Beyond Where Angels Sleep
Part One

by Caroline Alert

This story is a sequel to Through A Glass, Darkly

All I want is for your love to be all mine,
But the angels won't have it...

-- Melissa Etheridge

He stood alone in the shadows. He didn't mind the darkness; it was familiar, almost comforting. He'd been there for most of his life, one way or another. And as for being alone -- everyone was. One way or another.

He didn't speak. He just watched. He'd been well paid to wait for them there, and he had his orders.

Even if he didn't like them much.

Elyssa hesitated out on the darkened floor of the old warehouse where she'd been taken. It was a gloomy place, cavernous, shadowed and empty except for a few objects whose setup was almost theatrical in its stark simplicity: a small, battered wooden table flanked by two chairs, lit only by a low-hanging lamp. The table was bare except for a small black metallic shape that she recognized instantly, even at a distance. She froze as the truth came to her in a rush: this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment kidnapping, committed because the opportunity had presented itself, as she'd first thought. It was what her kidnapper had planned all along. She and Fraser hadn't been toyed with at random; each incident of harassment had been part of a theme, a scenario that had led inexorably to this: she and her kidnapper alone together in this forsaken place with only that thing between them.

This wasn't a hideout so much as a stage.

"Get going!"

She was shoved forward abruptly. Elyssa could sense a growing excitement in the rough hand at her back, as if, having carefully arranged all the props and gathered the cast, her captor was now impatient for the last act of their grim play to begin. As they moved toward the table and her uncertain fate, her fear intensified. In an effort to control it, to understand what was about to happen, she tried to trace the steps that had brought her here, to identify the moment the shadow had begun to fall over her and Benton.

She thought it had started two months ago at his apartment, when she'd had her nightmare...

She remembered that early spring day had begun perfectly: a picture postcard blue sky dotted with fat, puffy white clouds arched benevolently over the wakening city. A California kind of morning, with mild breezes and birds singing, the kind of morning that made you feel anything was possible, even in Chicago.

And the day lived up to its early promise. That day, she got a new job as a salesperson at a local art gallery, Hallen's. Its owner, Thomas Hallen, even promised to take a look at some slides of her work and see if he'd consider giving her a show, or at least displaying some of her work for sale.

Jubilant, she called Benny at work on his lunch hour. It meant so much to her to get her career going again, after what had happened; and if she hadn't met him, she didn't know if she would have. So she wanted him to be the first to hear her good news.

"That's wonderful!" he said. "I'm proud of you. Let's have dinner out tonight, to celebrate."

He asked her to meet him at seven at Spiaggia's, an elegant Italian restaurant. When she arrived, she was surprised to find both Benton and Ray Vecchio there waiting for her in the foyer. They made a handsome picture, she thought; Ben's scarlet uniform contrasted nicely with Ray's expensive, navy blue suit. "Hey, Raymondo!" she cried, hugging him happily. "Benny didn't tell me you were coming."

Ray grinned. "Only because I threatened him with torture," he teased. "You know how he is, he wanted to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But I wanted to surprise you."

"Well, I'm glad you did. It's good to see you," she laughed, still hugging him.

"You too. God, I swear, you get better lookin' every time I see you, Ryan," he smiled. "You are one lucky Mountie, Benny!"

Ben smiled at both of them. "I'm very aware of that, Ray." Then he cleared his throat, shifting a little on his feet as he tapped his friend's shoulder. "Ahem...would you mind?"

"Oh. Sorry." Suddenly realizing he was monopolizing Fraser's girlfriend, Ray let her go hastily.

Fraser stepped forward eagerly, and swept her up in his usual gentle embrace. "Hi, sweetheart!" Elyssa smiled. When she let him go, Ben sprung his own little surprise, pulling a big spray of pink roses out from behind his back.

"Ray and I thought we should all celebrate your good luck together," he said, with a trace of shyness that she'd always found endearing. "So the roses are from me, and dinner is from him."

She kissed him, touched and pleased by their affectionate gestures. "Thank you both!" she smiled. "You guys are the best. But you didn't have to do this, Ray."

"Please! It's not like I get to take famous artists out to dinner every night," he said, downplaying his generous gesture, as usual. Just then, his name was called, and as the hostess led them to their table, he smiled as he glanced around, taking in the stylish ambience of the restaurant.

"Hey, Benny! Didn't I tell ya' this is a great place?"

Ben smiled at him as the waiter pulled out a chair for her. "It's very elegant," he agreed, pleased.

Ray rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Siddown, bambinos, and let's eat! Wait until you taste their risotto, Elyssa! It's to die for."

As they took their chairs, Benton asked the waiter, "Before we order, can you bring us a bottle of your best champagne, please?"

She looked at him in surprise, because he usually didn't drink. He took her hand and kissed it. "This is a special night," he said softly, smiling. She squeezed his hand, touched by the thoughtful gesture, and even more by the warmth in his eyes.

When the waiter came back with the champagne and their menus, Ray assumed his best look of wide-eyed innocence. "Betcha' didn't know you had a celebrity in the house tonight, didja'?" he teased, looking pointedly at Elyssa.

She laughed at the waiter's polite look of confusion. "He's just putting you on. I'm really not famous," she reassured him.

"Maybe not yet," Ben smiled at her as the waiter bent to pour their first sparkling glasses of bubbly. "But you will be."

Ray grinned, and lifted his glass in an unexpected toast. "I'll drink to that! To Elyssa Ryan, the next famous artist in Chicago!"

It was the first of many toasts that night. During the course of a long, wonderful dinner, they celebrated her good fortune, her and Ben's happiness, Ray's recent success at catching a thief responsible for a string of commercial robberies...

"By the way," Ben asked casually, "how is your big murder case going, Ray?"

Ray's face darkened instantly, his eyes dropping moodily to his plate. The answer was obviously not good, and they'd been having such a good time, Elyssa didn't want to spoil it by upsetting him. So she changed the subject hastily.

"Now Benny," she chided gently. "No tales of murder and mayhem tonight, okay? This is supposed to be a celebration,"

"You're absolutely right," he said, so quickly that she knew he'd caught Ray's downcast expression, too. He lifted his champagne glass again, his blue eyes thanking her silently for floating their conversation into happier waters. "So I'd like to make another toast: to Elyssa. May your new job help you achieve your goals as an artist."

"Here, here!" They all clinked their glasses together.

"Hey, I got one! How's about one to friendship?" Ray smiled at each of them in turn, his black mood vanished. "As in, a guy couldn't have better ones than you."

Another group clink. Then, as they all sipped their champagne, Elyssa thought of another. "Here's a little Irish toast to all of us: may all roads rise up to meet us, and may our friendship last forever!"

Ray grinned. "I'll drink to that."

Ben smiled tenderly at her. "I couldn't have said it better."

The toasts went on and on. The more the champagne flowed, the more everything began to seem cause for celebration. They finished their first bottle, and started on a second. At one point, they even lifted their glasses to Benny's boss, in a laughing salute Ray dreamed up: "Long may the Dragon Lady breathe fire!"

They lingered at their table for several hours, laughing and talking. After capping the meal off with a delicious dessert, they walked back to their cars, a little high on champagne and camaraderie. Benny carried her roses, and Ray fell into step beside her with a smile. Elyssa linked arms with both of them, safe and secure with the two men she loved best in the world.

Ray went home after that, but Elyssa leaned over and kissed Ben after they'd gotten into her car, so happy her eyes were shining. "I don't really feel like going home yet," she said, not wanting the champagne glow to fade so quickly. "Can we just drive around for awhile?"

"Whatever the lady wants," Ben smiled. She leaned her head on his shoulder as they drove away. "Where to?" he asked.

She slipped her arms around his free arm and stroked him gently. "You choose," she said.

"All right." He headed out of downtown, towards Lake Michigan. It was an amazingly mild spring night, and they drove down Lakeshore Boulevard for awhile, admiring the silvery moonlight on the water. Then Benny turned idly down Grand Avenue, and they parked her car and got out to walk for awhile along Navy Pier, past the whirling, multi-colored lights of the carousels and Ferris wheels, to the sculptural art exhibits along the southern concourse.

"I don't like modern art that much, but moonlight does something for these sculptures, don't you think?" Elyssa asked, as they strolled hand-in-hand by the large, metallic works of art. "It gives them a whole new magic..."

"And you," Benny said softly, as a breeze stirred her long hair. "You're even more beautiful by moonlight, if that's possible."

She took him in her arms and kissed him, wanting to make him feel the sweetness he gave her so freely. He tasted delicious, of champagne and strawberries; and when the kiss ended, they were both a little breathless.

He looked down at her with a slight smile. "Would it be all right if we went home now?" he asked, his eyes hungry, impatient for intimacy that wasn't possible out in public.

She drew away from him a little, until she was only holding onto him by his fingertips. "Oh, I don't know..." She let go of him and took a step away, pretending to consider the idea. Then she shot him a wicked smile. "I'll tell you what, Ben Fraser," she teased, moving further backwards. "You can take me home if you can catch me!"

She took off running along the lakeside walkway, laughing as she went, and Ben sprinted after her. Since she wasn't really trying to outrun him, and his legs were longer, he caught her in less than a minute. Pinning her against the railing, he kissed her as they both laughed. "I win!" he exulted.

"Awww-- I let you," she grinned, a little breathless.

"Ha!" he snickered, smugly triumphant. "That's what they all say..."

"They?" she echoed archly. "Do you have lots of other girlfriends then, Ben?"

He smiled wickedly at her, his eyes dancing. "Thousands."

"Oh, really?" She raised an eyebrow as he pulled her closer, the tender warmth in his eyes belying his words. "Think you're hot stuff, huh?" she laughed, poking his chest. "Don Juan of the RCMP?"

"Something like that," he grinned, his arms tightening around her until she could feel the rapid beating of his heart, even through his coat.

All at once, as he looked down at her, his laughter faded away, and he reached out and smoothed a windblown lock of hair off her cheek very gently. "What is it?" she asked, curious at his sudden silence.

He looked down and swallowed hard, the way he always did when he had to say something emotional. "You know I'm only teasing you, don't you?" he asked earnestly. "About those other women, I mean. There's no one else in my life but you."

Elyssa was so touched that for a second, she couldn't reply. Ben seemed to take her silence for disbelief, for he hurried to add, "Well, actually, there are other people in my life: Ray, for instance, and Inspector Thatcher and Diefenbaker and Mr. Mustafi and--"

She laid a finger on his lips, to forestall a detailed listing of every acquaintance he'd made since he came to Chicago, touched by the fact that he'd included Diefenbaker as one of his friends, though he wasn't human. "It's okay, Ben, I know what you mean."

"But what I'm trying to say is, you're more important to me than anyone else. I just realized...I've never been so happy," he said. When his clear blue eyes lifted to hers again, a wondering smile touched the corners of his mouth, as if he couldn't quite believe how lucky he was. "I love you so, Elyssa."

She caught her breath. She saw it clearly, as if it were shining from him: that gentle, sunny sweetness that was the essence of him, rare as gold in the cynical modern world. Magical, like a glimpse of a unicorn dancing through Chicago's darkened streets. His innocence had somehow persisted in spite of all the blows life had dealt him, survived even the violence of his profession. It was why she'd first fallen in love with him.

My sweet Benny. she thought, remembering all the other reasons she'd found for loving him since. She'd never met a man as honest, as kind, as gentle and honorable as he. Before she'd met him, she hadn't thought they existed. Reaching up, she took his face in gentle hands, and kissed him tenderly. "Me too," she breathed against his lips. "I love you too." They stood holding each other for a long, quiet time, not wanting to move, not needing to speak.

Then she smiled up at him. "Take me home now, Ben."

So he did. He took her back to his apartment and made long, slow, tender love to her. And as she drifted off to sleep in his arms afterwards, she knew it had been one of the happiest nights of her life; and she knew why. She wondered if her life had ever been as good before as it was with him, and doubted it.

Afterwards, she couldn't decide if it was because of the unaccustomed champagne she'd drunk, or if she'd just been overwrought with emotion from the eventful day; but for whatever reason, that night after she and Ben went to sleep in his bed, her old nightmare returned with a vengeance.

She moaned in protest as its black, clinging nets closed around her. Against her will, it pulled her to another time, another city: to an apartment that had once been her home. Now, it was a place where only nightmares could drag her.

Bad dream... She stiffened as the walls of her old apartment formed around her again. The shadows in that place touched nerves, set off automatic physical responses in her: racing heartbeat, gasping breaths that were too shallow. Fear and frustration shot adrenalin through her system as the familiar, frightful scenario began to unfold in her mind. It was always the same, though knowing what would happen didn't lessen her terror. Dr. Elden had tried to help her with that, to teach her to recognize her body's warning signals and shut them down so she could stop the dreams and the horror they unleashed, but she'd rarely been able to do it. Tonight, it was impossible. She writhed in bed, bit her lip in her sleep, trying to wake, to escape the overwhelming memories--but they swept her up relentlessly.

I was in bed, fast asleep. I heard a noise in the other room...

The noise became loud banging that escalated into savage blows to her front door. She sat up, her heart hammering painfully as she realized it was being kicked in. Fear rose in her, a black tide that made her tremble. But she forced herself to move, to run into her kitchen to call 911.

Two men -- their faces blurred, freakish under nylon masks -- erupted into her apartment once the door's locks gave under their assault.

"No!" she cried out in horrified disbelief, dialing frantically, with fingers that shook. But they caught her before she could finish. One of them grabbed her, while the other ripped the phone off the wall. She screamed and tried to fight them off, but self defense was impossible. She was outnumbered, outweighed and unarmed. They pinned her to her counter and slapped her until her head rang. Her heart pounded so hard it hurt, so hard she thought it would beat its way out of her body... Then they forced her down onto the floor.

"God, help me!" she screamed in total terror. "Somebody, please help!"

He didn't answer. No one did.

The two men just laughed. "Scream all you want, bitch," one of them sneered. "No one's gonna help you. No one cares!"

And no one had. Though her apartment walls were thin and she screamed wildly, no one came to help as they began to hit her. She soon gave up struggling and screaming, and desperately devoted her energies to trying to shield herself from their blows. But that proved as hopeless as her earlier struggles. One of them held her, while the other beat and kicked her mercilessly...

The pain soared, became unbearable, beyond thought. She went limp, heard her bones cracking as they tore at her clothes. She'd long since stopped calling for help. She couldn't even protest any more. Her mouth had filled with blood so she couldn't speak, could only moan.

I'm going to die--

And then they made her wish she had.

Benton Fraser sat up in bed, his heart pounding, as hoarse screams cut the night.

God in heaven!

It was a woman dinning terror into his ear in the darkness, and she was close, so close her screams froze his blood. Diefenbaker growled close by, probably as scared as he was. He reached out blindly for the lamp, groping awkwardly. His celebratory overindulgence in champagne and Italian food earlier had made his sleep far heavier than usual. He felt weary, clumsy and far too groggy to deal with this cacophany. He couldn't seem to wake up, but he had to stop those terrible shrieks.

So he reached out with his left arm to brace himself as he grabbed desperately for his bedside lamp with the right -- and his left hand inadvertently closed over someone else's shoulder in the blackness. He felt soft hair under his fingers...

The screaming woman! She must be right beside me--

He hadn't known the woman was in his bed; and it was a toss-up as to who was more startled by their inadvertent contact, her or him. She sobbed with fear and pulled away from him frantically. He let her go, grateful that at least for the moment, her screams had stopped. Confused and disoriented by years of sleeping alone, he wondered groggily, Who the hell is with me?

Suddenly, a spark of awareness arced through his sleep-fogged brain. Memory returned. He knew who'd been beside him, and who had screamed.


Still groping for the lamp with one hand, he reached out with the other to find her. Too late. The mattress tilted a little, then there was a loud thump as something hit the floor. Diefenbaker yelped sharply. What the--?

His fumbling fingers found the light and switched it on at last. Its yellow glow revealed an empty bed beside him. Elyssa lay on the floor by his wolf, panting, her eyes wide, her hair tangled around a face that had gone bone white. Diefenbaker sat a few feet away from her, his ice-blue eyes focused on her anxiously.

She must've had a nightmare, rolled off the bed and fallen onto Dief--

And he knew what that nightmare must've been. Even as his brain awakened and began to reason at last, his body reacted with instincts of its own. He was out of bed and on the floor next to her in a heartbeat, reaching for her. "It's okay, love. I'm here..."

But when he tried to touch her, she moaned and tore away from him. Her reaction stunned him, hurt like a fist to his gut. The pain intensified when he realized that she'd scrambled out of bed because wakening to find him beside her had frightened her as much as her nightmare. Maybe more.

He felt cold, as rejected as if she'd poured ice water over his head. After the wonderful time they'd just had together earlier, the closeness they'd shared, her sudden repulsion was almost brutal by contrast. How could she act like this? How could she be frightened of him, when she knew how much he loved her?--

Then he remembered his own sleepy startlement at finding someone else in bed with him when he woke, and realized that it must've been much worse for her, jerking awake from a nightmare about her rape to find that a man had grabbed her in the darkness. No wonder she scrambled out of my bed! I should probably be glad she didn't hit me. His feelings of rejection eased, he spoke soothingly to her. "Elyssa, it's okay," he said quietly, not trying to touch her. "You just had a bad dream. It's all right now."

Her nightmare had finally begun to lose its grip on her. She stopped gasping for air, and her green eyes lost their wildness. As he watched, the last wisps of dark panic faded away from them entirely. Reality returned, and she recognized him. But that didn't bring the relief he expected. Her eyes filled with embarrassment, and pain so raw that when she pressed a fist to her mouth, he wasn't sure if she was stifling tears, or a scream. For a moment, she wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked back and forth mutely, like a child trying to give itself comfort where none could be found.

He stared at her, stunned into silence. He'd known it was still hard for her, even after all this time, but he'd had no idea it was this bad.

After a time, she took her hand away from her mouth, but didn't meet his eyes. "Sorry I woke you, Ben," she whispered at last, her voice thinner than he'd ever heard it. She reached out shakily to touch Diefenbaker, who was licking his bruised leg. He saw her wince as she realized she'd landed on him when she fell out of bed. "Sorry, boy." Dief whined softly, pushing his nose into her hand, as if to say he knew it was just an accident.

After apologizing to them both, Elyssa said nothing else. She just put her arms around Diefenbaker's neck, laid her cheek on his mane and petted him gently, her eyes unseeing. Not a word about the horror she'd been reliving, not one complaint. Nothing.

His heart contracted painfully. He hadn't wanted the apology; he'd needed her to talk to him about what had just happened. He wanted her arms around his neck, not Diefenbaker's. But her rape was something she didn't discuss. After telling him it had happened in her apartment in Springfield, and that she'd had numerous broken bones from the savage beating that accompanied it, she'd never talked about it again; and though he'd longed to ease her pain, he'd never pressed for further details. He hadn't dared to invade her silence, thinking she needed it to heal.

Now that he knew better, he felt awkward, uncertain, groping blindly for light in a different kind of darkness. He wondered guiltily if she'd avoided the subject because she thought he couldn't handle it. After all, he'd been drunk when she'd first told him, and become violently ill. Maybe she'd just assumed he wouldn't fare any better with it when he was sober, that it was better not to mention it again. If that were true, he had to correct that impression. "I'm the one who's sorry, Elyssa," he said gently. "I'm so sorry they hurt you like that, love."

He'd learned those words from her. He'd never forgotten how she'd eased his pain with them when he'd told her about the scars Victoria had left on his heart. They'd become part of his love for her, and he used them deliberately now, to try and reach her. But she didn't move, didn't even blink. For a minute, he wasn't even sure she'd heard him.

Then tears began to fall, soundless and bitter, and she reached out for him blindly. "Benny," she husked.

She was ice cold. He took her in his arms there on the floor and held her tightly while she cried, giving what comfort he could with his hands, warming her with his body, telling her that she wasn't alone, not even in this. But pain filled him as she wept.

She never told me, he thought, stricken. No wonder she doesn't always want to spend the night with me! She said she just needs time to herself occasionally, because she's lived alone so long...But this was the real reason. She didn't want me to see this, didn't want me to know she still has nightmares that wake her screaming...

She cried so hard her sobs shook his body. He held her tightly, wondering bleakly how this was possible. He loved her with all his heart, was closer to her than he'd ever been to anyone in his life. She filled the emptiness inside him that he'd never dared show to anyone, filled it completely, in a way Victoria never had; for he trusted Elyssa implicitly.

But she's keeping secrets from me, a scared voice whispered in his head. Just like Victoria did...

He rejected that thought, knew it was an unfair comparison. Victoria had schemed against him; Elyssa had only withheld personal information from him. Still, the knowledge of her deception hurt. He'd thought he knew her intimately, thought they shared everything. Why hadn't he sensed the continued depth of her pain? How had he missed it? Worse, why had she hidden it from him? She'd promised she would never deliberately hurt him, but he'd just discovered that inadvertent blows could be painful, too; that silence could be as devastating as a curse. Catholics had a name for such things: "sins of omission." Discovering that she'd hidden the extent of her trauma from him punched a tiny hole in his soul, through which a chill wind blew.

He wanted to believe she hadn't told him about her nightmares for the same reason she'd delayed telling him about her rape; because she'd wanted to spare him pain. But he couldn't be sure. Maybe she'd kept silent because she simply didn't want to share that part of herself with him. He wasn't sure if she'd stayed silent about it because she loved him too much, or not enough.

He loved her desperately, so much that he'd been longing to ask her a question for some time. He would've asked her tonight, had been sorely tempted while they'd walked by the lake; but he'd held back because he hadn't wanted to crowd her. Though she often told him she loved him, he'd taken her insistence on spending a few nights each week alone as a signal that she wasn't ready to commit to anything with him, and he hadn't wanted to scare her off. He realized now that he would have to wait longer still. Though he was fairly sure now that her nights alone had more to do with hiding her pain than with keeping their relationship on a casual basis, the fact that she hadn't told him the truth about it troubled him. He couldn't ask her his question while her terror lay between them, while she insisted on keeping part of herself separate from him.

"Shhh," he whispered, rocking her in his arms as her tears fell cold on his bare chest. "It'll be all right," he said, needing to believe that, too.

Finally, he managed to comfort her. She quieted in his embrace and once her sobs stilled, he took her back to bed. But she never spoke of her nightmare, not even then. Not one word.

He lay stroking her hair in the darkness, as if to reassure himself that she wouldn't flinch from his touch any more. Finally, when she seemed calm and relaxed, he said softly, "It's okay if you want to talk about it, Elyssa. I don't mind."

She trembled, a little involuntary shiver that she couldn't hide. "No." Her voice was soft but final.

He almost ached with disappointment, but he didn't let it show. He kept moving his hands gently over her, not wanting to let her know how hurt he was. They lay silently for awhile, until he couldn't bear it anymore. Then he said, "This bed is too small. I'll have to get a bigger one." As if she'd ended up on the floor, wild-eyed and shaking, because his bed wasn't large enough. Or as if words could bridge the gap he felt between them, that he hadn't known existed until tonight.

"It's all right," she whispered, her arms around his waist, her head on his shoulder. "I like this bed. I like being close to you. I love you, Benny."

He knew she was trying to reassure him, but it didn't work.

If you love me, then why didn't you tell me the truth?

Long after she fell asleep in his arms, warm and safe and protected, he lay awake in the darkness, feeling alone in his too-small bed, cold with doubts he couldn't voice.

Keeping secrets.

Elyssa woke before the sun the next morning. While Ben slept, she put on the robe she kept in his closet and let herself out of his apartment silently. She wanted, needed to take a shower, but didn't want to wake him. After the way she'd jolted him out of sleep with her screams last night, he deserved a little extra shuteye, she thought with a wince as she hurried down the hallway.

Back in her own apartment, she took a long, steamingly hot shower, trying to purge every bit of last night's ugly nightmare from her body. But even as the water streamed over her, she thought bitterly how impossible that was. She still had the scars, inside and out, from what they'd done to her.

It was odd...Benny, the ardent lover who frequently kissed her all over, had never mentioned the little white lines of old pain that laced across her upper arms, the side of her neck, her nose, her collarbone and her right thigh. Benton Fraser, the policeman who noticed everything down to the smallest detail, who could usually tell her within seconds what kind of perfume a woman wore, or what kind of food a man had just eaten from their scent, had never said a word about them. And she hadn't questioned his selective blindness; had, in fact, been grateful for it. She'd always found his perceptiveness admirable, almost uncanny, but she'd managed to convince herself somehow that it wouldn't work on her.

Then one morning she'd wakened just after dawn to find him tracing her scars ever so gently. At first, groggy with sleep, she'd smiled as he touched her, thinking he was caressing her idly. Then she'd frozen, too terrified to move, as she realized the pattern of his touch wasn't random at all, that he was tracing the map of her rape on her skin. Idiot! she'd cursed herself, feeling trapped, frantic. How could you think he wouldn't see? Though his hands were achingly tender, their intimate explorations made her want to jerk away from him, to cover herself, to scream, Don't do that! Don't!

But she'd lain still, not even opening her eyes, because fear was what fueled her rage: fear that he'd think her scars ugly, or worse, ask her for details about how she got them. But when she'd finally summoned up the courage to lift her eyes to his, she'd been shocked to find his blue eyes not gentle, as she'd expected, but darkly intense. "I just love you so, Elyssa," he'd whispered. It wasn't so much a statement as a confession of deep need; and she suddenly understood that he hadn't been noting her flaws. He'd been touching her because he loved her so much he couldn't keep from doing it. He'd been memorizing every inch of her with his hands, scars and all, because they were part of her--part of the woman he loved. Those simple words turned what he'd done into a kind of worship, rather than the cataloguing of sins that she'd feared.

"I love you too, Ben," she'd said, realizing she'd never loved him as much as she did in that moment. Needing to touch him just as much, and for all the same reasons, she'd taken him in her arms again. And when she did, her hand passed over a large indentation in his back, at the base of his spine, a welted scar from a bullet that had almost claimed his life a year ago. Though her touch had been light, she'd pulled her hand away, oversensitive at that moment on the subject of old scars.

But he hadn't minded. Had, in fact, pulled her hand to his chest, placed it where another scar marred the smooth perfection of his skin. "You see?" he'd whispered, not letting go of her. "We all have them. All of us."

Warmed by his understanding, she'd held him for hours, until the sun rose over his windowsill to light their bed. He hadn't made love to her, but he'd moved his hands over her endlessly, until she forgot the white lines on her skin. He'd never traced them like that again, and to this day, he'd never asked her about them, either.

She thought she was glad about that. She didn't want to talk about them. She'd hoped--no, prayed -- that she'd left the worst of her rape trauma behind when she quit her sessions with Dr. Elden and left Springfield. Painful though they'd been, those visits to a psychologist had helped her begin to recover; but after she moved, she didn't want to start them over with someone else. So despite the fact that Dr. Elden had given her the names of three of her trusted colleagues to contact in Chicago, Elyssa hadn't done so.

The idea of starting over with another doctor had seemed undesirable, in more ways than one. Spelling out the horrifying details of her rape to Dr. Elden had been one of the hardest things she'd ever done; confiding them a second time to a new therapist seemed more than she could bear. Her strong sense of independence had also contributed to her reluctance to renew therapy. She wanted to progress on her own, without professional help; and since she'd started painting well again, and her fear of men had eased enough so that she'd started a new relationship, she was convinced that she was doing well, and that her initial therapy had been enough.

Though she also knew she couldn't take all the credit for her improvement; Benny and Ray had both played a role in it. She'd learned to trust again because of them.

And she'd learned to love because of Benny. He'd opened her heart that had been tightly closed, given her love so far beyond any she'd ever known that her other lovers had faded to mere wisps of memory in his shadow. He'd made her feel safe.

Still... her rape remained the one blot on Elyssa's newly happy horizon. Even her happiness with Ben couldn't make her memories of it vanish. Her nightmares about it didn't come as often anymore, sometimes only once a week, but they were still unbearably intense, and they still left her shaking, exhausted and filled with remembered grief and fear when they ended.

When her relationship with Ben first began, she'd hoped desperately that she wouldn't have them at all when she was with him. But she'd hedged her bets by spending a few nights every week sleeping alone at her apartment, just in case. Benny hadn't liked that much; he'd wanted to be with her all the time. But she'd convinced him that she needed some time to herself, and he'd reluctantly agreed.

The strategy had worked for awhile. Because he made her feel safe, her nightmares had decreased in frequency since she'd known him, and they seldom happened when she was with him. The few times they had happened in his bed, she'd somehow managed to pull herself out of them, to wake before she became so terrified that she started to scream. So Benny hadn't known they still plagued her. But now, after six months of happiness with him, just when she was beginning to think that her life was on an even keel at last, she'd had a full-blown, shrieking whopper of a nightmare in his bed; and it frightened her on several levels.

I thought I'd be safe with him... But it seemed she wasn't safe anywhere, not even with her guardian angel Mountie. The monsters that lived in her subconscious could rise and overwhelm her anytime, anywhere.

Even worse, now that her secret was out, the pain it caused wasn't just hers anymore. What had it done to Benny, waking to find he was in bed with a crazed, screaming woman who didn't even know him? She let the hot water run over her face, beat on her until her skin flushed with the heat, but she couldn't blot out the memory of how she'd scrambled out of his bed when he'd touched her, then flinched in terror when he'd reached out to comfort her.

He won't understand why I didn't tell him about my nightmares. He'll think I don't want him! That I don't love him...

The very thought made her feel ill. Men liked to think they were strong, and with Benny, that wasn't an illusion. He was as capable and protective as they came. How had it made him feel, knowing he couldn't protect her from herself? From the horrors that lurked in her own head, waiting to ambush her when she least expected it?

He'll think I'm crazy, she thought over and over, until her tears mingled with the shower's spray.


When Elyssa came back to his apartment, Fraser was up and dressed. He'd finished feeding Diefenbaker and almost finished cooking their breakfast, too. Thanks to Elyssa's expert tutelage, his culinary skills had vastly improved. He could now fry a decent omelette, mushrooms and all. This morning, wanting to do something special for her, he'd thrown caution to the winds and added some leftover ham and green onions to the mixture, browned some toast, and even used the juicer she'd given him to squeeze some fresh orange juice. A veritable feast, he thought wryly, comparing it to some of the messes he'd concocted for himself in the past.

Though somehow, he doubted that Elyssa would be in the mood to appreciate it.

"Hi, love." As he fussed over the eggs, she put her arms around him from behind and hugged him warmly. Her hair was still a little damp at the ends, her skin warm and fragrant with the lemon-scented bath soap she used. But he hadn't deduced that she'd showered from the physical evidence of it -- he already knew she'd taken one. As soon as he'd opened his eyes and discovered she'd left his bed, he'd been so worried that he'd gone to her apartment to check on her. He'd put his ear to her door and listened intently, until he'd heard the sound of running water and knew that she was okay, that she'd just gone home to shower so as not to wake him.

He'd gone back to his place without letting her know he'd come looking for her. He knew that she'd resent it, feel that he was treating her like a child.

Something told him not to mention it now, either. Her eyes looked fragile, bruised, and something moved in their depths that her shower hadn't been able to warm. He turned in her embrace and kissed her lightly, carefully. She was wearing a trim, navy blue skirt and jacket that somehow made her eyes look even greener. Despite her state of mind, she looked lovely, and he smiled appreciatively. "Hello, beautiful."

For a second, moved by a deep, primitive, protective instinct, he considered asking her the important question that had been hovering on the tip of his tongue for months now. But he held back a second longer, waiting to see how she'd respond. He didn't want to voice it frivolously, needed to gauge her mood first.

It was a moment before she answered him, and when she did, her smile was faint, distant. "Thanks. Do you like the suit? It's new," she said.

His heart sank. She was just making conversation. Though she was with him physically, her mind was a million miles away, behind protective walls she'd constructed long before they met. When she withdrew internally like that, he could speak to her, but he could never touch her heart. His question died in his throat. This isn't the right time, he told himself, like he had a hundred times before. He tried not to wonder if there would ever be a right time.

"The suit's nice, but what I really like is you in it," he smiled, trying to look cheerful, to keep the conversation on the safe, mundane level she evidently needed. Moved to tenderness by the battered look in her eyes, he kissed her very gently. "You hungry, love? I made breakfast for you."

For a moment, her eyes filled with sudden, unexpected tears, as if his thoughtfulness had breached her hiding place against her will, and forced her out into the open. He held his breath, waiting for her to speak of her fear, to let him in and thereby diminish it...

Instead, she shook her head and looked away from him. "No. I think I'll skip breakfast."

He set his jaw. Another invisible battle lost, another foray that ended in failure. He tried not to look disappointed, or even surprised. He knew somehow that if he pushed her, forced the issue, she would leave him. He had to wait, to be patient, as he'd waited for her to come to him when they first met. But somehow, being so close to her made such waiting even harder. Love had made him greedy; he didn't want just some of her, or even the best of her. He wanted it all: light and dark, laughter and terror, tenderness and anger -- everything she was.

But hearts are given, not taken. He didn't know everything about women, but he knew that much about love.

So he forced his mind back to practicality, to smaller, more reachable goals. Right now, he wanted her to eat. She usually didn't eat much even at the best of times, and this morning was hardly that. But he was prepared for just such a refusal. "You can't not eat," he said swiftly. When she raised an amused eyebrow, he pointed a finger toward the pan of eggs and glasses of juice he'd prepared, and solemnly quoted something she'd told him her mother used to say. " 'Think of the starving children in India who would love to have this!' " She laughed, as he'd hoped she would.

"Come on, sit down," he wheedled, pressing his advantage. "Ray says my eggs still 'suck'," he deadpanned, as he turned to flip them deftly onto a plate. "I want to know what you think."

She grinned mischievously as she settled delicately into a chair by his table. "About Ray, or about your 'sucky' cooking?" she teased.

He blinked as he put a plate of eggs in front of her, his pride a little wounded. "Am I really still that bad?"

Her smile changed from teasing to tender in an instant. "You," she said softly, "are the best thing that ever happened to me, Ben Fraser." Tears glittered in her eyes, and he was both touched and a little worried by her declaration. It meant everything to him to hear her put her love for him into words like that. But her tears were clear evidence that her feelings were still raw, still so close to the surface that they were hard for her to control.

"And you to me, love." He bent and kissed the top of her head very gently. She was so slender, so delicate that a wave of protectiveness filled him. He couldn't stop worrying about what had happened last night. He knew it was dangerous to bring it up now, while she was still upset, but he had to. He just couldn't let this go, couldn't live with the knowledge that she was in so much pain without trying to help her.

But he decided to wait for an opening, for the right moment to bring it up. So he sat down next to her with a plate of his own. "Bon appetit," he smiled casually as he picked up his fork. He took a bite, tried not to stare as she picked halfheartedly at hers, not even tasting it. When she caught him watching, she lifted her fork to her mouth and took a bite, to please him.


She chewed for a moment, making him wait. Then finally, a smile spread over her face. "Well, I have to say, Ben, you know I've been cooking for years, and these eggs..."

He raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"Mmm, it's hard to find the right words," she teased, drawing it out. "These eggs, they definitely--"

"Yes?" he prompted, playing along.

She pursed her lips as if searching for just the right word to describe them. "It you want my honest opinion, I'd have to say they..."

"What? They what? " he demanded with mock impatience.

"They definitely do not suck!" she burst out at last, giggling.

He laughed with her, glad to see her happy for a moment, feeling her unspoken tension ease. "High praise indeed," he teased back.

"Mmm. Really, Benny, this is wonderful," she smiled. "You're becoming a great cook. Thank you." She took another bite, then sipped at her orange juice while he watched approvingly. They were small bites and sips, but he didn't complain. He'd take what he could get on this uncertain morning.

He waited until she put her fork down again before he finally put into words what they'd both been careful not to mention. Clearing his dry throat, he said, "About last night--"

Elyssa pushed her chair back abruptly and gathered up her plate and silverware, her face tight and still. "I'm sorry about that." She passed him heading into the kitchen with the dishes. He reached out for her, then thought better of it. Her whole body had gone taut, her face strained as he'd never seen it since the first day he'd met her, when she'd been so scared of him and Ray that she'd almost panicked when they reached out to help her. That was a mistake he didn't want to repeat.

"There's no need to apologize," he said quietly, picking up his own dish and silverware and following her into his kitchen. "Everyone has bad dreams now and then." He put the dishes down, but she was busy rinsing hers off, and didn't look at him. He cleared his throat. "I just wondered if you wanted to talk about it..."

She shook her head tightly. "Not particularly."

Frustrated, he tried again. "But I think it might--"

"What is this, an inquisition?" she exploded suddenly, throwing the rubber scrubber she'd held into the dishwater with a splash. "Do you want all the dirty details, Ben? Do you wanna know how many times they hit me? What filthy things they said? How many bones they broke? Is that it? " Her normally gentle eyes were suddenly wide with rage. He'd never seen her like that before, had never imagined she would lash out at him like that; and it hurt.

"No, of course not!" he stammered defensively. Taken by surprise by her burst of anger, by her accusation that he was prying out of some sort of sick curiosity, he found himself stupidly tongue-tied, unable to refute it.

Do you wanna know how many bones they broke?

If you only knew, he thought. Though he'd dealt with violence all his working life, the idea of it touching her, of anyone hurting her, was unbearable to him. But he was beginning to think he'd done the wrong thing by never questioning her about her rape before; and to question his motives for avoiding it. He suddenly wondered if he'd really done it entirely out of consideration for her, or if a small, selfish part of him had actually been afraid to hear the details of her ordeal.

As she stared at him, he wracked his brain for a way to salvage the situation, for the right words to calm her down. None came to him. Instead, her uncharacteristically harsh outburst brought back a sudden, vivid flash of memory...

He was in the hospital pool with Jill Kennedy, his physical therapist, after he'd been shot. As she guided him through the aquatic exercises designed to help him recover from the bullet wound in his back, she tried gently to get him to talk about his emotional wounds as well. "You know, that thing we're not talking about," she called it, teasing him a little.

He didn't thank her for her light touch, or her efforts to help him. Instead, he let her have it with both barrels: "You're a fine physical therapist, and I have no doubt you're a very fine, caring and decent person. And while I appreciate that, I'd appreciate it a whole lot more if you'd confine your comments to matters concerning my physical well-being, and leave my personal life to me!"

He'd almost shouted at her. He hadn't, but he'd wanted to; and for him, that tirade had been unprecedented, a stunning loss of control that shamed him. But he remembered the inner pain that had prompted it. Jill's questions had been motivated by genuine concern, but the slightest touch on the gaping wounds inside him had been agonizing then. He'd felt raw, exposed, like he'd been flayed; hence his uncharacteristic explosion.

He suspected Elyssa's anger sprang from the same source.

Jill Kennedy had been wise (and kind) enough not to retaliate, that day at the pool. So he took a page from her book, and didn't respond further to Elyssa's bitter words. Nor did he try to offer comfort. Though he longed to touch her, he knew she'd probably just rebuff him, and he didn't want to give her more to regret later. He just watched silently as she bent her head and began to scrub with unnecessary vigor at an already clean dish. Finally, she paused and turned her head to meet his eyes. "It happens sometimes," she said, her voice washed as carefully clean as the plate she held. "That's all."

It wasn't exactly an apology, but it was probably as close to one as she could manage at the moment; and he nodded. After six months of sharing a bed, he knew her well, but this was a part of herself she'd never shared with him, uncharted territory that had already been seared by men. He was afraid to scar it further by asking any more clumsy questions. So though he now knew they couldn't avoid the subject of her rape any longer, he didn't ask her why she hadn't told him how deeply she was still troubled by it, and the nightmares it caused. He didn't want to make her feel any more defensive than he already had. He chose his words carefully, spoke gently. "How often does it happen?"

"I have to go," she said flatly, cutting him off. "I have to get to work." She put down the dish scrubber and moved past him toward his door, her face pale and set.

He grimaced. Even that question, it seemed, had been too much. He didn't try to stop her, but he couldn't let her go without a word, either. It felt too much like she was running away from him--or from herself. "It's all right if you don't want to talk to me about it, Elyssa," he said quietly. "But I want to help you, and I'm not sure how. I think you should talk to someone."

She froze, her shoulders tight as a drawn wire. "Someone?" she repeated, stung. "Who do you mean?"

He drew a deep breath, and risked it. "A doctor, perhaps."

"Oh, I've done that," she said, her words sour as raw lemon. "Dr. Elden said I had classic PTSD."

She flung the words at him bitterly, no doubt guessing he wouldn't know what the medical term meant. She was right; he had no idea what PTSD stood for. Still, even the little information she'd let slip was precious to him. She'd never told him she'd seen a therapist before, though he'd wondered about it--nor had he known her diagnosis. He stored the term, and her doctor's name, away in his memory for future reference. He also knew that, reluctant though her admission had been, she wouldn't have made it if she hadn't trusted him; and that was at least a place to start. He moved towards her in spite of himself. "Elyssa--"

"Don't worry. It's not the same thing as being crazy," she said bitterly. "Not quite."

She reached for his doorknob, but he slipped in front of her, barring her exit. He'd gone too far, pushed too hard, and he regretted it. "I didn't mean to upset you. I'm sorry..." He reached down to touch her, bent to kiss her, but she turned her head so that his lips just brushed her cheek. Not pushing him away precisely, but not welcoming him either.

"So am I," she whispered.

He didn't know if she meant she was sorry it had happened, or that he'd tried to ask her about it. Maybe both. He realized suddenly, painfully, that this was their first fight. Though it had probably been inevitable, he wished vainly that it had been about something else. Anything else.

She brushed past him without another word, and this time, he had to let her go.

Elyssa was a little nervous when she got to Hallen's gallery that day. It was her first day at work, and her unaccustomed fight with Benny had unsettled her, so she was a little on edge. But after Mr. Hallen showed her their opening procedures, she forced herself to concentrate on learning her new duties and the art gallery's daily routine, and dealing with the customers who came in to browse. In the bustle, she managed--almost--to forget about their earlier argument.

Except, of course, for the fact that she couldn't really think about anything else all day.

God, did I really yell at him?

But she knew she had, and she knew why. Why she'd felt such a sickening surge of rage that she'd said those terrible things, tried to wound him. It was bad enough he'd found out about her nightmares--coming to on his floor afterwards had been so humiliating that she'd hardly been able to look at him.

But what had followed the next morning was almost worse. Still raw from the debacle the night before, she'd needed more than anything to be by herself, to try to regain her equilibrium. But she'd gone back to his apartment anyway, because she'd known he'd worry if she didn't; and what was her reward? He'd tried to pry into her dreams, into the dark ugliness at the core of her soul, that she didn't ever want him to see. Then when she'd refused to let him, he'd acted like he had to take charge of her, like she was stupid and helpless and he knew just what to do. Like he's some kind of expert on rape or something! she thought, seething.

Deep inside, the voice of reason whispered that she was being overly critical and wildly defensive. Benny was only trying to help, because he knows you're hurting and it scares him...

But defensiveness had become such a way of life for her that she'd only begun to give it up when she'd met him; because of him, and the way he'd made her feel safe for the first time since her rape. So when he'd said she needed to see a doctor (translation: psychiatrist), old habits returned, fear reared its nasty head, and every wall she'd spent the last six months tearing down between them had sprung up again, stronger than ever. She'd felt like he'd yanked the rug out from under her feet. Out from under her new life, from what she'd thought was their new life together. He'd divided them into two camps, him on the sane side and her on the loony one, and for a moment, she'd almost hated him.

Bad enough that she'd feared he'd think she was crazy; a thousand, a million times worse to hear him say it.

So when he'd called her later on, she'd pleaded that she was too busy to talk. But the disappointment she heard in his gentle voice tugged at her. She'd relented enough to tell him she'd talk to him later, then spent the afternoon waiting anxiously for him to call again. She alternated between resenting herself for being as dependent as he'd assumed she was, and him for not understanding how much she needed to hear his voice again, despite her earlier anger.

By five o'clock, she was beginning to wonder if he wasn't right to doubt her sanity. She must be crazy, because despite their argument, she wanted Ben so much she could hardly think straight.

Mr. Hallen came in when she was in the back room gathering up her purse. "Great first day," he said, with a smile. "How do you like the job so far?"

"It's great," she said, meaning it. Selling art in a gallery--just being around good art--was much more satisfying for her than working in an art supply store had been. Still, when Hallen smiled down at her she unconsciously backed up a little. He was standing a bit too close to her, and she realized he'd done it several times that day. But she supposed she was just going to have to get used to that. Hallen had no way of knowing about her past, and besides, her days of being ultra wary of men were over now.

She'd decided she had to cut Ben some slack, too. Granted, he'd unknowingly rubbed salt in a very deep wound with his mention of therapy, but he'd done it out of love and concern, and she knew it. She owed him an apology for accusing him of prying, and there was no time like tonight to start on it. She slung her purse over her shoulder and headed for the door.

"Good night, Mr. Hallen."

"Good night, Ellie."

She turned, a bit surprised by his use of a nickname, her first day on the job. "I'm sorry, but it's Elyssa," she said politely. "My name is Elyssa."

He eyed her for a moment, then his smile returned. "Sure," he said easily. "Good night."

Then she was out the door and heading for her car, her new job--and her new employer--entirely forgotten as she planned how she was going to surprise Benny.

Fraser groaned when he came back to his desk. He'd been hoping he could leave on time tonight. He'd been thinking about Elyssa all day, and as a result, had driven himself half mad with worry, and with wanting her. He'd called her twice, but hadn't been able to talk to her. She'd been too busy at work that morning to chat; and she'd been out to lunch when he'd tried again later on.

He'd tried not to read anything into that, but he longed to get home all the same. He'd done some research on Elyssa's condition at the Harold Washington Library Center on his lunch hour, and what he'd learned troubled him.

He began by looking up PTSD in a psychiatric dictionary, and learned that it was the acronym for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Further research in another psychiatric reference book had yielded its definition: "the development of characteristic symptoms following a psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience. Its cause is usually experienced with intense fear, terror and helplessness."

Fear, terror and helplessness; all of the things he'd seen on Elyssa's face last night. All the things I felt when Ray shot me, and I knew I'd lost Victoria...

He'd paused for a moment, shivering as he suddenly realized the words he was reading didn't just apply to Elyssa. They'd both had dark nights of the soul that had left them battered and reeling.

Maybe I had PTSD without even knowing what it was. Only I had Ray and Diefenbaker at my side all the time, from the moment I first woke up after surgery--even my Dad came. They all helped me get over it. I was never alone; but Elyssa had no one to help her. Maybe that's part of the reason why I recovered on my own, but she had to see a therapist...

Shaken by his discoveries, he stubbornly read further. But the information became even grimmer: "The characteristic symptoms involve re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance of stimuli associated with it, or numbing of general responsiveness and increased arousal..."

Suddenly, certain things made sense to him. Elyssa had told him that her previous boyfriend had left her after the rape because she couldn't stand to have him touch her, and her friends had drifted away as well. But she hadn't cared much, because she'd lost interest in almost everything afterwards, even her painting. He remembered, too, how wary she'd been when he'd first met her, how his very touch had turned her white with fear. Apparently, all of that had been a severe but not uncommon reaction to what she'd been through.

He wished suddenly that he'd done this research months ago, when he and Elyssa had first become lovers. He'd consulted a social worker then, on how to approach her physically without scaring her, but he hadn't known to ask her about resulting nightmares, because Elyssa hadn't told him she was suffering from them.

The book explained Elyssa's feelings and behavior with eerie precision. Some of the information in it he'd already figured out on his own, but some of it was like a revelation. It was odd that clinical, dispassionate words in a reference book could open a door into the soul of the woman he loved, into the tormenting darkness inside her that she refused to let him see, but he wanted one so desperately that he would've read tea leaves or Tarot cards if he thought it would help.

At least this book was a step up from that.

He read on, spellbound. "The disorder is apparently more severe and longer lasting when the stressor is of human design."

Which applied to Elyssa's rape, he thought. If you could call the men who'd done it 'human'...And it makes sense that a person would get over a natural disaster sooner than a horror perpetrated on them by someone else. Acts of God are easier to accept than human evil...

"There can be dissociative states, lasting from a few seconds to several hours, in which components of the event are relived, and the person behaves as though experiencing the event at that moment."

So when she'd pushed him away last night, she'd been more than merely frightened; she'd been reliving her brutal rape, and so totally disoriented that she'd probably been in fear for her life. He was glad that, though he hadn't fully understood what was happening to her, he still hadn't insisted on touching her, after she'd flinched from him. If he hadn't waited for her to wake fully and come back to reality, she might've fought him tooth and nail. He'd have to be careful to remember that if it ever happened again...

He scanned the page further, eager for more information: "The person commonly makes deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts or feelings about the traumatic event."

Just like I avoided talking about Victoria with anyone but Ray after she left...

"Many sufferers report changes in aggression. In mild cases this may take the form of irritability, with fears of losing control."

Remembering his harsh words to Jill Kennedy, and Elyssa's to him that morning, he felt a sudden sense of awe at the odd parallels in their lives; not just their similarly traumatic experiences, but in their responses to them as well.

Is this why fate brought us together? Because no man would've been able to understand what Elyssa's going through better than I can?

La Forza del Destina...It was a question he'd never considered before. But he quickly decided that if it was true, if Elyssa moving in down the hall from him was more than the coincidence it had seemed, then so be it. She'd once called him her guardian angel; and if destiny had chosen him for that role, he was more than willing to take it on. He didn't just want to protect her, he needed to, with an urgency that went right to the bottom of his soul.

So it didn't matter if he was just a man who'd fallen in love by chance, or if fate, destiny, or a higher power had brought them together. What counted was keeping her and keeping her safe. So despite the chill he felt, he kept on reading.

"Sufferers may reexperience symptoms after a latency period of months or years following the trauma, especially if avoidance symptoms have been present during this period."

He shook his head. It was almost as if the more victims of PTSD tried to deny what had happened to them, the more fiercely their memories would resurface. He now saw that Elyssa had definitely been trying to avoid thinking about her rape since he'd known her. She'd only mentioned it to him once, she wasn't seeing a therapist anymore, and she'd even hidden the fact of her nightmares from him.

Maybe that's why they're still coming back with such force -- because she's been trying so hard to forget that she's bottled it all up inside her.

That insight was grim enough; but the next sentence he read scared him more than anything he'd seen on her condition so far: "Phobic avoidance of situations or activities resembling or symbolizing the original trauma may interfere with interpersonal relation-ships... Emotional liability, depression, and guilt may result in self-defeating behavior or suicidal actions."


The word cut through him like an Arctic wind, freezing his bones.

He tried to reassure himself that, unlike the rest of the information, that didn't apply to her. Elyssa was too stable for that, too happy.

But was she really? He knew she loved him, that she'd found happiness in their relationship just as he had, but he also remembered the way she'd cried in his arms after her nightmare. Her sobs had been deep, shattering, so hard that they'd almost choked her. Yet despite the obvious force of the emotions connected with them, she'd successfully hidden her nightmares from him, probably for months; and now that he'd found out, she still refused to talk about them.

Since she refused to share the depth of her pain with him, he had no way of knowing if it was potentially lethal.

He hadn't bothered to copy the information he'd read about Elyssa's condition before leaving the library. There was no need to--it was burned into his brain. The things he'd learned about her mental state hadn't just increased his desire to talk to her, they'd made his determination to help her imperative. He needed to tell her that everything would be all right, that they'd work through this together somehow. He had to let her know that he didn't care if she never told him the details of her rape, that he hadn't meant to pry, he'd just wanted to ease her pain. And if she didn't want to see a psychiatrist about it either, that was her choice, and he would respect it.

But he hoped she wouldn't make that choice. Sometimes, having someone you trusted to talk to was the only way to cleanse the soul, to heal emotional wounds that would fester otherwise, as Elyssa's seemed to be doing. He knew that from experience. If he hadn't had Ray to confide in after Victoria left him, he was almost certain his grief would've killed him. So if Elyssa wouldn't or couldn't talk to him, he very much wanted her to find someone else to confide in about it.

He couldn't understand why she refused to share her grief with him when they loved each other, but for now, he had to accept even that, because he loved her far too much to let her go. He would do anything to keep her. It was that simple.

But he couldn't rush off to be with her tonight. At least, not yet. Inspector Thatcher had neatly foiled his plans by depositing a list of a hundred names and a stack of Consular invitations and envelopes for an upcoming formal reception on his desk, with a note requesting that he address them before he went home tonight, and put them in the mail so they'd go out first thing tomorrow, thank you kindly.

Well...She hadn't exactly put it that way, nor did he feel particularly kindly towards her, especially since he'd seen her leaving early herself, on the arm of a tall blonde whom he suspected must be her date for the evening. He swore silently to himself, then glanced at his clock. He still had an hour left before he was officially off duty. Spurred on by thoughts of Elyssa, he sat down and picked up his pen.

Maybe if I write very fast...

Nearly ninety minutes later, when the Consulate had emptied and grown quiet and he was down to the second to the last envelope in his stack, he was startled by a knock on his opened office door. When he glanced up in surprise, he didn't see anyone there at first. Then Diefenbaker loped eagerly into his office, lifting his muzzle in an open bid for affection. His heart beat fast as he bent to pet him, because he knew who must've brought him here...

"Hey, Mountie man!" a soft, clear voice called sweetly from outside his door.

"Elyssa!" He was on his feet in an instant. She doesn't sound angry. Maybe she's forgiven me...

She peeked around the door, her long hair dangling over her shoulder, an impish grin on her face. "You were late, so we brought you dinner," she smiled, dangling a large paper bag from which wafted faint, delicious scents of fresh bread, chicken and garlic.

A peace offering, he realized.

Thank God! He'd been half afraid she would shut him out after their disagreement, refuse to speak to him as she had once before. But it seemed she was as sorry as he about the way things had gone between them that morning, and wanted to make up. He let out a deep breath he felt like he'd been holding all day.

His heart turned over and began beating dangerously fast, as it did every time he saw her. He was always struck by how beautiful she was; and humbled, too. Even after six months with her, it was still hard to believe that this sexy, stunning woman loved him, wanted him, needed him. It almost scared him sometimes, how great his need for her was: as boundless as space, as deep as breathing. He fell silent for a second, as he often did when he first saw her, overwhelmed by his feelings, by the reality of having her here after wanting her so much all day.

"I'm sorry I'm late," he said at last, taking refuge from the depth of his passion in mundanity. He pointed to the stack of work on his desk. "Something came up at the last minute..."

"It's okay."

He gathered up the invitations hastily. "I just have to run these out to the mailbox, and then--"

"Sure. But hurry back," she smiled, lifting the bag she held. "I made this for you. Dief tasted it, and he says it's good."

"I'll be right back," he promised, almost sprinting for the mailbox in his eagerness to return to her.

Relief and renewed hope filled him as he dropped the invitations in the post office box. He'd been really worried all day that he'd made a serious mistake with her, maybe even one that would make her quit their relationship. But the fact that she'd cooked dinner and brought it to him despite their earlier argument hinted that she was committed to their relationship now, that she wouldn't leave him at the first sign of trouble; and that bouyed his spirit.

He hadn't always been so lucky with women. His memory contrasted Elyssa's sweetness, her forgiveness with another woman's cruelty and hatred. He saw a black rose in his mind's eye, felt slender fists striking his chest as Victoria cried, How could you do that to me? How could you do it?

Once, the mere thought of Victoria could shake him. Now, he shrugged her memory off. It's just that PTSD thing again, he thought. Grimly amused by his new insight into his own scars, he ran back up the steps of the Consulate and inside. Rounding the corner of the hallway leading to his office at top speed, he almost crashed into a slight young janitor who was heading down the hallway, mop and bucket in hand, to begin his work. But he was in such a hurry to get back to Elyssa that he didn't even glance at the man, just streaked past him with a murmured, "Sorry."

He came back into his office and lost himself in Elyssa's welcoming smile, used it to banish the ghost from his past. He was boundlessly grateful for her, for this second chance at love. Or maybe it was really his first. Ray said Victoria had never really loved him at all, or she couldn't have done the things she did...And the longer he was with Elyssa, the more he'd come to believe that was true.

"Thanks for making me dinner," he said. "I appreciate it."

Elyssa smiled almost shyly. "You're welcome, Ben."

He noticed she was wearing a soft green sweater the same color as her eyes, and he moved towards her slowly, an answering smile curving his lips. "You look ravishing," he said, meaning it, wanting to draw out the moment like a sweet kind of torture.

Elyssa saw the hunger in his eyes instantly. "Interesting choice of words, Mr. Mountie," she teased, lowering her voice so it sounded a bit breathy. His heart beat faster, as she'd meant it to. He came closer, his eyes riveted on her.

"Is that what you have in mind? Ravishment, I mean?"

That she could even joke about that was a measure of her trust in him. Her gentle teasing sent a surge of pride through him: pride in her strength, in the way she'd kept her sense of humor despite the horror she'd been through; in the way she'd learned to delight in making love again, after what those men had done to her. He shook his head, moving closer to her slowly. He desperately wanted to kiss her, but he drew the moment out, wanting to savor the hunger he felt for her even more.

"No ma'am," he said with a straight face. "I believe that's against the law. I was thinking of something a lot less violent, and more pleasurable..."

"Something that requires mutual participation?" she breathed, in a seductive purr.

"That was my hope," he grinned, so close now that he could almost touch her.

"I see." The bag of food on his desk forgotten, he reached out to take her in his arms, but she pulled away at the last instant. "Hey, hey--not so fast!" she chided, teasing. "What if I don't want to play?" She danced away from him lightly, impishly heading back towards his open door.

"Then I'll just have to convince you," he breathed, intent on it.

Laughing breathlessly, she turned and tried to dart out into the hallway, but he'd anticipated that. He leapt forward, catching her before she got to the door. "Gotcha'!" he laughed, bending his head to take the kiss he'd been dreaming about all day. But to his surprise, she suddenly grabbed his arms, turned him around and backed him up against the wall. Pressing her body into his from head to toe, she gripped his uniform jacket tightly.

"I think maybe I've got you, Constable Fraser!" she smiled breathlessly.

Truer words were never spoken. The love, the joy she'd brought to his life had made it better than he'd ever known it could be. And like an addict, the more he got of her, the more he wanted. So he stood passive in her hold, enjoying the game immensely. Her sense of fun was just one more way Elyssa differed from Victoria. There had been no laughter in their relationship, and the only games Victoria had played with him had been deadly ones. But Elyssa had taught him how to laugh again, and he loved her for it.

"It seems so," he allowed. "The question is, what do you intend to do with me?"

She pursed her lips, considering it. "Well...I'll consider a reward, if you answer a question correctly." Her long lashes lowered as her gaze dipped to his mouth, and he hoped desperately that the answer wouldn't require a lot of thought. He always had a hard time thinking rationally when she was this close to him.

"I'll do my best," he said, his eyes on her beautiful, teasing, slightly parted lips.

"Okay. Here it is: Did you miss me today?" she whispered.

He swallowed hard, realizing belatedly that the door was open and the Consulate wasn't entirely deserted; so anyone left in the building who passed by his opened door could see them embracing. It felt strange, but he wanted her so badly he didn't care. "That's easy. I haven't been able to think about anything else all day," he confessed hoarsely, with a little smile.

"Bingo!" she said softly. "That's the right answer." She swayed against him even harder, until he could feel her heart beating right through the thick serge of his uniform. "You win," she breathed, smiling as she felt the evidence of his desire.

"I believe that you mentioned a reward?" he hinted. "What would that be?" Whatever it was, he wanted it badly.

"This." She kissed him, slowly and thoroughly, a mile-deep fall into sweet sensuality that spun duty, worry and the rest of the world away from him, until all that was left was her. He lost himself in it gladly. He'd been so afraid she was drifting away from him that he couldn't hold her close enough, kiss her hard enough. It took everything he had not to groan out loud with the pleasure of it.

When Elyssa finally lifted her head, his breathing was ragged, his heart pumping fast. He wanted her so much he could hardly stand it, but he'd remembered that they were still standing by the open door, and grasped for control. Realizing that his hands had strayed, he pulled them out from under her sweater with an effort, and pulled it back down. We're at the Consulate, he reminded himself dizzily. Right out in plain sight. This isn't right, we should go home...

Then he felt her slender fingers tugging at the top buttons on his uniform. As she undid enough of them to bare his throat, it seemed she'd read his mind, for she said, "I love you, Ben. And just this once, I don't want to wait. I want you now." He blinked in astonishment, and she smiled a little uncertainly. "Is it all right?"

All right? The thought that she wanted him that much aroused him unbearably, sent a bolt of excitement shooting through his body that shook him right down to his boots. Still, the thought of making love to her here warred with his sense of propriety. He felt a tiny, cowardly impulse to refuse, or to pretend he didn't understand, but he squelched it. So he'd never done anything like this before in his life, had never even thought about it--what did that matter? Imagination had never been his strong suit, but it was Elyssa's. She loved him, and she was the sweetest woman he'd ever known, and an inherently good person. She'd never ask him to do something that was wrong; so if she wanted this, then it must be all right.

Besides; after last night and what he'd learned about them both today, he needed this just a little, to reassure himself that she was still his.

But he didn't want to take advantage of her. "Umm...I don't-- have anything," he muttered, embarrassed. "With me, that is, know. I wasn't expecting...That is, I didn't think we--" God, he thought, I'm babbling. Ray always yelled at him for that, but it was devilishly hard to think straight with Elyssa undressing him, and talking about sex always made him uncomfortable anyway...

"I don't care," she whispered against his mouth. Somehow, she'd understood him perfectly. She traced his lips with her tongue, then parted them and kissed him passionately, running her fingers through his hair. And when she looked up at him again, her green eyes burning with desire, her lips wet with kissing him, he didn't care that he hadn't come prepared either. In fact, he thought he might go up in flames right where he stood.

"Understood," he croaked. She went back to unfastening the buttons on his uniform, working rapidly. But all at once, a tiny worry intruded into his happy haze of lust. He frowned a little. "You're not... I mean, this isn't because we--"

She planted a tender kiss on his lips, cutting him off. "No, this isn't because we had a fight this morning," she whispered tenderly. "This is because I love you so much I can't go another minute without having you, Benny." Her rapid breathing and racing heartbeat convinced him it was true.

He took her face in his hands gently. "I'm sorry about this morning."

Her face grew serious. "So am I, Ben," she whispered. "I've just... been alone so long, it's hard to let someone in, I guess. I-- should've told you about the dreams, I just... couldn't. It's not you, it's me."

"It's all right. I love you," he said softly. " And I don't think you're crazy." Just wounded even worse than I was.

She smiled at him again. "Oh, but I am, Ben," she breathed. "I'm so crazy about you I can't think straight sometimes. Did you know that?" She buried her face in his neck and hugged him, and he held her just as tightly, his eyes closed. Apology accepted, he thought. He hadn't given up on finding a way to help her with her nightmares and her pain yet, either. His visit to the library was just the beginning.

But now isn't the time to talk about that... Or about my question either, he thought, with a flicker of pain. Then he reminded himself that they'd had enough heartache last night. It was time to have fun now. Time to love...

So he kissed her again, not wanting to lose the mood. "Well then. 'Nuff said," he grinned wickedly. He reached over to shut the door with one hand, but kept the other wrapped around her, not letting go for an instant. Elyssa got the hint. As he closed the door, she undid the rest of the buttons on his jacket and pulled it off him. Her slender hands were surprisingly efficient, and they didn't stop there. He barely got the door locked before she had his suspenders down and his undershirt off. Hurrying to catch up, he pulled her sweater off eagerly. She started kissing down his bared chest, and he noticed with a tiny, distant part of his brain still capable of rational thought that his hands were trembling.

Diefenbaker whined uneasily, but he wasn't paying any attention to his wolf. Every cell in his body was focused on the warm woman in his arms.

"Oh, God," he breathed, as Elyssa sucked hotly at his neck while unbuckling his belt. Then he threw his jacket and shirt on the floor and pulled her down onto the soft pile of clothing. After that, neither of them had any breath left for words.

Diefenbaker rose and paced to the locked door, growling deep in his throat. Neither Benny nor Elyssa noticed, but the wolf stayed there until the shadow outside finally moved away.

The slender, blonde, bearded janitor Fraser had bumped into in the hall earlier paused by his office door. He jammed his hat tighter down on his head, pushed his thick glasses back up on his nose, and brushed absently at his worn coveralls. Then he checked up and down the hall to make sure no one was around. Once he was sure the corridor was empty, he leaned his mop against the wall, pulled a rag out of his pocket and knelt to scrub at a spot on the floor, positioning himself so that his ear was almost against Fraser's door. The two inside had lowered their voices, trying to be quiet, but the Consulate was silent, nearly deserted, and from where he was, their muffled voices were still audible.

Dark eyes narrowed, then grew stormy as the janitor heard a woman's soft laugh, then a deep, purely masculine sound of satisfaction. He knew that voice: it was Fraser's. And the identity of the woman with him was easy to guess. He'd seen her come into the Consulate earlier, seen how pretty she was. He'd sensed that she must be the Mountie's lover the second he'd laid eyes on her. He'd tried to tell himself it wasn't true, but the erotic coos and whispers coming from Fraser's office confirmed the hateful suspicion.

Damn you! he murmured silently. He looked carefully down the hallway in both directions, then quietly tried the door, only to find it securely locked. He tried it again, then flinched as a low, animal growl sounded a warning.

Shit! The wolf's in there, too. He gritted his teeth with frustration. Once again, with typical thoroughness, the Mountie had shut him out. He couldn't believe it. He'd thought of nothing but him, dreamed of nothing but him for months...He'd come back here for him, so sure that he'd be waiting, that he'd be lonely...And now this! He was glad he'd retained enough caution to come here in disguise, to check the situation out before approaching the Mountie openly.

Now that he's got her, he won't want me anymore. What a fool I was! If I'd gone to him, he might've had me arrested! he realized, seething.

"Oh, yes, Benny!" the woman whispered behind the locked door. "Please!" she pleaded, breathless, wanting more.

Betrayal washed over him, bitter as the death of dreams.

He should've left, but he couldn't. He should've known better, but he hadn't. He'd been stupidly, rankly sentimental. He'd dared to dream, dared to hope that things might be different this time, that he could come back and convince Fraser to go away with him, somewhere where they could be together, love each other in safety. He realized now that that had been just a stupid fantasy. This was reality.

Paying the price for his own weakness, he forced himself to stand there and listen to all of it, every laugh, every whispered endearment, because he'd learned the hard way that anything and everything could be used--even this. Betrayal could be used to foster hatred. Hatred could be turned to strength and dark, bitter purpose.

The Mountie had taught him that unholy catechism. Prison had burned the lessons into his brain.

He held himself silent and rigid as the couple's words became breathless moans and sighs. Listening to them, he remembered sweet, hot kisses first tasted in a blizzard years before, then again in a cramped little bed. His eyes turned black with venom, and he wanted to snarl as savagely as the wolf. Those kisses had branded him, obsessed him, drawn him here against his will. They always would -- until one of them was dead.

Once, that realization had frightened him. So much that he'd stayed away for almost two years, so much that he'd had to deny it, bury it deep before he could find the courage to return to Chicago and claim the Mountie. He'd thought he could change things by making love with him this time, not war.

He'd been a fool.

Now, he resurrected his long-buried hatred, let its coldness wrap his heart in ice. He accepted, even embraced their dark, inevitable destiny. There would be no leaving this time, no quarter given, no mercy shown until Fraser saw it, too.

Until it was over between them, forever.

He waited, torturing himself, as the sounds wafting through the door grew louder, more ragged and breathless. Storing every moan he heard away in his mind for future reference, he waited until they reached a crescendo, then died away.

Only when the office grew quiet again did he pick up his cleaning supplies and move off down the hall. Rage beat inside him like a drum, a rage so intense it made his hands shake, so volatile he thought it was a wonder that he didn't explode and incinerate the building. But he was careful to move silently all the same. It wouldn't do to be caught, not now. He had to make them pay first, for what he'd just heard, for what had no doubt been going on for months. Maybe ever since I left!

It was prophetic that Fraser's first words to him, after so long a time, had been "I'm sorry."

You will be! he thought savagely. Maybe you thought you suffered the first time around, but you didn't know the meaning of the word. It'll take me some time to get set up here, but once I do, I'll teach you the meaning of pain!

You won't shut me out forever-- Benny.

I'll teach you; and her, too, she thought.

Two weeks later, Elyssa found Mr. Hallen in his office at the gallery, poring over some sales receipts, and decided it was time to raise the subject of her portfolio with him. She knocked on his open door, and when he smilingly waved her to a chair, she sat down and got right to the point. "Thanks for taking time out to see me, Mr. Hallen. I was wondering if you've had time to look at the slides of my work yet."

He shook his head regretfully. "I'm sorry, Ellie, but the sculpture show we've got coming up in a few weeks has kept me so busy I haven't had time."

She was disappointed, and irked at being called 'Ellie' again besides, but she didn't let it show. "It's all right, there's no rush." She held his gaze. "I just wanted to be sure that you do mean to look at them when you get time."

He rose to his feet, came around the desk and laid his hand on her shoulder with an almost paternal beam. "Of course, dear. I was impressed by the two slides I've already seen; I'll get to the rest as soon as I can, I promise."

"Thanks." She didn't like the feel of his heavy hand on her shoulder. She slid out from beneath his arm and got to her feet, shaking him off politely.

But his eyes followed her as she left his office, and she wondered what he really wanted to look at: her work, or her?

That night, she had one of her nightmares. She managed to jolt herself out of it just after the two men started beating her, before the worst began. She sat bolt upright in bed, shaking and covered with sweat. Since Benny was sleeping beside her, she was glad she hadn't screamed.

But it was a wonder she hadn't. Because this time, in the dream, one of her rapists had Mr. Hallen's face.

A week after that, Fraser and Ray Vecchio sat over an early breakfast before work in a small cafe not far from the 27th Precinct. As he drank his orange juice, Benton smiled. Not for any particular reason, as far as Vecchio could see; in fact, his gently abstracted expression and dreamy eyes were a dead giveaway that his thoughts were somewhere else.

Probably with Elyssa Ryan, he thought.

They were an almost embarrassingly happy couple. Ever since Benny had gotten together with Elyssa, he'd practically glowed. It's ridiculous! Vecchio thought darkly. Women are supposed to do that, not guys.

But Fraser was doing it; he was definitely glowing. He sat there radiating pure, animal health and vitality. His thick dark hair shone, his blue eyes sparkled, and his pale skin was so perfect it was almost dazzling. It's like eatin' breakfast with a damn walkin', talkin' fashion ad! he grumped to himself, feeling shabby by comparison, despite his expensive clothes.

Worse, he wasn't the only one who'd noticed Benny's luster. The entire female half of Chicago seemed to be in heat--or else they'd issued some kind of "Mountie Alert"; because everywhere they went, female heads turned and women rushed towards Fraser, panting. Benny had always been handsome, but his newfound happiness had turned him into a six-foot babe magnet whose like Ray had never seen before.

Benny wasn't even safe at the 27th lately. He grimaced, just thinking about it. Fraser had come over to have lunch with him a few weeks ago, and hadn't even made it to his desk before causing a small riot. When he'd heard a woman squeal, "OhmiGod! A Mountie! Are you for real?", he'd known there was going to be trouble. He'd hauled ass into the squadroom, and found Benny standing there trying unsuccessfully to dislodge an over-enthusiastic hooker who'd launched herself into his arms and was doing her best to suck his lips off.

"Jesus H. Christ!" He'd been forced to go to his embarrassed friend's rescue amid catcalls from his fellow cops and loud promises from the young streetwalker that she'd do Ben "for free anytime, honey!". So he'd torn her off Benny with a little more force than was strictly necessary. She'd thanked him with a swift, painful, high-heeled kick to his shin before another cop had finally hauled her away. Then, to top it all off, Elaine Besbriss had come rushing over, "to make sure Fraser was all right"!

"Hey! What about me?" he'd protested, indignant. "She just kicked me! What'm I, chopped liver or somethin'?"

"You're fine, Ray," Elaine said dismissively. "Quit whining."

Chopped liver, all right.

After that, she ignored him completely, and started examining Fraser at close range for any signs of damage. There were none: apart from the fact that the hooker had managed to smear her candy red lipstick over the entire lower half of his dazed face, Benny was fine. But despite his protests that he could do it himself, thank you kindly, Ray couldn't help but notice that Elaine took an indecently long time wiping the lipstick off his mouth, and that she wore a dreamy look by the time she was through.


That was one of the reasons he'd chosen to have breakfast at this little cafe. Its waiter and manager were both male, so he wouldn't have to put up with watching a waitress drool all over Benny the whole time they ate. Of course, Fraser didn't care or even seem to notice the way women practically threw themselves at his feet. He had eyes for no one but Elyssa. But all that misdirected female lust was beginning to get on Ray's nerves.

It's makin' me sick, is what it's doin'! If I see one more woman eye him like he's an ice cream cone they wanna lick real slow, I'll--

You'll what? the voice of reason cut in. Benny can't help it if he's handsome. He doesn't make a big deal out of it, either. You're just turnin' green because you wish you were getting half the female attention he is. You can't stand the fact that he's found a great woman, and you haven't.

You're jealous, Vecchio!

Ray tried not to scowl, but he knew it was true. It was crazy, but he was more than a little envious of Fraser and his girlfriend. Elyssa was terrific; she was smart, pretty and accomplished, a great cook and an even better artist. Better still, she was warm and kind, and she'd made Benny happier in the last six months than he'd ever seen him. Best of all, Ray knew she liked him too. Oddly enough, they'd really bonded while rescuing Benny from a near suicidal depression after they'd broken up over a misunderstanding last fall. Ever since then, Elyssa hugged him whenever she saw him, invited him over for dinner a lot, even asked him along when Benny took her to hockey games; and they all had fun together. He considered her a good friend, almost like a sister. And after their disaster with Victoria, he should've been thanking God every day that his best friend had found a woman like her. He'd prayed for it often enough.

And he was happy for Benny. For both of them. But this morning, he just couldn't help wishing he had someone like that too. A woman who'd make him look as goofily happy as Fraser did, this early in the morning on a work day. It's been too long since someone loved me the way Elyssa loves him, and vice versa, he thought, wondering bleakly if that would ever happen again.

Chopped liver, that's me. Remembering the last time he'd seen Angie, he wished that he'd been nicer.

Aloud, he said only, "Pass the salt, wouldja' Fraser?"

"Hmm?" Fraser blinked as if his voice had dragged him back to reality from a million miles away. He took a shade too long reaching for the salt shaker as a result, and Ray grabbed it himself, with a grimace of annoyance.

"I'm sorry, Ray," Fraser apologized, as if he'd just realized that mile-deep reveries weren't exactly polite when one was supposed to be listening to one's best friend. "You were saying?"

Ray's grimace deepened as he shook salt over his eggs. They hadn't had a chance to spend much time together lately, and he'd been looking forward to a few minutes alone with his friend before work. But it was just his luck, Fraser couldn't stop thinking about his girlfriend! Not that he didn't understand; if he had a woman as great as Elyssa, he'd be grinning too. But since he didn't, Fraser's distraction just irritated him. He knew he was being petty, but couldn't seem to help it. "I wasn't sayin' anything, Benny, because you wouldn't have heard me anyway." He snapped his fingers impatiently in front of the Mountie's nose. "Ground control to Major Tom! Earth to Fraser! Houston, we have a problem! "

Fraser hadn't meant to be rude. He really was glad to see Ray, who'd been scarce lately, due to his involvement in a serial murder case. Vecchio was as sartorially splendid as ever, in a black overcoat, dark suit and a green tie that matched his eyes, but Ben noticed that he looked tired. His eyes lacked their usual spark, and his hands hardly even moved while he talked, which was a dead giveaway that something was wrong. Any time Ray was less than animated, Fraser knew he was troubled about something.

He meant to cheer him up, but his thoughts drifted in spite of him. He had a lot of things on his mind, too...

The way Elyssa had loved him last night was one. It had gone on for hours, neither of them wanting to stop, each pause only a chance to catch their breaths before coming together again. He was sure he'd yelled out loud more than once. He wondered with some embarrassment if Mr. Mustafi had heard them...Then decided that, even if he had, it had been worth it. Sometimes, when she made love to him as devotedly, as endlessly as she had last night, his pleasure was so great it went beyond the merely physical. For a man who'd been lonely all his life, such giving, such closeness was a transcendent experience, so overwhelming that he almost felt his soul had risen up out of his body and mingled with hers.

Perhaps it had. Because though he'd hardly slept, he felt energized, rejuvenated; in a word, marvelous.

No other woman had ever done that for him, given herself to him so generously. Before he met her, he hadn't even known freely offered love was possible. But Elyssa asked nothing from him: not stoic, proper behavior, or money, or help of any kind. She was so much a part of him now that even his feelings for Victoria, which he'd once thought passionate, seemed a pale, sickly dream by comparison. He would've dared anything, risked any danger for her; but the hell of it was, she didn't ask him to. She was so independent that she hadn't even asked him for help with her worst problem, her persistent rape trauma. She asked for nothing but his love.

But he loved her too much to knowingly watch her suffer, so he'd taken the initiative himself. Now he wondered how he was going to tell Elyssa that he'd called her former psychologist last week, in an effort to help her. Tracking Dr. Elden down had been absurdly simple; he'd just called Springfield information. But talking to her hadn't done him much good. She'd been kind, but refused to say a word to him about Elyssa, wouldn't even confirm that she'd been her patient. She'd reminded him that all such information was private by law; doctor-patient confidentiality and all that.

"You see, I love her," he'd tried to explain, more than a little desperate. "And she's having nightmares, but she won't talk to me about them, and I'm afraid of what it's doing to her. Can you at least tell me what I could do, hypothetically speaking, to help a former rape victim deal with lingering trauma like that?"

But Dr. Elden had informed him firmly that even approaching the subject that way would violate her ethics. "After all, Constable Fraser, since we both really know who that 'hypothetical' person is, that would again constitute a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality, if Ms. Ryan was in fact my patient. I'm sorry, but I can't help you. Have you tried looking up information about rape trauma at a library?"

He'd been tempted to snap that he couldn't tell her that, because it would violate his ethics regarding his confidential relationship with his lover. But he'd gritted his teeth on that sarcasm and managed a polite "Yes" instead. Because despite his disappointment, he knew the doctor was right. She had an obligation under the law to protect her patient's privacy, much though that frustrated him in Elyssa's case.

He'd been about to hang up at that point, when Dr. Elden had surprised him by saying there was one thing she could do...

"Pass the salt, wouldja' Fraser?" He came back to the present with a start, realizing belatedly that Ray had spoken some time ago, but he hadn't moved. He dove for the salt shaker in guilty haste, trying to make up for his inattentive daze, but Ray got there first. He snatched it up himself, and he didn't look happy.

Oh dear, he thought, apprehensive. What did I miss?

Whatever it was, it must've been pretty important, because Ray began snapping at him in what sounded like some sort of aerospace slang that didn't make much sense. The words "Earth" and "Houston" certainly suggested the space program, but he failed to understand why Ray would suddenly introduce NASA into their breakfast conversation. If, in fact, that was what he meant.

Oh dear oh dear...

Fraser blinked at him, a tiny 'oh is that another peculiar American expression?' kind of frown gathering between his brows. " 'Ground control' ?" he echoed, confused by the unfamiliar references. "I believe that might be a term used by NASA, but I confess I've never heard of a Major Tom--"

"Major Tom! David Bowie!" Ray shot back. "'A Space Odyssey', y'know?"

If anything, Benny's frown deepened, as if his explanation had only confused him further. So what else is new? Vecchio thought. He threw up his hands in disgust. "Never mind!" he snapped. "Jesus, Fraser, haven't you picked up any American since you've been here?"

Benny's eyes fell, and he colored a little. "I'm sorry, Ray," he said earnestly. "I am trying, but the sheer volume of slang and obscure cultural references makes it difficult--"

Ray sighed, knowing he'd lashed out unfairly. "It's okay, Benny. Forget it. I'm not really mad at you anyway."

Fraser eyed him curiously. "Then what is it?"

He shrugged. "It's this case I've been workin' on, I guess. It's startin' to get to me. It's been goin' on for so long now, sometimes I think it'll never be over." He stabbed moodily at his eggs, making them pay for his displeasure, for the way work had been going lately. Maybe even for the way he'd spent the last six months sleeping in an empty bed, while Benny and Elyssa--

Whoa! He slammed the brakes on his prurient train of thought so fast that it was a wonder Benny didn't see smoke coming from his ears. Benny was his best friend, and Elyssa was almost like a sister to him. So he was never, but never going to imagine, even for one second, what they did in private. It would be almost like... like mental incest. And even I'm not that hard up.

"You mean the murder case ?" Benny asked, pulling his thoughts back to unhappy reality. "The 'Gay Strangler' thing?"

"Yeah." There was no need to explain further. They'd talked about the case before, and the papers had been full of it: three gay men, Tom Tressor, Jimmy Tucci and Ronald Edgar, had been strangled to death in the last two months, their bodies left in trash bins and back alleys in sleazy parts of town. And so far, they had no fingerprints and no good suspects.

Benny put down his spoon, his food forgotten. His blue eyes were suddenly clear, intent, and interested. The eyes of a cop, not a lover. "Any leads?" he asked.

Grateful to have Fraser's full attention at last, Ray shook his head. "No. Welsh has had me and Huey workin' undercover on it, and we've staked out the bars where the victims were targeted, but this guy, whoever he is, never seems to hit the same place twice. We know he's male, because the victims were all raped and we've found semen--"

"What about DNA testing?" Fraser interjected.

Ray shrugged. "You know how it is... Semen samples are useless without someone to match 'em to. There are no obvious links between the victims either, other than the fact that they were all gay, and strangled with wire. But we've had no solid leads in two months -- which is about two months too long for my taste! Two months o' stakin' out fern bars, two months o' pretendin' to be..."

He shook his head without finishing the sentence.

Fraser raised deceptively mild eyes to his. "Pretending to be what, Ray?"

He gave him The Look, and Vecchio's eyes narrowed suspiciously. He knew that look: all wide, blue-eyed innocence. At least, he used to think so. But by now, he'd seen Fraser use it a thousand times, on an amazing spectrum of people--from drug dealers, hookers and street scum to high-ranking diplomats--and the outcome was always the same. He'd just turn his baby blues on someone who was angry or upset, stare at them quietly for a few minutes with that alert attentiveness that was so flattering, and they'd soon be spellbound, mere putty in his hands. Ray had actually seen victims of The Look sit willingly through long, godawful, boring Inuit stories about caribou and/or other weird forms of Canadian wildlife without bolting, or throwing up. There was only one possible explanation.

nocent, my ass! That Look is magic. Like some weird kinda Mountie hypnosis.

It was obvious why it worked on women; Benny was so handsome he might as well be a poster boy for the RCMP. But the really strange thing was, it seemed to work just as well on men. Vecchio would've died rather than admit it, but sometimes it even worked on him! He'd look into Benny's blue eyes and they'd seem fathomless, like warm, azure oceans he could dive into and float in forever. He'd have to blink to snap himself out of it.

doubt about it, Fraser could charm the birds outta the trees. And since he'd gotten together with Elyssa, Ray thought he might be even better at it. The Look seemed to be even more powerful, as if Benny's new happiness had enhanced his native hypnotic abilities.

But tempting as it was to lose himself in that gaze, it wasn't going to work on him. Not him. Not today. He wasn't a fucking bird, and he was enjoying his own bad mood too much to let Benny witch him out of it. He looked away from his friend and down at his plate, to break the spell of those oh-so-innocent blue eyes.

"You know what, Fraser!" he growled. He knew what Benny was doing -- trying to make him say that word again: gay. Screw that. He refused to repeat it just to prove that it didn't make him uncomfortable. He lifted a forkful of eggs to his mouth instead, and chewed defiantly.

Benny just lifted an eyebrow at his truculence, then calmly went back to eating his cereal without another word. But Ray wasn't fooled. He knew what Fraser was really up to. Since The Look had failed, he was changing tactics, trying the silent treatment. He'd just sit there quietly eating his Wheaties, radiating sweetness and light but not speaking, until the silence drove Ray nuts, and he caved and told him what was bothering him. Like he always did.

Vecchio groaned inwardly. No fair! Benny knows me too damn well. A compulsive talker himself, he hated the silent treatment with a passion. It was almost as bad as when Fraser babbled.

Correction -- nothing's as bad as a babbling Benny.

He dropped his fork on the table. "Jesus! I'm even startin' to think like you!" he blurted, horrified.

Fraser smiled a little as he drank his orange juice, imperturbable as ever. "What, Ray?"

"Nothin'." Vecchio's lips thinned, and he shot him a sullen look. "Yer gonna make me say it, aren't ya'?"

"It might help the conversation along," Benny allowed, " if I had some idea what you're so upset about." He looked so amused Ray suspected that if he weren't Canadian and his best friend to boot, he would've been grinning openly.

"Awright, awright already, Benny!" he exploded. "Here it is: for the past two months, I've been pretending to be gay. That's what you do when you go undercover; you assume an identity, try to blend in. Well, I've been 'blending' for the past two months, hangin' out in gay bars pretending to be homosexual, or gay, or whatever you wanna call it, tryin' to catch this creep. There! I said it: I've been posing as a gay person. Gay, gay, gay! Are ya' happy now?"

As he paused for breath, Benny stared off into space for a second, considering the question. "Well, I don't think that 'happy' would be the right word to describe my state of mind, but--"

He shook his head in disgust. He'd never been able to figure out if Fraser really was that blindly literal, or if he just pretended to be at times, to drive him crazy. "Never mind!" he sighed. "It's making me nuts, I can't even sleep sometimes, but I shouldn't've expected you to understand."

"But I do understand," Fraser said. Suddenly, the laughter was gone from his eyes, and his voice was quietly earnest. "What I'm trying to say is, of course I'm not happy you're having trouble with this case. We're friends, and if you're unhappy, I'm unhappy."

"Oh." Ray looked down at his hands, startled into silence by Benny's open concern, and a little embarrassed that he'd been feeling jealous of Elyssa earlier, too. Benny hadn't left him behind when he'd fallen in love, like many men would've. He still made time for him, made it clear, in his quiet way, that he was very important to him. His love for Elyssa hadn't changed what was between them; in fact, it had made it better. Fraser had always been a loyal friend, but emotional expression hadn't been his strong suit until he met her. She'd helped him come out of his shell. Now that they'd been together for awhile, Fraser would sometimes talk about their friendship more openly than he ever had before.

We're friends, and if you're unhappy, I'm unhappy. Men usually didn't usually say things like that to each other; but somehow, when Benny did it, he didn't mind. In fact, it warmed him like nothing else could. Maybe because he knew Fraser had done it for his sake, because he'd known he needed to hear it. He wondered if that was what he'd been waiting for all morning without knowing it, just to hear Benny say that he cared.

Enough with the sensitivity, already! You make me wanna puke, his father's cynical voice snarled in his head. You're becomin' a sap, ya' know that?

Shut up, Pop! he shot back. If that were true, if he and Benny were both being sentimental, then so be it. God knew, there was little enough of that in his life at the moment; and he'd been around long enough to know that if you stopped feeling entirely, even though you were still breathing, you were already dead. He'd seen that happen to his father, and watched more than a few cops fall into that trap over the years, too; and they'd all been the worse for it. He didn't ever want that to happen to him or Fraser. So he put aside the macho sarcasm he'd learned to defend himself with long ago, and smiled gratefully at his friend. "Thanks, Benny."

Fraser nodded. "I know that working undercover can be highly stressful," he went on. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No." He shook his head, pushing what was left of his eggs around his plate without seeing them. But Fraser didn't buy that. Without even looking at him, he could see Benny waiting patiently for him to speak, so he finally gave in.

"Well... yeah, I guess," he admitted at last. "But I'm not sure how to explain it. I mean, it's weird pretending to be someone else, but I've done that before. That's not the worst part of it." He shifted in his seat, staring down into his coffee, wondering why he'd finally decided to go into this in detail when it made him so uncomfortable; and knowing it was because Fraser was the only man he knew who would hear him out, who'd try to understand what he was going through without laughing at him. "The acting doesn't bother me, it's..."


"Come on, Fraser, you're a cop, you know!" he protested, dancing around it uncomfortably.

Perfect dark brows lifted in genuine confusion, and Ray's frustration increased. "Oh, come on! Even you must--" He stopped in mid-sentence, realizing suddenly that he had no real idea how Fraser felt about gays. They'd never discussed it. Ray had just assumed that because he was a cop...

"Well, I just feel really uncomfortable goin' there, that's all," he groused. "Pretendin' to be one. A gay guy, I mean."


Jesus, Benny was making this hard! "WHY? Because I'm a man, that's why!"

"But so are they, Ray," Benny pointed out, reasonable as always.

Ray hated that. "Well, yes, if you wanna get technical about it, they are, but not like us," he explained. Fraser looked at him blankly again. He scowled, frustrated. For such a smart guy, Benny had a lot of trouble with simple explanations sometimes. "I mean, we're not like that," he elaborated. He lowered his voice unconsciously. "Well, you know what I mean. We don't--do what they do together," he ground out awkwardly. "That, it...It's creepy, it's unnatural!" he spluttered, unable to articulate in a few words the prejudices instilled over an Italian Catholic lifetime. "Isn't it?"

Fraser just shrugged. "I don't know," he said thoughtfully. "Is it? Homosexuality exists in nature, you know, Ray. Chimpanzees, dogs, even wolves sometimes--"

Ray waved his hands, disturbed by information he'd rather not have known about. "Enough, enough with the National Geographic specials, Benny! I'm tryin' to tell ya' why this case makes me queasy, and you go all Marlin Perkins on me!"

"Marlin Perkins was the host of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", I believe," he corrected, with maddening calm. "Not--"

"Fine." Ray spread his hands flat on the table on either side of his plate. It was either that, or strangle Fraser with them. "Fine. FINE!" he growled, surging to his feet. "If that's how you wanna play it, forget I even mentioned it--"

Fraser caught his coat sleeve and tugged on it, his blue eyes suddenly contrite. "No, please -- sit down, Ray. I didn't mean to upset you."

He shoved his hands in his coat pockets, relenting. But he didn't sit down again. Talking about this made him feel restless, as if he couldn't sit still. He was trying hard to tell his friend something without putting it into words, was hoping Fraser's magic Mountie intuition would just pick up on it and spare him the humiliation of having to say it himself. "I'm tellin' you, it's hard for me, Benny," he said, meaning it. "I've had guys hangin' on me, kissin' me--" He shook his head. There was more, and he wanted to get it all out, to explain that his problem with this case went beyond distaste with gay passes, but somehow, he couldn't. He swallowed hard. "I don't know how much longer I can take it, ya' know?"

"Try thinking of it as just an expression of affection, Ray," Fraser suggested naively. "Maybe that would help."

He snorted sarcastically. "Those kinda 'expressions' I don't need, Benny," he retorted. He wasn't about to go into any more detail about it, but the passes he'd had to put up with on the Gay Strangler case had had more to do with lust than affection. Still, Fraser's words had unknowingly touched on the aspect of his undercover stint that was bothering him even more than the hands he'd had to fend off. He'd hoped Fraser would guess it, because he seemed unable to bring it up himself.

The problem was, some of the guys he'd seen in the gay bars he'd been in lately didn't conform to the gay stereotypes he'd expected. In the course of their investigation, he'd kept his sharp eyes and ears open as always, and he couldn't help but notice that most of the gay men he observed didn't seem like monsters, or perverts, or even people for whom he could feel contempt. They were just guys: construction workers, salesmen, truckers... He'd even met a few doctors. And what bothered him even more was the fact that they hugged, touched and spoke to each other with genuine affection, as real as what he felt for Fraser.

That confused him.

He'd been raised to believe that homosexuality was evil, a perversion right up there with child molestation; and his job as a cop had reinforced that belief. But in the past few months, in his secret heart of hearts, for the first time, he'd begun to question that. Sure, some of the men he'd seen had been overtly effeminate, and that kind of thing turned his stomach; but they weren't evil. Some of them just seemed like regular guys who happened to like men instead of women.

Far from hating them, he'd actually liked them. And he didn't know what to make of that at all. Suddenly, all the names he used to call them -- fag, queer, pansy -- seemed as ugly as nigger, wop, or any of the other stupid epithets people used to make themselves feel superior to others.

"They're not like us," he'd said, and that was true; but what he hadn't said--what he'd been scared to admit, even to Fraser -- was that it was also untrue. He was beginning to realize that in all the ways that counted, homosexuals were men just like him. Guys who drank beer, went to games, and cherished their friends and families. And that bothered him. So much that he couldn't even confess his tangled feelings to Fraser.

"I really wish we could catch this guy, Benny," he said, wishing even more that he could tell him all the reasons why.

Fraser nodded, his eyes grave. "I know," he said quietly.

He knew that was true, that Benny understood his frustration. There was nothing worse for cops than trying to catch a serial killer. Each new victim increased their feeling of helplessness, and their desire for justice, exponentially. And this case, with its peculiar circumstances and wily murderer, was worse than most.

But Fraser still didn't have a clue about the other reasons the Gay Strangler case was driving him crazy, and Vecchio scowled, angry with himself for not being able to explain it.

He remembered a swishy redhead who'd grabbed at his crotch a few days ago, purring that he "liked them big and macho". It had been all he could do not to shove the guy away from him. Still... The longer he worked this case, the more his viewpoint changed. He'd come to realize that the aggressiveness of such come-ons bothered him even more than the gender of the guys making them.

And to make things even more complicated, he'd also begun to feel a hidden sense of anger at the casual attitude that seemed to prevail about the Gay Strangler murders. The constant faggot jokes in the squadroom wore on his nerves. Even things he'd heard on the street, from the public, grated on him. He'd stopped to buy a paper at a newsstand the morning after Jimmy Tucci's lifeless corpse had been discovered, and overheard a couple of businessmen discussing the headline about his murder.

"Guess that's one less faggot in the world," one had said with a grin. "Yeah, big loss, huh?" his buddy answered. Then they'd both laughed.

Assholes! he'd thought, outraged. He'd seen Tucci's lifeless body the day before, bloodied, violated and tossed in a smelly garbage bin like so much trash. Hearing them dismiss him as if he were no more than that made him furious. He'd barely been able to suppress an urge to take his newspaper and beat them with it.

But he'd restrained himself, imagining what Lt. Welsh would have to say about it if he did.

"Now, let me just get this straight, Detective Vecchio. You assaulted these two respectable businessmen with a Sun-Times, striking them repeatedly about the head and shoulders, because they uttered slurs against gays in your presence? Is that right? What exactly did they say, Detective, that you haven't already said a thousand times yourself?"

It was true. He'd been one of those gay-hating assholes himself, just a few short months before. All his life, really. He'd been raised that way. And it wasn't like he'd become gay by association recently, either. He'd been telling Benny the truth about how hard it was for him to pretend he liked having strange guys making passes at him, touching him...The truth was, it felt really weird. But the knowledge he'd gained from first-hand observation of gays at the bars he'd hung out at lately, and the murders of Tommy Tressor, Jimmy Tucci and Ronald Edgar had changed him, all the same. The dead men weren't jokes to him at all. They were victims, and he wanted justice for them. He wanted it bad. He was going to find the man who'd murdered them, he didn't care how long it took.

It was just that in pursuing him, he'd discovered that he didn't hate gays anymore; and the unexpected changes in his life-long attitudes unsettled him. Deep inside, he felt they were for the better, but they still made him feel strange.

"Ya' ever been in a gay bar, Benny?" he asked moodily, taking one last stab at communicating the real reason for his malaise, though he already knew what Fraser's answer would be.

Fraser's gaze slipped down to his orange juice in a slow blue slide, as if the unease Ray felt had finally communicated itself to him. "I'm sorry, Ray."

"Well trust me, they're not very fun places for guys like you and me." Secretly, though it didn't surprise him, he was a little disappointed by Fraser's lack of experience. If Benny had been in even one gay bar, he would've been able to talk to him about his confusion. They could've compared notes, so to speak, on their observations of gays. He could've asked Benny what he thought about the Church's position on the issue too, and maybe it would've helped him sort out his own feelings about it.

But no such luck. He sighed to himself, wondering why in the world he'd thought Benny, who was such an innocent, would've ever set foot in a place like that anyway. Hell, he seldom even went into normal bars, because he hardly ever drank.

Why the hell did I think he could help me with this?

Yet somehow, even though Benny had never been in a gay bar, talking to him about it had made the thought of going to one again a little easier. Now that they'd had a few minutes of quiet conversation about it over their coffee, he found he no longer dreaded it. At least, not quite as much.

Must be that Mountie hypnotism, he thought with a smile. Or maybe it was just knowing that he had a best friend, that someone cared what he did, how he felt, that made the difference. "Come on, Fraser," he said, feeling better as he signaled for their check. "I'll give you a ride to work."

Fraser flashed him a smile as he reached for his hat, the kind of white-toothed grin that melted women in their tracks. "Thank you kindly, Ray."

As they headed for the door, Benny put his hat on, straightening the brim meticulously, as he always did. The perfect Mountie, Ray thought. Unable to resist the urge to ruffle that perfection, he decided to tease him a little. "Hey, did you say 'Hi' to Elyssa for me last night?" he asked casually.

"No," Fraser answered innocently, caught off guard. "It was late, and we were...Umm...Well, we were--" He fell silent, suddenly realizing he'd made a mistake, but it was too late. He'd already given away the fact that he'd been with Elyssa, and unless they'd taken up Satan worship recently, Ray knew there was only one thing they could've been doing that Benny wouldn't want to talk about. His nervousness confirmed Ray's suspicions about the origins of the goofy little smile Fraser had been wearing earlier, too.

Small wonder he's glowing. If that wasn't an "I just got some" grin on his face, then I'm not Italian, Vecchio thought, amused.

Benny caught his grin, and it flustered him. "That is... Well, we were... talking about other things," he stammered.

"What things, Benny?" he asked with apparent innocence.

"Oh, nothing in particular," the Mountie floundered, looking like he wished he was back in Moosejaw, or the Yukon, or anywhere else but here. "I mean...Well--"

Ray raised a curious eyebrow.

"Ballistics," Fraser sputtered at last.

"Ballistics?" he echoed, trying hard to keep a straight face.

"Yes. We were...discussing ballistics," he repeated, in a nervous effort to brazen it out.

Ray had to clench his jaw to keep from laughing out loud. Fraser was, without a doubt, the worst liar he'd ever seen. He was nuts about ballistics--he even kept boring books about it in his apartment! But Ray didn't believe for a second that Elyssa was even remotely interested in the subject. No woman in her right mind who wasn't a cop would be. Hell, I'm a cop, he thought wryly, and I'm not that interested!

For a moment, he was tempted to say, "Oh, so that's what they're calling it now! Ballistics!" But he restrained himself, and raised a skeptical eyebrow instead. "Oh, I see. So you and Elyssa were sittin' around last night readin' ballistics textbooks, is that it?"

Fraser swallowed hard, so deeply mired in his white lie now that he couldn't see a way out. "Well, not all night," he temporized.

But Ray couldn't let it go just yet. He was having too much fun torturing Fraser. He shook his head admiringly. "And to think some people waste their free time watchin' TV, makin' out, and stuff like that. You and Elyssa are an inspiration to us all. Wait'll I tell the guys at the Station that your girlfriend's hobby is ballistics! They'll be thrilled. They'll probably wanna quiz her on it, the next time they see her. "

"No!" Benny blurted hastily, beads of sweat popping out on his brow. "I mean, there's no need to tell them that. In fact, I think I'd really prefer it if you didn't..."

"Aww, come on! This is great. I'm tellin' ya', she'll be the hit of the 27th, Benny--"

"Was I supposed to say 'Hi' to Elyssa for you, Ray?" Fraser interrupted, returning to his original question in desperation, his color deepening the more he thought about the night before. His snow-pale skin was already alarmingly red with embarrassment. Watching him, Vecchio blessed his own darker coloring, that prevented his emotions from showing so vividly. Ray knew exactly what Fraser was thinking. One, he was trying to remember if he had actually asked him to say Hi to Elyssa or not. Two, he was wondering if he'd violated his own rigid standards of politeness by forgetting to do so, and (last but not least) he was worrying about how he could explain that lapse to his friend without revealing what he and Elyssa had been doing last night, instead of passing on 'hello's' from friends.

As if I don't already know, he thought, bemused as always by his friend's innocence. But over the years, he'd discovered it was one of the things he liked the most about Benny. He still retained the sunny belief that people were mostly good. And Ray had no desire to damage that belief, mistaken though it was. So he finally took pity on him and clapped him lightly on the shoulder.

"It's okay, Red," he laughed, as he payed their bill. "Forget about it."

Fraser nodded, transparently relieved to have finally been let off the hook. But as they headed out of the cafe, Ray realized, with a slight sense of shock, that it was the first time he'd laughed in days. Maybe weeks. And it was all because he'd spent some time with his best friend.

All at once, his good mood vanished as he remembered how Theo D'Angelo, Jimmy Tucci's "best friend", had cried when he'd questioned him at the Station about Jimmy's murder. The other detectives had laughed about his tears once he left: "Jeezus! Real manly, huh? But what else can you expect from a fruit who's lost his main squeeze? Ha, ha! Fruit, squeeze -- get it, Vecchio?" But he hadn't laughed. He'd got it, all right: D'Angelo had been devastated. He hadn't just lost a sex partner, he'd lost his best friend. Someone he loved.

He couldn't help wondering if he'd have done any better if someone had been questioning him because Fraser had been killed.

He'd come close to that once, closer than he ever wanted to come again. It had faded to the stuff of occasional nightmares now, but the memory of that terrible day he'd shot Fraser, and of how Lt. Welsh had forced him to go and talk to that department shrink about it afterwards, would always be with him. "Regulations, Vecchio," the Lt. had said quietly, with such compassion in his eyes that Ray had to turn away for fear he'd lose it completely.

He'd stomped out of Welsh's office and slammed the door behind him in a fine display of Italian temper instead. Which might've fooled Welsh, but not the psychiatrist. She'd seen right through him. With a few quiet yet pointed questions, she'd stabbed right into the impossible, crushing weight of grief and guilt inside him, and he'd lost control just as he'd feared he would. He'd come unglued, and ended up screaming at her. "He's fine! I'm fine! We're all fine, okay? " (Thereby proving, of course, that he wasn't.)

He'd always wondered if she'd known that he'd yelled at her because that was the only safe way he knew of losing control. Because deep down, he was terrified that if he didn't get furious, he'd end up sobbing as helplessly as Theo D'Angelo had, because he'd put a bullet in Benny's back and he didn't know if he was going to live or die, or how he would survive either way...

Suddenly, he realized he was standing out on the street beside his car, staring at nothing. "Are you all right, Ray?" Fraser asked.

His eyes looked disturbingly like Lt. Welsh's had that day; searching and compassionate. And somehow, that bothered him. He looked away from him, busied himself with opening his door. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinkin' about the case," he lied, as he slid into the Riv. As Fraser got in beside him, he suddenly remembered the pool of blood that had seeped out of him at the train station, so dark that it had looked black. He fought off a shudder. He hadn't thought about that for a long time. He didn't want to think about it.

Damn, this case is gettin' to me! He grimaced as he nosed his car out into traffic, his smile gone as if it had never been.

Fraser felt vaguely unsettled as they left the cafe. It had been good to see Ray, as always, but his friend's discomfort over his undercover assignment troubled him. He'd seemed depressed, so much that he'd hardly even smiled. And when they'd headed to his car afterwards, his eyes had been so dark and distant he might as well have been a thousand miles away. He wished Ray would tell him what was bothering him so much. He knew there was something else about the Gay Strangler case that was troubling him, something more than his admitted distaste at having to suffer men making passes at him. But he wouldn't say what it was, and his silence bothered Fraser. It was uncharacteristic of the Italian to keep secrets like this. He wished he could've been more help to him, but his knowledge of homosexuality was scanty, and his experience of gay bars was--

Well, I didn't really lie about it, he thought uneasily. Not precisely.

Chicago Sun-Times: K-State Instructor Leads National Campaign to Force Investigation of Mississippi Murders.

Biloxi, MI/ It all began with the execution-style murder of two gay men, Robert Walters and Joseph Shumake, a questionable investigation by the local police, a sixteen year-old suspect who mentioned as his motive a fear that the two men were going to rape him, and a judge who said the deaths may have been justified if the two men were infected with HIV.

The defense attorney said that if the two men were found to be infected with HIV, the murders were justifiable homicide.

Deb Taylor, an English instructor, has helped to organize supporters in 20 states and two countries in a massive letter-writing campaign to the Governor of Mississippi aimed at precluding such a verdict. She said she hopes we don't wind up with a justice system that makes gays and lesbians responsible for their own murders.

Elyssa went to Tom Hallen's office promptly at 5:15, as soon as she'd closed the gallery. He'd requested a meeting, said he wanted to talk to her about something. She hoped she hadn't done anything wrong, but wasn't really worried as everything at the gallery had been running smoothly lately.

When she stepped into the small space at the back of the gallery, she found him sitting behind his beautiful walnut desk, waiting for her. "Ellie!" he smiled, gesturing to her to take the chair in front of him. "Sit down."

He still occasionally called her by that nickname she detested, though she'd corrected him about it many times. Too tired to make an issue of it at the moment, she let it slide. "What can I do for you, Mr. Hallen?" she asked, the formal address a subtle rebuke to his over familiarity, though she doubted that he would even notice.

She was right. Far from being abashed, he smiled at her. His gaze dropped to her lips, and stayed there far too long for comfort. God, he looks like he thinks that was some kind of come on! she thought, privately disgusted. Outwardly, she maintained her composure, though her heart had begun to beat a little faster. She was suddenly, acutely aware of how alone they were, and that since she'd closed the door behind her when she entered, no one passing by on the street could see or hear them...

After a long moment, he raised his eyes to hers again, and his smile widened, as if they shared some kind of unspoken secret. "I called you in here to tell you I'm very pleased with your work so far, Elyssa," he said at last.

That eased her discomfort a little. She must've misjudged him; evidently, he'd called her in here to talk business after all. "Thank you."

He nodded. "Sales are up since you started, you're very conscientious, and our customers say you're a pleasure to work with."

"That's nice to hear," she said honestly. "I really like working here--"

He got up out of his chair suddenly, and came around to stand beside her chair. "I think you're a pleasure to work with, too," he interrupted, as if she hadn't spoken. There was an unusual intensity in his eyes, in his manner, that she suddenly recognized as sexual; and her stomach tightened as a wave of fear turned her skin cold. She felt threatened, trapped -- she fought to maintain control, not to think about her past, but she felt herself breathing faster.

But then Hallen reached out and stroked her hair lightly. "A real pleasure," he repeated. "I think we could--"

The rest of his words were lost in a wave of white noise as a surge of adrenalin shot through Elyssa, fueled by rage and fear. His was the first male hand that had touched her against her will since her rape, and the fury it provoked took her breath away. In a second, she was shaking with it. It was all she could do not to strike him. Deep down, she was a little angry with herself, too, for not seeing this coming. She'd noticed the way he looked at her, the way he always managed to brush against her or touch her somehow, but she'd ignored the warning signals because she liked her new job so much.

But now he'd put his hands on her once too often, in a manner far too blatant to misinterpret. This stops here and now, she thought. Taking a deep breath to control her anger, she pulled away from Hallen's touch and rose to her feet with deliberate grace, rather than slapping him as she would've liked to have done. Sleazy as it was, he'd merely touched her lightly, and she didn't want to overreact to it. The last time she'd done that out of fear, she'd nearly lost Benny; and it had left a bad taste in her mouth for trauma-inspired hysteria.

Still, it was suddenly, eminently clear where this private little chat was heading, and she felt both betrayed and revolted. She grabbed her purse and slung it over her shoulder, in case she needed a weapon and to signal that their little talk was over.

"Mr. Hallen," she asked directly, holding his eyes, "you're coming on to me, and you can save yourself the trouble. I'm not interested."

He flushed a little, and turned away slightly. "What're you talking about? I'm afraid, Ms. Ryan, that you've misinterpreted my--"

Oh, so now I'm 'Ms. Ryan', not 'Ellie', hmm? She longed to discomfort him in return, to remind him that her boyfriend was a Mountie and her best friend a Chicago cop, and that both men would be more than happy to make him highly uncomfortable, to say the least, if he ever bothered her like this again. But she stifled the impulse. She was more than capable of taking care of herself; she didn't need Benny or Ray's help with that.

She shook her head, her heart pounding with anger. "I haven't misinterpreted anything," she said tightly. "And since I'm sure you're aware that sexual harassment is illegal -- that touching employees like you just did is illegal -- I'm sure there won't be anything for me to misinterpret in future, will there?"

He glared at her, his body stiff with anger. "You're forgetting yourself--"

She shook her head. "Not for a second, Mr. Hallen. And just so you don't forget; if anything like this ever happens again, I will quit, and file a complaint against you."

His eyes narrowed. "My, aren't you touchy!" he murmured scornfully.

Elyssa smiled wryly. "I think that describes you better than me. See you tomorrow, Mr. Hallen," she said quietly.

Then she turned and walked out of his office, shutting the door behind her.

That night, Victoria Metcalf sat in the darkness outside a small bar called DaVinci's, slumped down behind the wheel of a car where she wouldn't be seen, sighting her gun through the window at a car parked further up the street. Two men sat in it, but she was only interested in the one at the wheel. She fairly ached to pull the trigger on him. She'd meant to put it off for awhile, to toy with him and hurt him first, but memories of what she'd heard at Fraser's office that night tormented her. She couldn't kill him yet, but she had to find an outlet for her jealousy, her rage, or she'd go mad. So she'd followed Vecchio here.

What the hell, she thought fatalistically. Maybe I should move my whole timetable forward. Starting with him!

Despite her original plan to make peace with Fraser on her return, she hadn't led a law-abiding existence in Austin; and her forgiveness for the whole fiasco in Chicago had been limited to him. His friend, she still hated with a passion that remained steady as time went by. At the target range where she'd spent hours improving her aim, she'd often fantasized about this: getting a certain Italian's head in her sights, and blowing it to pieces.

Detective Raymond Vecchio, to be precise; Benton Fraser's best friend.

Ray Vecchio, who'd shot Fraser in the back to keep her from taking him away with her.

She'd followed him here meaning to kill him for that. If it weren't for Vecchio, Benton Fraser would be hers now. She'd wanted him for so long she could hardly remember a time when she didn't; and she'd hated Vecchio ever since she'd first laid eyes on him. Her looks usually made men putty in her hands, but the Italian had been immune to them. Yet another reason she despised him. And that hatred had been mutual. She remembered their first meeting as if it had been yesterday. Remembered the hard, wary look in his eyes and what he'd said to her, as casually as you'd say pass the milk: "By the way, if you hurt Benny, I'll kill you."

He said that to me, then he shot Ben himself! The fucking hypocritical Wop! God, I hate him!

She centered her aim on the back of his unsuspecting head, meaning to shoot him from behind just like he'd shot Ben. A hot rush of excitement welled inside her as her finger tightened on the trigger.

Ray shifted uneasily in his seat, watching DaVinci's' patrons come and go with only part of his awareness. The other half was defensive, on red alert. Why, he didn't know. He just felt there was danger in the air tonight -- sensed it with cop radar. He'd never felt like that on this case before, but every hair on the back of his neck was raised tonight, and quivering.

He wondered grimly if that meant that the killer was going to strike again, if he were here right now. He turned in his seat, searched the darkness around him, knowing before he did that he wouldn't see anything, and wishing vainly somehow that Fraser was beside him.

Huey was a good cop, but he wasn't Benny. And just now, he wanted his best friend with him. Wanted it urgently, the way only children or desperate people want things...

He just didn't know why.

As Victoria prepared to squeeze the trigger and end Ray Vecchio's life, he turned in his seat, looking all around as if he somehow knew she was there; or as if he were afraid. The sight made her pause. Slowly, she lowered the gun, rethinking it.

She could kill him anytime, anywhere. Since he had no idea anyone was watching him, he made no effort to be careful, and that big green boat of a Riviera he drove was ridiculously easy to follow. But after all the heartache he'd caused her, after what he'd put her through the last time she was here, he deserved to suffer; and a bullet through his head wouldn't accomplish that. It would end it all too quickly.

She laid the gun in her lap with regret. She'd trailed him here from the Station on an impulse, but satisfying though it would've been to indulge it, she wouldn't shoot him tonight. Right now wasn't the optimum time to get rid of him anyway, since he wasn't alone. The cop sitting beside him was a complication that would decrease her chances of escape. No, she would have to take her time about this, devise just the right way to hurt him first, to drive him crazy, without endangering herself. She'd make him feel the way she'd felt when she'd had Ben in her arms at that train station, then watched him fall away, pale with shock and regret, as Vecchio's bullet tore into his back. She'd kill him, all right; but first, she'd make him suffer the torments of hell, as she had.

She suddenly saw how a little scheme she'd already pulled off could be used to shatter him, and smiled.

Adjusting her wig, she put the gun in her glove compartment, turned the car on, then slowly pulled out into the street, gliding past the two men who still sat staring at DaVinci's. She didn't even glance at Vecchio as she passed them, but she felt his eyes on her, and smiled secretly. There was no way he could recognize her at this distance in the dark, when she was in disguise; and it was thrilling to come so close to her unwitting future victim.

She cursed him in her head as she drove by. Eat poison and die soon, Vecchio. Or else I'll get you, and poison would be kinder.

Then she drove off down the street. It didn't matter that she hadn't shot him tonight. Ray Vecchio was one dead cop anyway. It was only a matter of time.

Besides, she could still have some fun. The night wasn't over yet, not by a long shot. And Vecchio wasn't the only one who'd earned her wrath.

Ray turned his head as the car pulled slowly past them. It was nothing to worry about, the driver wasn't even looking at them, and it was so dark he could hardly see him anyway... All the same, something caught his eye. There was something familiar about the guy's profile, something--

Huey looked at him curiously. "Want some coffee?" he asked, not paying any attention to the sedan that had just passed them.

Ray shook his head absently, frowning. The car was gone now, but he'd noted its license number just in case. That prickling at the back of his neck wasn't just coincidence; something about the driver rang a bell. He was slender, with short, pale blond hair. He'd seen that much even in the darkness. And though he'd only seen his profile dimly for a second, it seemed familiar somehow. That nose--

For a second, something stirred in his mind, a memory... He almost had it, almost made the connection.

Then Huey coughed. "Shit, this is boring," he griped.

His concentration broken, Ray grimaced with frustration as the elusive thread of memory slipped away. He stared after the car's diminishing headlights until they disappeared around a corner. He had the strangest impulse to chase it, but they were on a stakeout, and that was impossible. Even if he'd had a reason he could explain to Huey, which he didn't.

Still, first thing tomorrow, he was going to check out that plate. You never knew.

Elyssa hurried to get dressed, hoping to have some time to sketch before she had to go to work. Last night had been one of her nights alone without Benny, a habit she clung to stubbornly despite his knowledge of her nightmares. She wasn't really sure why, it just seemed like a bit of independence that she still needed. To his credit, he hadn't protested it.

But it hadn't been a good evening. She'd tried to put her boss's inappropriate behavior out of her mind and relax, but she couldn't. She kept going over and over the scene between them in spite of herself. The only satisfaction she had was that she'd handled it well. She hadn't let fear of him intimidate her, nor had she let her own anger overwhelm her. She'd behaved coolly and correctly, and though the incident itself had been ugly, the way she'd coped made her proud. She briefly considered telling Benny, then changed her mind. He was so protective that she knew he'd freak out about it. He'd probably go to the gallery and clip Hallen on the jaw; and she didn't want that to happen. Her job there was shaky enough as it was.

In the end, she'd listened to some music to soothe her jangled nerves, then decided to go to bed early. For once, she hadn't dreamed of her rape, but she had dreamed, all night it seemed: vague, formless, fearful dreams of being followed, of hearing footsteps outside her door. She'd even wakened with a start once, her heart pounding, sure that someone was in her room in the dark, watching her.

She'd been so afraid she'd considered turning on the lights to reassure herself, but it seemed so childish she hadn't. Telling herself she was just on edge because of what had happened with Hallen earlier, she'd forced herself to go back to sleep instead, but it had taken a long time.

I should've stayed with Benny, she thought, shivering.

She pulled open her bedroom drapes to let in the morning sun and lighten her mood. But the sunlight was weak and watery, barely able to peek through a largely overcast sky, and she sighed. No help there...

Maybe a nice, hot cup of tea would settle her nerves.

She got water boiling, then looked at her watch as the Earl Gray steeped. It was only 6:20, but Ben would be up by now. He was an early riser, usually up with the sun, much more of a morning person than she. She'd take him a cup of tea, she decided, not admitting that she wanted an excuse to see him, after the restless night she'd had and before facing her boss again.

A moment later, a teacup of steaming Early Gray in hand for him, she headed for the door, smiling slightly as she imagined kissing him good morning. But when she opened it, she froze.

Blood. There was blood everywhere: on her door, on the floor in front of it, across the hall -- it was splashed halfway up the opposite wall. She would've thought someone had been killed, but there was no one in sight and no body, nor any sign that anything had been dragged to or from the scene. Just horrible, obscene pools of gore that sickened her.

Darkness enfolded her. She heard a roaring in her ears. Time came to a halt; even her breathing stopped. She longed to move, to get away from it, but she couldn't even blink, she was so paralyzed with fear--and with remembering.

Wild thoughts crashed through her brain, like terrorized animals in a crazed stampede. Gloved hands and pain, so much pain...

Once, that blood was mine. Once -- It's happening again. They found me! They've been here! Oh God, they know where I live!

She moaned as her old nightmares became real again, invaded this space that had been a haven for her. It was what she'd feared ever since that night; what she'd finally almost allowed herself to believe would never happen. She'd thought she was safe at last with Fraser, that they were making a new life together with love... But the blood said differently. The blood told her that leaving Springfield hadn't saved her, that even Fraser's love couldn't save her. Safety was only an illusion. There was no escaping her past.

What if they're here right now? What if they got into my apartment while I was sleeping and now they're hiding in a closet, waiting to grab me? She remembered waking at three in the morning with the distinct feeling that eyes were crawling over her in the dark, and Benny's cup of tea fell from her nerveless hand to the floor in slow motion, shattering and splashing tea into the crimson mess in the hallway. She noticed it only distantly. The roar grew louder and the blood outside her door strobed, filling her vision until she felt she had to move or it would expand outward and touch her, and she would die.

She slammed the door just in time. Then she sank to her knees on the floor, boneless, gasping desperately for air, not knowing if she was safely alone or about to be attacked again.

Help me! she wanted to scream. Somebody, please!

But she didn't make a sound. She just knelt there with terror growing behind her eyes, because she'd already learned that lesson the hard way. She'd screamed before, but no one had cared. No one had helped her.

Then a name filled her mind, cutting through her mounting panic like a lifeline thrown to a drowning seaman: Benny. Benny will care.

Benny will come.

When Fraser's phone rang just after 6:30 a.m, as he was pulling on his shirt, he jumped. Its loud peal still startled him sometimes, because he'd never had one before. He considered it something of a nuisance, but he'd kept it because it had been one of Elyssa's Christmas gifts to him; and because the sweet things she sometimes called to tell him on it, for no reason, more than made up for the minor annoyance of its occasional impatient summons.

He smiled as he moved to answer it, hoping it was her. The last time he'd picked it up, she'd begun the conversation by saying, "I love you, Mountie man." She only called him that in private, never when anyone else was around, not even Ray. Which was good, he supposed, because Ray might've thought the nickname was kind of silly. But Elyssa liked it, and secretly, he did too. He also very much liked the fact that she loved him enough to give him a pet name. No other woman had ever done that for him.

If he got his wish, no other woman ever would. He wanted to ask her soon. Soon...



"Elyssa?" He gripped the phone tighter, frowning. Something was wrong, he knew it instantly. She was whispering so softly that he could hardly hear her. "What is it?"

There was silence for a moment, as if she were swallowing hard, trying to get her breath. "Can you come over?" He suddenly realized that she wasn't whispering, that her voice had lowered to a croak because she was trying to force speech through a throat that was choked with fear. "Ben, there's blood -- everywhere."

He dropped the phone and bolted.

Elyssa held the phone with shaking hands, listening hard for any sounds of movement in her apartment, of breathing other than her own. Hold on, she told herself. Hold on, he'll come--

Fraser uttered a shocked, heartfelt curse at the sight of the crimson gore spilled all over Elyssa's door and across the hall. What the hell happened here? What looked like several pints of blood had been spilled, and a broken porcelain teacup had been dropped into the mess to boot. He recognized its delicate green and gold pattern at once--it was Elyssa's. He guessed that she'd probably had it in her hand when she went to her door, and dropped it when she'd opened it to find the gore on the other side. But beyond a swift glance up and down the hall to make sure it was empty as he ran, he didn't stop to examine things any further. He skidded through the crimson pool to her door, his heart pumping madly.

She said there was blood. What if some of it is hers?

"Elyssa!" He threw open her door and flew inside, noting automatically that it wasn't locked the way it should've been. She stood just a few feet away. His anxious eyes catalogued myriad tiny details in an instant. Her unbound hair spilling over a filmy white nightgown, her wide green eyes, her lips, pale and bloodless, her slender hand still curled with panicked tightness around the phone, her pulse beating wildly in her throat. The one thing he didn't see was any visible wounds or bloodstains on her. Thank God. But she didn't move, so he went to her, needing to make certain.

"Are you all right?" His voice sounded strange in his own ears, breathless and far too loud. The sound of fear. She didn't answer right away, and, too scared to wait, he scanned her for any sign of blood or injury. He saw nothing: no telltale red drops, no wounds of any kind. That was a vast relief, but her continued silence wasn't. "Elyssa?"

She swallowed hard, her eyes on him but elsewhere at the same time. He'd seen that gaze before: it was her nightmare look. She must be in shock. Remembering how scared she'd been when he'd touched her that night, he didn't take her in his arms the way he wanted to. He waited as she took a deep breath, her hand tightening on the phone until her knuckles went white. "Ben, I--don't know... what happened," she whispered, suddenly trembling visibly. "I didn't... hear anything, I just-- opened the door, and there--"

"It's all right," he said softly.

She put her hand over her mouth, as if to keep from crying out loud, anguish twisting her face. He reached out and gently pried the phone she'd forgotten she was holding out of her other hand; and when he did, she reached out to him. Hands shaking, she laid her head on his chest, and he folded his arms around her gratefully, held her as she shook convulsively. The slender body beneath her nightgown was cold against his partly bared chest. He rubbed it gently, trying to warm her, knowing her shock had been severe.

"I woke up-- last night thinking... someone was wa-watching me," she stuttered. "I'm afraid-- they've found me," she choked out. "Oh, God!" Her hands clenched in his shirt, tight fists of pain.

There was no need to say who "they" were. As if her lingering nightmares and emotional scars weren't enough! he thought angrily. Now this! Elyssa was such a gentle woman, she didn't deserve this. He damned whoever had done it to Hell. "Shhh," he soothed, rocking her a little. "I'm with you, and I won't let anyone hurt you. It's okay."

Once her shaking stopped, he let her go. "Stay here for a minute. I'll take a look around."

She clutched at his hand. "Ben, be careful!"

He nodded. He was reasonably sure there was no one else there, but for both their sakes, he had to make sure. He searched her small place thoroughly, but found no sign of forced entry, or that anyone else had been there.

He told her so, hoping it would reassure her. He didn't, however, add what he already knew: that his failure to find anyone in her apartment now didn't necessarily mean no one had been in it earlier. She was terrified enough as it was.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

Ben had slipped into his professional, police mode while searching her apartment. He'd become Constable Fraser, polite yet distant, instead of her lover Benny. Elyssa longed for him to take her in his arms again, but she also sensed that he had to be a Mountie right now in order to remain objective and help her. So she didn't protest. When he began questioning her in detail about what had happened, she told him everything: how she'd wakened from bad dreams fearing someone was in her room, dismissed the idea and gone back to sleep, only to find an even worse nightmare outside her door upon waking. But she had no helpful details to give him, no clues that could help Fraser the policeman figure out who might've done such a terrible thing. Her front door had been locked as per usual when she'd gone to leave, and besides her unprovable feeling that she'd been watched, she hadn't heard or seen anything out of the ordinary until she'd opened her door and found the blood.

"That's it, Ben," she said, shrugging helplessly. "That's all I can remember."

Which was true so far as it went. She told him everything she could remember--but not what she suspected.

"And you have no idea who did this."

"No." She didn't tell him the awful suspicion that slid into her mind as she recounted the night's events to him. Didn't tell him that she'd realized that there was someone other than her former rapists who had something against her. Someone who had nothing to do with her past.

Ben watched Elyssa's face closely as she explained what had happened. He saw fear, frustration and revulsion there as she spoke. But he saw something else as well, something she didn't want him to see. When he asked her if she had any idea who might've done this, he saw a faint, almost imperceptible look of horror dawn in her eyes.

She shook her head no, but he didn't believe her. She's hiding something, he thought, equal parts annoyed and surprised. Why in the world--? But even as he asked himself the question, the answer came: It's probably someone she knows.

"You're sure," he pressed, giving her a second chance. She shook her head numbly, but tears started in her eyes, and he didn't dare push the matter further. She was still in shock, and he didn't want to make things worse by badgering her.

"There's no reason to think this was done by the same men who assaulted you before," he said firmly, wanting to put that fear to rest. "You said your front door was locked when you opened it to come over to my place this morning, right?"

"Yes." There was no hint of doubt in her face or her voice about that, which relieved him a little, until something else occurred to him.

"Did you have both the deadbolt and the chain locks on?"

She shook her head. "No, just the deadbolt."

He nodded, keeping his face impassive, but the information worried him. He couldn't entirely discount her report of waking to the sensation of being watched as just part of a bad dream, not when blood had been poured over her doorstep a short time later; and if only her doorknob and deadbolt had been locked, someone could've quietly picked and relocked them again on his way out, without Elyssa hearing him. For an experienced criminal, that would be the work of only a few minutes. It chilled him to think someone might've actually come into her apartment and stood over her in the darkness.

Aloud, he repeated reassuringly, "I don't think the men who assaulted you have come back, Elyssa. They don't even know where you live now." That much, at least, was true. He couldn't tell her so, but the grim fact of it was, if they had somehow managed to track her here from Springfield (which was extremely unlikely) with the intention of assaulting her again, they would've done so last night, rather than spilling blood all over the hallway. If she'd been thinking clearly, she would've realized that too. That wasn't their style. Their methods had been bold, and brutally direct. It was likely that whoever had decorated her hallway was either subtler and more cautious, or else just out to frighten people at random, for kicks.

"This was probably just random vandalism," he went on, hoping against hope that was true.

"I hope so. Thank you for coming over, Ben," she said softly, leaning back into him.

"Don't be silly," he said, very gently. He slipped his arms around her again, submerging his doubts in his vast relief that she was unhurt, luxuriating in the beating of her heart. For a moment, they just stood holding each other, taking comfort from each other's solid warmth. Then he felt a slight shudder pass through her. She tore herself away from him a little, with an inarticulate gasp.

"What's the matter?"

She was suddenly shaking again, her hands cold. "Your feet!" she whispered, stricken.

He looked down, saw that in his haste to get to her, he'd run out of his apartment barefoot. As a result, his feet were coated with drying blood, a minor detail he hadn't even noticed until her horrified eyes fell on them. "I'm sorry," he muttered, noting that he'd tracked bloody footprints across her wooden floor, as well. "I'll wipe them off--"

He grabbed a small towel off a rack near her refrigerator, and scrubbed off the drying stains as fast as he could.

Elyssa watched mutely, and he wondered what she was thinking. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Ben," she said at last, surprising him.

He put the towel down and went to her. Tipping her chin up gently, he said, "Now, that's just silly. I love you, and whatever happens to you involves me. Right?"

She opened her mouth as if to protest, but he laid his fingers across her lips with a smile. "Right, Ben," he said for her. "Everything."

She smiled a little for him then, took his hand in hers and kissed it softly. "Everything," she echoed, but there was a trace of doubt in her voice, despite the loving gesture.

He frowned, not sure what to do about it. "Why don't you sit down for a minute," he said. "I have to call the Consulate and tell them I'll be late."

"Because you're going to call the police, too, aren't you," she said, perceptive as always.

"Yes. We have to, just in case this turns out to be something other than mere vandalism," he explained.

"Of course." She nodded, but her eyes had a faraway look to them, as if she were thinking of something else. Or someone, he thought uneasily as he dialed.

But all she said was, "When you're done, I'll need to call my boss and tell him I'll be late, too."

She was still so pale that it worried him. "Why don't you tell him you're ill, and that you'll be in tomorrow?" he suggested.

She shook her head adamantly. "No. No, I have to go. It's important." Then her eyes hooded over and she fell silent.

He didn't try to argue the point any further.

Officers Finnerty and Hagen arrived in good time. They were both polite and professional. They checked the scene dutifully, talked to a few of Elyssa's neighbors, even took a sample of the blood in the hall for further analysis by the police lab. But they didn't hold out much hope that the perpetrator would be identified, when there were no witnesses. Beyond advising Elyssa to keep her door locked and inform them immediately if she heard or saw anything else suspicious, there wasn't much more they could do.

All of which Benton had expected; he knew the drill. And all of which deepened his concern. Once he'd thanked them and they left, he shut the door and turned to Elyssa again, his mind made up on their next course of action. "You're coming to stay with me for awhile," he said. But as soon as the words left his lips, he knew they'd been a mistake.

Elyssa's face paled as if he'd struck her. "What?" she asked, her voice so faint it was almost a whisper. He tried to read her expression, to comprehend the reason behind what he knew, even before she put it into words, was strong resistance to that idea. But the sudden tightening of her facial muscles was his only clue to her mood. Beyond that, she showed nothing of what she was feeling.

She'd shut him out, as usual when something reminded her of her rape.

His fear intensified, as it always did when she retreated from him. Though he knew he'd already upset her, it forced him to go on. "What I mean is, I think you should come and live with me for awhile, until we're sure this was just a random occurrence," he went on, trying to make it sound like less of a command, and more of a request. Though it really wasn't. The truth was, he had no intention of taking no for an answer.

Elyssa just shook her head.

Frustrated, he took her arms in his hands and held them tightly, forcing her to look at him, not through him for a second. "You're not safe here!" he said. His voice was louder than it should have been, and he found himself speaking slowly and distinctly, as if he were talking to someone who was hard of hearing, or rather dimwitted. He caught himself, knowing she wouldn't realize it was because he had to yell to hear himself, over the terrified drumming of his own heart.

"You'll be safe with me," he went on, gentling his tone with an effort, despite the panic that drove him.

But it was too late. "No." She freed herself from his grip with a shake, rubbing her arms where he'd grabbed her. He realized too late that he must've been holding her too tight, and that he'd done more than hurt her with his clumsy words. He'd lost his chance to reach her.

"No. I'm staying here, Ben," Elyssa said quietly, trying to control her anger at the high-handed command he'd just given her, at the uncharacteristically macho way he was suddenly acting.

He looked down at the floor, bit his lip in frustration. "Elyssa, listen to me--"

"I've been listening!" she cut him off, letting her anger show, not caring if he saw it. "You're treating me like a child, Benton, and I don't like it."

"You called me because you wanted my help," he began. "I'm trying--"

She cut him off again, as frustrated as he. "Yes! Because I wanted your help, not because I needed 'Daddy'!"

Elyssa's words cut Benton to the core. She didn't know what she was saying, how that stabbed him. "Daddy"...Was that what he'd been doing, acting like he was older and wiser than she, assuming the role of a father? How bitterly ironic.

If I did, maybe it's because I wanted to know what it's like... When had his father ever been there when he'd needed him? Not when he'd cried out his fear of the dark when he was just a boy, not when he'd desperately wanted to know how to talk to girls when he was a teenager, and not when he was trying to decide what to do with his life when he was nearly a man. Never! His father was a great man in some ways, but he'd never been a "Daddy". He'd never been the devoted, caring parent Ben had needed so much, all the lonely years of his boyhood.

He crossed his arms over his chest, so he wouldn't be tempted to ball his hands into fists, to keep them from shaking with the anger and pain he felt. "Do I have to be your father to worry about you?"

"Do you think it's wrong," Benton asked coldly, "for me to express concern for your welfare?" His words had become stiffly formal, as they always did when he was hurt or embarrassed. He locked his hands behind his back and squared his shoulders, as if unconsciously bracing himself for some kind of punishment. Though his face was expressionless, his whole body had gone taut with the effort of hiding his pain, and she felt a stab of guilt. She'd asked him to come over after all, and he'd come running because he loved her--in bare feet, no less. He'd run barefoot through blood to get to her, without a second thought; and she knew he would've braved far worse things to help her. Bravery and loyalty were integral parts of his nature.

Yet knowing all that, she'd just lashed out at him.

It embarrassed her, and despite her anger, she tried to understand why she'd done it. There was something familiar about it, something disturbingly like a pattern. Every time they argued, no matter what the subject, it always felt the same to her: like he was trying to control her, to take away her independence -- to get too close... And every time, the thought of him finding out how awful the darkness inside her was terrified her so much that she lost control, and said things she regretted. Like she very much regretted accusing him of acting like a dictatorial parent just now, when she knew he was just concerned for her, and rightly so.

She took a step towards him suddenly, her eyes softening. This morning had been terrible enough already, without adding another pointless fight to it. "No, of course not. I'm glad you care about me, Ben. I'm sorry for saying that, I--"

"No, you're not," he said, his voice colder than she'd ever heard it. "You meant it." She stopped where she was, surprised and hurt. "You're trying to push me away," he snapped. "I'd like to know what it is about me that scares you so much, Elyssa."

Her throat went dry. She'd been trying to soothe his hurt feelings, but it wasn't working. Not only was he not accepting her apology, he was growing angrier by the second. "What are you talking about?" she asked, though deep down, she knew.

He took a step closer to her. Instinctively, before she knew what she was doing, she stepped back. His eyes narrowed at the telling reaction. "That! That's what I'm talking about."

"I don't know what you mean." She halted, but it was too late.

He shook his head. "Yes you do," he said hoarsely. "You've been doing it ever since I met you: running away from me."

She shook her head, tears starting in her eyes. "No! I--"

He took another step towards her. "It's true, and we both know it!" he insisted. "The closer I get to you, the more you pull away, the more you hide a part of yourself away where I can't touch it. The closer I come, the faster you run."

"No," she whispered, shaking her head desperately.

He came closer still. "I've tried so hard," he said in a low voice. "I've kept quiet about it, pretended I didn't see, never let you know how much it hurt me...But I can't let it go any longer. I have to know. Why won't you let me in, Elyssa? Why? "

She opened her mouth to speak, pained by the discovery that her silence, her inner withdrawal had hurt him again, but her heart was beating so hard she couldn't marshal her thoughts, couldn't think of the right words to say to explain it. There was no way to tell him why she couldn't give him her whole heart without revealing the ugliness that tainted it; and his very sweetness made that impossible. How could she possibly tell a man who believed, above all else, in people's basic goodness, that evil had stained the very core of her, despite all her efforts to leave it behind? That she'd been changed forever, against her will?

As she stood there, mute and frightened, his lips thinned to a taut, angry line. "Silent, as usual," he observed bitterly. He turned on his heel suddenly, as if he couldn't stand the sight of her any longer.

She went after him, caught his arm as he reached for her door. In spite of their fight, she didn't want him to go. The blood spilled at her door had terrified her as nothing had since her rape. Even more than her nightmares, because it was real. "Benny, please! I need you!" she blurted desperately.

He shook her off without a word.

"Please!" she pleaded.

For a moment, he just stared at her, his eyes blazing, an odd flush burning high on his cheekbones. He was angrier than she'd ever seen him. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet, but winter bleak. "It hurts to be shut out, doesn't it?"

The words pierced her. "I'm not trying to shut you out!"

"Then why won't you tell me the truth?" he snarled.

She flinched in spite of herself. "What do you mean?"

But she was afraid she knew. She'd told Finnerty and Hagen that she didn't have any idea who could've dumped blood all over her door, but Ben was more perceptive than they, and besides, he knew her far better. He'd sensed that she did know. But she didn't want to tell him her suspicions either, because she couldn't be sure about them, and she couldn't accuse anyone of something so dreadful on mere suspicion--especially since she was afraid of what Ben might do if she did.

"I mean that you know, or think you know, who might've spilled blood all over your front door," Ben said, every word clipped, harsh, his rage barely held in check. "And I would've thought you'd trust me enough to tell me who that is!"

Tears filled her eyes. "I can't," she whispered shakily, knowing her very refusal was an admission of guilt. "I'm not sure--"

He set his jaw so hard a muscle jumped in his cheek. "Then I can't help you," he said flatly.

But she was terribly afraid he was really saying, I can't love you. And that was her deepest fear.

"Wait, Ben! Please--" She clutched his arm again as he turned and reached for her door a second time, but he broke away from her, opened it and stepped out into the hall.

Then he turned on his heel to face her. "You're just like Victoria," he said, his face white, his voice rough with something that sounded like contempt.

His words hit her like a blow. She closed her eyes, had to put a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out.

But even that didn't soften Ben. When she opened her eyes again, he was gone.

Later that day, after she'd had a chance to think about it during lunch at work, Elyssa realized that there was another way to resolve the issue of her suspicion as to who might've spread blood all over her doorway, without telling Ben who it was at all.

She would confront him herself instead.

She gathered her courage, and stepped into Mr. Hallen's office. He sat writing at his desk, and pointedly ignored her. Well, that's hardly surprising after what had happened yesterday, she told herself, refusing to take offense at his rudeness.

"Mr. Hallen..."

He hardly even glanced up. "You were late this morning, Ms. Ryan," he said, making her name sound somehow unpleasant. But she vastly preferred his gruffness to his former attentions, so she ignored his tone.

"Yes," she said carefully. "I explained to Mr. Bradley that there had been an incident at my home this morning, and that was why I was late." She scrutinized Hallen's bent head carefully, but saw no hint of any nervousness on his face at all.

"What kind of incident?" he asked. No doubt he hoped I'd been mugged or something equally unpleasant, she thought wryly. But the good thing was, his writing hand was steady, and his face showed not a flicker of guilt.

"My cat got out," she lied. "It took me almost two hours to find him again." One last test to see if the incorrect information would betray a response from him. Only the person who had dumped blood on her door, after all, would know that the escaped pet story was a lie.

But Hallen didn't bat an eyelash. He just shot her a sour look. "Try to see that it doesn't happen again, all right?" he growled. "I can't keep employees here who are constantly late."

Elyssa smiled broadly, incredibly relieved that her dark suspicions had been unfounded. He didn't have a clue about what had gone on at her apartment, she was sure of it; he would've betrayed it if he had. She'd known him long enough now to know that he just wasn't that good an actor. "I'll try to do better in the future, Mr. Hallen," she said.

He looked up and raised an eyebrow at her relieved face. "Well, haven't you got work to do, Ryan?" he grumped, signaling that their interview was at an end.

"Yes. Yes, I do," she said. "See you later!"

Her smile lasted while she walked out of his office, then died as she realized that all she'd just done was eliminate the one suspect she knew.

All that meant was, the person who'd dribbled blood all over doorway was a stranger to her. And he or she was still out there, safely anonymous... and maybe waiting to strike again.

Ray went to pick up Benny that night after work. He'd heard what had happened to Elyssa that morning, and he'd asked the Lab techs to speed the analysis of the blood samples taken on the scene, as a favor to him. They'd already gotten the preliminary results, and he'd called Fraser and told him he'd give him a ride home because he wanted to let him in on them as soon as possible.

"They couldn't pull any prints from the scene. The perp musta' worn gloves. But it wasn't real blood," he said without preamble, as the Mountie climbed into his car.

"What?" Fraser asked, as if he hadn't heard him. He looked unusually pale, even for him, but his distraction was understandable. Knowing how protective he was, Ray figured he'd probably worried himself sick over the incident all day.

"The blood at Elyssa's this morning," he explained patiently. "It wasn't human, anyway. The first lab results are in. Here." He pulled a copy of the report out of his pocket and handed it to Benny. It was dark, so he flipped on his overhead light so Benny could see to read, though he fully expected to receive an immediate lecture from the Canadian about driving with his interior light on at night. "It was animal blood," he said. "The Lab guys think it was probably chicken blood, but they're not sure yet."

"Hmm." To his surprise, Fraser didn't reprimand him about turning his interior light on. In fact, he didn't say anything at all. He just frowned as he read; and Ray knew why. Benny wasn't jumping for joy because the news was both good and bad. It was good to know no one had been hurt, but disturbing to learn that someone had gone to the trouble of killing an animal to scare Elyssa, when phony theatrical blood was easily available. It implied a deeper level of malevolence behind the incident than mere casual or random vandalism.

It implied that this was something personal; and Fraser knew it as well as he did. But even when he finished reading the report, he didn't say much. He just muttered, "Thank you kindly, Ray," and stared moodily out the window.

Ray shot him a sideways glance, wondering what was going on in that keen, quiet Canadian head. "Does Elyssa have any idea who mighta'--?"


He blinked. Benny'd cut him off before he could finish his sentence, and that was so uncharacteristic he suddenly wondered if there was something more behind his silence than just worry about his girlfriend.

"Oh. Well, do you?"


He frowned. Fraser angry? Something was definitely up. "You okay, Benny?"

"I'm fine." Fraser didn't even look at him. He just chewed moodily on his lower lip and stared out into the night as if he'd developed a sudden, intense fascination with streetlights or something.

"You're fine," he repeated.


"So, like, other than what happened this morning, nothin's wrong at all," he prodded, disbelieving. "The Dragon Lady isn't on your ass, Dief hasn't stolen anything lately, and life is great." As he spoke, he deliberately pressed the petal to the metal until he'd gunned the Riv far past the legal limit. Ordinarily, Benny would've immediately gone into his little speeding ritual: checking to make sure his seat belt was securely fastened, scanning the rearview mirror for CHP, and pointing out, in no uncertain terms, that Ray was violating the law.

But not tonight. Though they were practically flying, he didn't say a word about it, didn't even bat an eyelash. He just kept staring out of the window, avoiding Vecchio's gaze. "I believe that's what I just said, Ray!" he muttered instead, with obvious exasperation.

Weird, Ray thought. Definitely weird! I'm beginnin' to wonder if Benny's been replaced by a frigging pod person. It was obvious Fraser was a million miles away; but he had yet to figure out why. "And Elyssa's okay too," he went on, casting around blindly for clues. "She's still madly in love with you and all."

Fraser didn't answer, and he suddenly set his jaw so hard Ray could almost hear his teeth grinding together. His eyes narrowed, and his nostrils flared. Aha! he thought. That struck a nerve!

He tried not to grin. "Uh... Did you and Elyssa have a fight, Benny?"

Fraser shook his head stiffly, too proud -- or too embarrassed -- to admit it. "No! Of course not! Why would you ask me that?"

To test the theory, Ray swerved around a car at high speed with just inches to spare. Though Fraser swayed with the sudden motion, he still made no comment on his driving. "Oh... no reason," Ray said wryly, shaking his head in disbelief at the Mountie's deep distraction. Either he just had a fight with Elyssa, he thought, or he is a friggin' pod!

"I just don't understand Americans!" Fraser burst out suddenly.

It seemed like a strange change of subject, but Ray knew better. Translation: certain female Americans with red hair, he thought. This time, he didn't even try to hide his grin, though he didn't let on that he knew who Fraser was really talking about. "Uh huh. You've been in this country for how long, Benny? Almost three years? And this is only now becoming clear to you?" he teased.

The Mountie ignored his sarcasm. "On the surface, you appear to be the most open, forthright people in the world--"

"We are," he agreed blithely.

"Often distressingly so," Fraser went on, with a distinctly disapproving sniff.

"How's that?"

"Well, your afternoon talk shows are practically showplaces for every kind of vulgarity and sexual perversion--"

"Donahue started that!" he protested mildly, playing along because he was secretly amused at the uncharacteristic tirade. If he didn't know better, he'd say Fraser was actually ranting.

"--You wear t-shirts publicly displaying your opinions on everything from politics to sports," the Mountie continued disapprovingly, "one of your most famous pop singers is known for wearing metal underwear in lieu of proper clothing..."

Ray wanted to laugh out loud. Oh, yeah; Fraser, Mr. Cool, Ice Prince of the Yukon, is definitely ranting! What, did Elyssa cut him off sex or something?

"And your movies leave even less to the imagination! 'Showgirls', indeed!" he huffed.

Ray blinked. "You saw 'Showgirls'?" he echoed, astounded.

"Only the first ten minutes," Fraser said primly. "It was on cable, in a hotel I stayed in during a weekend convention the Inspector sent me to in Ottawa recently. I tuned in thinking it was an old movie, and -- well! Enough said."

Vecchio grinned, wishing he'd been a fly on the wall for that one. "But you gotta admit, Benny, we make some pretty good movies, too. What about 'Fargo'?" he asked, knowing at least one American film the Mountie had loved.

"That was different," Benny said defensively. "'Fargo' concerned North Dakotans, and they're as close to being Canadian as Americans can get and still be from this country."

Ray blinked at his friend's odd logic. As usual, arguing with Benny was making his head spin; besides, they'd drifted off the subject. He'd been trying to find out why he'd been fighting with Elyssa. "Uh... you were saying that Americans only seem to be honest?" he reminded him, to get him back on track.

"Yes. You're seemingly straightforward and open, but underneath, you hide all sorts of secrets," Fraser muttered resentfully.

"Whereas Canadians, by contrast, are perfect pillars of truth," he shot back, teasing. "I'll bet you had to look up the word 'lie' when you came here, to find out what it meant, right?" But judging by the way Fraser's eyes iced up, he didn't find the joke amusing. Ray restrained himself. He was trying to help him after all, not pick a fight with him. "Has Elyssa been keeping things from you, is that it?" he asked, as casually as he could.

"She didn't tell me--" He stopped suddenly and shot Ray a penetrating glance, as if he'd suddenly realized his friend was trying to pump him. "Of course not," he snapped, contradicting himself.

"Uh huh. What kind of things?"


"What, you found out she voted Democrat in the last election, and forgot to mention it?" he teased.

"Nothing like that."

"Then what, is she secretly a Madonna fan?" he went on.

Fraser paled visibly at the very thought of that. "God, no!"

"Lemme guess: you came home and found her wearing a metal bra--"

"All right!" Fraser hissed, giving in at last. "If you must know... She has an idea who might've spread that blood all over her door this morning, but she won't tell me."

Ray frowned at him, shocked. "What? Does she understand this probably wasn't just some prank? That it could be serious?" He'd gotten a copy of the report on the incident, and knew that she'd felt someone had actually been in her apartment, in her room, in the wee hours of the morning. Of course, she could've just dreamed it, but with what had happened just outside her door, they couldn't count on that.

Benny looked grim. "Of course she does. And with her history, she's terrified."

"She should be. Whoever that was, wasn't kiddin' around."

"I know. She says her door was locked in the morning when she got up, but I examined it. There were tiny scratches around the locks. There's no way to be sure, but I think they might've been picked."

Ray whistled to himself. Worse and worse. "Are you sure she knows somethin' about it?"

He nodded grimly, and Ray didn't question his certainty. After all, he was Elyssa's lover, and besides, Fraser had learned his lessons about taking women at face value in a harsh school. Vecchio knew he would never repeat them. "So why won't she tell you? Is she protecting someone?"

Fraser gritted his teeth. "I don't know."

Ray shook his head. "You'd better quit bein' polite, Benny, and make her spill her guts."

The Mountie heaved a heavy sigh. "It's not that simple, Ray."

He remembered all the long, cold silences between him and Angie, and sympathized. "It never is. But you better do it; and in the meantime, you'd better get her outta there."

Fraser chewed moodily on his lip. "I already tried that. I tried to make her move in with me so she'd be safe. But I'm afraid...I handled it badly. She was scared and upset, and she refused to do it, and I -- snapped." Fraser clamped his jaw shut so hard Ray could've sworn he heard his teeth grind together, then went completely silent.

Ray frowned. "You snapped?" he echoed in disbelief. "You? Like, you actually lost it?"

Fraser nodded.

"You lost your temper with a woman?" Vecchio repeated, hardly able to believe it.

"Yes, Ray."

"Wow!" He tried to imagine it, but couldn't. But then it struck him that Fraser's definition of losing it might be completely different from his own. "What does that mean, Benny? I mean, did you -- God forbid -- use a swear word? Tell her to hit the floor and do forty push-ups? What?"

Fraser looked down at the floor. "I told her I suspected she was withholding information from me about who is responsible for the vandalism at her apartment, and that I couldn't help her unless she told me the truth."

Ray shook his head. "Oh, my God!" he said, in mock horror. Amused at what the Canadian considered losing control, he tried to lighten his bleak mood with a joke. "Next, you'll be telling me you raised your voice, or threatened her with a dead otter, or--"

But Benny didn't laugh. He bit his lip until it turned white. "Worse. I told her she was just like Victoria," he confessed in a low voice.

"Ouch!" Ray winced. Apparently, as unheard of as it was, Fraser really had lost control. He was sorry he'd tried to make a joke of it. Elyssa knew all about Victoria, and what she'd done to both of them. Ray had made sure of that. So being compared to her must've been worse than an insult, more like a slap in the face. He knew his friend must've been half crazed with fear for her, to have said something so totally out of character.

"I know, I know!" Benny murmured, closing his eyes at the memory. "I didn't mean to say something so cruel, I was just -- I felt like I'd gone back in time. Like it was happening all over again."

No need to say what "it" was. They both knew. Ray understood his fear of being betrayed again better than anyone else could; and why Elyssa's refusal to tell him the truth had brought back the past so painfully that it had enraged him.

"It's not happening again, Benny," he said quietly. "Elyssa's not her. She's nothin' like her."

"I know. When I said it, she got tears in her eyes, Ray," Fraser whispered painfully. His face had gone white. "I don't think she'll forgive me."

At last, he understood Fraser's complete distraction since he'd climbed into his car. Besides being worried about the vandalism committed at Elyssa's place, he was petrified that his angry words had driven her away. He felt he had to behave so perfectly all the time that losing his temper scared the shit out of him. And he had so little experience with women, he still thought a harsh word would send them away forever.

"I'm not so sure about that," Ray said gently, as he turned down West Racine. "Elyssa's got a good heart."

Fraser shook his head mutely. Ray knew he wasn't disagreeing with that, he was just unable to forgive himself.

"Aww, come on! All you gotta do is apologize to her. Trust me, she's had a whole day to think about it. She'll understand that you didn't really mean it, that you're just worried about her."

Fraser shook his head miserably. He looked down at his hands, twisting them together so tightly his knuckles went white. "She probably hates me," he said. His almost childlike vulnerability had always secretly touched Ray.

At that moment, they reached his place. Ray pulled up in front of his apartment building, glided the Riviera to a stop in his usual illegal parking spot near the front door, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Benny, trust me on this: Elyssa doesn't hate you," he said firmly. "I've been married, I know about these things."

"But you're divorced, Ray," Fraser pointed out.

Ray gritted his teeth. "I never said I knew everything, Benny! Just some things!"


"The point is, so you said somethin' you shouldn't! That happens all the time. People make mistakes. Elyssa's not gonna leave you just because you said somethin' stupid. Hell, if that were the case, half the couples in this town would break up on a daily basis."

Fraser's blue eyes lightened. He smiled slightly, and the taut lines in his face eased as he finally accepted what Ray was telling him. "Do you really think so?"

"Just apologize to her," he urged. "I guarantee, she'll listen."

"All right," he said at last.

Vecchio squeezed his shoulder. "That's the spirit!" he smiled. But then he sobered again, remembering what had prompted their argument in the first place. "But don't let it go at that, Fraser. Keep pushin' her to tell you what she knows about that little chicken blood bath this morning. Kiss her silly, argue with her again, do whatever you have to, but make her talk."

He stopped just short of adding, Because I've got a bad feeling about this. But he did. A very bad feeling. A feeling he hadn't had since... He suppressed a shudder at that memory.

"You're worried about her too," Fraser said.

Ray shrugged, uncomfortable that Fraser had caught him at it. "'Course I am! You two haveta stay together, 'cuz where would we find another woman who can tolerate you, me, and the wolf, who's a good cook and who knows every player in the NHL too?" he teased.

Ben smiled in spite of himself. "She is wonderful, isn't she?" he said, as if he couldn't believe his own luck.

He nodded. "Elyssa's one in a million, Benny," he said, not teasing at all now. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to her."

Ray saw a fierceness at the back of Fraser's blue eyes that he'd seldom seen before. "I won't let anything happen to her," he said. His voice was quiet steel, and his eyes reminded him more than a little of his wolf's.

"I know," he said. Gentle as Fraser was, he had no doubt he would kill if need be, to protect Elyssa. "And if you need any help--"

Fraser smiled. "Understood, Ray." Then he opened his door and got out.

"Hey, Benny! You talk to her, ya' hear me?" Ray called after him, impelled by an urgency he couldn't quite put his finger on.

Fraser leaned down into the window and smiled at him. "I will," he promised dutifully, though the thought made his smile falter. "Thanks for the ride; and the advice."

"Anytime, Red. See ya' later."

Fraser walked into his apartment building, and he eased the car away from the curb again and headed towards home. He knew that should've settled it, because Benny was as good as his word, and what woman (especially one as much in love with him as Elyssa was) could possibly resist him? Still, despite his faith in his friend and Elyssa's love for him, as he drove off into the night, one thought remained uppermost in his mind.

I've got a bad feeling about this.

When he opened his door, his apartment was dark and cold. Despite the fact that this wasn't one of the nights she usually spent at home, Fraser knew instantly that Elyssa wasn't there. Even though Diefenbaker came running to welcome him, the place seemed empty without her. He flicked on the lights, but it didn't dispel the gloom. As he fed his wolf automatically, loneliness and frustration rose in him. He knew why she'd stayed at her apartment. She was avoiding him, and he couldn't allow that, couldn't let her be alone now. She needed protection, whether she liked it or not.

Elyssa was in danger. He knew it, had sensed it since the moment he first saw the red gore outside her door. He'd known, long before Ray handed him the lab report, that the ugly gesture was more than mere random malice. What's more, he knew Ray felt it too. He didn't understand their certainty despite a lack of supporting evidence, but he didn't question it either. The instincts of two policemen for such things couldn't be discounted.

Something was sniffing around her, around them, something evil. It was looking for a way in; and he was afraid it might find one. He kept remembering the night he'd first learned Elyssa had been keeping her nightmares a secret, how alone it had made him feel. It was as if her refusal to share that dark part of herself had punched a little hole in his soul, and let in a cold wind. After her refusal to tell him who might be responsible for the incident at her apartment that morning, the hole was widening. What if whatever--whoever--was after her could sense that hole, that breach in the solid wall of their love, and use it as a way to come between them; a way to get to her?

He tried to tell himself that was nonsense. And it was all very metaphysical, nothing concrete or explainable. But he knew that life didn't consist solely of the tangible. Life was more than mere muscle and bone and what the eyes could see. If you limited yourself to that materialistic view, things like love and friendship couldn't exist; and he had the best friend, and the best lover, any man could ever ask for. So he knew the world was wider, Horatio, than that.

Whether it was wide enough for demons to walk through was another question. But he felt hot breath on the back of his neck, all the same.

Talk to her, Benny. Make her tell you what she knows.

Ray was right. He had to go to Elyssa, work this out somehow. He couldn't let a silly spat separate them. He couldn't let anything separate them, when that might mean her death.

At about 8:00 p.m., Elyssa heard a loud knock at her door. Doubly cautious because of what had happened that morning, she hesitated before opening it, glanced out of the peephole to see who it was.

Benny. I might've known. He stood there dressed casually in jeans and a soft green flannel shirt she'd bought him for Christmas. She wasn't sure if he'd chosen it deliberately, as a conciliatory gesture, but she wouldn't have put it past him. He was clever, her Mountie man; and so damnably cute, as he stood there shifting nervously from one foot to the other, that she couldn't resist him.

She opened the door, but left the chain lock on; giving in, but not entirely. "Hello, Benton," she said warily.

He tried to smile, but it faded quickly as he realized she wasn't really letting him in. "I want to apologize for what I said to you this morning," he said quietly. "I didn't mean it. You're nothing like Victoria."

She took the chain lock off, and opened the door wider. "Thanks," she said softly.

He just looked at her for a moment, his blue eyes guarded. "May I come in?" he asked.

She hesitated, but he didn't seem dangerously angry any longer, and he'd said he was sorry. "All right."

When Elyssa stepped aside to let him in, Fraser breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't let it show on his face, but he was still angry and frightened for her, and so keyed up he didn't know what he would've done if she hadn't opened her door. She was dressed casually in an old pair of jeans, a soft blue sweater and tennis shoes, and she'd plaited her hair into a long braid that hung down below her shoulders. She looked achingly young, and beautiful as always. She seemed calm enough, so he guessed nothing else untoward had happened, which was a relief.

Still, he'd done nothing but worry about her all day; and seeing her again just reminded him how slender and delicate she was, and how precious. As if a man in his profession needed to be reminded of the fragility of human life...His cop imagination had been busy conjuring up horrific crime scene images for hours, and whispering that next time, the blood at her place could be real. The victim could be human, could be her...

"I wanted to let you know, the blood outside your door earlier wasn't real," he said. He had to fight to keep his voice calm. He couldn't shake off those grim images, or forget about the sulphurous breath that had come so close to her that morning. But he needed to bottle up his anger and fear for a time, so that he could talk to her reasonably.

She closed her eyes tightly. "Thank God!" she breathed. "I couldn't think about anything else all day."

She looked so relieved that for an instant, he debated whether he should tell her the rest of it. It seemed cruel to renew her fears, but he knew he had to. Since honesty was the bone of contention between them, how could he hold back the truth, no matter how unpleasant it was? If he wanted complete honesty from her, he had to give it as well. Besides--if he told her, maybe she would understand how serious this was, and tell him what she knew at last.

Maybe fear would reach her, when his love could not.

"Elyssa..." He took a step towards her, his throat going tight. "There's more," he said at last, not knowing how to cushion the blow.

Her head came up, and her green eyes widened as they sought his. "What?"

"Ray gave me the lab report on that blood," he explained reluctantly. "It was animal blood, probably that of a chicken. They're not sure yet."

Her face paled visibly. "You mean, someone -- someone killed an animal? A chicken, just to--"

She looked sickened, as if she were about to faint. He went to her, put his hands on her waist to steady her, unsure if she'd let him embrace her after their earlier fight. "Elyssa--you have to tell me the truth!" he urged. "Tell me what you know! Who did that?"

"I don't know!' She shook her head blindly, moved away from him.

The fear and anger he'd been trying so hard to suppress broke free, raged inside him. She was moving towards the hallway, but he caught her, stopped her by grabbing her arms. "Please!" he pleaded, his voice loud and hoarse in his own ears. "You may be in danger, and I want to help you! I need to, but I can't if you don't tell me the truth!"

"Leave me alone!" she cried, pulling away from him. But he couldn't. She backed away, towards the wall, and he followed her grimly.

"I can't do that!" he snapped. "If you won't tell me who's doing this, and you won't stay with me, I can't protect you! And if I leave you alone, you could be hurt, even killed! "

His voice had risen to a near roar, and Elyssa moved away until her back was literally against the wall. "Please don't," she whispered, her face going blank and distant all at once, as if, unable to evade him physically, she had simply gone some place far away in her mind. He'd seen that look before; he'd seen it every time his love brought him too close to her, and it only fueled his rage and need.

Not this time, he thought, remembering the red hint of malevolence, maybe even madness, outside her door. This time, I'm not letting you go away. Not when it could mean you might be hurt. Not when I could lose you.

And he wasn't just worried about whoever had dumped blood all over her door. At the back of his mind, floating with his darkest fears, were the words he'd read in that psychiatric textbook at the library. The words about what not getting your fears out into the open could do to someone who'd been traumatized like her.

The word suicide.

What would happen to Elyssa if this wasn't the end of it? If someone harassed and intimidated her for some time, or God forbid, even attacked her again in some way? She was still dealing with the pain left behind by her rape. How much more could she take without breaking? And how could he live if something happened to her?

He flattened his hands against the wall on either side of her head, careful not to touch her, yet trapping her within the circle of his arms. "Don't shut me out, Elyssa!" he whispered urgently, bending towards her. "Don't!"

Elyssa moaned in wordless protest, but it was too late. Ben covered her lips with his. Using his body to reach her where his words had failed, he moved his mouth against hers in a hot, sensual demand. She tried not to respond, closed her eyes in an effort to block him out, but he wouldn't let her. He leaned forward, let his body sway against hers. His heavier weight pressed her against the wall, and his heart beat hard against her, hard, until it echoed through her body. His solid warmth, the pulsing of his blood and the heated dance of his mouth were a primal pull she couldn't ignore.

"Feel me!" he whispered heavily against her lips. "I'm here. I'm with you, Elyssa, and I won't go away."

He aroused her with his mouth, with the heat of his big body, but didn't touch her with his hands. It was brilliant, devious -- temptation that stopped just short of coercion. He left the decision up to her. She could've pulled away, fled the intimacy, but she didn't. It was so unexpected, she couldn't even summon a defense against it. She turned her head in protest, breaking the kiss, but the hands she'd raised to his chest to push him away somehow tangled in his shirt and held him instead. "Benny--"

"I'll never go away," he said huskily. "I won't leave you." He wouldn't stop kissing her. No matter how she turned and twisted, his mouth sought hers. He kissed her eyelids, her cheeks, everywhere... He forced her lips apart and kissed her deeply, his heart slamming against her. Even though he wasn't using his hands, his desire touched her deep inside, felt wilder than it had ever been before. "Let me in--"

Finally, with a small cry, she did. She couldn't feel him and not want him. It was that simple, and that devastating. Tears slipped down her cheeks as her arms crept around his neck and she kissed him back. They kissed deeply, feverishly, until both their hearts were racing, and he was groaning deep in his throat.

All at once, he let her go. Wiped her tears away with hands that shook. "Shhh," he whispered, and she wasn't sure who he was gentling, her or himself. "It's all right."

Fresh tears fell at his sudden tenderness. "I was okay until you touched me," she whispered, shaken, needing him in spite of herself.

Breathing hard, he leaned his forehead against hers. "I was lost, until you touched me," he whispered back. "And I didn't even know it."

"Oh, Ben..." Those words cut through the last of her defenses, went right to her heart. She took him in her arms, shaking suddenly at all of it. The horror at her door that morning, their fight, the strain of the whole day.

"It's all right," he whispered again, rocking her gently.

"No!" She shook her head, wanting to let him in but unable to, still too afraid of what he'd see. "It's not that easy..."

"I know," he whispered, his voice edged with pain. "I know."

But she let him hold her all the same. His big, muscular body was warm in her arms, and it both frightened and amazed her, how deeply he'd reached into her soul. "I don't mean to hurt you, Benny," she whispered at last. "I love you, and I give you as much as I can give. I wish it could be more, that I could be what you need--"

She raised tear-filled eyes to his, and he took her face in his hands, stroked it gently. "You're everything I need," he said, with sudden fierceness. "Everything!"

Somehow, as he wet his hands with her tears, he took some of her fear away. For an instant, she believed he could love her in spite of herself, if anyone could. "I'll make you a deal," she said shakily.

His blue eyes watched her intently as he wiped away her tears. "Yes?"

She took a deep breath. "I know that you're worried about me, so I'll start staying with you when you come home at night. At least until we figure out what's going on."

"Thank you." He grinned broadly, openly relieved.

But she wasn't finished. "But I don't want to give up my place, Ben. I want to be able to come here and paint or whatever in the evenings, before you get home."

Benny felt a powerful surge of relief. She still hadn't told him who she suspected was responsible for the vandalism that morning, but she'd at least agreed to stay with him at night, which was a start. Elyssa guarded her time alone--and a part of her heart--so fiercely that he hadn't expected her to make even that much of a concession, despite the circumstances. Somehow, he knew he'd finally breached at least a part of her stubborn defenses, that she'd let him in at least a little; and it filled him with hope.

"Done," he agreed swiftly. "But can you do something else for me? Can you bring Dief with you when you're here? And," he dug a small metal tube out of his pocket, " I'd appreciate it if you would carry this with you at all times."

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's pepper spray," he explained. "I got it for you today. I know you're against carrying a weapon, but this is designed just to immobilize someone for a few moments. You spray it in the eyes, like mace, and it stings people so they can't see, but doesn't hurt them otherwise."

She nodded as she took it from him, touched by his thoughtfulness even in this. She even smiled up at him a little. "All right," she said softly. "I'll carry it in my purse whenever I go out. How's that?"


"Well then. As of tonight, Mountie man, you've got yourself a roomie!"

Filled with a surge of pure elation, of joy too strong to contain, he lifted her off her feet and swung her around and around in his embrace until she was dizzy. He felt closer to her than he'd ever been. The nameless threats and demons that had hovered around them were banished, at least for now.

They were together.

Benny swung her around until her head spun, and Elyssa laughed in spite of herself. When he finally put her down, she was breathless. He smiled impishly at her. "I've always wanted to do that," he confessed.

She touched his smile, pleased that he felt free to do things with her that he'd never done with anyone else. "So have I," she said. He smiled down at her, his eyes blue as summer, and she thought of Botticelli's angels. Benny put them to shame when he smiled.

Elyssa unlocked Ben's door hurriedly, balancing a heavy bag of groceries in her arms that held lobster, mushrooms, french bread and wine for the special dinner she meant to make for him that night. But in her haste to set the bag down on his kitchen counter, she knocked down some papers he'd left lying there.

"Clumsy!" she scolded herself absently. She'd managed to spread his bills all over the floor, it seemed: sewer, water, telephone...She bent to pick them up. She had to hurry and put them back. Benny would be home soon, and she wanted to have dinner going before then. "Come back here!" she breathed, mildly exasperated as the two pages of his phone bill drifted apart when she tried to pick them up. She scanned them to see which one came first, so she could set them back on his counter in order, just the way they had been. Benny noticed everything, the smallest details, and she didn't want him to think she'd been going through his things--

Oh no.

Dinner forgotten, she stared his bill in disbelief. There was only one long distance charge listed on it, so it had caught her eye: a number with a 217 area code. She blinked at it, surprised. That was the code for her hometown of Springfield, and Benny didn't know anyone there. He'd told her that he'd never even been there.

She frowned. The number seemed somehow familiar... Suddenly, she knew why. She remembered whose it was. A number that she knew by heart, but that Ben shouldn't have known at all.

Oh God, no.

She stared at the bill until her eyes blurred with tears.

Ray Vecchio slammed his phone down so hard it was a wonder it didn't shatter in his hand. Shit! Another dead end. He rubbed his aching forehead. Months of work, and we still don't have jack shit on the Gay Strangler! This freak is smart. Too smart.

He was beginning to think he was too goddamn smart to ever get caught. And to make things worse, he had a desk full of other unsolved cases, too. A perp's work is never done, he thought with savage irony, disgusted by the pile of half-done reports and paperwork that littered his desk, as usual.

What's this?

A plain yellow manila envelope lay in front of him, unmarked except for his name, which had been written on it in pencil. He frowned. It lay on top of the Marson rape case file he'd been looking at earlier, so someone had put it there after he'd left his desk that morning. And it was too early yet for the mail to have been delivered--

Hey Elaine, how'd this get here? He opened his mouth to yell for her, but the dark-haired aide was nowhere in sight.

"Hey, Barnes!" he called to the nearest detective. ""What's this? Where'd it come from?"

Barnes squinted at the envelope for a second, then shrugged, disinterested. "Beats the hell outta me. I've been here since about 8:00, and I haven't seen anyone go near your desk, Vecchio. But it's got your name on it. Why don'tcha' open it up? Then we'll both know."

Ray grimaced. "No shit, Sherlock!" he muttered under his breath.

Barnes shrugged, then went back to wading through his own mess of paperwork.

Ray looked back at the neat handwriting on the envelope, hoping something about it would seem familiar if he stared at it long enough. But the large, precise printing didn't ring any bells. Barnes was right. He'd have to open it up to figure out who sent it.

The envelope was fastened but unsealed. Curious, he opened it and tilted it so its contents slid out onto his desk: two 8 by 10 color photos. Wondering what this was all about, he spread them out in front of him and scanned them curiously. The photos were crisply focused, no doubt taken with a 35 mm, and both showed the interior of a saloon. On the bar's curved sweep of polished wood sat the usual drinks and bottles. The customers who sat around it, on bar stools and at tables, seemed unexceptional.

What is this, some kind of stupidass joke? He almost tossed the photos in his trash can. But something held him back, made him take another look. They must've been taken recently, he thought, for the headline on an issue of the Chicago Sun held by one of the patrons in the first photo read "Councilman Neumann Being Investigated on Charges of Bribery", and that scandal had just hit the papers a few weeks ago. He scanned the second picture for similar details, and recognized a small item that made him sit up a little straighter. On the far wall at the end of the bar was a familiar neon logo. Two stylized male faces, one short-haired, the other with long, curling locks.

He scanned the pictures more carefully. Both were definitely shots of the same bar, of the same tables and customers, from slightly different angles. His second look confirmed something else: all the bar's patrons were male. He was right, these were shots of the interior of The Two Faces.

The hair on the back of his neck began to rise. The Two Faces was a gay bar -- and not just any gay bar. It was the last place Jimmy Tucci, the second victim in the series of murders he was investigating, had been seen alive on March 13th, 1997. He couldn't make out the date on the newspaper in the photo, but he had a strange feeling that a call to the Sun would reveal that that issue had been published the same day. He took a third, even harder look at the photos, scanning the faces carefully this time.

"Holy shit!" he whispered, lunging forward in his chair. The squadroom faded away around him as he suddenly realized what he was looking at. For a moment, he felt like he was drowning, like he couldn't breathe. Because he'd recognized something else in the photos: or rather, someone. Namely, the man who occupied a table on the right side of each picture: his best friend, Benton Fraser.

He stared at the pictures as if he could bore holes in them with his gaze. Fear and nausea twisted into an icy knot in his gut. His skin prickled. It can't be, it can't be! he thought.

But the instinctive denial that shrieked in his head didn't change anything, because it was him. It was Fraser sitting there at a table all alone, a nearly full glass in his hand. He was out of uniform for once, dressed in a tee-shirt, leather jacket and jeans, but there was no mistaking the handsome face caught in damningly perfect profile in one photo, and full view in the second. Click, click...

Benny looked so calm sitting there, so relaxed that it chilled him. He couldn't have been there workin' on a case, 'cuz he's out of uniform. But he looks right at home, like he goes there all the time...

Which was ludicrous, impossible, and he knew it. The whole idea was so bizarre that he would've thought the photos were faked, that someone had somehow gotten hold of a picture of Benny and pasted his head onto someone else's body, as some kind of sick joke. But he recognized the leather jacket Fraser was wearing in the photograph, he'd seen it on him a hundred times; and the large, strong, pale hands wrapped around that drink were unmistakably his, too.


When Ben came home that night, Elyssa was waiting for him -- not exactly with open arms. "Hello," he said. Diefenbaker greeted him with an enthusiastic woof, but she didn't answer. He shot a glance at her. She looked unusually pale. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"No." She held out a piece of paper to him, her whitened face stony. "Can you explain this to me?" she asked, anger radiating from every pore.

Uh oh... He put his hat down on the counter and glanced at the paper cautiously. It was part of his phone bill, and for a moment, he just frowned at it in confusion. What could she possibly--

"217-444-9755," she quoted, pointing at the number on his bill. "That's the number of my psychiatrist. Can you tell me why that number is on your phone bill, Benton?"

His heart sank. Oh, God. That call to Dr. Elden! He'd meant to tell her about it, he really had, but his worry over the mysterious attacks on her lately had driven it out of his mind. How had she found out about it? He'd made the call when he was alone at home, to keep it private. Then he remembered that when he'd opened his bills this morning, he'd left them lying out on the counter. She must've glimpsed the number by accident. "I--"

She paced past him, furious, her arms crossed over her chest. "How dare you!" she hissed, so angry she wasn't going to let him say a word. "How dare you violate my privacy like that!"

Oh, dear. "I didn't--"

"Oh, I see!" she cut him off. "You don't think talking to someone's shrink behind their back constitutes an invasion of privacy, is that it?"


"If that's true, you have a very different definition of privacy than I do, Benton!"

He bit his lip, waiting for her to take a breath so he could reply. But she had a full head of steam boiling, she wasn't about to stop yet.

"I don't believe this! You're not even trying to deny it! How could you?"


She moved past him again, rigid with anger. "How many times have you called Dr. Elden? I should've never even mentioned her name to you! I trusted you, Benton! I let you into my heart, and this is what you do?"

That stung him. Feeling his own anger building, he grabbed her, forced her to stop pacing and look at him. "Listen to me!" he said intensely. "I know that you're upset, but please let me explain. I only called her once, to find out if--"

"If what? If I'm crazy?" she hissed, shaking him off. "You called her after my nightmare, didn't you! What, are you afraid of me now? Is that it?"

"No!" he protested, but she wasn't listening.

"Are you afraid I'm dangerous? That I'll snap some day and murder you in your sleep?"

"Stop it!" he roared, and the outburst stunned both of them into momentary silence. For a time, the only sound in the room was their heavy, agitated breathing. Fraser closed his eyes for a second, trying to regain control.

"I'm not afraid of you, Elyssa. You're one of the kindest people I've ever known. The only thing that I'm afraid of," he said at last, "is losing you. And when you had that nightmare at my apartment, I realized that you were still troubled by your rape, more than I'd realized."

Sudden tears glinted in her eyes, but she blinked them back.

"I called your doctor to find out if there was any way I could help you! That's all!"

She shook her head again. "You had no right to do that without my permission!"

He lowered his eyes. "I know. You're right, and I'm sorry I didn't ask you. But you didn't tell me about your bad dreams, and I was afraid you wouldn't give me permission to call Dr. Elden, either."

Elyssa swallowed hard. "You're right," she said. "I wouldn't have. What I said to her in therapy is none of your business!"

"She didn't tell me anything--"

"That's not the point!"

"What I'm trying to say is, your privacy wasn't violated!"

"No thanks to you!" she countered. "I'm sure that's only because Dr. Elden wouldn't tell you what I said to her, because it's confidential! Am I right?"

He nodded.

"So if you could have found out, you would have. Am I right?"

He clenched his jaw, but he couldn't lie to her. "Yes," he admitted at last.

She shook her head grimly. "Were you ever planning to tell me about this? Ever?"

"Yes!" he insisted. "But with everything that's been going on lately, it slipped my mind."

She searched his eyes for a moment, as if gauging the truth of that. "All right. I believe you. But that still doesn't make it right."

"I never asked her what you said to her, Elyssa. I only asked her how I could help you."

A tear silvered down her cheek. "You shouldn't have talked to her at all. I trusted you, Benton!"

He set his jaw, pain lancing through him at her use of the past tense. "And now?" he grated.

"I don't know. You know what happened to me... what that did to me. You're the first person I ever trusted after I was raped. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to do that? To let you in?" she cried, anguished.

He remembered what Victoria had done to him, and how frightened he had been of loving Elyssa, once upon a time. "I have some small idea," he said.

For the first time, her face softened a little. "Yeah. I guess you do. Ben -- I know Victoria lied to you, and that she hurt you really badly. But I'm not her! You can't keep treating me like I am. I need you to trust me, and to trust that I can handle my own problems. It all comes down to trust. If I can't trust you," she whispered painfully, "I can't be with you."

She turned and headed for his door. Fear clutched at him. She was taking this very badly, far worse than he'd ever dreamed she would, and he knew it was partly his fault. Doubtless contacting her doctor without her permission had been a mistake, but she was refusing to take his motives for it into consideration, which was unfair, and not like her. "What would you have done," he asked tensely, "if the situation were reversed? If I'd been hurt, and I refused to talk to you about it, or let you help me?"

She shot an uncertain glance at him, her tears falling freely now. "I don't know," she said thickly. But she hadn't gone out the door, and she was listening to him. That was something, anyway.

"Wouldn't you have tried to help me anyway?" he went on, pressing his advantage. She didn't answer for a minute, and he held his breath.

"Maybe," she admitted reluctantly at last. "Yes, probably, but--"

"Then aren't you asking more of me than is really fair? More than you'd expect of yourself?"

She shook her head. "I don't know!" she said, almost sobbing. She headed for his door again, and he went after her.

"No!" Her voice was passionate. "Don't touch me!"

It hurt, but he stayed where he was. "Leave me alone for awhile, Benton," she said. "I need to think."

His heart sank to his boots at the ominous words, but he knew he had to let her go. "All right," he said quietly, his throat tight. "But take Diefenbaker with you, okay?"

He gestured to the wolf, and he flowed to his feet and padded silently, gracefully after Elyssa. Ben took some small measure of comfort in that. It was the only comfort he could take, under the circumstances. "Remember, I love you," he said as they disappeared out his door.

He wasn't sure if Elyssa had heard him or not. If she had, she didn't reply. She left, closing the door quietly behind her.

He sat down heavily in a chair, ran his hands through his hair. Looking around his apartment as if he could find an answer to his problem there, he saw only that it looked small and bleak without her in it. He noticed a bag of groceries sitting on his counter, that hadn't been unpacked. He hadn't put them there. Elyssa must've brought them over, must've been planning to make dinner for them when she'd found that damning number on his bill.

The realization only made him feel even lonelier. He wondered if they would ever eat another meal together, after this. Damn, damn damn!

Their relationship had survived other problems, but he didn't know if they would get past this one. He'd never felt further from her than he did now.

And the worst of it was, the evil was still out there. He felt it. She was in worse danger now than she'd ever been. This was what it wanted: the two of them separated, so that it could get at her.

He couldn't let that happen.

No matter what.

After shutting Ben's door behind her, Elyssa leaned against it for a moment. She'd hidden it from Ben, but she was so weak she was shaking, and her stomach roiled. She would've attributed it to emotional upset over her fight with him, but she knew better. By now, she recognized the signs of imminent revolt. She forced herself up, and hurried back to her own apartment. But despite her haste, she barely made it before nausea overpowered her. She held a hand over her mouth as she staggered to her bathroom. Diefenbaker whined anxiously at the door while she was suddenly, violently sick.

Good thing I didn't eat any of that lobster I was going to make for dinner, she thought inanely when it was over. That would've been an expensive waste.

But this was the fourth time in three days that she'd been sick to her stomach. Something's wrong, she realized.

No, not just something. Everything.

She rinsed her mouth out, then sank down on the floor, too weak and dispirited to move. Diefenbaker padded in and nudged her leg. She laid her head on his shoulder and cried, wishing in spite of everything that he was Benny.

As he stared at the weird, impossible pictures of his best friend in a gay bar, a roar of silent rage swept through Ray Vecchio that was unlike anything he'd ever felt before. Thoughts whirled in his head, anger mixing with fear, all of it rushing too fast to control. Goddamn -- Benny in a gay bar! Shit, he told me he'd never been to one! And not just any damn gay bar either, but The Two Faces! The sick bastard who killed Jimmy Tucci trailed him home from there! What the hell was Fraser doin' there, dammit! And who saw him? Who took these fucking pictures?

An even more troubling thought spun out of the vortex: What if the killer did? What if he knows I'm workin' the case, and this is his way of taunting me, by revealing that my best friend's gay, like him?

The thought that a gay rapist-murderer could've taken a personal interest in him and Benny turned him cold. Whoever had put this envelope on his desk knew who his best friend was, which implied that he'd been spied on, and probably followed. He'd have to be more careful from now on, really watch his back.

I should warn Benny, too...

Because for all he knew, the photos could be meant as a kind of warning. Maybe their intent was not to finger Fraser as a killer, but as his next victim. The thought chilled him.

If these are from the killer, they could be evidence. I should turn 'em over to the Lab, have 'em dusted for prints...

But he suddenly realized that he couldn't do that, either. He couldn't hand them over, didn't even dare ask around the Station to try and find out who'd left them on his desk. If he did, everyone would want to know what was in the envelope; and he couldn't risk anyone else getting a glimpse of the photos. Not the Crime Lab techs, nor any of his fellow detectives -- no one. Because Fraser was in them.

Everybody at the 27th knows Benny... And what if I'm right, and it turns out these pictures were taken the same day as Tucci's murder? We know the killer trailed him home from The Two Faces, so they'd practically place Fraser at a crime scene! Sure, it'd be all circumstantial evidence, nothing solid... There's no real way of telling what time of day or night they were taken, and the guy with the newspaper could've been reading one that was several days old. Besides, just being at that bar the same day as Tucci's murder wouldn't make Benny a killer...

But the fact that the photos were delivered to one of the detectives in charge of the Gay Strangler investigation would point the finger at him as a suspect. There's so much pressure on Welsh to find someone, anyone to pin the murders on that he'd have to look into it, no matter how unlikely it is. He'd haul Benny in for questioning and once he does, every cop in this precinct will believe he's gay. It won't matter if it isn't true, won't matter when they clear him regarding the murders, either. They'll believe it, and they'll hate him for it. They'll taunt him, laugh at him, despise him, make his life a hell every time he comes here to see me--

And their jeers will be the least of it. It won't end with them. What'll happen to Fraser when the Dragon Lady's told that he's being hauled in for questioning in a series of gay murders? She'd probably suspend him, make him turn in his shield... And that would kill him.

He dropped his head into his hands, dug his fingers into his skull until it hurt. He couldn't do that to Fraser. He'd almost killed him once by accident. Benny still carried his bullet in his back, just as he carried the scar of firing it on his soul. If he turned in these photographs, it would be like shooting him a second time. And this time, he wouldn't even have the excuse that it was accidental. He didn't think either of them would survive it. But if he didn't hand the pictures over and they turned out to contain something pertinent to their murder investigation, then he'd be guilty of withholding evidence. Guilty of a crime...

Worse yet, he knew these couldn't be the only copies of the damn photos. No doubt the photographer still had the negatives. No note had been left with the prints, but the fact that they'd been placed on his desk stealthily while he was gone hinted ominously at blackmail of some kind. Was he going to get an equally anonymous phone call later, demanding that he pay an astronomic sum to keep similar prints from being delivered to his superiors?

There was one other option: if he wasn't going to turn them in, he could just destroy them. But whoever had given them to him knew that too; so he had to think it through first. He tried to force his roiling emotions aside, to reason it out, look at it coldly, as if it were happening to someone else. He couldn't afford to make a mistake. So, though blackmail was the easiest, most obvious motive, he couldn't assume it was necessarily the one behind the pictures' delivery. There could be other, subtler possible reasons for leaving them on his desk. What if whoever had given him the photos had gambled that he would destroy them to save his friend? What if the photographer's intention wasn't blackmail, but to expose him for suppressing evidence instead? All he'd have to do would be to leave a similar set with Lt. Welsh, with a note telling him that Ray had already been given one. Since he'd already proven that by waving the envelope in front of Barnes, who was sure to remember it and who'd probably seen him spill the photos out onto his desk, he'd be sunk when Welsh came asking questions about them.

Me and my big mouth! I played right into his hands, whoever he is.

For a moment, he was so enraged at being manipulated, he considered burning the envelope and its dangerous contents anyway. But he couldn't. As a cop, he couldn't destroy something that might pertain to his murder investigation; and as a man, he couldn't go on being Fraser's best friend without knowing whether he was gay or not. He couldn't destroy the pictures until he'd made sure neither possibility was true.

And until he was sure the photographer hadn't tipped the Lieutenant about their existence. Maybe the bastard already has, he thought, glancing at Welsh's office involuntarily. If he has, and I don't turn mine in, and Welsh finds out I suppressed evidence in a serial murder case--!

The consequences didn't bear thinking about, but he couldn't help it. Remembering his long, grueling sessions with IA after Victoria had set him and Benny up, he swallowed hard. They'd seem like child's play if IA ever got wind of this. I'd be arrested in a heartbeat. Put away--

And you know what happens to cops in prison. They get killed.

Elyssa laid down on her couch. Worn out from emotional strain and nausea, she soon fell into a deep sleep, waking hours later, when she heard Diefenbaker barking softly at her door. She blinked. Her apartment was dark. Night had fallen. She turned on a light and padded to the door to check it out, stopped beside the wolf and listened intently. "What is it, boy?"

He barked once, even louder. But he didn't seem afraid or angry, and she frowned. What gives here? She looked out her peephole, but couldn't see anything. The hallway seemed deserted. Still... Diefenbaker was definitely reacting to something.

She got her pepper spray, then silently unlocked her door and opened it just enough so that she could peer out.


She jumped, startled as Ben's voice sounded almost at her elbow. She looked down and saw him sitting cross-legged on the floor beside her door, his gun in his hand, a blanket thrown across his legs. "Benton! What're you doing out here? You scared me half to death!" she breathed.

But even as she asked him, she already knew. The fact that he was armed was a dead giveaway. Despite their earlier fight, he'd been so worried about her spending the night alone in her apartment, even with Diefenbaker there, that he'd sat down to guard her door himself.

He looked at her gravely. "I'm sorry. I couldn't sleep," he said, with the barest hint of laughter buried somewhere in his voice.

She tried not to smile. "So you thought you'd just come and sit by my door for awhile?"

He nodded, holding her gaze. "Yes. I thought, if nothing else, the sheer boredom of staring at the walls would make me doze off eventually."

She smothered another smile. How could you stay mad at a man like this? "And has it?" she asked, playing along.

"No," he admitted. "It reminds me too much of guard duty at the Consulate." He sighed. "I feel like I should be standing at attention, which makes it difficult to relax."

She knew that he was lying, that he'd meant to spend the entire night outside her door watching over her without ever closing his eyes. And she couldn't imagine any of her other lovers ever doing such a thing for her. I know he didn't mean it that way, but as apologies go, this is pretty good, she thought, smiling in spite of herself.

She knelt down beside him. "Do you promise not to ever call one of my doctors again without asking me?" she said softly.

He looked at her tenderly, his eyes roaming over her lips, her hair, her nose. "Yes," he breathed, and she had the funny feeling he'd have said yes if she'd asked him to jump off a bridge, at that moment.

She reached out and touched his hair, very gently. "Then come on in for awhile," she smiled. "I know something that'll definitely put you to sleep, Mountie man."

He rose gracefully to his feet, putting the blanket over his shoulder. "Warm milk?" he guessed, solemnly pretending to misunderstand her. But his eyes were laughing.

She took his hand and pulled him inside her apartment. "Uh uh," she grinned, leaning up to kiss him suggestively.

"Bananas?" he tried again.

She shut the door behind him, and while he locked it, she started unbuttoning her pajama top.

"Oh, that! " he said, delighted.

Ray shifted uneasily in his chair. Whoever had done this was very smart; his predicament gave new meaning to the phrase "damned if you do, and damned if you don't." For a moment, remembering another time when he'd been very cleverly framed, he felt a dark suspicion form at the back of his mind. For some reason, he thought of the car that had passed him that night at DaVinci's, the car his trace had said was rented to a Clyde H. Arpy. That name had no criminal record, and it meant nothing to him, so he'd let it go. But that driver--

Nah. He shook himself mentally. That driver was male. That theory's too far-fetched.

He let it go, unable to afford the distraction from his current crisis, and stared down at the photos again. He had two choices: either throw Fraser to the wolves, or try to save him and risk getting eaten himself. Still, as he looked at the pictures, stared at Benny's handsome, innocent face, he already knew what he was going to do. He couldn't betray him, he just couldn't. But he felt a tiny chill. Did he even really know the man he was risking his career -- and maybe even his life -- for?

Is he really as innocent as he's always seemed? If so, what the hell was he doin' in The Two Faces? He doesn't even drink, and he's sure as hell not gay.

Is he?

The thought shook him to his core. He'd thought he knew Fraser, knew him down to his bones, but this--!

But if he isn't gay, why did he lie to me?

He relived their recent breakfast conversation in his mind, remembered the way Benny's eyes had slid away from his when he'd asked him if he'd ever been to a gay bar. He realized that Fraser hadn't actually denied it. He'd just said, "I'm sorry, Ray."

He'd been so sure that he knew what Benny was going to say that he hadn't really listened to his answer. The subtle evasion hadn't even registered with him at the time. Now, it turned him cold. Fraser hadn't lied to him, but he'd deliberately misled him, which amounted to the same thing. Benny never lies, but if he needed to, that'd be the way he'd do it, he realized. Politely; indirectly.

He said he was sorry. Sorry for what? he wondered, hating himself for what he was thinking. Everything in him rebelled at the idea that Benny might be gay. It couldn't be true -- he and Fraser had practically lived in each other's pockets for almost three years now! If he were gay, he would've known, would've sensed something different about him -- wouldn't he?

There must be some other answer, some explanation for this that wasn't damning, that wouldn't mean the end of their friendship...

But pictures didn't lie. And Benny had, in his own way.

What the fuck is goin' on here?

His thoughts went in circles, like rats chasing their tails. Scenes flashed through his mind, snapshots of cases they'd worked on together, of their friendship... He remembered the way Benny had obliquely defended homosexuality that morning in the cafe, saying that it existed in nature, with animals, so it couldn't be called "unnatural". He'd thought Fraser was only trying to be fair, to be charitable as usual, but now he wasn't so sure. Suddenly, because of the photos, he saw him in a different light. Qualities he'd always admired in his buddy -- kindness, sensitivity -- seemed decidedly feminine. Then there was the fact that he hardly ever used to show any visible interest in women, despite their intense interest in him--

But he was interested in Victoria, he thought grimly, arguing with himself. Benny was sure interested in her! Hell, interested wasn't the word for it; he was so obsessed with her that he almost destroyed both of us.

Weird how things worked out... He'd never thought he'd ever connect anything positive with that woman, but just knowing Benny had been so in love with her was a relief, evidence that his friend was heterosexual. He knew they'd been sleeping together, Fraser had been in bed with her when he'd come to the door late that bitter Friday night...

And Victoria wasn't the only lover Benny'd had. Now there was Elyssa.

Oh my God. It was a measure of his torment that only then did he finally think of her; and the thought only increased his agony. Elyssa trusted Benny completely. He knew what it would do to her if she found out her lover had been photographed in a gay bar, for no good reason. He knew what it was doing to him: making him doubt a man, and a friendship, that had become one of the cornerstones of his life. Making him wonder if Fraser swung both ways, if he was leading a double life that neither he nor Elyssa had ever suspected.

God, if he's sleepin' around with guys, he could've exposed Elyssa to AIDS! It's rampant in the gay community... But Benny would never do such a thing, I know him--

But the pictures argued that he didn't. He stuffed them back in the envelope with hands that felt numb. What am I gonna do? What can I do?

The obvious answer, of course, was to show Fraser the pictures. He might have a perfectly innocent explanation for his presence in them, that had nothing to do with the Gay Strangler case, or this might turn out to be just a cruel hoax someone had perpetrated in an effort to sully his reputation or ruin their friendship, or both. Benny might be able to set his mind at ease, and then all this worrying would be for nothing.

But what if he can't?

He turned cold all over again at the thought of it.

This was like what had happened with Victoria almost two years ago, only worse. Then, he'd known beyond doubt that Benny was innocent of everything except falling in love with the wrong woman. But now...


When Elyssa woke the next morning, she was cuddled warmly against Ben's back. She kissed it very lightly, not wanting to wake him.

He made a soft sound of pleasure. "Mmm. What was that for?" he asked, turning over sleepily to take her in his arms.

She smiled at him. "For a lot of things. Like guarding my door last night," she breathed, kissing his chest.

"Oh, that. Was that what I was doing?" he asked, with transparent innocence.

She nodded, not fooled for a second by that look. "And for caring enough to do that, even after we'd just had a fight."

He cocked his head at her. "No fight we could ever have could change the fact that I love you," he said quietly. "You know that, don't you?"

"Yes," she said. But though she knew he believed that, she wasn't sure she did. She'd never been sure he could handle the real truth about her, had always been afraid that if she ever told him, she would lose him.

But there were other truths she could tell. One in particular that she owed him, after last night. "You got angry yesterday because I wouldn't tell you who I suspected of sloshing blood all over my door," she began.

He nodded, his blue eyes suddenly becoming awake and intent, losing their early morning drowsiness in an instant.

"Well, I just wanted you to know that I was wrong."


She shrugged. "I mean, it wasn't who I thought it was. That person didn't know anything about what happened."

He frowned. "How can you be certain?"

"I talked to him -- the person, I mean," she corrected herself hastily. "And I could tell."

His frown stayed. He rolled over suddenly, so that she was beneath him, and stared hard into her eyes. "You're absolutely sure," he pressed.

"Absolutely," she said. "Without a doubt."

He searched her eyes for a long moment, then sighed softly. "All right," he said sternly at last. "But if anything else strange happens, and you know anything about it, you'll tell me next time, right?"

She grinned up at him, leaned up to kiss him seductively. "Ooh, I love it when you're dictatorial!" she laughed.

He groaned aloud at her stubborn independence that was so like his own, then took sweet revenge for it by making love to her for a second time.

Virginia Telegraph: Falwell Cheers Sitcom's Stand on Gays.

Lynchburg, VA/ Dr. Jerry Falwell today praised the three major advertisers of the ABC-TV sitcom, "Ellen", after they announced they would not advertise their products on the upcoming broadcast when the title character announces her lesbianism.

Falwell had mailed letters to the chairman of General Motors, Chrysler and Johnson & Johnson earlier this week, urging them to pull their advertising from the broadcast because he felt the upcoming lesbian announcement would be sending the wrong message to the children of America.

Falwell noted that the character of Ellen Morgan will be the twenty-third prime time homosexual character on network television this season. "I can't imagine that network programmers could possibly believe that our nation's parents are pleased with this unapologetic kowtowing to a small minority of homosexuals," he said.

Falwell is president of the National Committee for the Restoration of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Amazing, that the contents of one little cup can mean so much! Elyssa came home from her doctor's office late one afternoon several days later, stunned by the news she'd received and unsure how Benny was going to take it. She'd had to go to find out why she was getting sick so often, but the answer had stunned her.

No matter what he says, our lives aren't going to be the same, she thought uneasily. She wondered whether there would even be an 'us' anymore after she told him. Her rape had driven Rob away, after all; and that hadn't affected him as much as this would affect Benny -- if he stayed around, that is. Lost in her worries as she opened the door into their building, she didn't realize that she wasn't alone until she'd stepped inside. When she saw the figure on the stairs, she caught her breath.

"Ray!" Her first thought was one of surprise. What was he doing here? Even if he'd come over to see Ben or her, found them gone and decided to wait, she would've expected to find him idling outside one of their doors, not sitting down here on the stairs that led up to their apartment floor.

Her next thought was a vague, formless dread. In the instant she first saw Vecchio, before he'd realized she was there, he'd been sitting with his head in his hands, his body language fairly screaming a dejection so deep it was more like despair. He'd sat down in his expensive dark overcoat, crumpling the part beneath him and letting the rest trail carelessly across the dusty steps behind him, further evidence that something was amiss.

Ray is never, but never careless with his clothes. Something's happened, something bad. From his posture, it must be serious. Has there been a death in his family? she wondered, shaken. Or is something wrong with him?

She thought of the momentous news she hadn't even given Benny yet about her, and ice congealed in her stomach. God, if something's wrong with Ray, too -- if he has cancer or something, it'll kill Ben!

But despite her apprehension, as he raised his head, she tried to smile for his sake. "Hi, Ray. What're you doing here?"

No reply. He blinked at her, but didn't respond.

"Hey, stranger," she tried again, coming a little closer. "Raymondo!"

At that, he finally lifted his head. "Hey, Elyssa." His obviously heroic effort at an answering smile didn't even reach his eyes. They were dark with an emotion she couldn't decipher, and ringed with shadows that hinted at several days with little or no sleep.

I've never seen him look so bad, she thought. Forgetting her own worries for the moment as he got slowly to his feet, she climbed the stairs until she stood beside him. "Hi, Ray," she smiled, slipping her arm around him affectionately. "How are things at the 27th?"

He didn't answer her. Instead, he swept her up in a hug that was a little too hard, that lasted a few seconds too long. As she hugged him back, she wondered if he was using it to hide his expression, wondered if she'd said just the wrong thing without meaning to and struck a nerve. She noticed, as she always did when she hugged him, how surprisingly thin he felt. Ray was so macho, so cocky, always draped in big, expensive overcoats and a tough manner, that he loomed larger than the slender guy he really was. Touching him always made her feel oddly protective, though she'd never let him know that.

"Are you still the best looking, smartest detective they've ever had?" she teased, when he finally let her go.

"Or ever will," he shot back. But his humor was automatic, his smile a tired ghost of his usual ready grin. Still, the darkness in his eyes lightened a little as she smiled up at him. "Ya' know, Ryan, for a babe, you're not half bad yourself," he teased. That time, his smile was genuine, so she pretended not to notice that he'd ducked her question about work.

"Are you okay, Ray?" she asked softly, letting him see that it was more than a casual question.

He tried to smile, but it didn't work very well this time. "Sure, I'm fine. I was really waiting for Benny, though," he said, stooping to pick up a manila envelope that lay beside him on the stairs. She hadn't noticed it before, because it had been covered up by his coat. Case notes, she presumed. He must've come over to talk to Ben about some case he was working on...She wondered why he hadn't called first, though, to see if Ben was home.

"Sorry, he told me he's working late tonight," she said softly. "Maybe until nine. But if you've got a few minutes, since he's left us both high and dry, you want to come up and talk to me for awhile? We could wait at Ben's, but he usually doesn't have much in his refrigerator. If you wanna come to my place, I'll fix us something for dinner," she offered, throwing in a little bribe to tempt him. Despite her own problem and the fact that Ben wouldn't be home for awhile, she didn't want him to go away. She didn't like the look in his eyes at all. "Benny will come and find us when he gets home."

He shook his head. "Thanks anyway, but I'm not really hungry."

"Then what if I told you that I'm feeling a little down, and would love to have your company?" she said. It was true, but he narrowed his eyes at her, not buying it. Those hazel eyes said he knew which of them had the blues tonight, and that he didn't want her feeling sorry for him.

"If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'," she said, giving him her best look of wide-eyed innocence.

At any other time, he would've laughed at the slang she'd picked up from him. As it was, he grinned at her in spite of himself, a slow, crooked grin that transformed his face, and almost banished the dark shadows under his eyes. "You gotta tell me, Elyssa. Did you learn that look from Benny, or were you born able to do it?"

She grinned back at him, knowing she'd won. "All women can do that," she teased, taking his arm as they started to walk upstairs. "Didn't you know? It's a genetic thing. Our secret weapon in the war against male dominance."

"Ah," he said, holding on tightly to his envelope as they moved. He sounded so much like Benny that it gave her a pang.

After tucking the envelope with the pictures into the inside pocket of his coat, so she wouldn't see them, Ray threw it over the arm of Elyssa's couch as she went into her kitchen.

"Anything I can help you with?" he asked. His mind wasn't on food right now, but he knew she was being kind to him by offering to fix him dinner, and that kind of thoughtfulness shouldn't be taken lightly.

"Oh, that's okay," she said. "I'll get it. You just relax."

He wished he could. He prowled over to her window instead, while she bustled around making dinner, and stared down at the street below. It was dark, and there weren't many lights on yet in the buildings across the street, but the somber view suited his mood. He felt hollow, wasted, unable even to feel grateful for the way she'd taken him in off the stairs like some orphan, and invited him to dinner. He just hadn't foreseen her showing up like this. He'd forgotten that she usually got home before Benny did. Emotional strain and sleeplessness had begun to cloud his thinking.

Ironically, on the surface, the last three days had been quiet. He hadn't heard anything further from the mysterious photographer, hadn't received a ransom call or any more envelopes with hateful photos. But the silence that followed their delivery seemed ominous, as if the photographer was toying with him, trying to strain his nerve until it shattered. And after three days with no shuteye, three endless days during which he'd gone about his usual routine like a robot, looking over his shoulder and watching his rear view mirror while he secretly awaited a summons from Lt. Welsh that would signal his doom, his nerves were stretched taut. He couldn't take it anymore. He still had no idea who'd given him the pictures, or if they ever intended to use them against him and Fraser, but he couldn't live with the fact of them any longer without talking to Benny.

He'd brooded about showing the photos to Fraser all day. Through cup after cup of thick black coffee, he'd sweated it out in his mind. But he couldn't see any other way to break the stalemate, to move forward. He had to know the truth, and Fraser had to know that the pictures existed. After all, it was his reputation that was at stake. It was also marginally possible that he might be in danger; and no matter what else happened, Ray still wanted to protect him. He went over it endlessly, until he worked himself into a frustrated rage against the unknown photographer, whoever the creep was, against Benny for catching his eye, and against fate, for screwing him over as usual by putting him in the middle.

He'd let the fury build. After three days of hell, it was the only emotion he had left. He needed it to carry him through what he had to do.

By the time he'd signed out of the precinct, he'd passed seething, and was well on his way to imminent explosion. He'd bombed over to Fraser's, intent on a showdown about the pictures, only to find that he wasn't home. Frustrated, unable to contain himself, he'd kicked his door, then briefly considered going over and storming his den at the Consulate. But he'd decided against that. He knew he was so close to losing control that their confrontation wasn't likely to be quiet, and he didn't want Fraser's fellow Mounties to know about this. He had to keep it private; Benny deserved at least that much.

But he couldn't wait any longer to talk to him about it, either. So he hadn't left. Instead, edgy from too much caffeine-laced anger and too little sleep, he'd paced the hallway near his door restlessly for about half an hour, as the building's other occupants came home from work, or wherever they went during the day, and locked their doors behind them. By the time the hall grew quiet again, though there was still no sign of his friend, he'd finally worked off enough of his explosive rage to sit down on the stairs and wait for him.

But Elyssa had found him first. He hadn't anticipated that, and for a moment, he hadn't known what to say. He was so sunk in misery, he'd hardly even registered her presence. Fear, rage and fatigue were doing battle behind his eyes. His skull throbbed, and from the way his heart was pounding, fear was winning. Benny in those pictures, Jesus! The images strobed in his head, over and over again, like flashbulbs popping. Black, smothering panic beat in his breast like a caged thing trying to get out. Christ, what if he can't explain 'em? I'll lose it.

Hell, I'll lose my mind...

He couldn't even hear what Elyssa was saying at first, for the noise in his head. Then he heard his name. "Raymondo," she said gently, just like his Mom always did. As if she'd waved a magic wand, the tumult in his head died away. He looked in her green eyes, and the caring he saw there eased some of the intolerable pressure that had built up inside of him. But when she hugged him, he discovered that even her gentleness rubbed salt into his hidden wound. All he could think about was her pain, of the hell those pictures would put her through if Benny couldn't come up with some damn good answers.

Once his anger drained away, he suddenly felt hollowed out, exhausted, like he hadn't slept for a year. Deep down inside, where he was afraid to even admit it to himself, all that was left was a cold fear that had kept him silent for three days. Fear that Benny wouldn't be able to explain the pictures away, that if he confronted him about them, he'd learn things about his best friend that he'd never wanted to know.

Underneath that was a fear that he'd lose him.

But he couldn't just throw the fucking photos away, much as he longed to; because whoever had taken them was still out there. He knew too much, and he was dangerous.

He knows why Fraser was in that goddamn bar, he thought, haunted by his unseen presence. He went to a helluva lot of trouble to point out to me that Benny may be gay.


Even in the privacy of his own thoughts, he couldn't call Fraser a queer, a faggot, or a pansy, or any of the other derogatory names he and his fellow cops usually tossed around casually. The man had been his best friend too long for that, and he'd found he didn't like those words much anymore, in any case. Besides, if the implications in those pictures were true, and Benny had been sleeping with men at the same time he'd been more or less living with Elyssa, then he probably wasn't even technically gay, he was bisexual. That possibility boggled Ray's mind. The Church taught that homosexuals were sinners, that they went to Hell. Where did that leave bisexuals?

Where did the possibility that Benny was one leave him?

Shit! The only thing he was sure of was that sometimes, Hell could be found right here on earth. In Satan's hoofprints all over a set of 8 x 10s.

Elyssa shot a quick glance at Ray while she made dinner, and it dismayed her. He stared out her window, but his hazel eyes were dark, glazed, unseeing. He was a million miles away, and his face was bleaker than she'd ever seen it. Her heart beat painfully in her breast, because whatever was wrong, he seemed to have no intention of telling her. It suddenly occurred to her that the bad news she felt he was carrying might be about Benny, not Ray himself.

Her heart sank. God, I haven't even told Ben my news yet! Maybe I should call him at work, and warn him not to come home at all tonight. The forecast looks stormy.

Ray stared out into the night. The few lights on in the buildings around Fraser and Elyssa's seemed paltry, almost pathetic, hardly able to pierce the inky darkness that had settled over the city. Or was it just over his life? He wasn't sure anymore.

He cast his mind back for a moment, looking for a contrast to the blackness, for relief from the shroud of gloom enveloping him. The night suddenly blurred, bled into a memory of a crisp, bright, sunlit day last December...

It was a Saturday just before Christmas. No work, no worries. He'd come to pick up Benny and Elyssa; they were all going Christmas shopping. At least, that was the plan. But when he pulled up outside their building on West Racine, he heard Benny's voice coming from around the far corner. He couldn't see him, but he sounded hoarse, breathless.

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you!" he yelled.

Figuring he was in some kind of trouble, Ray started to run, his breath puffing in the frosty air. The snow that coated the sidewalks was so new it was still pristine and shining, and he slipped a bit on it as he ran around the corner of Fraser's building into the alley. "Benny!"

He slid to an abrupt stop. Benny was on his back in the snow in the alley, but he wasn't in trouble; at least, not that kind of trouble. He was trying half-heartedly to fend Elyssa off as she knelt over his prone body. She was giggling as she struggled with him, trying to mash snow into his face.

As he barreled around the corner at high speed, they both turned to look at him, their eyes wide with surprise at his grim haste. Ray noticed that they were both wet, and their coats were liberally dotted with white splats, as if they'd been having one helluva snowball fight for some time. For a second, he just stared at them, absurdly glad he hadn't drawn his gun, but feeling incredibly foolish all the same.

Then Fraser laughed. "Hello, Ray!"

Elyssa took ruthless advantage of his open mouth, and stuffed snow into it.

Ray laughed in spite of himself. "She got you, Red!" Suddenly, they were all laughing. Even Fraser hooted around his mouthful of snow as he pushed his girlfriend away.

Elyssa got to her feet, grinning mischievously. "Hi, Ray! Good to see ya'!" she called as she ran lightly towards him over the snow, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright. Benny sat up, dusting off his snow-spattered coat as he called a warning. "Look out, Ray, she's armed!"

He'd hardly gotten the words out when she raised her arm and threw a big, wet snowball at him. He ducked just in time, laughing, and the war was on...

He smiled, remembering Benny acting like a big kid, whooping and yelling and laughing without restraint as they played in that alley, all of them reckless as children. Hell, Benny had even gotten his perfect hair mussed when one of Ray's snowballs caught him in the side of the head; and he hadn't tried to neaten it back up. He'd just laughed, chased Ray down, tackled him and forced a handful of snow down his shirt, cackling demonically. "Vengeance is mine, Vecchio!"

That bright winter morning had showed Ray a side of Fraser he'd never known existed. A happy, wild, playful, totally unselfconscious guy. Benny as he must've been as a boy. I always thought he was just quiet and serious by nature, he reflected, ruefully aware of his lack of insight into his own best friend. I never thought about the fact that when we met, he'd just lost his Dad, and then he got unfairly disciplined and exiled to this damn big city where he didn't know anyone, and where he never wanted to be... I never asked him if he was unhappy, and he was too strong to complain -- and too proud to tell me how lonely he must've been, either.

So lonely that when Victoria came along, he grabbed for her with both hands.

The thought of her brought Ray back to the present with a jolt. His memory of that happy December day vanished into the darkness, melting away more quickly than the fleeting snowballs they'd thrown, displaced by Victoria's mocking smile. For an instant, something stirred in his mind about her... But he was too tired to pursue the thought, and not at all in the mood to dwell on her. She was long gone, and he had more than enough troubles tonight, without dredging up demons from the past. He let the errant thought slide away.

Night settled bleakly onto his shoulders again as an ambulance wailed by, a grim reminder of mortality. He swallowed hard. It had felt good remembering that day, remembering the fun they'd had. It had felt good just to feel good for a minute, after the last three days.

But how is Elyssa gonna feel after she finds out? he thought, unable to look at her. She's the one who taught Benny how to laugh like that again, how to be happy again.

"Come on, Ray," Elyssa called from her kitchen. "You can help me set the table."

"Sure." He had to force himself to leave the window. He felt weighted down, a hundred years old. I can't tell her what's goin' on, it's not my place, he told himself, selfish enough to be grateful for that. But he knew once he confronted Benny about it, he'd tell her.

Either way, it would break her heart.

Dinner was a somber, not to say bleak, affair. While Diefenbaker sat at her feet, Ray brooded uncharacteristically over his pork chop and salad, rousing himself periodically to take sporadic bites of food if he saw her watching him, or to grunt monosyllabic answers when she tried to talk to him. Elyssa felt really awkward. Ray was so outgoing, he usually did most of the talking for her. She'd never had to work at conversing with him before, and trying to do so while distracted with worry about how to tell Benny the news her doctor had given her today was doubly difficult.

"So. How is work going, Ray?" she tried again.

"Mmm," he muttered, drumming his fingers on the table.

She sighed, frustrated. I met the Dalai Lama today, Ray, she was tempted to say, to see if even that would spark a response. We had lunch with Billy Graham and the Pope. How was your day? But she didn't tease him, because if he just said "Uh huh, whatever," and went back to scowling at his plate, it would make things even worse. Her heart sank along with the meal. She'd hoped having dinner together would cheer both of them up, but it hadn't worked. Instead of opening up as she'd hoped, Ray had withdrawn into the same bleak, uncommunicative mood she'd seen him in on the stairs earlier. And the more he withdrew, the more frightened she became of the big, black cloud hanging silently over his head.

This isn't a social call, and he didn't come here to talk to Ben about a case, either, she thought. Something's wrong; and it has to do with Ben.

She wasn't sure how she knew that, but she did.

"Do you want some dessert, Ray?"

"Hmm?" He blinked at Elyssa in confusion. Why was she asking him that, when they'd just sat down?

"Well, uh..." He noticed all at once that, though neither of them had eaten much of their food, they'd both drained their wine glasses. So more time had passed than he'd realized, while he'd sat brooding about the damn pictures. "No, thanks. Guess I'm not very hungry," he said, not wanting her to think he hadn't liked her cooking, and a little embarrassed that he'd been so inattentive. He wondered if Elyssa had picked at her food because she'd sensed his bad mood and it had upset her, or if maybe he wasn't the only one with something on his mind.

Hadn't she said earlier that she was feeling a little down? The women in his family would've expressed such a mood by loud complaining and screeching, accompanied by more details than you'd ever wanna know about the cause of it. But he knew Elyssa well enough by now to know that she was more like Benny. Still waters, and all that. Like him, when she was upset, she just got quiet.

"Hey, uh... Are you okay?" he asked tentatively, trying to focus on her despite his pervasive weariness and mounting headache.

She smiled at him automatically, but the expression was a little strained. "Sure, I'm fine," she said, but he knew that she was lying. He stared at her, trying to figure out why. "I'll just get the dishes," she mumbled, a little awkward under his sudden scrutiny.

As she rose to her feet, he jumped up too. "Here, lemme help you."

"That's okay, you're my guest, Ray," she protested. "You don't have to do that."

He grabbed his plate and silverware anyway, and headed into the kitchen with it. "It's okay, I'm used to it. At my house, the women do the cooking, and the men clean up." He carried the stuff to the sink and began rinsing it off. "Well, at least some of the men do," he corrected himself, thinking of Tony, who wouldn't be caught dead in the kitchen. And great uncle Albert, who was more likely to drop dead than to touch what he called "womens' work"... "Well, I do, anyway."

He knew washing dishes wasn't really macho, but he didn't mind. He liked helping his mom, and it often gave them a chance to talk privately, a rare privilege in the Vecchio house. "I used to help Angie in the kitchen when we were married, too, y'know," he went on, rambling while he tried to think of a way to get Elyssa to open up to him about what was bothering her.

After hovering over her dinner table like a big black vulture, he figured that was the least he could do.

Ray perked up a little as they cleared the table. He even offered to help her with the dishes, which was unexpectedly domestic and sweet. "Angie and I used to always do dishes together," he said, scrubbing leftovers off their plates with practiced movements. Elyssa forgot her dread for a moment, filled with curiosity at his off-hand mention of his ex-wife. He hardly ever talked about her, so she knew almost nothing about her.

But she'd often thought that Ray, loud and volatile though he was, would make some woman an excellent husband. He was brave, intelligent, attractive, intensely loyal to those he loved, had a good sense of humor and dressed fit to kill. So why on earth was he divorced?

"What ever happened to you and Angie, Ray?" she asked, drawing a little closer to him. "I mean, if you don't mind talking about it."

He shot her a surprised, wary glance that spoke volumes.

Stupid! Of course he minds talking about it, that's why he never does! she berated herself, embarrassed she'd even brought the subject up when he was so obviously tired and depressed. What was I thinking? For a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer her.

Then he shrugged, scrubbing hard at some silverware. "Oh, you know... A little o' this and a little o' that," he muttered. "No big deal."

Tough, cynical, noncommittal -- classic Vecchio, she thought. Her question had caught him off guard, but now all his defenses were up again.

She moved closer until she was standing next to him at the sink, and picked up a dish towel. "Here. I'll dry for you," she said, deliberately casual. But when he handed her a newly clean dish, she caught his eyes and held them. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I didn't mean to pry, Ray."

Tired green eyes lifted to hers then, and his busy hands stilled in the dishwater. "I know," he said, very quietly. "It's okay." For a second, he even smiled a little. Then his brows drew together in a frown. "Y' know, I was just thinkin' -- in all the time I've known him, Benny's never once asked me about Angie. Ever."

Hearing the faint hint of anger underlying that admission, Elyssa chose her words carefully. "He wonders what happened, but he's--"

"Too polite to ask," Ray chimed in with her, and they both laughed.

He shook his head wryly. "I shoulda' known. Well, I can't have the two o' you dyin' o' curiosity about my divorce, can I?" He passed her another plate. "You can tell him it was my fault," he said, pain roughening his voice despite his attempt to be casual. "When things got tough between Angie and me, I stayed away. Started livin' the job to get away from our problems."

He sighed as he rinsed off the silverware, his eyes distant, lost in the past. "She got mad at me for never being there, and then we stopped talking. And one day, all we had left was anger." He shrugged, as if that would make his words sound less bleak. "She left, and I let her go. And once she'd stayed away for awhile, she realized she didn't wanna be married to a cop anyway. End of story."

Elyssa was moved by his surprising honesty, and the unsuspected pain it revealed. "I'm sorry, Ray," she said again. "You really loved her, didn't you?"

He shrugged awkwardly, and she wasn't sure if he was uncomfortable with the memory of that, or with her sympathy. "She was my wife," was all he said. But his slender shoulders were taut, and he wouldn't look at her.

Her heart went out to him. Right then and there, Elyssa decided that if she ever met a woman good enough for him, she'd move heaven and earth to get them together; and she'd make Benny help her. "Hey, goomba," she teased softly, with Italian slang she'd learned from him. "Come 'mere!" When he glanced at her in surprise, she reached out and hugged him gently.

"Hey, hey!" he protested. "I got wet hands here, ya' know."

But she hung onto him, and even as he squawked, to her surprise, his arms slipped around her. "Jesus, Ryan!" he groaned. "Yer so sentimental!" Still, wet hands and all, he hugged her back.

"Oh, shush, Vecchio! You know you love it!"

She could feel him smiling as he held her tightly, and he didn't even try to deny it.

They sat down to talk on Elyssa's couch for awhile after dinner. Ray shot a surreptitious glance at his watch, for the tenth time that night. Not out of boredom, but from hidden frustration. 8:30 p.m., and there was still no sign of the Mountie. God! What the Hell is Benny doing? Scouring the streets o' Gotham City for evildoers in his spare time? Usually, he can't wait to rush home to Elyssa, but now, just because I'm here waitin', he has to pick tonight to be late! he griped to himself. He rubbed his pounding head, not sure if he was really angry or grateful that Fraser's lateness was delaying their confrontation.

I'm so tired... "'Scuse me for a second, I gotta use the bathroom," he said aloud.


He was afraid that if he didn't move around a bit and splash some water on his face, he'd fall asleep in a heap on the couch, while Elyssa was talking to him. And he couldn't do that, not tonight. He had to talk to Benny about those damn pictures before another day went by.

He ran the water until it was icy, and splashed it on his face repeatedly, until it stung from the cold. He wasn't sure it helped much. His skin had gotten a rude awakening, but the rest of him still felt like he hadn't slept in a week. As he towelled dry, he tried not to look at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror. He'd seen himself when he first came in: bloodshot eyes ringed with dark circles. A mouth that had drawn itself into a thin, angry line.

You are not a pretty picture, he told himself wryly as he shut off the light and headed back out into Elyssa's living room.

But an even uglier sight awaited him there. Elyssa sat on the couch with his envelope beside her, a puzzled frown on her face -- and the pictures of Benny in the gay bar in her hand.

Now I know why Ray was sitting on his coat earlier -- what upset him so much. It's these pictures, Elyssa thought, frightened. As if her thought had summoned him, Ray materialized in front of her, so suddenly that she jumped. His face was taut with anger, and she flushed guiltily, knowing it must look to him like she'd been snooping through his things. "I'm sorry, Ray," she explained hastily. "When I went to hang up your coat, an envelope fell out of your pocket, and these fell out of it."

He practically tore the pictures out of her hand, his face stony. "This is police business, Elyssa!" he said, his voice harsher than she'd ever heard it. "It doesn't concern you." He grabbed the envelope and shoved the pictures back into it, but not fast enough.

Elyssa spoke quietly, but she didn't back down. "I'm sorry, but I've already seen them. And Benny's in those pictures," she said. "Both of them."

Ray shot her a swift, angry glare, but didn't say a word. Still, she sensed that the pictures terrified him; and his fear turned her cold. "I'm sorry I saw them, Ray -- it was an accident. But what are they all about?"

He shook his head, his face remote. "I can't tell you."

She shot to her feet, even more scared than he was. "You have to! If they concern Benny, I have to know."

Ray bit his lip, but shook his head again. "No," he said gruffly. He grabbed his coat off of her couch. "Thanks a lot for dinner, Elyssa," he said tersely. "I'll see you later."

He turned and headed for her door, taking the envelope with him. But she went after him, stubborn, angry and very frightened. She grabbed his arm, but when he whirled to face her, the fury in his hazel eyes stunned her into silence. "Just stop it, okay?" he snarled. "This is between me and Benny! Stay out of it! You got that?"

She swallowed hard, felt the sudden sting of tears in her eyes. "I can't," she said shakily. "If something's happened...If Ben's in some kind of trouble, I have to know. I have to! I -- I'm having his baby, Ray."

Ray froze, staring at her. For several seconds, the only sound in the room was their scared, ragged breathing.

"I'm pregnant," she said again, blinking hard. "I just found out today."

For a long moment, he didn't move. Then he dropped the envelope on the floor and came towards her. "Benny doesn't know about it yet?"

She shook her head.

Slowly, he bent and hugged her, as gentle as he'd been harsh a moment before. "I'm sorry," he whispered. She didn't know if he meant for his anger, or for what he still hadn't told her about the pictures--or for what their secret might mean for her and her baby. "I'm sorry, Elyssa."

It was almost ten fifteen when Fraser finally forced his weary boots up the stairs to his apartment. He was terribly late, but he'd had some errands to run after work. One of which had been very important. And he'd been so keyed up, so nervous after he did it that he'd opted to walk back to his place afterwards. But since he'd been more than ten miles away, it had taken some time to reach home.

Home... Funny, he'd never really thought of his little apartment on West Racine that way until Elyssa began sharing it with him. Even though it was late, he half hoped that she'd stayed up waiting for him. He'd finally decided that it was time, that he couldn't wait any longer to ask her, to show her...

But no light showed beneath his door, so he let himself in quietly, with a sigh of regret.

Maybe just a little longer, he thought. Knowing she must be asleep, he didn't turn on the lights. He inhaled a deep, tired breath as he laid his hat on the kitchen counter. He scented a faint trace of Elyssa's perfume, beneath a stronger scent of spices and herbs mixed with rice and chicken. She must've made dinner and saved some for me, he thought affectionately. She was endlessly good to him, in large ways and small. But he wasn't really hungry, so he took the covered plate he found on the counter and put it quietly in his refrigerator. As he did, Diefenbaker whined softly from his customary spot on the floor by his bed in the other room.

"Hello, boy," he whispered as he walked by, not wanting to wake Elyssa.

He stripped silently in his bathroom, took a shower, then padded back to his bed, carrying the surprise he'd bought for her. Now that his eyes were adjusted to the darkness, he could see her clearly. She lay on her side with her back to him, her shoulders rising in long, slow, sleepy breaths. He considered waking her up so he could tell her, but vetoed the idea. She didn't always sleep very well, so she needed her rest. There would be time enough to give her his gift in the morning.

But he didn't want to leave it lying around where she might see it, if she woke before him. So he lifted the lid of the old trunk by his bed and placed the small, velvet-covered box carefully inside, on top of a pile of his Dad's old journals, then shut it again. Now, his surprise would be safe until morning.

Feeling a rush of tenderness, he slid carefully into bed beside Elyssa. Her long hair was plaited into a braid that trailed down across the blanket behind her. The braid made her look curiously young and vulnerable. He stroked its silky smoothness with his hand.

I love you...

He hadn't meant to touch her, but found he couldn't resist. Gently, very gently, he slipped his arms around her waist and drew her against him. Warm and pliant, she smelled as delicious as she felt: of lemon-scented soap, her own unique scent and something else, a trace of another familiar scent that he didn't bother to identify. He had far more important things on his mind. She was still asleep, but now that he had her in his arms, he suddenly didn't feel tired anymore. Before he knew it, forgetting his earlier unselfish resolve not to wake her, he was kissing a slender shoulder, then tracing warm circles on it with his tongue...

"Don't." She woke up, stiffened and pulled away from him in an instant. She'd never done such a thing before, except when she was having one of her nightmares, and he knew this wasn't that. Thinking of the gift he'd just stowed away for her, he blinked, startled and hurt. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," she said, far too quickly. "I'm... just tired, that's all."

He frowned to himself. Somehow, her words didn't ring true. Ray had told him women did this, used excuses like tiredness or headaches when they didn't want to have sex. He called it the "Not tonight, honey, I have a headache" ploy. But it wasn't like Elyssa to do that, to make excuses or to play games. She was a very honest person. If she was upset about something, she always told him.

Unless it's something really important, a little voice whispered in his mind. She didn't tell me about her nightmares, did she? Or that she suspected someone she knew of the vandalism at her apartment? At least, not at first...

Elyssa had promised to be more forthcoming about her problems, but in light of her past silences, he wondered what was going on in her head this time. She'd never objected to his touch before, but she was now. He knew it. And it wasn't so much the objection he minded, as much as the fact that she wasn't being honest about it. Tonight of all nights, that bothered him.

"Did something happen at work today?"

"That isn't why I--" Her tone was unexpectedly fierce.

"I just meant, is that why you're tired?" he interrupted mildly, wondering why she wouldn't turn to look at him.

She was silent for a long moment; so long that he began to wonder if she meant to answer him at all. Finally, she sighed a little. "Yeah, I guess I had a lousy day."

He waited, but it became clear she wasn't going to say anything more. He sighed to himself. When he had bad days, he always longed to get home to her. Having her arms around him was the best tonic in the world. But tonight, it seemed she didn't feel the same. He wondered whether he should get her surprise out of his trunk after all, but decided against it. He didn't want her to think he was offering it lightly, just to cheer her up--it was too important for that.

He wasn't a superstitious man, but he was beginning to wonder if his plan was somehow cursed. It seemed that no matter when he decided to bring the subject up, something always happened between them that made it impossible.

He wondered what the source of her chilly mood was, but it was clear that she didn't want to discuss it, or to cuddle with him as she usually did. But he wasn't used to lying beside her without taking her in his arms. It felt a bit lonely, so he edged forward a little, wanting to be closer to her. When he did, a familiar scent wafted to him, the one he'd smelled on her earlier; and he leaned forward curiously, to sniff her hair.

It was faint, so faint he couldn't be sure, but he thought it smelled like cologne. Spicy, expensive cologne. His best friend's cologne, to be exact. That wasn't surprising in itself; Ray always gave Elyssa a bear hug whenever he saw her, so he'd smelled his cologne on her many times before. But he wondered what Ray had been doing here in his absence, and why she hadn't mentioned his visit to him.

She hardly had a chance to. She was sleeping when I came in, he reminded himself. Besides, she said she's tired... Maybe she just forgot. Still, he couldn't let it go.

"Was Ray here today?"

There was a small silence. "No. What made you think that?"

"Oh, I just thought he might've come by," he said vaguely, more convinced than ever that it was Ray's cologne he'd smelled on her skin, and troubled by the feeling that she was lying to him, for the second time in as many minutes. But why would she lie about Ray visiting her?

And why doesn't she want me to touch her?

He tried not to make a connection between the two falsehoods, because that would involve thinking the worst of both his lover and his best friend, and he didn't want to overreact. But her uncharacteristic behavior triggered an emotional response he'd never felt before, that he couldn't control.

She's mine! The thought crossed his mind, primitive, possessive, accompanied by a wave of emotion so deep it was frightening. A shadowy, heated anger rose smoking in his chest. He thought of the little box he'd put in his trunk, and the feeling intensified. He struggled against it.

Elyssa isn't my possession, she's my lover, he reminded himself severely. She has every right not to make love with me if she doesn't want to. And Ray is my best friend, and her friend too. I trust him implicitly, and he can come here to see her whenever he wants, whether I'm here or not.

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Caroline Alert.

Read the next part of the story:
Beyond Where Angels Sleep, Part Two

© Caroline Alert 1996
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