Another week passed with no further attempts on Natalie's life. With no further leads as to who the serial killer was, why Natalie's brake lines had been cut or why the man had tried to kill her in the hospital, and then again in her apartment, Nick and Schanke were beginning to wonder if the killer was onto them.
Natalie's rather calm, though frustrated reactions to their updates on her case showed she was as frustrated by the lack of progress as they were. They knew she wasn't taking it as well as she wanted them to believe she was.
How can they both seem so calm. I'd be a nervous wreck knowing there was at least one person out there determined to see me dead. Does his being there help not only her to relax, but him as well?' Schanke wondered. He had never seen two friends more perfectly matched for each other.
The night of the ball arrived. Nick knocked on Natalie's door. She answered it, smiling when she saw him in his tux with his long black leather jacket on top of the tux.
"You look great," she said with a smile.
"Thanks. You look stunning." Her wavy, chestnut colored hair hung loose about her shoulders, which was how he liked it best. Her makeup was subtle, emphasizing her natural beauty. She had on a pair of simple gold hoop earrings, and black heels along with her blue dress.
"Need help with your zipper?"
"Please." Natalie moved her hair out of the way as leaned forward a little to give him good access to the zipper.
He zipped it, careful not to pinch her skin or catch her hair.
The royal blue of her dress brought out the blue in her eyes. It was long sleeved with a v neck, daring but it didn't reveal too much. The ankle length skirt had a slight flair to it, which helped prevent it from bunching up around the wheels and possibly getting caught in them or being too tight to comfortably sit all night in.
Nick pulled a small jewelry box from his pocket and handed it to her.
"I thought you might be a little nervous. Consider this a security blanket of sorts."
She opened the box, a smile spreading across her face as she saw the simple, yet elegant three dimensional gold heart hanging from a delicate gold necklace.
"It's beautiful. Thank you. Would you put it on for me?"
"Sure." He took the necklace and fastened it around her neck while she held her hair out of the way.
"You ready?" She asked as she took one last look in the mirror. The necklace went perfectly with the v neckline of her dress.
"Whenever you are." He noticed that her wheelchair sparkled more than it usually did. She always kept it clean, but now it sparkled like new. He also noticed the backpack was missing, realizing it didn't go with their fancy attire. Instead she had a small clutch purse resting on her lap.
He held her black wool coat for her as she slipped into it, then her leather gloves.
The ballroom was packed with officers from several precincts, their spouses, or significant others. The decorations were festive, but tasteful. The party was in full swing and full of life. Grace and her date were talking with Don and Myra Schanke near the entrance, not wanting to miss their friend's arrival. Both ladies were in stylish, black, ankle length dresses which flattered their figures. The men were dressed in the standard black penguin suit.
All eyes turned towards the door as Nick and Natalie entered. They both knew there had been whispered speculation about what she would do at the ball and if either of them would actually show up. Suddenly the room became deathly silent. Natalie noticed the partygoers staring at her, making her uneasy.
"Nick, are you sure this isn't the funeral directors ball? Did someone die?" Natalie joked, loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be considered shouting.
A few laughs were heard around the room, some being nervous laughter.
Don and Myra headed over to Natalie and Nick, helping Natalie to relax.
So far so good. I hope the rest of the evening goes well. Natalie thought.
"Natalie, you look hot. I don't remember ever seeing you looking so good," Schanke said. "Partner, you look great in a tux." He enjoyed watching Natalie blush as it wasn't something she did often.
"Thank you, you two look great," Natalie said.
"Myra, you look wonderful," Nick said. "Don, you look good."
"Do you two know how to make an entrance, or what?" Don teased before he and Myra headed for the dance floor.
Grace wandered over with her date in tow. He was handsome, and around six feet tall.
"Natalie, you look great. You too Nick," Grace said. "Guys this is Stephen Archer. Stephen, this is Natalie Lambert, and Nick Knight."
"Grace you look wonderful," Nick said.
"You do," Natalie said.
"So who's going to drag the other one onto the dance floor?" Grace teased.
"Maybe Natalie might not want to dance," Stephen said, a little uncomfortable.
"Actually, I do," Natalie said, somewhat defiantly. "Nick, what do you say we give them something else to stare at?"
"Grace, are you and Stephen going to join us?" Natalie asked.
"Stephen?" Grace asked hopeful.
"Maybe later. I don't feel like dancing right now."
Natalie and Nick headed for the dance floor while the music had the kind of beat they were used to. Natalie was relieved the dance floor was crowded as she was a little self conscious. One look at Schanke relaxed her. Fred Astaire he was not, but he was having fun, and that was all that was important. Natalie noticed some of the people around the dance floor were watching her, making her a little uncomfortable, but she decided to ignore them and have a good time. Natalie focused on the music and Nick, blocking out everything and everyone else. Natalie and Nick danced until the beat changed and she tired.
Grace motioned for Nat and Nick to join them, moving the extra chair out of the way. The men went to get their ladies drinks.
"Grace, I'm sorry if I'm ruining your evening," Natalie said apologetic.
"Hey, you're not ruining it. I thought I knew him better. I should be the one to apologize. I know how much that attitude bothers you."
"Like you said, it's not your fault," Natalie said.
"Natalie, did you realize your dress would match your chair perfectly?" Grace asked, curiously.
"I hadn't realized it until I looked in the mirror the first time. I probably couldn't have done that if I'd tried," She said with a chuckle.
"Grace, would you care to dance?" Nick asked as he returned with two glasses of white wine. He saw how much Grace wanted to, but she had not been able to drag Stephen out onto the floor.
"Thanks." She glanced at Nat who happily gave a subtle nod of approval.
Natalie watched as Grace and Nick enjoyed themselves. She suspected Grace was having the better time as there were no human heartbeats calling out to her. Stephen set his drinks on the table before taking a seat on the opposite side of the table from Natalie.
"Grace tells me that you're a forensic pathologist. I find that a little hard to believe." At Natalie's look, he quickly clarified himself, "I mean you're quite attractive. Not at all the kind of person I'd expect to find in such a gross profession." he thought.
"Thanks. I like the challenge. Each body is like a puzzle waiting to be solved. I heard you're a chef. I always thought that would be a fun career. I never had the time to learn many fancy recipes."
"I do give cooking lessons. Unfortunately we're not set up..."
"No problem. Not everywhere is, yet. " She didn't want to make him more uncomfortable, and knew that it was true, not everywhere was accessible, yet.
The music once again turned slow so Grace and Nick rejoined their companions. No one mentioned Stephen's continued uneasiness around Natalie, not wanting to make an issue of it. The foursome sipped their wines, talked and watched the rest of the crowd dancing.
Sometime later the music tempo picked up again. Natalie dragged Nick back out onto the dance floor. She was pleased to notice fewer people watching her, having seen that she wasn't too bad of a dancer. As the music flowed through Natalie she tossed in some spins and other fancy moves she'd learned. She even did a wheelie when moved by the music to do so, which definitely caught a few people's attention. Grace watched with a smile, glad that her friends were ignoring everyone and having a good time. A song came on with a good solid beat causing Natalie to once again let loose, showing off her fancy moves, spins and wheelies. Quite a few eyes were watching them, her in particular. At the end of the song there was a short round of applause, making Natalie turn quite red. She and Nick indulged the crowd with a quick playful bow.
Cohen saw Nick and Natalie heading off the dance floor as the music's beat once again slowed. She found herself wondering if there was more than friendship between them and decided to approach, husband in tow.
"Nick, Natalie, I'm glad you could make it," Cohen said with a smile.
"Thanks, Captain," Nick said. "You look nice tonight."
"Thank you. So do you two."
"Thank you," Both Nick and Natalie said.
"You two looked great on the dance floor. Did you take lessons?" Cohen asked.
"No. I just let the music dictate my movements," Natalie said.
"I just follow her lead."
Cohen couldn't get over how natural they seemed together, especially on the dance floor.
"Grace, why didnÕt you ever tell me she was in a wheelchair?" Stephen asked, wondering what else she had withheld. He was glad their table was off to the side, so hopefully they wouldn't be overheard.
"I guess because it's not a big deal with me. Why does it matter?"
"I would've liked to have been better prepared. I made a fool out of myself when I said that I gave cooking lessons, but the school isn't accessible."
"You'd already seen her in her chair by then, so that's no excuse. I see her as my friend. She's very much the same as she was, the only difference being she can't walk."
This time Nick and Natalie joined Myra and Don for a while.
"Nice moves," Don said.
"Thanks," Natalie said, slightly blushing.
Natalie noticed there seemed to be a problem at Grace's table and felt bad for her friend.
"Nick, why don't you see if Grace wants to dance. I want to have a word or two with Stephen."
"What's wrong?" Don asked.
"He's ruining Grace's evening. He can't handle being around me, or even seeing me. I hate jerks like that."
Everyone at the table felt sorry for Stephen, but knew that he probably deserved it. He had no right to air his problems here and now.
"We'll be back later," Natalie said as she and Nick headed for Grace's table.
"Grace, would you care to dance?" Nick asked.
"Natalie?" Grace inquired.
"Go on. Have fun."
"Stephen, how about you and I take a little walk," Natalie said trying to sound as pleasant as possible.
Nick and Grace headed for the dance floor.
"She saw Stephen and you, andÉ"
"And thought she'd straighten him out because he's ruining my evening?" Grace knew Natalie well enough to know that's what she was doing. "I'm sorry he's ruining our evening. I didnÕt realizeÉ"
"It's not your fault. It's his. Let's enjoy ourselves and not worry about him. Okay?" Nick asked.
"Okay," Grace said. She wondered how badly Natalie was going to chew out Stephen.
Stephen realized he probably had no choice but to go with Natalie and reluctantly followed her outside the ballroom and down a hallway.
"I'm sick and tired of your attitude. I want you to start acting like you're pleased to be here with Grace. She's a good friend and doesn't deserve to be treated like this."
"It's none of your business so stay out of it." Stephen said.
"It is. I'm sorry if I make you uncomfortable. Don't take it out on her." Natalie said. "If you have something to say about me, have the decency to say it to my face."
"I was surprised Grace never mentioned you were in a wheelchair."
"Why does it matter? I could say the same for you, she never mentioned you were black."
"It's not the same thing. People expect her to show up with a black date. They don't expect to see their date's best friend in a wheelchair."
"I'm not in this on purpose," Natalie said, her temper really beginning to flare. "Why should it matter what anyone looks like, or if they're in a wheelchair? You should be open minded enough to get to know the person before judging them. How do you like it when people treat you differently because of your skin color?"
"I don't. It's different. I was born this way and will die this way."
"I'm this way because of an accident and might die this way. But it's not any different. We're both different from the rest of society." Natalie realized she wasn't going to get anywhere and gave up. "All she wants is for you to take her out on the dance floor and have a good time. Is that too much to ask?"
"Good. Then why don't we go back inside."
Natalie and Stephen re-entered the ballroom. Stephen approached Grace, who was still on the dance floor with Nick.
"Mind if I cut in?" Stephen asked.
"Not at all," Grace said a bit surprised.
Nick approached Natalie and asked her to dance. She happily accepted. When Nick and Natalie passed by Grace and Stephen, Grace silently mouthed 'thank you' to Nat. Natalie smiled in response.
When the music again turned slow, Nick and Natalie saw Myra and Don seated watching the dancers. They approached their friend's table.
"Hi. How come you aren't out there?" Natalie asked.
"We're all danced out. It looks like you helped Grace have a nice night, both of you," Myra said.
"I hope so," Natalie said.
They talked for a while. Natalie kept peering over at Grace to make sure she was enjoying herself.
On the way home from the ball, Nick asked Natalie what she had said to Stephen. Natalie told him.
"You are one in a million, Natalie Lambert," Nick said with a grin.
"Thank you, I think."
"It was most definitely a compliment."
The next evening at work, Grace entered with a mug of coffee for Natalie. Natalie smelled the heavenly aroma and looked up.
"Thank you. How did you get him to dance with me? He actually seemed like he was having a good time."
Natalie relayed her conversation with Stephen.
"I'm sorry for how he behaved," Grace said.
"I told you, that wasn't necessary. It wasn't your fault. Keep it up and you'll wind up as messed up as Nick is," Natalie said with a hint of humor in her voice.
A week later, Natalie and Nick approached the Schankes' front door. Natalie was pleased when she saw the ramp over the porch steps. The door opened and Don ushered them inside, quickly shutting the door behind them.
"When did you get this?" Natalie asked surprised.
"Not long after you brought me home. We realized why you had turned down the breakfast invitation and wanted to make sure you wouldn't have an excuse to turn down the next one." Don said.
He handed Natalie a hand towel to wipe off her handrims. While Natalie was doing that Don took Nick's jacket and hung it in the closet. Natalie handed Nick the towel while slipping out of her coat, and he handed it to Don. She tucked her gloves into the pocket before Don hung it in the closet.
They exchanged hugs and greetings before heading into the family room where Jenny and Myra awaited them. More hugs and greetings were exchanged.
"Myra, thanks for installing the ramp."
"No problem. It's come in handy for us as well."
Don and Myra headed into the kitchen, Don to fetch drinks for everyone and Myra to check on dinner.
Eight year old Jenny approached Natalie.
"Does the metal get cold in the winter time?" Jenny asked pointing to the wheel.
"See for yourself," Natalie said to her young dark haired friend.
Jenny touched the handrim, quickly pulling her fingers away. "That's freezing."
"I know. It gets all wet and messy when I have to go through snow. That's why I keep a towel in my backpack, so I can wipe them off when I go inside."
"Do your feet ever get wet? How do you know when they're cold?"
"Yes, they do, if the snow is deep enough, or it rains. If the rest of me is cold, I know my feet are too."
"Jenny, honey, I think that's enough questioning," Don said, not wanting his inquisitive daughter to bother his guests.
"Are you sure you're not a detective?" Nick teased.
"Nick, you know I'm way too young," Jenny said as she rolled her eyes causing the adults to stifle a laugh.
Don handed everyone a cup of warm cider, which Natalie gladly took. The warmth of the mug felt good to her cold hands. Jenny sipped at her cider as did Natalie and Don. Nick hesitated a moment before trying a sip. It wasn't too bad, but not good enough for him to finish the mugful.
The friends snacked on the appetizers and talked as they waited for dinner to finish.
About an hour and a half later, Myra called everyone to the dinner table. Natalie immediately knew where she sat, as it was the only place without a chair.
"Can I start?" Jenny asked, eager to participate in the yearly ritual.
"Yes, honey," Myra said.
"I'm thankful that my parents and friends are here."
"I'm grateful that my loved ones, and my good friends are here safe and sound," Don said.
"I'm grateful for the health and safety of my family and friends," Myra said.
"Natalie, you're next," Jenny said.
"I'm grateful to be here with my friends who stuck with me as I adjusted to my paralysis and kept me safe. And for us all to be healthy and safe."
Nick realized it was his turn. "I'm grateful to be here with the best friends I've ever had. To finally feel like I belong somewhere. That we're all safe and healthy."
Don and Myra were a little surprised by Nick's statements, but felt touched by them as well.
"Natalie, no offense, but partner, would you carve the ham?"
"No offense taken," Natalie cheerfully said, knowing that not many people wanted to be reminded what she did her cutting on, especially at meal times.
Nick took the carving knife and forks and sliced into the large ham in front of him. He layered several slices onto the plate before Don started it on its way around the table.
Everyone helped themselves to the ham and sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows decorating the top of the bowl. The bread and butter were passed around. Nick took small portions of everything and tried a bite of each item, knowing he was expected to eat. He didn't want to insult his friends by not eating.
After dinner everyone retired to the family room for coffee and pumpkin pie. They talked about anything not work related as shop talk had been forbidden. Jenny fell asleep curled up on one end of the couch. Don and Myra left her alone, knowing she wouldn't want to be carried off to bed while Nick and Natalie were still there.
A few hours later, everyone was yawning and knew it was time to say goodnight. Nick and Natalie said their good-byes to Don and Myra, and told them to tell Jenny when she woke up.
Three mornings later, Natalie was on her way toward her building's elevators when she suddenly found a large male hand clamped over her mouth from behind.
"Scream and you die."
At the same time his other hand wrapped around her chest, effectively pinning her arms. He dragged her backwards and tossed her into the back seat of a waiting car. Her captor momentarily thought about leaving her wheelchair behind but knew it would bring more attention to the fact that she had been kidnapped. He tossed the wheelchair into his trunk.
Natalie tried to get a good look at her captor but could not, as he was dressed in nondescript black, including the ski mask. When he reached into the back seat, she tried to keep as far from him as she could.
"Don't make me hurt you. All I want to do is blindfold you."
Natalie saw him pull a black cloth blindfold from his pocket. She didn't trust him, but knew she had no leverage or weapon. Reluctantly she nodded, and he blindfolded her.
"Don't forget to fasten your seatbelt," her captor said as he secured her seatbelt.
"One more thing. I'm afraid I will have to secure your hands for the trip. I can't have you interfering with the driver." He pulled her arms behind her and fastened her wrists together with a piece of rope. Since she was blindfolded he pulled off his ski mask replacing it with a baseball cap.
Why does he bother with the ski mask? Doesn't he remember that we saw his face at the hospital?' Natalie wondered.
Natalie hoped that Nick would be able to rescue her. She cursed her body for its betrayal. She hated how helpless she had been, and still was. She hadn't let her paralysis bother her but now she hated it more than a vampire hates a cross or the sun. She refused to panic, and pushed down her growing fear. What is he going to do to me? She quickly pushed those thoughts out of her mind. Natalie, think. How are you going to get yourself out of this?
No more than two or three minutes later Nick entered Natalie's apartment and did not hear her familiar heartbeat. He knew she was supposed to be here, but wasn't. He made a beeline for the garage and saw her car there. He felt the hood. It was still hot from being used recently. Could she have gone to see a neighbor? What if the killer has her? The last thought struck terror into his heart. He knew that he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her.
Nick pulled out his cell phone and dialed the precinct.
"Schanke, I think the killer just grabbed Natalie. She was supposed to be home, but she's not in her apartment and her car is here. The hood is still hot."
"Are you sure she's not visiting a neighbor?"
"I don't know. I wanted to call you first. I'll check around."
"Call me back if you don't find her, and I'll put out an APB."
"Thanks. I'm going to see if I can find any clues here. Send forensics down here."
Back in the kidnapper's car Natalie hated the silence.
"Why did you grab me?" Natalie asked, trying to keep her voice neutral.
"Your kind takes jobs away from those that are able to do the job in the same manner as everyone else."
"But I had the job before the accident," Natalie said trying to keep him talking, hoping he would slip up and reveal something important.
"Once you became one of them you should have let someone normal have your job," Her captor said. "You should never have befriended them. It was this that led to your downfall."
Natalie quickly realized that her captor was not playing with a full deck.
Another realization hit, hard, he was the bastard who had paralyzed her. Great anger surged through her system. She wanted to hurt him *badly*, knowing that killing him would be far too easy a way out for him.
Before Natalie could ask any further questions she felt the car stop and heard the engine shut off. The captor retrieved her chair from the trunk and brought it to the back seat area of the car. He opened the door and unfastened her seat belt.
"I won't hurt you, yet. That is, as long as you don't scream, and you cooperate."
Natalie nodded, too angry to trust herself to speak.
He lifted her out of the car, set her into her chair and pushed her up a makeshift ramp over the six stairs leading to the front porch. The ramp had been hastily constructed for this one occasion. Once she was on the porch, he destroyed the ramp, tossing the pieces into a nearby wood pile.
He pushed her inside and locked the door. He put his ski mask back on and removed her blindfold.
"The porch has several steps, you'd never make it down them. I want you alive, for now at least. Don't make me hurt you unnecessarily."
"I want you to head for the back room. If you don't go on your own, I will push you. You won't like that. Lean forward."
Natalie nervously did as instructed and felt the rope around her wrists being cut free. She rubbed her wrists before she pushed herself to the back room. He motioned for her to enter, which she did.
Natalie quickly looked around. The solid wood door was reinforced with metal plates encasing the lock, on both sides of the door. The hinges were heavy duty and tamperproof. The window had bars over it, was up near the ceiling and was too small for her to crawl through. Natalie's heart sunk as she realized there would be no escape. Snap out of it, there is a way out. She angrily thought scolding herself.
"Be a good girl. I have to go out for a while. If you misbehave, I'll take away your wheelchair, the next time I confine you to bed. After that, I get violent."
"I'll behave," Natalie said hoping to catch him off guard, knowing she must retain possession of her chair if she was to have any chance at escaping.
He left the room, locking the two deadbolts behind him.
Again, Natalie fought down the fear urging her to panic. So far I seem to be safe. For how long I don't know.'
Natalie forced herself to carefully examine the room for anything helpful. She started with the door, confirming her earlier observation that nothing short of an explosion would get through the door. The window was definitely out of consideration, because if she could get the bars off and somehow climb up to it, she wouldn't be able to fit through it. Only a child might be able to.
One wall was covered with pictures ripped from magazines or newspapers. Some were pictures of disabled people who had achieved success, and some were pictures of people who either worked for the police or the coroner's office. Almost all the pictures from the latter two sets had red x's across them.
Natalie felt a sudden pang of sadness, along with some anger as she saw Chris's picture on the wall with a big red x across it. She still really missed her friend and wanted to hurt her captor *badly* for paralyzing her and killing Chris. As she continued to look over the pictures she was stunned to see Nick's picture there, right next to hers. Seeing her picture up there wasn't a big surprise, after all he had made her paraplegic, and tried to kill her two other times. What unnerved her was that it was a recent picture, taken no more than two or three weeks ago.
Does he know? flashed through Natalie's mind. She didn't see how her assailant could know Nick's secret. Maybe it's the sun allergy that the bastard thinks is his disability?' Natalie never realized that some would view Nick's "allergy" as a disability.
Natalie continued to examine the room, walls, floor and ceiling. There was a single mattress pushed up against the wall in one corner. It didn't look too inviting. There was a cooler further down that wall. There was nothing to read in the room nor was there anything else to do there. Out of curiosity she approached the cooler and opened it. Inside were two ham and cheese sandwiches, one 16 ounce plastic bottle of water, two soda cans and two chocolate bars.
How long is he leaving me here? Natalie wondered. She was glad that there was food, but she wondered if it was drugged, or worse, poisoned. Something deep inside her told her that it probably was safe to eat. He had been careful not to hurt her and to let her know that as long as she didn't try to escape or scream that he would not hurt her. Am I being used as bait against the cops? She wondered. Against Nick?
She wanted to pace but knew she had to conserve her energy.
Natalie decided to check out the bathroom as she had not yet explored it. A quick, yet thorough examination revealed the bathroom door had been removed along with the hinges, the bathroom itself had only a sink, toilet with grab bars and a roll of toilet paper. Great, not one useable thing. Well, not for defense anyway. Natalie wasn't the least bit reassured by the grab bars, noticing they had been screwed into the walls. Probably cemented too. Just how long is he planning on holding me here? Why install them? Does he mean to release me unhurt?Natalie was totally confused. Why kill them and not me? A bone chilling thought occurred to her. What if he lets me go, then when everyone least expects it, he kills me? Maybe tries to do it when I'm with Nick. Killing two birds with one stone.' She forced her mind off of that knowing it would do nothing to help. Think of something, Lambert. You can get yourself out of this.
Meanwhile that morning, at the precinct, Nick and Schanke were poring over every shred of evidence they had.
"Let's assume that it was someone from one of our two departments. It has to be. Who else would know when she was leaving or where she lived? By now most everyone in our two departments knows about her paralysis, but not as many people outside of here know. Not counting the hospital and rehab center people," Nick surmised.
"All of the hospital and rehab center people checked out. I don't like the idea that it is one of us," Schanke said.
"I don't either. Has the sketch been compared with personnel files here and at the coroner's office?"
"Yes. No match. We even checked the twenty-ninth and forty-fifth precincts. No match. You know what this means, right?" Schanke said worried.
"It means that she's in worse trouble than we thought. I've checked all the cases where Nat's work sent someone to prison. They're all still there, except for the handful that are dead. Someone went to a lot of trouble with this whole thing."
"What gets me is why would the person cut her brake lines? Or maybe it isn't related?"
"I think it is related. How many disabled members of both our departments does Natalie know?" Nick said playing the beginning of a hunch.
"Chris, you, and probably three or four others. Why?"
"Why did you put me in there?" Nick asked quite surprised.
"Well, some people might consider your sun allergy and food allergies to be a disability."
Nick's guilt crashed down on him like a ten ton meteor. Once again he had been responsible for hurting another person he cared for. It was his fault Natalie was in the wheelchair. Nick knew that they had spent a lot of time together right before her accident.
"Nick, it isn't your fault." Schanke saw his partner's expression sink and knew what he was thinking.
"Isn't it? Some wacko is targeting disabled people. I am one and so was Chris. Somehow he might've decided that Natalie wanted to be like her friends, or maybe he meant to kill her, knew he failed and isn't going to stop until he succeeds."
"But she didn't become good friends with Chris until after the accident."
"Yeah, I know. But in the guy's mind maybe he saw a friendship there beforehand. Natalie and I went to the theatre the night before the accident. We'd spent more time together than usual lately. No, nothing like that happened," Nick said, cutting Schanke off before he could inquire about romance.
"Okay, but how does this fit in with it all? "
"I'm not sure yet. Check around and see if anyone's done any remodeling of a room, or a house to handle someone with a disability."
"Sure. I don't know what you expect to find. Do you know how many people are disabled every day?"
"Way too many. But it's the only shot we've got at the moment. Then correlate it with anyone who works at either place." An idea suddenly hit Nick. "What if the person was up for a job at either place and lost out to someone with a disability?"
"That might be motive enough. Should I add all applicants to the list? How far back should I go?"
"Go back a year."
"I got it. It should really limit the possibilities," Schanke said. "How could he be sure what the result of the accident would be? Did he want to kill her or just disable her?"
"He probably accepted the fact that she could be killed but probably would be disabled instead. I don't know, which he wanted, maybe to disable her then kill her."
"He is one sick guy." Schanke said as he shook his head disbelieving that someone could be that twisted. He'd seen his share of nutballs before, but this time was very different because it hit so close to home.
Nick hated being trapped at the precinct by the sun. He wanted to be out looking for Natalie. You know you can't cover the entire city, he reminded himself. He hated feeling so helpless. Is this how she was feeling before she learned how to take care of herself? How to get around in her chair?
Natalie headed for the cooler and removed a can of soda, figuring it was safer than the bottle as metal was harder to tamper with, and left more evidence behind. She carefully examined the can for any leaks or pinpricks that could signal an injection into the can. When the can appeared to be intact, she popped the top, hearing the fizzing, whooshing sound it made, indicating it hadn't been tampered with. That reassured her enough to bring the can to her lips.
She thirstily downed half the contents before stopping herself. She knew that if she gulped the whole thing at once, she would likely get stomach cramps, which were the last thing she needed.
She began formulating an escape plan as she mentally went over everything in the room to see if it could somehow be made into a weapon. As she went through her mental list and discounted most of the stuff as unsuitable she sipped at her soda. She checked her jacket pockets in the off chance she had put something there and forgotten about it. She was pleased when she found a nail file and decided to leave it where it was. If he hadn't detected it yet she wasn't going to make it easy for him to find it now.
A while later she had not come up with a suitable plan and wondered if Nick had been right. Did I get in over my head? Should I have said no? She quickly dispelled those thoughts. I had no choice. I *will* get myself out of this.
Without realizing it, Natalie made a good sized dent in the can by squeezing it as she was thinking. She looked down at it and an idea came to mind. She dropped the empty can to the floor and rolled over it a few times, glad that her tires were solid rubber so she wouldn't have to worry about a flat. Once she had the can as flat as it would go she discovered another problem. How was she going to pick it up? With some effort she managed to grab hold of the can. She examined it and saw that the aluminum was just about to break. She carefully manipulated it so that she could force it to break and keep from cutting herself with it. She went into the bathroom and grabbed a length of toilet paper, which she wrapped around the wider end of the makeshift weapon. She put the weapon aside for the moment, out of sight and looked for another weapon, in case she needed it.
Natalie went back into the bathroom for another look. The only things that looked promising were pieces of plumbing if she could somehow get them loose and the toilet tank lid. She had trouble maneuvering herself close enough to remove the tank cover as it proved to be her best choice for a second weapon. How do I turn it into a weapon? It's too unmanageable like this. Suddenly the idea came to her.
She smashed it against the cement floor, but it didn't break. She backed up to the door and threw the lid as hard as she could against the floor, shielding her face with her hands in case any shards flew her way. She heard the rewarding sound of porcelain breaking and looked down, pleased to see it had broken in two lengthwise. She worked to pick it up, relieved to see no sharp edges as she had no way to soften them. She balanced the long thin piece across her lap and headed into the other room.
She tucked it out of sight but within reach as she heard the door unlocking. She did, however, grab her metal knife and hide it within easy reach, being careful not to hurt herself accidentally.
The door opened and the figure dressed completely in black entered.
"Were you a good girl while I was gone?"
"Did you eat your lunch?"
"I wasn't hungry."
"It was perfectly safe. If the ice is still there it is still safe. I told you I won't hurt you as long as you cooperate."
"You are very pretty. It's a shame you had to hang around the wrong kind. Before your accident I would have loved to take you to the movies, but I know how possessive your boyfriend is."
"I don't have a boyfriend."
"Don't lie to me. Everyone knows you and Knight are seeing each other."
"We're just very good friends."
"And I'm a world famous rock star. Well, enough of this. I have things to attend to. I'll bring you some food later."
He left and locked the door. Natalie let out a sigh of relief. She now knew it was someone within either the police department or the coroner's office, which sent chills through her. Another thought occurred to her, it could also be someone who was close to a member of either department, which again sent chills through her.
Have I worked with him? Do I know him? she wondered. No. I would've recognized him in the hospital.
Schanke finally received the list of names he wanted and began to search through them. Nick looked over each page after Schanke finished with it hoping to spot something his partner missed. Some of the physical descriptions from applicants for positions within the police department and coroner's offices matched the sketch they had of the man who'd tried to suffocate Natalie. By matching the applicants to the list of people doing renovations to accommodate disabilities, they were able to further narrow the list.
Nick and Schanke were both worried about Natalie. They didn't know how long she had before the killer made her the next victim, if he hadn't already.
They began the legwork of checking out each of the 46 names and addresses on their list. They decided it would go faster if they split up.
Nick was grateful it was just about dark. Waiting for the sun to go down had been pure torture, one he didn't think he could've endured for much longer.
Schanke was a little surprised that Nick hadn't bounced off the walls before dark as a part of him expected his partner to get rather antsy and cranky well before dark. Schanke couldn't blame Nick for his reactions, as he would react the same way if someone he cared about was in trouble.
Natalie was tired from the waiting, staying alert, and preparing for a confrontation with her captor. Her body wanted to sleep, but she knew she could not afford to fall asleep. She had reluctantly eaten the food from the cooler and had consumed the other soda. It had helped a bit.
She heard the door rattle and prepared herself. The metal knife was carefully hidden in her lap. She positioned herself so that her ceramic club was within reach.
He entered once again clad entirely in black giving her no clues to his identity.
"I had hoped for more time so that everything would be perfect. Alas, that is not to be. It seems your boyfriend and his partner are too smart for their and your own good."
This worried Natalie. She mentally steeled herself for battle. He advanced toward her, pulling a baseball bat from behind his back and swung it at her head. She barely had time to duck as the bat whizzed millimeters above her.
His annoyance over missing her brought him in closer. He brought the bat up for the next strike, intending to bring it straight down, squashing her skull like a melon.
Natalie saw him preparing to strike and knew this might be her only shot. She lashed out her crude metal knife in hand, embedding it deep into his thigh. He screamed. She moved just in time as the bat came crashing down, missing her body by a hair.
Natalie quickly grabbed the club she'd made out of the tank lid, her heart racing.
He limped towards her, murder in his eyes, blood running down his leg, soaking through the dark fabric.
"You bitch! I was going to make your death a quick and painless one, but now you will die slowly and painfully."
Natalie kept moving, not giving him the chance to close in on her as he swung the bat at her again and barely missed. She managed to get behind him, set her brakes and swung the club with all of her strength. For once Natalie was grateful that being in the wheelchair had made her upper body much stronger than it used to be. The club smashed across his back causing him to yell in agony. He screamed hideously as he fell to the ground. He was breathing and no blood was squirting from an artery so she figured he'd live.
Natalie headed for the door being careful to stay out of his reach, locking the it behind her, once she was safely on the other side.
Natalie whole body relaxed slightly as she let out a sigh of relief. She was safe, for now. Where's the phone? Natalie looked around and shortly found the telephone, praying it worked as she picked up the receiver and dialed 911. Yes. It works.
"This is Dr. Natalie Lambert. I need police and an ambulance."
"Are you okay?" Asked the dispatcher.
"I'm okay. My kidnapper needs medical attention. Can you please get word to Detective Knight at the 96th precinct, homicide division."
"I will see to it that he gets the message. Anything else you want me to tell him?"
"Just that I'm okay."
"I'll do that. I need you not to hang up until help gets there. It will be there shortly." The officer said, following the standard procedure.
"Okay." Natalie felt safer, even a bit calmer, knowing someone was there monitoring the situation, even if it was over the phone
Having crossed the fifth house off his list, Nick was opening the door to his car when he heard the police radio come to life.
"81 Kilo, come in."
"81 Kilo here."
"Knight. Dr. Lambert called 911 and she's okay. She's at 325 Grant street. Backup and an ambulance are being sent."
"I thought you said she's okay?"
"She is. It's for her kidnapper."
"I'm on my way. Inform Detective Schanke that she's been found and have him meet me there."
Nick grinned at the fact that Natalie had outsmarted the kidnapper. He wasn't surprised as she was one smart lady, determined too, and could think under pressure.
Within minutes Nick barged into the house, gun drawn just in case. He carefully searched each room not wanting any nasty surprises, finding only Natalie.
"Nat, are you okay?" He asked greatly concerned as he approached her.
"I'm fine, now. He's locked in the room there." Natalie pointed to the room off to her right.
Nick saw the receiver off the hook and picked it up.
"This is Detective Knight. Thanks."
"We're glad everything worked out," the dispatcher said.
Nick saw Natalie start trembling as he hung up the phone, knowing what had happened was sinking in.
Nick squatted down in front of Natalie so that they could be at eye level with each other, and wrapped his arms around her tightly knowing she needed it. He felt her arms wrap around him so tightly that if he'd been mortal he would've had a hard time breathing.
"It's okay. You're safe now. He won't hurt you again." Nick soothed as he gently stroked her hair. He released his hold on her only after she had released him.
Natalie pushed herself over to the door confining her captor, unlocked it, hesitating a moment before opening it. She knew they should check on him, and felt safe enough to do so with Nick right by her side.
"Nat, what are you doing?"
"I have to check on him. Make sure he's alive."
No sooner had Nick entered the room than he saw her captor lying on the ground with the makeshift knife sticking out of his thigh. Natalie pushed herself close to her captor and purposely capsized herself, surprising Nick.
"I need to be down here to properly examine him."
A part of Nick was surprised Natalie cared what happened to her captor, but knew she couldn't let him die if she could help it.
"What have you done to me, bitch? I can't feel my legs."
"Hold still if you want me to look at you." Natalie pulled off her kidnapper's mask, not recognizing him, other than him being the same person who had tried to kill her in the hospital.
Nick fought to keep the gold out of his eyes as he recognized Natalie's captor as the same man who had tried to suffocate her and later attacked them both in her apartment.
Natalie poked her captor a little harder than necessary as she examined him.
"Hey, you don't have to poke me that hard. I thought doctors were supposed to be gentle."
"Sorry, but my patients don't usually complain," Natalie said quite sarcastically. Having finished her examination, she set her wheelchair back upright. "You'll live. I wouldn't move around too much if I were you. Any movement could leave you permanently paralyzed."
"That's all you have to say?"
"You may have some damage to your kidney on this side. You have a deep knife wound in your thigh. There is a good chance of some spinal cord damage too. Welcome to the world of the disabled," Natalie said with a scary smile. Using her chair as leverage, she reseated herself.
"I should've killed you when I had a chance. I should've chosen something more effective in the hospital," He angrily said.
"You bastard! It's because of your asinine ideas that I'm like this!" Natalie said her anger growing. "I should've killed you. I can still do that. All I'd have to do is run over your scrawny little neck."
"Nat!" Nick's concern grew as he saw her moving towards her kidnapper. "Natalie!" In a flash Nick was behind her, restraining her. He wrapped his arms around her from behind. He was careful to hold her snugly so she couldn't elbow him, back up into him or run over his feet, but not tightly enough to hurt her.
"Nick. Let. Me. Go!" She snarled, struggling to free herself.
"No. I won't let you hurt him anymore." Nick was grateful for his vampiric strength as he needed every ounce of it to hold onto his very determined friend.
"Why? What did I ever do to you?" Natalie asked her captor more hurt than angry.
"You were friends with them, with him. You had to be taught a lesson. When I heard you wanted to return to work, I had to prevent that. I only gave you what you wanted."
"What are you talking about?" She asked sharply.
"You were always with one of them. You seemed to prefer their company, so I made you one of them."
"You bastard!!" Natalie said before letting loose with a string of profanity that shocked Nick, who couldn't believe the foul language coming out of her mouth and wondered where she'd heard such words.
"At least I'm not a freaking cripple."
"Are you so sure about that?" Nick said.
"I had hoped that it would've been worse," her captor snarled.
Natalie struggled against Nick's grip on her. Nick continued to gently, but firmly restrain her.
"I hope you spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. I hope it is a very long life. If I have any say in the matter, I'll see to it that your punishment is life without parole. I will make sure that you don't just sit around in your cell either. I will have you doing hard labor. You'll see what kind of hell you put me though, you bastard!" Natalie said the anger back in full force. "Do you know what it's like to lie in bed day after day for weeks, totally immobilized?"
Nick let her rant, knowing she needed to get it out of her system. It would help her put her anger, fear, as well as any bitterness, behind her.
"To have to stare at the blank ceiling for weeks wishing for time to go by faster? To feel your heart break upon hearing the diagnosis of paraplegia. To know that you will never walk again. That your life will never be the same. That things you once took for granted like getting out of bed in the morning would become a struggle just to get from your bed to your wheelchair. That getting dressed would no longer be a simple, routine act. You'll learn new definitions for the word 'frustration.'"
"Please, kill me. I don't want to spend the rest of my life as a freak."
Nat's entire body tensed from the comment's sting. Nick was everlastingly grateful that Natalie's extreme anger wasn't aimed at him. At the same time, his heart ached at the pain that last comment caused her.
"No. That would be too easy a way out. I want you to suffer as you've made me suffer. I want you to think about it every time you struggle into and out of your wheelchair." Nat's anger grew. "Think about what you did to me." She was nearly snarling. "You had no right to do this to me!" Her anger was stronger than Nick had ever seen it. "I'd say you got what was coming to you. Be glad I didn't have a good shot a little higher up or you might have wound up quadriplegic."
"I'll get someone to kill me."
"No, you won't. I'll see to it that no one hurts you. I can do it. Believe me," Nick said in a deadly serious voice.
"Somehow I do." The captor said, now more scared of Nick than of Natalie.
Nick noticed that Natalie was no longer struggling against him, that she seemed to have calmed down slightly. He loosened his grip on her, ready to grab onto her more tightly if need be.
Other voices could be heard approaching, surprising all three of them, Nick especially. Nick had been so focused on Natalie that he had failed to hear the arriving vehicles.
"Natalie, Nick?" Schanke called out.
"In here, Schanke," Nick called out.
"Nat, if I release you, promise me you won't go after him again."
Natalie said nothing and Nick refused to let her go.
Schanke entered the room amazed at the scene that greeted him. He saw the injured guy on the floor and knew why Nick was restraining Natalie. Schanke had never seen Natalie so angry.
"Natalie, did you do that to him?" Schanke asked quite surprised and a bit scared.
"Yeah," Natalie said with a little bit of a grin. "I tend to take offense when people try to use my head as a baseball." Some of the anger was draining from her.
"It's far too pretty a head for that," Nick said, trying to lighten Natalie's mood. He saw a faint grin and knew it worked.
Schanke went out and motioned for the paramedics to enter. They quickly examined the victim, slid a cervical collar around his neck and strapped him to a backboard.
Natalie's slight grin faded as the memories of waking up in the ER, immobilized, resurfaced. Nick felt her entire body once again tense up.
Nick walked around in front of Natalie, squatted down so he could look her in the eye. She wouldn't look at him so he gently tilted her chin up.
"You were right. You can take care of yourself," Nick said with a grin. "I'm proud of you."
She grinned back at him.
Nick bumped her left knee causing her to wince slightly. Surprise filled her face. He was sure she saw the same surprise on his.
"Nick, I felt that," she excitedly said. "I must've bumped it when I went to check on him."
"Nat, that's great." He shared her excitement.
"Touch it again. I want to make sure it wasn't a fluke."
He touched her left knee and again she winced slightly.
"Nick, maybe there's still hope. Maybe I'll get out of this thing and walk again," She said as hope filled her eyes.
He hoped so, but didn't want to see her come crashing down.
"Natalie, you should get it checked out."
"I don't want to. I'm fine. I hate hospitals."
Nick couldn't blame her, especially after the last few months. "Nat, please. For me?"
She saw the concern in his eyes and reluctantly gave in. "Okay, but I'm not staying unless it's a matter of life or death."
"NickÉ" She said completely seriously.
Nick and Natalie headed to the hospital in his caddy. When they arrived he pulled her wheelchair out of the back seat, set it beside her. Once she had transferred to her chair and had started towards the ER door, he pulled into a nearby handicapped parking spot. He had the proper sticker on his car, allowing him to legally park there. He headed into the ER to find Natalie.
Natalie had to fill out forms and wait an hour before being seen. Nick wasn't sure which one of them it was the hardest on. Nick trying to keep Natalie there and prevent her from climbing the walls or his ignoring the call of the bloodscent in the air.
When Natalie was finally called into an exam room, two orderlies lifted Natalie up onto the examination bed, making her feel as helpless as she had the last time she was in the hospital.
Natalie was questioned by the nurse, then the doctor as he examined her, trying to determine exactly how she'd injured herself and what, if any other injuries she might have. They had to eliminate abuse as a possibility. The doctor also had questions about her paralysis. The nurse gave Nat an ice pack wrapped in a towel for her bruised knee. X-rays of Natalie's entire leg were taken as a precaution.
Natalie was quite pleased when the x-rays showed no fracture, something she'd had a tiny doubt they might find, only because of the paralysis.
Nick's concern grew when he heard the nurse call his name and asked him to follow her, but the concern quickly turned to relief when Nick saw Natalie seated on the exam table holding an ice pack on her knee.
"She's fine. X-rays showed no sign of a fracture anywhere in her leg. She just bruised her knee."
"Nat?" Nick asked confused.
"I thought you'd believe him, and might not believe me considering I fought coming here."
"I would've believed you."
"Dr. Lambert, ice the knee for twenty minutes every four hours for the next two days." The doctor continued with his instructions, including complications she should be on the lookout for, even though he didn't expect any. "Go home and get some sleep. You look exhausted."
"I am. Thanks."
Natalie fell asleep in the car on the way home. Nick was surprised she stayed awake that long.
Upon arrival at the loft, Nick released Natalie's seat belt and carefully picked her up so he wouldn't wake her. Nick thought as he carried her into the loft and straight up to his bed. After tucking the covers up around her, he brought in her wheelchair and set it next to the bed. Nick gently brushed the hair from her face, being careful not to wake her.
He went back downstairs to nourish himself as he hadn't eaten properly since her abduction. He'd been too worried as well as too busy trying to find her.
About an hour later Nick was reading his new archeology journal when he heard Natalie scream. Nick dropped the journal and nearly flew up the stairs.
"It's okay. You're safe. He'll never hurt you again," Nick soothed, wrapping his arms around her.
The fact that she could not only move but recognize her surroundings took Natalie by surprise. Nick noticed Natalie's surprise and confusion, causing his own concern to rise.
"What was the nightmare about?" Nick asked a few moments later.
"He had me captive. He beat me so badly I was unable to do anything for myself. I was just barely aware enough to know everything I had lost. I wanted to die, but I couldn't. No one would help me. It was horrible." Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could.
"It's over. You're safe. He didn't hurt you. You hurt him, remember?"
Her eyes showed she remembered, which helped her calm down enough for the tears to stop.
"Did you find out his name?" She loved his cool touch as his fingertips wiped away the remaining wetness from her cheeks.
"Yes. Peter Weston. He lost a job at the Coroner's Office to someone more qualified, but disabled. A female paraplegic. She was the first victim."
"What were his injuries?" Natalie felt a bit guilty for hurting Weston even though she knew it was all self defense. She had no doubt if she hadn't hurt Weston he would've killed her, or made her nightmare come true.
"Weston had a ruptured kidney, a few broken ribs, the nasty knife wound in his leg required surgery to repair. You fractured a couple of his vertebrae leaving him a higher level paraplegic. They believe that his spinal cord has been seriously damaged." Nick couldn't quite figure out her expression, or what she was thinking. How does she feel about this? Does she feel guilty for hurting him, even though he put her in the chair and kept trying to kill her? Does she feel as if he got what he deserved?
Yes! Natalie thought before a pang of guilt hit. Why should I feel guilty. Yes, I hurt him, but he's why I'm stuck in the damn chair. At least now he'll see the hell he put me through. The daily frustrationsÉ' Nick's gentle caress of her cheek broke her train of thought.
"I'm sorry I passed out on you."
"It's okay. You were exhausted and running on adrenaline. Will you be ready to give your statement tomorrow?"
"Yes. I'll give it before going in to work. I don't want to hear any arguments," she said seeing his expression change. "I have to get on with my life."
"I know. You did really good. I'm proud of you." He kissed her on the cheek, loving the smile that both actions brought to her beautiful face.
"Thanks. I was terrified. I don't think I'll do too much undercover work again. It's a little hard on the nerves. I'll stick to dissecting people. I do have to give some of the credit to MacGyver. I learned a lot about creative thinking from him. He taught me that just about anything can be used to help if looked at correctly."
"He sounds like a very smart fellow. How's your knee?"
She pulled up her pant leg and examined the bruise. It looked about the same as it had the night before.
"It'll be fine. It's a little tender to the touch. I don't think the bruising should be too bad." She still couldn't believe she had feeling in that one spot.
"I'll get you an icepack." Nick said as he left.
Moments later he returned with a small bag of ice wrapped in a dishtowel and handed it to her. She set it on her knee and laid back on her pillows. Within a minute she was asleep again. Nick removed the icepack after twenty minutes and covered her up, brushing a few stray strands of hair from her face. He lightly kissed her forehead and left.
The next evening Nick drove Natalie back to her apartment. She showered and changed. He then followed her minivan to the precinct. The cold snowy weather made Natalie grateful for handicapped parking. It was the only advantage she had found in her disability.
The snow made pushing harder as well as making the handrims freezing and wet.
Cohen saw Nick and Natalie enter the precinct and waited for them to reach Nick's desk before she approached. She noticed Natalie wiping off her handrims with a towel she stuffed back into her backpack when finished.
"Natalie, I'm glad you're unhurt and safe. You did a terrific job. I want you to know, I'm putting you in for a commendation."
"Thanks, Captain. I have one request to make."
"That you don't ask me to do this again, unless it's absolutely necessary. I don't think my nerves can handle it."
"No problem," Cohen said lightly, reacting to Natalie's small grin. "Are you ready to give your statement?"
Natalie followed Nick, Schanke and Cohen into an interrogation room.
"Before we start, I need to know how you made that knife," Schanke said.
"I remembered something someone once said about knowing how to look at something in order to see its full potential. I knew that if I could flatten the can enough I could get it to break. If it broke I would have a nice weapon. I ran it over a few times to flatten it."
"Very clever. What about the toilet tank lid?" Schanke asked.
"Basically the same thing. I saw that it could be a very effective weapon if I could get it to a more manageable size. Ceramic breaks when smashed against a cement floor."
"How come the can didn't puncture your tire?" Schanke asked.
"They're solid rubber. They don't give the smoothest ride, but I don't have to worry about a flat."
"How did you prevent the force of the blow from the club from pushing you backwards?" Nick asked, forgetting about her brakes.
"That's simple. I set my brakes right before I hit him."
"How were you able to hurt him like that?" Cohen asked.
"I spent a good part of the time in rehab using weights to strengthen my upper body, especially my arms and shoulders. Then having to use them to do the work of my legs made them stronger yet. It was that strength and the club that allowed me to do it."
Schanke and Nick started the official questioning, taping everything said in the room. Cohen observed, asking a question now and then. Natalie answered their questions about her abduction as best she could. About an hour later she'd answered all their questions and was allowed to leave.
Natalie left, wanting to put it behind her and get on with the rest of her life. She knew there would be a trial, and she'd have to testify.
"Nick, she still amazes me. I would never have gone undercover so soon after such a traumatic injury and I surely would not have been brave enough to fight my way out the way she did."
"She's one in a million, Schank," Nick said.
"You've got that right," Schanke said. "I still can't believe everything that's happened recently."
"I know. Hopefully things will settle down now."
Both men knew Natalie would've been the next victim had she not fought back so well. That thought scared them more than either cared to admit, even to themselves.
Schanke didn't even want to contemplate what a mess Nick would've been, especially since he knew he'd be devastated, which would've made Nick either a complete basket case for hell bent on revenge. Nick's temper scared Schanke.
Myra entered Natalie's office, relieved to see her friend working on paperwork and not a corpse.
"Myra, what brings you by here?" Natalie asked a little confused and a bit surprised.
"How are you doing?" Myra asked, concerned.
"I'm okay. I was a little shaky afterwards, but I'm fine now."
"I'm really glad you're fine," Myra said, not totally convinced, but knew her friend well enough to accept the answer. "I hope things go smoothly for a while."
"So do I. I've had more than enough excitement."
The next afternoon, Natalie entered the rehab center for her therapy. Mike had left shortly after Natalie's release for a better paying job. Megan, who had taken over as Natalie's therapist, noticed that her client seemed to be in a good mood. Something was different but she couldn't quite figure out what.
Megan's hand bushed against Natalie's left knee causing her to wince slightly.
"Take off your sweats," Megan commanded, concerned, yet a part of her was surprised.
Natalie did as instructed. Megan saw the bruise causing her concern to grow.
"Did you get this looked at? How did you do this?"
"That's a long story. I'm sorry I missed my last appointment. The short version is, I was kidnapped and bruised my knee defending myself. I was checked out at the hospital at Nick's insistence. I'm fine."
"Kidnapped! My God, Natalie! Tell me everything." Megan said, quite stunned.
Natalie explained the whole story, amused at the way it seemed to completely captivate Megan.
"I'm glad you're fine. I was concerned when you failed to show up. I want to try something, but I need you to close your eyes."
Natalie closed her eyes a bit warily. Megan gently stuck a pin into Natalie's legs starting at her lower back and working her way down both legs. That one spot was the only place Nat could feel anything.
"That's a start. Maybe with time you will be able to feel more. I want to give your bruised knee a break this week. We'll do a light workout today."
They both wondered if the electrical stimulation of Natalie's leg muscles was indeed helping. The muscles were in good shape, but still were useless.
Are some of the nerves regenerating? Natalie wondered, knowing it wasn't likely, but didn't completely discount the idea.
Natalie entered an Okinawan Karate dojo, with Myra and Grace following behind her.
"I don't know how you convinced me to do this," Grace said as she saw the adults practicing various forms, some sparring with each other.
"My kidnapping taught me I needed to learn how to better defend myself. We all do."
"You're right," Myra said.
The owner of the school approached the ladies.
"Hi, can I help you?"
"Hi. I heard you can teach me how to defend myself," Natalie said.
"Yes. I've taught several physically challenged students. How about you two?"
"We'd like to learn to defend ourselves," Myra said.
"Great. I can put all three of you in the same class if you'd like. Or we can do private lessons, either individually or the three of you."
The three ladies glanced at each other. "I think we'll try the private lessons first," Natalie said, the choice having been left to her.
"Great. When do you want to start?"
"Whenever you have time?" Natalie asked.
"How about in fifteen minutes? There are some forms to fill out first. By the way I'm Bruce Leong." Said the world champion.
"I'm Natalie Lambert, this is Grace Balthazar, and Myra Schanke."
They moved into the office where they signed up for three months worth of lessons. They bought their uniforms and headed into the back to change, taking off their shoes before they entered the classroom.
The locker room was one large room with lockers along one wall and a bench with hooks above it rested along the nearest wall. The wall opposite the door had a poster about striving to be your best and using the martial arts to bring peace to your life, and to help you avoid violence. There was also a reminder that honor was very important throughout life.
Natalie didn't mind changing in front of her friends, but wasn't sure if she'd want to in front of strangers, with their futile attempts not to stare or their attempts not to look like they were.
The ladies hung their clothing in one of the lockers, stashing their shoes and socks too. Grace easily slipped into the drawstring pants and tied them, but had trouble figuring out how to tie the top of her gi.
"Let me help," Natalie said. Upon the looks from her friends she continued, "In college I had a friend who was into it."
Natalie showed Grace how to fasten the top, how the underneath flap's tie was tied with the one along the side seam. Natalie tied the other flap in place then wrapped the wide white fabric belt around Grace's waist then tied it in a knot up front.
Myra copied what Natalie had done, only her belt went around her twice.
"Why do I feel like I'm wearing pajamas," Grace said lightly as she looked at her friends.
The three ladies were dressed in white cotton gi's, making them look like almost every martial artist, or student, they had ever seen on TV.
Natalie restrained her wavy mane in a Scrunchi.
Grace and Myra sat along one wall with a couple of other students, while Natalie parked next to them. The floor was hardwood, with mats covering a corner. One entire wall was mirrored so the students could make sure they were doing the moves correctly.
A few of the more advanced students were practicing, causing the three friends to wonder if they'd made a big mistake.
The teacher bowed as he entered the classroom and waited a moment before getting everyone's attention. The advanced students realized a class was starting and headed for the locker room, bowing as they left the workout room.
Bruce motioned for his three students to line up, which they quickly did. Once the teacher and his students bowed to each other, Bruce took them through a stretching program. Bruce explained the philosophy of Okinawan Karate, which Natalie realized was the same information as on the poster in the locker room, but his speech was more detailed.
Bruce started with the very basics, the correct stance for Grace and Myra. From there he moved onto basic blocks, punches for all three ladies, correcting form where needed. And for Myra and Grace he taught them basic kicks, while he had Natalie work on her punches and blocks.
By the end of the hour all three were quite tired, Grace especially. Natalie had her physical conditioning helping her some, making her the least tired.
That night Grace was sore, but felt good. Nick and Schanke entered.
"I take it you enjoyed your first lesson?" Nick asked, seeing that Grace was in a good mood.
"Yeah. It was hard, but worth it. It'll be a long while before I'm in shape. Natalie seemed to be in the best shape of all of us."
"Sit down," Nick said lightly, loving the curiosity quickly spreading across Grace's face.
Grace took a seat in her chair and felt Nick's hands giving her a quick shoulder and back massage, sighing as she felt the soreness ease. He's got a great touch, slightly cool, but still wonderful.' She thought.
When Nick noticed no more tight spots he stopped and walked around to face Grace, loving the relaxed smile on her face.
"Thanks. I feel a lot better."
Natalie passed by just in time to hear the comment, looked at her friends with a raised eyebrow.
"He's got a great touch."
"I know," Nat said with a grin.
Natalie, Myra and Grace returned to the dojo three times a week for their private lessons. Each time they were a little better, and a little less sore. The first part of each lesson was a review, then they moved onto the new stuff.
Once they knew the basic moves Bruce began to teach them the first pattern they needed to know. It helped them combine the movements in different ways. He also paired them up and taught them how to use their moves in actual attack/defense situations. One would attack using a set of moves and the other would defend using another set of moves, then they'd switch. He kept it very simple.
Myra and Grace were often paired together, while Bruce worked with Natalie.
Once everyone knew the moves, he'd have Natalie work with both friends individually, while he worked with the remaining one.
Nick and Schanke noticed the improvements in their friends' self-confidence almost immediately. Schanke wondered if he should enroll Jenny as well.
Don and Myra took Jenny to watch a children's class. Jenny liked it and wanted to take classes so her parents signed her up for a three month trial. Don knew he should sign up as well, and joined his wife's class, with the permission of all three ladies.
During his first class, Don realized it was as hard as his friends had said. He found himself exhausted by the end. Not to mention sore later on that night.
A few weeks later, Natalie, Grace and Myra were looking for a parking spot at the mall, seeing nothing aisle after aisle. Finally they found an available handicap spot. Natalie pulled in, fitting perfectly between the lines.
"This will be a lifesaver when our hands are full," Myra said.
"I know. It does help, especially in winter," Natalie said as she shut off the engine and released the ramp.
Grace and Myra got out. They waited for Natalie to reseat herself into her chair and then make her way down the ramp. Natalie locked the door, which sent the ramp back to it's stowed position.
They entered the mall where they all unfastened their jackets and decided where to start while Natalie wiped off the handrims.
They headed off for a enjoyable day of shopping, even with the crowds, knowing shopping with friends was more fun than shopping alone. Having someone there to bounce ideas off of was a big help.
Natalie ignored the few people she caught staring at her. Grace and Myra were so used to seeing Natalie in her wheelchair that it took them a moment to realize who the stares were aimed at.
After their second trip to the minivan, the ladies stopped for lunch. After a quick lunch they continued on, determined to get as much done today as they could.
That evening Nick and Natalie went out to buy a couple of trees.
They were surprised to see Myra and Don at the same tree lot.
The foursome examined tree after tree before finding three perfect ones, two large ones and a slightly smaller one for Natalie's apartment.
Don and Myra carried their tree in as Jenny happily watched. Myra helped guide the tree into the stand, then made sure it was straight before the stand's screws were completely tightened into the base of the tree.
"When do we get to decorate it?" Jenny said nearly bouncing.
"Tomorrow. It needs to rest tonight so that its branches will be ready," Myra said, too tired to deal with the decorating.
She and her husband carefully cut off the plastic netting binding the tree into a manageable shape.
Meanwhile across town, Nick carried Natalie's tree in for her. Once inside she helped guide the base into the stand and tightened the screws once she saw the tree was straight.
"Do you want to set yours up first or decorate this one?" Natalie asked.
"Let's decorate yours first," Nick said.
Natalie started a Christmas CD to provide the proper atmosphere.
She and Nick worked to untangle the lights. He couldn't understand why she tested each string before they were wrapped around the tree, until she reminded him of the reason.
Natalie decorated the lower half of the tree. She assigned Nick the task of putting the hooks on the ornaments and handing them to her. When she could no longer reach the branches she took over his job and directed him where to hang the ornaments.
Nick didn't mind. He was happy spending time with her, especially after nearly losing her to that psychopath.
Natalie allowed Nick to place the star on top of her tree, seeing how much he wanted to.
When they finished, they plugged in the tree and walked across the living room to examine their work. When the tree passed inspection, they moved on to decorating her apartment. Nick snuck some mistletoe over her kitchen doorway. He looked up with a wicked gleam when they both passed under it together. He kissed her softly on the lips. She thoroughly enjoyed it.
About thirty minutes later they examined their work. When it passed inspection, they headed for his loft, making a quick stop at the Panda Garden to pick up a large snack for her. Natalie had been hooked on Japanese food and alternated it with Chinese.
At the loft, Natalie consumed her J.B. roll, remembering the nickname a friend had given it, the bagel roll, due to the cream cheese and salmon inside the seaweed and rice, along with some scallions.
Nick was a little surprised when she didn't make him try a piece, but was very grateful.
While she ate, he watched, sipping at a mug of his food. Since he finished first, he started the Christmas music.
When she finished, they set up his larger tree.
"Nick, how did you get your lights into this hopeless mess," Natalie said seeing the large ball of lights, wondering if they'd ever be able to separate out each string.
"I don't know. I guess I wasn't too careful when I put them into storage last year."
It took Nick and Natalie a solid hour to get the lights separated into their individual strings, and then further untangled so they could be strung on the tree. Each of the four sets passed its test and was strung on the tree by Nick.
Natalie again decorated the bottom of the tree, this time encouraging him to work with her. She noticed that most of the ornaments were new, but there were a fair number that seemed quite old and hoped he'd tell her the stories behind them.
Nick noticed Natalie's curiosity and indulged her with the stories behind his oldest ornaments, which had come from all over the world during the last century.
When she could no longer reach the branches she pulled back to let him take over.
"I could give you a lift if you wanted," Nick said, hoping she wouldn't take it the wrong way.
"Thanks, but I'll let you decorate the rest, as it's your tree."
Natalie handed him ornaments after she put the hooks in, curious to see how the tree would look when done.
Nick had to use his vampire nature to reach the upper parts of the tree, as he didn't own a ladder. Natalie wanted to scold him, but couldn't. It was nearly Christmas and he was doing it so that the tree could be decorated.
Three hours later, his tree was finished, all but the star.
He handed her the star and swept her up into his arms, after seeing her subtle nod. He flew her to the top of the tree, so she could place the star on the point.
She enjoyed it, finding the experience a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time. She placed the star, making sure it was straight.
As soon as Nick set her back in her wheelchair, he plugged in the tree. They walked across the loft to check out the view, both smiling at the nice job.
Natalie dug around in one of the remaining boxes of decorations and found a few things she thought would look nice hung around the lot. Since she couldn't reach the places she pointed them out to Nick, who agreed with her choices and hung the decorations where she'd suggested.
He snuck another piece of mistletoe over the lift door, after all it was the traditional place for it.
At Natalie's apartment the next evening, Nick woke before Natalie and booted up his laptop, glad he'd brought it with him. He accessed the web, knowing he probably would not get a chance to make it to the stores before Christmas. He also found the crowds too hard to deal with, all those heartbeats calling out to him.
He was pleased to have some time alone. He called up a web site and ordered several items before moving onto another web site.
Nick heard Natalie moving around in her room and went to start the coffee. He had a chocolate mocha blend as a surprise.
Natalie emerged from her bathroom and noticed the heavenly aroma of chocolate drifting into her bedroom. Do I dress or investigate? She knew she should slip into her suit first, but the smell was too tempting.
Nick heard her door open and headed for her room, meeting her halfway to the kitchen with a steaming mug of coffee. He enjoyed seeing her in her fluffy, pink, terrycloth robe as it looked good on her.
"That smells heavenly." Natalie took the offered mug and sipped it. "Mmmmm."
"I'm glad you like it."
"I don't remember having any of this in my cupboard."
"You didn't. I bought it on my way over last night and hid it in an upper cabinet."
"Very sneaky. But thank you."
She finished off her mug. He took the empty mug from her to refill it. She headed for the couch, having a few minutes to spare before dressing for work.
"Doing a little shopping?" She asked, seeing the web site he had browsing.
"Yeah. It's the easiest way to do your Christmas shopping. I know it lacks the fun of the trip to the mall, but the crowds are a bit too much for me."
"Yeah. Have you ever tried online shopping?"
"No. I probably should. It does sound a hell of a lot easier."
"I'll show you how easy it is. I was trying to find something for Schanke." Nick sat on the couch next to where Natalie had parked herself. He tilted the screen so she could see it.
They cruised through a couple of stores before finding the perfect gifts for Schanke. Nick entered the secure server and entered the shipping address and his credit card information, along with the fact that it was a gift.
"Nick, I should pay for my gift for Schanke."
"Don't worry about it. Okay?"
"Okay," she said a little reluctantly. He'd already done so much for her. She didn't want him to think she was taking advantage of him.
"That's all there is to it," Nick said as he was notified of his confirmation number.
"I have to try this. Unfortunately it will have to wait until after work."
Natalie arrived home after her shift, changed clothes, booted up her desktop computer and hit the web. She needed gifts for Grace, Myra and Nick. She hadn't found anything at the mall she thought Nick would like, and with her two friends with her she hadn't been able to buy their gifts either. She had already bought gifts for Jenny, along with ones for her sister-in-law Sarah, and niece Amy. Natalie hoped she could find something for Nick before he arrived, knowing she'd be too tired later and didn't want to wait until tomorrow.
Natalie had no idea what to get Nick this year. What do you get someone that can buy anything they want? That's been around for eight hundred years? She decided to start with Grace and Myra, and maybe an idea would come to her for Nick's gift.
"I see you decided to shop my way," Nick said, seeing her jump.
"How many time do I have to tell you not to do that!" Natalie said as she smacked his arm rather hard.
"Stop sneaking up on me and I won't have to smack you."
"Okay. I'll try not to." He enjoyed doing it, but would try to honor her request.
"Yeah. I like it. No more parking hassles, trudging through snow. No crowds to deal with, no going from store to store to find that one last thing, hoping someone has it.
Before long Natalie had found the perfect gift for both Grace and Myra.
"You were right. It is the easiest way to shop. But trips to the mall are needed as well. I like to see what's new, to buy something I like and not have to wait for it to be shipped."
"I never said that it should replace going to the mall. It's helpful for things like books and other items that would be too heavy or awkward to lug around. Sometimes you can get better deals this way."
"I noticed the savings. That's definitely an incentive."
"You ready?" He asked.
"Yeah. Let me shut down here and grab my stuff."
Natalie signed off, shut down her computer, put on her shoes, waist pouch and coat. She slipped on her gloves and grabbed her keys.
"Thanks for driving," She said, knowing that he liked driving.
Natalie locked the door behind them as they left her apartment.
Two nights later, Grace entered Natalie's office with a gift in hand. She set it on the desk. Natalie reached back into her pack and pulled out Grace's gift and handed it to her friend.
Natalie opened her gift, finding a baseball cap with the brain accurately pictured on it. She immediately put it on, a large grin on her face.
"I love it," Natalie said cheerfully.
Nat looked in the box to see if there was anything else and found a fridge magnet with DNA information on it. She happily stuck the magnet to her file cabinet. Natalie saw another item in the box, but couldnÕt tell what it was because of the protective wrapping around it. Natalie pulled that off and saw the sign. It looked like something off a country inn. It said "Natalie's Bed and Breakfast" and had a few daisies across the bottom.
"As in 'pushing up daisies'" Grace said, one eyebrow rising.
"Very appropriate." Natalie noticed more writing near the bottom. Our motto is 'you stab 'em, we slab 'em. "I love it. And Schanke thought I had a dark sense of humor. Just wait until they see this," Natalie said with another big grin. "Where do I put it?"
"There should be a stand in there somewhere."
Natalie quickly found the stand hidden in a corner of the box. She set the sign up on the stand and set it on a corner of her desk where everyone would be sure to see it.
"Thanks for the wonderful gifts. I love them all."
Grace opened her present, carefully folded back the tissue paper. She saw a bubble wrapped figurine. She carefully unwrapped it, a look of surprise covering her face as she saw the little blonde girl and her dolly at the doctor's office.
"How did you find this one? It's next to impossible to find. I've looked everywhere."
"I knew it was one of the few you're missing. It took some hunting but I found it in an online shop."
"I didn't know you shopped online."
"Nick introduced me to it. It's great." She saw her friend's look. "No, I haven't given up on the mall, but itÕs a nice alternative."
"I hope you're not spending Christmas all alone," Grace said.
"No. Nick and I are spending Christmas Eve with Schanke and his family. Nick and I probably spend at least part of Christmas Day together. Have a great time on your trip."
"I will. I hope you and Nick have a great time together. I'm looking forward to seeing my family again." Grace couldn't wait for her shift to be over with because then she went home to grab her bags and head for the airport.
Christmas Eve arrived. Nick and Natalie loaded his trunk with presents for the Schankes and headed for their friend's house.
They arrived at the Schanke residence and saw that the driveway had been left open for Nick to park in. Don knew how Nick was about his car, and figured it might be easier for Natalie this way, with no traffic to worry about.
As soon as Nick was parked, he shut off the engine and went around to open Natalie's door for her, like a proper gentleman. He pulled her wheelchair from the backseat and set it next to her seat. She transferred to it before joining Nick at the trunk. Nick handed Natalie her packages, which she neatly stacked on her lap. Nick grabbed his stack and headed for the door, Natalie right beside him. They smiled at the snowman they saw on the front lawn.
Jenny had been watching for them and had the front door opened as soon as they came up the porch ramp. Her eyes growing wide at the number of presents, wondering how many were for her.
"Hi Nick, Natalie."
"Hi Jenny," both Nick and Natalie said.
Myra heard her daughter and came out to greet the guests, Don right behind her. They knew that this was Natalie's favorite holiday and were pleased to see she hadn't allowed her paralysis to ruin the holiday for her.
"How are you two tonight?" Don asked as he helped take their coats and hang them in the closet. Natalie wiped off her handrims before going any further, not wanting to make a mess in their friend's house.
Hugs were exchanged before the group headed for the family room.
The tree was lit up giving the whole room a cheerful glow. A fair number of packages were piled neatly around the tree. Christmas carols softly filled the air.
Don and Myra went into the kitchen to check on dinner and the snacks, while Jenny talked with her grown up friends. Nick and Natalie placed their packages with the others.
"Guess what I get to do during vacation?" Jenny said excitedly.
"What?" Natalie asked.
"I get to go skiing. This will be my second year of it. Mom's going to ski with me. Dad says he'll watch."
"That sounds like fun," Natalie said.
"I want to do some ice skating too. Did you like my snowman?"
"It was very nice," Nick said.
Nick took a seat in the overstuffed chair and Natalie parked herself near him.
"Does Santa still come visit you?" Jenny asked.
"Yes he does," Natalie said with a grin.
"But you're all grown up."
"So? I'm still young, here, where it counts," Natalie said as her finger touched Jenny's chest, where her heart would be.
"Cool. What about you Nick?"
"He still comes to see me too. For the same reasons," Nick said. He hadn't really celebrated the holidays much until he'd met Natalie. Her joy of living rekindled so much in him that he now had a bunch of reasons to celebrate.
Myra and Don came out of the kitchen each carrying two plates of appetizers.
"Mom, when can we open the gifts?" Jenny excitedly asked.
"As soon as we're done with the appetizer. Okay?"
The adults knew that making her wait any longer than that would've led to her repeatedly asking when. Jenny reminded them of themselves when they'd been her age.
"Didn't Jenny do a nice job helping us to decorate the tree this year?" Myra asked.
"Yes, she did," Natalie and Nick said.
"You did a good job, honey," Don said, smiling at his daughter. This is what life is all about.
They ate and talked, enjoying spending time together without the outside world intruding.
Almost an hour later, Jenny was trying to be patient, but she was quickly losing that battle.
"Okay, honey. Why don't you play Santa's helper and pass out the gifts. Start with one for each person, okay?" Myra said.
"Okay." Jenny said as she nearly ran to the tree, almost bouncing in anticipation.
She found a present for each person and delivered them one or two at a time, depending on the package's size and weight.
As soon as everyone had a gift, Jenny tore into hers. The grownups watched amused, again reminded of their own childhoods.
"Cool! Thanks, Nick." Jenny loved the huge magic marker set, especially since it was an adult set.
"Every artist needs a proper set of tools to work with."
Myra and Don had given up trying to convince Nick he didn't need to spend so much on gifts for them, Jenny especially. They saw how much joy it brought to Nick and couldn't deny him the pleasure, especially since very few things made him that happy.
"WellÉ?" Jenny looked around, surprised that her friends hadn't opened their gifts. She had purposely chosen hers to be the ones they opened first.
The adults smiled and opened their presents. Jenny loved their expressions as they pulled the handmade gifts out of the box.
"It's gorgeous," Natalie said as she examined her decorated picture frame. "Thank you."
"It's lovely," Nick said as he saw his painted wooden mail holder. "Thank you."
"Thank you, sweetie. It's just what I needed," Myra said as she removed the decorated picture frame from the box. It was completely different from Natalie's. Inside the frame was a recent family picture that had been blown up to fit the eight by ten frame.
Don was the last to open his gift. He pulled a flat, painted metal container out of the box. As he studied the short walled box, it suddenly hit him what it was. "Thanks, honey. It's great. Now I have somewhere to toss my change."
Jenny was thrilled everyone loved her handmade gifts. The compliments made her blush.
Jenny handed out the next round of gifts, before sitting down to open hers.
"Thanks, Natalie. It's really neat," Jenny exclaimed as she studied the computer program. It allowed her to create works of art on the computer and then print them out.
"This was really thoughtful," Nick said as he flipped through the archeology book, but couldn't tell his friends it was a book he'd written twenty years ago. It had just been reissued.
Natalie noticed the very subtle change in his expression and knew she had to inquire about it later, when they were alone.
Natalie found a blue faux marble beaded necklace and a pair of pretty gold earrings.
"It's gorgeous. Thank you Myra, and Don," Natalie said, knowing who had picked out the gift.
Don opened his gift from Nick and found a certificate for a brand new bowling ball. "Partner, how did you ever know I needed this?"
"I heard you mention it."
"I guess you do hear my ramblings after all," Don said with a grin.
"I do listen, I just don't always respond."
Nick's gift to Myra was a beautiful hand carved jewelry box.
"It's beautiful. The workmanship is amazing," Myra said, examining the black lacquered box. The oriental design was flawless.
Jenny handed out the next round, a bit depressed that she'd have to wait until morning for more presents.
Natalie gave Myra two silver rings, one with a Celtic design and the other was a braid. "Thank you, Natalie. They're beautiful." Myra slipped on her new rings.
Don received a blue Hawaiian shirt, grinning as he removed it from the box. "I love it. Thanks, Natalie."
Before long it was dinner time. Everyone hungrily gathered around the table. The food was passed around. Nick took a little of everything, not wanting to insult his friends by not eating. As they all ate they talked about everything but work.
After dinner, they returned to the family room where cookies and coffee were served. Jenny was proud of the fact she had been allowed to cut out some of the cookies and decorate most of them.
She fell asleep curled up in a corner of the couch and was let be, so she'd still feel like part of the gathering.
A few hours later, the adults were all yawning and said their good nights.
Natalie and Nick headed back to their homes. Don and Myra cleaned up only what was absolutely necessary. Don carried Jenny upstairs and tucked her into bed before returning to the downstairs and helping his wife play Santa as they dragged all the presents out from various hiding spots. Once the stockings had been stuffed, they turned out the lights and went to sleep, knowing Jenny would be up at the crack of dawn.
Meanwhile, in the Caddy, Nick turned to Natalie, "stay with me today."
"Okay," she said, hearing in his voice, and seeing on his face how much he wanted her to agree. "I don't have your gifts here."
"It's okay. We'll get them tomorrow night. I have what I want, you."
Natalie blushed, bringing a smile to Nick's face.
"I have to know, what's the story behind the book they gave you?"
"I wrote it twenty years ago. It's still one of the most comprehensive books on Altun Canal."
"Can I read it sometime?" Natalie asked, hopeful.
"I'd like that," Nick said sincerely.
Before long they entered the loft, Nick bent down and kissed her on the lips as they passed the mistletoe. Natalie smiled. Too bad we can't leave that up all year round.' Both of them thought. Natalie saw the two presents under the tree, one large and the other being much smaller.
"They're yours to open whenever you want to," Nick said wondering how long it would be before she ripped off their paper.
Natalie yawned, too tired to open them now, despite how much she wanted to know what he'd gotten her.
"You take the bed, I'll sleep on the couch," Nick said.
"Okay," Natalie knew he wouldn't change his mind, and pushed herself over to the stairs.
He was right behind her, scooped her up in his arms and carried her upstairs where he set her down on the bed. He brought her chair up and set it next to the bed.
"You might be more comfortable in these," Nick said, handing her a navy blue pair of silk pajamas. He saw her eyebrow raise as soon as she saw the color. "I thought you might like something a little more colorful."
Natalie changed, noticing that these fit her better. Did he buy these just for me?
About ten minutes later, he knocked on the door. "Come in."
"How about a full body massage?" Nick said knowing how much she enjoyed them, and how she hadn't had one since their trip.
"I'd love it."
Once she was in position, Nick started at the base of her skull and worked his way down her back to her toes, her sighs were music to his ears. He felt her entire body relaxing, her breathing slowing as she fell asleep. He massaged her arms before gently turning her over, being careful not to wake her, tucked her in and gently kissed her on the forehead.
At the Schanke household, Jenny was up about an hour after sunrise. She waited on the top of the stairs until her parents joined her. Jenny eagerly bounced down the stairs and stopped when she saw the good sized pile of presents around the tree. Jenny headed straight to her stocking and emptied it, eating one of the chocolate candies before heading to the tree.
Her parents sat near her on the floor and exchanged presents while Jenny ripped open her gifts, quickly studying each one before moving onto the next one.
Don opened his gift from his wife, finding a stylish new watch. He thanked her with a kiss.
Myra opened her gift from her husband finding a gold ring with three small diamonds centered on the front. "It's beautiful," she said stunned.
"Thank you for everything you do for me, and Jenny."
Myra and Don smiled at the squeals of glee, the "cool" and "neat" that came from their daughter as she unwrapped the various toys and other goodies they'd bought her.
Later that afternoon at Nick's loft, Natalie awoke, showered and changed into a T-shirt, sweater, leggings and socks of hers she'd found in his closet and dresser. He heard her moving around and was at the top of the stairs by the time the bedroom door opened. He swept her up in his arms and carried her down to the couch, where he deposited her and went to fetch her chair, setting it next to her.
He plugged in the tree and turned on the Christmas music wanting the atmosphere to be as festive as possible, knowing it was her favorite holiday.
Moments later he handed her the larger of his two gifts, loving the stunned look on her face as she ripped off the paper revealing a sate of the art laptop.
"Nick, you shouldn't have."
"I thought you might enjoy being able to work on the computer anywhere, not just at your desk."
"I love it. Thank you," she said as she kissed him gently on the lips, loving his surprised expression.
He handed her the smaller of the two boxes. She untied the bow and opened the box, revealing an elegant, yet durable watch.
"Thank you." Natalie removed her old watch, replacing it with the new one. "It's beautiful."
She unpacked her new computer, surprised to see Nick had charged a set of backup batteries for her, and handed them to her. She installed them and booted up the computer, surprised to see he had preinstalled all the programs she needed, along with a couple of games.
They spent the rest of the afternoon playing the games. Once sunset fell, they headed for the lift, Nick lifting her chin up to gently kiss her lips when they passed under the mistletoe. She loved mistletoe as it was one of the rare times he'd kiss her like that.
Before long, Nick and Natalie entered her apartment where she plugged in the tree, turned on her Christmas music before taking off her coat and gloves. She tossed her pouch onto the table by the door.
Natalie went into the kitchen to fix herself some hot chocolate with lots of mini marshmallows. When she reentered the living room, she found Nick staring at his present.
"Go ahead," she said cheerfully.
He picked up his gift and carried it over to the couch. He waited for her to join him. Once she was seated next to him on the couch, he unwrapped his gift. He was surprised to see a beautifully framed picture of the two of them taken at the ball.
"I didn't know what to get you," Natalie said apologetically. "Shopping for someone eight hundred years old is not easy, even using the web," she joked.
"This is the best gift you could've given me. How much you spend doesn't matter. The fact that this came from the heart makes it that much more special. Thank you," Nick said sincerely touched. He set the picture on the coffee table where everyone could see it.
"What would you like to do for the rest of the day? Nick asked.
"How about a movie? I'm sure there's one here we haven't seen. Or we could watch a favorite one."
"That sounds good. I even picked up some food so we wouldn't have to go out until tomorrow," Nick said, loving the surprised look on Natalie's face. "What would you like to eat?"
"Surprise me," Natalie said, hoping that wasn't a mistake. Now it was her turn to enjoy the surprised look on his face.
Nick fixed some cheese and crackers, along with a mug of hot chocolate just the way she liked it.
A week later it was New Year's Eve. Natalie and Nick celebrated at his loft with a bottle of very fine champagne, excellent dark chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream. They watched the ball fall, toasting each other as the new year started.
"Nick, I hate to bother you, but could you run down to the minivan and grab the box on the passenger seat?"
Before Natalie knew it he was back with the large gift wrapped box.
"I know it's not your real birthday, but happy birthday, Nick."
Nick sat next to Natalie on the couch and opened his present. Inside was a waist length black leather jacket.
"Nat, you shouldn't have. It's way too expensive."
"I know. I also know how much you liked your last one, until you broke up a gunfight, making it look like a piece of Swiss cheese."
Nick stood up and tried on the jacket. It fit perfectly.
"For your next present, you won't have to eat anything tonight."
"This is for both presents," Nick said as he gave Nat a quick kiss on the lips.
Nick's thank you caused a large smile to spread across Nat's face.
Later that week, Natalie once again found herself in the hospital. The memories flooding back, nearly overwhelming her with their intensity. This time she wasn't a patient, but was visiting friends. Her first stop was Jenny Schanke's room.
Natalie entered Jenny's room and found her playing with her Game Boy. Her broken leg elevated to reduce the swelling. The royal blue fiberglass cast ran from the top of Jenny's thigh all the way down to the ball of her foot, the upper part covered by the sheet.
"Hi. How are you doing?"
"Okay," Jenny said. "They let me pick the color. I almost picked pink, but it was too bright to wear that long. This color goes with most of my clothes.
"How's the leg?" Natalie said.
"It hurts some. They say I'll be fine in about 2 months."
"Are you going to try skiing again?"
"Yes. As soon as my leg heals. Skiing is fun, well not the falling part," Jenny said. "I hate having to miss my karate lessons. I really like them."
"I know. Once you're all better you can go back."
"But I'll be out of shape."
"You can practice your blocks and punches while you wait for your leg to heal."
"You're right. Thanks."
"You're welcome, sweetie," Natalie said as she pulled a small gift wrapped box from her backpack and handed it to Jenny. "I hope you like it."
Jenny smiled as she eagerly ripped the wrapping paper off her gift. Her smile grew as she uncovered the cartridge she wanted. She turned off the Game Boy and switched cartridges.
"Thanks. How'd you know I really wanted this one? Did mom or dad tell you?"
"No. They didn't. You told me about it a while back."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"What's it like? Were you scared when you were hurt? What about when you woke up in the hospital?"
"I was very scared. I didn't know I was hurt until I woke up in the emergency room. Nick and Grace helped me feel better, just like your parents do for you. Your parents' visits helped a lot too. Are you scared?"
"I was very scared when I broke my leg. Now it's only when they come to give me a shot. I hate shots."
"I hate them too. They gave me a lot of shots when I was a patient here. As to what it's like, that's hard to describe. The best description I can think of is it's something like when your foot falls asleep and is totally numb."
"They had me using a wheelchair earlier when I went down to the playroom. Do you ever get tired of it?"
"Sometimes. Usually when I work 12 hours or more in one shift. What did you think of it?"
"I found it hard to maneuver. I couldn't reach everything I wanted to."
"I practiced maneuvering so that I would be able to do it this easily," Natalie said as she did a few fancy moves, spun around and then did a wheelie, eliciting giggles from Jenny.
"It took a lot of practicing. I too have trouble reaching things."
"I hope you don't mind my questions," Jenny asked, not wanting to be too nosy.
"I don't mind. Questions are the sign of a bright mind and a healthy curiosity. Your dad, Nick and I spend most of our nights asking questions and trying to come up with answers for the questions of others. Besides I would rather you find out the facts than believe the misinformation. How's your game?"
"Good. Wanna try?"
"Sure. Would you show me how?"
Natalie maneuvered herself so she could see the game in Jenny's hands. Jenny watched Natalie as she moved, even though it was nothing new to her, she still found it interesting to watch.
Jenny proceeded to show Natalie how to play the game. Natalie tried and felt so uncoordinated, marveling at how easy Jenny made it look.
Myra and Don entered to tuck their daughter in and found Natalie there.
"Hi, Natalie," Don said.
"Hi. I thought Jenny might like a visitor."
"This is sweet of you. I see she hooked you too," Myra said.
"I can't believe how easy she makes it look. I feel so uncoordinated," Natalie said. "Good night, Jenny. Sleep well."
"Good night, Natalie. Thanks."
Myra and Don followed Natalie out into the hall.
"Thanks for stopping by," Don said.
"No problem. How is she doing?"
"She's doing fine. They should release her tomorrow or the next day. She'll have to use crutches until the leg heals. At least she has school to keep her busy," Don said.
"When can she go back?"
"She'll want to go back as soon as they release her. I may keep her home a day or two, depending on how well she does with the crutches. One of us will have to drop her off and pick her up," Myra said.
"If you need anything let me know."
"Thanks," Myra said.
"You can't believe what a relief it is to know she's fine. She really wiped out," Don said, still disturbed my the memory.
"I remember how frantic you were. Especially when you heard she had a mild concussion," Natalie said.
"Yeah," Schanke said. "We're still thanking God that she's fine."
Don and Myra excused themselves to say good night to their daughter. When the Schankes went into Jenny's room, Natalie headed off towards her other stop.
Natalie arrived at the room she wanted, knocked on the door and heard a "come in". Natalie entered and estimated the red haired woman to be in her late twenties, possibly her early thirties.
"Hi, I'm Natalie."
"Hi, I'm Andrea."
"Several months ago I was where you are. I thought you might like someone to talk to, someone who'd been there," Natalie said.
"I would. What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a forensic pathologist. What do you do?"
"I'm a teacher. Can my life be like it was?"
"Yes, for the most part. I still do everything my job requires. I still have a full, active life. Once you're released from the rehab center yours too can be full and active."
"Can you drive?"
"Yes. I even go dancing." Natalie loved the surprised look on Andrea's face. "I started Karate lessons a couple of months back. I wanted to be able to defend myself."
Andrea was stunned. "How can youÉ"
"I found an instructor who teaches the disabled. I'm expected to do everything but the kicking. It's hard but fun."
Natalie answered Andrea's questions as best she could, hoping it would show Andrea that her life could still be quite rewarding. Natalie wanted to help someone through the very difficult transition like Chris had done for her. It made her feel good. A part of her knew Chris would be proud of her.
Natalie arrived at Nick's loft on her next night off, just after dark. She was looking forward to spending time with him, a good movie and dinner.
"Nothing. How would you feel if we did something different?" Nick asked a little nervously.
"What did you have in mind?" she asked, her curiosity growing, especially once she noticed the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
"I thought we'd go away for a long weekend. I think you need a change of scenery. I know I could use one."
"Nick, I can't just run off."
"I talked with everyone and they thought it was a good idea," Nick said cutting her protest short.
"Okay." She gave in, knowing he had this too well planned. "Where are we going?"
"That's a surprise. I want you to go home and pack warm casual clothes. Meet me back here when you're done." He paused a moment. "Do you mind taking your minivan to the airport? I don't want to leave my car there."
"No problem. I need a few more details."
"Sweaters, long johns, hats, mittens, snow boots. We'll be spending a lot of time outdoors." He enjoyed seeing the puzzled look on her face. He turned her around and gently nudged her towards the elevator. "Would you like me to go with you?"
Natalie was enjoying the mysteriousness, yet it was also a little frustrating. "I'd like that. I might need your help with the luggage."
Nick grabbed the two bags he had stashed in the deep shadows created by the stairwell.
"You were pretty sure I'd agree, weren't you?" she asked lightly.
"Yes. I can see how much you need this." He'd seen the uneasiness she tried to hide from everyone, along with the stress from her kidnapping. It had all happened to her so fast, first the accident, then the attempts on her life and eventually the abduction. The Karate lessons had helped, as had the holidays, but she was still too stressed out.
Nick enjoyed watching Natalie drive. He found it quite interesting, and noticed she'd mastered it quite well. He realized that in some ways she was very much like him, doing what she had to, to survive.
Once inside her apartment, he helped her drag her luggage off the top shelf in a storage closet.
"Warm outdoor clothes," Natalie said to herself as she looked through her clothing. She pulled out her wool sweaters, turtlenecks, thick socks, long underwear and jeans. She couldn't find her snow boots, and wondered where she'd left them, hoping she could buy a new pair where ever they were going.
Before long she filled both her pieces of soft sided luggage, packing as light as she could, but the clothes were large and bulky, quickly filling the larger bag.
Nick grabbed the larger of the two bags and left the smaller one for her, knowing that she'd want to carry one herself.
Natalie piled the remaining bag on her lap and did a quick check of the apartment to make sure that everything that needed to be turned off was. She installed the timer on one of her lights in the living room, so it would look like someone was home. Once she was satisfied that she had done everything she needed to, they headed out.
Before long they arrived at the airport, parked and headed for the terminal. She still had not pried any more information from Nick. She grinned internally knowing the gate would tell her where they were going geography wise, and would hopefully give her a clue as to their hotel.
Nick's desire to make the weekend as perfect and stress free as possible had caused him to consider a private plane but he didn't follow through knowing that most of them did not have the same walk on accessibility that the major airlines had. Besides, it might look strange to his coworkers.
"So, where did you get the idea for this weekend? Do you want to carry the bags on or check them?" She asked him as they made their way inside.
"Whichever you prefer."
She noticed that the three bags he carried looked like they weighed nothing. He had two over one shoulder and one in his hand. With his strength, it shouldn't disturb him at all.'
"I like to carry my stuff on. This way it doesn't accidentally get lost and I don't have to wait for them to unload it," She said, knowing she'd be the last one off the plane. "Follow me." Natalie said, enjoying the mix of curiosity and surprise she read in his face.
They soon arrived at the security gate. Natalie laid her bag, backpack, and waist pouch on the x-ray scanner's conveyor belt. A security guard hand scanned Natalie because her wheelchair would most likely set off the metal detector. Nick set the bags on the belt leading into the x-ray machine. He dropped his keys along with his change into a small tray before walking through without the machine buzzing. As soon as the guard finished scanning Nat and her chair, they collected their bags and continued on their way.
Natalie led Nick to one of the airline's "private" clubs, showing her membership card at the desk right after entering. She checked them in and received their boarding passes. She was a bit surprised to see they were traveling first class as well as their destination.
With his money, why wouldn't he travel first class?' She thought. She did enjoy the idea of not being squished into coach for once.
Nick always flew first class. He hated coach seating! It was the only way he'd fly, without the use of his powers. What fun is a surprise trip if you can't go first class all the way.
They grabbed a seat by the club's window as it was the only empty table or chair in the entire place. A part of Natalie wished it was daylight so she could watch the planes landing and taking off, but knew she'd be traveling alone.
"I thought we'd be more comfortable waiting in here," Natalie said.
"You're right. Can I get you some coffee?"
"No. I think I'd prefer a hot chocolate. They have packages... why don't I fix it. It'll be easier than trying to explain it."
"You sure? I can handle it."
"Okay." Natalie grinned, knowing he was trying to help and seem like any guy getting his lady a drink.
Nick quickly returned with her mug of steaming hot chocolate and a small paper cup full of snack mix.
"I thought you might like to snack on these." The smile she gave him warmed his cold body.
Before long it was time for them to head to the gate. They arrived a few minutes before the boarding call and were second in line to board. There was one wheelchair passenger before them, an elderly man accompanied by his wife.
Natalie was pleased that her chair was slim enough for her to remain in it all the way to her seat. Since Nick had mentioned her disability when booking the reservations they had been assigned to front row seats.
Natalie transferred herself to the aisle seat without too much trouble. "Can you stow my chair onboard, without having to check it?" She asked, nervous her chair would get lost and spoil the entire weekend.
"I'll see what I can do." The flight attendant responded as she took Nat's wheelchair with her.
Natalie put up the arm dividing the aisle seat from the window seat and slid herself over to the window as gracefully as she could, then put the armrest back in place.
"The only thing I want you to worry about this weekend is what you're going to do next. Okay?" Nick said, trying to help her relax.
"Okay." She knew a weekend away from everything would work wonders on her rattled nerves, and restore her sanity. She couldn't believe how unsettled she still was, from the accident, attempts on her life and the abduction. She thought that time, learning to protect herself, the holidays, and her friends support would've helped her fully overcome it, but it didn't. She would've believed she'd feel safe and be able to relax more once Weston was securely locked away, but it wasn't true.
Natalie watched the flight attendant tuck her wheelchair into the front closet where it just barely fit, knowing that if they had gotten on later, she would've been out of luck. Natalie relaxed knowing her chair was safely stowed. Meanwhile Nick had stored their luggage overhead and taken his seat.
The flight attendant approached, her cart containing wine and glasses, along with snacks. Natalie took the offered white wine, knowing it would help her relax and forget about everything but Nick and their weekend alone. Natalie sipped it, noting it was a good wine, nothing too expensive, but one that could cost a few dollars. Nick passed on the wine. Natalie helped herself to the snacks as she was a little hungry. She grabbed one for Nick, setting it on his tray. He looked at the snack as if it would bite him.
"Relax, I'll eat it," she said softly, once the flight attendant had moved on.
A few minutes later the glasses were collected as the plane was ready to depart. Natalie popped a stick of chewing gum into her mouth and began chewing, offering a piece to Nick, who declined it as expected. Do vampires have the same ear problems? Probably not as they fly, but they don't go as high. The revving of the engines and the forward motion caught Natalie's attention.
She loved watching as the plane took off, the city growing smaller and smaller as they quickly gained altitude.
After cruising altitude was reached dinner was served. Natalie was a little surprised when she was served a shrimp and crab platter instead of the usual meat or chicken dish. She realized she'd never bothered to find out if there were any special meals available. She'd always had too much to do to think about it. Natalie had another glass of wine while she dined and watched the movie.
"I did promise you dinner and a movie," Nick teased.
"Yes, you did," She said, returning the tease.
A couple of hours after takeoff the plane landed. The passengers quickly disembarked. Nick stood to collect their bags, but wound up in the row behind their seats, as the aisle was too crowded for him to retrieve their bags. Natalie lifted the arm rest, sliding over to the aisle seat as soon as it was empty, hating how she would be one of the last people off the plane. Finally the flight attendant wheeled over her chair. While Natalie reseated herself, Nick grabbed the luggage from overhead. He gave her a bag and carried the other three himself.
As soon as Nick and Natalie entered the terminal, they headed for the exit.
"Nick, did you reserve a car?" Natalie asked, wondering how they'd get around.
"Will you tell me where we're going?" She knew of a few things around the area, one of them being a ski resort. It hit her, the clothing he had her pack would work on the slopes. How was she going to ski? Could that be why he'd kept it a secret?
"No. You'll see soon enough." He saw the suspicion in her eyes and hoped she didn't figure it out. He also hoped it didn't backfire on him.
Nick checked in at the car rental place, and Natalie headed outside to pick their car. The agent told them to choose any full sized car in the third row. After two or three cars Natalie and Nick finally agreed on one, stowed their luggage and themselves into the car and headed out.
Natalie was a little surprised when they pulled into one of the more expensive hotels in the area. The fact that it was part of a ski resort confirmed her suspicions.
"Nick, what are we doing here?" Natalie asked uneasily.
"We're going to have fun." Nick said cheerfully.
"What fun am I going to have watching everyone else skiing?" Natalie asked a little annoyed.
"Trust me. Okay?"
He knew that tone. If he screwed up he would be making it up to her for a long time, providing she was talking to him and hadn't staked him.
Nick and Natalie checked in and were shown to their suite.
"Why a suite?" She asked, knowing it was less likely to be accessible.
"I figured it would be more comfortable for us. They told me they had one that was handicap accessible."
The uneasy feeling in her stomach grew, as did some fear. She hoped he would let her in on his plans soon
"Are you interested in finding out the surprise now or tomorrow night?" He teased, knowing how anxious she was growing.
They reached their suite and entered. It was a decent size, yet the furnishings gave it a cozy feeling.
"Tonight, if you don't mind. I don't think I could wait until tomorrow night." She said. "Which bedroom's mine?" Then it hit her, the accessible one.
He didn't answer, her expression showing she knew which one.
They each took a bedroom, checking to see which was the accessible one. She quickly discovered it wasn't the room she was in, so she headed for the other one. Natalie set her bag on the bed while Nick set her other, larger one on the luggage rack before dropping his off in his room. Once that was done they headed out.
"Nick, I don't have any snow boots. I don't have a ski jacket either. My hat and gloves are back in the room," Natalie said out in the hallway.
"Don't worry about it. I'm sure they have a shop here that sells that stuff. I'll buy you whatever you need. It's only fair, seeing as it was my idea."
They headed towards the pro shop. Once inside, Natalie looked over the selection, soon finding a jacket, hat, gloves she liked. She looked for a simple pair of snow boots that would keep her feet warm and hopefully dry. After trying on several pairs, she found one she liked.
Meanwhile Nick was busy picking out his jacket and snow boots. "Sir, Madam, I would suggest a pair of ski pants. It will help keep you warm and dry."
"Thanks." Natalie picked a pair that matched her jacket before entering the dressing room to try them on. After determining the pants fit, she changed back into her own clothes.
Nick passed on the pants, not being bothered by the cold.
"I would suggest sunglasses, as the sun's reflection can be blinding."
"We will be out mostly at night," Nick said. When the pro looked at him funny he continued. "I have a severe sun allergy. We picked your place because of the late hours."
"Nat, is there anything else you want?" Nick asked.
"No. I think I'm all set. How about you?"
"I'm all set. Why don't you get changed while I pay for the stuff."
"Trust me. Okay?"
She couldn't resist his expression as it was a cross between a little boy and a lost puppy. "Okay."
Natalie returned to the dressing room and changed. A few minutes later she was wearing the ski pants, her previous pants were neatly folded up on her lap. She slipped into her jacket, and gloves before pulling on her hat and boots.
"Madam, someone can take those to your room if you wish."
"Thanks." She handed her pants to the pro. He bagged them with a note.
"You ready for your surprise?" Nick asked. His mischievous grin, and the twinkling in his eyes was not lost on her.
"I hope so," she replied nervously.
Natalie followed Nick out the door and into the freezing night air as they headed for another shop, this one full of different brands of skis, poles, and ski boots. She noticed that one side of the shop contained skiing equipment she'd never seen before. Even the poles were quite different.
One of the instructors spotted them and approached. The instructor was in his mid-thirties, quite trim with short dark hair and brown eyes. He was about Nick's height.
"Are you Knight and Lambert?" The instructor asked.
"Yes. I'm Nick Knight and she's Natalie Lambert. Why?"
"I'm Bryan Davis, one of the instructors. Peter Lawrence, the other instructor, will be back any minute now."
"Nick, what is he talking about?" She asked, her nervousness and fear growing. "You're not the only one taking lessons are you?"
"Nat, I thought we'd learn to ski. That way we'd have something we can do together."
"I don't know. How can I ski?" A part of her was curious and wanted to try, but the other part was terrified. Remember when you thought you couldn't learn Karate?
"What do you two wish to be called? I answer to either name."
"Natalie's fine." She said.
"Natalie, why don't you come with me and we'll get you ready to hit the slopes. Okay?" Bryan grinned. "We'll have you skiing in a couple of hours. Have either of you ever skied before?"
"No." Both Nick and Natalie said at the same time.
"Nick, why don't you look over the ski's and boots. Pick out something you like." The instructor said. "Peter will answer any of your questions.
Nick began looking over the various brands trying to find something he liked. Another tall, thin, brown haired gentleman entered. He was about the same age as Bryan.
"Peter, Nick there needs some assistance in picking out beginner equipment."
Natalie and Bryan approached the equipment she would be using on the slopes. The same pieces she saw when they entered, but didn't know what they were for.
"Natalie, I need to ask you a few questions in order to pick out what's best suited for your needs," Bryan asked.
"What level is your injury? Do you have any feeling or function below your injury?"
"I'm a L-1 paraplegic. I only have one tiny spot of feeling in my left knee. Other than that there's no feeling or function below the injury site."
"How long have you been paraplegic? Do you have any problems with your balance? Do you have any other neurological or muscular problems? Do you have any other conditions that might affect your learning to ski?"
"I've been paraplegic for seven and half months. My balance is fine. I don't have any other problems that would interfere with the lessons."
"How were you injured?"
"Car crash. My brakes failed and I hit a light post."
"You look like you have a strong upper body, which will make it easier for you to maneuver." Bryan pulled out a mono-ski. It was a single ski with shock absorbers mounted on a short column, which was attached to a bucket seat. The seat was long enough to come to just behind her knees. A place for her feet to rest came out in front of the bucket, leaving her knees bent at a ninety degree angle. A strap held her feet on the footrest.
Natalie wasn't sure if she could transfer herself, but was willing to try. She followed the instructor's suggestions and with some effort and maneuvering transferred herself to the mono-ski. He handed her a pair of short, specially designed ski poles. She examined them, seeing they had a cuff that went around her forearm with a handgrip about halfway down. The bottom of the pole was flat, sort of like a very short ski. There was a hinge where the pole and flat bottom piece met to allow it to bend as needed.
"Use the poles to help you balance." Once Bryan saw that Natalie could balance herself without his help, he instructed her how to lean so that she could control the direction she was going as well as her speed.
"Nick, do we have time for a lesson?" Nat asked, not brave enough to go out there on her own.
"Yes." He saw her smile.
"Transfer back to your chair and I'll take the mono-ski outside for you." Bryan said to Natalie.
Meanwhile Peter had been showing Nick how attach his ski boots to his skis by stepping where the binding was, how to turn his skis so that he could control which direction he went as well as his speed.
Natalie found the deeper snow harder to push through. She was grateful when they arrived at the bunny hill. She transferred back to the mono-ski.
Bryan attached two long straps to the back of Natalie's mono-ski so that he could assist her in turning, at least until she got the hang of it. Using the straps, he would be able to exert some control over her.
"Natalie, relax. You'll do better if you're not all tense." He said. "If some quadriplegics can learn this, you can too." He saw that his reassurance worked, as well as seeing some surprise on her face. "You ready to give it a try?"
"I think so." Natalie took a deep breath before continuing. "What do I do first?"
"Give yourself a good push off with your poles, just like I showed you."
Nick and Natalie exchanged glances.
"Here goes." She took another deep breath and pushed off. She was both excited and terrified as she started down the small hill. Bryan manipulated the straps and helped Natalie control her speed and stay in a straight line.
"Nick, your turn," Peter said, having finished his instructions.
Nick pushed off, a little nervous, but enjoying the feel of the wind as he made his way down the small slope. It reminded him of flying.
A few feet later Nick fell. He heard a familiar giggle behind him. Nick pulled himself to his feet and tried again. He made it a little further down the slope before falling again, this time it was a different type of fall. He couldn't believe it, he could fly but he couldn't slide down a snow covered bunny hill with waxed boards underfoot. If Schanke, LaCroix or Janette were here, they'd never let me hear the end of it.
Natalie had a little better luck, falling further down the trail. She heard Nick's giggle. She struggled to set herself back up and continued down the mountain.
Both students received helpful pointers as they were pulled back up the bunny hill by a different sort of ski lift. This one had handles that they had to hang onto rather than being seated as it pulled them up the small hill.
Natalie and Nick's second run down the bunny hill was more successful. Nick fell halfway down the slope. Natalie was prevented from falling completely over because Bryan was able to help stabilize her with the straps.
After three successful runs down the bunny hill, Natalie and Nick's instructors felt they were ready to hit the real slopes.
"Ready to try it for real?" Bryan asked.
"I hope," Natalie said, butterflies in her stomach.
"Me too," Nick responded.
Nick and Natalie headed for the chair lift for their first run down the mountain's beginner's trail. Bryan coached Natalie on how to ride the lift, while Peter did the same for Nick.
Soon the foursome were at the top of the hill. Natalie couldn't believe how nervous she was. She was scared that she'd kill herself going downhill, but she also felt the excitement of the new challenge. Nick too was scared that he would seriously injure himself, after all he couldn't die. He too felt the thrill of the challenge, especially since it reminded him of flying.
Before she pushed off, Natalie's voice took on a mischievous tone. "By the way, Nick... if I kill myself doing this, I'm coming back to haunt you."
"You would, wouldn't you?" He knew she probably would haunt him. He also knew his own memories would haunt him if he was the cause of anything bad happening to her.
"See you at the bottom," Nick said as he pushed off.
A while later both reached the bottom of the trail, a little wobbly but they didn't fall once.
"We did it, not too gracefully, but we did it," Natalie said pleased with herself. She was a bit disappointed that there wasn't time for another run. "Bryan, are you free tonight? I'd like to start as soon as the sun goes down."
"I'll meet you at the chair lift around 7pm?" Bryan said.
"You did quite well for a first lesson. After a couple more runs down the slope you should be able to solo."
Natalie smiled, pleased, with both her attempt and her teacher's praise.
"Nick, I'll meet you at the chair lift, 7pm? You did good for a first lesson. Better than some people do."
Natalie transferred back to her wheelchair so Bryan could take the mono-ski back to the rental shop for the day.
Since none of the various restaurants, cafes or snack bars would be open for several hours, Natalie grabbed a snack from the vending machine as they headed back to their suite.
Once back in their suite, they stripped off their ski clothes, hanging them up for use that evening and changed into their sleepwear. Natalie used her hairdryer to help warm up the frigid handrims, not in the mood to wait until they naturally did, as they were colder than usual from sitting outside all that time.
"Nick, what are you going to do for food?" Natalie asked concerned. She didn't think he packed any of his usual with him knowing it would've been too difficult to explain to airport security.
Nick looked around the room and found a note on the fridge door. "Six bottles as ordered." He opened the door and took the first bottle out, removed the cork and took a long drink before recorking it.
"Is there anywhere your kind isn't?" She asked, a hint of teasing in her voice. She was quite curious and hoped he answered.
"Hawaii, and the surrounding islands. Jamaica, the Bahamas, Florida, anywhere that's too warm and sunny."
"I should've guessed," she said. "I felt like I could fly. It was very exhilarating."
"Flying is very much like that. Especially the way the wind rushes past you as you speed to your destination." He saw the slight surprise on her face. Was that from the similarities or from learning a new fact? he wondered.
"Thanks, Nick. I had a great time. I think I'm going to sleep. I'm exhausted."
"Me too. I'm glad you had a good time," Nick said as he kissed the top of her head. "Sleep well."
Both were asleep almost as soon as their heads hit the pillow. Nick had left the do not disturb sign out and had arranged with the front desk not to have the room disturbed during the day, using his allergy as the reason why. Nick and Natalie slept extremely soundly all day long.
They awoke quite late that afternoon, showered and dressed for the slopes, leaving off their outerwear. Nick accompanied Natalie to the restaurant so she could have a proper meal before they headed out for the slopes. After they ate they went back to the room to grab jackets, hats, sunglasses, gloves and boots. Nick found it a little difficult to walk in the ski boots, but quickly grew used to it. He found the skis easy to carry, along with the poles.
Before long Nick and Natalie were again reunited with their instructors. Natalie transferred herself into the mono-ski, noticing that this one was a little different, a bit sleeker than the previous one.
"Natalie, I think this one might be a little better for you," Bryan said as he attached the cables to the back of her mono-ski.
Nick snapped into his bindings. Before long all four of them took the chairlift to the top of the hill.
Natalie and Nick enjoyed their first run down the mountain, being a little smoother and steadier than the night before. Both noticed the looks Natalie received, but ignored it having grown pretty used to people staring at her, especially when she was doing something rather different like this.
"Nick, I think you have the hang of it. Remember to keep your knees bent. There isn't much more to teach you," Peter said.
"Natalie, I too believe you have the hang of it. Just remember to remain balanced. Don't be afraid to use the poles, that's what they're there for. This time you're going to do it solo. I'll be there just in case, but you really don't need me," Bryan said as he unsnapped the tethers from the back of her mono-ski.
Nick watched Natalie soar down the mountain. She was quite graceful.
When they reached the bottom of the slope Nick generously tipped Bryan and Peter for their good attitude and their willingness to work through the night.
"If either of you need anything let either of us know." Bryan said, surprised by the size of his tip.
"We will," Nick said.
"We hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation," Peter said as Bryan nodded. Peter was also surprised Nick had been as generous as he was.
Nick and Natalie took the chair lift up to the top again. Once they got off Natalie challenged Nick. "Last one to the bottom buys dinner." She took off almost before she'd finished issuing the challenge.
Nick quickly took off, but didn't cheat by using his vampire speed. Sure, he could win that way, but it would only anger her and he didnÕt want to do that. Not to mention that it would be a major risk as there were too many mortals around to see nothing more than blur, if anything, race past them.
It was a close race to the bottom of the hill. Natalie won by a hair. Nick couldn't believe how fast she was. He loved the huge smile that lit up her entire face. Christmas was the last time he'd seen her eyes sparkle like they did at that moment. A part of him thought they were sparkling brighter now than they did over the holidays.
"How about some hot chocolate before a rematch? That is if you're up to a rematch," he teased.
"You're on. But I want the rematch before we take a break."
Natalie won again, just barely. Is he holding back too much?
Nick saw the curiosity in her eyes. "No, I'm not letting you win. "
"I thought you'd be the faster one," Natalie said. "I thought all of this equipment would slow me down. Thank you."
"You're welcome. I'm glad you're having fun.
Natalie and Nick headed for the snack shack that had been built on the edge of the slopes so the skiers didn't have to remove their skis. Natalie ordered a large hot chocolate, burger and fries. Nick was surprised when Natalie didn't make him order anything.
The freshly cooked food felt good as it warmed up her cold body. She held her drink between her hands letting the heat warm them. They talked for a while after eating and watched the other skiers. They were a little surprised to see another mono-skier whiz down the hill, making it look almost as natural as breathing.
After about half an hour Nick and Natalie headed back for the slopes to get in a few more runs before everything shut down for the night. They improved with each run down the slopes. About three and a half hours later they had completed their last run for the evening and returned the mono-ski to the rental shop.
Nick and Natalie picked up a movie on their way back to their suite. Once inside, they changed into their sleepwear, grabbed something to eat from the fridge and headed for the couch. Natalie transferred herself from her wheelchair to the couch while Nick stuck a movie into the VCR. They fell asleep cuddled together on the couch, before the opening credits could finish.
The next evening Natalie was eager to get out onto the slopes, which surprised her. Nick was enjoying himself, but knew she was having more fun than he was.
"I can't believe how addicted I am. I feel so alive up there. Better than I do during my Karate lessons." She realized that didn't sound quite right. "I meant, I enjoy both, but differently. Karate's more about self-defense, and this is pure fun."
"It does feel great." Nick said before he changed the subject. "I have another surprise for you."
Natalie followed Nick through the lobby and out the front doors where a horse drawn sleigh awaited them. She wrapped her arms around his neck to steady herself as he lifted her from her wheelchair and climbed into the sleigh. He set her down on the seat and sat next to her. He tucked the blanket around their laps before signaling the driver to begin. Nick wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and she responded by leaning against him.
"This is great. I've always wanted to do this. Thank you," Natalie said.
As the sleigh slowly cruised around the ski resort, Nick showed Natalie every visible constellation, telling her the story behind each one. He could see how much she was enjoying his stories. What he didn't know was how much his soft, seductive voice melted her insides.
Nick and Natalie were drawn into a long, deep kiss. One that neither was anxious to break. Before long, Natalie reluctantly had to break away in order to breathe.
After about an hour, the sleigh returned to the hotel where Nick paid the driver, tipping him generously. Nick again scooped Natalie up in his arms, climbed down and headed for her chair. He loved the extremely relaxed, peaceful look on her face. It almost seemed a shame to spoil the mood by setting her down, but he knew it was what she wanted. She loved seeing her emotions mirrored in his eyes. His whole body seemed more relaxed than she had ever seen it.
Of course he's relaxed. LaCroix isn't here and he hasn't heard the Nightcrawler. Natalie thought.
Too bad we can't stay here. Ran through both their minds.
"How about some hot chocolate and a snack before hitting the slopes?" Nick asked, knowing she had to be hungry.
After Natalie finished her snack and rested a few minutes, they skied the night away, challenging each other from time to time. Enjoying every moment of their all too brief time away from Toronto. Relishing their time together, especially since no one was trying to kill her.
The next afternoon Nick and Natalie awoke, dreading the fact that it was time to return home.
"Nick, thank you for the perfect weekend. Thank you for showing me that there are still a lot of things I have yet to try, and succeed at." She gently caressed the side of his face as she spoke.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. I too had a great time."
Once they were back in Toronto, Natalie dropped Nick off, tempted to spend the day there, but wanted to sleep in her own bed.
Both she and Nick fell into a long, deep, peaceful sleep as soon as they laid down in their own beds.
A part of them really missed not being able to spend the day together. Now that Weston was in jail, they had no excuse.
Natalie entered the morgue the next evening with a smile on her face and her good mood radiating from every pore in her body. Grace spotted her and smiled.
"Someone had a great weekend. What happened?" Grace asked curious, but with a teasing aspect to her voice.
"We learned how to ski." She loved the surprised look her statement caused. She knew what Grace really wanted to know. "No, nothing like that happened. Although, we did share a very nice kiss during the sleigh ride."
"I would've loved to have seen you two learning to ski. How..." I shouldn't be surprised. After all she convinced Myra and myself to take up Karate.
Natalie explained it to Grace while showing her friend a few pictures some strangers had taken of her and Nick between runs. "It was exactly what the doctor ordered."
"Did he tell you what he had planned?" Grace asked.
Natalie enjoyed relating the weekend's events to her friend, and seeing the numerous changes in her expression.
Nick arrived at work in a good mood, something Schanke immediately noticed and felt it was his duty to comment on.
"I see the weekend went well. Where exactly did the two of you go?"
"We went to the Kingston resort." Nick suppressed a grin at his partner's look of surprise.
"Isn't that a ski resort? Why'd you take her there? Wouldn't not being able to ski have the opposite effect from what you wanted?"
"Yes, it's a ski resort. She thought I was nuts too. I didn't tell her where we were going until we got there. All I told her was to pack warmly."
"Smooth move, partner. I don't think she would've agreed to go, if she'd known." Then again, she does Karate.
"You're probably right. Well, once there she was eager to explore the resort. She didn't know how she could ski until we entered the pro shop." Nick explained how Natalie was able to ski while showing Schanke the duplicate set of prints.
"How'd she do? I assume you did okay because I don't see any broken bones," Schanke teased.
"She did better than I did, at least at first." Nick said as he told his partner about the weekend.
"I'm glad it worked. She really needed that."
"I know. It really helped."
Later that night Grace and Schanke had fun teasing the other half of the couple. Nick and Natalie endured the teasing in the fun spirit it was given. They even threw in a tease or two of their own. Grace and Schanke were pleased to see their friends relaxed, and happier than they'd been in a while.
The next afternoon Natalie returned to therapy. Megan was glad to see her client was more relaxed than she had been before her trip.
"How'd it go?" Megan asked, even though the answer was perfectly clear.
"It went great. Did you have any part in it?"
"Not really. Nick asked me for suggestions, and had a few questions about your limitations. He also asked if it was okay for you to miss a session or two. Normally I would've said no, but you needed the vacation more than you needed to come here."
"I'm glad you had such a great time."
During their workout Megan questioned Natalie about the weekend in detail and Nat happily answered all her questions.
Natalie, Grace and Myra still attended their three Karate classes a week. Don dropped out to care for Jenny, knowing it was more important for his wife to learn self-defense than him. He could always pick up a class at the academy. Natalie, Grace and Myra had improved quite a bit from those first lessons, and were thrilled to hear they were almost ready for the first test. The three ladies practiced their katas in class, knowing they had to have the series of movements that made up the particular form they'd been taught perfected by test time.
Three weeks later Natalie was back at her therapy. Megan once again told Natalie to close her eyes. When her client did as instructed, Megan stuck a pin through Nat's leggings poking her hips, thighs, legs and feet at various points. Natalie was nearly stunned when she could feel the pricking in two new spots.
"I think that we might intensify your therapy, if you have no problems with it."
"No. We would have to start earlier in order for me to get to work on time. We'd also have to work around my karate classes."
"I think that can be arranged."
"Do you think I might be able to get on my feet again?"
"I don't know. It may be possible, especially if the feeling in your legs continues to increase. If you do get on your feet, it will be a long hard struggle to walk with assistance, crutches and maybe braces of some sort. You still might want to use your chair sometimes."
Natalie knew not to get her hopes too high, but it wasn't easy. A part of her was quite used to being in the chair and was a little afraid of failure.
"Can you wiggle your toes, move your foot or anything?"
Natalie tried, but was only able to slightly wiggle her toes, disappointed that she couldn't do more, and still lacked any feeling in her legs.
"I know. It's still too early," Natalie said, depressed.
They did their usual mat work, talking as they worked.
As soon as Nick and Schanke neared their desks they heard, "Knight, Schanke in my office now."
As the two detectives entered the Captain's office she motioned for Nick to shut the door, which he did. Nick and Schanke grew concerned, knowing Cohen only had them do that when there was trouble.
"What is it, Captain?" Schanke asked.
"I just got off the phone with the Crown Prosecutor. It seems that Peter Weston has filed charges of attempted murder against Dr. Lambert."
"What?" Schanke said totally stunned. "They let him do that?"
"Apparently so. I want you two to go pick her up and bring her here. Book her."
"Captain, you can't throw her into a cell," Nick said upset. He pushed down his desire to kill Weston slowly and painfully, knowing it wasn't what Natalie wanted.
"I know. I can't do that to her. She doesn't deserve it."
"What if we went into a conference room and worked? That way she would be confined and watched." Nick asked, looking for an alternative.
"That would work." Cohen knew it would help Nick get his paperwork done and would keep him from constantly checking on Natalie.
"She's not going to like this," Nick said.
"I know," Cohen said, glad she wasn't the one who had to tell the forensic pathologist she was under arrest, especially having seen Natalie's temper.
During the drive to the Coroner's Office, Schanke turned to Nick, "Can you believe it? He gets to charge her after what he did to her."
"It's unfair. Do you want me to be the one to tell her?" Nick asked.
"Yes. I don't want to be on the receiving end of her temper."
Nick wasn't too pleased about that either, but knew he was the one who should do it. It won't be the first and probably not the last time I'm the reason she loses her temper.
Shortly the two detectives entered Natalie's office. She heard them enter and looked up, concerned by their expressions. Schanke seemed like a little boy who'd broken a vase and was being asked who did it. Nick seemed a little uneasy, but something about it was different this time.
"Peter Weston filed charges of attempted murder against you. We have to take you in."
They're kidding, right? Please tell me this is a joke. Their expressions told her they were deadly serious.
"You're going to book me and leave me in a cell?" Natalie asked astounded, and a little angry.
"We're going to book you, but not throw you in cell. Bring some paperwork with you. We'll be working in a conference room," Nick said.
"Who's idea was that?"
"Sort of a joint effort," Nick replied.
Natalie stuffed several files into her backpack along with the blank forms she'd need.
Nick read Natalie her rights, not wanting there to be any trouble later because he failed to do so. He was glad he did not have to handcuff her, he couldn't do that to her.
I can't believe that bastard is allowed to do this to me! It was purely self defense. I wouldn't be in this damn chair if it wasn't for him. Natalie thought, trying to calm herself down, not wanting Nick to see how much it disturbed her.
What boneheaded prosecutor believed he had a case? Schanke thought.
What sort of justice is it when the attacker can have the victim arrested for defending herself? Nick wondered, carefully containing his anger at Weston.
At the precinct, Nick took Natalie's backpack from her and handed it to Schanke, who took it to the conference room. No one was pleased with the situation, but knew they had to try and make the best of it.
The booking officer was stunned when told to book the medical examiner. He too thought it was some sort of a sick joke until Nick explained it to him. Officer deLuca agreed that the situation was unfair.
DeLuca walked Natalie through the booking procedure far more gently and friendlier than usual. Natalie hated being made to feel like a criminal. She was fingerprinted, then given a wet towel to wipe off the ink. DeLuca didn't want her getting it all over her clothes or wheelchair. Next, he handed her the slate with her name and number on it before positioning her for her mugshots. Natalie found having to answer the questions the most embarrassing of all.
Once booking was completed, Natalie was released into Nick's custody. Natalie and Nick headed for the conference room where coffee, a couple of chocolate bars, and her backpack were waiting for her.
"Now what?" Natalie asked, a little scared.
"Now we wait until the hearing. Hopefully, Cohen will be able to push that along." Nick put his hand on hers in an effort to reassure her that all would be fine.
She drank her coffee and ate one of the chocolate bars while working on her files. At least I get some uninterrupted work time, and time with Nick.
At least Cohen will be off my back about the paperwork. I get to spend time with Nat.
A couple of hours later, Natalie smiled as Schanke entered with Natalie's favorite Chinese food.
"I couldn't let you eat the chipped beef on toast that's being served in holding."
"You are a true friend," Natalie said as she removed the carton from the bag, and opened it. She hungrily ate her lunch, using the chopsticks almost like a native.
"Schank, how's Jenny doing?" Natalie asked.
"Pretty good. She seems to be handling the crutches like a pro. Her leg doesn't seem to be giving her any problems. She's had no problems from her mild concussion and they don't perceive any future ones either." Schanke said very relieved. "She carries her books or whatever she needs in a backpack. She enjoys getting out of most of her chores. She hates my carrying her over the snow and slush piles, saying it embarrasses her. Deep down I think she doesn't really mind. Just this evening she told me that she was glad she didn't have to play dodge ball because the boys throw the ball too hard. She spends the time in the library, same for recess."
"And you're not spoiling her?" Nick said with a slight teasing to his voice.
"Maybe a little. We try not to. It's hard not to spoil her."
Later Nick had to escort Natalie to the ladies room and wait outside, before escorting her back to the conference room.
Natalie and Nick finished their work with a couple of hours left in their shifts. Schanke brought them a deck of cards he'd found, hoping that it might help take her mind off of the current situation. He left the cards with Nick and Nat before heading back to his desk to finish up his own paperwork, taking their completed files with him.
"Thanks for not throwing me into a cell. I don't think I could've handled that," Natalie said relieved that she was stuck in a dull drab room rather than the holding cell she should've been in.
"No problem. You shouldn't be here at all," Nick said as he gently stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. He was pleased when he saw the muscles of her body relax.
Natalie soundly creamed Nick at whatever game he picked. He had never realized she was so knowledgeable about cards. Remind me never to play poker with her, Nick thought.
"Whenever there were a few minutes during med school or residency we would play cards, if we weren't sleeping or studying. Usually, there wasn't time for anything but studying or sleeping."
Near the end of the shift Schanke came in to inform them that Natalie's case would be heard shortly. Nick and Natalie packed up their stuff and headed for the Caddie.
Nick, Natalie and Schanke entered a conference room next to the courtroom. Natalie and Schanke looked at each other in surprise, then at Nick when they discovered Natalie's barrister was the top one in all of Toronto.
"Nat, I want you to have the best defense possible. Hopefully, he can prevent this from going any further," Nick said.
"Dr. Lambert?" Lawton said, recognizing his client from the picture he'd seen of her.
"Yes." Natalie said.
"I'm Michael Lawton. Mr. Knight hired me to make sure this superficial case goes no further." He pulled a manila folder out of his briefcase. "I need to hear your side of the story before we're called."
Natalie told Lawton everything Weston had done to her from the accident to the present. She answered any questions Michael asked. Lawton asked a few questions of Nick and Schanke because they were able to fill in a few of the blanks.
"Technically there are grounds, but it was clearly self defense. Weston started it, and didn't stop until you seriously injured him. Then he kept coming, so you had to hurt him even worse to save your life. There are very few barristers who would even consider taking such a weak case."
"Can you get the case thrown out?" Natalie asked.
Nick saw the slight fear in Natalie's eyes. Fear that she'd actually be tried for attempted murder.
"I believe I can. Like I said, the case is extremely weak."
Their group had to wait for the case before them to finish. When it was their turn, the bailiff lead them into the courtroom.
"The next case is the Crown vs. Natalie Lambert," the bailiff said.
"The charge?" The judge asked.
The judge was shocked. He knew Dr. Lambert from her excellent reputation and her few times appearing before him on the other side of the fence, as well as having met her once or twice outside of work. He found her an intelligent and enchanting lady.
Judge Radcliffe quickly reviewed the case file.
"Dr. Lambert, how do you plead?"
"Since you do not have a record, and don't seem to be a flight risk, I see no reason to hold you overnight." Judge Radcliffe paused momentarily. "Due to the nature of the charges against you, I will have to release you into the custody of someone."
"I volunteer to take custody of Dr. Lambert," Nick said.
"I can't allow that. The report states your involvement as well, but nothing you can be charged with."
"I volunteer to take custody of her," Schanke said.
"Please identify yourself for the record," the judge asked.
"Detective Don Schanke."
"Okay. She's in your custody until tomorrow night when the preliminary hearing is scheduled. She is not to be out of your sight until then. Understand?"
Natalie, Nick, Schanke and Lawton left the courtroom.
"Schanke, thanks. I'm sorry for the inconvenience," Natalie said.
"No problem. Myra and I have been trying to get the two of you over for a visit." Schanke tried to lighten the mood.
"Well, it looks like you succeeded. I don't want to be any trouble," Natalie said, knowing what its like to have unexpected company.
"You hungry?" Schanke asked, his stomach rumbling.
"Starving," Natalie said.
"Then let's go. Myra should have dinner ready shortly."
"Nat, Schank, I'll see you tonight. I have to run." Nick sensed that he would just have time to get home before the sun came up.
Natalie again noticed the ramp as she and Don approached his front door.
"Did you permanently install this?"
"Yes. It's helpful when we have our hands full. It's easier for Jenny to get into the house as well."
Natalie smiled, causing Schanke to react similarly. Don unlocked the front door and held it open for Natalie. He followed her inside where Myra met them. Don headed upstairs to put away his gun, badge, cuffs and take off his tie.
"Myra, thanks for doing this. I don't want to cause any more trouble."
"I know. This whole thing is stupid. At least it gives us a chance to visit."
Don carried his daughter down the stairs, not wanting her to fall. She didn't mind as hopping down them was hard and slow, even with the banister's support. Jenny entered the family room, dressed for school and headed straight for Natalie. Don headed for the kitchen to see if his wife needed any help. He knew that Jenny wanted to spend a few minutes talking with Natalie.
"Hi, Natalie," Jenny said excited to see Natalie again.
"Hi, Jenny. I hear you're doing good," Natalie said cheerfully.
"Yes. It's beginning to be a bit of a drag though. Did your arms and shoulders hurt?"
"For weeks. The first two weeks I didn't think I could handle another day. Slowly, as I grew stronger it hurt less and less. Now it only hurts when I work more than 12 -14 hours in a row. Go sit down on the couch."
Before long Jenny was seated on the couch, her crutches propped against the end of the couch, and watched as Natalie transferred herself to the couch so she was seated behind her. Natalie gently massaged Jenny's shoulders feeling the tension easing as she worked.
"Does that feel better?"
"Much. Thank you."
"Nick used to do that for me every night. He still does sometimes."
"Yes, he is," Natalie said with a grin.
"I wish it wasn't so icky outside."
"Wouldn't you hate your cast more if it was summer?" Natalie asked, trying to help Jenny see the brighter side.
"Yeah. It would be too hot inside it. I'd miss playing with my friends outside and going swimming. Thanks for helping me see that."
"Does it matter what season it is for you?"
"Not really. I like winter the least because of the snow and cold weather."
Myra motioned for them to enter the breakfast area. Jenny watched as Natalie reseated herself in her chair. She was used to seeing Natalie do this, but somehow still found it interesting to watch. Jenny grabbed her crutches, using them to help her stand.
"How about a lift to the table?" Natalie asked, knowing how hard it was being Jenny's age and on crutches.
"You sure?" Jenny asked, not wanting to accidentally hurt Natalie.
"I'm sure. I'm pretty tough," Natalie said with a large grin.
"Okay," Jenny said as she sat on the coroner's lap. Natalie helped position her so that the young girl wouldn't interfere with her maneuvering. Natalie leaned Jenny's crutches against the overstuffed chair before heading over to the table, with her passenger.
Natalie pulled up right next to Jenny's chair so she could have a seat without having to hop too far. She helped the youngster off her lap and saw Jenny use the edge of the table to help her stabilize herself as she hopped the two steps to her chair and seated herself.
Don removed the kitchen chair from Natalie's place so that she wouldn't have to go to the trouble of transferring herself.
"Natalie, you shouldn't have," Myra said, not wanting her daughter taking advantage of their guest.
"It's no problem. We were both heading here, so why not? Besides, I remember what it's like."
"Did you ever break your leg?" Jenny asked, curious.
"No, but I did sprain my ankle when I was about your age. I was on crutches for a week. I hated them." Natalie said as she maneuvered herself to her place. "I was playing tag outside and zigged when I should've zagged." Natalie smiled, noticing her seat overlooked the backyard.
"I thought you might like that after spending the night in the conference room and courthouse," Myra said.
"Thanks. I do appreciate it. The food smells great," Natalie said.
Don carried two full coffee mugs over to the table, setting one in front of his place and one in front of Nat's. He grabbed two plates from the counter and set one in front of Natalie and one in his place. He sat down, seeing that Myra had things under control.
"Natalie, are you going to do more skiing or was last weekend enough for you?" Don asked.
"If my schedule allows, I'd like to do more, but maybe something closer to home."
"You ski?" Jenny asked quite surprised.
"Yes. I just learned how last weekend. Nick thought I needed a vacation and surprised me with lessons. I didn't think I could, but with a few lessons and some practice I was able to."
"How?" Jenny asked, curious.
Myra and Don were torn between letting their daughter satisfy her curiosity and preventing her from bothering Natalie. When they noticed that Nat didn't seem to mind they went along with it.
"Remind me after breakfast and I'll see if the pictures are still in my backpack. Okay?" Natalie said, knowing it would be easier to explain with the pictures as a visual aid.
"Okay. Are you good?"
"I'm okay. It was only two nights worth of skiing so I didn't really have a chance to get that good."
"How did Nick do?" Jenny asked.
"He did pretty good. He had trouble at the beginning," Natalie said as she grinned. "But he pretty quickly got the hang of it."
Natalie answered more questions as they finished their breakfast. After everyone was finished, Natalie gave Jenny a ride back to her crutches. Jenny hopped the three steps to the couch, holding onto the end of it for support.
"I could've done that, or brought them to her," Don said, not wanting Natalie going out of her way.
"It's only fair since I brought her to the table," Natalie said with a grin.
Natalie transferred herself to the couch next to Jenny and dug around in her backpack, quickly coming up with the pictures.
Myra sat on the other side of her daughter so she could see the pictures as well. Don had already heard the story so he had a seat in the overstuffed chair, moving Jenny's crutches so they leaned against the end table. He figured he'd listen to the story again as he too was more curious than he let on.
Natalie explained to her audience how she was able to ski using the modified equipment shown in the pictures. Her friends found it fascinating. Natalie happily answered all their questions.
About half an hour later Don caught a glimpse of the time. "Jenny, we need to go. Otherwise you'll be late."
"Bye, Natalie. I hope I'll see you again later."
"You probably will. Bye, Jenny. Have fun."
Don handed his daughter her jacket, backpack and crutches. Once she was all set the two of them headed out. He knew he was ignoring the judge's orders, but knew Natalie wouldn't run off.
Myra saw how tired Natalie was and insisted that she stretch out on the couch while they talked. Myra moved to the overstuffed chair vacated by her husband. They enjoyed their chance to talk, not having had much time for a long, relaxed conversation lately.
Upon Don's return, Natalie saw how tired he was and understood when he said his goodnights and went straight up to bed.
Myra and Natalie talked for about an hour more before Natalie fell asleep. Myra draped a quilt over Natalie and went about her business, trying to keep the noise down so she wouldn't accidentally wake her friend, or her husband.
Several hours later it was time for her to pick Jenny up. She left a note on the coffee table where Natalie would see it, knowing Natalie wouldn't run off. She didn't have the heart to wake her husband for such a stupid reason.
About twenty minutes later, Jenny and Myra entered, trying to be as quiet as possible. They saw Natalie seated on the couch reading a magazine.
"Hi, Jenny. How was school?"
"Okay. We learned about gravity today. We did scientific experiments to see which of two objects would fall faster than the other. What did you do?"
"I bet you learned a few startling things. I talked with your mom until I fell asleep. I woke up a few minutes ago." She could see that Jenny's muscles were sore. "Would you like another massage?"
Jenny nodded and seated herself on the couch again.
"Yeah, a few of the things surprised us."
Natalie gently massaged Jenny's shoulders.
"The earlier one really helped. My muscles weren't as sore this morning."
"Myra, I'm sorry I fell asleep earlier."
"That's okay. There's plenty of time for us to talk. You needed your rest," Myra said, not wanting Nat to feel bad.
Don came down the stairs, dressed for work. He saw Nat and his daughter once again talking on the couch.
"Natalie, how did you sleep?" Don asked during a break in the conversation.
"Quite well. How about you?" Natalie asked.
"Like a baby," Don said. "Jenny, I don't want you bothering Natalie."
"It's no bother," Natalie said with a smile as she played with Jenny's short ponytail, which caused Jenny to giggle.
"Is anyone hungry?" Myra asked. She saw three people nod their heads and started preparing the early dinner they were accustomed to.
Jenny enjoyed the chance to talk with Natalie. She thought both Nick and Natalie were cool. Don went into the kitchen to see if he could help, sticking his head out from time to time to make sure that his daughter wasn't annoying their guest. He was surprised by a question or two that Jenny asked Natalie about her disability, but didn't intervene, knowing Natalie would let Jenny know if there was something she didn't want to talk about and probably why.
"Food's ready." Myra called about fifteen minutes later.
"How about another lift to the table?" Natalie said.
"Thanks." Jenny said. "I have to do a report on someone I consider a role model. Can I ask you some questions later?"
"Sure. I'm honored you chose me."
"Sorry, mom and dad."
"It's okay, honey," Don said with a small chuckle. "She's a good choice."
Natalie helped Jenny position herself so that she wouldn't interfere with Nat's wheels.
Don and Myra didn't argue this time, knowing Nat wouldn't do it if she didn't want to. They noticed how Natalie's disability had made Jenny less unsure about her own temporary one. It had helped the entire family learn a lot about people with disabilities, paraplegia in particular.
The dinner conversation centered around Jenny's day at school, which was fine with Nat. She didn't want to disrupt their routine anymore than she absolutely had to. Besides, she enjoyed hearing Jenny's stories. Natalie enjoyed watching the family interacting with each other, pleased they were happy and loved each other.
After dinner, Natalie again gave Jenny a lift to the family room. Don and Myra walked, arms around each other to the family room.
Jenny grabbed her backpack, seated herself on the couch, her leg propped up on the footstool in front of her and pulled out her notebook and pencil. Natalie transferred herself to the couch next to Jenny while Don and Myra took the overstuffed chairs on each side of the couch. Don read the paper while Myra read a cooking magazine.
"Natalie, what got you interested in studying dead bodies?"
"I was doing my internship after medical school. Every two months we would move to a different part of the hospital, ER, surgery, pediatrics, and so on. Well, during my turn at the morgue, I was fascinated by a case we had. It involved a man who had drowned on dry land. He had apparently died where they found him."
"How do you do that?" Jenny asked, writing down what Natalie said.
When Natalie saw her young friend had caught up with her notes she continued. "We asked ourselves that very question. With a lot of careful examination and speculation we figured out that someone had held his head in a bucket of water, which they took with them. They also removed any traces of it being there."
"Why did they kill him?"
"Because he had stolen from a very nasty guy. He was greedy and wanted more of the money for himself. The very bad guy didn't like that, because it meant he got less of the money that he felt was his."
Did you stay in the morgue?"
"No. I had to go onto the next assignment which was the critical care unit. But once I finished all the different assignments I had to pick where to specialize. Nothing had captured my curiosity as well as my time in the morgue so I picked that as my specialization."
"Did you need any other training?"
"Yes. I studied forensic pathology," Natalie noticed Jenny struggling with the spelling and spelled it for her.
"I had to read many hard books on the subject and spent a lot of time around dead people."
"The first time I saw a dead body I turned green. The first time I had to do an autopsy I was sick for three days."
Natalie noticed the small chuckle Don let out. "I'm glad to see that it did bother you at one time," he said.
"I got used to it the more I did it. I love the challenge of finding why someone died and how they died. I help your dad, Nick and others to catch the bad guys by giving them as much information as I can."
"Do you still have to study?"
"Yes. I have to keep up with all the latest news, the new techniques."
"After your accident were you afraid you wouldn't be able to do your job?"
"Yes. I was. I wasn't reassured until my boss allowed me to return to full duty."
"Is it harder now?"
"The actual job itself isn't much harder thanks to the platform built around my autopsy table so I can push myself around it like I used to walk around it. The main difference at the crime scenes is I can't squat down over the body like I used to, but I'm close enough to see most things and lean over when I have to."
Natalie waited for Jenny to catch up, repeating things when she had to.
"Don, Myra, you might have a budding reporter or detective on your hands," Natalie said.
"Whatever she chooses to do is fine with us," Don said, seeing Myra nod in agreement. "As long as it makes her happy."
"I think I have enough, but can I call you if I have more questions. I promise not to bother you too much."
"Sure. Can I see your report when it's finished?"
Don noticed the clock. "Natalie, we have to go. Especially if you want to stop by your place to change."
"Okay. Thanks for having me. I hope I wasn't too much of an inconvenience," Natalie said.
"It was fun. You weren't any trouble at all," Myra said cheerfully.
"Jenny, we'll talk soon. Okay?"
Natalie transferred herself back to her chair while Don kissed his wife and daughter. Natalie followed Don to the front door. They put on their coats and gloves before going out into the freezing night.
Don escorted Natalie back to her apartment.
Once inside, she fixed them both a cup of coffee. "Make yourself at home while I get ready."
Schanke seated himself on her couch and flipped on the TV. After trying a few channels he found his favorite show, settled back and enjoyed it.
An hour later, Natalie emerged from her bedroom dressed in her navy blue suit, ready to go. Schanke turned off the TV and followed Natalie out the door, pausing as she locked up.
That evening Nick, Natalie and Schanke met Lawton outside the courtroom. Everyone could see Natalie's nervousness and tried to reassure her that everything would be fine, but she wasn't completely convinced. When Natalie's case was called she and Lawton entered the courtroom. Nick and Schanke weren't allowed in until after they testified. Natalie and Lawton seated themselves behind the defense table.
Peter Weston entered in his wheelchair. He parked himself behind the prosecution's table, next to his barrister. Weston glared at Natalie from time to time, his eyes full of hatred. He hated her for what she did to him, making him a freak like she and Knight were.
Natalie refused to allow Weston to bother her. He's the reason we're both like this.
The members of the jury were called in, and took their seats.
Lawton and the defense barrister, Orrin, made short opening statements. Lawton focused on the fact that everything Natalie did was in self-defense. That Weston went out of his way to cut her brake lines, tried to kill her three other times, the last time was after he'd abducted her. Orrin pointed out that Lambert didn't try to kill Weston once, but twice. That she didn't have to be as brutal in her attacks as she was. That she blamed him for her accident and was seeking vengeance.
Judge Radcliffe, the same judge from the night before called Dr. Lambert to the stand. The Bailiff directed Natalie to a spot right in front of the stand and held out the bible to her. Natalie placed her hand on the bible.
"Dr. Lambert, do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" The Bailiff asked.
"Dr. Lambert, I want you to tell me what happened when Peter Weston was injured," Judge Radcliffe requested.
"I had just locked my minivan and was heading for the elevator in my apartment building. I felt a hand wrap around my mouth and another around my body. I couldn't move. He told me that if I screamed he'd kill me. He dragged me, wheelchair and all, to his vehicle. He picked me up and set me on the backseat. He must've stuck my chair in the trunk because it wasn't inside the car with me, but he put me back into it when we reached our destination. He dressed completely in black. He blindfolded me and tied my hands behind my back before he drove off. One of the things he said to me was that my befriending other disabled people led to my downfall. He said that once I became disabled I should've quit my job so someone normal could have it." Natalie said.
"I noticed the car stop. He lifted me out of the car and back into my wheelchair, pushed me up a ramp over the porch steps, then destroyed the ramp. Once inside he removed my blindfold and cut my hands free. He forced me into the back room. The room had been stripped of everything he saw as a potential weapon. The only things in the room were the mattress on the floor, the cooler and the pictures of handicapped people on the wall, most with red x's across their faces. The picture of Detective Knight and I had been taken no more than two or three weeks earlier. There were pictures of other disabled members of the police department and coroner's office, the dead ones had x's across their pictures. He checked on me a while later but did nothing. I looked for ways to protect myself. It wasn't until he learned that Detectives Knight and Schanke were closing in that he tried to kill me. He swung a bat at my head, barely missing, only because I ducked in time. It didn't stop him. I saw him raise the bat again. He tried to bring the bat straight down on my skull, but I evaded him, barely. I knew that if I struck quickly I might be able to prevent him from trying again. I stabbed him in the leg with a makeshift knife. All that did was further anger him. I knew I had to use my other weapon, the porcelain club I made, if I was to stay alive," Natalie said before being cut off.
"Objection," the prosecutor said.
"Sustained," Judge Radcliffe said.
"Dr. Lambert, the knife wound to his thigh should've been enough to slow him down so you could escape. Why did you hit him in the back with the toilet tank lid?" The prosecutor asked.
"Yes, he should've stopped after I stabbed him but he continued to try to bash my skull in with the baseball bat. All I had done besides slightly slowing him down was to make him angrier with me. I saw the murderous look in his eyes as he swung at me again. I had no choice but to hit him with the lid. He said that he was going to kill me slowly and painfully because I hurt him, rather than the quick way he had originally planned. It was self-defense. I could not leave the house, he had seen to that by destroying the ramp over the front stairs as soon as we had reached the porch."
Nick and Schanke were called to the stand to testify. Their version of events supported Natalie's story. Even when Orrin did his best to rip their testimony apart, and prove that the friendship between the two partners and the coroner was biasing the trial.
When the barristers finished their summations, the jury was led to the deliberation room.
Nick and Schanke convinced Natalie she needed to eat, and that it would help keep her mind off it until the jury came back. Her rumbling stomach caused her to reluctantly agree
Thirty minutes later, Natalie, Nick, Schanke rejoined Lawton in the courtroom. Natalie at the defense table, and her two friends in the first spectator row.
The jury reentered the room.
"Members of the jury, have you reached your conclusion?" Judge Radcliffe asked.
"We have, Your Honor," the Foreman said as he handed the folded slip of paper containing the verdict to the bailiff, who handed it to the judge.
The judge studied the paper. "Dr. Lambert you have been found not guilty." He noticed the coroner let out the breath she'd been holding, then the smile that crossed her face. "Dr. Lambert's reactions clearly were self-defense. Dr. Lambert's record will be cleared. Dr. Lambert, you're free to go. Mr. Orrin, the next time I see you in my courtroom you had better have more of a case than you had for this one. I don't know how anyone was convinced to file charges."
A great wave of relief washed over Natalie. Everyone knew it was self defense, but she had a tiny doubt that she would be the victim of some ridiculous loophole, or worse she'd wind up doing time. She knew that innocent people sometimes got convicted.
The next evening Natalie arrived at her office to find a stranger waiting for her. She was instantly on the alert.
"Can I help you?"
"Are you Dr. Natalie Lambert?"
"This is for you." He said handing her a folded piece of paper and left before she could complain.
Natalie looked at the document in her hands, stunned to discover she was being sued for ten million dollars by Peter Weston.
Natalie left her office fuming and would've seriously collided with Nick in the hallway if his vampire instincts hadn't alerted him, as both were a little preoccupied.
"What's wrong?" He said seeing the anger in her eyes, and expressed through her body language.
"This," she grumbled as she shoved the folded paper towards him.
Nick looked over the lawsuit papers and was stunned.
"Is this ever going to end?" Natalie asked tired of it all. She thought that the arrest would've ended anything Weston could do to her.
Natalie saw the look in Nick's eyes, it scared her.
"Nick, I don't want you doing anything to him. I want him to spend the next fifty years dealing with life in a wheelchair."
"Okay. It is only fair."
Natalie entered the office of one of the staff barristers for the coroner's office while Nick waited out in the hallway for her.
"Dr. Lambert, what brings you here? I thought the charges were dropped and your record was cleared."
"They were dropped and it was cleared." Natalie took a deep calming breath. "I was served this morning. Peter Weston is suing me for ten million dollars."
"Don't worry about it. We'll see to it that this is invalidated. He is determined isn't he?"
"Yes. Is there anything else he can do to me?" Natalie asked hoping this would be the end of it.
"No. He's used his only two options. I'm surprised that he was able to convince someone to sue you."
"So was I. Thanks."
The next afternoon, Natalie, Grace and Myra were at the dojo ready for their first test. The three ladies were nervous, but felt ready. They sat along the wall dressed in their gi's waiting for their teacher's entrance. As soon as Bruce Leong entered, Myra and Grace jumped to their feet and headed for their standard positions, Natalie pushed herself to her standard spot.
Teacher and students bowed to each other.
Bruce had his students perform the kata he had taught them, one at a time, Natalie first. All three students made it through without a single mistake, their moves sharp and strong. After proving their proficiency in everything he taught them, he had them bow to him again.
"Congratulations. You passed." He left a moment and returned holding three yellow belts.
Natalie, Grace and Myra removed their white belts. Bruce wrapped their yellow ones around their waists and tied them securely in front. Each student bowed to Bruce after he finished.
Myra couldn't wait to get home and tell her family. She didn't want them there as it would've made her too nervous.
Natalie couldn't wait for Nick to know.
Myra arrived home having thrown her coat over her uniform. She didn't bother to change at the dojo most times, finding it easier to dress at home, do her lesson and then shower and change upon her return home.
Don and Jenny met Myra at the door. As soon as Myra unzipped her jacket her family saw her yellow belt.
"Congratulations, honey," Don said. "I knew you'd pass."
"You did great, mom," Jenny said. "I can't wait until I get mine."
"How about I take two of my favorite ladies out to dinner to celebrate?" Don asked.
"Yay!" cheered Jenny.
"Let me shower and change first, okay?"
"Sure," Don said, kissing his wife passionately.
Natalie arrived home, pleased to see Nick waiting for her. She went through her usual routine of wiping off the handrims, and taking off her jacket and gloves.
"Congratulations, Nat. I didn't doubt you pass with flying colors."
"You weren'tÉ" Natalie said. "Nah, it was daylight."
"I wasn't there, but I've seen you practice. You're good."
"How would you like to celebrate?" Nick asked.
"How about dinner and dancing?" Natalie asked, hoping he'd agree.
"If that's what you want, that's what you'll get."
Natalie headed for the shower, a grin on her face.
As soon as Nick heard the water start, he went straight for the fridge where he grabbed one of his bottles and downed half of it, knowing he'd need it.
About forty-five minutes later Natalie came out of her bedroom dressed in black slacks and a tan sweater. The foot part of her black leather boots stuck out from under her pants.
They went back to the Horseshoe, because she'd always had a good time there. Natalie coaxed Nick into line dancing, once one of the regulars had convinced her to try it. Nick was surprised that he enjoyed it. He loved dancing with Natalie. She loved dancing with him.
Nick overheard a few couples wondering how long he and Natalie had been together because they seemed very in tune with each other.
The next night, Jenny stopped by the precinct to see her dad. She wanted to show him the A plus she'd received for her report on Natalie. He'd left before she arrived home from computer class.
Nick called the morgue and learned that Natalie should be arriving anytime. Just as he hung up, he saw Natalie enter. As Natalie approached her friends' desk, she saw Jenny and Myra there too.
"Hi guys. I stopped by to drop off some files on my way to grab something to eat. Anyone care to join me?"
A chorus of "sure" went up from the group. Nick took the folders Natalie handed him and dropped them on his desk. All five of them headed out.
"Where to? Who goes with who?" Don asked.
"How about the coffee shop on the corner. It's close and mostly empty at this time. Jenny, can you make it that far?" Natalie asked.
"Yeah. I think so."
"If you get tired, let me know," Nick said.
The group headed for the door, Natalie and Jenny in the back. Natalie stayed with Jenny so she wouldn't feel bad not being able to keep up with the other adults.
When they saw how messy the sidewalk was, they wondered if Jenny would be safe going that far.
"How about I give you a lift?" Nick asked, knowing it would be the easiest for him to carry Jenny.
"He's good at that," Natalie said.
"Okay," Jenny said, not really minding as she was tired. She didnÕt want to slip, fall and break anything else.
"Hand your crutches to your dad and hold onto my neck," Nick said as he squatted down to her height.
Jenny did as instructed. Nick realized he wasn't sure how to pick her up and decided to wrap one arm under her butt, holding her across the top of her thighs. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks, Nick."
"You sure she's not too heavy, partner?" Don asked not wanting his partner to accidentally hurt himself.
"She's fine, not too heavy at all."
A few minutes later the group entered the cafŽ. Nick set Jenny down, and her father handed her the crutches. Don noticed how Nick handled Jenny like he did when she was a toddler, weightwise.
They were quickly seated at a large round table in the back. The waitress left a chair for Jenny to prop her leg on, and removed the one from Natalie's place.
"Jenny, what brings you to the station so late?"
"I wanted to share my report on you Natalie, if you don't mind. I got an A plus on it."
"That's great, sweetie. I don't mind at all," Natalie said as she gently stroked the top of the eight year old's head.
Nick, Natalie, Myra, Don and Jenny all checked out the menus to see what they wanted.
"Can I just have some ice cream or some fries?" Jenny asked.
"Okay," her mom said.
The waitress came, set a glass of water by each person and took their orders before heading to the kitchen to place them.
"Can I read my report now?" Jenny asked.
"Sure," Natalie said.
Jenny pulled it out of her pocket where she'd carefully folded it into quarters before tucking it away.
"Who I admire most by Jenny Schanke. I admire Dr. Natalie Lambert because she's smart, funny, pretty and has a tough job. She doesn't let anyone push her around. She's the chief forensic pathologist for Toronto. She's very good at her job. One made harder by a car accident that left her paraplegic, which means she can't move anything from her waist down and has to use a wheelchair to get around. After her injury she didn't give up but worked hard to learn to take care of herself, and to go back to the job she really enjoys." Jenny paused for a sip of water and to glance at her audience.
When they all seemed to like her report she continued. "Natalie became interested in what she does when she was in medical school. She had to work in the various hospital areas like pediatrics, which means kids, the emergency room, surgery, and the morgue. She found she liked working with the dead bodies best because of a very hard puzzle she and her boss had to solve. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle with no picture, and very few clues. She had to take lots of special classes, do a lot of reading and spend a lot of time around dead people. She told me that the first time she saw a dead body she turned green and the first time she had to autopsy one, which means to cut it open and find out why they died, she was sick for three days. Now they don't bother her much, except for when it's a child, or a badly burned body."
Jenny paused for another sip. "Natalie is a really cool person, and my friend. I like how she doesn't let anyone tell her what she can and can't do. She will go out of her way to help her friends, and sometimes anyone in trouble whether or not she knows them. If for some reason I had to pick a new mom, I'd pick her. The end."
"That's beautiful, Jenny," Natalie said deeply touched by it. "Thank you. When we get back to the precinct can I copy it?"
"Sure. I'm glad you liked it." Jenny could tell Natalie was telling the truth, that she really did enjoy the report.
"You did a great job of telling everyone who she is," Nick said.
"I'm proud of you," Don said.
"Me too," Myra said.
Jenny noticed Nick and Natalie nodding, and knew they too were proud of her.
The adults thought Jenny was going to either bounce off the walls from all the praise, or explode out of sheer happiness.
Later in the shift, Grace saw Natalie pinning something new to her bulletin board. From the smile on her friend's face, she knew it was something good.
"Can I read it?" Grace asked.
Grace read Jenny's report, smiling. "She did a great job capturing you."
"Yeah. She did. When I stayed there that night she asked me a lot of questions for it. We might just have either a reporter or detective on our hands."
"Or she could be an artist. Or a reporting artist, an artistic detective like a certain blonde one we know."
"Maybe she'll wind up a M.E." Grace said.
"At her age anything and everything is possible. It's a great age."
A month later Natalie had become used to the intense therapy and had more feeling in her legs. Between the therapy and work there had been little spare time, most of which was used for karate class and sleeping.
Natalie arrived for her therapy surprised to see Myra and Jenny leaving. Jenny was a little surprised to see Natalie.
"Hi, Jenny, Myra. What brings you here? Jenny, congratulations on getting your cast off."
"Thanks. I got it off today. It was driving me crazy. I have to wear these braces for a week to help my knee and ankle get used to being used again." She pulled up her pants leg to show off the lightweight braces. "It allows my knee to bend, but only correctly. The ankle one allows my ankle to move up and down but not side to side."
"The doctor wants Jenny to undergo physical therapy for a couple of weeks to help speed up her recovery and strengthen her leg. The bone healed perfectly although the muscles are a little weak from lack of use. They gave her the braces and crutches to prevent her from accidentally reinjuring herself."
"Natalie, what do you do here?" Jenny asked.
"I work on keeping my leg muscles in good shape so that someday maybe I'll be able to walk again. I will need crutches to help me. Probably ones very similar to yours."
Jenny looked down at the new crutches she was using. "I only have to use these for two or three weeks. At least they won't fall when I have to pick up a book." She demonstrated by lifting her arm and seeing the crutch hanging from the cuff around her upper forearm.
"How do you exercise your legs if you can't move them?" Jenny asked.
"Someone helps me move them. This way they get exercised so they stay healthy."
Jenny considered that for a moment. "They helped me move my leg because the cast made it stiff. It hurt at first. Does it ever hurt you?"
"No, because I can't feel it. They're careful to make sure that I don't move in a way that would hurt me."
"Jenny, we have to go, if you want to want to go to the movie," Myra said.
"Bye, Natalie," Jenny said, suddenly eager to get out of there.
"I promised to take her to a movie if she cooperated with the therapist. She didn't want to come here."
"I don't blame her," Natalie said lightly.
Myra saw Jenny's impatience and they left. Natalie saw Megan waiting over by the mat.
"Sorry about that. What's on the schedule for today?" Natalie asked.
"No problem. You probably did her more good than we could. She seems to like you. Seeing how you come here and have no problem with it will probably make her more willing to cooperate."
"I hadn't thought of it that way. She's a friend."
"I have a surprise for you today," Megan said as she approached a low set of parallel bars, noticing the surprise and concern on her client's face.
"I think you're ready. All I want you to try is to see if you can pull yourself into a standing position. Okay?"
"Okay." Natalie was surprised by how excited and nervous she was. She noticed a rather muscular guy approach.
"Mark's here to catch you if you should fall. I want you to fasten this belt around your waist to give him something to grab," Megan said as she handed the belt to Natalie.
"Okay." Natalie fastened the weightlifter-like belt around her waist. She placed her feet on the ground, put one hand on each bar and struggled to pull herself to her feet. It was a lot harder than she thought it would be.
Megan saw the huge smile of triumph when Natalie was standing on her own two feet again.
"Very good. How does it feel?"
"Great!" Natalie cheerfully said.
"Do you feel up to trying something else? Something a little more difficult?"
"Yes." Natalie hoped her hunch was correct.
"I want you to try and take a step. Mark will catch you before you can fall." Megan demonstrated what Natalie was supposed to do, by using the other end of the bars for her demonstration.
Natalie's legs buckled on her as soon as she tried to take a step. Mark caught her before her knees had done more than slightly bend. Disappointment and some frustration were seen in Natalie's expression. Mark helped support Natalie's weight as she steadied herself.
"Do you want to try again?"
Mark let go once he was sure Natalie wouldn't fall. Natalie concentrated on making her right leg move. She managed to get her foot up off the ground a inch or so and again her legs buckled underneath her. Once again Mark caught her.
"I think that's enough for today. Tomorrow we will spend more time on this. I wanted to see if you could get that far. That was very good."
"Will I ever get back on my feet?" Natalie asked, warily hopeful.
"I think you will. It will most likely take six to eight months, maybe more."
Natalie reseated herself, unsure of what she was feeling at the moment. She was thrilled, scared, hopeful and a few more she hadn't yet isolated.
Megan motioned for Natalie to head to the mat for the first part of their normal routine. With a little help from Mark, Natalie was soon laying flat on her back on the exercise mat.
Natalie arrived at work a few minutes late, blaming it on traffic. She was dying to tell Nick or Grace about her accomplishment but didn't because she wanted to surprise them by walking into work one day.
Grace saw Natalie arrive, noticing the interesting mixture of emotions on her friend's face.
"Is everything okay?" Grace asked, slightly concerned, and a little curious.
"Everything's fine. Why?"
"No reason. You just had a strange expression on your face."
Grace nodded, but before she could say anything more the phone rang calling Natalie out to the field.
Natalie arrived at the crime scene, displeased when she saw the rugged terrain ahead of her. The ground was very uneven which would make using her chair quite difficult, as would the snowy parts of the uneven ground. When she saw the ravine some distance ahead of her, she hoped it wasn't too steep or deep. She also found herself praying the body wasn't at the bottom of the ravine.
Her mood dropped as she pushed herself close enough to see that the crime scene was indeed at the bottom of a pretty deep and treacherous ravine. She would have to find some way to get to the body to examine it. She whispered a swear word or two as her frustration level rose. She couldn't see a way down there that wouldn't put her at great risk for a very nasty fall.
Nick had monitored Natalie's arrival and approached her.
"Can I help?" He knew she might not like it, but would probably accept it from him and Schanke more easily than from anyone else.
"Yeah. What can you tell me?"
"It's not a pretty sight."
Nick helped Natalie down the ravine. Once at the bottom the medical examiner went to work. She hated the fact that she had to lean way over if she wanted to get a close look at the body, or touch it. She knew one day she'd probably fall on top of a victim if she didn't balance herself right. That was something she most definitely did not want to do.
Schanke approached her. "Natalie, the conversation you and Jenny had yesterday helped. She realized that if you were willing to work so hard then maybe she should try to work as hard. She went to therapy without complaint and was very cooperative. Thanks."
"No problem. I'm glad I helped."
"She's not happy that she has to do some of her chores that she couldn't do before. There are still a few that she won't be able to do for another week or two."
Natalie smiled at that. "I'm glad she's going to be fine."
"Thanks. So are we. She wants to go back to skiing. I don't know about that," Schanke said, a little concerned.
"If you tell her you don't want her to ski, but not why, she'll be more determined to. If you tell her that you're afraid she'll get hurt if she skis, she'll feel like you think she can't do things for herself. What if I had been told that I couldn't drive, dance, learn karate or do my work? Maybe convince her that her leg needs more time to fully heal. If she still wants to try again next season, tell her you'll rent her the equipment and pay for her lessons. I'll be glad to talk to her if necessary."
"Thanks. You do have a few good points there. Besides the season is almost over. Thankfully."
The next afternoon, Natalie arrived for therapy and was directed to the low parallel bars. She pulled herself up and once again attempted to take her first step, Mark by her side to catch her when she fell. She raised her right foot about an inch, but when she tried to move it her knees buckled. Mark caught her. She tried again, but fell. Her frustration level was quickly rising as she tried a third time. This time she was able to not only raise her right foot an inch but move it forward half a step, setting it down before her knees buckled, but she didn't fall. A huge smile spread across her face at her accomplishment.
Natalie wanted to try and take another step, looking at Megan for approval. Megan nodded and Natalie tried to take a second step, this time using her left foot, only to fall as soon as she raised it off the floor. Mark caught her. Natalie was determined to take that second step and tried two more times, barely managing to get her left foot off the ground before falling. She knew it was time to stop when she could no longer support her entire body weight. She was determined to try again tomorrow. Mark helped Natalie reseat herself. Once seated she removed the belt and handed it to Mark.
I feel like a toddler, just learning to walk. Natalie realized that in some ways that was exactly what she was. She was relearning to use her paralyzed muscles, much like the toddler does for the very first time.
"I hope you brought your swim suit as today's session will be held in the pool," Megan said, breaking Natalie's reverie.
Natalie was a little surprised but liked the water workouts. She headed down to the pool to change, thrilled by her progress. To some it might seem a small feat, but to her, and others like her it was a momentous achievement.
With each therapy session Natalie pushed herself towards her goal, knowing it was the only way she'd ever walk again. Each afternoon she tried to take a second step, trying to keep the frustration under control with each failure. She kept reminding herself that it would be a struggle, but the end result would be worth every ounce of effort. Especially when she walked into the loft or work for the very first time and saw her friend's stunned faces.
It took Natalie the rest of the week before she took her second step. Megan loved this part of the job, seeing the exhilaration on her client's faces as they slowly progressed to their goal.
I've never worked this hard before, but when I succeed it will be worth every bit of the struggle. Natalie thought. If I can take two steps nowÉ then hopefully someday I'll be able to walk with crutches, even if it's just across the room.
Natalie, Myra and Grace continued with their karate lessons three times a week, enjoying each workout. They enjoyed working on the new, more complex kata they had to learn before their next test, which wouldn't be for several months. They had more techniques to learn now that they were no longer unskilled beginners.
Natalie went straight from her karate class to the rehab center, then home to shower and change for work. Those days were long and tiring, but they also provided Natalie with a necessary physical and emotional boost.
Natalie arrived at another tough crime scene and again found herself swearing under her breath. Why don't all the other M.E.'s get these type of cases? Why do I seem to get them all? She knew it had to be Murphy's Law once again conspiring against her. . Natalie gave the old building in front of her the once over, knowing that the sooner she arrived at the crime scene the better.
"Schanke, what's the situation?"
"The body's on the third floor and there's no elevator. Also the body seems to be stuck in some sort of a pipe."
"Great," she said sarcastically. Her mood darkening with each piece of information. "Any more delightful news?" she grumbled.
"Are you going up there?" Schanke asked curiously. He didn't think much of anything would prevent her from doing her job. At least not if she has anything to say about it.
"That's my job." She was not looking forward to being pulled up and down two flights of stairs. "How are the doorways? Are the rooms small?" She knew her wheelchair pretty much turned on a dime, but it still required more room to maneuver than Schanke or Nick did.
"The rooms are small, and the doorways don't look that wide. I didn't really get a good look."
"That's okay." Natalie said, hoping that if she put it off long enough the body would be brought down. She knew that might make other parts of her job harder, but it was better than getting up there and finding out she'd wasted the trip. She couldn't wait until she would be able to go up stairs by herself, even if it was difficult and slow, it would be worth it.
Natalie worked at the parallel bars for the first twenty to thirty minutes of each therapy session, looking for any progress. The extreme slowness of her progress was getting to her, causing her frustration to rise quicker.
Natalie worked for four days before she could take her third step without falling. Each step made her feel great, yet at the same time she felt like a toddler taking their first unsteady steps as they held onto the furniture or their parents' hands. Only here it was Mark's support that kept her from hitting the ground when her knees buckled.
It was another week before she took her fourth step. Two more steps and I'll be able to walk the entire length of the bars.' That thought was enough incentive for her to work past the deep frustration and exert the extreme effort required for each step.
By the end of the month, Natalie fell one step away from the end of the bars, and tried again, determined to reach her first goal, the end of the parallel bars. Her next attempt was successful. Natalie's smile reached ear to ear. Her eyes sparkled like never before. Her defiant streak loved the fact that she was doing what the doctors had told her she'd never do again. Her fall near the end of the bars didn't frustrate her as much as it should've because she was one step away from her first goal, walking to the end of the parallel bars.
Each session Natalie walked the length of the parallel bars, more often than not falling somewhere along the way, frustrating her. Mark never allowed her knees to bend more than halfway before he caught her, and didn't release his hold on the belt until he was sure she was steady. While Natalie could not believe how much concentration and exhaustive effort it took for her slow and extremely unsteady steps, it felt great to be up and walking again. Natalie knew that the more she walked the stronger her leg bones and muscles would get, not to mention her arms and shoulders.
She was too pleased with her success to worry about gracefulness. She knew it would come naturally when her gait became more steady.
Later that night, Natalie entered the precinct, instantly regretting her decision when she saw the tense situation at hand. A clearly disturbed man in his late thirties, early forties was holding a gun on his wife and eight year old daughter. He spotted Natalie and began to panic.
"I want you on the floor with everyone else. I want you to push your wheelchair across the room. NOW!"
Natalie capsized herself and made sure she was balanced before setting her wheelchair back up and shoving it across the room as ordered.
"I want you seated like them," the disturbed man said.
Natalie saw that all the hostages were seated with their feet behind them, sort of kneeling with their knees on the ground and sitting on their legs. Natalie wasn't sure she could get herself into that position, especially if she had to place her hands over her head like the others.
Natalie struggled but could not get herself into that position. Any time she came close she nearly fell over and had to catch herself with her hands, frustrating herself further with each failure, which was making her angry. Natalie hated the way it drew attention to her and to her disability. Normally she ignored it, but this was different.
The gunman noticed her repeated failures, "I want you seated with your legs crossed in front of you and your hands behind you."
Natalie found she was able to manage that, stabilizing herself rather easily. Since he wasn't too specific she chose to sit "Indian style" and put her hands behind her like a soldier at ease.
Nick was watching everything, hoping he could keep the situation from spinning completely out of control. Nick continued to talk to the deeply troubled man in calm, soothing tones, wishing the man would stand still long enough for him to try to whammy him. Slowly the man was calming down. Nick tried to talk him into releasing his eight year old daughter as a show of good faith. After a few intense minutes of reasoning with the agitated man, Nick succeeded in getting her and the other two kids in the room released.
Natalie fought to shove the memories of her brother's shooting out of her mind, praying that no one would die tonight.
Finally, the man stood still and Nick was able to lock eyes with him. Natalie watched in fascination, surprised that it still amazed her that he could completely influence someone's behavior. like that
"You will release your wife," Nick said with his voice ever so smooth. His heartbeat locked with that of the gunman.
"I will release my wife." The gunman released his grip on her and she started to pull away when Brad Martin, the most obnoxious and conceited barrister in the county entered, totally oblivious to everything outside of himself.
"Mr. Slick. I want you seated like these people in four seconds or I start shooting." The agitated gunman said, seeing the very expensive suit on the barrister.
Martin was about to protest when he saw the barrel of the gun suddenly pointed straight at his head. Martin reluctantly complied.
Nick once again tried to reestablish control over the man's mind but could not. He was forced to resort to "mortal" methods of calming the suspect. He couldn't risk rushing the man, because even at vampiric speed someone might get hurt. He wouldn't be responsible for that.
Nick continued to try and calm down the disturbed man, using his most calming, soothing tone. Just as Nick's slow, steady progress was about to succeed, Martin tried to jump the gunman, getting a bullet in the stomach for his trouble.
Nick used the distraction to tackle the gunman. Another officer grabbed the man's very upset, terrified wife, and pulled her to safety.
Natalie was completely frustrated and angry that she couldn't help Martin from where she was currently seated.
Schanke saw the situation was under control and brought Natalie her chair, knowing she could take it from there and went to talk to the hostages.
Natalie quickly reseated herself and headed over to Martin. A quick visual once over told her the bullet had entered his stomach area slightly towards the left side. The fact that he was still conscious was a good sign. Natalie capsized herself again so she could examine him more closely.
"Are the paramedics on the way?" Natalie asked, fully into her doctor mode.
"Yes. They should be here in a few minutes," Schanke said.
"I'm not dead," Martin sniped. He didn't want the medical examiner, and a disabled one at that to examine him.
"Not yet. If you don't let me get a look at you..." Natalie said, not in the mood to deal with his attitude problem.
"How can you examine me? You can't move around." A coughing fit prevented the arrogant barrister from shoving his foot further down his throat.
Natalie wanted to tell Martin off, but knew it wasn't good form to insult a wounded man. Nor was it acceptable to slap or slug him, much as that might have pleased her outraged sensibilities. Natalie ripped open his shirt to get a better look at the entry point when he protested.
"Hey! Do you know how much a handmade silk shirt like that costs?"
"Would you rather bleed to death?" Natalie asked sharply, not giving a damn about his shirt.
Martin shook his head and Natalie continued with her examination. She gently stuck her hand under him, determining that there was no exit wound anywhere along his back, which meant the round was still in there somewhere. She hoped it wasn't a cop killer or any of those other bullets designed to do massive destruction. If so, Martin's chances for survival were rather slim.
"I need a towel or something to apply pressure with. Now!" Natalie barked.
A moment later Natalie was handed a towel and used it to apply pressure to Martin's abdominal wound. She could feel him weakening and hoped he survived so she could kick his butt for his insensitivity. His rapidly weakening vital signs made her suspect that the bullet might have taken an upward angle.
Sirens could be heard in the distance to the relief of Natalie, Martin and Nick. Within moments the paramedics entered and took over Martin's care.
Natalie gave the paramedics her observations of Martin knowing the more accurate information they had to work with, the better it was for the patient.
Once Natalie was freed of that responsibility she saw Nick approaching with a couple of wet paper towels. She looked at her hands noticing the blood on them for the first time. After Natalie wiped off her hands, she set her chair back up and reseated herself. Nick took Natalie's statement while looking her over to see how she was holding up. She was a little shaky as she gave her statement, but would be fine later.
Natalie followed Nick to the loft, needing to relax if she was to get any sleep. When will my luck change? Soon, I hope. Natalie thought. She was extremely tired of people trying to kill her.
Nick let Natalie pick the movie, not at all surprised when she picked her favorite comedy. They cuddled up on the couch as they watched the movie, his arm wrapped around her shoulder and her head resting on his chest.
Natalie fell asleep on the couch shortly after the movie. Nick covered her up with a quilt, knowing that she'd be fine there.
Their slumber was restless as the hostage situation had taken it's toll on their nerves.
During Natalie's therapy that week she kept trying to walk the length of the parallel bars with a little more grace. She almost always stumbled at least once along the way, sometimes catching herself and sometimes Mark had to catch her. Each step took tremendous concentration and effort.
I can't believe I'm finally walking again. Natalie thought happily. She knew there was a lot of hard work ahead, but it didnÕt seem to matter because she was walking.
Megan worked with Natalie on her gait for thirty to forty-five minutes, stopping when she saw her client had reached the end of her endurance. She knew that if Natalie pushed herself too far beyond her endurance, she'd hurt herself which would seriously set back their work.
After the bar work they continued with the same muscle manipulation they'd been doing since Natalie started rehab. Megan continued to alternate pool work and mat work for the best results.
Grace arrived at work one day the next week, and entered Natalie's office to see if there was anything her friend needed. Seeing her work friends there gathered around a chocolate frosted sheet cake, lit by thirty three candles, she was touched her friends remembered her birthday.
"Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Grace. Happy birthday to you."
Grace made a wish and blew out the candles. "Thank you."
Natalie handed Grace her present from the entire group. Grace opened it a little unsure what she'd find inside.
Grace's expression dropped when she saw a black teddy inside. It made her a little uneasy. Is this how Natalie felt? Grace remembered seeing the less than thrilled expression on her friend's face when she'd pulled the same gift out of her box.
Grace noticed the small smirk on Natalie's face and immediately knew who had picked the gift. Please don't let her ask if I want to try it on or model for everyone.
Natalie saw the uneasiness on Grace's face and didn't punish her friend further. She had been waiting years for the chance for revenge.
"Thanks for the gift everyone," Grace said.
"Grace, how about slicing up this delicious looking cake," Natalie said.
Grace picked up the knife and cut the first slice, taking one of the larger roses. She set it aside and cut a piece for everyone.
Her coworkers each took their slice and headed back to work, wishing Grace happy birthday on their way out.
Once it was just Natalie and Grace, Natalie pulled a smaller box out of her backpack and handed it to her friend.
Grace ripped the paper off, finding a coffee cup with her name on it inside the box.
"Thanks. Mine accidentally got knocked off my desk after you left yesterday." Grace said. "Yeah, I know. It was a change, you leaving before me."
Grace pulled out the small packets inside the mug and saw a mixture of flavored coffees and hot chocolates. "These look good. So good in fact, I might just have to go try one."
Grace set the mug on Natalie's desk. "When I gave you the black teddy, did it really embarrass you?"
"Yes. Especially when you hinted that I should try it on, and then asked if I'd be modeling it for a certain someone. I knew you meant wellÉ"
"I'm sorry. Thank you for not embarrassing me as much as I did you." Grace hugged her friend. "Thanks, Natalie."
Myra, Natalie and Grace arrived for their next karate lesson. Grace and Natalie changed before joining Myra on the workout mat. They stretched and worked on their meditation until Bruce entered the room.
One of the other students there saw Bruce and jumped to his feet. "Sensei." He said as he bowed to Bruce, who returned the bow. The student left, bowing as he left the workout room.
Natalie, Grace and Myra lined up like usual. Bruce approached his three students. Teacher and students bowed to each other before class began.
Bruce observed as his students reviewed what they learned last time, making minor corrections as needed, offering tips to help them be more effective, more powerful.
Once he was satisfied they were ready to move on he paired them off, Grace and Myra, Natalie and himself. He instructed his students in the art of light contact sparring. He watched Myra and Grace bow to each other before they hesitantly attacked each other, each afraid to hurt their friend. He stopped their fight, waiting a moment as they bowed to each other.
"You must not be afraid. That will give the enemy control over the situation." Bruce said. "Try again. Getting hurt is not the worst thing. Being controlled by a criminal is. Dying is."
This time the two friends bowed to each other before seriously going after each other, yet being careful not to hurt their friend. Bruce and Natalie watched. After a few minutes Bruce stopped the fight. The friends bowed to each other before facing their teacher again.
"Much better. Grace, you're dropping your block when you kick. That will allow a smart assailant to attack there. Natalie, your turn."
"Natalie bowed to her teacher, and he bowed to her. He attacked her, pleased to see her quick response. She blocked and attacked. After a few minutes he stopped the fight, and the two opponents bowed to each other.
Before the lesson was finished Natalie had sparred with both her friends, the unmatched one sparring with the teacher. After seeing Natalie's skill, neither of her friends were as uneasy attacking her as they thought they'd be. And she didn't feel bad for attacking them, seeing that they could defend themselves.
The last thing they did that lesson was work on their kata. Bruce corrected a few minor form problems, but was pleased they picked it up pretty easily.
Later that week, Natalie used her night off to go dancing with Nick at the Horseshoe club again. She was surprised at how good they'd become at line dancing. She had lost her self consciousness that first night, as soon as she'd figured out how to adapt it for her needs. She did the upper body part, and twirled herself in the direction everyone else was moving.
Nick couldn't believe how much he enjoyed the line dancing, knowing that part of it was spending the time with Natalie. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
Two weeks later, at the Schanke household Jenny and her parents were in the family room watching television. Jenny had stopped using the braces and crutches at the end of the previous week, no longer needing them. She was back to being a normal, active eight year old.
"Mom, Dad, please. Megan said I could start karate again this week," Jenny said during a commercial.
"Okay. We'll take you tomorrow afternoon," Myra said. She knew it was important for her daughter to learn self defense. It also taught Jenny discipline and boosted her self confidence.
The next afternoon Jenny entered the dojo dressed in her gi and white belt, relieved when she wasn't the only beginner there. She took off her shoes and jack, bowing as she entered the classroom.
"Welcome back, Jenny," Bruce said as he bowed to her.
"Thank you. I couldn't wait to come back." Jenny bowed to her teacher.
"Did you practice any while your leg healed?"
"Yes. I worked on my punches and blocks every day."
Bruce threw a punch, pleased when Jenny blocked it. Next he had her throw a punch which he blocked.
Bruce motioned for the rest of the class to get in place, which they quickly did. Teacher and students bowed to each other.
Bruce watched Jenny closely during class, pleased to see that her form quickly returned.
After class, he had her wait a moment as he dismissed everyone else, bowing to them as they bowed to him.
"Jenny, there's a test next week. From what you showed today, I think you're ready to take it," Bruce said loving the smile on her face.
Natalie's next week of therapy found her able to walk the parallel bars a little smoother. She still stumbled occasionally, surprising herself when it didn't frustrate her as much as it had. She realized that one can't learn to walk without stumbling at first. Even toddlers stumble while learning to walk. Every attempt still required a lot of concentration and effort, and took a lot out of her physically. Will I fully recover?
Don and Myra brought Jenny to the dojo for her test, hoping she passed. Don and Myra were a little surprised to see Natalie enter.
"Hi, Natalie. What brings you here?" Don asked.
"I was invited. Bruce said he'd show me how to use my chair to both defend and attack."
The three adults watched Jenny as her knowledge was tested. About an hour later all ten of the children had been tested. Bruce left the classroom quickly returning with a handful of belts in varying color. He removed Jenny's white belt and wrapped her yellow one around her waist, loving the smile on her face. He did the same for each of the other nine children, five of whom received a yellow belt, three received a purple belt, and one received a blue belt.
He bowed to the children, they bowed to him and were dismissed.
Jenny bowed at the doorway to the classroom before running over to her parents. She was pleased to see Natalie there. "I did it. I passed."
"Congratulations," said the three adults, almost in unison.
Bruce spotted Natalie and motioned for her to enter the classroom. Natalie did, bowing at the doorway.
For the next hour Bruce taught Natalie how to use her wheelchair as a weapon. She didn't notice when the Schanke family slipped out of the dojo.
Natalie enjoyed the ordered chaos of the next few weeks. She was eternally grateful there was nothing more exciting than her therapy, karate lessons and weekly night out at the Horseshoe taking place in her life. She and Nick watched movies at his place one morning a week, refusing to let their busy schedules interfere with their weekly tradition. Natalie did pull a couple of double shifts, leaving her quite tired the next day.
Natalie arrived for her daily therapy, pleased that there were no more freezing messy handrims to wipe off as spring had arrived. She entered the therapy room in a good mood, greeting both Megan and Mark.
Megan handed Natalie the wide leather belt. Natalie set her brakes and quickly fastened the belt around her waist. Megan loved the surprise on her Natalie's face as she handed Nat a pair of crutches called forearm crutches. They were metal with a plastic cuff that hooked around the upper forearm, and a handgrip a little lower. Megan was pleased to see she'd guessed properly in adjusting the crutches to Natalie's height.
"I thought it would be a few months before I was ready," Natalie said, still surprised she was ready to try crutches.
"Remember, I said that when you could smoothly walk the bars for a week, we'd give these a try?"
"Yes. I must've momentarily forgotten."
Natalie still couldn't believe more feeling had returned, enough that with effort and concentration she could make her feet, one at a time, leave the footrest and wind up on the ground. She found pulling herself to her feet with the crutches much harder than she thought it would be. She felt extremely wobbly. How long before I fall? Natalie found the crutches no where near as stable as the bars had been. After a brief and not totally steady struggle she was on her feet, a huge smile played across her lips, reaching all the way up to her eyes.
Natalie knew the next thing was to try and take a step. She was afraid to try, knowing that she would probably fall. She didn't feel very stable, but knew that she wouldn't at first.
"It's okay. Mark won't let you fall," Megan said, trying to reassure Natalie.
Nat looked over at Mark, who was standing close by. He had not let her fall yet.
Natalie tried to take that first step and felt her legs buckle. She barely managed to keep from falling and tried again. She tried again, this time she did fall, but Mark caught her before she was halfway to the floor. He helped her up and didnÕt release his hold until he was sure she was ready to stand on her own again.
Megan let Natalie try once more, seeing the stubborn determination on her client's face. Natalie took a small and very shaky step. Natalie beamed with pride at her accomplishment. It was the first step she had taken on her own since the accident. Natalie knew it would be months before she could walk using the crutches.
Mark and Megan didn't think a person could be any happier without exploding. They loved this part of the job, seeing their clients succeed. The harder the challenge the more rewarding the success was.
Late the next morning, Natalie underwent a complete physical as it had been one year since her accident. As a doctor, Natalie knew this was standard procedure but hated all the poking, prodding, the endless questions. By the time she left several hours later she felt as if every square inch of her body had been probed in some way.
Peter Weston's trial date arrived. Natalie was a little unsure about facing him, but was determined not to let him know that.
Natalie, Nick, Schanke and the barrister entered the courtroom. Weston stared at Natalie from his wheelchair, hatred filling his eyes. Natalie stared back at him to prove she didn't fear him at all.
The Bailiff entered, and called out the next case. "The Crown versus Peter Weston."
The prosecutor approached the jury box and started his opening statement. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will prove without a reasonable doubt that the defendant Peter Weston is responsible for four murders. He is also responsible for Dr. Lambert being paraplegic. That wasn't enough for him, he tried to kill her on two more occasions. He kidnapped her, planning to kill her. He committed all these crimes because he lost a job to someone in a wheelchair. He thought that anyone with any disability what-so-ever should quit their job so someone normal could take it." The prosecutor continued on.
When he finished, the defense barrister stood to make his opening statement.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will prove to you that my client, Peter Weston, is innocent of the charges against him. That he did not kill the people he's charged with murdering. That he was not responsible for Dr. Lambert's paralysis, the subsequent attacks on her, nor did he kidnap her." He said continuing on with his remarks, knowing he had a shaky case and hoped the jury didn't realize this.
Natalie was called to the stand first, being the only surviving victim, and having done the autopsies on Weston's other victims. After being sworn in, she was questioned by the prosecution about the autopsies she conducted on Weston's victims. She told him that each victim had been killed by blows to the skull with a baseball bat. She went on to detail the other injuries she'd found.
Weston's barrister tried to pick apart Natalie's testimony but could not find any holes in it.
Natalie was then questioned about her own experience. She told the story of how her brake lines had been cut causing her to smash headfirst into the cement base of the light pole, resulting in her spinal injury. She also detailed Weston's subsequent attacks and her abduction.
The defense barrister was only able to nitpick Natalie's testimony.
Nick and Schanke were called to the stand one at a time and thoroughly grilled by both the prosecution and the defense. Weston's barrister found very little that would help defend his client.
After the lunch break, various officers from the crime scenes were grilled as well, turning up absolutely nothing useful for the defense.
Closing arguments were started, the defense going first this time. His summary pointed out the few pieces of information he'd pulled out of the witnesses that supported his client's innocence, knowing it was a very thin defense. His best argument was the closeness of the forensic pathologist and the two detectives might've caused some conflict of interest once they knew who they were looking for.
A few minutes later it was the prosecution's turn. The Barrister carefully pointing out all the evidence, including Dr. Lambert's testimony proved Peter Weston to be guilty of four brutal murders on disabled people because they'd refused to give up their jobs so someone non disabled could have it. The prosecution reminded the jury that Weston had not only caused Dr. Lambert's paralysis but he tried to kill her twice more, once after abducting her. The prosecutor reminded the jury that Weston had been found sane. That if he was set free, he'd continue to go after any disabled person working at the police department or coroner's office. That applicants were not safe either.
When the prosecution finished with closing remark, the jury was instructed and sent into the deliberation room.
Nick suggested that he, Natalie and Schanke grab something to eat in the cafeteria while they waited.
Half an hour after the jury had left to begin deliberations, they signaled that they had reached a verdict and were led back into the courtroom.
Nick, Natalie and Schanke were again in the peanut gallery.
"Members of the jury, have you made your decision?" Judge Barker asked.
"We have your honor," said the jury foreman, and one of the two disabled members of the jury.
The foreman handed the slip of paper with their decision on it to the bailiff who handed it to the judge.
The judge quickly read the verdict and pronouncing Peter Weston guilty of all charges. Weston was held over for sentencing, in one week.
A week later, Natalie, Nick and Schanke were back in the courtroom for Weston's sentencing.
Peter Weston received life in prison without the possibility of parole. Weston would be sent to a maximum security prison and would be assigned to hard labor.
Nick paid a late night visit to the prison where he used some vampiric persuasion to convince the gang leaders that they would regret the day they were born if Weston turned up dead. Nick reassured the leaders that they were allowed to do the usual harassment as long as Weston was not killed or severely injured. The leaders informed Nick that Weston would not have any easy time due to what he'd done. Especially after what Weston had done to Dr. Lambert.
Natalie's friends saw her finally letting go of the worry that Weston would escape or find some loophole that would allow him to be released. They admitted to having the same fears as Natalie had.
Natalie, Grace and Myra enjoyed each karate class as they saw their skills growing. They had learned the required kata and hoped for a test soon.
They also noticed the meditation helped them both in class and in their daily lives. It helped them balance their lives.
In therapy, Natalie was learning to walk with her crutches. She could now take two shaky steps before her knees gave out. The biggest surprise was that walking required even more upper body strength than using her wheelchair had, mostly in the arms and shoulders. She knew that as frustrating as her failures were, they helped her grow closer to her goal of being able to walk halfway across the room and back without falling.
A month later, Natalie, Myra and Grace passed their karate test and were awarded purple belts. All three ladies knew that the lessons would get much more difficult from now on, but were willing to keep at it as long as they could.
Grace was surprised, she wanted to see how far she could go. She loved the fact that she'd dropped thirty pounds since she began taking lessons. She loved the comments from her friends and coworkers as they noticed.
A week later the children from Jenny's class took their next test, everyone passed. Jenny, too, was a purple belt.
Don was thrilled his family would be able to protect themselves and wondered if he should start back again. He decided against it, having too much else to do.
Six weeks later Natalie arrived at Nick's for their weekly video session. She was extremely nervous as the elevator door opened and she walked into the loft. She was still a little shaky, and hoped she wouldn't fall on her face.
Nick heard the door slide open, then a strange sound, turned around and saw Natalie walking toward him, somewhat gracefully. Natalie loved his stunned expression.
"You're walking!" He said with a huge smile.
"Yes. You're the first to see this, as it's the first time I've tried it outside of therapy," She said returning his smile. She felt wonderful, which wasn't lost on Nick.
"How long have you been able to walk?" Nick asked surprised, especially since she hadn't mentioned her progress to anyone.
"I've been working on it for the last seven months. Five months ago I could barely walk the length of the bars without stumbling. This has been some of the hardest work I've ever done, but it was worth every second of it." Natalie headed over to the couch, tiring quickly as it still required massive effort.
Nick saw how much effort and concentration it took for her short trip to the couch. She was right. She said she'd walk again, and she is.
"I want to walk into work tomorrow. Would you come with me and bring my chair in a few minutes later? Right now, I can only do this for a few minutes at a time, but hopefully soon I will be walking most of the time." I still can't believe I'm walking.
"I can't wait to see Grace's face."
Nick couldn't get over the fact that she was actually back on her feet again. That she was once again walking. He was very happy for her. He knew how much she had wanted this, and could see the joy in her eyes.
The next evening Natalie walked into work, trying to be as graceful as possible. Grace came out of a side office, did a double take and almost dropped the stack of files out of sheer surprise. Nick watched from the doorway, careful to stay out of sight.
"Congratulations!" Grace said quite happy for her friend.
"Thanks." Natalie loved the shocked expression on her friend's face.
"Why didn't you tell any of us you were making that much progress?"
"I wanted it to be a surprise."
Natalie and Grace continued to talk while they headed for Natalie's office. Grace could see the amount of effort it took and was impressed. Grace asked many of the same questions Nick had.
"So has any more of the feeling come back?"
"Some of it," she said. "Nick asked that very same question earlier this morning."
Natalie saw Grace's expression turn to concern when Nick entered pushing Natalie's wheelchair.
"It's very tiring so I can only do it a few minutes at a time. Hopefully with time and practice I'll be able to go most of a shift on my feet. And do it a bit more gracefully."
Natalie used her crutches to walk the few feet over to where Nick was. Once there she reseated herself in her wheelchair. Nick carried her crutches into the office for her, handing them to her once she was settled behind her desk. Natalie propped her crutches in the corner where her desk met the wall.
A few hours later, Natalie realized the folder she needed was in the top drawer. Rather than call Grace, Natalie turned herself so she was facing the file cabinet and grabbed her crutches. Once her crutches were in place she pulled herself to her feet. It was still hard work and she wasn't totally steady either. Once on her feet she headed for the far cabinet and opened the top drawer. She was pleased she didn't have to bother Grace for such simple things anymore because she could now do them for herself. She couldn't believe how much she enjoyed the little things like that, things that most people took for granted. She had vowed never to do so again.
The simple movement of opening the drawer set her off balance, something she hadn't fully expected. She quickly regained her balance and vowed to be more careful next time. Thankfully Megan had taught her that, as well as how to get up if she did fall. Natalie hoped she wouldn't have to test that just yet.
Nick and Schanke entered Natalie's office to pick up a few files they needed.
Natalie was busy looking for the file she needed and didn't hear them enter. She made sure she was balanced before reaching for the file.
"Natalie?" Schanke asked very surprised.
"What can I do for you guys?" She asked as she shut the file drawer, once again making sure she wouldn't fall before or after doing so. She turned and walked towards her friends, still a little unsteady, and not totally graceful. The file pinned between her fingers and the handgrip. She loved the extreme surprise she saw on Schanke's face.
"Thanks, Schank. What can I do for you?"
"We need the Kinson, Brock and Peters reports," Nick said.
"I know the Kinson and Brock reports are ready. I just have to see if the Peters tox results came back yet." Natalie walked the two steps back to her desk where she reseated herself in her wheelchair, leaning her crutches back against the desk where it met the wall. She searched her desk for the reports, handing them to Nick because he was closer.
"It doesn't look as if the Peters results are back yet."
"We'll stop by later," Nick said.
The three of them talked briefly before the two detectives left.
Out in the car Schanke turned to his partner as Nick started the engine.
"How long has she been able to walk?"
"When she walked into my loft yesterday for our regular movie night, she said it was the first time she had walked outside of therapy."
"She continues to amaze me."
"Me too," Nick said.
"Do you think she'll recover?" Schanke asked, not knowing exactly how to phrase it.
"I hope so. No one knows. I don't think they expected her to get this far. She's been undergoing intensified therapy since right after her rescue."
Should I give her a little assistance? Nick wondered, knowing a drop of his blood wouldn't bring her across, but might heal her spinal cord, and surrounding nerves just enough to make her walking easier. It wouldn't have worked before now, before her body had done some repairs or rewiring of its own.
Don said nothing to his family, hoping they'd see it for themselves when Nick and Natalie came over for dinner.
The doorbell rang right on time. Don answered it, pleased to see Natalie using her crutches. He ushered them in and led them to the family room.
Myra nearly dropped the plate she was holding as she saw her friend walk into the room a little wobbly. Jenny too was stunned.
"Congratulations," Myra said. "How long have you been able to walk? Why didn't you tell us you were making such great progress?"
"Congratulations," Jenny said. "You were right. You do use the same kind of crutches I had."
"I wanted to surprise you. I've been walking outside of therapy for twenty-four hours now, a few minutes at a time."
As Natalie slowly made her way to the couch, her friends could see how much effort and concentration it required. Natalie seated herself on one end of the couch, laying her crutches at her feet. Nick sat next to Natalie, with Jenny on the other end of the couch. Myra and Don sat in the armchairs.
Natalie answered everyone's questions as they talked while they nibbled on the appetizers. Myra understood why her husband hadn't said anything, as she might've done the same, not wanting to spoil her friend's big surprise.
Two more months of long hard hours of therapy passed before Natalie could walk a bit more gracefully and remain on her feet for a few hours at a time. Walking was less of a struggle, but still required a bit of effort and concentration.
Natalie often entered work, or home in her wheelchair as it was the easiest way to keep it nearby for use when she tired and for most field work.
Natalie, Myra and Grace still attended their karate classes three times a week, enjoying the challenge the workout provided. They loved refining and improving their skills.
They had been right, the lessons were tougher and more was expected of them during each class.
Nick tired of seeing Natalie struggle so much for so little progress. Her walking was still a real effort, more than it should be. It hurt to see her frustrations, which she tried so hard to keep to herself.
Nick escorted Natalie to the loft for another one of their video nights. She still used her wheelchair most of the time as it was the easiest and fastest way for her to get around.
Nick fixed her a glass of fruit juice, and when he saw she was busy setting up the movie, he punctured the tip of his finger. As soon as a single drop hit the surface of the glass, he sucked on his wound to close it before she noticed.
He brought her the glass of juice, which she happily took from him and quickly drained.
"Thank you. How'd you know I needed that?"
"I thought you might be thirsty."
A couple more months passed before Natalie was able to walk for the entire shift. She started approaching crime scenes on foot, testing her limits. She found she was able to handle many of them that way. For the few she couldn't she went back for her wheelchair. Walking was much less of a struggle than it had been, but it still wasn't effortless and it still required a fair amount of concentration, especially when tired.
Nick was pleased to see that his secret gift to her had done it's job nicely. He wished he could give her more, but knew the risks were too high. He didn't want her to have any violent side effects, and have to explain what he'd done, knowing she'd be furious with him, yet touched that he gave her the gift. He didn't want her wondering how much of her subsequent recovery was due to her efforts and what was from his blood.
Natalie was grateful that she was on her feet again when she had another crime scene with four flights of stairs and narrow doorways. She climbed the stairs with a great deal of effort and not a whole lot of speed, but she made it up them on her own.
She did not entirely abandon her wheelchair, using it when she went shopping, dancing, to karate class or when she tired while walking. She also used it when she had autopsies to perform during her shift. Using it began to bother her less and less the more she was able to walk. She could get around much quicker, smoother and in some ways maneuver better using her chair. She also used her wheelchair whenever she came down with a cold or the flu, or was just too tired to walk.
Natalie couldn't believe she'd been walking for six months now. Her movements were much smoother, so much so that it was starting to feel completely natural.
She was now able to go to the grocery store on her own buying only a bag or two at a time, making sure they used plastic so she could hang it from her handgrips. She also found going to the mall easier as she could squeeze between racks in the department stores.
She still couldnÕt stand without the support of her crutches.
Grace, Myra and Natalie were surprised to still be refining their skills, and had not been allowed to take the advancement test. The new kata was much more complicated.
Natalie walked into the dojo, loving the surprised look on Bruce Leong's face when he'd seen her. It had taken a moment for him to recognize her.
"Congratulations. What brings you by today?" Bruce asked.
"I was wondering if I could do a second set of private lessons, just the two of us. I need to know how to defend myself using my crutches instead of the wheelchair."
"Will you still be coming to your regular class? Will you still use your wheelchair?"
"Yes and yes. I won't be using my chair as much."
"I'll be happy to show you how to defend yourself, using your crutches for both defense and attack. They will make mighty effective weapons."
Two afternoons later Natalie had her first class. Bruce taught her the proper way to fall as her first lesson. She also got plenty of practice pulling herself up from the floor. By the time the lesson was over, Natalie realized Bruce had been right. Her crutches would be very useful in for both defense and attack.
Natalie walked into the rehab center ready for her therapy.
"Hi, Megan. How are you today?" Natalie asked in a good mood.
"Hi, Natalie. I'm doing just fine. How are you?"
"Good. What's on the schedule for today?"
"I thought we'd try a little experiment today. If you're up for it."
"Sure." Natalie knew the experiments usually signaled a change for her.
Megan fastened the weightlifter's belt around Natalie's waist, enjoying the curious and confused expression her client wore.
"I would like you to hand me one of your crutches, then try and take a step." Megan saw the uncertainty cross Natalie's face. "If I didn't think you were ready, I wouldn't ask. Besides, Mark won't let you fall. Okay?"
Natalie saw Mark standing close enough to catch her and nodded. She handed Megan her left crutch knowing that was her stronger side. Natalie took a slow deep breath before taking a slightly unsteady step, then another. A smile lit up Natalie's face, her eyes twinkling with delight. If I can walk with one, will I be able to walk without any assistance?
"I want to see if you can walk halfway across the room and back. Mark will stay with you."
Natalie slowly made her way to the halfway point and returned a little faster and somewhat more sure of herself, Mark staying by her side. The smile was still gracing Natalie's lips as she completed her task.
"Very good." Megan said with a smile.
"When we first started, did you ever think I'd get this far?" Natalie asked, wanting to know, needing to know.
"I knew that if determination was all that was needed you'd succeed, but I wasn't sure that you would be able to physically. People with injuries like yours stand about a fifty-fifty chance of walking with crutches and often braces. Those who have feeling return often do make more progress than those who don't. Only a small percentage have the success you've had." Megan said, knowing Natalie needed to hear the truth. She could see it in her clients eyes.
"Thanks. There were times I was sure it would never happen, but I refused to give up. I'm glad I didn't."
"I want you to keep using both crutches for now. We'll work on it over the next week, then I'll let you use one most of the time." Natalie's smile was Megan's answer and reward.
Five days later, Natalie was thrilled to be able to walk at least part of the time using only one crutch. Does this mean I'll be able to walk without any assistance? Every time Natalie had asked, Megan's answer had been 'wait and see' as no one really knew one way or the other. Recovery was a very individual thing, and had to be taken one step at a time.
Natalie walked into work for the first time using the one crutch, surprising many of her coworkers. Grace saw her friend's arrival and was quite surprised, yet she wasn't totally surprised. She knew Natalie tended to accomplish anything she set her mind to, even if there was only a slim chance of it happening.
"Congratulations," Grace said.
"Thanks. It makes life a lot easier."
Later that shift, Natalie entered the precinct to deliver some files, enjoying the looks she received.
Nick and Schanke saw Natalie approach and had much the same reaction as Grace did. Both offered their congratulations.
They talked for a few minutes before Natalie returned to her office.
Natalie's friends noticed that she wasn't totally smooth, but was much smoother than her first days of walking were. Also that walking seemed to require less effort and thought than it used to. Each major improvement in her condition had also given her self-confidence a major boost.
Natalie walked into the Horseshoe the next time they went, her first time on her feet. Nick was right by her side, very proud of her for battling so hard for so long and for the success she'd achieved.
Her friends congratulated her and asked a few questions, which Natalie happily answered.
Natalie realized she had to relearn all the moves. Natalie nearly fell the first time she tried a fancy step, and was caught by Nick.
"I guess I'm not quite ready for this yet. Could you run out to the carÉ" Natalie asked before Nick cut her off. Maybe in a few months I'll be able to do it. It didn't really bother her, because she was still getting used to the one crutch.
He left, quickly returning with her wheelchair. She sat down, handing him her crutch, which he leaned in a corner, out of the way.
They danced the night away.
Natalie's karate sessions were now almost exclusively on her feet, but she used both crutches most of the time. She did attend in her wheelchair from time to time to learn new techniques. Bruce was very pleased with his student's progress. Natalie fulfilled all the requirements he placed on her without complaint. She could defend herself in her wheelchair, with both crutches or just one.
Myra and Grace were impressed with Natalie's skills. They sometimes felt like they were doing nothing, compared to her achievements.
All three ladies were quickly perfecting the skills they'd need to advance to the next level.
Two more months passed before Natalie was walking full time using only one crutch, except for some field situations where she needed the extra support. She could now, with some effort, squat down to examine the bodies, but sometimes had trouble getting back up. Nick, Schanke or whoever was around would give her a hand up.
Natalie had regained a little more feeling, but still lacked full feeling in either leg. She knew she had to be careful because she could hurt herself and possibly not feel it.
She still had to use the hand controls when she drove because she didn't have the fine motor control required. She wouldn't be able to slam on the brakes fast enough in an emergency. Should I sell this one and buy a car? It would be a lot easier now that I don't need it for the wheelchair.
On their next night off, Natalie and Nick went new car shopping. He convinced her to keep the van and buy a car, her agreeing that it was for the best. There was a disagreement when he offered to pay for this one too. After a long debate she gave in, having nothing to counter his arguments.
Picking a car was much easier as all they had to do was attach the hand controls and then she was read to go. She knew what car she wanted and just had to find the right color and option package. She didn't really expect to leave the dealership with a new car.
She thanked Nick by not making him drink a protein shake, or eat for the next two days.
Natalie noticed she walked almost as fast as others did, and that she had an easier time with stairs. The only time she used her wheelchair was when she was pulling a double shift, or more than one double in a week, or if she had several autopsies to do during her shift. She knew that the more she walked the stronger her legs would become.
She enjoyed the freedom that requiring only one crutch gave her. She could go anywhere she wanted, reach anything that anyone else could reach, and best of all she didn't have to drag her wheelchair out of the back of her car. She left her chair in the trunk of her car, just in case she needed it.
Grocery shopping was much easier. She would push the cart, letting it support her. Her crutch either hung from her forearm or was stuck into the cart. She could hang bags from the handgrip along with carrying them in her other hand, so she could bring up several bags at a time.
Department stores no longer were troublesome with the racks crowded too close together. Salespeople no longer avoided her like the plague.
Natalie and Nick went out dancing one night. She had felt the urge to do something active and that was the one thing she knew she could do.
They returned to the Horseshoe club where she mastered the turns in her favorite line dances. She still didn't look like the rest of the dancers but didnÕt mind as she was used to that.
With Nick's support they even danced to a slow number. Natalie enjoyed the feeling of his arms holding her, and hers wrapped around him. They both enjoyed the slow number so much they danced to every slow number that evening.
Nick and Natalie joined the Schankes at a carnival. This time when everyone walked while eating Natalie was able to as well. They enjoyed the games. She did a little better because she was at the proper angle once again. The only thing she lacked was the available lap space to hold all their winnings. Jenny helped solve the problem with the backpack she wore. The people running the rides did not put any special condition on Natalie riding any of the rides. She enjoyed once again being able to sit on the end of the roller coaster seat, rather than being stuck in the middle. Every one ate until they'd nearly made themselves sick on the fried dough, hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, soda and cotton candy.
A month later, Natalie, Grace and Myra took their next karate test, wondering if they had passed their most difficult one yet. There had been a lot more to remember, and more was expected of them form wise. They were relieved when Bruce wrapped their blue belts around them.
During their celebratory lunch afterwards it hit them that they only had green and brown remaining before black belt causing them to wonder if they could or should go all the way. Natalie was determined to go all the way if she could and was pleased to see her friends agree to try.
Later that month, Jenny also passed her test for blue belt. She had no doubt about going all the way to black. She wanted to be there before her tenth birthday which was in just under a year, and if she couldn't do that, then before her eleventh birthday.
Natalie was a little depressed when six months had passed since she started walking full time with one crutch, but had not made any further progress. She was forced to accept the fact that she'd reached her limit, and would most likely never walk without a crutch. She accepted it without too much trouble, knowing she wasn't supposed to get quite as far as she had. The doctor part of her knew that whatever improvements were accomplished within one to two years after paralysis were the extent of possible recovery, not counting the rare cases that disobeyed the rule. Again her medical side knew that exceptions happened when the person had started off with more function and feeling than she had, or when more had returned within the first few six months, than had been her case.
Natalie walked nearly normally with the crutch providing some support. She could not run, but did not mind. She had her wheelchair for times when she needed to move that fast. She liked how she could stand without her crutch, but not for extended periods.
People seemed to treat her much like they treated everyone else. Her one crutch seemed nearly invisible to most people. There were those few who still had trouble dealing with her, but she largely ignored them. Dealing with them on a strictly professional basis when forced to have anything to do with them.
Her therapy sessions were down to an hour twice a week for maintenance purposes.
Natalie, Myra, Grace and Jenny had all worked extra hard to learn the even more difficult katas required as a blue belt. They were also surprised by the new techniques Bruce taught them, as well as how he nitpicked their form. They also had to fight each other with improving skill with both defense and attack, and for increasing amounts of time.
When the teacher announced the test for green belt, he allowed Natalie, Myra, Grace and Jenny to take the test. The students were surprised to see how much more precision was required in order for them to pass, which they did.
Knowing only brown stood between them and black the adults grew a little uncertain. Jenny couldnÕt wait to get it and then her black belt.
The policeman's ball once again came around. Grace, Natalie and Myra went dress shopping together, enjoying each others company. Grace and Natalie both had an easier time this year, Grace because she'd lost another fifteen pounds and had a wider selection to chose from, and Natalie because there were no more obstacles to her squeezing between racks.
Once they'd found perfect, and affordable, dresses they moved on to shoes. When no one found any they were crazy about they decided to wear last year's shoes.
They had lunch and then spent the early part of the afternoon poking around, having fun. They left in plenty of time for Myra to meet Jenny's school bus.
On the night of the ball, Nick picked Natalie up at her apartment, his eyes nearly popping out of his head when he saw the very elegant black dress she had on. Instead of the single crutch, she had an elegant black cane with a silver design on the handle. She enjoyed getting another chance to see Nick in his tuxedo.
Nick and Natalie walked into the ballroom, people looking over their way then going back to their conversations because there wasn't much to see. Both Nick and Natalie liked it that way.
Nick and Natalie headed straight for the dance floor, at her urging. They noticed a few people briefly watching them, but nothing like the last time. Once people saw that they danced very much like any other couple there was nothing to hold their interest.
Don and Myra approached while dancing, pleased to see their friends having a great time. Myra also wore a sleek navy blue dress while Don was decked out in his tuxedo.
A few minutes later, Grace and her date approached, pleased that this one actually took her out on the dance floor on his own. Grace wore a beautiful black dress that showed off her leaner, slimmer body, while not revealing too much.
As the night wore on Nick and Natalie danced, drank and talked with their friends.