Through A Glass, Darkly

by Caroline Alert

Elyssa didn't like to name it. To her, it was a four letter word for destruction. She didn't like to talk about it or even remember it, but she'd been forced to do so many times, because it had happened to her. It was real. She thought of it as her own personal line of demarcation, a border as darkly ominous as the infamous Mason-Dixon line, a division as invisible yet profound as that between B.C. and A.D. Cold and sharp as the cut of a knife, the incident divided her life as nothing ever had. Before November 9, 1995 was happiness, security, her talent and all her dreams for the future; after it, only pain and confusion.

For Elyssa Ryan, one ugly, violent night changed everything. When it was over, familiar streets no longer seemed safe. Strangers she passed looked unfriendly, even hostile. Her own boyfriend Rob changed from a soothing presence to a potential threat; and when she held him at bay, he severed their relationship. And he was not the only casualty of that night. Even her friends seemed different afterwards. They were awkward around her. First they'd stare as if curious about what visible damage she'd sustained, then their gazes would slide away, as if direct eye contact with her for too long a time was uncomfortable. She'd become Typhoid Mary, a sideshow freak -- an object of pity and curiosity. A victim.

Or maybe that's all in my head.

She wasn't sure if the changes she perceived were in herself or in them, if they were acting strangely or if she was suddenly seeing them with a new and painful clarity -- with eyes that had been shocked open. The only thing she was sure of was that as the weeks went by, they all quit calling or coming to see her. The people closest to her, the people she'd counted on, were fading away when she needed them most.

Even time turned against her. Nights became small ordeals. Sleep wouldn't come to her tired eyes, or peace to her haunted mind. Her days weren't much better. No matter what time of day she painted, she couldn't seem to find the light. Her colors were dark, her brushstrokes alternately listless or savage, as if they'd come from some other hand but her own. Her paintings had always been mirrors of her feelings, her soul. If that were still true, then they now reflected feelings she'd never dreamed she could have, and a soul she was no longer sure was entirely her own.

She slowly realized that though the event itself was over, her fears hadn't ended. They'd merely taken on new forms: fear of familiar things, familiar faces that now seemed strange; fear that one day she'd look into a mirror and find that the dark line that had slashed across her life had shadowed her own face so much that she could no longer even recognize herself. Everything around her was drifting, uncertain. She fought the pull of numbness, the temptation to let herself stop caring about anything. To hide in grayness, hide from the shadows and the light in a twilight netherworld where nothing could touch her. Finally, she began to fear that unless she changed her life somehow, the magic would leave her hands, and she'd lose her creativity and stop painting altogether. She'd sink into the shadows behind her new and dreadful Mason-Dixon line, and that black night's victory over her would be complete.

She couldn't let that happen. Finally, she knew that there was nothing left for her to do but leave. Somewhere, somehow, she had to start over.

So Elyssa Ryan quit her part-time job, said goodbye to her sister, packed her bags, turned in the key to her apartment, and headed out of the city in which she'd grown up. In the pearly light of early morning, she drove down quiet, deserted streets, away from the only home she'd ever known, toward an uncertain future. Her smaller canvases were stowed safely in the back of her car, the larger ones in the rented trailer she'd hitched behind it. Fear and hope battled uneasily for the empty seat beside her. She knew she was taking a chance. She didn't have much money, and she didn't know what she'd find in Chicago. But she knew that to stay where she was would've been a kind of death.

Standing outside his best friend's opened apartment door, Ray Vecchio tapped his foot impatiently. "Come on, come on, Benny! I haven't got all day! Hell, I don't even have a minute!" he added, unable (as usual) to resist punctuating his point. "If I'm not in the squadroom in ten seconds, the Lieutenant'll have my butt for breakfast!"

Fraser headed obligingly for his door. But all at once, just as Ray was congratulating himself that they might just make it to work on time after all, he saw Fraser halt, his eyes widening as if he'd forgotten something. He held up a finger and turned towards his wolf. "A moment, Ray, if you please."

"Ah, no, no!" Ray groaned. "Come on, Fraser, can't you let it go just this once?"

Fraser shook his head as he bent to ruffle the wolf's fur. "We've been over this before, Ray," he said patiently. "If I don't say goodbye to him before I leave in the morning, it hurts his feelings."

"So he pouts a little," Ray shrugged, though he already knew the cause was hopeless. "Big deal."

Benny shot him a look over his shoulder. "You might think it was, if you had to sleep a few feet away from an annoyed wolf."

Unable to argue with that, Vecchio fell silent, watching in annoyance as Ben cupped the animal's jaw gently in his hand. Their gazes locked in a silent, unblinking, incomprehensible stare that went on and on and on...

Ray sighed. Worrying about the finer points of etiquette towards a wolf was totally beyond the bend and then some to him, but where politeness was concerned, he'd learned just how inflexible Benny could be. He'd seen this peculiar farewell enacted often enough to know that there'd be no budging Fraser until it was over, no matter how much in a hurry he was, or what dire threats he uttered.

He'd told Benny once that he didn't understand what the hell they were doing. How they could be "saying goodbye" when neither of them uttered a sound? Benny had looked offended, and swore that though he and Diefenbaker were motionless and utterly silent at such times, they were still "communicating."

Whatever. And just to make things even stranger, though Diefenbaker was supposedly deaf, Fraser sometimes talked out loud to him. Not like a normal guy would to his dog, mind you -- oh, no. That would be too ordinary for Fraser. Too normal. Simple commands like "Here, Dief," or "Sit, boy," wouldn't do. Fraser held conversations with him, as if he were talking to another human being, for Crissakes; as if Dief understood every word he said! Weirder still, from the wolf's reactions, Vecchio suspected that might somehow be true, though even Fraser's claim that Dief could read lips couldn't account for it. He'd often seen Dief react unmistakably to what Benny said, even when the Mountie's back was turned!

The way they communicated was too weird for words, and he'd long since given up trying to figure it out. Maybe the wolf's only pretending to be deaf, or maybe Fraser uses secret hand signals or some kinda strange Canadian telepathy with him. Hell if I know! It was as much a mystery to him as the whole water into wine thing at Mass. The only thing he knew for sure was that it worked. Dief didn't always obey Benny, but if he was ever in trouble or needed help, the wolf was always there, no matter what. In fact, though Ray was loathe to admit it, Dief had saved both their hides more than once.

For that kind of loyalty, I'd kiss him goodbye every morning myself, he reflected wryly.

It was so early, as Elyssa trudged up and down the stairs unloading her car, that no one else was around. She was grateful for that. The solitude allowed her to save her breath for hauling paintings, boxes and luggage, instead of making idle chitchat. Maybe if I'm lucky, I won't have to meet any of my new neighbors until I've had a chance to settle in, she thought. Hard on its heels came a darker thought: Hell, maybe if I'm really lucky, I'll never have to meet them at all.

Six months ago, such a thought would never have crossed her mind.

That was then, she thought. This is now...

She was more cynical now than she had been, and she didn't like it. Shadows, shadows everywhere. She banged her suitcase into the wall with more force, perhaps, than was strictly necessary as she struggled upstairs with it in one hand and a box of clothes in the other. Paint flaked off the wall onto the floor from the impact. "Damn!" she swore, feeling guilty. Well... It isn't as if the walls of this place were in perfect condition to start with, she rationalized. They're so old they're crumbling.

As she struggled upwards with her arms full, she reflected ruefully that her own apartment wasn't much better. The up side was, it was fairly large, with a living room/kitchen, bathroom and a fair-sized bedroom. The down side, that it was old and in need of renovation. The paint on the walls was peeling in several places, and the fixtures looked like they'd been installed in Eisenhower's day. Its two big selling points for her, though, were the large windows on its northern side, which provided good light for painting, and very reasonable rent, as prices went in Chicago.

I'll have to scrub it all clean and repaint, but for now, it'll have to do. It's all I can afford, until I find a job and get on my feet again.

All at once, as she neared the top of the stairs, she saw a man standing in the hallway by the open door of an apartment a few doors down from hers. She would have to pass by him, whoever he was, to get to her own place.


Fighting down a tiny, now-familiar frisson of fear, she took a deep breath and stumbled upward towards him. Disheveled and overburdened as she was, she knew it was useless to try to look inconspicuous. She settled for uninteresting as she topped the landing and started down the hallway with a purposely cold, don't-talk-to-me look. But it failed to discourage him. His eyes focused on her intently. She glared coldly at him in return. He was about six feet, and slender enough so that he looked a bit taller. He had a big nose, thinning dark hair, alert green eyes and an air of confidence that bordered on cockiness; and he was wearing a coat that she knew hadn't come off of any department store rack.

What are you doing here dressed like that? she wondered as she neared him. He looked like he was going to be a problem. His most noteworthy feature so far was his stubbornness. Despite her overloaded state and chilly expression, he hadn't moved aside as she approached, or offered to help her either. He stood right in the middle of the hall, hands shoved in his coat pockets, blocking her path as his eyes moved over her in a measuring glance. She tried to tell herself that his interest was merely casual, but she felt her pulse accelerate anyway as she halted near him.

"'Scuse me," she said. The words were terse, barely polite. But they were better than what she was thinking, which was unprintable; and she willed him to hear them as a command, rather than a request. Still, he didn't lift a finger to help her, or budge even an inch from his position blocking the hallway. Dropping her suitcase for a second, she pursed her lips in exasperation.

"Excuse me!" she repeated, louder that time, turning up the volume in case he was deaf as well as rude.

Forgetting about his hurry to be gone for an instant, Ray eyed the irritated woman who'd dropped her suitcase inches from his left foot with considerable interest. He'd been to Benny's place so many times that he knew most of his neighbors -- and certainly all of the ones on this floor -- by sight now. She wasn't one of them, and the box and suitcase she was carrying were added evidence that she was a new arrival.

God only knows what she's doing moving into Fraser's crappy old excuse for an apartment building. She must be either poor and desperate or crazy, he thought. Most likely poor -- her suitcase had seen better days, and she didn't look crazy. She was slender, with pale skin and big green eyes, and so pretty that the old work shirt and baggy jeans she wore couldn't quite disguise it. Beneath the nondescript scarf she'd tied around her hair, it was long, thick, and a beautiful shade of reddish gold; and his sharp eyes detected curves in all the right places. He wondered idly if she was deliberately trying to hide her good looks under those drab clothes, and why.

Then that idle speculation was forgotten as an idea arrowed across his mind: Fraser likes women with long hair...

He was worried about his friend. Ever since that thing with Victoria, he'd been quieter, paler -- he just wasn't himself. He never talked about her anymore, but Ray knew his heart was still sore. For a while, he'd had hopes that Jill, the beautiful blond physical therapist Benny had met in the hospital while recovering from his wound, would snap him out of his funk. But it hadn't happened. Despite the case they'd worked on together, once Benny was well enough, he'd left the hospital without so much as a backward glance at her.

What a waste. Ray sighed to himself. God, to have the Mountie's life! Beautiful women throwing themselves at you everywhere you go. I could deal with that! It was criminal that such luck was wasted on the oblivious Canadian.

Still, oblivious or not, Benny was his best friend, and Ray knew he needed someone to help him forget Victoria. This woman seemed a good candidate for the job. She was attractive, and since she had no wedding ring or significant other trailing her upstairs with her belongings, probably available as well. Better still, she was evidently moving in right down the hall from his buddy. Best of all, the timing was right: here she was, right at Fraser's door, practically wilting with the effort of dragging all her stuff up the stairs, just when he was due to come out.

What a perfect set-up! he exulted. I know Fraser; one look at her and every polite, Canadian gene in his six-foot body will snap to attention, and leap to help her out. And after one look at Benny, she'll probably let him. I've never met a woman yet who's immune to those baby blues and Boy Scout manners, not even my own sister. (Especially my sister.) All I have to do is get them together, then just step back and let Nature take its course.

Somehow, he thought it would. Unlike Jill, his pretty physical therapist, this woman was going to be living in close proximity to Benny. He couldn't help but run into her a lot. Hopefully, repeated encounters with her would get his juices flowing, and his male hormones would rush in where politeness feared to tread. (Despite his ignorance of his effect on women in general, his affair with Victoria proved that Fraser did have them... )

And if I can just get him away from that damn wolf for a second, he thought, he may get a chance to use 'em again!


Elyssa stared angrily at the man blocking the hallway. Despite the fact that she'd nearly dropped her suitcase on his foot, he hadn't moved. This guy wouldn't take the hint if I hit him over the head with it! Which is what I'm gonna do, if he doesn't move in about two seconds.

"Benny!" he yelled, so suddenly that Elyssa started. Then, with a lightning swift change of mood, he smiled at her. "Hiya." But before she could open her mouth to answer him, he was bellowing again. "Hey, Fraser! You better get out here, or I'm gone on the count o' three! One! Two -- "

Elyssa could do no more than watch, bemused, as a man who had to be Benny stepped out of the open apartment door ahead of her, just before his volatile friend could yell "Three." "Understood, Ray," he said, shutting it hastily behind him.

Elyssa blinked at Benny. She hadn't meant to pay any attention to him -- whoever he was, if he was a friend of this rude guy with the penetrating green eyes, she didn't want anything to do with him. But she couldn't help it. He was impossible to ignore. She stared at him, unable to believe it.

A Mountie in full dress uniform: boots, hat and all. My neighbor down the hall is a Mountie! she repeated to herself, dazed. A Mountie named Benny? Oh, this is too weird!

It was so bizarre that she forgot her own flushed appearance and the weight in her arms as she tried to take it in, to take him in. He didn't look like a "Benny." That was a teddy bear-type nickname, and there was nothing cuddly or childish about him. Tall, dark- haired and broad-shouldered, with clean-cut features, a square jaw and bright blue eyes, he was very handsome. But it wasn't his looks that struck her: it was his uniform. More precisely, his thick, bright red coat. Immaculate and blazing scarlet as an October maple leaf, it held her riveted. It was the first thing she'd seen since coming to Chicago that looked real, its crimson the first color that had come alive for her since it happened. It almost seemed to glow in the dim, dingy hallway, like a flame. It made her feel that he was someone special, that she could trust him. She stared at him, shocked by her unexpected reaction.

I must be crazy. He's not some kind of guardian angel, she reminded herself, dizzied by a wave of conflicting emotion. He's the furthest thing from it. He's a man. One of the enemy.

Still, she couldn't seem to stop looking at him. She told herself she was staring merely because she'd only seen Mounties on TV before, never in real life. So he was exotic, a curiosity, something completely outside her experience. She'd have stared at a Bengal tiger, too, had it suddenly appeared in the dingy hallway; and the fact that he was wearing a terrific color, a red so vivid it sang, didn't make him one bit less dangerous than a tiger would've been.

She knew that. Nonetheless, her mouth went dry as he nodded politely at her.

"Good morning, ma'am," he said. She longed to get away, to push by him and his sharp-eyed friend without a word, but something held her back. Maybe it was the way he smiled at her with genuine friendliness, as if he hadn't noticed the way she was gaping rudely at him. It surprised her so that she tore her eyes from his wonderful uniform for a minute and studied his face. His blue eyes were so clear and guileless they disarmed her, made it hard to feel the anger she'd been using to keep men at bay. But she saw something else in them too, something almost familiar. Hidden behind his smile, in the depths of his eyes, was something at odds with the meticulous perfection of the rest of him: something raw, painful, like an open wound.-

He knows, she thought, stunned. He knows about darkness and shadows...

"It's... nice to meet you," he added.

Without meaning to, she wondered what had happened to him.

When she didn't answer him, for a second, she could've sworn that his smile faltered. He drew back instinctively, as if he realized she'd seen a little too much in his eyes, peered a little too deeply into him for comfort. But he said nothing more.

His friend Ray wasn't so polite. When she didn't answer the Mountie's greeting right away, he grinned as if he knew exactly why she'd been struck dumb. A wave of embarrassment swept over Elyssa. Benny the Mountie really was very handsome; no doubt Ray was used to women staring at him. But she hated being the source of his amusement, especially when he was mistaken as to the reason for her stare. She had no way of explaining that it had nothing to do with lust, that she was a painter and the incredible red of his jacket was singing to her, that it made him shine like a fiery angel.

If I said that, they'd both think I'd lost my mind. Correction: that Ray guy would think I was lying, and that I really am in lust with his friend, no matter what I said.

"Hi," she croaked reluctantly at last, trying her best to sound cool, calm and unimpressed. Trying, if she was honest with herself, to prove Benny's unpleasant friend wrong in his cynical first impression of her as some drooling, would-be Mountie groupie. She bent to pick up her heavy, overstuffed suitcase, thinking wryly that he couldn't have been further off the mark.

"I'm Benton Fraser," the Mountie said, his smile widening as he reached out to take the suitcase from her hand. "I see you're moving in. I'd be happy to help you with that-- "

Prompted, perhaps, by his courteous offer, his rude friend finally offered to lend a hand, too. "Yeah, here," he said. "You take the suitcase, Benny, I'll take the box."

No doubt they really meant to be kind. The problem was, they both moved towards her at once. Ray reached for her box, and Fraser bent forward to take her suitcase at the same instant. When the dual pairs of strong male arms, one pale and one darkly tanned, reached out for her, a flashbulb popped in her mind. All at once, she was back in her old apartment -- with them. With the gloved hands, the hands that hurt...

A wave of nausea rolled over her; her pulse roared in her ears. She started in fear, backing away from the two men so violently that she bumped into the wall. The impact put her back in the here and now and she fought to stay there, not to let the memories overpower her. But the men were too close for comfort, the situation too similar.

A voice inside her shrilled that she was cornered -- outnumbered -- in danger.

"No!" she said aloud, more shrilly than she meant to, fighting it. Caught between past and present, her hands tightened on the suitcase in a white-knuckled grip. She fought to regain control of herself, to calm the wave of incipient panic that had risen inside her. I don't need any help, she tried to say...

She'd needed help that night, though, had needed it so desperately -- but there had been none. No escape from those hands, rising and falling ruthlessly until they were stained with her blood...

The memories rose up and choked her. "Don't!" she cried hoarsely.

The two men stared at her in silence, obviously perplexed by her unexpected, adamant rejection of their help. The one named Ray looked surprised and a bit irritated; but the Mountie's gaze was strangely compassionate. This time, it was his eyes that reached inside of her. She felt like he could see right into her soul, if she let him.

And that was the last thing in the world she wanted.

She looked away and cleared her throat, forcing down her fear. "I don't need any help, thank you. I just need to get by you," she finished pointedly, suddenly consumed by a need to get away from both of them. She wished heartily that she'd never met either of them. Moving into this new place had been hard enough for her, without running into men who reminded her of --

"Of course." The Mountie moved out of her way obligingly. His friend shifted aside just enough to let her pass.

"So, you two are gonna be neighbors," Ray observed cheerfully as she edged by him, evidently willing to overlook the way she'd just freaked out in front of them. "That'll be nice, Miss-what'd you say your name was?"

She inched by him gingerly, careful not to touch him as she passed, and made for the safety of her partially open door with a distinct feeling of relief. "I didn't say," she retorted, nudging the door wide with her foot.

Ray waved at her, apparently as oblivious to her fear as he was undeterred by her resulting rudeness. "Well, if you need anything, just call Benny here," he said. "He's--"

She slammed the door shut behind her before he could tell her just what Benny was besides large, vividly red, and strangely disturbing. She didn't like the way he'd almost gotten past her iron-clad defenses on their very first meeting. She put her suitcase and box of clothes down with a grimace as a distressing thought struck her. The Mountie's bad enough. What if that other guy, Ray, lives in this building too?

Oh, God.

"Hmm." Looking in the direction of his new neighbor's door with a slight frown, Fraser made a little humming noise that he only uttered when he'd seen something that piqued his interest. Ray smiled to himself: his little plan was working just fine. But then Fraser turned towards the stairs without another word, and his heart sank. Obviously, the Mountie had no intention of going after the woman, interested hum or not.

I don't believe this! Ordinarily, the guy sticks his nose into everyone's business! Of all the times he could've chosen, Fraser has to pick now to get uninvolved?

Ray wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily. Annoyed that his cunning little plan to introduce his friend to a pretty woman had gone so unexpectedly awry, he grabbed the Mountie's arm before he could get away. "What're you doing, Benny?"

The Canadian turned deceptively mild blue eyes on him. "Leaving," he said, all innocence. "I thought that's what you wanted. Aren't you in a hurry to get to work?"

"I couldn't make it on time now if I flew, Fraser!" he snapped. "But that doesn't matter. I wanna know what that was all about."

"What, Ray?" Fraser had that patient look he got when he was being either peculiarly Canadian, or annoyingly dense. Sometimes it was hard for Vecchio to tell the difference.

"That!" he shook an exasperated finger in the direction of the woman's apartment. "I've never seen anything like that!"

"Like what? I admit, that woman's suitcase was a little old, but it was still perfectly recognizable-- "

Ray gritted his teeth. "I'm not talkin' about her suitcase, I'm talkin' about the way you just acted!"

Fraser blinked at him with total noncomprehension.

"That was your new neighbor, Fraser," he pointed out. "She's female, carryin' about twenty pounds more than she weighs, practically a poster child for 'Women in Need of a Mountie's Assistance' -- and you just let her walk away without even opening the door for her! What's the matter with you?"

Fraser's eyebrows lifted in sudden understanding. "Oh, that," he said vaguely. "Well, I did try to help her, but she declined my offer of assistance." He started for the stairs again as if that explained everything, or as if the incident were so trivial it was hardly worth mentioning. With anyone else, Ray had to admit, it would've been. But with the Canadian, it spoke volumes.

He strode after him, unable to let it go. "'So she said no!" he shrugged. "Since when has that ever stopped you, Benny? I mean, Chivalry is a religion with you! And there was a woman needing help, which is the kind of thing you live for, and--"

"She said she didn't need my -- our -- help. And though she was a bit nervous, she seemed perfectly capable."

"Capable! That was a damsel in distress if I ever saw one, Fraser!" Ray sputtered. "She practically had the words 'Help me' written all over her! Normally, I wouldn't have been able to pry you away from her with a crowbar, but you didn't even stop to get her name! What's up with you?" he asked as he clattered down the stairs at the Mountie's heels, perplexed by his friend's incomprehensible behavior. "Are you sick?"

Fraser turned, so suddenly that Vecchio had to rock back on his heels to avoid running into him. "Not that I'm aware of, Ray." His voice was quiet, but his eyes were forcefully direct. "I am, however, trying to learn to leave well enough alone." He didn't say another word, he just turned to open the door to the street. But he didn't have to. Ray got the message, loud and clear. Fraser had seen through him and that "accidental" meeting with the redhead in the hallway instantly, had known he was being set up, and why; and he hadn't liked it. Though it had seemed like a good idea at the time, Ray could've kicked himself for it now. In trying to make Benny feel better, he'd only managed to stir up old memories. The sudden pain Ray saw in his blue eyes robbed him of speech.

Damn that bitch Victoria! he thought for the thousandth time, as they headed silently for his car. It wasn't only Fraser that she'd hurt. That woman had poisoned everyone she touched, including him. He was a cop, he'd dedicated his life to upholding the law -- but she'd caused him to shoot his best friend in the back, and left him with a hatred so deep that he knew if she ever showed up again, he'd kill her.

He'd never felt like that about anyone in his life, not even the scum he'd helped put in prison. But none of them had hurt someone close to him so deeply. None of them had etched white-hot lines of pain around the eyes of his best friend, made him scared even to come near a woman again. Any woman -- even to offer her his help.

Damn her!

Elyssa finished hauling the rest of her things up to her new apartment without further incident, but while she was unpacking, she couldn't help thinking about the two men she'd run into in the hallway. They were the strangest pair: a polite, handsome Mountie, so perfect he was almost surreal, and a cocky, streetwise -- what? She had no idea what Ray did for a living.

For a moment, she let herself speculate. Judging by that expensive coat he's wearing, I'll bet he doesn't sell shoes, that's for sure. Drug dealer? she theorized. Mafia hit man? She smiled to herself. Neither was very likely. For one thing, he didn't seem hard or dangerous -- cynical and stubborn maybe, but not evil. And despite the way he'd mock-threatened and shouted at Benton Fraser (or maybe because of the way the Mountie had allowed him to), she had a strong feeling that they were good friends, maybe even best friends. So Ray could hardly be a criminal.

Wonder what he is.

She shook herself mentally. She was devoting too much time to thinking about the two men. She felt a flicker of resentment at her own weakness. She'd come here to work, to find the light again, not to get involved with anyone. She'd promised herself she would live quietly here, keep to herself and paint, yet she hadn't even made it to her place before being waylaid by two strangers who'd forced her to remember.

She vowed not to let that happen again. She had no interest in her new neighbors here, and no time for men, Mounties or otherwise. Men were on the other side of that line now, of that ugly slash that cut across her life. On the other side, in the past, with no way to cross over into her present; no way to touch her. And for now, that was the way she wanted it.

But when she closed her eyes that night -- her first night in her new apartment -- the Mountie's red coat burned brightly in the darkness behind her eyelids, and his quiet smile and wounded eyes followed her down into a troubled sleep.

A few days later, Elyssa fumbled with her keys as she tried to get her door unlocked without spilling the two big bags of groceries she was holding. For some reason -- maybe because the second lock was so new -- her key didn't seem to want to turn in it. She heard footsteps coming down the hallway behind her, but before she could turn to see who it was, one of the bags slipped out from under her arm and hit the floor with a resounding thud, spilling a bottle of milk and several bags of vegetables out into the corridor beside her.

"Damn!" She twisted the key angrily in the door until it finally opened, put her remaining bag inside on her living room floor, then turned to pick up the fallen one. "Oh!"

The Mountie knelt behind her, calmly picking up the mess. She realized it was his boots she must've heard approaching earlier. He was still wearing his uniform, hat and all, so either he'd just come home from work or else he wore it all the time. "Sorry," he smiled up at her as he shoved cucumbers back into her bag. "I didn't mean to startle you, I just thought -- "

He just thought I needed some help. Again! This is the second time he's done that, she thought, unreasonably annoyed. What does he think, that I'm some helpless little female who can't fend for myself?

She bent to take the bag from him, so suddenly that he looked up at her in distinct surprise. "It's okay," she said tightly. "I can get this." She was acting like a witch, and she knew it. She'd all but snatched her groceries back from him, when all he was trying to do was lend her a little friendly assistance. But she couldn't help herself. She had reasons for her attitude, and she didn't have to explain them to him. "I'm fine, I don't need any help," she said. She couldn't bring herself to soften the words with a smile, but she did manage not to snap at him. It was the best she could do.

To the Mountie's credit, he didn't seem to take offense; nor did he try to argue the point. He rose to his feet with easy grace as she stood up, propping the bag up onto her hip to prevent any further accidents. "I see you've installed another lock on your door," he said, pointing to it casually. "That's a good idea. This isn't the safest of neighborhoods. Unless you have a wolf, that is."

She stared at him in surprise. What the hell is he talking about? A wolf? Is he crazy?

He didn't explain, he just smiled at her; and she forgot both her mystification and annoyance when he did. There was something about his smile that was so innocent, so warm that it was almost irresistible. She had to freeze her facial muscles to keep from responding to that sunny beam, but she managed it. The Ice Queen freezes out Nanook of the North...

But she took no pleasure in being chilly to him. In fact, she wondered how long she was going to be able to keep it up, in the face of his wonderful smile.

He tipped his hat politely to her. "Good night, Miss," he said.

She stared at him as he walked down the hall to his own apartment and opened the door. She noted with surprise that it wasn't locked; and she was even more surprised when he swung it open and a large, powerful gray and white dog padded rapidly towards him. "Hello, Dief," she heard him say as he took off his hat and reached down to ruffle the animal's fur.

No, not a dog, she corrected herself, as he shut the door behind him. A wolf! My God -- he lives with a wolf!

She wasn't sure if he was crazy, or if she was. But she wanted to paint him so badly she could almost taste it.

Almost a week passed by, though, before Elyssa saw Benton Fraser again. She spied him in the hallway outside their apartments when she was on her way to work one morning. He was in uniform, as always. She was beginning to wonder if he slept in it, too. Not that she minded. He looked great in it, and the sight of his red jacket almost made her mouth water. He doffed his hat to her automatically as she walked towards him.

"Good morning," he smiled, and she realized that there was something about him that seemed trustworthy, even to her now paranoid sensibilities. It's hard to distrust a man with such flawless manners, she thought. I wonder if they're all like that where he comes from?

"Hi, Mr. Fraser," she replied. "I'm sorry, I forgot to introduce myself before. My name is Elyssa Ryan."

"It's nice to meet you, Miss Ryan," he murmured.

Then, before she could stop herself, she blurted out what had been preying on her mind since her first sight of his marvelous uniform. "You know, I'm an artist, and I've been wondering..."

He moved closer to her, until he was only about a foot away, and she faltered. It wasn't so bad talking to him from a few feet away, but his nearness unnerved her. He was big, so broad-shouldered and overwhelmingly male that despite her need to talk to him, she suddenly felt fearful; and she hated that. Her therapist had told her that such a response was only natural, and that it would fade in time, but she still despised herself for it. It made her feel like a coward, and that was the last thing she wanted to feel like, especially in front of a Mountie.

"Yes. I noticed you carrying paintings, the day you moved in," he put in helpfully, as if he sensed her nervousness.

"Yes. Well... I've been wondering," she repeated, ignoring her fear, "if you would help me with something. I know we don't know each other very well, but I'd really love to paint you, and--"

"Paint me?" Fraser echoed, blinking in surprise.

"I mean, your portrait. Paint your portrait, I mean," she stuttered, aware that she was babbling but unable to control it. Her mouth seemed to have a mind of its own, and she'd gone too far to stop now. "I'm working part time, but that's just to pay for my art supplies, until I get started painting again. That's my real vocation." She stopped herself, wondering why she was telling him so much. After all, he was a relative stranger...

She noticed that he looked a little hesitant. "This wouldn't be a commission, you understand," she hastened to reassure him. "I'll do it for free. You can even have it when I'm done, if you want. It's just that I really need a subject. I need to practice, to start painting again, and I don't have any friends in Chicago yet since I just moved here, and--"

"I'd be delighted, Miss Ryan," Fraser said.

"It's just that I've never met a Mountie before, and your uniform is so colorful, and-- what?" Elyssa stopped short, suddenly realizing that, against all odds, she'd thought she'd heard him agree to her mad proposal.

"I'd be happy to pose for you," Fraser said, smiling at Elyssa Ryan's wide-eyed look of surprise. He found her nervousness charming, though he sensed it had its roots in a fear of men in general, which was troubling. But fear of the opposite sex was something he now understood very well. He was trying to get over it himself, without much success. Moreover, Miss Ryan seemed to be a nice person; and her offer to paint him for nothing was very generous -- as well as harmless. Surely nothing bad could come from such an innocent thing as painting a portrait, he reasoned. In fact, the more he thought about the idea, the better he liked it. Maybe if he let her do it, and they became comfortable with each other, it would help them get over their problem with the opposite sex. They might even become friends.

Besides, he found the discovery that an artist was living right down the hall from him fascinating. He loved art, and though he'd resisted Ray's blatant attempt to get them together, he'd been hoping they would meet again. Elyssa Ryan had intrigued him from the first. There was something mysterious about her.

She's young and very attractive, slender with long, pretty, red-gold hair, yet she's single and seemingly unattached. Divorced, perhaps? Maybe she had an abusive husband. Maybe that's why she shies away from men, he thought.

"Oh, thanks! That's wonderful, Mr. Fraser," Elyssa said. She smiled suddenly, white teeth showing beneath softly curving lips in the first genuine smile he'd ever seen on her face, and he blinked. Why had he thought she was merely pretty before? When she smiled, her green eyes lit, her nervousness disappeared, and she shone.

She's beauti--

He cut off the thought, so shocked by it that he took a step back from her before he could stop himself.

She frowned, unable to conceal her surprise at his withdrawal. "We can start right away. Tonight, if you want. That is, if you really want to do this," she added.

She was giving him an out, a chance to change his mind. He cursed himself for a clumsy fool. She was one of the few people he'd met in Chicago who'd actually offered to do something for him, and he hadn't been very gracious to her in return. "I'd very much like to do it, but on one condition," he said. "I want to pay you for it, Miss Ryan."

She rewarded him with another of her remarkable smiles, and this time, he didn't shy away from it. He tried to banish the specter of Victoria, to remember a time when winning such a smile from a pretty woman would've made him wildly happy, rather than afraid. Somewhat to his surprise, he felt a cautious sense of pleasure steal over him as she beamed at him. It was the first time he'd felt anything but uncomfortable around a woman in months, and it reinforced his decision to let Elyssa paint him.

"That's nice of you, but I wouldn't feel right about that, since it was my idea," she said, quietly but firmly. She'd forgotten her initial terror of him enough to assert herself a bit, and he liked the more confident woman who emerged as they talked. It gave him hope that they might indeed become friends, given time.

"Well... how about this, then," he compromised. "I'll sit for the portrait, but you keep it once it's done."

"Oh, no," she protested. "It's a lengthy process, and--"

"I'm afraid I must insist," he said. "If it's a lengthy process, then you'll be putting a lot of work into it. So you should own the piece once it's finished."

She frowned a little. "I don't understand."

He raised an eyebrow, unsure what it was he'd said that confused her.

"I mean, if I keep the portrait, what do you get out of the deal?" she asked.

A typically American way of looking at things, he thought, bemused. "Well... I get the pleasure of participating in the artistic process, of course, of having myself immortalized. And the pleasure of your company, as well. That seems more than adequate compensation."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. The pleasure of your company? That's really forward. What was I thinking?

Elyssa was silent for a moment, and Fraser held his breath, thinking he must've offended her. But then she gave in. "All right," she said at last. "It's a deal, Mr. Fraser."

He smiled at her and out of habit, offered her his hand to close the bargain. This time, she was the one who backed away, her face tightening with instinctive dread. He let his hand fall back to his side, feeling a pang of sympathy. What in God's name happened to her, to make her so fearful of even casual contact with a man? He suddenly realized how hard it must have been for her to ask him to pose for a portrait; for surely that would involve them being alone together, most likely in her apartment.

He silently applauded her courage, his conviction that this artistic endeavor she planned would benefit both of them growing by the minute. "Good. Well, that's settled then," he said. "I have to leave now. I'm afraid I have to get to work, but I'm free tonight, if you'd like to get started on the portrait."

She blinked at him in surprise. He suddenly realized that though she'd offered to start right away, she hadn't really expected him to take her up on it. Or maybe the prospect of being alone with him was more daunting than she'd thought it would be. For whatever reason, her smile was a little forced. "No, actually, now that I think about it, I can't start tonight," she demurred. "Besides, I think I'd rather paint you by natural light. Can you come by on Saturday at about eight a.m., Mr. Fraser? Would that be okay? And can you wear your uniform, please?"

"Certainly." He nodded, then turned to go. But as he walked away from her, he couldn't help thinking that, at the last, she'd regretted her impulsive offer. It made him wonder why she'd done it. Maybe it was just as she'd said: she needed to practice her art, and he was the only person she knew well enough in Chicago to ask.

But he could sense that she was a little afraid of him, even so.

He considered the problem as he headed down the stairs toward the street. If that were true, he'd simply have to show her that there was no need for it, that he could be trusted. He'd never hurt a woman in his life--

Except the only woman I ever loved. Her, I betrayed. Her, I put in prison.

He shivered as he stepped out into the street. My blood must be getting thin, he told himself, trying to explain it. It's been too long since I've been home. It was true enough. As he stepped out onto the busy sidewalk to begin the long walk towards the Consulate, he felt hemmed in, trapped in the belly of the huge, noisy beast that was Chicago. He felt a wave of longing for the clean, cold, open spaces of the Territories that was so strong it made him ache. It was never really quiet here, not even in the dead of night. There was always the hum of traffic, the far off roar of the L, sirens and yells... He missed the deep northern silences profoundly. He'd lived in this loud, crowded city for almost two years now, but he still felt like an outsider. He wondered if Elyssa Ryan did, too.

Yet he couldn't go home. Not yet. Sometimes, in the depths of his soul, he feared that he never would. He was as much a prisoner here, in a way, as Victoria had been in Alaska.

He straightened his jacket and set his hat firmly back on his head, taking a small measure of comfort in their familiarity. Sometimes, small things were all a man could call his own. That, and the knowledge of who he was. Striding off down the street, he concentrated on the paperwork he had waiting on his desk at the Consulate, and banished all thoughts of home and women, past and present.

At least, he tried to.

The following Saturday morning, Fraser stood in the center of Elyssa Ryan's living room floor, twirling his hat in his hands nervously as Elyssa studied him critically from behind her easel. It was their first portrait session, and he didn't know what to expect. He'd anticipated that she'd be very nervous at having him in her apartment, but though she did seem different today, it wasn't due to fear. If anything, she seemed more calm and businesslike. Her eyes had lost their usual guarded look. They were sharper, almost piercing. It was as if being involved in her work gave her a strength she lacked otherwise. She stared at him silently for a long time, and he found her direct green gaze strangely disconcerting. He cleared his throat. "I've never posed for a portrait before," he told her, "but I've read about some portraits done by artists like Van Gogh and Sargent..."

"Read about them?" Elyssa murmured, never taking her eyes off his face. She smiled slightly, absently, and he wondered if he'd unwittingly said something stupid.

"What I meant was, I've seen reproductions of them in books," he answered, forging ahead blindly in the hope that he wasn't making an idiot of himself. "I haven't had a chance to view the originals, since I've never been to Europe, but my grandmother had an extensive library in Tuktoyaktuk, and I read a lot while I was growing up."

"Tukto what?" Elyssa echoed, sounding so much like Ray for a second that he blinked.

"Tuktoyaktuk," he repeated obligingly. "It's in Canada. In the Northern Territories, to be more precise."

"Oh," she nodded, coming towards him suddenly. "That's right. You're from the great frozen north, aren't you?"

"Yes. Though I wasn't actually born in Tuktoyaktuk, I just grew up there. I was really born in Inuvik. Then when I was seven, after my mother died, my father and I moved to Alert. Then after that, my grandmother raised me--"

"In Tuktoyaktuk," Elyssa finished for him.

"Yes," he agreed, obscurely pleased that she'd pronounced the name perfectly that time, though her attention was obviously focused elsewhere. "Tuktoyaktuk is actually as far north as one can go, and still be in Canada," he explained.

"I see." She moved closer to him, nodding absently.

"It's on the Coronation Gulf, south of the Arctic Ocean and west of Greenland," he confided, warming to his subject. He concentrated on reeling off facts and statistics about his background as she studied him. She circled him from mere inches away, with the same quietly intense look she'd had since he came in; and up close, her searching gaze was powerful. There was nothing sexual about it, but it was so focused, so concentrated that it was like a beam of light traveling over and into his body. Women had stared at him many times before, but no one had ever looked at him quite like this: not just in appreciation of his surface, of hair, eyes and skin, but deeper still, as if she could see through to the bones and muscles that lay beneath them. Or perhaps to his very soul. Her gaze had delved into him that way the first time they'd met, and it both fascinated and disconcerted him. Looking back into her unwinking, thickly lashed green eyes dizzied him oddly.

The sensation was disturbingly familiar...

Another blink, and in his mind's eye, he saw a snowy Alaskan mountainside. It was cold, so cold... He'd stared into a pair of beautiful dark eyes one night and felt like this. Like he was falling without moving...

He fought an instinctive surge of fear. God, not again!

That night in Alaska, he'd written that strange new feeling off as an imbalance of the inner ear. This time, he knew what it was -- or at least, what it might become. And the prospect frightened him so much he couldn't face it.

You're being ridiculous, he scolded himself. It's not that, I just feel a little embarrassed because she's studying me so closely. That's all.

That had to be it: he just felt a bit nervous because no one had ever subjected him to such intense scrutiny before. Except perhaps Ray's sister, Francesca. But Elyssa was nothing like Frannie. Thank God! Whenever Frannie got this close to him, she always managed to get her hands caught in totally unexpected places inside his uniform from which it was embarrassing to try to remove them, especially in front of Ray.

He didn't believe Ms. Ryan would do anything like that, but she was so close he could feel her breath warm on his face, and her gaze clear through to his bones. He forced himself to look away from her and down at the floor for a second. Tugging at his collar, he asked, "Has it gotten warmer in here?"

"You look nervous, Mr. Fraser. Relax, I'm just trying to get a feel--"

Oh, God! First Francesca, now her! His eyes flew to hers in consternation.

"For what kind of person you are, I mean," she finished softly, smiling wryly at his obvious misapprehension. "This isn't a come-on, I just need to study you for awhile before I start sketching you. It's what I always do before I paint. To be a good portrait painter, you have to get to the truth, to what's inside people, you know? It's about more than just how they look."

"Of course," he said hastily. "I understand." And he did. Thank to Ray, who had explained to him what a 'come-on' was some time ago, he even understood the American slang she had used. He tried hard not to blush, not to let her see how idiotic he felt for assuming she would try to seduce him, when they'd only just met. Francesca and Victoria had made him too wary of women. He was going to have to bear that in mind, to try to relax a little around Ms. Ryan. "I'm sorry, I just-"

She smiled again, and for a moment, for the first time, he saw real warmth in her eyes. "It's all right. Lots of people are nervous at first. You'll get over it, I promise. Can you turn towards the window for me for a moment, please, Mr. Fraser?"

He did so, and she walked away again, back into the center of the room. He drew a deep breath of relief even as he tried not to think any more about why her nearness made him uncomfortable. He wasn't attracted to her, of course; that would mean he might've had ulterior motives when he'd agreed to have her paint his portrait, and that simply wasn't the case. If he had any expectations at all about what might happen between them, they only included friendship. Besides, after his experience with Victoria, he'd promised himself he wasn't going to do more than look at a woman for a long, long time.

But he'd never expected that a woman would look at him like this. It was completely unexpected, and totally riveting.

As her eyes roved over him again, he suddenly realized that she was doing what all good policemen do: trying to gauge his character, to see inside him to the truths that lay beneath his words, his face. That bit of common ground set him at ease, and his discomfort faded away as he watched her. He returned her gaze calmly, wondering what she would see in him, hoping that she would like it.

After a time, he forgot about himself and became absorbed in watching her. He felt a surge of admiration for her, a sense of excitement about what she was doing. He'd never considered having his portrait painted until she'd asked him, but he was suddenly very glad he'd agreed to let her do it. He loved art, and judging by the quality of the paintings she'd stacked neatly against the far wall, Elyssa was a talented artist. It pleased him to think that now he would be a part of her work.

"Would you do me a favor?" he asked, after a long silence. "Would you call me Benton?" he asked, hoping that small informality would set them both at ease. "Or Benny, if you like. Ray calls me that. Ray Vecchio is my best friend. I believe you met him the day you moved in."

"Yes, I remember, Benton," she said. He was gratified that she'd called him by his first name, but he couldn't help noticing that she didn't offer to let him use hers in return. He stifled a sigh. There'd been something in her voice when he'd mentioned Ray that made him wonder if he'd said or done something to offend her when they'd met. He hoped not. Ray was really a wonderful person, but he had a knack for making people angry on very short acquaintance. Fraser had never been able to figure out if that was accidental, or if he antagonized people because he actually enjoyed it. In any case, he hoped Ms. Ryan would come to appreciate Ray's finer qualities, as he did. The policeman had become such a fixture in his life that it would be hard for him to be friends with anyone who really disliked him.

But Victoria hated Ray -- and I would've gone away with her.

He shifted on his feet, remembering that night, hating the memory of his weakness, his inability to let go of her, which was insane after what she'd done to him.

Victoria. She was long gone, and yet she wasn't. She had a good deal to do with his decision not to tell Ray about this art project he'd embarked on with Elyssa Ryan. He'd wanted to at least a dozen times, ever since she'd first proposed it, but every time he'd opened his mouth to tell Ray about her, Victoria's memory had held him back. She had not only wrecked his life, she'd almost ruined Ray's too. He'd never quite been able to forgive himself for that, for the fact that his messy personal life had hurt his best friend, and almost ruined his career. Not to mention that bullet, meant for her, that Ray had fired and (Benny knew) never quite forgiven himself for.

It was safe to say that his last relationship had been a disaster of major proportions. And how could he know how this one would work out? He had no idea if it would last, if they'd become friends as he hoped, or if he'd ever even see Ms. Ryan again, after she finished working on the painting. This time, he knew better than to drag Ray into the relationship before he even knew what it was going to be.

Besides, he knew that Ray had been worrying about him ever since Victoria had left. Ray thought that the best cure for his broken heart was to 'get right back up on the horse that threw him,' so to speak, and try dating another woman. But he didn't feel he was ready for that yet, which was one of the reasons he'd agreed to this portrait painting idea. It had seemed to him a safe way to get to know an interesting woman, without any romantic expectations to complicate matters.

At least not yet.

Now why had he thought that? He shifted on his feet again a little nervously. Looking away from her green eyes, he forced his mind back to the subject of Ray. For now, what his best friend didn't know couldn't hurt him, and that was definitely the way Fraser wanted it. Besides, once Ray found out he was seeing a woman regularly, no matter how innocent his reasons for it were, he would try to make sure their relationship became romantic, he knew it. Beneath his tough, cynical exterior beat a passionate heart that really believed in love; he knew that, too. But after his experience with Victoria, Benton wasn't sure he agreed. Love had torn his life apart like a whirlwind, and left him reeling. So he decided he wasn't going to tell Ray anything about his portrait, or Elyssa Ryan, until some time had passed, and he had some idea what, if anything, was going to come of it.

There was also the salient point that what Ray didn't know about, he couldn't tease him mercilessly about, either. There was that.

Elyssa frowned slightly as he smiled to himself. "Sit in the chair, please," she murmured, as if unhappy with his pose. "Let's try that."

There was only one chair near him, so he turned it around and sat in it, with his back to the window. "How is that?"

She pursed her lips, shook her head. "No, that's not right either. Can you try straddling the chair instead?"

He obliged, but she still wasn't satisfied. "No, there's still something missing..." She tapped a slender finger on her lips for a second, and he stared at the small gesture in fascination. She really does have remarkably pretty lips, he thought before he could stop himself, mesmerized by the tiny movements of her slender finger against her ripe mouth.

"Aha!" Elyssa snapped her fingers, so suddenly that he flinched.

God, had she read his mind somehow? Deduced his random, lascivious thought?

"Of course -- the wolf!" she breathed.

That was so unexpected he just blinked at her, totally taken by surprise. "Diefenbaker?" he asked, when he could finally remember his wolf's name.

"Yes, your wolf. He's what's missing! I've noticed that he goes everywhere with you. He has to be in the portrait, too."

She seemed quite definite about it, and he stifled a groan. Diefenbaker wasn't in his good graces at the moment. He'd lectured him severely on the subject of theft many times, but Dief refused to listen. So he was frequently forced to reimburse various angry vendors whose wares the wolf had pilfered. His latest theft, from Mr. Somi's deli down the street, had been bolder than ever: he'd snatched a large roll of salami out of a customer's bag in broad daylight. Coming hard on the heels of Dief's latest run-in with the hot dog seller around the corner, that bit of thievery still rankled.

Nonetheless, Fraser knew what Elyssa meant: he and Diefenbaker were a team. Two Canadians adrift in Chicago, they had to stick together, and they always did -- except when the wolf was busy stealing meat from someone, anyway. So he supposed Dief should be in his portrait too. Still, he couldn't help feeling that Dief didn't deserve to be immortalized at the moment. What would they title the painting, he wondered: "Portrait of a Mountie with the Worst Beef Thief in Chicago"?

Elyssa noticed his hesitation, and blinked at him. "I mean, that won't be a problem, will it?" she asked politely. "He seems well trained..."

Fraser shook his head wryly. He was never sure that he'd trained Dief at all; sometimes it seemed to him that it might've been the other way around. After all, didn't he feed the wolf regularly, and make sure he was safe and well cared for? But when had Diefenbaker ever listened to him about anything?

Still, Dief had jumped into icy, raging waters to save his life; and into several other equally dangerous situations since, for the same reason. It was a debt he could never forget. (Even if Dief had chosen to let him, which he didn't.) He loved Diefenbaker, and he knew Dief loved him, but he hadn't been kidding when he'd warned Ray never to let a wolf save his life. He was still paying for that, in ways Ray couldn't begin to imagine.

But Elyssa was the artist. And if she felt Dief needed to be in the portrait with him, who was he to argue?

He forced a smile as he got to his feet. "Having Diefenbaker in the painting won't be any problem at all. Excuse me for a moment. I'll go get him."

A couple of weeks later, Benton showed up a little late for their session. Elyssa was relieved when he finally knocked; he was normally so punctual she could set her watch by him. 8:00 a.m. every Saturday morning, rain or shine, he was here. So when he hadn't showed up by 8:25, she'd worried. She'd even gone to his apartment and knocked on his door, only to find no one home.

"Fraser! Where were you?" she asked, when he finally knocked on her door a few minutes later.

When she swung it open, Benton stood there with Dief at his heels. "I'm sorry we're late," he apologized. "I thought you might be hungry, so I went to get us some breakfast, and I'm afraid Diefenbaker got into a little trouble at the butcher's," he explained ruefully.

"In any case, I hope you like these," he brightened, smiling almost shyly as he dangled a large brown bag in front of her enticingly.

Elyssa blinked at him in surprise. She wasn't much of a breakfast eater ordinarily, but whatever was in that bag sure smelled good...

"I'm sure I will. This was really nice of you, Benton," she smiled. "Come on in."

"Thank you kindly, Miss Ryan."

"You know, we're spending so much time together lately, I think you should start calling me Elyssa, instead of Miss Ryan," she heard herself say as she followed Benton and Diefenbaker into her apartment.

"Elyssa," he smiled, trying it out with evident delight. But it struck her that her relief at him turning up safe and sound was almost too strong; as was her pleasure at his unexpected gesture. She got herself firmly under control. They were getting to be friends now, and she'd let him use her first name, but there was no way things could go any further between them. She even had sudden doubts about the wisdom of what she was doing now. Eating breakfast with him at her place was kind of intimate, almost like a morning after, or at least a date; and she wasn't sure she liked the idea. She hoped he wouldn't expect anything for it in return, as men usually did.

I'm going to have to have a talk with him, make it clear that our relationship ends with friendship. Period.

But some fifteen minutes later, she'd changed her mind about the dangers inherent in breakfast with Benton Fraser. The man was a marvel.

He'd brought an amazing variety of food: warm, luscious cinnamon rolls, lemon- topped rolls he'd called "hot cross buns," several kinds of bagels with cream cheese, peach and strawberry yogurt, orange juice and coffee, as well as fresh bananas, apples and strawberries, and "wheat bread for toast, if you prefer."

A half hour later, Elyssa wiped the last trace of cream cheese off her lips as they sat at her little dinner table. "This was delicious. All of it," she told Fraser. She'd shared a cinnamon roll with him, tried a few bites of a hot cross bun, dipped the fresh fruit they'd cut in a bowl of yogurt, sampled several of the bagels (with a little cream cheese), and washed it all down with the delicious fresh orange juice he'd brought. "Oh, I'm full! Benny, you're going to spoil me -- or fatten me up," she teased him.

"Actually, most of what I brought was quite nutritious, according to the American Medical Association," Benny said calmly.

She blinked at him. "You're kidding me, right?"

"Yes," he admitted, smiling a little. "I didn't have time to check with them before I made my selections."

Elyssa laughed out loud. It was the second or third time he'd made her laugh that morning, and it felt nice. Benton has a good sense of humor, but such an oddly formal way of speaking... Probably the result of being brought up by a librarian grandmother, she thought.

For a second, she remembered other breakfasts she'd had with Rob, before he left her. He'd always wanted her to cook breakfast for him, then sat and read the paper silently while they'd eaten it. There hadn't been much conversation, and less laughter. Breakfast with Benton, by contrast, had been fun. She also knew, from the different bags the food had come in, that Fraser must've visited a market plus several delis to get all of it; and she was touched.

Rob never did anything like this for me, she realized. Looking back on it, she hadn't asked very much of him; nor had he given much. She wondered if that was why he'd found it so easy to let go of her, when things got tough.

"You didn't have to go to so much trouble for me, Fraser," she said, to distract herself from her unsettling memories.

He smiled at her. "It was my pleasure," was all he said. Common, mundane words, but somehow, she knew they weren't just a platitude to him. He meant them. He was genuinely kind.

"Well, thank you."

"You're welcome."

A small silence fell between them after that, and Benny looked around as if searching for something to say. His eyes fell on a card she'd taped to the side of her kitchen cupboards. It was a gorgeous reproduction of a blonde Botticelli angel with lustrous feathered wings, against a light blue sky. Her sister had sent it, with a private message: "A guardian angel for your new place," it said. "You should be watched over by the best, Sis."

Benny studied the angel on the card for a moment, then murmured, "That's beautiful. Is it a Botticelli?"

"Yes," she smiled, impressed. His variety of knowledge constantly surprised her. She'd already discovered that he knew a fair amount about Indian and Eskimo art, and that he liked the English artists Turner and Constable as well as Van Gogh, but she'd had no idea he knew anything about Italian Renaissance painting. She took the card down and handed it to him. "My sister sent me this. Said I needed a guardian angel," she told him.

"That's a nice thought," Benny smiled, studying the card. She was struck by the gentleness of his expression, by his beauty. Botticelli would've loved you, she thought, grateful that she'd gotten the chance to capture him on canvas. She remembered suddenly how she'd thought his red jacket made him glow like an angel, the first time she saw him, and wondered if it was a sign. He'd been nothing but kind to her ever since, and he made her feel safe. She thought maybe Jennie didn't need to worry -- she'd already found a guardian angel in a fiery red uniform.

"I've always wanted to visit Italy some day, and see some of Botticelli's work. I love Renaissance art," he said as he put the card down on the table.

He'd surprised her yet again.

She smiled. "I do too! All that gilt gold and those rich, deep blue skies... It's gorgeous. I love Michelangelo and Leonardo, Fra Angelico and Raphael and Botticelli, Ghiberti and Cellini. So much talent flourishing at once, they really had 'an embarrassment of riches' in 15th century Italy."

"Yes. What's your favorite painting?" he asked curiously.

She laughed. "Oh, that's hard, there're so many! I love Raphael's Madonnas, and Leonardo's 'Virgin of the Rocks.'"

"Leonardo da Vinci was a genius," he agreed, his eyes lighting as he warmed to the subject. "I used to stare at a reproduction my grandmother had of the 'Mona Lisa' when I was a boy, and wonder how he blended the edges of her smile so mysteriously."

"Yes, sfumato," she explained. "That's the technical name for it, but I still think it was magic. He had magic in his hands."

"Just like you," he said, smiling at her.

She smiled back at him before she thought, and for a second, their eyes locked. She nearly blushed at his compliment. I'm happy, she thought, surprised. Happy just being with him, talking to him.

Oh God.

Elyssa Ryan smiled into Fraser's eyes, and his heart leapt. Things were going so well between them, he could hardly believe it. He always seemed to mess things up with women, given the chance, but though she was as wary of men as a deer in hunting season, so far, she seemed to like him.

He'd taken a chance, getting breakfast for her like this when he had no idea what she liked, or if she even ate breakfast, but she'd accepted his gesture graciously, and seemed to enjoy everything he'd brought. She'd talked with him quite comfortably while they ate. In fact, she'd been so relaxed that she'd laughed out loud more than once.

It had all turned out better than he could've hoped. He liked to think their relationship was getting stronger with each meeting, that they were becoming friends. He found it hard to imagine his life without her anymore. She was becoming important to him, and he wondered whether she looked forward to seeing him as much as he did her.

When she thanked him for breakfast, he thought maybe she did. And when she showed him her Botticelli card and they started talking about art, her eyes lit up instantly. She talked animatedly, her love for the subject shining out of her, and he could've sworn that, for a moment, she was more than comfortable with him, she was actually happy.

But when their eyes caught and held, something changed.

She stood up suddenly, tearing her gaze from his. "That was a good breakfast, but I need to get this cleaned up now. I need to get started painting," she said, her voice taut with an emotion his Mountie ears disturbingly identified as fear.

"It's okay," he said gently, frowning because he didn't understand the reason for the sudden chill between them, for her changed manner. "I'll help you clean up," he offered, to try and smooth things over, wondering all the while what she was afraid of. But as he reached out to pick up a plate, his hand brushed hers and she flinched visibly; and he had his answer.

Me. Me, damn it. Still.

"No, that's okay!" Elyssa said hastily, as Fraser rose to his feet to help her. "You bought breakfast, the least I can do is clean up."

"All right," he said at last. But he looked downcast, and she wondered if he'd seen the way she'd jumped when he'd touched her accidentally. A wave of embarrassment swept over her. She hated that little reflex, hated it, but sometimes it just happened. She hoped fervently that he hadn't been insulted by it, that he hadn't noticed. She gathered up their plates and carried them into her little kitchen, avoiding his eyes. She hated herself for spoiling what had been a fun time, but her feelings for him confused her. He probably thought she was afraid of him, but the truth was, she was more afraid of herself. He had a way of getting to her, of gently waltzing right past her defenses until he was suddenly close to her, and it unnerved her. He was so open and honest, and sometimes when he looked at her, she wished she could be that way too... But she couldn't. Not anymore.

She had to operate within boundaries, perimeters that kept her safe. He has to stay on his side of the line, she thought. He has to. The only problem was, he blurred that line she'd drawn so carefully between them as artist and model more and more, every time she saw him. He was already becoming her friend; but she couldn't let him erase their boundaries any further. It had to stop there. It had to.

No matter how much I like him, he's still a man.

As Elyssa and Fraser were heading into her apartment one day for another painting session, Elyssa dropped her keys. They both dove for them at the same instant -- and knocked their heads together painfully in the process.

"Ow!" Elyssa muttered, rubbing her forehead. Then they both burst out laughing at the mishap that had rocked them back on their heels.

"I'm sorry," Fraser said automatically, smiling as he swept the keys up in his hand and helped her gently to her feet.

"Oh, don't be sorry," she smiled back. "That was probably my fault. I've never been very graceful. Are you all right?"

He made a dismissive gesture. "I'm fine. Are you okay?"

She nodded. His smile faded, but he kept on holding her arm and staring down into her eyes long after she'd regained her feet, and his gaze was oddly intense. It was the first time he'd ever touched her for more than a second, and the first time the contact felt personal. She was a bit surprised that it didn't bother her; but oddly enough, he seemed the one who was really affected by it. She stared up at him curiously. "Are you sure you're all right, Fraser? You look like you just saw a ghost."

She was just teasing him to lighten the mood, but it didn't produce the relief she expected. Fraser dropped her am, but his face paled suddenly, and clouded as if a shadow had passed over it. Maybe it did, she thought. Maybe I reminded him of something -- or someone -- he's tried to forget. She'd seen that look in his eyes before. He never spoke about it, never voiced what his thoughts were at such moments, but suddenly, somehow, she knew what was at the heart of the pain she'd sensed in him.

"You must've loved her very much," she said quietly.

Fraser stared at her, frozen solid suddenly, so still he hardly even seemed to be breathing; and she knew she'd been right. A woman had wounded him, a woman had put those shadows in the depths of his handsome blue eyes. Her heart went out to him. He looked down at his boots, his face white and drawn as he stared blindly into a tragedy in his past, into his own heart of darkness. He swallowed hard. "Her name was Victoria," he said huskily at last.

He must've lost her. But it isn't love in the past tense, Elyssa thought. He still loves her. Her throat tightened, even as something inside her that she hadn't even dared to acknowledge died quietly. She let him go reluctantly and edged away. "I didn't mean to upset you, Benton. I'm sorry. Maybe you'd prefer not to do a session today?"

He caught her as she turned away, surprising her. "No! It's all right, Elyssa. I want to."

She eyed him closely. "Are you sure?"

His gaze was rock steady now. "I'm sure. Actually, if you don't mind, I'd like -- to tell you about her. About Victoria, if you'd care to listen."

For a moment she wavered, not at all certain she wanted to hear about Victoria. She wasn't jealous of course, she just didn't want to know about a woman cruel enough to wound eyes as kind as Benton Fraser's.

But for some reason, telling her seemed to matter a great deal to him. She remembered how her own friends had drifted away after it happened, become like strangers to her, and her heart went out to him. He was a strong man, but she wondered if he'd had nights like hers, nights so dark and deep you wondered if you would ever come out the other side to see morning again. She wondered if he'd lain awake through those endless times like she had, wishing he had someone to talk to, someone who could drive his demons away.

She wondered if, like her, he had found no one in that empty darkness at all.

"Come on in, Fraser. I'll fix you some tea, and you can tell me all about Victoria while I paint," she smiled.

Lightning flashed outside, so close that it strobed Fraser's apartment for an instant with its harsh white glare. Hard on its heels came a clap of thunder that rattled the windows. Diefenbaker padded to the side of Fraser's bed and whined softly, almost apologetically. He never had liked storms. Odd for a wolf born and raised in the wild, but there it was. They just unsettled him.

"It's okay," Fraser said softly, as he reached out and ruffled his fur with understanding hands. Dief laid his head on the bed beside him, comforted by his stroking fingers. "I wasn't sleeping anyway."

But that wasn't because of the storm. In fact, despite its noisy pyrotechnics, he hadn't paid much attention to it. After all, once you'd been through winter storms in the Territories, Midwestern weather had little power to impress. No, what was keeping him awake -- what had been keeping him awake with increasing frequency lately -- was thoughts of Elyssa Ryan. They tended to steal into his head at the oddest moments: while he was on his way to the Consulate in the morning, even if he was with Ray, he found himself studying faces they passed on the street, searching for her in the crowds. While eating lunch with Ray at the precinct one day, Louise St. Laurent had come in to talk to him, and he'd found himself comparing her red hair with Elyssa's, rather unfavorably. (It was uncharitable of him, to be sure, but the thought that Elyssa's hair was far thicker, and a lighter, prettier shade of red as well, had crossed his mind before he could stop it.)

And that was only the first of many such unruly thoughts. Most recently, Elyssa had even stolen into his mind in the middle of a lecture by the Dragon Lady. He bit his lip, remembering the painful scene.

Ray got him to the Consulate all of three minutes after his shift was scheduled to begin that morning. Since they'd been delayed in a good cause, he hoped no one would notice; but Thatcher was waiting for him just inside the front door. She lined him up against the wall in what was becoming an all-too-familiar position lately, her brown eyes cold as ice.

"Are you or are you not a Constable in the RCMP, Constable?" she demanded in a distinctly unpleasant tone, as her eyes bored into his. He'd opened his mouth to point out the inherent illogic in her question, but shut it again when he remembered that she wore a sidearm, and seemed angry enough to consider using it if provoked. He'd then considered telling her that he'd been delayed because he and Ray had been duty-bound to stop and render emergency first aid to the victim of an auto accident they'd encountered on their way in; but though it was the truth, he decided against it. The Inspector didn't seem to like Ray very much, or appreciate his involvement in Vecchio's casework, either. Bringing his name up at such a time might only annoy her even more than she already was. (It was hard for him to tell what was a safe subject of conversation with Thatcher, since most everything he did or said seemed to make her angry.)

After careful deliberation, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Staring straight ahead, keeping his expression as neutral as he could, he answered simply, "Yes, sir, I am."

Evidently, it wasn't the answer she'd been looking for. She stiffened even more. "I know that, Fraser!" she hissed, so angrily that he'd flinched. "I want to know if you know it!"

Oh dear, he'd sighed to himself. That question made no sense either. Since he'd just stated his rank, how could he not know what it was? Her leaps of illogic were beginning to dizzy him. He had no more idea how to answer her latest question than he had her first, so he settled for staring stolidly at her while she began to cite every instance of dereliction of duty, real or imagined, that he'd committed since she'd taken over her post at the Consulate.

It was a surprisingly lengthy list; and a debatable one as well. But she was in such a bad mood that he knew better than to argue with her. Somewhere in the midst of her recitation, his thoughts unexpectedly drifted away. In his mind's eye, the Inspector's cold dark eyes were replaced by Elyssa's warm, lovely green ones. He remembered how she'd smiled at him during their last few portrait sessions. He knew she was finally starting to trust him, and it meant a lot to him.

"Are you laughing at me, Fraser?" The Dragon Lady's voice rose an octave suddenly, and he came back to earth with a jolt. With a faint sense of panic, he realized that he had no real idea what she'd been saying, or why she would think such a thing.

"No, sir!" he said fervently.

"Then why are you smiling like that?" she demanded, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

He felt himself flushing. He wasn't smiling -- was he? Maybe it was just that she'd noticed his momentary, uncharacteristic woolgathering and mistaken it for amusement. Yes. That had to be it.

Still, he drew the corners of his mouth down into a frown, just in case they had in fact been misbehaving without his knowledge or consent, as she kept insisting. "I wasn't smiling, sir," he said hastily, telling himself that since he hadn't been consciously aware of the gesture, he wasn't really lying. After all, one couldn't be held morally responsible for actions taken by one's subconscious -- could one?

But he had no time to consider the finer points of that moral dilemma, because Thatcher took a step closer to him, her eyes stabbing into him like twin laser beams. "You-were-smiling-Constable!" she said, biting off each word with an audible snap of her teeth. "I think I know a smile when I see one!"

Oh, dear. She's mistaken my denial for criticism of her powers of observation. This conversation isn't going well at all!

Where was his dad, anyway? He cast a sideways glance in the hope that he might've turned up somewhere over the Inspector's shoulder, but no such luck. That figures. I could've used some fatherly advice right now, but he only seems to appear at the most inopportune moments, rather than when he's really needed, Fraser thought, with a trace of pique.

He shook his head, trying not to look desperate. "No, Inspector, that's not what I meant!" he explained. "I mean, you certainly would recognize a smile as such, but I wasn't smiling just now. I would never smile at you, sir."

Thatcher's eyes widened in surprise. He suddenly realized what he'd said, and that he had, in fact, just dug himself deeper into a hole which was rapidly assuming the proportions of a bottomless pit. "What I meant is..." Unsure exactly how to rephrase his faux pas, he cast about for an alternate explanation, and felt a red wave of embarrassment creeping up his neck and into his face. God, he was only making things worse! Ray often claimed that he had a tendency to babble. He knew in his heart that it was true; and that unfortunate trait only seemed to get worse when he got flustered like this.

"What I meant is, as my superior officer, I accord you the highest respect," he said at last, choosing his words with extreme care. "I would never mock you, sir. And I will endeavor never to be late for my shift again, for any reason."

That mollified Thatcher at last. "See that you're not, Fraser," she sniffed, turning away from him at last. But before he could relax even slightly, she rounded on him again. "And one more thing: I'd better not see that goofy smile on your face again when you're being reprimanded, Constable, or you'll be guarding icebergs up in the Yukon before you can say, 'Oh, dear'!"

"Yes, sir. Understood."

"Dismissed, Constable."

He put his hat back on and went back to his post with a distinct feeling of relief that lasted only until a disturbing thought struck him. If Thatcher was right, and he'd been wearing a "goofy smile" during that lecture, then Elyssa Ryan had to be the cause of it, because he'd been thinking about her when the Inspector "went ballistic," as Ray would say.

Lying on his bed in the darkness as the storm raged outside, he tried not to think about the implications of that. He couldn't be feeling a romantic interest in Elyssa, could he? It was too soon, and Victoria had hurt him too deeply -- hadn't she?

But I told her about Victoria. I've never told anyone else that before, but I told her everything: how I betrayed her, how she betrayed me, murdered Jolly and tried to frame both Ray and I. I even told her how, after all that, I would've gone away with her, if Ray hadn't stopped me.

The only thing he'd left out was the fact that Ray had done that by accidentally shooting him. Elyssa hardly knew Ray yet, and he didn't want her to think less of him for that. God knew, Ray had torn himself up over it enough inside already.

The real wonder of it all was, Elyssa had understood. She'd listened quietly while he related his dark tale of love, pain and betrayal. She hadn't made any comments, just waited patiently until he'd poured it all out. Then... He would never forget what she'd done next. Instead of judging him, instead of telling him that he'd been a fool and he was better off without her, as his father had done, she'd gone to him, put her hand on his shoulder and said simply, "I'm sorry, Benny, that Victoria ever hurt you like that. You deserve better."

Elyssa's green eyes had been sad, but full of a warmth that stunned him. Their eyes locked, and he'd realized that in her compassion for him, she'd forgotten to be afraid of him. She'd stayed beside him and stroked his shoulder gently for a moment; and the amazing thing was that while she'd touched him, he'd forgotten about his pain as well. He'd covered her hand with his own and held it wordlessly, grateful for her friendship.

That moment was everything he'd hoped for when he'd first agreed to let her paint his portrait. For a moment, their souls touched and they drew strength from each other. Her understanding had moved him deeply. Still, he wasn't sure that she was right. Sometimes, he thought he and Victoria had gotten just what they deserved, for not loving enough to trust each other.

Even so, he'd never wanted another woman the way he'd wanted Victoria. The intensity of it had overwhelmed him. He shifted restlessly under his covers, remembering the feel of her in his arms, the way her hair had cascaded over him while he made love to her...

Elyssa has long hair too, he thought. Long, beautiful hair.

He stiffened, stunned that thoughts of the new woman in his life had even intruded into his memories of his former lover. Even there... He flushed as he realized that part of him had been wondering how Elyssa's red-gold hair would feel against his skin.

A wave of pure fear turned him cold. So. He did want Elyssa. He wanted her badly. He was already half in love with her, and falling deeper into it every day. But the realization frightened him. Love was painful, dangerous, destructive -- his last love had nearly killed him. And those were just his feelings on the subject. Considering what Elyssa's were likely to be turned his fear to near panic.

She's been terribly hurt. She doesn't trust men at all. She's only just learning to trust me. If I so much as touch her, I'll spoil that. She doesn't want me, she feels only friendship for me. If she knew I wanted her she'd be repulsed, maybe even frightened; and her friendship is too valuable to risk. I don't want to lose her like I lost Victoria.

He threw off his covers, and rose to his feet in a sweat. So far, he'd been a perfect gentleman with Elyssa, but now that he'd realized what his true feelings were, how could he continue to maintain his distance from her? Sooner or later, he would have to speak out, to do something about it.

You can't do that, he told himself, pacing the floor barefoot in his agitation. You'll just scare her off.

But how can I not? I'm a man, not a plaster saint. And I love her.

You loved Victoria too, and you ruined it.

On and on the debate raged inside his head, half of him urging caution, repression, and the other half insisting that he take a chance and follow his heart. Unable to escape his past and unsure how to keep it from repeating itself, he hugged himself in the darkness as he moved blindly across the floor. But his own arms were cold comfort, and the room was too small to contain his agitation.

Finally, he knew that if he stayed in his small apartment for one more hour, even one more minute, he would go mad. Victoria's ghost still haunted this room, and on nights like this, she was so near he could almost see her. He needed fresh air, needed to get outside, under the stars. Some nights he walked for miles in the darkness, trying to find some measure of peace. If nothing else, it tired him so that he could sleep.

He turned on his lantern, swept up a pair of jeans in the yellow glow of its light, and pulled them on. Dief barked softly at him, his tail wagging hopefully. "Yes, you can come," he answered, grateful even in his pain for the wolf's presence. If not for Dief, he would be completely, utterly alone on nights like this.

"She's not coming back, son," his father's voice repeated in his head. "And why on earth would you want her to?"

Because she was the only woman who ever loved me. It was a bitter truth. A lonely one, that stung him even now. He shivered as he pulled on his boots, feeling the sting of unwelcome tears at the back of his eyes. He swallowed hard. "Let's go," he said tersely to Diefenbaker.

They headed out the door into the dark, silent hallway. The storm had died away, and even without his watch, Fraser knew instinctively that it was almost midnight, and that everyone else was asleep. But as he headed for the stairs, he suddenly noticed a light on in Elyssa Ryan's apartment. His heart beat an uneasy tattoo against his ribs as something pulled him towards the slender shaft of golden light that showed beneath her door.

Don't be a fool, a little voice inside him whispered. Don't do it. She'll only hurt you like Victoria did.

But he wasn't listening. The darkness was too much for him tonight, the loneliness unbearable. More than that, he knew somehow that though Elyssa was beautiful like Victoria, the resemblance between the two women ended there. Elyssa wasn't cruel, and she had no reason to hurt him.

But there's a darkness at the back of her eyes, the voice of doubt whispered in his head. You know it, you've seen it. And a man put it there. You know that, too. Maybe that's enough of a reason, for her.

He drifted like a ghost to her door, and listened quietly for a moment. When he heard no sound from within, he wavered. Maybe she's asleep like all the others, he thought, trying to find excuses to escape. Maybe she fell asleep with her light on. I can just leave, and she'll never know I was here. He hesitated. His desire to escape the confines of the building was strong. The streets below were calling him.

But he knew how dark and empty they would be, and wondered suddenly if he was doomed to spend the rest of his life wandering down them alone.

He knocked at Elyssa's door.

After a moment, when there was no answer, he set his jaw and turned to go. But just as he did, he heard a tiny rustle of movement from inside, and her door opened a few cautious inches, just enough so he could see the edge of her face above her chain lock, and one wide green eye. "Benton?" she asked, surprised.

He tried to smile, tried not to look as desperate as he felt. Drawing close to her door, he said quietly, "I'm sorry to bother you, Elyssa, but..."

Ray's voice sounded suddenly inside his head, cynical as always. "But what, Benny? You got her up at an ungodly hour, now what're you going to do? Ask her to borrow a cup of sugar, tell her one of your boring Inuit stories? What?"

Elyssa suddenly opened her door wide enough so that he could see her; and to his surprise, though she was barefoot, she was wearing jeans and a button-down sweater that she hadn't had time to just put on. She was still dressed, as if she'd never gone to bed. She hasn't been sleeping either, he thought, with a faint sense of shock. But as she stared at him, her face pale and vulnerable in the shadowed hallway, he saw the shadows in her eyes again, and he knew why. He wondered angrily who had hurt her like Victoria had hurt him; what ghosts kept her awake on lonely nights like this.

"I know it's late, but I was just going for a walk," he said quietly, "and I wondered if you'd like to come."

His heart beat painfully in his chest when she didn't answer him. As much as she'd come to trust him, he suddenly realized what he was asking her to do: go out into the dark, in the middle of the night, with a man she hardly knew. And while he didn't know exactly what had happened to her, he knew a man had done it; and that it had been so bad that a man's very touch was now enough to frighten her. So his request was by no means a simple or a small one, for her. She stood there wrestling silently with her fear, unable to answer him.

As she hesitated, Diefenbaker moved to sit at her heel, gazing raptly up at her with what looked like an adoring smile. Really -- the way Dief acts when Elyssa's around, you'd think she was a female wolf, he thought, amused. But Elyssa was staring at him so intensely that she didn't even notice Dief. "It'll be all right, Elyssa," he said, very softly. "Diefenbaker won't let anyone hurt you," he finished, willing her to understand what he meant -- that anyone included even him.

Elyssa blinked at him, her green eyes going wide with wondering surprise. She looked down at Diefenbaker for a second, as if she needed time to compose her features. He knew that for once, he'd said just the right thing; and that she'd understood him perfectly.

Diefenbaker won't let anyone hurt you -- and neither will I. As she bent her bright head to pet his wolf, he felt a fierce surge of protectiveness for her. He realized that he felt the same way about her that he did about Ray: if anyone tried to harm either of them, he would kill them if need be.

He'd been wrong. He wasn't halfway there, he was already in love with Elyssa Ryan.

When did my feelings for her become so strong? he wondered. It was hard to pin down the precise moment. Was it when she looked deeply into his eyes, that first day they met? When she somehow knew, without him having to tell her, that he'd been deeply hurt by a woman? Or when she'd touched him gently and said she was sorry that Victoria had hurt him so?

He didn't know. He only knew he wanted her with him tonight. Wanted it more than he'd wanted anything since Victoria had left. In the taut silence, he stretched out his hand to her. He didn't know where this would lead, but he knew he had to do it; and not just for his sake. She was hurting, too. He understood the darkness in her eyes too well to leave her alone tonight.

"All right," she said at last. "I'll come with you." To his disappointment, she didn't take his hand, but she smiled at him as she straightened, and her eyes were soft and luminous. "Come in for a second, Benton, while I get my coat and shoes."

"Thank you kindly." He breathed a sigh of relief as he followed her into her apartment, aware that her inviting him in at such an hour was a show of trust in itself. He honored it by staying just inside the doorway, not venturing a step towards her room while she finished dressing. It was enough that she'd fought her fears and won, at least on this occasion; enough that she was coming, and more than enough that for once, on this dark night, he wouldn't walk the streets alone.

But when she came out a minute later, looking heartbreakingly young in a dark, oversized peacoat and white sneakers, he found himself wanting more.

"Shall we?" he asked, holding his desire ruthlessly in check as he held her door open for her.

"Sure." She looked a little scared, but determined; she even tried to smile as she went by him. He admired her courage, and vowed he wouldn't do or say anything to make her uncomfortable. Of course, his concern for her wasn't entirely unselfish: his need for her was as strong as the shadows in her eyes. He would've followed mutely ten paces behind her if necessary, trailed her like a wolf, in order to be near her.

They moved silently down the stairs together, Dief at their heels. When they were out on the street, Elyssa paused, looking both ways, then pointed left. "Let's go that way," she said firmly, wanting to exercise a bit of control.

Fraser didn't mind. He smiled at her with the first deep, genuine happiness he'd felt since he'd been shot. Maybe someday, he thought, she'll trust me enough to let me help her banish her shadows.

Tonight, it was enough that she was here with him. "My thoughts exactly," he agreed.

They walked off into the night, so close together that they were almost touching.

Elyssa could not have said, afterwards, how far they walked that night. It must've been a long way, but the time flew by, and the walk didn't tire her. In fact, it exhilarated her. Fraser was such a comfortable man to be with. He didn't push or pry, didn't tell silly jokes or try to impress her; and the come-on she'd feared when he'd showed up unexpectedly at her door never materialized, either. He didn't try to hold her hand as they walked, or even touch her. He just walked beside her and talked, with an honesty she'd thought nonexistent anymore and a wistfulness she doubted he even realized, of his former home in the Territories, and his love for the land and its people.

More remarkable still was the fact that she never once felt afraid while she was with him. She had never ventured out onto the city streets at night before. Alone, that was unthinkable, and she had no friends here yet with whom she could go; at least, she hadn't known she did until tonight. But as they walked along quietly together, she realized with a sense of shock that Benton Fraser was just that: a friend. He made her feel completely and utterly safe.

"Diefenbaker won't let anyone hurt you," he'd said, and she'd had the strangest feeling that anyone included him. Those words had won her over as nothing else could have, and now she was glad. With his simple invitation, by taking her where she was too afraid to venture on her own, he'd given her back a part of her life she'd lost the night she was attacked, given her back a freedom she'd thought was lost forever. He'd been nothing but kind and giving, in fact, since she'd met him. He was so understanding that it both drew her and made her suspicious. It had been hard to believe that a cop could be so compassionate, that a man could be so gentle. Hard for her anymore, at any rate.

But no longer. As they walked side by side down the darkened, quiet streets, she sensed what she'd felt about him all along, while she was painting him: that he was genuine, a man who was what he seemed to be. There wasn't a phony bone in Benton Fraser's body. There couldn't be, or she would've seen it while she was painting him. He had to be a decent man or he wouldn't be here with her, demanding nothing but her presence and the pleasure of her company. She felt a warmth steal over her as they moved, and when he turned his head to look at her, she let it blossom into a smile.

He smiled back, a little puzzled. "What was that for?"

"I just realized, you're my best friend in all of Chicago, Benton," she said lightly, so that he wouldn't see how she was nerving herself to do something much bolder.

"You told me that you don't have any friends in Chicago at all," he returned, straightfaced but teasing her a little. Taking a deep breath, she slipped her arm through his, bringing them dangerously close together. It was the first time she'd touched him so intimately; and he understood instantly how significant that small gesture was. He stopped moving for a second, and shot her a glance of genuine surprise.

"I changed my mind," she smiled, enjoying the fact that she'd shocked him a little. Benton was always so calm and unshakable, it wasn't easy to do. She held her breath, wondering what he was going to do about it.

True to form, he didn't make a fuss, or try to turn the gesture into an embrace. He just raised his eyebrows and murmured, "Ah." Then he kept walking.

But she wasn't fooled. He held her arm firmly against him, and the smile that stole quietly over his face as they walked was something to see.

Ray Vecchio slumped in his chair at 7:30 a.m. one Friday morning, bleary-eyed from an all-night paperwork session prompted by Lieutenant Welsh. The Lieutenant had explained things to him very clearly: either he clean up the mountain of backlogged reports, papers and assorted files on his desk, or he'd be directing traffic for weeks. Welsh had concluded his little fatherly lecture by putting a hand on his shoulder and saying, "Don't think of that as a threat, Detective. Think of it as a promise."

Vecchio had. So he'd spent the night at his desk, attacking the papers that seemed to breed there when he wasn't looking. He'd just finished when a familiar red coat materialized beside him. Fraser. He had to stifle a groan. It wasn't that he didn't want to see him, it was the timing of his visit that he didn't like. Oh, God, he thought. If Benny's here this early, it means he's probably got another neighborhood purse snatching or some other equally diabolical case for me to look into, and I'm so tired I can't see straight.

He just wasn't in a petty theft mood, at the moment. "Whatever it is, Benny, I don't wanna know about it," he croaked, cradling his aching head in his hands.

The Mountie deposited a large white bag on his desk. Warm, delicious scents wafted to Vecchio's tired nose. "I think you do, Ray," he said.

He lifted his head, coming alive in spite of himself, sniffing at the wonderful aroma pouring from the bag.

"Cinnamon rolls," Benny said with a slight smile, answering his unspoken question.

"You brought me cinnamon rolls?" Ray sat up in his chair, smiling up at his friend in delight, his bad humor melted away by the thoughtful gesture. He'd mentioned casually about a week ago how much he liked them. Trust Benny to have listened and put the information to good use.

Benny smiled back. "Cinnamon rolls, assorted doughnuts, and coffee. From Mrs. Hemmel's bakery down the street. She even threw in a few doughnut holes for you, too."

Vecchio suspected she'd thrown in the extra doughnut holes for Fraser, not for him, but he wasn't about to complain. After a whole night of writing reports and scouring his files for any leads he might've missed, he was starving. Fresh cinnamon rolls, doughnuts and coffee sounded (and smelled) like heaven. He opened the bag eagerly. "Thanks, Benny, you're a saint," he said, meaning it. "But how did you know I was here?"

"I called you last night, and your mother said you were 'pulling another all-nighter'," Fraser explained, proud of his rapidly expanding knowledge of American slang. "So I deduced that you were 'all-nighting' here."

Ray smiled. Trust Ma. I'm surprised she didn't send Fraser by with milk and cookies. "Have a seat." He pulled up a chair for the Mountie beside his desk, drank deeply of the steaming coffee, then bit into a big, soft chocolate doughnut gratefully. "Mmm, God, this is good. Ya wanna help me eat some?"

Fraser shook his head, and remained standing. "No, I'm afraid I can't. I've got to get to the Consulate early, and get caught up on some paperwork."

Ray grimaced as he chomped on the warm, sugary treat. "I know the feeling." Still, he was disappointed. He wanted to make up for snapping at Fraser earlier. "Hey, how about shooting some hoops tomorrow morning?" he suggested, taking another sip of the hot coffee. "I'll spring for lunch after."

Fraser opened his mouth as if to say yes, then closed it again. "I'm sorry, I can't. Not tomorrow," he said.

Ray squinted at him as he took huge bites of his doughnut. Benny, busy on a Saturday morning? Come to think of it, that makes two Saturdays in a row now that he's been just 'busy', no explanation. His curiosity was aroused. "What, you involved in a charity project somewhere?" he guessed. "The local girls' school having a bake sale, and you volunteered to make pemmican?" he teased.

Benny blinked at him. "I don't think dried deer meat would be appropriate fare for a bake sale, Ray," he protested mildly. "But that's not it, no."

He shifted a little on his feet, still not saying what 'it' really was, and Ray's curiosity intensified. Fraser was usually more than happy to tell him all about his life. When he kept silent about something, it usually meant that something was wrong, or that he'd been asked to keep a secret. But he didn't seem nervous, so that meant he was most likely keeping some kind of secret.

"I... uh... Well," Fraser mumbled. "Would Sunday be all right, perhaps? For our game, I mean."

Now he's trying to change the subject! Ray suppressed a smile at Benny's blatant attempt to divert him. Fraser was the worst liar in the world, as transparent as glass when he was trying to hide something; and right now, his body language was practically yelling "I've got a secret!" He was staring fixedly at some point on the wall over Ray's head, afraid to meet his eyes, and clutching his hat with nervous hands.

Oh, yeah. He's definitely hiding something, he grinned to himself, his weariness forgotten as he scented a mystery. The more Benny tried to evade him, the more perversely determined he became to find out exactly what was keeping him busy on Saturday mornings lately.

"Lemme think," he murmured, pretending to consider Fraser's question but really using the next few seconds to examine his friend closely for clues, instead. Fraser was immaculately dressed as always, not a hair out of place. But that wasn't surprising or even unusual -- Fraser always looked that way, even after chasing a suspect at full speed through alleys and over rooftops for several miles. Ray often suspected he must glue his hair to his head before he left for work every morning, because in all the time he'd known him, he'd never once seen him even take a comb to it. Yet it always looked perfect.

Still, now that he thought about it, there was something different about Benny this morning. Something that had been there for some time now, but that he just hadn't paid much attention to. He snapped his fingers, so suddenly that Fraser flinched. "You're smiling!" he said.

"What?" Fraser asked, stiffening guiltily. He wiped the expression from his face. "No, I believe I was asking if you want to play basketball on Sunday," he repeated, looking as blank as he possibly could.

Ray ignored the question, grinned broadly as he reached for a cinnamon roll. "Too late, too late, Benny, I saw that!" he crowed. "And now that I think about it, you've been smiling a lot lately. I thought maybe it was one o' your strange Canadian phases, but now I understand. It's a woman, isn't it?" he teased.

"No!" Fraser shook his head adamantly.

Ray raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"I mean, I haven't been smiling a lot," he said.

"Oh yes, you have!" Ray shot back. "Just a little smile -- not so's anyone else would notice, but then I'm not anybody. Besides bein' your friend, I'm a trained observer, and I'm tellin' you, your lips've been curlin' up for weeks. Come on!" he teased, enjoying the hell out of this. "You can tell me, Fraser. Who is she?"

At that point, he thought the Mountie would finally come clean out of sheer embarrassment, and tell him what he'd really been up to lately. But to his amazement, Fraser opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again helplessly, while a slow crimson flush crept up his neck.

Ray blinked at him.

"Oh my God," he breathed, rocking back in his desk chair, in shock. "I was right! It is a woman!" That had been a shot in the dark, but he knew instantly from Fraser's overly innocent expression and obvious blush that his aim had been true. Benny was involved with a woman! He'd been seeing her on the sly, and (in typical, irritatingly chivalrous fashion) never said a word about it. Vecchio sent up a silent prayer of thanks that his friend had finally managed to get over the terror of women Victoria had left him with, even as he prepared to rib him mercilessly about it. "Benny, you hound!" he grinned, secretly delighted.

"I don't know what you mean, Ray -"

"What's her name?" he insisted.

"Ray, I don't -"

"Come on, Benny! I'm a detective, remember? You've been wanderin' around for two weeks now with a goofy little smile, you're never around on Saturdays but you won't tell me what you're doin'-- "

"It's art, Ray," Benny muttered, fingering his hat.

Ray sat up in his chair again, brought up short. "What?"

"I've been... involved in an art project on Saturdays," he said defensively. "That's all."

An art project! Hmmm...

Vecchio narrowed his eyes at him. He'd been so sure he was right, that Benny had a new girlfriend... But Fraser didn't lie. Still, the flush that had been creeping up his neck had spread into his face now. A sure sign that he wasn't telling the whole truth, either. So maybe I was half right, he thought hopefully. Maybe Benny's 'art project' involves a woman somehow.

"Now, about that game," Fraser cleared his throat. "I'd be happy to play on Sunday if you--"

Ray grinned again, even more wickedly. "What kind of art project would that be, Benny? The one you've been doin' on Saturdays, I mean."

"Uh... Portrait painting, actually," Fraser said, tugging at his lanyard as if it were choking him.

"You're painting a portrait?" Ray echoed in disbelief. He knew Benny loved art, but he hadn't expected that.

"Well, no, actually. I'm... having my portrait painted," Fraser explained. "By someone else. Another person, that is."

"That would be an artist person, I believe," Ray said wryly. Fraser was so nervous now that he was babbling; still, he'd been careful not to mention who the artist was. Which only meant, of course, that he was going to have to pry that out of him. "What's his name?" he asked, apparently casually, taking another drink of his coffee.

Benny looked down, clutching his hat. "Ryan," he croaked. His cheeks had flushed a nice, rosy red by then, that matched his neck.

Ray waited. When no further information was forthcoming, he swooped gently in for the kill.

"Ryan what?" he asked sweetly.

Fraser edged away. "Well, actually, Ryan is the artist's last name, Ray," he hedged, vastly uncomfortable. "Listen, it's getting late, and I really should be on my way to the Consulate--"

Ray put his feet up on his desk, stifling a laugh as he watched his friend's strategic retreat. "What's his first name?" he called.

"Goodness, I really am late," Fraser muttered, almost sprinting for the door.

"His name, Benny!" Ray yelled.

Fraser jerked to a reluctant halt by the squadroom door. He was so red by now that he almost matched his uniform.

I haven't seen him this discombobulated since he did -- well, whatever it was he did with my sister that night, Ray thought. Whoever this woman is, she's really gotten to him. Though he was several feet away, he saw Benny swallow hard before he answered.

"Elyssa," he said at last, very quietly.

Then he was gone in a flash of red, before Ray could say another word. But it didn't matter. He'd gotten what he'd wanted.

He leaned slowly back in his chair, his grin fading away as he realized the truth. Fraser breathed that woman's name like she was the answer to a prayer. He's not just foolin' around with her, he's in love!

Benny's in love -- with an artist! And he didn't tell me.

He was hurt. This was big stuff, this was major. Benny was his best friend, closer to him than his own father had ever been. And here he was head over heels for a woman for only the second time since he'd known him, and he hadn't introduced them -- hadn't even said a word to him! He'd done the same thing with Victoria, too. What, I'm not good enough for you to introduce to your bimbos, Fraser? he thought resentfully. He crushed the Styrofoam coffee cup Fraser had brought him, then threw it in his basket angrily, brooding over it.

Why didn't he tell me?

"Maybe he doesn't think you're good enough, Raymondo. He wouldn't be the first," a sardonic voice said from behind him.

He swiveled around in his chair, his mouth twisting in an unconscious grimace. A short, dark-haired Italian with cold eyes stood a few feet away from him, dressed in a blue sports shirt and jeans. "Dad! What a lovely surprise. How's the weather in Hell these days?"

"Or maybe that Mountie's smarter than he looks," Carmine Vecchio sneered, ignoring his jibe. "Maybe he's afraid you'd try and shoot his new girlfriend, like you did the last one."

He stiffened unconsciously, his face reddening with anger. "I didn't shoot Victoria, okay?" He crunched a wad of paper in his fist, squeezed it until his hand hurt.

Carmine snorted. "That wasn't for lack of tryin'."

He glared at his father. "I didn't wanna shoot at her, I had to! I thought she had a gun! I thought she was gonna kill Benny!"

"Oh, sure, it was all a big accident," his dad said, his lip curling in total disbelief. "Save it for the newspapers, kid," he sneered.

His hands clenched into fists on the arms of his chair. "What the hell are you tryin' to say? Don't mince words, Pop! Tell me what you really think!"

"I think maybe that big red weirdo you hang around with doesn't want you to meet this bimbo because he knows you'll be jealous o' her!" Carmine snapped. "Because he knows you shot him on purpose, to keep him from going away with his last one -- to keep him here with you!"

Ray swallowed hard, filled with a black fury he couldn't control. "If you were still alive, I'd knock you on your butt for that!" he snarled. "As it is, do me a favor and go back to Hell!"

His father wagged an angry finger at him, his eyes cold as ice. "Don't you talk to me that way, boy! You show some respect!"

He surged to his feet. "NOW!" he roared, throwing the paper he'd wadded up right at his dad's head. Carmine Vecchio disappeared at last, and the squadroom was silent except for the sound of his own heavy breathing. He just stood there for a moment, uneasy in the sudden quiet, trying to get hold of himself.

That was all a bunch of bullshit, he told himself. Total bullshit! He would never be that selfish, he would never hurt Benny deliberately -- never. Nor would he ever willingly hurt someone Benny cared about. That thing with Victoria had been an accident, pure and simple.

But was it?

Had Benny hidden his latest girlfriend from him because he feared he'd act jealous, maybe even hurt her?

No, that's crazy. That was Carmine Vecchio talking, the man who had never believed anything but the worst of his son.

Wasn't it?

Then how come Benny didn't tell me about her?

He slumped back down in his chair and chewed moodily on the end of a pen, thinking about it. Fraser was the best friend Ray had ever had, or ever would have; he knew that. He was kind, generous, brave, sensitive, and sharply intelligent; everything Ray Vecchio, tough guy, secretly wished he could be. He trusted Benny completely, but for some reason, when it came to his girlfriends, Fraser didn't seem to trust him; and that sucked.

It was true, he'd warned Victoria that if she ever hurt Benny, he'd kill her. But that was for Benny's sake, not because he was jealous. It was also true that he hadn't kept that promise, and that he'd shot Fraser by accident instead. He'd never been able to forgive himself for that, though Fraser had long since.

Or did he? Doubt tore at him. Maybe his dad was right, maybe Fraser had kept his latest relationship a secret because he was afraid he'd be jealous of his new girlfriend, or at least suspicious, because of Victoria.

Jealous, no, he thought. Suspicious, yes. After what Victoria had done to Fraser last time, he'd promised himself he would check out the next woman who came close to him up, down and sideways. He wasn't going to fail in his duty to protect his friend a second time.

So if he's in love, then I'd better get my butt in gear, and find out who the hell this Elyssa Ryan is.

She wasn't a mutual acquaintance, that was for sure. He'd never heard her name before. He reached for another doughnut, the wheels turning in his mind. He was going to have to do a little digging, but that was okay. He was good at that, and this was Fraser, after all. He wolfed down a huge bite of cheese danish, thinking about it. If you don't turn out to be clean as a whistle and sweet as honey, you're gonna have Ray Vecchio to deal with, he promised Elyssa Ryan silently.

And if you try to hurt Benny, look out.

Ray found out who Benny had been seeing the easy way: he staked out the door of his apartment early one Saturday morning, when Benny'd told him he was having one of his portrait painting sessions, or whatever the hell they were called. He lurked in the shadows at the bottom of the stairs leading to Fraser's apartment, waiting for him to walk out so he could follow him and find out who his mystery woman was. He figured she must live fairly close to Fraser, since he didn't own a car and had never asked Ray to drive him to her place.

But when Fraser finally came out of his apartment at 7:59 a.m., uniform on, hat in hand and Diefenbaker at his heels, Ray was shocked to see him head for an apartment just down the hall from his!

He knocked and the door swiftly opened. "Good morning, Elyssa," he heard Fraser say.

"Hi, Benton," a woman answered happily. "Isn't it a pretty day?"

Benny disappeared into her apartment before Ray could even get a glimpse of her; but that didn't matter. He knew who she was. He recognized her voice.

Dio -- that's the woman who just moved in down the hall! he thought, stunned. The curvy redhead I was tryin' to get him together with! She's Elyssa Ryan!

At first, he smiled to himself, pleased that his amateur matchmaking had worked after all. He wanted to see his friend happy, and for a second, he considered giving up his plan to check Ryan out. Benny's seemed happier since he's been dating -- well, seeing -- or being painted by -- well, since they started doing whatever the hell it is they're doin' in her apartment every Saturday, he thought, bemused.

He'd half turned to go when he suddenly remembered something. The morning he'd met Elyssa Ryan sprang to life in his mind: the slender redhead had backed into the wall, going pale as if she were frightened when he and Benny had offered to help her carry her stuff in... He'd passed it off as shyness then, but on reflection, he wasn't so sure.

Something's wrong with her, his cop sense warned. I've seen enough fear on this job to recognize it, and that woman was petrified of both of us that morning, for no good reason.

He couldn't let that go. Victoria had almost killed Benny before, more surely than his bullet. Fraser needed a good woman this time, or he didn't know what would happen to him. And the weird way she'd reacted to both of them that morning didn't exactly convince him that Elyssa Ryan fit that bill.

So it was back to plan A: check her out. He thought about it for a moment. She hadn't been in Chicago very long, probably not long enough to have much on record here, but what about checking out where she'd come from?

A smile spread across his face. Rental records for Benny's building would be on file, and ridiculously easy to access. Benny wouldn't even know he was doing it. And once he found out where Elyssa Ryan had been before Chicago, he could check for a police record in both cities.

He headed out of Fraser's building and down the street, satisfied that at least he'd found a place to start.

But as he walked away, he hunched his shoulders a little. Somehow, though he was doing his duty to his friend, it was rather cold comfort. Part of him would rather have been in that woman's apartment, sharing the morning with his best friend and Elyssa Ryan. But Benny hadn't asked him to.

He kicked at a piece of litter on the sidewalk. Yeah. What a pretty day.

He shoved his feelings down deep inside, and walked even faster.

One morning as she was stroking crimson lake onto her canvas, blocking in Benton's jacket, Elyssa realized that once his portrait was done, she was going to miss him. Miss him very much. So much, in fact, that it disturbed her.

Well, it's not like you'll never see him again, the voice of common sense told her. Just say something. Tell him you'd like to stay friends with him once the painting is done.

But she couldn't. She wanted to, but the words just wouldn't come. She stared moodily at his face instead. She'd looked at it for hours as she worked, but she never tired of it. It was beautiful, almost too beautiful to be a man's, with gorgeous bone structure, broad cheekbones, full lips and handsome eyes. It was at once strong and gentle, just like Benton himself; and though she'd told herself that she wasn't going to commit the hoary old cliche of falling in love with her own model, she knew, in her heart, that he'd had a definite affect on her. She tried to imagine her Saturday mornings without him and his wolf, tried to imagine her life without him in it, and it seemed really empty.

Botticelli would've loved Benton. I think I might, too.

She put down her brush, shocked at herself.

Fraser had been looking down at Diefenbaker when she'd paused. But with typical perceptiveness, he looked up instantly when the movement of her brush stilled.

"Is something wrong, Elyssa?" he asked innocently. She had the insane urge to tell him the truth, to widen his sky blue eyes by saying, "Yes, something's very wrong. I've been sitting here wondering what it would be like to kiss you, Benny. I'm afraid I have feelings for you, and -- "

I'm afraid.

Fraser looked up at Elyssa. She'd put down her brush and was staring at him with such a look of consternation in her eyes that he was disconcerted. He was becoming an experienced artist's model. He hadn't said anything, had hardly even moved in almost an hour. So what could've disturbed her so?

"Is something wrong?" he asked. She didn't answer him for a long time, but their eyes locked, and for a moment, something extraordinary passed between them. He could've sworn that he could read her thoughts. He felt fear in her, dark and cold, but something warmer too. Something so like his own unspoken longing that for a moment, looking back at her, he froze, forgetting even to breathe.

He wondered if she could tell what he was thinking, too.

Get up, you fool, a voice told him. Go to her!

He rose slowly, like a man under a spell, and took a step towards her. "Elyssa?"

She started, as if she'd been under a similar spell and the sound of his voice had broken it. "Don't, Benton!" she said, with the same tightness he'd heard in her voice the first time they'd met. Her eyes hooded over, the emotion that had flared in them swiftly erased as her defenses arose again, stronger than ever.

She's still afraid. But I'm not sure if it's of me or herself.

Still, her words were a definite warning, and he stayed where he was, his heart in his boots. He knew he'd lost his chance. The delicate moment was shattered, the surge of feeling between them gone. Elyssa had put up her walls again, and hidden behind them as she always did when he came near her. He knew somehow that if he even tried to talk about what had just happened between them, or how he felt about her, she would send him away. He tried not to let her see how much her withdrawal hurt him.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice gentle as usual now. "I didn't mean to snap at you, but please don't move like that when I'm painting. It ruins things."

He resumed his stance by the window, sought her eyes again until he had her attention, reluctant though it was. "I wouldn't want to do that," he said very quietly.

He had no doubt she'd understood him perfectly. Her eyes fell guiltily and she put her brush down for a moment, almost as if she couldn't go on. He struggled against the urge to comfort her, but he controlled it this time, knowing it would only make things worse. He had to wait, be patient... Those were the skills of a hunter and a good policeman, and he'd mastered them long since. Still, frustration rose in him. He'd been waiting for people all his life, it seemed. Ever since he could remember. Waiting for his father to come home, then for his mother to come back after she died, then waiting for someone, anyone else to love him...

When Victoria had come back to him, he'd thought the waiting was over at last. But he'd been wrong. She'd left him too, and the waiting had begun all over again. The loneliness that he could never speak of, never reveal to anyone.

Until Elyssa came into his life. She was the only woman he'd ever trusted enough to bare his heart to. He'd told her things he'd never told anyone else, not Ray -- not even Victoria. But there were some things he hadn't told her: like the fact that he was tired of waiting; that he wondered if he hadn't waited too long already; that he was afraid, sometimes, that all those years of waiting had simply withered his heart away inside of him, so that all that remained was just the empty shell of a man.

But he couldn't say those things to her, because Elyssa hadn't opened her heart to him yet. She kept hers locked away. Her fears and her secrets were hers alone to know, and hers alone to share... when the time was right.

He set his jaw so hard it hurt, wondering if the time would ever be right.

And he waited.

By the time he'd regained his control, Elyssa had too. She dipped her brush in her palette and lifted it to the canvas, an artist again, safely focused on her work. "Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to paint my sister?" she asked, a slight smile curving her lips.

It was an obvious attempt at diversion, but he didn't try to stop her. She needed to retreat for a moment so she could feel safe, and he let her. He even pretended not to notice how her unsteady her hand was, despite her light tone. "I don't believe you did," he replied.

She stared hard at the canvas, refusing to look at him as she stroked slowly at the portrait. "Well... I was six years old, and I'd just discovered Cerulean Blue," she said, her smile widening at the memory. "It was my favorite color, and I decided that Jennie would look really pretty covered in it from head to toe-"

"No doubt your mother objected?" he put in, smiling obligingly. But his mind wasn't on her story, and he felt far from cheerful.

How long will it be before you trust me, Elyssa? he wondered, aching inside.


One Saturday morning, Elyssa rose early. Jolted from sleep by one of her nightmares (they were infrequent now, but still terrifying), she pulled on her robe and paced pensively to the window. Trying to banish the afterimages, she told herself, "It was just a dream." A litany so familiar by now that the words were worn soft in her head. The only problem was, that wasn't entirely true. What had wakened her were memories, not just a dream, which made them much harder to dispel. Though she couldn't feel the place where it had been broken anymore, she rubbed her collarbone unconsciously and peered out into the darkness, trying to read the sky to see what kind of day it was going to be.

Although the weather didn't matter so much, since Benton was coming over.

The thought lightened the old pains that were clawing at her, so she clung to it, called up his image in her mind like a nightlight, to push the darkness back a little. She envisioned the tall, strong, crimson-clad Mountie with his wolf at his heels.

Did I remember to get some treats for Dief? They'll be here in a couple of hours.

She grabbed her hairbrush, padded into the kitchen on bare feet and quickly checked her refrigerator. Good. There's still a cinnamon roll left in there for the wolf, and orange juice for Benny, too. He didn't like it if she fed Dief sweets, he said city life was making him soft. But Diefenbaker loved them so... She'd just have to slip him a bite when Benton wasn't looking.

Elyssa started coffee brewing, then gave her long hair half a hundred strokes with the brush while it percolated, until the tumbled mass hung smooth and shining from her shoulders. She smiled a little, thinking of the surprise she'd bought for Benny the other day, wondering if he would like it.

But the feeling of disquiet left behind by her nightmare lingered stubbornly, like day-old coffee on her tongue, and she knew she'd have to do something about it or it would bother her all day. She didn't want it to shadow her mood so she couldn't enjoy the little surprise she had in store for the Mountie when he arrived. What could she do, to get herself out of her funk?

She drank her coffee and made her bed while she thought about it. She'd straightened her room and gotten dressed before the answer came to her: exercise. Sometimes when she got blue, exercise helped her snap out of it.

It's worth a try...

Fraser straightened his uniform carefully one final time, and looked at his watch. 7:59 a.m. Close enough, he thought. It would take him precisely thirty seconds to get from his apartment to Elyssa's door. He looked around for Diefenbaker, his mouth open to tell him to come, only to see that he was already poised alertly by the door, an eager, wolfish grin stretching his jaw, his eyes bright with anticipation.

He narrowed his eyes at him. "Don't think I don't know why you've been so keen on this whole project," he said reprovingly. "You're not interested in art at all, you just love the sweets Elyssa's been feeding you."

Diefenbaker barked several times, his tone distinctly sardonic.

"That's different," he said firmly as he headed for the door. "I appreciate her artistic skills. She's a very talented painter -- "

The wolf cocked his head, huffing at him.

"Looks have nothing to do with it!" he retorted, with an exasperated shake of his head. "You have no understanding of the artistic process."

Diefenbaker growled, his tail twitching slightly, impatient with the lecture, wanting to be gone.

"Well, if we're late, you have no one to blame but yourself," he sniffed as he opened the door. "You can't make ridiculous statements like that and expect me not to answer them."

But his admonishment was lost on Diefenbaker. He'd already run past him and was sitting eagerly in front of Elyssa's door. He heaved a sigh as he followed his wolf at a more sedate pace. At times, Diefenbaker's unashamed adoration of the pretty artist verged on the embarrassing; as long as she was around, he hardly even acknowledged Benton's presence. He suspected that the only reason he'd been so cooperative about posing for the portrait repeatedly was because it gave him a chance to stare worshipfully at Elyssa Ryan for long periods of time.

Diefenbaker flashed him a knowing grin as he lifted his hand to knock at her door.

"I do not look at her like that!" Fraser said defensively.

Dief stared at him, unconvinced. He shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, yes, I have to look at her, but... I think about other things while I do it. Books I've been reading. And cases I've worked on."

The wolf only grinned even wider, not buying a word of it.

He suddenly realized that there was an odd, rhythmic vibration coming from Elyssa's apartment. He could feel it through his boots, and he heard someone singing.

"Hi, Ben! Hi, Diefenbaker! Come on in."

As Elyssa opened the door to admit them, Fraser was bombarded with strong stimuli: sounds, smells, sights... The music's volume rose instantly, a woman's voice wailed a rock song with a driving beat that seemed to pulse around them as he and Dief came inside, and the scent of fresh-brewed coffee filled the air. Elyssa's TV was on, and displaying an image of several slender young people dressed in brightly colored, tightly fitted leggings and tank tops, who seemed to be engaged in some kind of dance. But Benton only noticed all of that with a distant, analytical part of his brain. The rest of him was focused completely, intensely on Elyssa, who was smiling and wearing an outfit similar to the TV dancers'.

She looked spectacular. His mouth went dry, and all rational thought fled as he stared at her. Jill, the physiotherapist who'd helped him recover from his bullet wound, had worn clothes like this, but he'd never seen Elyssa dressed like this before. She wore a pink tank top that bared her arm and shoulders, and black, form-fitting leggings of -- what had Ray called that strange material Jill wore? Spawned ox? Or was it spanned eggs?

He couldn't seem to remember. All he could think of was how the stuff clung to Elyssa's slender body like a second skin, outlining shapely legs, thighs and the swelling curves of her breasts. She'd tied her long red hair back in a pony tail that swung enticingly behind her when she moved. She looked somehow younger, even a little mischievous; and when he noticed that her top was a little damp in between her breasts, and that there were tiny beads of sweat on her forehead, he guessed that she must've been dancing to the music before he'd arrived. His head swam. He felt a sudden urge to taste her, to trace that intriguing little hollow between her breasts with his tongue, that was so intense it rocked him.

She laid a friendly hand on his arm, unaware of his agitation. "Come on in, Benny," she smiled, pulling him further on into her living room as the singer wailed, electric guitars answered, and the people on TV moved in rhythm to the beat. Overwhelmed, he couldn't think of a thing to say. He went with her blindly. His head was throbbing, his heart was beating far too fast, he could feel the beat thumping through his body, and he was achingly aware of her slender fingers on his arm.

The music must be too loud --

Her hair hung halfway down her back, a shining red cascade that swung between her slender shoulder blades, tempting him. He bit his lip to keep from reaching out to touch it.

"Here, let me turn the music down," she said over her shoulder as he paused in the middle of the room. She bounced over to the kitchen table, a spring in her stride that he'd never seen before, picked up a little remote and aimed it at the TV. Almost instantly, the volume lowered to an acceptable level.

"Just a second, Benny. I almost forgot..." She went into the kitchen, pulled something out of a little covered dish and laid it on the floor behind the counter, out of sight.

Diefenbaker followed her eagerly, and he groaned to himself. He hadn't seen what she'd put out for him, but it was undoubtedly a doughnut, or something equally unsuitable. He would've objected, except that he knew Elyssa loved spoiling his wolf so much that he didn't have the heart to stop her.

When she turned to look at him again, she was smiling a little sheepishly. "I'm sorry I'm not quite ready yet," she said. "Silly, but I was doing aerobics, and I lost track of the time."

She'd been exercising then, rather than dancing as he'd guessed. He thought it wasn't silly at all, and that she should do it more often if it made her look like this, but aloud, he limited himself to a simple, "Ah."

"I've only got about five minutes to go," she went on. "How about doing some with me?"

He shook his head instantly. "No, I couldn't."

She grinned, undeterred. "Sure you can! You're in great shape, Benny."

She came towards him, smiling, and he blanched. "No!" he blurted, panicking. If she got too close to him, he might lose control. "I mean, I don't know any of the exercises -- "

She took his hand lightly and towed him into the middle of her floor, facing the TV. He prayed she wouldn't notice the way his pulse was pounding as she gestured at the set. "Just follow along with the people on the video," she smiled, her green eyes bright. "You'll get it."

He hesitated, and she winked at him. "Oh, come on, Benny! It'll be fun!"

He realized suddenly, with a slight sense of shock, that she was teasing him. She'd never done that before, but the affection behind it was unmistakable; and her smile was irresistible. He straightened, his discomfort fading a bit as he rose to the challenge. "All right then..."

Elyssa reached up and swept off Benton's hat, betting he'd forgotten he even had it on as she tossed it onto a chair. He lifted an eyebrow at her. "You're a little overdressed for this," she explained. "You might want to lose the jacket, too," she advised, more than a little surprised that he'd even agreed to go along with this. She'd just been teasing him a little, but she was glad he'd taken her up on it. He was always so reserved, so dignified -- it'd be fun to see him cut loose a little.

And if her own eyes were a little too bright, her need for stimulation a little too intense, she didn't question it. Sometimes she had to reach, to leave her nightmares behind.

He took off his jacket and laid it neatly over a chair. Then, after a second's pause, he quickly unlaced his boots and set them on the floor beside it. "Better?" he asked, turning back to her clad only in his undershirt, suspenders, riding pants and socks. He looked incredibly cute, and she smiled approvingly.

"Much better."

He stepped close to her. "Okay. You ready?"

At his nod, she turned back to the TV, turned the volume up a little again and began to move, striding sideways as she swung her arms in a kind of strut, half dancing, half walking. Ben watched her for a second, then echoed the move.

"Good," she smiled, her eyes flicking back to the video to check its progress. "Okay, now we do some lunges."

They worked out together for almost ten minutes, Benny pausing only very briefly a few times, to learn new moves before he started to do them. Once he got over his initial nervousness, he moved like a dancer, she thought admiringly, or an athlete; with a confidence and natural grace that was lovely to watch. Somehow, it didn't surprise her. They moved back and forth across her floor side by side, striding and dipping and stretching, clapping their hands in time to the music. Benny looked serious at first as he absorbed the rhythm and movements, but soon he started to smile, losing himself in purely physical enjoyment, forgetting to be nervous.

"Doing okay?" she asked, stretching towards the ceiling.

He grinned, white teeth flashing as he reached far higher. "Piece of cake," he teased back.

Finally, the video changed. The music slowed from a fast rock beat to slower, softer guitar music, and the people onscreen spread out and lay on the floor, in preparation for doing abdominal exercises. Benny paused beside her, shooting her a look to see if she meant to do likewise. She shook her head. "That's enough," she laughed, a bit breathless. "But did you have fun?"

"Yes. It reminded me a little of certain Inuit dances."

She giggled in spite of herself.

He smiled at her, cocking his head a little the way he did when he was curious about something. "The music's still playing," he pointed out, looking at the TV as if he wanted to keep going.

"Sorry, but I'm bushed," she said. She headed for the remote, meaning to turn it off, but he caught her arm. "It seems a shame to waste it," he said softly. His blue eyes caught hers. They were warm, and he was smiling slightly.

She swallowed, suddenly nervous as she remembered the way his eyes had caught and held her the other day in her studio. She'd decided since that she'd been crazy to let herself feel so much for him. They would stay friends, nothing more; and she would stay safe.

And she didn't feel safe being so close to him, all at once. She would've pulled away from him, but he didn't let her. He slid his hand down her arm, closed his hand over hers and pulled her towards him gently. "Can I have this dance?" he smiled, bowing to her a little as if they were in a ballroom, his eyes laughing at his own foolishness, daring her to join in.

No, no! A voice screamed inside her. She looked down, a little embarrassed, knowing Benny meant no harm but suddenly aware of how strong he was, and that they were alone here. She felt her heart racing.

Then the voice of common sense drowned out her fear. Oh, for God's sake, Ryan! it said. You've got to take a chance some time! She looked up into his blue eyes again, and saw nothing in them but good humor and affectionate invitation. Why not now? Why not with him? You could dance with him. One dance isn't exactly tantamount to a declaration of love, for God's sake.

"Well... okay, but just one," she gave in at last. "Then I need to take a shower and get started painting."

"Just one," he agreed, smiling as he took her hand in his.

She put the other lightly on his shoulder, and they started to waltz slowly around her living room. Benton was light on his feet for a tall man, and he danced gracefully, as she'd guessed he would after watching him work out. He didn't try to hold her against him, just led gently, but she was far too aware of him anyway.

This is crazy, she thought, but she moved with him, swaying lightly over the floor.

I should stop this, she thought as he twirled her past the portrait, but she was enjoying it too much.

All too soon, the guitar music ended, and segued into a faster rock song. Fraser stopped dancing and dipped Elyssa back over his arm in a final move he'd always privately thought intensely romantic. Her eyes widened with surprise, her hand tightening reflexively on his as he lowered her towards the floor, as if she were afraid he'd let her fall.

Half regretting the impulsive move, he raised her gently up again. "Sorry," he said briefly, wishing she'd thought the gesture as romantic as he did. "Guess I got a little carried away there."

"It's okay," she said softly. "Thanks for the dance, Benny. That was nice." And there was something in her smile, in the fact that she held onto his hand though their dance was over, that told him maybe the gesture hadn't been lost on her after all. He searched her eyes intently, wondering if she realized what she was doing, and if he dared --

But she backed away from him suddenly, dropped his hand as if it burned her. He had no doubt she'd read his intention, and she retreated as she'd done before; as she always did when he got close to her. Frustration rose in him, but he reminded himself sternly that she'd been hurt by someone, hurt badly, and he knew better than anyone how long it could take to recover from something like that. He set his jaw hard, and covered his disappointment with a bland expression. "You're welcome," was all he said.

"Well then... I'm going to go take a shower."

"Fine," he lied. The truth was, he had to clamp a ruthless lid on his imagination to prevent fantasies about that from filling his mind. He pictured very old caribou in his head instead. "Right. I'll just wait out here," he said, feeling awkward and totally obvious, like a green school boy with his first crush.

She backed away from him, but she was smiling again. "There's something you might want to look at, over on the kitchen counter," she said mysteriously. "Something I bought for you the other day."

He cocked his head curiously at her. "For me?"

She disappeared down the hall towards her bedroom, but he could still hear her. "Yes. I saw it in a store window and thought of you," she said simply.

Fraser picked up the only object on her counter, a rather large brown paper bag from a local bookstore. Frowning to himself, he opened it up -- to find a breathtaking photo of a white wolf with stunning green eyes staring back at him from the cover of a big book called "Arctic Wolves." He blinked, stunned, as a wave of pleasure hit him.

"I saw it... and thought of you," she'd said.

The book was wonderful. But what was even better was the knowledge that she thought of him when he wasn't with her.

Dimly aware that Elyssa had turned her shower on, he carried it over to her small sofa and sat down to look at it, stunned and so pleased he didn't know what to say. The book was marvelous, a mixture of cogent observations and beautiful photographs of an Arctic wolf pack. He thumbed its pages slowly, moved by her gift. No one but Ray ever gave him things like this; and it wasn't even Christmas or his birthday!

"It's perfect," he said aloud, though he knew she couldn't hear him. He turned the book over in his hands, marveling at Elyssa's kindness and generosity to him. Victoria never did anything like this, he thought. All she did was take from me, and wound, and take some more.

Two women, one dark, one light, had come into his life seemingly by accident. But he wondered, as he stared into the eyes of the green-eyed wolf on the book cover, if it really had been accidental. He felt the sudden sting of tears.

Maybe it wasn't. Maybe I had to meet Victoria first, to be able to see how sweet Elyssa is... Maybe I had to walk into darkness before I could value light.

When Elyssa came out of her bedroom a short time later, Fraser sat on her couch with her book in his hands, staring into nothingness. And the look on his face surprised her. He looked hollow, desolate; almost as if he'd been crying. Her heart sank. She knew he loved wolves, she'd hoped he would like the book, that her gift would please him. What was wrong? She took an involuntary step towards him. "Benny, are you okay?"

He jumped as if he hadn't known she was standing there, and rubbed hastily at his eyes with the back of his hand, clearing his throat. "Yes, I... seem to have gotten something in my eyes," he mumbled, not looking at her.

Not really understanding why, she went to him, knelt down on the floor in front of him. "Let me see," she said.

He shook his head swiftly. "No, it's all right-- "

But his eyes really were red, and she thought maybe she'd been mistaken, and he did have something in them. Maybe the paints and oils she used were getting to him. "Just let me look," she said. Taking a deep breath, she took his cheek in her hand and gently tugged the corner of his left eyelid down a little, so she could make sure nothing was floating in it. Fraser tensed and looked up at the ceiling.

"I don't see anything," she murmured reassuringly.

All at once, he looked directly at her, and swallowed hard. "It's wonderful. The book, I mean. The photographs are beautiful, and it's very well written. Thank you kindly."

She pulled gently at the corner of his right eye, being thorough. "I'm glad you like it, Benny."

"But why?"

She blinked at him, studying his eyelid to make sure it had no foreign objects or wolf hairs lodged in it, but she didn't pretend to misunderstand him. "We're friends, aren't we?" she asked quietly. "And friends don't need reasons, do they?"

He smiled very slightly and shook his head, laying his hand over hers where it cupped his face. "No," he said, just as quietly. "No, they don't. Thank you, Elyssa."

His blue eyes held hers and all of a sudden, she realized it had become very quiet in her apartment. The video had finished, and all she could hear was the sound of their breathing. She realized her heart was beating too fast, and that she'd been touching Fraser rather longer than was usual for mere friendship; and she didn't want him to think she was a tease. She still didn't know what he'd been crying about, though, and it bothered her more than it should have. She pulled her hand from his and stood up.

"I think your eyes are okay. I couldn't see anything in them," she lied. She forced a smile. "Time to pose again, Mr. Mountie."

Fraser stood up too, but there was more than a trace of regret on his face. "Elyssa -- "

She turned, grabbed his jacket off the back of her chair and handed it to him casually, before he could say anything that would make her uneasy. "Here. And I'll get your boots..."

Another excuse to turn away from him, to forestall what he'd meant to say. She had seen something in his eyes a moment ago, the same dark intensity of emotion she'd seen in them when he'd come towards her that day. It was hard enough trying to keep her own feelings about him in check, without worrying about his, too. She kept a smile on her face as she handed him his boots, pretending it didn't scare her, pretending that nothing was wrong. He stared at her for a second before taking them from her silently. When he sat down to put them on without a word, she felt a wave of relief. She wasn't sure what had almost happened, but she knew something had, and was relieved she'd prevented it. She'd decided to preserve the status quo, at any cost. They were friends, yes, but that was all. She was an artist, and he was her model, and they'd become friendly. End of story.

But Fraser's eyes followed her silently as she moved back to her easel, and they told a different story.

She pulled out her pallet, concentrating hard on her paints.

Fraser finished tying his boots in silence, then headed for his customary spot by her window. She cleared her throat. "Umm... you forgot your hat," she said gently, surprised. He never, but never, forgot his hat.

His mouth curved unhappily. "So I did," was all he said.

He picked it up, tucked it under his arm and settled into his pose by the window, with Diefenbaker at his feet.

She picked up her brush and began to paint. But for once, her mind wasn't really on her work. All she could think about was the fact that she hadn't found anything in his eyes that could've reddened them; which meant that he had been crying. That made her feel cold inside. Victoria? she wondered. Still?

She jabbed moodily at the canvas, telling herself it was none of her business. Fraser brooded silently by the window, a million miles away.

The following Saturday, when Elyssa put down her brush and said, "Okay, Ben, that's enough for today," he stretched, then strolled casually over to her, hat in hand.

"Can I see the painting?" he asked, peering curiously around her easel.

"No! I -- " She flinched, and turned her easel hastily away from him.

He frowned, and she knew he was taken aback by her unexpected refusal. It surprised her just as much. She'd never done that to anyone before, usually had no qualms about letting subjects look at her work while it was in progress. Why was it different with him?

"I... well... it's nothing personal, Benton, but I usually don't let people do that," she heard herself saying. "If I do, they make comments, and I think about them the next time I pick up my brush, and before you know it, it's not my painting anymore. Can you understand that?"

She sat looking at him, aghast at the plausible-sounding lie, confused about her own motives. She didn't understand what had driven her to conceal the painting, then invent such a story to defend her action. She just knew that, for some reason, she didn't want him to look at it; not yet.

"Certainly. You don't want your creative process disturbed," he said agreeably. But the disappointment he felt was clear to her, and she felt guilty.

"I have an idea," she smiled. "It shouldn't take too much longer to finish this; a month at most. When I'm done, I'll get some champagne, and we'll have a formal unveiling, and see what you and Diefenbaker think. How would that be? We can invite Ray, too. Do you think he would come?"

That brought a genuinely happy smile to Benton's face. "I'm sure he'd be delighted."

"Good! That's settled, then."

But after Benton left, she walked slowly around the portrait where his image had taken shape, wondering what it was she hadn't wanted him to see. It was a good portrait, maybe even the best she'd ever done. The brushwork was strong and sure, the lighting interesting; the quiet smile that played at the edges of Benny's mouth was both characteristic and intriguing, and she'd caught Diefenbaker's alertness, his loyalty and his bright eyes...

No question about it, it's the best thing I've ever done, she realized as she circled it slowly.

And suddenly, she knew why; and just what it was she'd been afraid Benton Fraser's perceptive eyes would see.

Fraser bounded up the steps to the floor of his apartment, his heart light. His shift at the Consulate had gone well today, there had been no problems or unexpected "discussions" with Inspector Thatcher. He'd even had time to have dinner with Ray afterwards. He'd been in an unusually buoyant mood, due to his windfall at a game of poker the night before, and they'd had a good time together.

All in all, it was a good day, he reflected. And the best is yet to come.

Elyssa had promised to have him in for another portrait session; and since Ray had bought him tickets to a football game on Saturday morning, she'd said she'd be willing to work on it on Thursday night instead. It would be the first time they'd ever done a session after dark, and he couldn't help wondering if the change in schedule meant anything more than a favor to him on her part. She'd proposed the idea hastily when he'd run into her in the hallway on Tuesday morning, and he'd explained about Ray's tickets. He'd expected she'd think better of it and come over to tell him she'd changed her mind afterwards, but she hadn't. And now it was Thursday night, and he'd be with her soon...

His heart was beating fast. He'd tried not to attach too much importance to the occasion, tried not to hope too much, but the fact had bubbled in the back of his mind all day, even while he'd eaten dinner with Ray, tantalizing him with its possibilities.

Maybe she's finally decided to trust me.

He took the stairs two at a time, willing it to be so.

Elyssa sank down into her tub with a sigh of pure relief. It had been a long day. She'd spilled orange juice all over in the kitchen that morning, then burned her toast when she'd hurried to clean it up. Her car had sputtered and nearly died several times on the way to work (God knew what that meant, other than a repair bill she couldn't afford), her boss had been grumpy because she was late, and the customers in the store, to top it all off, had been nearly impossible to please. A woman had snapped at her just because they didn't carry the brand of felt pen she was looking for, and --

"Oh, well," she sighed aloud. "Let it go."

She'd set the bathroom up just the way she liked it: no lights except for lots of scented candles, and the bathtub filled with hot water and bath salts that echoed the candles' scent. She laid her head on the edge of the tub as the water surrounded her, steaming, fragrant, luxuriant. She drew her arms through it languidly, feeling it soften her whole body, drain away all the tensions of her frustrating day.

It felt so good she almost wanted to purr. No matter what went wrong in her life, she'd always been able to make things seem better with a good long soak in a hot tub. She closed her eyes in the dimness, all her worries floating away in the jasmine-scented silence.

She thought of the portrait she was working on, her masterwork that was almost done.

She thought of the Mountie, and smiled without knowing it.

"Benny," she breathed, safe enough, in her solitude, to indulge in a little reverie. She liked everything about him: his kindness, his honesty, the funny little things he said, like "Oh, dear," when things went wrong, or "Thank you kindly" when you did something nice for him... Then there was the way he'd tilt his head and blink silently when she said something that he didn't understand, or if he thought she was being outrageous but was too polite to say so; and the way he'd clutch at his hat when he got nervous. She'd catalogued his every little word and gesture, and learned to read them -- far better, she sometimes thought, than he realized.

Here in the soft, heated semi-darkness, she could admit to herself that he'd been a fascinating study. He'd mesmerized her from the beginning, so much that she'd never really told him the truth: that their long portrait sessions together weren't really strictly necessary. Of course, she preferred to paint from live subjects if possible, but very few people had the time or the patience to pose as often as Benton had; so she usually worked from photographs. She had a good 35 mm Pentax that she used to get her reference shots after her preliminary sketches were done, and she'd decided on the proper pose for her subjects. So she could've had Benny come over once or twice, whipped out her camera, then set him and Diefenbaker free until she was finished painting them.

But she hadn't wanted to. From that first day, when he'd fidgeted and blushed so charmingly and talked of traveling libraries, caribou and unpronounceable places in the frozen north, he'd captivated her. She'd never met anyone like him. She should've thought he was strange, with his wolf and his Inuit stories; she found him exotic instead. She should've mentioned her camera to him, had even opened her mouth to do so more than once, but then he'd smiled at her, and his amazingly innocent, sunny smile had made the thought of banishing him with her Pentax unbearable.

So the camera had stayed in her bedroom closet, and every Saturday for weeks, Benton had stood quietly by her window with his wolf while she painted. Afterwards, they'd had tea and talked. He'd been good-natured enough to work out with her; he'd even danced with her. And some nights when neither of them could sleep, they'd gone walking together.

And in all those weeks and all those nights, he'd never once touched her in anything but a friendly way. But he had made her feel safe, made her laugh, and told her wonderful Inuit stories.

He'd just managed, single-handedly, to restore her faith in men.

She sank deeper into the water. And it doesn't hurt that he's absolutely gorgeous, either, she thought, sighing a little. Those blue eyes, so alert and observant they reminded her of his wolf's sometimes; strong, cleanly masculine bone structure, full lips, broad shoulders, long legs and strong, well-formed hands...

No, that doesn't hurt at all.

She'd told herself over and over that they were just friends, that it was better that way. She'd even tried to forget the way he'd looked at her that day when she'd put down her brush, and then again while they were dancing.

She'd tried really hard.

But she wasn't sure it had worked. Sometimes, when she was alone like this, she'd secretly relive those moments when his sunny blue eyes had darkened to ultramarine while he looked at her. She knew it was safer to ignore it, but she wondered if it was better. He wasn't the only one who'd been affected by their portrait sessions, after all. Something had flowed out of her heart and into her hands while she was painting him, something that made her work better than it had ever been before.

She couldn't help wondering what would've happened after their dance, if she hadn't turned away from him.

Now that his portrait's almost finished, how will I hold onto him?

As Fraser moved down the hallway, he looked expectantly at Elyssa's door. It was dark now, so if she were there and had her lights on, a thin wedge of light would show beneath it -- but there wasn't one. He checked his watch. It was a minute before 9:00 p.m., just the time she'd asked him to arrive... He stopped dead in the hallway for an instant, his eyes questing vainly for any evidence that she was home, but her doorway stayed stubbornly dark.

He tried to tell himself that it didn't matter that she wasn't there, that she'd evidently forgotten about their appointment, but he was filled with a keen sense of disappointment. He didn't just look forward to their meetings anymore, he actually counted on them.

Oh, well. It isn't like I don't have anything to do at my place, he sighed, trying to make himself feel better. Yeah, lots of things: like feeding Diefenbaker, cleaning up the dishes, then settling in for a fascinating evening of watching him devour dog biscuits, he thought, with a stab of something like bitterness. What a treat! He shot one last glance at Elyssa's door, hoping against hope that her light would go on -- and he suddenly noticed something.

Her door was ajar!

Not much, just a fraction, but that tiny fraction was ominous, awakened every Mountie instinct he had. Something was wrong. Elyssa never, but never left her door unlocked. It was, as Ray was fond of saying, a religion with her. She had two locks on it, one of which she'd had installed herself, and every time he'd gone into her apartment, she'd locked them up behind him right away; as she did every time she entered or left it, as well. She thought him crazy for not having the broken lock on his own repaired. He knew she would hardly leave her door ajar, under any circumstances. He also knew that she had a reason for wanting all those locks, that something terrible had happened to her in the past; and the thought made him doubly concerned.

"Elyssa?" He knocked lightly on her door, his heart beating anxiously against his ribs. Though it swung open at the light pressure, she didn't answer, and her living room was dark. He slipped inside, moving silently, alert for any sign of trouble. He checked the back of the door first, to make certain the locks hadn't been forced, and was slightly reassured to see that they were undamaged. But maybe she'd opened the door and then someone had forced their way in... He ran through alternate scenarios in his mind as he paused by the door, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness inside, searching it for any hint of movement. But everything looked normal. The place was neat as always, with Elyssa's easel to his right and her canvases stacked against the far wall on his left.

Nothing seemed out of place.

His eyes told him her living room was empty. But his instincts told him that there was someone in her apartment, somewhere. Every hair on the back of his neck was standing straight up.

"Elyssa?" he called again, louder that time. She still didn't answer, but suddenly, as his eyes finally adapted fully to the darkness, he spotted something he hadn't seen before: a very faint, flickering light playing across the end of the hallway that led to her bedroom. The light fell across the wall as if it were spilling from the partially opened bathroom door; and he knew Elyssa wasn't in there. He'd knocked, he'd called her twice and she hadn't answered him. It had to be an intruder.

He stole noiselessly forward, his heart beating hard, his professional, protective instincts keyed to a high pitch. Elyssa had so little, and she'd worked so hard for it; he wasn't about to let anyone steal from her. But as he moved towards the light, he realized that the quality of it was odd. It wasn't the beam of a flashlight, as you'd expect a thief to carry; it was softer, more diffuse, almost like candlelight.

So he's a poor burglar, he thought wryly, his mouth curving as he edged into the flickering light in the hallway. You know what Ray would say: A thief is a thief is a thief. Halting motionless by the doorframe, he held his breath as he readied his muscles for action. Praying the old floor wouldn't creak under his feet and alert the burglar before he could grab him, he took a step forward and peered into her bathroom--


He froze, unable to move, forgetting to breathe. Spellbound by what he saw.

His suspicions of robbery had been groundless. Elyssa was here, after all. She lay with her head resting on the edge of her old, claw-footed bathtub, half-submerged in water, surrounded by burning candles. They must be scented, he thought, his nose catching a subtle hint of jasmine.

But the candles weren't what drew his eyes. Elyssa did. Though her eyes were closed peacefully, she looked a little tired, and he knew instantly what must've happened. She had indeed forgotten about their portrait painting session. She must've come home tired and failed to shut her door properly. Maybe she hadn't clicked the latch hard enough, so it had popped open again -- but she'd thought herself safely alone, prepared a soothing bath, and fallen asleep in it. That was why she hadn't heard him calling her, either.

It was an innocent scenario. At least, it had been until he'd come in. Fear and guilt shot through him. He had to get out of here, now. She was his friend, and though he hadn't meant to, he'd violated her privacy, was violating it, every second he stood there looking at her without her knowledge. Something bad had happened to Elyssa that had made her afraid of men, that made her guard herself and her privacy fiercely. Knowing that, how could he stand there gazing at her like a peeping Tom?

Yet he did. He stood rooted to the spot for an instant as if his boots had been nailed to the floor, unable to move a muscle, staring at Elyssa in a fathomless silence.

She was the most beautiful, erotic, lovely thing he'd ever seen. The candlelight flickered and played softly over her exposed flesh in the semi-darkness, lighting the graceful arch of her throat, the sweet curves of her breasts that rose and fell slowly as she breathed, the slim caps of her knees that hinted at long, slender legs beyond... He was both grateful that the water hid most of her from his inadvertently prying eyes, and guiltily hungry to see more of her, all of her. She'd piled her hair up on top of her head, but the heat and moisture had made several wayward tendrils wave gently down the side of her neck, where it joined her shoulder. His lips parted unconsciously as he imagined what it would be like to taste that soft hollow with his tongue.

He swallowed, his mouth dry, his heart beating hard, his hands aching to play over her soft, lovely flesh as tenderly, as erotically as the candlelight was. He wasn't even sure if he'd wanted Victoria this much, or if he'd ever wanted anything so much before in his whole life.

But that didn't make what he was doing any less wrong. Hating himself for it, for his body's instinctive, overwhelming response to the unexpected, forbidden sight, he finally tore his eyes from her and backed away. But in his haze, he forgot to be careful. His boot scraped the floor with a hiss that broke the magic, candlelit silence.

Elyssa's eyes snapped open. She turned her head towards the sound and saw him. And in a gut-wrenching instant, as their eyes locked, he saw recognition dawn in hers -- not just of who he was, but of the hunger that he felt for her, the wanting he couldn't conceal. His heart sank.

"Fraser! What are you doing?" she breathed, her voice shaking with fear and loathing. "Get out!" she cried, terrified, shrinking down into the water, away from his prying eyes.

"I'm sorry, Elyssa," he stammered. He tore his eyes away from her, even moved off a few paces in a belated attempt to reassure her, and because in truth, he was just as scared as she was; if not more so. "Let me explain," he pleaded, though he already knew it was too late for that. It was too late to fix what he'd shattered, to repair the trust he'd broken, but she meant so much to him that he had to try...

"Please don't be frightened!" he begged, staying where she could see him but carefully not looking at her. "I'm sorry, but I was coming home and I saw that your door was open. I knocked, and when you didn't answer, I thought you might be in trouble--"

"Get out!" she shrieked, her voice rising, on the brink of hysteria. "GET AWAY FROM ME!"

He'd heard that terrible note of betrayal before in the voice of a woman he'd loved. Memories came flooding back, caustic, painful. He felt hands beating at his chest, heard Victoria crying out, "How could you do it? How could you do that to me?"

What was wrong with him? How did he always manage to mess things up like this? When he really cared for women, he only seemed to hurt them...

"Please, Elyssa!" he pleaded, dying inside. "I didn't mean to spy on you! When I saw your door open but no lights on, I thought someone might've broken into your apartment. I didn't know you were here--" He was babbling and he knew it, but he was desperate, desperate not to lose her the way he'd lost Victoria. But words hadn't saved him with her, and they couldn't save him now. He could feel her slipping away, as surely as Victoria had on that train.

"GET OUT, YOU LIAR! I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!" She leapt out of the tub and slammed the door.

And the train pulled out of the station with a faraway hiss, and he heard it go but was helpless to stop it as he lay there dying...

He hung his head for an instant, so sick at heart that he couldn't move; and as he stood there, he heard her sobbing hysterically behind the door, crying as if her heart was breaking. And it was no more than he deserved. This was his punishment, he thought sickly. To hear that awful sound, and know that he'd caused it; to know how badly he'd hurt her with his voyeuristic stare, and be unable to comfort her. To know it was all over -- everything. The friendship that he'd worked so long to build, her hard-earned trust that meant so much to him, his profoundly deep feelings for her: all of it destroyed in a single, careless instant. And he had no one to blame for it but himself.

He'd felt hurt because she didn't trust him as much as he wanted her to; yet he'd betrayed the trust she'd shown him unforgivably. He'd seen her naked and vulnerable, and she'd seen him with all his defenses down. Her perceptive artist's eyes had seen the truth that he'd carefully hidden from her: that he wanted her, wanted desperately to make love to her. That hunger made her think he'd done this deliberately, that he was so deeply flawed that he'd crept in here to spy on her; and that disgusted and terrified her.

He closed his eyes, thinking he'd hit rock bottom. But the worst was still to come. There was a muffled thump! from inside the bathroom, as if Elyssa had hit the door with her fist. Then she sobbed, "Get out, damn you, you pervert, or I'll call the police!"

I am the police, he thought, deeply ashamed.

Then, without another word, he turned on his heel and left her apartment, for what he knew was the last time. Though the irony of it cut him like a knife, he made sure to shut it loudly and lock it behind him, so that she'd know that he was gone, and she was safe. As he did, he heard his Dad's voice ringing in his ears.

"There are no second chances in life, son," he'd said.

Fool that he was, until that moment, a part of him had been dreaming that Elyssa could be his second chance at love.

Fool that he was.

Fraser moved the next few days blindly, on autopilot. He got up every morning at his usual time, fed Diefenbaker, went to work and did his duty as always, but he was just going through the motions. None of it mattered, nothing could lighten the black haze of pain that surrounded him. Something had broken inside him, and he didn't know how to fix it.

He was afraid it was his heart.

"Geez, Fraser, you've gotten boring lately," Ray complained as they ate lunch together one day. "Can't you talk about something other than the weather?" But under cover of his sarcasm, his sharp hazel eyes searched Fraser's with concern. Benny had seen that look before. It meant, "Come on, buddy, tell me what's wrong."

But he couldn't.

"All right. How about those Cubs?" he replied, in an effort to distract his friend. But it didn't work. Ray was too sharp for that.

"You don't give a damn about the Cubs," he said, blunt as always, his hazel eyes narrowed. "What's up with you, Benny?"

He looked up into the sky to escape that penetrating look before it forced his secret out of him. "It feels like rain," was all he could say.

Ray threw up his hands in disgust.

But he was telling the truth. Rain was all he felt, inside and out. He couldn't think about anything else but her, and the way he'd lost her. But he couldn't tell anyone about it, either. It was too awful, too humiliating. Elyssa was so beautiful, who would believe him if he told them that he hadn't meant to look at her naked? It was the truth, but he was afraid even Ray wouldn't believe it. Though he was the one person in this city to whom he was close enough to confess his problem, and whose opinion he valued over all others, the very prospect of trying to explain the debacle with Elyssa to his cynical friend terrified him. He wasn't sure why, but Ray had been a little distant lately -- preoccupied, maybe. He doubted he would be very sympathetic right now, if he told him what had happened. And he was afraid that if Ray didn't believe him, he'd break down and lose control completely; and he couldn't allow that.

Besides -- if by some miracle Ray did believe that he'd seen Elyssa naked by accident, he'd want to try and mend their ruined relationship. He was good-hearted that way. But there was no way anyone could undo what had happened, no way anyone could turn back the clock and take him out of Elyssa's apartment before she saw him that night.

So there was nothing he could say. It was done. They were done, before they'd even begun.

I never even told her I love her.

"There are no second chances in life, son."

Only gray skies and rain.

One day about three weeks after their breakup, Fraser walked slowly up the steps to his apartment, hat in hand, after a long day at the Consulate. Nothing had gone right, it seemed. To begin with, Ray had blown up at him in the car on their way to work that morning...

"What the hell is the matter with you? And don't tell me it's the rain!" he'd snapped, before he could even answer. "I know it's been rainin' a lot! It's monsoon season, okay? But If you give me one more weather report instead o' tellin' me what's wrong with you, Fraser, your life won't be worth shit!" he'd bellowed.

Little did Ray know that much was already true. But all he'd said was, "I am, in fact, fine."

Ray had hit the ceiling. Literally. "You are not fine! You are so far from fine that it's not even funny! You are, in fact, so full of it that I'm surprised you don't explode!" he'd snarled, flexing the hand he'd just smashed into the Riviera's unyielding hood.

He'd hadn't replied, because he'd learned from experience that sometimes it only made matters worse. So he'd bitten his tongue, hoping Ray would lose steam if he refused to respond.

It had proved a forlorn hope. Once Ray started ranting like that, there was no stopping him.

"I dunno why I put up with you! I swear I don't!" Vecchio had gone on, expanding loudly on his theme. "Somethin's eatin' your guts out, Fraser! I know it, and you know it, so why're you keepin' it such a secret? Why won't you tell me what the hell it is, so we can just get on with our lives? Huh? Is this like a major political thing? Have you joined the IRA or the Red Brigade, and started blowin' up tourists in your spare time?"

"No, Ray," he'd sighed.

"Then is the Canadian government gonna topple if you tell me? Will World War Three begin?"

"I really don't know what you're talking about, Ray," he'd lied.

That had only served to infuriate Ray even further. He'd gotten so angry he'd begun swearing incomprehensibly in Italian, accompanying his words with lots of volatile hand gestures. Fraser had seldom seen him that upset. By the time they'd reached the Consulate, he'd worked himself into such a state that Fraser had been glad to escape the Riviera with his life.

He'd climbed out of the car with a distinct feeling of relief. But when he'd bent over to say goodbye and thank his friend for the ride, Ray still hadn't finished chewing him out. "I'm sick 'o this! Don't come near me again until you're ready to tell me what the hell's botherin' you, Fraser, or I'll kill you myself!" he'd roared. Then he tore off so fast that Fraser was almost yanked off his feet.

He meant that, he'd thought miserably. He'd stood there in the street watching the Riviera bomb off into traffic, feeling sick, and wondering if his life could possibly get any worse.

He'd rapidly found out it could. The day had gone steadily downhill from there. Constable Turnbull had called in sick, so the Inspector had kept him busy with really important errands like picking up dry-cleaning, addressing invitations and whatever other meaningful tasks she could find. Not to mention the fact that he'd collided with the French Ambassador (in front of Thatcher, of course) while carrying an armload of her dry-cleaning, and the man hadn't wanted to accept his apology for it.

The French could be so difficult --

Just like life, sometimes.

His life, anyway. Lately, it seemed the rain just wouldn't stop.

He reached the top of the stairs with a distinct feeling of relief. Now, at last, he was home (such as it was) and he could relax for awhile, maybe read his father's journal and--

Oh no.

A large, square object lay propped against his door. He knew at once what it was: Elyssa Ryan's portrait of him. And he knew why she'd laid it there. She didn't want to look at it because of what he'd done to her, nor did she want to give it to him in person, because she didn't want to look at him anymore, either. She could've just destroyed the painting, of course. Some women would've sliced it to ribbons, then laid it at his door, to make their feelings devastatingly clear. But Elyssa wasn't that cruel. She was also an artist to the bone, and she'd told him her paintings were like her own children.

So she'd given it to him, to get rid of it safely; and to cut the last thin thread that connected their lives.

He swallowed hard as he approached it, his mouth dry as ashes. She hates me, he thought. Just like Victoria did. But instead of trying to destroy him because of that, Elyssa had severed their ties by gifting him with her work.

He wasn't sure whether that made him feel better, or worse. He was glad that he'd fallen in love with a better woman the second time around, but her generosity also made his loss even greater, his pain deeper. Elyssa was an extraordinary woman, kind, sympathetic and beautiful; and a talented artist, to boot. And he'd lost her.

At least when he'd lost Victoria, Ray had been there to help him through it. Now, because he couldn't even tell him what had happened, there was no one. He stood alone in the hallway, wishing helplessly that he could see Elyssa just once more, to try to explain. But he'd knocked on her door five times in the last few weeks, when he'd known she was home; and she hadn't answered. She couldn't have made her feelings plainer than that.

And each time he'd left her doorway and gone back to his own apartment, he'd heard Victoria's mocking laughter ringing in his ears.

He couldn't go through that one more time. He was afraid that this time, he'd come back and get out his gun. So instead of going to Elyssa's door, he picked up the painting, which was covered in plain brown wrapping paper, and carried it numbly into his apartment. Once inside, he did everything he could to delay opening it. He fed Diefenbaker, put away the dishes he'd left drying by the sink that morning, even sat down and read the newspaper Ray had left on his counter a few days before. But finally, he could find no more excuses to avoid it.

It's all I have left of her.

Its blank covering called to him irresistibly. So, though he knew it was probably a mistake, he tore the paper off of the painting and looked at it at last.

My God, he thought, stunned. It wasn't just a good portrait, it was him. If he'd been superstitious, he'd have thought she'd captured his soul on her canvas. As it was, he marveled at her work, at its depth and sensitivity. She'd painted him standing by her window. His face was half in shadow and half in light, and his lips bore the trace of a smile. His uniform glowed a bright crimson, his hat was under his arm, and Diefenbaker sat alertly by his side. Another artist might've painted him lying down, but Elyssa had understood Dief's nature as well as his own, and she'd painted him in a protective position, still yet poised for action.

And she'd painted him so well it was a marvel. So well that he realized she'd seen far more deeply into him, during their sessions together, than he'd ever suspected. It was all there somehow, in his face, in the way she'd posed him: his devotion to duty, the strength and moral code that both his parents and the harsh land of his birth had given him, his sense of humor as well as the shadows Victoria had left on his heart, in his eyes. Elyssa's work was miraculous. Everything that he felt, everything that he was, she'd put on that canvas.

Then she'd laid it against his door while he was at work, so she wouldn't have to see him when she rejected him forever.

He turned the portrait to the wall and closed his eyes, pressed the heels of his hands into them hard to try to shut out the sight of it. But the image was burned onto the backs of his eyelids, into his brain. He sank to his knees in front of it, feeling tears spilling onto his hands.

"She's not coming back, son."

He already knew that. What he didn't know was how he was going to survive it.

Diefenbaker nosed at him, whining softly. He wrapped both his arms around the wolf and held him as he cried.

Later that night, he made a solitary trip to a nearby liquor store.

The next morning, he didn't go to work.

"What the hell did you do to him, lady?"

Elyssa whirled, so startled that she almost dropped the load of art supplies she'd been about to load onto a shelf at Dover's Art Supplies, to find a decidedly angry Ray Vecchio staring at her over the counter. He was well dressed, as usual, in a long, dark, expensive-looking overcoat and dark jacket, and a magenta tie that all coordinated to show off his dark looks to advantage. But right now, they were so forbidding that she couldn't appreciate them.

No need to ask who he means by 'him', she thought uneasily. Ray and the Mountie are so close they might as well be joined at the hip, so it has to be Fraser.

"How did you find out where I work?" she asked, avoiding his question. She wasn't sure if he was talking about their breakup, and wasn't inclined to find out. The very thought of Fraser made her angry all over again. He was the first man she'd trusted in ages. Hell, he was the first man she'd let near her since it happened. She'd even thought she might be falling in love with him -- but he'd turned out to be nothing but a nasty peeping Tom! He'd hurt her more than she'd believed possible. She'd been working hard at not thinking about him for the past three weeks, without much success. It angered her that Vecchio had showed up, like the proverbial bad penny, to remind her of the treacherous Mountie.

"Fraser didn't tell me you were here. I traced you," Vecchio snapped, reading her thoughts with uncanny accuracy. She'd always found Ray to be very perceptive. But while she'd admired that quality in Fraser, there was something about Vecchio that made it almost intimidating. "I'm a cop, remember?"

His anger suggested that the break-up of her and Fraser's friendship was what had brought him there; and the thought that he might've told the brash Italian what had happened that night made her really uncomfortable. She found it impossible to be polite to him. God, for all she knew, Fraser had told him what she looked like naked! So though Ray wasn't the guilty party, she didn't want to talk to him. The only good thing about their confrontation was that at least it was private. Her boss was out to lunch, and there were no customers in the store right now. She just prayed he'd get it over with before anyone else showed up.

Maybe if I irritate him, he'll go away.

"I remember," she said tartly. "And since you are a cop, you'd be exactly the right person to tell me: isn't this what is commonly known as police harassment, Detective Vecchio?"

Her rudeness didn't scare him one bit. He just bared his teeth at her in what was no doubt meant to be a smile. But it didn't reach his eyes, and it reminded her more of one of Diefenbaker's snarls than an expression of amusement. "No, this isn't police harassment, Ms. Ryan," he said, with exaggerated politeness. "It can't be. If this were police harassment, I'd be ticketing your car -- "

"You wouldn't!"

"Or askin' you for a copy of this store's license to make sure it's current, or askin' you to produce records to prove that this stuff isn't stolen merchandise, or -- "

His smile had disappeared. And there was something in his rising voice, in his eyes, that told her he wasn't kidding. That he'd be only too happy, at the moment, to do any or all of those things and several more he hadn't gotten around to mentioning yet, if she refused to talk to him. She noticed that he'd shoved his hands in his pockets, as if he were afraid they might wrap themselves around her neck if he left them out in the open.

"Okay," she sighed, giving in. "I get the picture."

"Good. Then we can have a little chat. Nothin' complicated, I just wanna know what you did to Fraser," he said, almost gritting his teeth in an obvious effort to be patient.

That effort didn't impress her. Since Vecchio knows we had a fight, he must know that his creepy friend snuck into my apartment and spied on me while I was taking a bath, she reasoned. And after I trusted him, too. After I thought we'd become friends! And if Ray knows that, he has a helluva nerve, coming in here accusing me of anything!

Setting the supplies down, she put her hands on her hips and glared back at him. "What did I do to him?" she echoed, furious. "You might ask what he did to me, Ray!"

His jaw tightened. "Okay, Elyssa, I'll bite. What did Fraser do to you? What did he do that was so terrible, huh?"

She stared at him, confused. He didn't know! But he knew that they'd had a fight, so what had Fraser told him? She opened her mouth to tell him exactly what had happened, then shut it suddenly, shaking her head as a wave of embarrassment swept over her at the memory of the ugly scene. "That's none of your business, Detective," she said firmly. "Besides -- you're such good friends, why don't you just ask him?"

To her amazement, Vecchio's face reddened. She suddenly realized that, underneath his bluster, he was uncomfortable, almost desperate; and her anger died away a little. "I've tried," he admitted reluctantly. "He won't tell me. He won't talk about it at all. He's gone all Canadian on me. He's been so polite lately I can't stand it, and he won't talk about anything but the weather. But somethin's tearin' him up inside. And the only way I know it has something to do with you is 'cause he turns white as a sheet whenever I mention you!"

She looked away from him in sudden embarrassment. He smiled grimly. "So I was right. Somethin' did happen between the two o' you. What was it?"

For a moment, Elyssa wavered. Evidently, Fraser hadn't said a word to Ray about what had happened between them. Far from boasting about it as she'd feared, he hadn't said anything. Vecchio had just deduced that they'd had a fight from Fraser's distress when he mentioned her name. Maybe I should tell him what happened, she thought, disposed to be generous now that she knew Fraser hadn't divulged her embarrassing secret.

Then she reminded herself that Fraser had frightened her by trespassing, and disgusted her by proving himself a peeping Tom. It wasn't something she wanted to share with his best friend. Besides, it was really none of Ray Vecchio's business. "All I can say is, your friend has problems, Ray. He needs psychological help."

"That's what I'm tryin' to tell you, Ryan!" Ray went on urgently, more worry than anger in his voice now. "Benny's in trouble. He's not talkin', he's not eatin' -- if he weren't Canadian, I'd say he was depressed. Hell, right now, he's not even goin' to work!"

"What?" she blinked, shocked in spite of herself. Benton Fraser, the world's most dedicated Mountie, not going to work? It didn't make any sense. He loved his job the way she loved painting. It was his life. What could possibly have made him so upset that he wouldn't go to work?

"When did this happen?" she asked, genuinely concerned now. Sure, Fraser had acted like a jerk, but she still didn't want anything to happen to him...

"It started about three weeks ago," Ray answered. "When I picked him up for work in the mornin', he was all pale around the gills, and so quiet it was spooky. You know Fraser, usually you can't shut him up, but he just stopped talkin' about anything but work and the weather all of a sudden. All I could get out of him for days was 'It looks like rain, Ray,' or 'No thank you, I'm not hungry, Ray,' or 'Thank you kindly, but there's nothing's wrong with me, Ray.' But a blind man could tell that there is, because he stopped eatin', too. All he does is pick at his food, he won't put anything in his mouth. He's even got Diefenbaker worried."

Elyssa frowned. If Dief was concerned, and Vecchio was hovering like an anxious mother, then things were very bad indeed. The timing of Fraser's strange behavior was troubling, too. It had apparently started right after the incident in her apartment that night. It didn't require genius to guess that the two might be connected, but it was hard for her to believe or understand. Why would a man do something like Fraser had done, then be that remorseful about it?

"It doesn't make sense," she said.

"It gets worse," Ray went on grimly. "Three days ago, when I showed up to take him to work, he wouldn't go -- wouldn't even let me in. He just mumbled something through the door about not feeling well. Said it was just the flu or somethin', but that it might be contagious, so he couldn't let me in. And I haven't seen him since. I've knocked on his door and yelled, but he either doesn't answer, or just says 'Go away.' I checked with his boss; she says he's taken a week's worth of vacation."

"Well, maybe he just needed some time off, for private reasons he doesn't want to talk about," she said.

"Yeah, like the fact that he's holed up in his apartment drinkin', all by himself!" he shot back.

She shook her head in disbelief. "Benny -- I mean, Fraser -- never drinks," she protested. "At least, I never saw him-- "

His lips thinned. "I know. Normally, Benny wouldn't be caught dead with Demon Liquor -- but he isn't normal now. I've never known him to act like this before, except when he lost Victoria."

Something tightened in Elyssa's chest at the mention of that. She knew Victoria had hurt Fraser deeply, but then she'd been his lover. The idea that the rift between them could have disturbed him as much as her loss shocked her. Suddenly, she looked back at what had happened in her apartment that night with different eyes. Was it possible that she'd seen things wrong somehow, overreacted, and that Benny had gone off the deep end because of it? Did she really mean that much to him?

"How do you know he's been drinking if you haven't seen him?" she asked, disturbed. She didn't want to believe that she'd made a terrible mistake that night, but what had happened had been deeply shocking, in part, because it didn't fit with Benton's character. Up until then, he'd seemed kind, gentle and trustworthy, not at all like the type of man who would break into a woman's apartment to peep at her for kicks. What if she'd misconstrued his actions because of her paranoia, because of what those other men had done to her? If she had, then she was at least partly responsible for his strange, worrisome behavior recently.

"I can hear it in his voice," Ray answered. "My Pop drank too much, my whole life. If there's one thing I can spot, it's a drunk. And Fraser's my best friend; I know him like the back o' my hand. I've never known him to touch a drop before, but I'm tellin' ya, he's drinkin' now. I thought he sounded kinda' funny that first morning when he didn't go to work, but he said he had the flu, so I put it down to that. The second morning, when I showed up at his door, he could hardly talk straight; and that wasn't flu talkin', it was Jim Beam. He was hammered."

"Well, if you're that worried about him, why don't you just go in and talk to him?" she asked, avoiding his eyes, trying to avoid her growing suspicions of her own culpability in the matter. "You know the lock on his door is broken-- "

"I checked that," he interrupted impatiently. "He fixed it. And he put a deadbolt on it, too. So unless I shoot it open or break it down, I can't get in. And I'm not about to use my gun when Benny and Diefenbaker are in there."

Elyssa looked away, more troubled than ever. That implied that Fraser had taken pains to lock himself away from everyone, which was totally unlike him, not to mention ominous. What in the world was going on? None of what he was telling her made sense; and none of it was like Fraser.

Did I do this to him? Is it my fault? He was trying to tell me something that night, and I didn't listen.

But she was listening now; and she didn't like what she was hearing. "Why don't you break the door down, then?" she asked. "I see cops doing that all the time on TV -- "

Ray snorted. "Yeah, but they're not breakin' into apartments where hungry wolves with big, sharp teeth are waiting," he said sarcastically.

She nodded. "I see your point." She saw it all too well, in fact. Ray Vecchio was deeply worried about Fraser. She sighed. She could see where this was heading; he was going to ask for her help. She didn't like the idea. But for the sake of their former friendship, and because she just might've been wrong about Benton, she had to go along with it.

"Why are you here, Ray?" she asked, wanting it out in the open. "Even if what you say is true, what am I supposed to do about it?" She hated to sound so cold, but the truth was, Fraser had scared her half to death that night, so much that she could hardly bear the thought of seeing him again. He was the one man she'd trusted since it happened, and he'd destroyed her trust in a humiliating way.

Ray's lips thinned at her coldness, but he persisted. "I just need some information. I need to know what happened between the two o' you that sent him over the edge," he said. "I can't help him if I don't know what's wrong, and he sure as hell won't tell me."

She shook her head, fear turning her stomach at the thought of telling him such a private, ugly thing. "No. That's personal, I -- "

He grabbed her arm again, forced her to look at him. "Listen, lady! Benny's my best friend -- and I used to think he meant somethin' to you, too! So don't even try tellin' me to mind my own business here! It's too late for that! Haven't you been listenin' to me? He's holed up in his apartment like a wounded animal, drinkin' himself stupid -- and he's got a gun in there!"

Elyssa shook him off, but she couldn't shake off what he'd said. "A gun?" she echoed, stunned and suddenly more than a little afraid.

Ray's eyes narrowed, then calmed as some of the anger left his face. "You didn't know," he said, and it was a statement, not a question.

She shook her head, feeling cold suddenly. "No. I -- he never told me..."

"He's not licensed to carry it here, and he doesn't believe in guns anyway, so he keeps it in his trunk. But it's there, and there's ammo there for it, too." His expression hardened again. "And if you don't help me, I'm afraid he might use it," he finished bluntly.

"Oh, no," she breathed, going cold all over. "Not Benton..."

Ray's eyes grew very bleak. "Cops eat their guns sometimes," he said tersely. "It happens. But it ain't gonna happen to him, not if I can help it."

She couldn't let that happen either. Elyssa looked down and swallowed, knowing that now she had no choice but to tell him the truth. Fraser had hurt her, had scared her, but she didn't want him dead. Never that. And the fact that he seemed to have taken the incident between them so much to heart bothered her more and more. Was he really a peeping Tom who was just feeling remorseful for his perverted act, or had she made a mistake that night, after all?

She didn't see how she could've misinterpreted what had happened. But if she had, then she had to help fix things. For the sake of their former friendship, she owed Fraser at least that much.

She looked around the store to make sure they were alone first, then cleared her throat. "All right, I'll tell you, Ray," she said reluctantly, fixing him with an intense stare. "But only if you promise that it won't go any further. I don't want this spread all around your District."

Ray nodded. "No problem."

But that wasn't good enough for Elyssa. She'd trusted Fraser, too, and he'd turned on her. "Swear it," she said seriously. He grimaced in exasperation for a second, but then dug inside his shirt. After a moment, he pulled out a tiny golden cross he was wearing on a chain around his neck, and held it up in front of her eyes.

"I swear on the cross, I will never repeat this to another living soul," he swore solemnly, holding her eyes. Then he stuffed the cross back inside his shirt again impatiently. "Is that good enough for ya', or you want I should sign it in blood?"

Ray might be cynical and sarcastic, but Elyssa knew he took his Catholicism seriously. Any religious oath he took, he would honor. "That's good enough," she said. "Okay then. This is what happened... About three weeks ago, I came home late from work. I was really tired, so I decided to take a long, hot bath. So I turned out all the lights, put some candles around the tub, and got in... and it was so relaxing that I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and there was Fraser, standing in the hallway staring at me!"

Vecchio blinked at her silently for a moment. Whatever she'd thought his reaction might be, that wasn't it. He was clearly taken aback, but his silence bothered her. "Well?" she prompted, distinctly uncomfortable.

"That's all?" he said. "That's the big secret?"

Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, 'that's all?'" she hissed. "That's more than enough! Fraser broke into my apartment and spied on me while I was taking a bath, for Christ's sake! He violated my privacy, and scared the hell out of me, too! That's why I'm not seeing him anymore! What more do you want?"

Vecchio shook his head. "I don't believe it," he said, sounding stunned.

"I'm telling you the truth," Elyssa said, reining in her temper with an effort.

"I believe that, I just don't believe what you did! You got rid of Benny because he got a look at you naked?"

He sounded both incredulous and amused. Elyssa felt herself blushing furiously. "Do you think it's funny, Detective, that your best friend is a peeping Tom? I thought that was against the law!"

Vecchio's jaw set tightly. "It is; and Benny isn't a peepin' Tom," he said decisively. "No way, no how."

She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Listen, Elyssa," he said intensely. "In case you hadn't noticed, Benny's a six foot Boy Scout. He had to come with me to a strip club once, and I swear, he turned as red as his uniform. I was afraid he was gonna pass out. He'd never break into a woman's place to get a look at her, not in a million years! Especially not when that woman is a friend of his. If you knew him as well as I do, you'd know that."

Elyssa glared at him, unhappy at his not-so-subtle reproach, and even more unhappy because she suspected he was right. Benton had always been a gentleman with her, though they'd spent many hours alone together in her apartment before that dreadful night...

"Come on, Ryan, think about it!" he insisted. "Besides -- with Benny's looks, do you really think he'd have to do somethin' like that? He's beatin' women off with a stick as it is-- including my own sister! All he'd have to do is crook a finger, and half the women in Chicago would come runnin'!"

He had a point there. She was all too aware of Benton's beauty, and the undeniable effect it had on women. Her most of all... But that didn't change what had happened. "I'm telling you, I saw him in my hallway, staring at me!"

Ray's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "How did he get in?"


"How did Benny get into your apartment that night?" he repeated. "He doesn't have a key, does he?"

"No, of course not," she said hastily. "He broke in, I told you -- "

"Fraser broke down your door?" he asked, disbelieving. "And you didn't hear him, even with your bathroom door open?"

"No, the door wasn't damaged, so he had to have picked the lock," she said defensively. "He's a Mountie, he'd know how to do that -- "

Vecchio just raised his eyebrows at her. "Why'd he wait so long to do that, then, huh? He's known you for months. Why would he do that?"

"I don't know." She shrugged her shoulders. "I just know it happened."

"Maybe," he said. "Or maybe, just maybe, your door wasn't locked in the first place," he suggested.

"No. I always lock my door behind me. Always."

The eyebrow shot upward again.

She flushed defensively at his obvious disbelief. "Look," she said. "No one was more surprised -- more disappointed than I was by what Benton did, but I know my door was locked, Ray."

He stared intently at her. "You're 100 percent, completely, absolutely certain that you locked the door when you came in that night."

She frowned, exasperated. He's just reaching, she told herself, trying to come up with excuses for what his friend did. Isn't he?

To humor him, she tried to remember exactly what had happened that night. She pictured the scene again in her mind. She'd had a bag of groceries in her hands when she came in, and... "Oh my God," she whispered suddenly, as a terrible suspicion formed.

"What?" Ray asked, pouncing on it eagerly.

"Well, I... just remembered," she faltered. "I had two big bags of groceries in my arms when I was trying to lock the door behind me that night, so I didn't even try to lock the deadbolt, like I usually do. I just locked the door lock, and shoved it shut with my shoulder--"

"And maybe the door didn't quite shut?" he finished for her, following her train of thought instantly. "The doors in that building are so old they're warped. Maybe it popped open later... and maybe Benny came by and saw it?" he prompted further.

Elyssa stared at him in silence, feeling herself blushing again. She'd just remembered something else -- something she'd completely forgotten until now: she'd asked Benny to come over that night for another portrait session! That was why he'd come to her door, she was suddenly sure of it. But she didn't dare tell Vecchio that. It would make her look even more of a fool than he already seemed to think she was.

"And Benny's a cop, he likes you and we're paranoid by nature anyway, so maybe when he saw your door ajar and your lights out, he got worried?" Ray pressed on doggedly.

She swallowed hard, her mouth dry as dust. "That's what he claimed had happened," she admitted, raising guilty eyes to his. "I got hysterical, I didn't hear everything he said, but he did say something about coming in because he was worried about me -- because he thought something might've happened to me... But I didn't believe him," she finished, ashamed of the hasty way she'd judged him now.

Vecchio's earlier look of anger returned, full force. "So he came in, worried that something was wrong, found you in the bathtub, and you woke up and started screamin' at him before he could tell ya' what happened. Is that about right?"

Elyssa rubbed her suddenly aching head. "I don't know," she murmured, shaken, anguished. "It could be... I thought -- I was so sure he was -- "

"He didn't touch you, or do anything to scare you," he said. It was a statement, not a question, as if he already knew Benton would never do any such thing, he just wanted to drive that point home to her.

"No." She shook her head. Point taken.

Ray's lips thinned. "So all he did was look, and you got hysterical?"

She stared at him angrily. "It was late, and I woke up from a sound sleep, thinking I'd locked the door behind me, to find a man in my apartment, staring at me while I was in the bathtub!" she gritted. "I had every right to be scared!"

He shot her a sideways look. "Okay. But didja' even give Benny a chance to explain, before ya' threw him out?"

She couldn't meet his eyes. "No. I was too upset, I -- "


"Don't judge me, Ray. You weren't there -- and you're not me," she said angrily.

"Yeah, yeah," he grumbled. Still, she felt his disgust like a slap in the face. Guilt rose in her throat until she thought she might be sick. She was more and more sure that she'd completely misjudged the situation. Was it like Ray said, had Benny come home, seen her door ajar and feared that something was wrong? Had he come into her apartment to check up on her, and then just stumbled on her in the bathtub? Had he been trying to help her, rather than spying on her as she'd thought?

She remembered the anguished look on his face when her eyes had met his, and the way she'd screamed at him, and it was suddenly hard to breathe. She'd thought that was a look of guilt, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was a look of fear. He'd probably known exactly how she would react, had known she'd mistake the situation and throw him out of her apartment and out of her life, and been sick at the thought of losing her when he hadn't done anything wrong.

Jesus, she thought, I called him a liar. I even called him a pervert. "I thought he was a peeping Tom," she whispered, sick at how she'd misjudged him.

"Then you don't have a clue about Benny," Vecchio said tersely. He turned away from her scornfully, and headed for the door.

She went after him, caught at his arm.

"Please -- I'm sorry!" she said, anguished. "If that's what happened, I'm sorry! I didn't know... I was just so scared when I saw him, I didn't think... And I didn't know about how he's been acting since, Ray, I swear! I had no idea he'd locked himself in his apartment! I never meant for Fraser to go off the deep end about it-"

He eyed her coldly. "Right," he said.

She supposed his sarcasm was forgivable under the circumstances. She could imagine how it looked to him: after the way most women reacted to Benton, he probably couldn't understand why she'd gotten so upset when he'd seen her naked. He probably thought she was frigid, or worse.

He probably thinks I'm the second woman who ripped his best friend's heart out for no reason -- that I'm as bad as that witch Victoria, Elyssa thought with a sinking feeling.

In spite of everything, she liked Ray Vecchio. Benton had talked about him a great deal, while she painted him. He'd told her often what a good friend Ray had been to him since he'd come to Chicago, that he trusted him, and what a brave man he was. He'd told her that Ray had saved his life more than once. And underneath his toughness and cynicism, she knew he had to be a good-hearted man, or he wouldn't have befriended a backwoods Mountie. He wouldn't have risked his life for him, and he wouldn't be here now, trying to help him out.

So despite what had happened between her and Fraser, Ray's good opinion mattered to her. She didn't want him to think so little of her, she had to make him understand.

So when he headed for the door again, she cried, "Wait! I want to come with you."

Ray turned around and stared hard at her for a moment, and then his face finally softened. "Then hurry up, Ryan," he growled. "I ain't got all day." But his smile took the sting out of his words.

He waited long enough for her to leave a note for her boss on the counter, hang a "Closed" sign in the window, and lock up the store. Elyssa didn't know if her job would be waiting for her when she came back, but she couldn't worry about that now. She'd done all she could. She couldn't reach her boss by phone since he was out to lunch somewhere, and she couldn't let Ray deal with this alone anymore when she might be the cause of it. She was more worried about Fraser than about her job. So when Vecchio opened his car door for her silently, she climbed in and they were off.

After all, she wouldn't have been so upset with Fraser that night if she hadn't cared deeply about him.

Ray held the wheel tightly and drove far too fast, screeching the car around corners in tight, high-speed turns. Elyssa knew better than to complain. She didn't want to distract him. She just held on tightly, and prayed he wouldn't hit anyone on the way.

"I couldn't help it," she said quietly at last.


He didn't turn to look at her, but at least he was listening. That was something. "What I thought about Fraser, I mean. The way I reacted. I'm not a bitch, and I don't normally get hysterical, but..."

Ray looked at her, waiting for an explanation. She bit her lip. God, this was hard!

"I... Before I came here -- about a year ago... I was raped," she finished awkwardly, not knowing how else to say it. "Someone broke into my apartment one night, beat me, then..."

She bit her lip, unable to finish the sentence. For a moment, she stared out of the car window, her heart beating hard, unable to look at him. She didn't even know if he would believe her. But when she finally worked up the courage to turn her head and meet his eyes, he gave her a look of compassion.

"Jesus, Elyssa," he said simply. "I'm sorry."

She nodded wordlessly, knowing he really meant it.

"Does Fraser know about it?"

She shook her head. "I could never tell him that," she said, with a slight, sad smile. "Not Benny."

Elyssa's statement surprised Ray Vecchio. Something in the way she said it told him that her primary motive for hiding the truth about her rape from Fraser wasn't the usual: she hadn't done it to spare herself an embarrassing confession, or because the incident was too painful for her to mention -- after all, she'd told him about it without too much trouble. No, she'd kept quiet about it to spare Benny's feelings. Because she'd known it would upset him to find out she'd been hurt like that. It was an important distinction, and one Ray understood very well. Fraser was so innocent, so trusting that all his friends felt impelled to protect him, to shield him from finding out how ugly, how shitty the world really was.

But Elyssa had worried about Fraser's feelings more than her own even when she'd been traumatized, which was evidence that she cared very deeply about him indeed. The insight filled him with sudden hope. Up until that instant, he hadn't been convinced that he was doing the right thing, hadn't been absolutely sure that Elyssa Ryan really loved Benny.

But the sad, tender little way she'd smiled at the mention of his name, and the fact that she'd kept her rape a secret from him for his sake, told him everything he needed to know. She was as crazy about Benny as he was about her. So maybe she could help Fraser after all. Better yet, maybe the two of them could still get together, like he'd hoped they would months before. After what she'd been through, Benny would be the perfect man for Ryan, he thought; they didn't make men any kinder or gentler than Benton Fraser.

But there was only one way to get the two of them together now.

"You have to tell him, ya' know," he said quietly.

She shook her head blindly, her eyes unseeing, her face going pale. "I can't."

"You have to, Elyssa," he insisted, keeping his voice gentle. "You have to ask him what his side o' the story is, about what happened in your apartment -- and you have to tell him what happened to you, so he'll understand why you reacted the way you did."

Elyssa stared out her window, biting her lip. He suspected she had tears in her eyes that she didn't want him to see. He knew this was hard for her, but he pressed on, knowing it was their only chance.

"It's the only way to fix this, Elyssa," he said. "You have to talk to him. He won't listen to me."

He saw her swallow hard. "How can I, when he won't even open his door?"

Ray smiled grimly. "Oh, he'll open his door all right," he said. "I got that one all figured out. You just leave that to me. I'll get his door open; but then you have to tell him the truth."

"Okay," she said at last, her voice unsteady. "Okay."

He wanted to squeeze her hand, but he knew she didn't like to be touched, so he shot her his best smile instead. "Thanks," he said, meaning it.

"Look out!" she cried, and he snapped his eyes back to the road to find that they were thundering down on a red light at full speed, far too fast to stop.

"Hold on," he said, gunning the Riv insanely, for Benny's sake. Please let us be in time, he thought, as they shot through the light mercifully without incident. God, Please let him be okay.

Elyssa sat silent and pale, and he wasn't sure if she was more scared of his driving or the prospect of telling Benny what had happened to her.

"Did they ever catch the guys who did it?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

She shook her head. "No, they were smart enough to wear gloves, and they... put nylons over their heads. I couldn't identify them, and-- "

He wasn't looking at her, but he heard her gasp, a startled little intake of breath. He shot a quick glance at her, wondering if this was harder for her than he'd thought. Geez, is she hyperventilating or something?

"'The guys'?" Elyssa echoed, stiffening as she suddenly realized what Ray had said, the little verbal slip she hadn't noticed at first, in her distress.

"Yeah, the ones that raped you," Ray repeated, looking at her with a slight frown.

"How did you know there was more than one?" she asked, her heart beating hard suddenly, her eyes focused intently on him.

He stared hard at the road and didn't answer for a second; and in that instant, her suspicions were confirmed. "You knew," she breathed, angry and humiliated. "You knew all along that I was raped, and you never said anything to me! You never let on -- you pretended you didn't understand why I was so upset with Fraser!"

"I'm sorry," he said reluctantly, his hands tightening on the wheel as he swung the car around another corner. "I didn't find out until recently--"

She was so mad now that she was breathing hard. "I can't believe you did that! You let me confess to you, even said you were sorry about it!"

"I am!" he said defensively. "Hell, I'm a cop, Elyssa! I spend my life puttin' animals like that behind bars! You think I like knowin' something like that happened to you?"

She knew he meant it, but it only eased her anger a little. "How did you know? How did you find out? No one here knows, no one!" He grimaced, and before he could answer, something in the quality of his unhappy expression gave her the answer. She paled, her hands going tight on the door handle. "How could I forget? You're a cop," she repeated sarcastically. "You checked me out, didn't you? I'm a statistic in the police records, and you found my name. You checked up on me with the police!" she cried, her outrage growing. "What did you think, that I'm some kind of thief, or a prostitute or something? What?"

"Calm down," he said, trying to reach out to her. "I didn't mean--"

He hadn't even tried to deny it. Perversely, that made her even angrier. She pushed his hand away, furious and sick. "You had no right to do that!" she said, deeply hurt. "No right!"

Ray shook his head grimly. "That's not true. You don't know--"

"What? That you don't like me? I always thought so, but I never dreamed that you disliked me that much!"

"No, no!" he protested. "That's not true! I don't dislike you at all. That's not it. That's not why I did it."

She stared at him, furious, her eyes narrowed, her hands clenched into fists. "Then why?" she demanded.

Vecchio didn't answer. His lips thinned, his jaw setting stubbornly as he pushed the petal to the floor, swooping the Riviera through traffic, speeding around other cars in sickening lurches that he controlled with grim expertise. She hung onto the door handle for dear life, staring at him resentfully. Not because of the dangerous way he was driving; their breakneck speed was in direct proportion to his concern for Fraser, which she shared. She was angry because he didn't want to tell her why he'd behaved so outrageously. She wasn't going to let him get away with that, though. Oh, no. After what he'd done, the way he'd pried into her past, her tragedy, and then pretended he knew nothing about it, he owed her an explanation; especially since he was asking for her help.

"If you want me to help you talk Fraser out of his place, then you'd damn well better tell me why you checked to see if I had a police record, Ray Vecchio! Or I'm not going anywhere with you."

That was a lie. She would've gone to help Fraser out anyway, whether he told her the truth or not. But Ray didn't know that.

"Okay, okay!" he snapped, his hands clenching the wheel as if he wanted to strangle it -- or her. "God, you sound just like my sister!"

She shot him a dark look, and he gave in. "Did Fraser ever tell you about Victoria?" he asked reluctantly at last.

She frowned. "Yes, but what's Victoria got to do with it?"

Ray Vecchio hung onto the wheel hard, damning old girlfriends, the traffic, and his own loose lips in particular. Stupido! he cursed himself. One unthinking word and Elyssa had figured it all out, the dirty little secret he hadn't meant her or Benny ever to know; and it was no one's fault but his own. He'd underestimated her intelligence. He should've known better. Like Benny would fall in love with an idiot, or even an average woman, no matter how pretty she was! Elyssa Ryan was special, or he'd never have holed up in his apartment like he had, sick with grief over losing her.

And now he was going to have to explain himself to the love of Benny's life. Great. Worse yet, to do so he was going to have to bring up another, even more painful secret he'd hoped she would never know. For a second, he heard Benny's voice inside his head intoning, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, Ray." He winced and set his jaw hard before he spoke. "Did Fraser tell you I shot him because of her?" he asked flatly at last.

Her green eyes widened. "You shot Benton?" she echoed. Her pained disbelief stabbed right into the secret wound inside of him, that had never healed. He tried to ignore it, forced himself to go on with his damning confession.

"In the back," he said, hating the sound of it even now, hating the way she fell completely silent when he said it. "It was an accident," he ground out, defensive in the face of her horror. "Victoria was escaping town on a train, we went after her but Benny got there first. He was running towards her and I thought she had a gun, I thought she was gonna kill him. I meant to shoot her to save him, but he got in the way."

He lost his voice for a moment, then he forced himself to go on, to finish it. "I think he did it on purpose. But he almost died," he croaked, unable to look at her. Traffic got so heavy around them that he was forced to slow to a crawl. But he did so automatically, barely seeing the other vehicles. For a moment, he was back in time, inside that train station on the worst night of his life, bent over Benny as his life's blood poured out of him, knowing he was dying -- knowing he'd killed a brave, good man he loved more than his own father, that he'd murdered his best friend... And that even God would never forgive him for that, never--

He only came back to the present when he felt a gentle touch on his arm. He looked over blindly to see Elyssa's slender hand there. She was looking at him gravely, the anger gone from her face. "I understand now," she said quietly. "You didn't hate me, you just didn't want to fail him again, the way you felt you did with her."

He stared at her in shocked surprise, his estimation of her going up another notch. He'd figured he was going to have to spell the whole thing out for her, that he'd checked her out because of Victoria, because he didn't want another evil woman to ever ruin Benny's life like that again. But Elyssa had done more than just put that two and two together herself. She'd also figured out that he blamed himself for failing to protect his friend from the pain Victoria had inflicted on him, almost as much as he blamed himself for that thrice- cursed bullet.

"Somethin' like that," he admitted gruffly, amazed at how perceptive she was, and a little uncomfortable, too. It wasn't something he ever talked about, his deep protectiveness for Fraser. They were men, and the way he'd been raised, men didn't talk about things like that. Hell, according to his father, men didn't even feel things like that, or else they were 'faggots'. But he didn't believe that anymore, especially not since he'd met Benny. Neither of them were gay, but they would both die for each other, and they both knew it. Their friendship had become one of the cornerstones of his life. And there was nothing wrong with that. In fact, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to him.

Hell, half the women in Chicago love him, he thought. And not just them. Everybody loves Benny. Why should I be any different?

But he'd violated Elyssa's privacy because of his feelings for Fraser, then kept it a secret from both of them -- which wasn't a good thing. Despite his good motives, he didn't know if she was going to be able to forgive him for that. She'd said she understood why he'd done it, but she hadn't said she was letting him off the hook for it. And if she didn't, and she and Fraser got back together like he was hoping they would, what would Fraser do when he found out?

Christ. He ground his teeth as he pulled the Riv around the last corner before they got to Fraser's apartment. Was it going to come down to that again? Was Fraser going to have to make a choice between him and the woman he loved?

The last time that happened, Fraser chose her.

They pulled up in front of Fraser's apartment building with a final screech of tires, and Ray set the parking brake with a hard pull, his face tense and grim. He might've just been worrying about the coming confrontation with Benton, but somehow, she didn't think so. She got the distinct feeling he was sorry for what he'd done to her, and that he wasn't sure she'd forgive him.

But he's such a tough guy, he can't admit it.

So tough that his voice almost broke when he confessed that he'd shot Benton by accident once. So tough that he'd gone overboard to protect his friend this time, so he'd never be hurt like that again.

I never knew you loved him so much, she thought, deeply touched.

"Let's go," he said tersely, reaching across her to open her door. She caught his shoulder, made him look at her.

"It's okay, Ray," she said softly. "What you did wasn't right, but I forgive you. I know you were only trying to protect Fraser."

"Yeah, well... Maybe," he said obliquely. He looked at her for a long moment, and to her surprise, she saw a flicker of pain in his expressive hazel eyes. Or was it guilt? It was gone before she could be sure. "But I'm through tryin' to protect Fraser from you, Elyssa. Right now, I need you to help me protect him from himself."

Deep inside her, something eased, like a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Her feelings were all tangled up inside; love and fear and hope, and they all had to do with Fraser. And Ray Vecchio was Fraser's best friend, and until that moment, she'd never felt that he truly liked or accepted her, but...

We're going to be okay, Ray and me, she thought. The knot inside of her dissolved a little. "Let's go get our Mountie," she smiled.

Ray smiled back; the first genuinely warm, non-cynical smile she'd ever won from him. "Yes, ma'am!"

He slid back onto the driver's side and opened his door. "By the way, did I mention that he's head over heels in love with you?" he asked casually, as he climbed out. "That's why he's so upset."

She froze for a second. "What?"

But Ray Vecchio was already halfway to the door of Fraser's building by then. She had to jump out of the car and run after him. "What did you just say?"

Despite the circumstances, Ray Vecchio smiled a little as he strode rapidly towards the outside door of Fraser's apartment building. Elyssa trailed behind him, calling "What? What did you say?"

Oh, yeah. They're meant for each other, he thought, amused. She's as oblivious as he is! She really didn't know! Then his smile disappeared as he remembered that Fraser didn't know she loved him, either. Now if we can just keep him from drinkin' himself to death or blowin' his head off before he realizes that, we'll have a happy ending here.

Fraser stared blindly out his open window, his eyes only half open, unseeing. It didn't matter anyway; there was nothing to see, nothing to say, nothing to do... He felt the presence of the portrait behind him, haunting him. Odd, how it remained solid while the rest of his world had fallen to pieces around him, its broken shards floating in a sea of whiskey.

It was still raining, the strange, constant, gray drizzle that seemed to have been falling for weeks now, forever. But it wasn't just the weather that was different, it was him. He'd become a stranger.

The whiskey had blurred the cause of that change. He wasn't sure if Victoria Metcalf had done it, infected him somehow with her darkness, or if she'd just brought deeply buried flaws in his nature to the fore; but the fact of it was undeniable. No amount of drinking could wipe it out. He was no longer the man he had been.

Fraser the Mountie was strong, self confident, self sufficient. But he was drifting, rudderless and helpless.

Fraser had ideals and dreams. He had none.

Benton knew that some day, he'd find a woman to love, cherish and make a life with. He had no such illusions.

He'd loved and lost two beautiful women, and finally understood the reason for it: he was unworthy of them, of love itself. Though only fools failed to learn from their mistakes, he'd imprisoned his first love, then violated the trust of his second.

He knew what that made him: a coward who didn't deserve love.

A fool who probably didn't deserve to live.

Just for a moment, through the rain outside his window, he thought he saw a pair of beautiful, cruel dark eyes staring at him. Do it, Ben, Victoria whispered. You've got a gun. You know what to do.

He reached out to her blindly, but her face dissolved into cold rain that pelted his hand. He let it fall back to his side, desolate. But he couldn't get her words out of his mind. You know what to do. He did, but he couldn't seem to summon the will to act. He was just drifting along on the numbing currents of the whiskey he'd been drinking, on and off, for the last three days. Just waiting -- he didn't even know what for.

"A good swift kick in the ass?" a voice suggested heartily from behind him.

He groaned. "Go away, Dad," he murmured, without even turning around. He knew it was disrespectful not to turn and face his father, but he was so drunk he was afraid he might topple over if he tried; and he didn't even like to imagine what his dad would say if he fell flat on his face at his feet.

"Hmmph. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Very much, he thought, but his Dad didn't oblige him.

"Then you could stay in here forever, feeling sorry for yourself," he chided.

"That's not... what I'm doing," he said.

"Then what the hell are you doing in here, son?"

He braced himself on the windowsill as the room suddenly tilted around him. He'd never been plowed like this before, never in his life. He wasn't even sure if his father was really here, or if he was just a drunken hallucination. In any case, he supposed he ought to answer him, if only in the hope that it would hasten his departure. "Trying... to forget," he said at last, careful to enunciate clearly. He knew his Dad would be all over him if he slurred his words, and--

"Seems to me you've done a pretty thorough job of that already."

Drunk as he was, he could hear the harsh reproof in his father's voice, and it penetrated the pleasant haze surrounding him enough to sting. "How would you know?"

His father smiled. "I'm a Mountie, remember?"

"You were... a Mountie," he pointed out, peeved. "Now you're dead."

"Once a Mountie, always a Mountie," his father retorted cheerfully. "Just like you."

Fraser's ears burned. That was a wicked shot, a low blow. He was drunk, but not so drunk that he didn't understand what his dad was up to with all that "Mountie, Mountie, Mountie" stuff. He was trying to make him feel guilty that he was holed up in here drinking and not going to work, trying to make him feel like he was failing in his duty...

"Well, aren't you?"

He hated it when his dad read his thoughts. He whirled around, furious -- and the ceiling suddenly tried to become the floor. The room spun around him so swiftly and disorientingly that he swayed on his feet, nauseated. He was forced to throw out his arms to keep from falling over, and when even that wasn't enough, he windmilled them, staggering a little until he got his balance.

Fraser Sr. raised an eyebrow at the spectacle. "I knew it! You're drunk as the proverbial skunk, aren't you?"

For a moment, Fraser couldn't answer. He closed his eyes and swallowed, hoping that when he opened them again, the ceiling and floor would be back in their proper places. Maybe that would convince his stomach to stop trying to revolt...

"Sheesh! You're a sorry sight. You probably reek, too," his father went on, ruthless. "Lucky I can't smell ya. Being dead does have certain advantages."

"Dad..." He opened a bleary eye, and once the floor settled back to where it should be, he tried to focus on his father. He was just a blur at first, but when it finally resolved into the familiar figure he expected, he suppressed a groan. His Dad was sitting on his bed, and he was wearing his uniform, hat and all. It looked immaculate, as if he'd just had it cleaned and pressed, and his boots shined. Another not so subtle rebuke.

Once a Mountie, always a Mountie. He managed to steady himself, but he felt both angry and ashamed, and madder still because he knew that's what his dad intended.

"What if... I am drunk?" he choked. "It's not like you never lifted a glass--"

"Oh, sure, sure," his father agreed readily. "I downed some Scotch in my time, but not for days at a time like this; and not for no reason."

Fraser scowled at him. He's trying to pump me, he thought resentfully. "I have my reasons," he retorted. With drunken cunning, he didn't mention what they were.

His Dad crossed his arms over his chest, studying him. "Ya' got that Yank friend o' yours in a dither, son, ya' know that?" he asked, trying a different tack.

He stared down at his feet, a little surprised to see that they were bare. When had he taken off his boots? He couldn't remember. Was it before the last time Ray came pounding on his door, or -- Ray! That's right, Ray had been here several times, knocking and yelling, but he hadn't let him in... That must be what his dad was talking about.

"How would you know?"

"Well, I couldn't help but hear him! Excitable fella. He's been pounding on your door for three days now, yellin' like a banshee. Aren't you ever gonna let him in?"

"No!" he said tightly. He could feel a headache building at the thought of Ray. He pressed a hand to his head, rubbed hard at his temples. He knew his best friend was worried sick about him, but he couldn't face him at the moment, after what he'd done. Not to mention what I may do...

His father got up and moved over to the old trunk he kept by his bed. With his usual prescience, he lifted the lid ever so slightly. "Thought you kept this locked, son," he said quietly. His eyes had lost all traces of amusement or scorn, and they bored into his forcefully.

He tore his eyes away. I used to. He usually kept the trunk locked, but he'd opened it two days ago and checked his supply of ammunition. Even cleaned his gun again, while Victoria laughed... He turned away, unable to answer his dad's question.

"Is it that woman again, son?" he asked quietly. "Has she come back for you?"

Those quiet words stabbed him to the heart. Fraser had to shut his eyes or he would've broken down and cried in front of his father, something he hadn't done since he was six. He swallowed hard. "No," he lied. "Victoria's gone. She's never coming back, Dad."

"Then what's the problem? Is it that boss o' yours? She's a bit cold for my taste," his dad sniffed. "Balls of steel. Remarkable, considering that she's a woman--"

"Just... go away!" Fraser groaned, through gritted teeth. He reached for his whiskey bottle again, took a long, defiant pull on it, felt the now-familiar burning in his throat and stomach. He took another, for good measure.

His Dad gave him a look. "You can't make your problems go away by wishing, son. You know that," he said quietly. "Or by holing up here, getting plastered. You have to face them."

I tried, he thought miserably. I tried to tell her that night, and every night after for a week. But she wouldn't listen to me, she wouldn't even speak to me, and now it's been weeks... And she gave me the portrait back.


"So you saw the redhead in her bathtub. So what?" he shrugged. "It was an accident, not the end of the world. You went in there thinking she was being robbed. Go and tell her that."

Fraser lifted his head in bleary surprise. "You know about that?"

His dad blinked at him. "I'm dead, remember?"

He blinked. If you knew that, why did you ask me about Victoria? Don't you know that she's gone forever? Oh, God!

He took a deep breath. His stomach was acting up again, trying to come up through his throat. And trying to figure out just what his dad knew and what he didn't wasn't helping. It only made his head hurt even worse than it already did. He settled for talking about Elyssa instead. But his tongue felt thick. "I tried... to tell her. She... din' wanna' lissen," he mumbled.

"Then tell her again," his Dad said sternly. "Sober up and make her listen."

A wave of helpless fury rose in him. "Don't you... unnerstan'? 'S too late for that! She hates me!" he snarled, swaying towards his father in spite of himself.

Fraser Senior's eyes narrowed. "Look at you!" he said scornfully. "Can you blame her? I didn't raise you to be a drunk and a coward, Ben. But that's what you've become."

He took another step. "You take that back, old man." Suddenly, his words came very clear.

"If you don't sober up and set things right with her and that Yank friend o' yours, you'll be a coward, and no son of mine," his father said, slowly and deliberately. "And if you take the coward's way out and use your gun on yourself, once you're dead, I'll hunt you to the ends of the universe," he warned.

For the first time in his life, Fraser lost his temper with his father. With a roar of rage, he stepped forward and took a swing at him.

But there was nothing there. I forgot, he's dead --

And then he was falling. His chin hit the floor with a thump, followed painfully by the rest of him. Stars exploded in his head, and a wave of nausea rolled over him. He just lay there for a second, hating himself, not sure if he ought to hold onto consciousness or not. But then he heard a dog barking, and a warm, wet tongue swept anxiously across his cheek.


He clung to reality for the wolf's sake, turned his head a fraction so that Dief could see his lips move. "'I'm... o... kay," he managed to groan after a moment, though that was so far from the truth it made him want to weep. Darkness hovered all around him, waiting to take him; and he was tempted.

But when he didn't get up, Dief whined and pushed at him with his muzzle.

He supposed he should get back on his feet, but he couldn't seem to make himself do it. His eyelids felt incredibly heavy, and the floor felt smooth and cool under his cheek. He was going to let the darkness take him. Right here... "Later, Dief," he murmured, reaching out to pet him reassuringly before he closed his eyes.

But Dief was gone. He opened one eye to find that the wolf had gone over to his door. He sat in front of it wagging his tail expectantly, as if someone he knew had come to call.

"Fraser! FRASER!"

Dief barked excitedly at the familiar voice, but Fraser closed his eyes with a groan. It was Ray again; and here he was, flat out on the floor, very drunk and very nearly sick. This is not good.


This isn't good at all. Vecchio was screaming loudly enough to bring down the building, and hitting his door so hard it shook. Fraser wished heartily that the floor would just open and swallow him up, right where he lay. But it didn't happen.


He remembered what his father had said. Shaking, he forced himself to his knees.

The next thing Elyssa knew, she and Ray were clattering up the stairs towards Fraser's apartment. Her heart was beating fast, and not entirely from the exercise. Was it true, what he'd said about Fraser being in love with her? Her head was spinning. Fraser had never said so, but it would explain so many things... The way he'd brought her breakfast, taken her walking at night, the way he'd looked at her that day in her studio, the tender way he'd danced with her -- even the way he'd holed up in his apartment in despair after she'd quit talking to him and given the portrait back.

Fraser -- in love with me? The idea both elated and scared the hell out of her; and so did what they were about to do. She was feeling nervous about her hasty decision to help Ray pry Fraser out of his place. Not because she didn't want to help him -- she knew Ray was right, that if he'd been holed up in there drinking all alone for days now, like a wounded animal hiding in his lair, they had to do something. The problem was, Benton was a big, powerful man who probably didn't want their help. Especially hers. And she'd never even seen him angry before, much less drunk. She had no idea what he was capable of, and even if he had been in love with her, what his feelings might be toward her now.

What if he hates me for calling him a pervert and a liar? Ray wouldn't have brought me along if he thought Fraser would be dangerous, would he? she thought, in an attempt to reassure herself. But she'd seen him leave his gun in the car, and her mouth felt dry. "You have a plan, right?" she asked, trying not to sound nervous.

"Absolutely," the Italian said confidently, taking the stairs two at a time. "Don't worry about a thing."

She shot a look at Vecchio. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he didn't seem apprehensive. In fact, now that they were nearly at Fraser's door, he looked almost cheerful. So much so that if she hadn't known better, she would've thought he was enjoying himself! His stride was as confident as if they were on their way to a party, instead of a confrontation with a big, depressed, possibly suicidal Mountie.

Elyssa gritted her teeth, annoyed with him. For all I know, Vecchio's loving every minute of this. After all, even though he's Benny's best friend, he's also a cop, and this is the kind of stuff cops live for: a situation bursting with opportunities for conflict. Two big men on either side of a locked door, both determined not to give in, one possibly drunk, armed and angry... And they've been at a standoff for days now. The testosterone in this hallway must be at flood level!

It disturbed her. Ray had already admitted that he'd been unable to convince Fraser to come out yet, or to let him in, though he'd tried everything. She had no idea what new strategy he'd come up with to deal with the situation, or what condition Fraser might be in if it worked. Though he was unarmed, Ray said Benton had a gun in there.

They stopped in front of his apartment, and she waited with bated breath to see what Ray's brilliant plan would be. He gave her a quick smile, then to her dismay, started banging on Fraser's door. "Fraser! FRASER!" he yelled, in a voice loud enough to wake the ancient Egyptian dead.

Elyssa blinked at him in shock, then pulled him a few paces off down the hall. "This is your master plan?" she breathed in disbelief. "Pound on his door and scream at the top of your lungs? I could've thought of that!"

He just shrugged. "You got a better idea?"

"You could pick his locks," she said.

He shook his head. "I already thought o' that. So did he. He's jammed 'em."

Of course, she thought, chagrined that she'd underestimated both men.

"Any more ideas?"

She shook her head, frustrated.

Ray just grinned. "The master plan it is, then." He pounded on the door. "FRASER!" he yelled again, even louder. "FRASER, I know you're in there!" Diefenbaker barked excitedly from inside the apartment, adding to the din.

Elyssa closed her eyes. He's enjoying this, I know he is.

But she wasn't. She could think of any number of places she would rather be than outside a crazed (and probably drunk) Mountie's door, with an equally crazed Italian who was doing his best to piss off half of Chicago with his bellowing. (Not to mention the crazed Mountie.)

Still, that crazed Mountie was Fraser, the man who'd brought her strawberries and hot cross buns, who'd posed patiently for her for endless hours without complaint, who'd showed up unexpectedly at her door late one night to invite her to go walking with him, and restored her faith in men...

Fraser, the man she'd called a liar and a pervert. But who was probably neither.

She stayed where she was.

"FRASER! Either you get out here, or I'm comin' in there after you! I'm warnin' you!" Vecchio roared.

Diefenbaker barked loudly in response, and Elyssa winced. God, he's going to bring the whole building down around our ears! she thought. As if on cue, several doors opened down the hallway, and decidedly disgruntled faces peered out at them.

"Hey, buddy -- what's your problem?" one man yelled.

Ray turned towards him, his eyes narrowed dangerously. "We're filmin' an episode of 'America's Most Wanted' here!" he roared back. "So unless you wanna be featured, get back inside!"

Two of the heads withdrew swiftly, but the man who had yelled stared stubbornly at them. A vein in Ray's forehead began to throb. He shoved his hand deep into his overcoat pocket, and pointed what looked like a gun barrel at the nosy neighbor.

"This is police business, ya' moron! Get back in there before I shoot ya'!"

The man scowled, but withdrew. Ray grinned broadly, and pulled a large felt pen out of his pocket. "Faked 'im out!" he laughed. "Works every time."

He is enjoying this! she thought, annoyed. How did things come to this, anyway?

But she knew how: she'd wakened from a sound sleep to find the one man she cared about in the world staring at her while she was naked in her bathtub. She'd felt frightened and betrayed, and she'd lashed out at him with all the pent-up fury of a woman who'd been brutally beaten and victimized.

And maybe, just maybe, she'd made a terrible mistake.

So she bit her lip and remained silent while Ray pounded even harder on Fraser's door. "FRASER! I KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE! AND I'M NOT GOIN' AWAY UNTIL YOU TALK TO ME!" he screamed. "LEMME IN, DAMMIT!"

He beat on Fraser's door with both fists, even gave it a kick or two, until it shook in its frame. Diefenbaker howled, a long, mournful lupine complaint. Then both sides finally paused to take a breath. In the resounding silence that followed, they heard a shuffling sound on the other side of the door.

"Go... 'way," Fraser finally said. At least, Elyssa thought it must be Fraser; but she was shocked. It didn't sound anything like him. The voice was thick, husky, almost slurred; and it held an undercurrent of despair that she'd never heard from him before, that she'd never imagined she would hear.

"The hell I will!" Ray shot back. "I'm through kiddin' around. Open up, Red, or I'm comin' in there to get you."

"You can't," Fraser mumbled. "'S locked..."

"Do you really think that'll stop me?"

""S worked so far." Fraser sounded a bit smug.

Ray's voice assumed an incredibly patient tone that was somehow ominous. "Fraser. I'm through bein' patient with you. If you don't open this door in sixty seconds, I'm gonna' call Buck Frobisher, tell him you're actin' like an idiot, and ask him to come down here and help me 'get my man' -- meanin' you -- and we'll bust you outta there! Whaddaya think about that?"

Elyssa looked curiously at him. "Buck?" But he waved at her to be quiet, and she subsided. There was a short silence as they waited for Fraser's reply.

"You wouldn't," Fraser retorted, but there was a trace of doubt in his denial.

Ray smiled wickedly. "Oh, yes I will. On my mother's honor, Fraser, I'll do it."

"Oh, dear."

Despite the situation, Elyssa had to smother a giggle at that expression. Ray really had Fraser worried, if he'd said that. There was a momentary silence, as if he were debating what to do.

"He won't come," Fraser said cunningly. "'S too far."

"C'mon, Red, you know better than that!" Ray said. "He's a Mountie, remember? What is it you guys always say, that you'll track someone to the ends of the earth? And Chicago isn't exactly the end of the earth. He'll come! And when he does, you'll be sorry, 'cuz we're gonna break this door down and haul your sorry ass outta there! You hear me?"

"Thas... illegal. Breaking an... an entering," Fraser mumbled. But he sounded very unsure of himself, and Elyssa hoped that Ray was finally getting through to him.

"Then when we grab you, you can do a 'Citizen's arrest'!" Ray snapped, losing patience. "But either you open up, or I swear I'll get Sgt. Frobisher down here, and we'll kick this door down and drag you out, if we have to use sled dogs to do it! Make up your mind, Fraser!"

They waited in anxious silence. After a time, they heard a strange, faint, scrabbling sound on the other side of his door. "Diefenbaker?" Elyssa guessed. Ray shrugged his shoulders.

"Whaddaya' say, Fraser? You comin' out, or do I call Frobisher?"

Finally, after another long silence, just when Elyssa thought he wasn't going to answer after all, she heard the sound of a bolt sliding back, and for the first time in three days, Fraser's door swung open.

Ray Vecchio stared in surprise. Despite what he'd told Elyssa, he hadn't really been sure the Frobisher thing would work. But Fraser's door slowly swung inward. There was no sign of him, but Diefenbaker rushed out, barking as if he were glad to see them.

After bein' locked in there for three days with a drunk Mountie, he probably is, he thought. Elyssa bent to pet him absently, but her eyes on the opened door.

So were Ray's. A wave of relief washed over him. God, at last he let me in! I've been worried sick. If he isn't dead, I oughtta kill him myself for this! Then he noticed that there were no lights on in Fraser's apartment, and the dark, rainy day gave the place a cave-like gloom. He still didn't see Fraser.

That's funny...

Elyssa started to go in, but he caught her arm automatically, held her back with a slight shake of his head. He stepped cautiously inside the apartment, making sure Elyssa stayed behind him. Something's wrong.

"Benny?" he asked, peering through the gloom for his friend.

Geez, this place reeks of whiskey!

He sensed rather than heard movement behind him, but before he could turn, big, strong hands grabbed him, and the smell of whiskey was suddenly stronger. "What the -- ?"

He never had time to finish his question, because he went flying across the room.

Elyssa cried out in spite of herself as someone suddenly rushed silently at Ray from behind Fraser's door. "Fraser!" she breathed, shocked as she recognized him. Vecchio grunted in surprise as Fraser grabbed him, but before she could move to help him, Benton roared incoherently and threw him bodily across the room. He crashed into Fraser's kitchen cabinets, and Benton leapt at him again.

Elyssa's heart went into overdrive. God, what can I do? This wasn't the Benton she knew. I can't believe this! He's worse than drunk, he's gone crazy!

Diefenbaker padded forward toward the two men slowly, as if he were as unsure what to do as she was. Fraser's hands closed around Ray's throat, and the wolf growled. "Benton, don't!" she cried out, frightened.

"How could you?"

Ray grunted as Fraser pinned him to the cabinets, both hands wrapped around his neck. He stank of whiskey, shocking in a guy who was always so fastidious. Damn, I forgot how friggin' strong he is!

"Whaa?" he choked, tugging hard at the hands that were tightening on his throat, cutting off his air. What the hell's he talkin' about? How could I what? I've never seen him like this, never! He's gone apeshit and God, I can't get him off! He heard Diefenbaker growling close by, and his fear increased. Great! When he finishes me, he'll toss me to his wolf for dinner!

"Why?" Benny snarled.

At least, that's what he thought he said -- he was too busy gasping for air to be really sure. He tried to loosen Fraser's hands, but they just tightened stubbornly on his neck. Jesus. He'd left his gun in his car deliberately. At the time, he hadn't even been sure why; now he knew that, maybe subconsciously, he'd been afraid of something like this, and determined that there would be no gunshots this time. Both he and Benny had barely survived his last bullet.

But why the hell didn't I just take out the bullets and bring it? he wondered, damning his own stupidity. I could've at least used the gun as a threat.

He frantically ran through his options. A right to the jaw or a well-placed knee would've made Fraser let go, but he didn't want to hurt him. He thumped him in the chest instead, but it didn't seem to discourage him. He held him squashed against the cabinets, a door handle dug painfully into his back, and it was getting hard to breathe.

I'm starting to get really pissed off, he thought.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Elyssa coming towards them, scared but determined. But he couldn't count on any help from her, because Diefenbaker was at her heel, growling and lashing his tail. She stopped a few cautious feet away, and he thanked God she had better sense than to try to interfere with him in the room. Dief would probably tear into both of them.

But that meant that he was on his own. He peered into Benny's face in the dimness, tried hard to read him, desperate for clues to his crazy, berserker rage. His friend's eyes were wild, dark with anger, despair and something else: shame. Once he recognized that, he understood.

Elyssa! That's what he's freaking out about. He doesn't want her to see him like this! Of course, he has to be so goddamn perfect all the time, and now he's fallen so far from that he doesn't even recognize himself anymore. And he's so in love with her that he's ashamed. Guess bringing her here was a mistake. Maybe my last one.

You don't have to do this! She loves you, ya moron! He tried to yell at Fraser, but could barely gasp. He felt his vision beginning to dim. Damn, I can't breathe! Shit, I'm gonna haveta hurt Benny...

He lifted his right hand, clenched his fist.

Elyssa knew better than to try to intervene between the two struggling men when Benton's wolf crouched close by, growling. She didn't want to frighten Diefenbaker into thinking she was attacking his master. Much as the wolf liked her, she knew his first loyalty was to Benny. But she couldn't just stand by and do nothing while Benton had Ray Vecchio by the throat, either. He was yelling angrily, and Ray's face was turning red as he choked him. This was worse than she'd feared. She'd expected Benton to be mad at her, but she'd never dreamed he'd turn on Ray.

She switched on the lights and looked around frantically for a way to stop the fight. Spying a leather-bound journal lying on the trunk beside Fraser's bed, she picked it up and got as close to the two struggling men as she dared. Ray had raised his right fist grimly, and she knew he was about to deliver a furious blow to Fraser's head.

Choosing the lesser of two evils, she threw the book at him instead. It's too small and soft to hurt him, but it should get his attention.

"Benton, he's your best friend! Stop it!" she cried, as the journal bounced off Fraser's head. If that doesn't work, I'll have to call the police.

But to her amazement, it worked. Fraser shook his head, stunned by the impact, and suddenly let go of Ray's neck. Vecchio's arm dropped to his side and he drew in deep, thankful breaths. Fraser twisted his hands in his jacket. "Why?" he cried out, and there was such anguish in his voice that, even though she knew he was drunk, it cut Elyssa to the heart.

Ray sagged with relief in his hold. He had to take a deep breath before he could answer. "I had to, Benny," he rasped after a moment, covering Fraser's hands with his own. It could've been construed as a defensive gesture, but Elyssa knew somehow that he was trying to reach Fraser with his touch. "Elyssa has somethin' to tell you that I think you need to hear."

Elyssa stood behind them, her heart beating painfully, waiting to see what Fraser would say, hoping against hope that he didn't hate her. But when he finally spoke, her hopes died. He let go of Ray and staggered past him into his tiny kitchen, keeping his back to her. He shook his head slowly. "Get out," was all he said.

She knew he was drunk, but that hit her like a blow. It was really over, then. He did hate her. She wasn't going to get a chance to ask him what had really happened that night.

She moved blindly towards his open door, but Ray came after her. He reached past her and shut the door, quietly but firmly. "Don't give up," he murmured under his breath, catching her arm. "He just needs a minute to get used to this."

She nodded, not sure he was right but willing to take the chance, for Benny's sake.

Ray went back to Fraser. He took his arm, pulled him further into the kitchen and whispered urgently to him for a minute. At first, Fraser shook his head, but Ray persisted. "Come on, buddy," she heard him say. "Dontcha see? She cares about you, or she wouldn't be here! Give her a chance!"

"She gave... painting back," she heard Fraser rasp, and the pain in his voice turned her cold inside. "Thought I -- "

"I know all that, Benny," Ray said, and his voice was very gentle. "I know you guys had a misunderstanding. That's what she wants to talk to you about. Okay?"

At last, Fraser nodded, and Elyssa closed her eyes with relief. She took a step towards the men. "Benton, I'm sorry," she began, but Ray shook his head very slightly.

"Wait a second," he said, moving so that he blocked her view of Fraser. "Come on, Big Red," Ray said. "Let's get you cleaned up a bit. Then you two can talk."

Elyssa watched as Ray pulled Fraser swiftly out of the kitchen and down the hall. He went unresisting, as docile as he'd been furious moments before. His head hung low as they moved past her, and she only got a quick glimpse of him, but even so, the change in the oh-so-perfect Mountie she'd known was shocking. He wore only jeans and an old shirt that was buttoned wrong. What looked like a three day growth of beard darkened his jaw, his eyes were bloodshot, and he was barefoot. And as they passed her, Elyssa understood why Ray had tried to shield Fraser from her view. She saw something she'd never dreamed she'd see.

Benton Fraser, RCMP, was crying.

Pretending for his friend's sake that he didn't notice his tears, Ray led Fraser to his bathroom. He was really hammered, so drunk he wasn't entirely steady on his feet. That explains his psycho act in the living room just now, Ray thought, still smarting over it in more ways than one.

He pulled Fraser inside the bathroom. He considered throwing him in the shower, clothes and all, but knew he might balk at that, and he wasn't in the mood for another tussle with the big Mountie. His neck was already killing him. Still, he had to get Fraser cleaned up somehow, so taking the path of least resistance, he pulled him to the sink. He turned the temperature setting to the far edge of Cold (Perfect for a Canadian, he thought wickedly), pushed his friend's dark head unceremoniously down in the sink, and turned the tap on full blast. "This is for your own good, buddy," he said loudly, as the cold water poured over Fraser's head. "You need to sober up a bit."

Fraser sputtered and coughed under the spate, unable to reply. But after a few minutes under the icy torrent, he gasped and burbled something that sounded like "Trying... drown me!"

Ray pulled his head up by the hair. "What?" he asked cheerfully, enjoying this more than a little. "Did you say somethin', Fraser?" The drowning idea had some appeal, after what Fraser had just done to him.

Fraser gasped, ice water dripping from his face, dizzied by the sudden move; but before he could catch his breath to answer, Ray plunged him ruthlessly under the tap again. "Musta been my imagination," he shrugged, trying not to smile. This was something he'd never expected to see in his life: Benton Fraser, the world's most perfect Mountie, staggering drunk. It was at once a sorry, funny and riveting sight.

The Mountie shivered and coughed some more. "S-Stop!" he spluttered, trying to lift his head.

Ray kept his hand on the back of his neck and held him under firmly. "You got company, Benny," he said pointedly, "and believe me, you need this. Right now, you ain't exactly 'the hostess with the mostest'. Dief smells better than you."

Benny groaned again, this time in defeat. Bracing his hands on the sink, he stood obediently under the icy water until his shirt collar was soaked, and his skin had reddened from the cold.

"Can you feel your ears?" Ray asked at long last. Benny shook his head, spraying water in all directions. Ray smiled with grim satisfaction, resisting the temptation to box them to test that statement. "Good. That oughtta be just about right."

He yanked Fraser out from under the spray and let him straighten up again finally, as he turned off the water. Benny stood there swaying ever so slightly, blinking groggily as water ran down his face, onto his chest and back. "I'm wet, Ray," he said, sounding vaguely surprised.

"No, you're drunk, Benny. The water is just a hallucination," he teased. Fraser seemed to take that idea seriously. He stood there staring down at the droplets cascading onto his shirt from his sodden face and hair, blinking experimentally as if he hoped that would make them go away, dispel the illusion that he was sopping wet.

Ray sighed. This is gonna be tougher than I thought.

"Geez, are all Canadians like this when they get drunk? Siddown." He shoved Benny down onto his toilet, grabbed a towel, wiped his face off and then started toweling his hair dry so roughly that his head rolled on his shoulders.

"R-Ray -- "

Vecchio ignored the groggy protest that emerged from beneath the towel. "Gotta get you dry, Benny," he said firmly. "You understand." Just like I understand why you ambushed me in the living room a few minutes ago.

At the thought of that, he rubbed even harder with the towel. Ben moaned protestingly. He knew better than to try to escape, but he went pale under his dark growth of beard as his head rocked wildly under the cop's rough ministrations. "Rrray-ay-ay!"

"Pipe down, or I'll have Dief come in and help me, and then you'll really be sorry," he grumbled. Benny subsided, and he scrubbed away vigorously with the towel awhile longer, relenting only when Fraser began to look positively green. "Okay, that's done," he said gruffly, throwing the towel aside. He didn't want to make him sick before Elyssa got a chance to talk to him, and he supposed it wasn't fair to blame him for what had just happened between them, either. After all, he was really drunk, and drunks sometimes did strange things, things they didn't really mean.

Like throwing their best friends around and trying to choke them.

It was hard for him to forgive because Fraser's behavior reminded him of his dad's, and that hurt. He couldn't count the times that Carmine Vecchio had smacked him around when he was roaring drunk. But he'd never expected that kind of treatment from Benny. First he keeps his girlfriend a secret from me, and now this. What does it mean? Am I losing my best friend? he wondered painfully.

Shaken by the thought, he threw the towel aside and hauled Fraser to his feet again. The Canadian swayed alarmingly at the sudden move, his eyes rolling back in his head. If Ray hadn't caught him, he would've toppled forward like a felled tree.

He felt like one, too. Like a ten foot Canadian spruce, Ray thought, grunting as he strained to hold him up. "Have I ever told you, Benny, that you weigh a ton?"

Benny just groaned, too dizzy to answer.

"Well, you do. When this is over, I'm puttin' you on a diet. No more Canadian bacon."

"I... don't... eat -- "

"Shut up." Ray shook his head. Fraser was in no shape to be correcting him; or to stand up yet, either, it seemed. "Here," he said, taking pity on his friend at last. "Siddown for a second." He sat him back down on the toilet, watched as he took his head in his hands, ran his fingers through his hair. "You're a sorry sight, Benny," he muttered. Benny's thick dark hair stood up in damp, disordered spikes, a ragged beard darkened his jaw, and his eyes were still a little red, though his buffeting with the towel had produced a hint of healthy color in his formerly sallow cheeks.

"Thas... what Dad said," Fraser muttered.

Ray frowned, perplexed. "What?" What the hell's he talkin' about?

"Said he'd hunt me... 't end of the un -- uni -- universe," Fraser hiccuped.

"That might be a little difficult, Fraser, seeing as how he's dead."

Fraser shook his head ruefully. "You don'... know my father."

Ray rolled his eyes. This was getting them nowhere -- and he had more important things to worry about right now than Fraser's drunken maundering. He still had to get him in some kind of shape, so he could go out and talk to his girlfriend without embarrassing himself any more than he already had. He narrowed his eyes, studying Benny. First, that beard's gotta go.

"You need a shave, is what you need," he said decisively. He turned and opened Fraser's little medicine cabinet. Before Benny could protest, he'd squirted shaving cream all over his face. Then, taking his friend's chin firmly in one hand and his razor in the other, he began scraping off his beard.

At first, Fraser's eyes widened as he came at him with the razor, but once he realized his intent wasn't homicidal, he relaxed. To Ray's surprise, after a moment, he even closed his eyes. "That's it," Ray coaxed. "Just hold still, Benny."

A few minutes later, he was done. The dark, scraggly beginnings of a beard were gone, and Fraser's square jaw stood out in handsome relief. He even splashed some cologne he found in the cabinet on Benny's neck, for good measure. That, and his ice water bath, had made a vast improvement. He no longer smelled like a six foot bottle of whiskey. "Good," he said, satisfied. "All you need now is a clean shirt. Stay there."

Fraser still sat with his head down, eyes closed, obediently still. A little too still, in fact. He should've been glad Benny was being so cooperative, but it made him a bit uneasy. There was something bothersome about his quietness and utter passivity. Ray couldn't put his finger on it, wasn't sure if Fraser was zoning out on the whiskey again, or if he just felt too guilty and ashamed to look at him. Either way, it wasn't good. "I'll be right back," he said with a frown.

He ducked out of the bathroom and back down the hall. Elyssa was waiting for him in the living room, with a clean white tee-shirt in her hands. "I thought he might want this," she said, handing it to him.

"Thanks. We're almost done," he promised her, trying not to let his worry show on his face.

He hurried back to the bathroom, half afraid he might find Fraser passed out on the floor. But Benny still sat obediently where he'd left him. The problem was, his head was in his hands and he was crying again silently, his shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs.

God, don't do that! he thought. The sight tore at him, instantly melting his lingering resentment at the way Fraser had attacked him. It brought back painful memories of another time, of the two of them in the hospital after Victoria's getaway. Benny was a strong guy, but he also had deep feelings, and his blue eyes had filled with sudden, silent tears like that then, after Victoria left. He'd felt sick and helpless watching Benny's grief, especially since he'd known those tears were partly his fault. He'd never wanted to see him hurt like that again, never.

But never had come around again somehow, and here was Benny crying; and again, it was partly his fault. He understood now why Benny had been so torn up inside for so long, and why he'd refused to talk about it. When it came to women, Fraser was as shy as a schoolboy. He'd probably been too embarrassed to confess that he'd accidentally seen the woman he loved naked, and scared her so much that she'd cut off all contact with him.

Deep inside, Ray knew he hadn't helped the situation. Angry that he'd concealed his relationship with Elyssa from him -- maybe even a little jealous of his friend's obvious happiness -- he'd already been treating Benny a little coolly, even before their breakup. Fraser must've sensed his unspoken resentment. That was why he'd clammed up after it happened (except for daily weather reports), and refused to tell him what was wrong. He might've been afraid he'd make jokes about it. He must've felt he wouldn't understand.

And he hadn't. Knowing something was wrong, he'd poked and prodded Fraser to no avail, yelled at him repeatedly, then blown sky high that morning in his car and driven off with a screech, leaving Benny standing in the street all alone.

What an asshole, he thought, sick inside. No wonder he locked himself up in here! He was probably trying to get away from me. Some best friend.

He held out the tee-shirt Elyssa had found him with unsteady hands. "Here. Put this on, you'll feel better," he invited gently, feeling hopelessly awkward. Fraser just shook his head, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes in a vain attempt to stop the flow of his tears. Ray put the shirt down, knelt down in front of his friend. "It'll be okay, I promise you, Benny," he said quietly. No jokes now; he reached for his friend, wanting desperately to make up for what he'd done. "Elyssa wants to talk to you. She cares about you. All you have to do is tell her what happened that night."

"It'll be okay, Benny," Ray said, his voice gentle and earnest, the way it got sometimes when he forgot to be cynical, when he spoke from the heart. Ordinarily, Ben loved that. But this time, though his words were meant to reassure, they lacerated him.

It would never be okay. He knew it. And not just with Elyssa... He'd yelled at Ray, thrown him, hurt him -- even tried to choke him. He could still feel that crazy rage inside him, that rage that had overwhelmed him when he'd seen Elyssa standing behind him, and it scared him. He couldn't have done that, couldn't have put his hands around his best friend's neck and squeezed like that. But he knew he had. If he'd needed further evidence that he'd changed radically for the worse, now he had it.

He'd attacked Ray because he'd brought her here without warning, and because he hadn't wanted her to see him like that. Because of a woman, he'd hurt Ray. Again.

He forced himself to open his eyes, saw the Italian kneeling in front of him, his face full of concern; and that hurt him even more. He was so close, he could see the red marks on his neck where..."I'm sorry," he choked, a rush of tears blurring his friend's face mercifully, so he couldn't see the worry in his changeable green eyes. "I'm so sorry, Ray -- "

"Hey, it's okay."

"No." He shook his head, trying to hold back his sobs. "I don't know why I -- I never meant... to hurt you, Ray! I would... never -- " And then he couldn't talk anymore. The pain was too bad, and his tears choked him.

"Jesus, Fraser. Don't," Ray said tightly. His arms came around him suddenly, hugging him hard. Ben held on blindly. Ray had never hugged him before, never, and even though he was drunk, he knew what it meant. He'd thought he was lost beyond all hope, but here was Ray, forgiving him; and though he didn't deserve it, he held on because he needed it so much. He wasn't the man he had been, but whoever he was now, he still needed Ray, more than ever.

"It's okay, Benny," Ray said fiercely, holding him just as tightly. "I promise, it'll be okay."

And because it was Ray, he tried to believe it.

Elyssa sat petting Diefenbaker when Ray brought Benton back out into the living room after what seemed like a long time. He looked better: he'd stopped crying, he moved slowly but steadily, and his hair, though wet, was slicked back neatly. He wore the clean white tee-shirt she'd gotten out of his closet, and his face, though pale, had a trace of color in it.

But it wasn't just Fraser who had changed. Elyssa knew instantly that something had happened to both men. The undercurrent of tension between them had evaporated as completely as Benton's earlier inexplicable rage, replaced by a silent unity that was unmistakable. They're together again, she thought, marveling at the difference in them both. Best friends...

Ray Vecchio had accomplished a minor miracle. She noticed that his expensive maroon shirt and tie were wet, and the front of his coat was damp, too; but she didn't say anything. She didn't know what had gone on in Fraser's bathroom -- in fact, she'd stayed out of it deliberately, knowing they had to work their problems out together, just as she and Benton did -- but however they'd patched up their differences, she was glad of it. Ray was a part of Benton's life, and vice versa. She couldn't imagine either would be happy without the other.

It remained to be seen what she and Benton might be. She wasn't as confident in her own ability to work miracles.

Benton sat down on his bed, avoiding her eyes. Diefenbaker padded over and lay down at his feet silently, and Ray walked her off into the kitchen.

"I think he's okay now," he said quietly. "I have to leave."

"Already?" she asked, surprised.

"Hate to, but I've gotta get back on duty, or I'll be in trouble," he explained. "Besides, I think you two have some private stuff to talk about, here."

She hadn't expected him to leave so soon. She wanted to talk to Fraser, but she felt an instinctive twinge of fear at the thought of doing it all alone. Somehow, she'd imagined that Vecchio would be hovering watchfully in the background while she tried to explain things to him. She couldn't help thinking of the way Fraser had just tried to choke Ray. She couldn't imagine him behaving that way with her, but he clearly wasn't himself at the moment. She didn't want to admit her fear or seem childishly dependent, but it must've shown on her face, because Vecchio grimaced in exasperation.

"You still don't get it, do ya', Ryan?" he murmured, so Fraser couldn't hear him. "I told you, he's crazy about you. He wouldn't touch a hair on your head -- unless you ask him to," he grinned. "Trust me."

She smiled in spite of herself, but shot a doubtful glance at Fraser. "I do, but I don't know... He seemed awfully upset that I'm here."

"Hey, Benny!" Ray called loudly, direct as always. "You're through actin' stupid, right?"

Fraser winced and swallowed hard, but he nodded mutely.

"I gotta get back to work, but Elyssa here needs to talk to you. So you're gonna look after her for awhile, until I get back, right?"

Fraser nodded again, looking down at his hands. "I promise," he said quietly, surprising both of them.

Elyssa nodded at Ray, satisfied that she was safe. "Okay. I'll stay with him," she said. She was about 99 percent convinced now that she'd been wrong about that night in her apartment. She still needed to hear Fraser's account of it to be sure, but even though he was still drunk, now that she knew he wouldn't hurt her, she wanted to be with him -- wanted to take care of him.

She'd missed him these past few weeks, more than she'd thought possible.

"Okay, well..." Ray stood staring at Benny with a slight frown. He'd claimed he was in a hurry to go, but now that the moment had come, he looked doubtful.

Strangely enough, Elyssa was suddenly very sure. She took his hand and squeezed it, thinking what a great friend he was. "Go on," she said lightly, inclining her head towards the door. "Get out of here. I'll take care of Benny."

Ray squeezed her hand and shot her a warm smile. "I know." Then he sobered. Lowering his voice so Benny couldn't hear, he muttered, "I said you need to tell him what happened to you, but I don't know if now's a good time. He's still shook up about what he did just now, and drunk too. Maybe you should let him sleep it off a little first-- "

She looked at Benny, then smiled at Ray. "I'll play it by ear," she said. "See how it goes. Now go on!" she urged. "We'll be fine."

"Okay." He suddenly realized that he was still holding her hand, and with one final reassuring squeeze, he let her go.

"And Ray -- thanks for bringing me here," she said softly.

He grinned at her, a wide, 'cat's got the cream', satisfied smile. "All part o' the master plan, Ryan," he said. But before she could ask him what in the world he meant by that, he looked past her at Fraser. "I'm outta here, Benny!" he called over her shoulder. "I'll see you as soon as my shift's over, awright?"

Benton nodded, and for the first time since he'd sat down on his bed, he lifted his head and looked directly at Ray. "Thanks," he rasped.

The Italian held his gaze for a moment, smiling very slightly. "Anytime." Elyssa felt something powerful pass between them as their eyes locked, and it made her feel a little left out. Ray had known Benton far longer than she had, and despite what had happened earlier, she knew they had a deep bond, forged partly of shared dangers and a profession they both loved. It was something she could never be a part of, and for a moment, she almost envied Vecchio. She couldn't help wondering if there was enough room in Benton's heart for both of them.

Until that instant, she hadn't realized how desperately she wanted that.

"'Bye, you two," Ray said cheerfully, waving over her shoulder at Benny as he headed out the door. As Elyssa went to shut it behind him, he shot her a comic leer. "I'd tell you not to do anything I wouldn't do, but that would pretty much leave the field wide open -- "

"Get going, Vecchio!" she grinned, shutting the door before he could come up with anything else suggestive to say.

Then, at last and all too soon, she was alone with Benton.

Fraser very carefully didn't look at Elyssa. He'd promised Ray he'd look after her, but he was too embarrassed to go near her, after what he'd done. He wondered dimly if she'd seen him crying, then realized it probably didn't matter. She'd already decided he was a liar and a pervert; she'd just seen him attack his best friend. How could a few tears make things any worse?

"She wants to talk to you. She cares about you," Ray had said, but he could hardly credit that. He'd tried and tried to talk to her, but she hadn't ever answered her door. It was far more likely that she'd just come here to baby-sit him. Ray had probably talked her into that, but it was embarrassing.

She came across the room and stood close to him, her eyes searching his face. He kept his own awkwardly averted, not knowing what to say. "How are you, Benton?" she asked quietly, testing the waters.

He felt equally unsure, as if he were walking the treacherous slope of a glacier again, where the slightest misstep would crack the ice and plunge him deep into black, freezing water. He wished Ray had stayed, to put some distance between the two of them. It was hard being so close to her again. It brought everything to the surface, everything he'd been trying so hard to blot out for the past three days; and the very Scotch he'd downed to ease his pain now prevented him from thinking as clearly as he would've liked, or from exercising much control over his emotions, either. Anger, despair, grief, self hatred and desire all raged inside him, tangled up so tightly with his love for her that he couldn't speak. Finally, he just shook his head.

But his silence didn't deter her. She came closer still, even sat down next to him. Diefenbaker instantly got up and put his head in her lap, grinning from ear to ear as he waited for a caress. "There's a wolf," Elyssa murmured, smiling as she petted him.

Shameless, he thought, glaring at Dief. Traitor.

But the truth was, he was jealous of his own wolf. Jealous of the way Elyssa touched him, sliding her slender fingers gently over his mane, his nose, stroking his fur with her gentle hands. Diefenbaker half closed his eyes in pleasure, basking in her touch. He watched the caresses hungrily, a beggar at a banquet, helplessly longing for them himself. He set his jaw tightly, wishing he was too drunk to want her so much, wondering if it was possible to be that drunk.

"I came here to ask you something, Benton," she said at last, surprising him. With one final pat, she let go of Diefenbaker, who promptly curled up at her feet without a murmur. Ben shook his head. The wolf had always adored Elyssa to the point of embarrassment. He wondered sadly if Dief's reasons for that were the same as his.

"I need you to tell me what you saw when you came over to my apartment that night," she said, very quietly.

Drunk as he was, he knew what night she meant. Anger rose in him. He clenched his hands together, stared hard at his interlaced fingers. "You know," he answered gruffly, inching carefully over the ice. He'd seen her, and she was so beautiful he'd seen nothing else since. Even in his dreams he saw her, just out of reach. Why was she doing this? Was she trying to torture him, like Victoria had done? She didn't love him, she didn't want him, so why didn't she just leave him alone?

"I want you to tell me," she said. "Please." Though her voice was gentle, it also held an undercurrent of determination that told him she wouldn't leave until she got an answer.

He wanted to groan aloud. Maybe if I tell her, she'll go away, he thought resentfully. He remembered that night vividly: her shocked face, the things she'd yelled at him. He remembered every detail, and it made his head ache. He cradled it in his left hand, dug his fingers into his skull. "I came by... saw your door was open. I was worried 'bout you. Thought maybe... you were in trouble... had an intruder-- "

Elyssa watched Ben's face closely as he explained what had happened that night. There was no trace of guilt there, only regret and pain. He spoke reluctantly, his tone flat, resigned, as if he had no hope that she would believe him.

But she did; because it was so obvious that he believed it. Every word.

"Your door was open."

God! It was all her fault. She hadn't made sure her door was properly locked, then she'd been so blindly certain it was that she'd thought Benton must've picked it to get in. He'd come in to help her, not to hurt or embarrass her, but she'd let him have it with a vengeance, even called him names.

Then, like dominoes falling, the dire consequences had rippled onward. She'd stopped speaking to him for weeks, then given him his portrait back. As a result, he'd been so upset he'd stopped going to work, locked himself in here and uncharacteristically begun drinking himself senseless. God only knew what might've happened if Ray Vecchio hadn't cared enough to intervene.

"Thought maybe... you were in trouble." She shivered.

She was in trouble, all right. She'd hurt a good man unfairly. She had so much to make up for that she didn't even know where to begin. And she wasn't sure that he would let her, that he even cared for her anymore. Still, she had to try.

Ray was right, she thought suddenly. I'm going to have to tell Benton the truth. Her secret was at the heart of this mess, and the only way to clear it up was to bring it out in the open, to make him understand why she'd reacted the way she had when she saw him that night.

She got up off the bed and paced, so nervous she couldn't sit still. Telling him what had happened to her seemed her only option now; not just to repair the damage she'd done him, but to rebuild their friendship, which was what she wanted more than anything. The problem was, she wasn't sure he was in any shape to hear what she had to say. She had the uneasy feeling that telling him was going to hurt him even more than she already had. On the other hand, if she didn't tell him now, she might never get another chance. Ray had insisted he was still in love with her, but he'd shown no sign of it. If she waited to tell him, he might sober up and decide he never wanted to see her again.

Talk about a no-win situation, she thought bleakly, moving blindly across his floor.

Elyssa got up and moved away from him while he was telling her what happened that night.

It didn't surprise him. She hadn't believed him, of course. He hadn't expected she would. Going over what they both already knew was pointless. He'd only done it to placate her, and he wished desperately that she'd leave now that it was over, leave him alone with his humiliation.

"I'm sorry, Benton," she said quietly at last, pausing by his window. "This is so hard to say..." Her face was pale, and she looked almost frightened.

Here it comes, he thought grimly. She's going to tell me she never wants to see me again. He had to look away again. Just get it over with, please, he begged her silently. Diefenbaker whined uneasily beside him. Ordinarily, he would've reached out to soothe him, but this time he didn't move. Right now, he had no comfort to give.

"I'm sorry about what happened at my apartment that night -- about what I said to you. I misunderstood you, and I'm sorry," she said.

He blinked. He wanted to believe her, but her words were just too incredible. He decided that the whiskey must've finally gotten to him. So this is what aural hallucinations are like, he mused. I always wondered. He sat still, numbly waiting for reality to return, for her to say the words that would shatter his heart.

"I didn't know that my door was unlocked when you came in that night. I -- said some things to you that weren't true, and that I really regret," she went on.

He froze, stunned.

"I was scared, and I overreacted," she said, staring out of his window. "I'm sorry that I hurt you."

His heart was pounding wildly. God, God -- I'm not imagining this! Ray said she cared, he said she wanted to talk but I didn't believe him! She isn't leaving me, she really is saying she's sorry! He couldn't move, he could hardly breathe. It was too much, too much to hope for, that she'd come to understand at last.

"So I hope you can forgive me," she said at last, in a very small voice.

He turned his head to look at her then. She stood silhouetted in the slanting light from his window, a slender, shadowed angel in the midst of a gray city, and she was so beautiful it hurt him to look at her.

He went to her silently and took one of her hands gently in his, being very careful not to reach for her too quickly, or hold her too hard. When her green eyes met his, grave and searching, he smiled down into them. "How could I not?" he said.

He half hoped she would smile back at him, or take his hands in hers. But to his dismay, her green eyes filled with sudden tears instead. "Oh, Benny!" she whispered shakily, biting her lip.

"What is it?" he grated. He didn't understand. Everything should've been all right now, but it wasn't. Something was deeply wrong. The ice shifted under his feet, groaning ominously. He felt somehow that he was losing her, that she was moving away from him even though she was right beside him. He clung desperately to her hand, searching her face and his whiskey-fogged brain for clues to her mysterious sadness.

"Here," she said quietly, pulling him towards his bed again. "Come and sit down, Ben."

He let her guide him, let her sit him down again. But when she would've moved away, he tightened his grip on her hand stubbornly and pulled her down next to him on his bed. Her hand had gone cold in his, and he was afraid that if he let her go the ice would take her.

She looked down at their joined hands for a moment, and he suddenly realized he was still holding onto her tightly. He let her go, afraid he'd presumed too much. She smiled ruefully, as if she was disappointed but not surprised, and he realized too late that he'd done the wrong thing. But it was too late to change it. She'd clasped her hands together tightly in her lap by then, as if trying to warm them.

"I came here to ask you something, Benny, but I also need to tell you something," she said at last, her voice faint, her eyes elsewhere, as if she were a million miles away in her thoughts. "I have to do this so you'll understand why I yelled at you before. Why I got so scared when you came into my apartment."

Fear made his heart beat too hard in his chest. No, no, he thought, not wanting to hear. You don't have to tell me. There's no need to explain, it doesn't matter. But he knew it did; and that the need was hers, not his. Drunk though he was, he understood that. And he would've done anything for her, so he nodded his head numbly.

Her words came and went in flashes after that. "It happened before I ever met you. Late at night about a year and a half ago... I was asleep. I heard a noise -- "

No, no! He was a cop, he knew what was coming -- he heard the ice begin to crack. Lightning flashed through his brain, disjointed memories roaring through his head. He saw the eyes of a woman he'd met years ago, who'd filed charges against her husband for assault. She'd looked at him with a wounded, resentful gaze merely because he was male... He saw Elyssa's eyes again the first time he met her, the way they'd filled with fear when he and Ray reached out to help her with her suitcase.

She had that same look. I knew something was wrong, I knew!

"There were two of them," she said, her voice brittle as he'd never heard it. "They wore nylons over their heads, and gloves."

He got blindly to his feet, hardly knowing what he was doing, unable to stay still because of the horror coursing through him.

Elyssa's voice was strained and shaking. "They... put tape over my mouth..."

Boom! The ice broke with a roar, and he tumbled helplessly, the ground tilting wildly beneath him. He tried to find a purchase with his fingers, but the surface was so slick... He could hardly hear Elyssa for the roaring in his ears.

"They beat me. Broke my nose, my collarbone. Then they... they raped me -- "

He tumbled down into the icy water with heart-stopping suddenness. It closed over his head, black and freezing, and he was sinking down, down... There was blood all around him in the water, Elyssa's blood. She'd been hurt... He saw her eyes again, wide and stricken as she'd stared at him that night in her bathroom, another male intruder -- His heart was pounding, and he couldn't breathe.

"Ben! Benton, can you hear me? Are you all right?" A frightened voice finally floated down to him. Dimly, from a long way away, he felt hands tugging at him, pulling him back towards the surface.

The next thing he knew, he was on his knees on his bathroom floor, vomiting helplessly into the toilet. It went on and on, heave after heave, until his stomach was empty. Someone's hands held his shoulders, and he felt a glimmer of gratitude for that in the midst of his misery, knowing he couldn't have stayed up on his own. He felt a cool cloth on his aching head as another spasm hit him. He groaned, heaving wretchedly again and again, though his stomach had already been emptied.

But sick as he was, he almost welcomed the convulsions. They kept him from thinking about anything else, about a world where angels were raped and beaten.

At long last, it was over. He slumped against the toilet, exhausted, gray-faced, and Elyssa held a glass of water to his lips. "Please," she whispered, sounding frightened. "Please, Benny..."

And so he swirled the water around in his mouth, then spat it out, then did it again when she refilled the glass. His mouth felt clean, but he didn't. He doubted he ever would again.

"Please don't cry," she whispered, kneeling beside him. "I don't think I can stand that."

He hadn't known that he was, but guessed he must be, because her face swam in front of him and his chest felt tight.

She kissed him gently, smoothed his hair. "It's all right, all that was a long time ago, Benny!" she whispered, with agonized tenderness. "I'm okay now," she said. "I'm okay. Don't cry." But he thought she might be crying too.

"Here. Can you stand up?" she asked. "I'll help you."

She got him to his feet, put her arm around his shoulders and walked him out of the bathroom and back down the hall to his bed. He stood beside it, hollowed out and silent, his vision still blurry as she pulled back the covers.

"Lie down," she said softly. "You need to lie down, you were really sick."

He sagged onto the bed, half-blind and miserable, and she pulled the blankets over him. Diefenbaker barked once as he lay back, sniffing at him anxiously.

"It's okay, boy," she said softly. "He'll be all right. We'll watch over him."

He felt a blessedly cool softness on his throbbing forehead, and knew she'd put a cold cloth there once again. "I'm here, Benny," she said softly. "I'll stay with you." He knew it was wrong for her to comfort him, he should've been the one doing that, after what she'd just told him; and he wanted to. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how bad it made him feel, but his mouth was too dry, and he was too tired to do more than reach out for her. His hand completely enfolded her slender fingers. They felt cold, so he held them tightly until they warmed in his grip.

"It's okay," she whispered, and he thought he felt her bend over him and kiss his hair very gently. "Sleep now, Benny. You need some rest." He sighed, letting himself go at last, as he'd wanted to do before Ray and Elyssa arrived. He'd always been so independent, so alone, that it felt strange to have someone other than his wolf watching over him as he sank down towards sleep; but nice, too. That's what angels do, he thought, remembering his grandmother's teachings as total exhaustion loosened his limbs, pressed him down into the bed. They watch over good people...

So why is she here with me? he wondered, as blackness rolled over him.

When Elyssa woke, it was dark, and their positions were reversed; she was lying on Fraser's bed, and he was sitting in the chair beside it. How? Oh -- he must've put me here, and I never even woke up while he was doing it, she thought sleepily. It surprised her, but she felt oddly content to be there, despite what had happened in the last few hours. She looked at Fraser. He was still pale, but the worst after-effects of his hangover had evidently gone away. His eyes were relatively clear, and he no longer looked haggard.

He looked better, but she felt paradoxically worse. For he sat looking at her steadily, without expression, and her heart sank. Somehow, she'd been hoping against hope that he would be glad to see her once he'd recovered from his binge, but he didn't break the silence between them, which seemed ominous. "How are you feeling?" she asked softly at last.

He folded his hands together so tightly that his knuckles turned white, hung his head and shook it silently. His expression didn't change, he looked as remote as before, but her heart secretly went out to him. She knew he was probably horribly embarrassed at best, and angry with her at worst -- maybe both. And she couldn't blame him. She'd kept a terrible secret from him that had almost ripped them apart, and when she'd finally told him, he'd been so upset by it that he'd gotten violently ill. She regretted that terribly. If she'd had any idea his reaction would be that severe, she would've waited to tell him until he was sober, despite the risk.

But it's done now. For better or worse, he knows the truth about me. She longed to touch him, to take him in her arms and tell him that everything would be all right, but he'd withdrawn so far into himself that she couldn't be sure what he was feeling, so she didn't dare. She sat up on the bed instead, combing her hands through hair that she knew without looking must be tousled.

I must look a wreck, she thought, but I'll bet he feels even worse.

She almost regretted telling him, now. She'd thought it might enable them to start over, that they might be able to resume their friendship after she told him and he sobered up, but now that he had, she wasn't sure where to start. She'd never seen him like this before: white, cold, and silent. She didn't know how to approach him. "Are you hungry?" she hazarded, thinking maybe a practical approach would be better than an emotional overture at the moment. "I could make you a sandwich. Ray brought you some food..." (There hadn't been anything in Fraser's refrigerator except a desiccated apple and dog food; and she didn't like to think about how long it had been empty, or the implications of those bare shelves.)

But he shook his head again.

"No," he rasped. His voice was huskier than usual, but no longer slurred. She tried to take comfort from that, and the fact that at least he'd spoken that time, but it worried her that he still wouldn't look at her. She suddenly wondered if he just wanted her out of there, if he just needed to be alone. She swung her legs over the edge of his bed and quietly got to her feet.

"Maybe I should go," she said softly.

His hands clenched together even harder, but he didn't answer. She took his continued silence for assent. Though she didn't want to leave him alone, she didn't want to force her company on him, either; especially after what she'd done to him. She turned to go.

"I'll see you later then, Fraser," she said tentatively. Still, he didn't look at her. Her words fell like stones into the charged silence between them, and dread filled her heart. Maybe he couldn't forgive her. Maybe this was the end of their friendship, and he wasn't talking to her because he never wanted to see her again.

She hung her head as she moved towards his door. She loved him, she couldn't help it. But now he would never know. She'd screwed things up too badly, hurt him too much. It's all my fault, she thought, reaching for his doorknob. My fault...

Suddenly, Fraser's arm shot out beside her, holding his door shut from inside. She started. She'd never even heard him get up. "Don't go, Elyssa, please," he husked, so close that she could feel his breath on her neck. She froze, too scared to turn around and look at him.

Fraser's humiliation was complete. Elyssa Ryan had seen him at his very worst: drunk, suicidally depressed, enraged, sick, and now (last but not least) completely tongue-tied. He'd ruined everything, screwed up so monumentally that he knew she couldn't possibly have any respect for him any longer. His self disgust went so deep, he could hardly even look at her. Words seemed futile.

What could he possibly say to make up for what he'd done?

Her eyes were soft as she looked at him, and so was her voice as she asked him tentatively how he felt, if he was hungry. But food was the last thing he wanted, and he had never felt worse in his life. His head still ached, his mouth was dry as cotton, and he knew he must look like hell. Worse still, he was stone cold sober. The blissfully numbing alcoholic haze he'd been floating in for days was gone, and reality had returned with a vengeance. He saw with acid clarity that he'd been the worst kind of fool.

It made him wish he'd been drunk enough to have an alcoholic blackout; but evidently he hadn't consumed enough whiskey for that. It was all there in his head, all of it: the way he'd neglected his job, driven Ray Vecchio to intervene on his behalf, then leapt at him like a madman. He'd even tried to choke him, then wept in front of him like a child... And the fact that Ray had miraculously forgiven him for it, even for that, didn't make it any easier to stomach now that he was sober.

And Elyssa -- God! He closed his eyes in pain, felt his stomach roil all over again at the memory of her terrible confession that she'd been raped. He knew telling him had been extremely painful for her. He should've offered her some comfort, reached out to her -- but after everything else that had happened, that awful knowledge had been more than he could bear. He'd barely made it to the bathroom before getting violently ill. Things blurred after that, but he had a hazy memory of Elyssa holding a cold cloth to his forehead while he vomited, and it made him feel even worse, if that was possible.

She must despise me.

He despised himself enough for both of them.

When he'd first awakened to find her sleeping in the chair beside his bed, he'd been horrified. In the drowsy instants before he'd opened his eyes, he'd hoped against hope that his memories of the past few days were just one long nightmare, that he'd only dreamed Elyssa and Ray had been there, and what she'd told him. But when he'd seen her slender form curled wearily in his chair, his stomach had taken a sickening lurch, for he'd known it was all true. He had attacked Ray, and Elyssa had said she'd been brutally raped.

He'd risen silently, half surprised to find the room wasn't reeling around him anymore. Taking Elyssa gently in his arms, he'd laid her in his bed and pulled the blankets over her, wondering numbly just how long she'd been patiently watching over him while he slept off the effects of all the alcohol he'd consumed. He thought it had been around noon when they'd come to his apartment, but night had fallen now, though he wasn't sure whether it was the evening of that same day or if she'd been here for several. She looked pale and a little tired.

She didn't wake as he moved her, just slept on peacefully; a fact for which he'd been unutterably grateful.

Once he'd pulled the covers over her, he'd straightened up and stared out the window, only to find that it was still raining. Somehow, he wasn't surprised. Feeling stiff from too many hours of sleep himself, he'd staggered to his bathroom, undressed, turned the shower on cold and stood under the icy spray for a long time, until his fingers and toes felt numb. But even that wasn't enough. He still hadn't felt clean, and his emotions had still been overwhelming. He'd wished the cold water could reach his heart and numb that too. But he couldn't stay in there forever, so he'd finally come out, dried off, put his jeans and another T-shirt on, and gone back out into his living room to sit vigil over Elyssa, as she'd done for him.

He'd watched her helplessly as she slept. He knew this was the last time she would ever be this close to him, and the pain cut too deeply for words. She was so beautiful lying there, her slender fingers spread out across his blankets, her hair a warm red-gold across his pillow. The thought that he'd scared her the same way those two animals had tore at him. She'd said she'd forgiven him for what happened, but he couldn't forgive himself. She was everything he wanted in the world, and nothing he could even touch.

His heart beat so hard it hurt him as he'd watched over her, and sometimes his cheeks had been wet with tears. I love you, I love you... But he'd never spoken the words aloud. He hadn't wanted to wake her.

"Maybe I should go," Elyssa suggested quietly, bringing him back to the present with a painful start. That cut him like a knife, but he didn't try to stop her. She'd been wonderful through this whole thing, watched over him patiently, even held him while he was sick, with never a word of reproach. She'd been nothing if not kind, but that very kindness crushed him, because he knew it was impersonal. She'd do the same for a stray dog, he thought, dying inside because he wanted more than that.

But all she wanted was to leave; and for that, he couldn't blame her.

He forced himself to sit quietly when she turned to go, though it was killing him. He had to let her go. She deserved a better man than he, it was better this way. He said those platitudes to himself, and for a moment, he almost believed them. A lifetime of restraint, of accepting the harsh vagaries of fate without complaint, held him back. But when she reached for his door and he knew it was ending, a kind of insanity took over him. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn't let her go, he couldn't.

He was on his feet somehow. Moving fast, he caught her at the door, trapped her in the circle of his arms. "Don't go, Elyssa, please," he heard himself whisper, beyond sanity, knowing only that if he let her go he would open his trunk sooner or later, and get his gun.

Benton turned her around very gently, as if he were afraid she'd break if he held her too hard. "Please don't go," he whispered again. His hands were shaking, and when she looked up at him, she was shocked to see tears in his eyes again.

"Oh, Benny, don't!" she whispered tenderly, reaching up to touch his face with hands that were equally unsteady. Then somehow, she was in his arms and he was holding her tightly, so tightly that she almost couldn't breathe. But Elyssa didn't care. She was with him at last, the way she'd wanted to be for a long time; and she clung to him just as tightly, buried her head in his broad shoulder.

"I won't leave," she whispered, rocking him in her arms. "I won't leave you."

"I'm so sorry," he said. "About everything. I never meant to scare you -- "

"Hush." She didn't know if he was talking about that night in her apartment or what he'd done since, or both, but it didn't matter. She lifted her head, laid a finger on his lips to stop his apology. "I believe you, Ben. It's all right."

"No, it's not. I've... behaved badly. Reprehensibly. I hurt you, I hurt Ray, I acted like a fool -- "

She put her fingers to his lips gently, stopping the torrent of words, the self hatred that was pouring out of him. "We all do that sometimes, Benny," she said softly. "I acted like a fool when I screamed at you in my apartment that night. I know now that you were only trying to help me, and I'm sorry."

She kissed him, very softly.

He froze in her arms for a second, his eyes widening, hardly breathing. It was the first time she'd kissed a man like that since she'd been raped, and she knew he must feel her trembling, but his stillness gave her the courage to try it again. She pressed her mouth to his, until his lips warmed with the gentle caress. He drew in a deep, shaky breath. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her back, gently, slowly, his full lips warm and tender. She closed her eyes, reveling in it.

He let her go after a moment, leaned his forehead shakily against hers. "I thought you hated me," he whispered against her cheek while his heart beat fast against her. "I thought I'd lost you."

She looked up at him. "I'm sorry I acted like that. I'm sorry I gave you the painting back... and I'm sorry I upset you so much, when I told you what happened to me. I never would've done that if I'd known-- "

"I'm glad you told me," he said, taking her into his arms again. "And I'm sorry you were hurt like that. The rest doesn't matter."

But she lifted her head. "Yes," she said. "Yes, it does. I need you to know that I would never deliberately hurt you, Benton," she told him, ashamed that she'd done so involuntarily. "Or Ray, either. I'm not like Victoria."

He swallowed hard. "I know that."

"I want us to start over. I want you to trust me."

Benton Fraser looked down into the pretty green eyes of the woman he loved, and smiled. She was so beautiful when she was earnest like this...

"I always trusted you," he said simply. "From the first time I looked in your eyes." He bent his head and kissed her, closing his eyes to feel it as her warm mouth softened under his, her lips parting slightly on an indrawn breath. He couldn't resist that little sigh of invitation. He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her against him gently, feeling the silken slide of her long hair across his hand, beautiful as a dream. He traced her lips gently with his tongue until they opened further. He slid his tongue inside, found the warm smoothness of hers and sucked at it lightly, pulling her closer, until their bodies were pressed tightly together. She sighed with pleasure, and he prolonged the caress until she was breathless, and his head was spinning. She felt so sweet, so good in his arms that for a second, he forgot himself. Breathing hard, he slid his hands down her back, pulled her hips into his--

And she stiffened instinctively, her hands coming up to clutch at his shoulders in a panicked gesture. He let go of her instantly, held her a little away from him so she could catch her breath. Her eyes flew to his. He saw embarrassment there, and knew she was afraid he'd be angry.

He took her hand in his and raised it to his mouth, pressed a kiss gently into her palm to show her how wrong she was. "It's all right," he said, holding her eyes. "I won't rush you, Elyssa."

She smiled at him, squeezing his hand. "I know. It's just that sometimes, I wish -- I wish I didn't have that kind of baggage. I wish it had never happened," she said, very quietly.

He stroked her cheek, wanting to take her in his arms again but not sure that she wanted him to. "So do I. Is that why you left Springfield and moved here?" he asked.

"Yes." Her eyes were far away. "After it happened, everything changed. I was hurt pretty badly physically as well as emotionally. I lost my boyfriend and the rest of my friends started drifting away too. I even stopped painting. I don't know how to explain it, but I was afraid that if I stayed there, I would die."

She reached for him then, the shadows of that old pain in her eyes, and he folded his arms around her, held her against his heart. "I understand," he said, thinking of all the nights he'd roamed the streets in a futile effort to escape his own memories of Victoria.

"The police never caught them -- the men who raped me," she whispered. "I couldn't shake the fear that they'd come back again one night..." Elyssa clung to him, her fingers digging into the muscles of his back, and he felt her trembling. He couldn't begin to imagine what it must have been like for her: a slender, delicate woman being set upon by two masked men who'd reddened their fists with her blood, then brutally violated her body.

He felt himself shaking too, with helpless rage and revulsion. "I'm sorry," he murmured, stroking her back and shoulders to try and ease her pain. "I'm so sorry, Elyssa."

She let him hold her for a long time without speaking, her tension gradually easing. "I think I only started to come back to life again the day I met you," she said, lifting her head off his shoulder at last. He looked down at her quizzically.

She smiled. "It was your jacket," she explained, slipping her arms around his waist.

He blinked in surprise.

"Well, at least I thought it was," she confessed, smiling a bit sheepishly. "It's such a beautiful red that I wanted to paint it the second I saw you."


"But it was more than that. Something in your eyes -- the first time you looked at me, I just felt I could trust you somehow. But after what had happened, I couldn't let myself believe that. I think I started painting you to find out if it was true."

"And what have you decided?" he asked quietly, searching her eyes.

"Do you remember that angel card my sister sent me?" she asked obliquely. He nodded, and she smiled into his eyes. "Well, I don't need it anymore. I've found my guardian angel," she said huskily. "It's you, Ben."

That was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to him. He had no words for how it made him feel, so he did the only thing he could: he kissed her. And this time, he was careful not to let the kiss go too far.

He pulled back after a moment, regretfully, and looked down at her. "Are you tired?" he asked, smoothing her hair as he thought of the lonely hours she'd spent watching over him while he slept. The fact that she cared for him enough to do that still awed him a little. Victoria hadn't been like that, she'd always taken from him, never given... Elyssa was so different that she amazed him. If I'm her guardian angel, then she's mine, he thought.

"No, I'm not tired." She shook her head swiftly.

He raised an eyebrow at her, loving her for the lie.

"Well... Maybe a little," she admitted, smiling.

"Then here." Holding her hand, he pulled her gently to the bed and sat her down. Sinking down beside her, he took her gently in his arms and laid down.

"What -- ?"

He felt her stiffen in his embrace, surprised by his unexpected move, but he kept his arms around her anyway, gambling that she wouldn't bolt, or fight him. "Just to sleep," he told her very quietly. "That's all."

After a second she relaxed, laying her head on his shoulder, her hand on his breast. "Sorry," she whispered, sounding a little sheepish.

He drew a deep breath in relief. He hadn't been at all sure that it would work, that she could trust him so far, even now. He knew she wanted to, but it would take time to get past the defenses she'd built up, as a result of being brutally attacked. Far from being angry, he was extremely gratified at her response. "Hush," he said, rubbing her arm lightly. "It's okay."

He had no experience with how to romance a former rape victim. His previous dealings with women had been scanty, and with rape victims even less. They had been strictly in his capacity as a Mountie, and consisted entirely of taking their statements, then turning them over to female social workers for counseling. This was an entirely different matter, and considerably more delicate. Now that he knew what had happened to Elyssa, he meant to visit a rape counselor at a crisis center as soon as possible, to try to gain some insight into how to help her recover.

But in the meantime, the only strategy he'd been able to come up with about how to approach her physically was drawn from his experience with wild animals who'd been hurt by human beings. They were frightened and wary, and had to be taught to trust slowly, step by step; and the process required gentleness, patience, and time. He smiled to himself. It usually also involves food as a lure, but I doubt that would work in her case.

But he had faith that gentleness, patience and time would; and he had plenty of those. He still had to repair the damage he'd done that night in her bathroom. More than that, he had to make up for what those two animals had done to her before he ever met her. He had to show her that he would never hurt her, that he could be with her in the most intimate of situations and never lose control, or force her to do anything she didn't want to do. Only then would she trust him entirely.

It probably wouldn't be easy, but he would've paid any price to be with her. She'd pulled him up out of the ice, in more ways than one.

That's what angels do.

She nestled against his side, and he tried hard not to think about how good it felt, how warm and right she felt in his arms.

"I forgot to ask you," she said quietly. "Do you like the portrait?"

He stroked her hair. "I love it," he said, meaning it. "It's..." He searched for the right words. "Strong. Insightful. Honest. Beautiful. Like you."

She sighed happily against his chest. "Thank you. I'm glad you like it. I put my heart into it."

"It shows," he said sincerely.

"I was afraid you'd see that," she said in a small voice. "That's why I didn't want you to look at it before I was done. I was afraid you'd guess how much I cared, and that scared me."

He kissed the top of her head gently. "It's all right."

"Then you won't mind if I ask you to pose for me again?" she asked, a hint of eagerness in her voice.

He smiled, surprised but immensely pleased. "I'd be flattered. But first, I think you should get a little sleep," he said, settling her closer against him.

"You too," she whispered, moving her fingers across his shoulder in a caress. Diefenbaker padded over to lie on the floor beside them, and Fraser knew somehow that he was guarding her. He'd been wary of Victoria, but adored Elyssa from the beginning. How had his wolf gotten to be such a good judge of women? I should've listened to you long ago, Dief, he thought, bemused.

Silence fell over the room after that. Somewhat to his surprise, he felt Elyssa's heartbeat slow and her breathing grow deeper within moments. Soon, she was asleep. He had no intention of doing the same. He wanted to stay awake and savor the feeling of holding her in his arms like this, of her trust in him, but after a time, his eyelids grew heavy and he let them fall.

All he felt was her warmth against him, her heartbeat, her breath -- and how much he loved her.

When Ray came by to check on Benny hours later, he found them like that: curled up fully clothed on Benny's bed, innocently sleeping, with Diefenbaker lying close beside them on the floor. He smiled happily. This was even better than he'd expected.

Just your average American family, he thought, amused. Mom, Pop and the family wolf.

Diefenbaker lifted his head when he opened the door, but when he grinned as if to bark a welcome, Ray held a cautionary finger to his lips. Shhh, he thought, not saying it aloud for fear of waking the two lovebirds.

To his astonishment, Dief obeyed him, lowering his head to his paws again without a sound.

Geez! he thought, astounded. All this time, I thought Benny was usin' secret hand signals with him -- and he's really telepathic!

Diefenbaker just grinned his inscrutable, wolfish grin and went on guarding his friend and his new mate.

Ray stood where he was in Fraser's doorway looking at them for a minute. He had to admit, the big, dark-haired Mountie and the slender little redhead made a great-looking couple. The trusting way Elyssa had her arms wrapped around Benny, even in her sleep, told him Fraser was overcoming her lingering fear of men; and from the looks of it, she hadn't just helped Benny get over Victoria, she'd made him forget all about her.

His grin spread from ear to ear, and he held up his thumb in silent approbation. Way to go! Looks like they're healing each other; which isn't just a good thing, it's a great thing. Guess I didn't do so badly puttin' 'em together after all, he congratulated himself. They'll make good lookin' bambinos, too. Wonder when the wedding will be? Soon, if I know Fraser. He'll be dyin' to make an honest woman outta her. And he better ask me to be his best man, or he's one dead Mountie,

He was still grinning as he shut Fraser's door behind him silently.

When Fraser woke again, it was drizzling, and his apartment looked gray. Diefenbaker woofed cheerfully at him. He blinked, unsure what time it was -- and then froze. The bed was cold and empty beside him.

Elyssa's gone!

His apartment was so quiet he knew instinctively that she'd left it, and he was alone.

Dammit! What went wrong? I thought she was starting to trust me! I thought--

He sprang out of bed with a curse, his heart beating painfully hard. Only then did he suddenly see the small white square of paper that was taped to the inside of his front door. He tore it off with shaky hands, scared of what it might say. The note read:


Thanks for forgiving me.

I have to go out for a little while, and I didn't want to wake you.

I made you some sandwiches; they're in the refrigerator.

Please come over at 7:00 tonite. I have a little surprise for you.


Fraser grinned to himself. Wild polar bears couldn't keep me away.

Fraser made good use of this time that day. Before night fell, he'd gone to the Canadian Consulate to let Inspector Thatcher know, in person, that he would be back on duty on Monday; visited Ray's District because further apologies were owed him, and made them; then Ray dropped him off at a local women's' shelter, where he spoke to a social worker regarding the after-effects of rape trauma. Last but not least, he made a stop at a nearby florist.

He was at Elyssa's door at six fifty five that night, a bunch of roses in hand. He was five minutes early, but what the hell, as Ray would've said; for Elyssa, he would live dangerously. Besides, he couldn't wait one minute longer to see her.

To his surprise, when he knocked on her door, it swung open. He blinked, bemused, and slipped inside with a slight frown. Elyssa was nowhere in sight. Her lights were off and her apartment was dark -- except for a soft light that flickered in the hallway directly across from her bathroom...

Suddenly, a grin spread across his face as he understood.

His heart beating fast, he closed her door gently behind him, locked it to make sure there would be no more misunderstandings on that score, then headed for her bathroom on light, silent feet.

Elyssa waited in her bathtub, hoping the water would hide the way she'd been trembling since she'd heard Benton come in. She heard him pause in the doorway for a second, imagined him looking around for her with that endearingly puzzled look he always got when things weren't as he expected they would be.

Then he was suddenly there in the doorway, looking at her.

Just as he had that night.

Only this time, he was out of uniform, dressed in jeans and a blue flannel shirt and looking endearingly handsome; and this time, she was waiting for him. She'd put her hair up and placed scented candles all around the tub, just as before; but that was where the resemblance between the two occasions ended. She'd decided that what had been pure hell would become pure magic. Tonight, she wasn't going to scream at him, or give in to fear -- tonight, they were going to be together. At last.

Their eyes locked silently, and even in the dimness, she could see that he was smiling slightly, tenderly, with perfect understanding.

She took a deep breath. "Hello, Benton," she breathed, rising slowly out of the water, her heart pounding at her own boldness. Feeling his eyes on her, she took her time standing up, feeling the water pour off her breasts, her thighs, then down her legs, making the act a small seduction in itself. The candlelit moment stretched out endlessly, emotion rising between them in the scented silence, neither wanting this first sweet, breathless invitation to end.

"Hello, Elyssa," he said at last, coming forward slowly, his eyes never leaving her. And this time, the hunger she saw in them didn't scare her, it thrilled her; because she felt it, too. "I brought you these..."

He held out a large spray of roses, as gallantly formal as if he were presenting them to her at a fancy dress ball. From another man, the gesture would've been silly under the circumstances, but it was Fraser's way of treating her with respect, clothes or nor clothes, and she loved him for it. She took them gently, inhaled their delicate scent happily. "They're beautiful, Ben," she said softly.

To her surprise, he shook his head. "No, Elyssa," he said huskily. "You are."

And with that, he reached out and, with one quick, easy movement, reached into the tub, took her into his arms, naked and wet as she was, flowers and all, and kissed her.

Fraser took Elyssa gently in his arms and kissed her for a long, endless time. "Benny," she sighed against his lips, smiling. He felt her free arm slip around his neck, her wet body nestle against his with complete trust, and he could hardly believe it was real, could hardly believe the way she'd offered herself to him in a symbolic restaging of that terrible night, turning pain into joy. Pleasure flowed over him, into him from her and back again, rising like a river, mingling with the scent of the candles and the roses until he felt he was drowning in sweetness, until they were both breathless.

He broke the kiss at last, and they looked at each other with identical, wide-eyed expressions of surprise. "Wow," Elyssa smiled as her heart raced against him.

"'Wow' indeed," he smiled back, his heart outrunning hers.

She glanced down at his chest. "I'm getting you all wet," she breathed, sneaking a kiss in under his jaw.

"Mm hmm," he murmured, not caring.

"Do you think we should put the flowers in something?" she asked, teasing him, nibbling deliciously at his ear.

He swallowed hard. "It's an idea," he agreed. And not one he would've come up on his own -- every idea, every rational thought he had was rapidly being submerged under the rising tide of his desire for her. So much so that he couldn't bear to take the time, as he usually would have, to find a vase to put the roses in. He took the flowers from her, turned and laid them on the edge of her bathtub instead, so that their stems trailed into the water.

She smiled at him. "Thank you kindly, Benny," she whispered, wrapping her other arm around his neck, pulling his head down to hers again.

"My pleasure..."

Elyssa was never sure, afterwards, how they made it into her bedroom. Benny must've carried her there, but she never really felt them moving. Her whole world had narrowed to the taste of his mouth, the hard, strong beating of his heart against her, his touch and their ever-deepening kisses.

As if from a long way away, she suddenly felt something solid under her back, and realized dimly that he must've laid her down on her bed. She clung to his neck, not wanting him to leave her for a second. He moaned slightly and for a moment, only a moment, he forgot himself and surged against her, letting her feel his arousal. She felt his weight on her, pressing her down as he kissed her. She suddenly drew a shaky breath and stiffened before she could stop herself, her body remembering the past in spite of her.

Acutely attuned to her responses, he pulled away.

"No, no!" she protested, reaching for him. She hated her memories for spoiling this new sweetness, scared that he would back off now, refuse to touch her.

But he just rolled smoothly over onto his back instead, and pulled her gently up onto his chest, so that she lay on top of him. "It's okay," he said, kissing her tenderly. "I'm here with you. I won't leave you, Elyssa."

She caught his head in her hands, smiled down at him, grateful for his understanding. "Promise me," she breathed, her eyes on his mouth.

"I promise."

She caught his promise on her lips.

"Mmm, I love kissing you, Ben," Elyssa whispered as she leaned over him. Fraser knew it must be true, for she seemed to be kissing him everywhere. She tasted his mouth, kissed his ears, sucked at the sensitive spot where his pulse beat hard under his jaw, even licked delicately at the hollow of his throat. It was at once pleasant and torturous. He shivered, seized with a primitive, possessive urge he'd never felt before. He wanted to tear off his clothes, roll her beneath him, cover her with his body, with his scent, and surge deeply into her; to make her his. He supposed it had to do with his fear of losing her the way he'd lost Victoria. But whatever its cause, the compulsion was so strong he had to grit his teeth against it, because he knew it would be the worst thing he could do to her now. As the social worker he'd visited earlier that day had reminded him, Elyssa had experienced masculine strength at its worst: brutal, overpowering, invasive, cruel. She needed something else from him.

So though he longed to explore her body, to take the lead and make her moan, he lay still while she caressed him, even though his breath was growing ragged with the pleasure of it. When she finally lifted her head, he allowed himself one small luxury; he gently pulled the pins from her hair and let it fall around him in a thick, shining, red-gold wave. "Your hair is lovely," he whispered, burying his hands in it. "I've wanted to touch it for so long..."

She smiled at him and ran her fingers through his regulation-short dark hair. "I like yours too," she whispered. "It's so soft... softer than I imagined."

"Ray says it's not really hair at all, it's a pelt," he said seriously.

She burst out laughing at that, and he laughed with her. "Well, Ray's a funny guy, but he's wrong," she smiled. "Your hair is gorgeous; and so are you, Ben."

She paused for an instant then as something passed between them, an unspoken awareness of what was about to happen. Her smile died away, and her eyes searched his sweetly, warm and green as spring grass, and she was so beautiful he wished he could tell her, but he had no words. Don't be frightened, he wanted to say, but he didn't even want to speak that word when she was in his arms. He never wanted her to feel one iota of fear with him -- only love. He looked deep into her eyes. "Do whatever you want to me, Elyssa," he said huskily, offering himself completely, giving her total control over him. His heart beat like a drum as he held himself still, waiting to see how she would respond. "I won't do more than kiss you, unless you want me to."

To his surprise, Elyssa's eyes filled with tears. She reached down and traced his lips tenderly, so tenderly, then she laid her head on his breast and slipped her arms around him. "Benny," she whispered, and he felt her trembling as he returned the embrace. "My sweet Ben..."

She clung to him silently then, and after a moment, when he felt her shaking, he lifted her head, surprised to see that she was crying. "It's your tenderness," she whispered, smiling through her tears.

That shaky little smile touched the deepest places inside of him. She's truly beautiful, he thought; not just on the outside, but in her heart, where it counts the most. Her emotional openness awed him. No woman had ever said such things to him, no woman had ever cried with joy at the things he did. It was as if Elyssa had laid a piece of her soul in his hands. "Shhh," he said, his driving passion suddenly softened by the deepest tenderness he'd ever known. He would take good care of her, heart and soul. He wiped her tears away gently with his thumbs. "It's all right, Elyssa," he whispered against her mouth as he kissed her lips, salted with her tears. "You're safe now. Safe."

She hugged him tightly, then smiled down at him, biting her lip to hold back any more tears. "So are you, Ben," she whispered, bending her head to kiss him softly. "And I want to make love to you. Let me make love to you."

Elyssa undressed Benny slowly, with soft kisses and caresses, aware of what a precious gift he was. His sensitivity, his understanding far exceeded what she'd ever hoped to find in a man. The way he'd offered to let her take the lead in their loving, to do as little or as much as she wanted to him, was so generous it had moved her to tears. Deeply sorry for the way she'd misjudged and hurt him, she meant to try to make up for that now by loving him with everything that was in her.

She unbuttoned his shirt and pressed kisses into the bare skin of his chest as she pulled it off his shoulder. He murmured with pleasure as she peeled it away, tracing the newly bared skin with her mouth. She sucked at the hollow at the base of his throat, feeling his pulse beating hard beneath her tongue. She moved lower, touched his nipples then kissed them lightly. When he shuddered, gasping at the caress, she marveled at how responsive he was.

She pressed a kiss into his shoulder as she pulled his shirt off of his wrist. He was naked to the waist now. She sat back to look at him for an instant, and caught her breath. "God, Ben," she whispered, marveling at him, a little nervous at the realization that this strong, kind man was hers now, to do with as she pleased. He was beautiful, so beautiful that she was speechless. His shoulders were broad, his chest well-muscled and smooth, and his arms were hard with muscle, too. Even his skin was gorgeous, snow- pale and perfect except for a tiny scar on his cheek and a strange scar beneath his right shoulder.

Elyssa kissed his cheek, then looked down at his right shoulder curiously. Fraser froze, realizing she was inventorying his scars. "God, Ben," she murmured as she touched his shoulder.

He tensed, knowing what was coming. Damn that otter scar! He always forgot he had it, until he was with a woman; but it drew female eyes like a magnet. They invariably wanted him to explain how he'd gotten it, but when he did, they'd look at him like he was crazy... Schoolyard bullies just didn't tend to hit kids with dead otters in America. Even Victoria had laughed at him about that. He prepared himself silently for yet another humiliation.

But to his astonishment, Elyssa didn't ask him any questions about it. She just traced the scar with a finger for an instant, then bent and tenderly kissed it. "I'm sorry anyone hurt you like that, Benny," was all she said, whispering it in his ear as she kissed his neck. It was the same thing she'd said when he'd told her about Victoria. He couldn't believe it. She wasn't even going to ask him how it happened! She started pulling his jeans off instead, without another word.

He lay there marveling as she worked them down over his hips, his knees. She was the first woman he'd ever been with who had been so kind. Ray was the only other person in his life who'd ever given him total, unquestioning acceptance like this. Elyssa understood him, flaws and all, the way Ray did, and she still liked him. She never laughed at him or mocked him, as Victoria had. Either it was a miracle, or she really was an angel, or both.

When she was done undressing him, he caught her head in his hands and kissed her again and again, until her breathing was as shaky as his own. "I love you, Elyssa," he said, finally putting into words what he'd felt for months. "I love you."

In her arms, for the first time since he'd left the Territories, he finally felt at home.

She laid back down on him gently, once she'd taken off his clothes. ""Elyssa," he whispered. "You're so beautiful..."

She shivered at the sensation of his big body pressed to hers skin to skin, no more barriers between them. He felt wonderful: hard, warm and muscular, and it had been so long... And though it felt a little strange to her, being naked and vulnerable again after so long, his big hands were gentle on her skin, gentler than any man's who'd ever touched her; and she knew he'd take good care of her.

"No, Ben," she said, echoing his words to her earlier. "You are."

Then she started to show him, with her hands and her lips, just how much she meant it.

Fraser managed to lie still while Elyssa rained warm kisses down his chest, but it wasn't easy. His heart was pounding, and he was so hard already that he ached. But he forced himself not to move, afraid that he would frighten her if he tried to hold her the way he wanted to.

But when she blew lightly on his nipples, then took one in her mouth, he almost lost control. It felt so good, it was almost unbearable. He hadn't expected to feel so much so quickly. He moaned helplessly, his fists knotting in his blanket, his body arching up off the bed. She felt so good against him, so warm and woman- soft that he could hardly stand it. She was so giving, so open and exposed and sexy that remaining passive almost made him feel savage. Or maybe it was her mouth that was doing that... It had been so long since he'd made love with a woman, he'd forgotten how intense the experience could be.

But I never felt anything like this, not even with Victoria. Oh, God --

"Oh, Benny!" Elyssa breathed against his skin, her warm, delicious mouth exploring further. "You taste sweet." She stroked his chest as she kissed down his abdomen, and he bit his lip as pleasure ran down every nerve like liquid fire. He reminded himself desperately not to move.

"Ohhh!" he cried out helplessly as she found him, stroked him lightly. He clenched his fists even harder, shuddering as she bent to kiss him, his heart beating so hard he felt it might burst his chest. "Oh, God, Elyssa."

It took every bit of control he had not to explode when her warm lips rained kisses down his penis. He'd dreamed of being with her like this for months. But he held back for her sake, waiting for her, wanting to make this good for her.

He felt her slender hands on him, stroking him, and he bit his lip, steadying himself. Then suddenly, somehow, she was straddling his hips and easing him inside of her. He'd worried a little about that; she was small and slender, and he was much larger. He'd been afraid she couldn't take him without pain. But it didn't seem to hurt her, and God, she felt wonderful closing around him, warm, wet and tight... He threw back his head and groaned deep in his throat with pure, animal pleasure.

She stilled the movement of her hips. "We're together now, Benny," she whispered, pausing for a second. "You and me."

He felt the change in her mood, and opened his eyes to find her looking down at him, her green eyes at once serious and profoundly tender. The terrible urgency building inside him eased suddenly. He breathed deeply, gratified by her promise, forgetting his own body for a moment as he looked at her beauty.

"Together," he promised, his heart in his eyes.

Then she began to move, slowly drawing him deeper inside of her. At last he moved too, drawing her gently down on top of him. He kissed her as she rocked against him, taking her mouth hungrily, unable to get enough of her. Then she rose up over him again, and he luxuriated in just looking at her. Her cheeks were flushed, her breasts rose and fell deliciously with her deep breathing, and he had to touch her. He cupped her breasts gently in his hands, thumbing her hard nipples, and she moved faster, her heart racing against him. But she hadn't taken him all the way inside her, and he felt her tense. She closed her eyes, and there was something almost feverish in her cries, in the way she moved, as if she wanted to take him fully but was afraid to. Her hands clenched into fists on his chest.

He'd known this probably wouldn't be easy for her, after what she'd been through. "Don't rush it. Give it time," he whispered, stroking her with loving hands. "It's all right, I won't let you go."

"Ben, oh Ben-- " She stopped moving and just kissed him for a time. He ran his hands through the cool silk of her long red hair, caressed her with gentle, sensual strokes until he felt her relax, felt her hands unclench and spread out over his chest again. Then she began rocking against him again, her movements slower yet more forceful, taking him deeper. He thrust upward gently with his hips, meeting her rhythm but letting her control the pace.

"Yes..." He felt her body open for him, felt her take him all the way inside her at last, and he groaned aloud. Gasping for breath, he closed his eyes to try to blot out some of the ecstasy of what she was doing to him, but even so, he wasn't sure how much longer he could hold out. It had been too long, and she meant far too much to him. He was hard and throbbing powerfully inside her now, and she was hot and tight, contracting deliciously around him... He closed his hands around her arms, holding onto her in an effort to stave off the erotic explosion building inside of him.

"Now, Elyssa," he whispered, shuddering with the effort of holding back. He was so close to the edge it was all he could do to speak.

She moved faster, reaching for it, surging hard against him. "Benny! Benny, I-- Ohhhhh!" All at once she clutched at him, squeezing him inside her in waves, crying out as she found her bliss.

And in hers, he found his. When he heard her cry out and knew that he'd taken her over the edge, that his body, his loving had pleased her that much, he couldn't hold back any longer. He held her hips to his and thrust deeply, exploding inside of her instantly, crying out hoarsely, helplessly as he let go at last, and the pleasure rolled through him like thunder. Elyssa laid her head on his shoulder, breathless, moaning softly as the storm swept over them both.

Together now, he thought, happier than he could ever remember being.

Together, Elyssa thought, laying her head on his chest with a sigh of contentment. Safe...

Somewhere deep in the night, Fraser woke to find Elyssa crying. She'd moved away from him a little, but he felt her shaking with the effort of keeping her sobs silent. He sat up and touched her shoulder gently in the darkness, coming painfully awake, his heart beating fast. "What is it?" he whispered, frightened. "Did I hurt you?"

He couldn't make out her expression, but he saw her shake her head. "No," she choked. She reached out to reassure him, but the hand that touched his chest was cold, and he drew her up into his arms, held her against his heart.

"Then what's wrong, love?"

She swallowed hard, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "I'm -- not usually like this," she said. "I don't usually cry at all, it's just-- "

"You're sure you're all right?"

"Yes. You didn't hurt me, Benny, you -- you were wonderful," she breathed.

He swallowed hard, vastly relieved. He'd had very few women, and he'd worried that he'd unwittingly hurt her in his inexperience. To know that she thought he'd been wonderful shocked him.

"That's just it. No one ever... loved me like that before, so sweetly. And I guess I just thought... no one ever would," she whispered.

"Elyssa," he whispered, touched to the heart. He wiped away the last of her tears and kissed her hair, struggling to find the right words to tell her how she moved him. Talking about his feelings had always been a hard thing for him to do, almost impossible. But with Elyssa, he wanted to share them -- to share everything that he was. "I've been lonely too," he said at last. "Wanting someone to touch me like that. I think I was waiting for you."

It wasn't poetry, but it seemed to be enough. Elyssa leaned up and kissed him. "Oh, Benny! I'm glad you waited," she whispered, smiling tenderly at him. "And I'm glad I found you. You make me happy." She laid her head on his shoulder trustingly, her long hair trailing softly down his chest. "Very happy." She hugged him tightly.

He was happy too. And as he held her, he realized something else: This was the first day since Victoria had left that he hadn't missed her, and ached to hold her again. But he'd hardly thought of her at all in the last two days. Not since Elyssa had come back into his life. The truth hit him like a revelation: Now that Elyssa's with me, I don't want her anymore.

It was at once absurdly simple and astounding. With her in his arms, Victoria's memory just didn't hurt him like it used to. He even wondered why he'd longed for her as much as he had, when her spirit was so dark. Savage as a cat, even when Victoria had made love to him, she'd always bitten or scratched him somewhere, as if she couldn't come without hurting him. He'd always felt a little drained after being with her, as if he'd been through a wrestling match; whereas after Elyssa had tenderly stroked and caressed him to a powerful climax, he had the most vibrant sense of well being he'd ever known. After being with her, he felt strong, vital, like he could move mountains or slay dragons...

But it was really Elyssa who had done that. She'd slain his darkest, most powerful demon, dispelled her power over him. Stilled her mocking laughter at last. Victoria had been a part of his life, he would never forget her, but now at last, she was a part of his past. He could move on.

I'm free, he thought, with a sense of wonder. Thanks to Elyssa.

For a moment, he considered telling her that she'd wrought a minor miracle, then decided against it. He didn't want to hurt her feelings by dredging up his past. There would be time enough to tell her later, when their intimacy was not so new and delicate. Tonight was special, their first time together, and he didn't want even a whisper of another woman's name to come between them. He gathered her even closer, but gently, like the precious thing she was. "You make me happy, too, Elyssa, " he said instead.

And it was true. Victoria had brought out the worst in him, but Elyssa brought out the best. He didn't care if he wasn't the same man he had been anymore, as long as she loved who he was now.

They lay together in the darkness for awhile, not speaking, just holding each other. Fraser realized that happy was a pale word to describe his state of mind. He felt warm, cherished, even blessed. He wanted to make love to her again, but felt no urgency about it. Somehow, with Elyssa, he knew there would be time for everything. She was everything he'd ever wanted; and he trusted her. Better still, she'd trusted him enough to give him not just her body, but her heart as well. She loved him. She hadn't said so, she wasn't ready to take that final leap yet, but she didn't have to. He knew it. He could feel it in her touch, in every beat of her heart, and he let the knowledge warm him, pulse through his body like slow, molten gold. As he held her, he felt his heart slowing until its beat slipped into synch with hers. Until he could no longer tell where his body began and hers ended.

Magic, he thought, awed by their closeness. Peace flowed over him, into him until he was drifting, on the edge of sleep. Then he heard her whisper, "Listen..."


"The rain," she murmured, her breath warm against his chest. "It stopped. It's finally stopped."

He listened to the silence, marveling at the mysterious way the universe worked. "So it has," he smiled in the darkness.

So it has.

The End

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

There is a sequel to this story:
Beyond Where Angels Sleep

© Caroline Alert 1996