A/N: I just can't help it... here's yet another N/K 'ship fluff. I don't know why SU2 is still so inspiring for me - I mean, it's been over for quite some time now. Anyway, this time, the story is based on a dream I had the other night. I woke up thinking, "Hey, that's a storyline!" I apologize in advance for the logical gaps (and there are some!), but please overlook them for the sake of romance, will you?

As usual, please tell me about any mistakes you spot, and don't forget the review.

Classification: Short (well, maybe not so short, after all) romance fluff. Pairing - obviously - N/K. Set a few years after the show left off. And in case you've read my other SU2 stories... forget them as long as you're reading this one. This is no sequel to neither "The Story" nor "The Last Hour." In the SU2niverse of this story, Kate has just spent a long time abroad, and she and Nick parted as friends and colleagues, nothing more.

Disclaimer: SU2 belongs to Evan Katz and his crew. No money is being made through this fanfiction, which has solely been written for the sake of creativity. No copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Summary: Actually, the title is pretty much self-explanatory, but here we go: Kate returns from a long journey, eager to see Nick again. But he has some surprises in store for her...

xxx

THE PROPOSAL

There is no protection against love, once it chooses to exert its power.

- Raymond de Mirval

Kate Benson hurried along the platform, dragging her suitcase after her. After a long, tedious journey, she had finally arrived in Chicago.

For a moment she regretted that she had not stayed down in sunny Argentina when the notorious Chicago gales hit her. There was a reason that her hometown was called "The Windy City." Moreover, the South American Bureau for Link Activity Research had almost become a second home for her. Not to mention Javier Mangado, the good-looking scientist with whom she had collaborated in those fourteen months she had spent abroad.

The request had been a surprise for the whole Chicago SU2 bureau. One fine day, a woman called María Beatriz Rojas y Fustero (or something of the like) had contacted Captain Page and requested an SU2 agent to help them build up a similar agency in Buenos Aires. After weeks of discussing, Page had sent Kate. She had been reluctant at first, but Page had assured her that he would keep her job for her, so that she could take up where she left off as soon as she returned.

Nick O'Malley had been furious when he'd first heard of the decision. It had almost been funny, Kate thought with a smile. He'd vigorously refused to accept any other partner, and from the scarce information Kate had received every now and then during her absence, he had been a loner for fourteen months. The thought filled her with an odd sense of pride - he had not wanted any other partner but her.

Yes, Nick O'Malley... Her stomach flipped slightly at the prospect of seeing him again soon. They had barely talked over the past year, let alone met, and she was really looking forward to him. Although she'd had a great time in Buenos Aires, nice colleagues, and last but not least the brief affair with Javier, she had missed him. As a matter of fact, Nick was part of the reason why she had refused to let the thing between her and Javier deepen. She felt that she owed it to her best friend to at least tell him that she had something going on with another man before she made any decision. And to be quite honest, she had not intended to become really involved with Javier. Her emotions had been oddly detached.

Shaking off the memories, Kate walked on, heading for the taxi stand. She did not look left nor right, and therefore her heart almost stopped when someone grabbed her arm from behind.

"What the..." she started, turning around. But the words got stuck in her throat when she saw into Nick's grinning face.

"Surprise!"

Kate dropped her suitcase and boxed him lightly on the arm. "How dare you scare me like that?" she exclaimed, half angry, half happy.

Nick's grin widened even more. "I called you, but you didn't hear," he explained. "And since I'm here to escort you home, there was not much sense in letting you get to the taxi stand, was there?"

Kate relaxed and smiled as well. "You're right," she said.

They looked at each other for a moment, then Nick opened his arms. "Come here and say hello," he said.

Kate's anger dissipated as the joy about being back set in. "You bet I will," she said, laughing. Flinging herself against him, she clasped her arms around his neck and hugged him hard. He hugged her back. She heard him chuckle as he lifted her off her feet and spun her around.

"It's great to have you back," he said, beaming, when he let go of her. "You look great."

"Thanks. So do you."

They exchanged a smile. Then Nick reached for her suitcase and carried it out of the hall to his car. It was parked, most illegally, half on the sidewalk, but Nick had cleverly put his police ID card in the window. The plan had worked; no officer would have registered this as a traffic offense when he believed the car belonged to a policeman on duty.

While Nick tried to fit the monstrous suitcase in the trunk of his car, Kate watched him out of the corner of her eye. At first sight, he had not changed at all. He looked exactly the same as last year. But when Kate thought about it, she sensed a difference. Something about him had altered, but she could not put her finger on it just yet.

Nick shut the trunk and got in the car. "You wanna go straight home?" he asked.

That had actually been what she had initially planned, but suddenly she felt like she could use a drink or two.

"How about a drink?" she asked. "You could drop me off at home and pick me up again an hour later."

"I'd love to," Nick assured her. Then he looked at her with slight concern. "But aren't you tired?" he asked. "You must have had an exhausting day."

"I have," Kate confirmed, "but believe me, a nice beer or cocktail would be the perfect thing right now."

"How's your Spanish?" Nick asked. "You fluent now?"

"Sí, claro," Kate said. "Pero ahora no me gusta hablar de la calidad de mi español. Me gustaría más una cerveza y una conversación con mi amigo más querido."

"Uhm... you want a Spanish drink?"

Kate burst out laughing. "Anything but that. Nevermind. I didn't know your Spanish was so poor, Nick."

"My Spanish is inexistent," Nick corrected. "I know about five words. Plus the expression copa de la vida." His accent was abominable.

"Impressive," Kate commented wryly.

Nick grinned. Then he turned left and pulled over in front of Kate's building. They got out of the car, and Nick helped her get the heavy suitcase up the stairs. When she had unlocked her apartment door, he turned around. "I'll pick you up at seven," he said.

"Alrighty." Kate entered her apartment and was just about to close the door when Nick called, "Kate?"

She stuck her head out of the door. "Yeah?"

He smiled. "I've been missing you, partner. It's great to have you back."

She looked at him, surprised. "See you at seven."

He waved and disappeared around the corner. While Kate was unpacking her things, taking a shower and getting ready to go out, she suddenly knew what it was that had changed about Nick: his macho attitude, albeit still perceptible, was not as strong as before. He was more polite, more gentleman-like, less ironic. Kate was not sure whether the old Nick would have carried her suitcase all the way, or told her what he'd just told her.

Nick O'Malley had matured, that was it.

Smiling, Kate got dressed and put on some make-up. She was looking forward to the evening.

xxx

When they had comfortably settled down at a corner table in a downtown bar, the Coconut Grove (the owner was from Miami), and had ordered their drinks, Nick looked at Kate expectantly.

"Spill the beans, partner. Tell me all about it. How've ya been? How's the Argentina Bureau?"

Kate leaned back. "Who says I should start talking? How have you been? Anything important happen while I was away?"

Nick shook his head. "Carl is still a nasty little brat, Page is still grumpy, and Jonathan's favorite word is still 'wow.' He says it even more often now that he's with Marnie."

"It worked out?" Kate smiled. "Great. I'm so glad for him."

"I met Sean the other week," Nick continued. "Remember? He used to work for us before Jonathan joined SU2."

"Of course I remember Sean. How's he doing?"

"Fine. He's got a job with the World Research Center for Link Activity down in Philly. He dropped by the other week to say hello. He and Jonathan spent hours discussing this and that, so Sean hardly had any time for the rest of us. But he says hi."

"Thanks."

Their drinks arrived, and Kate wasted a little time stirring her Cosmopolitan. She did not quite know how to give an account of her time in Argentina without mentioning Javier. For then Nick would ask why she broke up with him after such a short time, and then she would not know how to explain. But she couldn't not mention Javier, either. Nick would notice if she lied.

"Argentina was... warm," she said after a while. "I wanted to turn on my heel and get back when I got off the train here."

"Well, Chicago wanted to impress you by showing you how strong the gales can really be here," Nick remarked.

Kate grinned. "Anyway," she continued, "the Argentina bureau is very much different from ours. It's still in the making, that's why I was sent there in the first place. They had a very, let's say, naïve idea of how it all should work. They thought they'd simply send their agents out and blast the Links into the middle of next week. They didn't think about any such things as damage control, secrecy, or misinformation and misdirection of the public. I spent the first three weeks lecturing them on the logistics behind the agency.

"Then I checked the labs. They were hardly equipped sufficiently to run a normal crime scene investigation, let alone one involving Link activity. Heck, they didn't even have a copy of Webster's Handbook of Links!"

"What a sacrilege!"

"Isn't it? Well, to cut a long story short, it took me about three months to pave the way for them."

"And why didn't you come back after those three months?" Nick pouted jokingly. "Why'd you leave me hangin' for another eleven months?"

"Because the bureau asked me to act as a sort of supervisor for the first six months. That was a sort of trial period for the agency."

"So you played Lady Boss?"

"Not really. I was more like the puppet master in the background, pulling all the strings. You might say I acted like a majority stockholder... I appointed the managing director and the chief, and I recruited the detectives. I got in touch with the President of Argentina and kept him informed. I coordinated everything, from diplomacy right down to the lab work."

"That's my Kate," Nick commented. "So you were quite a workaholic, weren't you?"

"Betcha!" Kate took a sip from her cocktail.

Nick watched her closely. "There's something else you haven't told me," he stated matter-of-factly.

Kate blushed, and Nick slammed his palm down on the table.

"Ha!" he exclaimed. "I knew it! Come on, tell me. Who is he?"

Kate looked away. She had dreaded that question. "It's nothing," she said. "It didn't last very long."

"A latin lover?" Nick teased, but he became serious when he saw her expression. "Hey, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, you know," he said. Then he frowned. "But he didn't, like, hurt you or anything? Because if he did..."

"No," Kate interrupted him hastily. "Really, it's just not very interesting. He was a scientist, and we were working alongside each other. He was nice and charming and good-looking, and I was alone in a foreign country with all this responsibility... well, and then it happened," she ended. Sorry, Javier, she thought. I know I'm doing you wrong by playing it all down like this, but it's easier for me. In fact, she'd had a mighty crush on him, and Javier had told her after two months that he had seriously fallen in love with her - which is when she had chickened out and ended it all. It had been okay as long as there were no deep feelings involved. And Javier had not been the average latin lover, although she was relieved that Nick automatically assumed he was, and she did nothing to correct that impression.

She just did not quite know herself what had happened. At first, she had felt flattered and a little bit happy, too, that someone was interested in her who was neither a Link nor a jerk (or both, for that matter). Javier was perfect: he was intelligent, friendly, charming - and physically attractive, too. And he really seemed interested in her. It could have been the perfect match. But she had refused to reveal too much of herself; she had regarded him as Mr. Right Now, so to speak, and when she had found out that he was beginning to really love her, she had realized that he was not what she wanted. So she had ended the affair. The guilt of having hurt his feelings weighed heavy on her, but she had figured that it might be better to draw a closure when it was still possible. She could have accepted him, hoping that she might begin to love him, too, but deep inside she had known that it wouldn't have worked out. So she had preferred to dump him right away when there was still a chance that he recovered quickly from the refusal, that his feelings were not hurt too deeply.

And she had never stopped thinking about Nick whenever she was with Javier. This was another reason. It was not that she had suddenly discovered that Nick was her one true love or something (that only happened in winter blockbuster movies), but her emotional attachment to him ran deeper than any other. It would have been unfair to Javier to make their affair a relationship when deep inside she knew that he would always be number two.

"Kate?" Nick was looking at her. "You okay?"

"Yeah, sure." Kate offered him a reassuring smile. "I was just... thinking."

"I noticed," Nick said wryly. "Not about this latin lover of yours? That thing better be over, or I'll be really jealous."

"You - jealous?" Kate laughed. "You have no reason to be jealous. It's over, really. And besides... why would you be jealous?"

For some strange reason, Nick did not answer straight away, and when he did, he sounded uncharacteristically earnest.

"You don't need a latin lover, Kate," he said. Then he took a long gulp of his beer and was his former, cheerful self again.

"I have something to tell you, too, Kate," he said abruptly. "I'm getting married."

Kate almost dropped her glass. "You what?"

"I'm seriously considering entering into holy matrimony with a woman," Nick said.

Kate stared at him and waited for the punchline. When it was clear that there was none, she reached for her glass and knocked back half of the cocktail at once. Nick watched her as she put the glass back on the table and shuddered briefly.

"You must be kidding," she said finally. Nick O'Malley - getting married? This can't be true. This must be a joke...

"I'm not," Nick said.

"Who is she?" Not Zoë... please not Zoë!

Nick grinned. "I'm not telling you yet, Kate."

"Why not?" Geez, she had to stop being so curt with him. Her best friend was getting married. She should be happy for him.

"You'll soon learn," Nick promised. "But first I need your help."

"Help. Sure." Kate cleared her throat and pulled herself together. "Of course I'll help you, Nick. And congratulations, too. Sorry, I was a little taken aback at first. These were really surprising news, you know." She shook her head. "Nick O'Malley is getting married." She reached across the table and boxed his arm. "You didn't even tell me you had another girlfriend!"

"Well," Nick said and blushed for some reason, "the thing is - I don't, really."

Kate stared at him in confusion. "Then who are you planning to propose to?"

"It's complicated," Nick explained, squirming slightly. "We're not a couple, she and I. But I'm pretty sure she loves me, and I certainly love her. It's just that no one ever made the first step. So I thought I'd do something really brave and stupid before I lose her and propose to her."

Kate was close to tears. "That's such a sweet idea, Nick," she croaked. God, how she wished she knew who this lucky woman was. "She must be someone very special if she could capture the renegade heart of Nick O'Malley like this."

"Oh yeah, she is," said Nick dreamily.

Kate could see that he was being serious. She, on the other hand, was an inch from cracking. She felt betrayed. Her best friend had not shared such a meaningful decision with her. He had waited until they met again and then overwhelmed her with the news. And now he even refused to reveal to her the identity of the lucky one. She suddenly felt very lonely. Who knew what else had happened during her absence. Other things no one had thought her worth of knowing.

So much for the deep attachment, she thought bitterly. She had never been so disappointed. She had thought that she was Nick's best friend as well, and she had, of course, expected that he did not exclude her from his life like that. Out of sight, out of mind.

"Kate?"

Kate pulled herself together. She would not huff. She would act as if everything was alright. It was her duty as a friend.

"Why won't you tell me who she is?"

"I will," Nick said. "Just not now."

Kate fell silent. Then she remembered something he'd told her earlier. "You said you needed my help?"

Nick nodded. "It's very important, Kate. You're the only friend I can trust on that."

"On what?"

He looked at her. "Would you help me select a ring?"

xxx

Usually, Kate fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Not this time, though. She was too upset.

Her thoughts wandered back to the moment when Nick had asked her to help him select a ring for the mysterious lady. She could not have been more baffled, had a cannonball hit her square in the face.

Nick just continued talking. "Kate, please," he implored her. "You're a woman with a good taste. If you select a ring, I'll know it's the right one."

"Me? Select a ring for your fiancée-to-be?" Kate was striving to control her voice. Some corner of her mind told her that this was a great honor, but all she could think was that she did not want to try a ring that Nick would put on the finger of another woman.

She did not want Nick to put anything on any other woman's finger at all, for that matter.

You're jealous, Benson, she told herself. Stop that. You have no claim on him, as he has none on you. You're friends with him, nothing more. So why are you so upset?

"Are you jealous, Kate?" Nick teased. Kate jumped. It was almost as if he had read her mind.

"Of course not," she retorted, a little too quick. To her surprise, a satisfied smile played at the corners of Nick's mouth.

"Admit it, at least a little," he said playfully.

For the umpteenth time this night, Kate pulled herself together. Clearly, Nick expected her to be in on the joke. Well, what he could do, she could do even better.

"Well," she drawled, "of course I know that everything will change when you're married. No more jokes about hot dogs and explosions, no more 'I'm driving!', no more cheeky remarks on your part about the qualities of this or that female suspect... Yeah, I suppose I am a little jealous."

Nick looked certainly relieved.

"But will you help me?"

Kate looked at him and her features softened. She had always found it hard to refuse him a favor. Nick, I'd do anything for you. Even if it means denying my own feelings.

"You know I will."

"Kate, you're great."

"I know." She forced herself to a smile. "If you wanna do something stupid, all I can do is watch you and do some damage control. At least the ring should be perfect."

Nick downed his beer and ordered another one. "What are you having, Kate?" he asked.

Kate rolled her eyes. "Vodka. On the rocks." She grinned. "Just kidding. Get me a Vodka/Red Bull, please," she said to the waitress. "Drowning the shock," she added for Nick's benefit.

They had chatted about this and that from then on. Kate had joked and laughed with Nick, careful not to let her emotional chaos show. He wanted her to act as his best friend, so she did.

But now that she was lying in her bed, all alone in her apartment, reflecting on the evening and being, admittedly, under the influence of alcohol, Kate Benson realized the obvious: she could not bear the thought of Nick O'Malley getting married to someone else.

How stupid she had been! She had refused Javier, perhaps given a real chance away in doing so, because she had never stopped thinking about Nick. He was her number one, would always be, and somehow she had thought that he felt the same, or at least something similar, about her. What had she been thinking? She could have guessed that Nick would not live the life of a monk just because his best friend spent a year abroad. No one in their right mind would.

But now it seemed as if she'd lost him for good. His eyes had lit up so warmly when he'd talked about the woman. Someone had managed to conquer the heart of Nick O'Malley.

And it pained Kate that this woman was not her.

She turned her head on the pillow and started to cry.

xxx

Her fingers trembling, Kate dialed the number of Nick's cell phone. She had so much to tell him, and she knew that her courage would writhe and fade if she waited just one more minute. It was now or never.

The phone rang and rang. Kate bit down hard on her lower lip to stop it from trembling.

Finally she heard Nick's voice. But before she could start talking, the familiar voice continued: "Hi, this is Nick O'Malley, but it appears my cell phone is out of service right now. Perhaps the battery's too low. Leave me a nice message, then I'll call you back. Cheerio!"

Into the fire.

"Nick... it's me. I mean, it's Kate." Crap, my voice. It's trembling. "Listen, I..." Her voice trailed off. She cleared her throat and wanted to continue, but suddenly she burst out, "Don't do it, Nick! Please don't! I know this is very sudden, and I know I promised, but..." She sobbed. "I can't do that, Nick. I cannot help you marry another woman. If you don't love me, that's okay, I can live with that. I could be your friend, I think. But please don't make me do this, I beg you..." The phone dropped from her hand as she collapsed on her sofa, sobbing hard. She covered her face in her hands.

All she could do was wait.

xxx

Kate woke with a start when the phone rang. She raised her head and moaned. Her back and neck hurt from lying on the sofa in a very unhealthy and uncomfortable position. Her eyes were sore from the crying.

Disoriented, she looked around. By the time she had localized the telephone, the answering machine had already sprung to life.

"Hi Kate, it's Nick." Oh God. "Listen, I... uhm..." Oh God, he's going to laugh at me. "I saw you called my cell phone and left a message, but I... well, I'm sorry, but I accidentally deleted your message before I could check it. So when you hear this..."

"Nick?" Kate had finally made it to the telephone and snatched the receiver.

"Oh, hi." Nick smiled, she could hear it.

"Listen, that message wasn't important," Kate said resolutely. "I just wanted to ask you whether Page told you anything about when I'm supposed to take up work again, but I called the captain myself in the meantime." She was surprised at how smoothly the lie flowed from her lips.

"Ah, alright." Nick cleared his throat. "Kate, do you have time today? I'd really like to go and... do what I asked you."

Kate closed her eyes. "Pick me up in half an hour, Nick. I'm ready."

xxx

One arm firmly around Kate's shoulders, Nick pulled her into the jewelry shop. They had agreed to spare the vendor any confusion, so Kate was playing the part of Nick's girlfriend.

She had given up all resistance. She smiled and laughed with Nick, but she felt as if she was running on autopilot. She just clenched her teeth, determined to get it over with.

What bliss self-deception yields, she thought sarcastically. This was probably the last chance for her to be close to Nick in another way than friendship. So she threw caution to the wind and slipped into the role of a young woman who had been proposed to by her boyfriend.

It was not surprising that the part was easy to play.

An obedient salesman hurried over to them as they entered the shop.

"How can I help you?" he asked.

Nick flashed a brilliant smile. "We're looking for an engagement ring," he said. "We agreed that she should pick it herself - to avoid any embarrassing wrong choices."

Kate leaned against him. "Isn't that nice of him?" she crooned.

The salesman nodded. "Very well, then. What kind of ring would you like?"

"Honey?" Nick looked at her inquiringly.

If you select a ring, I'll know it's the right one.

"Maybe we should just take a look around," Kate suggested. "Sweetheart," she added pointedly.

"Good idea, honey. Give me a sign when you've found one that really appeals to you."

The salesman retreated, and Kate tugged at Nick's sleeve. "I really need to know the color of her eyes," she whispered into his ear.

"Oh. Yeah." Nick lowered his face to hers. His lips accidentally brushed the side of her face, sending a shiver down her spine, when he brought his mouth to her ear. "Actually, they're the same as yours. Pick a ring that you think would match yourself."

Kate swallowed. This was getting harder and harder.

She let go of Nick and wandered around the shop, picking up this and that, until one ring caught her eye. It lay displayed on a dark velvet cushion, and even before she approached, Kate knew that she would certainly choose this one, had it been for herself. She debated for a while. Choosing this one would mean to give up the last symbolic chance she might still have. But it was too late, anyway.

She felt like a martyr when she ran her finger along the ring. It was silver, adorned with a pale blue sapphire that was surrounded by a wreath of tiny diamonds that reflected the light.

Her expression must have betrayed her, for Nick and the salesman both appeared out of nowhere by her side.

"This one, honey?"

She nodded. There goes my happiness.

"Would you like to try it on, ma'am?" the salesman asked.

"Of course she will," Nick said, cutting across Kate.

Kate nodded, at a loss for words. But what, really, could she say? If she couldn't have Nick, she could at least play her role well.

The salesman handed her the ring. Kate looked at it for one more moment, then she slipped it over her left ring finger. It fit perfectly. Dreamily, Kate turned her hand in this and that direction, admiring the rays of light getting caught in the tiny diamonds. The pale blue fire of the sapphire glistened.

"It matches your eyes perfectly, honey," Nick said. His voice was a little husky, and Kate quickly looked away lest he see the tear that had formed in the corner of one her eyes.

"This one it will be, then, sir?" the salesman asked.

Nick cast an inquiring glance at Kate, saw how transfixed she was, and smiled. "She's fallen in love with it head over heels," he said. "I don't think we have to look any further."

Kate recovered from her trance when Nick gently took her by the wrist. "Kate?"

"Yes," she said, taking a deep breath. She looked directly at the salesman, careful to avoid Nick's eyes. If the salesman saw her emotion, he would think nothing of it. If Nick did, he might wonder.

She slipped off the ring and handed it to the salesman, who put it in a small box. Nick handed him a credit card, unflinching at the price.

Kate waited impatiently for him to finish the transaction. When the ring had safely been tucked away in Nick's breast pocket, she turned on her heel and left the shop. Nick followed.

Outside, he hugged her enthusiastically. "Thank you, Kate!" he said, his eyes shining. "You're my heroine!" He started off down the road. "Come, let's celebrate. I know a great pizzeria just down the street."

Kate stumbled after him. "Nick, I don't think I..."

"I'm taking you out for dinner, and you're not going to refuse," Nick insisted. "You helped me with a decision that will change my life! It's the least I can do for you now."

Kate conceded.

Outside the restaurant, she hesitated for a moment. "Nick?"

Nick turned to look at her. "Yeah?"

"I really appreciate you asking me to do this. It tells me you really trust me and value my opinion. It means... it means a lot," she added silently.

"I really appreciate you agreeing to do it." Nick smiled. "Still eager to learn of the identity of the lady?"

Kate nodded. Then she made a quick resolution. "But first..." She took a step and stood now directly in front of him. "Consider this your first stag night kiss." Before he could say or do anything, she grabbed him around the neck, pulled his face down to hers and quickly brushed his lips with hers, placing a gentle kiss on the corner of his mouth.

Then she let go of him. As long as I don't know who she is, I'm not betraying her.

Nick smiled at her. "Thank you, partner. Let's go inside then, shall we?"

xxx

The food had been excellent, and so had the wine. Both had avoided the question as to who Nick's future fiancée was until they had their desserts in front of them.

As soon as Nick stopped eating, his spoon still in his hand, and looked at her, Kate knew what was to come.

"So," Nick said and paused. "The moment of truth has arrived, I suppose."

Kate put her spoon down. She did not want to hear it. But she had to.

Nick cleard his throat and fumbled around with his spoon. Why on earth was he so nervous? Kate wondered. He would only tell her his fiancée's name. This couldn't be too hard.

Apparently, it was, for Nick's spoon suddenly slipped from his sweaty hands and clattered to the floor.

Nick jumped. "Oops," he said. "Wait a minute, will ya?"

With that, he dived down under the table to retrieve his spoon. Kate heard him rummaging and caught herself thinking what took him so long. She was just about to bend down and look when Nick's head popped out from under the tablecloth. He waved his fist. "Got it."

He scrambled out from under the table and cleared his throat once more. Still on his knees, he opened his fist. On his palm was not the spoon but the box with the ring they had just bought.

Kate stared at him, completely lost. This situation made no sense at all. Nick O'Malley is kneeling before me with a ring in his hand that I've chosen.

"Kate Alice Benson," Nick said, and his voice trembled audibly. "I'm kneeling before you not as your friend and colleague, but as a man in love. But I would be the happiest man on earth if you, Kate, would be my wife."

Kate stared, thunderstruck. He must have rehearsed this many times, she thought, still not getting a full grip on what she'd just heard.

She only realized that at least several minutes must have passed when Nick stirred beside her. "Kate?" he asked cautiously. "Kate?"

Nick O'Malley just proposed to me! Realization hit home, and Kate's rational thinking gave way to her emotions. Gasping for air, not sure whether she should laugh or cry, she threw her arms around Nick's neck. She leaned forward in order to hug him harder, and then it happened: Nick, who was still on his knees, lost his balance and fell over, pulling her with him. She lost her balance, too, falling on top of him, and then they rolled over the floor. Kate saw the legs of a waiter as he hurried to safety, out of their way. She sensed the eyes of the others on them, but for once, she did not care. They had come to a stop with her on top of him, and she noticed that she was laughing and crying at the same time. Nick looked up to her from his inferior position, lying flat on his back on the restaurant floor, and swept her up in his arms, pulling her close against his body. She felt the muscles ripple under his shirt as he shifted to sit up.

"Is that a yes?" he whispered into her ear.

Kate wrapped her arms even tighter around him - to the extent that was still possible. "Oh yes, it is," she whispered back, and then his mouth was on hers, stifling any other word she might have meant to say. She kissed him back, passionately, allowing all her emotions flow from her body into his, like electric current. She dug her fingers in his dark hair, ignoring the whispers around her and Nick. They had caused quite a commotion, but she could not and would not care.

Eventually, their lips parted. They were both out of breath and looked slightly disheveled. There were crumbs of bread in Nick's hair which he had probably picked up from the restaurant floor, but the box with the ring was still safely enclosed in his fist.

"Kate?" he said again, softly, holding out a hand. She gave him her hand and watched in awe as he slid the ring over her finger.

Then he lifted her hand to his lips and placed a gentle kiss on her knuckle.

"I love you," he whispered. "You have no idea how much I missed you."

"Oh yes, I have," she replied, also in a whisper. "Because I've been missing you, too."

He kissed her hand again. Then he stood up, helped her get up as well and looked around at the gaping guests and waiters. A brilliant smile lit up his face as he took her hand, laced his fingers with hers, and raised their linked hands in the air. "Guess what," he said loudly, addressing everyone in the room, "this beautiful, unique woman has just accepted my proposal. We're getting married!" The last words came out as a triumphant cry, and in a split second, the mood in the restaurant changed. The waiters started to cheer and to applaud, and a moment later, the other guests joined in.

Nick and Kate stood still amidst the tumult for a moment. Then Nick put his arm around her, kissed her temple and escorted her back to their deserted table.

They had a dessert to finish.

xxx

"Why on earth did you have to be so sadistic?" Kate asked, propping herself up on one elbow and watching Nick, who was lying on his back with his face turned towards her.

He raised one hand and stroked the side of her face. "Sadistic? No, I wanted to do something special," he replied. "Something that would convince you I was really being serious."

"Special, indeed," Kate growled, feigning outrage. "Basically you lied to me. You tricked me. You put up false pretenses to get what you wanted. You made me believe I'd lost you for good. If that's not sadistic, then what is?"

"I had to be sure first," Nick defended himself. "I watched you when I broke the news to you. You were in control most of the time, but sometimes I saw that you were deeply shaken up. It broke my heart to see you so sad, believe me." He leaned forward to kiss her. "But I told myself that your joy would be even greater when you learned that it was all a ploy. And besides, otherwise you probably wouldn't have that ring."

Kate couldn't help laughing. "Very savvy," she said wryly. "But still you watched my torment and didn't do anything about it, just because it served to confirm your assumptions."

"I couldn't risk popping the question and getting a negative reply," Nick said. "I got really scared when you told me about the guy in Argentina."

"It was really nothing." Kate leaned back against him. "He was being serious with me, but I just couldn't give in to him. Every time I tried, I had to think of you."

"Lucky you did." Nick wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in against him. With a deep sigh, she relaxed against his chest, feeling his steady heartbeat under his skin. Drowsily, she let her thoughts drift.

On Monday, they would make it official. The news would cause another commotion, she was sure of that. It seemed to be her and Nick's fate. But what else could she expect with Detective Nick O'Malley? A man who loved explosions more than anything else - well, except her, she hoped - would certainly not want his colleagues to acknowledge the news with a casual nod and then go back to work.

Kate could already hear Jonathan saying "Wow!" all the time. She smiled. She knew that Nick would probably ask him to be best man at the wedding. Then it would only be fair if she asked Marnie to be the first bridesmaid.

She just hoped that Carl wouldn't insist on being invited to the wedding. She'd have a hard time to explain him to her family. On the other hand, it would serve Nick right to have the Gnome among the guests - after all the pain and confusion he had caused her. Maybe she should ask him to come.

When she had to, Kate Benson - soon to be Kate O'Malley - could be sadistic, too.

xxxTHE ENDxxx