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Challenges (Revised version)

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Detectives Nick Knight and Don Schanke were called to a one story house due to a homicide. Upon entering the southwestern style residence, they were met by Officer Davis. Davis had responded to the call, and discovered a chestnut haired female in her mid-twenties lying on the master bedroom floor. She looked as if she had fallen during an attack. A pair of forearm crutches lay near the body. The crutches were metal with plastic half circles that hooked around the upper forearm.

Moments later Dr. Natalie Lambert arrived. Davis showed her where the victim was located. Dr. Lambert examined the area around the victim, jotting down a few notes, before turning her attention to the body before her.

Nick and Schanke talked with Officer Davis.

About fifteen minutes later, the medical examiner finished her notes. When she stood and headed for the door, Nick and Schanke met her there.

Nick was blonde, about thirty four in appearance with an average build, concealing the fact that he was actually an eight hundred year old vampire. Schanke was balding, late thirties, early forties and a little on the chubby side. Natalie was thirty-three, chestnut haired with an average build.

"TOD I would estimate to be about 3 hours ago. Cause of death seems to be blunt trauma to the head. She was severely beaten. I'll know more after I get her back to the lab," Natalie said.

The fact that someone could be that vicious to a disabled person unnerved them. The case made them uncomfortable, as it reminded them that they too could very easily become disabled. All it would take would be a bullet, car accident or a fall.

By the end of the shift Dr. Lambert had finished the autopsy on the beating victim. The autopsy findings showed that the victim's skull had been fractured by a blunt object which may have been a baseball bat. Shards of the victim's skull sliced into her brain, causing massive hemorrhaging, which killed her within moments. Natalie believed the woman was knocked out from the blow and never regained consciousness.

Over the next few days, Nick and Natalie spent a lot of time together. He surprised her with tickets for *Phantom of the Opera* to be redeemed on their next night off.

He treated her to a nice dinner beforehand. Both looked stunning all dressed up for the occasion. They enjoyed the show, especially since they were there together. After the play, Nick took her out for a midnight snack. They both were loving their night together, no thoughts of anything else intruding.

They spent a couple of post shift nights in Nick's loft watching a movie while they unwound from the night. Natalie slept on the couch at least once, having falling asleep during the closing credits.

Both enjoyed spending time together, having realized that they didn't spend enough time in each other's company. He was surprised that the vampire seemed to behave itself, for the most part, as long as he didn't deny himself the cow's blood his body needed.

A few nights later, Natalie drove through the nearly deserted streets on her way home from a long, busy shift. She was looking forward to collapsing into bed after a quick shower.

Natalie stepped lightly on the brake to slow herself and felt the pedal drop to the floor. Stay calm, She reminded herself.

She knew that she wouldn't be able to stop easily, even if she was only going the legal speed limit. She was grateful she'd made a habit of always wearing her seat belt, and that the road was empty at that early hour.

Suddenly the steering wheel jerked to the left, leaving her no time to react before the car slammed head first into the cement base of a light pole.

Am I going to die? How will Nick react? How soon before someone finds me? were her last conscious thoughts as the airbag activated.

Two paramedics rushed into the emergency room, the stretcher contained an unconscious Natalie Lambert between them. Natalie's face, neck, and hands were full of cuts and scratches from the impact of the airbag.

The ER staff took over, wheeled their new patient into trauma room one and transferred her to the examination table, jarring her as little as possible as they began their assessment of her injuries.

Natalie's eyes opened, she tried to figure out where she was as her vision cleared, panicking when she discovered she was completely immobilized. The doctor part of her knew it was standard procedure, but it did little to reassure her.

The doctor noticed she was conscious and panicking. He knew he needed to calm her as he examined her.

"What is your name? I need you to remain as still and calm as possible."

"Natalie Lambert. What's wrong with me? I'm an MD."

"Dr. Lambert we don't know anything yet. You just arrived a moment ago. Do you hurt anywhere?"

Natalie mentally examined her body. "Some minor aches throughout my body, but nothing serious."

"Can you wiggle your fingers and toes?"

The nurse had removed Natalie's shoes and was in the process of bagging her belongings.

Natalie moved her fingers and was stunned when she could not feel her legs. This scared her. From the doctor's expression Natalie could tell she'd moved her toes a little.

The doctor poked various places along her feet, legs and continued probing up to her hips, asking if she could feel any of it. She felt none of it, further terrifying her. He repeated the test by touching the surface of the skin in the same places. Again, she felt nothing. A few tears ran down her cheeks. A nurse wiped them away along with a little blood from various minor cuts and scratches.

Seeing her blood on the gauze pad did little to reassure her.

The doctor worked his way up from her hips towards her chest, doing the pricking test first. Natalie was greatly relieved when she could feel the pain starting slightly above her hips and all the way up to her chest. The doctor knew that if she could feel it that far, there was no reason to continue upward. He did the touch test next and the results were almost identical.

"I want films of her head, neck and spine." The doctor ordered. "Dr. Lambert can you tell me what day of the week it is?"

"Tuesday," Natalie answered.

"Where do you work?"

"The Coroner's Office."

"Is there anyone we should notify?"

"Detective Nick Knight, 96th precinct. Homicide Division."

"Okay. Is he a relative?"

"The closest thing I have to one. Also contact Grace Balthazar at the Coroner's Office."

"Okay."

About twenty minutes later Nick rushed into the emergency room stopping at the nurses' desk, his eyes wide with panic, concern etched on his features. He had risked the predawn light because the woman he loved had been in an accident.

"I'm looking for Natalie Lambert. I'm Detective Nick Knight"

"She's being examined. Someone will be out to talk to you soon, Detective Knight"

Nick headed for the waiting area where he saw Grace and Schanke.

"Nick, any word?" Schanke asked concerned.

"No. They're still examining her."

"I heard the call on the radio. They had her completely immobilized, and were loading her into the ambulance when I arrived. She looked like she was unconscious. I only got a glimpse of her," Schanke told Nick, knowing it wasn't the most reassuring news. Seeing the cervical collar around his friend's neck, and her being strapped to the backboard made Schanke quite uneasy. He didn't want to make Nick more afraid by mentioning the blood he'd seen on their friend's face.

"Schank. What did the scene look like?" Nick hoped that it would give him a clue as to how badly she might be hurt.

"From the skid marks it looked like she hit something slippery and almost instantly slammed head first into a light post. The front end was literally wrapped around the cement base. I believe her seat belt and the air bag probably saved her life," Schanke said, unsure if he should've been that honest. He knew that if he were in Nick's place, he'd want to know all the details. "What is it with her and cars? She's had pretty bad luck the last couple of years." Schanke was trying to lighten the atmosphere.

"The wrong place at the wrong time?" Nick knew what his partner was trying to do, but it wasn't working. "Thanks for calling me."

"No problem. I thought it would be easier to hear from a friend."

"It was."

"I thought you couldn't be in the sun?" Grace asked.

"I can tolerate small amounts of predawn light and sunset, as long it's not too bright and I protect myself. I would've gone nuts at home."

Nick started pacing, knowing it wouldn't do anything to help, but he couldn't just sit there. Schanke and Grace let him be. They knew he had a hard time sitting still when Natalie was in trouble.

About an hour later the doctor approached Natalie's friends.

"I'm looking for Nick Knight."

"I'm he," Nick said, his concern growing. "How is she?"

"She's conscious and alert. She should be fine, for the most part. She has a mild concussion. She picked up a few bumps and bruises, several minor cuts and scratches. What concerns us right now is the damage to her spinal cord. At the moment she is unable to feel anything from her lower back down."

"What exactly are you saying?" Nick asked stunned, wanting to be sure he understood, hoping he'd heard wrong.

"Right now she's paraplegic. We won't know more until we run further tests."

"Oh man," Schanke said stunned.

"Can we see her?" Grace asked shocked.

"Yes. She will be settled into her room shortly."

"Does she know?" Nick asked.

"Yes. She regained consciousness moments after her arrival."

A nurse told Nick, Schanke and Grace that Natalie was in room 1013 on the spinal cord injury floor. Nick, Grace and Schanke were upset by the type of patients they saw as they walked toward Natalie's room, especially the ones who were quadriplegic or respirator dependent. A few were completely bedridden. One brunette had thin metal screws going into her skull which were hooked to a metal halo. The halo was attached via thick rods to a padded plastic vest covering the woman's upper body. That unnerved them more than most of the sights had. They feared what they would see when they entered Natalie's room.

Natalie wondered how her friends would react, and when they'd come to visit. Does Nick know? Is he here? She wondered. A part of her hoped he was, yet a part of her knew it was too dangerous for him to be out now.

Natalie's three friends knocked on her door a minute or two later, quite uneasy, a bit nervous as well.

"Come in," Natalie called out, unsure of their reaction.

Nick, Schanke and Grace entered. Natalie lay flat on her back immobilized by a hard plastic cervical collar and small sandbags on either side of her head. They were relieved to see no fancy, complicated mechanisms attached to her. There was an IV attached to one arm, and she had minor cuts, scratches, and scrapes on her cheeks and forehead. There was a rather nasty looking scrape on the left side of her forehead and a small bruise on her chin.

"Hi guys." She was pleased to see all three of them, Nick especially.

"How are you doing?" Schanke asked concerned.

"I don't know. I don't think it has fully sunk in yet."

"Nat, what happened?" Nick asked worried. His concern grew upon seeing the fear in her eyes. He noticed a little of her fear eased when she saw him.

"I was on my way home when I noticed my brakes didn't work. I pressed the brake pedal, but it went clear to the floor. I tried to prevent an accident. I must've hit something slick because, before I could react, I swerved towards the light post. I must've hit it. The next thing I remember is waking up in the ER."

"Thanks for the info," Nick said.

"Sorry I can't tell you more," Natalie said.

"That's okay," Nick said.

"Don't mind the sandbags and necklace. They're just to keep me immobile so there's less pressure on my spinal cord. It'll help the swelling go down faster if I don't move," she told them in an attempt to reassure them that she was okay. "There is a tiny bit of good news, I apparently can wiggle my toes a little, but I have no feeling in either leg. It may be a sign I'll improve or it might just be a nerve that wasn't affected and nothing will change."

"We'll keep our fingers crossed that it's a sign you'll improve," Grace said.

"What did the car look like?" Natalie asked, needing to know how bad the accident was.

"It was wrapped around the pole like a horseshoe," Schanke said. "I arrived as they finished loading you into the ambulance." Off Nat's questioning look he continued, "I heard the call on the radio."

"Is there anything you need us to do right now?" Nick asked.

"Not really. Just find out what happened."

"We will," Nick said.

Just then a nurse entered and threw them out.

"I'll stop by later, Natalie," Grace said. The two guys nodded.

The three visitors left, stunned. They had seen fear and uncertainty in Natalie's eyes, despite her attempt to reassure them and herself.

When they reached the elevator, Grace was the first to speak.

"Do you think she'll be okay?"

"Yes. She'll be fine once the swelling goes down," Nick said hoping he was right and that he had reassured the others. "She'll want to have her hands in someone as soon as she's allowed, if not sooner." Nick saw his friends nodding in agreement, hoping Nick was right.

"Was anyone as uneasy as I was?" Schanke asked.

Both Grace and Nick nodded.

"It's always hard to see someone close to you lying in a hospital bed, unless its for something joyous like bringing a new life into the world," Grace said.

"If it was her lower back that's hurt why do they have her head so immobile?" Schanke asked.

"So that she won't move. The more movement, the longer it takes for the swelling, she mentioned to go down, and the longer she'll be like that. It will also prevent her from accidentally injuring herself further. Once the swelling goes down she'll be able to move around," Grace said.

"How long will that take?" Nick asked. He knew Natalie would be climbing the walls within hours and would probably become either cranky or depressed.

"It depends on how much swelling there is. I would guess probably two weeks, maybe three. I'm not a doctor so I can't tell you for sure. I don't think they'll know either. They will keep monitoring her," Grace said. "The best thing we can do for her is keep her company. Let her know we care about her, and will, no matter what."

Meanwhile, in Natalie's hospital room, she was staring at the ceiling, her mind wandering. It's just cord shock. As soon as the swelling goes down function should return. Remember, you can move your toes.' She silently told herself. I might need some time for my muscles to rebound after not being used for a few weeks, but other than that, I should be fine.

She didn't completely believe herself. No matter how much she tried to deny it, she knew the paralysis could be permanent. A single tear rolled down her cheek and was promptly brushed away by her fingertips. The only reassuring thought was that if she hadn't been wearing her seat belt she probably would've been dead, quadriplegic or severely brain damaged.

Schanke arrived home, where he was met at the door by his wife. Seeing both his exhaustion and the deep concern on his face, she wrapped her arm around his waist, kissed him and escorted him into the family room.

"Don, honey, what's wrong?" She asked concerned as they sat on the couch.

Don tiredly rubbed his face with his hands. "Natalie was in a car accident earlier."

"Is she okay?" Myra asked alarmed.

"Yes and no," Schanke said. "She has some minor cuts, scrapes and a few bruises. She also has a mild concussion."

From the sadness hidden in her husband's eyes Myra knew there was more to it and would let him tell her in his own time.

"She's also paraplegic," Schanke said, still unable to believe it.

"Oh my God!" Myra said, alarmed and slightly panicking. "Does she know? Does Nick?"

"Yeah, they both know. I heard the call on the radio and arrived as they finished loading her into the ambulance. Nick arrived at the hospital about twenty minutes after I did."

"How's she handling it? How's Nick?" Myra asked as she studied her husband closely. She could see that he was still quite shaken, and wasn't sure what to make of the whole situation.

"She's scared, unsure, but was trying to reassure Nick, Grace and myself that she'd be fine. I think she's still in shock. Nick's having some of the same feelings." Don again ran his hands across his face trying to wipe away some of the tiredness. "I can't believe it."

"What happened?"

"Her brakes failed. Judging from the skid marks she hit something slick and slammed headfirst into the light post, before she could react. The front end looks like a horse shoe. The fact that she was wearing her seat belt, along with the airbag saved her life." Don pulled his wife into his lap, grateful that they were both alive and healthy. He kissed her as he held her in his arms. "There is some hopeful news. She can wiggle her toes slightly, but has no feeling in her legs."

"I hope that's a sign of good things to come," Myra said. "Will she be able to return to work?"

"I hope so. Knowing her, this won't keep her away." Don said, hoping he was right.

"I hope so too." Myra realized Nick had been there during the day. "How was Nick able to be there?"

"He can tolerate small amounts of predawn light or sunset as long as he properly protects himself. He just can't be in bright sunlight."

They both knew that when someone takes a risk like that for a friend, it's much more than friendship.

"Why didn't you call me?" Myra asked, concerned, but not accusing or scolding.

"I'm sorry. At first I didn't think it was that serious. I didn't want you to have to find a sitter for Jenny or bring her with you. I figured they'd release her as soon as they checked her out or maybe hold her overnight for observation. When it took quite a while for the doctor to come out, I knew it was more serious. I didn't want to bother you. You would've just been waiting with us. Jenny would've been freaked out, thinking I was the one hurt, or that it could've been me. I would've called but that would've worried you and I didn't have anything to report. You know how Natalie hates it when a big fuss is made over her."

"I know. You did the right thing." Myra said as she hugged her husband.

Later Nick returned to visit Natalie, his thoughts straying as he approached her room. Would her life be better if she came across? For a moment or two he considered this, knowing she'd be healed, but knew that vampirism would be a worse hell.

He couldn't imagine her spending the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair. Being restricted in what she could do. What about her career? Our friendship? Her other friends? Can she still be independent?

He pushed all such thoughts out of his mind and knocked on the door.

"Come in."

"Hi. I thought you might like to see a friendly face," Nick said. Seeing his chestnut haired friend lying there unmoving really bothered him. He was careful to stand where her restricted line of sight would allow her to see him.

"I'd like that," Natalie said. She didn't like anyone seeing her so helpless, especially Nick. She noticed his uneasiness but didn't say anything. She couldn't blame him as she'd feel the same way if the situation was reversed.

"You okay?" He asked, seeing the feelings she tried to hide. Her blue eyes clearly showed her fear and uncertainty about her future. He knew she wondered what would happen to her life, independence and career.

"I'll be okay. It's just so strange."

"Life has a way of being like that. Do you want to talk about it?" He asked, his tone telling her he would be glad to listen. He recognized her tone of voice as one that was glossing over the real issues.

"What is there to say? I could walk but now I can't? That my career may be over? That I may wind up a desk bound paper pusher?" She said with more anger in her voice than she had intended.

"You could always teach," Nick said, trying to show her that she did have options.

"I don't want to teach. How can I teach? I won't be able to reach the autopsy table," Natalie said, the anger still clearly present. "Face it Nick, my options are quite limited, thanks to the stupid accident."

Nick didn't know how to respond to that, so he changed the subject. "How long are they keeping you here?"

"A while. In a few weeks I should be transferred to a rehab center where I'll learn how to deal with my paralysis and all the changes it will force into my life." She didn't want to think about that, hoping that it was all a lie. She changed the subject to get the focus away from her. "Any leads on your cases?"

"Only that your brake line was cut. Do you have any idea why anyone would do that?"

"No. Outside of LaCroix, I don't know of any enemies. He wouldn't do it that way. Why would someone want to hurt me?" She asked her fear growing along with some sadness and a little confusion. "Sure I've helped put people away, but no one's ever threatened me or tried to hurt me before." She held out her hand and he took it.

He gently stroked the back of her hand with his thumb knowing how much his touch could comfort her.

"I don't know. I will do my best to find out. And you're right, if LaCroix wanted to hurt you, he wouldn't resort to cutting your brakes." A startling thought occurred to Nick. Or might he? It would be hard to connect back to him, and it would get her out of my life.

"I know you will."

"Are you planning on going back to work eventually?" He was pleased to see she'd calmed down and was thinking rationally again.

"I'd like to. I don't think my clients will object," She said trying to lighten the mood. She saw the pain in his eyes as he tried to force a weak grin.

Nick's phone rang. He dug it out of his pocket, knowing it wouldn't stop ringing, and answered it.

"Hi, Schank."

Nick listened to his partner. "I'll be there shortly."

Nick hung up, sticking the phone back into his jacket.

"I have to run. I'll stop by again later. Is there anything I can bring you?"

"My radio. I'm tired of examining the ceiling and listening to the conversations in the hallway."

Before Natalie knew it Nick was back with her radio.

"That was quick." She said lightly, knowing the only way he could've been to her apartment and back that fast was to fly. She couldn't scold him because he was only trying to help, and she desperately needed something to help ease the boredom if she didn't want to lose her mind.

"I knew you wanted it. Shall I turn it on?" Nick asked, seeing that the only place to set it down was out of her reach. He knew that she must've been desperately bored not to scold him.

"Please."

Nick's cell phone rang, which he reluctantly answered.

"Knight." He heard Schanke wondering where he was. "I'll be there soon." Annoyance creeping into his voice. He knew he had to work, but Natalie also needed him.

Nick turned on the radio, turning the tuning dial until he found a station she liked.

"Go on. I'll be okay," Natalie said more cheerful than she felt.

He kissed her on the forehead and left. As soon as the door closed, a tear ran down Natalie's face. She quickly wiped it away.

Out in the hallway Nick's heart sank. It hurt every time he saw her active form lying there so still. He could see how much she hated it, how much it frustrated and scared her.

She wished they'd hurry up and fix the TV that was supposed to be in her room so at least she'd have something to do. She wiped away another tear, closing her eyes against any others that wanted to fall.

Around lunchtime, there was a knock on Natalie's door.

"Come in," Natalie called out.

"Hi. I thought you might like some company. If not, I can come back later," Myra said, not wanting to intrude. Her unease at seeing Natalie's confinement surprised her.

"Please stay. I'm about to go out of my mind with boredom." Natalie was pleased when Myra entered the room and seemed to know Natalie's line of sight would be quite limited.

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

"Okay, I guess. I still can't believe it. It all happened so fast." Natalie didn't want to think about her paralysis, because the more she thought about it, the less she could deny the truth. "How are you and Jenny?"

"We're fine. Jenny's class just started preparations for a new recital. She's all excited because she has one of the leads."

"That's great."

During the early afternoon there was a knock on her door.

"Come in."

Don Schanke stuck his head in the door before entering.

"I brought these for you," Schanke said nervously as he held a colorful bouquet of flowers. He didn't know why, but something about Natalie's injury made him uneasy. A moment later he realized what it was. It was that she was kept immobile by the doctors, making him realize that it could just as easily have been himself, Nick, Grace, Jenny or Myra.

"Thanks, Schank. Can I see them?" Natalie knew Schanke might not realize how limited her line of sight was.

"Sorry."

"That's okay," Natalie said, lightly.

Schanke approached Natalie's bedside and noticed her reaching out for the flowers. He was unsure what to do or say.

"It's okay," She reassured as she took hold of the bouquet. "They're beautiful. Thank you."

She held onto the flowers for a few minutes as she took in their scent and the beauty of the arrangement

"How about putting them in some water for me?" She sensed his uneasiness but decided not to make it worse by mentioning it. She knew she'd be uneasy too, if their positions were reversed.

"I just wanted to stop by and see how you were doing. I heard Myra stopped by earlier. We hope you're out of here soon."

"Thanks. Yeah, she did." A small grin graced Natalie's expression, but quickly fled as thoughts of the next few months crossed her mind. "I hope to be transferred to the rehab center in a few weeks. After a several weeks there I should be able to get on with my life. How are you doing?"

"Okay. I hate seeing you here... like this."

"Thanks. I'm not crazy about being here. The food stinks," she said lightly. "How's Nick handling it?"

"It's hard for him. It's hard for all of us."

"I know. It isn't any easier for me. Is he okay?"

"I think so. He's completely thrown himself into finding out who did this to you. I'm backing him all the way. We'll get them, I promise you."

"I know. Thanks."

"I've got to get back to work," Schanke said. He knew he did have to get back to work, but didn't want it to look like he was leaving because he was too uneasy to stay and talk with his friend, which was part of his reason for leaving.

"Thanks for dropping by." Natalie understood his reactions, but wished he didn't have to leave. Usually she didn't mind being alone, but this time there was absolutely nothing for her to do but think. Her thoughts kept straying to her future and the uncertainties of it, which only greatly increased her insecurities.

A short time later Grace stopped by. She too was a little uneasy seeing Natalie like that. Knowing Natalie needed a friend to talk to, she pushed those feelings aside.

"Natalie honey, how are you really doing?" Grace asked concerned. She saw the dried tear tracks on Natalie's cheeks which only made her more concerned.

"I'm doing okay. A little scared. So much changed so quickly."

"I know. Do they know anymore?"

"Not really. The spinal cord is one of the few parts of the body they know very little about. The tests show damage to the cord, but luckily it wasn't severed. All that can be done now is to wait for the swelling to go down. Then maybe they can tell how bad the damage is."

"I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. I won't let it control my life. There is no reason it has to."

"You're right. Are you going to come back to work, sometime?"

"I plan to. I don't see why I can't. Our clients won't object," Natalie said lightly, with a slight teasing quality to her voice.

"If they do... I'm outta there!" Grace teased back, causing Natalie to smile.

Grace was pleased to see that Natalie's sense of humor had not been broken, and that she still had her fighting spirit.

"I hate this! I'm so sick and tired of just laying here." Natalie said, venting her frustrations. "I've found every flaw in the ceiling and decided that it could use a new coat of paint, maybe a picture or two."

"What kind of a picture?" Grace was pleased to see her friend having some reaction, and let her vent.

"I don't know. Something that you wouldn't get tired of seeing. Something relaxing. Maybe some blue sky with a few clouds, some grass and a lake. Or maybe just the sky and clouds."

"That does sound nice."

"Would you believe they gave me the only room with a busted TV. I'm supposed to get a new one anytime now." She sighed. "With my luck, I'll get it the day I'm released."

"That's not fair. Maybe you'll get lucky and get one in a day or two."

Later in the day Grace returned to the hospital. She had a folder in one hand and a short ladder in the other. She knocked on Natalie's door, "She's not there. They took her down for some tests about 10 minutes ago," a passing nurse told her.

"Thanks. Do you know how long she'll be gone?" Grace said, pleased that her timing had been perfect.

"Probably another half hour or so." The nurse was curious about the ladder but decided not to inquire and continued on her way instead.

Grace entered Natalie's room where she set up the ladder and balanced the folder on top of it.

Grace spent the next 25 minutes attaching several pictures similar to those Natalie had described to the ceiling. She had found some really nice Mel Gibson pictures in a store and had bought them, knowing he was one of Natalie's favorite actors. Once finished, Grace examined her handiwork from below, smiling when it passed inspection. She took her ladder and the empty folder back to her car.

Natalie was wheeled back into her room and was carefully transferred from the gurney to the bed. The orderlies were very careful to keep movement to a minimum. Natalie had been grateful for the momentary change of scenery, even if it was just a different ceiling. She could see some of what went on around her, but it was hard on her eyes to spend too long looking off to the side.

Once she was again immobilized in her bed, she saw the new panorama on the ceiling and was pleasantly amazed.

Grace entered and saw the large smile on her friend's face.

"Hi, Natalie."

"Grace! Did you do this!?"

"I thought it might help brighten the room a bit."

"Thank you! It's great. It should brighten my mood as well as the room."

Grace was thrilled to see her idea had worked so well.

Later that evening Nick stopped by with a couple of gifts for Natalie. He didn't bother to wrap the medium sized cardboard box knowing it would be too difficult for her to unwrap it. He placed a small shopping bag on the stuffed chair in her room.

He could see the joy in her eyes as she saw the portable stereo box he held. The smile she gifted him with made the effort all the more worthwhile.

"Nick, you shouldn't have. Thanks."

"I thought you might be tired of listening to commercials." Nick said as he removed the stereo from its box.

"I am. It was really sweet of you."

He replaced the radio with the stereo. Out of the bag he pulled a handful of CD's. Some were hers and some were new. He handed them to her a couple at a time. She picked the ones she wanted, and he stuck them into the player, which held seven.

Something caught the edge of his field of vision causing him to look up at the ceiling over her bed, surprised by the pictures. Natalie enjoyed his expression as it usually took a lot to surprise him.

"Grace did that while I was out earlier. Isn't she great?"

"Yes, she is." Nick could see the positive effect the gesture had on his best friend. It seemed to soothe her boredom and a little of the frustration.

Once again Nick's phone rang.

"Why is it that the only time this rings is when I'm here?" Nick muttered as he fished the phone out of his pocket. "What?" He said into the phone, a little crankily.

"Did I catch you at a bad time?" Schanke asked.

"Yes. Every time I visit Nat, you call. What do you want?"

"We have some interviews scheduled. If you'd rather stay with her, I can handle them alone. Say hi to her for me."

Natalie could see the indecision on his face. "Go on."

Nick saw that she was a little drowsy, "I'll be there shortly." Nick hung up and stuffed the phone back into his pocket. "Schanke says hi."

He handed her the remote control for the stereo so she could operate it herself. He could see how helpless she was feeling and knew it would make her feel better to have some control over the things around her.

"I'll see you later." Nick kissed her on the forehead.

"Tell Schanke hi."

"I will."

Nick left. Natalie loved being able to pick which CD and which track on it she listened to. As well as being able to control the volume. Finally, she had some control. Natalie fell asleep listening to her music.

Later that evening Grace arrived back at the coroner's office from dropping some files off at the 45th precinct. She was surprised to see a good sized box of her favorite chocolates sitting right in the middle of her desk. She noticed the note on top and picked it up. It read, Grace, Thank you. Nick. A smile crossed her face as she opened the box and sampled a couple of pieces. As the chocolate melted in her mouth, her smile broadened. Very good chocolates.

A few more days passed. Cohen called Nick and Schanke into her office.

"Gentlemen, I'm getting screamed at by both the Commissioner and the mayor. They want to know why there has been so little progress. I know you're doing your best. Any progress on the Brooks murder? Or Natalie's accident?"

"No. Who ever did the killing was extremely clever. It was as if it were one of us. Who else would know exactly how to cover their tracks? On Natalie's accident, there are no new leads," Nick said frustrated by his lack of progress.

"How is she doing?"

"Pretty good, outside of major boredom. She hasn't had much of a reaction to her paralysis. Maybe it hasn't fully sunk in yet," Nick said, bothered by Natalie's mild reaction.

The next afternoon a friend of Natalie's from work stopped by. She knocked on Natalie's door, knowing exactly what her friend was going through.

"Come in."

Chris Desmond entered. She was around Natalie's age with fiery red hair and an athletic build. She would have been described as 'cute'.

"Hi. I thought I'd drop by to see how you were doing. I hope you don't mind."

"No. I don't mind. Actually, I'm grateful for the distraction." Seeing Chris in her wheelchair scared Natalie, as she knew that would be her soon. She found her paralysis easier to deal with as long as she didn't think about the future.

"I was where you are six years ago. This is the worst part. It gives you plenty of time to think. Too much time, I thought. After this comes the hard work. When you get transferred to the rehab center, you will be working long hours every day to learn how to take care of yourself so that you can once again be independent. It will be hard and frustrating but worth the effort." Chris knew this was probably the first time since the accident that Natalie had seen someone in a wheelchair, and knew that it would bring up all the fears she had pushed aside. "I thought you might have some questions. I'll do my best to answer them."

"What happened to you?" Natalie asked.

"A drunk driver on a rainy night. He plowed into my car headfirst."

"What happened to him?"

"He walked away with a few broken bones. I wound up paraplegic. At least I don't have to worry about wearing out my shoes," Chris said with a small grin, as she tried to lighten the mood.

"Not to mention getting all the good parking spots," Natalie rejoined, doing her bit to lighten the mood.

Chris was glad to see that Natalie was beginning to accept her paralysis, unlike some other people she knew. It had nearly destroyed them. She was glad that Natalie was more resilient.

Chris noticed the ceiling decorations. "Nice choice."

"Thanks. Grace did it while I was out for tests."

"She's a sweetheart. I wish I had thought of it when I was flat on my back."

"Nick brought me the stereo so I wouldn't be bored by all the commercials on the radio. Don and Myra Schanke brought the flowers. Everyone's been so great."

"Sorry, I didn't bring you anything."

"You brought me something, hope. If you can lead a normal life, I can too."

That evening Nick arrived for another visit. He knocked and heard Natalie tell him to enter.

"Hi."

"Hi," Natalie said, her spirits slightly perked up by his visit.

"I thought you could probably use some more reading material," he said with a mischievous grin, as he handed her the four comic books he had hidden behind his back.

"Jenny Jinx. Thanks." She smiled. She knew they would be easier to read than magazine articles, because of their style. She would be able to finish one before her arms tired from holding the printed matter up over her head so she could read.

Later that week Cohen paid Natalie a visit. She had meant to come earlier, but figured Natalie needed time to herself. Time to get used to it. Cohen knew she had needed it as she too had been unnerved by the patients she passed in the hallway, even though she had visited friends in similar places before, knowing it never got easier. Cohen knocked on Natalie's door.

"Come in."

"Hi, Natalie. I'm sorry." Cohen still wasn't totally prepared for seeing Natalie lying there so still. Hearing about it was one thing, but seeing it for herself was something different, harder. She made sure she was in Natalie's line of sight, knowing how limited it was.

"Thanks."

"I just wanted to stop by and let you know that everyone's hoping for a speedy recovery. Everyone from both the precinct and Coroner's Office signed this."

"Tell them all thanks." Natalie watched as Cohen took the huge card out of the envelope. It must be at least three feet tall and about two feet wide,> Natalie thought.

Cohen gave Natalie a moment to read the card before she opened it so that Natalie could see the signatures and personal messages along with the printed message. Cohen was pleased to see the smile that lit up Natalie's face.

"Natalie, we're doing our best to catch whoever did this to you. It's one of our top priorities."

"Thanks, Amanda. I know you are doing your best. How's Nick doing?"

"Okay from what I can see. He's concerned about you. He and Schanke are working hard to solve the case." Amanda changed the subject. "How are you doing?"

"I'm doing okay."

"Where should I leave your card? Which do you want to see, the front or the inside?"

"Put it over there by the window, however it will stand up is fine. I should be able to see it. Thank everybody for the card. Who's idea was it?"

"I'm not exactly sure. I think it might have been a joint effort. I know I overheard Nick and Schanke talking about getting you a card. Grace's name was mentioned as well."

Nick, Grace, Chris Desmond, Don and Myra Schanke visited Natalie daily, knowing how much their visits cheered her up. They brought Natalie CD's to listen to, often from their own collections.

Nick brought her a few new comics each time, knowing how much she enjoyed them. The contradiction between professional career woman and the childlike glee that each new batch of comic books brought out amused him. At her request, he took the ones she had finished down to the pediatrics ward so the children could enjoy them as well.

Nick and Schanke worked out a system so Nick's phone didn't ring every time he visited Natalie. Schanke knew it was either that or he might very well wind up as a homicide case.

Nick arrived at Natalie's room for his nightly visit and couldn't believe it had been a week since the accident. He heard Natalie and an unidentified male talking. Out of curiosity he opened the door a crack, enough to see into the room without being seen. Natalie was still flat on her back, completely immobile. Nick discovered the male voice belonged to the physical therapist who was busy manipulating Natalie's legs so the muscles and joints would stay healthy. Nick knew Natalie wouldn't want him to see her so vulnerable and helpless, so he very carefully shut the door and left, without her knowing he'd been there. He knew it was hard enough for her to allow him, or any of her other friends to see her lying there day after day.

He still had trouble believing this was all real, knowing that it was. What he just saw made it seem even more real.

Later that night Nick returned to visit Natalie. They talked for a while before the approaching dawn forced him to leave. He had reluctantly been granted later visitation rights due to his sun allergy, and Natalie backing his story.

Late the next afternoon, Natalie found herself once again undergoing an MRI so they could check on the swelling of her spinal cord. To her great relief it was still going down. She was so tired of only being able to see what was either directly above her or in her very limited range of sight and couldn't wait for the moment she was freed of her immobilization. She wished they'd fix the TV so she could at least watch something.

Shortly after being left in bed, once again immobilized, Natalie noticed that the pictures had been changed. She didn't know where Grace was getting them, but knew she had to do something to thank her friend. She knew that if Grace hadn't provided the much needed distraction, she probably would've lost her mind out of sheer boredom.

Between the music, the pictures, the reading material, and visits from her friends, being bedridden was almost tolerable. Natalie knew that it was almost as hard on them as it was on her, but she was glad that they came and that she hadn't shut them out.

Natalie enjoyed Chris' visits because she could talk with her about things only Chris would know about or truly understand. Chris answered all of Natalie's questions about living and working as a paraplegic.

Chris was glad she could help her friend during this particularly rough time. She remembered how much it had helped to have someone there for her when she needed it. Chris saw Natalie's confidence slowly growing as the coroner learned about her condition and all the things she could still do. She loved the surprised look on Natalie's face at the mention of a few activities.

A few days later, Natalie was both thrilled and relieved when the MRI showed the swelling was gone. The doctor removed Natalie's hard plastic cervical collar and the accompanying sandbags.

The nurse asked Natalie if she wanted to change into her own clothes. When Natalie said she did, the nurse handed her the outfit Nick had left in the closet the night before. Natalie slipped on her T-shirt with no problem and was frustrated by the fact that she couldn't put on her leggings or socks without help.

She hadn't realized how much different things would be now that she no longer had any feeling or movement in her legs. she thought, wondering why that idea came to mind. Her legs were now two useless collections of nerves, bones and muscles, completely limp. Any movement of them required her to do it manually, which she quickly discovered was not always as easy as it sounded. It also made it much harder for her to deny the fact that she was paraplegic.

Natalie reluctantly accepted the nurse's help and was soon was dressed in her leggings and thick socks. Her T-shirt hanging down over the leggings. Her curly chestnut mane was brushed before being tied back with a Scrunchi.

Shortly after Natalie had finished dressing, the orderly entered pushing a black pretty stylish wheelchair, not a clunky grey metal one you often saw in hospitals. Natalie was surprised by the depression it brought with it. Seeing the wheelchair made it still harder for her to deny that she couldn't walk, and might never walk again.

The orderly helped Natalie transfer herself from her bed to the wheelchair, surprising her with how much coordination and effort was required. Once she was in her chair she had to manually position her feet so that they were on the footrest. She wondered if she'd ever get used to that aspect of it.

Natalie couldn't believe how uneasy she was as the orderly pushed her to the therapy room. She knew therapy would force her to face those feelings she kept pushing aside.

The orderly left Natalie in the therapy room, where she was promptly introduced to her therapist, Keith Thompson. Thompson helped Natalie lie flat on her back on the exercise mat, before teaching her how to roll over, causing her to feel like an infant. She hated feeling so out of control. Then Keith had her roll back over so she was once again lying flat on her back.

Her therapist worked Natalie's leg muscles as she lay there. She hated it as it made her feel helpless, but knew it was important. She and Keith talked as he manipulated her muscles, knowing it would make the time go by faster and help get her mind off what he was doing.

Nick stopped by for a visit, learned where she was and headed down there, arriving right after the therapist finished working with Natalie's leg muscles. Nick stayed out of sight and watched Natalie struggle with her next lesson.

Her therapist instructed his client on how to seat herself in her wheelchair from the ground. Natalie listened carefully and then tried to do as told. She couldn't believe how intensely difficult it was to push against the wheelchair so that she could gain enough leverage to seat herself in the chair, her legs proved to be more of a hindrance than a help.

Nick wanted to rush in and help her, but knew that she'd probably want to stake him on the spot or be so angry at him that she wouldn't speak to him or see him for days. He watched as she struggled to seat herself in her wheelchair, seeing the enormous amount of energy and effort it took. He saw the stubborn determination, frustration, and anger on her face as she worked to complete the task.

Once seated she had to straighten herself out so she'd be comfortable and then manually place each foot onto the footrest. A small grin graced her expression as she finished that major chore.

What he just witnessed made the fact that she was paraplegic fully sink in. He wondered how it would affect their relationship, hoping it wouldn't.

Depression and anger crossed Natalie's features at the realization that this is what her life would be like from now on. Everything would be a struggle, even the simple things she had taken for granted. Determined not to let it get the best of her, she inquired what her next task was. She shoved all thoughts not related to her new task off to the side until she was ready to deal with them.

Nick stayed out of sight as Natalie pushed herself back to her room, refusing to let anyone help her. Nick waited a few minutes before knocking on her door.

"Come in."

He entered, seeing her still seated in her wheelchair. She was looking out the window, and turned to face him.

"I couldn't stand to be in bed another minute," she said, seeing the slight surprise in his eyes.

"Nat, what's wrong?" He asked concerned, seeing a different kind of sadness in her eyes.

"Nothing," she said, a little anger mixed with the depression seeped through her denial.

"Natalie," he said, his tone a little more insistent.

"How can you want to be with me? I'm not whole." This time there was some confusion as well as some sadness added to the mixture.

"It doesn't matter to me."

"I won't be able to do some of the things I used to do, we used to do."

"Then we'll find new things or new ways to do the old things." He said, reassuringly.

"I can't walk." Her hand swept across herself, highlighting her wheelchair, as if showing him something new.

"So. I can't go out in the sun." He knew where she as headed, and wanted her to know she wasn't the only one who'd ever had those feelings. "Don't you think that bothered me at first? That fact greatly frustrated me on numerous occasions. It still does sometimes. I learned not to let it get in the way of my life."

She gave him a questioning look. "Okay. I try not to let it get in the way..." She rewarded him with a small smile. "My sun problem hasn't affected how you've treated me."

"It's different."

"How?" He knew she was looking for any excuse she could find. He wasn't going to let her temporarily illogical behavior cause a problem between them, if he could do anything to stop it.

"I've never known you any other way."

"Okay." He didn't want to lose her. "Nat, it doesn't matter to me that you can't walk. That's not what I'm attracted to." At her look he tried again to tell her how he felt. "I won't say seeing you like this is easy, but I know as soon as they release you, you'll be rushing back to work, eager to get your hands into someone. Your warmth, spirit, intelligence, and sense of humor is what attracts me to you."

"But..."

"No buts. Okay, so you will need a wheelchair to get around. Big deal. At least you will be able to be out anytime you need to. That makes you more whole than I am. It's me who should be asking you, how can you want to be with me, knowing what I am."

"I like who you are. What you are doesn't matter. It never has."

"Exactly."

It hit her that they were both saying the same thing. "I guess I sounded pretty dumb, eh?"

"Not at all. You're just scared and uncertain about a few things. I'd be terrified and a lot more uncertain if I were in your place." He gently caressed her cheek with his fingers, loving the surprised grin his gesture earned him.

She leaned into his caress, loving the feel of his cool fingers against her warm cheek.

Shortly, Nick returned to the precinct to finish up some paperwork.

He took a seat at his desk, grateful that Cohen allowed him to visit Natalie during his shift, as long as he kept up with his work. He had trouble concentrating and forced his mind onto his paperwork, needing to finish the Johnson case because the crown prosecutor needed it within the next couple of days.

His thoughts kept drifting back to Natalie's struggles, both with her paralysis and trying to push him away. He hoped she wouldn't shut her friends out, especially now when she needed them most. It had hurt when she tried to shut him out, and it still bothered him some, even though he understood the reasons why she did it.

Schanke noticed his partner was zoning out more often than usual but didn't say anything about it, knowing how concerned Nick was about Natalie. He too was concerned for her and found himself spacing out once or twice when distracted by questions his mind came up with.

"Nick, why don't we go grab something to eat?" Schanke asked a few minutes later, needing a break from the paperwork.

"Sure."

The two detectives headed for the Caddy. Once they were on the road Schanke looked over at his partner.

"Is she going to be able to return to work?" Schanke asked concerned, hoping the accident wouldn't prevent Natalie from living on her own and doing the job she enjoyed.

"I don't see why not. She'll figure out some way to do anything she wants to do." Nick found himself wondering how independent she would be able to be, knowing how very frustrated and angry she would be if she could not be as independent as she was used to being. "Her clients won't complain."

"You're sick, you know that, don't you?" Schanke teased, knowing that both his friends had dark senses of humor, and were perfect for each other. Schanke shook his head at Nick's grin. "You know, the sooner we get our work done..."

"The more time I can spend with Nat," Nick said, cutting his partner off. "I know. I can't help it."

Schanke heard the concern in his friend's voice, even when he was trying to lighten things up. "Her accident has made me think about a lot of things. It could've been any of us."

"I know. I wish it had been me instead of her." Nick knew that he would've healed, and with Natalie's help could've come up with a convincing story to allow him back to work, and back to full duties. He wished he could've spared her all the trouble she's undergoing now because someone cut her brake line.

Very late that evening as Nick neared Natalie's room he heard muffled signs of a struggle coming from within. Hurrying to her room, Nick entered without knocking and found a dark haired male about his size trying to smother Natalie. She was fighting back, her arms pounding away at her assailant and alternately trying to pull the pillow off her face. Nick rushed to Natalie's side, pulled the guy off her, flinging him into the wall. Her attacker hit the wall with a thud and slid, unconscious, to the floor. Natalie's choking, gasping sounds as she tried to catch her breath caused Nick's concern to jump up several notches. The racing of her heart echoed in his mind, doing little to ease his worry.

"Nat, are you okay?" Nick asked quite worried, seeing the terror in her eyes along with the slight trembling of her body.

Natalie nodded as the gasping, choking sounds subsided once her body again had the oxygen it required. As this happened her breathing settled down into a more normal pattern, giving weight to her non-verbal statement that she was okay. Nick saw the increased fear remained and added to it was an uncertainty in her eyes, as well as an intense vulnerability, much more than he had previously seen there. It frightened him.

He sat on the edge of the bed and almost immediately felt her arms wrap around him as tightly as she could. Tears ran down her face, quickly turning into sobs that wracked her whole body. He just held her and gently stroked her hair, her anguish tearing at his heart. He wanted to rub her back, knowing how it had soothed her in the past, but was afraid he might hurt her. He could feel her trembling as he held her in his arms.

"Shhhh. It's over. You're safe with me," he whispered soothingly. He had never seen her this scared or upset before. Not even after the Jamison disaster, the Spark fiasco or the death of Cynthia.

A nurse entered having heard the thud, took in the scene on the bed and the unconscious man on the floor, and started towards Natalie.

"I want security to guard him until the police can take custody. He tried to kill her," Nick said, as he fished his badge out of his pocket showing it to the nurse, while keeping one arm around Natalie, knowing how much she needed it. "He might need medical attention. She seems to be okay."

The nurse left and a few moments later a security guard returned along with an orderly, who was pushing a gurney. The criminal was hefted onto the gurney and removed from the room, leaving the detective and coroner alone again.

"Nat, can..."

"You can't hurt me by touching me, even my back." She had cut him off, sensing his questions. "I can move around as I want to."

Nick repositioned both of them so that they would be more comfortable. Her tight grip had not eased. He gently rubbed her back, soothing her. Before long she was asleep in his arms. Her head rested on his shoulder as she leaned against his chest, her legs hanging over the side of his. He effortlessly set her down on the bed, careful not to wake her and headed for the blinds. He managed to sabotage them so they could not be opened or removed before he awoke. Once finished with that task he grabbed his phone from his pocket, stepped out into the hallway, carefully closing her door and called the precinct.

"Schanke, just listen. Someone tried to kill Natalie about an hour ago. I'm still with her. She was pretty badly shaken up. I don't want to leave her alone."

Nick gave a description of the attacker as he told Schanke what had happened. Then listened to Schanke's comments.

"I want to stay with her, at least until she wakes up. I don't want her to be left alone."

No sooner had Nick gotten off the phone then the nurse returned to tell him that the prisoner had overpowered the guard and escaped. Nick phoned in the information to Schanke.

"Nick!" Natalie called out in sheer panic.

Immediately Nick was by her side. No sooner had he sat on the edge of the bed, than he felt her arms wrap around him as tightly as before. He wrapped his arms around her, giving her the reassurance she needed to feel safe.

"I didn't mean for you to wake up and find me gone. I had to let Schanke know what happened." He thought it was best not to mention her attacker's escape, at least not at the moment. He knew he'd have to tell her, later.

"I had a nightmare. It was awful. I dreamt that I couldn't walk." She saw her wheelchair over Nick's shoulder, telling her that her nightmare was real. When she could no longer deny her paralysis, the tears started again.

Why me? She wondered, wanting to know if she'd done something wrong. She knew it didn't work like that, but couldn't help herself.

Nick scooped her up into his arms and settled her so that she was again leaning against his chest with her head on his shoulder, and her legs hanging over the side of his. He gently rubbed her back soothing her, while mumbling "shhhh, it's okay." Before long the tears stopped and her slow, regular breathing told him she was sound asleep. He knew that reality had hit her. She was finally dealing with her paralysis.

If she was already a target, would she become even more of one? How would she protect herself? How would he protect her? Nick found himself wondering. He knew he would do everything he could to protect her. It frustrated him to no end that he couldn't figure out why someone would want to hurt her. She didn't have a mean bone in her entire body.

Nick awoke the next morning when he heard Natalie's door open, looking to see if whoever was entering was friend or foe, relieved when it was Schanke.

Nick held his finger to his lips to silence his partner. He didn't want to disturb Natalie.

Schanke motioned that he would wait outside, seeing how peaceful and content Natalie looked asleep in Nick's arms, not to mention it having a similar effect on Nick. The scene looked completely natural causing Schanke to wonder exactly what their true relationship was.

A few minutes later Kim, the day shift nurse, entered for her morning vital signs check on Natalie. The nurse was surprised to find her patient and the detective still together. Kim headed for the blinds to open them and found them broken. Natalie heard the blinds rattling and awoke. She was a little surprised, but definitely pleased to find herself in Nick's arms.

"Morning," he softly said to Natalie.

"Morning," she said just as softly.

"I'll have someone repair this immediately," Kim said.

"I would appreciate it if you didn't. I have a severe sun allergy."

Nick noticed the nurse's curiosity.

"She was pretty badly shaken up and wouldn't let go of me."

"That's okay. I do hope I won't find you in her bed again tonight."

"No guarantees," Natalie said with a small mischievous grin.

The nurse just shook her head. She had been shocked to hear about the attack as soon as she came on duty. She was pleased to see that her patient's injury had not affected her and the detective's relationship, knowing all too well how such devastating injuries could destroy all but the strongest relationships. She'd seen it happen more times than she cared to remember.

Since Nick had to wait in the hall while Natalie was examined, he used the time to brief his partner.

"How is she?" Schanke asked, concerned. He, too, couldn't figure out why someone wanted to kill one of the nicest people he knew.

"She's still scared, but doing much better. Only people within our two departments knew she was injured and in the hospital. Even then, the extent of her injury isn't widely known. Because of that, I don't want her left alone. You and I will take turns. I'll cover her until after her therapy. Then I'll sack out here for a few hours. I'll take over again shortly after sunset. Okay?" He knew Cohen couldn't object.

"Sure." Schanke couldn't argue with Nick, especially when Natalie's life was on the line. And the limited number of people who knew about her accident made it more than likely that her attacker was someone from one of their two departments. That thought greatly unnerved him. "How long can we keep this up? She's not going to like it."

"She'll handle us doing it better than someone she doesn't know. We'll do this as long as we have to."

"How's she handling everything else?" Schanke asked unsure how to phrase his concern.

"She's doing remarkably well. The full impact of it hit her last night. She seems to be accepting her paralysis."

"I don't think I would be able to accept such massive changes so well. Or so quickly. I would be mad as hell at the world and probably wallowing in self-pity," Schanke said.

"I wouldn't handle it as well either," Nick replied.

Later that afternoon, Myra approached Natalie's room and was surprised to see her husband seated outside his friend's room reading the latest 'Police Gazette'.

"Don, what are you doing here?"

"Someone tried to kill Natalie late last night." Don kept his voice low, not wanting anyone to overhear.

"Why does someone want her dead?" Myra asked quite concerned. She followed her husband's lead and kept her voice low as well.

"I wish I knew." Concern was etched across his features, as was his frustration over the lack of leads.

"Where's Nick?" Myra knew how protective Nick was of Natalie, which showed how much he truly cared for her.

"He's sacked out in the doctor's lounge."

"Is it just the two of you?"

"Yes. We thought it was best that way."

Myra knew they were right. Natalie would handle it better with her friends guarding her, than she would if it were officers she didn't know as well. This way it would seem less official and restrictive, more like a couple of friends looking out for each other. Also, this way there were less chances of the culprit maneuvering his way onto guard duty, and finishing his task.

"Will we be seeing much of you?" Myra asked, needing the information to plan meals, Jenny's transportation to and from her activities, and such things.

"I honestly don't know. I'll have a better idea after a day or two."

"I know." Myra gave her husband a quick kiss before knocking on Natalie's door.

She entered when she heard "come in."

"Natalie, you're looking better today," Myra said, cheerfully as she approached the bed, where her friend sat.

"Thanks. I feel better," Natalie said with a grin. She wore a long T-shirt and leggings, socks covering her feet.

Myra knew everything wasn't as good as Natalie made it seem, but wasn't going to say anything. She knew it was how her friend coped with things.

"Did you hear the good news?"

"No. What is it?"

"I'm being sprung tomorrow," Natalie said with a grin. She couldn't wait to get out of there, even with rehab still ahead of her.

"That's great."

That night, Schanke stayed an extra hour so Nick could run an errand for Natalie.

Nick quickly returned having showered, changed and properly fed. He had also picked up Natalie's overnight bag, and a few changes of clothing for her, along with a new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.

The next morning as Natalie was packing her stuff into her overnight bag a mixture of emotions swirled through her. She was pleased about her imminent release, yet she was a bit apprehensive about the rehabilitation she would start later in the day.

Questions about how independent she would truly be able to be ran through her mind, as did ones about if she would be able to return to her career. What if she couldn't? What would she do then? And, how was she going to protect herself, if her assailant, or some other nut, returned to attack her?

She had just placed the last item into her bag when Schanke entered.

"Are you all set?" Schanke asked, noticing the mixture of emotions swirling in her eyes. He knew how much she was looking forward to her release, and how uncertain she was about everything else in her life, no matter how much she tried to hide it.

"You bet."

"Would you like me to carry your bag?" Schanke asked.

"Thanks, but I can handle it." Natalie plopped the bag onto her lap and left her hospital room for the last time. "You can grab the stereo."

Schanke grabbed the stereo on his way out of the room. "Any progress on the case?" She asked as they headed for the hospital lobby. She pushed herself along as they talked.

"No. Sorry." Schanke sighed, careful to stay next to Natalie, knowing how easy it would be to get far ahead of her.

"I know you're doing your best."

"Who ever cut your brakes was either a real pro or an amateur who had definitely done his homework. There's nothing traceable left behind." Schanke knew that wasn't what his friend wanted to hear. "I'm afraid I have more bad news for you. The man who tried to smother you hasn't been seen since."

"Great," Natalie grumbled. She knew it wasn't Schanke's fault. She knew that because her attacker didn't have a police record he would be much harder to find.

Before long they reached the front door, and exited. Outside they saw the rehab center's van and headed for it.

"Dr. Lambert?" Asked a brunette male in his mid-thirties.

"Yes."

"I'm Matt. I'll be escorting you to the Preston Rehabilitation Center."

"Hi, Matt." Natalie noticed Matt looking at Schanke. "My friend will be accompanying us."

Schanke noticed how she didn't mention he was a cop and played along. "Don Schanke."

"If you'll follow me, we'll get underway."

Natalie nodded as she followed the gentleman around to the other side of the van, Schanke was right behind her.

Matt opened the door and lowered the wheelchair lift, as it lowered he explained to Natalie what she was to do next. When the lift stopped Natalie maneuvered herself onto it, finding her skills needing work, knowing she'd be doing plenty of that in the coming weeks. The lift was raised until it was flush with the van floor. Matt instructed Natalie in how to secure herself for the trip. He checked to make sure she was properly secured before heading for the driver's door.

Schanke and Matt settled themselves into the front seats and the three of them were off to the rehab center.

After a short drive, the van entered the Preston Rehabilitation Center lot. Matt helped Natalie unfasten herself and her wheelchair from the van then guided her onto the lift. She was a little nervous that she'd accidentally back off the outside edge, relieved by Matt's reassurance that the lift was designed to prevent that from happening.

Am I going to have to go through this every time I go somewhere? I hope not or I'll never get anything else done.' Natalie wondered as the lift lowered.

Matt directed Natalie and Schanke to the admitting office before heading off to a different hospital to pick up his next passengers.

"Schank, thanks for hanging around," Natalie said as she and Schanke walked to the door.

"No problem." Schanke knew how hard it was for her to accept help, and to thank the person.

Schanke held the door open for her out of simple courtesy, not because he felt he had to.

Once inside they headed for the admitting office.

Natalie filled out the necessary forms and was soon shown to her room. It was an improvement from the hospital, as it looked like a real bedroom. There was a bed with a nightstand on each side, a dresser, empty bookcase for anything the patient cared to store there, a closet and accessible bathroom.

Schanke set the stereo down on the dresser, knowing Natalie would move it to wherever she wanted it.

Natalie peeked into the bathroom and saw the handrails on either side of the toilet, the roll in shower, and the fact that the sink was open underneath to allow her to reach the faucet in the back. The medicine cabinet was lower and on the side wall. The mirror over the sink was tilted to make viewing from a wheelchair easier.

I wonder how long it will take to make all the modifications to my apartment? The Super will have a fit. Natalie thought, pushing all thoughts of the numerous modifications aside for now. She'd deal with them later.

As Natalie stowed her stuff in the closet she hoped that learning to dress herself would be one of her first lessons. Her inability to do so was one of her biggest frustrations because it made her feel so helpless.

Two year olds can dress themselves, I'm thirty three and can't get my pants on without help.

Shortly one of the therapists knocked on her door.

"Hi. You must be Dr. Lambert. I'm Mike Richards. I'll be one of your physical therapists."

"Hi. Nice to meet you. Call me Natalie, please." Natalie motioned towards Schanke. "This is Don Schanke, a friend of mine."

"Nice to meet you," Both men said.

"Natalie, if you'll follow me, we'll get started with the testing so we can set up the best program for your needs." Mike said.

Natalie motioned for Mike to lead the way.

Schanke followed a short distance behind, giving Natalie some space. After Natalie and the therapist entered the room Schanke took a quick peek inside and then made himself comfortable in a nearby chair. He positioned himself so he could glance up and see her.

Natalie's first day at the rehab center was full of tests. Her therapists needed to know exactly how much damage had been done, how much muscle mass she had lost while lying in bed, and if there were any hidden problems for them to deal with. By the time the tests were finished Natalie believed that every muscle in her body had been poked, prodded or tested in some way. She now understood why Nick sometimes complained about feeling like a pincushion.

After work, Grace stopped by to see her friend and noticed how tired Natalie was. She also saw how pleased Natalie was that she'd been transferred to the rehab center. Both Grace and Schanke saw Natalie's face light up when Nick arrived. The four of them talked for a few minutes before Grace and Schanke left. Nick made a quick trip to his car so he could retrieve her suitcase as it was too big to fit on her lap.

In her room, Nick saw Natalie attempting to relieve some soreness from her shoulders, set down the suitcase, and began massaging her sore shoulders. He felt her relax under his gentle yet firm touch. She smiled as her shoulders began to feel better, surprised when her headache eased as well.

Natalie unpacked her clothing while she and Nick talked. Once that was done, Nick escorted Natalie to dinner.

During dinner they talked about the case, how their day went and a few thoughts for the future. Nick noticed Natalie seemed more optimistic and wondered if it was due to her having been released from the hospital.

After dinner they went off to a quiet place to talk. Before long, Nick noticed how hard she was working to stay awake.

"You have a busy day tomorrow. You need some sleep."

"I know." She was still having a little trouble getting used to being up days and sleeping nights.

They talked as they returned to her room. He waited outside while a female orderly helped her into her pajamas. He knew how much her inability to do such simple things for herself frustrated her. How helpless it made her feel. When the orderly left Nick reentered the room. He saw Natalie in a different long T-shirt, pair of leggings and socks and smiled, knowing it was what she was the most comfortable in.

"How about another massage?" Nick asked, seeing how much she needed one. He loved finding any excuse to be near her, to touch her, to feel her warmth, to smell her intoxicating scent.

"I'd love it," Natalie said, embarrassed by how awkward her movements were as she struggled to go from leaning back against her pillows to laying on her stomach.

Nick saw her feelings in her eyes and to a lesser extent in her expression. He talked with her, hoping it would help ease her embarrassment, noticing it did.

Once she was in position, he massaged her shoulders starting from the base of her skull. He made sure he had every knot or tight spot worked out before moving on. By the time he started on her back she was sound asleep. He continued massaging his way down her back, knowing it would help her be less sore in the morning. He was extra careful around the area where the injury had been. He knew her lower back needed even more gentle and tender massage. He massaged her arms, wrists, hands and fingers as well, knowing that they too worked hard. He went on to work his way down her buttocks to the soles of her feet. Just because the nerves didn't function, didn't mean they couldn't need a good massage to help stimulate the blood flow.

Once he finished, he carefully turned her over and pulled the covers up to her chest. He quietly moved the stuffed chair as far away from the window as he could, made sure the blinds were securely shut and settled himself into the chair for the night.

The next morning, Natalie was awoken by a knock on her door. "Come in," she said a little groggily.

The female orderly was surprised to see Nick there, then remembered that she along with the rest of the staff had been instructed to allow Knight and Schanke to accompany Dr. Lambert everywhere she went. She remembered reading about the coroner's accident and wondered what the paper hadn't said. The orderly knew there had to be a reason why Dr. Lambert had twenty-four hour police protection.

Nick waited outside while Natalie was assisted with dressing.

Natalie's inability to do something as simple as putting on or taking off her underwear, pants, socks, or shoes greatly frustrated her. She couldn't wait to learn how to do it for herself. She hated feeling so helpless.

After breakfast Natalie met with, Mike Richards, a physical therapist to set her goals, using the previous day's extensive tests results as his guideline. Mike decided that Natalie would work on keeping her leg muscles in good shape and in a few months, possibly begin using electrical stimulation.

Natalie was glad Nick was there for her, needing his support as she struggled to rebuild her life, grateful she didn't have to go through it all alone.

Mike, decided that the best way to help Natalie was with a weightlifting program to build up the musculature in her upper body so that it would be able to handle the work it was required to as well as handling the work her legs used to do. He also arranged for a cardiovascular program for his client, knowing that the better shape she was in, the fewer problems she should have. Also, it would give her more energy, which would be needed in order for her to make it through the day without being completely wiped out every evening.

When Natalie was done with her meeting with Mike, she met with the next member of the therapy team, Max, her occupational therapist. Max explained that his job was to teach her daily living skills such as dressing, maneuvering her wheelchair and eventually driving, so that she could once again be independent and return to work. He warned her that it would not happen overnight and that it would not be easy.

During lunch, Nick and Natalie talked about her two meetings. Her trying to get him to eat amused him. He knew it meant she was doing okay because she was once again trying to care for everyone else.

After lunch Natalie began her two and half hour physical therapy session, which would normally occupy her mornings. Mike worked with Natalie's leg muscles for an hour to make sure she retained as much muscle mass and range of movement in both her muscles and joints as possible.

Natalie found Nick's presence in the windowless therapy room comforting, even though she hated for him to see her struggle with everything. His eyes showed her it was almost as hard for him to watch as it was for her to get through it.

Next, Mike instructed Natalie in the proper technique for the various weightlifting exercises she would be doing every day to build up her strength. Afterwards she was given a short break to rest and catch her breath before her cardiovascular workout began. He showed her the routines for her workout and watched as she did them, correcting her form whenever necessary.

Schanke's turn came when Natalie headed for the occupational therapy room, since it was a sunlit room and the therapy would sometimes be held outdoors. Schanke positioned himself where he could glance up from his paper and see her, but chose to remain just outside the room to give her some privacy, while still protecting her. He found it too hard to watch his friend struggle as she learned how to smoothly transfer herself to and from her wheelchair from a bed, chair or couch.

Max also made sure Natalie knew how to fall without injuring herself and reseat herself in case she tipped over.

Seeing all of this reminded Schanke of how easily anyone of his family or friends, or even himself, could be in there instead of Natalie. That scared him.

Nick spent the afternoon in the staff room, hiding out from the sun. While he was stuck there, he took full advantage of the resources to arrange a few surprises for Natalie. Once the sun went down, Schanke headed home to be with his family. Nick took over Natalie's security for the evening.

The next morning Natalie had her second occupational therapy session. She was quite pleased when she learned ways to get her pants, socks, shoes on. She was shown the easiest way to do most of her daily chores. Being able to do that much for herself made her feel more in control of her life. She knew that with practice it would be come easier to do, but never as easy as it had been.

Stop that. You can't keep thinking of how much easier things were before. If you do, you'll never be happy. Yes, everything is different now. Concentrate on the best way to do things now. How to make it easier, faster, better. Natalie thought. She knew she would probably always compare things, but hoped it would happen less often as she grew more used to her new way of life. She knew that this place would make her think about it more because of the work she was undergoing, and hoped that would change after her release and return to work.

Late that afternoon, Cohen knocked on Natalie's door and was a bit disappointed when there was no response. It is a beautiful day, maybe she's outside,' Cohen thought and headed for the large back patio.

Cohen surveyed the large expanse of lush greenery which comprised the back patio and saw Natalie seated in her wheelchair over by a small table reading a magazine, while Schanke was seated there as well, reading his 'Police Gazette'. Cohen noticed that Natalie seemed to be doing much better than the last time she had visited. She was glad to see the medical examiner up and moving around again.

Natalie spotted Cohen and was curious. She could tell that the Captain had something on her mind.

"Schanke, Natalie and I need a few minutes. Alone." Off his look, Cohen continued. "I'll make sure nothing happens."

Schanke left, knowing that the Captain would take good care of Natalie. He was curious as to what Cohen wanted to see Natalie about, and figured it was just a routine visit to see how she was doing.

When Cohen decided that Schanke was far enough out of range, she said, "Natalie, I wanted to ask you if you would consider going undercover. Let me know if you feel it is too soon." Cohen was careful to keep her voice down, but still at the conversational level, even though there was no one nearby.

"No, it's not too soon. But, Captain, I'm a forensic pathologist not a cop. Why me?" Natalie responded with the same caution.

"The first two victims were from your department, and were disabled."

"Two? Has there been another murder?" Natalie asked stunned and a bit upset. Someone else had died and she'd been trapped here unable to help.

"No. The other one happened about six weeks ago. We did not connect it until recently." Cohen suspected Natalie would blame herself for not catching the connection. "Due to a lead we've received since your accident." She hoped that would be enough to prevent the coroner from blaming herself for missing the connection.

"I'm not sure I could pull something like that off." She knew she should, but had no true idea of what she'd have to do.

"I've watched you over the last year. I think you can. I wouldn't be asking otherwise. I don't need your answer right away. Think about it and get back to me tomorrow or the next day."

"What would I have to do?"

"All you have to do is go about your normal routine. You'll have complete but discreet backup."

"In other words, I'll be bait. I'll think about it and get back to you." Natalie had often wondered what it would feel like to do what Nick and Schanke did for a living, or what it would be like to go undercover. She knew this wasn't the real thing, but it was probably as close as she'd ever get to a real undercover assignment, which was fine with her.

Schanke saw Cohen leave and headed back for his friend, resisting the urge to inquire about their conversation. Schanke and Natalie talked for a few minutes, mostly about what his family was up to, before they headed for the occupational therapy area. Schanke could tell from Natalie's expression that she was wondering what she would be taught next. They continued to talk as they headed for the therapy room.

Natalie had a hunch that maneuvering was on today's agenda. She knew that the smoother she could maneuver, the less frustrated she'd be as she went through her daily activities. She liked how Schanke was right there with her, giving her a feeling of security, both physically and psychologically.

Once Natalie and Schanke arrived at the occupational therapy room, Schanke opened the door for her, doing a quick visual sweep at the same time. She waited a moment then entered, knowing he would've stopped her if there was anything wrong.

Once Natalie and Max had started work, Schanke shut the door and positioned himself on the bench so he could see into the room whenever he glanced up from his newspaper.

His mind began to wander.

Schanke noticed how easily Natalie had accepted the security arrangements. It was as if having one of her friends always around looking out for her gave her that extra confidence boost she needed to get through her therapy. He knew she wasn't as strong or tough as she liked the world to think. Since the accident 'yeah, right if slashed brake lines are an accident' he'd seen more of her vulnerable side, especially when she'd tried to hide her frustration, anger, sadness or fear. How she tried to pretend everything was fine when all she wanted was Nick's arms around her, comforting and reassuring her that everything would be okay. He was glad her friends were there to give her all the support she needed to get through this and wondered how much harder it would be to do on one's own.

Spending so much time around Natalie was helping him accept that it had happened, that she would be okay, and that their friendship didn't have to change because of it. She was very much the same Natalie she'd always been. He was glad he could talk with his wife, Grace and his partner about his feelings. He was a little surprised when he found himself asking Natalie questions he had, and she'd always answered him, even ones he thought were a bit personal. He hoped he was as helpful to his friends as they were to him.

Natalie felt a momentary pang of fear when she saw the obstacle course about twenty feet in front of her.

Can I do that? Yes, you can. She thought, reminding herself that she could do anything she wanted to. But walk.

Max sent Natalie through the rather difficult obstacle course, wanting to see how she fared on her own. Natalie ran into things, had trouble going around others, leaving her feeling completely uncoordinated as well as quite frustrated, which was quickly turning into anger.

After her first run through, Max gave Natalie some pointers and sent her through again. She found the going a little easier but still didn't ace the course.

Natalie knew it wouldn't be easy, but hadn't expected it to be so hard. She was surprised at how much fine control it took, much more than she expected. Chris makes it look so easy, Natalie thought as her frustration level again rose as she hit one of the obstacles.

Again, Max gave Natalie a few more helpful pointers and sent her through the course again. She was quite pleased when she completed the entire course without hitting one single obstacle.

Schanke peered into the window after every few paragraphs, not wanting to miss any early warning signs.

The next afternoon Nick and Natalie left the gym, and headed back to her room so she could change for her next workout. Nick noticed she was a bit uneasy as well as how much more natural her maneuvering seemed.

"I'll be right out here when you're ready," Nick said.

Natalie entered her room, struggled out of her clothes and into her one piece swimsuit. It was a subtle tie-dye in several shades of blue with a racing back.

Natalie opened her door. A grin spread across Nick's face when he saw her. He noticed she was quite self-conscious.

"What?" She asked nervously.

"You look good. I don't think I've ever seen you like this before." He had been a little unsure how she'd look in something revealing, but knew it wouldn't matter to him.

She blushed slightly, realizing that the grin was a compliment, and easily slipped into her long T-shirt and tied her hair up with a Scrunchi.

"You sure I look okay?" She asked, a bit uncertain. She was nervous about how she looked as this was the most revealing outfit she'd worn since her paralysis.

"You look fine," he said reassuringly, pleased when he saw her relax.

Schanke arrived for his shift, seeing Nick and Natalie talking as he approached. Seeing Natalie out of her usual leggings and sneakers took him by surprise. She looks normal. He thought before mentally criticizing himself. What did you expect to see? Why would she look different without the leggings? Subconsciously he knew the answers the rest of his mind wasn't ready to admit.

"Hi, Schanke. You get to escort me to the pool today."

"Sorry I'm late. I got tied up in traffic."

"No problem," Natalie said.

"What are they going to teach you today?" Nick asked.

"I think it's just going to be some more exercises. The water takes the weight off my whole body while allowing for both a gentle weight workout and a greater range of movement than the mat exercises allow."

"Sounds like a nice change of pace," Schanke said.

"Yeah. Maybe they'll even show me how to adapt my swimming."

"Sounds good," Nick said. "I've gotta run, but I'll see the both of you later."

"See ya," Schanke said.

Nick left, having things to tend to outside of the rehab center. Myra had agreed to give him a lift home, not completely surprised when he asked to ride in the trunk, having been warned about that by her husband.

Back inside, as Natalie and Schanke headed for the pool she noticed he seemed a little uneasy which surprised her. With all the time they'd been spending together lately she had been surprised at how quickly his uneasiness around her had evaporated once he noticed she was basically the same person and could do things for herself.

"Schank, is anything wrong?"

"No." He paused, "I don't know."

"Let me guess... you thought I'd look different. Right?" She asked, lightly, hoping it didn't make him feel too uneasy.

"Yeah. I guess so," he said, a little more uneasily. "I'm not sure what ..."

"It's okay. It's a perfectly normal reaction. I too wasn't sure how I'd look in my swimsuit. The weeks on my back didn't do anything to help me keep in shape. Even Nick had the same momentary reaction." She studied him for a moment. "Okay?"

"Yeah. Thanks." Schanke paused, wondering if what he wanted to say was the right thing, hoping it was. "Sometimes things seem so normal, and sometimes, like now, they seem different. I know it shouldn't, but I don't know why."

"I know what you mean. I think that new things remind all of us how much my life's changed over the last few weeks. It has affected your lives as well as mine. When we're sitting around talking, or eating, it seems more normal. I guess because everyone's doing the same thing, and it's easier to forget that my chair's a part of me."

"How can you accept it all so easily? I don't think I could," Schanke asked, no longer able to withhold the question.

"Believe me, it hasn't been easy. I'm still not sure I've totally accepted it. I realized I had two choices. I can either wallow in angst, grief and all that stuff or I can work my butt off and do the best I can to get on with my life. I want to get out of here, go back to work, and get my life back to as normal as possible." Natalie said, stopping to scratch an itch on her shoulder. "I can't do that if I wind up as angst and guilt ridden as your partner."

Schanke let out a brief chuckle. She's right.'

"When they first told me the diagnosis, I jumped head first into denial. I thought it was just cord shock and would clear up about the time the swelling went down. It was the only way I could deal with it. A part of me knew it was real, probably from the moment I woke up in the ER and could wiggle my toes slightly but couldn't feel my legs. The longer I laid there, the harder it became for me to deny it, but I still tried to. I had to. When they started to manipulate my legs, it was harder to ignore. As I changed into my clothes and saw my wheelchair for the first time, it was even harder to deny. I had almost reached the point where I could no longer deny it."

"I didn't realize that. I mean, I could see that you were having a little more trouble than you let show, but I didn't realize..."

"I don't think anyone did, except maybe Nick. When the guy tried to smother me, it made my paralysis sink in. I tried so hard to defend myself, but I couldn't do much. I couldn't kick him. All I could do was try my best to stay alive until someone came in. The accident was the closest I've been to that scared. When Nick pulled the guy off me, I couldn't deny it any longer. I knew my paralysis was real. Nick comforted me, stayed with me, reassured me that everything was going to be okay. He could see how much I needed to believe that."

Natalie chuckled as she remembered their fight, drawing a confused look from Schanke. "I didn't always handle it well. At one point I tried to shut Nick out because he could walk and I couldn't. He refused to let me. He found logical arguments for my completely illogical ones. He didn't care that I needed my chair to get around, which made me feel good."

"It doesn't bother me either. You're still the same friend. Your heart and spirit are still there, that's what counts," Schanke said, hoping he didn't sound too sappy.

"Thanks, Schanke." Natalie liked the fact that Schanke was paying close attention, really listening to what she was saying. "Chris showed up one day and helped me to see that things would be okay. She had been through what I was going through and answered my questions, even some I didn't know how to ask. She helped me see that I can do anything I want to do."

"Thanks for being so honest with me," Schanke said, knowing Natalie could've given him a short not so in depth answer.

Before long they arrived at the glass roofed pool enclosure where Schanke held the door open for Natalie.

"Are you going to stay and watch, or hang around outside?"

"I think I'll wait outside. It's a little too warm in here for my tastes."

"Okay," Natalie said lightly as it was a bit warmer inside than outside the pool enclosure.

Natalie's physical therapist, Mike, was waiting for her as well as two assistants, one of whom would help her into the pool.

Schanke realized that no one could get in or out without being seen, so he made himself comfortable in the chair across from the door and watched the only used entrance, the other one having an alarm which would go off if opened.

Inside the pool enclosure, one of the assistants, John, a young man in his mid-twenties with brown hair and green eyes, brought a waterproof wheelchair and a life vest over to Natalie. He helped her transfer from her chair to the waterproof one. Natalie hated not being able to do such a simple thing on her own. She also hated having to wear the awkward life vest, suspecting it would interfere with her movements and reminded her of those boaters wore.

Being wheeled down the ramp and into the pool until Natalie floated out of the chair made her frustrations grow as it made her feel even more helpless. She wanted to do more for herself and they weren't allowing her to.

Mike supervised Natalie's range of motion exercises, which she didn't mind doing, knowing how important it was to keep her muscles healthy and flexible if she wanted to have the slightest chance to walk again someday. She knew the water provided more resistance as well as being easier on her joints.

Schanke peeked into the room every few minutes, just to be on the safe side.

Ninety minutes had passed. Natalie had just finished her water exercises and was surprised by how much she enjoyed being in the water, even if she was beginning to prune up a bit. The life vest was as annoying as she had suspected it would be, and it did get in her way.

"Natalie, would you be interested in relearning how to swim?" Mike asked.

"I'd like that."

Mike spent the next hour showing Natalie how to adapt her swimming. Natalie was surprised that there wasn't more to it, and that it wasn't quite as easy as she thought it would be.

Why should it be any surprise? Nothing's been as easy as it looked, she thought.'

Cohen stopped by to see Natalie as it had been two days since their last conversation. She knocked on Natalie's door frame as the door was open, seeing the forensic pathologist seated by the window reading a medical journal. Cohen smiled knowing it meant Natalie was recovering well, both physically and psychologically.

"Come in." Natalie put down her journal and turned towards her visitor. Her movements becoming more natural each day.

Cohen entered, closing the door behind her. "Where's Schanke?"

"He's in the bathroom down the hall."

"Have you decided?" Cohen asked.

"Yes. I'll do it. Maybe I can help save someone's life. I'd sure like to find out who has it in for me and why. When do we start?"

"Whenever you're ready. Do you want me to tell Nick and Schanke?"

"Not just yet. I'll tell Nick when I think the time is right. He can tell Schanke." Natalie knew she would have one *very* angry vampire to deal with when he found out what she was risking. She was most definitely *not* looking forward to that confrontation as it would probably be *quite* nasty.

"How are you doing?" Cohen asked, concerned.

"Better. How are you?"

"I'm fine." Cohen sensed Natalie was telling the truth. She could see a definite positive change in Natalie.

"Thank you for letting them watch over me."

"I knew you'd prefer friends over strangers, besides, I know Nick wouldn't be able to concentrate if I hadn't assigned him."

There was a knock on the door. "Natalie?"

"Come on in, Schanke," Natalie cheerfully said.

Schanke entered and saw the Captain. "I'll come back later..."

"You didn't interrupt anything. I have to get back to the precinct anyway. Keep up the good work."

Schanke grinned at the compliment.

The more Natalie learned to take care of herself the more confident she became. The more natural her maneuvering became the less tiring it was. She enjoyed taking walks with her friends more during their nightly visits.

Her friends immediately noticed the changes and were pleased to see more of her natural joy of life showing through and less of the emotional turmoil. They knew it was still there, but were happy it wasn't as dominant as it had been.

Her friends could almost instantly tell when Natalie's day had been hard and frustrating because she was often cranky. As they talked they saw her relax and her mood greatly improve.

Natalie rubbed her temples trying to ease her near constant headache unaware that her friends were concerned she was hiding something serious.

"Natalie, you okay?" Grace asked concerned.

"I'm okay," Natalie said, noticing they weren't buying it. "Looking up at the world gives me a headache. It'll ease as I get used to my new angle on things."

Natalie was pleased when she could see them thinking about what she said and then accepting it was the truth.

Nick moved around behind Natalie where he began to massage her neck and shoulder muscles, feeling her instantly relax.

"How's that?"

"Much better. My headache's gone. Thank you."

Their friends watched, grinning, knowing Nick was a big part of why Natalie was doing so well. Grace secretly wished she had someone like Nick in her life.

Natalie's day was long, difficult and tiring. In the mornings she had her physical therapy where her entire body was worked. Her legs were exercised, then she completed her weight training, then her cardiovascular workout. Sometimes it was hydrotherapy instead of mat work.

She enjoyed the pool sessions as the water was very soothing, but hated the life vest and being hauled into and out of the water like cargo. The vest made swimming harder as it frequently was in her way and prevented her from perfecting her form because she couldn't properly align her body as she swam.

After lunch Natalie had occupational therapy. There she learned much of what she'd need to know to become fully independent again, and return to work. She was learning about the necessary modifications her apartment would require as well as some helpful tips on how to do things such as cooking, laundry, housecleaningÉ all from a wheelchair.

As Natalie was able to make it through her day with less of a struggle, she realized the weightlifting was giving her the muscular strength needed to get into and out of her wheelchair on her own and the cardiovascular workouts were giving her the endurance to get through the day without winding up completely exhausted.

The therapy was very hard, frustrating work.

Natalie's temper flared whenever she had real trouble with something, or was just having a bad day. She found herself feeling embarrassed and apologizing to Mike, Max and their assistants almost as soon as it happened, relieved when they understood, reassuring her that it was okay, that they knew not to take it personally. She felt bad for losing her temper, but knew it was one of the ways she handled stress. She found herself resorting to her defense mechanism of using humor and joking around when she felt really frustrated, stressed or was having trouble with a new skill.

Nick and Schanke weren't immune from Natalie's temper, Nick especially because she felt the safest with him.

Nick encouraged Natalie, frequently pushing her to do more. Sometimes he purposely made her angry at him, knowing it would make her work harder.

Every night Natalie received her massage from Nick. He knew she still needed it and enjoyed being that close to her as well as helping to ease the aches and pains from the new demands on her upper body. He didn't neglect her lower body either, knowing the benefits of good blood flow. Having this close contact with her on a nightly basis allowed him to see her strength improving with each day. He could feel the growing muscles as he worked the tightness out of them, and would continue to do so as long as she needed it.

Around the middle of the third week Nick knocked on the door frame of Natalie's room and saw her dressed in a long T-shirt with her hair tied back. He noticed her new wheelchair had been delivered. It looked quite elegant with its sleek royal blue frame, black upholstery and no armrests, unlike the one she'd been given at the hospital. Her new chair's back came midway up her back. The footrests were a bit more sleek, not the individual ones on the old wheelchair.

"I'm heading for the pool. You're welcome to come along." Natalie said cheerfully.

His smile reminded her of the first time he'd seen her in her bathing suit and how it had eased most of her self-consciousness, leaving her feeling good about herself.

Nick remembered that day as well. It was when he realized Natalie was beautiful in whatever she wore, even a hospital gown.

He was pleased by having another opportunity to see her in her blue tie-dye bathing suit. He had always admired her nice form. It wasn't perfect, but whose was? He liked that she wasn't anorexically thin, yet she wasn't chubby either.

"How did your day go?" He asked.

"About the same. How about you?" She replied.

"Nothing really exciting."

Upon arriving at the pool enclosure, Nick held the door open for Natalie and followed her in. She approached John and donned the life vest he handed her only because she wasn't allowed in the pool without the annoying vest. She transferred herself to the waterproof chair and was soon floating in the warm water. She began to do her laps, knowing it was great exercise for her entire body.

Nick watched Natalie's rather graceful movements as she completed lap after lap. She liked the way, outside of the vest, she didn't feel much different than she had before the accident.

After a few laps Natalie stopped and let the life vest support her while she caught her breath, one hand holding onto the edge of the pool so she didnÕt float away. She had to admit that the vest did make it easy for her to rest without sinking, but that was it's only advantage.

"Can you swim?" She asked Nick, curiously.

"I never learned how," he said a little embarrassed.

His expression brought a smile to her lips. It made her feel good that there was something she could do that he couldn't. Natalie had caught her breath and swum a few more laps, all the while an idea was taking shape. When she reached the end of the pool where Nick was standing she stopped and looked up at him.

"Would you like to learn how to swim?"

He thought about it for a moment, never really having considered it. "Yes. How..."

"I could teach you. You're here anyway."

"Okay. No one can know."

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about." Natalie said, amused, but kept it out of her voice. Instead she tried to be reassuring.

"I know. I just don't want anyone to know."

"Okay. If anyone asks tell them you're escorting me here for therapy."

"Sounds good. Can we start tomorrow?"

"I don't see why not," Natalie said pleased that she was going to be teaching him something, and that he seemed eager to learn. "It's great exercise for the whole body. It's not as hard to do laps as I would've thought."

"You look quite graceful out there." He loved the small grin his compliment brought.

Natalie was helped back into the waterproof chair and was soon pushed up the ramp. She stripped off the life vest and dried off with a towel. She placed a folded towel on the seat of her own chair before the assistant helped her transfer back to her chair. The last thing she did before leaving was slip back into her long T-shirt.

The next evening Nick escorted Natalie to the pool, where he changed in the bathroom, not wanting to walk the halls in his black swim trunks partially due to his paleness and partially due to the fact that he'd never been seen in public wearing so little. He wondered if she minded being here for her exercises and again for his lessons and figured if she did, she wouldn't have made her offer.

As he approached the pool in his trunks, she smiled at the embarrassment she read in his face and body language, finding it rather charming. The contrast between his black shorts and his naturally fair complexion, untouched by the sun, left him looking ghostly white.

Not bad at all, Natalie thought as a smile crept across her face. She had only seen parts of his upper body when she had done bullet removal or when she'd seen him in his pajamas and robe.

"What?"

"Nothing," she said trying her best to sound innocent, her smile now only a small grin.

Nick enjoyed her admiration, especially once he realized what she was looking at.

"John, can Nick have a vest?"

"Sure," John said as he handed it to Nick. He knew what they had planned and thought that it would be good for her self-confidence.

"Nat, do I have to?" Nick asked not wanting to wear the vest.

"Yes."

"Nat," Nick whined.

"Just put it on. It will help you feel more at ease in the water."

Nick reluctantly put it on, not wanting to anger or annoy her, afraid that if he did, she would cancel the lessons.

Natalie noticed he had yet to join her in the pool.

"Nick, it won't bite," she teased.

Nick slowly walked into the pool not sure what to expect as his shower was the most water he'd come in contact with in *quite* some time. Natalie playfully splashed him as he entered.

"See, that wasn't so bad."

"Now what?"

"I want you to let your body relax totally. The vest will keep you from sinking like a rock." Natalie let her body fully relax and was floating on her back in no time.

Nick watched her, copying what she'd done and was soon floating. He found it quite soothing.

"I like floating. It's so peaceful, especially if you close your eyes and clear your mind of everything. It makes me feel like I'm defying gravity. I feel like nothing's changed," Natalie said. "Keep your butt up or you'll sink."

Nick didn't heed her advice and quickly found out she was right. He was surprised that it took a bit of effort to keep his back arched and his butt at the right level so that he didn't sink, and wondered what would have happened if she hadn't insisted on his wearing the vest.

"I thought I was going to learn how to swim?"

"You will. This is important as well."

Nick saw the confidence and pleasure this lesson gave Natalie. He knew she loved the fact that she was able to do something that he couldn't.

She had him head into deeper water, where she followed. She showed him how to do the upper body part of the Australian crawl, describing how to do the lower body part. She watched as he tried it, correcting his form. She found it interesting that someone who could fly and had lived as long as he had, had problems learning to swim. Were they afraid of the water? she wondered.

"I want you to move your legs like this," she said, showing him how to do it using her hands and arms in place of her legs.

He had a little trouble keeping his kick smooth and at the right pace, splashing her as much as a child does when learning how to kick their legs in a pool.

"Keep your legs under the water's surface," she said as she wiped her eyes with her hands. The first splash had taken her by surprise, afterwards she repressed a grin at how much he reminded her of a little boy at times.

Her advice helped slightly, but he still needed assistance. He saw her head for the wall and followed.

"Hold onto the edge and float on your front for a moment, without your face going under. I'll move your legs for you to show you how."

Nick did as instructed, enjoying the feel of her hands as they guided his legs in the proper movements. Is this what it feels like for her everyday?

"Got it?"

"I think so."

"Now all you have to do is learn how to breathe, then put all three things together."

"Nat, I know how to breathe."

"Then show me," she said with a wicked grin, knowing he would most likely wind up with a mouth full of water, as well as having it go up his nose.

Nick tried to copy what he had seen Natalie do and wound up coughing and choking on inhaled water.

Serves you right, Nat thought. "You okay?" She asked for John's benefit.

He nodded. "What did I do wrong?" He asked a little confused. It looked so easy.

"Other than thinking you were a fish?" She teased.

"Yes," he returned the tease.

"You forgot to breathe out, not in, while submerged."

"Thanks. I figured that out."

Once again she led them into deeper water.

"I want you to take a deep breath, then let it out underwater. You should be breathing out through your nose only, making a stream of bubbles as you do so."

"Nat," he whined.

"Do you want to learn this or not?" She asked as he reminded her more and more of a little boy, not an eight hundred year old vampire.

He nodded and reluctantly stuck his face in the water when he saw her glance turn mischievous. Would she push my head under? He felt totally ridiculous.

Natalie watched the bubbles and knew Nick was doing it correctly. When he ran out of air he came up and pretended to breathe heavily as if out of breath.

"Very good. Watch what I do and copy it."

Nick nodded. She showed him how to breathe while swimming. She watched as he did it, seeing him once again swallowing water and choking on his first attempt.

"Good try."

"Now I want you to combine the movements. Try it."

She giggled as his first attempts left him looking like a drowning rat, not a swift, sure vampire. He again swallowed some water, but nowhere near as much. His response to her giggling was a gentle splash in her direction, strong enough to get her attention, but not strong enough to annoy or hurt her.

He loved the surprised look on her face, and how it was followed by a very adult action. She stuck her tongue out at him, causing him to laugh. She loved how he could make her feel good under just about any circumstance.

"Try it again. Don't rush it. Let it flow naturally."

He tried again and was much more graceful this time.

"Much better. Now for some practice. Last one to the other end and back is a rotten egg," she said taking off.

Nick let her win, but made it look like a very close race. He could have been to the other side and back before anyone blinked, but that would've been unfair. It would've hurt her feelings, and squashed her rising self confidence.

"Very good. Tomorrow we will work on it some more and I'll teach you another stroke."

The next evening she taught him the backstroke and enjoyed watching him struggle to keep from sinking when his butt sank and to coordinate the arm and leg movement. Again she was splashed when she giggled at his early attempts and his surprise when he started to sink like a rock, even with the life vest.

Once again she won their race. She knew he was letting her win, only because with his vampiric speed he could've won so fast all she would've seen was a blur, if anything. She didn't really care who won because she enjoyed spending the time with him. She saw him trying not to let her win with too big of a lead and appreciated his thoughtfulness.

Since Nick had whined about wearing the life vest every night, Natalie let him try going without it. Nick found it wasn't so simple, especially the backstroke as his rear end kept sinking, leaving him choking on swallowed water . Natalie giggled at his early attempts, inquiring if he was okay for John's sake.

"I see why you made me learn wearing the vest. Can I learn another stroke?"

"Sure."

She showed him what to do with his arms and described what to do with his legs. Nick tried it and was surprised that the only thing it did was barely keep his head from going under. He did notice the barely controlled laughter his moves elicited from her.

"What?"

"That move has been known to save a life now and then. I wonder how long you can tread water." She grinned mischievously and Nick knew she was up to something "How about learning another move?"

"Okay?" Nick was a little unnerved by her grin.

She taught him the doggie paddle and dissolved into hysterical laughter as he very seriously applied himself to this new stroke. For that she was again splashed. This time she splashed him back, starting a short splash war.

John, the pool attendant, laughed. He was pleased to see that Natalie's paralysis hadn't hurt her relationship with Nick, knowing many relationships did not survive because one, sometimes both, of the people involved thought things changed too much to continue.

By the middle of the next week Natalie was pleased when she had progressed enough to learn how to drive with hand controls. She had passed her vision test. She did quite well with the driving simulator too. Within two days she found herself behind the wheel of a real car, one with dual controls so her instructor could take over if she made any dangerous mistakes. She was quite nervous but knew this was an important step in regaining her independence and returning to work.

Natalie knew she had to decide if she wanted a car or a mini van with some sort of a lift or ramp. She had a few free hours that weekend and planned to check out the various options.

Natalie mentioned her indecision to her therapist, who helped her by allowing her to drive a mini van he used for driver education. Afterwards, Natalie was still uncertain if she wanted a car or a minivan. She liked the minivan because she wouldn't have to lug her chair in and out of the backseat every time she needed to go somewhere, but wasn't sure how it would perform in the dead of winter. With either vehicle she knew she'd have to transfer in and out of her chair each time she had to go out.

Nick had become a fairly proficient swimmer. At the end of each day's practice they raced from one end of the pool to the other. Natalie won about half the time, only because she told Nick that she didn't want him to let her win. When Nick won it was because he was a little faster, but still within mortal limits.

Schanke stopped by shortly after her swim and saw the remnants of that session's playfulness. His curiosity about exactly what went on in the pool grew.

"Schanke, what brings you here?" Nick asked.

"I need your signature on a few files. The crown prosecutor needs them tomorrow morning, or I would've waited until..." he didn't know how to phrase it, not wanting to sound like protecting Nat was his duty and not something he'd be doing out of friendship.

"No prob, Schank," Natalie said, understandingly. She noticed the curiosity about why Nick's hair was damp.

The next afternoon Schanke arrived for his shift and couldn't resist any longer.

"Natalie, Nick, I have to know... what is going on in the pool?"

"Therapy," Natalie said, knowing what he wanted, but was going to have a little fun first.

"I know. What else happens there?"

"I do a little swimming afterwards. Then I go for another swim at night."

"Nick, why does your hair sometimes look wet?" Schanke asked.

"Humidity."

"Yeah, right."

Natalie and Nick knew they'd tortured Schanke enough.

"She was... teaching me how to swim," Nick said a little embarrassed.

"You never learned how?" Schanke wasn't sure which surprised him more, that his partner had just now learned to swim, or that Natalie had taught him.

"No. The lessons were always during the day. Once I grew up I was too embarrassed to admit I didn't know how."

"So, while I was doing my recreational swimming, after my therapy, I asked him if he could swim. When he said he couldn't, I offered to teach him."

"How..."

"It was pretty easy, actually. I would show him what to do and he'd do it." She knew what question Schanke was about to ask. "I used my hands to show him what to do with his legs. Sometimes, I'd manipulate his legs to help him understand."

"So, partner, did you have trouble learning?" Schanke asked. "Or should I be asking your teacher that?" He grinned.

"I had a little trouble, only because I'd never been in a swimming pool before."

"He did very well. Most of it he picked up quickly. The breathing gave him the most trouble. But that's not surprising as it's the hardest thing to learn."

"True. I remember having trouble learning that, wondering if I'd ever get the hang of it, before I drowned myself trying," Schanke replied.

On Friday night, Nick stopped by the rehab center for his shift. New car shopping was first on Natalie and his agenda.

"Nick, how am I going to afford a new car, let alone the necessary modifications? I haven't received the insurance money yet."

"Don't worry about it. I'll be more than happy to help you out."

"I can't..."

"Nat, what's money good for, if you can't help your friends when they need it?"

"You're right. Thank you." She knew he was right. She saw how happy he was and knew it wouldn't be a hardship for him as he had more money than he could ever spend. She also knew that if she refused, she'd only hurt his feelings, which she didn't want to do, especially after all he'd already done for her just by being there.

She insisted on pushing herself to the car. Once there Nick opened the door and stepped back, knowing she would ask for help if she needed it. He wanted to help her but did not want to make her feel more helpless than she already did. He saw past her facade to the deep insecurities that lay there. Insecurities that had only been made worse by her impatience to succeed. She struggled to transfer herself from her wheelchair to the passenger seat of Nick's caddy, grateful for the large car, as she had more room to work. She was also glad the top was down so she wouldn't have to worry about hitting her head on it. Once she had finished, Nick stashed the lightweight wheelchair behind her seat.

She enjoyed riding in his car with the top down. She suddenly realized that most of the times she had been in the car, the top had been up.

They soon reached the first dealership. It was a minivan one. Nick set her wheelchair right next to her seat. Natalie again struggled to transfer herself into her chair, hating how what was once almost effortless was now such a struggle.

Do I want this every time I have to go somewhere? she thought to herself, pretty sure the answer was no. She knew she had to do the transferring but didn't have to stow the chair if she chose correctly.

"Nat, take your time. You don't have to rush into anything."

"I know. It's been a while since I've done car shopping. I just want to see what's available."

They entered the showroom and started looking at the first model when the salesman approached.

"How can I help you sir?" The salesman said, a bit uneasy upon seeing Natalie.

"You can't," Nick said.

They loved the confused look on his face.

"I'm looking for a new vehicle," Natalie said.

"Excuse me just a moment," the salesman said as he made a beeline for the sales office.

Nick saw Natalie's annoyance and felt sorry for that guy upon his return. "We can try somewhere else?"

"No. It won't be any different."

A different salesman approached them.

"Hi, I'm Stan. I handle customers needing custom modifications."

"I'm Natalie. I'm looking for a new vehicle." Her annoyance draining as she realized that the first salesman wasn't discriminating against her, he was just getting someone more knowledgeable in custom vehicles.

"Have you decided what sort of vehicle?"

"Not yet. I'm checking out my options first."

"If you are interested in the minivan, we have several programs to assist you with conversion and financing."

Natalie and Stan talked a bit longer before Stan lead his two potential customers into the conference room where he showed them two brief videotapes on how the minivan could be modified to fit her needs. Afterwards he left them alone to talk, sensing that he very likely had a sale.

"Nick, what do you think?"

"Nat, its your vehicle. You know what will work best for you better than I do." At her expression he continued, "I like the ramp better than the lift. It's less intrusive. You would still be able to carry passengers or tote stuff around.

"Thanks. That's what I was hoping you'd say."

"Do you want to look at any other dealers?"

"Yes."

By the time the dealerships closed, Natalie and Nick had been to every major manufacturer's showroom. They listened to all the standard features, available options and programs for the disabled driver.

Natalie and Nick discussed the various models on their way back to the rehab center. Slowly the choices were narrowed to one, the first dealership they had visited.

The next evening Natalie and Nick returned to finalize the agreement. Natalie made Nick promise that he would let her do the talking, and that he wouldn't whammy the salesman into giving her a great deal. He'd agreed he would let her make the deal, and would not whammy Stan.

Natalie haggled with Stan, trying to get the best deal possible. Nick threw in a couple of comments about a better deal at another dealership, which meant that Stan had to beat the other offers.

After about an hour the papers had been signed and the down payment had been paid. Natalie had to sign more papers and hand over another check for the modifications. She didn't have to worry about them bouncing because she'd allowed Nick to deposit enough money into her account to cover all the modifications and car payments. By making the one large deposit, he wouldn't have to make smaller ones each month to cover the payments, not that she couldn't afford it on her own.

Nick spent the next morning calling around and making arrangements for couple of surprises for Natalie. He knew she had enough to contend with as it was and didn't need to worry about things she couldn't do anything about at the moment.

Three weeks later, Natalie's release date arrived. She couldn't believe it had been six weeks already. Her bag was packed by the time Nick came to pick her up, which was right after sundown.

"You ready to go?"

"You bet," Natalie said more than ready to leave. She wanted to sleep in her own bed again. She missed being in her own apartment.

"I want you to stay at my loft for a day or two." Nick said wanting to protect her and knowing that one of her surprises wasn't quite ready.

"I want to go home. I want to sleep in my own bed."

"Humor me."

"Arrgh. Okay," she relented, knowing he was concerned about her. "I have to call the office."

"You're not thinking of going in tonight?"

"Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow night. I have to get on with my life."

"You've just been released."

"Nick, you know I worked my ass off to get released," she said with more of an edge than she meant to and instantly regretted it. She tried to relax and continued, hoping he would understand. "I need to go back to work. I need to get on with my life. The longer I take the harder it will get."

"I know. I just don't want to see you rush into anything too soon." He knew she was right, but he didn't have to like it.

"I know. And I appreciate it."

"How about us taking a walk in the park? It's a beautiful night," Natalie said.

"If that's what you want."

Nick followed Natalie out to the Caddy, carrying both her bag and her portable stereo for her, surprised when she had taken him up on his offer to carry them for her.

Once they were at the Caddy, which was parked in a nearby handicapped space which had been picked by Nick because the larger access area was on the passenger side. Just about all the staff knew his car by now. He'd even politely turned down two offers for it.

Nick tossed Natalie's bag into the trunk and set the stereo beside it as Natalie struggled to transfer herself to the leather car seat. She had improved with practice, but it was still a challenge.

she thought as Nick stashed her chair behind her seat.

"Do you want to stop by the loft first or go straight to the park?" Nick asked.

"Straight to the park. I need to stroll through it and enjoy my freedom." A quirky grin appeared, "or is that roll through it?"

Nick couldn't help but grin. He was pleased that her sense of humor hadn't been lost in the recent turmoil.

Nick and Natalie strolled through the park enjoying the night air. Neither of them had anywhere else to be that night so their walk was quite leisurely. Nick kept an eye on Natalie to make sure she wasn't tiring herself out. She enjoyed the surprised look on his face as she "hopped" off a curb on her own.

"Where'd you learn that?"

"From another client at the rehab center."

After about an hour, Nick saw that Natalie needed a break so he suggested they stop at one of her favorites outdoor cafes, so she could have something to eat, pleased when she eagerly agreed.

Natalie was hungry and ordered a decent sized midnight snack, which Nick teased her was closer to a meal. She coaxed him into eating something, and wasn't too surprised when he ordered French fries, which he drenched in catsup.

After their snack, they wandered through the park for another hour before returning to the car.

Shortly, they arrived back at the loft. Once inside, Nick dropped Natalie's bag and stereo by the door before checking the machine for any messages that had come in while he was out.

Natalie yawned then stretched her arm and shoulder muscles. They still hurt at the end of each day, making her wonder if they would always feel like that. Would they ever get used to the extra work they were now forced to do? She was glad they didn't hurt as much as they had those first two weeks. She had frequently felt so sore she didn't know if she could handle another day's therapy.

Before she knew it, she felt his hands massaging her shoulders. It felt terrific as always.

"You have great hands. Such talent."

"Thanks. Would you like a massage tonight?" He said as he worked out all the tension in her neck and the knots in her shoulders. He still couldn't believe how much more muscular her shoulders and back were. He'd felt the musculature growing with each massage she'd received. He made sure her arms, wrists, hands and fingers received their share of attention as they too worked hard. Not to mention her lower body, to make sure there was proper blood flow throughout those limbs as well.

"That would be great."

"You look tired. You should get some sleep."

"I'll take the couch."

"No. You'll take the bed."

"Nick. In case you haven't noticed..." She motioned towards the stairs.

"I noticed. I want you to be comfortable."

"The couch is plenty comfortable. Besides it is only for one day."

"Nat, I won't take no for an answer."

"Okay, today only." She knew she wouldn't be able to change his mind. She also knew he was right, and hated it.

She pushed herself over to the stairs with Nick right behind her, then wrapped her arms around his neck as he slipped one hand under her legs and the other around her back, and reluctantly let Nick carry her upstairs. Once upstairs he set her down on the bed and fetched her chair, setting it at the foot of the bed.

He handed her a spare pair of his black silk pajamas and left her alone to change. She hated how any task involving her legs was still difficult and awkward. She hoped it got easier and smoother as time passed.

About 10 minutes later, Nick was told he could enter. He did, her bag in hand, which he set down inside the door.

"Lie down," Nick softly said, seeing the frustration the simple act of changing into her pajamas had brought to her beautiful features.

Nick watched as Natalie maneuvered herself into position, missing the gracefulness she used to have, knowing she was still a bit self conscious about her awkwardness.

He started at her neck working it over before moving onto her shoulders then down onto her upper back. Her sighs were music to his ears. His gentle touch was so soothing. He could feel her entire body relaxing. He worked his way down her back knowing that those muscles worked hard too. He continued on down working her gluteus muscles, her thighs, calves, ankles and feet.

He realized that she had fallen asleep and very carefully slipped his hands under her, turning her over so that she'd rest more comfortably on her back. He worked the front muscles of her shoulders, arms, abdomen and legs. Once finished, he tucked the covers around her, planted a very light kiss on her forehead before turning out the light and leaving.

The next evening Natalie awoke right after Nick did.

Natalie went into the bathroom, wondering how she'd get her shower. She was surprised when she saw Nick had taken care of that problem. There was a special chair waiting in the shower for her.

"Thank you, Nick". She knew he'd hear her.

Natalie showered and upon reentering the bedroom found one of her suits laid out on the bed for her. She smiled. He seemed to anticipate everything she'd need without making her feel helpless. She slipped into her bra and shirt as easily as always, and hoped putting on her underwear, pants and shoes would become easier with practice. She did notice that it was already a bit easier, and was grateful for that fact. She brushed her hair, applied her makeup, and slipped on her earrings.

When she was dressed, she pushed herself out onto the upper landing. Nick carried her down and sat her on the couch, before grabbing her chair, carrying it down and setting it next to her. She was dressed in a teal blazer with matching slacks and a white silk blouse. Her low heeled shoes were black.

"By your outfit I would say that you're going to work tonight."

"Yes. I am. I do need a lift though."

Her vehicle wasn't ready yet, but should be in a few more days. She didn't mind as she wasn't ready to drive herself yet. She needed a few days to get used to being back in the outside world again.

"Sure."

"Thanks for all your help."

"You're welcome."

The intercom sounded.

"Who is it?"

"Cohen."

"Come on up."

Nick buzzed the Captain up. Natalie knew that a confrontation was coming, one which would *not* be a pretty sight. She reseated herself into her wheelchair ready to stay out of Nick's reach, if necessary.

The elevator door opened and Cohen entered. As Cohen looked around at the rather interesting, if Spartan decor, she learned a bit more about her detective, and wished she had time to do more than a quick visual survey.

"Welcome, Captain," Nick said.

"Thanks. Natalie, have you told him?"

"No. He hasn't given me the chance."

"Told me what?" Nick asked, afraid he wouldn't like whatever it was.

"While I was in rehab, the Captain asked me if I wanted to go undercover to help her catch the killer."

"Captain!"

"She thought that since both murder victims had been employees of the Coroner's Office, and both were disabled, I might be able to draw the murderer's attention," Natalie said, preparing herself for Nick's reaction.

Nick was stunned. "Natalie, how could you do that? Captain, how could you ask her to do that?"

"Nick, I'm a big girl. I can make my own decisions."

"Natalie. I can't let you put yourself out there as bait. You're not a cop."

"I know. I have to do it. If some good can come out of this, then I can't say no. If I can save one life then it will almost be worth it. I won't lie and say that I'm not nervous about it. I am." Natalie said.

Nick noticed the small amount of fear in his best friend's blue eyes.

"She wasn't sure she could do it, because she's not a cop. But the killings did not happen at work. Her not being a cop gives us an advantage. Our killer may see her as an easier target because of that. And, unless the killer knows her as well as we do, she will seem an easy target."

Nick knew they were both right. Natalie was the perfect target. She was female, a forensic pathologist, worked for the police department, and was disabled. Only those that knew her well knew the tough fighter inside.

"Okay. What about when she's off shift?" Nick asked.

"I thought that you could discretely keep an eye on her. She does need to be home." Cohen knew Nick would stay close to Natalie no matter what she said, so she decided to make it work for her rather than against her.

"I can handle that."

"Nick, I need you to get back to work. You have to focus on the case. That's the only way she'll truly be safe." Cohen smiled slightly, "Besides, Schanke's tired of doing most of the paperwork. And you know how he feels about it."

"I know. He'd rather do just about anything else." A thought occurred to Nick. "That's why you've been letting Schanke and me keep an eye on her, isn't it?"

"Yes. At first it was because someone had tried to kill her twice in such a short period of time. Then it was both because someone was after her and because she had agreed to help. Also, it was easiest to let the two of you do it, rather than arranging for other officers to do it."

Cohen left.

Natalie sensed she had only seen the prologue to 'storm Nick.' Now that they were alone she would see the main fury of it.

Natalie wouldn't face Nick. He grabbed hold of her chair and spun her around to face him, anger dancing in his eyes.

"Get your hands off me," She said firmly.

"Natalie, when were you going to tell me you had agreed to be bait? When the killer came for you again?" Nick asked, anger filling his voice.

"I wanted to tell you, but you didn't give me a chance."

"You could have told me during the six weeks you were in the rehab center. You had plenty of time."

"Okay. You're right. I couldn't tell you. I didn't want a scene like this. I could not have handled it. I was having enough trouble dealing with all the other changes in my life. Besides, I was a little busy at the rehab center, remember?"

"I would've kept your secret. You could've told me that you were having trouble."

"I know. I liked your attentiveness. I needed your company. I could see you were having trouble dealing with the changes as well. I didn't want to add my troubles to it. I was going to tell you about taking Cohen's offer, but things happened. There was never a good time."

"What about the drive home? The walk?"

"The walk was too pleasant to spoil. I would have told you before I went in to work."

"How are you doing, really?" Nick asked quietly. He never could stay mad at her for long.

"For the most part, okay. I'm still getting used to it all. I still hate it, most of the time, but I know that I can't live that way. It hurts knowing everything I've lost, but I have to look forward, not back. I want to kill whoever did this to me. I'm a little nervous about going back to work, but also looking forward to it. How about you?"

"I'm doing okay, most of the time. It still hurts to see you in that chair. I too want to kill whoever hurt you. I'm glad that you still have your fighting spirit and sense of humor. I'm glad that you're getting on with your life."

"I can handle anything but people feeling sorry for me."

"You'll be fine." He kissed the top of her head for further reassurance.

"Shall we go?" She asked a bit uncertainly.

"Before we go, I have a small surprise for you." Nick gave her a somewhat long cardboard tube, loving the curious look on her face.

Natalie opened the tube and pulled out a set of blueprints. She unrolled them, surprised by what she saw.

"I had them drawn up, to help with your return to work. I hope you don't mind."

"Thank you. I was wondering how I was going to overcome the problem with my autopsy table. This looks like it's going to work great," Natalie said as she studied the drawing.

Nick escorted Natalie into the coroner's office building, but instead of going to her office, she headed for her supervisor's office, her briefcase on her lap, with the tube tucked behind it, out of her way.

"Terri wanted to see me," Natalie said.

Nick sensed Natalie's nervousness and hoped there were no nasty surprises ahead. He didn't want to see her self-confidence squashed.

Natalie knocked on Terri's door and was told to enter. She entered, shutting the door behind her, while Nick waited in the hallway and tried not to eavesdrop.

"Natalie, you look good," Terri said, giving her best M.E. the once over.

"Thanks."

"I've reviewed all the paperwork and have a few questions," Terri said.

"Okay." Natalie tried her best to keep her growing nervousness from showing.

"How are you going to reach the autopsy table?"

"I've looked into that and with a relatively simple modification I will be able to perform autopsies." Natalie handed Terri the tube. "It's all detailed in here. If you have any questions you can either ask me or contact Andrew Parker. His name and number are on the plans."

"I will look it over and get back to you." Terri set the tube on her desk, next to her in basket so she could look it over as soon as Natalie left. "The next question has to do with your abilities. According to the paperwork I received from the rehab center, your fine motor coordination and your mind have not been affected. Which is great news. Is there anything that would prevent you from fulfilling your job requirements?"

"Not that I'm aware of. With the modifications to my office and my new vehicle I should be able to perform my job as well as before my accident." Natalie wondered if she should mention that her minivan wasn't ready yet, and decided that she probably should. "I am without my new minivan for the next few days as it's not ready yet. Other than that... I see no problems."

"Thank you for being up-front about that. Are you able to work full time, and possible overtime?"

"Yes." Natalie's mind wandered as she felt the first flickers of hope that things would work out the way she wanted them to. Possible overtime, hah, try definite overtime, she thought knowing how much overtime she tended to pull, not out of choice either.

"Thank you for helping to clear up my few questions. I think that I can clear you for light duty." She saw her best forensic pathologist start to protest and held up her hand to silence her. "It will only be until the modifications have been completed and your vehicle is ready. Also, I don't want to overtax you your first few nights back."

Terri saw Natalie's relief and knew how concerned she must've been about losing her job or being permanently assigned to desk duty.

"Anything else?" Natalie inquired.

"No. Are you up to starting back tonight?"

"Yes. I was hoping I'd be allowed to."

Nick saw the relief on Natalie's face as she left her boss' office. There was even a small smile there. Natalie filled Nick in as they headed towards her office, wondering if he'd been eavesdropping. When Nick didn't leave, Natalie told him that she would be alright on her own because Grace would be there, but didn't make too big of a fuss because she knew he was only looking out for her.

Natalie entered her office and was surprised to see the 'Welcome Back Natalie' banner taped across the blackboard and the chocolate frosted cake on the desk, 'Welcome Back Natalie' written in yellow icing across its surface. Roses made of icing decorated the corners of the square sheet cake.

Grace, Schanke and Chris were there as were a few of Natalie's other work friends.

"Welcome back Natalie," Everyone said, joyfully.

Natalie smiled. She was glad to be back at work and back among friends.

Grace handed Natalie a rather large gift wrapped box. A curious grin spread across Natalie's face as she unwrapped the gift. She was momentarily confused when she pulled a specially designed backpack out of the box. She noticed it matched the blue of her chair before the thought behind it sank in.

"Thanks. This will come in handy." She held it up to the frame of her chair. "Perfect match."

"We hoped it would be," Grace said.

Natalie slipped the backpack onto the back of her chair, noticing it fit beautifully. "Perfect."

Grace handed Natalie a scalpel to cut the cake with. Natalie cut the first piece, handed it to Grace who refused it.

"You get the first piece," Grace said.

"I thought that only went for birthday cakes?" Natalie said.

"Nope." Grace grinned.

Natalie set her piece of to the side, pleased that one of the roses was hers, and continued to cut the chocolate cake, handing each slice to one of her friends. She made sure Nick received the last slice so she could cut him a smaller slice.

Natalie handed him his slice, curious to see if he would try it.

Nick knew he had to at least take a bite, grateful that his piece was much smaller than everyone else's. He tried not to be too hesitant as he put the first bite into his mouth, gave it a chew and forced it down. Natalie's smile made the effort worthwhile.

Natalie had to answer some questions, but didn't mind because it meant her friends would accept her as she was now.

Everyone talked for a few minutes while polishing off the cake. They took their second piece back to their desks, having work to finish.

Natalie hated paperwork and knew she had to wade through the pile of it on her desk. How long before Terri's reassured I can handle all my duties? How long will it take to fix my autopsy table? A few days, hopefully no more than a week.' The phone's ringing snapped her out of her mental pondering.

"Lambert."

Later in her shift Nick entered the morgue. As he entered her office, he was surprised to see Natalie lost in thought and biting her lower lip, which meant that she was puzzling something out.

"Natalie," Nick said as he waved his hand in front of her face.

"Nick, how long have you been standing there?" Natalie asked, startled and a little confused.

"Just a moment or two. Have the last test results come back yet on the Martinson case?"

"No, not yet. Have you made any sense of the cases related to our departments? Who cut my brake lines? Or who tried to smother me?"

"Not really. The only clue is that two of the three victims were disabled. Why was the third one killed?" Nick asked. "Sorry, nothing new on your case." He noticed her disappointed, frustrated look and hated to be the cause of it. They both knew that the longer the case remained unsolved, the less likely it was to be solved.

Grace entered with a folder in her hand. "The tox results from the latest victim." Grace couldn't resist asking. "Have you tried your new pack yet?"

"Not yet. I'll let you know how it works."

Grace smiled and left, glad that Natalie liked the gift. And that her friend's life was returning to as normal as possible.

Natalie scanned the test results. "The third one fits the pattern. The victim had anticonvulsants in her bloodstream. Maybe she was epileptic or had seizures for some other reason," she said to Nick.

"Thanks, Nat."

"I'll let you know when the Martinson results come back. How about a movie tomorrow after work? I'll even let you pick this one." She grinned.

He loved her grin. "Sounds great."

Nick knew that the sooner things returned to some semblance of normal, the easier it would be on Natalie, himself and their friends and coworkers. Nick knew Natalie still had some emotional issues to work out, but wasn't worried.

Natalie was dropped off at her apartment building by Nick, on his way home from work. She refused to let him escort her inside. She grabbed her mail from the box, glad it was a lower one. She was thankful for her friends picking up her mail daily or her tiny box would've exploded.

She entered her apartment, dropped her waist pack, keys and mail on the table by the door and leaned her briefcase against the table leg. She headed for her bedroom, wanting to get into something more comfortable.

She entered her bedroom and went straight to the bathroom, stunned to see all the modifications had been made. I will have to think of some way to properly thank Nick, she thought. She was glad for one less set of problems to deal with. Did he do the others?>

She washed her face before heading back into her bedroom to change. Once she was more comfortably dressed, she headed for the kitchen to grab something to eat before collapsing into bed.

Natalie noticed that some remodeling had been done in the kitchen as well. How did he get all of this done? Did the super give him a hard time? She wondered. All the countertops had been lowered to a useable height. The stove had been lowered and the cabinets removed so that she could wheel right up to it. The sink had it's cabinets removed too, and had been lowered so she could reach the faucet. She was surprised that all of the dishes from the lower cabinets were still there. I wonder why he didn't swap these with the ones from the upper cabinets?'> She did notice a small covered stack of dishes in the corner of the counter.

As she tried to figure out what to cook, she decided she didn't really feel like cooking after all, and ordered Chinese food.

Nick snuck into the apartment. "Hi," he said as he entered the kitchen, trying not to startle her.

"Thank you, Nick," she said as she grabbed his shirt, pulling him down to her level, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. She loved his surprised expression.

When the doorbell rang, she answered it after peering through the new lower peephole. She took her food and paid the delivery boy, making sure to include a tip.

She returned to the kitchen, set the bag on the counter, and grabbed a plate from the covered stack. She removed her container from the bag, opened it and scooped her dinner onto her plate.

"As thanks for all your help, I won't make you try any, tonight." She loved the grin which spread across his face. She filled her glass with tap water, after letting it run for a minute or two to remove the stale water which had been sitting in the pipes for the last two months.

She balanced the plate in her lap, but couldn't figure out how to get the glass over at the same time. Nick noticed this and came over.

"Would you mind if IÉ" He hesitantly asked.

"No. Put it in a coffee mug, okay?"

"No problem." He found a mug with his name on the counter. "Thanks."

"You're going to be spending a lot of time here, so I thought I'd try to make you feel more at home here."

"Thanks." Nick grabbed one of his bottles from the fridge and filled the mug most of the way. After returning his bottle to the fridge he picked up both glasses and headed for the couch, Natalie a short distance in front of him.

Upon reaching the couch, Natalie set her plate on the coffee table, parked as close as she could and transferred herself to the couch, as it was softer and more comfortable. It also had more back support. Nick set her glass on the end table while she grabbed her plate and started to eat.

"Damn. I forgot to stick in the movie." She started to put the plate back onto the table.

"I'll get it. Which one?"

"You pick. That was our deal, wasn't it?."

Nick nodded, scanned her collection and slipped his choice into the VCR before returning to the couch. Natalie turned on the TV and started the movie.

By the time it was over they were curled up on the couch like they often did, her leaning against his chest, her head resting on his shoulder.

The next evening after their shift, Natalie had Nick stop at a grocery store because she needed quite a few items. Natalie did not realize how much harder it would be. First off she could not push the standard cart and secondly many of the things she routinely bought were out of her reach. She was glad Nick was there, but was frustrated that she needed his help. He pushed the cart and retrieved stuff from the higher shelves.

It had been a little over two months since Natalie had last been home, with the exception of last night. Natalie did not want to know what sort of science projects were growing in her fridge. She managed to fill up two carts by the time she'd picked out the basics and the more perishable items, hating to see what this would do to her budget. Natalie wanted to protest when Nick paid for her groceries, but knew it would do no good.

When the bag boy was loading the grocery bags into Nick's car Natalie was glad for the extra large trunk. Both were surprised to see most of his trunk filled with groceries.

Once Nick and Natalie arrived back at her place, there arose the job of carrying in the groceries. The distance was the reason she usually only bought what she could carry in one trip. They loaded themselves up and made the first trip.

Natalie stayed in the apartment, tossing everything edible into a rather large heavy duty garbage bag she had taken from work, for just this purpose. A few of the things she discovered in her fridge definitely could be considered science projects with their colorful mold colonies. Once her fridge had been cleaned out, she put the new stuff in. Nick continued to bring up bags until everything had been deposited on the floor around her. Nick handed her the bag she pointed to, trying to be helpful. She threw out the moldy bread she'd left on the counter, not knowing it would be so long before she was home again. Natalie wondered, knowing that elementary school kids still did such experiments. She checked her watch, seeing that she'd have to wait a couple of hours before calling.

Since Natalie couldn't reach the upper cupboards, and Nick was there, she had him help her clean those out and rearrange her kitchen so she could access everything easier.

"When you were doing the remodelingÉ"

"Why didn't I rearrange the cupboards?" He saw her nod. "Because I wasn't sure what you wanted where and thought I'd let you figure that out."

"Thank you for taking care of it all. I wasn't sure how I was going to find someone to do it, and what I was going to do while the renovations were underway. You didn't have any problems with the super or the landlord?" She asked a little surprised.

"No. I pointed out the benefits and how they outweighed the drawbacks. They were reluctant until someone anonymously donated the money for the work."

"The deBrabant Foundation?" Natalie asked, suspecting he had donated the money. His nod was her answer.

"Thank you."

"You had enough to think about..." He knew he didn't have to finish as they both knew what he was about to say.

Natalie had Nick put the stuff she rarely used in the upper cabinets while she arranged the stuff she needed frequently in the lower ones, which was the complete reverse of how it had been arranged.

"Actually, this gives me the chance to go through here and see what I have. I've been meaning to do it but never had the time or patience." She was amused by his expression.

Once that was done she put away the non-perishable groceries. Nick again held the plastic bags for her as she fished the stuff out of them.

She glanced up at the clock and saw that it was now late enough she could call the Schanke residence and catch Jenny before she went off to school.

"Hi, Myra. Is Jenny there?" Natalie asked.

"Sure. Hold on," Myra said a little surprised.

"Natalie? Why are you calling so early?" Jenny asked.

"Well, I was cleaning out all the old food and wondered if you needed any moldy stuff for a science project?"

"Actually, I do. Thanks. Dad threw out my experiment by accident. Did it get moldy because you've been away so long?"

"Yes. I'll send some stuff home with your dad. Throw out what you don't want."

"Thanks."

"Thanks for the card and the nice pictures. They made me feel good every time I saw them or you sent new ones."

"I'm glad I could help. I wanted to come see you but I'm too young. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

"I gotta go or I'll miss the bus."

"I'll see you soon," Natalie said.

"Bye," Jenny said before hanging up.

Natalie looked through the garbage bag, glad everything was sealed and pulled out a few of the moldiest items. She put them into a smaller trash bag and wrote Jenny's name on it.

That afternoon, she met Schanke outside her building for their daily trip to the rehab center for her therapy.

"Hi. This is for Jenny. Try not to throw it out okay?" Natalie teased.

"She had to tell you, didn't she. It was an accident. Thanks for helping her out. She was panicking because the assignment's due tomorrow. I'll make sure she gets it, and remembers to take it to school."

"Good."

"How were things back home?" Schanke asked, slightly teasing.

"Okay. I found a few science projects, the most interesting of which are in her bag. I basically tossed everything edible out and replaced it with a massive shopping trip."

"That must've hurt the old budget."

"Not really. Nick paid for it." She loved the surprised look on his face.

"I'm glad. Since he doesn't have to spend much on food, it's nice to see he helped you out."

"Yeah. It was nice."

Two nights later, Natalie entered her office thinking about the cup of coffee she wanted. She had been running late, not realizing how much extra time and effort everything took these days and didn't have time for breakfast. Luckily she'd convinced Nick to hit the drive-thru of her favorite fast food place and had eaten her breakfast on the way in.

She entered her office and headed for her autopsy table, a smile crossing her face when she saw that the modifications had been completed.

How did they get it finished so fast? Natalie wondered. I guess Terri does need me back on full duty as soon as possible. They must've built it elsewhere and then assembled it here.'> She knew the modifications had not been there last night when she'd left.

Natalie pushed herself around her table studying the platform which ran longer than her table and had a small lip so she wouldn't accidentally roll off the backside of it. The corner was large enough for her turn onto the small platforms by each end of the table so she could easily examine the patient's head and feet. There was a ramp at each end of the long side of the platform as well as at the end of the short sides. There was a sliding platform on the side nearest the door allowing it to be pushed back so the gurney could be pushed up close to the table as usual.

Grace entered carrying a mug full of coffee.

"What do you think?" Grace asked, curiously. She too had been surprised to see it there when she arrived.

"Looks great. Too bad I don't have any customers."

The smell of the coffee only reminded the medical examiner how badly she needed a cup. She smiled when Grace set the mug on Nat's desk.

"I thought you might need this," Grace said with a grin, knowing all too well how much her friend needed her coffee fix first thing.

"Thanks. You're a lifesaver." Natalie said, "By the way, the backpack works great."

"I'm glad."

The next evening Natalie was at work when her phone rang.

"Natalie's bed and breakfast," she said, in a great mood.

"That's gross," Jenny said with a giggle.

"I know." Natalie said, her wicked grin coming through in her voice. "How'd it go?"

"It went great. Thanks. I got an A plus. Miss Jones had never seen such a good collection of mold."

"Did you tell her where it came from?"

"Yes. I had told her about dad tossing out my own experiment. She thought it was nice of you to think of me as you were tossing all that stuff out. She also said she was glad to hear you're fine. She'd read about you in the paper. So did I, only dad had to help me with some of the big words."

"I'm glad it helped you do so well. Seeing all the moldy stuff made me think of when I was in school, which made me think of you."

"I have to go. Mom doesn't want me bothering you at work, but let me call to tell you how it went."

"Thanks for calling. I was curious how it went," Natalie said, realizing how Jenny had gotten the direct number for her office.

Natalie went on with her usual routine, knowing that if she did anything out of the ordinary it might tip the killer off and then she'd never be safe. She continued with her daily physical therapy sessions knowing how crucial it was to keeping her muscles in shape as she hoped to walk again someday. Schanke gave her a lift, kept a discreet eye on her and then escorted her home so she could get ready for work. Nick would pick her up at her apartment and drop her off at the Coroner's building before heading on to the precinct.

After work, Nick would drop her off at her apartment and then leave. He would sneak back, grateful for his vampiric abilities that let him fly back and sneak unnoticed into her apartment. He had his phone forwarded to her number, so that he could answer it and seem like he was home. He would also sneak out after dark so that he could pick her up for work. All this sneakiness was to convince her attacker that she was alone.

Natalie had lunch with Chris a few times. She enjoyed having a friend she could talk to about anything but vampires, especially when they talked about things related to her paralysis.

Natalie wished the dealer would call and tell her that her minivan was ready. She hadn't minded the paperwork the first two nights, but it was really starting to get to her. She forced herself to look at the bright side, which was, in another day or two she'd have everything finished that could be finished without lab results. She was surprised at how much of her paperwork was waiting for her, after being out for a little more than two months. They must've been either really busy or really backed up.' She thought before remembering the flu epidemic that had hit while she was out, causing most of the staff to call in sick. She hoped everyone was over it as she did not want to catch it. She didn't even want to contemplate how hard the dash to the bathroom would be if she wasn't already in her wheelchair, knowing she'd probably not make it in time.

After Natalie had been back at work for nearly a week, she received the call she'd been waiting for, her minivan was ready and waiting for her at the dealer. As soon as she hung up she suddenly realized how nervous she was about driving. Can I really do it? she briefly wondered. Of course you can. If they didn't think you could, they would've taken away your license.

Natalie called Nick and told him. Before long he was outside the coroner's office waiting for her. Once she had transferred herself and he had stowed her chair in the back seat, they were off to the dealer.

Neither could believe how excited and nervous she was. It reminded her of when she had bought her very first car, back when she had been a college sophomore. She realized that her minivan was like her first car, in that it was her first adaptive car, and would probably not be her last, especially if her luck with cars kept going like it had been.

At the dealer's, Natalie checked out her minivan's ramp, pleased at how easily and quickly it rolled out. She rolled herself to the driver's seat, secured her wheelchair, turned the driver's seat around and transferred herself to it , turned the driver's seat back into proper position and locked it into place. After a quick look around to familiarize herself with all the equipment, she started the minivan up. It purred beautifully.

Stan knew he had a satisfied customer by the large smile on Natalie's face. He enjoyed helping people regain their independence.

Natalie drove her minivan back to work, a little nervous about it. She relaxed when she arrived safely, suddenly feeling stupid for having Nick follow her back, just in case. She took advantage of the handicapped parking. The wider spaces would make it easier for her to get in and out of her minivan and being closer to the door would be great when winter came around. That was the only advantage she had found so far.

Grace saw Natalie enter the building and approached her friend.

"How does it feel to be back in the driver's seat?" Grace asked, unable to contain her curiosity.

"I was a little nervous as I drove over here, but it feels great. Would you like to see it?" Natalie asked eager to show off her new vehicle.

"Sure." Grace was curious to know what Natalie had picked as her friend hadn't said much about it.

Natalie and Grace headed outside where Natalie happily showed off her new minivan. It was a not too dark but not too light blue, almost a cross between Royal blue and Navy blue.

"Very nice. How's the traction?"

"Good. It handles quite nicely. How about taking an early lunch?"

Grace thought a moment to make sure she wasn't in the middle of anything. "Sounds great. Let me go grab my purse and I'll be right back."

Grace entered the coroner's office and headed straight for the locker room. She was a little nervous, but knew Natalie wouldn't have asked if she had any doubts about her ability.

Grace approached the minivan just in time to see the ramp roll out.

"Pretty cool, eh?"

"Yeah."

"Hop in. I'll be there in a moment."

Grace opened the passenger side door and hopped in, making sure to fasten her seat belt, knowing how Natalie was about such things. Grace also knew that the seat belt and airbag were what had saved Natalie's life, and prevented her from being more severely injured.

Grace watched Natalie push herself up the ramp, secure the ramp back under the vehicle, secure her chair before transferring herself to the driver's seat. Grace was surprised to see that the driver's seat swiveled around and locked in place. As soon as Natalie had her seat belt fastened she started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot.

When they were out on the road Natalie explained how the hand controls worked.

"Neat, eh."

"Yeah."

By the end of the shift, Terry learned that Natalie had her new vehicle and could drive without a problem, so she kept her promise and restored the M.E. to full duty. Natalie was thrilled. She wasn't sure if she could've handled another day of paperwork. She missed the field, even though it was often gruesome, but it did offer her the chance to get outside for a while.

The next night Natalie's phone rang summoning her to the field. As she drove there, she was a bit nervous that she might not be able to properly examine the victim. What if the victim is somewhere I can't get to? Will Terri see that as being too much of a problem and restrict me to paperwork?'

She arrived at the park and approached the officer in charge, who pointed her towards the victim.

Natalie examined the area around the victim from a short distance away. "Are you finished with the area around the victim?" Natalie asked not wanting to accidentally disturb anything. She had always asked that question.

"We're finished," called out one of the crime scene technologists.

Natalie pushed herself over to the bench the victim was seated on and began her examination, jotting down her notes on the clipboard in her lap. It was a pretty messy sight. As she moved around him she had to push harder on the grass than on the sidewalk, having forgotten that not all surfaces would be as easy to move on.

Nick and Schanke approached Natalie.

"Time of death was roughly an hour go. Cause was a gunshot to the head. Exit wound in the back. Who ever did this knew it would blow the back of his head out, leaving no chance for survival. I'll know more after the autopsy."

"Thanks," Schanke said.

As soon as Natalie arrived back at the coroner's office she headed for the locker room to change into her scrubs. A part of her was looking forward to giving the autopsy table's modifications their first real test, but the other part was a bit saddened that someone had to die first. Natalie returned to her office and prepared for the autopsy. She tied back her mane as she awaited the body.

John wheeled in the body as soon as it arrived. Grace and John hefted the body onto the table for Dr. Lambert. John left and Grace hung around, in case Natalie needed help.

"Grace, can you bring the instrument tray over?" Natalie asked as she pulled out the fourth side of her platform. She then slipped into her gown, and a pair of latex gloves.

"Sure. Is there anything else I can do?" Grace moved the tray over to where Natalie usually kept it.

"Thanks. I think I'm all set," Natalie said. "On second thought, can you get the ties?"

"Sure." Grace said as she quickly tied up the back of Natalie's gown.

"Thanks."

Natalie pushed herself up the ramp and onto the platform, pleased to see it left her at the same height as before the accident.

When Grace saw that her friend had everything under control she left to tend to her own business.

Natalie examined the body from head to toe, dictating her findings into her tape recorder. Once the external exam was finished she began the autopsy, pleased that she seemed to be able to perform as she was used to, easing one of her major concerns.

Later, Nick stopped by the morgue to see if Natalie had finished the preliminary report for his latest case. He saw her at her desk reading over a report. She looked up when she heard him enter.

"Nick, what if this killer is one of us?" Natalie asked, concerned. She was concerned for all the disabled people in either department, as well as for her own safety.

"I have thought about that. I hope it's not." He shared her concern.

"So do I."

"Can I walk you out to your car?"

"If you can wait about five minutes." She was secretly glad she wouldn't have to go out there alone, in the dark.

"Sure." He saw past her facade, but didn't let on. He couldn't blame her for being uneasy. He knew he would be if their positions were reversed.

"You done for the night?" She asked, hoping he was.

"Yes. Actually, I stopped by for the Sanford report."

"The test results aren't in yet. Sorry."

Natalie finished her notes before grabbing her coat and purse.

"Are we still on for the movie tonight?" Nat asked, looking forward to it.

"Sure. Do you want me to follow or ride with you?" He too was looking forward to the movie.

"It doesn't matter."

Nick followed Natalie's vehicle to Hitmaker Videos where they picked out a couple of movies they'd both enjoy. He went into the Panda Garden to pick up her dinner order, at her request. She was tired and didn't feel like going in herself.

Nick got down a plate for her and glasses for both of them while she got her silverware and unpacked the food. She forced him to eat at least a piece of one of her two Japanese rolls. She let him pick which one. He reluctantly picked up a piece of the tuna roll and popped it into his mouth. He chewed it and forced it down.

"That was bland. You like that?"

"Yes. It wasn't that bland. Sometimes I dip it in the soy sauce, but mostly I like the flavor as it is."

Nick noticed a wicked twinkle in her eyes as she eyed the Wasabi. Should I have him try it? After a moment's contemplation of the putty-like green glob in the Styrofoam container she decided. Nah. I can't even eat the stuff. There's no need to make him sick. She noticed Nick relax as her eyes lost their wicked twinkle.

Natalie balanced her plate in her lap, the movies still in her backpack, and headed for the couch. She parked herself, set her plate on the table and transferred herself to the couch as it offered a better view of the screen. Nick set their glasses down on the coffee table and waited a second as she dug the movies out of her backpack.

Once they were settled they dined while watching the movie. After dinner she leaned back against his chest. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

Around the middle of the second movie she was yawning and had fallen asleep in his arms as soon as the movie's end credits began to roll. She had fought off the drowsiness so she could watch the end of the movie, but had trouble keeping her eyes open.

Natalie felt Nick picking her up. "Don't even think about it," she sleepily mumbled to him.

He set her back on the couch and went over to the closet where he kept the spare pillow and blanket. She was asleep by the time he returned. He tucked the pillow under her head before spreading the blanket over her so that she wouldn't be chilly and headed upstairs to bed.

The next evening Natalie was called to a crime scene shortly after her arrival at work. She prayed that someone else from either department was not the victim. She was glad it was an indoor location, but hated the fact that someone else had died. It frustrated and annoyed her that she needed help up the porch steps. Nick had seen her arrive and helped her up the stairs following her directions. He grabbed hold of the back of her chair, tilted it toward him and pulled her up the stairs.

She was silently relieved that the victim had been found in bed rather than on the floor and cursed herself for it.

She maneuvered herself as close to the body as she could and began her examination of the corpse. The tattooing from the gunshot showed that the victim had been shot at close range. There was little bruising to be found on the body.

Natalie could see nothing to tie this one to the disability cases. There were no prescription drugs anywhere in his apartment, no medic alert bracelet, or any equipment signifying that he had any sort of a disability.

Two weeks later Natalie was called to the scene of another murder. She, Nick and Schanke arrived around the same time. Nick again helped Natalie up the few porch steps, then held the door open for her and Schanke.

The victim was on the floor in the living room, dressed in a police uniform from Nick and Schanke's precinct. From the look of the room, there had been quite a struggle. Natalie examined the body as well as the surrounding area for any helpful clues. Nick and Schanke looked around the house for any clues that might tell them who the killer was.

When Nick and Schanke noticed Natalie was done with her examination they approached. She jotted down her last couple of notes before turning her attention to them.

"His name was Sam Hill," Schanke said.

"It looks like another from our serial killer. Mr. Hill had a below the knee amputation of his right leg. I would estimate TOD at eight to ten hours ago. It looks like a blunt object was used to bash in his skull. There might be other injuries as well."

"Thanks, Nat," Nick said.

Nick could see Natalie's growing unease at the thought that she could become a victim at any time. It made Nick uneasy as well. He hated the idea of her being bait, but at least it let them spend time together.

Later that evening, Natalie had completed the autopsy on Mr. Hill and was waiting for a few final test results to come in.

Nick and Schanke entered her office.

"Hi guys. Interested in the preliminary report on Mr. Hill?" Natalie asked, knowing they would be.

They guys nodded.

"He was forty-three, in good health other than the amputation. His skull was bashed in by a blunt object. He also suffered a broken right arm in trying to defend himself."

"He worked day shift over at dispatch. He was transferred there two years ago after losing his lower leg during a robbery," Schanke said. "Several of his coworkers didn't even notice he wore a prosthesis."

The next evening Cohen approached Nick and Schanke as they entered.

"Knight, Schanke, any leads? The Commissioner is asking me why there has been no arrest on the serial killer case yet. It looks bad that someone is killing members of our department and we haven't done anything about it."

"I know, Captain. Whoever it is has covered their tracks thoroughly," Nick said, frustrated. He wanted the person who hurt Natalie to pay. "Our one suspect hasn't been seen since he tried to suffocate Natalie."

Natalie was sound asleep in her own bed, exhausted from her busy day. Knowing Nick was there to guard her allowed her to rest without worrying every time she heard the floor creak or the wall, or the window, or a thud somewhere. Her sleep grew restless as she fought off an unseen attacker. She called out in her sleep as the nightmare continued. She awoke startled and breathing heavily. The door opened, startling her. She let out a sigh of relief when she heard Nick's familiar voice.

"Nat?"

"I'm okay. I just had a nightmare."

"Nat, I overheard some of it. It did not seem like nothing. You were terrified."

"I was. I'm okay now."

"Your heart is racing. Talk to me."

She hated the fact that he could almost always tell when she was scared or lying. She knew he would keep at it until she talked to him.

He sat on the bed and took her hand in his. He gently stroked the back of her warm hand with his cool thumb.

"It was the incident in the hospital. I never felt so helpless and vulnerable as I did at that moment. I hate that feeling."

"I know," Nick said compassionately. That's why you're trying to be so independent now.

He saw her yawn. "Do you think you can go back to sleep?"

"I think so."

He started to leave and heard her voice. "Don't go yet. Stay until I fall asleep."

"Okay." He sat back down on the bed and gently stroked her hair. Before long his hearing told him she was sound asleep.

He looked at her, admiring her courage. How after all she had been through she was helping the police department. A momentary flash of anger reminded him that he had not yet caught the creep who had done this to her. It was not easy for him to see her in the wheelchair day after day. He was surprised at how well she was handling it, even with the knowledge that everything wasn't going as well as she liked everyone to believe. He knew she was keeping stuff to herself or telling her problems only to Chris. He knew she and Chris spent a lot of time together talking and was glad she had someone who could help her.

Nick realized that in two days it would be Natalie's birthday. He wondered what he should do for it. He wasn't sure if she was ready for a party, or if a night out with just the two of them would be better. He thought the latter might be the better choice, knowing that Grace probably had a small party planned, as she usually did for Natalie's birthday. He decided to listen for clues that night, and then decide.

Schanke saw his partner arrive and waited for him to take a seat.

"What's on the schedule for tonight?" Nick inquired as he sat down behind his desk.

"Mostly paperwork. We do have a few interviews to do." Schanke paused a moment. "Are you doing anything special for Natalie's birthday?"

"I haven't decided. I know it's a bit late, but with everything lately..."

"I understand. What were you thinking of?"

"I thought either a small party or a night out on the town."

"Both sound good. Is she ready for either?" Schanke asked, a little hesitantly.

"I think she is. It might be just what she needs. She told me that she wants things to be as normal as possible."

"What if you had a small party, maybe just coffee and cake, then took her out for a night on the town? She'd never expect both." Schanke loved the grin on his partner's face that grew into a full fledged smile.

"You're right. That would work."

"What did you get her for a present?"

"It's a secret." Off his partner's look, Nick continued, "yes, I do have a gift for her."

Natalie woke up when the alarm clock went off, hit the snooze alarm and went back to sleep, not ready to face another day. She wanted to go back to her dream where she and Nick were walking through the park on a nice summer night. Things were easy for her in the dream, not the hassle they were in reality. About ten minutes later the alarm went off again, and she once again smacked the snooze alarm, but this time she knew she had to get up and face the world. Even though she'd only had six hours of sleep in the last thirty-six hours, due to the demands of work.

She sat up, stretched and turned off the alarm before transferring herself to her chair.

Shower first or coffee first? After a moment's debate the answer was obvious. Coffee first.

Natalie headed for the kitchen, surprised by the aroma of fresh brewed gourmet coffee that greeted her.

"That smells great. What is it?" She asked. "They call it Foglifter. I thought that after last night you might need something a little stronger."

"You're right. This overtime's getting tougher each year."

"Did you absolutely have to pull a double, nearly a triple shift?" Nick knew the answer, but was curious to what her reply would be.

"I suppose I could've left sooner, but with the multiple fatalities from the semi smashing the two other cars, I felt guilty leaving the others to handle the load."

Nick poured her a cup of coffee and handed it to her. She wrapped her hands around the cup and savored the first sip.

"Mmmmmm."

"What would you like for your birthday breakfast?" Nick grinned, loving the surprised look on her face.

"It's not..." she caught a glimpse of the calendar, "it is." She sipped at her coffee, needing it to wake up and face the day. "Thanks for the massage last night. It was great... as usual. I think I'd probably be a bit sore this morning without it."

"Well..."

"Anything you can fix will be fine." She doubted that a person who kept his coffee under the sink could cook anything.

"Actually I thought I'd take you out for breakfast. Anywhere you want to go."

"I'm in the mood for pancakes. Chocolate chip ones with lots of real whipped cream." The thought bringing a grin to her face. She sipped her coffee again, needing as much of it as possible if she was to get through the night without a full day's sleep. She wasn't sure if it was the extra demands on her body, all the overtime, or simply age that caused her to need more sleep than she did, even a year ago.

"Why don't you go get ready, or we won't have enough time for breakfast." He gently nudged her towards the bedroom as he removed the empty coffee cup from her hand. "There will be another mug full waiting for you."

She smiled at that thought and headed for the shower.

About forty-five minutes later Nick saw her door open and approached her with a steaming mug of coffee.

"As promised," he teased.

They headed over to the couch, where Natalie saw a elegantly wrapped present on the coffee table.

"For me?"

"Yes."

Natalie set her mug down, picked up the package and ripped open the colorful paper. She opened the box, surprised to find two tickets to the hottest play in town.

"Very nice. Are they accessible?" Natalie asked, hating how she had to think about such things any time she went somewhere.

"Yes. I checked before buying the tickets."

"I have to work tonight." She sighed, seeing that the tickets were for that evening.

"While you were sleeping Terri called. She hadn't realized it was your birthday and that you'd worked this day for the last four years. She didn't want to make it five straight years." Nick saw his friend's spirits perk up considerably.

"I have to get ready."

"You need to eat first."

"Okay."

Nick and Natalie arrived at the local pancake house and were shown to a large table. Natalie wondered why they were seated at such a large round table, especially since there were smaller ones available.

The waitress took their order and left to deal with her other customers.

Natalie had her back to the door, arranged by Nick, and didn't notice Grace, Myra, Don, and Chris sneaking into the place, gifts in hand, grins on their faces.

Natalie noticed them as they filled the empty chairs around the table.

"Very sneaky, Nick," Natalie said.

"We couldn't let your birthday go by without a celebration, now could we?" Grace teased.

"I guess not," Natalie said with a grin. "I didn't even remember it was my birthday until Nick reminded me."

"When would you like to open your gifts, before or after you eat?" Myra asked.

"It's up to you all. If you're hungry we can eat first," Natalie said.

"Nah. We can wait," Don said.

"Okay, then we'll open the gifts first." Natalie said as Grace handed her the first gift.

Natalie tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside was a one pound box of very nice dark chocolate truffles.

"Thanks, Grace," Natalie said with a smile.

Grace handed Natalie another box. "This is from everyone at work."

Natalie hoped it wasn't another sexy black teddy. Natalie opened the box, unsure what to expect and found a pair of black leather cycling gloves inside as well as a regular pair.

"They're to make pushing easier on your hands. Chris suggested the cycling ones. We thought the others might come in handy when it gets cold outside."

"Thanks."

Myra was the next to hand Natalie a gift. Nat ripped off the paper curious to see what was inside. From the box Natalie pulled out a pair of hypodermic needle ball point pens.

"Those are from Jenny. She wanted to wish you a happy birthday too. She thought you'd get a kick out of them."

"Tell her they're great." Natalie said with a smile. "They're quite accurate too."

Natalie pulled a book with a rose covered cover and spine out of the box. Natalie was a little surprised to find the inside lined, but blank.

"I thought you might want somewhere to record your thoughts, feelings, whatever," Myra said.

"Thanks."

The last item in the box was a mug with a vertebrae for a handle.

"Thanks, Don. It's great." She saw him relax.

"I bought it about the time of your accident and debated whether it was appropriate or not. I'm glad you like it."

"It's more suitable now," she said with a small grin.

Chris handed Natalie her present. Natalie opened it quite curious to see what was inside. She pulled a cup holder out of the box, but it had a clamp on the side.

"It attaches to the frame, down by your leg."

"That's just what I needed. Thanks."

Nick handed Natalie another box, surprising her. She lifted off the lid and found a cap with a brain on it.

"It figures," Don teased.

"I think its cute," Natalie said defending her gift. "Besides he gave me my real present earlier. Two tickets to the hottest show in town."

"Very nice, partner," Don said.

A few minutes later the waitress arrived. The group stopped their various conversations long enough to order breakfast. Everyone but Nick liked the idea of chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and ordered them. Nick had a small plain stack.

Everyone but Natalie received their food, making her wonder where hers was. The waiters and waitresses all crowded around the table as Natalie's plate was set before her, a lit candle stuck into the middle of the pancake stack. As if on cue, the staff and Nat's friends began singing happy birthday to her, causing Natalie to turn bright red. When they were done she made a wish and blew out the candle. Everyone at the nearby tables, the staff and her friends applauded.

"Thanks for a wonderful birthday, guys," Natalie said.

Everyone talked while eating, and then for a while afterwards before work and family pulled them away.

On the way back to her apartment, Natalie looked over at Nick, during a red light. "You planned that didn't you?"

"Yeah. I hope you enjoyed yourself."

"I did. Thanks."

As soon as they entered Natalie's apartment, she entered her bedroom to dress, seeing the time. Nick quickly changed into a suit, wearing a white banded collar instead of a tie.

About ten minutes later Natalie came out dressed in one of her nicer suits, the royal blue one, She had on a simple gold necklace and earrings.

"Nick, do I look okay?" She asked seeing the answer in his eyes, the way he watched her move.

"You look great. " He loved seeing her blush.

Natalie grabbed her small clutch purse and keys before the two of them headed out.

Natalie was grateful she'd driven as almost all the spots were taken in the theatre's parking building. She pulled into a handicap spot near the door. Before long she and Nick entered the theatre.

There was a short wait until they could be seated so they talked while waiting. As soon as the doors opened, Nick headed for the entrance, handing the two tickets to the lady taking them, Natalie right behind him. Another woman just inside the door handed them each a program.

"Nick, these are great seats. You had to have bought these a while ago."

"I bought them about a week ago. Until then I hadn't decided what I wanted to give you."

They enjoyed the first half of the play very much. During intermission they stayed at their seats, not in the mood to fight the crowds. Before long the play started again.

After the play they headed back to her apartment, after they'd fought the crowds to her minivan, and then out to the street.

"Thank you for a perfect night," She said as she gently caressed Nick's cheek.

"You're welcome. I'm glad you had a good time."

A week later, Nick, Schanke and Natalie's shifts were nearly over when Nick and Schanke received word of a homicide. They arrived at the suburban location shortly before Natalie did.

The house was an average looking one story dwelling. The landscaping was colorful, well planned and well maintained. The only thing that separated this house from its neighbors, other than the dead body inside, was the ramp leading up to the front porch.

Nick and Schanke were shown to the victim by the uniformed officer who had discovered the body in the bedroom. Nick's face fell as he recognized her. He knew Natalie would be there shortly and kept an ear out for her. It looked as if the victim had been dressing for work when she'd been attacked. They were careful not to touch anything until forensics arrived.

Natalie arrived shortly, recognizing the house and praying that her suspicion was wrong. She was shown into the bedroom by a uniformed officer. Nick met Natalie at the door. The look on his face told her all she needed to know. She saw the victim.

"Oh my god. Chris. What happened?" Natalie asked shocked. She had hoped it was an intruder.

Nick filled Natalie in on his few observations.

"She was so sweet. Why would anyone want to kill her?" Nat asked growing more upset.

"I don't know. Do you want someone else to handle this?" Nick asked concerned about her.

"No. I can handle it." She pulled herself together.

Nick went on with what he had to do, yet kept an eye on Natalie in case she needed him.

Natalie started her examination of Chris, noticing that her wheelchair had been turned over. After her thorough examination of the body she examined the immediate area around her friend before heading across the room to Nick and Schanke.

"TOD I would guess to be about 3-5 hours ago. She was killed by a blow to the back of the head. My guess would be a blunt object. I'll know more later," Natalie said in her professional, no nonsense voice. She was barely able to keep her emotions out of her voice.

Natalie entered her office after changing into her scrubs. She pushed herself up the ramp to the elevated platform that ran the length of the autopsy table and started the complete workup on Chris Allen.

An hour later she had finished the autopsy and had not found anything out of the ordinary.

Right before the end of the shift Natalie dropped off her preliminary report with Nick and Schanke. She couldn't stand to be in her office any longer that night.

"She was beaten both before and after her death. The blow to the head killed her instantly. She died at approximately 9pm. There was no sign of sexual assault."

"Thanks for the report. Why don't you book off early," Nick suggested.

"I was planning on doing just that. Dropping off the report was my last official act of the night. I'll see you guys in two nights."

As soon as Natalie entered her apartment tears ran down her cheeks. Another friend had died. Before she knew it she heard Nick's voice.

"Shhhh," He squatted down next to her and wrapped his arms around her, gently stroking her hair.

"We had gotten to know each other so well over the last few months. Why her?" She looked at him, her pain evident in her eyes. "I want to kill the bastard," she said angrily.

"I don't know, Nat. Some evils are beyond me, even after all these years," he said in his most soothing voice. He knew Chris had been a great help to Natalie in overcoming many of her fears and doubts about her condition.

They moved over to the couch where they talked until she fell asleep in his arms. He carried her into her room and tucked her in under the covers, being careful not to wake her. He knew she would be more comfortable there.

He was curious what it felt like and sat down in her wheelchair. He felt a little strange. He pushed himself into her room, finding the maneuvering to be a bit tricky. He parked the chair in her standard spot.

He saw that her sleep was slightly restless and hoped she would not have any nightmares.

When Natalie awoke she headed for the living room, where she saw Nick seated on the couch reading a book.

"Hi," he said, seeing how little she had changed. She still wore the thick pink terrycloth robe over her nightclothes.

"Hi. How are you tonight?"

"Okay. How about you?"

"Better. I need to hit the mall. I need some new suits. I also want to get something for Grace." She knew she should've bought Grace's gift a long time ago, but hadn't had the time.

"What's wrong?" He could see in her eyes that something was bothering her, something other than Chris's murder.

"I don't know. I need to do something. I don't know what though."

"Why don't we go to the mall and maybe the other thing will come to you. Is it an errand or appointment?"

"No. I'll be ready to go in a little while." She hated that it took her longer to get ready. She looked through her closet and decided on her outfit - slacks, flats, T-shirt with a light sweater over it. She knew that the mall would probably be chilly again. She wanted to look halfway decent since she was going clothing shopping.

"Do you mind if I drive?" Natalie asked, knowing that Nick preferred to drive. That it was one of those 'men things'.

"No. We'll probably get a better parking spot that way," he joked, knowing if he hadn't said it she would've. He knew she wanted to refine her skills.

"That's one definite benefit," she said in the same joking tone.

Before long Nick and Natalie arrived at the mall. Natalie found a great parking spot right in front of the entrance. She pulled into the spot as smoothly as she did before the accident.

They entered the mall near the shop she wanted to start with. Natalie found it a bit strange viewed from her new perspective and was glad she no longer had headaches from looking up at the world.

"Where do you want to start?"

"One department store then something to eat. And yes, you have to eat too." She smiled at his frown. He was pleased to see her smile.

Natalie entered the ladies section of the nearest department store and began to examine the suits. She had some idea what she was looking for. She knew she would feel much more comfortable in pants, at least for now. She wasn't embarrassed about how her legs looked because they looked about the same as always. But the skirts' styles were so short that unless she spent her whole day with her legs crossed people would be able to see right up her skirt, worrying about that all day would be uncomfortable. And, by wearing slacks she didn't have to worry that her skirt might ride up during a transfer.

Natalie found that the clothing racks were too close together, and some of the suits she wanted to look at were over her head. She couldn't get to other clothing because of the close quarters and grew frustrated. She didn't see anything that truly caught her attention.

They both noticed that the saleswomen seemed to avoid her.

"I've changed my mind. One more store then dinner."

Natalie left the department store and headed for one of the smaller shops she liked because she remembered the layout was more spacious. Nick followed her. Natalie entered the store and immediately noticed she could get to just about every rack and shelf. Still, some of it was over her head, but she didn't mind as much.

Natalie looked around and found several suits she liked, and handed them to Nick to hold for her. She knew what size she wore but wanted to make sure the outfits would still look good on her. A sales lady approached, retrieved the suits from Nick, and led Natalie to a dressing room.

"Do you need any help?" The sales lady asked.

"I'm okay. Thanks."

"Let me know if you need a different size or anything."

"Okay." Natalie said knowing from the lady's tone that she wasn't being patronized or treated differently than other customers.

From the size, shape and layout of that particular dressing room Natalie knew that some thought had been given to the possibility that it might be used by someone in a wheelchair. It was large enough for her to enter and turn around in. The clothing bar and door hanger were lower than in most dressing rooms.

When Natalie had the first outfit on, she liked the way it looked and went out to get Nick's opinion. He was waiting outside the room itself, but was still within the dressing room area. He looked her over and nodded his approval.

After trying on several suits, Natalie changed back into her own clothes, piled the items she liked onto her lap and headed out to the cash register. The counter was a little high for her so the sales lady came around and took the suits from her, not making a big deal out of it.

Nick handed his credit card to the saleslady moments before Natalie had her credit card out.

"Nick," Natalie protested.

"Let me do this for you."

Natalie saw how much he wanted to do it. "Okay." Besides he can afford it easier than I can, she thought.

When the saleslady handed the bagged suits to Nick, he saw the annoyance in Natalie's eyes.

Nick and Natalie passed a shoe store on their way to the food court. Natalie stopped and looked in the window, curious to see if they had anything she'd like.

"At least I don't have to worry about wearing out my shoes," Natalie joked, not finding anything she liked in the window display. She didn't feel like going in and looking around.

"Shall I take these to the car? Why don't you go on ahead. I'll meet you in the food court."

"You'd better." She dug her keys out of her waist pouch and handed them to him.

He noticed the teasing behind the threat.

Nick headed out to the minivan while Natalie made her way towards the food court. She was in no rush and stopped to look in a window here and there, trying to find something for both Grace and Nick. She knew Nick could find her.

Natalie saw a dress she liked and wondered if it would look good on her. She decided to try it on later even though she had no place to wear something that fancy. She continued down the mall looking in the windows as she passed them.

As she passed Brain Candy, an item in the window caught her eye. She entered, knowing she'd found the perfect gift for Nick. Natalie looked around the store, seeing it was aimed at those looking for educational toys. She noticed that there seemed to be something for everyone young or old.

Natalie was a little annoyed that one salesman wouldn't even look her way and found herself hoping they worked on commission. A cute young salesman approached her.

"Can I help you?"

"Yes. I would like that sand sculpture there." Natalie pointed to the piece she wanted. It was one of those things full of sand and water where the picture changed when it was flipped over. She thought Nick would enjoy playing with it during the hours he was stuck inside the loft. "Can you wrap it so that prying eyes won't spoil the surprise?"

"Sure, no problem."

The salesman securely wrapped her sculpture and handed it to Natalie, along with her receipt.

Natalie left and continued towards the food court.

Nick approached and saw a large, possibly heavy, and definitely awkward sized package balanced on Natalie's lap.

"Would you like me to take your package to the car?"

"If you don't mind. Thanks."

Nick took the package and headed back out to the minivan.

As Natalie continued down the mall, a couple of guys were goofing off and didn't see her.

"Watch it," Natalie said as the guys nearly fell on top of her.

"Why should we? We're not the traffic hazard."

Natalie was tempted to tell them off but restrained herself and went around them. What she didn't see was Nick approaching.

Nick watched as Natalie deftly handled the situation and kept some distance between herself and the guys. As Nick looked in a few store windows, something caught his eye. Coincidentally, it was the same dress that Natalie had noticed earlier. He ducked into the store and bought it for her, hoping she would like it. He quickly took the box out to the minivan so she wouldn't see it and spoil the surprise.

Before long Nick caught up with Natalie as she was pondering what she wanted to eat.

"What's wrong?" He saw the anger and frustration in her eyes.

"Some jerks nearly fell on me. They actually accused me of being the problem. In the other stores the sales people looked right through me like I was invisible. I don't know which is more annoying."

"I took a longer route to the minivan with your suits so that the sales lady who wouldn't help us in the department store saw how many suits we bought elsewhere. I could see she was angry that she had lost such a big sale," Nick said with a touch of humor.

"Good for you. Serves her right," Natalie said with the same touch of humor in her voice.

He saw some of the frustration and anger drain from her eyes as they talked.

He returned her keys. She stuck them back into her waist pack so she wouldn't accidentally lose them.

"Thanks for taking the stuff to the car."

"Schanke would say that it was a guy's job," Nick said with a grin.

"That does sound like something he'd say," Natalie said lightly.

She tried to decide what she wanted to eat.

"So, what will you try tonight?" She teased.

"I don't know." He looked around to see what his choices were. "Do you want something quick or do you want to go into a real restaurant?" Nick realized he had almost said 'sit down somewhere' and didn't know if that phrase would bother her.

"Something quick. I want to hit a few more stores. I'm going to have a cheese steak. What about you?"

"I'll try that."

They headed for the Philly Grill.

"What will the two of you have?" The middle aged man asked Nick. "I'll have a cheese steak, fries and iced tea," Natalie said with a hint of annoyance in her voice.

"Make it two."

Natalie had the money out before Nick had finished ordering. He let her pay for dinner and saw the frustration in her eyes when the counter was too high. He glanced at her and she nodded slightly. He took the money and handed it to the guy and returned her change to her.

A couple minutes later their order was ready. Nick watched as Natalie loaded her cheese steak up with pickles and copied her. He saw others filling little paper cups with ketchup and did likewise.

Nick and Natalie made their way to a table, not having many to choose from. Nick moved the extra chair so that Natalie could take its place.

Natalie was quite hungry and wasted no time in devouring her sandwich. She tried not to laugh when Nick looked at his sandwich as if it would bite back. He took a hesitant bite and swallowed it. It was about the same as everything else he tried, nauseating. He put the sandwich down and stuck to the fries. The first one was the hardest to get down, even covered in ketchup.

Natalie smiled watching Nick try to eat. He was pleased to see her smile, knowing things had not been easy for her. Especially with Chris's murder last night.

"I figured out what it was I wanted to do. It's probably a stupid idea."

"What?" He said as he ate another fry.

"Go dancing. I don't think I'll be any good but..." She became self conscious at the thought of being on the dance floor and wondered where the idea had come from.

"Why not? If you still have energy left after we finish here we can go."

"Sounds good."

After eating Nick and Natalie worked their way down the other half of the mall stopping in many of the stores.

As she was passing by Ceramic Heaven she saw the perfect gift for Grace. She entered, pleased to be immediately helped by a salesperson. Natalie pointed out the figurine she wanted. The sales lady brought one out from under the counter that was still sealed in it's box, and opened it so Natalie could examine it. When the figurine had no chips or other damage, Natalie handed the salesperson her credit card, signed the slip, and left with her package, the receipt inside the bag.

The next store Nick and Natalie hit was a video store, where very few shelves were above her head. They picked out a few movies for their next viewing session. Each picked out a movie that the other wasn't crazy about. Nick was glad they had seen all of the vampire movies available.

An hour later the mall closed so Nick and Natalie headed out. They had been about to leave anyway, having covered the entire mall.

"Thank you for the suits. It's too bad they didn't have that dress I liked."

"No problem. Maybe they'll get another one in," Nick said secretly hoping they didn't. "What kind of dancing are you in the mood for?"

"I don't know. I don't want to go to the Raven."

"I wouldn't take you there. It's a little much unless you're in that mood." He knew that the stairs would bring out her frustration. And he didn't want her around that many vampires.

"That is true. Do I look okay for dancing?"

"You look fine."

Nick was dressed in slacks, a black shirt and his leather jacket.

Shortly they arrived at the Happy Horseshoe club. It was one they had seen advertised on TV before her accident. She had wanted to go there one night, knowing that dancing was a great form of exercise. The club looked like it would be fun.

"You remembered."

"Of course." He grinned.

When they were just a few feet from the club, Natalie noticed the three stairs leading to the entrance. She had never paid much attention to such things, but now it might as well have been a hundred steps. She shrugged it off not wanting to spoil her evening. Nick could see that it bothered her but wasn't going to mention it. He held onto the top of her backrest, tipped her back and pulled her up the stairs. Nick paid the cover charge and they entered the club.

"I want to watch for a few minutes," Natalie said beginning to lose her nerve.

"Are you sure?" Nick asked sensing her feelings.

"Yeah."

They found the only empty table. It happened to have only one chair.

"It's a good thing I brought my own," Nat wisecracked.

Nick grinned.

A cocktail waitress came over to them and took their order. Before they knew it she had returned with their drinks. Nick paid her and she left.

Natalie sipped her white wine hoping it would give her the courage to go out on the dance floor. Nick sipped his red wine.

By the time Natalie had half-emptied her glass Nick stood and offered her his hand. She knew it was now or never and motioned for him to lead the way.

Natalie tried to stay in the shadows of the dance floor feeling rather self-conscious about her first time dancing since her paralysis. A part of her was sure she was going to make a fool out of herself and the other part didn't really care, as long as she had fun.

Nick leaned down and whispered in her ear, "Just copy what everyone else is doing. Or do whatever you feel like doing."

Natalie closed her eyes for a moment, allowing the music to wash over her. When she opened her eyes again she let the music guide her. Nick followed her lead. She was glad the music had just the right beat to it, knowing she was nowhere near ready to handle a slow song.

Nick smiled, watching his best friend relaxing and enjoying herself.

As soon as the song ended, the next one started. This one had more of a beat causing Natalie to surprise both Nick and herself as she became completely caught up in the beat, which brought out a few moves Nick didn't realize Natalie knew such as fancy spins and wheelies.

Natalie blushed when the song changed to a slow one and people applauded. Most of her self-consciousness faded away.

About two hours later, Natalie dropped Nick off at the loft, then headed back to her apartment building, parked and headed upstairs to her apartment. She wondered if he'd beat her there.

She entered her apartment, quickly flipped through her mail and tossed it, her keys and her waist pack onto the table. She placed Nick's present on the coffee table so he'd be sure to find it when he arrived and headed into the bedroom to change.

Nick snuck into her apartment, heard her heartbeat, and made himself comfortable on the couch. He saw the gift box on the coffee table. Curiosity got the better of him, and he leaned over to inspect it.

Natalie came out of the bedroom and saw him looking over the present, much like a little boy at Christmas.

"It's for you. A little thank you for everything you've done for me."

"Nat, you didn't have to."

"I know. Open it." She eagerly awaited his reaction, hoping he'd like it.

Nick pulled the lid off the box and was captivated by the gift. When he pulled the framed "picture" out of the box he saw the moving sand but didn't totally comprehend. It had a built in stand, which allowed the frame to swivel in a complete circle. There was a pastel background picture to give the design a little more depth.

"It's a sand sculpture thing. Whenever you flip it over, the design changes. If you tilt it, you can help shape the design."

Nick played with it for several moments, a smile lighting up his face, making him look like a kid with a new toy.

"It's neat. Thanks."

She was glad he liked it, and knew the many hours he'd probably spend playing with it while waiting for the sun to set.

The next evening, shortly after Natalie's arrival, Grace entered Natalie's office.

"You look like you had a good evening," Grace said, cheerfully.

"I did. After taking care of some chores, Nick and I went dancing." She grinned at the look of surprise on Grace's face. "It was my idea. I couldn't believe I went out there in front of everyone. Once I got over the initial fear of making a fool of myself I had fun. Nick did too, in spite of himself." Natalie grabbed her backpack and pulled Grace's gift from it. "This is for you. For all you did for me while I was in the hospital and the rehab center. Especially for the pictures."

"You didn't have to. That's what friends are for. I couldn't stand to see you having nothing but the blank ceiling to look at. It would've driven me nuts."

"It did drive me nuts. Until you fixed it."

Grace eagerly opened the box, pulling out a figurine of a little girl playing doctor, with her teddy bear as the patient.

"It's lovely. I don't have this one." Grace was genuinely touched by the gift.

"I'm glad. I knew you collected them and was afraid you might already have that one."

"Thank you."

That morning Natalie arrived home after a long tiring shift. She had been to two crime scenes and had done the autopsies plus a mountain of paperwork. She had picked up take out on her way home, realizing that whoever had invented the drive through window was a genius. Now all she wanted to do was eat and climb into bed for a much deserved slumber.

No sooner had Natalie entered her kitchen when she heard the sound of her front door forcefully slamming into the wall. She dialed Nick's cell phone number via speed dial.

"Get here!" She said quietly and urgently. She was too tired to take on the intruder, but knew she would probably have to anyway.

Natalie heard footsteps approaching and looked around the kitchen for a weapon. She saw the butcher knife in its holder on the counter and made a beeline for it.

The intruder was clad all in black, including the ski mask. He wore nothing that would distinguish him. He came towards her. Natalie was prepared, or at least she hoped she was.

Nat swung the knife out in front of her to keep him away. She knew he might take if from her, but only by grabbing the blade. Then he would be easy to spot, especially if he worked at either the precinct or coroner's office. The intruder swung a wooden baseball bat at Natalie, knocking the knife out of her hand. The force stung her wrist.

The intruder was too close for comfort when Nick burst into the apartment.

The intruder's next swing was aimed at Natalie's head. She ducked as it sailed over her head, barely missing her. Nick saw the bat coming down for a crushing blow and was on top of the intruder in the blink of an eye.

The bat broke, stabbing Nick. The intruder was able to knock Natalie over and took off before anyone could stop him. Natalie pretended she was unconscious. When Nat thought the intruder was gone, she opened her eyes, rubbed her arm where it had contacted the floor, as well as her wrist where the knife had been knocked from her grip, grateful she wasn't hurt badly.

"Nick?" His lack of response scared her. "It's all my fault." She was only a few feet from him and debated the best way to get to him. She was glad he was unconscious so he wouldn't see her drag herself over to his side. She saw the piece of wood sticking out of his shoulder and knew she did not have the necessary leverage to remove it. She was relieved when she saw him beginning to stir, as it meant the accidental stake probably wasn't lodged near his heart.

"Nick?" She asked worriedly.

"Nat, you okay?" He said wincing.

"Yeah, only my pride was hurt. I can't pull it out."

"I can do that. I have to do it quickly. I hear others approaching."

Nick yanked the stake out of his shoulder, gritting his teeth at the pain. He quickly stashed it in the trash, hoping no one would give it much thought if they found it there.

"How's the shoulder?"

"It's fine," Nick said, seeing that Natalie didn't fully believe him.

"What if it is someone from one of our departments? They will expect you to be injured."

"I know. What do you suggest?"

Natalie knew speed was important. "Get me back into my chair."

Nick knew that request had not been easy for her. He set her chair back up before gently scooping her up and setting her back in her seat. She made a minor adjustment before heading for her closet. She looked around. "Hand me that box," she said pointing to a box just out of reach.

Nick grabbed the box, wincing slightly, and held it for her while she rummaged through it. She pulled out the item she wanted before he stuck the box back on the shelf. She motioned for him to have a seat on the couch while she grabbed her black medical bag and followed him to the couch. She maneuvered as close to him as she could get, again cursing her limitation.

"Open your shirt. Did you get a look at the intruder?"

"No. But, he is the same person who attacked you at the hospital," He said as he quickly complied with her request.

"How could you tell?" She asked quite surprised.

She pushed his shirt off the shoulder where the stake had been and saw that the wound had nearly healed.

"Every mortal has a distinctive heartbeat and a smell that is unique to them."

"Do you feel any pain?" she asked, hoping no splinters had been left behind.

"No. It doesn't feel like anything was left behind."

"That's good."

Natalie grabbed a gauze pad and taped it over the wound.

"What do I smell like to you?" She asked curiously.

"Apples and cinnamon. I think the cinnamon reflects your spunk and the apples your sweetness, or at least that's how I think of it."

Before Natalie could ask any more questions Schanke and two other officers rushed into the room. They were surprised by how normal everything looked. Schanke motioned for the other officers to wait out in the hall before approaching his friends.

"Is everyone okay?" Schanke asked concerned.

"I'm fine," Natalie said.

Schanke could tell that she was a little shaken up.

"I'll be fine in a few days." Nick gave Natalie a look when she tried to get his arm into the sling. Her glare told him he had better cooperate.

"Natalie?" Schanke asked.

"He's fine. The attacker tried to stab him but didn't do any serious damage. That's more for his comfort than anything. The skin was punctured but not deep enough to require stitches. I patched him up with a few steri-strips. The less he moves it the quicker it will heal."

"How long does he have to wear the sling?"

"Three days. He should be healed in about a week."

Nick now knew how she must feel when people talked about her rather than to her. It was a most annoying and frustrating feeling.

"How did you know?"

"Nick called in backup," Schanke said. "Can either of you describe the attacker?"

"Not really. He was dressed in black, including the ski mask. It was all nondescript. He attacked right before Nick arrived. He tried to use my head as a baseball. Luckily I know how to duck. Nick tackled him and that's when Nick got hurt. The attacker got up and knocked me over on his way out." She pretended to look for a bump on Nick's skull, pleased when he played along and winced at one of the spots she touched. "You'll live."

"Natalie heard him break in. I was on my way up when my cell phone rang. It was her calling for help. I immediately noticed the door had been kicked in and entered. He tried to take her head off with a baseball bat and I tackled him. I must've hit my head because I was a little dazed for a moment. By the time my head cleared he was gone. I'm sure he thinks he seriously wounded me."

"What exactly did he wound you with?" Schanke asked.

"A knife," Nick said. "I didn't give him the chance to fully embed it in my shoulder."

"Natalie, what about you?" Schanke asked concerned.

"I pretended he knocked me out. Not that he noticed. He was beating a pretty swift retreat."

"Schank, let him think my injury was worse."

"Okay. I do have one question. Why has someone tried to kill Natalie twice before and again tonight?"

Nick and Natalie exchanged glances. His said that it was up to her.

"Whatever we tell you doesn't leave this room. Understand," Nick said in his most serious tone. The one that scared Schanke.

"I understand."

"Cohen came to me while I was in the rehab center and asked me if I would help you guys catch the killer by setting myself up as his next target. I fit the developing pattern perfectly. I agreed to help her. I was nervous and unsure if I could pull it off. I'm not a cop."

"Nick, did you know about any of this?"

"No. I didn't find out about it until Natalie was ready to go back to work. Cohen came by and thought Nat had told me. I was not happy to learn that we had been kept out of it."

"Then you know how I'm feeling now," Schanke said annoyed.

"Your reactions had to be real. It was the only way it would work. I'm sorry, Schanke," Natalie said, sincerely sorry for deceiving her friend.

"Me too," Nick said.

"Are you still bait?"

"Yes." Natalie said.

"That explains why Cohen kept us on guard duty after your release from rehab. At least now I understand why you two seemed more like a married couple, always together. I had hopedÉ"

"Always together?" Nick asked.

"Sorry Schanke," Natalie said.

"Well, when he's not home and he's not at work..." Schanke said with a grin. "Did you forward your phone? I've called and spoken to you, yet when I showed up at the loft, no one was there."

"Yes. It was the best way I could think of to make it seem like I was home."

"Do you think our perp will try again soon?"

"I hope so. I'm tired of feeling like a deer during hunting season."

"Nick, did you tell her that the Bronson case will be before the judge starting tomorrow?"

"I forgot. Sorry."

"When will they want me to testify?" Natalie asked.

"I don't know. I'm sure you'll be notified," Schanke said.

Nick saw the doubt in Natalie's eyes and knew what she was thinking, would her wheelchair affect her credibility. Nick wanted to brighten everyone's spirits.

"Why don't we go out somewhere and do something fun? My treat," Nick said cheerfully, knowing Natalie wouldn't be able to sleep after the attack, even though she was tired.

"Why not. Any ideas?" Natalie asked trying her best to get into the mood.

"I heard there was a carnival in town. Jenny's been pestering me to take her. We could go and check it out before I bring her," Schanke said.

Natalie smiled at that idea. "Sounds good. I haven't been to one of those in ages. Let me change into something more casual first. Okay?"

"No problem," Schanke said.

Natalie stuck her dinner into the fridge before heading for her bedroom.

Several minutes later Natalie came out dressed in jeans, a blue sweater and her sneakers. She stopped a moment to tie her shoe before grabbing her lightweight jacket.

Schanke climbed into the backseat of the Caddie, realizing he had never sat there before. Natalie was usually the one in back. Natalie occupied the passenger seat and Nick drove, after stashing Nat's wheelchair in the trunk so it wouldn't be in Schanke's way.

The three friends talked about anything and everything that was not work related on the way to the carnival.

Before long they entered the carnival grounds. Natalie stopped at a cotton candy vendor and got herself a stick of the sticky pink fluff. Nick looked at it puzzled. He watched her rip off a chunk and stick it into her mouth with a grin.

Nick made the mistake of getting within range and found himself with a mouthful of the quickly melting, sticky stuff. Natalie laughed at the strange expression on his face. It was part confusion and part surprise. Schanke also found himself laughing.

"Partner, don't tell me you've never seen or tasted cotton candy before."

"I haven't," Nick said trying to sound completely innocent.

"Well?" Natalie inquired teasingly.

"Interesting. What's in it?"

"Nothing but spun sugar. It's the spinning process that makes it so fluffy." She pointed to the guy doing the spinning. Nick watched the guy fascinated.

A short time later Natalie and Schanke were hungry and grabbed a burger and fries. Nick knew he should get something as well and ordered some fries. Nick and Schanke started to walk and eat.

"Hey, Guys, wait up. Some of us can't do both at once," she said lightly.

"Sorry," the guys said, feeling a little guilty

"No problem."

They found a nearby table and ate. Nick managed to eat his fries without it being a major production. Natalie smiled one of her warmest smiles when she saw him finish half the container of fries. Schanke was confused and figured Natalie's attitude probably had to do with Nick's food allergies.

Before long the threesome found the midway games.

"Let's try some," Natalie said with childish delight. She knew they were most likely fixed, but didn't care.

Nick knew they were rigged but couldn't resist treating them to as many games as they wanted to play.

"I know they're rigged, but we can try anyway." The mischievous twinkle in Natalie's eyes worried her friends.

Nick watched his two friends having a ball. They didn't win anything but they seemed to be having fun just trying. Before long they started to win a small prize here and there causing Nick to notice that the effort seemed to be the most rewarding part for them.

"Come on, Nick." Natalie urged playfully.

Nick gave in and tried his hand. He knew he could've won the big prize every time, but it wouldn't be fun to do it that way, also it might get them tossed out. Each time Nick won, he let Natalie pick the prize. She offered to hold onto their winnings, and before she knew it her lap was full. She was glad to see Nick relaxing and having fun.

"Got room for one more?" Schanke asked. "Jenny's going to be in heaven for a week."

"Sure. Pile it on."

Nick started giggling when he caught sight of Natalie half buried under the cheap stuffed animals. Schanke couldn't help but giggle, too. Natalie looked down and joined her giggling friends.

"Anyone up for the rides?" Schanke asked.

"I don't know," Nick said a little uncertain.

"Which ones did you have in mind, Schank?" Natalie asked, the mischievous glint was back in her eyes.

"How about starting with the roller coaster?" Schanke challenged. Then wondered if she should do it.

"You're on."

"How about I take our haul out to the car and meet you in line."

"Chicken," Natalie teased.

"We'll see who screams first," Nick teased back, removing the sling and ignoring the look Nat shot him. He grabbed the armful of animals, dropping one or two which were picked up and tucked back into his arms. The sight of an 800 year old vampire with his arms full of stuffed animals caused Natalie to lose it big time. She couldn't stop laughing at the sight. Schanke noticed that Nick did look pretty funny as he left under his festive load.

Natalie and Schanke headed on over to the roller coaster.

"Natalie, are you sure you should be doing this?"

"It's fine, Schank. But thanks for worrying about me."

Nick was back by the time they neared the front of the long line. The ride operator saw that they were next and wasn't quite sure what to do.

"I can only let her on if she sits in the middle."

Schanke walked over to the ride car and climbed in first. Nick put one hand under Natalie's knees and the other around her back and lifted her out of her chair. She wrapped her arms around his neck for stability. He carried her the few feet to the ride and set her down in the seat.

Seeing that reminded Schanke of her disability more than seeing her in the chair did. He realized he saw her and the wheelchair as one piece, as normal.

"Nick, how's your shoulder? Nat, you shouldn't let him lift you," Schanke said.

"It's fine. I wouldn't have lifted her if it would hurt."

"He'll be fine," Natalie said, knowing the wounds were already healed. She still found the fast healing common to vampires to be amazing.

Schanke was on the far side, Nat was in the middle, even though she wanted to be on the outside, and Nick was on the other side.

Once the cars were full and everyone was seated, the ride started. Nick grinned when Schanke was the first to scream. Nat wasn't too far behind. She found herself glad to be in the center as she quickly realized how much work her legs used to do to help keep her from falling over when riding the roller coaster. Nick stunned himself by being caught off guard and letting out a small scream himself.

Once the ride was over, Nick scooped Nat up and deposited her in her chair. She made a few minor adjustments to her position.

"Last one to the Ferris wheel is a rotten egg," Natalie said.

The three adults took off like children. Nick was tempted to cheat but knew she'd be mad so he didn't. She barely won. Nick came in second with Schanke bringing up the rear.

"Do you think she deserves a speeding ticket?" Nick teasingly asked Schanke.

"I don't know. She was going pretty fast," Schanke teased back as he patted his pockets. "Rats, I must've left that book at home."

"Very funny. Keep it up and you may qualify for flat feet after all," The wicked grin on her face only emphasized the playfulness of her voice.

"She wouldn't do that, would she?" The guys asked each other lightly. They got a look at the devious twinkle in her eyes and the grin. "Yep, she would."

About two hours later Nick, Natalie and Schanke tired and called it a night. They had been on all the adult rides, except the one that wouldn't let Natalie on. They passed on the kiddie rides.

At Schanke's request, Natalie reexamined Nick's shoulder before helping him back into the sling.

"He's fine. The wound didn't reopen."

"I'm glad," Schanke said.

Natalie and Schanke passed the various food stands, having eaten their fill of junk food. Between the fried dough, cotton candy, soda, burgers, and fries, they'd nearly made themselves sick. Natalie wondered if Nick was sick from trying everything. Nick knew that if they forced him to try one more thing, he'd get violently ill and seriously jeopardize his cover. It had been bad enough with Nat making him try the stuff, but Schanke had jumped in as well.

When they got back to Natalie's apartment she picked out one of the stuffed animals for each of her companions. One that suited them. Schanke got a teddy bear and Nick got a unicorn. Schanke didn't understand that one, but Nick got it and even grinned. Natalie kept a stuffed dolphin for herself. They hauled the armful of stuffed animals from Nick's trunk to Schanke's.

"I hope Jenny enjoys them," Natalie said.

"She will. Thanks."

Both men were glad Natalie had been able to relax and have fun for one evening, to be with friends and forget about everything. They knew she hadn't had much to laugh about for the last few months.

The following night, Nick entered Natalie's lab.

"Good timing. I need a blood sample."

Nick momentarily wished he'd sent Schanke over for the file, but knew the samples were necessary if she was to find his cure.

Nick sat on the steel table and watched as Nat pushed herself up the ramp and onto the platform. He rolled up his sleeve and waited for her to stick him with the needle. Before long she had the sample.

"I have something I want you to taste. I want to take another sample afterwards to see how your body processes it."

Natalie headed for the counter where she had whipped up another one of her protein shakes. She hoped this one would be acceptable, having made massive changes in the recipe.

He reluctantly took the glass, sniffed it and when it didn't smell too bad, took a small swallow. After a moment's indecision he took another larger swallow.

"I think you may be onto something here. New recipe?"

"Yes. I came up with a completely new formula." She motioned for him to continue, glad that she had finally found a recipe he liked, or at least tolerated.

She drew another sample right after he finished the entire glassful, and another one about 10 minutes later.

"I feel like a pin cushion."

"Just be glad I don't do this to you every night."

"I am, believe me, I am."

About a week and a half later Natalie entered her apartment in a bad mood. One of the cops on loan to homicide, Davidson, had patronized her. It was something she usually ignored or made them feel stupid for, but this time, something about it had really gotten to her. Nick had distracted her before she could do anything she might later regret. Natalie's day didn't improve any when she had to call Grace in to retrieve a file someone had left on top of her filing cabinet where she couldn't reach it.

Nick entered Nat's apartment and saw that her day had not improved since the near disaster at the precinct.

"I didn't realize how hard being like this would be. Or how frustrating."

"Your friends are all here for you. I know it hasn't been easy. You've done much better than I would have if I were mortal and in your situation. You've always been the stronger one."

"It's amazing. People see the wheelchair and automatically think I'm invisible, helpless, or stupid. Even people I've worked with a time or two have reacted that way. Sometimes I just want to shout 'the only thing that's changed is I can't walk. I'm exactly the same otherwise.' Today I wanted to slug Davidson and say 'look stupid..."

"I know. That's why I distracted you," Nick said cutting her off. "I know what you're like when your temper takes control. People often say things without thinking. They also don't realize how dumb some of their outdated ideas make them sound."

"I have learned more about human nature from this than I expected." She waved her hand across her chair. "There are guys at the office and the precinct who used to watch me whenever I was around. Now they make a point of looking elsewhere. It used to make me uncomfortable, but now a part of me misses it. I know I'm not beautiful, but..."

Nick saw her looking at the floor as she said the last sentence. He squatted down in front of her, put his fingers under her chin, tilted her face up to his and cut off what she was saying. "Natalie, you are a beautiful woman. You're still as beautiful as ever. Your beauty comes from inside as well as outside."

She blushed and tried to look back at the floor but he wouldn't let her.

"Don't let a few jerks make you believe something that isn't true. Has the fact that you need your chair to get around made me, Schanke, Grace or any of your friends feel differently about you? Act different around you?"

"No. I did learn one important thing. Who my true friends are. You're the one who makes me feel beautiful." She blushed again.

"I'm only pointing out what I see. You have a special kind of beauty. One that comes from within as much as from without. It is your inner beauty that keeps me around." He leaned in and kissed her gently, yet thoroughly, to make his point absolutely clear.

He liked seeing her blush. She was a deeper shade of red when their lips parted, and was smiling her warmest smile.

A month later, Schanke and Nick dropped by the Coroner's office to see if Natalie was finished with a report they needed, knowing it was easier for them to visit her than for her to drop by the precinct.

Natalie wasn't in her office when they entered. They had seen her minivan in the parking lot and knew she was in the building somewhere. Within moments Natalie entered, files and a chocolate bar on her lap. A cup of coffee nestled in the cup holder attached to the leg part of her chair's frame.

"I think you might be waiting for this," She said as she handed them the report. "Just got the results back." She grabbed her cup of coffee, took a sip and set it on her desk.

"Thanks," Nick said.

"Nick, can you give me a lift home?" Schanke asked.

"Sorry, Schanke. I can't do it."

Schanke knew he would've asked Natalie for a lift before the accident and couldn't hurt her feelings by not asking now. "Natalie, how about you?"

"Sure. When do you want to leave?" She could see that he was a little nervous. "Don't worry. I haven't hit anyone yet," she said lightly.

"Whenever you're ready. Nick, we are done for the night, aren't we?"

"Yes. Matter of fact I had better be leaving myself."

Natalie tidied up her desk before grabbing her jacket. The three of them walked out together. Nick had parked at the other end of the parking lot, as that had been the only available spot. He left the other two at Natalie's minivan and continued on, knowing she was in good hands.

Schanke was still a little nervous. "Do you need any help?"

"Thanks, but I can do it."

Schanke decided to go ahead and get in the van. Natalie was soon in the driver's seat with her chair secured in it's spot behind her seat, fastened her seat belt and started the car.

Schanke noticed the changes in her controls and was curious.

"Something wrong?" Natalie asked knowing what he was most likely examining, a bit surprised that he hadn't been in her vehicle before now.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to stare. I have never seen a set up like that."

"It's okay. I hadn't either." She explained to him how she was able to control both the gas and brake pedals with the hand controls. "Pretty cool, eh?"

"Yeah," Schanke said. "Was it hard to learn how?"

"A little. It was a lot more comprehensive than when you're 16."

She answered his questions about her driving lessons, not minding at all. His being able to ask questions proved he was okay with it. She asked him how his family was, not having spoken to them in a while. He used his answers to try and get both her and Nick over for dinner sometime.

Before long Natalie pulled into Schanke's driveway and stopped.

"Thanks, Natalie."

"I told you I'd get you here safe and sound," she said with a wicked gleam in her eyes.

Schanke smiled. "You did, didn't you. Sorry for doubting you."

"No problem," Natalie said, sincerely. She knew he didn't mean to doubt her so she hadn't taken offense.

Myra came out of the house and down to the minivan.

"Hi, Natalie. How are you doing?"

"I'm doing fine. How about you? How's Jenny?"

"We're fine. Would you like to come in for some coffee or breakfast?"

Natalie noticed that there were four steps leading to the front door. "Can I take a raincheck? I have a few errands I need to do before I run out of energy."

"Sure. No problem. Thanks for bringing him home," Myra said.

"No problem," Natalie replied before pulling out of the driveway.

As Don and Myra entered their house, they realized why she'd turned down their invitation.

"Don, honey, she looks good. If I hadn't known or seen the hand controls I wouldn't have known. How is she doing?"

"She's amazing. It's almost as if nothing ever happened. She's the same Natalie personality wise. I wouldn't be able to handle it so well."

"I don't think I would be able to either," Myra said.

They both knew Nick was a big part of why Natalie had adjusted so well.

The following night Nick and Schanke entered Natalie's office and saw her busy digging around inside her latest client.

She looked up to place the heart on the scale and saw them.

"Hi guys. What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Cohen insists that both of us attend the policeman's ball this year. She wouldn't take any excuses," Schanke said, wondering if Natalie would want to go with Nick. "Natalie, you don't seem to get out much..."

"We'll come back later for the reports," Nick said cutting Schanke off.

"I'll go wait in the car." Schanke said upon seeing the looks both his friends gave him, and each other. "Toss me the keys so I can turn on the heater." Nick tossed Schanke the keys and he left Nick alone in the office.

"Subtle, isn't he," Natalie said.

"That never was his strength. Would you be interested in going to the ball with me?" Nick asked as nervous as a teenager asking his first date out.

"Yes." Natalie was equally nervous.

"I'll see you later."

"I'll see you."

Out in the car Schanke patiently waited until Nick was seated before asking "Did you ask her?"

"Yes, I asked her."

"Well?"

"She said yes."

"You don't think she'll have any problems do you?" Schanke asked, a little concerned.

"She'll be fine. Besides we'll be there. Most of our coworkers don't seem to have a problem with it."

Meanwhile back inside Natalie's office Grace entered, immediately noticing the smile on her friend's face.

"What's got you in such a good mood?"

"Schanke was sure to mention the ball, and that they had to attend. Then he left us alone."

"So are you going?"

"Yeah. I'm not making a mistake am I?" Natalie knew work was one thing, but it would be the first time she'd be with people from both departments in a purely social situation since her accident.

"No. Why? You said that you like going dancing."

"I do. It's just that I'll know people there." Natalie let out a small grin. "So what. Let them see me having a good time."

"That's the spirit."

"Are you going?" Natalie asked.

"Yes. Do you have your dress yet?"

"No. I saw the perfect dress, but someone else beat me to it. Do you have a dress?" Natalie asked.

"No. I thought maybe we could go out tomorrow afternoon."

"I can't tomorrow. I have my therapy and then I have some errands I keep putting off. How about the next day?"

"Okay. How's the therapy going?"

"I haven't noticed any changes. Mainly it's just maintenance work. Maybe that'll change someday."

"Why can't they hold the ball during the warmer weather, just once?" Grace asked.

"It would be too easy? They'd have to change the name and break the tradition of it being the winter ball," Natalie said.

Natalie arrived home at the end of her shift, set her waist pouch on the table by the door along with her keys. She quickly flipped through her mail before dropping it onto the table as well. She stripped off her leather gloves, and wool coat, hanging it up on it's hook. Only then did she notice the large gift wrapped box on her coffee table. She pushed herself over to it, hoping the freezing handrims warmed up soon. A quick examination of the box revealed her name on the tag. Her curiosity quickly got the better of her causing her to remove the lid. Her face lit up when she saw the dress she wanted neatly tucked into the box.

"I hope you like it." Nick said, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. He was glad she liked his gift.

"I hate it when you sneak up on me," she lightly scolded. "It's beautiful. Did you buy this that day at the mall?"

"Yes. I was hoping for an occasion to give it to you. Try it on."

Natalie took the box and entered her bedroom. About ten minutes later she came out in the dress. The zipper down the back was undone.

"Would you?" Natalie asked as she approached. She held her hair up out of the way so it wouldn't be caught in the zipper.

"Gladly." Nick walked behind her and zipped her up. "It looks great on you."

"Thanks," said as she gave him one of her warmest smiles. "Now I just have to hope it doesn't get caught. It doesn't look like it will. Does it really look okay?"

"It looks great. You look beautiful."

Natalie blushed slightly. It had been a while since she had heard that. She didn't feel that way most days. She figured her paralysis and all the hassles it brought with it was a good part of the reason, the other part were those guys who used to look at her and now looked away. She tried not to let it bother her, but it still did.

Natalie and Grace had gone to the mall to shop for a dress for Grace. The lot was full due to Thanksgiving being right around the corner. There was already snow piled around the edges of the parking lot, it also covered a few of the spaces, leaving some of the newer stuff still on the asphalt.

"It's a good thing we have reserved parking," Natalie joked as she found one of the few remaining handicapped spots.

"Yeah. At least we don't have to park at the other end of the lot.

"Nat, you're lucky. You already have your dress and you didn't even have to worry about what to get," Grace said as they entered the mall. Grace unfastened her jacket, removed her gloves and stuck them into her pockets.

Natalie stopped and pulled a towel out of her backpack. She quickly wiped down the handrims, to get the slush off them, then stuck it back into her backpack. She left her gloves on, not wanting to touch the freezing cold metal with her bare hands.

"Yeah. I am, aren't I? He's been so sweet. Do you have any idea what you're looking for?" Natalie said, opening her jacket.

"Someone like Nick."

"In a dress, I meant," Natalie said returning Grace's jovial tone. Nat thought.

"Something that will knock their eyes out. And something I can afford."

By the time they were at the first department store, Natalie removed her gloves and stashed them in her pockets. Grace and Natalie looked over the available selection of fancy evening wear. Natalie grew frustrated when many of the department stores clumped the racks so close together, it was impossible for her to get through to the section she wanted to see. Grace saw her friend's rising frustration level and brought out the dresses she was considering. Grace knew she would have a hard time as there were few really nice dresses in the larger sizes. As the two friends looked over Grace's choices they decided that none of them were the right one.

"Do I get to see your dress before the big night?"

"Sure. Drop by sometime."

When they had exhausted the department stores and had not found anything Grace liked they stopped for lunch. After a quick bite they hit the smaller stores. Natalie liked those stores because she could get to all the merchandise and maneuver without a problem.

Grace found several dresses she liked and asked Natalie for her opinion. Before long they had found the perfect dress for Grace.

Then they moved on to shoes.

"I guess what I have will have to do. I haven't found anything I like that's in my size. I suppose he picked out shoes too?" Grace asked.

"No. I may wear a pair of black heels. I don't feel like trying on shoes. Besides I didn't see anything I was crazy about," Natalie said.

"Is it..." Grace started then broke off a bit nervously.

"What? Go ahead." Natalie's tone persuaded her friend to continue.

"Is it harder to find shoes that fit. How do you know if they fit?"

"It is harder. I kinda have to do it like a mom checking her kid's shoes. If it seems to fit then I have to believe that they'll be okay. At least I don't have to worry about wearing them out," Nat said lightly. "Grace, if you want to know something, don't be afraid to ask. I don't bite. I won't run you over," Nat said with a mischievous grin.

"Thanks. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable or seem nosy."

"It bothers me more when my friends are afraid to ask things. I can usually tell when one of you wants to ask me something but is afraid. If I don't want to answer I'll say so. Okay?"

"Okay. Are you going to let Nick pick you up or are you going to drive?"

"I think I'll let him pick me up." Natalie realized she'd forgotten to ask Grace about her date. "So, who's the lucky guy?"

"Stephen. It will be our third date. He seems like a really nice guy."

Natalie couldn't help but grin, pleased to see her friend happy. She knew that most guys went for the skinny type. The skinny type who aren't paraplegics.