Beyond Where Angels Sleep
Part Three

by Caroline Alert

Fraser finally raised his head enough to focus on him, and raised an eyebrow at the sight of his weapon. "You can put up your gun, Turnbull," he advised, though his voice was weak. "I assure you, I'm no threat."

"No sir. I mean, yes sir," he stuttered, belatedly aware that he'd inadvertently aimed his weapon at the very man he was supposed to be protected. Holstering his gun, he approached the bigger man apprehensively. Fraser might've hurt himself anew in his tumble to the floor, and he knew that if any bruises resulted, the Inspector would not be pleased. "Are you all right, Constable?" he asked apprehensively.

"No, as a matter of fact, I am not!" Fraser sounded a bit testy. "I have two broken ribs, the remnant of a concussion, and--"

Turnbull blinked. It wasn't like the Constable to react like that. He was usually incredibly patient and polite. Oh God--maybe he really did hurt himself again! "I meant, from your fall just now, sir," he cut in, eyeing him anxiously for any signs of fresh bruises, as visions of guard duty at a post in the coldest part of the Northern Territories passed through his mind.

Fraser caught himself. "Oh, that. Yes, well... I seem to be intact. Only my dignity is bruised," he finished wryly.


Fraser shook his head. "Help me up, will you?" he grated, with unusual impatience.

Turnbull holstered his gun and did as requested, discovering in the process that Constable Fraser was heavier than he looked. Once he'd raised the other man to his feet, he stood patiently awaiting further orders. But Fraser didn't speak. Turnbull shot a worried glance at him, noted that he was biting his lip and his face had turned even whiter than usual.

"Are you in pain, sir?" he queried, nervous at the prospect. What if he was? What if Fraser had broken something falling out of bed and was too proud to admit it? Worse, what if Inspector Thatcher got wind of it? He blanched. She'd probably fling me out onto an ice floe personally, for allowing that to happen. "That is, I know you're in pain, but is it worse now than it was before? I mean, because of what just--"

"I'm fine, Turnbull!" Fraser interrupted. "Never better."

Turnbull wondered if he was being sarcastic, or if he was delirious. He knew Fraser was always honest, but he wondered how he could possibly be telling the truth about that when he was heavily bandaged, had just woken from a coma with two broken ribs as he'd mentioned, and was white as a sheet to boot. Not to mention the fact that he was having trouble standing upright, despite his support.

"Walk," Fraser said, before he could dispute the matter.


"Walk, Constable!"

Turnbull took that as a request for him to leave. But when he tried to comply, Fraser swayed, and tightened his grip on his shoulder desperately. "Not out of the room! Walk with me, Turnbull! Walk around the room with me!" he grated, through clenched teeth.

The younger man hesitated. He wasn't at all sure what Fraser was suggesting was in his best interest. What if he strained himself and burst a blood vessel in the attempt, or lapsed back into a coma? "But it's two o'clock in the morning, sir," he protested weakly, imagining all sorts of dire complications if he participated in this insanity. "And I--"

"Around the room," Fraser insisted, in the sternest tone Turnbull had ever heard him use. "I need to get back on my feet as quickly as possible, and I need your assistance."

Turnbull froze, torn between a desire to help and his very real fear of the consequences.

"I'm afraid you have little choice in the matter, Turnbull," Fraser said after a long silence. "Unless you cooperate, Diefenbaker will be very upset."

Turnbull cast a worried glance downward, to find that Fraser's wolf stood at his knee, baring his teeth in a low, rumbling growl. His eyes widened. He'd had sled dogs of his own years ago, so he knew just how much damage those powerful teeth and jaws could do to something as soft as a man's leg...

"Now, move!" Fraser ordered.

Caught between a rock, a hard place, ice floes and a wolf, Turnbull finally gave in. Besides--something in Constable Fraser's voice at that moment reminded him very much of Inspector Thatcher, and the man's arm was locked tightly about his neck. All in all, it seemed better to humor him.

But he noticed, as they moved slowly about his room, that Fraser was sweating heavily.

He wasn't the only one.

Five minutes after Mrs. Vecchio wakened her, Elyssa was dressed and ready to go. She ran out the door of the Vecchios' large Victorian into a cool, sunny Chicago morning. Ray's Riviera was parked out by the curb, but she didn't see him. She frowned. He wasn't in the house, and his mom had said he was waiting for her--


When she turned, she saw him standing by her car, which Inspector Thatcher had left parked beside the Vecchio's house last night. She frowned. Ray was bent down behind the opened hood of her Toyota, as if he were repairing something.

"In a second," he called out abstractedly. She frowned. It seemed odd; as far as she knew, her car was working perfectly.

"Is something wrong?" she asked as she walked towards him, noting that he was well-dressed as usual, in black pants and a maroon and gray silk shirt. He and Ben were so completely different that way. Ben preferred casual clothes, jeans and t-shirts or flannel shirts when he was out of uniform, whereas Ray seemed to live in expensively tailored suits. She'd never seen him in a pair of jeans. She sometimes wondered if he slept in Armani pajamas, and smiled to herself at the image.

Ray bent way over, reached deep down into the engine for a moment, but he straightened and reached for the hood release before she reached his side, so she couldn't tell what he was doing.

"Just checkin' your oil," he said. "You know, with everything that's been goin' on, I thought you mighta' forgotten that."

"Thanks, but you shouldn't be doing stuff like that in your good clothes! You'll get them all greasy."

He smiled briefly at her as she stopped beside him. "What, this old thing?"

As he released the hood latch and let it fall closed with expert hands, she suddenly noticed that her purse was sitting on the ground behind him. Funny--I thought I left that in Frannie's room, she thought, then realized that couldn't be right. She must've left it lying around the house somewhere, and he must've brought it out for her, knowing she'd want it with her. She beamed at him, loving him for his thoughtfulness. "Oh, thanks, Ray! You think of everything."

He frowned at her for a second, as if he didn't know what she was talking about.

Then she reached past him to pick up her purse. "I was in such a hurry, I forgot all about this," she explained.

"Huh? Oh, that, yeah. Found it downstairs this morning. I thought you might want it," he murmured, shrugging uncomfortably.

"I do," she assured him. He seemed a bit nervous and distracted, but she knew how he hated to be caught being generous, and put it down to that. "Is it okay?" she asked.


"My car. The oil level, I mean. Is it okay?"

He nodded hastily. "Oh, that! Yeah, it's fine."

"Good. Then let's get going!"

Elyssa chattered happily beside him on the way to the hospital, her eyes shining with happiness. "When did he wake up, Ray? Can he talk? What did he say? Is he in a lot of pain? Did you tell him I wasn't there because I just went to your house for a little while?"

Elyssa had a thousand questions, but she was so excited about seeing Benny that she didn't wait for him to answer them, which suited him just fine. Her happy haze gave him a much-needed chance to think. He just clutched the wheel tightly, nodded where it seemed appropriate, and secretly wondered all the while how he was going to explain to the sweet, unwitting woman next to him that Benny had lost his mind.

He wasn't even going to mention his suspicion that Fraser had tried to will himself to die. That was better left unsaid. But he had to tell her about his personality change, that he'd become angry and hostile and didn't want to see either of them.

"Did he ask for me?" Elyssa said. "Does he know I've been with him since he was hurt?"

"Mmm," he murmured, desperately trying to come up with the right words to describe Fraser's weird behavior. Don't take this wrong, Elyssa, but Benny's gone postal. I swear, I think if he'd had a gun he'd've shot me right from his hospital bed, he rehearsed tentatively.

But when he realized how that sounded, he shook his head. Are you crazy? he asked himself. That'd be a nice way to break it to her, wouldn't it? Just tell the mother of his unborn child that sweet, polite Benny Fraser turned into Jeffrey Dahmer while he was in a coma. That'd set her mind at ease, wouldn't it?

The wheel slipped in his hands, and he discovered that he was sweating. Shit! I'm outta my element here! he groaned to himself. I'm good with perps--Fraser's the diplomat, not me. Problem is, this isn't exactly a "Book 'em, Dan-o" type situation. So what'm I gonna say?

He shifted in his seat. Maybe I shouldn't say anything.

Maybe Benny had just been spaced out on pain pills last night. Maybe his descent into insanity had only been temporary, and he was worrying for nothing.

But he didn't think so. He remembered the icy look of hatred in the Canadian's eyes, and doubted any drug had put it there. Fraser looked like something was eating him up inside. But what the hell can it be? He's been unconscious since his beating, for God sake. Out of it. Dead to the world.

How in the hell could a guy in a coma get that pissed off?

Elyssa paused when they reached the corridor leading to Benny's room, and touched Ray's arm. Her happy chatter had died away, and she looked a bit pale.

"Whatsa matter?"

She shrugged. "I... I'm just nervous," she confessed. "I mean, I'm happy Ben's awake, but I'm nervous about telling him about the baby."

Ray groaned to himself. Ordinarily, he would've reassured her that his friend would be pleased, even ecstatic, but in the mood Benny was in at the moment, who the hell knew? "Yeah, I can understand that," he said aloud, searching for the right words to explain things to her. "Listen... I know we need to talk to him about those pictures, and you need to tell him about the bambino, but... Do you really think now is a good time?"

She stared at him in surprise. "Why? Do you think he'll be upset? Do you think he won't--won't be happy? Won't want it?" she asked anxiously. "I thought Benny liked kids--"

"He does!" he reassured her. "Are you kiddin'? He loves the rugrats--I mean, my nieces and nephews. And he's good with 'em, too. They think he's the best thing since peanut butter sandwiches. It's just that... Well, he's been through a lot, and this is big news. I just think it might be better if you held off telling him for a day or so, just until he gets his feet back under him, ya' know?"

Elyssa searched his eyes. "What's wrong, Ray?"

Oh, God. She'd guessed. She'd always been too damn perceptive, by half. "Nothing," he protested. "Nothing's wrong! I just--"

Her lips thinned. "Tell me the truth, Ray! Something's wrong, I know it."

He shook his head weakly. "No, I--"

"Tell me!" she repeated. "It's about Benny, isn't it? Did something happen when he woke up?"

He stared down into her pretty green eyes, knowing he was lost. Elyssa could be as stubborn as he and Fraser put together, when it came to Benny. She loved him that much.

He slumped against the wall and studied his Italian leather shoes for a minute, as if they could tell him how to deliver bad news like this. Then he raised his eyes to hers again. "I think," he said slowly, "that that smack on the head affected Fraser more than his doctors thought it would."

Elyssa hesitated for a moment at the door to Benton's room. Ray had promised he'd wait for her downstairs, told her to take as long as she wanted. She prayed Fraser would give her the chance to talk, and not turn on her as he had on him. As she paused, the young Mountie stationed outside his door--Hanson, if she remembered right--smiled at her. "I hear Constable Fraser is doing better, ma'am," he said politely.

"Better?" she echoed absently as she looked in at him. Funny; that's what Margaret said, too. Well, maybe in some ways...

Ben lay sleeping quietly, his blankets pulled up to his chin. He looked so peaceful it was hard to believe what Ray had said, that he'd been sullen, silent, and almost savagely angry with him when he woke up... No, with us, she corrected herself, with a thrill of fear. He'd practically thrown Ray out, and told him he didn't want to see either of them.

She couldn't understand it, and neither did Ray. He'd talked to Ben's doctor last night, who'd examined him again and assured him that their original findings were correct, and he hadn't suffered brain damage. He'd said his bad temper might've been caused by his temporary short term memory loss, a loss that Ray could testify to, but she didn't believe that. Benny wouldn't get furious over something like that.

So what is it?

"Constable Turnbull reported that he was up walking around last night," Hanson went on cheerfully.

She stared at him, and back at the deceptively sleeping Mountie in the bed. "Walking around? In his condition?" she echoed, shocked. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, ma'am," Hanson nodded.

She frowned, worried. Surely it was far too soon for Fraser to be up yet! Granted, he was very strong and fit, but he'd just come out of a three-day coma, he had broken ribs that were just beginning to heal, and he must still be in a lot of pain. She decided to talk to him about it, but she knew he could be awesomely stubborn when he set his mind on something. Ray had told her that once, when they'd tried to fly north to rebuild Fraser's cabin, their plane had been hijacked by a murderer. They'd ended up crashing in the woods, and Ben had suffered a bad head injury that rendered him blind. Perhaps as a result of that, he'd started to act crazy, had called Ray "Steve" and pushed him to go after the suspect relentlessly, even after he could no longer walk, insisting obsessively that he had to "get his man".

Had his latest head injury caused a recurrence of that obsessive behavior? Or was he worried about being helpless in bed because of Victoria Metcalf?

I guess I'll know if he starts calling me "Steve", she thought wryly, knowing all the while she was hovering by the door because, for the first time since she'd known him, she was scared to approach him.

"Thank you," she said to Hanson, then went inside.

She moved noiselessly to his bed, and sat down in the chair beside it. Ben opened his eyes an instant later, as if he knew she was there. Her heart swelled. She'd known he'd awakened, that he was going to make it, but she'd never seen anything as beautiful as his blue eyes when they opened and focused on her. He slid his hand out from beneath his covers and rubbed them a little, as if he were afraid he was seeing things.

"Hi, sweetheart," she whispered. Tears filled her eyes as she took his hand gently. She'd been so scared, so damn scared he would never open his eyes again, never look at her again or see their baby. She was still scared, after what Ray had said, that now that he was awake, he wouldn't want her with him; and she had important things to tell him. She felt her fingers shaking as she folded them around his. Please don't push me away, she prayed silently.

He sat up, his blue eyes hooded. "Elyssa," he said.

But he didn't let go of her, or push her away. And in that moment, that was enough. The sound of her name on his lips was pure bliss. She was so glad that he'd come back, that he was going to live, that the tears in her eyes overflowed, and his image wavered like a watercolor as they streamed down her cheeks. She longed to hug him, but didn't want to cause him any more pain than his broken ribs must already be. So she bent forward instead, and took his face gently in her hand.

"Hi, Benny," she whispered. "I love you."

Fraser drew Elyssa forward gently, held her to his chest, despite the pain it caused him, inside and out. She was dressed casually, in a soft blue sweater and jeans, and her hair was clipped back in a gold barrette, as if she hadn't had time to bother with it. Even so, she'd never looked lovelier to him. He hadn't meant to touch her, but Hher beauty, and the strength of his feelings for her, opened him effortlessly, against his will. He thought of the old words for the marriage ceremony: With my body, I thee worship.


He felt raw, exposed, vulnerable as a child. He couldn't help himself. He held her for a time while she cried, and stroked her bright hair, even though touching her now tormented him as much as it pleased him. He still loved her so. He even thought she'd meant it when she said she loved him. The simple fact that she loved Ray Vecchio, too, was what comprised his private hell.

He stroked her with a terrible tenderness. I'm scared, Elyssa, he wanted to say. I almost died. What's worse, I wanted to. I visited Death, but He didn't want me. Do you?

But to say those words would not only scare her, it might would provoke an answer he couldn't bear to hear. So he held her wordlessly instead, kept her close to him. But as he touched her, desire rose in him until he burned with it. With my body... Despite his injuries and pain, and the fact that they had no privacy, he wanted nothing more, in that moment, than for her to put her hands on him, to take him in her arms and make long, slow love to him, as she used to do.

Had she made love to Ray like that?

The idea seared him, hurt worse than all of his broken bones and bruises put together. He thought of how he'd trusted her, and felt that she would never leave him, and he ached with loss even while she lay in his arms.

She didn't try to make love to him. She just held him, and cried. He told himself it was because she was afraid of hurting him, afraid to even embrace him because of his injuries. She just held him, and cried. He didn't mind that she was crying.

His own eyes were strangely full.

After a few minutes with Ben, Elyssa knew Ray had been right. Once she let him go, sat up and dried her tears, she saw that, despite her joy at his recovery, something was wrong with him. He didn't get angry with her, didn't even raise his voice, but he stared at her strangely nonetheless. Not that she minded him looking, it was the way he was doing it that was strange. It wasn't a "Thank God I'm back, I almost lost you" kind of look, the kind you'd expect from a man who'd come back from a coma and near death. Rather, there was a kind of pained bewilderment in his eyes. He looked at her as if he didn't really know her, like she was a puzzle, or some kind of mystery he needed to solve, in order to be happy again.

Beneath his bandages and bruises, he looked strangely fragile. She tried to tell herself she was imagining things, that he was bound to be a bit confused, after what he'd been through, and. Despite his return to consciousness, that his seeming frailty was just her reaction to she knew the knowledge of how badly he'd been hurt, and how close she'd come to losing him. Ray had told her he had temporary memory loss, that he couldn't recall either his kidnapping or the subsequent attack; and for that, she was secretly grateful. She knew the blank he'd drawn about the crime wouldn't help catch Victoria, but she couldn't regret him losing such painful memories. Still, his body bore the signs of the trauma he'd suffered. His face was pale under the bandages that swathed his forehead, his lips and jaw were swollen and purpled with bruises, and his broken ribs were tightly bound.

And it hadn't escaped her notice that he hadn't said much, either. That, coupled with the almost bewildered look in his eyes, worried her. She knew how stoic he was--the deeper his pain went, physical or otherwise, the quieter he became--and she had a feeling that beneath his apparent calm, he was in emotional agony. But she couldn't begin to guess why. Still, for the time being, she decided to take Ray's advice and not mention her pregnancy or the other issue she needed to discuss with him, not until she could be sure it wouldn't upset him further.

"Constable Hanson tells me you've been up out of bed already," she said, to bridge a silence that threatened to stretch into awkwardness. And she knew it was true, because at some point, he'd even dressed himself in the soft sweatshirt and matching pants she'd hung in the closet of his room. "I'm glad you're feeling better, but are you sure you should be doing that so soon?"

He shot a glance towards the door, as if he were angry with Hanson for letting that slip. "I don't like hospitals," he said, plucking at his blanket, his dark brows drawing together in a slight frown. "I don't want to stay here any longer than I have to."

Understandable, but not the whole story, she thought. He had something on his mind, some hidden agenda that he felt he needed to get back on his feet to accomplish; and she was pretty sure she knew what it was.

"You're going after Victoria, aren't you."

It was a statement, not a question. Fraser stiffened, surprised and a little irritated at being seen through so quickly, so easily. He hadn't wanted her to know his plan, so he hadn't said a word about it, hadn't even mentioned Victoria's name. But Elyssa's green eyes were certain nonetheless. "How did you--?"

"I love you, remember? And I know you," she said gently, making it sound simple.

But he'd known her, and loved her with all his heart, and never guessed what was really in hers, he reflected, pain constricting his chest. He had to swallow hard before he could speak. "She harassed you, and attacked me," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "Ray was a target last time, and she may try to hurt him again, too. I have no choice."

She was silent for a minute. Then she said, "Ben, look at yourself. You're still recovering from a concussion. You were in a coma for--"

"Three days," he interrupted, impatient with the details. "I know. Ray told me."

"What I'm trying to say is, you're not in any shape to--"

His fingers tightened unconsciously around hers. "You weren't here," he said, anger leaking into his voice in spite of himself. "You don't know what she's like! She won't stop until she--" He broke off suddenly, not wanting her to see the unspoken words in his eyes: Until she kills you. Or maybe both of us.

"I understand," she said carefully, "that you feel responsible for her coming back." Her green eyes lifted to his, tender, earnest and beautiful. "But that was her decision, Ben. You didn't ask her to come here. You didn't make her hurt anyone. It's not your fault!"

But she was wrong about that. He had loosed this particular demon on the world. He saw that clearly now. Like Dr. Frankenstein, he'd created a monster when he'd sent her to prison years ago; and he'd made an even worse mistake by freeing her later on, when he'd thrown himself in front of Ray's gun to save her. He'd made two catastrophic errors, and he had to pay for them. Every evil Victoria had committed since her release from prison was, in some measure, his fault. It had gone on long enough. It had to stop now. He had to stop her.

"If anything happens to you, or Ray, it will be on my head," he said intensely, willing her to understand. "This is for me to do, Elyssa. No one else."

"The police and the RCMP are already looking for her," she said. "Let them take care of her!"

He set his jaw. "No," he said, with utter finality.

She sighed, and looked down at their entwined fingers for a second, as if she knew there was no use arguing about it any more. "I talked to Ray," she said softly, changing the subject. He should've been relieved, but he tensed, knowing what was coming. "He said you were angry at him. At both of us. Why?"

He hadn't expected such directness, had hoped she'd shy away from such painful honesty for fear of upsetting him. He wasn't sure how to answer, and he looked away from her. She'd always been very perceptive, a wizard at guessing his feelings, but he couldn't let her see into him this time, into the pit of his pain and grief. He couldn't bear it. If he told her that he'd guessed her guilty secret, he would fall apart; and duty came first. He had to regain his strength, to focus on finding Victoria and bringing her to justice. Once that was done, he would do the honorable thing: tell her that he'd found out about her affair, and let her go.

But for now--just for a little while longer, until his task was done and Victoria was safely in custody--he needed to keep her with him. He told himself it was for her sake, that because he knew Victoria better than anyone else, he could protect her better. But the truth was, it was for his own. Because he wasn't sure how, when the time came, he could ever let her go.

"I was confused when I first woke up," he answered, treading carefully around the truth that lay on the brink of the chasm she'd put between them. "I'm not anymore."

Confused, Ben said. Well, he wasn't the only one. Elyssa was very puzzled herself. Maybe he was telling the truth, the doctor had said he might've been short-tempered when he woke because he'd realized he'd suffered memory loss. That would be upsetting to anyone. And yet... Ben wasn't just anyone. He was strong, mentally and physically, and the possessor of one of the calmest, sweetest natures she'd ever known. It would've taken something extraordinary for him to become so enraged with his best friend, and her, that he'd throw Ray out of his room and tell him he didn't want to see her. Short term memory loss just didn't seem like an adequate explanation for all that.

But he'd just said it was, and he didn't lie...

She let go of his hand and walked away a little, needing to put some physical distance between them for a moment, while she considered what to do next. If he wasn't telling the truth, if he was holding back the real reason he'd become upset with both of them, then she needed to reach out to him. She felt it instinctively. She needed to reaffirm his trust in her, make him see that he could tell her anything, because she loved him.

She knew a way to do that, had thought a lot about it lately, in fact. The whole time he'd been in his coma, it had been preying on her mind, weighing her down. The secret. She could tell him her secret. Trade a truth for a truth, so to speak. One confidence for another. Maybe it was time for that, at last. Maybe she needed to tell him that first, before she told him about the baby.

After all, how could she expect Fraser to be totally honest with her, when she hadn't been completely honest with him?

The only problem was, it wouldn't be a simple trade. It might have terrible consequences, because the thing she'd kept from him was important, a shameful secret she'd never intended to tell anyone else. Dr. Elden and her sister Jenny had learned of it by necessity, but they were the only people who knew it, which was one reason why she'd lost it so completely when she'd learned that Ben had called her former psychiatrist. She knew Jenny would never betray her, but she'd been irrationally terrified that he might've charmed Dr. Elden into revealing it somehow, and that once he found out, he'd despise her.

But her psychiatrist hadn't told him. He still didn't know. And as she'd sat with him, holding his hand through long, silent, dreadful nights when she hadn't known if he would live or die, she'd thought about her love for him, and what it meant. About the consequences of never really baring her heart to him. She'd thought silence would keep her safe, but it had only put distance between them.

He'd granted her their nights apart, but he'd known they signified more than just a need for time alone to paint, that they were her way of keeping him from getting really close to her. He'd sensed the part of her internal landscape she'd hidden from him, the country he was forever forbidden to visit, and though he didn't know its shape, the knowledge that she didn't trust him there had hurt him deeply. She'd told herself he had no place there, that it was part of her past he didn't need to know about, but in the last few days, while he hovered between life and death, she'd come to see that she'd been wrong.

She had to let him in; had to tell him the truth about herself, if he ever recovered. Partly for his sake, but as much for hers. She didn't want to keep his love with dishonesty any longer. She wanted to take the chance that he could love her even when he understood exactly what kind of person she was, and what she had done...

Otherwise, how was I any better than Victoria?

But now that the moment had come, she was petrified. He was already upset, there was some kind of barrier between them that hadn't been there before. It was almost as if he had a secret now too, something grim and terrible that shadowed his heart, and that he wouldn't share with her. She hoped opening her heart to him would bridge the gap, but she couldn't know for sure. Would hearing this push him over the edge, send him into the kind of rage he'd hurled at Ray?

Would he understand, would he be able to accept it? Or would he stop loving her if he learned the truth?

That fear was what had kept her silent for so long. It froze her still. If anything, it was even worse now, because they had a child on the way. What if he let her go once he found out? How would she stand it?

But how can I have his child and not tell him?

Remembering how she'd considered leaving Ben if he'd lied to her about being gay, she felt a deep surge of shame. She'd been holding him to a higher standard of honesty than she herself had practiced, and the realization galled her. She paced the floor, knowing what she had to do, trying to find the courage to start.

"It's seven steps from the bed to the wall," Fraser said gently, as Elyssa paced anxiously across the floor. "I've already counted them."

"Mmm," she replied, chewing at a fingernail as she frowned. She hardly seemed to hear him, and she was avoiding his eyes.

"Is something wrong?" he asked, baffled by her uncharacteristic behavior. He knew she was upset about his insistence on going after Victoria, but somehow he didn't think she was wearing a hole in the floor because of that.

"Yes," she said at last, her voice oddly strained. "I've thought a lot about this in the past few days, and... There's something I need to tell you, Ben."

When her green eyes finally met his again, they were wide with fear, but determined. She'd obviously reached some kind of painful decision, and he was sure he knew what it was.

Oh, God! he thought, pain searing him. The last time she'd looked like that, she'd told him she was raped. This time, he feared the news would be just as bad, if not as shocking.

If she tells me what she and Ray did together, I won't be able to stand it.

Elyssa twisted her hands together, stared down at them rather than at Ben as she started talking. "I want you to know the truth about me," she said, her voice low and hoarse. "I told you that I was raped, about two years ago."

"Yes," he said, his own voice oddly hoarse. But she didn't dare look at him, or she would've seen that his hands had knotted in the sheets beside him, and that his eyes were already anguished.

"I--" Her eyes filled with tears all at once, and she wasn't sure if she felt more afraid or angry; at fate for what it had done to her, and at herself for having such a hard time accepting it.

"Go on," he said. "Whatever it is, you can tell me."

She turned around for a moment then, sent him a look of gratitude. "I hope so," she breathed. Then she swung away again, pain in every line of her slender body. "Oh, Ben, this is hard," she whispered, half to herself. "You see, I... I never told you this before, but... after I was raped, I was... "

She mumbled the rest, hardly able to speak past the icy lump of shame and fear in her throat.

"You were what?" he asked, very quietly.

She closed her eyes, dug her fingernails into her palms and took a deep breath. "I was pregnant," she said at last, her voice shaking. "I thought it was over, but they--one of them--made me pregnant."

Fraser was overwhelmed, felt tears of rage fill his eyes. For a moment, he was speechless. He'd been expecting a confession of another sort entirely; nothing had prepared him for this. He didn't know what to say, He couldn't imagine what she'd gone through. He knew how ther terrifying ordeal haunted her still, but to find, months after it was over, that she was carrying the child of one of those monsters--

"I'm so sorry. I don't... So... You had a baby?" he asked thickly at last, hardly knowing what he was saying, trying to feel his way through the unexpected horror she'd confessed. He'd thought she was going to admit her affair with Ray, he'd never dreamed she'd tell him anything like this. His head ached, suddenly and fiercely, and his stomach roiled. It was almost too much. She had a child, his love had had a child and he'd never seen it, she'd never told him--

But she shook her head, so fiercely that her red hair swung around her face. She turned to face him again at last, with tears in her eyes. "No," she whispered, her lips shaking. "No, I couldn't. I wasn't doing that well then, and when I found out--I couldn't handle it. It made me want to die," she said, her voice breaking. She held a hand to her mouth, to hold back her tears so she could speak. "I didn't have a baby, Ben," she sobbed, forcing out the words. "I had an abortion."

Stunned, Fraser closed his eyes. His heart pounded fiercely, the blood rushed to his head. That was it; the dark secret she'd hidden at the heart of her fear, the part of herself she'd always refused to share with him. This was what had kept them from the true, deep intimacy he'd always longed for. He finally knew why she'd held him at bay, but it was so unexpected he had no idea how to deal with it.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," she wept brokenly. "I wanted t-to, but I was a-afraid!"

For a moment, sorrow swamped him. Sorrow for both of them. It made him sad that Elyssa had been forced to make such a terrible choice, but sadder still that she hadn't felt she could trust him with knowledge of it. He'd never wanted her to be afraid of him. How had this happened? God, had she thought he'd go away if he knew? Was that it? How could she have misjudged him like that, how could she have thought that he'd blame her for something in which she'd had no choice? For a decision he knew must've been agonizing for her, one whose pain he could hardly comprehend since he was male?

Deeper still, he grieved for her loss, mourned for the pain he knew she must've felt over the child that never was, a child she lost before ever seeing its face.

Then, for an instant, a shaft of jealousy pierced him. Does Ray know? Did she tell him about this, and not me?

But he forced the petty feeling aside. That was a separate issue, one they'd have to deal with soon enough. Right now, she was reaching out to him, asking for his understanding. He had to be big enough to forget what she'd done, and give her that.

It's all right, he wanted to say. There's nothing to be afraid of. This doesn't change anything. I still love you.

All the right things, but he didn't get the chance to tell them to her. The words caught in his throat when he tried to speak, and he pressed his palms to his eyes to hold back the tears he hadn't even realized he was shedding.

When he opened them again, it was too late. When he started to get up to take her in his arms, and dry her tears and say the words, she was gone.

Elyssa grabbed her purse and fled Fraser's hospital room blindly, weeping as she ran. It's over, was all she could think. She'd seen the stunned look of horror on his face at her confession, and the way he'd closed his eyes, unable to look at her. She'd seen the tears he couldn't hold back, and she knew what it all meant. She'd taken a desperate gamble, and she'd lost. She'd lost him.

She had to get out of there. She found a door to a staircase, and flung herself down it.

It's over.

When Elyssa Ryan suddenly walked out of Sisters of Mercy's front entrance without Vecchio or any Mounties welded to her hip as had been usual lately, Victoria Metcalf sat up swiftly, stretching muscles grown stiff with sitting in the front seat of her car in the hospital parking lot. She could hardly believe her good fortune. After all this time, all this endless, boring watching and waiting, here was her prey: alone, vulnerable and, if she wasn't mistaken, in tears.


Presumably, she'd been visiting Benton. Trouble in love land? she wondered with a smile, hoping it was so. Though her heart was beating rapidly with excitement at this unexpected development, she forced herself to wait, not to act rashly. She knew Vecchio had driven the bitch here, she'd seen them arrive. So where was he? She waited a moment more, to make sure the damn meddling Italian wasn't just lagging behind her somewhere. But Ryan wandered slowly down the street away from the hospital, and Vecchio was nowhere in sight.

It was time. She opened her car door and took off after Ryan, exultant. It was only seven in the morning, so there was no one else around to witness what was about to happen, no one who could identify her. Not that anyone, even Fraser, would've recognized her in the short, curly brunette wig and dark sunglasses she was wearing. And Ryan was stumbling along, her head down, brushing away tears, oblivious to everything but her own evident misery. She wouldn't notice anyone following her until it was far too late. This was perfect! She didn't know what had happened to cause this breach in her enemies' security, but she wasn't going to waste the opportunity.

She liked to think it had happened because she'd willed it to.

"Miss, oh, miss! Excuse me... "

Elyssa hastily brushed away fresh tears, trying to clear her vision as a woman hurried towards her. She turned to find that she was young, about her own age, and slender, wearing a tailored black pants outfit that looked expensive. She was pretty, and she seemed a bit worried, as if she needed help. Elyssa tried to push her own grief aside so that she could talk to her.

The woman stopped beside her, a bit breathless, as if she'd been running. "Hi," she said, snapping open a soft leather purse that matched her clothes. "I'm sorry to bother you, Miss Ryan, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to come with me."

Elyssa blinked at her in confusion. Suddenly, the woman's voice had changed, lost its shaky, pleading tones and become clear and firm. Almost menacing. What are you talking about? she thought, wondering how the woman had known her name, and what she wanted. For a split second, she wondered if she was a cop who Benny had sent after her. Then she realized the truth, because at that instant, she saw what the slender brunette had reached in her purse for: a gun.

"It's loaded," she smiled as Elyssa lifted terrified eyes to hers. The woman's facade of nervousness had faded away, replaced by icy self-assurance as she drew the gun out of her purse and pointed it at Elyssa's breast.

Elyssa felt the blood drain away from her face. She froze as the truth came crashing down on her. She'd run off without Ray, without any protection at all... She'd been stupid, so stupid! And that stupidity hadn't gone unnoticed. This woman must've been waiting and watching for that.

"Victoria," she breathed, in utter shock. She'd heard about her for a long time, from both Benny and Ray, but even though she'd known she was back in town and after Benny and the people he loved, she'd never really thought to meet her face to face. It was a little like meeting a demon out of a childhood fairy tale, come to life.

The brunette's smile widened. She tipped her head slightly, as if acknowledging a compliment. "How nice," she purred, "to finally be recognized. And you're Elyssa Ryan. Well, now that introductions are over, let's get down to business," she said briskly. "We're both going to turn around and walk back to the parking lot where my car is waiting. And if you try to run, or call out to anyone, I will shoot you without hesitation. Got that?"

Elyssa nodded, believing her. Still, it wasn't in her to give up without a fight, regardless. She scanned the street around them desperately, but it was so early in the morning that it was deserted. There was no one else about, just a few oncoming cars that were too far off to see what was happening to her. Victoria had chosen her moment well.

But then Benny had always said she was very clever.

The thought of him turned her cold. Dear God, did Victoria get him too? No, Hanson was still at his door when I ran out, he'd protect him...

The realization filled her with relief, even as she was swept by a wrenching longing for him. I should've stayed there, she thought, should've tried harder to make him understand. Maybe I was wrong, maybe he still loves me--

But she hesitated too long. Victoria came around behind her, pressed her gun barrel into the small of her back. The better to conceal the weapon, Elyssa guessed, just in case anyone came along before they made it to her car. "Get going!" she hissed.

Caught in the grip of a waking nightmare, Elyssa did as she was told.

Fraser sank back against his pillow, feeling hollowed out inside. He didn't know why she'd chosen that moment for it, but Elyssa had confided in him, confessed her deepest, darkest secret (or one of them, anyway), and he'd failed her. She'd fled because she'd misunderstood his reaction to learning of her abortion, and he bitterly regretted his clumsiness.

He'd called after her, but she hadn't heard him.

He wasn't sure what to do; whether he should go after her, or let her be alone for a while. Finally, he decided that since it was his failure to clearly communicate his reaction to her news that had hurt her, he'd better try to find her, so they could talk it out. He threw back his covers and put his legs over the edge of the bed with a sigh. He had always been so awkward around women, even the ones he loved...

Like Victoria, he thought.

His head came up as fear cut through him, sudden and sharp as the nick of a blade. Victoria! How could he have forgotten about her, even for a moment? She was out there somewhere, maybe even watching the hospital, and Elyssa had run off alone and upset!

He'd pushed her so hard to let him into her soul so he could keep her safe, keep Victoria at bay--and then he'd let the demon in himself.

He forced himself to his feet, alarms ringing in his head. Hadn't he just told himself he could protect Elyssa better than anyone? Then he'd committed a stupid mistake, worthy of a raw recruit. What a fool! It didn't matter that he'd been shocked by her declaration, or that he was still in considerable pain; he should've remained focused on his task of protecting her, nonetheless. No excuses would be good enough if anything happened to her.

"Hanson!" he yelled hoarsely as he moved awkwardly towards the door.

The Mountie came inside immediately.

"Where is Elyssa? The woman who was just here?"

Hanson's eyes widened a little at his urgency. "She left, sir. Went down the stairs a few minutes ago."


"Yes, sir," Hanson answered, clearly puzzled by the question. Fraser cursed horribly in his head. He'd half hoped Ray Vecchio might've been hanging around in the hall waiting for her, but no such luck. Damn the man! If he was going to have an affair with her, couldn't he at least protect her while he was at it?

There was only one thing to do. Though walking was still an effort that made his head spin and his ribs ache, he knew he'd have to find her himself. "Page her," he ordered Hanson.


He snapped, "The nurse's station! There's a pager there! Find the nearest one, tell her it's an emergency, and have them page Elyssa! She may be in danger!"

Hanson shifted uncomfortably on his feet. "I would, sir, but I'm not supposed to leave my post until I'm relieved. That would leave you unguarded. Inspector Thatcher was quite clear on that--"

No doubt. Ordinarily, Fraser would've sympathized, but this wasn't an ordinary situation. "Then you'll have to come with me, Constable," he rasped, "because if you won't go, I will."

Ray was down in the hospital cafeteria sipping coffee when he heard the paging system blare, "Elyssa Ryan. Would Miss Elyssa Ryan please report to the nurse's station on the fourth floor... Miss Elyssa Ryan. Urgent."

He surged to his feet, his coffee forgotten. He wasn't sure who was looking for her, but that summons could mean only one thing: Elyssa was missing. Things hadn't gone well with Benny, and she'd gone off on her own--which meant that Victoria could get to her.

Goddamn Fraser! I'm gonna kill him, he thought, charging for the nearest staircase. He'd memorized the layout of the hospital, and there were only two ways off of Benny's floor: down the staircase or the elevator. And though he'd been sitting watching the elevator for almost an hour, waiting for her, Elyssa hadn't gotten off it. Which meant she was either on the stairs somewhere, or wandering down one of the other floors.

Or else she'd taken the stairs to street level and gone out the side exit without him seeing her. But that was an alternative he didn't want to think about.

If anything happens to her, he snarled to himself as he took the steps upward two at a time, I'll make Fraser wish he was in a coma again.

He had to take his panic out on someone.

"There." Victoria handcuffed her right arm to the passenger door handle before starting her car. "That ought to hold you while I drive."

She thinks of everything, Elyssa reflected, aggravated by her thoroughness. Her initial shock at being taken prisoner was wearing off, though her fear of Victoria hadn't ebbed. The touch of her long, cool, elegant fingers on her wrist had revolted Elyssa, but now that she'd seen her for herself, she couldn't help but notice how good looking the woman was: tall and slender, with high cheekbones and a lush mouth. She didn't doubt that the eyes hidden behind her sunglasses were equally striking.

She could see why Benny had fallen under her spell, though the thought of him with her brought a surge of pure jealousy. "Aren't you a bit worried I might still hit you with this?" she asked defiantly, waving her free left hand in the air as she considered doing just that.

Victoria kept her eyes on the road. "I'm betting that you're not that stupid," she said coolly. She patted the gun she'd laid on the seat to her left, where Elyssa couldn't reach it. "It would hardly be to your benefit to try. I'd either shoot you, or, if you got lucky, I'd lose control of the car. But if we have an accident, you'd be badly injured or even killed, cuffed as you are. In either case, you'd lose."

Elyssa set her jaw, frustration added to her fear because she knew she was right.

"So you see, you may as well sit back and enjoy the ride," she advised with mocking courtesy.

Elyssa clenched her fist and rattled her chains instead.

Fraser, Hanson and Ray met on the small second story landing. He'd been going upstairs, they'd been coming down. Fraser was holding onto Constable Hanson's arm, and breathing hard. Ray noticed that his head wound had begun to bleed again, under his bandages.

"Where is she?" Fraser demanded, uncaring. No need to explain who 'she' was, or what was wrong.

"I don't know! She was supposed to be with you!" he yelled back, fear translating into anger as they all paused for breath.

Fraser's face worked. "She was, but she left--"

"Well, she didn't come down the elevator, 'cuz I've been watchin' it since I left her with you! And she didn't come to the cafeteria."

"Hanson says she took the stairs. She was upset. Could she have taken the car and gone home?"

Ray shook his head grimly. "I drove her here, she doesn't have keys."

They stared at each other for a second. "She left on foot," they blurted in chorus.

There was no time to waste. Ray leapt back down the stairs, four at a time this time, heading for the street level entrance. "I'll check the car," he called over his shoulder. "Maybe she went there to wait for me. You take the street."

When they pulled up in front of a huge old warehouse in a decaying, run-down part of town, and Victoria got out of the car, Elyssa tensed. God--is that what she has in mind? Is she going to leave me in this deserted place, handcuffed to this car? "What're you doing?" she asked.

Victoria didn't bother to answer. Instead, she ran to the building's large, metallic door. She slid it open with an effort, then ran back to the car, got in and drove inside the warehouse. Then she slammed to a stop, got out and closed the door behind them again, effectively hiding them from view.

Relieved that she hadn't been left alone to die, Elyssa waited nervously for what would happen next. She suddenly wondered why, when Victoria had been so careful otherwise, she hadn't bothered to blindfold her to disguise their route, or their destination.

This must've been a spur-of-the-moment act, she told herself. She didn't have a blindfold with her.

She clung to that idea, because the only other answer she could come up with didn't bear thinking about.

When Fraser and Ray met up again outside the hospital some five minutes later, Fraser was panting, and neither man had found Elyssa.

"She's not there," Ray said. "I questioned everyone I could find in the parking garage. No one saw her. Where's Hanson?"

Fraser grabbed his arm. With his bloodstained bandage and frantic eyes, he looked wild, as far from his normally calm, collected Mountie self as Ray had ever seen him. "I sent him back inside, to call the police. She took her!" he wheezed.

Ray's eyes narrowed. "What?"

"She's gone! I found a young girl... She and her mother--were driving around front looking for a parking spot. She saw Elyssa get into a car with a woman with brown hair and sunglasses. About ten minutes ago."

"What kinda' car?"

Benny shook his head. "Dark blue, small... That's all she knows."


"She couldn't see the number, they were too far away."

Ray gritted his teeth. "Victoria! Christ!" he exploded. "This is all your fault, Fraser!"

"I know that!" Fraser snapped back. "But that's not important now. We have to go after her--"

Vecchio shook his head angrily. "No. Not we. I'm goin' after her," he said, turning on his heel.

"Ray, wait! How are you going to find her?"

Ray didn't answer. He just ran back towards the parking garage, without a backward glance. Because the debt he still had to pay regarding Benny was heavy enough. The miles he had to go before he could rest would be unending if anything happened to Elyssa.

Victoria held the gun on her and threw a key into her lap from a safe distance. "Unlock the cuffs, drop them on the floor and climb out," she directed. Elyssa stifled a surge of regret. She'd expected Victoria would free her, and she'd had a momentary thought of hitting her in the face with them in the process, and trying to escape. But Victoria was far too clever to put herself in such a dangerous position. So she picked up the key and unlocked the cuffs, trying to keep her hands from shaking visibly.

"Put them on the floor and get out of the car," Victoria repeated.

She rubbed her wrist where the cuff had chafed it, dropped them to the floor, then reached over to pick up her purse.

"Leave it," Victoria said coolly. "You can get that later."

She knows I could use that as a weapon, too, Elyssa thought. With one last futile glance at it, she slid reluctantly out of the car and looked around. The warehouse was vast and three stories high, with large windows on the second story that were so coated with grime they let in very little light. Large pieces of what looked like broken metal piping lay against the walls, rusting in the shadows. Elyssa wondered what it had originally been used for.

What Victoria intended to use it for, she preferred not to think about. "Where are we going?"

Victoria pointed straight ahead, into the warehouse's dingy interior. "Thataway."

Ray gunned the Riviera out of the hospital's parking garage at high speed, his police light flashing a warning on the roof. Luckily, the garage attendant saw it and got the gate up, so he didn't have to crash through it. Lt. Welsh hated it when he destroyed private property...

Fraser stood just past the gate, waving frantically at him to stop. "Get real!" he muttered darkly, passing him by. He was in no mood, at the moment, to pardon his friend for putting Elyssa in danger like this, though a tiny part of him knew that he hadn't meant to. But as he hit the street and pulled away, he glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the Canadian running behind his car.

Actually, staggering would be a better description, he thought. "Crazy bastard!" he snapped. "Do you actually think you can catch me?" Though why such insane determination should've surprised him, after the camping trip from hell he'd suffered through with Fraser just over a year ago, he didn't know. He was nutty enough normally--but when he got hit in the head, look out!

Fraser dwindled in the mirror, but kept coming. Got smaller still, then Ray saw him fall to his knees in the middle of the street. He was almost glad. Good. Crazy or not, at least the Mountie had stopped.

"Oh, no, no, no! He's getting up again!"

He remembered a time when Benny had chased frantically after Dief, explaining that otherwise, the wolf would run until he burst his heart, because Fraser had asked him to. Ray knew that, where love was concerned, his master was no different.


Victoria forced Elyssa to walk deep into the shadowy warehouse, through a dirty, rusting silence that seemed unending. She found herself thinking of Benny and their baby, and wishing desperately that she'd been able to tell him about it before this had happened.

Now, I may never get the--

No, she told herself. Don't think that way! If you give in to panic, you lose any chance of getting out of this. If you panic, she wins.

She took a deep breath. "Nice place you've got here," she joked, proud that she'd managed to keep her voice even despite her fear.

But her calm didn't faze Victoria. "It has its charms," she agreed slyly. "Isolation, for one. Like the realtors say: 'Location, location, location!' No neighbors for miles around. That's so important, don't you agree?"

Elyssa gritted her teeth and fell silent again.

Ray almost ran Fraser down. Slamming the Riv to a stop barely a foot from where the Canadian was stubbornly weaving down the street, oblivious to the blaring horns of angry drivers behind him, he threw open the passenger door. "Get in, dammit, before you kill yourself!" he snarled.

"Thanks," Fraser gasped, as he hauled himself into the car.

Ray scowled. "Not that I'd care if you killed yourself, you stubborn--"

"How're--we going to find her?" Benny wheezed single-mindedly, ignoring that. "We don't--know what kind of car Victoria's driving, or--where she went... "

As he cut a tight U turn, Ray shot a sideways glance at him. Fraser was ashen, sweating heavily, and the bloodstain on the bandage on his forehead had tripled in size. Not to mention the fact that he was evidently having trouble breathing. Even as he watched, he hunched his shoulders unconsciously. His broken ribs must be killing him. That fall in the middle of the street sure as hell hadn't helped any, either.

He should still be in the hospital. Crazy Canadian! He knew damn well if he hadn't come back to pick him up, he would've staggered, even crawled through the streets if he had to, pursuing him. And probably gotten himself killed. He shook his head, his earlier rage at Benny's callous treatment of Elyssa mitigated by his desperate display of devotion.

"Take it easy, Benny," he murmured, with grudging respect. "I got it covered." He picked up a little black, phone-sized device he'd set on the seat next to him, and placed it on the dash where Fraser could see it.

"A trace, Ray. You set up--a trace!" Fraser panted, shocked as he noticed the blinking LED readout on it. "When?"

"This morning. Just in case."


"I bugged her car and her purse. Just to be safe. She doesn't know."


He didn't acknowledge the compliment, merely looked sideways at the Mountie, waiting for the inevitable second thought. It wasn't long in coming.

"You are aware... of course... that such devices are illegal--"

He grinned wryly. "Save your breath, Benny. It's already done. You can arrest me once we find her, okay?"

Fraser stared straight ahead, as if he were seriously considering the idea.

Ray shrugged. "They're headin' southwest," he said, eyeing the blip on the tracking device. "Musta' taken the Expressway onto 55." Which made sense--Victoria would want to get out of the area as fast as possible. He headed for it too.

"What's the tracking device's range?" Fraser asked.

"A hundred miles," he answered. "And it's set to broadcast for the next 48 hours." Unless, of course, Victoria finds it and destroys it. Or worse, throws it out the window while they're driving, and sends us on a wild goose chase... His cop brain stubbornly pointed out various pessimistic scenarios which he didn't voice, for Fraser's sake.

"Good," Fraser muttered. "This time, she won't get away."

Ray wished he was as sure of that. If Victoria found the bugs, they'd have no way of tracing her, or of saving Elyssa. As it was, she had at least a ten-minute start on them, maybe more. He wasn't convinced they'd reach her in time for a rescue, though he wasn't about to tell Benny that.

Besides--it was Fraser's fault she was in this mess. His earlier anger returned. He'd told Fraser he'd come looking for him if he mistreated Elyssa, and he'd meant it. There hadn't been time before, but now that Fraser was his captive audience, so to speak, he decided to find out exactly what he'd done to her. "How did this happen?" he asked, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. "Why did Elyssa run off? What did you say to her?"

Fraser closed his eyes, his jaw working painfully. But Ray wasn't letting him off the hook that easily. "Well?" he prompted. "Did she tell you about the baby? Was that it?"

Fraser held a hand to his head, laid it against the seat back. "Yes--"

"You bastard," Ray breathed, seething. The incident touched a nerve. He'd wanted a kid so bad himself, he'd almost died when Angie lost their baby. How could Fraser not welcome a kid of his own, not want it? What the hell had he said to her, anyway, when she told him? "Oh, dear. This presents a problem?"

Fraser grunted, then hunched over again, visibly favoring his ribs. "Don't you mean cuckold?" he gritted.

Ray blinked at him, confused by the strange change of subject. "Cuckold? Whaddaya' mean?"

Fraser shot him a wicked look, breathing heavily. "Cuckold," he repeated bitterly. "From the Middle English word 'cokewold'. It means--"

Vecchio rolled his eyes. "You don't have to quote Webster's for me, you idiot, I know what it means! I just don't know what the hell you're talkin' about!" Must be the head wound, he thought.

"You don't know," Fraser repeated, with obvious disbelief.

"No, I don't! And quit changin' the subject. We were talkin' about you and Elyssa. You had a fight, right? About her bein' pregnant."

Fraser's lips thinned. "No. If you must know, we were talking about her abortion."

Ray stared at him, stunned. "You want her to have an abortion? " he breathed in horror.

It was Fraser's turn to look at him askance. "Don't be absurd, Ray. I would never--and besides, she'd have to be pregnant to--" All at once, he sputtered to a stop, and his eyes widened. He stared at Ray for a long moment. "She's pregnant? " he whispered, as shocked as Ray had ever seen him.

As they swung up an onramp to the freeway, following the blip on the tracking device, Ray frowned at him. For the first time in history, he'd known something Fraser didn't, and managed to shock him speechless into the bargain; but he couldn't even enjoy it. He was too confused. Besides, Fraser had turned even whiter, and his eyes had rolled up in his head. He looked like he was about to faint. "If you didn't know, then why were you talkin' about abortions?" he asked sharply, to prevent the Mountie from sliding into an unconscious puddle on the floor at his feet.

Fraser didn't answer for a long time. When he did, it was only to say, "You knew! "

Far from being happy, Benny sounded so bitter that it surprised him. He had that weird look in his eyes again, the one he'd had at the hospital, that implied he'd like to strangle him if he could. What the hell was that all about? He shrugged defensively. "I only found out a few nights ago, when I came over to talk to you about the pictures--"

"What pictures?"

Oh, shit! Elyssa didn't tell him. Well, maybe it would be better coming from him, anyway. And it'd get the conversation out of deeper waters for a minute, too. Away from that crazy cuckold stuff, and by the way nobody, I mean nobody, uses that word anymore, Fraser!

Keeping his eyes on the road, he asked, "Remember how I was out in front of your place when you were kidnapped?"

Fraser nodded.

"Well, I wasn't really there to take you to work, like I said. I came over the night before to show you some pictures someone left on my desk at work. I ended up having dinner with Elyssa, then I fell asleep in my car--"

"What pictures?" Fraser demanded impatiently.

Ray took a deep breath. "They're pictures of you in a gay bar, Fraser. A place called The Two Faces. One of the Gay Strangler's victims was trailed home from that bar."

There. At last, it was out in the open. But to his surprise, Fraser didn't even try to deny that he'd been there. He just closed his eyes again, and he couldn't tell if his pain was physical or emotional or both. "Does Elyssa know about them?" he asked tightly, and for a moment, Ray's heart sank. He'd assumed the pictures were some scam by Victoria, that Fraser was innocent. What if he'd been wrong, and they were genuine after all?

"Yeah. She saw 'em by accident, while we were havin' dinner."

He could've sworn Fraser was grinding his teeth. "My God," he muttered. "She never told me--what must she think?"

"We both think Victoria took those pictures," Ray said carefully. That wasn't all of it; he and Elyssa had also both decided that they must've been a con, and that Benny really wasn't gay. And neither of them had ever believed he'd had anything to do with the murders. But he didn't mention that yet, because he wanted to hear his explanation for the photos. "The question is--"

"I only went there once," Fraser said tightly. "Dief came home from the park where Willy'd been letting him run a few weeks ago with a note under his collar saying that he'd stolen the groceries out of one A. Crowley's shopping bag, and that he wanted to meet me to discuss replacing them that night. The note specified he'd be at that bar at 6:30, so naturally I went to meet him, but--"

"He never showed up, so you had a drink, then went home," Ray finished for him. "But in the meantime, without you knowing it, Victoria snapped off a few shots of you."

"Evidently," he nodded.

Ray shook his head bitterly. Fraser was as innocent as he'd thought, but... "Then how come, when I asked you if you'd ever been in a gay bar, you said no?" he demanded, doing a slow boil as he thought of the agony he'd gone through, wondering whether those pictures meant that Fraser was gay, that he'd been lying to him ever since they met.

Fraser swallowed hard. "I had no idea The Two Faces was a gay bar until I'd sat there for awhile, waiting for Mr. Crowley. Then several men approached me with unusual requests--"

Ray grimaced. "Spare me the details. I can guess."

The Mountie blushed. "Yes, well... The intent of their proposals eventually became clear, and I was embarrassed at not having recognized the milieu sooner, and... Well, I thought you might wonder why I--"

"Went to a place like that?"

"Yes. And since you'd already expressed what could only be described as marked distaste for such places, and similar proposals you'd received on your murder investigation, I was reluctant to tell you about the incident."

"Afraid I'd laugh at you?" he asked succinctly.

"In a word, yes."

Ray sighed. Jesus--he'd tied himself into knots for three days, for nothing! And it was his own fault, he reflected ruefully. If he wasn't so damn sarcastic, so quick to laugh, maybe Benny would've trusted him enough to tell him the truth. "Well, you don't have to worry about Elyssa," he said, trying to make up for it. "She's already decided the pictures were a scam, that you're not gay. And we both know you didn't have anything to do with those murders."

"Thank God," Fraser whispered, vastly relieved. Elyssa was probably justifiably angry at his insensitive reaction to her statement that she'd had an abortion, but at least she didn't think he was some kind of pathologic liar or homosexual murderer. That would've been upsetting in the extreme.

"Now she's turned north," Ray said, eyeing the trace's display. "Where the hell's she headed?"

"She must've taken 355," Fraser said. It was the only northerly highway in their vicinity.

"Yeah, yeah, but where's she goin'?"

Fraser thought rapidly, trying to remember what lay ahead on that projected route. He knew Victoria liked to play with her victims first, before dispatching them; witness the long game she'd played with him and Ray before, drawing out their suffering as long as she could. So he suspected she was taking Elyssa to a secluded place, where she could toy with her like a cat with a mouse. He remembered how white and anguished she'd looked when he'd last seen her, and the memory stabbed him. She'd been so hurt anyway, so shaken by what she saw as his rejection of her, she must've been easy prey for Victoria. But after being raped two years ago, being threatened and held hostage by someone again would be doubly frightening for her. It would undoubtedly revive all the awful memories she'd been trying so hard to forget.

She must be terrified...

He felt a wave of hatred for Victoria, stronger than any hatred he'd ever felt in his life before. It washed over him, black and bitter and towering.

If you hurt her, I'll kill you. He'd never felt that way before in his life, not even when Victoria had tried to destroy him before. But in that second, he thought that if she had been present, he would've gladly strangled her with his bare hands.

Maybe the difference in his reaction, this newly virulent hatred, could be attributed to the fact that he no longer loved her. If he ever really had. What he felt for Elyssa was so much stronger, went so much deeper, that there was no comparison. He sent a private, inchoate burst of love and warmth to her, wherever she was.

Then he forced his mind back to the problem at hand. Where would Victoria go? No doubt she'd been in Chicago long enough now to scout out the perfect location to take a captive to... The area they were passing now was heavily populated and residential, but he remembered that there was a rundown industrial section north of them...

"She might be heading for Lisle," he said aloud.

"How do you know?"

"Well, of course I'm not certain. It's just a feeling--"

"You mean like a hunch? I'm the one who has hunches, remember? You taste things, I have hunches," Ray snapped sarcastically.

Anger suddenly surged inside of him again at the Italian's rudeness--anger fueled by black jealousy he'd been trying unsuccessfully to repress. "If I had stolen one of your hunches, it would be only fair, don't you think?"

Ray didn't even take his eyes from the road, just muttered, "Why?"

Fraser hadn't even realized he'd voiced his jealous thought aloud. But discovering that he had somehow only fueled the building explosion inside of him. "Because you owe me."

"For what?"

"For stealing Elyssa," he said hoarsely, laying all his cards on the table, as the Americans said.

"What?" Ray half-smiled, shooting an incredulous glance at him. He didn't bother to answer, just shook his head, for all the world as if Fraser had lost his mind. His reaction was so easy, so natural and reflexive that it shook Fraser, made him doubt himself for a second. What if he'd been wrong about him and Elyssa? After all, he'd just suffered a terrible blow to his head. What if it had affected him more than he'd realized? What if he'd only imagined their damning conversation by his bed?

No, I heard them. "I said, I know about you and Elyssa," he repeated stubbornly, louder that time, so Ray wouldn't be able to dismiss it as a joke.

That time, his words hit home. Ray's eyes went wide, and he blinked. "Know what?"

Fraser felt a tiny, black kind of satisfaction at confronting him at last, at putting an end to his lies. "I know that you've been having an affair with her."

Ray didn't speak for a minute, didn't move. Staring fixedly at the highway, he drew a deep breath, his hands flexing ever so slightly. "An affair," he said quietly, with apparent calm. "Me an' Elyssa."

He seemed perfectly rational, but Fraser had noticed the warning signs: the ominous tightening of his hands on the wheel, as if it were someone's neck, and that familiar tone of voice; that seemingly calm, even cheerful intonation that, in Vecchio, was a sure sign of imminent explosion.

"You think we're havin' an affair. That you've been 'cuckolded'." Ray's voice was so cool now it was positively glacial.

Fraser tensed. Oh, dear. But he'd gone too far to back down now. "Yes," he answered, not without reluctance.

Suddenly, before he could blink, Ray grabbed him by the neck of his sweatshirt. "You asshole! If you weren't my best friend, I'd kill you for that!" he hissed, enraged.

"Traffic, Ray!" he gasped, as the Riviera began to drift towards the next lane. He wasn't sure whether he was more worried about being beaten to a pulp by the enraged Italian, or smeared into an equally bloody pulp if he lost control of the car.

"Fuck the traffic!" Ray snarled, not even looking at the road. His green eyes bored into him like lasers. "Where the hell did you get that idea? Do you actually think I'd sleep with the woman you love? Is that what you think o' me? Is that what you think o' her? "

As their car suddenly crossed over into the next lane of traffic, an outraged motorist blasted his horn so loudly that Fraser's skull throbbed. He grabbed the wheel, steadied their course so they wouldn't drift any further. "I think that it might be prudent to have this discussion at another time--"

Furious, Ray knocked his hand off the wheel. "No, goddammit! You brought this up, now you answer me! Is that what you think?" he demanded, shaking him so that his teeth rattled. Fraser knew he was a hair away from trying to choke him. Still, there was such pain behind his rage, in his wide green eyes that he knew his reaction was genuine. Which meant that he was in the wrong, that he'd made a terrible mistake. So terrible, in fact, that it might be unforgivable. But he had to be absolutely certain...

"I didn't want to," he gritted, "but I heard you together. In the hospital! You asked her to spend the night with you--"

Ray's lips thinned. "Not in my bed, at my house, you idiot! She needed to get some sleep, 'cuz she was wearin' herself out watchin' over you! And I needed to be sure she'd be safe, because o' Victoria, so I sent her home. But she's been sleepin' in Frannie's room. I never touched her." He shoved him away with a snort of disgust, breathing hard, and settled back into his seat.

Fraser swallowed hard, torn between relief that he was watching the road again, so they weren't in imminent danger of having an accident, and a reluctance to admit that he'd been wrong. He wanted to believe him, but...

"Well, there was considerable evidence to support my conclusion, Ray," he said defensively. "I saw you embracing her, and--"

"Hell, I do that all the time, Benny, in case you haven't noticed! She's my friend, dammit. But that's all she is! And if I'd known you were that jealous, I wouldn't've. Well, yes I would, because she was cryin'," Ray snapped.

"I'm not bothered by it," Fraser protested. "At least, I wasn't until... Why? Why was she crying?" he persisted stubbornly, driven to banish the last of his doubts. "She said, 'I feel so guilty. How could we?' What did she mean?"

Ray grimaced. "She felt guilty because we suspected you were gay, because of those damn pictures!" he growled. "That's what she was talkin' about!"

Once again, he knew Ray was telling the truth. Fraser fell silent, aghast at how utterly wrong he'd been. Good God. I misinterpreted everything! I misjudged both of them...

"This is why you were so pissed off when you woke up, why you threw me outta' your room, isn't it," Ray said.

It was a statement, not a question. Fraser was so embarrassed and remorseful he felt himself turning red. He could hardly summon a response. "I'm sorry, I--"

"Forget it," Ray cut him off perversely. "We haven't got time for this shit." Still seething, he stomped the pedal to the floor, so suddenly that Fraser was thrown back against his seat. The Riviera's engine thrummed, and they seemed to be flying.

He risked a glance at the speedometer. It read 95. He groaned to himself. Maybe he'd been premature in believing they wouldn't get in an accident. But he knew better than to complain about it. For one thing, the faster they went, the faster they would find Elyssa. And for another, he knew that at the moment, any comment about Ray's driving would probably be worth his life. "Ray, I'm sorry," he tried again, after a few minutes. "I--"

"Shut up, Fraser, just shut up!" he growled.

He subsided, mortified. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so embarrassed, the last time he'd made such a complete, utter fool of himself. Only this time, he'd hurt Ray deeply into the bargain. So deeply that he obviously wasn't going to talk to him about anything but their rescue effort for a while. Or maybe ever again.

Several minutes passed in silence. Fraser clung to his door handle, white-knuckled and silent, as Ray weaved the Riviera past other drivers at suicidal speed. He felt nauseous, for more reasons than one.

"Tell me where they're heading," Ray said at last, without looking at him.

"They're still going north," Fraser said, as they approached a junction.

Ray swung onto 355 without a word.

Elyssa hesitated out on the darkened warehouse floor where Victoria had taken her. All at once, through its cobwebby emptiness, some objects took shape: a small, battered wooden table and two chairs, set under a low-hanging lamp. The furniture was old and rickety, the table bare except for a small, black, ominous shape set on it that Elyssa could recognize, even at a distance.

It wasn't exactly a set-up for a party, but it was nonetheless carefully arranged; and realizing that, Elyssa knew Victoria had planned this whole thing. She hadn't just kidnapped her at whim because the opportunity had presented itself, that had been her goal all along. She'd just been waiting for the right moment to carry it out. Like a stage master hovering unseen at the edges of her and Ben's lives, she'd manipulated them through increasingly dark scenes until they were separated, and Elyssa was alone with her on this grim stage.

There was no doubt Victoria meant this as her final act, but Elyssa refused to see it that way. Fear and resentment had grown in her as the other woman had forced her further and further into the old building. Now, seeing that table with its grim place setting for one, they prompted her to rebel. She balked, and stopped walking.

"Get going!"

Victoria pushed her forward. It was the first time she'd been rough with her, and Elyssa sensed a growing excitement behind the shove. She was getting impatient for the big scene, she could feel it. And with Victoria's gun at her back, all her defiance didn't amount to much. She really couldn't delay too long, or she'd get shot. She glared at her captor over her shoulder, then moved towards the table as slowly as she could. Dragging her feet across the dusty concrete floor, she tried to calm her racing heart, and prayed that Benny would've noticed her absence by now.

She means to kill me. The thought filled her mind, despite her efforts to be brave.

Victoria smiled, satisfied as a cat with cream, as she saw understanding dawn in Elyssa's eyes, mixed with terror. "Get over there!" She shoved her again, harder this time, hard enough to have knocked Elyssa off her feet if she hadn't been expecting it. As it was, she stumbled a bit, then righted herself, clutching her abdomen reflexively as she stopped beside the rickety little table under the mercilessly bright light. She couldn't afford to fall, or to make a mistake. Not now. She had to hold on, she had to be strong for Benny, for her baby and herself.

But God, I'm so scared! I've never been so scared, except for that night...

Suddenly, at the memory of that, new courage begin to flow into her. She'd been beaten before, brutalized before. Pain and violence were nothing new to her--but Victoria didn't know that. Victoria didn't know she'd been through hell and lived, or how much strength that had given her...

Victoria was counting only on her fear.

That gave Elyssa an edge, the first bit of hope she'd felt since her abduction. "How long do you think it'll be before Benny realizes I'm missing and comes after you?" she asked, her words loud in the dusty silence. Brave words, but even Elyssa knew how hollow they were. Even if he did discover that she was missing and figure out that Victoria had taken her, he'd have no way of knowing where they'd gone.

Victoria didn't bother to answer her, she just gestured silently with her gun as they reached the table: Sit down.

When she did, Victoria pushed the gun on the table towards her. It gleamed a deadly blue-black under the light. Staring at it in horror, Elyssa found herself wondering crazily if Victoria had shined it lovingly in preparation for this moment. It wouldn't have surprised her. The woman's smile was gloating, predatory.

Yet Elyssa understood why Benny had been attracted to her. She was sleek, darkly beautiful as a tiger, or a shark, or any wild animal whose smooth, gorgeous surface concealed razor-sharp teeth.

"Pick it up," she smiled sweetly, gesturing at the gun.

Elyssa shook her head. She knew how a mouse must feel when a snake rises hissing from tall grass and freezes it with reptilian eyes.

An affair. He thought I was having an affair with his girlfriend. His pregnant girlfriend. The dickhead!

Ray Vecchio was so mad his eyeballs were steaming. He drove the Riviera automatically, hardly seeing the road, even his concern for Elyssa overshadowed by his rage. Of all the stupid, monumentally dumb, lunatic ideas Fraser's ever come up with, that was by far the dumbest! He couldn't believe that after all they'd been through together, as close as they'd become, as many times as they'd risked their lives for each other, Fraser had thought that about him.

That he could lie to him like that, betray him that way. That she would.

All because of an innocent hug, and a few misinterpreted words. It was beyond insulting, it was the last straw. Finito Benito! Unforgivable.

It was--

Kind of like assuming your best friend's gay because you see a picture of him in a gay bar, a tiny voice whispered in his head.

"No it's not! It's not the same at all."

Fraser stirred hopefully beside him. "What, Ray?"

The Canadian's blue eyes were stricken, forlorn, like a dog whose beloved master had kicked it. Puppy-like and silent, they pleaded with him for forgiveness. He gritted his teeth, embarrassed that he'd spoken his thoughts aloud, not ready to grant absolution. "Nothing!" he snapped, glaring fiercely at him.


It was a very small, very crestfallen 'oh'. It got to Ray in spite of himself.

I shoulda' popped him one, he told himself, in an effort to stay furious. If he wasn't already in such sorry shape, I would've. He shot a surreptitious glance at the Mountie. Fraser sat hunched over his sore ribs, clinging silently to the door, the bandage around his head bloodied, the knees of his sweatpants dirty and torn from the fall he'd taken in the street, his face a study in pure misery.

He was so far from his usual, annoyingly perfect self, in fact, that Ray felt a twinge of compassion. It was hard to hate a guy who was so busy hating himself more.

He sighed, and eased up very slightly on the gas.

After all, Fraser had woken from a coma, wounded and not thinking clearly, to find him holding Elyssa, and both of them saying things that, on reflection, could've been construed as damning. He supposed, in his place, he might've thought the same thing. And once he learned the truth, he had tried to apologize.

And after all, he'd doubted him just as deeply, and for similar reasons. He'd actually thought, despite their long friendship, that Fraser was gay, and that he'd been lying to both him and Elyssa all along.

So maybe he'd been behaving just a bit hypocritically, going off on Benny like that. Maybe sometimes, even when friends behaved like dickheads, they could be forgiven.


He let the idea simmer in his mind for another ten miles, as they raced north on Victoria and Elyssa's trail. A tiny part of him that was a teeny bit jealous of Fraser just couldn't let him off the hook right away. For all the times that the Canadian had been proved right when he was wrong, for all the times he'd gotten the ladies' attention without even trying, maybe even because he'd won one particular woman's love forever, Ray let him stew awhile longer.

Then he took a deep breath. "Okay, Fraser," he said loudly, startling his friend from his nearly comatose state of silent misery. "This is how it's gonna be."

The Canadian eyed him warily, not saying anything.

"I'm gonna pretend like this didn't happen. Like you were never stupid enough to even suspect, for one minute, that I would lay a hand on Elyssa. Ever! You got that?"

"I believe I--"

"A simple 'yes' will do," he interrupted sternly.

"Yes, Ray," Fraser said meekly.

"Good. And we're not gonna talk about this ever again. And you're not gonna ever mention it to Elyssa, either. Because you were completely, one hundred percent wrong about both of us, and it would only upset her. Right?"

"Right!" Fraser answered. "I mean, yes."

"And since you owe me one, big time, for ever thinkin' somethin' so incredibly dumb in the first place, you agree not to arrest me for usin' this illegal bugging device, once we find Elyssa. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Benny said eagerly. "Right. I mean... yes. That is, no I won't. Arrest you, that is."

"And the next time we get in a tight spot, you will not ask me to blow up the Riv to get us out of it, either, will you?"

"No, Ray," he said earnestly.

Ray wasn't sure if he believed that one, though. Promise or no promise, the Mountie was addicted to destroying classic cars in tight situations. Still, he allowed himself a small smile. What would his life be, anyway, without Benny in it to drive him crazy? "Oh--there's just one more thing. It doesn't really bother you, does it? Me huggin' Elyssa, I mean."

Blue eyes met green and held for a long, wordless moment. Then Benny's lips curved ever so slightly, and he shook his head. "No, Ray," he said softly. "I don't mind. She likes you very much, you know."

Ray grimaced at the sentiment. "Yeah, well. She may like me, but she loves you, Benny. Story o' my life," he grumbled. "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride." But secretly, he was touched.

Then the Canadian's eyes swept back to the road ahead of him, and his face grew grim. "We have to find her, Ray," he said.

Just that. But those few words conveyed a terror Ray had never seen in him before. Benny didn't sound that frightened when he was lying on that train platform, bleeding to death with a bullet in his back.

"We will," he promised. Both their eyes were on the trace's LED display: north. They were still heading north.

He pushed the pedal to the floor again.

Elyssa stared at the gun, mesmerized, not moving. Its presence made no sense. Why would Victoria want her armed?

"Take it, Ryan," Victoria ordered, pointing the pistol she held at her head. "Or I'll kill you anyway."

Her chilling suspicion hardened into sudden certainty. At last, she knew why Victoria had brought her here, and what she really wanted. One last throw of the desperate dice she favored, one last game.

"Russian Roulette," she breathed, not even realizing she'd voiced her thoughts aloud.

Victoria smiled. "The game of champions."

"This isn't very original, you know. I've seen it done before in movies," Elyssa blurted, before she could stop herself. She'd meant to deflate Victoria's maddening air of superiority, but had only succeeded in sounding like a scared little girl. What are you doing? she groaned inwardly. She's going to kill you, and you're playing Siskel and Ebert, criticizing her scenario?

"But this isn't a movie," Victoria purred. "These guns are loaded; and these bullets will kill. Open them and see." She put her gun down on the table beside the other, and Elyssa numbly opened each one's magazine. "Each gun has three bullets, and three empty chambers. So each of us will have an equal chance: three grabs at life, three tickets to Hell."

Though she didn't want to, Elyssa found her eyes drawn to the guns with a kind of horrible fascination. What Victoria said was true; each one was half loaded, half empty.

"Reality. Puts a whole new slant on the game, don't you think?" She picked up her gun again, centered the barrel on Elyssa's forehead and cocked the trigger. "Last chance, Ryan," she said.

Fraser fought to keep his fear from showing, but it was bottomless, making him sweat, making his heart pound, making it hard to concentrate. His head ached abominably, and every minute that ticked by was another strike against them, another chance for Victoria to hurt Elyssa. No matter how fast Ray went, it wasn't fast enough. The chase had already lasted what seemed like a small eternity. Time, for him, had slowed to a crawl.

I feel so helpless!

He looked down to find his hands curled into fists, and when he relaxed them, they ached. Especially the left one, where he'd been injured.

I can't help her like this.

He was panicking, and he knew it, but he didn't seem to be able to stop it. For the first time in his life, danger wasn't bringing out the best in him, but the worst. If he kept on like this, he'd lose it completely when they found her, maybe even commit a disastrous mistake, out of sheer terror for her.

He needed to calm down, needed to shut out his pain, clear his head and focus. He laid his head back on the seat for a moment, closed his eyes... And on the backs of his eyelids, he saw Victoria shoot Elyssa, heard her cry out for him as she crumpled to the ground.

No! That's not real, it didn't happen! he told himself desperately. Calm down. Clear your mind. He imagined himself in a sweat lodge, tried to feel the baking heat warm his bones, to hear the sizzle as water steamed from the heated rocks. Let go...

Gradually, it began to work. His heartbeat slowed, he fell into the dream and left the car behind. He was floating, safe and centered and strong. He gathered his will, focused it into a tight beam, then projected it outward towards his love. Chanted her name with each heartbeat, made it part of each breath, infused it with all the love and need inside him. Elyssa... Elyssa... Elyssa...

And at last, he felt her. Somewhere far away, he felt the sweet essence that was her, and he let himself flow towards it.

This can't be happening, Elyssa told herself, horrified. Yet she knew it was. She looked down at the gun on the table in front of her, her mouth dry as ashes. Somehow, they never looked so big in the movies...

My baby, she thought. Please, God--she's taken so much from Benny already, don't let her take our baby too...

Elyssa's mind raced, trying to figure out a way to delay this insanity, to buy some time. "How do I know you didn't rig the game?" she asked suspiciously. "How do I know you didn't put blanks in your gun?" Anything to draw this out...

Victoria's eyes narrowed, as if the question had surprised her into reassessing her opponent, reevaluating her intelligence. She laid her own gun down on the table again, pushed it towards her. "All right. We'll switch," she said, calling her bluff.

Elyssa's heart sank. Obviously, both the guns were loaded with real bullets. That had been a long shot, and it hadn't paid off. What the hell do I do now?

At that instant, she thought she heard something; a stirring in the shadows behind her chair. She whirled, but there was no one there, just some battered old machinery whose purpose she couldn't guess, and a pile of rotting crates.

"Rats," Victoria said succinctly, pulling on a pair of gloves as she picked up what had been Elyssa's gun. "Now--pick that up!" she repeated, pointing to the remaining revolver, her voice sharp with impatience.

What if I pretend to faint from fear? It wouldn't be far from the truth, but she's too clever... I don't think that would fool her. She'd probably see through it; and it might make her mad enough to shoot me.

Abandoning that idea regretfully, Elyssa reached out slowly. The gun felt cold under her fingers, and heavy. She swallowed hard. "Why are you doing this?" she asked, stalling desperately.

She already knew the answer to that. The only real question was, who Victoria hated more: her or Ben.

Since she didn't bring him here, I guess I win the prize, she thought grimly.

"Benny didn't pick you for your brains, did he?" Victoria sneered, radiating an almost visible hatred that was an answer in itself. Elyssa bit her tongue, ignoring the insult, wanting only to keep her talking. Every second they talked was another chance at life for her. "Okay then. Since you still don't get it, I'll spell it out for you, Ryan. You already know that one of us isn't leaving this room alive. But what you don't know is that I set this up so that I win, no matter what."

Her cool, poisonous words enraged Elyssa. "It's obvious how you win if I die. But what if you do?" she blazed.

Victoria's smile never faltered. "If I die, since your fingerprints are on the gun, you'll be blamed for my murder."

Elyssa bit her tongue. She'd been cleverly maneuvered into handling both weapons, so that was true. "I'll tell the police the truth!" she protested. "That you kidnapped me, forced me to do this--"

Victoria just smiled. "But who will believe you? Wouldn't it be crazy of me to kidnap you, then let you kill me?"

Elyssa grimaced. Damn, the woman had thought of everything!

"Besides, I have a witness who will testify otherwise," she purred. "Who will say that you were intensely jealous of Fraser's former girlfriend, and that you killed me so you could have him all to yourself. You'll go to prison, just like I did. Only murder will get you a much worse rap than mine. You'll probably go away for twenty years or more. So either way, whether I die or you do, Benny will lose you and that brat you're carrying, if you don't miscarry first." She grinned at the thought of that.

Elyssa froze, horrified. "How do you know? I mean, what makes you think I'm--"

"Pregnant?" Victoria smirked nastily. "Let's just say your obstetrician's receptionist confirmed your appointment for a pregnancy test. And I saw the look on your face when you came out of Fletcher's office afterwards. You had 'Oh my God, the rabbit died!' written all over you."

Shocked as she was to have her worst suspicions confirmed, to know that Victoria had been following her, Elyssa was even more frightened by her knowledge of her pregnancy. But since her obstetrician's name was Dr. Fletcher, there was obviously no sense in trying to fool her on that score. So she didn't waste her breath. Her responsibility now was to figure a way out of this somehow, to save her life and the life of her unborn child.

Not an easy task, when faced with an opponent who was cheerfully willing to die, just to ruin your life. It was hard to believe anyone could hate her and Ben that much. It was medieval, barbaric. Yet she didn't doubt Victoria's seriousness for an instant; or her terrible determination. Worst of all, she knew that in her eyes, her unborn baby was just one more reason to hate her.

Almost as an afterthought, Victoria asked, "By the way... It is Ben's, isn't it?"

Elyssa didn't pretend to misunderstand her. She longed to knock the smirk off her face, but she forced herself to stay calm. "Jealous?" she asked, echoing her archly curious tone. Touche . Two can play at that game, you witch!

Victoria shrugged, seemingly amused. "Why should I be? He can always have more children." Elyssa didn't miss the chilling implication. She was reveling in the idea that she would take her place in Benny's heart, in his bed, once she was dead. Elyssa had assumed that, if she was the loser in this terrible game, Victoria would simply flee the scene to avoid prosecution for her murder. But those words hinted that she was deranged enough to stay around after her death, and approach Benny with the idea of resuming their former relationship.

Elyssa was rocked. The very thought of that--of such an evil woman carrying Benny's child--sickened her. "Are you crazy?" she asked, forgetting caution for a second in her anger. "Do you honestly think he would ever take you back, after what you've done to him? Especially if I die? You're already a wanted criminal, and no matter how you hide the evidence, he'll know you were behind it--and he'll never forgive you for it. Benny won't love you, or give you children. He'll hate you, and he'll hunt you to the ends of the earth! He'll put you back in prison! Is that what you want?"

Victoria stood up and leaned over the table suddenly, her face white, her eyes glittering with hatred. She pressed the barrel of her gun hard into Elyssa's temple. "I'm NEVER going back to prison. And as for what I want, I want you dead! So shut up!" she hissed. "Or I'll kill you right now, and leave you here for the rats!" Her mask of calm, of utter superiority, had slipped. The hand that held the gun was shaking, and her eyes were wild.

She's insane, Elyssa realized. Her love/hate for Ben has driven her crazy. She froze, her heart pounding. It had been stupid to spar with her. No matter what the provocation, she should've known better than to chance Victoria's rage. She wondered whether she'd gone too far; whether her shaking fingers would squeeze the trigger and she'd never see Benny again, or the face of their baby...

Time stopped while Victoria stared at her, murder in her dark eyes. Elyssa didn't speak, but she didn't look away, either. She met her demonic glare without flinching. If she was going to die, so be it. She wasn't going to beg for mercy, not from this witch.

Deep down inside, as the tense silence stretched to the breaking point, she reached for her lover. Benny! she called silently, strongly, with her whole being. I love you and our baby... If this was to be her last moment, her last thought, she wanted it to be of them, not Victoria.

An old warehouse. Fraser got a fleeting impression of size, age and dust--an abandoned place. A metal door...

And then he heard it. Elyssa reached past her own terror, and called his name. I love you and our baby...

He jerked bolt upright in the car, sweating. But not a warm, cleansing sweat like a lodge would've produced. This was the icy sweat of terror. She's going to kill her!

"They've left the highway, Ray," he said, his voice shaking. "Take the first turnoff you find, into Lisle."

Ray frowned sideways at him. "What? You feelin' okay, Benny?"

He didn't even bother to relate his experience to the Italian. Despite the fact that Fraser felt its validity in his bones, Ray was such a hard-headed realist, he'd never accept it. He'd scoffed at such things before, but the Inuit knew the value of visions, and so did he. He pointed at the trace's electronic display, at the evidence Ray would believe, his hand shaking. "They've turned off, do you see?" he pointed out, desperate to be believed. "There's an old industrial section at the outskirts of Lisle, old canning factories and empty warehouses... That's where she's taken her!"

Ray looked at the trace, and shook his head, mystified to find that the blinking light denoting Victoria's car had indeed changed direction again, this time slightly west. The same direction as the freeway turnoff into the old industrial slum outside of Lisle.

"How do you--"

Fraser shook his head. "Hurry! We don't have much time."

Ray shot him a long, questioning look. Fraser met it squarely. And when they came to the off ramp for Lisle, Ray took it without another word.

Finally, Victoria drew a deep breath, and the cold, hard pressure of the gun barrel on Elyssa's temple eased. "That's better," she said, her voice quieter, more level. She drew back and sat down on the other side of the table again, smoothing her hair absently. Pat, pat, pat.

The moment of crisis had passed, but Elyssa's mouth had gone dry, and she was shaking. The rest of her life had dwindled to mere moments, despite this temporary reprieve, and she knew it. She wanted to do something to save herself, but couldn't see a way out of the situation. She knew it was hopeless, but she longed for one last sight of Benny.

"Now," Victoria said. "Time to start playing. You first, Ryan."

"What's the tracking device's pinpoint range?" Fraser asked, as they cruised down a quiet back street at the outskirts of Lisle.

"About a block," Ray muttered, looking at the trace's display for the hundredth time. The green blink that marked Elyssa's location was close now, so close... But though Ray didn't voice his doubts aloud, he didn't think the odds of finding her quickly enough were really high. There were too many places to hide a small, dark blue car on any given block around here.

The area they were driving through was dying. An occasional business still survived, eking out a living in the midst of economic decline--a palm reader here, a car repair shop there--but they were vastly outnumbered by wrecks. Defunct factories and old warehouses, with broken windows like jagged teeth, sagged tiredly on both sides of them. The pavement was old, badly pitted and in need of repair, and the Riviera jounced and jolted as they sped along. But it was a measure of Ray's concern for Elyssa that he neither slowed, nor complained about the damage being done to the car's suspension.

"I know how Victoria thinks," Fraser said. "Once the trace is locked on, we need to look for an abandoned warehouse with a metal door."

Ray frowned at him. Knowledge of his ex-girlfriend's quirks didn't explain how he knew the particular place they were looking for had a metal door. Then he recognized the look in Fraser's eyes. His earlier terror had been replaced with an oddly calm, fiercely focused look of determination. He almost groaned aloud; he'd seen that look before.

Jesus--he's trackin' by vision again!

He opened his mouth to protest, when Fraser said, "We're here."

The LED displaying their quarry's location was perfectly centered, and blinking brightly.

Elyssa started to lift the gun to her head. Three empty chambers, she reminded herself, clinging to the only bit of hope she had in this nightmare. This gun has three empty chambers... But midway, she suddenly realized that, in her arrogance, Victoria had revealed a piece of information she could use to her advantage.

Why didn't I think of it before? Her gun has three empty chambers too!

They'd gone through two empty warehouses on their target block, without success. When they piled back into the car to keep going, Benny was wheezing, and hunched forward to spare his injured ribs. He was sweating heavily again, and paler than ever.

I must've been crazy to bring him along, Ray thought. He should be in bed. "I'll get the next one," he said as they drove off. "You stay in the car."


"Yer not gonna do her any good by--"

"I'm coming, Ray," he gasped stubbornly.

"--killing yourself!" he finished, exasperated.

"I have to--There!" Fraser gasped, pointing excitedly at a worn-out warehouse they were approaching. Without even waiting for Ray to stop, he threw open his door as if he meant to jump out. "That's the one!"

Ray grabbed him by the collar, and hit the brakes. "Okay, okay, so it's got a metal door," he grumbled, but he pulled his gun and rolled the Riviera to a stop nonetheless. As Fraser fought to free himself, he let him go reluctantly, before the Canadian tore his sweatshirt off in the process. "All right, Benny, you can come," he growled.

But he came around the front of his car and grabbed Fraser's arm to stop him from rushing off towards the warehouse right away. Ray bent down and pulled an extra gun out of an ankle holster. Straightening, he handed it to the Canadian. "But only if you take this."

Fraser stared at the gun for an instant, his eyes widening. Ray held his breath, knowing how he felt about them. "I know her, too," he grated, willing him to understand. To his surprise, Fraser didn't argue with him, or even protest. After a few seconds, he just took the gun and pushed past him without another word.

"Hurry!" was all he said.

Ray blinked after him in surprise. Well, there's one for the history books, he thought, as he followed hard on the Mountie's heels. He actually listened.

They quickly established that the warehouse only had one way in: the metal door out front. In wordless concert, they grabbed its handle and pulled carefully, being as quiet as they could. They pulled hard, and the door slid open with a soft, grating sound. When they'd pulled it open just wide enough to slip through, Fraser peered inside the building warily.

He blinked in shock.

A little girl stood a few feet away from him. She looked like she was no more than four or five years old. She was pretty, with long, dark hair and crystalline green eyes that reminded him instantly of Elyssa's. She beckoned to him solemnly, silently urging him onward. Had she said "Help me, Daddy," or had he just imagined it?

He turned his head. "Ray!" he whispered. "There's a--" child in there, he meant to say, but when he turned his head to look inside again, she'd disappeared.

"What, Fraser?" Ray hissed impatiently. "Let's go!"

He blinked, puzzled. He'd seen her, he knew he had, but where had she gone? The warehouse was a vast, empty place...

Still, there was no time to ponder the puzzle. Elyssa was in danger.

They slipped inside noiselessly, pulled the door shut again.

Ray gestured silently. I'll take the left, you go right. They'd worked together for so long, they had no need for words. He tapped Fraser's gun once, meaningfully.

Fraser nodded, and they separated, moving deeper into the warehouse's ominous silence.

She only has three bullets in that gun, Elyssa thought, making a desperate decision. Holding the weapon Victoria had given her in trembling hands, she suddenly rose to her feet and pointed it at her. "Your game's over," she said defiantly.

Victoria blinked at her, and Elyssa knew she'd been right. Defiance was the one thing she hadn't counted on. For a second, she was stunned into immobility. In that instant, Elyssa saw her chance. She turned and bolted.

She heard Victoria curse, heard the 'click' of a trigger being pulled on an empty chamber as she tried to shoot at her.

Then running footsteps echoed behind her. Terrified, Elyssa ran on. But she stumbled over a rough patch on the floor, and fell to her knees. When she scrambled up again, Victoria grabbed her from behind, held her despite her struggles.

"You're covered, Metcalf. Let her go or I'll shoot!" A familiar male voice rang out suddenly, cutting through the empty warehouse with the fury of an avenging angel. Elyssa thought she must be dreaming. Ray!

Victoria's arms tightened around her, her hand closing over her nose and mouth, cutting off her breath. "Let--go!" Desperate, Elyssa bit down on that smothering hand. Victoria shoved her away with a shriek of pain. Elyssa tumbled to the floor and slid several feet. When she raised herself up on her elbows, Victoria stood just a few feet away, aiming her gun at her. As she stared up at her in terror, to her astonishment, Fraser charged towards Victoria, out of the shadows.

"Drop it!" he and Ray yelled, in chorus. Coming out of concealment, Ray ran forward, his gun held before him in a two-handed grip, pointed at Victoria.

At sight of him, she raised her gun in an apparent gesture of surprised surrender. Then she looked back into the shadows beyond where Elyssa lay, and a look of stunned fury contorted her face. She whirled and flung herself towards Fraser. "No, Sean!" she screamed.

Ray fired at her. Another shot rang out almost simultaneously, and a bullet tore through her left shoulder from behind. Its momentum propelled her forward helplessly, and she fell onto the concrete floor almost at Fraser's feet.

"No!" A man shouted, a rising howl of horror and fury.

"Who the--"

Ray's gun bucked suddenly, once, twice. As Fraser ran past Victoria to Elyssa, she heard a cry of pain from behind some rusting old machinery that stood back against the wall. Turning, shocked, she saw a man drop to his knees beside it. He was tall, with red hair, and she guessed he was probably the man Ray had told her had been with Victoria at that hotel, the one who'd beaten Ben so viciously. She shivered. Sean must've been in here with them all along, and he'd hidden so quietly that she'd never guessed.

Ray ran towards him. "Drop it, asshole!" he snarled.

A gun hit the floor. "No!" Sean wailed, clutching his wounded arm and sobbing as he stared at Victoria's prone figure. "No, goddammit! Not her--I wanted the fuckin' Mountie dead!"

Ray cuffed him, none too gently. "Life's full of disappointments, ain't it?" he grunted.

Sean stayed where he was, tears streaming from his eyes. "You don't understand," he sobbed.

Ray shook his head, mingled pity and disgust on his face. "Yeah, I think I do. You loved her. Didn't you."

Sean didn't even try to deny it. "Lemme go to her!" he cried, trying to get to his feet despite his wound.

Ray shoved him back down again. "Huh uh," he said gruffly, thinking of what the creep had done to Benny. "It's over."

Fraser pulled Elyssa to her feet. "Are you--"

"I'm fine," she breathed, though she was shaking. She put her arms around his neck and clung to him, breathing in his scent, hardly able to believe it was over, that she'd survived. "I'm okay... "

After a moment, she lifted her head and touched his bandage. "You're bleeding!" she said.

He took her hands in his and kissed them, smiling to ease her concern. "Not anymore," he said. Still holding her hands, he shot a glance back at Victoria, who lay unmoving where she'd fallen.

"Shouldn't you check?" Elyssa asked shakily.

Fraser nodded. His face taut, he walked back to where she lay. Elyssa stayed where she was. Whether she was dead or alive, she had no desire to be any closer to that woman than she was, thank you kindly.

Benny turned her over gently. Blood had trickled from the corner of her beautiful mouth, and she was very pale, but she opened her eyes when he touched her. "I told him--no," she whispered haltingly. "You were mine... "

Fraser's lips tightened.

"To kill," Victoria breathed. Then she died.

Fraser held Victoria's body for a long moment, staring at her blindly. He'd thought her fate was in his hands, but when the time had come to shoot her, he'd found he couldn't. It was strange, how destiny worked things out. Despite his conviction that she was his responsibility, it hadn't been for him to do after all.

It's over, was all he could think. Whatever we were, whatever we did to each other, it's all over, at last. Even her hatred. Even that.

Ray left them alone, busied himself by calling an ambulance for Victoria's accomplice whom he'd wounded, and then dragging him outside. ""I'm gonna take him out where the paramedics can find us," he explained. Though Fraser knew that wasn't really necessary, he was grateful nonetheless. For a loud, brash person, Ray could be amazingly sensitive sometimes.

Looking down at his former lover, Fraser wondered whose bullet had killed her; Ray's or her accomplice's. They'd fired almost at the same instant, so he wasn't sure. For Ray's sake, he hoped it would prove the other man had done it. They'd had enough guilt between them, over what they'd done and hadn't done about Victoria, to last a lifetime. He'd seen it floating about Ray like a dark cloud ever since he'd regained consciousness in the hospital.

All over now.

He laid her back down on the floor very gently, closed her eyes with hands that shook a little. Then he got to his feet and went back to Elyssa. "She's dead," he said. His voice felt thick in his throat, as if his mouth were stuffed with cotton. His hands felt numb.

Elyssa closed her eyes. He supposed she was probably thinking, 'thank God.' Or words to that effect. She didn't say them out loud, though, for his sake; and that small consideration shook him. Looking down, he saw that Victoria's blood had stained his shirt. He felt reluctant to embrace Elyssa, because he'd get Victoria's blood on her.

So he reached out covered her hands with his own instead, not surprised to find that she was cold. He swallowed hard. "I need to tell you that I'm sorry," he began. He'd rehearsed this apology over and over on the way here, used it to distract him from his terrible fear for her, but now that the time had come to give it, he hardly knew how to begin. "About your abortion, about how I reacted when you told me. I was so shocked, I didn't know what to say. But it doesn't matter, do you understand? I'm sorry you had to make a choice like that, but it doesn't change how I feel. I love you."

Her eyes filled with tears, and she laid her head on his breast, not even caring about the blood. "I want to go home, Benny," she whispered, and he put his arms around her, held her tightly. "To your place. No more nights off," she added. "And no more secrets. I just want to be with you."

Relief too deep for words washed overfilled him. The softness of her, the simple joy of holding her in his arms again, the renewed miracle of her love that he'd never deserved, was a brightness that washed over him like sunlight. This was a strange place for it, but he knew that at last, it was the right time to ask his question. "Elyssa, will you marry me?" he whispered.

She lifted her head, surprised. "You're not just asking me that because of what just happened, are you?" she asked, a bit uncertain.

He shook his head. "No, I... I bought you a ring," he confessed. "Before I was abducted myself. It's in my old trunk, I just forgot about it temporarily because of my head injury. But on the way here, I remembered. I was planning to surprise you with it, but I was abducted, and never got the chance. But I've wanted to marry you ever since we met, I just... wasn't sure that you'd want to."

The smile that spread slowly over Elyssa's face was radiant. "Yes, Ben," she said. "I do."

And at that, Benton Fraser's blue eyes, that hadn't shed a single tear when Victoria died, overflowed.

It was hours before they could go home; hours before Victoria's body was removed from the scene, Sean was booked on charges of murder and assault, and they all gave detailed statements. But when all the details were finally taken care of, Ray drove them back to Chicago in the Riv. As if by unspoken agreement, they all climbed into its front seat. No one questioned it, or complained about the slight crowding, either. After what had just happened, they all just wanted--needed--to be together. Elyssa sat beside Ray, her head on Benny's shoulder, his arm wrapped securely around her. She felt strained, like a wire stretched to its breaking point.

The last time I was this tired, she thought, was in the hospital after I was raped. The thought made her shiver.

Ben's arm tightened around her in wordless sympathy. He stroked her hair lightly. "You should try to sleep," he said quietly.

She lifted her head and looked up at him. The bloodied bandage that wrapped around his head, and the fine lines etched at the corners of his mouth and eyes, told her what a toll the day's terrible events had taken on him, too. He would never admit it, maybe not even to himself, but he was exhausted, and probably in considerable pain.

"Look who's talking. What do you say, Ray?" she asked, only half-teasing. "Should we take the Constable here back to the hospital?"

She saw Ray's head turn towards them. "He does look like somethin' the cat dragged in, then chewed up," he agreed, blunt as always.

Ben stiffened in her embrace. "That's totally unnecessary," he said stubbornly. "The very fact that I just rescued you proves that--"

"Hey! Helped rescue her, ya' mean!" Ray cut in, indignant. "You had a little help there, Kimosabe!"

"Well, yes," Fraser admitted, "the trace was your idea, but--"

"No buts, Benny! If I hadn't come back for you, you'd've fallen on your face in the street--"

"Guys, guys!" Elyssa cut in, as the discussion threatened to become an argument. She already had one arm around Benny, and she put her free hand on Ray's shoulder. "That's enough! You both saved me, okay? You're both my heroes, and I love you both very much."

Both men sat back with pleased, sheepish smiles, and for a few minutes, a happy silence reigned.

Then Ray cleared his throat. "You probly oughtta be back in the hospital, Benny, but I'll tell ya' what. If you both promise to go home and get some rest, I'll take you there instead."

"Thanks, Ray," Elyssa and Benny said, in chorus.

Ray smiled a little. "Hey, we heroes can be very understanding," he teased. Then he shot them a stern look. "But if I do that, ya' have to promise to stay there," he said meaningfully. "That means no goin' anywhere."

Benny nodded agreeably beside her, but that didn't satisfy Ray.

"And that includes work. No runnin' off to the Consulate to file a report, Fraser."

Elyssa hadn't even realized Ben meant to do that, but from the quiet sigh he heaved, it was obvious he had. When he opened his mouth to protest the stricture, she poked him and mouthed a firm "No."

"No?" he echoed silently.

She shook her head firmly. No.

"I already called the Dragon Lady," Ray went on, smug at having thought of that detail. "She took you off the duty roster for the next three days."

"Three days!" Fraser groaned, aghast at what he no doubt thought of as dereliction of duty.

"Yeah, three days," Ray overrode him firmly. "So you can recover from your concussion, two broken ribs, sprained wrist, and--"

"Okay, okay!" Elyssa smiled. "I get the picture, Ray. Don't worry. I'll keep him at home for a few days, I promise," she reassured him.

Ray smiled slyly at Benny over her head; he'd been counting on her support. And he doubted that she'd find the role of benevolent jailer a very hard one. He noticed that when she planted a little kiss on Fraser's lips to seal the promise, his eyes softened instantly. Ray doubted he'd give them any more grief. He was without a doubt the most stubborn man he'd ever known, but Elyssa could talk him into anything. Even as he watched, the Mountie fell silent. He touched Elyssa's hair gently, almost reverently, and it wasn't hard to guess what he was thinking. He was thanking God they'd found her safe. When he kissed her back, the last of his worries vanished.

The way he's lookin' at her, they won't be goin' anywhere but to bed for the next few days, he smiled to himself. Good deal.

But despite her promise to Ray, after he said goodbye to them outside Benny's apartment door, Elyssa felt restless. It was almost twilight, and she knew she probably ought to sleep. But her earlier weariness had worn off, and now she felt oddly edgy. The last thing she wanted to do was lie down.

"How about if I make us some herbal tea, Ben?" she asked. "Would you like that?"

"Yes, but I can do it," he said.

"No, I'll get it." She made him sit, needing the distraction of even such a small task. "You should lie down," she said. "It's been a long day."

"I'm all right," he said quietly. He sat down on his bed, but she saw that, rather than resting, he was watching her closely.

She smiled a little, wondering which of them deserved the title of World's Most Protective Lover. Still, she felt nervous with him all at once, for reasons she didn't understand. I need to know about Victoria, she thought suddenly, as the water began boiling in the kettle. How he feels...

She finished making the tea, handed Fraser his cup, then slipped away from him again into the center of the room. She found herself pacing as she sipped, feeling apprehensive, as if she wanted to escape. But when she saw that the concern in Ben's eyes was deepening, she forced herself to stop. I'm being selfish, she thought, chagrined. He probably shouldn't even be out of the hospital yet. He needs to rest, and he'll never do that while he's sitting there worrying about me.

"Come on, love," she said, putting down her cup. "Let's get those dirty clothes off you."

"All right." For once, it seemed he didn't mind letting her help him. He sat patiently on the bed as she knelt in front of him and pulled off his tennis shoes, then went to work on his shirt.

"Oh--sorry," she murmured, as he winced a bit in the process. Once his torso was bare, she swallowed at the sight of the bandages that wrapped it tightly, and the fading, yellowed bruises he still bore from his beating. Tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them back. She hadn't cried about what had happened to them both yet; she was afraid if she got started, she'd never stop. She touched his bandage lightly instead, with hands that only shook a little. "Does it still hurt a lot?" she asked.

Silly question. She knew it must.

He shook his head slowly, his eyes fixed on her. "No," he whispered hoarsely. "It doesn't hurt at all, now." He took her hands in his, and rested them on his muscular thighs. She froze, knowing what he meant, feeling the change in him. When her eyes met his, they only confirmed what she'd already guessed. They'd gone dark with a look she knew very well.

He wanted her.

That's crazy, she thought, the rational part of her rejecting the idea automatically. He should be flat on his back, not making love...

But she knew how he felt. They'd come close, so close to losing each other today, that the need to touch, to reaffirm their love, was almost unbearable. Her body responded automatically to the heat in his blue eyes, wanted the ecstasy it knew from experience that he could give her. Still, the thought of it scared her. Her emotions were so raw, so jumbled, and she knew his must be, too. He'd been through so much--

I don't want to hurt him any more, she thought. It's because of me that she's--

"I can't," she whispered, shaking her head, shocked by the sudden rising of tears. "I can't, I'm sorry!"

He pulled her gently up from the floor, sat her down beside him on the bed. Kissed the top of her head very softly, traced his hands through her hair. "Shhhh," he whispered, his breath warm against her skin, his hands skimming over her lightly, as if he were gentling a frightened animal. "It's all right. It doesn't matter. Hush... " Under his tender touch, her barely suppressed sobs died away.

"Just stay here for a second," he said. "I have a surprise for you."

While she dabbed at her eyes, he opened his dad's old trunk and removed a small, velvet-covered box from it. Turning back to her again, he knelt deliberately at her feet in defiance of his injuries, opened it and held a small, golden ring out to her.

"Oh, Benny!" She knew, from his posture and expression, what it must be. She took it, smiling tremulously at him as she turned it over in her hands. It was delicate, of braided gold, and it looked old.

"It was my mother's," he said quietly. "It's all I have left of her. I want you to have it, for an engagement ring." His blue eyes were very earnest. "I know I've made some bad mistakes in the past, and I'm... sorry they affected you. I'm sorry that Victoria tried to hurt you--"

She suddenly realized that she wasn't the only one on the verge of tears. He wiped stubbornly at his eyes, took a deep breath. "What I'm trying to say is, I hope that you can forgive me, and that you meant what you said earlier, about wanting to marry me," he said haltingly. "I'll love you as long as I live, Elyssa, and I'll do my best to be a good husband and make you happy. If you'll have me," he finished, his voice a little ragged.

She saw his pulse beating hard in his throat, knew that he was really scared that she'd say no. She bit her lip, and slipped the ring on the third finger of her left hand instead, wondering how on earth she'd ever been lucky enough to find a man as sweet and true as this. "Of course I will. I've never loved anyone like I love you, Ben," she said.

Some time later, they lay together on his bed. Ben felt both blessed and foolish. Her tears had made him feel incredibly selfish for even hinting at making love again, so soon after her ordeal. So he'd let go of his desire for her for the moment, and let tenderness take its place. He just held her, content to have her back again, safe in his arms. He took her face in his hands and kissed her slowly, tenderly, stroking the ring she'd put on her finger as he did. "It looks beautiful on you," he smiled, loving her so much he wondered how his heart could contain it.

She smiled back at him, but then a strange hint of sadness crept into her face as she looked down at the ring. "Have you ever been sorry that you didn't give this to Victoria before?" she whispered at last.

He frowned, struck dumb for a moment by sheer surprise. Where on earth had that idea come from? "No. I never asked her," he began slowly. "She never--"

All at once, Elyssa's face crumpled. "I'm s-sorry, love," she choked, on the verge of tears again. "I know... you loved her, but I didn't! I hated her! But I never wanted to hurt you, and now... Now she's dead because of me! I'm so--sorry... "

She'd gone rigid against him, her whole body tense. "It's all right," he soothed, so surprised he hardly knew what to say. He drew her head down onto his chest, held her to his heart as her tears rained down on his skin, and she shook in his arms.

"It--was so aw--awful, Ben," she whispered. "She... hated me... us--so much... "

"I know," he said, sorrow cutting through him at the way his dark past had touched her. He didn't tell her not to cry, because he knew she needed the release after the horror of her kidnapping. He wanted her to vent her feelings, not to hold everything inside as she'd tried to do with the aftermath of her rape. But most of all, he wanted to set her mind at ease about Victoria. He knew what her tears signified, why she was so upset. He held her and stroked her hair for a minute, then spoke firmly, so she'd hear him through her tears. "Elyssa, listen to me. I never asked Victoria to marry me. I wouldn't have, because ... well, frankly, she frightened me. I think I always had this sense, deep down, that I couldn't trust her. If I'd given her my mother's ring, she probably would've just pawned it somewhere, when times got hard. She never loved me the way you do. She wasn't capable of it. She was much better at hating."

A terrible thing to admit about a woman you'd loved, but there it was. The truth. He wouldn't give Elyssa anything less, was willing to bare his soul if it would ease her pain. He'd never expected this kind of guilt, would've spoken up to reassure her earlier if he had; but he supposed he should've seen it coming. Elyssa was a very sensitive woman, and regardless of her own natural hostility towards Victoria, she knew that he'd loved her once. She must've been worried that in some way, he still did; and that he'd blame her for her death.

"Please believe me," he said gently as her sobs began to still. "I don't love Victoria anymore. I'm not even sure I ever did, but whatever I felt for her was over long ago. I don't blame you for what happened. If anyone's to blame, it's me. I'm just sorry she tried to hurt you because of me. I didn't want her dead, but I don't mourn her, either. Truly, I don't. When I knew she'd kidnapped you, I even hated her."

Elyssa searched his face, then wiped her eyes. "Okay," she said shakily. Her tears had subsided, and she laid her head back on his chest, pressed her cheek to his heart in a tender gesture. "I just wasn't sure how you still felt about her," she whispered. "But I want you to know, I never meant for her to die."

Fraser closed his eyes, moved by her gentleness. "I know that, sweetheart." He also knew that Victoria had wanted Elyssa dead, and that she would've killed her without shedding a tear. For the thousandth time, he thanked God for bringing Elyssa to him, for making him a wiser if not a better man the second time around. He was also grateful she'd had the courage to share her fear with him, this time. "But I'm glad you told me."

She rubbed her face against his chest. "I promised you, no more secrets," she whispered.

He smiled. "Me too. So I want you to know that there's no room in my heart for anyone else but you now. Do you believe me?"

She lifted her head then, and kissed him gently. Smiled despite her reddened eyes. "Yes," she said softly. "And thanks for being so understanding." She put her hand over his heart and smiled, a strange, secretive little smile, as if she knew something he didn't. "But I think you're gonna have to make some more room in there, Mountie man."

He lifted an eyebrow quizzically.

"I wanted to wait, and tell you when we were alone," she said. She looked endearingly nervous. "I'm pregnant, Benny."

He deliberately blanked his face. "I know," he said calmly.

She blinked at him. "You do? How could you? It doesn't even show yet!"

"Oh, the Inuit have ways of divining these things," he said, trying to sound very mysterious. But he couldn't keep a straight face any longer, despite his best efforts. He started to grin, and she sat up and pushed him lightly, pretending to be angry.

"The Inuit, my eye!" she breathed, feigning anger at his pretense. "Ray told you, didn't he?"

He laughed out loud at the mixture of anger and bemusement on her face. "He didn't mean to steal your thunder," he said, fending off another mock shove. "He thought you'd already told me--"

"I'll kill him!" she said hotly. "I'll hang him up by his toes. I'll boil him in oil! He couldn't keep a secret if you put a lock on his lips! My biggest news in a decade, and he blows it!"

He pulled her into his arms again, still laughing. "Don't be too hard on him," he teased. "He really didn't mean to spoil your surprise, I swear it."

"Well... I suppose I can't really kill him, seeing as how he just saved my life," she said, reconsidering.

Fraser nodded solemnly.

"And the baby's life."

"Mm hmm." He rolled her beneath him on the bed, kissed her lightly.

"And seeing as how he is our best friend."

He smiled. "That, too."

"And a cop, to boot."

Fraser nodded with mock regret. "Yes. The force does tend to penalize cop killers rather severely," he agreed.

"Okay," she sighed. "I won't kill him."

He bent his head and gave her a quick kiss. "Thank you, love."

"But can I at least scold him severely, the next time I see him?" she smiled against his lips.

He pretended to consider it. "Yes," he said generously at last. "A scolding would do nicely, I think. But in the meantime... " He kissed her again. "I want to tell you how happy I am about the baby, sweetheart."

She smiled almost shyly, toyed with his hair. "Are you really?"

He nodded. "Yes. Do you remember the night I told you I'd never been so happy?"


"Well, I'm even happier now," he said.

Her eyes shone. "Are you?"

"Mmm hmm. I'm going to be a father!" he breathed, awed, excited and a little scared at the idea.

"And I'm going to be a mom," Elyssa smiled.

Diefenbaker whuffed softly from the floor beside them, and Benny cocked an eyebrow at him. Pursing his lips as he considered the question, he finally explained, "You'll be an uncle, Dief."

Dief barked happily, and Benny and Elyssa laughed.

When Elyssa came back from grocery shopping the following Saturday, she was greeted by the sight of some decidedly unfamiliar objects, set to the side of Fraser's bed: a small, Mission-style oak table, on which sat a computer. Monitor, hard drive, mouse and all. Not only was it set up, but it was turned on as well, with little icons showing on the screen. She frowned. She knew Ben was good with computers, and she had some experience with them too, but he hadn't said anything about wanting one for himself. She set her groceries down on their kitchen counter, mystified, as Diefenbaker padded over to her and rubbed his head against her leg.

She petted him absently. "Where did that come from, Dief? What's Ben been up to, eh?"

Ben must've heard her, for he came down the hallway at that instant, smiling--no, beaming--at her. "Hi." After a quick kiss, he grabbed her hand and drew her towards the computer. "It's for you," he said.

She blinked at him, perplexed. "Ben, that's really sweet, but I don't need--"

"Wait," he said. "Just listen. You remember when I called your psychiatrist, and you said that you didn't want to see another doctor, despite your nightmares?"

She frowned, puzzled by what that had to do with his buying her a computer. "Yes, but I told you, I've been doing better," she protested mildly.

"I know you have. I know you haven't had many lately, but I also know that you still have nightmares, that you can't forget what happened," he said, his eyes suddenly serious.

She was done keeping that part of herself hidden from him. "Yes," she admitted.

"Then look." He drew her still closer to the computer, typed rapidly on the keyboard for a moment. "I got you a subscription to America Online," he explained as he worked. "When I talked to your doctor, the only thing she would tell me was what resources were available to help victims of violent crime, and sexual abuse. And she mentioned this."

When he straightened up again from the computer, the information on its screen had changed. Now, it bore a heading of "Sexual Abuse Chats." Under that banner were listed several related topics, such as Family Violence, Domestic Abuse, and Rape. Elyssa swallowed. "What is this?" she asked, a little nervous.

"These are lists of chat rooms on the Internet," he explained. "They're places you can go to talk to other people, in complete anonymity, about the topics listed. Their intent is to let people share information, talk things out, and hopefully help each other heal."

Elyssa looked at Ben, stunned silent.

"You seemed to feel uncomfortable talking about what happened to you with me, and I knew you didn't want to go back into therapy, so I thought you might like to talk to others who've had the same experiences you have," he said earnestly. "People who survived trauma and came out stronger, like you have. So I got you a home computer, so you could do that in privacy to do that."

When she didn't answer, he stiffened a bit. "That is, if you want to. If you think this would help... "

"Oh, Ben!" She threw her arms around his neck suddenly, and hugged him tightly. She could never tell him how much this meant to her, how wonderful he was for thinking of such a unique, and wonderfully private, solution to her problem. But she had to try.

"This is wonderful, this is... Thank you," she whispered, deeply touched by his kindness. "Thank you so much. Have I ever told you how incredible you are?"

He considered the question seriously for a moment. "Yes, as a matter of fact," he said with a straight face. "But as I never seem to tire of hearing it, would you mind--?"

She grinned at him. "Not at all." Pulling his dark head down to hers, she whispered in his ear, "I love you, Mountie man."

Fraser smiled, holding her. "'Nuff said."

They were married three weeks later, at the Cuneo Museum and Gardens in Vernon Hills. Fraser had taken Elyssa there months before, and remembered her love for the place. It was a stunning setting: 75 acres of lakes, formal gardens, gushing fountains and marble statues, surrounding a Venetian-style mansion. She'd been particularly struck by the Museum's beautiful private chapel, with gorgeous stained-glass windows. But when they began planning their ceremony, Fraser was crushed to learn that the chapel wasn't available for weddings.

But once Ray explained that little problem to Lieutenant Welsh, who made a few phone calls, the Museum's curator called to explain that, for a fee, the museum would be happy to open the chapel. This once.

"It's a miracle," Ray grinned to the bewildered Mountie, who was unaware of Welsh's efforts on his behalf.

Like mostly everything else Fraser did, the wedding was a rousing success, but slightly out of the ordinary. The day dawned cool but sunny, a lucky break in a place where the weather was as chancy as Chicago's in the spring. The bride wore red, not white, a beautiful full-length reproduction of an Italian Renaissance dress that her sister Jenny, who was a talented seamstress, turned out in record time. Fraser, of course, wore his uniform. Frannie, who was Elyssa's maid of honor, sniffled happy tears from the sidelines. (She'd long since gotten over her former infatuation for Fraser, and was now happily pursuing a bank clerk she'd met. Ray gave the guy six months, tops, before he'd be wearin' his own ball and chain. Frannie had a way of getting what she wanted, most of the time.)

The bride, whose father had passed away years before, had asked Lt. Welsh to give her away. Ray, of course, was Fraser's best man. He wore his best black Armani suit for the occasion, because who knew what interesting women might be there?

As it turned out, the guests were a motley crew of Mounties, cops, their wives, girlfriends and kids. Even the Dragon Lady came, in a blue dress that would've knocked Ray's socks off, if any other woman had been wearing it. There were some street people there too, whom Ray knew Fraser must've befriended. Predictably, the Mounties were fairly quiet, while the cops were a rather noisy bunch. Not to mention the homeless contingent.

But when the wedding party came in, a hush fell over the guests. It's a toss-up as to who's more radiant, Ray thought whimsically, Elyssa or Fraser. The Mountie didn't show a sign of the traditional wedding-day jitters all grooms are supposed to have. There was no trembling, no pallor, no scared last-minute questions like "Ray, am I doing the right thing?" He figured that Fraser knew he was. His scarlet uniform gleamed, his boots shone, and as he waited with Ray while Lt. Welsh walked Elyssa up the aisle and solemnly gave her hand to him, his smile was positively dazzling. And when Benny slipped the ring--a large amethyst set in gold, with the words "Forever True" inscribed inside--on her finger, a happy sigh ran through the entire chapel. Benny wore a plain bold matching band with an identical inscription, and Vecchio thought he'd never seen a more handsome couple. Or a happier one.

At the reception afterwards, which was held out on the lawn by the museum's formal garden, the guests waltzed to Strauss tunes (Elyssa's choice), then listened to some far more exotic chants performed by Inuit singers (Benny's idea, of course.) Ray would've preferred rock music, but since he got to dance with the bride several times, he didn't complain too much.

As Ben waltzed her around to the tune of the "Princess Waltz", his blue eyes smiled down at her. "Happy?" he asked softly.

Elyssa thought of all they'd been through, and knew that she would endure it all again, even the worst of it, to have this man by her side. Remembering what he'd said that evening they'd spent by Lake Michigan, what seemed like a lifetime ago, and again when she'd told him she was pregnant, she smiled tenderly up at him. "I just realized; I've never been so happy," she said, echoing him. And it was true.

To Ray's shock, as Benny and Elyssa danced, someone tapped him firmly on the shoulder. When he turned, he was stunned to find Margaret Thatcher standing beside him, a wicked smile hovering about her lips. "Care to dance, Detective?" she ordered.

He swallowed. Of course, they were enemies and all, but still, in that dress, she looked amazing--

"Ah, no. Sorry. I don't think that would be a good idea," he muttered, scenting danger.

But she had him by the hand by then, and was dragging him out into the dance. "All the other available men are taken, I want to dance, and you owe me, Vecchio," she said. He groaned to himself, but he danced. What choice did he have? After all, he did owe her, and besides--who knew how she might be armed under that dress?

"Well, look at that," Fraser grinned, as he watched his partner waltzing with his boss.

Elyssa followed his glance, and smiled. "Oh, isn't that cute! They must've gotten to be friends!"

Fraser doubted that. It looked to him as if the Inspector was leading, and Ray had a glazed look in his eyes, as if he'd been blackmailed into letting her. But he didn't mention his doubts to Elyssa, who seemed delighted with the unexpected turn of events. "Yes," he agreed, inwardly making a mental note to go to Ray's rescue if the ordeal went on too long; and also to tell him, later, that Elyssa had thought they made a "cute" couple.

He couldn't wait to see Ray's expression.

After the dancing was done, hors d'oeuvres were served. Kids ran amuck among the decorated tables, chasing each other, eating cookies and drinking pop, and a few of them managed to eat enough to get sick. The cops and Mounties talked shop, and the street people ate their fill, then stuffed their pockets with rolls when they thought no one was watching.

All in all, a fine time was had by all.

This was one time the words 'forever and always' were going to come true, Ray thought with satisfaction.

He knew it. He'd felt it, the first time he'd seen Elyssa sleeping in Benny's arms that day at his apartment long ago. They were just meant for each other. And they'll have great-lookin' bambinos, too, he thought fondly. He was secretly looking forward to that, to being their gruff but beloved uncle. Fraser had this weird idea that their first kid was going to be a girl, and while he didn't believe for a second that even Mounties could divine the sex of their unborn children, it wouldn't surprise him if he turned out to be right.

After all, Fraser always was.

Elyssa woke early one morning to the feeling of cold air on her arms and legs. She stretched out a hand, only to find that there were no blankets covering her. Opening her eyes in sleepy confusion, she automatically turned her head to check the clock: 3:00 a.m.

"Hey, sleepyhead," a beloved voice whispered, full of smiles.

She turned her head the other way, and saw Ben propped up on one elbow beside her, looking at her with gentle blue eyes.

"What's the matter, honey?" she asked, blinking at him wearily.

"Nothing. I'm sorry I woke you... I just wanted to see the baby." He reached out to touch her rounded belly gently, rubbed it with something like awe on his face; and she realized belatedly that he was the one who'd pulled her covers off.

"Ben, you're a nut!" she chided, but she was only teasing. She'd lost count of the times he'd touched her like that lately, but rather than being an annoyance, her husband's seemingly boundless fascination with their coming child delighted her. Her baby was going to have a father who loved it deeply, there was no doubt about that.

"I know," he confessed, with an unrepentant grin. "But I was just thinking... I'd like to teach her Inuktitut."

She smiled, both at the eccentricity of the idea and its sweetness. "You're so sure it's going to be a girl," she teased, loving him so much she didn't mind that he'd wakened her at three in the morning to impart this odd bit of news. It didn't entirely surprise her, either. Ben was making all sorts of unique plans for the baby's future education. So far, his fatherly curriculum included wilderness survival, the habits and characteristics of wolves, the identification of various wild Canadian flora and fauna, hockey and ballistics. (Elyssa wasn't so sure the girl he wanted would be interested in that last one, but the baby would be half Ben's, after all, so you never knew.)

She didn't really care whether their child was a boy or a girl. It only mattered that it was hers and Benny's, that it came from their love, from the best of what they both were.

He scooted down the bed so that he could plant a kiss on her stomach. "She," he corrected, smiling. "She's going to be a girl." He laid his head where he'd kissed her, wrapped his arms around her hips. "A beautiful little girl, with dark hair like mine and green eyes just like her mother's."

She laughed in spite of herself, at his impossible certainty. "She told you all that, did she?"

The laughter in Elyssa's voice stung a little. Fraser opened his mouth to say 'Yes, as a matter of fact, she did,' then hesitated. He'd never told her what had happened the day she was kidnapped, had never mentioned that, in their extremity, he'd experienced some sort of strange mental link with her and their unborn child. He'd withheld the information from her because he wasn't sure how she would take it. She'd suffered enough that terrible day; he hadn't wanted to add the paranormal to her already disturbing memories, in case she found such things frightening.

Nonetheless, it had happened; and he'd been longing to talk to her about it, to explain why he was so sure what their unborn baby's characteristics would be. They'd both learned to their sorrow in the last year how much damage keeping silent about important things could do, even when it was done out of love. "Do you remember how we promised each other that there'd be no more secrets between us?" he asked quietly.

She stroked his hair, her fingers very tender. "Of course." Do you have a secret to tell me, Ben? She didn't say it, but she didn't have to. The question breathed in her expectant silence.

He took a deep breath. "The day you were kidnapped, I... heard the baby. You both called to me."

She shivered a little in his embrace, remembering that day. He tightened his arms around her, knowing what she was feeling, how close they'd come to losing everything. "What do you mean, Ben?"

She sounded curious, but not frightened, so he tried to explain. "I know it sounds silly, but while we were following you, I... heard you. Felt you calling to me."

The hand that had been stroking his hair went utterly still, but he felt her heart beating faster. "Oh my God," she whispered.


"Well, it's so strange... I did call out to you that day, I did! I was so afraid... But the thing is, I didn't do it out loud. Only in my heart."

"Still... Somehow, I heard you," he said. "And later, when we got to the warehouse, I saw a little girl too. She beckoned to me, needed me to come for her."

"A little girl with dark hair and green eyes?" she whispered, shaken.

He nodded, watching her reaction, hoping that he hadn't done the wrong thing by telling her. He didn't want to cast a cloud over her pregnancy, or make her think their unborn child was in any way eerie. He himself found the thought that he had some kind of mental-spiritual link with both of them a comforting one, but he had no way of knowing how Elyssa would see it.

"Did Ray see her too?" she asked.

He shook his head regretfully. He had no evidence to back up his story, and he knew it was incredible, but he also knew it was true, so he didn't try to look away from her searching glance.

After a moment, her arms came around his shoulders and she hugged him tightly. "It doesn't matter. I don't understand how that happened, but thank you for coming for me, Benny. For both of us."

As usual, she'd cut to the heart of the matter, found what really counted. He breathed a sigh of relief, and hugged her back. "I'll always come for you. Always," he said.

Elyssa held Ben for a long time after that without speaking, absorbing the amazing thing that he'd told her, marveling at the depth of their bond. That he'd somehow heard her, sensed her fear from miles away was so incredible that it awed her into silence for some time. And that he'd seen their baby! If that really was her... It was miraculous. She stroked his dark hair tenderly again, loving its soft thickness. She hoped the baby would have it, just like he'd said. "Do you remember that Inuit story you told me once?"

"Mmm?" he murmured, his head on her rounded stomach. He sounded a little drowsy, and vastly content.

"You know," she prompted gently. "The one I liked so much... "

"About the bird-child who brought light to his people?" he said. "Tulugaak the Raven?"

She smiled. Even half asleep, he'd remembered which legend she liked, and it pleased her. He was the smartest, most attentive man she'd ever known. "That's what I want to name her, if she's a girl," she said softly. "Raven. Raven Fraser."

He lifted his head, his blue eyes wide and startled.

"What do you think?" Her heart beat anxiously as she waited for his answer. She'd devoted a lot of thought to the baby's name, and since Benny had half convinced her it was going to be a girl, she'd concentrated most on feminine ones. She wanted it to be more than just pleasant sounding, she wanted it to reflect all of them: her, Ben, and Ray, whose wonderfully sneaky idea to plant bugs in her purse and car had saved their baby's life before it was even born. It was her way of encircling her child with love. And Raven just seemed perfect: its exoticism suited her artistic nature; it held Ray's name, and Benny's love for the Inuit people he'd grown up with; and it was symbolic as well. Just as the raven child in the Inuit legend had brought light to his people, so their baby would bring light to her and Benny's lives.

After a long moment, Ben said, "It has the sound of Ray's name in it."

She smiled, pleased that he'd recognized that, hoping that he would like the idea. "I thought it was right. He saved her life, and we both love him so. Do you like it?" she asked, hoping that he would hear himself echoed in the baby's name as well, and understand that she'd chosen it out of her deep love for him, too.

He understood. He moved up the bed, took her gently in his arms again, smoothed her tousled hair, and kissed her mouth. "I love that you chose a name from an Inuit legend for me. And one that honors my best friend. Thank you. It's perfect," he said hoarsely and even in the darkness, she could see tears glinting in his eyes. "Perfect. Just like you."

She smiled, glad that her choice of names had touched him. "Do you think she'll like it?"

He laid his hand over the baby in the darkness. "She does," he said, with utter certainty.

She grinned, believing him.

A few hours later, across town, Ray Vecchio sat sipping his coffee and reading the paper in the kitchen early in the morning, so early that the sun wasn't even up. He did that sometimes on Saturdays. Beat the sun out of bed, just to get a little quiet time to himself before the mini Vecchios got up and made for the TV, and Frannie started clattering around in the bathroom, and Tony and Maria started one of their never-ending "discussions", at the top of their respective lungs...

Peace. Even if it was only temporary, he savored it. And on this particular morning, it was comprised of more than a merely quiet house. It was his soul that had been unburdened, set free. No more debts. Now that Victoria was dead, he'd slept, really slept, for the first time in weeks.

Funny. In his world, death was usually a bad beginning, the event that necessitated delivering terrible news that devastated victim's loved ones, followed by investigations that were usually either frustrating, dangerous or that sometimes never produced any answers. Often, the victims' faces haunted his dreams, crying for justice that might never be done.

But not this time. This once, death had been a blessing.

Victoria had no known family to notify, and since she'd been killed by her own accomplice in front of several witnesses, there would be no investigation, either. Just a trial for Sean Denny, whose record revealed that he'd been a prostitute and small-time drug dealer in Austin. And since she'd been a harpy, a murderess who'd threatened two of the people he loved most in the world, she'd deserved her fate. Her murder, accidental though it was, as far as he was concerned, had been justice as far as he was concerned; and he wouldn't lose one minute's sleep over it. Hell, if fate hadn't intervened, if Denny hadn't shot her by accident, he would've done it himself. He'd meant to.

So just this once, there were no loose ends to tie up. There would be no ghosts, and no one to shed tears.

Once, Benny might've, but the fact that she'd gone after Elyssa had killed the last bit of feeling he might've had left for her. He hadn't cried when she died, and Ray knew that though he hadn't wanted it to happen, he was probably as relieved as he that she was out of their lives forever, that she would never threaten him or anyone he loved again.

At least, he hoped he was.

He turned the front page of the Tribune over and scanned the headlines.

Ex-Suspect Sues Bank, Cops, Paper.

A man who was mistakenly arrested and charged with robbing a bank where he did business is suing the police, the bank and a newspaper that reported the case.

He sighed and shook his head wryly. Some things never changed.

But at least there weren't any headlines screaming about the Gay Strangler's latest victim. Thank God for that. He'd been strangely quiet lately. There hadn't been any murders for the last six weeks.

The man in him thought it a blessing, hoped it an omen. Maybe the guy had gotten scared, maybe he'd left the state, maybe he'd even gotten killed in a car accident or something.

The cop in him knew better.

But both of them shoved the subject aside. Neither of them wanted any gruesome shadows to spoil this quiet morning.

He took another sip of coffee, and spotted another headline.

Bank Will Subsidize Out-of-Wedlock Partnerships.

Bank of America recently announced that it will grant family benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual 'partners.'

One of America's biggest banks. He shook his head. Wow.

Sometimes, things did change. Slowly, but they changed; and for the better.

Alone in his quiet kitchen, he smiled.

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Caroline Alert.

© Caroline Alert 1996