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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.

Chapter Text

Another week passed with no further attempts on Natalie's life. With no further leads as to who the serial killer was, why Natalie's brake lines had been cut or why the man had tried to kill her in the hospital, and then again in her apartment, Nick and Schanke were beginning to wonder if the killer was onto them.

Natalie's rather calm, though frustrated reactions to their updates on her case showed she was as frustrated by the lack of progress as they were. They knew she wasn't taking it as well as she wanted them to believe she was.

How can they both seem so calm. I'd be a nervous wreck knowing there was at least one person out there determined to see me dead. Does his being there help not only her to relax, but him as well?' Schanke wondered. He had never seen two friends more perfectly matched for each other.

The night of the ball arrived. Nick knocked on Natalie's door. She answered it, smiling when she saw him in his tux with his long black leather jacket on top of the tux.

"You look great," she said with a smile.

"Thanks. You look stunning." Her wavy, chestnut colored hair hung loose about her shoulders, which was how he liked it best. Her makeup was subtle, emphasizing her natural beauty. She had on a pair of simple gold hoop earrings, and black heels along with her blue dress.

"Need help with your zipper?"

"Please." Natalie moved her hair out of the way as leaned forward a little to give him good access to the zipper.

He zipped it, careful not to pinch her skin or catch her hair.

The royal blue of her dress brought out the blue in her eyes. It was long sleeved with a v neck, daring but it didn't reveal too much. The ankle length skirt had a slight flair to it, which helped prevent it from bunching up around the wheels and possibly getting caught in them or being too tight to comfortably sit all night in.

Nick pulled a small jewelry box from his pocket and handed it to her.

"I thought you might be a little nervous. Consider this a security blanket of sorts."

She opened the box, a smile spreading across her face as she saw the simple, yet elegant three dimensional gold heart hanging from a delicate gold necklace.

"It's beautiful. Thank you. Would you put it on for me?"

"Sure." He took the necklace and fastened it around her neck while she held her hair out of the way.

"You ready?" She asked as she took one last look in the mirror. The necklace went perfectly with the v neckline of her dress.

"Whenever you are." He noticed that her wheelchair sparkled more than it usually did. She always kept it clean, but now it sparkled like new. He also noticed the backpack was missing, realizing it didn't go with their fancy attire. Instead she had a small clutch purse resting on her lap.

He held her black wool coat for her as she slipped into it, then her leather gloves.

The ballroom was packed with officers from several precincts, their spouses, or significant others. The decorations were festive, but tasteful. The party was in full swing and full of life. Grace and her date were talking with Don and Myra Schanke near the entrance, not wanting to miss their friend's arrival. Both ladies were in stylish, black, ankle length dresses which flattered their figures. The men were dressed in the standard black penguin suit.

All eyes turned towards the door as Nick and Natalie entered. They both knew there had been whispered speculation about what she would do at the ball and if either of them would actually show up. Suddenly the room became deathly silent. Natalie noticed the partygoers staring at her, making her uneasy.

"Nick, are you sure this isn't the funeral directors ball? Did someone die?" Natalie joked, loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be considered shouting.

A few laughs were heard around the room, some being nervous laughter.

Don and Myra headed over to Natalie and Nick, helping Natalie to relax.

So far so good. I hope the rest of the evening goes well. Natalie thought.

"Natalie, you look hot. I don't remember ever seeing you looking so good," Schanke said. "Partner, you look great in a tux." He enjoyed watching Natalie blush as it wasn't something she did often.

"Thank you, you two look great," Natalie said.

"Myra, you look wonderful," Nick said. "Don, you look good."

"Do you two know how to make an entrance, or what?" Don teased before he and Myra headed for the dance floor.

Grace wandered over with her date in tow. He was handsome, and around six feet tall.

"Natalie, you look great. You too Nick," Grace said. "Guys this is Stephen Archer. Stephen, this is Natalie Lambert, and Nick Knight."

"Grace you look wonderful," Nick said.

"You do," Natalie said.

"So who's going to drag the other one onto the dance floor?" Grace teased.

"Maybe Natalie might not want to dance," Stephen said, a little uncomfortable.

"Actually, I do," Natalie said, somewhat defiantly. "Nick, what do you say we give them something else to stare at?"

"Sure."

"Grace, are you and Stephen going to join us?" Natalie asked.

"Stephen?" Grace asked hopeful.

"Maybe later. I don't feel like dancing right now."

Natalie and Nick headed for the dance floor while the music had the kind of beat they were used to. Natalie was relieved the dance floor was crowded as she was a little self conscious. One look at Schanke relaxed her. Fred Astaire he was not, but he was having fun, and that was all that was important. Natalie noticed some of the people around the dance floor were watching her, making her a little uncomfortable, but she decided to ignore them and have a good time. Natalie focused on the music and Nick, blocking out everything and everyone else. Natalie and Nick danced until the beat changed and she tired.

Grace motioned for Nat and Nick to join them, moving the extra chair out of the way. The men went to get their ladies drinks.

"Grace, I'm sorry if I'm ruining your evening," Natalie said apologetic.

"Hey, you're not ruining it. I thought I knew him better. I should be the one to apologize. I know how much that attitude bothers you."

"Like you said, it's not your fault," Natalie said.

"Natalie, did you realize your dress would match your chair perfectly?" Grace asked, curiously.

"I hadn't realized it until I looked in the mirror the first time. I probably couldn't have done that if I'd tried," She said with a chuckle.

"Grace, would you care to dance?" Nick asked as he returned with two glasses of white wine. He saw how much Grace wanted to, but she had not been able to drag Stephen out onto the floor.

"Thanks." She glanced at Nat who happily gave a subtle nod of approval.

Natalie watched as Grace and Nick enjoyed themselves. She suspected Grace was having the better time as there were no human heartbeats calling out to her. Stephen set his drinks on the table before taking a seat on the opposite side of the table from Natalie.

"Grace tells me that you're a forensic pathologist. I find that a little hard to believe." At Natalie's look, he quickly clarified himself, "I mean you're quite attractive. Not at all the kind of person I'd expect to find in such a gross profession." he thought.

"Thanks. I like the challenge. Each body is like a puzzle waiting to be solved. I heard you're a chef. I always thought that would be a fun career. I never had the time to learn many fancy recipes."

"I do give cooking lessons. Unfortunately we're not set up..."

"No problem. Not everywhere is, yet. " She didn't want to make him more uncomfortable, and knew that it was true, not everywhere was accessible, yet.

The music once again turned slow so Grace and Nick rejoined their companions. No one mentioned Stephen's continued uneasiness around Natalie, not wanting to make an issue of it. The foursome sipped their wines, talked and watched the rest of the crowd dancing.

Sometime later the music tempo picked up again. Natalie dragged Nick back out onto the dance floor. She was pleased to notice fewer people watching her, having seen that she wasn't too bad of a dancer. As the music flowed through Natalie she tossed in some spins and other fancy moves she'd learned. She even did a wheelie when moved by the music to do so, which definitely caught a few people's attention. Grace watched with a smile, glad that her friends were ignoring everyone and having a good time. A song came on with a good solid beat causing Natalie to once again let loose, showing off her fancy moves, spins and wheelies. Quite a few eyes were watching them, her in particular. At the end of the song there was a short round of applause, making Natalie turn quite red. She and Nick indulged the crowd with a quick playful bow.

Cohen saw Nick and Natalie heading off the dance floor as the music's beat once again slowed. She found herself wondering if there was more than friendship between them and decided to approach, husband in tow.

"Nick, Natalie, I'm glad you could make it," Cohen said with a smile.

"Thanks, Captain," Nick said. "You look nice tonight."

"Thank you. So do you two."

"Thank you," Both Nick and Natalie said.

"You two looked great on the dance floor. Did you take lessons?" Cohen asked.

"No. I just let the music dictate my movements," Natalie said.

"I just follow her lead."

Cohen couldn't get over how natural they seemed together, especially on the dance floor.

"Grace, why didnÕt you ever tell me she was in a wheelchair?" Stephen asked, wondering what else she had withheld. He was glad their table was off to the side, so hopefully they wouldn't be overheard.

"I guess because it's not a big deal with me. Why does it matter?"

"I would've liked to have been better prepared. I made a fool out of myself when I said that I gave cooking lessons, but the school isn't accessible."

"You'd already seen her in her chair by then, so that's no excuse. I see her as my friend. She's very much the same as she was, the only difference being she can't walk."

This time Nick and Natalie joined Myra and Don for a while.

"Nice moves," Don said.

"Thanks," Natalie said, slightly blushing.

Natalie noticed there seemed to be a problem at Grace's table and felt bad for her friend.

"Nick, why don't you see if Grace wants to dance. I want to have a word or two with Stephen."

"What's wrong?" Don asked.

"He's ruining Grace's evening. He can't handle being around me, or even seeing me. I hate jerks like that."

Everyone at the table felt sorry for Stephen, but knew that he probably deserved it. He had no right to air his problems here and now.

"We'll be back later," Natalie said as she and Nick headed for Grace's table.

"Grace, would you care to dance?" Nick asked.

"Natalie?" Grace inquired.

"Go on. Have fun."

"Stephen, how about you and I take a little walk," Natalie said trying to sound as pleasant as possible.

Nick and Grace headed for the dance floor.

"What's happening?"

"She saw Stephen and you, andÉ"

"And thought she'd straighten him out because he's ruining my evening?" Grace knew Natalie well enough to know that's what she was doing. "I'm sorry he's ruining our evening. I didnÕt realizeÉ"

"It's not your fault. It's his. Let's enjoy ourselves and not worry about him. Okay?" Nick asked.

"Okay," Grace said. She wondered how badly Natalie was going to chew out Stephen.

Stephen realized he probably had no choice but to go with Natalie and reluctantly followed her outside the ballroom and down a hallway.

"I'm sick and tired of your attitude. I want you to start acting like you're pleased to be here with Grace. She's a good friend and doesn't deserve to be treated like this."

"It's none of your business so stay out of it." Stephen said.

"It is. I'm sorry if I make you uncomfortable. Don't take it out on her." Natalie said. "If you have something to say about me, have the decency to say it to my face."

"I was surprised Grace never mentioned you were in a wheelchair."

"Why does it matter? I could say the same for you, she never mentioned you were black."

"It's not the same thing. People expect her to show up with a black date. They don't expect to see their date's best friend in a wheelchair."

"I'm not in this on purpose," Natalie said, her temper really beginning to flare. "Why should it matter what anyone looks like, or if they're in a wheelchair? You should be open minded enough to get to know the person before judging them. How do you like it when people treat you differently because of your skin color?"

"I don't. It's different. I was born this way and will die this way."

"I'm this way because of an accident and might die this way. But it's not any different. We're both different from the rest of society." Natalie realized she wasn't going to get anywhere and gave up. "All she wants is for you to take her out on the dance floor and have a good time. Is that too much to ask?"

"No."

"Good. Then why don't we go back inside."

Natalie and Stephen re-entered the ballroom. Stephen approached Grace, who was still on the dance floor with Nick.

"Mind if I cut in?" Stephen asked.

"Not at all," Grace said a bit surprised.

Nick approached Natalie and asked her to dance. She happily accepted. When Nick and Natalie passed by Grace and Stephen, Grace silently mouthed 'thank you' to Nat. Natalie smiled in response.

When the music again turned slow, Nick and Natalie saw Myra and Don seated watching the dancers. They approached their friend's table.

"Hi. How come you aren't out there?" Natalie asked.

"We're all danced out. It looks like you helped Grace have a nice night, both of you," Myra said.

"I hope so," Natalie said.

They talked for a while. Natalie kept peering over at Grace to make sure she was enjoying herself.

On the way home from the ball, Nick asked Natalie what she had said to Stephen. Natalie told him.

"You are one in a million, Natalie Lambert," Nick said with a grin.

"Thank you, I think."

"It was most definitely a compliment."

The next evening at work, Grace entered with a mug of coffee for Natalie. Natalie smelled the heavenly aroma and looked up.

"Hi, Grace."

"Thank you. How did you get him to dance with me? He actually seemed like he was having a good time."

Natalie relayed her conversation with Stephen.

"I'm sorry for how he behaved," Grace said.

"I told you, that wasn't necessary. It wasn't your fault. Keep it up and you'll wind up as messed up as Nick is," Natalie said with a hint of humor in her voice.

A week later, Natalie and Nick approached the Schankes' front door. Natalie was pleased when she saw the ramp over the porch steps. The door opened and Don ushered them inside, quickly shutting the door behind them.

"When did you get this?" Natalie asked surprised.

"Not long after you brought me home. We realized why you had turned down the breakfast invitation and wanted to make sure you wouldn't have an excuse to turn down the next one." Don said.

He handed Natalie a hand towel to wipe off her handrims. While Natalie was doing that Don took Nick's jacket and hung it in the closet. Natalie handed Nick the towel while slipping out of her coat, and he handed it to Don. She tucked her gloves into the pocket before Don hung it in the closet.

They exchanged hugs and greetings before heading into the family room where Jenny and Myra awaited them. More hugs and greetings were exchanged.

"Myra, thanks for installing the ramp."

"No problem. It's come in handy for us as well."

Don and Myra headed into the kitchen, Don to fetch drinks for everyone and Myra to check on dinner.

Eight year old Jenny approached Natalie.

"Does the metal get cold in the winter time?" Jenny asked pointing to the wheel.

"See for yourself," Natalie said to her young dark haired friend.

Jenny touched the handrim, quickly pulling her fingers away. "That's freezing."

"I know. It gets all wet and messy when I have to go through snow. That's why I keep a towel in my backpack, so I can wipe them off when I go inside."

"Do your feet ever get wet? How do you know when they're cold?"

"Yes, they do, if the snow is deep enough, or it rains. If the rest of me is cold, I know my feet are too."

"Jenny, honey, I think that's enough questioning," Don said, not wanting his inquisitive daughter to bother his guests.

"Are you sure you're not a detective?" Nick teased.

"Nick, you know I'm way too young," Jenny said as she rolled her eyes causing the adults to stifle a laugh.

Don handed everyone a cup of warm cider, which Natalie gladly took. The warmth of the mug felt good to her cold hands. Jenny sipped at her cider as did Natalie and Don. Nick hesitated a moment before trying a sip. It wasn't too bad, but not good enough for him to finish the mugful.

The friends snacked on the appetizers and talked as they waited for dinner to finish.

About an hour and a half later, Myra called everyone to the dinner table. Natalie immediately knew where she sat, as it was the only place without a chair.

"Can I start?" Jenny asked, eager to participate in the yearly ritual.

"Yes, honey," Myra said.

"I'm thankful that my parents and friends are here."

"I'm grateful that my loved ones, and my good friends are here safe and sound," Don said.

"I'm grateful for the health and safety of my family and friends," Myra said.

"Natalie, you're next," Jenny said.

"I'm grateful to be here with my friends who stuck with me as I adjusted to my paralysis and kept me safe. And for us all to be healthy and safe."

Nick realized it was his turn. "I'm grateful to be here with the best friends I've ever had. To finally feel like I belong somewhere. That we're all safe and healthy."

Don and Myra were a little surprised by Nick's statements, but felt touched by them as well.

"Natalie, no offense, but partner, would you carve the ham?"

"No offense taken," Natalie cheerfully said, knowing that not many people wanted to be reminded what she did her cutting on, especially at meal times.

Nick took the carving knife and forks and sliced into the large ham in front of him. He layered several slices onto the plate before Don started it on its way around the table.

Everyone helped themselves to the ham and sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows decorating the top of the bowl. The bread and butter were passed around. Nick took small portions of everything and tried a bite of each item, knowing he was expected to eat. He didn't want to insult his friends by not eating.

After dinner everyone retired to the family room for coffee and pumpkin pie. They talked about anything not work related as shop talk had been forbidden. Jenny fell asleep curled up on one end of the couch. Don and Myra left her alone, knowing she wouldn't want to be carried off to bed while Nick and Natalie were still there.

A few hours later, everyone was yawning and knew it was time to say goodnight. Nick and Natalie said their good-byes to Don and Myra, and told them to tell Jenny when she woke up.

Three mornings later, Natalie was on her way toward her building's elevators when she suddenly found a large male hand clamped over her mouth from behind.

"Scream and you die."

At the same time his other hand wrapped around her chest, effectively pinning her arms. He dragged her backwards and tossed her into the back seat of a waiting car. Her captor momentarily thought about leaving her wheelchair behind but knew it would bring more attention to the fact that she had been kidnapped. He tossed the wheelchair into his trunk.

Natalie tried to get a good look at her captor but could not, as he was dressed in nondescript black, including the ski mask. When he reached into the back seat, she tried to keep as far from him as she could.

"Don't make me hurt you. All I want to do is blindfold you."

Natalie saw him pull a black cloth blindfold from his pocket. She didn't trust him, but knew she had no leverage or weapon. Reluctantly she nodded, and he blindfolded her.

"Don't forget to fasten your seatbelt," her captor said as he secured her seatbelt.

"One more thing. I'm afraid I will have to secure your hands for the trip. I can't have you interfering with the driver." He pulled her arms behind her and fastened her wrists together with a piece of rope. Since she was blindfolded he pulled off his ski mask replacing it with a baseball cap.

Why does he bother with the ski mask? Doesn't he remember that we saw his face at the hospital?' Natalie wondered.

Natalie hoped that Nick would be able to rescue her. She cursed her body for its betrayal. She hated how helpless she had been, and still was. She hadn't let her paralysis bother her but now she hated it more than a vampire hates a cross or the sun. She refused to panic, and pushed down her growing fear. What is he going to do to me? She quickly pushed those thoughts out of her mind. Natalie, think. How are you going to get yourself out of this?

No more than two or three minutes later Nick entered Natalie's apartment and did not hear her familiar heartbeat. He knew she was supposed to be here, but wasn't. He made a beeline for the garage and saw her car there. He felt the hood. It was still hot from being used recently. Could she have gone to see a neighbor? What if the killer has her? The last thought struck terror into his heart. He knew that he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her.

Nick pulled out his cell phone and dialed the precinct.

"Schanke, I think the killer just grabbed Natalie. She was supposed to be home, but she's not in her apartment and her car is here. The hood is still hot."

"Are you sure she's not visiting a neighbor?"

"I don't know. I wanted to call you first. I'll check around."

"Call me back if you don't find her, and I'll put out an APB."

"Thanks. I'm going to see if I can find any clues here. Send forensics down here."

"Will do."

Back in the kidnapper's car Natalie hated the silence.

"Why did you grab me?" Natalie asked, trying to keep her voice neutral.

"Your kind takes jobs away from those that are able to do the job in the same manner as everyone else."

"But I had the job before the accident," Natalie said trying to keep him talking, hoping he would slip up and reveal something important.

"Once you became one of them you should have let someone normal have your job," Her captor said. "You should never have befriended them. It was this that led to your downfall."

Natalie quickly realized that her captor was not playing with a full deck.

Another realization hit, hard, he was the bastard who had paralyzed her. Great anger surged through her system. She wanted to hurt him *badly*, knowing that killing him would be far too easy a way out for him.

Before Natalie could ask any further questions she felt the car stop and heard the engine shut off. The captor retrieved her chair from the trunk and brought it to the back seat area of the car. He opened the door and unfastened her seat belt.

"I won't hurt you, yet. That is, as long as you don't scream, and you cooperate."

Natalie nodded, too angry to trust herself to speak.

He lifted her out of the car, set her into her chair and pushed her up a makeshift ramp over the six stairs leading to the front porch. The ramp had been hastily constructed for this one occasion. Once she was on the porch, he destroyed the ramp, tossing the pieces into a nearby wood pile.

He pushed her inside and locked the door. He put his ski mask back on and removed her blindfold.

"The porch has several steps, you'd never make it down them. I want you alive, for now at least. Don't make me hurt you unnecessarily."

"I won't."

"I want you to head for the back room. If you don't go on your own, I will push you. You won't like that. Lean forward."

Natalie nervously did as instructed and felt the rope around her wrists being cut free. She rubbed her wrists before she pushed herself to the back room. He motioned for her to enter, which she did.

Natalie quickly looked around. The solid wood door was reinforced with metal plates encasing the lock, on both sides of the door. The hinges were heavy duty and tamperproof. The window had bars over it, was up near the ceiling and was too small for her to crawl through. Natalie's heart sunk as she realized there would be no escape. Snap out of it, there is a way out. She angrily thought scolding herself.

"Be a good girl. I have to go out for a while. If you misbehave, I'll take away your wheelchair, the next time I confine you to bed. After that, I get violent."

"I'll behave," Natalie said hoping to catch him off guard, knowing she must retain possession of her chair if she was to have any chance at escaping.

He left the room, locking the two deadbolts behind him.

Again, Natalie fought down the fear urging her to panic. So far I seem to be safe. For how long I don't know.'

Natalie forced herself to carefully examine the room for anything helpful. She started with the door, confirming her earlier observation that nothing short of an explosion would get through the door. The window was definitely out of consideration, because if she could get the bars off and somehow climb up to it, she wouldn't be able to fit through it. Only a child might be able to.

One wall was covered with pictures ripped from magazines or newspapers. Some were pictures of disabled people who had achieved success, and some were pictures of people who either worked for the police or the coroner's office. Almost all the pictures from the latter two sets had red x's across them.

Natalie felt a sudden pang of sadness, along with some anger as she saw Chris's picture on the wall with a big red x across it. She still really missed her friend and wanted to hurt her captor *badly* for paralyzing her and killing Chris. As she continued to look over the pictures she was stunned to see Nick's picture there, right next to hers. Seeing her picture up there wasn't a big surprise, after all he had made her paraplegic, and tried to kill her two other times. What unnerved her was that it was a recent picture, taken no more than two or three weeks ago.

Does he know? flashed through Natalie's mind. She didn't see how her assailant could know Nick's secret. Maybe it's the sun allergy that the bastard thinks is his disability?' Natalie never realized that some would view Nick's "allergy" as a disability.

Natalie continued to examine the room, walls, floor and ceiling. There was a single mattress pushed up against the wall in one corner. It didn't look too inviting. There was a cooler further down that wall. There was nothing to read in the room nor was there anything else to do there. Out of curiosity she approached the cooler and opened it. Inside were two ham and cheese sandwiches, one 16 ounce plastic bottle of water, two soda cans and two chocolate bars.

How long is he leaving me here? Natalie wondered. She was glad that there was food, but she wondered if it was drugged, or worse, poisoned. Something deep inside her told her that it probably was safe to eat. He had been careful not to hurt her and to let her know that as long as she didn't try to escape or scream that he would not hurt her. Am I being used as bait against the cops? She wondered. Against Nick?

She wanted to pace but knew she had to conserve her energy.

Natalie decided to check out the bathroom as she had not yet explored it. A quick, yet thorough examination revealed the bathroom door had been removed along with the hinges, the bathroom itself had only a sink, toilet with grab bars and a roll of toilet paper. Great, not one useable thing. Well, not for defense anyway. Natalie wasn't the least bit reassured by the grab bars, noticing they had been screwed into the walls. Probably cemented too. Just how long is he planning on holding me here? Why install them? Does he mean to release me unhurt?Natalie was totally confused. Why kill them and not me? A bone chilling thought occurred to her. What if he lets me go, then when everyone least expects it, he kills me? Maybe tries to do it when I'm with Nick. Killing two birds with one stone.' She forced her mind off of that knowing it would do nothing to help. Think of something, Lambert. You can get yourself out of this.

Meanwhile that morning, at the precinct, Nick and Schanke were poring over every shred of evidence they had.

"Let's assume that it was someone from one of our two departments. It has to be. Who else would know when she was leaving or where she lived? By now most everyone in our two departments knows about her paralysis, but not as many people outside of here know. Not counting the hospital and rehab center people," Nick surmised.

"All of the hospital and rehab center people checked out. I don't like the idea that it is one of us," Schanke said.

"I don't either. Has the sketch been compared with personnel files here and at the coroner's office?"

"Yes. No match. We even checked the twenty-ninth and forty-fifth precincts. No match. You know what this means, right?" Schanke said worried.

"It means that she's in worse trouble than we thought. I've checked all the cases where Nat's work sent someone to prison. They're all still there, except for the handful that are dead. Someone went to a lot of trouble with this whole thing."

"What gets me is why would the person cut her brake lines? Or maybe it isn't related?"

"I think it is related. How many disabled members of both our departments does Natalie know?" Nick said playing the beginning of a hunch.

"Chris, you, and probably three or four others. Why?"

"Why did you put me in there?" Nick asked quite surprised.

"Well, some people might consider your sun allergy and food allergies to be a disability."

Nick's guilt crashed down on him like a ten ton meteor. Once again he had been responsible for hurting another person he cared for. It was his fault Natalie was in the wheelchair. Nick knew that they had spent a lot of time together right before her accident.

"Nick, it isn't your fault." Schanke saw his partner's expression sink and knew what he was thinking.

"Isn't it? Some wacko is targeting disabled people. I am one and so was Chris. Somehow he might've decided that Natalie wanted to be like her friends, or maybe he meant to kill her, knew he failed and isn't going to stop until he succeeds."

"But she didn't become good friends with Chris until after the accident."

"Yeah, I know. But in the guy's mind maybe he saw a friendship there beforehand. Natalie and I went to the theatre the night before the accident. We'd spent more time together than usual lately. No, nothing like that happened," Nick said, cutting Schanke off before he could inquire about romance.

"Okay, but how does this fit in with it all? "

"I'm not sure yet. Check around and see if anyone's done any remodeling of a room, or a house to handle someone with a disability."

"Sure. I don't know what you expect to find. Do you know how many people are disabled every day?"

"Way too many. But it's the only shot we've got at the moment. Then correlate it with anyone who works at either place." An idea suddenly hit Nick. "What if the person was up for a job at either place and lost out to someone with a disability?"

"That might be motive enough. Should I add all applicants to the list? How far back should I go?"

"Go back a year."

"I got it. It should really limit the possibilities," Schanke said. "How could he be sure what the result of the accident would be? Did he want to kill her or just disable her?"

"He probably accepted the fact that she could be killed but probably would be disabled instead. I don't know, which he wanted, maybe to disable her then kill her."

"He is one sick guy." Schanke said as he shook his head disbelieving that someone could be that twisted. He'd seen his share of nutballs before, but this time was very different because it hit so close to home.

Nick hated being trapped at the precinct by the sun. He wanted to be out looking for Natalie. You know you can't cover the entire city, he reminded himself. He hated feeling so helpless. Is this how she was feeling before she learned how to take care of herself? How to get around in her chair?

Natalie headed for the cooler and removed a can of soda, figuring it was safer than the bottle as metal was harder to tamper with, and left more evidence behind. She carefully examined the can for any leaks or pinpricks that could signal an injection into the can. When the can appeared to be intact, she popped the top, hearing the fizzing, whooshing sound it made, indicating it hadn't been tampered with. That reassured her enough to bring the can to her lips.

She thirstily downed half the contents before stopping herself. She knew that if she gulped the whole thing at once, she would likely get stomach cramps, which were the last thing she needed.

She began formulating an escape plan as she mentally went over everything in the room to see if it could somehow be made into a weapon. As she went through her mental list and discounted most of the stuff as unsuitable she sipped at her soda. She checked her jacket pockets in the off chance she had put something there and forgotten about it. She was pleased when she found a nail file and decided to leave it where it was. If he hadn't detected it yet she wasn't going to make it easy for him to find it now.

A while later she had not come up with a suitable plan and wondered if Nick had been right. Did I get in over my head? Should I have said no? She quickly dispelled those thoughts. I had no choice. I *will* get myself out of this.

Without realizing it, Natalie made a good sized dent in the can by squeezing it as she was thinking. She looked down at it and an idea came to mind. She dropped the empty can to the floor and rolled over it a few times, glad that her tires were solid rubber so she wouldn't have to worry about a flat. Once she had the can as flat as it would go she discovered another problem. How was she going to pick it up? With some effort she managed to grab hold of the can. She examined it and saw that the aluminum was just about to break. She carefully manipulated it so that she could force it to break and keep from cutting herself with it. She went into the bathroom and grabbed a length of toilet paper, which she wrapped around the wider end of the makeshift weapon. She put the weapon aside for the moment, out of sight and looked for another weapon, in case she needed it.

Natalie went back into the bathroom for another look. The only things that looked promising were pieces of plumbing if she could somehow get them loose and the toilet tank lid. She had trouble maneuvering herself close enough to remove the tank cover as it proved to be her best choice for a second weapon. How do I turn it into a weapon? It's too unmanageable like this. Suddenly the idea came to her.

She smashed it against the cement floor, but it didn't break. She backed up to the door and threw the lid as hard as she could against the floor, shielding her face with her hands in case any shards flew her way. She heard the rewarding sound of porcelain breaking and looked down, pleased to see it had broken in two lengthwise. She worked to pick it up, relieved to see no sharp edges as she had no way to soften them. She balanced the long thin piece across her lap and headed into the other room.

She tucked it out of sight but within reach as she heard the door unlocking. She did, however, grab her metal knife and hide it within easy reach, being careful not to hurt herself accidentally.

The door opened and the figure dressed completely in black entered.

"Were you a good girl while I was gone?"

"Yes."

"Did you eat your lunch?"

"I wasn't hungry."

"It was perfectly safe. If the ice is still there it is still safe. I told you I won't hurt you as long as you cooperate."

"I know."

"You are very pretty. It's a shame you had to hang around the wrong kind. Before your accident I would have loved to take you to the movies, but I know how possessive your boyfriend is."

"I don't have a boyfriend."

"Don't lie to me. Everyone knows you and Knight are seeing each other."

"We're just very good friends."

"And I'm a world famous rock star. Well, enough of this. I have things to attend to. I'll bring you some food later."

He left and locked the door. Natalie let out a sigh of relief. She now knew it was someone within either the police department or the coroner's office, which sent chills through her. Another thought occurred to her, it could also be someone who was close to a member of either department, which again sent chills through her.

Have I worked with him? Do I know him? she wondered. No. I would've recognized him in the hospital.

Schanke finally received the list of names he wanted and began to search through them. Nick looked over each page after Schanke finished with it hoping to spot something his partner missed. Some of the physical descriptions from applicants for positions within the police department and coroner's offices matched the sketch they had of the man who'd tried to suffocate Natalie. By matching the applicants to the list of people doing renovations to accommodate disabilities, they were able to further narrow the list.

Nick and Schanke were both worried about Natalie. They didn't know how long she had before the killer made her the next victim, if he hadn't already.

They began the legwork of checking out each of the 46 names and addresses on their list. They decided it would go faster if they split up.

Nick was grateful it was just about dark. Waiting for the sun to go down had been pure torture, one he didn't think he could've endured for much longer.

Schanke was a little surprised that Nick hadn't bounced off the walls before dark as a part of him expected his partner to get rather antsy and cranky well before dark. Schanke couldn't blame Nick for his reactions, as he would react the same way if someone he cared about was in trouble.

Natalie was tired from the waiting, staying alert, and preparing for a confrontation with her captor. Her body wanted to sleep, but she knew she could not afford to fall asleep. She had reluctantly eaten the food from the cooler and had consumed the other soda. It had helped a bit.

She heard the door rattle and prepared herself. The metal knife was carefully hidden in her lap. She positioned herself so that her ceramic club was within reach.

He entered once again clad entirely in black giving her no clues to his identity.

"I had hoped for more time so that everything would be perfect. Alas, that is not to be. It seems your boyfriend and his partner are too smart for their and your own good."

This worried Natalie. She mentally steeled herself for battle. He advanced toward her, pulling a baseball bat from behind his back and swung it at her head. She barely had time to duck as the bat whizzed millimeters above her.

His annoyance over missing her brought him in closer. He brought the bat up for the next strike, intending to bring it straight down, squashing her skull like a melon.

Natalie saw him preparing to strike and knew this might be her only shot. She lashed out her crude metal knife in hand, embedding it deep into his thigh. He screamed. She moved just in time as the bat came crashing down, missing her body by a hair.

Natalie quickly grabbed the club she'd made out of the tank lid, her heart racing.

He limped towards her, murder in his eyes, blood running down his leg, soaking through the dark fabric.

"You bitch! I was going to make your death a quick and painless one, but now you will die slowly and painfully."

Natalie kept moving, not giving him the chance to close in on her as he swung the bat at her again and barely missed. She managed to get behind him, set her brakes and swung the club with all of her strength. For once Natalie was grateful that being in the wheelchair had made her upper body much stronger than it used to be. The club smashed across his back causing him to yell in agony. He screamed hideously as he fell to the ground. He was breathing and no blood was squirting from an artery so she figured he'd live.

Natalie headed for the door being careful to stay out of his reach, locking the it behind her, once she was safely on the other side.

Natalie whole body relaxed slightly as she let out a sigh of relief. She was safe, for now. Where's the phone? Natalie looked around and shortly found the telephone, praying it worked as she picked up the receiver and dialed 911. Yes. It works.

"This is Dr. Natalie Lambert. I need police and an ambulance."

"Are you okay?" Asked the dispatcher.

"I'm okay. My kidnapper needs medical attention. Can you please get word to Detective Knight at the 96th precinct, homicide division."

"I will see to it that he gets the message. Anything else you want me to tell him?"

"Just that I'm okay."

"I'll do that. I need you not to hang up until help gets there. It will be there shortly." The officer said, following the standard procedure.

"Okay." Natalie felt safer, even a bit calmer, knowing someone was there monitoring the situation, even if it was over the phone

Having crossed the fifth house off his list, Nick was opening the door to his car when he heard the police radio come to life.

"81 Kilo, come in."

"81 Kilo here."

"Knight. Dr. Lambert called 911 and she's okay. She's at 325 Grant street. Backup and an ambulance are being sent."

"I thought you said she's okay?"

"She is. It's for her kidnapper."

"I'm on my way. Inform Detective Schanke that she's been found and have him meet me there."

"Will do."

Nick grinned at the fact that Natalie had outsmarted the kidnapper. He wasn't surprised as she was one smart lady, determined too, and could think under pressure.

Within minutes Nick barged into the house, gun drawn just in case. He carefully searched each room not wanting any nasty surprises, finding only Natalie.

"Nat, are you okay?" He asked greatly concerned as he approached her.

"I'm fine, now. He's locked in the room there." Natalie pointed to the room off to her right.

Nick saw the receiver off the hook and picked it up.

"This is Detective Knight. Thanks."

"We're glad everything worked out," the dispatcher said.

Nick saw Natalie start trembling as he hung up the phone, knowing what had happened was sinking in.

Nick squatted down in front of Natalie so that they could be at eye level with each other, and wrapped his arms around her tightly knowing she needed it. He felt her arms wrap around him so tightly that if he'd been mortal he would've had a hard time breathing.

"It's okay. You're safe now. He won't hurt you again." Nick soothed as he gently stroked her hair. He released his hold on her only after she had released him.

Natalie pushed herself over to the door confining her captor, unlocked it, hesitating a moment before opening it. She knew they should check on him, and felt safe enough to do so with Nick right by her side.

"Nat, what are you doing?"

"I have to check on him. Make sure he's alive."

No sooner had Nick entered the room than he saw her captor lying on the ground with the makeshift knife sticking out of his thigh. Natalie pushed herself close to her captor and purposely capsized herself, surprising Nick.

"I need to be down here to properly examine him."

A part of Nick was surprised Natalie cared what happened to her captor, but knew she couldn't let him die if she could help it.

"What have you done to me, bitch? I can't feel my legs."

"Hold still if you want me to look at you." Natalie pulled off her kidnapper's mask, not recognizing him, other than him being the same person who had tried to kill her in the hospital.

Nick fought to keep the gold out of his eyes as he recognized Natalie's captor as the same man who had tried to suffocate her and later attacked them both in her apartment.

Natalie poked her captor a little harder than necessary as she examined him.

"Hey, you don't have to poke me that hard. I thought doctors were supposed to be gentle."

"Sorry, but my patients don't usually complain," Natalie said quite sarcastically. Having finished her examination, she set her wheelchair back upright. "You'll live. I wouldn't move around too much if I were you. Any movement could leave you permanently paralyzed."

"That's all you have to say?"

"You may have some damage to your kidney on this side. You have a deep knife wound in your thigh. There is a good chance of some spinal cord damage too. Welcome to the world of the disabled," Natalie said with a scary smile. Using her chair as leverage, she reseated herself.

"I should've killed you when I had a chance. I should've chosen something more effective in the hospital," He angrily said.

"You bastard! It's because of your asinine ideas that I'm like this!" Natalie said her anger growing. "I should've killed you. I can still do that. All I'd have to do is run over your scrawny little neck."

"Nat!" Nick's concern grew as he saw her moving towards her kidnapper. "Natalie!" In a flash Nick was behind her, restraining her. He wrapped his arms around her from behind. He was careful to hold her snugly so she couldn't elbow him, back up into him or run over his feet, but not tightly enough to hurt her.

"Nick. Let. Me. Go!" She snarled, struggling to free herself.

"No. I won't let you hurt him anymore." Nick was grateful for his vampiric strength as he needed every ounce of it to hold onto his very determined friend.

"Why? What did I ever do to you?" Natalie asked her captor more hurt than angry.

"You were friends with them, with him. You had to be taught a lesson. When I heard you wanted to return to work, I had to prevent that. I only gave you what you wanted."

"What are you talking about?" She asked sharply.

"You were always with one of them. You seemed to prefer their company, so I made you one of them."

"You bastard!!" Natalie said before letting loose with a string of profanity that shocked Nick, who couldn't believe the foul language coming out of her mouth and wondered where she'd heard such words.

"At least I'm not a freaking cripple."

"Are you so sure about that?" Nick said.

"I had hoped that it would've been worse," her captor snarled.

Natalie struggled against Nick's grip on her. Nick continued to gently, but firmly restrain her.

"I hope you spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. I hope it is a very long life. If I have any say in the matter, I'll see to it that your punishment is life without parole. I will make sure that you don't just sit around in your cell either. I will have you doing hard labor. You'll see what kind of hell you put me though, you bastard!" Natalie said the anger back in full force. "Do you know what it's like to lie in bed day after day for weeks, totally immobilized?"

Nick let her rant, knowing she needed to get it out of her system. It would help her put her anger, fear, as well as any bitterness, behind her.

"To have to stare at the blank ceiling for weeks wishing for time to go by faster? To feel your heart break upon hearing the diagnosis of paraplegia. To know that you will never walk again. That your life will never be the same. That things you once took for granted like getting out of bed in the morning would become a struggle just to get from your bed to your wheelchair. That getting dressed would no longer be a simple, routine act. You'll learn new definitions for the word 'frustration.'"

"Please, kill me. I don't want to spend the rest of my life as a freak."

Nat's entire body tensed from the comment's sting. Nick was everlastingly grateful that Natalie's extreme anger wasn't aimed at him. At the same time, his heart ached at the pain that last comment caused her.

"No. That would be too easy a way out. I want you to suffer as you've made me suffer. I want you to think about it every time you struggle into and out of your wheelchair." Nat's anger grew. "Think about what you did to me." She was nearly snarling. "You had no right to do this to me!" Her anger was stronger than Nick had ever seen it. "I'd say you got what was coming to you. Be glad I didn't have a good shot a little higher up or you might have wound up quadriplegic."

"I'll get someone to kill me."

"No, you won't. I'll see to it that no one hurts you. I can do it. Believe me," Nick said in a deadly serious voice.

"Somehow I do." The captor said, now more scared of Nick than of Natalie.

Nick noticed that Natalie was no longer struggling against him, that she seemed to have calmed down slightly. He loosened his grip on her, ready to grab onto her more tightly if need be.

Other voices could be heard approaching, surprising all three of them, Nick especially. Nick had been so focused on Natalie that he had failed to hear the arriving vehicles.

"Natalie, Nick?" Schanke called out.

"In here, Schanke," Nick called out.

"Nat, if I release you, promise me you won't go after him again."

Natalie said nothing and Nick refused to let her go.

Schanke entered the room amazed at the scene that greeted him. He saw the injured guy on the floor and knew why Nick was restraining Natalie. Schanke had never seen Natalie so angry.

"Natalie, did you do that to him?" Schanke asked quite surprised and a bit scared.

"Yeah," Natalie said with a little bit of a grin. "I tend to take offense when people try to use my head as a baseball." Some of the anger was draining from her.

"It's far too pretty a head for that," Nick said, trying to lighten Natalie's mood. He saw a faint grin and knew it worked.

Schanke went out and motioned for the paramedics to enter. They quickly examined the victim, slid a cervical collar around his neck and strapped him to a backboard.

Natalie's slight grin faded as the memories of waking up in the ER, immobilized, resurfaced. Nick felt her entire body once again tense up.

Nick walked around in front of Natalie, squatted down so he could look her in the eye. She wouldn't look at him so he gently tilted her chin up.

"You were right. You can take care of yourself," Nick said with a grin. "I'm proud of you."

She grinned back at him.

Nick bumped her left knee causing her to wince slightly. Surprise filled her face. He was sure she saw the same surprise on his.

"Nick, I felt that," she excitedly said. "I must've bumped it when I went to check on him."

"Nat, that's great." He shared her excitement.

"Touch it again. I want to make sure it wasn't a fluke."

He touched her left knee and again she winced slightly.

"Nick, maybe there's still hope. Maybe I'll get out of this thing and walk again," She said as hope filled her eyes.

He hoped so, but didn't want to see her come crashing down.

"Natalie, you should get it checked out."

"I don't want to. I'm fine. I hate hospitals."

Nick couldn't blame her, especially after the last few months. "Nat, please. For me?"

She saw the concern in his eyes and reluctantly gave in. "Okay, but I'm not staying unless it's a matter of life or death."

"We'll see."

"NickÉ" She said completely seriously.

Nick and Natalie headed to the hospital in his caddy. When they arrived he pulled her wheelchair out of the back seat, set it beside her. Once she had transferred to her chair and had started towards the ER door, he pulled into a nearby handicapped parking spot. He had the proper sticker on his car, allowing him to legally park there. He headed into the ER to find Natalie.

Natalie had to fill out forms and wait an hour before being seen. Nick wasn't sure which one of them it was the hardest on. Nick trying to keep Natalie there and prevent her from climbing the walls or his ignoring the call of the bloodscent in the air.

When Natalie was finally called into an exam room, two orderlies lifted Natalie up onto the examination bed, making her feel as helpless as she had the last time she was in the hospital.

Natalie was questioned by the nurse, then the doctor as he examined her, trying to determine exactly how she'd injured herself and what, if any other injuries she might have. They had to eliminate abuse as a possibility. The doctor also had questions about her paralysis. The nurse gave Nat an ice pack wrapped in a towel for her bruised knee. X-rays of Natalie's entire leg were taken as a precaution.

Natalie was quite pleased when the x-rays showed no fracture, something she'd had a tiny doubt they might find, only because of the paralysis.

Nick's concern grew when he heard the nurse call his name and asked him to follow her, but the concern quickly turned to relief when Nick saw Natalie seated on the exam table holding an ice pack on her knee.

"She's fine. X-rays showed no sign of a fracture anywhere in her leg. She just bruised her knee."

"Nat?" Nick asked confused.

"I thought you'd believe him, and might not believe me considering I fought coming here."

"I would've believed you."

"Dr. Lambert, ice the knee for twenty minutes every four hours for the next two days." The doctor continued with his instructions, including complications she should be on the lookout for, even though he didn't expect any. "Go home and get some sleep. You look exhausted."

"I am. Thanks."

Natalie fell asleep in the car on the way home. Nick was surprised she stayed awake that long.

Upon arrival at the loft, Nick released Natalie's seat belt and carefully picked her up so he wouldn't wake her. Nick thought as he carried her into the loft and straight up to his bed. After tucking the covers up around her, he brought in her wheelchair and set it next to the bed. Nick gently brushed the hair from her face, being careful not to wake her.

He went back downstairs to nourish himself as he hadn't eaten properly since her abduction. He'd been too worried as well as too busy trying to find her.

About an hour later Nick was reading his new archeology journal when he heard Natalie scream. Nick dropped the journal and nearly flew up the stairs.

"It's okay. You're safe. He'll never hurt you again," Nick soothed, wrapping his arms around her.

The fact that she could not only move but recognize her surroundings took Natalie by surprise. Nick noticed Natalie's surprise and confusion, causing his own concern to rise.

"What was the nightmare about?" Nick asked a few moments later.

"He had me captive. He beat me so badly I was unable to do anything for myself. I was just barely aware enough to know everything I had lost. I wanted to die, but I couldn't. No one would help me. It was horrible." Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could.

"It's over. You're safe. He didn't hurt you. You hurt him, remember?"

Her eyes showed she remembered, which helped her calm down enough for the tears to stop.

"Did you find out his name?" She loved his cool touch as his fingertips wiped away the remaining wetness from her cheeks.

"Yes. Peter Weston. He lost a job at the Coroner's Office to someone more qualified, but disabled. A female paraplegic. She was the first victim."

"What were his injuries?" Natalie felt a bit guilty for hurting Weston even though she knew it was all self defense. She had no doubt if she hadn't hurt Weston he would've killed her, or made her nightmare come true.

"Weston had a ruptured kidney, a few broken ribs, the nasty knife wound in his leg required surgery to repair. You fractured a couple of his vertebrae leaving him a higher level paraplegic. They believe that his spinal cord has been seriously damaged." Nick couldn't quite figure out her expression, or what she was thinking. How does she feel about this? Does she feel guilty for hurting him, even though he put her in the chair and kept trying to kill her? Does she feel as if he got what he deserved?

Yes! Natalie thought before a pang of guilt hit. Why should I feel guilty. Yes, I hurt him, but he's why I'm stuck in the damn chair. At least now he'll see the hell he put me through. The daily frustrationsÉ' Nick's gentle caress of her cheek broke her train of thought.

"I'm sorry I passed out on you."

"It's okay. You were exhausted and running on adrenaline. Will you be ready to give your statement tomorrow?"

"Yes. I'll give it before going in to work. I don't want to hear any arguments," she said seeing his expression change. "I have to get on with my life."

"I know. You did really good. I'm proud of you." He kissed her on the cheek, loving the smile that both actions brought to her beautiful face.

"Thanks. I was terrified. I don't think I'll do too much undercover work again. It's a little hard on the nerves. I'll stick to dissecting people. I do have to give some of the credit to MacGyver. I learned a lot about creative thinking from him. He taught me that just about anything can be used to help if looked at correctly."

"He sounds like a very smart fellow. How's your knee?"

She pulled up her pant leg and examined the bruise. It looked about the same as it had the night before.

"It'll be fine. It's a little tender to the touch. I don't think the bruising should be too bad." She still couldn't believe she had feeling in that one spot.

"I'll get you an icepack." Nick said as he left.

Moments later he returned with a small bag of ice wrapped in a dishtowel and handed it to her. She set it on her knee and laid back on her pillows. Within a minute she was asleep again. Nick removed the icepack after twenty minutes and covered her up, brushing a few stray strands of hair from her face. He lightly kissed her forehead and left.

The next evening Nick drove Natalie back to her apartment. She showered and changed. He then followed her minivan to the precinct. The cold snowy weather made Natalie grateful for handicapped parking. It was the only advantage she had found in her disability.

The snow made pushing harder as well as making the handrims freezing and wet.

Cohen saw Nick and Natalie enter the precinct and waited for them to reach Nick's desk before she approached. She noticed Natalie wiping off her handrims with a towel she stuffed back into her backpack when finished.

"Natalie, I'm glad you're unhurt and safe. You did a terrific job. I want you to know, I'm putting you in for a commendation."

"Thanks, Captain. I have one request to make."

"What?"

"That you don't ask me to do this again, unless it's absolutely necessary. I don't think my nerves can handle it."

"No problem," Cohen said lightly, reacting to Natalie's small grin. "Are you ready to give your statement?"

"Yes."

Natalie followed Nick, Schanke and Cohen into an interrogation room.

"Before we start, I need to know how you made that knife," Schanke said.

"I remembered something someone once said about knowing how to look at something in order to see its full potential. I knew that if I could flatten the can enough I could get it to break. If it broke I would have a nice weapon. I ran it over a few times to flatten it."

"Very clever. What about the toilet tank lid?" Schanke asked.

"Basically the same thing. I saw that it could be a very effective weapon if I could get it to a more manageable size. Ceramic breaks when smashed against a cement floor."

"How come the can didn't puncture your tire?" Schanke asked.

"They're solid rubber. They don't give the smoothest ride, but I don't have to worry about a flat."

"How did you prevent the force of the blow from the club from pushing you backwards?" Nick asked, forgetting about her brakes.

"That's simple. I set my brakes right before I hit him."

"How were you able to hurt him like that?" Cohen asked.

"I spent a good part of the time in rehab using weights to strengthen my upper body, especially my arms and shoulders. Then having to use them to do the work of my legs made them stronger yet. It was that strength and the club that allowed me to do it."

Schanke and Nick started the official questioning, taping everything said in the room. Cohen observed, asking a question now and then. Natalie answered their questions about her abduction as best she could. About an hour later she'd answered all their questions and was allowed to leave.

Natalie left, wanting to put it behind her and get on with the rest of her life. She knew there would be a trial, and she'd have to testify.

"Nick, she still amazes me. I would never have gone undercover so soon after such a traumatic injury and I surely would not have been brave enough to fight my way out the way she did."

"She's one in a million, Schank," Nick said.

"You've got that right," Schanke said. "I still can't believe everything that's happened recently."

"I know. Hopefully things will settle down now."

Both men knew Natalie would've been the next victim had she not fought back so well. That thought scared them more than either cared to admit, even to themselves.

Schanke didn't even want to contemplate what a mess Nick would've been, especially since he knew he'd be devastated, which would've made Nick either a complete basket case for hell bent on revenge. Nick's temper scared Schanke.

Myra entered Natalie's office, relieved to see her friend working on paperwork and not a corpse.

"Myra, what brings you by here?" Natalie asked a little confused and a bit surprised.

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

"I'm okay. I was a little shaky afterwards, but I'm fine now."

"I'm really glad you're fine," Myra said, not totally convinced, but knew her friend well enough to accept the answer. "I hope things go smoothly for a while."

"So do I. I've had more than enough excitement."

The next afternoon, Natalie entered the rehab center for her therapy. Mike had left shortly after Natalie's release for a better paying job. Megan, who had taken over as Natalie's therapist, noticed that her client seemed to be in a good mood. Something was different but she couldn't quite figure out what.

Megan's hand bushed against Natalie's left knee causing her to wince slightly.

"Take off your sweats," Megan commanded, concerned, yet a part of her was surprised.

Natalie did as instructed. Megan saw the bruise causing her concern to grow.

"Did you get this looked at? How did you do this?"

"That's a long story. I'm sorry I missed my last appointment. The short version is, I was kidnapped and bruised my knee defending myself. I was checked out at the hospital at Nick's insistence. I'm fine."

"Kidnapped! My God, Natalie! Tell me everything." Megan said, quite stunned.

Natalie explained the whole story, amused at the way it seemed to completely captivate Megan.

"I'm glad you're fine. I was concerned when you failed to show up. I want to try something, but I need you to close your eyes."

Natalie closed her eyes a bit warily. Megan gently stuck a pin into Natalie's legs starting at her lower back and working her way down both legs. That one spot was the only place Nat could feel anything.

"That's a start. Maybe with time you will be able to feel more. I want to give your bruised knee a break this week. We'll do a light workout today."

They both wondered if the electrical stimulation of Natalie's leg muscles was indeed helping. The muscles were in good shape, but still were useless.

Are some of the nerves regenerating? Natalie wondered, knowing it wasn't likely, but didn't completely discount the idea.

Natalie entered an Okinawan Karate dojo, with Myra and Grace following behind her.

"I don't know how you convinced me to do this," Grace said as she saw the adults practicing various forms, some sparring with each other.

"My kidnapping taught me I needed to learn how to better defend myself. We all do."

"You're right," Myra said.

The owner of the school approached the ladies.

"Hi, can I help you?"

"Hi. I heard you can teach me how to defend myself," Natalie said.

"Yes. I've taught several physically challenged students. How about you two?"

"We'd like to learn to defend ourselves," Myra said.

"Great. I can put all three of you in the same class if you'd like. Or we can do private lessons, either individually or the three of you."

The three ladies glanced at each other. "I think we'll try the private lessons first," Natalie said, the choice having been left to her.

"Great. When do you want to start?"

"Whenever you have time?" Natalie asked.

"How about in fifteen minutes? There are some forms to fill out first. By the way I'm Bruce Leong." Said the world champion.

"I'm Natalie Lambert, this is Grace Balthazar, and Myra Schanke."

They moved into the office where they signed up for three months worth of lessons. They bought their uniforms and headed into the back to change, taking off their shoes before they entered the classroom.

The locker room was one large room with lockers along one wall and a bench with hooks above it rested along the nearest wall. The wall opposite the door had a poster about striving to be your best and using the martial arts to bring peace to your life, and to help you avoid violence. There was also a reminder that honor was very important throughout life.

Natalie didn't mind changing in front of her friends, but wasn't sure if she'd want to in front of strangers, with their futile attempts not to stare or their attempts not to look like they were.

The ladies hung their clothing in one of the lockers, stashing their shoes and socks too. Grace easily slipped into the drawstring pants and tied them, but had trouble figuring out how to tie the top of her gi.

"Let me help," Natalie said. Upon the looks from her friends she continued, "In college I had a friend who was into it."

Natalie showed Grace how to fasten the top, how the underneath flap's tie was tied with the one along the side seam. Natalie tied the other flap in place then wrapped the wide white fabric belt around Grace's waist then tied it in a knot up front.

"Thanks."

Myra copied what Natalie had done, only her belt went around her twice.

"Why do I feel like I'm wearing pajamas," Grace said lightly as she looked at her friends.

The three ladies were dressed in white cotton gi's, making them look like almost every martial artist, or student, they had ever seen on TV.

Natalie restrained her wavy mane in a Scrunchi.

Grace and Myra sat along one wall with a couple of other students, while Natalie parked next to them. The floor was hardwood, with mats covering a corner. One entire wall was mirrored so the students could make sure they were doing the moves correctly.

A few of the more advanced students were practicing, causing the three friends to wonder if they'd made a big mistake.

The teacher bowed as he entered the classroom and waited a moment before getting everyone's attention. The advanced students realized a class was starting and headed for the locker room, bowing as they left the workout room.

Bruce motioned for his three students to line up, which they quickly did. Once the teacher and his students bowed to each other, Bruce took them through a stretching program. Bruce explained the philosophy of Okinawan Karate, which Natalie realized was the same information as on the poster in the locker room, but his speech was more detailed.

Bruce started with the very basics, the correct stance for Grace and Myra. From there he moved onto basic blocks, punches for all three ladies, correcting form where needed. And for Myra and Grace he taught them basic kicks, while he had Natalie work on her punches and blocks.

By the end of the hour all three were quite tired, Grace especially. Natalie had her physical conditioning helping her some, making her the least tired.

That night Grace was sore, but felt good. Nick and Schanke entered.

"I take it you enjoyed your first lesson?" Nick asked, seeing that Grace was in a good mood.

"Yeah. It was hard, but worth it. It'll be a long while before I'm in shape. Natalie seemed to be in the best shape of all of us."

"Sit down," Nick said lightly, loving the curiosity quickly spreading across Grace's face.

Grace took a seat in her chair and felt Nick's hands giving her a quick shoulder and back massage, sighing as she felt the soreness ease. He's got a great touch, slightly cool, but still wonderful.' She thought.

When Nick noticed no more tight spots he stopped and walked around to face Grace, loving the relaxed smile on her face.

"Thanks. I feel a lot better."

Natalie passed by just in time to hear the comment, looked at her friends with a raised eyebrow.

"He's got a great touch."

"I know," Nat said with a grin.

Natalie, Myra and Grace returned to the dojo three times a week for their private lessons. Each time they were a little better, and a little less sore. The first part of each lesson was a review, then they moved onto the new stuff.

Once they knew the basic moves Bruce began to teach them the first pattern they needed to know. It helped them combine the movements in different ways. He also paired them up and taught them how to use their moves in actual attack/defense situations. One would attack using a set of moves and the other would defend using another set of moves, then they'd switch. He kept it very simple.

Myra and Grace were often paired together, while Bruce worked with Natalie.

Once everyone knew the moves, he'd have Natalie work with both friends individually, while he worked with the remaining one.

Nick and Schanke noticed the improvements in their friends' self-confidence almost immediately. Schanke wondered if he should enroll Jenny as well.

Don and Myra took Jenny to watch a children's class. Jenny liked it and wanted to take classes so her parents signed her up for a three month trial. Don knew he should sign up as well, and joined his wife's class, with the permission of all three ladies.

During his first class, Don realized it was as hard as his friends had said. He found himself exhausted by the end. Not to mention sore later on that night.

A few weeks later, Natalie, Grace and Myra were looking for a parking spot at the mall, seeing nothing aisle after aisle. Finally they found an available handicap spot. Natalie pulled in, fitting perfectly between the lines.

"This will be a lifesaver when our hands are full," Myra said.

"I know. It does help, especially in winter," Natalie said as she shut off the engine and released the ramp.

Grace and Myra got out. They waited for Natalie to reseat herself into her chair and then make her way down the ramp. Natalie locked the door, which sent the ramp back to it's stowed position.

They entered the mall where they all unfastened their jackets and decided where to start while Natalie wiped off the handrims.

They headed off for a enjoyable day of shopping, even with the crowds, knowing shopping with friends was more fun than shopping alone. Having someone there to bounce ideas off of was a big help.

Natalie ignored the few people she caught staring at her. Grace and Myra were so used to seeing Natalie in her wheelchair that it took them a moment to realize who the stares were aimed at.

After their second trip to the minivan, the ladies stopped for lunch. After a quick lunch they continued on, determined to get as much done today as they could.

That evening Nick and Natalie went out to buy a couple of trees.

They were surprised to see Myra and Don at the same tree lot.

The foursome examined tree after tree before finding three perfect ones, two large ones and a slightly smaller one for Natalie's apartment.

 

Don and Myra carried their tree in as Jenny happily watched. Myra helped guide the tree into the stand, then made sure it was straight before the stand's screws were completely tightened into the base of the tree.

"When do we get to decorate it?" Jenny said nearly bouncing.

"Tomorrow. It needs to rest tonight so that its branches will be ready," Myra said, too tired to deal with the decorating.

She and her husband carefully cut off the plastic netting binding the tree into a manageable shape.

Meanwhile across town, Nick carried Natalie's tree in for her. Once inside she helped guide the base into the stand and tightened the screws once she saw the tree was straight.

"Do you want to set yours up first or decorate this one?" Natalie asked.

"Let's decorate yours first," Nick said.

Natalie started a Christmas CD to provide the proper atmosphere.

She and Nick worked to untangle the lights. He couldn't understand why she tested each string before they were wrapped around the tree, until she reminded him of the reason.

Natalie decorated the lower half of the tree. She assigned Nick the task of putting the hooks on the ornaments and handing them to her. When she could no longer reach the branches she took over his job and directed him where to hang the ornaments.

Nick didn't mind. He was happy spending time with her, especially after nearly losing her to that psychopath.

Natalie allowed Nick to place the star on top of her tree, seeing how much he wanted to.

When they finished, they plugged in the tree and walked across the living room to examine their work. When the tree passed inspection, they moved on to decorating her apartment. Nick snuck some mistletoe over her kitchen doorway. He looked up with a wicked gleam when they both passed under it together. He kissed her softly on the lips. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

About thirty minutes later they examined their work. When it passed inspection, they headed for his loft, making a quick stop at the Panda Garden to pick up a large snack for her. Natalie had been hooked on Japanese food and alternated it with Chinese.

At the loft, Natalie consumed her J.B. roll, remembering the nickname a friend had given it, the bagel roll, due to the cream cheese and salmon inside the seaweed and rice, along with some scallions.

Nick was a little surprised when she didn't make him try a piece, but was very grateful.

While she ate, he watched, sipping at a mug of his food. Since he finished first, he started the Christmas music.

When she finished, they set up his larger tree.

"Nick, how did you get your lights into this hopeless mess," Natalie said seeing the large ball of lights, wondering if they'd ever be able to separate out each string.

"I don't know. I guess I wasn't too careful when I put them into storage last year."

It took Nick and Natalie a solid hour to get the lights separated into their individual strings, and then further untangled so they could be strung on the tree. Each of the four sets passed its test and was strung on the tree by Nick.

Natalie again decorated the bottom of the tree, this time encouraging him to work with her. She noticed that most of the ornaments were new, but there were a fair number that seemed quite old and hoped he'd tell her the stories behind them.

Nick noticed Natalie's curiosity and indulged her with the stories behind his oldest ornaments, which had come from all over the world during the last century.

When she could no longer reach the branches she pulled back to let him take over.

"I could give you a lift if you wanted," Nick said, hoping she wouldn't take it the wrong way.

"Thanks, but I'll let you decorate the rest, as it's your tree."

Natalie handed him ornaments after she put the hooks in, curious to see how the tree would look when done.

Nick had to use his vampire nature to reach the upper parts of the tree, as he didn't own a ladder. Natalie wanted to scold him, but couldn't. It was nearly Christmas and he was doing it so that the tree could be decorated.

Three hours later, his tree was finished, all but the star.

He handed her the star and swept her up into his arms, after seeing her subtle nod. He flew her to the top of the tree, so she could place the star on the point.

She enjoyed it, finding the experience a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time. She placed the star, making sure it was straight.

As soon as Nick set her back in her wheelchair, he plugged in the tree. They walked across the loft to check out the view, both smiling at the nice job.

Natalie dug around in one of the remaining boxes of decorations and found a few things she thought would look nice hung around the lot. Since she couldn't reach the places she pointed them out to Nick, who agreed with her choices and hung the decorations where she'd suggested.

He snuck another piece of mistletoe over the lift door, after all it was the traditional place for it.

At Natalie's apartment the next evening, Nick woke before Natalie and booted up his laptop, glad he'd brought it with him. He accessed the web, knowing he probably would not get a chance to make it to the stores before Christmas. He also found the crowds too hard to deal with, all those heartbeats calling out to him.

He was pleased to have some time alone. He called up a web site and ordered several items before moving onto another web site.

Nick heard Natalie moving around in her room and went to start the coffee. He had a chocolate mocha blend as a surprise.

Natalie emerged from her bathroom and noticed the heavenly aroma of chocolate drifting into her bedroom. Do I dress or investigate? She knew she should slip into her suit first, but the smell was too tempting.

Nick heard her door open and headed for her room, meeting her halfway to the kitchen with a steaming mug of coffee. He enjoyed seeing her in her fluffy, pink, terrycloth robe as it looked good on her.

"That smells heavenly." Natalie took the offered mug and sipped it. "Mmmmm."

"I'm glad you like it."

"I don't remember having any of this in my cupboard."

"You didn't. I bought it on my way over last night and hid it in an upper cabinet."

"Very sneaky. But thank you."

She finished off her mug. He took the empty mug from her to refill it. She headed for the couch, having a few minutes to spare before dressing for work.

"Doing a little shopping?" She asked, seeing the web site he had browsing.

"Yeah. It's the easiest way to do your Christmas shopping. I know it lacks the fun of the trip to the mall, but the crowds are a bit too much for me."

"Too tempting?"

"Yeah. Have you ever tried online shopping?"

"No. I probably should. It does sound a hell of a lot easier."

"I'll show you how easy it is. I was trying to find something for Schanke." Nick sat on the couch next to where Natalie had parked herself. He tilted the screen so she could see it.

They cruised through a couple of stores before finding the perfect gifts for Schanke. Nick entered the secure server and entered the shipping address and his credit card information, along with the fact that it was a gift.

"Nick, I should pay for my gift for Schanke."

"Don't worry about it. Okay?"

"Okay," she said a little reluctantly. He'd already done so much for her. She didn't want him to think she was taking advantage of him.

"That's all there is to it," Nick said as he was notified of his confirmation number.

"I have to try this. Unfortunately it will have to wait until after work."

Natalie arrived home after her shift, changed clothes, booted up her desktop computer and hit the web. She needed gifts for Grace, Myra and Nick. She hadn't found anything at the mall she thought Nick would like, and with her two friends with her she hadn't been able to buy their gifts either. She had already bought gifts for Jenny, along with ones for her sister-in-law Sarah, and niece Amy. Natalie hoped she could find something for Nick before he arrived, knowing she'd be too tired later and didn't want to wait until tomorrow.

Natalie had no idea what to get Nick this year. What do you get someone that can buy anything they want? That's been around for eight hundred years? She decided to start with Grace and Myra, and maybe an idea would come to her for Nick's gift.

"I see you decided to shop my way," Nick said, seeing her jump.

"How many time do I have to tell you not to do that!" Natalie said as she smacked his arm rather hard.

"Ow."

"Stop sneaking up on me and I won't have to smack you."

"Okay. I'll try not to." He enjoyed doing it, but would try to honor her request.

"Yeah. I like it. No more parking hassles, trudging through snow. No crowds to deal with, no going from store to store to find that one last thing, hoping someone has it.

Before long Natalie had found the perfect gift for both Grace and Myra.

"You were right. It is the easiest way to shop. But trips to the mall are needed as well. I like to see what's new, to buy something I like and not have to wait for it to be shipped."

"I never said that it should replace going to the mall. It's helpful for things like books and other items that would be too heavy or awkward to lug around. Sometimes you can get better deals this way."

"I noticed the savings. That's definitely an incentive."

"You ready?" He asked.

"Yeah. Let me shut down here and grab my stuff."

Natalie signed off, shut down her computer, put on her shoes, waist pouch and coat. She slipped on her gloves and grabbed her keys.

"Thanks for driving," She said, knowing that he liked driving.

Natalie locked the door behind them as they left her apartment.

Two nights later, Grace entered Natalie's office with a gift in hand. She set it on the desk. Natalie reached back into her pack and pulled out Grace's gift and handed it to her friend.

Natalie opened her gift, finding a baseball cap with the brain accurately pictured on it. She immediately put it on, a large grin on her face.

"I love it," Natalie said cheerfully.

Nat looked in the box to see if there was anything else and found a fridge magnet with DNA information on it. She happily stuck the magnet to her file cabinet. Natalie saw another item in the box, but couldnÕt tell what it was because of the protective wrapping around it. Natalie pulled that off and saw the sign. It looked like something off a country inn. It said "Natalie's Bed and Breakfast" and had a few daisies across the bottom.

"Daisies?"

"As in 'pushing up daisies'" Grace said, one eyebrow rising.

"Very appropriate." Natalie noticed more writing near the bottom. Our motto is 'you stab 'em, we slab 'em. "I love it. And Schanke thought I had a dark sense of humor. Just wait until they see this," Natalie said with another big grin. "Where do I put it?"

"There should be a stand in there somewhere."

Natalie quickly found the stand hidden in a corner of the box. She set the sign up on the stand and set it on a corner of her desk where everyone would be sure to see it.

"Thanks for the wonderful gifts. I love them all."

Grace opened her present, carefully folded back the tissue paper. She saw a bubble wrapped figurine. She carefully unwrapped it, a look of surprise covering her face as she saw the little blonde girl and her dolly at the doctor's office.

"How did you find this one? It's next to impossible to find. I've looked everywhere."

"I knew it was one of the few you're missing. It took some hunting but I found it in an online shop."

"I didn't know you shopped online."

"Nick introduced me to it. It's great." She saw her friend's look. "No, I haven't given up on the mall, but itÕs a nice alternative."

"I hope you're not spending Christmas all alone," Grace said.

"No. Nick and I are spending Christmas Eve with Schanke and his family. Nick and I probably spend at least part of Christmas Day together. Have a great time on your trip."

"I will. I hope you and Nick have a great time together. I'm looking forward to seeing my family again." Grace couldn't wait for her shift to be over with because then she went home to grab her bags and head for the airport.

Christmas Eve arrived. Nick and Natalie loaded his trunk with presents for the Schankes and headed for their friend's house.

They arrived at the Schanke residence and saw that the driveway had been left open for Nick to park in. Don knew how Nick was about his car, and figured it might be easier for Natalie this way, with no traffic to worry about.

As soon as Nick was parked, he shut off the engine and went around to open Natalie's door for her, like a proper gentleman. He pulled her wheelchair from the backseat and set it next to her seat. She transferred to it before joining Nick at the trunk. Nick handed Natalie her packages, which she neatly stacked on her lap. Nick grabbed his stack and headed for the door, Natalie right beside him. They smiled at the snowman they saw on the front lawn.

Jenny had been watching for them and had the front door opened as soon as they came up the porch ramp. Her eyes growing wide at the number of presents, wondering how many were for her.

"Hi Nick, Natalie."

"Hi Jenny," both Nick and Natalie said.

Myra heard her daughter and came out to greet the guests, Don right behind her. They knew that this was Natalie's favorite holiday and were pleased to see she hadn't allowed her paralysis to ruin the holiday for her.

"How are you two tonight?" Don asked as he helped take their coats and hang them in the closet. Natalie wiped off her handrims before going any further, not wanting to make a mess in their friend's house.

Hugs were exchanged before the group headed for the family room.

The tree was lit up giving the whole room a cheerful glow. A fair number of packages were piled neatly around the tree. Christmas carols softly filled the air.

Don and Myra went into the kitchen to check on dinner and the snacks, while Jenny talked with her grown up friends. Nick and Natalie placed their packages with the others.

"Guess what I get to do during vacation?" Jenny said excitedly.

"What?" Natalie asked.

"I get to go skiing. This will be my second year of it. Mom's going to ski with me. Dad says he'll watch."

"That sounds like fun," Natalie said.

"I want to do some ice skating too. Did you like my snowman?"

"It was very nice," Nick said.

Nick took a seat in the overstuffed chair and Natalie parked herself near him.

"Does Santa still come visit you?" Jenny asked.

"Yes he does," Natalie said with a grin.

"But you're all grown up."

"So? I'm still young, here, where it counts," Natalie said as her finger touched Jenny's chest, where her heart would be.

"Cool. What about you Nick?"

"He still comes to see me too. For the same reasons," Nick said. He hadn't really celebrated the holidays much until he'd met Natalie. Her joy of living rekindled so much in him that he now had a bunch of reasons to celebrate.

Myra and Don came out of the kitchen each carrying two plates of appetizers.

"Mom, when can we open the gifts?" Jenny excitedly asked.

"As soon as we're done with the appetizer. Okay?"

"Okay."

The adults knew that making her wait any longer than that would've led to her repeatedly asking when. Jenny reminded them of themselves when they'd been her age.

"Didn't Jenny do a nice job helping us to decorate the tree this year?" Myra asked.

"Yes, she did," Natalie and Nick said.

"You did a good job, honey," Don said, smiling at his daughter. This is what life is all about.

They ate and talked, enjoying spending time together without the outside world intruding.

Almost an hour later, Jenny was trying to be patient, but she was quickly losing that battle.

"Okay, honey. Why don't you play Santa's helper and pass out the gifts. Start with one for each person, okay?" Myra said.

"Okay." Jenny said as she nearly ran to the tree, almost bouncing in anticipation.

She found a present for each person and delivered them one or two at a time, depending on the package's size and weight.

As soon as everyone had a gift, Jenny tore into hers. The grownups watched amused, again reminded of their own childhoods.

"Cool! Thanks, Nick." Jenny loved the huge magic marker set, especially since it was an adult set.

"Every artist needs a proper set of tools to work with."

Myra and Don had given up trying to convince Nick he didn't need to spend so much on gifts for them, Jenny especially. They saw how much joy it brought to Nick and couldn't deny him the pleasure, especially since very few things made him that happy.

"WellÉ?" Jenny looked around, surprised that her friends hadn't opened their gifts. She had purposely chosen hers to be the ones they opened first.

The adults smiled and opened their presents. Jenny loved their expressions as they pulled the handmade gifts out of the box.

"It's gorgeous," Natalie said as she examined her decorated picture frame. "Thank you."

"It's lovely," Nick said as he saw his painted wooden mail holder. "Thank you."

"Thank you, sweetie. It's just what I needed," Myra said as she removed the decorated picture frame from the box. It was completely different from Natalie's. Inside the frame was a recent family picture that had been blown up to fit the eight by ten frame.

Don was the last to open his gift. He pulled a flat, painted metal container out of the box. As he studied the short walled box, it suddenly hit him what it was. "Thanks, honey. It's great. Now I have somewhere to toss my change."

Jenny was thrilled everyone loved her handmade gifts. The compliments made her blush.

Jenny handed out the next round of gifts, before sitting down to open hers.

"Thanks, Natalie. It's really neat," Jenny exclaimed as she studied the computer program. It allowed her to create works of art on the computer and then print them out.

"This was really thoughtful," Nick said as he flipped through the archeology book, but couldn't tell his friends it was a book he'd written twenty years ago. It had just been reissued.

Natalie noticed the very subtle change in his expression and knew she had to inquire about it later, when they were alone.

Natalie found a blue faux marble beaded necklace and a pair of pretty gold earrings.

"It's gorgeous. Thank you Myra, and Don," Natalie said, knowing who had picked out the gift.

Don opened his gift from Nick and found a certificate for a brand new bowling ball. "Partner, how did you ever know I needed this?"

"I heard you mention it."

"I guess you do hear my ramblings after all," Don said with a grin.

"I do listen, I just don't always respond."

Nick's gift to Myra was a beautiful hand carved jewelry box.

"It's beautiful. The workmanship is amazing," Myra said, examining the black lacquered box. The oriental design was flawless.

Jenny handed out the next round, a bit depressed that she'd have to wait until morning for more presents.

Natalie gave Myra two silver rings, one with a Celtic design and the other was a braid. "Thank you, Natalie. They're beautiful." Myra slipped on her new rings.

Don received a blue Hawaiian shirt, grinning as he removed it from the box. "I love it. Thanks, Natalie."

Before long it was dinner time. Everyone hungrily gathered around the table. The food was passed around. Nick took a little of everything, not wanting to insult his friends by not eating. As they all ate they talked about everything but work.

After dinner, they returned to the family room where cookies and coffee were served. Jenny was proud of the fact she had been allowed to cut out some of the cookies and decorate most of them.

She fell asleep curled up in a corner of the couch and was let be, so she'd still feel like part of the gathering.

A few hours later, the adults were all yawning and said their good nights.

Natalie and Nick headed back to their homes. Don and Myra cleaned up only what was absolutely necessary. Don carried Jenny upstairs and tucked her into bed before returning to the downstairs and helping his wife play Santa as they dragged all the presents out from various hiding spots. Once the stockings had been stuffed, they turned out the lights and went to sleep, knowing Jenny would be up at the crack of dawn.

Meanwhile, in the Caddy, Nick turned to Natalie, "stay with me today."

"Okay," she said, hearing in his voice, and seeing on his face how much he wanted her to agree. "I don't have your gifts here."

"It's okay. We'll get them tomorrow night. I have what I want, you."

Natalie blushed, bringing a smile to Nick's face.

"I have to know, what's the story behind the book they gave you?"

"I wrote it twenty years ago. It's still one of the most comprehensive books on Altun Canal."

"Can I read it sometime?" Natalie asked, hopeful.

"I'd like that," Nick said sincerely.

Before long they entered the loft, Nick bent down and kissed her on the lips as they passed the mistletoe. Natalie smiled. Too bad we can't leave that up all year round.' Both of them thought. Natalie saw the two presents under the tree, one large and the other being much smaller.

"They're yours to open whenever you want to," Nick said wondering how long it would be before she ripped off their paper.

Natalie yawned, too tired to open them now, despite how much she wanted to know what he'd gotten her.

"You take the bed, I'll sleep on the couch," Nick said.

"Okay," Natalie knew he wouldn't change his mind, and pushed herself over to the stairs.

He was right behind her, scooped her up in his arms and carried her upstairs where he set her down on the bed. He brought her chair up and set it next to the bed.

"You might be more comfortable in these," Nick said, handing her a navy blue pair of silk pajamas. He saw her eyebrow raise as soon as she saw the color. "I thought you might like something a little more colorful."

Natalie changed, noticing that these fit her better. Did he buy these just for me?

About ten minutes later, he knocked on the door. "Come in."

"How about a full body massage?" Nick said knowing how much she enjoyed them, and how she hadn't had one since their trip.

"I'd love it."

Once she was in position, Nick started at the base of her skull and worked his way down her back to her toes, her sighs were music to his ears. He felt her entire body relaxing, her breathing slowing as she fell asleep. He massaged her arms before gently turning her over, being careful not to wake her, tucked her in and gently kissed her on the forehead.

At the Schanke household, Jenny was up about an hour after sunrise. She waited on the top of the stairs until her parents joined her. Jenny eagerly bounced down the stairs and stopped when she saw the good sized pile of presents around the tree. Jenny headed straight to her stocking and emptied it, eating one of the chocolate candies before heading to the tree.

Her parents sat near her on the floor and exchanged presents while Jenny ripped open her gifts, quickly studying each one before moving onto the next one.

Don opened his gift from his wife, finding a stylish new watch. He thanked her with a kiss.

Myra opened her gift from her husband finding a gold ring with three small diamonds centered on the front. "It's beautiful," she said stunned.

"Thank you for everything you do for me, and Jenny."

Myra and Don smiled at the squeals of glee, the "cool" and "neat" that came from their daughter as she unwrapped the various toys and other goodies they'd bought her.

Later that afternoon at Nick's loft, Natalie awoke, showered and changed into a T-shirt, sweater, leggings and socks of hers she'd found in his closet and dresser. He heard her moving around and was at the top of the stairs by the time the bedroom door opened. He swept her up in his arms and carried her down to the couch, where he deposited her and went to fetch her chair, setting it next to her.

He plugged in the tree and turned on the Christmas music wanting the atmosphere to be as festive as possible, knowing it was her favorite holiday.

Moments later he handed her the larger of his two gifts, loving the stunned look on her face as she ripped off the paper revealing a sate of the art laptop.

"Nick, you shouldn't have."

"I thought you might enjoy being able to work on the computer anywhere, not just at your desk."

"I love it. Thank you," she said as she kissed him gently on the lips, loving his surprised expression.

He handed her the smaller of the two boxes. She untied the bow and opened the box, revealing an elegant, yet durable watch.

"Thank you." Natalie removed her old watch, replacing it with the new one. "It's beautiful."

She unpacked her new computer, surprised to see Nick had charged a set of backup batteries for her, and handed them to her. She installed them and booted up the computer, surprised to see he had preinstalled all the programs she needed, along with a couple of games.

They spent the rest of the afternoon playing the games. Once sunset fell, they headed for the lift, Nick lifting her chin up to gently kiss her lips when they passed under the mistletoe. She loved mistletoe as it was one of the rare times he'd kiss her like that.

Before long, Nick and Natalie entered her apartment where she plugged in the tree, turned on her Christmas music before taking off her coat and gloves. She tossed her pouch onto the table by the door.

Natalie went into the kitchen to fix herself some hot chocolate with lots of mini marshmallows. When she reentered the living room, she found Nick staring at his present.

"Go ahead," she said cheerfully.

He picked up his gift and carried it over to the couch. He waited for her to join him. Once she was seated next to him on the couch, he unwrapped his gift. He was surprised to see a beautifully framed picture of the two of them taken at the ball.

"I didn't know what to get you," Natalie said apologetically. "Shopping for someone eight hundred years old is not easy, even using the web," she joked.

"This is the best gift you could've given me. How much you spend doesn't matter. The fact that this came from the heart makes it that much more special. Thank you," Nick said sincerely touched. He set the picture on the coffee table where everyone could see it.

"What would you like to do for the rest of the day? Nick asked.

"How about a movie? I'm sure there's one here we haven't seen. Or we could watch a favorite one."

"That sounds good. I even picked up some food so we wouldn't have to go out until tomorrow," Nick said, loving the surprised look on Natalie's face. "What would you like to eat?"

"Surprise me," Natalie said, hoping that wasn't a mistake. Now it was her turn to enjoy the surprised look on his face.

Nick fixed some cheese and crackers, along with a mug of hot chocolate just the way she liked it.

 

A week later it was New Year's Eve. Natalie and Nick celebrated at his loft with a bottle of very fine champagne, excellent dark chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream. They watched the ball fall, toasting each other as the new year started.

"Nick, I hate to bother you, but could you run down to the minivan and grab the box on the passenger seat?"

"Sure."

Before Natalie knew it he was back with the large gift wrapped box.

"I know it's not your real birthday, but happy birthday, Nick."

"Thanks."

Nick sat next to Natalie on the couch and opened his present. Inside was a waist length black leather jacket.

"Nat, you shouldn't have. It's way too expensive."

"I know. I also know how much you liked your last one, until you broke up a gunfight, making it look like a piece of Swiss cheese."

Nick stood up and tried on the jacket. It fit perfectly.

"For your next present, you won't have to eat anything tonight."

"This is for both presents," Nick said as he gave Nat a quick kiss on the lips.

Nick's thank you caused a large smile to spread across Nat's face.

Later that week, Natalie once again found herself in the hospital. The memories flooding back, nearly overwhelming her with their intensity. This time she wasn't a patient, but was visiting friends. Her first stop was Jenny Schanke's room.

Natalie entered Jenny's room and found her playing with her Game Boy. Her broken leg elevated to reduce the swelling. The royal blue fiberglass cast ran from the top of Jenny's thigh all the way down to the ball of her foot, the upper part covered by the sheet.

"Hi. How are you doing?"

"Okay," Jenny said. "They let me pick the color. I almost picked pink, but it was too bright to wear that long. This color goes with most of my clothes.

"How's the leg?" Natalie said.

"It hurts some. They say I'll be fine in about 2 months."

"Are you going to try skiing again?"

"Yes. As soon as my leg heals. Skiing is fun, well not the falling part," Jenny said. "I hate having to miss my karate lessons. I really like them."

"I know. Once you're all better you can go back."

"But I'll be out of shape."

"You can practice your blocks and punches while you wait for your leg to heal."

"You're right. Thanks."

"You're welcome, sweetie," Natalie said as she pulled a small gift wrapped box from her backpack and handed it to Jenny. "I hope you like it."

Jenny smiled as she eagerly ripped the wrapping paper off her gift. Her smile grew as she uncovered the cartridge she wanted. She turned off the Game Boy and switched cartridges.

"Thanks. How'd you know I really wanted this one? Did mom or dad tell you?"

"No. They didn't. You told me about it a while back."

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"What's it like? Were you scared when you were hurt? What about when you woke up in the hospital?"

"I was very scared. I didn't know I was hurt until I woke up in the emergency room. Nick and Grace helped me feel better, just like your parents do for you. Your parents' visits helped a lot too. Are you scared?"

"I was very scared when I broke my leg. Now it's only when they come to give me a shot. I hate shots."

"I hate them too. They gave me a lot of shots when I was a patient here. As to what it's like, that's hard to describe. The best description I can think of is it's something like when your foot falls asleep and is totally numb."

"They had me using a wheelchair earlier when I went down to the playroom. Do you ever get tired of it?"

"Sometimes. Usually when I work 12 hours or more in one shift. What did you think of it?"

"I found it hard to maneuver. I couldn't reach everything I wanted to."

"I practiced maneuvering so that I would be able to do it this easily," Natalie said as she did a few fancy moves, spun around and then did a wheelie, eliciting giggles from Jenny.

"That's neat."

"It took a lot of practicing. I too have trouble reaching things."

"I hope you don't mind my questions," Jenny asked, not wanting to be too nosy.

"I don't mind. Questions are the sign of a bright mind and a healthy curiosity. Your dad, Nick and I spend most of our nights asking questions and trying to come up with answers for the questions of others. Besides I would rather you find out the facts than believe the misinformation. How's your game?"

"Good. Wanna try?"

"Sure. Would you show me how?"

"Sure."

Natalie maneuvered herself so she could see the game in Jenny's hands. Jenny watched Natalie as she moved, even though it was nothing new to her, she still found it interesting to watch.

Jenny proceeded to show Natalie how to play the game. Natalie tried and felt so uncoordinated, marveling at how easy Jenny made it look.

Myra and Don entered to tuck their daughter in and found Natalie there.

"Hi, Natalie," Don said.

"Hi. I thought Jenny might like a visitor."

"This is sweet of you. I see she hooked you too," Myra said.

"I can't believe how easy she makes it look. I feel so uncoordinated," Natalie said. "Good night, Jenny. Sleep well."

"Good night, Natalie. Thanks."

Myra and Don followed Natalie out into the hall.

"Thanks for stopping by," Don said.

"No problem. How is she doing?"

"She's doing fine. They should release her tomorrow or the next day. She'll have to use crutches until the leg heals. At least she has school to keep her busy," Don said.

"When can she go back?"

"She'll want to go back as soon as they release her. I may keep her home a day or two, depending on how well she does with the crutches. One of us will have to drop her off and pick her up," Myra said.

"If you need anything let me know."

"Thanks," Myra said.

"You can't believe what a relief it is to know she's fine. She really wiped out," Don said, still disturbed my the memory.

"I remember how frantic you were. Especially when you heard she had a mild concussion," Natalie said.

"Yeah," Schanke said. "We're still thanking God that she's fine."

Don and Myra excused themselves to say good night to their daughter. When the Schankes went into Jenny's room, Natalie headed off towards her other stop.

Natalie arrived at the room she wanted, knocked on the door and heard a "come in". Natalie entered and estimated the red haired woman to be in her late twenties, possibly her early thirties.

"Hi, I'm Natalie."

"Hi, I'm Andrea."

"Several months ago I was where you are. I thought you might like someone to talk to, someone who'd been there," Natalie said.

"I would. What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a forensic pathologist. What do you do?"

"I'm a teacher. Can my life be like it was?"

"Yes, for the most part. I still do everything my job requires. I still have a full, active life. Once you're released from the rehab center yours too can be full and active."

"Can you drive?"

"Yes. I even go dancing." Natalie loved the surprised look on Andrea's face. "I started Karate lessons a couple of months back. I wanted to be able to defend myself."

Andrea was stunned. "How can youÉ"

"I found an instructor who teaches the disabled. I'm expected to do everything but the kicking. It's hard but fun."

Natalie answered Andrea's questions as best she could, hoping it would show Andrea that her life could still be quite rewarding. Natalie wanted to help someone through the very difficult transition like Chris had done for her. It made her feel good. A part of her knew Chris would be proud of her.

Natalie arrived at Nick's loft on her next night off, just after dark. She was looking forward to spending time with him, a good movie and dinner.

"Hi, Nick."

"Hi, Nat."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. How would you feel if we did something different?" Nick asked a little nervously.

"What did you have in mind?" she asked, her curiosity growing, especially once she noticed the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

"I thought we'd go away for a long weekend. I think you need a change of scenery. I know I could use one."

"Nick, I can't just run off."

"I talked with everyone and they thought it was a good idea," Nick said cutting her protest short.

"Okay." She gave in, knowing he had this too well planned. "Where are we going?"

"That's a surprise. I want you to go home and pack warm casual clothes. Meet me back here when you're done." He paused a moment. "Do you mind taking your minivan to the airport? I don't want to leave my car there."

"No problem. I need a few more details."

"Sweaters, long johns, hats, mittens, snow boots. We'll be spending a lot of time outdoors." He enjoyed seeing the puzzled look on her face. He turned her around and gently nudged her towards the elevator. "Would you like me to go with you?"

Natalie was enjoying the mysteriousness, yet it was also a little frustrating. "I'd like that. I might need your help with the luggage."

Nick grabbed the two bags he had stashed in the deep shadows created by the stairwell.

"You were pretty sure I'd agree, weren't you?" she asked lightly.

"Yes. I can see how much you need this." He'd seen the uneasiness she tried to hide from everyone, along with the stress from her kidnapping. It had all happened to her so fast, first the accident, then the attempts on her life and eventually the abduction. The Karate lessons had helped, as had the holidays, but she was still too stressed out.

Nick enjoyed watching Natalie drive. He found it quite interesting, and noticed she'd mastered it quite well. He realized that in some ways she was very much like him, doing what she had to, to survive.

Once inside her apartment, he helped her drag her luggage off the top shelf in a storage closet.

"Warm outdoor clothes," Natalie said to herself as she looked through her clothing. She pulled out her wool sweaters, turtlenecks, thick socks, long underwear and jeans. She couldn't find her snow boots, and wondered where she'd left them, hoping she could buy a new pair where ever they were going.

Before long she filled both her pieces of soft sided luggage, packing as light as she could, but the clothes were large and bulky, quickly filling the larger bag.

Nick grabbed the larger of the two bags and left the smaller one for her, knowing that she'd want to carry one herself.

Natalie piled the remaining bag on her lap and did a quick check of the apartment to make sure that everything that needed to be turned off was. She installed the timer on one of her lights in the living room, so it would look like someone was home. Once she was satisfied that she had done everything she needed to, they headed out.

 

Before long they arrived at the airport, parked and headed for the terminal. She still had not pried any more information from Nick. She grinned internally knowing the gate would tell her where they were going geography wise, and would hopefully give her a clue as to their hotel.

Nick's desire to make the weekend as perfect and stress free as possible had caused him to consider a private plane but he didn't follow through knowing that most of them did not have the same walk on accessibility that the major airlines had. Besides, it might look strange to his coworkers.

"So, where did you get the idea for this weekend? Do you want to carry the bags on or check them?" She asked him as they made their way inside.

"Whichever you prefer."

She noticed that the three bags he carried looked like they weighed nothing. He had two over one shoulder and one in his hand. With his strength, it shouldn't disturb him at all.'

"I like to carry my stuff on. This way it doesn't accidentally get lost and I don't have to wait for them to unload it," She said, knowing she'd be the last one off the plane. "Follow me." Natalie said, enjoying the mix of curiosity and surprise she read in his face.

They soon arrived at the security gate. Natalie laid her bag, backpack, and waist pouch on the x-ray scanner's conveyor belt. A security guard hand scanned Natalie because her wheelchair would most likely set off the metal detector. Nick set the bags on the belt leading into the x-ray machine. He dropped his keys along with his change into a small tray before walking through without the machine buzzing. As soon as the guard finished scanning Nat and her chair, they collected their bags and continued on their way.

Natalie led Nick to one of the airline's "private" clubs, showing her membership card at the desk right after entering. She checked them in and received their boarding passes. She was a bit surprised to see they were traveling first class as well as their destination.

With his money, why wouldn't he travel first class?' She thought. She did enjoy the idea of not being squished into coach for once.

Nick always flew first class. He hated coach seating! It was the only way he'd fly, without the use of his powers. What fun is a surprise trip if you can't go first class all the way.

They grabbed a seat by the club's window as it was the only empty table or chair in the entire place. A part of Natalie wished it was daylight so she could watch the planes landing and taking off, but knew she'd be traveling alone.

"I thought we'd be more comfortable waiting in here," Natalie said.

"You're right. Can I get you some coffee?"

"No. I think I'd prefer a hot chocolate. They have packages... why don't I fix it. It'll be easier than trying to explain it."

"You sure? I can handle it."

"Okay." Natalie grinned, knowing he was trying to help and seem like any guy getting his lady a drink.

Nick quickly returned with her mug of steaming hot chocolate and a small paper cup full of snack mix.

"I thought you might like to snack on these." The smile she gave him warmed his cold body.

"Thanks."

Before long it was time for them to head to the gate. They arrived a few minutes before the boarding call and were second in line to board. There was one wheelchair passenger before them, an elderly man accompanied by his wife.

Natalie was pleased that her chair was slim enough for her to remain in it all the way to her seat. Since Nick had mentioned her disability when booking the reservations they had been assigned to front row seats.

Natalie transferred herself to the aisle seat without too much trouble. "Can you stow my chair onboard, without having to check it?" She asked, nervous her chair would get lost and spoil the entire weekend.

"I'll see what I can do." The flight attendant responded as she took Nat's wheelchair with her.

"Thanks."

Natalie put up the arm dividing the aisle seat from the window seat and slid herself over to the window as gracefully as she could, then put the armrest back in place.

"The only thing I want you to worry about this weekend is what you're going to do next. Okay?" Nick said, trying to help her relax.

"Okay." She knew a weekend away from everything would work wonders on her rattled nerves, and restore her sanity. She couldn't believe how unsettled she still was, from the accident, attempts on her life and the abduction. She thought that time, learning to protect herself, the holidays, and her friends support would've helped her fully overcome it, but it didn't. She would've believed she'd feel safe and be able to relax more once Weston was securely locked away, but it wasn't true.

Natalie watched the flight attendant tuck her wheelchair into the front closet where it just barely fit, knowing that if they had gotten on later, she would've been out of luck. Natalie relaxed knowing her chair was safely stowed. Meanwhile Nick had stored their luggage overhead and taken his seat.

The flight attendant approached, her cart containing wine and glasses, along with snacks. Natalie took the offered white wine, knowing it would help her relax and forget about everything but Nick and their weekend alone. Natalie sipped it, noting it was a good wine, nothing too expensive, but one that could cost a few dollars. Nick passed on the wine. Natalie helped herself to the snacks as she was a little hungry. She grabbed one for Nick, setting it on his tray. He looked at the snack as if it would bite him.

"Relax, I'll eat it," she said softly, once the flight attendant had moved on.

A few minutes later the glasses were collected as the plane was ready to depart. Natalie popped a stick of chewing gum into her mouth and began chewing, offering a piece to Nick, who declined it as expected. Do vampires have the same ear problems? Probably not as they fly, but they don't go as high. The revving of the engines and the forward motion caught Natalie's attention.

She loved watching as the plane took off, the city growing smaller and smaller as they quickly gained altitude.

After cruising altitude was reached dinner was served. Natalie was a little surprised when she was served a shrimp and crab platter instead of the usual meat or chicken dish. She realized she'd never bothered to find out if there were any special meals available. She'd always had too much to do to think about it. Natalie had another glass of wine while she dined and watched the movie.

"I did promise you dinner and a movie," Nick teased.

"Yes, you did," She said, returning the tease.

A couple of hours after takeoff the plane landed. The passengers quickly disembarked. Nick stood to collect their bags, but wound up in the row behind their seats, as the aisle was too crowded for him to retrieve their bags. Natalie lifted the arm rest, sliding over to the aisle seat as soon as it was empty, hating how she would be one of the last people off the plane. Finally the flight attendant wheeled over her chair. While Natalie reseated herself, Nick grabbed the luggage from overhead. He gave her a bag and carried the other three himself.

As soon as Nick and Natalie entered the terminal, they headed for the exit.

"Nick, did you reserve a car?" Natalie asked, wondering how they'd get around.

"Yes."

"Will you tell me where we're going?" She knew of a few things around the area, one of them being a ski resort. It hit her, the clothing he had her pack would work on the slopes. How was she going to ski? Could that be why he'd kept it a secret?

"No. You'll see soon enough." He saw the suspicion in her eyes and hoped she didn't figure it out. He also hoped it didn't backfire on him.

Nick checked in at the car rental place, and Natalie headed outside to pick their car. The agent told them to choose any full sized car in the third row. After two or three cars Natalie and Nick finally agreed on one, stowed their luggage and themselves into the car and headed out.

Natalie was a little surprised when they pulled into one of the more expensive hotels in the area. The fact that it was part of a ski resort confirmed her suspicions.

"Nick, what are we doing here?" Natalie asked uneasily.

"We're going to have fun." Nick said cheerfully.

"What fun am I going to have watching everyone else skiing?" Natalie asked a little annoyed.

"Trust me. Okay?"

"Okay. But..."

He knew that tone. If he screwed up he would be making it up to her for a long time, providing she was talking to him and hadn't staked him.

Nick and Natalie checked in and were shown to their suite.

"Why a suite?" She asked, knowing it was less likely to be accessible.

"I figured it would be more comfortable for us. They told me they had one that was handicap accessible."

The uneasy feeling in her stomach grew, as did some fear. She hoped he would let her in on his plans soon

"Are you interested in finding out the surprise now or tomorrow night?" He teased, knowing how anxious she was growing.

They reached their suite and entered. It was a decent size, yet the furnishings gave it a cozy feeling.

"Tonight, if you don't mind. I don't think I could wait until tomorrow night." She said. "Which bedroom's mine?" Then it hit her, the accessible one.

He didn't answer, her expression showing she knew which one.

They each took a bedroom, checking to see which was the accessible one. She quickly discovered it wasn't the room she was in, so she headed for the other one. Natalie set her bag on the bed while Nick set her other, larger one on the luggage rack before dropping his off in his room. Once that was done they headed out.

"Nick, I don't have any snow boots. I don't have a ski jacket either. My hat and gloves are back in the room," Natalie said out in the hallway.

"Don't worry about it. I'm sure they have a shop here that sells that stuff. I'll buy you whatever you need. It's only fair, seeing as it was my idea."

They headed towards the pro shop. Once inside, Natalie looked over the selection, soon finding a jacket, hat, gloves she liked. She looked for a simple pair of snow boots that would keep her feet warm and hopefully dry. After trying on several pairs, she found one she liked.

Meanwhile Nick was busy picking out his jacket and snow boots. "Sir, Madam, I would suggest a pair of ski pants. It will help keep you warm and dry."

"Thanks." Natalie picked a pair that matched her jacket before entering the dressing room to try them on. After determining the pants fit, she changed back into her own clothes.

Nick passed on the pants, not being bothered by the cold.

"I would suggest sunglasses, as the sun's reflection can be blinding."

"We will be out mostly at night," Nick said. When the pro looked at him funny he continued. "I have a severe sun allergy. We picked your place because of the late hours."

"Nat, is there anything else you want?" Nick asked.

"No. I think I'm all set. How about you?"

"I'm all set. Why don't you get changed while I pay for the stuff."

"Nick..."

"Trust me. Okay?"

She couldn't resist his expression as it was a cross between a little boy and a lost puppy. "Okay."

Natalie returned to the dressing room and changed. A few minutes later she was wearing the ski pants, her previous pants were neatly folded up on her lap. She slipped into her jacket, and gloves before pulling on her hat and boots.

"Madam, someone can take those to your room if you wish."

"Thanks." She handed her pants to the pro. He bagged them with a note.

"You ready for your surprise?" Nick asked. His mischievous grin, and the twinkling in his eyes was not lost on her.

"I hope so," she replied nervously.

Natalie followed Nick out the door and into the freezing night air as they headed for another shop, this one full of different brands of skis, poles, and ski boots. She noticed that one side of the shop contained skiing equipment she'd never seen before. Even the poles were quite different.

One of the instructors spotted them and approached. The instructor was in his mid-thirties, quite trim with short dark hair and brown eyes. He was about Nick's height.

"Are you Knight and Lambert?" The instructor asked.

"Yes. I'm Nick Knight and she's Natalie Lambert. Why?"

"I'm Bryan Davis, one of the instructors. Peter Lawrence, the other instructor, will be back any minute now."

"Nick, what is he talking about?" She asked, her nervousness and fear growing. "You're not the only one taking lessons are you?"

"Nat, I thought we'd learn to ski. That way we'd have something we can do together."

"I don't know. How can I ski?" A part of her was curious and wanted to try, but the other part was terrified. Remember when you thought you couldn't learn Karate?

"What do you two wish to be called? I answer to either name."

"Natalie's fine." She said.

"Nick's fine."

"Natalie, why don't you come with me and we'll get you ready to hit the slopes. Okay?" Bryan grinned. "We'll have you skiing in a couple of hours. Have either of you ever skied before?"

"No." Both Nick and Natalie said at the same time.

"Nick, why don't you look over the ski's and boots. Pick out something you like." The instructor said. "Peter will answer any of your questions.

Nick began looking over the various brands trying to find something he liked. Another tall, thin, brown haired gentleman entered. He was about the same age as Bryan.

"Peter, Nick there needs some assistance in picking out beginner equipment."

Natalie and Bryan approached the equipment she would be using on the slopes. The same pieces she saw when they entered, but didn't know what they were for.

"Natalie, I need to ask you a few questions in order to pick out what's best suited for your needs," Bryan asked.

"Okay."

"What level is your injury? Do you have any feeling or function below your injury?"

"I'm a L-1 paraplegic. I only have one tiny spot of feeling in my left knee. Other than that there's no feeling or function below the injury site."

"How long have you been paraplegic? Do you have any problems with your balance? Do you have any other neurological or muscular problems? Do you have any other conditions that might affect your learning to ski?"

"I've been paraplegic for seven and half months. My balance is fine. I don't have any other problems that would interfere with the lessons."

"How were you injured?"

"Car crash. My brakes failed and I hit a light post."

"You look like you have a strong upper body, which will make it easier for you to maneuver." Bryan pulled out a mono-ski. It was a single ski with shock absorbers mounted on a short column, which was attached to a bucket seat. The seat was long enough to come to just behind her knees. A place for her feet to rest came out in front of the bucket, leaving her knees bent at a ninety degree angle. A strap held her feet on the footrest.

Natalie wasn't sure if she could transfer herself, but was willing to try. She followed the instructor's suggestions and with some effort and maneuvering transferred herself to the mono-ski. He handed her a pair of short, specially designed ski poles. She examined them, seeing they had a cuff that went around her forearm with a handgrip about halfway down. The bottom of the pole was flat, sort of like a very short ski. There was a hinge where the pole and flat bottom piece met to allow it to bend as needed.

"Use the poles to help you balance." Once Bryan saw that Natalie could balance herself without his help, he instructed her how to lean so that she could control the direction she was going as well as her speed.

"Nick, do we have time for a lesson?" Nat asked, not brave enough to go out there on her own.

"Yes." He saw her smile.

"Transfer back to your chair and I'll take the mono-ski outside for you." Bryan said to Natalie.

Meanwhile Peter had been showing Nick how attach his ski boots to his skis by stepping where the binding was, how to turn his skis so that he could control which direction he went as well as his speed.

Natalie found the deeper snow harder to push through. She was grateful when they arrived at the bunny hill. She transferred back to the mono-ski.

Bryan attached two long straps to the back of Natalie's mono-ski so that he could assist her in turning, at least until she got the hang of it. Using the straps, he would be able to exert some control over her.

"Natalie, relax. You'll do better if you're not all tense." He said. "If some quadriplegics can learn this, you can too." He saw that his reassurance worked, as well as seeing some surprise on her face. "You ready to give it a try?"

"I think so." Natalie took a deep breath before continuing. "What do I do first?"

"Give yourself a good push off with your poles, just like I showed you."

Nick and Natalie exchanged glances.

"Here goes." She took another deep breath and pushed off. She was both excited and terrified as she started down the small hill. Bryan manipulated the straps and helped Natalie control her speed and stay in a straight line.

"Nick, your turn," Peter said, having finished his instructions.

Nick pushed off, a little nervous, but enjoying the feel of the wind as he made his way down the small slope. It reminded him of flying.

A few feet later Nick fell. He heard a familiar giggle behind him. Nick pulled himself to his feet and tried again. He made it a little further down the slope before falling again, this time it was a different type of fall. He couldn't believe it, he could fly but he couldn't slide down a snow covered bunny hill with waxed boards underfoot. If Schanke, LaCroix or Janette were here, they'd never let me hear the end of it.

Natalie had a little better luck, falling further down the trail. She heard Nick's giggle. She struggled to set herself back up and continued down the mountain.

Both students received helpful pointers as they were pulled back up the bunny hill by a different sort of ski lift. This one had handles that they had to hang onto rather than being seated as it pulled them up the small hill.

Natalie and Nick's second run down the bunny hill was more successful. Nick fell halfway down the slope. Natalie was prevented from falling completely over because Bryan was able to help stabilize her with the straps.

After three successful runs down the bunny hill, Natalie and Nick's instructors felt they were ready to hit the real slopes.

"Ready to try it for real?" Bryan asked.

"I hope," Natalie said, butterflies in her stomach.

"Me too," Nick responded.

Nick and Natalie headed for the chair lift for their first run down the mountain's beginner's trail. Bryan coached Natalie on how to ride the lift, while Peter did the same for Nick.

Soon the foursome were at the top of the hill. Natalie couldn't believe how nervous she was. She was scared that she'd kill herself going downhill, but she also felt the excitement of the new challenge. Nick too was scared that he would seriously injure himself, after all he couldn't die. He too felt the thrill of the challenge, especially since it reminded him of flying.

Before she pushed off, Natalie's voice took on a mischievous tone. "By the way, Nick... if I kill myself doing this, I'm coming back to haunt you."

"You would, wouldn't you?" He knew she probably would haunt him. He also knew his own memories would haunt him if he was the cause of anything bad happening to her.

"See you at the bottom," Nick said as he pushed off.

A while later both reached the bottom of the trail, a little wobbly but they didn't fall once.

"We did it, not too gracefully, but we did it," Natalie said pleased with herself. She was a bit disappointed that there wasn't time for another run. "Bryan, are you free tonight? I'd like to start as soon as the sun goes down."

"I'll meet you at the chair lift around 7pm?" Bryan said.

"Sounds good."

"You did quite well for a first lesson. After a couple more runs down the slope you should be able to solo."

Natalie smiled, pleased, with both her attempt and her teacher's praise.

"Nick, I'll meet you at the chair lift, 7pm? You did good for a first lesson. Better than some people do."

Natalie transferred back to her wheelchair so Bryan could take the mono-ski back to the rental shop for the day.

Since none of the various restaurants, cafes or snack bars would be open for several hours, Natalie grabbed a snack from the vending machine as they headed back to their suite.

Once back in their suite, they stripped off their ski clothes, hanging them up for use that evening and changed into their sleepwear. Natalie used her hairdryer to help warm up the frigid handrims, not in the mood to wait until they naturally did, as they were colder than usual from sitting outside all that time.

"Nick, what are you going to do for food?" Natalie asked concerned. She didn't think he packed any of his usual with him knowing it would've been too difficult to explain to airport security.

Nick looked around the room and found a note on the fridge door. "Six bottles as ordered." He opened the door and took the first bottle out, removed the cork and took a long drink before recorking it.

"Is there anywhere your kind isn't?" She asked, a hint of teasing in her voice. She was quite curious and hoped he answered.

"Hawaii, and the surrounding islands. Jamaica, the Bahamas, Florida, anywhere that's too warm and sunny."

"I should've guessed," she said. "I felt like I could fly. It was very exhilarating."

"Flying is very much like that. Especially the way the wind rushes past you as you speed to your destination." He saw the slight surprise on her face. Was that from the similarities or from learning a new fact? he wondered.

"Thanks, Nick. I had a great time. I think I'm going to sleep. I'm exhausted."

"Me too. I'm glad you had a good time," Nick said as he kissed the top of her head. "Sleep well."

"You too."

Both were asleep almost as soon as their heads hit the pillow. Nick had left the do not disturb sign out and had arranged with the front desk not to have the room disturbed during the day, using his allergy as the reason why. Nick and Natalie slept extremely soundly all day long.

They awoke quite late that afternoon, showered and dressed for the slopes, leaving off their outerwear. Nick accompanied Natalie to the restaurant so she could have a proper meal before they headed out for the slopes. After they ate they went back to the room to grab jackets, hats, sunglasses, gloves and boots. Nick found it a little difficult to walk in the ski boots, but quickly grew used to it. He found the skis easy to carry, along with the poles.

Before long Nick and Natalie were again reunited with their instructors. Natalie transferred herself into the mono-ski, noticing that this one was a little different, a bit sleeker than the previous one.

"Natalie, I think this one might be a little better for you," Bryan said as he attached the cables to the back of her mono-ski.

Nick snapped into his bindings. Before long all four of them took the chairlift to the top of the hill.

Natalie and Nick enjoyed their first run down the mountain, being a little smoother and steadier than the night before. Both noticed the looks Natalie received, but ignored it having grown pretty used to people staring at her, especially when she was doing something rather different like this.

"Nick, I think you have the hang of it. Remember to keep your knees bent. There isn't much more to teach you," Peter said.

"Thanks, Peter."

"Natalie, I too believe you have the hang of it. Just remember to remain balanced. Don't be afraid to use the poles, that's what they're there for. This time you're going to do it solo. I'll be there just in case, but you really don't need me," Bryan said as he unsnapped the tethers from the back of her mono-ski.

Nick watched Natalie soar down the mountain. She was quite graceful.

When they reached the bottom of the slope Nick generously tipped Bryan and Peter for their good attitude and their willingness to work through the night.

"If either of you need anything let either of us know." Bryan said, surprised by the size of his tip.

"We will," Nick said.

"We hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation," Peter said as Bryan nodded. Peter was also surprised Nick had been as generous as he was.

Nick and Natalie took the chair lift up to the top again. Once they got off Natalie challenged Nick. "Last one to the bottom buys dinner." She took off almost before she'd finished issuing the challenge.

Nick quickly took off, but didn't cheat by using his vampire speed. Sure, he could win that way, but it would only anger her and he didnÕt want to do that. Not to mention that it would be a major risk as there were too many mortals around to see nothing more than blur, if anything, race past them.

It was a close race to the bottom of the hill. Natalie won by a hair. Nick couldn't believe how fast she was. He loved the huge smile that lit up her entire face. Christmas was the last time he'd seen her eyes sparkle like they did at that moment. A part of him thought they were sparkling brighter now than they did over the holidays.

"How about some hot chocolate before a rematch? That is if you're up to a rematch," he teased.

"You're on. But I want the rematch before we take a break."

"Okay."

Natalie won again, just barely. Is he holding back too much?

Nick saw the curiosity in her eyes. "No, I'm not letting you win. "

"I thought you'd be the faster one," Natalie said. "I thought all of this equipment would slow me down. Thank you."

"You're welcome. I'm glad you're having fun.

Natalie and Nick headed for the snack shack that had been built on the edge of the slopes so the skiers didn't have to remove their skis. Natalie ordered a large hot chocolate, burger and fries. Nick was surprised when Natalie didn't make him order anything.

The freshly cooked food felt good as it warmed up her cold body. She held her drink between her hands letting the heat warm them. They talked for a while after eating and watched the other skiers. They were a little surprised to see another mono-skier whiz down the hill, making it look almost as natural as breathing.

After about half an hour Nick and Natalie headed back for the slopes to get in a few more runs before everything shut down for the night. They improved with each run down the slopes. About three and a half hours later they had completed their last run for the evening and returned the mono-ski to the rental shop.

Nick and Natalie picked up a movie on their way back to their suite. Once inside, they changed into their sleepwear, grabbed something to eat from the fridge and headed for the couch. Natalie transferred herself from her wheelchair to the couch while Nick stuck a movie into the VCR. They fell asleep cuddled together on the couch, before the opening credits could finish.

The next evening Natalie was eager to get out onto the slopes, which surprised her. Nick was enjoying himself, but knew she was having more fun than he was.

"I can't believe how addicted I am. I feel so alive up there. Better than I do during my Karate lessons." She realized that didn't sound quite right. "I meant, I enjoy both, but differently. Karate's more about self-defense, and this is pure fun."

"It does feel great." Nick said before he changed the subject. "I have another surprise for you."

"I'm ready."

Natalie followed Nick through the lobby and out the front doors where a horse drawn sleigh awaited them. She wrapped her arms around his neck to steady herself as he lifted her from her wheelchair and climbed into the sleigh. He set her down on the seat and sat next to her. He tucked the blanket around their laps before signaling the driver to begin. Nick wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and she responded by leaning against him.

"This is great. I've always wanted to do this. Thank you," Natalie said.

As the sleigh slowly cruised around the ski resort, Nick showed Natalie every visible constellation, telling her the story behind each one. He could see how much she was enjoying his stories. What he didn't know was how much his soft, seductive voice melted her insides.

Nick and Natalie were drawn into a long, deep kiss. One that neither was anxious to break. Before long, Natalie reluctantly had to break away in order to breathe.

After about an hour, the sleigh returned to the hotel where Nick paid the driver, tipping him generously. Nick again scooped Natalie up in his arms, climbed down and headed for her chair. He loved the extremely relaxed, peaceful look on her face. It almost seemed a shame to spoil the mood by setting her down, but he knew it was what she wanted. She loved seeing her emotions mirrored in his eyes. His whole body seemed more relaxed than she had ever seen it.

Of course he's relaxed. LaCroix isn't here and he hasn't heard the Nightcrawler. Natalie thought.

Too bad we can't stay here. Ran through both their minds.

"How about some hot chocolate and a snack before hitting the slopes?" Nick asked, knowing she had to be hungry.

"Sounds good."

After Natalie finished her snack and rested a few minutes, they skied the night away, challenging each other from time to time. Enjoying every moment of their all too brief time away from Toronto. Relishing their time together, especially since no one was trying to kill her.

The next afternoon Nick and Natalie awoke, dreading the fact that it was time to return home.

"Nick, thank you for the perfect weekend. Thank you for showing me that there are still a lot of things I have yet to try, and succeed at." She gently caressed the side of his face as she spoke.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it. I too had a great time."

Once they were back in Toronto, Natalie dropped Nick off, tempted to spend the day there, but wanted to sleep in her own bed.

Both she and Nick fell into a long, deep, peaceful sleep as soon as they laid down in their own beds.

A part of them really missed not being able to spend the day together. Now that Weston was in jail, they had no excuse.

Natalie entered the morgue the next evening with a smile on her face and her good mood radiating from every pore in her body. Grace spotted her and smiled.

"Someone had a great weekend. What happened?" Grace asked curious, but with a teasing aspect to her voice.

"We learned how to ski." She loved the surprised look her statement caused. She knew what Grace really wanted to know. "No, nothing like that happened. Although, we did share a very nice kiss during the sleigh ride."

"I would've loved to have seen you two learning to ski. How..." I shouldn't be surprised. After all she convinced Myra and myself to take up Karate.

Natalie explained it to Grace while showing her friend a few pictures some strangers had taken of her and Nick between runs. "It was exactly what the doctor ordered."

"Did he tell you what he had planned?" Grace asked.

Natalie enjoyed relating the weekend's events to her friend, and seeing the numerous changes in her expression.

Nick arrived at work in a good mood, something Schanke immediately noticed and felt it was his duty to comment on.

"I see the weekend went well. Where exactly did the two of you go?"

"We went to the Kingston resort." Nick suppressed a grin at his partner's look of surprise.

"Isn't that a ski resort? Why'd you take her there? Wouldn't not being able to ski have the opposite effect from what you wanted?"

"Yes, it's a ski resort. She thought I was nuts too. I didn't tell her where we were going until we got there. All I told her was to pack warmly."

"Smooth move, partner. I don't think she would've agreed to go, if she'd known." Then again, she does Karate.

"You're probably right. Well, once there she was eager to explore the resort. She didn't know how she could ski until we entered the pro shop." Nick explained how Natalie was able to ski while showing Schanke the duplicate set of prints.

"How'd she do? I assume you did okay because I don't see any broken bones," Schanke teased.

"She did better than I did, at least at first." Nick said as he told his partner about the weekend.

"I'm glad it worked. She really needed that."

"I know. It really helped."

Later that night Grace and Schanke had fun teasing the other half of the couple. Nick and Natalie endured the teasing in the fun spirit it was given. They even threw in a tease or two of their own. Grace and Schanke were pleased to see their friends relaxed, and happier than they'd been in a while.

The next afternoon Natalie returned to therapy. Megan was glad to see her client was more relaxed than she had been before her trip.

"How'd it go?" Megan asked, even though the answer was perfectly clear.

"It went great. Did you have any part in it?"

"Not really. Nick asked me for suggestions, and had a few questions about your limitations. He also asked if it was okay for you to miss a session or two. Normally I would've said no, but you needed the vacation more than you needed to come here."

"Thanks."

"I'm glad you had such a great time."

During their workout Megan questioned Natalie about the weekend in detail and Nat happily answered all her questions.

Natalie, Grace and Myra still attended their three Karate classes a week. Don dropped out to care for Jenny, knowing it was more important for his wife to learn self-defense than him. He could always pick up a class at the academy. Natalie, Grace and Myra had improved quite a bit from those first lessons, and were thrilled to hear they were almost ready for the first test. The three ladies practiced their katas in class, knowing they had to have the series of movements that made up the particular form they'd been taught perfected by test time.

Three weeks later Natalie was back at her therapy. Megan once again told Natalie to close her eyes. When her client did as instructed, Megan stuck a pin through Nat's leggings poking her hips, thighs, legs and feet at various points. Natalie was nearly stunned when she could feel the pricking in two new spots.

"I think that we might intensify your therapy, if you have no problems with it."

"No. We would have to start earlier in order for me to get to work on time. We'd also have to work around my karate classes."

"I think that can be arranged."

"Do you think I might be able to get on my feet again?"

"I don't know. It may be possible, especially if the feeling in your legs continues to increase. If you do get on your feet, it will be a long hard struggle to walk with assistance, crutches and maybe braces of some sort. You still might want to use your chair sometimes."

Natalie knew not to get her hopes too high, but it wasn't easy. A part of her was quite used to being in the chair and was a little afraid of failure.

"Can you wiggle your toes, move your foot or anything?"

Natalie tried, but was only able to slightly wiggle her toes, disappointed that she couldn't do more, and still lacked any feeling in her legs.

"I know. It's still too early," Natalie said, depressed.

They did their usual mat work, talking as they worked.

As soon as Nick and Schanke neared their desks they heard, "Knight, Schanke in my office now."

As the two detectives entered the Captain's office she motioned for Nick to shut the door, which he did. Nick and Schanke grew concerned, knowing Cohen only had them do that when there was trouble.

"What is it, Captain?" Schanke asked.

"I just got off the phone with the Crown Prosecutor. It seems that Peter Weston has filed charges of attempted murder against Dr. Lambert."

"What?" Schanke said totally stunned. "They let him do that?"

"Apparently so. I want you two to go pick her up and bring her here. Book her."

"Captain, you can't throw her into a cell," Nick said upset. He pushed down his desire to kill Weston slowly and painfully, knowing it wasn't what Natalie wanted.

"I know. I can't do that to her. She doesn't deserve it."

"What if we went into a conference room and worked? That way she would be confined and watched." Nick asked, looking for an alternative.

"That would work." Cohen knew it would help Nick get his paperwork done and would keep him from constantly checking on Natalie.

"She's not going to like this," Nick said.

"I know," Cohen said, glad she wasn't the one who had to tell the forensic pathologist she was under arrest, especially having seen Natalie's temper.

During the drive to the Coroner's Office, Schanke turned to Nick, "Can you believe it? He gets to charge her after what he did to her."

"It's unfair. Do you want me to be the one to tell her?" Nick asked.

"Yes. I don't want to be on the receiving end of her temper."

Nick wasn't too pleased about that either, but knew he was the one who should do it. It won't be the first and probably not the last time I'm the reason she loses her temper.

Shortly the two detectives entered Natalie's office. She heard them enter and looked up, concerned by their expressions. Schanke seemed like a little boy who'd broken a vase and was being asked who did it. Nick seemed a little uneasy, but something about it was different this time.

"What's wrong?"

"Peter Weston filed charges of attempted murder against you. We have to take you in."

They're kidding, right? Please tell me this is a joke. Their expressions told her they were deadly serious.

"You're going to book me and leave me in a cell?" Natalie asked astounded, and a little angry.

"We're going to book you, but not throw you in cell. Bring some paperwork with you. We'll be working in a conference room," Nick said.

"Who's idea was that?"

"Sort of a joint effort," Nick replied.

Natalie stuffed several files into her backpack along with the blank forms she'd need.

Nick read Natalie her rights, not wanting there to be any trouble later because he failed to do so. He was glad he did not have to handcuff her, he couldn't do that to her.

I can't believe that bastard is allowed to do this to me! It was purely self defense. I wouldn't be in this damn chair if it wasn't for him. Natalie thought, trying to calm herself down, not wanting Nick to see how much it disturbed her.

What boneheaded prosecutor believed he had a case? Schanke thought.

What sort of justice is it when the attacker can have the victim arrested for defending herself? Nick wondered, carefully containing his anger at Weston.

At the precinct, Nick took Natalie's backpack from her and handed it to Schanke, who took it to the conference room. No one was pleased with the situation, but knew they had to try and make the best of it.

The booking officer was stunned when told to book the medical examiner. He too thought it was some sort of a sick joke until Nick explained it to him. Officer deLuca agreed that the situation was unfair.

DeLuca walked Natalie through the booking procedure far more gently and friendlier than usual. Natalie hated being made to feel like a criminal. She was fingerprinted, then given a wet towel to wipe off the ink. DeLuca didn't want her getting it all over her clothes or wheelchair. Next, he handed her the slate with her name and number on it before positioning her for her mugshots. Natalie found having to answer the questions the most embarrassing of all.

Once booking was completed, Natalie was released into Nick's custody. Natalie and Nick headed for the conference room where coffee, a couple of chocolate bars, and her backpack were waiting for her.

"Now what?" Natalie asked, a little scared.

"Now we wait until the hearing. Hopefully, Cohen will be able to push that along." Nick put his hand on hers in an effort to reassure her that all would be fine.

She drank her coffee and ate one of the chocolate bars while working on her files. At least I get some uninterrupted work time, and time with Nick.

At least Cohen will be off my back about the paperwork. I get to spend time with Nat.

A couple of hours later, Natalie smiled as Schanke entered with Natalie's favorite Chinese food.

"Thanks."

"I couldn't let you eat the chipped beef on toast that's being served in holding."

"You are a true friend," Natalie said as she removed the carton from the bag, and opened it. She hungrily ate her lunch, using the chopsticks almost like a native.

"Schank, how's Jenny doing?" Natalie asked.

"Pretty good. She seems to be handling the crutches like a pro. Her leg doesn't seem to be giving her any problems. She's had no problems from her mild concussion and they don't perceive any future ones either." Schanke said very relieved. "She carries her books or whatever she needs in a backpack. She enjoys getting out of most of her chores. She hates my carrying her over the snow and slush piles, saying it embarrasses her. Deep down I think she doesn't really mind. Just this evening she told me that she was glad she didn't have to play dodge ball because the boys throw the ball too hard. She spends the time in the library, same for recess."

"And you're not spoiling her?" Nick said with a slight teasing to his voice.

"Maybe a little. We try not to. It's hard not to spoil her."

Later Nick had to escort Natalie to the ladies room and wait outside, before escorting her back to the conference room.

Natalie and Nick finished their work with a couple of hours left in their shifts. Schanke brought them a deck of cards he'd found, hoping that it might help take her mind off of the current situation. He left the cards with Nick and Nat before heading back to his desk to finish up his own paperwork, taking their completed files with him.

"Thanks for not throwing me into a cell. I don't think I could've handled that," Natalie said relieved that she was stuck in a dull drab room rather than the holding cell she should've been in.

"No problem. You shouldn't be here at all," Nick said as he gently stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. He was pleased when he saw the muscles of her body relax.

Natalie soundly creamed Nick at whatever game he picked. He had never realized she was so knowledgeable about cards. Remind me never to play poker with her, Nick thought.

"Whenever there were a few minutes during med school or residency we would play cards, if we weren't sleeping or studying. Usually, there wasn't time for anything but studying or sleeping."

Near the end of the shift Schanke came in to inform them that Natalie's case would be heard shortly. Nick and Natalie packed up their stuff and headed for the Caddie.

Nick, Natalie and Schanke entered a conference room next to the courtroom. Natalie and Schanke looked at each other in surprise, then at Nick when they discovered Natalie's barrister was the top one in all of Toronto.

"Nat, I want you to have the best defense possible. Hopefully, he can prevent this from going any further," Nick said.

"Dr. Lambert?" Lawton said, recognizing his client from the picture he'd seen of her.

"Yes." Natalie said.

"I'm Michael Lawton. Mr. Knight hired me to make sure this superficial case goes no further." He pulled a manila folder out of his briefcase. "I need to hear your side of the story before we're called."

"No problem."

Natalie told Lawton everything Weston had done to her from the accident to the present. She answered any questions Michael asked. Lawton asked a few questions of Nick and Schanke because they were able to fill in a few of the blanks.

"Technically there are grounds, but it was clearly self defense. Weston started it, and didn't stop until you seriously injured him. Then he kept coming, so you had to hurt him even worse to save your life. There are very few barristers who would even consider taking such a weak case."

"Can you get the case thrown out?" Natalie asked.

Nick saw the slight fear in Natalie's eyes. Fear that she'd actually be tried for attempted murder.

"I believe I can. Like I said, the case is extremely weak."

Their group had to wait for the case before them to finish. When it was their turn, the bailiff lead them into the courtroom.

"The next case is the Crown vs. Natalie Lambert," the bailiff said.

"The charge?" The judge asked.

"Attempted murder."

The judge was shocked. He knew Dr. Lambert from her excellent reputation and her few times appearing before him on the other side of the fence, as well as having met her once or twice outside of work. He found her an intelligent and enchanting lady.

Judge Radcliffe quickly reviewed the case file.

"Dr. Lambert, how do you plead?"

"Not guilty."

"Since you do not have a record, and don't seem to be a flight risk, I see no reason to hold you overnight." Judge Radcliffe paused momentarily. "Due to the nature of the charges against you, I will have to release you into the custody of someone."

"I volunteer to take custody of Dr. Lambert," Nick said.

"I can't allow that. The report states your involvement as well, but nothing you can be charged with."

"I volunteer to take custody of her," Schanke said.

"Please identify yourself for the record," the judge asked.

"Detective Don Schanke."

"Okay. She's in your custody until tomorrow night when the preliminary hearing is scheduled. She is not to be out of your sight until then. Understand?"

"Yes."

Natalie, Nick, Schanke and Lawton left the courtroom.

"Schanke, thanks. I'm sorry for the inconvenience," Natalie said.

"No problem. Myra and I have been trying to get the two of you over for a visit." Schanke tried to lighten the mood.

"Well, it looks like you succeeded. I don't want to be any trouble," Natalie said, knowing what its like to have unexpected company.

"You hungry?" Schanke asked, his stomach rumbling.

"Starving," Natalie said.

"Then let's go. Myra should have dinner ready shortly."

"Nat, Schank, I'll see you tonight. I have to run." Nick sensed that he would just have time to get home before the sun came up.

Natalie again noticed the ramp as she and Don approached his front door.

"Did you permanently install this?"

"Yes. It's helpful when we have our hands full. It's easier for Jenny to get into the house as well."

Natalie smiled, causing Schanke to react similarly. Don unlocked the front door and held it open for Natalie. He followed her inside where Myra met them. Don headed upstairs to put away his gun, badge, cuffs and take off his tie.

"Myra, thanks for doing this. I don't want to cause any more trouble."

"I know. This whole thing is stupid. At least it gives us a chance to visit."

Don carried his daughter down the stairs, not wanting her to fall. She didn't mind as hopping down them was hard and slow, even with the banister's support. Jenny entered the family room, dressed for school and headed straight for Natalie. Don headed for the kitchen to see if his wife needed any help. He knew that Jenny wanted to spend a few minutes talking with Natalie.

"Hi, Natalie," Jenny said excited to see Natalie again.

"Hi, Jenny. I hear you're doing good," Natalie said cheerfully.

"Yes. It's beginning to be a bit of a drag though. Did your arms and shoulders hurt?"

"For weeks. The first two weeks I didn't think I could handle another day. Slowly, as I grew stronger it hurt less and less. Now it only hurts when I work more than 12 -14 hours in a row. Go sit down on the couch."

Before long Jenny was seated on the couch, her crutches propped against the end of the couch, and watched as Natalie transferred herself to the couch so she was seated behind her. Natalie gently massaged Jenny's shoulders feeling the tension easing as she worked.

"Does that feel better?"

"Much. Thank you."

"Nick used to do that for me every night. He still does sometimes."

"He's nice."

"Yes, he is," Natalie said with a grin.

"I wish it wasn't so icky outside."

"Wouldn't you hate your cast more if it was summer?" Natalie asked, trying to help Jenny see the brighter side.

"Yeah. It would be too hot inside it. I'd miss playing with my friends outside and going swimming. Thanks for helping me see that."

"You're welcome."

"Does it matter what season it is for you?"

"Not really. I like winter the least because of the snow and cold weather."

Myra motioned for them to enter the breakfast area. Jenny watched as Natalie reseated herself in her chair. She was used to seeing Natalie do this, but somehow still found it interesting to watch. Jenny grabbed her crutches, using them to help her stand.

"How about a lift to the table?" Natalie asked, knowing how hard it was being Jenny's age and on crutches.

"You sure?" Jenny asked, not wanting to accidentally hurt Natalie.

"I'm sure. I'm pretty tough," Natalie said with a large grin.

"Okay," Jenny said as she sat on the coroner's lap. Natalie helped position her so that the young girl wouldn't interfere with her maneuvering. Natalie leaned Jenny's crutches against the overstuffed chair before heading over to the table, with her passenger.

Natalie pulled up right next to Jenny's chair so she could have a seat without having to hop too far. She helped the youngster off her lap and saw Jenny use the edge of the table to help her stabilize herself as she hopped the two steps to her chair and seated herself.

Don removed the kitchen chair from Natalie's place so that she wouldn't have to go to the trouble of transferring herself.

"Natalie, you shouldn't have," Myra said, not wanting her daughter taking advantage of their guest.

"It's no problem. We were both heading here, so why not? Besides, I remember what it's like."

"Did you ever break your leg?" Jenny asked, curious.

"No, but I did sprain my ankle when I was about your age. I was on crutches for a week. I hated them." Natalie said as she maneuvered herself to her place. "I was playing tag outside and zigged when I should've zagged." Natalie smiled, noticing her seat overlooked the backyard.

"I thought you might like that after spending the night in the conference room and courthouse," Myra said.

"Thanks. I do appreciate it. The food smells great," Natalie said.

Don carried two full coffee mugs over to the table, setting one in front of his place and one in front of Nat's. He grabbed two plates from the counter and set one in front of Natalie and one in his place. He sat down, seeing that Myra had things under control.

"Natalie, are you going to do more skiing or was last weekend enough for you?" Don asked.

"If my schedule allows, I'd like to do more, but maybe something closer to home."

"You ski?" Jenny asked quite surprised.

"Yes. I just learned how last weekend. Nick thought I needed a vacation and surprised me with lessons. I didn't think I could, but with a few lessons and some practice I was able to."

"How?" Jenny asked, curious.

Myra and Don were torn between letting their daughter satisfy her curiosity and preventing her from bothering Natalie. When they noticed that Nat didn't seem to mind they went along with it.

"Remind me after breakfast and I'll see if the pictures are still in my backpack. Okay?" Natalie said, knowing it would be easier to explain with the pictures as a visual aid.

"Okay. Are you good?"

"I'm okay. It was only two nights worth of skiing so I didn't really have a chance to get that good."

"How did Nick do?" Jenny asked.

"He did pretty good. He had trouble at the beginning," Natalie said as she grinned. "But he pretty quickly got the hang of it."

Natalie answered more questions as they finished their breakfast. After everyone was finished, Natalie gave Jenny a ride back to her crutches. Jenny hopped the three steps to the couch, holding onto the end of it for support.

"I could've done that, or brought them to her," Don said, not wanting Natalie going out of her way.

"It's only fair since I brought her to the table," Natalie said with a grin.

Natalie transferred herself to the couch next to Jenny and dug around in her backpack, quickly coming up with the pictures.

Myra sat on the other side of her daughter so she could see the pictures as well. Don had already heard the story so he had a seat in the overstuffed chair, moving Jenny's crutches so they leaned against the end table. He figured he'd listen to the story again as he too was more curious than he let on.

Natalie explained to her audience how she was able to ski using the modified equipment shown in the pictures. Her friends found it fascinating. Natalie happily answered all their questions.

About half an hour later Don caught a glimpse of the time. "Jenny, we need to go. Otherwise you'll be late."

"Bye, Natalie. I hope I'll see you again later."

"You probably will. Bye, Jenny. Have fun."

Don handed his daughter her jacket, backpack and crutches. Once she was all set the two of them headed out. He knew he was ignoring the judge's orders, but knew Natalie wouldn't run off.

Myra saw how tired Natalie was and insisted that she stretch out on the couch while they talked. Myra moved to the overstuffed chair vacated by her husband. They enjoyed their chance to talk, not having had much time for a long, relaxed conversation lately.

Upon Don's return, Natalie saw how tired he was and understood when he said his goodnights and went straight up to bed.

Myra and Natalie talked for about an hour more before Natalie fell asleep. Myra draped a quilt over Natalie and went about her business, trying to keep the noise down so she wouldn't accidentally wake her friend, or her husband.

Several hours later it was time for her to pick Jenny up. She left a note on the coffee table where Natalie would see it, knowing Natalie wouldn't run off. She didn't have the heart to wake her husband for such a stupid reason.

About twenty minutes later, Jenny and Myra entered, trying to be as quiet as possible. They saw Natalie seated on the couch reading a magazine.

"Hi, Natalie."

"Hi, Jenny. How was school?"

"Okay. We learned about gravity today. We did scientific experiments to see which of two objects would fall faster than the other. What did you do?"

"I bet you learned a few startling things. I talked with your mom until I fell asleep. I woke up a few minutes ago." She could see that Jenny's muscles were sore. "Would you like another massage?"

Jenny nodded and seated herself on the couch again.

"Yeah, a few of the things surprised us."

Natalie gently massaged Jenny's shoulders.

"The earlier one really helped. My muscles weren't as sore this morning."

"I'm glad."

"Myra, I'm sorry I fell asleep earlier."

"That's okay. There's plenty of time for us to talk. You needed your rest," Myra said, not wanting Nat to feel bad.

Don came down the stairs, dressed for work. He saw Nat and his daughter once again talking on the couch.

"Natalie, how did you sleep?" Don asked during a break in the conversation.

"Quite well. How about you?" Natalie asked.

"Like a baby," Don said. "Jenny, I don't want you bothering Natalie."

"It's no bother," Natalie said with a smile as she played with Jenny's short ponytail, which caused Jenny to giggle.

"Is anyone hungry?" Myra asked. She saw three people nod their heads and started preparing the early dinner they were accustomed to.

Jenny enjoyed the chance to talk with Natalie. She thought both Nick and Natalie were cool. Don went into the kitchen to see if he could help, sticking his head out from time to time to make sure that his daughter wasn't annoying their guest. He was surprised by a question or two that Jenny asked Natalie about her disability, but didn't intervene, knowing Natalie would let Jenny know if there was something she didn't want to talk about and probably why.

"Food's ready." Myra called about fifteen minutes later.

"How about another lift to the table?" Natalie said.

"Thanks." Jenny said. "I have to do a report on someone I consider a role model. Can I ask you some questions later?"

"Sure. I'm honored you chose me."

"Sorry, mom and dad."

"It's okay, honey," Don said with a small chuckle. "She's a good choice."

Natalie helped Jenny position herself so that she wouldn't interfere with Nat's wheels.

Don and Myra didn't argue this time, knowing Nat wouldn't do it if she didn't want to. They noticed how Natalie's disability had made Jenny less unsure about her own temporary one. It had helped the entire family learn a lot about people with disabilities, paraplegia in particular.

The dinner conversation centered around Jenny's day at school, which was fine with Nat. She didn't want to disrupt their routine anymore than she absolutely had to. Besides, she enjoyed hearing Jenny's stories. Natalie enjoyed watching the family interacting with each other, pleased they were happy and loved each other.

After dinner, Natalie again gave Jenny a lift to the family room. Don and Myra walked, arms around each other to the family room.

Jenny grabbed her backpack, seated herself on the couch, her leg propped up on the footstool in front of her and pulled out her notebook and pencil. Natalie transferred herself to the couch next to Jenny while Don and Myra took the overstuffed chairs on each side of the couch. Don read the paper while Myra read a cooking magazine.

"Natalie, what got you interested in studying dead bodies?"

"I was doing my internship after medical school. Every two months we would move to a different part of the hospital, ER, surgery, pediatrics, and so on. Well, during my turn at the morgue, I was fascinated by a case we had. It involved a man who had drowned on dry land. He had apparently died where they found him."

"How do you do that?" Jenny asked, writing down what Natalie said.

When Natalie saw her young friend had caught up with her notes she continued. "We asked ourselves that very question. With a lot of careful examination and speculation we figured out that someone had held his head in a bucket of water, which they took with them. They also removed any traces of it being there."

"Why did they kill him?"

"Because he had stolen from a very nasty guy. He was greedy and wanted more of the money for himself. The very bad guy didn't like that, because it meant he got less of the money that he felt was his."

Did you stay in the morgue?"

"No. I had to go onto the next assignment which was the critical care unit. But once I finished all the different assignments I had to pick where to specialize. Nothing had captured my curiosity as well as my time in the morgue so I picked that as my specialization."

"Did you need any other training?"

"Yes. I studied forensic pathology," Natalie noticed Jenny struggling with the spelling and spelled it for her.

"Thanks."

"I had to read many hard books on the subject and spent a lot of time around dead people."

"Ewwww. Gross!"

"The first time I saw a dead body I turned green. The first time I had to do an autopsy I was sick for three days."

Natalie noticed the small chuckle Don let out. "I'm glad to see that it did bother you at one time," he said.

"I got used to it the more I did it. I love the challenge of finding why someone died and how they died. I help your dad, Nick and others to catch the bad guys by giving them as much information as I can."

"Do you still have to study?"

"Yes. I have to keep up with all the latest news, the new techniques."

"After your accident were you afraid you wouldn't be able to do your job?"

"Yes. I was. I wasn't reassured until my boss allowed me to return to full duty."

"Is it harder now?"

"The actual job itself isn't much harder thanks to the platform built around my autopsy table so I can push myself around it like I used to walk around it. The main difference at the crime scenes is I can't squat down over the body like I used to, but I'm close enough to see most things and lean over when I have to."

Natalie waited for Jenny to catch up, repeating things when she had to.

"Don, Myra, you might have a budding reporter or detective on your hands," Natalie said.

"Whatever she chooses to do is fine with us," Don said, seeing Myra nod in agreement. "As long as it makes her happy."

"I think I have enough, but can I call you if I have more questions. I promise not to bother you too much."

"Sure. Can I see your report when it's finished?"

"Sure."

Don noticed the clock. "Natalie, we have to go. Especially if you want to stop by your place to change."

"Okay. Thanks for having me. I hope I wasn't too much of an inconvenience," Natalie said.

"It was fun. You weren't any trouble at all," Myra said cheerfully.

"Jenny, we'll talk soon. Okay?"

"Okay."

Natalie transferred herself back to her chair while Don kissed his wife and daughter. Natalie followed Don to the front door. They put on their coats and gloves before going out into the freezing night.

Don escorted Natalie back to her apartment.

Once inside, she fixed them both a cup of coffee. "Make yourself at home while I get ready."

Schanke seated himself on her couch and flipped on the TV. After trying a few channels he found his favorite show, settled back and enjoyed it.

An hour later, Natalie emerged from her bedroom dressed in her navy blue suit, ready to go. Schanke turned off the TV and followed Natalie out the door, pausing as she locked up.

That evening Nick, Natalie and Schanke met Lawton outside the courtroom. Everyone could see Natalie's nervousness and tried to reassure her that everything would be fine, but she wasn't completely convinced. When Natalie's case was called she and Lawton entered the courtroom. Nick and Schanke weren't allowed in until after they testified. Natalie and Lawton seated themselves behind the defense table.

Peter Weston entered in his wheelchair. He parked himself behind the prosecution's table, next to his barrister. Weston glared at Natalie from time to time, his eyes full of hatred. He hated her for what she did to him, making him a freak like she and Knight were.

Natalie refused to allow Weston to bother her. He's the reason we're both like this.

The members of the jury were called in, and took their seats.

Lawton and the defense barrister, Orrin, made short opening statements. Lawton focused on the fact that everything Natalie did was in self-defense. That Weston went out of his way to cut her brake lines, tried to kill her three other times, the last time was after he'd abducted her. Orrin pointed out that Lambert didn't try to kill Weston once, but twice. That she didn't have to be as brutal in her attacks as she was. That she blamed him for her accident and was seeking vengeance.

Judge Radcliffe, the same judge from the night before called Dr. Lambert to the stand. The Bailiff directed Natalie to a spot right in front of the stand and held out the bible to her. Natalie placed her hand on the bible.

"Dr. Lambert, do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" The Bailiff asked.

"I do."

"Dr. Lambert, I want you to tell me what happened when Peter Weston was injured," Judge Radcliffe requested.

"I had just locked my minivan and was heading for the elevator in my apartment building. I felt a hand wrap around my mouth and another around my body. I couldn't move. He told me that if I screamed he'd kill me. He dragged me, wheelchair and all, to his vehicle. He picked me up and set me on the backseat. He must've stuck my chair in the trunk because it wasn't inside the car with me, but he put me back into it when we reached our destination. He dressed completely in black. He blindfolded me and tied my hands behind my back before he drove off. One of the things he said to me was that my befriending other disabled people led to my downfall. He said that once I became disabled I should've quit my job so someone normal could have it." Natalie said.

"I noticed the car stop. He lifted me out of the car and back into my wheelchair, pushed me up a ramp over the porch steps, then destroyed the ramp. Once inside he removed my blindfold and cut my hands free. He forced me into the back room. The room had been stripped of everything he saw as a potential weapon. The only things in the room were the mattress on the floor, the cooler and the pictures of handicapped people on the wall, most with red x's across their faces. The picture of Detective Knight and I had been taken no more than two or three weeks earlier. There were pictures of other disabled members of the police department and coroner's office, the dead ones had x's across their pictures. He checked on me a while later but did nothing. I looked for ways to protect myself. It wasn't until he learned that Detectives Knight and Schanke were closing in that he tried to kill me. He swung a bat at my head, barely missing, only because I ducked in time. It didn't stop him. I saw him raise the bat again. He tried to bring the bat straight down on my skull, but I evaded him, barely. I knew that if I struck quickly I might be able to prevent him from trying again. I stabbed him in the leg with a makeshift knife. All that did was further anger him. I knew I had to use my other weapon, the porcelain club I made, if I was to stay alive," Natalie said before being cut off.

"Objection," the prosecutor said.

"Sustained," Judge Radcliffe said.

"Dr. Lambert, the knife wound to his thigh should've been enough to slow him down so you could escape. Why did you hit him in the back with the toilet tank lid?" The prosecutor asked.

"Yes, he should've stopped after I stabbed him but he continued to try to bash my skull in with the baseball bat. All I had done besides slightly slowing him down was to make him angrier with me. I saw the murderous look in his eyes as he swung at me again. I had no choice but to hit him with the lid. He said that he was going to kill me slowly and painfully because I hurt him, rather than the quick way he had originally planned. It was self-defense. I could not leave the house, he had seen to that by destroying the ramp over the front stairs as soon as we had reached the porch."

Nick and Schanke were called to the stand to testify. Their version of events supported Natalie's story. Even when Orrin did his best to rip their testimony apart, and prove that the friendship between the two partners and the coroner was biasing the trial.

When the barristers finished their summations, the jury was led to the deliberation room.

Nick and Schanke convinced Natalie she needed to eat, and that it would help keep her mind off it until the jury came back. Her rumbling stomach caused her to reluctantly agree

Thirty minutes later, Natalie, Nick, Schanke rejoined Lawton in the courtroom. Natalie at the defense table, and her two friends in the first spectator row.

The jury reentered the room.

"Members of the jury, have you reached your conclusion?" Judge Radcliffe asked.

"We have, Your Honor," the Foreman said as he handed the folded slip of paper containing the verdict to the bailiff, who handed it to the judge.

The judge studied the paper. "Dr. Lambert you have been found not guilty." He noticed the coroner let out the breath she'd been holding, then the smile that crossed her face. "Dr. Lambert's reactions clearly were self-defense. Dr. Lambert's record will be cleared. Dr. Lambert, you're free to go. Mr. Orrin, the next time I see you in my courtroom you had better have more of a case than you had for this one. I don't know how anyone was convinced to file charges."

A great wave of relief washed over Natalie. Everyone knew it was self defense, but she had a tiny doubt that she would be the victim of some ridiculous loophole, or worse she'd wind up doing time. She knew that innocent people sometimes got convicted.

The next evening Natalie arrived at her office to find a stranger waiting for her. She was instantly on the alert.

"Can I help you?"

"Are you Dr. Natalie Lambert?"

"Yes."

"This is for you." He said handing her a folded piece of paper and left before she could complain.

Natalie looked at the document in her hands, stunned to discover she was being sued for ten million dollars by Peter Weston.

Natalie left her office fuming and would've seriously collided with Nick in the hallway if his vampire instincts hadn't alerted him, as both were a little preoccupied.

"What's wrong?" He said seeing the anger in her eyes, and expressed through her body language.

"This," she grumbled as she shoved the folded paper towards him.

Nick looked over the lawsuit papers and was stunned.

"Is this ever going to end?" Natalie asked tired of it all. She thought that the arrest would've ended anything Weston could do to her.

Natalie saw the look in Nick's eyes, it scared her.

"Nick, I don't want you doing anything to him. I want him to spend the next fifty years dealing with life in a wheelchair."

"Okay. It is only fair."

Natalie entered the office of one of the staff barristers for the coroner's office while Nick waited out in the hallway for her.

"Dr. Lambert, what brings you here? I thought the charges were dropped and your record was cleared."

"They were dropped and it was cleared." Natalie took a deep calming breath. "I was served this morning. Peter Weston is suing me for ten million dollars."

"Don't worry about it. We'll see to it that this is invalidated. He is determined isn't he?"

"Yes. Is there anything else he can do to me?" Natalie asked hoping this would be the end of it.

"No. He's used his only two options. I'm surprised that he was able to convince someone to sue you."

"So was I. Thanks."

"No problem."

The next afternoon, Natalie, Grace and Myra were at the dojo ready for their first test. The three ladies were nervous, but felt ready. They sat along the wall dressed in their gi's waiting for their teacher's entrance. As soon as Bruce Leong entered, Myra and Grace jumped to their feet and headed for their standard positions, Natalie pushed herself to her standard spot.

Teacher and students bowed to each other.

Bruce had his students perform the kata he had taught them, one at a time, Natalie first. All three students made it through without a single mistake, their moves sharp and strong. After proving their proficiency in everything he taught them, he had them bow to him again.

"Congratulations. You passed." He left a moment and returned holding three yellow belts.

Natalie, Grace and Myra removed their white belts. Bruce wrapped their yellow ones around their waists and tied them securely in front. Each student bowed to Bruce after he finished.

Myra couldn't wait to get home and tell her family. She didn't want them there as it would've made her too nervous.

Natalie couldn't wait for Nick to know.

Myra arrived home having thrown her coat over her uniform. She didn't bother to change at the dojo most times, finding it easier to dress at home, do her lesson and then shower and change upon her return home.

Don and Jenny met Myra at the door. As soon as Myra unzipped her jacket her family saw her yellow belt.

"Congratulations, honey," Don said. "I knew you'd pass."

"You did great, mom," Jenny said. "I can't wait until I get mine."

"How about I take two of my favorite ladies out to dinner to celebrate?" Don asked.

"Yay!" cheered Jenny.

"Let me shower and change first, okay?"

"Sure," Don said, kissing his wife passionately.

Jenny grinned.

Natalie arrived home, pleased to see Nick waiting for her. She went through her usual routine of wiping off the handrims, and taking off her jacket and gloves.

"Congratulations, Nat. I didn't doubt you pass with flying colors."

"You weren'tÉ" Natalie said. "Nah, it was daylight."

"I wasn't there, but I've seen you practice. You're good."

"Thanks."

"How would you like to celebrate?" Nick asked.

"How about dinner and dancing?" Natalie asked, hoping he'd agree.

"If that's what you want, that's what you'll get."

Natalie headed for the shower, a grin on her face.

As soon as Nick heard the water start, he went straight for the fridge where he grabbed one of his bottles and downed half of it, knowing he'd need it.

About forty-five minutes later Natalie came out of her bedroom dressed in black slacks and a tan sweater. The foot part of her black leather boots stuck out from under her pants.

They went back to the Horseshoe, because she'd always had a good time there. Natalie coaxed Nick into line dancing, once one of the regulars had convinced her to try it. Nick was surprised that he enjoyed it. He loved dancing with Natalie. She loved dancing with him.

Nick overheard a few couples wondering how long he and Natalie had been together because they seemed very in tune with each other.

The next night, Jenny stopped by the precinct to see her dad. She wanted to show him the A plus she'd received for her report on Natalie. He'd left before she arrived home from computer class.

Nick called the morgue and learned that Natalie should be arriving anytime. Just as he hung up, he saw Natalie enter. As Natalie approached her friends' desk, she saw Jenny and Myra there too.

"Hi guys. I stopped by to drop off some files on my way to grab something to eat. Anyone care to join me?"

A chorus of "sure" went up from the group. Nick took the folders Natalie handed him and dropped them on his desk. All five of them headed out.

"Where to? Who goes with who?" Don asked.

"How about the coffee shop on the corner. It's close and mostly empty at this time. Jenny, can you make it that far?" Natalie asked.

"Yeah. I think so."

"If you get tired, let me know," Nick said.

The group headed for the door, Natalie and Jenny in the back. Natalie stayed with Jenny so she wouldn't feel bad not being able to keep up with the other adults.

When they saw how messy the sidewalk was, they wondered if Jenny would be safe going that far.

"How about I give you a lift?" Nick asked, knowing it would be the easiest for him to carry Jenny.

"He's good at that," Natalie said.

"Okay," Jenny said, not really minding as she was tired. She didnÕt want to slip, fall and break anything else.

"Hand your crutches to your dad and hold onto my neck," Nick said as he squatted down to her height.

Jenny did as instructed. Nick realized he wasn't sure how to pick her up and decided to wrap one arm under her butt, holding her across the top of her thighs. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Nick."

"You sure she's not too heavy, partner?" Don asked not wanting his partner to accidentally hurt himself.

"She's fine, not too heavy at all."

A few minutes later the group entered the cafŽ. Nick set Jenny down, and her father handed her the crutches. Don noticed how Nick handled Jenny like he did when she was a toddler, weightwise.

They were quickly seated at a large round table in the back. The waitress left a chair for Jenny to prop her leg on, and removed the one from Natalie's place.

"Jenny, what brings you to the station so late?"

"I wanted to share my report on you Natalie, if you don't mind. I got an A plus on it."

"That's great, sweetie. I don't mind at all," Natalie said as she gently stroked the top of the eight year old's head.

Nick, Natalie, Myra, Don and Jenny all checked out the menus to see what they wanted.

"Can I just have some ice cream or some fries?" Jenny asked.

"Okay," her mom said.

The waitress came, set a glass of water by each person and took their orders before heading to the kitchen to place them.

"Can I read my report now?" Jenny asked.

"Sure," Natalie said.

Jenny pulled it out of her pocket where she'd carefully folded it into quarters before tucking it away.

"Who I admire most by Jenny Schanke. I admire Dr. Natalie Lambert because she's smart, funny, pretty and has a tough job. She doesn't let anyone push her around. She's the chief forensic pathologist for Toronto. She's very good at her job. One made harder by a car accident that left her paraplegic, which means she can't move anything from her waist down and has to use a wheelchair to get around. After her injury she didn't give up but worked hard to learn to take care of herself, and to go back to the job she really enjoys." Jenny paused for a sip of water and to glance at her audience.

When they all seemed to like her report she continued. "Natalie became interested in what she does when she was in medical school. She had to work in the various hospital areas like pediatrics, which means kids, the emergency room, surgery, and the morgue. She found she liked working with the dead bodies best because of a very hard puzzle she and her boss had to solve. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle with no picture, and very few clues. She had to take lots of special classes, do a lot of reading and spend a lot of time around dead people. She told me that the first time she saw a dead body she turned green and the first time she had to autopsy one, which means to cut it open and find out why they died, she was sick for three days. Now they don't bother her much, except for when it's a child, or a badly burned body."

Jenny paused for another sip. "Natalie is a really cool person, and my friend. I like how she doesn't let anyone tell her what she can and can't do. She will go out of her way to help her friends, and sometimes anyone in trouble whether or not she knows them. If for some reason I had to pick a new mom, I'd pick her. The end."

"That's beautiful, Jenny," Natalie said deeply touched by it. "Thank you. When we get back to the precinct can I copy it?"

"Sure. I'm glad you liked it." Jenny could tell Natalie was telling the truth, that she really did enjoy the report.

"You did a great job of telling everyone who she is," Nick said.

"I'm proud of you," Don said.

"Me too," Myra said.

Jenny noticed Nick and Natalie nodding, and knew they too were proud of her.

The adults thought Jenny was going to either bounce off the walls from all the praise, or explode out of sheer happiness.

 

Later in the shift, Grace saw Natalie pinning something new to her bulletin board. From the smile on her friend's face, she knew it was something good.

"Can I read it?" Grace asked.

"Sure."

Grace read Jenny's report, smiling. "She did a great job capturing you."

"Yeah. She did. When I stayed there that night she asked me a lot of questions for it. We might just have either a reporter or detective on our hands."

"Could be."

"Or she could be an artist. Or a reporting artist, an artistic detective like a certain blonde one we know."

"Maybe she'll wind up a M.E." Grace said.

"At her age anything and everything is possible. It's a great age."

A month later Natalie had become used to the intense therapy and had more feeling in her legs. Between the therapy and work there had been little spare time, most of which was used for karate class and sleeping.

Natalie arrived for her therapy surprised to see Myra and Jenny leaving. Jenny was a little surprised to see Natalie.

"Hi, Jenny, Myra. What brings you here? Jenny, congratulations on getting your cast off."

"Thanks. I got it off today. It was driving me crazy. I have to wear these braces for a week to help my knee and ankle get used to being used again." She pulled up her pants leg to show off the lightweight braces. "It allows my knee to bend, but only correctly. The ankle one allows my ankle to move up and down but not side to side."

"The doctor wants Jenny to undergo physical therapy for a couple of weeks to help speed up her recovery and strengthen her leg. The bone healed perfectly although the muscles are a little weak from lack of use. They gave her the braces and crutches to prevent her from accidentally reinjuring herself."

"Natalie, what do you do here?" Jenny asked.

"I work on keeping my leg muscles in good shape so that someday maybe I'll be able to walk again. I will need crutches to help me. Probably ones very similar to yours."

Jenny looked down at the new crutches she was using. "I only have to use these for two or three weeks. At least they won't fall when I have to pick up a book." She demonstrated by lifting her arm and seeing the crutch hanging from the cuff around her upper forearm.

"How do you exercise your legs if you can't move them?" Jenny asked.

"Someone helps me move them. This way they get exercised so they stay healthy."

Jenny considered that for a moment. "They helped me move my leg because the cast made it stiff. It hurt at first. Does it ever hurt you?"

"No, because I can't feel it. They're careful to make sure that I don't move in a way that would hurt me."

"Jenny, we have to go, if you want to want to go to the movie," Myra said.

"Bye, Natalie," Jenny said, suddenly eager to get out of there.

"I promised to take her to a movie if she cooperated with the therapist. She didn't want to come here."

"I don't blame her," Natalie said lightly.

Myra saw Jenny's impatience and they left. Natalie saw Megan waiting over by the mat.

"Sorry about that. What's on the schedule for today?" Natalie asked.

"No problem. You probably did her more good than we could. She seems to like you. Seeing how you come here and have no problem with it will probably make her more willing to cooperate."

"I hadn't thought of it that way. She's a friend."

"I have a surprise for you today," Megan said as she approached a low set of parallel bars, noticing the surprise and concern on her client's face.

"I think you're ready. All I want you to try is to see if you can pull yourself into a standing position. Okay?"

"Okay." Natalie was surprised by how excited and nervous she was. She noticed a rather muscular guy approach.

"Mark's here to catch you if you should fall. I want you to fasten this belt around your waist to give him something to grab," Megan said as she handed the belt to Natalie.

"Okay." Natalie fastened the weightlifter-like belt around her waist. She placed her feet on the ground, put one hand on each bar and struggled to pull herself to her feet. It was a lot harder than she thought it would be.

Megan saw the huge smile of triumph when Natalie was standing on her own two feet again.

"Very good. How does it feel?"

"Great!" Natalie cheerfully said.

"Do you feel up to trying something else? Something a little more difficult?"

"Yes." Natalie hoped her hunch was correct.

"I want you to try and take a step. Mark will catch you before you can fall." Megan demonstrated what Natalie was supposed to do, by using the other end of the bars for her demonstration.

Natalie's legs buckled on her as soon as she tried to take a step. Mark caught her before her knees had done more than slightly bend. Disappointment and some frustration were seen in Natalie's expression. Mark helped support Natalie's weight as she steadied herself.

"Do you want to try again?"

"Yes."

Mark let go once he was sure Natalie wouldn't fall. Natalie concentrated on making her right leg move. She managed to get her foot up off the ground a inch or so and again her legs buckled underneath her. Once again Mark caught her.

"I think that's enough for today. Tomorrow we will spend more time on this. I wanted to see if you could get that far. That was very good."

"Will I ever get back on my feet?" Natalie asked, warily hopeful.

"I think you will. It will most likely take six to eight months, maybe more."

Natalie reseated herself, unsure of what she was feeling at the moment. She was thrilled, scared, hopeful and a few more she hadn't yet isolated.

Megan motioned for Natalie to head to the mat for the first part of their normal routine. With a little help from Mark, Natalie was soon laying flat on her back on the exercise mat.

Natalie arrived at work a few minutes late, blaming it on traffic. She was dying to tell Nick or Grace about her accomplishment but didn't because she wanted to surprise them by walking into work one day.

Grace saw Natalie arrive, noticing the interesting mixture of emotions on her friend's face.

"Is everything okay?" Grace asked, slightly concerned, and a little curious.

"Everything's fine. Why?"

"No reason. You just had a strange expression on your face."

"Really?"

Grace nodded, but before she could say anything more the phone rang calling Natalie out to the field.

 

Natalie arrived at the crime scene, displeased when she saw the rugged terrain ahead of her. The ground was very uneven which would make using her chair quite difficult, as would the snowy parts of the uneven ground. When she saw the ravine some distance ahead of her, she hoped it wasn't too steep or deep. She also found herself praying the body wasn't at the bottom of the ravine.

Her mood dropped as she pushed herself close enough to see that the crime scene was indeed at the bottom of a pretty deep and treacherous ravine. She would have to find some way to get to the body to examine it. She whispered a swear word or two as her frustration level rose. She couldn't see a way down there that wouldn't put her at great risk for a very nasty fall.

Nick had monitored Natalie's arrival and approached her.

"Can I help?" He knew she might not like it, but would probably accept it from him and Schanke more easily than from anyone else.

"Yeah. What can you tell me?"

"It's not a pretty sight."

Nick helped Natalie down the ravine. Once at the bottom the medical examiner went to work. She hated the fact that she had to lean way over if she wanted to get a close look at the body, or touch it. She knew one day she'd probably fall on top of a victim if she didn't balance herself right. That was something she most definitely did not want to do.

Schanke approached her. "Natalie, the conversation you and Jenny had yesterday helped. She realized that if you were willing to work so hard then maybe she should try to work as hard. She went to therapy without complaint and was very cooperative. Thanks."

"No problem. I'm glad I helped."

"She's not happy that she has to do some of her chores that she couldn't do before. There are still a few that she won't be able to do for another week or two."

Natalie smiled at that. "I'm glad she's going to be fine."

"Thanks. So are we. She wants to go back to skiing. I don't know about that," Schanke said, a little concerned.

"If you tell her you don't want her to ski, but not why, she'll be more determined to. If you tell her that you're afraid she'll get hurt if she skis, she'll feel like you think she can't do things for herself. What if I had been told that I couldn't drive, dance, learn karate or do my work? Maybe convince her that her leg needs more time to fully heal. If she still wants to try again next season, tell her you'll rent her the equipment and pay for her lessons. I'll be glad to talk to her if necessary."

"Thanks. You do have a few good points there. Besides the season is almost over. Thankfully."

The next afternoon, Natalie arrived for therapy and was directed to the low parallel bars. She pulled herself up and once again attempted to take her first step, Mark by her side to catch her when she fell. She raised her right foot about an inch, but when she tried to move it her knees buckled. Mark caught her. She tried again, but fell. Her frustration level was quickly rising as she tried a third time. This time she was able to not only raise her right foot an inch but move it forward half a step, setting it down before her knees buckled, but she didn't fall. A huge smile spread across her face at her accomplishment.

Natalie wanted to try and take another step, looking at Megan for approval. Megan nodded and Natalie tried to take a second step, this time using her left foot, only to fall as soon as she raised it off the floor. Mark caught her. Natalie was determined to take that second step and tried two more times, barely managing to get her left foot off the ground before falling. She knew it was time to stop when she could no longer support her entire body weight. She was determined to try again tomorrow. Mark helped Natalie reseat herself. Once seated she removed the belt and handed it to Mark.

I feel like a toddler, just learning to walk. Natalie realized that in some ways that was exactly what she was. She was relearning to use her paralyzed muscles, much like the toddler does for the very first time.

"I hope you brought your swim suit as today's session will be held in the pool," Megan said, breaking Natalie's reverie.

Natalie was a little surprised but liked the water workouts. She headed down to the pool to change, thrilled by her progress. To some it might seem a small feat, but to her, and others like her it was a momentous achievement.

With each therapy session Natalie pushed herself towards her goal, knowing it was the only way she'd ever walk again. Each afternoon she tried to take a second step, trying to keep the frustration under control with each failure. She kept reminding herself that it would be a struggle, but the end result would be worth every ounce of effort. Especially when she walked into the loft or work for the very first time and saw her friend's stunned faces.

It took Natalie the rest of the week before she took her second step. Megan loved this part of the job, seeing the exhilaration on her client's faces as they slowly progressed to their goal.

I've never worked this hard before, but when I succeed it will be worth every bit of the struggle. Natalie thought. If I can take two steps nowÉ then hopefully someday I'll be able to walk with crutches, even if it's just across the room.

Natalie, Myra and Grace continued with their karate lessons three times a week, enjoying each workout. They enjoyed working on the new, more complex kata they had to learn before their next test, which wouldn't be for several months. They had more techniques to learn now that they were no longer unskilled beginners.

Natalie went straight from her karate class to the rehab center, then home to shower and change for work. Those days were long and tiring, but they also provided Natalie with a necessary physical and emotional boost.

Natalie arrived at another tough crime scene and again found herself swearing under her breath. Why don't all the other M.E.'s get these type of cases? Why do I seem to get them all? She knew it had to be Murphy's Law once again conspiring against her. . Natalie gave the old building in front of her the once over, knowing that the sooner she arrived at the crime scene the better.

"Schanke, what's the situation?"

"The body's on the third floor and there's no elevator. Also the body seems to be stuck in some sort of a pipe."

"Great," she said sarcastically. Her mood darkening with each piece of information. "Any more delightful news?" she grumbled.

"Are you going up there?" Schanke asked curiously. He didn't think much of anything would prevent her from doing her job. At least not if she has anything to say about it.

"That's my job." She was not looking forward to being pulled up and down two flights of stairs. "How are the doorways? Are the rooms small?" She knew her wheelchair pretty much turned on a dime, but it still required more room to maneuver than Schanke or Nick did.

"The rooms are small, and the doorways don't look that wide. I didn't really get a good look."

"That's okay." Natalie said, hoping that if she put it off long enough the body would be brought down. She knew that might make other parts of her job harder, but it was better than getting up there and finding out she'd wasted the trip. She couldn't wait until she would be able to go up stairs by herself, even if it was difficult and slow, it would be worth it.

Natalie worked at the parallel bars for the first twenty to thirty minutes of each therapy session, looking for any progress. The extreme slowness of her progress was getting to her, causing her frustration to rise quicker.

Natalie worked for four days before she could take her third step without falling. Each step made her feel great, yet at the same time she felt like a toddler taking their first unsteady steps as they held onto the furniture or their parents' hands. Only here it was Mark's support that kept her from hitting the ground when her knees buckled.

It was another week before she took her fourth step. Two more steps and I'll be able to walk the entire length of the bars.' That thought was enough incentive for her to work past the deep frustration and exert the extreme effort required for each step.

By the end of the month, Natalie fell one step away from the end of the bars, and tried again, determined to reach her first goal, the end of the parallel bars. Her next attempt was successful. Natalie's smile reached ear to ear. Her eyes sparkled like never before. Her defiant streak loved the fact that she was doing what the doctors had told her she'd never do again. Her fall near the end of the bars didn't frustrate her as much as it should've because she was one step away from her first goal, walking to the end of the parallel bars.

Each session Natalie walked the length of the parallel bars, more often than not falling somewhere along the way, frustrating her. Mark never allowed her knees to bend more than halfway before he caught her, and didn't release his hold on the belt until he was sure she was steady. While Natalie could not believe how much concentration and exhaustive effort it took for her slow and extremely unsteady steps, it felt great to be up and walking again. Natalie knew that the more she walked the stronger her leg bones and muscles would get, not to mention her arms and shoulders.

She was too pleased with her success to worry about gracefulness. She knew it would come naturally when her gait became more steady.

Later that night, Natalie entered the precinct, instantly regretting her decision when she saw the tense situation at hand. A clearly disturbed man in his late thirties, early forties was holding a gun on his wife and eight year old daughter. He spotted Natalie and began to panic.

"I want you on the floor with everyone else. I want you to push your wheelchair across the room. NOW!"

Natalie capsized herself and made sure she was balanced before setting her wheelchair back up and shoving it across the room as ordered.

"I want you seated like them," the disturbed man said.

Natalie saw that all the hostages were seated with their feet behind them, sort of kneeling with their knees on the ground and sitting on their legs. Natalie wasn't sure she could get herself into that position, especially if she had to place her hands over her head like the others.

Natalie struggled but could not get herself into that position. Any time she came close she nearly fell over and had to catch herself with her hands, frustrating herself further with each failure, which was making her angry. Natalie hated the way it drew attention to her and to her disability. Normally she ignored it, but this was different.

The gunman noticed her repeated failures, "I want you seated with your legs crossed in front of you and your hands behind you."

Natalie found she was able to manage that, stabilizing herself rather easily. Since he wasn't too specific she chose to sit "Indian style" and put her hands behind her like a soldier at ease.

Nick was watching everything, hoping he could keep the situation from spinning completely out of control. Nick continued to talk to the deeply troubled man in calm, soothing tones, wishing the man would stand still long enough for him to try to whammy him. Slowly the man was calming down. Nick tried to talk him into releasing his eight year old daughter as a show of good faith. After a few intense minutes of reasoning with the agitated man, Nick succeeded in getting her and the other two kids in the room released.

Natalie fought to shove the memories of her brother's shooting out of her mind, praying that no one would die tonight.

Finally, the man stood still and Nick was able to lock eyes with him. Natalie watched in fascination, surprised that it still amazed her that he could completely influence someone's behavior. like that

"You will release your wife," Nick said with his voice ever so smooth. His heartbeat locked with that of the gunman.

"I will release my wife." The gunman released his grip on her and she started to pull away when Brad Martin, the most obnoxious and conceited barrister in the county entered, totally oblivious to everything outside of himself.

"Mr. Slick. I want you seated like these people in four seconds or I start shooting." The agitated gunman said, seeing the very expensive suit on the barrister.

Martin was about to protest when he saw the barrel of the gun suddenly pointed straight at his head. Martin reluctantly complied.

Nick once again tried to reestablish control over the man's mind but could not. He was forced to resort to "mortal" methods of calming the suspect. He couldn't risk rushing the man, because even at vampiric speed someone might get hurt. He wouldn't be responsible for that.

Nick continued to try and calm down the disturbed man, using his most calming, soothing tone. Just as Nick's slow, steady progress was about to succeed, Martin tried to jump the gunman, getting a bullet in the stomach for his trouble.

Nick used the distraction to tackle the gunman. Another officer grabbed the man's very upset, terrified wife, and pulled her to safety.

Natalie was completely frustrated and angry that she couldn't help Martin from where she was currently seated.

Schanke saw the situation was under control and brought Natalie her chair, knowing she could take it from there and went to talk to the hostages.

Natalie quickly reseated herself and headed over to Martin. A quick visual once over told her the bullet had entered his stomach area slightly towards the left side. The fact that he was still conscious was a good sign. Natalie capsized herself again so she could examine him more closely.

"Are the paramedics on the way?" Natalie asked, fully into her doctor mode.

"Yes. They should be here in a few minutes," Schanke said.

"I'm not dead," Martin sniped. He didn't want the medical examiner, and a disabled one at that to examine him.

"Not yet. If you don't let me get a look at you..." Natalie said, not in the mood to deal with his attitude problem.

"How can you examine me? You can't move around." A coughing fit prevented the arrogant barrister from shoving his foot further down his throat.

Natalie wanted to tell Martin off, but knew it wasn't good form to insult a wounded man. Nor was it acceptable to slap or slug him, much as that might have pleased her outraged sensibilities. Natalie ripped open his shirt to get a better look at the entry point when he protested.

"Hey! Do you know how much a handmade silk shirt like that costs?"

"Would you rather bleed to death?" Natalie asked sharply, not giving a damn about his shirt.

Martin shook his head and Natalie continued with her examination. She gently stuck her hand under him, determining that there was no exit wound anywhere along his back, which meant the round was still in there somewhere. She hoped it wasn't a cop killer or any of those other bullets designed to do massive destruction. If so, Martin's chances for survival were rather slim.

"I need a towel or something to apply pressure with. Now!" Natalie barked.

A moment later Natalie was handed a towel and used it to apply pressure to Martin's abdominal wound. She could feel him weakening and hoped he survived so she could kick his butt for his insensitivity. His rapidly weakening vital signs made her suspect that the bullet might have taken an upward angle.

Sirens could be heard in the distance to the relief of Natalie, Martin and Nick. Within moments the paramedics entered and took over Martin's care.

Natalie gave the paramedics her observations of Martin knowing the more accurate information they had to work with, the better it was for the patient.

Once Natalie was freed of that responsibility she saw Nick approaching with a couple of wet paper towels. She looked at her hands noticing the blood on them for the first time. After Natalie wiped off her hands, she set her chair back up and reseated herself. Nick took Natalie's statement while looking her over to see how she was holding up. She was a little shaky as she gave her statement, but would be fine later.

Natalie followed Nick to the loft, needing to relax if she was to get any sleep. When will my luck change? Soon, I hope. Natalie thought. She was extremely tired of people trying to kill her.

Nick let Natalie pick the movie, not at all surprised when she picked her favorite comedy. They cuddled up on the couch as they watched the movie, his arm wrapped around her shoulder and her head resting on his chest.

Natalie fell asleep on the couch shortly after the movie. Nick covered her up with a quilt, knowing that she'd be fine there.

Their slumber was restless as the hostage situation had taken it's toll on their nerves.

During Natalie's therapy that week she kept trying to walk the length of the parallel bars with a little more grace. She almost always stumbled at least once along the way, sometimes catching herself and sometimes Mark had to catch her. Each step took tremendous concentration and effort.

I can't believe I'm finally walking again. Natalie thought happily. She knew there was a lot of hard work ahead, but it didnÕt seem to matter because she was walking.

Megan worked with Natalie on her gait for thirty to forty-five minutes, stopping when she saw her client had reached the end of her endurance. She knew that if Natalie pushed herself too far beyond her endurance, she'd hurt herself which would seriously set back their work.

After the bar work they continued with the same muscle manipulation they'd been doing since Natalie started rehab. Megan continued to alternate pool work and mat work for the best results.

Grace arrived at work one day the next week, and entered Natalie's office to see if there was anything her friend needed. Seeing her work friends there gathered around a chocolate frosted sheet cake, lit by thirty three candles, she was touched her friends remembered her birthday.

"Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Grace. Happy birthday to you."

Grace made a wish and blew out the candles. "Thank you."

Natalie handed Grace her present from the entire group. Grace opened it a little unsure what she'd find inside.

Grace's expression dropped when she saw a black teddy inside. It made her a little uneasy. Is this how Natalie felt? Grace remembered seeing the less than thrilled expression on her friend's face when she'd pulled the same gift out of her box.

Grace noticed the small smirk on Natalie's face and immediately knew who had picked the gift. Please don't let her ask if I want to try it on or model for everyone.

Natalie saw the uneasiness on Grace's face and didn't punish her friend further. She had been waiting years for the chance for revenge.

"Thanks for the gift everyone," Grace said.

"Grace, how about slicing up this delicious looking cake," Natalie said.

Grace picked up the knife and cut the first slice, taking one of the larger roses. She set it aside and cut a piece for everyone.

Her coworkers each took their slice and headed back to work, wishing Grace happy birthday on their way out.

Once it was just Natalie and Grace, Natalie pulled a smaller box out of her backpack and handed it to her friend.

Grace ripped the paper off, finding a coffee cup with her name on it inside the box.

"Thanks. Mine accidentally got knocked off my desk after you left yesterday." Grace said. "Yeah, I know. It was a change, you leaving before me."

Grace pulled out the small packets inside the mug and saw a mixture of flavored coffees and hot chocolates. "These look good. So good in fact, I might just have to go try one."

Grace set the mug on Natalie's desk. "When I gave you the black teddy, did it really embarrass you?"

"Yes. Especially when you hinted that I should try it on, and then asked if I'd be modeling it for a certain someone. I knew you meant wellÉ"

"I'm sorry. Thank you for not embarrassing me as much as I did you." Grace hugged her friend. "Thanks, Natalie."

Myra, Natalie and Grace arrived for their next karate lesson. Grace and Natalie changed before joining Myra on the workout mat. They stretched and worked on their meditation until Bruce entered the room.

One of the other students there saw Bruce and jumped to his feet. "Sensei." He said as he bowed to Bruce, who returned the bow. The student left, bowing as he left the workout room.

Natalie, Grace and Myra lined up like usual. Bruce approached his three students. Teacher and students bowed to each other before class began.

Bruce observed as his students reviewed what they learned last time, making minor corrections as needed, offering tips to help them be more effective, more powerful.

Once he was satisfied they were ready to move on he paired them off, Grace and Myra, Natalie and himself. He instructed his students in the art of light contact sparring. He watched Myra and Grace bow to each other before they hesitantly attacked each other, each afraid to hurt their friend. He stopped their fight, waiting a moment as they bowed to each other.

"You must not be afraid. That will give the enemy control over the situation." Bruce said. "Try again. Getting hurt is not the worst thing. Being controlled by a criminal is. Dying is."

This time the two friends bowed to each other before seriously going after each other, yet being careful not to hurt their friend. Bruce and Natalie watched. After a few minutes Bruce stopped the fight. The friends bowed to each other before facing their teacher again.

"Much better. Grace, you're dropping your block when you kick. That will allow a smart assailant to attack there. Natalie, your turn."

"Natalie bowed to her teacher, and he bowed to her. He attacked her, pleased to see her quick response. She blocked and attacked. After a few minutes he stopped the fight, and the two opponents bowed to each other.

"Good job."

Before the lesson was finished Natalie had sparred with both her friends, the unmatched one sparring with the teacher. After seeing Natalie's skill, neither of her friends were as uneasy attacking her as they thought they'd be. And she didn't feel bad for attacking them, seeing that they could defend themselves.

The last thing they did that lesson was work on their kata. Bruce corrected a few minor form problems, but was pleased they picked it up pretty easily.

 

Later that week, Natalie used her night off to go dancing with Nick at the Horseshoe club again. She was surprised at how good they'd become at line dancing. She had lost her self consciousness that first night, as soon as she'd figured out how to adapt it for her needs. She did the upper body part, and twirled herself in the direction everyone else was moving.

Nick couldn't believe how much he enjoyed the line dancing, knowing that part of it was spending the time with Natalie. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

Two weeks later, at the Schanke household Jenny and her parents were in the family room watching television. Jenny had stopped using the braces and crutches at the end of the previous week, no longer needing them. She was back to being a normal, active eight year old.

"Mom, Dad, please. Megan said I could start karate again this week," Jenny said during a commercial.

"Okay. We'll take you tomorrow afternoon," Myra said. She knew it was important for her daughter to learn self defense. It also taught Jenny discipline and boosted her self confidence.

The next afternoon Jenny entered the dojo dressed in her gi and white belt, relieved when she wasn't the only beginner there. She took off her shoes and jack, bowing as she entered the classroom.

"Welcome back, Jenny," Bruce said as he bowed to her.

"Thank you. I couldn't wait to come back." Jenny bowed to her teacher.

"Did you practice any while your leg healed?"

"Yes. I worked on my punches and blocks every day."

Bruce threw a punch, pleased when Jenny blocked it. Next he had her throw a punch which he blocked.

"Very good."

Bruce motioned for the rest of the class to get in place, which they quickly did. Teacher and students bowed to each other.

Bruce watched Jenny closely during class, pleased to see that her form quickly returned.

After class, he had her wait a moment as he dismissed everyone else, bowing to them as they bowed to him.

"Jenny, there's a test next week. From what you showed today, I think you're ready to take it," Bruce said loving the smile on her face.

Natalie's next week of therapy found her able to walk the parallel bars a little smoother. She still stumbled occasionally, surprising herself when it didn't frustrate her as much as it had. She realized that one can't learn to walk without stumbling at first. Even toddlers stumble while learning to walk. Every attempt still required a lot of concentration and effort, and took a lot out of her physically. Will I fully recover?

Don and Myra brought Jenny to the dojo for her test, hoping she passed. Don and Myra were a little surprised to see Natalie enter.

"Hi, Natalie. What brings you here?" Don asked.

"I was invited. Bruce said he'd show me how to use my chair to both defend and attack."

The three adults watched Jenny as her knowledge was tested. About an hour later all ten of the children had been tested. Bruce left the classroom quickly returning with a handful of belts in varying color. He removed Jenny's white belt and wrapped her yellow one around her waist, loving the smile on her face. He did the same for each of the other nine children, five of whom received a yellow belt, three received a purple belt, and one received a blue belt.

He bowed to the children, they bowed to him and were dismissed.

Jenny bowed at the doorway to the classroom before running over to her parents. She was pleased to see Natalie there. "I did it. I passed."

"Congratulations," said the three adults, almost in unison.

Bruce spotted Natalie and motioned for her to enter the classroom. Natalie did, bowing at the doorway.

For the next hour Bruce taught Natalie how to use her wheelchair as a weapon. She didn't notice when the Schanke family slipped out of the dojo.

Natalie enjoyed the ordered chaos of the next few weeks. She was eternally grateful there was nothing more exciting than her therapy, karate lessons and weekly night out at the Horseshoe taking place in her life. She and Nick watched movies at his place one morning a week, refusing to let their busy schedules interfere with their weekly tradition. Natalie did pull a couple of double shifts, leaving her quite tired the next day.

 

Natalie arrived for her daily therapy, pleased that there were no more freezing messy handrims to wipe off as spring had arrived. She entered the therapy room in a good mood, greeting both Megan and Mark.

Megan handed Natalie the wide leather belt. Natalie set her brakes and quickly fastened the belt around her waist. Megan loved the surprise on her Natalie's face as she handed Nat a pair of crutches called forearm crutches. They were metal with a plastic cuff that hooked around the upper forearm, and a handgrip a little lower. Megan was pleased to see she'd guessed properly in adjusting the crutches to Natalie's height.

"I thought it would be a few months before I was ready," Natalie said, still surprised she was ready to try crutches.

"Remember, I said that when you could smoothly walk the bars for a week, we'd give these a try?"

"Yes. I must've momentarily forgotten."

Natalie still couldn't believe more feeling had returned, enough that with effort and concentration she could make her feet, one at a time, leave the footrest and wind up on the ground. She found pulling herself to her feet with the crutches much harder than she thought it would be. She felt extremely wobbly. How long before I fall? Natalie found the crutches no where near as stable as the bars had been. After a brief and not totally steady struggle she was on her feet, a huge smile played across her lips, reaching all the way up to her eyes.

Natalie knew the next thing was to try and take a step. She was afraid to try, knowing that she would probably fall. She didn't feel very stable, but knew that she wouldn't at first.

"It's okay. Mark won't let you fall," Megan said, trying to reassure Natalie.

Nat looked over at Mark, who was standing close by. He had not let her fall yet.

Natalie tried to take that first step and felt her legs buckle. She barely managed to keep from falling and tried again. She tried again, this time she did fall, but Mark caught her before she was halfway to the floor. He helped her up and didnÕt release his hold until he was sure she was ready to stand on her own again.

Megan let Natalie try once more, seeing the stubborn determination on her client's face. Natalie took a small and very shaky step. Natalie beamed with pride at her accomplishment. It was the first step she had taken on her own since the accident. Natalie knew it would be months before she could walk using the crutches.

Mark and Megan didn't think a person could be any happier without exploding. They loved this part of the job, seeing their clients succeed. The harder the challenge the more rewarding the success was.

 

Late the next morning, Natalie underwent a complete physical as it had been one year since her accident. As a doctor, Natalie knew this was standard procedure but hated all the poking, prodding, the endless questions. By the time she left several hours later she felt as if every square inch of her body had been probed in some way.

Peter Weston's trial date arrived. Natalie was a little unsure about facing him, but was determined not to let him know that.

Natalie, Nick, Schanke and the barrister entered the courtroom. Weston stared at Natalie from his wheelchair, hatred filling his eyes. Natalie stared back at him to prove she didn't fear him at all.

The Bailiff entered, and called out the next case. "The Crown versus Peter Weston."

The prosecutor approached the jury box and started his opening statement. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will prove without a reasonable doubt that the defendant Peter Weston is responsible for four murders. He is also responsible for Dr. Lambert being paraplegic. That wasn't enough for him, he tried to kill her on two more occasions. He kidnapped her, planning to kill her. He committed all these crimes because he lost a job to someone in a wheelchair. He thought that anyone with any disability what-so-ever should quit their job so someone normal could take it." The prosecutor continued on.

When he finished, the defense barrister stood to make his opening statement.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will prove to you that my client, Peter Weston, is innocent of the charges against him. That he did not kill the people he's charged with murdering. That he was not responsible for Dr. Lambert's paralysis, the subsequent attacks on her, nor did he kidnap her." He said continuing on with his remarks, knowing he had a shaky case and hoped the jury didn't realize this.

Natalie was called to the stand first, being the only surviving victim, and having done the autopsies on Weston's other victims. After being sworn in, she was questioned by the prosecution about the autopsies she conducted on Weston's victims. She told him that each victim had been killed by blows to the skull with a baseball bat. She went on to detail the other injuries she'd found.

Weston's barrister tried to pick apart Natalie's testimony but could not find any holes in it.

Natalie was then questioned about her own experience. She told the story of how her brake lines had been cut causing her to smash headfirst into the cement base of the light pole, resulting in her spinal injury. She also detailed Weston's subsequent attacks and her abduction.

The defense barrister was only able to nitpick Natalie's testimony.

Nick and Schanke were called to the stand one at a time and thoroughly grilled by both the prosecution and the defense. Weston's barrister found very little that would help defend his client.

After the lunch break, various officers from the crime scenes were grilled as well, turning up absolutely nothing useful for the defense.

Closing arguments were started, the defense going first this time. His summary pointed out the few pieces of information he'd pulled out of the witnesses that supported his client's innocence, knowing it was a very thin defense. His best argument was the closeness of the forensic pathologist and the two detectives might've caused some conflict of interest once they knew who they were looking for.

A few minutes later it was the prosecution's turn. The Barrister carefully pointing out all the evidence, including Dr. Lambert's testimony proved Peter Weston to be guilty of four brutal murders on disabled people because they'd refused to give up their jobs so someone non disabled could have it. The prosecution reminded the jury that Weston had not only caused Dr. Lambert's paralysis but he tried to kill her twice more, once after abducting her. The prosecutor reminded the jury that Weston had been found sane. That if he was set free, he'd continue to go after any disabled person working at the police department or coroner's office. That applicants were not safe either.

When the prosecution finished with closing remark, the jury was instructed and sent into the deliberation room.

Nick suggested that he, Natalie and Schanke grab something to eat in the cafeteria while they waited.

Half an hour after the jury had left to begin deliberations, they signaled that they had reached a verdict and were led back into the courtroom.

Nick, Natalie and Schanke were again in the peanut gallery.

"Members of the jury, have you made your decision?" Judge Barker asked.

"We have your honor," said the jury foreman, and one of the two disabled members of the jury.

The foreman handed the slip of paper with their decision on it to the bailiff who handed it to the judge.

The judge quickly read the verdict and pronouncing Peter Weston guilty of all charges. Weston was held over for sentencing, in one week.

A week later, Natalie, Nick and Schanke were back in the courtroom for Weston's sentencing.

Peter Weston received life in prison without the possibility of parole. Weston would be sent to a maximum security prison and would be assigned to hard labor.

Nick paid a late night visit to the prison where he used some vampiric persuasion to convince the gang leaders that they would regret the day they were born if Weston turned up dead. Nick reassured the leaders that they were allowed to do the usual harassment as long as Weston was not killed or severely injured. The leaders informed Nick that Weston would not have any easy time due to what he'd done. Especially after what Weston had done to Dr. Lambert.

Natalie's friends saw her finally letting go of the worry that Weston would escape or find some loophole that would allow him to be released. They admitted to having the same fears as Natalie had.

Natalie, Grace and Myra enjoyed each karate class as they saw their skills growing. They had learned the required kata and hoped for a test soon.

They also noticed the meditation helped them both in class and in their daily lives. It helped them balance their lives.

In therapy, Natalie was learning to walk with her crutches. She could now take two shaky steps before her knees gave out. The biggest surprise was that walking required even more upper body strength than using her wheelchair had, mostly in the arms and shoulders. She knew that as frustrating as her failures were, they helped her grow closer to her goal of being able to walk halfway across the room and back without falling.

A month later, Natalie, Myra and Grace passed their karate test and were awarded purple belts. All three ladies knew that the lessons would get much more difficult from now on, but were willing to keep at it as long as they could.

Grace was surprised, she wanted to see how far she could go. She loved the fact that she'd dropped thirty pounds since she began taking lessons. She loved the comments from her friends and coworkers as they noticed.

A week later the children from Jenny's class took their next test, everyone passed. Jenny, too, was a purple belt.

Don was thrilled his family would be able to protect themselves and wondered if he should start back again. He decided against it, having too much else to do.

Six weeks later Natalie arrived at Nick's for their weekly video session. She was extremely nervous as the elevator door opened and she walked into the loft. She was still a little shaky, and hoped she wouldn't fall on her face.

Nick heard the door slide open, then a strange sound, turned around and saw Natalie walking toward him, somewhat gracefully. Natalie loved his stunned expression.

"You're walking!" He said with a huge smile.

"Yes. You're the first to see this, as it's the first time I've tried it outside of therapy," She said returning his smile. She felt wonderful, which wasn't lost on Nick.

"How long have you been able to walk?" Nick asked surprised, especially since she hadn't mentioned her progress to anyone.

"I've been working on it for the last seven months. Five months ago I could barely walk the length of the bars without stumbling. This has been some of the hardest work I've ever done, but it was worth every second of it." Natalie headed over to the couch, tiring quickly as it still required massive effort.

Nick saw how much effort and concentration it took for her short trip to the couch. She was right. She said she'd walk again, and she is.

"I want to walk into work tomorrow. Would you come with me and bring my chair in a few minutes later? Right now, I can only do this for a few minutes at a time, but hopefully soon I will be walking most of the time." I still can't believe I'm walking.

"Sure."

"I can't wait to see Grace's face."

Nick couldn't get over the fact that she was actually back on her feet again. That she was once again walking. He was very happy for her. He knew how much she had wanted this, and could see the joy in her eyes.

The next evening Natalie walked into work, trying to be as graceful as possible. Grace came out of a side office, did a double take and almost dropped the stack of files out of sheer surprise. Nick watched from the doorway, careful to stay out of sight.

"Congratulations!" Grace said quite happy for her friend.

"Thanks." Natalie loved the shocked expression on her friend's face.

"Why didn't you tell any of us you were making that much progress?"

"I wanted it to be a surprise."

Natalie and Grace continued to talk while they headed for Natalie's office. Grace could see the amount of effort it took and was impressed. Grace asked many of the same questions Nick had.

"So has any more of the feeling come back?"

"Some of it," she said. "Nick asked that very same question earlier this morning."

Natalie saw Grace's expression turn to concern when Nick entered pushing Natalie's wheelchair.

"It's very tiring so I can only do it a few minutes at a time. Hopefully with time and practice I'll be able to go most of a shift on my feet. And do it a bit more gracefully."

Natalie used her crutches to walk the few feet over to where Nick was. Once there she reseated herself in her wheelchair. Nick carried her crutches into the office for her, handing them to her once she was settled behind her desk. Natalie propped her crutches in the corner where her desk met the wall.

A few hours later, Natalie realized the folder she needed was in the top drawer. Rather than call Grace, Natalie turned herself so she was facing the file cabinet and grabbed her crutches. Once her crutches were in place she pulled herself to her feet. It was still hard work and she wasn't totally steady either. Once on her feet she headed for the far cabinet and opened the top drawer. She was pleased she didn't have to bother Grace for such simple things anymore because she could now do them for herself. She couldn't believe how much she enjoyed the little things like that, things that most people took for granted. She had vowed never to do so again.

The simple movement of opening the drawer set her off balance, something she hadn't fully expected. She quickly regained her balance and vowed to be more careful next time. Thankfully Megan had taught her that, as well as how to get up if she did fall. Natalie hoped she wouldn't have to test that just yet.

Nick and Schanke entered Natalie's office to pick up a few files they needed.

Natalie was busy looking for the file she needed and didn't hear them enter. She made sure she was balanced before reaching for the file.

"Natalie?" Schanke asked very surprised.

"What can I do for you guys?" She asked as she shut the file drawer, once again making sure she wouldn't fall before or after doing so. She turned and walked towards her friends, still a little unsteady, and not totally graceful. The file pinned between her fingers and the handgrip. She loved the extreme surprise she saw on Schanke's face.

"Congratulations."

"Thanks, Schank. What can I do for you?"

"We need the Kinson, Brock and Peters reports," Nick said.

"I know the Kinson and Brock reports are ready. I just have to see if the Peters tox results came back yet." Natalie walked the two steps back to her desk where she reseated herself in her wheelchair, leaning her crutches back against the desk where it met the wall. She searched her desk for the reports, handing them to Nick because he was closer.

"It doesn't look as if the Peters results are back yet."

"We'll stop by later," Nick said.

The three of them talked briefly before the two detectives left.

Out in the car Schanke turned to his partner as Nick started the engine.

"How long has she been able to walk?"

"When she walked into my loft yesterday for our regular movie night, she said it was the first time she had walked outside of therapy."

"She continues to amaze me."

"Me too," Nick said.

"Do you think she'll recover?" Schanke asked, not knowing exactly how to phrase it.

"I hope so. No one knows. I don't think they expected her to get this far. She's been undergoing intensified therapy since right after her rescue."

Should I give her a little assistance? Nick wondered, knowing a drop of his blood wouldn't bring her across, but might heal her spinal cord, and surrounding nerves just enough to make her walking easier. It wouldn't have worked before now, before her body had done some repairs or rewiring of its own.

Don said nothing to his family, hoping they'd see it for themselves when Nick and Natalie came over for dinner.

The doorbell rang right on time. Don answered it, pleased to see Natalie using her crutches. He ushered them in and led them to the family room.

Myra nearly dropped the plate she was holding as she saw her friend walk into the room a little wobbly. Jenny too was stunned.

"Congratulations," Myra said. "How long have you been able to walk? Why didn't you tell us you were making such great progress?"

"Congratulations," Jenny said. "You were right. You do use the same kind of crutches I had."

"I wanted to surprise you. I've been walking outside of therapy for twenty-four hours now, a few minutes at a time."

As Natalie slowly made her way to the couch, her friends could see how much effort and concentration it required. Natalie seated herself on one end of the couch, laying her crutches at her feet. Nick sat next to Natalie, with Jenny on the other end of the couch. Myra and Don sat in the armchairs.

Natalie answered everyone's questions as they talked while they nibbled on the appetizers. Myra understood why her husband hadn't said anything, as she might've done the same, not wanting to spoil her friend's big surprise.

Two more months of long hard hours of therapy passed before Natalie could walk a bit more gracefully and remain on her feet for a few hours at a time. Walking was less of a struggle, but still required a bit of effort and concentration.

Natalie often entered work, or home in her wheelchair as it was the easiest way to keep it nearby for use when she tired and for most field work.

Natalie, Myra and Grace still attended their karate classes three times a week, enjoying the challenge the workout provided. They loved refining and improving their skills.

They had been right, the lessons were tougher and more was expected of them during each class.

Nick tired of seeing Natalie struggle so much for so little progress. Her walking was still a real effort, more than it should be. It hurt to see her frustrations, which she tried so hard to keep to herself.

Nick escorted Natalie to the loft for another one of their video nights. She still used her wheelchair most of the time as it was the easiest and fastest way for her to get around.

Nick fixed her a glass of fruit juice, and when he saw she was busy setting up the movie, he punctured the tip of his finger. As soon as a single drop hit the surface of the glass, he sucked on his wound to close it before she noticed.

He brought her the glass of juice, which she happily took from him and quickly drained.

"Thank you. How'd you know I needed that?"

"I thought you might be thirsty."

A couple more months passed before Natalie was able to walk for the entire shift. She started approaching crime scenes on foot, testing her limits. She found she was able to handle many of them that way. For the few she couldn't she went back for her wheelchair. Walking was much less of a struggle than it had been, but it still wasn't effortless and it still required a fair amount of concentration, especially when tired.

Nick was pleased to see that his secret gift to her had done it's job nicely. He wished he could give her more, but knew the risks were too high. He didn't want her to have any violent side effects, and have to explain what he'd done, knowing she'd be furious with him, yet touched that he gave her the gift. He didn't want her wondering how much of her subsequent recovery was due to her efforts and what was from his blood.

Natalie was grateful that she was on her feet again when she had another crime scene with four flights of stairs and narrow doorways. She climbed the stairs with a great deal of effort and not a whole lot of speed, but she made it up them on her own.

She did not entirely abandon her wheelchair, using it when she went shopping, dancing, to karate class or when she tired while walking. She also used it when she had autopsies to perform during her shift. Using it began to bother her less and less the more she was able to walk. She could get around much quicker, smoother and in some ways maneuver better using her chair. She also used her wheelchair whenever she came down with a cold or the flu, or was just too tired to walk.

Natalie couldn't believe she'd been walking for six months now. Her movements were much smoother, so much so that it was starting to feel completely natural.

She was now able to go to the grocery store on her own buying only a bag or two at a time, making sure they used plastic so she could hang it from her handgrips. She also found going to the mall easier as she could squeeze between racks in the department stores.

She still couldnÕt stand without the support of her crutches.

Grace, Myra and Natalie were surprised to still be refining their skills, and had not been allowed to take the advancement test. The new kata was much more complicated.

Natalie walked into the dojo, loving the surprised look on Bruce Leong's face when he'd seen her. It had taken a moment for him to recognize her.

"Congratulations. What brings you by today?" Bruce asked.

"I was wondering if I could do a second set of private lessons, just the two of us. I need to know how to defend myself using my crutches instead of the wheelchair."

"Will you still be coming to your regular class? Will you still use your wheelchair?"

"Yes and yes. I won't be using my chair as much."

"I'll be happy to show you how to defend yourself, using your crutches for both defense and attack. They will make mighty effective weapons."

Two afternoons later Natalie had her first class. Bruce taught her the proper way to fall as her first lesson. She also got plenty of practice pulling herself up from the floor. By the time the lesson was over, Natalie realized Bruce had been right. Her crutches would be very useful in for both defense and attack.

Natalie walked into the rehab center ready for her therapy.

"Hi, Megan. How are you today?" Natalie asked in a good mood.

"Hi, Natalie. I'm doing just fine. How are you?"

"Good. What's on the schedule for today?"

"I thought we'd try a little experiment today. If you're up for it."

"Sure." Natalie knew the experiments usually signaled a change for her.

Megan fastened the weightlifter's belt around Natalie's waist, enjoying the curious and confused expression her client wore.

"I would like you to hand me one of your crutches, then try and take a step." Megan saw the uncertainty cross Natalie's face. "If I didn't think you were ready, I wouldn't ask. Besides, Mark won't let you fall. Okay?"

Natalie saw Mark standing close enough to catch her and nodded. She handed Megan her left crutch knowing that was her stronger side. Natalie took a slow deep breath before taking a slightly unsteady step, then another. A smile lit up Natalie's face, her eyes twinkling with delight. If I can walk with one, will I be able to walk without any assistance?

"I want to see if you can walk halfway across the room and back. Mark will stay with you."

Natalie slowly made her way to the halfway point and returned a little faster and somewhat more sure of herself, Mark staying by her side. The smile was still gracing Natalie's lips as she completed her task.

"Very good." Megan said with a smile.

"When we first started, did you ever think I'd get this far?" Natalie asked, wanting to know, needing to know.

"I knew that if determination was all that was needed you'd succeed, but I wasn't sure that you would be able to physically. People with injuries like yours stand about a fifty-fifty chance of walking with crutches and often braces. Those who have feeling return often do make more progress than those who don't. Only a small percentage have the success you've had." Megan said, knowing Natalie needed to hear the truth. She could see it in her clients eyes.

"Thanks. There were times I was sure it would never happen, but I refused to give up. I'm glad I didn't."

"I want you to keep using both crutches for now. We'll work on it over the next week, then I'll let you use one most of the time." Natalie's smile was Megan's answer and reward.

Five days later, Natalie was thrilled to be able to walk at least part of the time using only one crutch. Does this mean I'll be able to walk without any assistance? Every time Natalie had asked, Megan's answer had been 'wait and see' as no one really knew one way or the other. Recovery was a very individual thing, and had to be taken one step at a time.

Natalie walked into work for the first time using the one crutch, surprising many of her coworkers. Grace saw her friend's arrival and was quite surprised, yet she wasn't totally surprised. She knew Natalie tended to accomplish anything she set her mind to, even if there was only a slim chance of it happening.

"Congratulations," Grace said.

"Thanks. It makes life a lot easier."

"I bet."

Later that shift, Natalie entered the precinct to deliver some files, enjoying the looks she received.

Nick and Schanke saw Natalie approach and had much the same reaction as Grace did. Both offered their congratulations.

They talked for a few minutes before Natalie returned to her office.

Natalie's friends noticed that she wasn't totally smooth, but was much smoother than her first days of walking were. Also that walking seemed to require less effort and thought than it used to. Each major improvement in her condition had also given her self-confidence a major boost.

Natalie walked into the Horseshoe the next time they went, her first time on her feet. Nick was right by her side, very proud of her for battling so hard for so long and for the success she'd achieved.

Her friends congratulated her and asked a few questions, which Natalie happily answered.

Natalie realized she had to relearn all the moves. Natalie nearly fell the first time she tried a fancy step, and was caught by Nick.

"I guess I'm not quite ready for this yet. Could you run out to the carÉ" Natalie asked before Nick cut her off. Maybe in a few months I'll be able to do it. It didn't really bother her, because she was still getting used to the one crutch.

He left, quickly returning with her wheelchair. She sat down, handing him her crutch, which he leaned in a corner, out of the way.

They danced the night away.

Natalie's karate sessions were now almost exclusively on her feet, but she used both crutches most of the time. She did attend in her wheelchair from time to time to learn new techniques. Bruce was very pleased with his student's progress. Natalie fulfilled all the requirements he placed on her without complaint. She could defend herself in her wheelchair, with both crutches or just one.

Myra and Grace were impressed with Natalie's skills. They sometimes felt like they were doing nothing, compared to her achievements.

All three ladies were quickly perfecting the skills they'd need to advance to the next level.

 

Two more months passed before Natalie was walking full time using only one crutch, except for some field situations where she needed the extra support. She could now, with some effort, squat down to examine the bodies, but sometimes had trouble getting back up. Nick, Schanke or whoever was around would give her a hand up.

Natalie had regained a little more feeling, but still lacked full feeling in either leg. She knew she had to be careful because she could hurt herself and possibly not feel it.

She still had to use the hand controls when she drove because she didn't have the fine motor control required. She wouldn't be able to slam on the brakes fast enough in an emergency. Should I sell this one and buy a car? It would be a lot easier now that I don't need it for the wheelchair.

On their next night off, Natalie and Nick went new car shopping. He convinced her to keep the van and buy a car, her agreeing that it was for the best. There was a disagreement when he offered to pay for this one too. After a long debate she gave in, having nothing to counter his arguments.

Picking a car was much easier as all they had to do was attach the hand controls and then she was read to go. She knew what car she wanted and just had to find the right color and option package. She didn't really expect to leave the dealership with a new car.

She thanked Nick by not making him drink a protein shake, or eat for the next two days.

Natalie noticed she walked almost as fast as others did, and that she had an easier time with stairs. The only time she used her wheelchair was when she was pulling a double shift, or more than one double in a week, or if she had several autopsies to do during her shift. She knew that the more she walked the stronger her legs would become.

She enjoyed the freedom that requiring only one crutch gave her. She could go anywhere she wanted, reach anything that anyone else could reach, and best of all she didn't have to drag her wheelchair out of the back of her car. She left her chair in the trunk of her car, just in case she needed it.

Grocery shopping was much easier. She would push the cart, letting it support her. Her crutch either hung from her forearm or was stuck into the cart. She could hang bags from the handgrip along with carrying them in her other hand, so she could bring up several bags at a time.

Department stores no longer were troublesome with the racks crowded too close together. Salespeople no longer avoided her like the plague.

Natalie and Nick went out dancing one night. She had felt the urge to do something active and that was the one thing she knew she could do.

They returned to the Horseshoe club where she mastered the turns in her favorite line dances. She still didn't look like the rest of the dancers but didnÕt mind as she was used to that.

With Nick's support they even danced to a slow number. Natalie enjoyed the feeling of his arms holding her, and hers wrapped around him. They both enjoyed the slow number so much they danced to every slow number that evening.

Nick and Natalie joined the Schankes at a carnival. This time when everyone walked while eating Natalie was able to as well. They enjoyed the games. She did a little better because she was at the proper angle once again. The only thing she lacked was the available lap space to hold all their winnings. Jenny helped solve the problem with the backpack she wore. The people running the rides did not put any special condition on Natalie riding any of the rides. She enjoyed once again being able to sit on the end of the roller coaster seat, rather than being stuck in the middle. Every one ate until they'd nearly made themselves sick on the fried dough, hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, soda and cotton candy.

A month later, Natalie, Grace and Myra took their next karate test, wondering if they had passed their most difficult one yet. There had been a lot more to remember, and more was expected of them form wise. They were relieved when Bruce wrapped their blue belts around them.

During their celebratory lunch afterwards it hit them that they only had green and brown remaining before black belt causing them to wonder if they could or should go all the way. Natalie was determined to go all the way if she could and was pleased to see her friends agree to try.

Later that month, Jenny also passed her test for blue belt. She had no doubt about going all the way to black. She wanted to be there before her tenth birthday which was in just under a year, and if she couldn't do that, then before her eleventh birthday.

Natalie was a little depressed when six months had passed since she started walking full time with one crutch, but had not made any further progress. She was forced to accept the fact that she'd reached her limit, and would most likely never walk without a crutch. She accepted it without too much trouble, knowing she wasn't supposed to get quite as far as she had. The doctor part of her knew that whatever improvements were accomplished within one to two years after paralysis were the extent of possible recovery, not counting the rare cases that disobeyed the rule. Again her medical side knew that exceptions happened when the person had started off with more function and feeling than she had, or when more had returned within the first few six months, than had been her case.

Natalie walked nearly normally with the crutch providing some support. She could not run, but did not mind. She had her wheelchair for times when she needed to move that fast. She liked how she could stand without her crutch, but not for extended periods.

People seemed to treat her much like they treated everyone else. Her one crutch seemed nearly invisible to most people. There were those few who still had trouble dealing with her, but she largely ignored them. Dealing with them on a strictly professional basis when forced to have anything to do with them.

Her therapy sessions were down to an hour twice a week for maintenance purposes.

Natalie, Myra, Grace and Jenny had all worked extra hard to learn the even more difficult katas required as a blue belt. They were also surprised by the new techniques Bruce taught them, as well as how he nitpicked their form. They also had to fight each other with improving skill with both defense and attack, and for increasing amounts of time.

When the teacher announced the test for green belt, he allowed Natalie, Myra, Grace and Jenny to take the test. The students were surprised to see how much more precision was required in order for them to pass, which they did.

Knowing only brown stood between them and black the adults grew a little uncertain. Jenny couldnÕt wait to get it and then her black belt.

The policeman's ball once again came around. Grace, Natalie and Myra went dress shopping together, enjoying each others company. Grace and Natalie both had an easier time this year, Grace because she'd lost another fifteen pounds and had a wider selection to chose from, and Natalie because there were no more obstacles to her squeezing between racks.

Once they'd found perfect, and affordable, dresses they moved on to shoes. When no one found any they were crazy about they decided to wear last year's shoes.

They had lunch and then spent the early part of the afternoon poking around, having fun. They left in plenty of time for Myra to meet Jenny's school bus.

On the night of the ball, Nick picked Natalie up at her apartment, his eyes nearly popping out of his head when he saw the very elegant black dress she had on. Instead of the single crutch, she had an elegant black cane with a silver design on the handle. She enjoyed getting another chance to see Nick in his tuxedo.

Nick and Natalie walked into the ballroom, people looking over their way then going back to their conversations because there wasn't much to see. Both Nick and Natalie liked it that way.

Nick and Natalie headed straight for the dance floor, at her urging. They noticed a few people briefly watching them, but nothing like the last time. Once people saw that they danced very much like any other couple there was nothing to hold their interest.

Don and Myra approached while dancing, pleased to see their friends having a great time. Myra also wore a sleek navy blue dress while Don was decked out in his tuxedo.

A few minutes later, Grace and her date approached, pleased that this one actually took her out on the dance floor on his own. Grace wore a beautiful black dress that showed off her leaner, slimmer body, while not revealing too much.

As the night wore on Nick and Natalie danced, drank and talked with their friends.

the end