Arabian Knight

Chapter 10

Nick was having another very realistic dream. This one, however, did not include LaCroix. In this dream he was floating above his hospital bed, looking down to see himself still lying on the bed, connected to various monitors and IV lines. Several doctors and nurses were frantically hovering over him applying CPR and shocking him with paddles in order to get his heart started again. He looked about for Nat and saw her through the partially closed doors, peering in tearfully. He started to move towards her when a sudden, blinding, bright light appeared at the window and filled the room with a bluish glow. A figure of slight build, with long, flowing hair, appeared and floated into the room.

"Nicola," a French-accented, female voice called out to him.

Nick squinted his eyes in order to make out the person's features as she drew closer. He gasped in disbelief as she finally came into full view. "Fleur?"

"My dear brother, Nicola., it has been too long," she spoke, reaching a hand out to caress his cheek.

Nick grasped her hand with both of his and graced it with a kiss before resting it against his heart. "Fleur, I never imagined I'd see you again."

"We thought it would never be possible as well."

"We?" he asked for further explanation.

"Mother, Father, your nephew. We've missed you so."

"You're heaven?"

"We're all in a good place. And now it seems that some day, you will join us."

"Someday? Not now?"

"It is not yet time for you, Nicola. But I saw the window open and I had to take the opportunity to see you again. You're still needed here," she explained with a nod towards Natalie. "But one day, the time will come to leave this life. We will be waiting for you." Fleur kissed both his cheeks before quickly withdrawing and floating backwards towards the window, taking the bright light with her. Nick looked down at his body on the bed, saw the doctor as he applied the paddles to his chest again, and felt the tremendous jolt of electricity coursing through his torso. After that, there was nothing.

The bright light was back again. Nick tried to squeeze his eyes shut or at least turn away from it, but something prevented him from doing either. After a few seconds, however, the beam of light disappeared and he was able to blink and move his head freely.

"Welcome back, Mr. Knight," a cheerful, male voice greeted him.

Nick blinked some more until his vision cleared and revealed the presence of Dr. Graham, wearing a surgical mask and cap, standing next to his bed, tucking a penlight into the breast pocket of his lab coat.

"How do you feel?" the doctor asked.

Physically, he felt okay. No better or worse than he had the last time the doctor had examined him. Emotionally, he felt a little strange, perhaps due to the odd dream that he could just barely recall. "Okay, I guess," he replied with uncertainty.

"You gave us quite a scare. Do you remember what happened?" When Nick shook his head slightly, the doctor nodded. "I'm not surprised. Apparently, you had a bad reaction to the cytarabine we've been giving you for your cancer. You went into full cardiac arrest. Came close to losing you, but the night shift staff was able to get your heart going again."

The dream, Nick realized, had not been a dream after all. It had been a near death experience. He'd nearly died from the same stuff that was suppose to cure him. "Why?" he questioned. "Why would I have a bad reaction all of a sudden? You've been pumping that stuff into me all week"

"I know. And you were handling it quite well, too. But, unfortunately, your body finally reached a point were it decided that enough was enough. It needs a break from the aggressive drug therapy, a chance to rest up and restore what's been lost. Normally, we'd do that anyway after a full session. I had wanted to give you another day or two of treatment, but your body is calling the shots here, so it's best that we just back off for a while. Besides, we tested your marrow and it's actually looking pretty good."

"Are you saying that the cancer is all gone?"

"No, that's not what I'm saying. I wish it were that simple, but this was just the first session of chemotherapy. We managed to kill off a large percentage of leukemic cells, but I'm afraid we didn't get them all. Like I said earlier, we need to give your body a chance to rest up, but unfortunately, that will give the remaining cancer cells a chance to multiply. But we're not going to give them a chance to spread out as badly as they had before. A second chemo session will be needed to, hopefully, send you into remission. Then we'll want to do a post-remission session, just to make sure none of the little buggers try to sneak back in."

"How long between sessions?"

"That depends on you and your body's own recovery rate. We'd like to give you as much time as possible to start building up your defenses again, but at the same time, we don't want to wait too long and allow new leukemia cells to run rampant. We'll test you on a regular basis, and monitor your progress closely. When the time is right, we'll make another go of it."

"When can I go home?"

"We'd like to keep you here another couple of days at least, make sure that your heart is good and strong, transfuse some more healthy blood into your system, and reintroduce you to solid foods again. And if all continues to look good, we'll send you home to finish recuperating. I'll arrange for a home health care nurse to drop by about three times a week to check on you, take blood samples, dispense medication and make sure your Port-a-cath is kept clean."

"I don't think a nurse will be necessary," said Nick. "Natalie knows how to do all that stuff. Is she here somewhere?"

"I convinced her to go get something to eat, and get some sleep. I've been told she's been at the hospital practically 24-7. She takes catnaps in the waiting room, and gets most of her meals from the snack machine. Apparently, the only reason she goes home at all is to feed the cat, take a shower and change. Which brings me to a personal question, Mr. Knight. I know you said that you had no other relatives, but I was wondering why I never see or hear of any close friends or even co-workers coming to visit or inquire about you. Could it be that you haven't told anyone else about your illness?"

When Nick looked away almost shamefully, the doctor had the answer he sought. "Are you afraid that your friends will treat you differently? Perhaps pity you, or even worse, fear you?"

"I guess I just rather Nat and I handle this ourselves."

"That's not a good idea, Mr. Knight. You have a catastrophic disease. No one should face something like this alone. And as you, at least, have your wife to turn to for comfort, who does she have? If your friends are truly your friends, they will give you both the emotional support you need to get through this. On the other hand, if you'd rather put your faith in strangers, there are support groups out there that may be beneficial. There's a group for the relatives of cancer patients and there's one for the patients themselves. You'll be able to talk to others who have experienced what you're going through, or are facing what you've been through. I've given the numbers for both groups to your wife, though I'm not convinced she'll make use of them on her own. But I highly recommend that you both allow others who care, to help you through this crisis."

Nick's first thought was that he didn't need outside help. His condition was only temporary. Once he got home and solved the puzzle, all would be fine. Then he thought about Natalie standing outside his door with tear-filled eyes, watching him cling to life by a thread. There had been no one there to comfort her and no one for her to turn to if he had been allowed to follow his sister into the light.

Dr. Graham could clearly see that his patient was carefully considering his advice. That was a step in the right direction. "There's one other thing I should make you aware of, Mr. Knight. We had to put a surgical cap on your head because your hair has begun to fall out. You've still got quite a bit left at present, but it won't be very long before it'll all be gone. Many patients don't bother to wait. They simply go ahead and have their heads shaved and get it over with. Of course, in time, it will grow back."

Nick let out a soft, depressed sigh, then gazed up thoughtfully at his doctor. "It must be hard for you."

"Beg your pardon?"

"Telling patients how badly their lives are going to suck before they die."

"They don't all die, Mr. Knight. And, yes, it is hard. But somebody's gotta do it." Dr. Graham patted his patient's forearm as a parting gesture. "You take it easy now. I'll check back with you later."

"Doctor?" Nick called out softly just as the physician had reached the door.

The man stopped in his tracks and turned about to face his patient. "Yes, Mr. Knight? Was there something else?"

"Could you...would you make a phone call for me?"

"Who would you like for me to call?"

"My part... my friend, Don Schanke. Maybe you could explain my condition to him and ask if he'd check on Natalie for me."

"I'd be happy to do that for you, Mr. Knight," said Dr. Graham approvingly. He remained long enough to get the phone numbers of both the precinct and Schanke's home, and to verify what information he should relay.

Nick drifted back to sleep soon after the doctor left. When he awoke several hours later, he found a visitor in his room. He had grown accustomed to seeing Nat at his bedside, but the figure seated in the chair across from him was much too large to be Nat. It was a man, that much was obvious. But with his head and face covered by a surgical cap and mask, and one large, gloved hand covering his eyes, it was impossible to identify him. Finally, the figure dragged his hand away from his eyes, apparently wiping away the moisture that had collected in them, then let loose a weary sigh of "Man, oh man."

"Schanke?" Nick called out softly to his partner, drawing his immediate attention.

Schanke moved forward in his chair a bit and reached out a hand to rest on Nick's forearm. "Hey, partner. How ya feeling?"

"Much better now," said Nick, managing a weak smile.

"Good. That's good. I uh...had a nice long talk with your doctor. Then I went and had an even longer talk with Natalie."

"How is she?"

"Worried about you, of course. But, she's home getting some rest now. I insisted. Told her I'd stay and hold down the fort. Congratulations on your wedding, by the way. Wish I could have been here for it."

Nick detected the hint of disappointment in his partner's voice and attempted to apologize for excluding him from the ceremony. "Schanke, I--"

"No it's okay. You don't have to say anything. Natalie explained everything to me. It would have been nice if you guys had let me in on stuff a little sooner, but I think I understand. You figured you could solve that puzzle real quick and make everything right again."

"She told you about that too?"

"Yeah. I don't think she intended to, but I happened to see it sitting on the mantelpiece, and pretty much figured things out. Man, oh man, Nick. I should have never taken that thing out of Melville's house. He tossed it into the trash for a reason. If I had just left it there, none of this would have ever happened. You never would have made a wish and ended up with cancer."

"Schanke. Trust me, it's not your fault. I had leukemia way before I ever laid eyes on that puzzle."


"Yeah. By the time the symptoms finally became noticeable.... Well, you know what they say about early detection."

Schanke nodded as a clearer picture of the situation dawned. "Yeah, you're right. By the time you see the symptoms, it's almost too late to uh...."

"It's not too late for me, Schanke," Nick assured his friend. "Even without the puzzle, I'm going to be fine. I just thought it would be good for Nat to have someone to talk to, considering I spend about twenty hours a day sleeping. And she needs someone who'll see to it that she takes care of herself and not worry so much about me."

"Yeah, she did look pretty despondent. Looked like she had missed a few meals and a few days sleep. But I let her know that she didn't have to shoulder this all alone. Both me and Myra will be there for her. And you too, partner. Anything you need, just let me know."

"Thanks, Schanke. I really appreciate that."

"Sure, no problem." Schanke leaned back in his chair and abruptly changed subjects in order to lighten the mood. "Oh, man, you'll never guess who they got me partnered up with now. Temporarily, of course. Just till you're back on your feet again."


"Tracy Vetter."

"Vetter?" Nick turned the name over in his mind, wondering why it sounded so familiar.

"The daughter of Police Commissioner Vetter. The talk around the precinct is that her dad is the only reason she made detective. But, actually, she's not all that bad. As a matter of fact, the other night, she helped me bring in Dollard, the guy who bombed the courthouse in Edmonton. Which reminds me, now I gotta extricate him back to Edmonton next week."

"Vetter going with you?"

"I wish. I mean, she's easier on the eye and she pretty much idolizes me, but Captain Cohen's going instead. You know, it's a high profile case and there'll be a lot of news coverage going on and--"

"The captain doesn't trust you not to put your foot in your mouth?"

"Something like that. Hey, did I ever tell you about the first time I had to escort a prisoner out of town?"

Nick was sure Schanke had probably told him his entire life at one point or another, but he dared not stop him from his storytelling. It was rather comforting to hear his voice full of excitement as he began to reminisce about his earlier exploits. For Nick, it was refreshing letting something other than his illness take center stage. He hadn't realized how much he'd needed that. Schanke was good at helping him to forget his troubles, if only briefly, and he did his best not to fall asleep on his friend. He managed to stay awake for about fifteen minutes more before drifting off to the sound of Schanke chuckling lightly over one of his own bad jokes.

A week later found Nick recuperating at home. Instead of going back to Natalie's apartment, he opted for the quieter neighborhood and the roominess his warehouse loft provided. He was feeling somewhat stronger, having received several transfusions and medication to help rebuild his red blood cells. He was able to stay awake for hours at a time instead of mere minutes, and able to make it to the bathroom under his own power. During his first couple of days, he was confined to the upstairs bedroom, but as time passed, he finally gained enough strength to wander downstairs, where he took up residence on the living room couch, working to solve the puzzle.

By day six, he had made pretty decent progress, having placed about three-quarters of the dragon in its proper position. A setback, however, came in the form of an unexpected side-effect After waking up from a nap, he noticed that he was having problems with his balance and coordination. Walking became tricky as his lack of balance threatened to tip him over if he didn't hold on to something for support. The simple act of fastening the buttons of his pajama top became difficult as well, because his eye and hand coordination was seriously out of sync. His visiting nurse put a call in to his doctor, who in turn told him not to worry. The condition was not all that uncommon and should fade away on its own within a couple of weeks. No medication was prescribed to counteract the unpleasant side-effect, but if it became too debilitating, he was told that additional treatment would be considered.

This latest development made Nick feel as though he wasn't meant to solve the puzzle. It was much harder to manipulate the different sections of the cube. He had to wonder if some unknown force was doing its best to keep him from making his third wish. Or maybe it wouldn't matter anyway. Perhaps, like Stanley Melville, he had been doomed from the moment he first touched the magic box. Still, it remained his best shot for getting well and living a long and fruitful life. He was determined to see it through to the end.

The ringing of the telephone jerked Nick out of his bout of self- pity. Natalie, who had been curled up in a chair across from him, reading a medical journal, jumped up to answer the phone. Nick listened with mild curiosity as Nat spoke into the receiver, responding to a stranger's request to speak to Dr. Lambert. Only a handful of people knew her as Mrs. Knight, but most people knew that if she wasn't at her own apartment, then she could be found at Nick's loft. As her calm expression twisted slowly into one of shock, Nick took greater interest. He watched as her wide eyes shifted in his direction then squeezed shut in order to stave off the flow of tears. Her voice broke slightly as she agreed to leave immediately.

"Nat? What's wrong?" Nick asked when she hung up the phone.

"Umm...that was Captain Reese."


"Uum, Joe Reese. He's the one filling in for Captain Cohen while she and Schanke...." Natalie covered her mouth, unable to bring herself to finish the statement.

"Nat? What is it?"

"There's been a plane crash at the airport."

"Schanke's plane?" Nick asked fearfully, already assuming the worse.

"It's the flight he and Cohen were scheduled to be on, but nothing's been confirmed yet," Nat passed along the dreaded news with tears forming in her eyes. "Captain Reese wants me to go down and help with cataloging all the...the bodies. It's a pretty big job and they don't have enough qualified people. I'm afraid I'll be gone for quite a while. Do you think you'll be okay on your own, or do I need to call someone to come over?"

"No, I'll be fine, Nat. You go on and do what you have to. Maybe they missed the flight," Nick offered with a sliver of hope.

"Yeah, maybe," Natalie replied absently as she slipped her bare feet back into the sneakers she had kicked off earlier. She was already dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. For the job ahead of her, it seemed the most appropriate attire. She gathered up her purse and keys from the sofa table, then looked to Nick. "Listen, if you need me for anything, Nick, I'll have my pager with me."

"Please, don't worry about me, Nat. careful."

An uneasy smile dashed across Natalie's face as she placed a farewell kiss atop her husband's hairless scalp. "I'll call you as soon as I find out something."

Once she had left, Nick turned on the TV and saw that the plane crash was the topic of a live news bulletin. The report stated that there appeared to be no survivors, and according to witnesses, the plane had exploded in mid-air shortly after takeoff, fueling the speculation of a bomb on board.

Nick turned the sound down and glanced at the telephone. He thought about Myra and Jenny, wondering if they had been informed about Schanke yet. Then his thoughts drifted to Captain Cohen. He knew that she had a husband and kids, but suddenly realized that in the year he'd known her, he had never asked their names. He'd seen their pictures on her desk, but never felt comfortable chatting with his boss on a personal level. And now she was gone, along with his best friend.

Nick glared at the puzzle that had become almost a part of his right hand for the past few days. If only he had been quicker in solving it, he could have made an all encompassing wish to protect not only himself, but everyone close in his life. Maybe he could have even prevented the tragedy from ever happening. He wondered if it were possible to wish the event away, then realized that if he did that, he would have to sacrifice his own well-being. Perhaps the best choice was to do whatever it took to get well, then offer his assistance to the families of Schanke and Cohen. With less enthusiasm, but just as much determination, Nick returned to solving the puzzle.

Several hours passed before Natalie called to check on Nick and to let him know that although the bodies of their associates had not yet been officially identified, their badges and other personal belongings had been recovered. She didn't say it in so many words, but Nick could read between the lines. The bodies from the plane were probably so badly damaged by the explosion and ensuing fireball, that identification by sight alone was not possible. Nick could hear the sorrow and pain in his wife's voice as she strained to keep from breaking down in tears.

"I wish I could do something to help," Nick sighed, rising up from the couch to stretch his legs. "I feel so useless here," he added as he headed clumsily over to the window. "Do you know if Myra's been told yet?"

"I just stopped in at the precinct here to talk with Captain Reese. He's already sent someone over to inform her. I'll probably stop by there myself when I leave here. I'm sitting at Schanke's desk right now just going through stuff. He's got a couple of pictures of you and him together and that Partners of the Month plaque in his drawer. I'm really going to miss him, Nick."

"I know. Me too," said Nick, looking out sadly at the city skyline. "How much longer will you--"

Nick's question was suddenly interrupted by a loud noise off in the distance. He watched in astonishment as a large mushroom of fire lit up the night sky barely two blocks from his home.

"Nick, what the hell was that?" Natalie asked worriedly.

"An explosion. Nat, I think the 25th precinct was just bombed."

"Oh, my god!"

"Nat, tell Reese about it. Whoever's doing this, may have other targets lined up."

"Okay, here he comes now. Hold on."

Natalie didn't bother to put him on hold as she turned to speak to Captain Reese. The man had just stepped out of his office and was approaching her, carrying a flat, gift box. Before Nat could give the captain the bad news, he removed the lid from the box and offered her the contents.

"Just received this box of chocolates as a gift from the Commissioner," the heavyset, dark-skinned man stated with a touch of pride. "But I've got no business trying to eat it all myself."

Nick overheard Nat refusing the offer just as the soft melody of a music box began to play. He wondered where the music was coming from and planned to ask as soon as Natalie came back on the line. Unfortunately, he never got the chance. The music and all other sounds were cut off abruptly by a sudden and deafening blast. Nick automatically dropped the receiver and put a hand to his ear in a vain attempt to protect his hearing and dampen the noise that was still reverberating against his right eardrum. At the same time, he caught sight of another fireball lighting up the night sky. It was further away in the direction of the 27th precinct. It took a few seconds for the realization of what had just occurred to sink in. He bent down to pick up the phone, and placed it against his opposite ear. Hesitantly, he called out Nat's name, but the only thing that greeted him was a dial tone. Shakily, he dialed the number to the police precinct and felt temporary relief when he heard ringing on the other end. However, his joy died instantly when a recorded voice answered and informed him that the number he was calling was presently out of service.

"No! This can't be happening. Can't be." He refused to believe that Natalie had just perished in an explosion. There had to be some other explanation. He tried dialing the direct line to his desk and to the captain's office, but each attempt garnered the same results. Perhaps the explosion had simply been close enough to the building to damage the phone lines. He thought about paging her, but realized it wasn't necessary. She'd call him back as soon as she could get to a working phone. For that reason, he decided simply to wait. He'd give her ten minutes. Surely she'd find another phone by then.

Nick remained in front of the window, looking out at the eerie glow of burning buildings off in the distance with news helicopters circling the area. The time ticked by slowly. Ten minutes turned into twenty, then to thirty, and the phone in his hand still had not rung. Finally, he tore his eyes away from the events going on outside his window to the big screen TV in his living room. He was immediately drawn closer to the television as he recognized the flame-engulfed building that was being shown in the most recent news bulletin. The area that seemed to display the most damage was on the left side of the building towards the rear. That had been the location of his captain's office. Schanke's desk and his own had been located barely ten feet away. Nick continued to stare at the screen as tears streamed down his cheeks. It was obvious that Natalie had been at ground zero when the bomb exploded. The only phone call he'd be getting, would be someone asking him to come down and identify her body.

Overwhelmed by both grief and physical weakness, Nick's legs could no longer support his weight. He dropped to his knees, managing to get his right hand out and brace himself momentarily against the coffee table before collapsing onto the floor. Lying on his side, he covered his face with his hands and pulled his knees up towards his chest. At first the sounds coming from his throat sounded like a mewling cat with the hiccups, but it grew steadily into a loud, mournful wail. He had never felt such devastating heartache before. He couldn't even recall the last time he actually cried, but now it seemed as though he was making up for centuries of unshed tears. It may have been minutes or hours, but eventually, the well of tears dried up and pure exhaustion forced him into a troubled sleep.

An incessant buzzing sound roused Nick from his slumber. He turned his head towards the window and noted the early morning daylight pouring through the opened blinds. The events of the previous night temporarily eluded him. He was a bit confused to find himself sleeping on the floor and wondered why Natalie hadn't waken him and helped him to bed. Then he remembered. Natalie was dead. She had been blown up in an explosion just as his partner Schanke had been. The buzzer sounded again, and Nick finally realized what it meant. Someone had come to notify him, perhaps take him down to the morgue to identify the body. Then again, maybe he was jumping to conclusions. Maybe Natalie was still among the living, possibly badly injured and hospitalized, but alive just the same. Nick held on to that slim thread of hope as he struggled to get to his feet, fighting the stiffness in his limbs, his lack of balance and the nausea threatening to overtake him.

Whoever was ringing the buzzer, must have known for certain that he was home and realized that it would probably take time for him to answer the door. Nick slowly made it over to the intercom and flipped the switch that allowed him to speak to his visitor.

"Who's there?"

"Oh, I'm sorry to disturb you, Det. Knight," an unfamiliar woman's voice spoke up. "I'm Tracy Vetter. I worked with your partner, Don Schanke for the past couple of weeks. Can I come in? We really need to talk."

Nick pushed the button to unlock the door and allow her entry into the elevator. He stood by the elevator door and waited for it to open. When it did, a tall, slender blonde stepped out hesitantly. Her blue eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, conveying the fact that she had just experienced a very trying time. Still she managed a faint smile as she stepped up to him and offered her hand to shake.

"Hi. I've heard a lot about you. It's good to finally meet you. I just wish the circumstances were different."

"Yeah. Schanke told me about you too."

Her head lowered in despair at the thought of their lost comrade. She sighed deeply, then asked. "You know about the bomb on the plane, right?"

"I know."

"I thought so. I met your wife down at the scene and she said that she'd spoken to you when she first got the call. Anyway, I wanted to help out with the investigation, but Captain Reese said that the FBI was handling things and besides, he thought that I was too upset about Schanke to function properly, so he ordered me to go home and take some time off. I was a few blocks away when the bomb went off at the 25th. I was just about to head in that direction when the bomb back at the 27th went off."

"Natalie?" Nick whispered the one word question.

The blonde detective standing a foot away from him, understood perfectly what he was asking. She lowered her head briefly as she reached a hand into her shoulder bag and pulled out a plastic evidence bag. Holding the bag out to him, she responded, "Her body was recovered about an hour ago. I thought you might want to have these back."

Timidly, Nick took the bag from her with a trembling hand, then carefully studied the contents. It contained Nat's wedding rings which were slightly charred, but still very recognizable. The tears returned instantly, this time accompanied by the need to vomit. He wanted to run to the bathroom, but only succeeded in dropping to his knees with one hand supporting his weight, before his last meal came spewing out. It hadn't been much. The last thing he'd eaten was diced chicken with rice and half a wheat roll. That had been over twelve hours ago. As soon as he was done emptying his stomach, he felt a soft touch on his shoulder as a warm, damp cloth began to wipe at his chin. Nick looked up to see the blonde stooping down beside him, her eyes overly moist and a frown of deep concern creasing her face.

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I didn't mean to just spring it on you like that. I'm not use to... I haven't had to give bad news before."

Nick took the cloth from her and finished the job she'd started. "It's okay," he sniffled. "I already knew. I was on the phone with her when it happened."

"Oh, my god! You heard it! Did you hear anything unusual?" Tracy asked, the detective in her coming to the forefront. "Something that might help us locate the bomber?"

"No, not really. Reese had received a box of chocolates from Commissioner Vetter. He offered a piece to Nat. There was the sound of a music box playing, and then...."

"My father thinks chocolate is unhealthy," said Tracy. "I can't imagine him ever sending some to anyone."

"Maybe he didn't," Nick uttered, seeing the possible connection between the candy and the bomb. When he attempted to stand, his visitor automatically offered him assistance, allowing him to put as much of his weight on her as he needed.

"Why don't you just sit down over here?" she suggested with a nod towards the couch.

"Bathroom," Nick pointed in a different direction. "I have to use the bathroom."

"Oh, okay, sure."

Tracy escorted him as far as the bathroom entrance, then stood idly by as he entered on his own and closed the door. After a moment, she could hear water running, but underneath that noise, barely audible, she heard sobbing. The sound broke her heart and she nearly began bawling herself. She felt so sorry for him. He had just lost both his partner and his wife, and as far as she could tell, he had no one else in his life. Schanke had mentioned something about an uncle and an old girlfriend Nick once had, but both had recently left town.

The word at the precinct had been that Nick had taken a leave of absence due to exhaustion and overwork. But it was very obvious that there was something more to it than that. Tracy had seen a few pictures of the old Nick Knight, a very handsome, well-built man with a head full of thick, blonde curls. So she had been more than just a little surprised at the baldheaded, frail-looking man who greeted her when the elevator door opened. The hair loss brought to mind chemotherapy and cancer. Apparently, he hadn't wanted anyone to know the truth. Probably didn't want anyone to pity him.

Now, that he had been left alone with no family or close friends, Tracy wondered how he was going to manage on his own, or if he'd even want to. She stepped away from the bathroom door and casually looked about the living room, wondering where Nick kept his gun. It seemed very likely that with nothing much to look forward to, he might end up sucking on the barrel. She realized then that she couldn't leave him alone. He might not like the idea of her butting into his life, but she knew she couldn't simply walk away and leave him to deal with matters by himself. After all, he could barely make it to the bathroom on his own.

Tracy took a seat on the couch to await her host's return. She figured that he might need several minutes alone in there. She only hoped that there were no razor blades or mass quantities of pills for him to consume. She glanced at her watch and agreed to give him no more than five minutes to come out, otherwise, she'd go in after him even if it meant shooting the lock of the door. At least, if he did try to hurt himself, she'd know better what to do with him. She could have him hospitalized where he'd have round the clock medical and psychological attention. If he were a child, she would have the option of calling Children Services and have him placed in a foster home. Unfortunately, there were no foster homes for sick and depressed adults.

Trying to plan for the future of someone she'd just met was beginning to give her a headache. To keep her mind off the worse case scenario, Tracy picked up the interesting looking cube she saw sitting on the coffee table and began to closely examine it. She could make out what looked like a jade dragon, only his head and tail were in the wrong place. She began to fiddle with it, trying to make it so that the head and tail ended up in their proper place. She became so entranced by the puzzle, that ten minutes later, she didn't even notice when Nick emerged from the bathroom. She nearly jumped out of her skin when he yelled at her in a menacing voice, "Put that down!"

Tracy leapt to her feet, nearly dropping the item in question. "Sorry," she hastily apologized as she set the cube back onto the table. "I didn't mean know. I was just...." Tracy's voice trailed off when she noted an indecipherable expression on Nick's face as he stared unblinkingly at the cube. "I'm really sorry," said Tracy, assuming that the reason Nick looked so upset was probably because the cube had belonged to his wife and it had been his intentions to preserve it just the way Natalie had left it.

"Here, why don't you come sit down," Tracy suggested as she went to him and gently took hold of his arm. "You look a little tired."

Nick didn't bother to argue with her. He merely accepted her help to reach the couch, then once he was settled, she picked up the cube again and handed it to him, somehow sensing that he wanted to hold on to it. Nick studied the puzzle carefully, shocked to see that instead of causing him a setback, Tracy's innocent interference had miraculously brought him within one move away from solving the puzzle. His first thought was to quickly make that last move and wish Natalie back to life, but he paused a moment to consider the consequences of such a wish. Since Natalie had been killed in an explosion, it was quite possible that her body had been badly damaged. To wish her back to life if her body was severely burned or disfigured and lying on a slab at the morgue, could lead to a highly excruciating reawakening. It would be best if he wished that she had never gone down to the precinct when she did, or better yet, perhaps he could wish that Schanke's plane had never been bombed.

Nick was so lost in his decision-making that he failed to hear what his company was saying to him. He'd heard her rattling on about something as she went to stand in front of the window he'd stood in front of earlier while waiting for Nat to call. Tracy's voice finally pierced through to his consciousness and he heard the tail end of a sentence. "--blow up the entire city."

"What?" Nick asked for a repeat. "What did you just say?"

Tracy turned away from the window to look at him. "Oh, I was just talking about the bomber. What I overheard a couple of FBI agents saying to my dad."

"Which was?"

"That there's evidence to indicate that the creep who set off those bombs has stolen enough explosives to blow up the entire city. It's very likely that he's planted bombs all over town. They've already recovered some from the other police precincts in the city. Man, this guy is really sick. It's like he just wants to see how much destruction he can do in a given amount of time." Tracy folded her arms across her chest and shook her head in disgust. "You know what I wish? I wish that the rat bastard had one of his own bombs blow up on him way before he ever had the chance to plant any of those other bombs."

"That's a good wish, Tracy," Nick murmured softly as he twisted the last section of puzzle into position. As the magic box opened in his hands, he closed his eyes and whispered, "I wish the same thing." He waited for several moments before daring to open his eyes again. When he did, he found that the young blonde by the window was no where to be found. Glancing about the room, he saw that everything else seemed unchanged. He placed the cube onto the coffee table, then reached for the phone and placed a call to the precinct. When the male voice on the other end identified himself as Captain Reese and asked how he could be of assistance, Nick gasped with relief. There seemed to be no stress in the man's voice, no indication that any disasters had befallen his workplace.

Nick hung up quickly, not trusting himself to make a comprehensible response. His wish had come true. The bombs had never been placed. That meant that everyone was still alive. At least he hoped that was what it meant. He called out for Natalie but got no response. When he tried calling out louder, and still received no reply, he tried not to panic. There could be a dozen reasons why she wasn't answering. She was probably still asleep in the bedroom upstairs or perhaps in the bathroom blow-drying her hair or something.

Nick rose from the sofa to go find out which was the case. Coming down the stairs had been a hard enough task to manage; going up seemed nearly insurmountable. He'd missed taking some medication, and it had cost him physically. He really wasn't feeling so great, but somehow he gathered up the strength needed to ascend the stairs. By the time he reached the top, he was out of breath and nearly ready to faint. The bedroom door was already opened, and as Nick leaned heavily against the door frame, attempting to catch his breath, he could see that the bed was unmade and empty. His eyes shifted to the darkened bathroom which was apparently unoccupied.

"Nat?" he called out, just in case she was soaking in the tub which was out of his view. The panic was returning. He couldn't help but wonder if his wish had somehow inadvertently altered his life with Natalie. If the bomber had been blown up as he had wished, was it possible that Nat had been somewhere in the vicinity at the time? He didn't want to think the worse, but the way things had been going lately, he had no reason to expect better. He slid to a sitting position on the floor with his back against the wall, then lifted his eyes heavenwards.

"Please, God," he softly began to pray. "I know you don't owe me any favors but... please, Nat's a good person. She deserves to live. And so does Schanke and Cohen. I don't know if the wishing thing worked right, but please don't go punishing them because of me. I'm the one who should pay for my sins, not them. Please, take me instead."

He knew it wasn't much of a prayer, but it was all he could think of. He closed his eyes wearily, trying to think what course of action to take next. The sound of the elevator in motion, snapped him alert and gave him cause to hold his breath. The elevator door opened but from his vantage point, Nick was unable to see who had entered. He heard footsteps going into the kitchen, then a highly familiar and truly welcomed voice called out.

"Nick? Are you up yet? Breakfast will be ready soon."

He was too overwhelmed with relief to speak although he did remember to breathe. The tears that flowed this time, were joyful as he listened to Natalie grumbling about the high cost of coffee and the fact that it was probably cheaper to go to Columbia and pick the beans herself. After a few minutes of puttering around in the kitchen, Natalie finally ascended the staircase, intending to check on her husband. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Nick sitting on the floor in the hallway, with tears streaming down his face.

Nat approached hesitantly, fearing something was drastically wrong. Stooping down by his side, she looked him over carefully for any physical signs of damage. "Nick, what's wrong?" she asked when she couldn't determine the answer simply by sight.

He shook his head and managed to cough out the words, "Bad dream."

"Oh, sweetheart." Natalie wrapped her arms about him, pulled his head to her bosom and rocked him gently. "It's okay," she cooed to him, then placed a kiss atop his head. "Everything's okay."

"I love you so much, Nat," Nick sobbed. "Please, don't ever leave me again."

"I won't. I'm sorry. I just made a quick run to the store. I thought I'd be back before you woke up. I'm sorry, Nick. It won't happen again, I promise."

She had no idea what he was talking about. However, Nick remembered every detail of the earlier events, the way history could have been. To Natalie, of course, none of those things had ever happened. Eventually, he'd have to tell her about them and explain that he'd already used his third wish. But for now, it was enough to simply melt into her embrace, feel her soft touches against his skin and hear her declare her love for him.


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