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Moving Forward
By Amanda Berendt
Copyright January 2004

    Natalie Lambert sat at her desk in the coroner's office. She rubbed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. All of her reports were up to date, so now she was reorganizing her desk. She had emptied all of the contents of her drawers onto the desktop and was putting it all back when her assistant Grace walked in.
    "Natalie," the black woman said shaking her head and putting her hands on her hips. "What do you think you're doing here?"
    The doctor looked up sheepishly. "I'm organizing my desk."
    "You are supposed to be on vacation this week. Where is Dr. Warren?"
    "At home. I told him I'd cover his shift."
    Grace gently pulled Natalie out of the chair. "You have been working non-stop since Nick left. You need a break." She gestured to the lab. "*This* is not a place to hide." She helped Natalie into her coat and shooed her out the door. "I'll call Dr. Warren in and I don't want to see you back here until your vacation is really over."

    Not long after Natalie had left, the door to the lab opened once more. Grace looked up from her project of returning all of Natalie's things to their proper place in her desk to see a young man standing in the doorway. He was in his mid-thirties, with blonde hair that had flopped into his face covering his deep blue eyes.
    Grace smiled. "By any chance, Detective Taylor, is it raining outside?"
    Detective Mark Taylor smiled back as he pushed his dripping hair out of his face and shook off his drenched coat. He had been transferred to the 96th six months ago following the death of Detective Tracy Vetter and the resignation of her partner Nick Knight, who had been devastated by the loss. He knew coming in that he had big shoes to fill. The stories of Detective Knight's exploits had reached the 77th precinct. But he was fitting in - proving to be almost as much of a maverick as Knight had been.
    "What makes you say that?" He asked, leaning casually against the desk, still dripping.
    "No reason." Grace smiled as she finished clearing off the desk and closed the last drawer. "What can I do for you?"
    "Actually I was looking for Natalie... sorry, Dr. Lambert. She was supposed to have the Stockdale report for me."
    Grace's smile broadened. "So, Detective. Let me get this straight. You drove all the way over here in the pouring rain, at" she checked the clock on the wall. "three in the morning, just to pick up a tox report?"
    Taylor's cocky fašade faltered for only a moment, but he quickly recovered. "I'm a dedicated public servant." He said straightening up. "So, is she here?"
    Grace got up from the desk and went over to the stack of files in the OUT box. "Sorry, Detective, she's off this week." She plucked the file from the stack and handed it to him. "But here's the report." She handed the report to Taylor who took it and thanked her before turning to leave the lab.
    "Detective." She called out as he opened the door.
    "Yes?" he paused in the open doorway.
    "Natalie will be back on Monday if you have any other reports to pick up."
    The detective smiled and called back as he continued through the door. "Thanks Grace."

    A few weeks later, Grace and Natalie were sitting in the break room of the coroner's lab having some coffee. Being that it was one thirty in the morning, they were alone.
    "Grace," Natalie said sipping from her mug. "Did you print out that report on the John Doe floater? Mark said he'd be by to pick it up tonight."
    Grace leaned back in her chair. "Yes. So what's going on with you guys?"
    Natalie put her mug back on the table. "Who? Me and Detective Taylor?"
    A sly grin spread over the other woman's face. "No, you and *Mark*."
    Natalie's face showed the faintest blush. "Nothing is going on with us. We just got to talking over the Collins autopsy the other day."
    Grace got up to wash out her mug. "Oh come on, Natalie. I've heard that story before. You guys have been flirting since he first stepped into the building. Why don't you just go out with him?"
    Natalie sat mute. A silence hung in the room. Grace knew very well why Natalie was keeping to herself - her heart still clung to someone who was gone and was never returning.

    A few days later as Natalie was clearing her desk in preparation to go home, the door to the lab opened and in stepped Detective Taylor.
    He smiled. "You on your way out?"
    "Yep. Did you need something?" She asked as she set the voice mail on her phone.
    "Oh, no." He stepped further into the office and helped her with her coat. "I already clocked out. I spoke to Grace earlier and she had said you guys didn't get a break to eat tonight and I was wondering if maybe you wanted to grab a bite. Nothing to big or anything - just a donut at Tim Horton's or something."
    Natalie remained silent. Grace had been matchmaking again. Part of her wanted to go with him, but something held her back.
    He turned to leave. "No problem, maybe another time."
    "Wait," she stopped him. "Sure, why not." She turned off the light and followed him out of the room.

    One morning, after several weeks of having breakfast together, they sat at their usual corner booth at Tim Horton's.
    "Natalie," Mark seemed nervous, not his usual confidant self. "I was wondering if... well, you know how we've been coming to breakfast together for a while now, and well... next week is Valentine's Day and... ummm, would you maybe... I mean, would you possibly want to have dinner with me?
    Natalie swallowed her donut with difficulty, caught off guard by his invitation. "What?"
    Mark took a deep breath, gaining a bit of confidence, "Would you like to have dinner with me next week?"
    Unsure of what to do, Natalie sat in silence for a few moments. Logically, she knew she should. Obviously, she couldn't sit at home alone for the rest of her life. She had to move on. She got along wonderfully with Mark, he was a great guy and she did have to admit that he was pretty cute. Finally, after what was probably an excruciatingly long time for him, she said yes.

    On Valentine's Day, Natalie sat on her bed still wearing her robe. She had gotten out of the shower more than twenty minutes ago, but was unable to will herself to get dressed. How was she going to get through the evening? Eventually, she randomly chose a black dress from the closet and put it on. She was just slipping into her shoes when the doorbell rang.
    As she opened the door, she half expected to see Nick standing on the other side as he had last year, but reality intervened and there stood Mark Taylor holding a beautiful bouquet of deep red roses.
    "Happy Valentine's Day, Natalie." He said handing her the flowers.
    She took them and greeted him with a quick hug. "Let me just get these in some water, then we can get going." She said, carrying the flowers into the kitchen.
    They drove to the restaurant in silence. Mark parked the car and came around to the passenger side to help Natalie out.
    When they were seated at their table and had given their orders to the waiter, they again lapsed into an awkward silence. Mark could tell something was bothering Natalie. From the stories he had heard around the precinct about the coroner and Detective Knight, he could guess what it was. Obviously, any statements they had made about their relationship had been only "close friends" was untrue. Not wanting to upset her further, he kept the small talk going throughout the meal.
    After dinner, they stood at the doorway to Natalie's apartment saying their goodnights.
    "Thank you very much, Mark. The dinner was lovely." Her statement almost sounded scripted.
    "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself, Nat." Mark said as he leaned into kiss her goodnight on the cheek. When his lips touched her skin, the fragile wall she had been holding up all night came crashing down.
    Tears streamed down her cheeks as she sobbed. "Oh god. I am so sorry Mark. I shouldn't be doing this. I am just leading you on. I can't be what you want..."
    Instead of being angry or put off by her outburst, Mark hugged her even closer as she wept into his shoulder.
    Ten minutes later, after he had calmed her down and lead her into her apartment, they sat on her couch. Natalie was wiping her face with his handkerchief.
    "I am sorry, Mark. I shouldn't have let you think we could do this..."
    Mark stopped her, gently placing his hand on her arm. "Nat, don't worry. I know you still love him and you probably will for a long, long time. I understand and it's alright."
    She looked up at him. "It is?"
    He nodded and took her hand. "Of course. From what I've heard, Nick was a great guy. I know I could never replace him at the precinct, so why would I ever presume to be able to do so in your heart? All I'm asking is that, when you're ready, if you could possibly make room for me in there too?"
    Natalie took a deep breath, letting his words sink in. "I don't know when that will be, or even *if* it will be."
    His deep blue eyes met her tearful gaze. "I can wait as long as you need me to. We can be friends and when, or if, you are ready to open your heart again, you can let me know." He got up and kissed her gently on the forehead. "Why don't you get some sleep and I'll see you tomorrow at work."
    He touched her hand once more before he turned and let himself out of the apartment.