed it and once again tried to put a cracker in her hand. When she still did not know it was there, he fed her. After several crackers he gave her the mug again, this time he did not remove it when she stopped drinking. He fed her, stopping after a couple of crackers to see if she was thirsty. She did not seem to know the cup was still in her hands. Disappointed, he brought it up to her mouth, her hands still firmly wrapped around it. She drank and then lowered the cup. He took it from her and continued feeding her until the dozen crackers were gone, hoping that was enough food.
He rocked her until she fell asleep in his arms, talking to her, letting her know she was not alone and that he would be there for her until she was ready to talk about it.
What did you see? Nick wondered. He knew the hospital report showed no traces of physical or sexual assault, which was a tremendous relief.
Later that night Nick's buzzer sounded. He let Grace up, opening the elevator door for her.
"What happened? I was away visiting friends and when I returned I heard that Natalie had withdrawn completely," Grace said as she followed Nick back to the couch.
"Only she knows," Nick said as he picked Natalie up and settled her into his lap, stroking her hair. He told her what he had told Tracy.
Grace was shocked by the sight of her friend looking like an autistic child.
"Natalie, it's Grace. I miss you. Please come back." Grace wanted to touch her friend but was afraid she might accidentally push Nat further into her shell.
The next evening, Grace dropped by again. Nick let her up.
"Any change?" She asked as she stepped into the loft. She realized this was only the second time she had been here and took a moment to really look around. Interesting. A little Spartan, but nice. It fits him. She never would have taken Nick to be the painting type, nor play the piano, let alone have a baby grand.
"No," Nick said a bit disappointed.
"Here's the clothes you wanted," Grace said as she handed the bag to Nick.
"Thanks for bringing them over. This is about the only thing I have that would fit her. Besides, she might be more comfortable in her own clothes."
"I'm glad I could help somehow. Is there anything else you need?"
"No. I think we're okay. I'll let you know if we need anything. Or if there is any change."
Grace walked over to the couch where Natalie was rocking herself as usual. She sat down next to her friend.
"Natalie, I miss you. I wish you'd come back to us." Grace looked up at Nick, wondering if it was okay to touch Natalie. Nick understood what she was asking and nodded. Grace laid her hand on Natalie's, noticing no reaction from her friend. "I miss your making me laugh. I miss your company. Please come back to us."
"Nick do you need a break? If so I can stay with her a while."
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm okay," he lied. He was afraid that if he left, even for a few minutes, that she would withdraw further.
Grace knew it was time to leave and headed for the lift. Nick followed her.
"I'll drop by again in a day or two. Let me know if you need anything, or if there are any changes."
"I will. I promise. Thanks again for bringing the stuff."
Nick opened the elevator door for Grace and let it shut behind her.
Nick took the bag upstairs and unpacked it into his dresser. He was pleased that Grace had brought over several changes of clothes for Natalie, all of them her casual wear, and had not forgotten to pack Natalie's pajamas.
Nick knew both he and Natalie needed a shower. He was not sure how to accomplish this, then an idea struck him. He carried her upstairs and set her on the bed. He undressed them both, trying hard not to dwell on her beauty, as it would only bring forth the beast. He scooped her up into his arms and carried her into the bathroom. He hoped the fact that they were both naked would keep her from feeling embarrassed. He hoped that the beast would not pick this time to assert itself.
He turned her face to him and hoped she heard him. "I need you to stand on your own."
Nick set her down on her feet, pleased when she did not fall. He reached in and turned on the shower, carefully adjusting the water so it would not be too hot or too cold.
Once the shower was set he helped her into the shower, standing behind her. A part of him had hoped that she would respond, even if it was only for a second, but she did not. He quickly washed himself before turning his attention to her. He gently washed her hair and rinsed it. She closed her eyes when she felt the soapy water running down her face. Nick wondered if that was pure instinct or if a tiny part of her knew what he was doing. He was grateful that she had not shied away from him or his touch. Once her hair had been completely rinsed he gently washed her body, a little disappointed that she showed no reaction to it.
He helped her out of the shower after turning off the water, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her hair before grabbing a big fluffy towel and began to quickly dry her off. Once her body was dry he wrapped the towel around her body and began to dry her hair.
He quickly dried himself off and they headed for the bedroom, where Nick dressed Natalie first.
Once Natalie was dressed, he slipped into something casual. Then he went about carefully brushing her hair, loving the silky feel of it in his hands. He carefully worked out the tangles, doing his best not to hurt her.
Nick kept up the same routine for the next several days. He was surprised to see very subtle reactions to the different foods he fed her. She hated the baby food version of chicken and turkey, found the sweet potatoes to be tolerable, and liked the turkey sticks better than the chicken ones. She liked the chocolate milk best. Her reaction when he had fed her canned tuna caused him to place that at the bottom of the food list.
Nick knew that the longer Natalie remained withdrawn the less likely it became that she would come out of it. That fact terrified him. He was more worried about her, than he was about his feelings, even though seeing her like that was tearing apart his heart. He began to wonder if he should risk taking a drop of her blood. After examining all aspects of the idea, he decided to put it off until there was no other possibility.
Before during and after each meal he tried different things to see what she responded to. This lead to his discovery that she would eat more if he rocked her and talked to her right before he fed her.
That afternoon Nick watched Natalie as she rocked herself, and wondered what would happen if he copied her actions?
After lunch, he watched her for another couple of hours before sitting next to her on the couch and copying her behavior exactly. He hoped it would help him understand why she kept rocking back and forth, and maybe even help him get through to her. At the very least, he hoped it showed that her behavior was okay... for now.
He copied her behavior for two hours, without noticing any change. A glance at the clock showed him it was dinnertime for her.
He scooped her up in his arms and gently rocked her.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here whenever you decide to rejoin the world. I miss you. Please come back to me."
That evening he fixed her canned tuna with some lemon and melted butter, hoping she liked it better that way, and served it with some lemonade. He did not think chocolate milk went with it. As he brought the spoon up to her mouth she would open it. He fed her, stopping twice to let her have a drink. She seemed to tolerate it a little better than the plain tuna from the other night.
He wished she would show him another sign that she was in there somewhere. He was glad Reese had given him time off.
Reese sat in his office wondering what was happening with Nick and Natalie. He had not heard anything since he had called Nick to let him know he had as much time off as he needed to care for Natalie. Reese knew that if he had forced Nick to come in, he would have been unable to concentrate and would have been a danger to both himself and Tracy because his mind would have been on Natalie. A part of him did wonder if Nick was the best hope of reaching Natalie, from where ever she had retreated to. He believed that if anyone could do it, Nick was the one.
Over the next two days, Nick spent several hours each day copying Natalie's actions without the slightest change in her condition. She did not seem to know he existed.
On the third day of this approach, he had positioned himself so that they were looking directly at each other, or more accurately, he was looking at her and she was looking right through him, lost in her own world. He had been imitating her for about two hours when she looked at him for a split second rather than looking through him.
His heart leaped at the thought that it was working, that he was getting through to her. He wanted to take her in his arms and cry with joy, but did not. He did not want to overwhelm her and force her deeper into her shell. He could not stop the large, warm smile that spread across his lips or the twinkle in his eyes that this tiny break in her world had caused.
He spent another hour imitating her behavior before breaking off and fixing her daily afternoon snack. This time it was chocolate milk and some chocolate chip cookies.
He approached the couch and held the plate out to her, but she did not respond. He offered her the mug out and again, no response. He placed a cookie into her hand, but she did not seem to know it was there.
He gently stroked her hair. "It's okay," he said in his most soothing tone. He had not really expected a response, so the disappointment was minimal.
After he finished feeding her the chocolate chip cookies, he rocked her some more as she fell asleep in his arms once again. He loved having her head resting against his chest, but wished she was consciously doing it.
Nick continued to copy Natalie's behavior for several hours a day, hoping for another small improvement. He was a little surprised when he found the rocking to be rather soothing and began to look forward to doing it each day.
A few days later, Nick decided to try another approach since he was not sure the current one was working.
Nick put on the television and stuck one of Natalie's favorite movies into the VCR.
"I thought we'd watch a movie together," Nick said, pretending that she was there with him.
He sat back down on the couch and pushed play on the remote. He noticed her gently rocking herself back and forth.
During the movie he glanced over at her from time to time, not seeing any change. She was staring at the screen, but she was not seeing the movie.
The next evening Nick undressed both him and Natalie again, like he did every other day, and helped her into the shower. After he had washed himself, and shampooed her hair, he handed her the washcloth to see what she would do. She did nothing. Nick used her hand wash her arms. After that he removed his hands to see if she would do anything, but she did not. Nick took the washcloth from her and gently washed the rest of her body. He had to keep his mind off of how beautiful she was so that he could finish the job without the vampire surfacing.
He quickly dried them both off and lead her into the bedroom where he handed her her underwear. When she did not seem to know it was there he again dressed her, then dressed himself.
He handed her the hairbrush to see what she would do, but she did not respond. He used her hand to brush her hair. After a few strokes he stopped to see what she would do. He had slight hopes she might continue on her own as it was a repetitive motion, and she seemed to like those. He was a little disappointed when she did nothing, so he took the brush out of her hand and brushed her thick chestnut mane, carefully detangling it.
A couple of days later, Reese dropped by to see how things were going. Tracy's reports had him concerned. Reese was stunned when he saw Natalie sitting on the couch rocking back and forth, almost like an autistic person.
"Nick, how's she doing? How are you doing?" Reese saw the worry deeply etched into Nick's face. It made Nick look much older.
"There have been a couple of very small improvements. But nothing major. Would you check around and see if she's mentioned in any reports around the date she withdrew?"
"Sure. I'll let you know what we find. Do you think it will help?"
"It's worth a shot."
Reese took a moment to look around the loft, as he had been curious about what it might look like. It looked pretty much like he thought it might, just a little sparser. He noticed the steel shutters on every window, which made him believe the sun allergy story more than he had before. He knew they probably cost a small fortune. The artwork in the corner closest to the door caught his attention as he would not have figured Nick for a painter. The baby grand also took him a little by surprise, for pretty much the same reasons. Reese wondered if Nick had ever played the piano for Natalie, or if she had been the subject of one of his paintings. If so, had she modeled or had she been painted from memory.
Reese left and Nick went back to copying Natalie's behavior. Nick hoped he would see another small sign she was there. It made him feel as if he was actively doing something to help her, rather than sitting around waiting for her to do it all on her own. He knew that most of it was up to her, that the most he could do was to show that she was loved and supported so she would feel she could safely talk about it with him. The rest was up to her.
That evening Nick was rewarded for all his efforts. He fixed Natalie peanut butter and honey on crackers for variety. He put one in her hand and was surprised to see her bring that hand up to her mouth. She was feeding herself, as long as he placed the cracker into her hand.
Nick was thrilled. A large warm smile spread across his lips as it was further proof that she was in there somewhere. And that they were indeed making progress, even if it was very slow. And it was being done without any medications.
After a few crackers she would not bring any more to her mouth. Nick took the cracker from her hand and replaced it with her lidded cup. She drank, bringing her hands down when she finished. Nick removed the cup and placed the cracker back into the palm of her hand. The next time she stopped eating and would not drink, he figured she was full. She had finished off eleven of the twelve crackers on the plate.
The next afternoon Reese returned with the information, since Tracy had purposely made herself scarce.
"Nick, here's a copy of the report filed by the fifteenth precinct. I think you'll find it most helpful. I have to warn you, it's *QUITE* disturbing."
"Natalie, everyone misses you," Reese said. "Nick, I have to get back."
Reese left, wondering when the forensic pathologist would come out of her shell, hoping she would because he would hate to lose a great coroner and a nice lady. Never mind what it would do to one of his best detectives.
Nick sat down at the kitchen table to read the file, not wanting Natalie to see it. He was stunned by the contents. Reese's warning had been understated. He could not believe what he read, but knew every word of it was true. It thoroughly disgusted him. He knew all he could do now was to keep doing what he had been doing and wait for her to be ready to talk about it, if she ever was. That last part terrified him. He did not even want to think about her never recovering.
As soon as Nick finished the police report he hid it so she would not accidentally find it. He was afraid that if she saw it, it might push her further into her own world, maybe too far to be reached.
"Nat, I'm not going anywhere as long as you need me," He said to his friend.
About an hour later Grace stopped by for her daily visit, both to bring more food, as well as hoping to see any signs of improvement. She knew how hard this was on Nick. She saw the pain and frustration clearly etched all over his face, and in his body language as well. She noticed how it made him seem much older than he was. She also saw hope flickering in his eyes. What did she see? Grace wondered, knowing that Natalie was pretty tough.
Grace talked to Natalie, like she would respond, hoping it would help her friend recover.
She wondered if Nick had learned anything more about what had happened. She asked him. He said he had not learned anything. He knew he could not tell Grace the horrific truth. He could not hurt her like that, and was not about to leave those images in her mind. It was bad enough that he along with Natalie and Reese had to live with them. He hoped she understood, when and if she discovered the lie.
A few minutes later Grace left, having chores to tend to. Also, seeing her friend like that was quite unsettling. She had a hunch Nick knew more than he was telling, but was not going to push him, as he had more than enough to deal with already.
A while later, Nick took Natalie up to the roof so they could see the stars and the city lights. He thought she might like the change of scenery. He knew he needed it. The gentle breeze felt good against his skin, and knew she enjoyed feeling the breeze almost as much as he did.
She was sitting next to him rocking just like she did inside.
Nick pointed out the various constellations, the different buildings below them hoping for any response. None came.
He wondered what would happen if he told her the story behind each constellation. On the fourth story she looked up at the stars for a second then she was back in her own private world.
Nick smiled, knowing that she was hearing him. Since she was enjoying the stories, he continued.
When it began to get chilly about an hour and a half later, he took her back inside. Once inside he lead her back to the couch, pleased that she would walk if lead by the hand.
He fixed her a cup of hot chocolate with lots of mini marshmallows in it, knowing that was how she liked it. He knew she enjoyed how it warmed her up after a long walk on a cool night. He added an ice cube to it, to help it cool down before handing the mug to her. He had used a regular mug so that the marshmallows would not stick to the underside of the lid. She took the mug and eagerly drank down the warm, sweet liquid.
Nick watched her for a while, before he began copying her actions. He understood why she rocked herself.
After Nick copied Natalie's actions for a couple of hours, she would now look him in the eyes for a second or two. It was the largest improvement she had made so far. And the one that mattered most to him. She chose to look at him, not just reacting on instinct like eating was.
She surprised him that night by taking a bite sized peanut butter and fluff sandwich piece off the plate and eating it. She would take her cup more readily. After that one piece she would not take any more from the plate. Nick tried a regular cup again, to see if she would be able to drink from it without it spilling all over herself.
Nick held a bite sized sandwich in his hand curious to see if she would take it from him, which she hesitantly did.
He found her contradictions very interesting. He wondered why she would taken that one piece from the plate, but would only take the rest from his hand. And why she had been hesitant that first time. He was pleased she was interacting with him, even if it was on that basic a level. It was not much above basic instincts, but it was a start.
She was able to drink from a regular cup again, which he took as another positive improvement.
That night they again watched another of Natalie's favorite movies. Nick noticed that she seemed to watch the movie for a minute or two before retreating back behind her wall.
He was grateful for each new sign as it reassured him that he was indeed helping her. That mixing in the normalcy with the copying of her actions was the right combination.
Over the next two nights Nick discovered that if he rocked Natalie and talked with her before feeding her she would not only eat more but she would also take it from his hand or the plate, most of the time.
He knew these were all good signs. It meant that she was responding to him, and was slowly coming out of her shell. He had to remember to take it slowly or risk all the progress she had made. He thought of each new interaction as a test. Like she was checking to see if it was safe to leave her world behind.
A few days later Nick was startled awake by a terrifying scream. In a flash he was by Natalie's side.
"NO!" Her scream gave way to sobs shaking her entire body.
He sat on the edge of the bed and scooped her up in his arms, holding her tight while rubbing her back to soothe her.
"Shhhh, it's okay."
"No." was her clipped response, in a childlike tone.
He was stunned that she had not only responded, but had spoken.
She did not say anything else. Once her sobs had slowed to a few tears, she pushed away from him and headed into the bathroom. That was the only thing she did on her own. He still had to dress her, fix her food and bring it to her. He still had to do everything for her when they showered.
Things remained the same for the next two days. On the third evening, Natalie again woke up screaming, the screams turning to sobs.
Nick was immediately by her side, scooped her up in his arms and began to rock her, knowing that was the best way to soothe her. She said nothing. When the tears stopped he gently wiped her face and caressed her hair, softly reassuring her as she fell back to sleep in his arms.
Later, when she awoke he rocked her while talking to her as he dressed her and led her downstairs. He rocked her again once they reached the couch, her on his lap as usual, continuing their ritual of that first then her eating a heartier meal. He talked to her as he rocked her, believing it was his voice that soothed her as much as the repetitive motions did. As soon as he set the plate full of mini eggrolls on the coffee table the phone rang. He answered it, his back to her.
"Nick, any change?" Grace asked concerned.
"No," Nick said growing more desperate each night.
Unseen by him Natalie reached over to the plate, took one of the mini eggrolls and popped it into her mouth.
Nick turned around as his chestnut haired friend took the second one.
"Grace, I was wrong. She just took food from the plate I left on the coffee table. I've gotta go."
"Okay." Grace was pleased to hear of that small improvement, and hoped it led to even more improvements.
Nick walked over to the overstuffed chair next to the couch, sat down and watched. Natalie picked up her regular glass when she was thirsty, drank until satisfied and then set it back down. She was totally oblivious to his presence.
Once she was full she continued with her near constant rocking. Nick took the dishes to the sink, glad he did not have to wash the lidded mug any more.
Nick headed back to the couch, and positioned himself so that they were facing each other and copied her movements. He believed it was this, along with his gentle, loving care that was slowly bringing her out of her shell. He believed that the movies they watched help, as did his talking to her, as they brought a bit of normalcy to the situation.
Four nights later, Nick fixed more of the mini eggrolls since Natalie really seemed to like those, set the plate on the counter, filled her glass with tea and set it next to the plate. He left the room to find some soothing music, wondering if that would have any effect on the situation. He had been so wrapped up in watching her as well as copying her that he had missed her usual dinner time. He did not notice until about an hour afterwards.
When he left the room she cautiously approached the plate and took an eggroll. Nick had just stepped onto the landing, saw what she was doing and held back. He did not want his approach to scare her off because it was the biggest improvement she had made to date. He could not believe she had gone to the food.
After Natalie had finished most of the food on the plate he carefully approached. She did not notice him, even when he was standing right in front of her.
"Would you like to listen to some music?" He asked knowing she would not respond. He was trying to decide between two different CD's. He looked up at her and saw her looking in the direction of one of the choices. Curious, he lowered his hand, her gaze following it for a second or two. "Good choice." He knew her actively choosing the CD was no accident, it had been on purpose, by her.
Nick loaded the CD into the player and hit play. The soft soothing music came out of the speakers hung around the loft, giving a surround sound atmosphere.
Nick talked to her like they were having a conversation. He even paused to give her a chance to respond before continuing. He was beginning to fear that she would never come out of it. That she might not progress farther than she had so far.
If I brought her across, would it help or push her further into herself? Nick wondered before quickly dismissing the idea, knowing it was not the solution. He also considered trying to hypnotize her and get her to talk about what had happened that way, but knew that it might push her further into withdrawal, maybe too far to be reached, so he eliminated that possibility as well. He knew the best thing to do was to continue to be patient and work with her as he had. It was what had shown the best results.
That night after he had dressed her for bed, he too changed into his pajamas and curled up next to her, grateful he had fed well a short time ago. He draped his arm across her body, listening for any hint that the action hurt her, pleased when she seemed to accept it.
A few hours later he felt her squirming and whimpering in her sleep and immediately woke.
"Shhh... it's okay," he soothed as he gently stroked her hair. He felt her slowly calming and fall back to sleep.
She was restless all night long. Nick hated to see her sleep so disturbed, but hoped it was another improvement.
Could she be starting to deal with it? he wondered. A part of him hoped so.
That night when Natalie awoke, she looked at Nick for several seconds before withdrawing into her world again. Nick smiled, pleased that she did it without any effort on his part, and it was the longest she had looked at him yet. Was it another test, to see if it was safe here? Safe to leave that other world behind? Did he pass?
Nick had kept Reese informed on Natalie's progress. Reese was pleased that she was slowly making progress, but knew that he could not let Nick stay out indefinitely, yet he could not force him back to work either. So far, Nick had proven to be Natalie's best and possibly only hope for recovery. Reese knew that no one would give Natalie the tender loving care that Nick did. Just friends, yeah, right, Reese thought, an ironic chuckle escaping. Reese began to wonder if Nick and Natalie truly knew what they had.
Reese knew it was hard on Tracy as she too did not know if her partner would be back or if she would be assigned a new partner. He knew Tracy had been pleased to hear about each bit of progress Natalie had made.
Reese sighed, and decided it was best to leave things as they were for now. As long as no one was on his back about it, he was not going to worry about it.
At the morgue, Grace was very concerned about her friend. Each small sign of progress was a welcome relief, but she was still scared that Natalie was never going to fully recover and did not want to see that happen to her. She knew their boss was trying to figure out what to do. Grace knew what their boss' options were, should she keep on waiting or replace Natalie. If she replaced her was it until her return or permanently? Grace did not want to think about what would happen to Natalie if she never fully recovered. Not only would it break Nick's heart, but he would probably spend the rest of his life caring for her, not out of duty, but love. She knew very few men who would be so supportive. She hoped that someday she could find someone who would love her that much.
Back at the loft, Nick decided to try something new. Instead of picking out Natalie's clothes for her, he was going to give her a choice. He knew she probably would not respond, but figured it was worth a shot. He was trying to help her, encourage her, without pushing too hard.
Nick picked out two shirts and showed them to her, carefully watching her reaction. Her gaze fell upon the blue one for a second. "Good choice," Nick said before moving onto the pants. He gave her a choice between sweatpants and blue jeans. She had been wearing sweats and he was curious to see if she would pick the jeans or keep wearing the sweats. She picked the jeans, which surprised him a little.
He dressed her as he had every night since he brought her to the loft. He handed her the hairbrush to see what she would do. Nothing happened. He helped her hand to her head. Still nothing. He helped her brush her hair. She surprised him by brushing her hair on her own. He pulled his hand away and she stopped, her hand dropping to her lap. He brought her hand back up to her hair and she continued to bush her hair, as long as his hand was on top of hers. He knew every small improvement was a step in the right direction.
Once she was dressed he lead her up to the roof. She followed, holding his hand. He knew she needed fresh air as they had been cooped up for the last couple days due to bad weather. He was grateful there had been no thunderstorms, unsure how she would have reacted to them.
He sat down and had her sit in front of him and lean back against his chest as that seemed to be her favorite way to sit, at least where they were. He started to gently caress her hair as he told her more stories about the constellations.
After about an hour he led her down to the family room where he escorted her to the kitchen table. He fixed her breakfast. He set a plate of buttered chocolate chip mini waffles in front of her and watched as she hungrily wolfed them down, stopping now and then to drink.
While she was eating he left for a moment, returning with paper and colored pencils. He had bought them months ago to try a different medium but had not had a chance to use them.
He took Natalie's dish and glass over to the counter. When he returned he dumped the pencils onto the table and set a pad of paper in front of her. She did not do anything so he sat down across from her with another pad of paper and started to draw a picture. He hoped she would copy his actions.
A few minutes later Natalie picked up a black pencil from the table and started to draw. Nick was pleased. He was curious to see what she was drawing but kept working on his own picture, not wanting to scare her by watching her. He did glance over now and then.
Natalie drew the outline of a car. Then she drew the outline of another car. She drew stick people in each car. Then she picked up a red pencil and drew a stick person. As soon as she had finished she quickly ripped up the paper as if it scared her to look at it.
Nick was shocked. Having read the police report, he knew exactly what she had drawn. He wondered if by tearing it up she was trying to deal with it or avoid it? Or make it go away? He hoped she was trying to deal with what she had seen. He was curious to see what she would draw next.
Natalie picked up a purple pencil and started to draw some flowers but soon pushed that drawing aside. She picked up the black pencil and drew another car outline. Then she again picked up the red pencil and drew a person but not inside the car. Again, she quickly destroyed the picture, as if she could not stand to see what she had drawn.
Natalie picked up a yellow pencil and drew a giant sun. She colored in the sun. Once the picture was finished she pushed it aside and picked up a brown pencil. She drew a different car outline this time. She put a person inside the car. And the red person on the car. Again, she immediately destroyed the picture. It was almost as if she ripped it up, it did not happen.
Nick knew that as hard as it was for her, she was finally starting to deal with what she had seen. He wondered when she would tell him about it in words.
Natalie quickly looked over to see what Nick was drawing, further surprising him.
Nick was finishing a landscape. There were flowers and trees and grass, with a big sun shining overhead. Was she testing my reaction? Did I pass?
"Would you like to do something else?" Nick asked, sensing she was ready for a change.
Natalie did not respond. Nick took her hand and led her over to the couch.
He sat across from her and gently stroked her hair as she rocked herself.
"Nat, I will be here for you as long as you need me. I love you. Please come back to me. I need you. I'll be here to listen when you're ready to talk."
She looked at him for a second, as if trying to gauge if he meant what he said, then disappeared back behind her wall.
He picked up their book and started where he left off the last time. His soothing voice quickly lulled her to sleep.
Her sleep quickly grew more and more restless. She seemed to be fighting a massive internal battle. Nick was torn between taking her in his arms to calm her or just letting her work it out on her own.
"NO!" she screamed.
"Shh... it's okay, Natalie. You're safe," Nick said in his most soothing tone as he scooped her up in his arms and gently rocked her.
She started crying uncontrollably. "No. It's not." Nat said between sobs, stunning Nick.
"Would you like to talk about it?" He saw her vigorously shake her head. "How about draw what you saw?"
"Okay. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do," Nick said as reassuringly as he could.
He gently caressed her hair and rubbed her back in an effort to console her. She kept crying, breaking his heart further with each anguished sob.
After a while Natalie had cried herself out, but did not go back to sleep.
Once Natalie had calmed down Nick set her back on the couch and slipped in her favorite comedy while he fixed her lunch.
Nick returned to the couch and found Natalie rocking herself. He set her plate and cup on the table and scooped her into his arms. He rocked her for a few minutes, while talking to her, before holding the plate out in front of her. He had cut up a chocolate chip bagel into bite sized pieces after toasting it. He had put margarine on both halves, cream cheese on one half and frosting on the other half, made from confectioner's sugar, vanilla and water.
She ate the bagel, alternating between the two halves. She picked up her glass when she was thirsty, stopping when she had been sated.
The movie played while she ate.
Nick noticed a few brief moments where she was actually watching the movie.
The longer Natalie remained the withdrawn, the more worried Nick became. He hoped she recovered as she loved life too much to wind up like this for the rest of her life. If she did not recover, he knew he would stay with her for the rest of her life, giving her the tender, loving care that she would need. That she deserved. That no one else would give her, or could give her.
After the movie finished, Nick watched her to see what she did. When she started rocking again, he faced her and copied her actions. He hoped that by showing he accepted it, it was helping to ease some of the stress she was under. That it showed how much she was loved.
Lacroix had sensed his son's emotions and figured he was going through one of his moods. Now he was peering through the skylight, having masked his presence from his son. Curiosity had caused him to come to the loft.
Lacroix had been surprised to see the meddlesome Dr. Lambert completely withdrawn. He noticed his son was copying her actions.
Great, he's even more hooked, Lacroix grumpily thought. There is one bright spot, she can't give him any more advice or any more of her concoctions. A part of him hoped she remained that way, yet the other part knew she had to recover or his son would devote his life to caring for her. He was glad to see his son suffering, hoping that this would teach him a lesson. And it helped ease some of the suffering he had endured since he had made the deal with Nick, to save Fleur.
After a while, Lacroix grew bored and left.
Natalie soon fell asleep in Nick's arms as he read to her. He rocked her while she slept, hoping it would keep the nightmares away. Before long he too fell asleep, his arms securely wrapped around her.
A couple hours later Natalie grew very restless. Her fidgeting woke Nick. He gently stroked her hair, hoping it would calm her. It did not work this time.
"NO!" Natalie cried out in her sleep. She sobbed into Nick's shoulder as he gently rocked her, knowing that was what soothed her most.
"Shhhh… it's okay. You're safe here," Nick soothed.
When the tears subsided, Natalie fell back asleep.
The next time they both awoke it was several hours later. Nick gently rocked Natalie as he talked to her, repeating the same things he had said to her since this whole thing started. After a few minutes, he set her down on the couch and headed to the kitchen where he fixed her some breakfast. Before long he set a plate with a cut up chocolate chip bagel on the coffee table along with a glass. One half of the bagel had cream cheese on it and the other half had the same frosting on it as the day before.
Nick was surprised when she did not touch her food. He knew she had to be hungry. He held the plate out in front of her and still nothing happened. He placed a piece of bagel into her hand and she did not seem to know it was there. This terrified him. He fed her like he had that first time.
What happened? He wondered, scared that something had caused to completely withdraw again, maybe for good this time. He did not think he had done anything to cause it. He had done the same thing every day and night since he had found her. He wondered if her nightmares had been too intense for her. If they had pushed her beyond what she was ready to deal with.
After a couple of pieces he placed the glass in her hands, hoping she would be able to handle it okay. His heart further broke when he had to bring her hands up to her mouth like that first night.
Before long she had consumed all the bagel pieces and finished off her drink.
Nick took the dishes over to the sink and set them down. He would deal with them later. He tried to keep the overwhelming sadness he felt from showing. To keep the tears away. He felt as if someone had crushed his heart. He took a deep calming breath.
He headed back over to Natalie and sat opposite her. He copied her actions, watching her closely for any sign she was in there.
Several hours later he had seen none of the usual small breaks in her world, further terrifying him.
Had the drawing session been a mistake? He wondered. He had seen the improvement afterwards, but then she regressed. He knew he had not forced her to draw, only given her the paper and pencils.
He gently scooped her up in his arms and rocked her.
"I'm here for as long as you need me. I'm not going anywhere. Please come back to me. I need you. Grace needs you. We all miss you," Nick said in his most soothing tone.
About half an hour later he gently set her down and fixed her some egg rolls for lunch. Once again he had to feed her.
After lunch the phone rang. It was Grace. Nick reluctantly relayed the bad news. He could tell how much it hurt Grace to hear the news by the sound of her voice. She was nearly as devastated as he was. He talked to her for a few more minutes before hanging up, wanting to make sure she was going to be okay.
Grace had heard how devastated Nick was by the latest development and hoped the regression was only temporary, as much for Nick's sake as for Natalie's. She knew very few men that would be as caring and loyal as Nick was.
The phone rang again. Nick had basically the same conversation with Reese, who had a similar response to the bad news.
For the rest of the day, Nick continued to try and keep things as normal as they had been. He talked to her, read to her, played the CD she had picked out the other day. He even watched a movie with her. Not one sign she was still with him. He had hoped for one tiny break in her world, but nothing happened.
Three days later, things were exactly the same. Nick was quickly loosing hope. He still had not figured out why she had regressed. He hoped it was only a temporary thing and that she would come back to the point she had been at before the regression. Watching her so totally withdrawn hurt more than a stake did. It hurt more than being caught out in daylight did.
Nick continued on as he did every day and night, hoping to see any slight improvement.
The next night, Natalie started responding a little, like she had a few days before her regression. Nick was quite relieved and hoped the progress would continue. She would once again feed herself.
After Nick copied Natalie's actions for an hour or two she would briefly look right at him, instead of through him. This brought his biggest sigh of relief as she was choosing to make contact with him again, even if it was only fleeting.
She was not making any choices like she had before, but he had not expected an overnight return to how she had been.
He wondered if this was more of the testing. Had her relapse also been a test? Was she testing the two worlds to see which one she liked better? Was she testing him to see if he truly meant what he had said about being there for her no matter what? Had he passed? Something told him he probably had passed, at least part of the testing. He wished he had the answers, but knew only one person did. He would have to wait and see what happened next.
Two nights later, Natalie stunned Nick by making a choice between mini waffles or a frozen scrambled eggs and sausage dish. Nick felt as if a thousand pound weight had been lifted off of him. His hope soared. He happily fixed her chocolate chip mini waffles.
Natalie still would not undress herself, or help in the shower, leaving him doing everything for both of them.
She would however pick between two shirts or pants, but that was the extent of it. If he started brushing her hair, she would continue as long as his hand was on top of hers. He still had to detangle it.
For dinner Nick offered a choice between tuna fish and chicken, pleased when she picked the one she wanted. Her responses were still very subtle, often no more than a quick look at the one she wanted.
He let her pick the movie they watched from the two choices he held up.
She ate her chicken chunks and potato chips while they watched the movie.
Nick noticed she watched it briefly before retreating back into her own world.
Natalie had a massive nightmare that night. Worse than any previous ones. She was tossing and turning leaving the covers a twisted mess. All the activity woke Nick.
"NO!" she screamed before her eyes opened. She started sobbing harder than she had yet.
Nick wondered if this was a good sign. He hoped so. A part of him was quite fearful as the same thing happened last time, first the nightmares, then the relapse.
"Shhhh... It's okay. You're safe." Nick said in his most soothing tone.
He gently caressed her hair. As he did so he saw her look into his eyes briefly. He saw intense pain there which was a massive change.
"Do you want to talk about it? You don't have to if you don't want to," Nick said, being careful not to pressure her.
Natalie nodded, still sobbing, startling Nick. He was further startled when she took hold of his hand. It was the first physical contact she had initiated since he had found her withdrawn.
"It was so horrible," Natalie softly said between sobs. "How could someone do that to their own child?" She had been detached, but now anger entered her voice, but quickly fled as she slowly continued. "I was on my way home. I saw this other car approaching. Something was happening inside. There was a lot of commotion."
Nick could tell how difficult it was for her to say, so he let her go at her own pace.
"I heard a blood curdling scream," Natalie said as she shuddered and moved closer to Nick.
Nick wrapped his arm around her, hoping it was the right move. When he felt her relax a tiny bit he knew it had been the right thing to do.
"As the car passed..." Natalie shuddered again. "I saw this flaming bundle get tossed out of the car..." Natalie said trying to remain detached, shuddering, not wanting to continue, but knew she had to get it out. "I thought it was a doll at first... the constant screaming caused me to realize it was a small child, probably not more than one or two years old." The sobs increased, almost to the point where she could not speak.
Natalie buried her face in Nick's chest. He wrapped his arms around her, gently caressing her back. He knew how horrifying that was and was relieved she was finally talking about it. She tightly wrapped her arms around him. She could not face him as she spoke.
"The child hit my hood and bounced off. I immediately stopped, to try and help. The screaming had stopped," Natalie said, as her sobs subsided into a steady stream of tears. "As soon as I saw the victim, I knew there was nothing I could do. The child had rolled upon hitting the ground, and that had put out the flames."
Nick had tears running down his face. He could not believe someone had been so cruel to an innocent child, and that Natalie had to live with seeing that for the rest of her life. Hearing her tell it was much worse than reading the file had been.
"The body was covered with third and fourth degree burns. It was barely recognizable as human. I wish I had gotten a better look at the vehicle, or the drivers. I was only able to give the barest description."
Nick held Natalie as she cried. He gently rubbed her back trying to help soothe her.
When her tears began to slow she lessened her bear hug on him, but only slightly. Nick wiped the tears from his face, grateful he did not have to breathe, as it would have been quite difficult with how tight her hold on him was.
"You did everything you could. Would you like me to see if I can help you remember anything else? It might be as hard if not harder than telling me as you will have to remember it as if it was just now happening. If you're not ready, we don't have to do it. We can wait until later, if you wish."
"I don't want to, but I have to. I have to know if there is anything more I can do to help the victim. I want to do it now."
Nick was a little concerned she was pushing herself too hard, but was not going to argue with her. He understood her wanting to do it now, rather than later.
"I need you to look me in the eye and give yourself to me."
Natalie nodded and looked him in the eye. She lowered her defenses.
Nick locked his gaze with hers, matching his heartbeat to hers.
"Go back to when you first saw the car. Picture it in your mind."
"I see it."
"Tell me exactly what you see," Nick said in that mesmerizing tone of his.
"I see an older car. Tan. Four doors. Mercedes Benz. The Ontario plate reads 7X2 4V6."
"Now picture it as it approaches, but before the fire."
"There are three adults and two children. Two of the adults are in the front seat. A man is driving. There is a woman in the passenger seat. A second man is in the back seat with the two children." Natalie grew more uneasy as her memory grew closer to the fire. "There is a fight going on. The man grabs the toddler. He..." Natalie started to cry again.
"You will remember the faces so that a composite can be made."
Nick broke off the hypnotism. Natalie shook her head as if to clear it, tears streaming down her face.
"It's okay. The worst of it is over. You're safe. With your help we can make them pay for their crime. I'll need you to work with the faces program and draw the composites."
"Okay. Can we do it now, so I don't have to do it later," She said as she wiped away her tears. She pulled herself together enough to be able to focus on the task ahead.
"Sure. I'll grab the laptop," Nick said. He was thrilled she was back with him. He hoped she did not push herself too far and cause another regression. "How did you get home?"
"I called 911 to report the crime, and after the police took my report they drove me home. I tried to call you but you didn't answer. From then until earlier tonight things aren't totally clear. I remember being in the ER, and being terrified of being locked up in the psych ward. I remember bits and pieces. I remember you copying my actions, giving me choices..."
Nick returned with the laptop and handed it to Natalie.
"Thanks for everything you did for me. I don't think I would've made it this far had it not been for you. I know it must've been really tough on you. Thank you for not giving up on me." Natalie said as she opened the laptop and booted it up.
Nick knew there was something she was not telling him.
"Nat… I can tell…"
Natalie looked at her hands as she spoke. "I was afraid the reason I couldn't reach you was that you'd moved on without saying good bye."
Nick tilted her face up to his. "I'd never do that to you." Off her look he continued, "I know I almost did that one time. But I promise, I'll never do that. If something unimaginable comes up, forcing me to do so, I will get in touch with you somehow. Okay?"
Natalie nodded. His words had been as reassuring as he had meant for them to be.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here when you needed me."
"It's okay. Who would've known that work and life would've collided so badly?"
"Maybe if I'd been here, then you would not have had to go through all this."
"Maybe, but maybe it still would've happened. No one knows. You can't beat yourself up because of it. I'm okay," Natalie said.
They both knew it would be a while before she would truly be okay.
Natalie opened the faces program and started work on the composites. Within two hours she had the three adults and two children's faces finished, printing out each one as it was completed. A copy of each one had been emailed to the precinct upon completion.
"What would you like to do now?" Nick asked.
"I want to watch several comedies, and try to forget," Natalie said. "Will there be a trial?"
"I don't know. It depends on what evidence they can find to back up your story. The police report and victim's body are a big help. If there is a trial, your friends will all be there for you. Also, it will depend on if there is a plea bargain, and if the perps take it. I can't see a plea being offered, for anything less than first degree murder and life."
"I want to see them in prison for life," Natalie said.
"Are you hungry?" Nick asked.
"Yeah. I'm not sure what I want. Why don't you fix something?"
"Okay," Nick said, smiling. "You set up the movie. Okay?"
Natalie nodded as she headed for the VCR. She picked out her favorite comedy and stuck it in. She headed back for the couch where she turned on the television.
Natalie watched Nick in the kitchen, realizing how much he truly loved her, even if he could not say the words. She knew the old saying was true, actions do speak louder than words. She knew most men would have left long ago, maybe as soon as they had found her withdrawn or as soon as they had learned it was all psychological. Nick had not. He had stayed with her and helped her through it all. That had shown her how much he truly loved her.
The door buzzer sounded. Out of habit, Nick answered it and released the lift. He had been closer to it than Natalie was.
The lift door opened admitting Grace to the loft. She saw Natalie seated on the couch, and wondered if there had been any more progress.
"Hi Grace," Natalie said as she turned to face her friend.
Grace was so stunned she was speechless. After a minute or two she managed to get out a few words. "Natalie?... You okay?"
"I'm getting there. Thanks to Nick."
"I had my worst nightmare yet. Nick was soothing as usual. He gave me the courage to tell him what I'd seen. He helped me relax enough to remember even more, enough to make composites and give the model, make, color and plates of the car."
Grace sat down next to Natalie and gave her friend a big bear hug. "You had me so scared. Don't ever do that to me again. I thought I'd lost you."
"I'm sorry." Natalie realized that Grace must have helped Nick with the grocery shopping. "Thanks for helping Nick out."
"I'm glad there was something I could do to help." Grace said. "I missed you."
"Thanks. It's nice to know I was missed."
Nick returned with the food, having made enough for both ladies.
"I hope you'll tell me about it sometime," Grace said.
"You'll hear about it soon enough," Natalie said flatly.
Both ladies helped themselves to the egg rolls heaped on the plate, and washed it down with some Chinese tea.
The phone rang. Nick answered it.
"Nick, great work. Let me speak to Natalie, please."
"Nat, it's the Captain."
Natalie took the receiver from Nick.
"Hi, Captain. What's up?"
"I'm glad you're okay. You did great work with the identifications. We've identified the car's occupants." Reese knew it would take more time before Natalie was truly okay. "We're about to go arrest them, would you like to be there when we question them?"
"Tell Nick, okay?"
Natalie handed the phone back to Nick, Reese having hung up.
"They're on their way to make some arrests. Reese asked me if I wanted to be there during the interrogation. I do."
"Sorry, Grace. I guess we won't have a relaxing evening after all."
"This is more important."
Before long Natalie and Nick entered the precinct. Reese had warned his officers not to overwhelm Natalie. Natalie noticed how they seemed a little hesitant to approach.
"I'm okay. Really."
"We're glad to hear that," Tracy happily said. She walked over and gave her friend a hug. "I missed you. I thought I'd never be able to talk with you again."
"Sorry I scared you."
Attention was diverted from Natalie by the entrance of one of the three adults Natalie had made composites of. An officer had a hand on the arm of the suspect as he was lead into the interrogation room.
Natalie and Nick entered the viewing part. Nick wanted to be in the interrogation room, but knew Natalie needed his support.
Natalie took a good look at the man, praying that the surviving child was safe, and would be able to recover from what he saw that night. She could not understand how someone could be that cruel to a toddler, and hoped she never did understand.
Natalie's hand reached out for Nick's. He took her hand, briefly rubbing the back of her hand with his thumb.
"We know you were in the car when your daughter was torched," said the officer.
"I was driving. I had no idea what he was going to do until it was too late," the man said. There was little remorse in his voice.
"Then why didn't you stop, or contact the police?"
"I knew there was nothing I could do to help her. I was afraid that if I stopped, or called the police he'd kill my son, my wife and me."
"If you had called us, we would have arrested him. You and your family would have been safe."
The officers realized they were getting nowhere so they led him out and brought in the suspect who had done the actual torching. He did not seem at all bothered by what he had done.
Nick felt Natalie stiffen.
"You don't have to stay here..."
"I do. I have to know why..." Natalie knew she might never know the true reason.
"Why did you murder Anna?" Detective Parkson asked.
"I didn't do it."
"We know you did. You know we know."
"I found out that bastard kept my daughter from me. Anna is mine. Not his. If that got out it would seriously damage Martin's reputation. He said he'd kill me if I told anyone. If I couldn't have my daughter, no one was going to, especially not him!"
"Why didn't you attempt a legal resolution?"
"Martin has money and power. More than I could ever hope to have. There was no way to fight him. No one would believe me over him."
"You could've done a paternity test."
"He'd never allow his darling daughter or himself to be tested. He knows too many of the right people for a judge to order it. He could buy off the person doing the test." Evan sighed. "I didn't want to hurt her. I didn't mean to hurt her."
Natalie noticed almost no remorse for his actions. She had seen this sort of thing before and each time it left her confused and in disbelief that someone could go that far over the edge and no one realized it until a tragedy occurred. Sometimes they still refused to believe it.
"Martin forced me into the car. He said he was going to let Anna and I have some time alone together. He'd tell her I was her uncle. When we'd stopped for a bathroom break for Anna, he threatened me. He kept taunting me. I just snapped. I knew that hurting her would hurt him as she was his beautiful child. The light of his life. But she was mine. He had no right to her."
"Where did you get the idea to do what you did?"
"I don't know. All of the sudden I picked her up and lit her on fire. To keep Martin or Carol from saving her, I tossed her out the window. I had wanted him to hear her screaming as she died, but I couldn't take hearing it. She had to go."
The detectives knew they had all they needed so they led him out of the room.
The brought in Anna's mother. Carol seemed upset, but not as upset as she should have been.
"Why didn't you prevent your lover from killing your daughter?"
"I didn't know what Evan was going to do until it was too late. I knew my husband was up to something. Martin had that iciness about him that he gets every time he's doing something nasty. Most of the time it's business related. It took Martin a long time to forgive me for my short lived affair. Martin didn't want me to have the child, but relented after I begged him to let me keep the baby. Then when Anna was born he fell in love with her and threatened to banish me from both my children's lives if I ever told Evan he had a daughter. I love my children. They're my reason for living." Carol said, getting emotional. "Anna was such a bright, happy child. I miss her." Tears formed in Carol's eyes. "Martin could be downright nasty when we displeased him, but he did love us. He's very busy with his career, and his children." After a brief pause, Carol continued, "what will happen to Alex?"
"He's awaiting foster placement. He will receive counseling to help him deal with what he saw."
"Will I ever get him back?"
"That's not for us to decide."
Natalie was watching all this and did feel a tiny bit sorry for this woman. She could understand a woman doing anything to stay in her children's lives. She also did not have any direct info that Carol was abused by her husband, or that he abused his kids in any way. She knew that such women often did not know what help was available to them, or how to get it.
"A part of me hopes she never gets her son back and a part of me wonders if he would be safe with her. I know she loves him…" Natalie said. "She's the only one who's shown the slightest bit of human reaction."
"I know. Sometimes it's hard to know what's best for a child, especially in a situation like this."
Carol was lead out of the room and Martin was lead back in.
"Nick, is there any way I can see Alex? I'd like to talk to him. I understand how he's feeling and maybe I can help him."
"I'll see what I can do."
Nick led Natalie out of the interrogation room's viewing area and over to his desk. He made a few calls and arranged for Natalie to visit the child. It had not been easy, but he had explained that as a child she had seen a family burn to death, and had seen what happened to Anna. The social worker believed it might help Alex to have someone to talk to who had first hand knowledge of how he was feeling.
Natalie arrived at the Sheridan Children's Shelter and was allowed into the back after she had shown proof of who she was.
Natalie approached Alex, who was trying to draw a picture, his heart and mind not really in it.
Natalie sat on the chair next to Alex, being careful not to spook him. She figured he was about six years old.
"Hi. I'm Natalie."
"Hi. Do you work here?"
"No. I would like to talk to you though."
"Because we have some things in common. Things that scare and upset us."
Alex looked at her curiously.
"When I was about your age, my family was on the way to our vacation when I saw a car on fire with the family trapped inside. It scared me so much I didn't like to think about it or talk about it. Fire still scares me, but I'm getting over it with the help of my friends."
"Did it make you sad?"
"Very sad. I cried and cried. It took me months to get over it."
"Did you have nightmares?"
"Yes. A lot of them. They were very scary. As time passed the nightmares became less scary and then didn't happen as often. After several months they went away."
"Did you ever loose a sister? Your parents?"
"I lost both my parents, and my little brother. My parents died in a car accident when I was twelve. I lost my little brother two years ago. Someone shot him, and he died."
"He was trying to help rescue some innocent people from danger, and the bad guy shot him."
"That's so sad." Alex looked at Natalie. "Do you miss them?"
"Very much. You know... as long as you remember your sister she'll live on. She'll be in your heart and your mind."
"It hurts too much." Alex sniffled.
"I know. It will hurt for a while. You will probably also get angry, and wonder why her? Was it something she did? Was it something I did?"
"No. Neither of you are responsible. It was the grownups who did the horrible thing. They're the ones who hurt her. Not you. There was nothing you could've done."
"Did you see her?"
"Yes. It made me really sad. It also made me angry," Natalie said, as she wiped away a tear.
The social worker could not believe how much Alex was talking to Natalie. They could barely get a word out of him. He just sulked and almost withdrew. He would not talk to anyone or participate in any activities. He just wanted to be alone.
"What will happen to my mommy and daddy? Will the bad man be punished?"
"I don't know what will happen to your mommy and daddy. Yes, the bad man will be punished." Natalie hoped Evan received life in prison with no hope of parole, and wished Canada had the death penalty. She figured the father would be charged with something, and had no idea what would happen to the mother.
Another social worker herded all the other children into the kitchen for lunch.
"Will it always hurt so much?"
"No. One day you will be able to think of Anna and smile."
"Can you come again? I like talking to you. You understand how I feel."
"Sure. I like talking to you too."
"When?" Alex asked.
Alex surprised Natalie by hugging her. She returned the embrace. Moments later Alex ran off to join the other kids for lunch.
Marie headed over for Natalie.
"I'm Marie Parker, Alex's social worker. Thank you for all you did for him. You probably did more than the child psychologist could have in a month, if Alex would talk to him. You seem to be the only one he'll talk to."
"I'm glad I could help. Would you mind if I stopped by again tomorrow? He asked me to."
"Not at all. I'll let the front desk know you're allowed back here anytime."
Natalie arrived at the loft and took the elevator up. She saw Nick as the door opened.
"You okay?" Nick asked, a little concerned.
"I'm okay. I think talking to Alex helped both of us."
Nick led Natalie over to the couch where she told him about her visit with the little boy. As he listened, he could see the healing effect it had upon her. He knew the worst was over and that she would be okay in time.
"You might be interested in the fact that Evan was talked into taking a thirty five years to life with no parole deal. He wanted to go to trial, but when confronted with all the evidence they had against him, and could not use the insanity plea, he decided the deal was in his best interest. Martin pleaded guilty to child endangerment and will serve a full year. He also plead guilty to extortion for the threats he had made against Carol, and later Evan, for which he received three years. And to kidnapping for which he would spend seven years in prison. All sentences to run, one after the other. Carol pleaded guilty to the child endangerment charge but only got a three month sentence. Alex most likely would not be reunited with his parents. As part of the plea agreement, Alex's father has to pay for Alex's counseling and child support to the foster family by way of the social worker, to prevent him and his wife from learning where Alex now lives. Both his parents are not to come within 200 feet of him. Maybe sometime in the future supervised visitation might be arranged, but I don't think it's likely to happen."
"Alex is young enough that with proper counseling and lots of tender loving care, he will overcome this and lead a happy, healthy life," Natalie said. She knew she would be there for Alex as long as he needed her.