Love the color of a rose--
Love the ever-sounding bell--
Does she summon to a close,
To the bitter of farewell?
To the gorgeous gate of Hell?
Ah, who knows, who knows?
Benton Fraser stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to his apartment. He sighed inwardly. When had they ceased being a convenience, and become more like an obstacle he had to face at the end of his increasingly long, empty days?
When she left me.
The answer came instantly, unbidden, welling up from that dark place inside of him that had never closed, never healed. Though time, rest and exercise had restored his body, the cure hadn't extended to his soul. Outwardly, he looked strong and fit; but he'd been hollowed out inside. Gutted.
But stoicism had been one of his earliest lessons--absorbed, he sometimes thought, with his mother's milk. So he hid his emotional numbness from everyone, even Ray Vecchio. He reported to work with his usual punctuality, applied himself to his duties, fixed the occasional appliance for Mr. Mustafi, even smiled automatically when Ray made jokes. But it was more protective coloration than living. He was only going through the motions. His heart wasn't in any of it.
He didn't seem to have one anymore.
He didn't know why Victoria's getaway had affected him so profoundly--everyone he'd ever loved had left him. Everyone. For him, caring had always meant loss. He should've been inured to it by now; but her leaving had broken him. And the emptiness inside him, bleak and barren as the surface of the moon, was a truth he could seldom face. Tonight was no exception. He'd had a long, hard day at the Consulate, including hours of guard duty under a blazing Chicago sun. He'd done his work without complaint, as always, but his uniform was sticking to his skin, and he felt sapped, drained, almost exhausted. A straw man, with no strength left to wrestle with his inner demons.
Not the worst of his demons, anyway. Not her. Not tonight.
He felt her memory hovering over him as it always did when he was bone weary, when he didn't have the energy to banish her from his mind any longer. Less a ghost, more a succubus, she danced at the edges of his thoughts, a seductive shadow born of memory and desire. He knew only too well how she could destroy him, if he let her.
"Come on, Diefenbaker," he said wearily, putting his boots on the stairs with what was more like resignation than purpose. "Let's go home."
He tried to ignore the fact that those words sounded hollow in his own ears. Home should be a place of rest, a refuge, but his apartment was hardly that. Not anymore. He wondered if she'd be there waiting for him, as she sometimes was, in things both tangible and elusive: a lingering, impossible trace of perfume; a soft, mocking laugh from behind him; candles and a piece of soapstone he couldn't seem to throw out. He faltered in his upward climb.
Diefenbaker didn't seem to care. The wolf bounded energetically past him, shot up the stairs and around the corner into the hallway leading to the small apartment where they lived. Hmmph. Probably just dreaming of his dinner, he thought grumpily as he forced himself to follow. There's nothing else up there to run to.
He knew he was being petty. Neither Diefenbaker nor their quarters was the cause of his bad mood. But since any emotion, even surliness, was preferable to the cold, vast emptiness inside him, he made no effort to banish it. He was too tired to, anyway. He just swung his door open and stepped inside, sniffing the air warily.
There was no perfume in the air, no taunting laughter. Nothing.
He tossed his hat onto his bed with a sigh, unsure whether he was relieved or disappointed. Still, as a small gesture of atonement, he fed Dief right away, before he did anything else. It wasn't much, just some leftover pasta he'd mangled the night before, but his lack of culinary expertise didn't faze the wolf. He tore into the leftovers as if they were prime rib.
Fraser himself didn't have much appetite. He wished vainly that he'd thought to ask Ray over for dinner. If they'd gotten Chinese takeout and talked, as they often did, it might've lifted his sagging spirits. But Vecchio had been busy lately, so overloaded with cases that he'd been working a lot of overtime; and Fraser hadn't seen much of him. He'd told himself that Ray's diminished presence in his life recently was due to work, rather than any lingering resentment over his actions regarding Victoria. He hoped that was true. Still, Vecchio's caseload was such that he probably wouldn't have been able to make it for dinner anyway, even if he had had the foresight to call and invite him.
It's probably for the best, he thought. I wouldn't have been good company tonight.
Since Victoria's flight, Ray was the only person he could summon any feeling for at all--but even those feelings hadn't been pleasant. At least not at first. During his first moments of consciousness in the hospital after he'd been shot, when he'd hung between life and death, he'd been angry with him. Not just that Ray had shot him--he'd known that was an accident. No, the red hot resentment that tightened his chest had centered around Victoria; or rather, her loss. He hadn't cared about the extent of his own injuries, he'd just blamed Ray for separating them. He wouldn't have minded the loss of his legs as much as losing her.
Though Ray didn't know it, that'd made him want to die.
That was what love had been for him: a kind of madness that made rational thought impossible.
In that crazed moment of decision beside the train, with Victoria calling to him like the sirens who had once lured unwary sailors to their doom, his mind had shut down. He'd seen nothing but her beauty, felt nothing but how much he wanted her. He hadn't thought, he'd only felt. For the first time in his life, he'd let his heart rule his head--and the consequences had been disastrous. When Ray shot him, he'd been sure he was going to die. As he'd watched Victoria's train pull away, he'd prayed for death.
But he hadn't died. He still didn't understand why, but though his spirit longed to let go, his body had clung stubbornly to life. After his surgery, he'd kept regaining consciousness for longer and longer periods, until he'd known the death he craved wasn't going to happen. Against the odds, even against his will, he was going to make it.
Somehow, the knowledge that he had to carry on after all had changed his perspective. Old habits, old ethics that Victoria had eroded, returned. His brief anger with Ray died away. As soon as he woke up after his operation, he'd realized it was actually a good thing that Vecchio had shot him. Otherwise he would've betrayed his best friend, betrayed the man who'd mortgaged his house to keep him out of jail, and run off with a woman who was a felon. That was the cold, hard truth of it: Ray had only been trying to protect him from an evil woman whom he'd been too weak to resist. The fact that he'd loved her didn't change the fact that Victoria had nearly destroyed him. She wasn't worth one tenth what Ray was. He'd been mad to even think of hurting him for her.
So when he'd first opened his eyes to find Ray sitting in a chair beside his bed, in that first unguarded moment before Ray knew he was awake, the guilt he'd seen in his green eyes had been nothing compared to his own.
But beyond that guilt, there was nothing. No hope, no spark, no real desire to go on. The emptiness had set in. Nothing mattered: not Diefenbaker, not his future, not recovering from his wound so he could resume his duties... Nothing. He'd clung to that void, found a kind of comfort in an absence of feeling. He'd kept taking pain pills for longer than he'd needed to because they kept him numb, kept the pain at bay.
But Ray had noticed those little blue saviors of his. His sharp green eyes noticed everything. And once Vecchio mentioned his dependence on them, he'd had to give them up. Because if he hadn't, those green eyes would've probed even deeper, would've figured out about the black hole inside of him; and he couldn't have that. He had to at least give the appearance of normalcy, though he felt anything but. So he'd thrown the pills in the wastebasket with a sigh, and finally, reluctantly started working on his physical therapy.
Ray had been visibly relieved. It had encouraged him so much that he'd offered to go north with him and rebuild his dad's cabin, complete with a new toilet. "A do-over", he'd called it. "A new start. We'll put Victoria behind us."
Fraser knew, even if Ray didn't, how impossible it would be to "put Victoria behind them". Even though she'd gone, she was part of him--always would be. Still, Ray's kindness, his generosity, had penetrated even his numbed fog. In fact, it almost struck him dumb. Ray had known, as no one else did, that he was leaving with Victoria; had known about his incredible weakness, the depth of betrayal of which he was capable, and had still felt guilty about shooting him! He'd still cared for him, tried to make things right. It was unbelievable.
You don't have to do this, was all he could say. What he'd really wanted to say was, I don't deserve it. I don't deserve your friendship.
It was the only good thing in his life, had been for a long time, and he'd been too blind to see it. He did now--he longed for it now, would've given a great deal to have had Ray sitting across from him at his little table tonight, his green eyes lit, his hands waving animatedly as he gave a typically exaggerated account of the troubles he'd had lately...
But Ray wasn't here. Still, he was never really alone. She'd left him, but her essence lingered here in his apartment.
Or maybe only in his mind.
He wiped sudden, cold sweat off his forehead. It's the heat, he told himself. It seemed stifling still, so he stripped off his clothes and took a long, cold shower. Then he sat on his bed clad only in his undershirt and shorts. Cooler but no calmer, he briefly considered reading his father's journal, then rejected the idea. He wasn't in the mood to hear voices from the past tonight, not even his.
He picked up the latest issue of the RCMP Quarterly and perused it instead. But after a few minutes, realizing that he wasn't retaining a word of it, he laid the magazine down again. He felt restless, as if he wanted to crawl out of his own skin, or at least get out of his cramped little apartment. But he couldn't summon the energy to get dressed again and leave.
Besides--where would I go?
He didn't drink, so bars held no attraction for him, and the other night life Chicago offered--plays, movies, nightclubs--was best enjoyed with a friend. It hit him sometimes on quiet nights like this, that he had no real friends in this city other than Ray. He had many acquaintances, had helped lots of people, but had only one real friend. Though he'd been here for almost two years now, Ray was the only person who'd reached out to him. He was the only person who would even care if he didn't show up for work in the morning...
Now, why did I think that?
Unsettled by his own bleak thoughts, uncomfortable with self pity, he rose to his feet and paced to his window. Lights gleamed in the buildings around him, as darkness had fallen. At least, what passed for darkness in Chicago. He still hadn't gotten used to the way nights were never really black here, to the neon and fluorescent lights that kept true darkness at bay. He missed the deep, inky black northern nights and silences so much sometimes that his bones ached.
All at once, he imagined Eric's shadow sitting out on his fire escape, dark eyes staring in at him. "You're getting soft, Mountie," he taunted.
Fraser could take a hint. He climbed out on the tiny balcony, as Eric had done on a cold night months before, to get whatever fresh air was possible here. Crossing his legs under him, he closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and tried to empty his mind, to calm his restless spirit.
Restless was how he thought of himself. It was a far better word than lonely.
He never knew how long he sat there, focusing on his breathing, opening himself to the sounds around him--distant sirens, the hissing passage of cars below and the occasional upward drift of footsteps--before the music began. Soft, tentative notes spilled out into the night. They seemed too slow and random to be a recording...
Someone's playing a guitar.
Diefenbaker rose and hopped out onto the balcony with him, for all the world as if he could hear the music too. When the wolf curled up at his knee, he petted him absently, his attention elsewhere. He seldom heard live music, and he listened harder to it, with the first stirring of real interest he'd felt all day. It was a twelve string guitar, from the sound of it. The notes came faster suddenly, formed a recognizable pattern. He realized the guitarist must've just been tuning up at first. Now he was really playing. An old tune: Greensleeves.
The melody floated down from above his head, sweet as a benediction, each note serene and sure. Quiet though the music was, his sensitive, wilderness-trained ears heard it clearly, and it captivated him. He played guitar himself after a fashion, but with nothing like the skill the unseen musician was displaying. He craned his neck upward curiously, looking for the source of the sound. There were several lighted windows above him, but only one, two floors up, was opened wide to the night. After listening a moment more, he was sure that was the one the music was coming from.
At first, he wondered idly who the guitarist was. He had quite a repertoire: classical, jazz, soft rock... He played Mozart, Miles Davis, Van Morrison and Billy Joel with equal skill. But as he played on, Fraser let the question of his identity go. He shut off his conscious mind, let go and lost himself in the music.
He liked the folk songs the most. Some of what filtered down through the night to him sounded very old, like ancient Irish or Scottish tunes. He smiled slightly. Ray hated music like that. The last time he'd tuned in some Celtic music on the Riv's radio, Vecchio had switched it off with a shudder. "Puh-leez!" he'd groaned. "I can't stand that 'my-true-love's-dead-in-the-snow' stuff. And all that fiddling drives me crazy!"
But Fraser liked it. He had a secret, sentimental streak, and old songs like "Danny Boy" had always touched him. Though he couldn't identify many of the tunes the guitarist played, the simple, sad, sweet old melodies called to him like half-forgotten memories, filled him with a pleasure that was at once soft and piercing. Listening to them, he felt less like a straw man. He closed his eyes and let them drift over him.
Then suddenly, after what seemed like far too short a time, the music stopped.
He opened his eyes and lifted his head, just in time to see the lights wink out in the apartment above him. He sat in the darkness, feeling oddly bereft. Surprised, he realized that while the music had lasted, he'd forgotten about his problems, let go of his pain and guilt. For a few moments, he'd been at peace.
For the first time since Victoria left.
The spell the music had woven amazed him. He played with Diefenbaker's fur with gentle hands as he waited awhile, hoping the unknown musician would resume playing. But the apartment above him remained dark and silent, and finally he gave up. "Well, I guess that's the end of the free concert," he told Dief regretfully. "Let's go in."
He had to work tomorrow, which meant that he had to at least try to get some rest. Though he had a feeling sleep wouldn't come easily tonight, if at all.
Still, he had to make the effort. He shooed Dief back into his apartment, but just as he bent over the windowsill to follow him in, he heard the unmistakable sound of weeping. He froze, then looked up and listened intently. The tears came from the same window as the music had.
A woman was sobbing up there, crying as if her heart was breaking. The musician? he wondered. Probably, since the music stopped shortly before the tears began. He wondered if it had, for some reason, even provoked them. He was vaguely embarrassed at his sexist assumption that those gifted fingers belonged to a man. And whether she was the guitarist or not, her sobs bothered him. For a brief instant, he considered trying to find her, to help her. Then he imagined her likely response to a strange man's knock on her door in the middle of the night. It wasn't very likely she'd open it, and even if she did, how would he explain his presence?
"Pardon me, miss, but I was just eavesdropping on the fire escape a couple of floors down and heard you crying--"
No. Maybe not.
It all seemed far too complicated and emotional, and it was very late.
He decided against trying to track down the mysterious, weeping musician. But not without regret. For as he lowered himself back into his apartment, he felt his earlier bleak mood return with a vengeance. It felt like no one in the world was happy tonight.
And for the brief solace she'd just given him, he wished vainly that the musician could be.
This city was, for her, a lonely place. But all the world felt empty now; Chicago no more so than New York, or Seattle, or her home town of Springfield would have, for that matter. She lay on the couch in the darkness of her shabby new apartment, shaking with the force of her grief. She never really forgot it, never, but sometimes the music made it hurt less. Sometimes more. Tonight was one of the bad times. Every note had whispered of her brother. She'd felt his absence beside her so keenly she'd found herself listening between the notes for the phantom sound of his guitar accompanying her.
But she'd never hear that again. Never.
And so the tears. Hot, scalding, but ultimately useless.
They wouldn't bring him back. Nothing would. All she could do to keep the pain from destroying her was to hold onto her plan. Keep asking questions. Someone would tell her, eventually. Someone knew. She bit her lip, staring blindly into the darkness as tears rained down.
A name. That's all I need. Just his name...
She wouldn't rest until she got it.
Fraser lay in bed staring at his ceiling. It was far past midnight, but sleep still eluded him. Insomnia was a problem he'd become as familiar with lately as emptiness. He closed his eyes stubbornly and took slow, deep breaths, willing himself to relax, to forget about the music and the sobs he'd heard. But the sound of both played at the back of his mind, a tantalizing mystery.
As they lingered, he realized that something inside him had shifted, was subtly different. He examined himself curiously. It felt like the great, bottomless pit inside him had closed a little. The emptiness had shrunk.
He suddenly realized the significance of that moment on the fire escape. It had not only given him peace, it had reached even deeper than that. For the first time since Victoria's getaway, someone had touched him: first with music, then with tears. Even though it was only for a minute, and for a total stranger whom he couldn't even see, he'd actually felt compassion, had cared about someone besides himself and Ray. He'd been living, not going through the motions of existence.
He felt something else then that he hadn't felt in a long time: a faint glimmer of hope.
He settled back against his pillows with a sigh. Finally, thankfully, weariness closed over him and his eyelids grew heavy. That night, for the first time in weeks, he slept without dreaming.
Two days later, as he shut the door behind him on his way to work, he swept his hand absently over his hair. He'd meant to make sure it was neat, but discovered instead that he'd forgotten his hat. He grimaced in annoyance. "You go on ahead," he told Diefenbaker. "I'll be right there."
The wolf trotted obediently towards the stairs as he ducked back inside.
A few seconds later, as he approached the stairs again, hat in hand, a voice sounded from below. "Well, hello there. Where'd you come from?"
He blinked, thinking for a second that the question had been directed at him. In the same instant, he realized that though he now knew everyone in his building, he'd never heard this voice before. It was clear, young, feminine. A new tenant? he wondered. Or a relative visiting one of the tenants, perhaps?
Then she murmured, "Oh, aren't you a beautiful dog!" and he knew the stranger, whoever she was, must've just met Diefenbaker.
He shook his head. Not content with his triumph over all the nurses at the hospital where he'd been recovering from his gunshot wound, Dief had obviously found another woman to charm, closer to home. He smiled a little. His wolf had a way with women that he could only envy. Everywhere they went, he seemed to draw them like a magnet.
The only woman Dief never liked was--
Irritated with the way Victoria still occupied his thoughts, he thrust her memory away forcibly and continued downstairs. At the bottom, he saw a young woman on her knees in the street side entryway, stroking Dief's thick fur. She must've been on her way out when he found her, he thought absently. When she looked up at him, Fraser felt an unexpected jolt. He told himself it was merely of aesthetic appreciation. She's very pretty. Wide green eyes and a shy smile, long, straight dark hair... Yes, very pretty.
A memory of another woman's long dark hair smote him suddenly. He could almost feel it on his skin, smell her fragrance... In a heartbeat, his admiration of the woman with Dief vanished. Though her only resemblance to Victoria was her hair color, it was enough to rouse his emotions painfully, to fill him with aversion.
She's a woman--she's dangerous. Not to be trusted.
He closed his eyes for an instant, dismayed by his own reflexive fear. He knew just where that paranoia came from, whom he had to thank for it. He used to think of females as wondrous creatures. He'd been brought up to respect them, and as a boy, he'd come close to worshipping them. He'd found them mysterious, enchanting, had marveled at their differences: the softness of their hair, the beauty of their eyes, the fact that they were curvaceous and round where he was angular and hard...
Now, he fled them like the plague.
Damn Victoria, he thought, not for the first time. Her memory cast a shadow over him that he couldn't dispel. In its wake, he felt his body stiffen, his mouth thin into a disapproving line. Before he could stop himself, he said, "His name is Diefenbaker. And he's not really a dog, he's a wolf."
As soon as the correction left his lips, he regretted it. He could just imagine how Ray would've reacted, if he were here. Geez, Benny! That's a helluva hello. What're you tryin' to do: make her feel stupid, or scare her? What was wrong with him? Had he temporarily lost control of his mouth, or his wits? He wondered, with a flicker of shame, if he'd just unconsciously tried to take petty revenge on a perfect stranger merely because she happened to resemble Victoria. He resolved to guard against such base impulses in future.
Predictably, the young woman's hands stilled on Diefenbaker's neck. She lifted surprised eyes. "A wolf? Oh," she said.
She was small and slender, and sounded a bit flustered, but not for the reasons he would've expected. Despite her knowledge that the animal she was petting wasn't a dog, as she'd thought, she looked more afraid of him than of Dief. Odd.
"Sorry. I love animals, but I don't know much about dogs--or wolves," she confessed. "I'm usually more of a cat person."
"It's all right." Wondering who she was, he clattered to the bottom of the stairs and looked down at her, studying her. She'd gone back to petting Dief, so she obviously wasn't a coward, he thought wryly. He noted that her hands were trimly muscular and oddly calloused, and that she was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt emblazoned with the logo of The Chieftains, a group of Irish folk singers. Remembering the old, Irish-sounding music that had spilled out of the window above his a few nights ago, and the unmistakably feminine tears that'd followed, he was intrigued. He knew he should leave, get started on his walk to work, but found himself pausing to observe her instead.
"He's very beautiful," she murmured as she stroked Dief's ears.
"Yes. And he's very aware of it too, I'm afraid." The wolf's eyes were half-closed with pleasure at the attention, and as Dief basked in it, he grinned wryly to himself. If he were a cat, he'd be purring.
He got down on one knee beside her, ostensibly to pet Diefenbaker himself, but really to take a closer look at her. She really is nothing like Victoria, he told himself sternly. Victoria was tall, but this woman was petite, almost elfin, her wrists only half the size of his. Where his lover's hair was riotously curly, this woman's fell straight and shining past her shoulders. Victoria had always been supremely confident, a proud, almost cocky beauty. But the stranger petting Dief had a slightly upturned nose, a soft, almost cupid's-bow mouth, and an air of quiet sweetness about her.
No, definitely not the same woman, he thought wryly. She shot a glance at him, and he wondered absently if he seemed as large to her as she seemed tiny to him, and if that bothered her. Then he realized that his staring was probably what had made her nervous. He dropped his eyes instantly, embarrassed.
"I'm Elanna," she said after a moment, into the slightly awkward silence. "Elanna Alastrina. I just moved into 5N, upstairs."
So--she isn't visiting anyone here, she's my new neighbor. His initial flicker of interest in her intensified sharply. Unusual name, but pretty. Irish, I think. It suits her. He forced away the last hint of his earlier surge of distrust and smiled, acknowledging her friendliness. "I'm Benton Fraser. I live in 3J. It's nice to meet you."
The words were automatic, a mere courtesy. Yet oddly enough, they were also the truth. Crouching there beside her, with her hair a dark halo around her piquant face and her slender hand close to his on Diefenbaker's neck, he felt an odd sensation, as if a rope that had been drawn excruciatingly tight around his chest had suddenly loosened. Something inside him went Ahhhh, in sheer relief.
He blinked, perplexed.
"How did you--I mean, where did you find him?" Elanna asked, in a soft voice that matched the rest of her.
Still lost in his own unexpected reaction to her, he wondered for a moment what she meant. Then he saw the admiring look in her eyes as she petted Dief. He felt an absurd little flicker of something like jealousy, that he ruthlessly suppressed. "In an abandoned mine 212 miles northwest of Whitehorse, in the Yukon," he replied.
"Two hundred and twelve, huh?" She smiled a little, and he wondered if he'd been overly precise in his answer. Ray was always chiding him for that. But if it annoyed her, she was too polite to say so. "So he's Canadian too, then?" she asked.
"Yes. His mother had been killed, and he'd wandered away from his pack. Without them, he wouldn't have survived in the wild. So I took him home with me."
"And now he looks after you," she said absently.
He froze at the extraordinary statement, his hand stilling on Dief's neck. How could she possibly know that?
She blushed a bit, her lashes lowering to veil her eyes as she withdrew her hand. "I just feel he's--I mean, he seems very protective," she said.
And you're very perceptive, he thought, marveling at it. Aloud, he said only, "Yes, he is."
Silence fell between them for a second, and Elanna rose gracefully to her feet. "Well... It was nice meeting you, Mr. Fraser," she said. "I have to go now."
He got up too, nodded politely. As she turned towards the door to the street, he noted the graceful way she moved. Regret filtered through him. She seems very nice. If only I'd met someone like her, he thought wistfully. A normal woman, not a criminal. If only--
He never knew, afterwards, why he did it. He was not normally an impulsive man; and recent events had only served to compound his instinctive caution. Still, he found himself strangely reluctant to let her go. "Miss Alastrina!" he called after her.
She turned, and gave him a little smile. "Call me Elanna," she said.
"Elanna... Are you a musician? Do you by any chance play Irish music?" he asked. He told himself he was delaying her merely to satisfy his curiosity. But he wasn't sure that was true.
It was her turn to blink at him in surprise. "Yes. But how did you know?"
"It was a guess. Well, more like a deduction, really. From your hands and shirt," he explained hastily. "The Chieftains are Irish folk singers, and your fingers are callused like a guitar player's would be."
"Wow. Just like Sherlock Holmes," she said. She smiled, but it had a nervous quality, and died quickly. She ran a hand through her hair, as if to hide it, and he wondered why. Maybe she was embarrassed about her calluses. "Not many people notice things like that," she murmured. "But yes, I play. Guitar, that is. But how did you know that I play Irish music?"
She's intelligent, he thought. Smart enough to realize her t-shirt alone didn't prove that. "I heard you playing a few nights ago," he admitted. He was surprised that his guess had been confirmed, that this slender woman was in fact the gifted musician who'd held him spellbound. He was also pleased, though he couldn't have said why. "You're very good indeed."
"You--heard me?" she echoed.
For a second, he wondered why she didn't seem pleased at his compliment. Then he remembered the sobs that had rained down from her window when the music stopped, and he knew she must be wondering if he'd heard them, too. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop," he said carefully, wanting to reassure her. "But I play guitar myself, and I was just sitting out on the fire escape after a long day, and when I heard your music, well... I couldn't go in until it was over. You play beautifully."
Evidently, he'd said the right thing, for she smiled again, with real pleasure this time. "Thanks. I used to play with a band, so I've had lots of practice." At those words, without warning, her face changed again. She looked down, and he could've sworn that a shadow darkened it. A bad memory, he guessed. He knew that look; he had plenty of those himself.
"I'm sorry, but I've really got to go," she said again. He wondered if her sudden eagerness to leave had more to do with the shadow their conversation had somehow evoked than any real need for haste, but he didn't say so.
"Ahh. Well, goodbye then. I won't keep you any longer," he said. Wishing perversely all the while that he could.
Elanna turned towards the door, then turned back unexpectedly. "Would you like to play with me sometime?" she asked.
He blinked, taken aback.
She laughed. "Guitar, I mean! You could come over for a cup of coffee, bring your guitar, and we could play. I just moved here, and I don't have anyone else to jam with yet."
He smiled back at her. "I'd like that very much," he said. "As long as you don't expect miracles. I haven't played in awhile, and I was never as good as you are."
She smiled at him a little sadly. "Oh, don't worry about that, Benton. Miracles are something I gave up believing in a long time ago."
Before he could reply, she was out the door and gone.
He followed her out into the street, watched thoughtfully as she moved gracefully away down the block. She'd meant to reassure him, but her offhand words had disturbed him instead. She's young to be so cynical. From her looks, he doubted she could be more than 25 or so. He didn't understand why it bothered him so much whether she believed in miracles or not, but it did.
Maybe because he'd stopped believing in them himself, the day he woke up in the hospital with his best friend's bullet in his back, the woman he loved gone, and all his illusions shattered.
Late one afternoon, Elanna came home, threw the bit of mail she'd received on her kitchen table and poured herself a glass of ice water. She was hot and tired, on edge from the emotional strain of questioning people she'd met on the streets nearby about Kevin.
She rubbed the back of her neck, found it damp with sweat, and sighed to herself. Well, I knew this wouldn't be easy. She'd been in this apartment for a week already, asking questions daily, but she still had no answers. Still, it had to be done, all the same. And she'd have to do a lot more of it, ask a lot more questions, before she was through.
She thought of the Mountie then, and her eyes narrowed.
She'd known Benton Fraser was a threat the first time she saw him, before she even knew his name. He'd drawn her eyes like a magnet as he came lightly downstairs after his wolf. She remembered that he'd moved almost as gracefully as the animal, despite his size. His boots had shone, his buttons had gleamed, and his uniform blazed in the dimness of the dirty, peeling staircase like a beacon. He'd looked so handsome, he was like something out of a dream. His perfection seemed effortless, almost inhuman. She wasn't sure if he looked untouched or untouchable. Either way, it was scary.
And his faultlessness wasn't the only thing that frightened her. Her mouth had gone dry at the sight of his uniform. He's a cop, she'd thought, her heart sinking. Oh my God--There's a cop living here!
She'd wanted to live close to where Kevin had been, to where it had happened, partly for sentimental reasons, and partly because it would make her search easier. But the neighborhood was run down, so old it was almost a slum. She'd never expected to find a cop here--let alone living in her very building. Worse than that, a very smart, observant cop. So perceptive that, after hearing her play, he'd deduced her identity and profession almost at first glance, from the t-shirt she wore and the little calluses constant strumming had left on her fingers.
How much more would he learn, if she gave him the chance?
Oh, yeah. She'd known the sharp-eyed Canadian was going to be Trouble, with a capital T. She should've moved out of the building the day she met him.
She might have, except for one thing. While he was busy deducing that she was the mystery musician he'd heard playing one night, she'd been equally busy looking at him. At his eyes, the supposed windows of the soul. Benton Fraser's were a pure, almost glacial blue. Rimmed by dark lashes any woman would envy, they were undeniably handsome--but they were also sad. When he smiled at her, they didn't warm like they should've. Pain lurked in their depths, pain that spoiled his illusion of untouched perfection. Her intuition (what Kevin had always called "her spooky Irish side"), which told her that Diefenbaker was intensely loyal to his master, also told her that he'd been badly wounded.
Or maybe it wasn't intuition, so much as like calling to like. Maybe she could see the darkness in Fraser because the same shadows lurked in her. Maybe that was why she'd kept her eyes averted from his so much at their first meeting. She didn't want him to recognize that she'd been shattered, too. But on some deep level, she knew it was true. They were kindred spirits, if only in their intimate knowledge of suffering. And it was that secret kinship that kept her from leaving. She couldn't believe a man with eyes like that could ever hurt her.
Besides, he's too wrapped up in his own pain to pry into anyone else's problems.
Or so she wanted to think. In her more rational moments, she told herself such assumptions were unfounded, even dangerous. She ought to run away rather than trust in him, or that his wounded self absorption would keep her safe. After all, he'd come out of his shell long enough to notice more about her at their first meeting than most people would've in a month. She should go somewhere else, anywhere in Chicago but where the Mountie lived. But she had only one goal now, one purpose, and moving would've made it achieving it harder. So despite her misgivings, she stayed.
Still, the thought of him made her nervous.
She closed her eyes to put him out of her mind, and gulped greedily at the water. As it slid cool, liquid bliss down her throat, she glanced idly down at her table, scanning the mail lying there without much interest. It was all addressed either to "occupant" or "Elanna Alastrina". A grimace twisted her mouth. Both the anonymous label and the unfamiliar name seemed ironically fitting. She needed to be both invisible and her new self here, all at once. She'd left her real self behind, but not her past. It surrounded her with shadows, bound her to secrecy, propelled her headlong towards an unknown fate.
Death lay behind her and before her.
She hung somewhere in between, shivering.
Fraser lifted his head in surprise later that night, when someone knocked on his door. Dief barked excitedly, and hope filled him briefly. He wasn't expecting anyone, but thought maybe Ray had finally found time to come and see him. He got to his feet eagerly, and flung open the door.
But it wasn't Ray. "Ms. Alastrina!"
"Hi." His attractive new neighbor stood there in jeans and a soft, silky blouse that intensified the green in her eyes. A guitar dangled from her right hand. His eyes widened in surprise. He hadn't forgotten her invitation to play, he'd just been too shy to seek her out yet. She must've mistaken his surprise at her unexpected visit for disappointment, because the tentative smile she wore flickered and died as he looked at her. "Oh... you were expecting someone else, weren't you," she said instantly, with the same perceptiveness she'd shown when they first met.
"No, not at all," he said swiftly. He wanted to reassure her, half afraid that she'd leave as mysteriously as she'd come.
"Well then... I know it's late," she said softly, "but I felt like music, and I wondered if you'd like some company. I thought maybe we could try playing together." There was a strange tension in her stance, a kind of wariness that was strangely at odds with her seemingly friendly visit. He thought unaccountably of a deer, slipping slender and graceful from the woods at twilight to drink cautiously at a river, ready to bolt at the first sign of a hunter. But since she had no reason to be afraid of him, he found her body language puzzling. But something else swam in her eyes, a hint of loneliness perhaps; and that, he readily understood.
"I'd enjoy that very much," he replied, smiling in an attempt to set her at ease as he swung open his door. "Come in." As she stepped past him, he suddenly realized that she was the first woman who'd been in his apartment since Victoria. He felt a sharp stab of pain that he instantly suppressed. He shoved her memory determinedly down into the deep, dark hole she'd gouged inside of him, and concentrated on his guest instead. A hint of perfume clung to her dark hair, which hung sleek and shining over her shoulders. It was delicate, floral--roses and violets together, he thought. He couldn't help wondering if she'd worn it for his benefit, though the speculation made him flush.
"Would you like some tea, Ms. Alastrina?" he asked her, to distract himself.
"It's Elanna," she smiled back. "And tea would be nice, thanks."
Hours later, Elanna lay in her bed, going over the past few hours in lingering detail in her mind. She'd ended up spending the whole evening with the Mountie, and it had flown by. I had fun, she realized, almost dismayed by the realization that she could still do that. It certainly wasn't what she'd come here for. In fact, it was the first time she'd felt so light-hearted since Kevin's death.
Maybe it was because Fraser reminded me a little of him, she thought wistfully. He had the same kind of curiosity, the same willingness to learn, to experience new things, that Kevin had. Yet he was also very closed off emotionally. The type who buried his feelings so deep he probably had a hard time knowing what they were himself at times. He was a study in contrasts. She couldn't help wondering what stirred his carefully guarded heart.
Had a woman cut it to shreds, once upon a time? Had he dared to reach out to someone, only to be ground into the dust for his pains?
It was hard to imagine the faultless, polite Mountie risking all for love, but you never knew. She doubted very much that even Ben, perceptive as he was, had so much as an inkling of her real emotional state, either.
Though that was probably a good thing, since it could only be described as 'dysfunctional' at the moment...
He also had more skill with a guitar than she'd expected, certainly more than he'd claimed to have. She guessed that such modesty was typical of him. When she'd asked him how he'd learned to play, he'd answered, "Badly," with a smile.
But that wasn't true. He'd been a bit clumsy at first, which was to be expected since he hadn't played for some time, and blushed when he made mistakes. But she'd kept on playing, let him join in when he felt ready, and pretty soon he'd relaxed and was able to accompany her fairly well. She'd stuck to simple things at first, so as not to overwhelm him. But later on, she'd played a couple of old Irish jigs that were fairly hard, and he'd still been able to join in a little.
With some practice, he'd be a good player, she reflected. I could help him become one.
She froze at the thought. It hinted at friendship, at a future, at things she couldn't begin to imagine for herself, let alone for her and Fraser.
Jesus. She turned over and ground her cheek into her pillow, pressed her fist into its yielding softness. I must be outta my mind! One visit with that guy, and I'm casting myself as his music teacher--and God knows what else.
It scared her. Damn him! He's sucking me in without even trying. How the Hell does he do it? she asked herself, trying to turn her fear into anger at Fraser.
It's those blue eyes, she thought darkly. They're too goddamn gorgeous to be real. I should've looked closer--they're probably just contacts. Then there's his whole Victorian gentleman act: his tea, old-fashioned manners, and that blush--Christ! What man over the age of ten blushes anymore? And he's a cop, for god sakes! Cops don't blush, they don't even blink. They see everything. Nothing's supposed to embarrass them.
That thought made her even angrier. She dug her fingers into her pillow. He can't possibly be real, she repeated furiously to herself. He probably wasn't even really interested in me or my music, like he pretended. He wants what every other guy wants--he's just figured out a new way to get it. Probably figures being Canadian is seductive, like having an English accent. He's probably just biding his time. Next time I see him, he'll pounce on me like some kinda' big friggin' Canadian spider!
Next time? Christ!
She hit the pillow hard with a fist. How could she even think about seeing him again, when she'd just spent fifteen minutes convincing herself that he wasn't worth it?
Because she knew when she was lying to herself. And why.
Fraser didn't come to see me tonight, I went to him, a little voice whispered deep inside. Because I was lonely. Just like the big, polite Canadian who'd offered tea to a total stranger, and tried gamely to keep up with her playing despite his own lack of practice, and made her laugh in spite of herself.
She was lonely, and so was he. But he wasn't wearing contacts, he wasn't a wolf in Victorian sheep's clothing, and he wasn't pretending. She knew it. Not about the music, or his interest in her. He wasn't lying about anything. She was. She was the one wearing a mask, not Fraser. He was kind. He was real.
He confused her.
Don't ever do that again, she told herself, clutching the covers tightly around her. Don't go near him. He's dangerous.
Don't ever do that again, Fraser told himself, smiling as he drifted off to sleep a few floors below her. Don't ever let Elanna leave so quickly. She's wonderful.
She made me smile...
Kevin's letters all started the same way, with the childhood nickname he still called her that really meant 'I love you'.
Well, I'm in the big, bad city now! I left school. I'm in Chicago.
'Member how Dad always said big cities were jungles that would eat you alive? Well, that's not true. I love it here. It's radical! There's music everywhere, and the food's cool too. I'm sharing a room with a couple of guys, and they put me in touch with some local talent. I should be gigging with a band soon. In the meantime, I've got some cash saved, so don't worry.
I haven't lost the key!
That line made Elanna smile. It was an old saying of theirs, a kind of double entendre they'd used since they were children: losing the key meant you'd screwed up in life, not just in playing music. Finding it meant you'd done well.
She read on:
Sorry I had to break up the band, though. I know you were counting on me coming home this summer so we could jam, but college sucked, you know? I just wanted to be playing, not wasting my time with books. So I had to leave.
Now, hold your breath, Lanny. Here's the juicy part. Why don't you come join me? It'd be radical! We could both join a band, or maybe even form our own. I know you're not that happy back in Springfield, so think about it, okay?
Mom's gone, and Dad would do fine without you, if you could only see that.
Come to the big C, Sis! You'll love it, I promise.
Play 'Donall O' Conaill' sometime for me.
P.S. Here's the new address: 255 West Racine, Chicago, Il 61920.
Such laughing, breathless things, those first letters--just like Kevin himself. Full of hope and dreams, and his love of music that was twin to her own. She'd kept them all, preserved them lovingly. There was precious little else...
But she hadn't gone to Chicago to join him, despite his pleas. At least not at first. Despite what Kevin said, their dad needed her. He hadn't been the same since their mother died two years before. He never could understand why she'd left him. Elanna didn't either, but she'd accepted it, and tried to help her father do the same.
But her refusal to join him didn't deter Kevin. He kept trying, sent more letters. They grew shorter, but his themes were always the same. He loved Chicago, and he wanted her to live there with him, to play in a band with him. He alternately between teasing and begging her to come. Even implied that she was using Dad as an excuse to stay at home because she was scared to try her music in the big city.
She wasn't. The truth was, she would've given anything to go with him. Living with Dad had not been exactly fun since Mom's death. She'd stayed with him out of a sense of duty, more than anything else.
She took Kevin's letters with her when she left. It was sooner than her father wanted, yet not quite soon enough.
Ray Vecchio stretched in his chair. His back made popping sounds. No big surprise--it had been a bitch of a day so far: tense, dangerous and aggravating. First, he'd been called to a shootout early in the morning at a midtown bank, where the security guard had been killed. It had taken the officers on the scene almost two long, nail-biting hours to convince the robbers to release the hostages inside and come out without further violence; and several hours more to take statements from all the terrified witnesses after it was all over.
Then, back at the Station, Jerry Parnell had been waiting for him. Parnell was the snitch he was using as his source on a drug ring he was investigating. Jerry was a former petty thief turned drug dealer and, more recently, police snitch. He was the nervous type, a chain-smoking, fast-talking whiner who grated on Ray's nerves. He'd spent a half hour twitching and moaning about his hard life before Ray could wring any real leads out of him, and exhaled enough smoke in the process to permeate Vecchio's desk, his clothes, and everything within a ten-foot radius. Talking to him had been loads of fun.
Still, Parnell had his uses. For one thing, he was such a wimpy looking guy, such a whiner, that no one suspected him of having the courage to risk his life by going to the cops. So he'd fed Ray some valuable information over the years--which was the only reason he put up with what Jerry did to his suits. And with Jerry himself. For a price, Jerry would sell out his grandmother without blinking.
Not an admirable quality in a human being, but a vital one in a snitch.
"I probly shouldn't be here," Parnell coughed, blinking rapidly as he drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair in front of his desk. He even shot a quick glance over his shoulder, as if his boss might be standing right behind him. No need to say who "he" was; Jerry had been feeding him tips on the activities of James S. Lafferty for the better part of two years now. Ray had decided that the "S" stood for scumbag. You name the vice, Lafferty (or someone who worked for him) would be happy to sell it to you. For a price. On credit, even. Then he'd have his goons break your legs (or worse) if you couldn't pay him back with interest. Ray had two unsolved homicides on his desk that he suspected James S. was indirectly responsible for. Detectives he knew at the 26th and 28th had five more between them.
Unfortunately, "S" also stood for smart--and scary. Lafferty was both ruthless and cunning. He'd aligned himself with the Mafia before he turned eighteen. Rising quickly above his early jobs as a numbers runner and leg-breaker, he'd amassed a considerable fortune in gambling, prostitution and drugs. Now, at 35, he lived in a large, gated estate on the outskirts of town with shade trees, swimming pools, tennis courts, you name it. All very classy; all bought with money from vice, perversion and death. Ray shook his head. What a world.
But as Jerry's nervous cough blew a fresh cloud of smoke in his face, he forced his mind back to what he'd just said. "Why? Is Lafferty gettin' suspicious o' you?" he asked, waving a hand in a futile effort to blow away some of Parnell's smoke.
Jerry's sharp, bony shoulders jumped in a nervous shrug. "No, not me... At least, I don't think so. He's got no reason. He doesn't let me in on his really big stuff, you know? The big blow deals an' snuffs."
Frustrating, but true. Lafferty was extremely cautious with drug deals and murders. He let his lieutenants, Hernandez and Tenner, handle them for him; and he didn't talk to Parnell about them at all. Though his leads had proven good so far, Jerry hadn't been able to do better than help him put away some low-level pushers who worked for Lafferty. He hadn't been able to help them nail him. Yet.
But Ray, and his counterparts at the 26th and 28th precincts, kept hoping.
Parnell tapped his cigarette ash absently onto the floor, rolled his shoulders nervously. "He's just ancy, ya' know?"
If that ain't the pot callin' the kettle, Ray grinned to himself. Lafferty and Parnell had grown up in the same neighborhood, known each other since they were kids; as a result, Lafferty had what passed for a soft spot for Parnell. He trusted him to some extent, used him as a kind of glorified errand boy. Sometimes Ray thought maybe it soothed his vanity to have Parnell around, as a constant reminder of how much better he'd done in life than his old boyhood chum. But his motives for keeping Jerry close to him really didn't matter. What mattered was that he did. Ray kept hoping Lafferty would eventually trust him with the details of some big operation--and then they'd bring Lafferty down.
"What's he worried about?"
Jerry shrugged again, moved uneasily in his chair. "I dunno. I did hear somethin', though."
"It's nothin' big, but someone's been askin' questions about him on the street."
That was curious. Ray's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "What kinda questions?"
"Just general stuff: who's supplyin' the local guys, where do they pick up the stuff, and shit like that."
Drug questions, he thought. Interesting. Maybe someone's trying to move in on Lafferty's territory. "Who's askin'?"
Parnell shrugged. "I don't know."
"Do you think your boss does?"
"I doubt it. But he'll find out. He always does."
Ray knew that was true. Lafferty paid people like Jerry to keep him informed about things like that. He had so many enemies, he would've been stupid not to. But that brought up another question. "Why haven't you told him?"
Parnell twitched, patted at a non-existent piece of lint on his shirt. "It's just a rumor. I don't like to tell him stuff like that unless I'm sure." He avoided Ray's eyes.
"What'll happen when he finds out?"
Jerry blinked three times in quick succession. Inhaled deeply on his cigarette. "You know. If he thinks he's dangerous, he'll off 'em, whoever it is. "
That was why Jerry hadn't told Parnell the rumor; he didn't want to get someone killed. He didn't have many scruples, but Ray knew he drew the line at getting involved with murder. And his news was disturbing. The person looking for Lafferty was probably another lowlife criminal--maybe another wiseguy looking to muscle in on his territory, or a dealer with a grudge to settle--a scumbag nobody would miss. Still, it was his job to prevent murder, even the murder of scumbags, and since asking questions about a guy like Lafferty was, as Parnell said, apt to provoke it, he should do something about it. "Can you find out who's lookin' for him, Jerry?"
Parnell twitched again. "Sure, sure, I probly can... For a big enough score."
With a sigh, Ray dug out all the money he had in his drawer. He just hoped he wasn't spending it to save the ass of some rival drug dealer. "Okay, take it, Parnell," he said. "But I want an answer, capiche?"
"Sure. I'll get ya' one. Thanks, Vecchio." Jerry rose to his feet and headed out of the station, satisfied.
"Don't bother comin' in again when you get it," Ray yelled after him. "Just call me!"
"Gotcha'!" Parnell called gratefully. Ray was equally grateful he'd thought of that. It'll save me another trip to the dry cleaners to get his smoke outta my suit.
Elanna laid her guitar on her sofa with a sigh when Fraser left. She was annoyed with herself. This was the second time she'd had him over this week, despite her resolve to avoid him. She'd never meant to become friends with him. When she'd first met him, knelt there beside him with her hands buried in his wolf's mane, she'd thought, I'm just like him now: an animal. A lone wolf. No friends, no roommate--no lovers. Alone. Apart. It has to be that way. Until I find him.
But somehow, Fraser had changed all that. With his courtly manners and "thank you kindly ma'am's", he'd waltzed ever so politely past her defenses. He'd talked to her, played guitar with her--he'd become her friend. And that friendship was deepening. She saw him almost every other day now.
She couldn't let that go on. She was getting closer now. She'd already talked to most of the winos and drug addicts she could find in the area. So far, none of them had been able to give her the information she needed, but she was far from finished yet. Need drove her on. She would never give up. Sooner or later, someone would tell her what she had to know. Someone would give her a name, a place to start. And she couldn't--she wouldn't--let anyone stop her after that, until she was finished.
Not even the Mountie.
Fraser rose early one morning, feeling unexpectedly energetic and eager to begin his day. Before Victoria left him, that had been normal for him. Now, it almost never happened. But he wasn't thinking of Victoria much anymore. He hadn't smelled her perfume around his apartment lately, either; not since Elanna Alastrina had come into his life. He wondered briefly if there was a connection, then decided not to tempt fate by trying to answer that question.
For whatever reason, he felt good again; and it had been so long since he had that he didn't dare analyze it to discover its source. He just enjoyed it. Whistling as he worked, he fed Diefenbaker, showered quickly, and began putting on his uniform while pleasant thoughts of Elanna drifted through his mind. He decided he'd set off for work early.
He found himself humming absently as he moved downstairs to the street. The tune came to him unbidden, and he played with it, even started whistling it.
Then he suddenly realized what it was: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart".
He stopped humming, and froze in his tracks for a second as a cold chill washed over him. That was a love song, with unabashedly romantic lyrics:
Let me call you sweetheart
I'm in love with you,
Let me hear you whisper
that you love me, too...
He shook his head, trying to clear it. It's a coincidence, he told himself. My grandmother used to sing that song sometimes. It's just a childhood memory that surfaced randomly from my unconscious mind. Nothing more.
Settling his hat firmly on his head, and holding his unruly subconscious just as firmly in check, he strode out into the street. Preparing to face the day, he took a deep breath-and almost instantly regretted it. Noxious big city fumes composed of gasoline, tar and other things even more malodorous, immediately filled his sensitive nose. He sighed to himself. The very act of breathing here was so much more--adventurous than it was at home.
Glancing absently down the street in both directions, he frowned suddenly. Half a block away, a woman was walking along who looked remarkably like Elanna. Like her, she was small and slender. She moved with the same unconscious grace, and there was something about the set of her shoulders...
Don't be silly, he chided himself. That's not her! This woman, whoever she was, was blond, with long, curling hair that waved down her back--and Elanna had dark hair. Besides, what would Elanna be doing out on the street so early in the morning, anyway?
It's not her.
He deliberately turned in the opposite direction, towards the Consulate, and dismissed her from his mind. But he still felt uneasy. First that song, and now he was seeing Elanna in strangers he passed on the street. What next?
Elanna sat up late in her apartment that night, filled with excitement.
At last, she had a name! Lafferty. She repeated it over and over to herself, like a mantra: Laffertylaffertylafferty...
Finally, someone had talked. She'd found a young girl named Cara, barely seventeen, who'd known Kevin in the last months of his life. She'd shared his big city habit, and she'd been so desperate for money because of it that she'd sold Elanna the name she so desperately wanted.
It was formless now, unconnected, just a word. But as of tomorrow, that would change. She was going to make that name the focus of her existence, find out everything about the man, and then--
She got to her feet, so agitated that she couldn't sit still. She briefly considered playing her guitar to work off some of her excess energy, but she wasn't calm enough for music. She went to her window instead. Staring out at the darkness, she found herself thinking of Ben.
Wonder if he's home, and what he's doing. Whatever it is, it can't be the same thing I'm doing.
The realization hurt, enough to twist her a corner of her mouth down in a bitter half-smile. Ben was so sweet, so innocent, it was hard to remember sometimes that he was also a cop.
But she couldn't afford to forget that. Not for a second.
I have to stay away from him, she told herself for the thousandth time. The millionth. But the urge to go to him was strong, even intense; almost like a physical pull. Her half smile disappeared. She paced the floor, needing a distraction to keep her from heading downstairs towards Fraser's apartment.
Sometimes she wasn't even sure why she did this. Was it to remind herself of why she was here? Or was it just a kind of self torture. She wasn't sure, but at times, she just couldn't help it. The temptation to dive into the past was irresistible. She didn't feel that tonight, but she needed to focus on something important, or she'd end up playing songs with Fraser until midnight again, as she had far too often lately.
So--the past it was. She took Kevin's letters out of the dresser by her bed, pulled one out of the stack at random, and sat down to read it.
It was one of his last. She knew instantly, from its dark tones. Besides, she'd read them so often she knew them all by heart by now.
I've changed my mind. I don't think you
don't come here. Not yet. My head's not in a good plase.
Remember that song you used to love
Danny Boy? I heard it yesteredy. I think I did. I mean, I think It was yes sterday. By the strawberrees.
Can you send me some money?
I lost my guiatar.
I realy need it, bad.
Elanna had to press her lips together tightly, to keep from crying as she read that letter. Kevin's handwriting had changed by then, deteriorated. And the letter was so badly written it was hard to tell what he'd really wanted: money, or his guitar. Maybe both.
It was obvious what he needed: me, she thought bitterly. But I waited too long.
Guilt rolled over her, a cold, black wave that obliterated the present and left her drowning in the past. Memories filled her mind. Kevin laughing while they built sandcastles on vacation when they were children; Kevin's face, earnest and intent as he bent over his guitar; Kevin running out of the house and slamming the door behind him during one of his many adolescent arguments with Dad...
She remembered it all, everything he'd been--even as she mourned everything he would never be now. She dropped the stained, misspelled letter on the bed beside her and covered her face with her hands. Regret choked her. That letter hadn't come from her brother. Not the brother she'd known, anyway. Even his handwriting had changed. Kevin's usual neat script had vanished, replaced by scrawling, poorly spelled, nearly incoherent printing that wandered all over the page.
It was less than a letter, more like a cry for help. Kevin had lost the key.
She'd known that something was badly wrong, had guessed from his drastically changed notes why he needed money. Finally, it worried her so much that she'd told her dad she needed to go to Chicago and find him. He'd demanded to know why, and when she told him, he'd exploded, gone nuclear. She still remembered what he'd yelled at her. "Kevin's never been any good! Him and that damn guitar! He dropped out of college to play his damn music, and now you tell me he's lost his precious instrument? That's just like him. He doesn't need a sister, he needs a keeper! I forbid you to rush off and rescue him! He didn't want my help, and he doesn't need yours! Let him find his own goddamn way in the world!"
Those cold words had made her so angry that, for the first time in her life, she'd yelled back at him. Actually screamed at her father. Because despite what he said, it was clear that Kevin's exciting life in the big city had gone seriously wrong, and he needed help. She couldn't abandon him. He was her baby brother, closer to her than anyone else in the world. She had to go to Chicago, had to try and help him.
So in the end, her brother's problem not only destroyed him, but orphaned Elanna as well.
Her father never forgave her for leaving.
He considered the fact that Kevin's life was unraveling a personal insult. And once she left for Chicago to look for him two days later, he never spoke to her again, though he wrote her once in awhile. Worse still, when she reached the city, she found she'd waited too long to try to rescue Kevin. By the time she found the address he'd given her on West Racine, it was too late. He'd been evicted, and Mr. Kirski, the surly apartment manager, had no idea where he was. No forwarding address. She'd stayed in Chicago anyway, contacting every acquaintance Kevin had named in his letters, in a futile effort to learn where he'd gone.
She had no luck. But a week later, she found him in the worst possible way: a small article in the Chicago Sun Times bore her brother's picture, and detailed the murder of a junkie.
She pressed her fingers into her skull to try and blot out the pain that had been with her ever since that moment. Lafferty, she told herself, aware that she was clinging to normalcy by a thread now herself, just as Kevin had.
Only he'd lost his grip, tumbled over the edge and died.
She wouldn't give up that easily. She had a job to do.
Fraser picked up his guitar. Hefted it uncertainly, debating with himself. It had only been five days since he'd last seen Elanna, after all. Would she welcome another visit, or would she think he was becoming a pest?
Dief lifted his head, cocked it and whined eagerly, wagging his tail.
He shot him an exasperated glance. "I am not thinking of going to Elanna's!" he said. "And even if I were, you couldn't come with me."
Diefenbaker laid his head on his paws with a distinctly disappointed growl.
"I know why you like visiting her so much," he reproved him. "You just love the doughnuts she feeds you."
Dief's reply was surprisingly sarcastic.
"Hmmph! That's nonsense," Fraser said defensively. "I enjoy her company, that's all. She's a talented musician."
"Well, I also enjoy playing with her. Playing music with her, I mean," he amended hastily. He looked sideways at Dief, to see if he'd caught his little Freudian slip. He must have, because his lips had drawn back over his fangs in a look Benton knew very well. The wolf was grinning.
He rolled his eyes. "Think what you please," he sniffed, knowing he would anyway. "But you can think by yourself, because I'm going to see Elanna," he said. "Alone."
That'll teach him.
Elanna heard someone knocking on her door. She hastily put her brother's letters away in a drawer and hurried to answer it, hoping her eyes weren't red from crying. When she looked cautiously out her peephole to see who it was, a man leaned towards her, smiling, his blue eye taking on comically huge proportions in the glass bubble.
She closed her eyes, thinking it was probably inevitable; then she swung the door open. "Hello, Ben!"
She smiled at his little joke. In spite of everything, she was grateful that he'd showed up. She needed something to take her mind off her troubles, and Fraser always did that. He was out of uniform, but handsome as always, dressed in jeans and a blue plaid shirt that reflected his eyes. She wondered if he knew that, and doubted it. He always seemed strangely unaware of his own appeal. Even as she smiled at him, he lowered his eyes and looked shyly at the guitar he was holding.
"Hello, Elanna," he murmured. "I was wondering...I know it's late, but I came over to ask you...I mean, I wondered if you'd mind if--"
"Come on in," she took pity on him. "This place could use some music."
Fraser stayed with Elanna for several hours, talking, singing and playing guitar with her. She fascinated him. He found himself staring at her when she played, mesmerized by the intricate patterns her slender fingers wove over the guitar strings, awed by her talent.
And by her beauty.
He'd never known a woman like her. She made him feel comfortable. She didn't stare at him like most women did, or chatter nervously if he fell silent for a moment, or wear too much makeup, or ask silly questions. She didn't even act as if she knew how pretty she was. But she was intensely feminine all the same, delicate and slender, with a sweet, ready laugh.
He was intensely curious about her, found himself wanting to know every detail of her life. As she played a soft, idle arpeggio, he asked, "Where did you come from, Elanna?"
She glanced up at him swiftly, her green eyes a bit startled, and (he could've sworn) a bit frightened. She looked down at her guitar again before he could be sure. "I'm from Springfield," she said quietly. Then she fell silent again, her fingers drifting over the strings, coaxing soft, melodious chords.
"Does your family live there?"
Her fingers stilled for an instant, and he wondered if he'd said something wrong. "No, I... Well, yes," she corrected herself, with a faint trace of nervousness. "I mean, my Mom died several years ago, but my Dad still lives there."
Her face was neutral, her fingers strummed lightly across the strings again, and nothing she'd said hinted that he was trespassing--still, an indefinable shading in her voice told him this wasn't a happy subject for her. But he persisted, selfishly wanting to know everything he could about her. "He must be very proud of you," he said, subtly fishing for more information.
Her eyes rose to his again, and they were closed off suddenly. Shuttered, blanker than he'd ever seen them. "Once upon a time," she said flatly. "But we had a disagreement. Now we don't speak."
Color crept up his neck. He'd been prying, and he had no right. "I'm sorry," he said, feeling incredibly stupid. "I just thought... I mean, you seem so alone here, I just wondered... If you had anyone else, I mean. Sisters, brothers, that sort of thing--"
My God, he thought in despair, I'm babbling. She'll think I'm an idiot. Worse, a prying idiot!
But to his surprise, she smiled slightly. "It's okay, Ben. I'm always curious about people, too. Don't feel bad. Actually, I don't have any brothers or sisters now. I'm it for the Alastrina kids."
"Now?" he echoed, before he could stop himself.
Her green eyes emptied out again suddenly. "I had a brother," she said softly. "Five years younger than me. We were very close, but he died several months ago."
She lowered her head over the strings again, so he couldn't see her face. But he knew that he'd hit on more than just a sore spot. He'd found the source of the mysterious pain that shadowed her face sometimes, when she played her music. The cause of her tears, that first night he'd heard her out on his fire escape. "I'm sorry. Your brother was a musician too, wasn't he?" he said, voicing his thoughts aloud. "You used to play together."
She lifted her head suddenly, her guitar forgotten. Her green eyes were wide with surprise, and an intense emotion he couldn't identify. "How did you know that?"
He shrugged awkwardly, dismayed by her unexpected reaction to his insight. "It was just a guess," he said. He didn't want to tell her he'd seen grief floating in the liquid depths of her eyes on more than one occasion. She was a private person in some ways, just as he was. He doubted she would be comfortable with the knowledge that he could read her that well.
"Good guess," she said softly, her eyes searching his as if she didn't quite believe his answer. What she found there seemed to satisfy her though, because after a moment, she relaxed and pointed to a nearby end table. "That's his picture. His name was Kevin." Her voice was carefully neutral, but he felt her grief nonetheless, like a dark river flowing beneath her words, and his heart went out to her.
He got up and picked up the picture, turned it upward gently. A sunny gaze looked back at him; a bearded youth with red-gold hair and blue eyes, whose only resemblance to Elanna was in his ready smile and the shape of his mouth. Her brother.
He died so young, he thought with a pang as he stared at the photo. And then an odd feeling came over him. Kevin looked familiar somehow. He felt he'd seen his picture somewhere before, but he couldn't remember where...
"I know, we don't look alike," Elanna said over his shoulder. "My Mom used to say Kevin got the real "Irish" looks in the family."
"Still, there's a resemblance," he said truthfully. "Was your mother Irish?"
She nodded, staring down at the photograph in his hands with a slight smile. "My Dad too. But Dad's dark-haired, like me. Black Irish."
"How did Kevin--"
Elanna took the photo back from him suddenly, put it on the table and turned away. "He was murdered late last year," she said, her voice so chilly it was a definite warning. "Come on, Ben, enough ancient history," she added tightly. "Let's play some more."
"I know some Irish songs," he volunteered some time later. He wasn't sure quite why he'd said that. Was he trying to impress her, or just divert her from the grief she'd felt earlier, which he knew she'd suppressed but not forgotten.
She just smiled over her guitar. "Do you know 'Danny Boy,' by any chance?" she asked.
He nodded eagerly. "It's one of my favorites."
But when he moved to pick up his guitar, she stopped him with a touch. "I'll play," she said. "Can you sing it for me?"
He blinked at her, a little taken aback. For some reason, the thought of singing in front of her--for her--was a little intimidating.
"Come on, Ben," she wheedled, smiling. "I've sung for you, after all. And I've heard you humming along. You've got a nice baritone. Sing it, please! Just once. For me." Her green eyes were warm as summer, her lips curved sweetly...How could he refuse her?
"Okay," he said at last.
"All right!" she laughed, so pleased that he felt himself flushing.
"Promise not to laugh," he said.
She crossed her heart, her smile widening. "On my honor as a Mountie."
He laughed, then cleared his throat. He was still a bit nervous. "Maybe if you start playing, I can just join in," he said.
Instantly, the sweet old strains of the song filled the room. Elanna looked down at her hands as she played, not at him, as if she knew that would make it easier for him. He settled back, drew a deep breath, and softly started singing.
Elanna closed her eyes as she played and Fraser sang. "Danny Boy"--the song held so many memories! It was her mother's favorite, and one of the first she and Kevin had learned to play together. Once she looked away, Fraser forgot to be nervous. His voice gained strength and confidence as they went along, and he invested the song with real tenderness and feeling.
By the time he sang --
"But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,-- she'd stopped playing, and found herself singing along.
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow,
And I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow,"
"Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so..."
Their voices blended together, her soft soprano a sweet counterpoint to his baritone. They both held the last note as long as they could, drawing out the sad, sentimental song until the last possible second.
Then a silence fell between them, so profound they could hear each other breathing. Elanna could almost feel Kevin's presence, and for once, it felt like a blessing. Warm and comforting, like he was smiling at her.
Ben had done that, given her back a piece of her past without even knowing it. She opened her eyes at last, and smiled at him. "That was beautiful, Ben. Thank you."
"My pleasure," he said softly, and she knew he meant it. Because for the first time since she'd known him, he smiled so happily that it drove the darkness from his eyes.
For a moment. Then he looked down, twisted his hands together and frowned. "Elanna... there's something I want to tell you."
He sounded serious, and she suddenly realized that the song might've evoked strong memories for him, too. She laid her guitar down and gave him her full attention. "Sure," she said. "Go ahead."
"I was in love once," he said slowly, staring into space somewhere between them. "With a woman named Victoria..."
Fraser stood at his window, staring out at the nearby buildings as morning turned them from black to gray. He didn't see them, didn't see anything but a pair of bright green eyes. Changeable as the sea, smiling one minute and sad the next, they haunted him. Elanna's eyes.
It was the third morning in a row he'd jolted awake from sweaty, erotic dreams of her. The third time he'd wakened hard as a rock and moaning as he came helplessly in his lonely bed. He hadn't felt so hormonal since he was a teenager.
God, I want her! So much it blinded him, waking, and convulsed his body, sleeping. So much that it frightened him. What am I going to do?
Though no one else knew of his torment, not even Ray, it was nonetheless acute. He felt helpless and humiliated. He'd never had this problem before. In the past, if he'd felt something for a woman but the situation was hopeless, he'd merely avoided her until his feelings went away. But mere avoidance wasn't working this time. Though he hadn't seen Elanna in a week, he couldn't stop thinking of her. Dreaming about her.
Sometimes he thought he was going insane.
He'd longed to come back to life, to be able to feel again after Victoria left--but now that he had, this unexpected tide of longing, of sexual desire, frightened him. He'd never dreamed that his return to the ranks of humanity would happen because of a woman. He'd thought Victoria had wounded him too deeply for that, left him too wary. It's too much, too soon, a little voice inside him said. He'd never imagined his feelings for Elanna could become so deep, so quickly.
No, feelings is too tame a word. Hunger would be more like it, he mused bitterly. She'd wakened his body to a near fever pitch. He'd never been a very sexual man, but Victoria had started to change all that; and Elanna had completed the process. Without even knowing it, she'd reawakened the hunger he'd thought had died when Victoria left him. Now, like a slave driver, his body made its needs known again, demanded more of what Victoria had given him: more touches, more caresses, more sex.
But not hers. He was done with Victoria, hoped he'd never seen her again. Now, his treacherous body demanded Elanna.
But he couldn't have her. So at first, in an attempt to defuse the situation, he'd tried to tell himself that his attraction to her was silly, that it was merely physical, and probably the result of her slight resemblance to Victoria. But now he knew that wasn't true. The more time he spent with Elanna, the more he realized how very unlike her she was. Where Victoria had been proud, almost arrogant, Elanna was refreshingly down-to-earth, despite her amazing musical talent. Honest where Victoria had always lied, sweet and giving where she had only taken, she was the antithesis of his former love. And as much as he wanted her, it was those qualities he prized even more than her beauty.
She was the first person he'd ever told about Victoria--the first person he'd trusted not to laugh at him, or condemn him for his weakness. Elanna was, in fact, everything he'd always wanted in a woman. He didn't just want her, he loved her. The problem was, she didn't share his feelings. She didn't love him back.
But that didn't change how he felt. His craving for her kept getting stronger. It had already spilled over from his dreams into his waking life. Ray had always complained about him tasting things--he wondered why he hadn't noticed his sudden obsession with touching them instead. He'd become absurdly tactile, found himself touching things absently wherever he went, as if that could assuage the need inside him. But it didn't. He craved physical contact to a degree he'd never thought possible. He longed to be touched. To be taken...
But that didn't seem likely, or even possible. Elanna thought of him only as a friend; and her friendship was very important to him. In two long years, she was the only person in this enormous city besides Ray Vecchio who'd reached out to him, accepted him, and asked nothing in return but the pleasure of his company. She was teaching him to play, sharing her time and talent generously; and in the process, he was learning to smile, to sing again. He couldn't risk something that rare and precious just to satisfy his desire.
And as he stared blindly out into the gray Chicago morning, he couldn't help remembering the bitter lessons his relationship with Victoria had taught him. He knew, now, that he tended to be compulsive about women. He didn't want to make the same mistake again, didn't want to pursue a woman who didn't really love him. Who might not even want him.
But God, he wanted her! His hands tightened on the windowsill until it creaked in protest. He let it go. Looked down and saw that he'd been clutching it so hard his fingernails had left tiny indentations in the wood.
Dief came to him, sensing his distress, and pushed his head against his leg with a soft whoof. He stroked him absently. "What am I going to do?" he whispered. The wolf's fur was soft--but not as soft as Elanna's hair would've been, under his starving fingers.
He groaned aloud at the thought.
Yet he knew he would see her again.
Less than a week later, Fraser ran into Elanna on the stairs one evening. He was heading out to the grocery store to buy new blades for his razor. She was heading up, carrying some brown bags that smelled delicious. He hurried down to help her, sniffing the delicious aroma.
"Hi, Ben! It's Chinese food. I didn't feel like cooking," she explained as he hefted one of the bags for her. "You wanna join me?"
He knew he shouldn't. He really needed those new blades, so he could shave in the morning before work...But he wanted to be with Elanna far more than he wanted to be well-groomed. "I'd be delighted," he smiled. "Thank you kindly."
As penance for his weakness, he forced himself not to look at her legs as he climbed the stairs behind her.
He tried not to stare at her while they ate dinner, either. But she was so close, and so enchanting, that it was like trying not to breathe. He'd think he was doing well, then suddenly wake up to find his fork suspended in midair while his eyes traveled over the shining dark fall of her hair.
He was almost relieved when they finished eating. He didn't want her to know how he felt, since she didn't feel the same way, but it was hard for him to hide it when they were so close.
"That was delicious," he smiled when they were done. "Thank you." But if the truth were to be told, he'd been so caught up in Elanna's scent, in the brightness of her eyes, that he'd hardly even noticed what he was eating.
She smiled back at him. "Thanks for sharing it with me," she said, as if he were the one who'd done her a kindness by coming.
Still, he felt obligated to return the favor, and cast around mentally for a way to do so. His eyes happened on her guitar, which was lying on her couch not far away. "I know a song," he said. "It's very old... I learned it years ago, in Canada. I think you'd like it. Would you let me sing it for you?"
He knew he'd said just the right thing, for Elanna's eyes brightened with genuine pleasure and surprise. "Sure! That'd be great," she said.
Fraser picked up her guitar and strummed it lightly for a minute while he got himself settled beside her on her couch. Then he started to play, a pretty, old-fashioned melody in a minor key.
"Oh the water is wide," he sang,
"And I can't cross o'er.
And neither have I wings to fly.
Build me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row
My love and I."
Elanna sat still as a stone, shocked by Ben's choice of music. She knew every word of the song by heart--it was one of Kevin's favorites! It was such an odd coincidence that it rocked her. She tried to tell herself it didn't mean anything, but that didn't help. Every word of the song reminded her of her brother. The words bit into her soul, brought tears to her eyes.
"There is a ship, and she sails the sea
She's loaded deep as deep can be
But not so deep as the love I'm in
I know not how
To sink or swim..."
Tears fell from Elanna's brimming eyes, hot tears that blinded her. All at once, Ben stopped singing. He must've put down the guitar, she realized dimly, for his hands were on her shoulders. He leaned close to her, and his voice was hoarse. "Elanna, what's the matter?"
She tried to tell him it was nothing, but only managed a shaky sob. Grief had taken hold of her, and it was too strong to fight. "It's... my brother," she choked out, reaching out blindly for his hand.
He took it in his for a moment, then folded her gently into his arms. "That song reminded you of him?" he asked, very softly.
"Y-yes," she sobbed. "I miss him... s--so much..."
"I know," he said quietly, thinking of his father. Of his mother. Even Victoria, who he'd once thought he couldn't live without. Loss was one thing he understood very well indeed. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, meaning it.
Elanna clung to him blindly, sobbing. Fraser closed his eyes, tried to ignore the warning signals that flashed through his body at her nearness: rapidly accelerating heartbeat and breathing, elevated temperature, and--
"Elanna," he croaked, his throat so tight he could hardly speak. He longed to crush her to him, but for her own sake, he knew he should push her away instead. But her sorrow was so keen, her distress so deep that was impossible. To increase her pain when she was already grief-stricken would be no less than cruel. She would never understand such a rejection. So he had no choice but to let her hang onto him. Still, he fought not to touch her--at least, no more than was necessary to offer comfort. He patted her back awkwardly.
"I'm sorry," he said as she wept. "I know how it feels to lose someone you love."
She held on even tighter, buried her face in his neck as she trembled and cried. For just a second, the irony of the situation swept over him. After all, this was just what he'd wanted, wasn't it? Elanna in his arms, touching him? Embracing him? Only under the circumstances, he couldn't do anything about it.
He groaned to himself. As usual, when God granted his deepest desires, He did it in such a way that it seemed more like a curse than a blessing. It was his punishment, he supposed, for secretly wallowing in carnal desires.
He closed his eyes again, desperately trying to blot out the overpowering sensory input: the sweet scent of her perfume, the warmth of her body, the softness of her breasts against his chest, the intoxicating silkiness of her hair against his neck--
But it didn't do any good. It only seemed to intensify his awareness of her. Despite his efforts to repress it, the hunger inside him raged, demanding to be fed. Touch her, it urged. You know you want to--
He gritted his teeth against the temptation. "No!"
Elanna opened her eyes, looked up at him tearily. "What?"
Oh, God! He must've spoken his thoughts aloud. He reddened helplessly, tried surreptitiously to draw his hips away from her so she wouldn't feel what her closeness had done to him, wouldn't sense the starkly sexual thoughts that had possessed him while he was trying to comfort her.
As he shifted uncomfortably, she tightened her slender arms around him unconsciously. "What's the matter, Ben?" she asked shakily. Unfortunately, the gesture pushed her even closer to him, so close he could feel her heartbeat, feel her nipples pressing into his chest. Her lips were parted, and they were close, so close to his...
His throat tightened, his head throbbed until he felt like it would explode. It seemed like he was coming even closer to her, though he could've sworn he hadn't moved at all. "I--I should go," he whispered, maddened as her lips came closer, frightened by the realization that she hadn't moved. He had. He was, in fact, bending his head towards her.
"Don't," she breathed.
Just that one ambiguous word, and he was lost.
He tried to tell himself that she'd realized what he was doing, and that she was protesting the kiss he wanted so badly. But the crazed, lustful part of him argued that she wanted it too, that she was telling him not to go.
He was shaking, trembling convulsively with the effort not to kiss her when their lips somehow met. Hers were impossibly soft and sweet, and she caught her breath when their mouths touched. "I'm sorry," he gasped, apologizing because he knew he was lost, hopelessly and completely, in the grip of overwhelming desire.
He told himself that the last time he'd wanted anyone this much, he'd almost died for it; and she had left him. But it didn't help. He couldn't stop himself. Before she could answer, he'd crushed her to him and kissed her again. He covered her mouth with his, his whole body surging against her, over her slender form like a wave crashing against a cliff. Blind and deaf with need, breathing heavily, he pressed her back into the sofa as he traced her mouth, learned its shape.
Then he parted her lips.
She made a small sound at that, her hands digging into his shoulders. A far-off, rational part of him knew that he'd gone too far, ruined everything. At any moment, she was going to push him away, scream, throw him out--And still, he couldn't stop. Her scent filled his nostrils, her soft body fitted against his so sweetly, so perfectly that it made his heart pound. And her mouth--
Soft, warm and trembling, it lured him on in spite of everything. Wanting--needing--to taste her, he slid his tongue inside, found and stroked hers with it. And pleasure shot through him, hot, sweet pleasure that spread like fire through his body.
But Elanna stiffened. She suddenly moaned softly into his mouth, then pulled her head away, breaking the kiss. Her eyes were wide, her breathing unsteady.
I must've scared her, he thought, embarrassed. She doesn't want me.
But he was so aroused he could hardly breathe. He had to pull away from her before he could speak, and his hands were shaking. "I'm sorry," he grated. Rationality had returned in a rush, and he was dismayed at what he'd done. "Did I hurt you?" He knew he must've, he was almost twice her size and much stronger than her and he'd grabbed her, almost crushed her against him... When she was grieving, no less! Christ, he'd turned into an animal!
But even her denial that he'd harmed her failed to reassure him. He'd never grabbed a woman that way, never lost control like that in his life. Why did it have to be with her, who he respected so much? It made his weakness doubly humiliating. She'd been nothing but kind and sweet to him, had shown nothing stronger than a friendly interest in him, and look how he'd returned the favor! By making the most blatant kind of pass at her while she was vulnerable and upset. He looked down at his boots, unable to meet her eyes. "I'm sorry, Elanna," he said again.
"It's okay, Ben," she said softly. She didn't yell at him, didn't berate him or even ask him what the hell he'd thought he was doing. When he dared to look at her again, she just rubbed at her eyes, which were still damp with tears. But that little gesture burned like a whip across his back.
It was obvious that his feelings were one-sided. She didn't want him, wasn't moved by his kiss at all. She'd merely sought comfort in his arms because she trusted him, and he'd jumped her like a wolf in mating season.
He swallowed hard. There was no excuse for what he'd done. She should've berated him soundly for it, at least, but obviously, she was too polite. He didn't deserve such forbearance, he thought miserably. The only thing left for him to do was make sure it never happened again. He could never come here like this again, never be alone with her again. He wanted her too much--so much he couldn't be trusted.
He got up and moved away from her. "That was a mistake. It won't happen again," he said, and headed blindly for her door.
She shifted behind him. "Wait, Ben!" she called. "I'm not mad--"
His mouth turned down darkly. No, I am, he thought. I've lost my mind. Ashamed, he reached for her door unsteadily. "Goodbye," he said hoarsely, not looking at her.
Somehow, he found himself clattering numbly downstairs towards his own apartment. Somewhere behind him, he thought he heard her door open, imagined he heard her calling his name.
But he didn't turn back.
Elanna couldn't get Ben's kiss out of her head. It was strange--she'd had several lovers, and their kisses, though pleasant, had never obsessed her. She tried to tell herself it was ridiculous to think so much about Fraser's. But she couldn't stop.
And that was worse than ridiculous, it was dangerous. Fraser was a cop. Which made him the last man on earth she should be kissing--the last man on earth she should've befriended right now. She was supposed to be alone: a lone wolf stalking silently through the city, intent on nothing but her prey. That was how she'd planned it, the only way she could be safe.
But Fraser had come to mean more to her than safety. Not at their first meeting, certainly. Maybe not even the first time he came to her apartment. But one morning not long after, she woke up and realized that if a day went by and she didn't see him, she felt bereft. She craved his blue eyes, his voice--his presence.
The realization terrified her. The more so because it wasn't just his looks that attracted her, though he was very handsome. It wasn't just his kiss that she wanted, though it had been exciting. She craved more than the shiny outer package. She wanted the whole man, all of him: his gentleness, his innocence and sweetness, even the pain she sensed lurking inside of him, the pain that was so like her own. The sadness he tried so hard to hide called to her irresistibly. She wanted to heal him, wanted to take the shadows from his eyes and make him smile again. Make him happy.
She knew what that meant. She shivered. I must be out of my mind!
She'd never been less herself, never hidden more secrets in her life. Yet in this time of masks and danger, she'd met the man of her dreams--a man so transparently honest that he couldn't tell a white lie without blushing. It was so bleakly ironic she wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. If she'd met him at any other time, she could've, would've, fallen for him. Hard. But now...
Now, he spelled disaster.
If he knew what she was up to, he'd find a way to stop her. That went without saying. And she couldn't let him do that. She was too close now.
But so was he.
I think he's in love with me.
And that scared her more than anything. He'd already aroused her with just a kiss. What would it do to her if she ever made love to him? What would it do to him, if he ever learned who--and what--she was?
It could destroy us both.
She couldn't let that happen, couldn't let her helpless craving for a pair of beautiful, wounded blue eyes prevent her from accomplishing her mission. There was only one thing to do, only one way to keep them from coming so dangerously close again.
Fraser was avoiding her at the moment, out of sheer embarrassment. But she couldn't count on him doing that forever. Sooner or later, he'd approach her again, and she couldn't resist him forever. The inevitable would happen.
It could destroy us...
So she took a page from Fraser's book, and started to avoid him--as much for his sake as for hers. She stayed inside when he was coming or going to work, and if she saw him around otherwise, she fled. But to her dismay, after a few days of that, he responded by trying to see her again. He knocked on her door a few times, even called her name.
Perverse Mountie! she thought, irritated. When she heard him at her door, she either ignored him, pretended she wasn't home, or opened it but cut off all conversation by telling him that she was on her way out, and hurrying away. She let him think his kiss had put her off, that she was avoiding him because she wasn't interested. She tried her best to ignore the hurt, the disappointment she saw in his eyes.
But she knew it was dishonest. Worse than that, it was cruel. Her heart twisted painfully in her breast every time she walked away from him; but she had no other choice. She put on a mask whenever Ben was around, and became someone who didn't care for him. It was the only way she could get through it.
But she wondered if he saw through that mask the way she'd seen through his--because he kept trying.
She wasn't sure if she wished he'd stop, or if she was praying he wouldn't.
"Come on, Benny. Whatsa' matter?" Ray asked, as they sat eating breakfast one morning.
Fraser jumped, startled at the loud question. "What do you mean?" Mired deep in thoughts of the mess he'd made of his friendship with Elanna, he hadn't really been paying proper attention to his friend. He felt guilty. It was the first time he'd seen Ray in weeks, and he hadn't even been listening to him. He hoped he hadn't noticed.
Ray rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Fraser! Look at you! You've hardly said a word to me since I picked you up! And for the last fifteen minutes, you've been playin' with your Wheaties and starin' into space! Totally zoned out. I wouldn't be much of a detective if I couldn't tell that somethin's wrong with you."
Embarrassed, he lowered his eyes and hastily lifted a forkful of cereal to his lips. "I was not 'zoned out', Ray," he protested. (Whatever that was.) "Nothing's wrong. I was just... thinking."
Vecchio made a rude noise.
He stifled a sigh. "What does that mean?"
"That was the sound of my bullshit detector goin' off the scale!" Ray snorted.
"Oh, really!" Benton sniffed, peeved at being caught in a lie. Even a little white one.
He took a mouthful of cereal and chewed it stolidly, determined not to reply.
But Ray wouldn't let it go. "Okay then--if you really are fine, then prove it, Red. Tell me what I was just talkin' about."
Fraser searched his memory desperately. "Uh..."
"Come on, you got a good memory, Benny," Ray grinned. "What was it?"
Fraser resented him a bit, for enjoying this so much. He thought hard. "Well, you mentioned that an informant, Jerry Parnell, had given you some interesting information on a wealthy drug dealer he works for. A man named Lafferty, who you've been trying to arrest for some time. Apparently some mysterious woman who calls herself 'The Avenger' is trying to find him, for reasons unknown--"
Ray waved a hand, cutting him off. "No good, Benny! That's how the conversation started, a good ten minutes ago," he said. "What've I been talking about for the past five, huh?"
Fraser stared down at his hands. Vecchio was right. He didn't have a clue what he'd said after that. "The weather?" he ventured desperately.
Ray hooted with laughter. "Oh, come on! My five year-old niece could do better than that--"
Fraser threw up his hands in defeat. "All right, all right!" he hissed, so embarrassed he was flushing. "I'm sorry, I don't know. My mind wandered for a second. I admit it. There, are you satisfied?"
"Huh unh," Ray shook his head. "Not until you tell me what's up."
Fraser looked away, stared moodily down into his cereal. Suddenly, the soggy flakes disgusted him. Or maybe it was thinking of what he'd done that had killed his appetite. But for whatever reason, he couldn't eat another bite. He shoved the bowl away from him, ran his hands through his hair distractedly. How in the world was he going to tell Ray about this? He was so experienced, such a man of the world, he'd probably just laugh.
"It's a woman, isn't it," Ray said, gulping coffee. It was a statement, not a question.
He stared at him in consternation. "How did you--"
Ray shot him a sarcastic look. "I'm a detective, remember? And the only time I've ever seen you look like that before is when Victoria was here."
Ray's eyes grew wide. "She's not--?"
He shook his head swiftly. "No, she hasn't come back, Ray," he reassured him. "I haven't seen or heard anything from her since she left."
Ray bit deep into a doughnut. "Thank God for small favors," he muttered. "Well, who is it then? That Elaine girl you mentioned?"
"Elanna," he corrected absently. He hadn't told Ray much about her yet, except that she was smart, a talented musician, and that they were friends. He didn't want the Italian to start prodding him about his interest in her, when she didn't return it.
"Yeah, whatever. The one who plays the guitar, right?"
"Yes." He knew he wasn't being very forthcoming, but he couldn't help it. He was afraid if he gave Ray any details, he'd get teased, and he felt bad enough already.
"Obviously, there's a problem," Ray went on, undeterred by his terseness. "So what'd you do--feed her pemmican?" he teased.
"Why do you assume it's my fault?" Fraser asked, on the defensive because deep down, he knew it was.
Ray snorted again. "Hey, Benny--this is me you're talkin' to! Besides, you haven't looked so guilty since that night Frannie paid you a visit. So give. What'd you do? Arrest her for breakin' the speed limit?"
He shook his head glumly, wishing it were that simple.
"Put her to sleep once too often tellin' Inuit stories?" he guessed again.
Ray glared at him, finally fed up with his mono-syllabic answers. "Look, Fraser, I don't have all day here. Are you gonna tell me what happened, or take the secret to your grave?"
He swallowed hard. "I kissed her," he said at last, in a low voice.
Ray blinked. "So? With Americans, that's usually a good thing."
Fraser rolled his eyes in exasperation at the flip response. "You don't understand! It wasn't the kiss, so much as the circumstances surrounding it, that were wrong."
Ray stared at him, waiting for a further explanation. Obviously, he hadn't done a very good job of telling him what had happened. But it was so hard! He hated talking about matters of the heart, they were always so difficult to put into words. "I shouldn't have done it," he went on in a low voice. "Elanna's my friend. She was upset, she turned to me seeking comfort, and I--lost control," he confessed.
"How do you know?" the Italian asked unexpectedly.
He gritted his teeth. This was beyond hard. It was actively, painfully embarrassing. And trust Ray to make it worse by demanding every last little intimate detail! "My heart was pounding, I could hardly breathe, and I kissed her despite the fact that she was crying!" he snapped. "Where I come from, that kind of behavior certainly constitutes losing control!"
Ray merely waved a hand, unmoved by his growl. "No, I meant how d'ya' know she only wanted comfort?" he asked calmly.
Fraser blinked. He'd been so sunk in guilt about the whole thing, and so flustered by what he'd misinterpreted as Ray's inappropriate curiosity about it, that it took him a minute to even grasp what he meant. When he did, he was shocked. "For God sakes, Ray--she was crying!" he sputtered.
"Benny, Benny, Benny!" Ray chided smugly. "You've got so much to learn about women. Tears are number three on the list of female secret weapons. Shed a few of 'em, and they can get whatever they want from guys. Frannie does it all the time. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book."
Ben shook his head, unconvinced. "It wasn't like that," he said. "I know women sometimes use tears to gain their ends, but Elanna wouldn't. She's a very honest person."
Ray lifted a skeptical eyebrow.
He tried again. "She wasn't crying in an effort to seduce me, but because her brother was murdered."
"Oh." The Italian sobered briefly in surprise. "Murdered, huh? That's tough."
"Yes. It happened just last year," he explained. "Elanna only started crying when I sang a song that reminded her of him. And since I chose the music, and there was no way to anticipate what that choice would be, she couldn't have set the situation up herself," he insisted.
He thought that logical explanation would've convinced his friend of Elanna's innocence, but Ray missed that point entirely, and went off on an unexpected tangent, as he often did. "You were singing to her, Benny?" he repeated, his eyes gleaming at the idea that his friend had behaved like a lovesick fool. "What, like out on a balcony or somethin'? Or were you standin' underneath her window with a guitar, like in the movies?"
Fraser set his jaw, and resolved privately never, never to tell Ray if he ever did decide to do such a thing. "I was singing, not serenading her, Ray. As I told you, Elanna's a musician. And we were in her apartment at the time, not out on the street," he said sternly. "The point is, her grief was genuine, not an attempt at seduction. She loved her brother very much. Besides, she was shocked when I kissed her."
Vecchio shrugged. "Whatever you say, Benny. But at least I'm startin' to get the picture. So Elanna was hangin' on you boohooin' her dearly departed, and you have a thing for her, so you naturally got a little hot and bothered, and a liplock ensued. Is that right?"
Fraser raised an eyebrow at his colorful use of American slang, but couldn't dispute his meaning. Though it did make him blush again. "More or less," he admitted.
"Well, what happened then? Did she get mad? Yell at you? Throw you out?"
"No," he admitted slowly. "It's... confusing. I'm afraid I kissed her--" he broke off, unable to tell Ray that he'd used his tongue. Revealing such an intimate detail, even to his best friend, would violate his code of chivalry.
"Well... rather hard," he finished awkwardly. "Then she pushed me away. I thought she did it because she was angry with me, but she said she wasn't." He shook his head in confusion. He'd been mulling it over for days, but he still didn't entirely understand her reaction. He'd thought at first that she'd rejected him for the obvious reason, that she wasn't attracted to him at all. But if that were true, why hadn't she been angry? And if she wasn't angry, then why was she avoiding him? He'd worried about it until his head hurt, but hadn't been able to figure it out.
"Whaddid I tell ya', Benny?" Ray laughed, swallowing the last of his donut. "She wants you!"
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. "I don't see how that could be possible," he protested.
Ray rolled his eyes. "Get a clue, Fraser! Have you looked in the mirror lately?"
He shrugged. Ray was always telling him he was good looking, but all he ever saw in the mirror was a rather even, unremarkable face, with the requisite nose, lips and eyes of an indeterminate shade of blue. He'd never understood the extreme way people seemed to react to his appearance here; nor did he share their values. Back home, wilderness skills were what was important. Strength, intelligence and character were what was highly valued--not good looks.
"What I mean is, judging by her reaction, I don't think Elanna is attracted to me. She didn't seem to want to--" he broke off suddenly, reddening as he realized what he'd almost let slip. "Ah... kiss me back," he finished lamely.
The Italian shook his head. "Trust me, Benny! If she was as upset as you say when you kissed her, and she didn't hit you over the head or throw you out afterwards, she's attracted to you. I guarantee it."
"That's hard to believe, Ray. She's hardly even spoken to me since!" he confessed.
Ray shrugged. "Well, maybe she just needs some time to think about it, Benny," he said. "You said it yourself, you kinda' surprised her--and not at the best possible moment, either. Tryin' to take your relationship to the next level while she was cryin' probably wasn't the best idea."
He looked down at his hands and swallowed hard. "I know. I just..." He got choked up just thinking about how much he wanted her.
When he looked up again, Ray's expression was very gentle. "Just give her time, Benny," he said quietly. "If she wants you, she'll come back."
Fraser nodded, but he wasn't convinced of that. He had a hard time believing Elanna could still be interested in him, after the shameful way he'd lost control with her. Still, he'd found that Ray often had insights he lacked, when it came to deeply emotional things. He'd been right about Victoria, after all--he hadn't trusted her from the start. Fraser tried to tell himself that he might be right about Elanna, too; that it was just barely possible that she might want him, despite the way she'd been running from him lately.
He knew it was probably a pipe dream, but he clung to it anyway. It was the first hope he'd had in days.
Elanna secretly watched Fraser leave for work every morning through her window. It made her feel close to him, but almost unbearably lonely at the same time. She knew it was childish, but it was also safe. Still, when she put her fingers over the image of his broad shoulders in the glass, she always wished she could be touching him instead, wished that things could've been different somehow. That she could've loved him.
But that was impossible. It always had been. She'd been kidding herself by letting herself get close to him. She'd come much closer than she should've, much closer than was safe. Because he was so kind, so understanding, she'd let her guard down for a minute. For the first time in months, she'd let herself cry in front of someone else, had given into her grief about Kevin, and somehow, she'd ended up in Ben's arms.
There, she'd made several shocking discoveries. First, she'd found that grief wasn't the only emotion he'd been hiding. He wanted her, so badly that when she clung to him, crying, desire overwhelmed his normally iron self control. Shaking with the effort not to, he'd kissed her passionately; and that hot, barely controlled burst of hunger from the polite, sweet Canadian was the most unexpected, erotic thing she'd ever felt.
Which led to her second surprising discovery: I want him just as much as he wants me.
Something inside her had responded to his loss of control with stunning eagerness. She'd wanted to do more than just return his kiss, she'd wanted to wrap herself around him and inflame his astonishing hunger until she burnt the last vestiges of his self control away. She could've done it, too. She was experienced enough to know that he'd been right on the edge--and how to drive him over it. If she hadn't pushed him away, they would've ended up in bed, making mad, passionate love. Hell, they might not even have made it to her bed.
She still wasn't sure how she'd managed to stop it, to give up the sizzling pleasure she'd felt at his first kiss. In one blinding moment of clarity, she realized that she'd been fooling herself all along. All that lone wolf stuff was just garbage--she'd been attracted to him from the first. She'd probably stayed here as much to be near him as to make her search easier.
But she'd learned a thing or two about iron control herself in the past few months. Her goal had become more than a focus, it had become an obsession. Maybe that was what saved her. At the last instant, just when she'd felt herself about to give in and kiss Ben as passionately as he was kissing her, she'd thought of Kevin. Kevin, whose magic voice and fingers had been silenced forever. Kevin, whose face had burned with a terrible, accusatory whiteness when she'd identified his body. Her beloved brother, who spoke to her now only in dreams. She'd remembered him, and remembered who had torn a hole in her life by putting him on that cold, stainless steel slab in the morgue.
She'd remembered who had murdered Kevin, and pain had cut through her pleasure. Reminded her brutally, inescapably of who she was, and why she was here.
Pain was her life now. Pain was her purpose, and her goal.
Pain was all she had left of Kevin.
So she hadn't kissed Fraser back. She'd let him stumble out her door, disappointed and intensely embarrassed, because he was a distraction she couldn't afford. And now she spent her mornings pathetically watching him through her window instead of touching him like she wanted to do. And they both slept alone.
But she had no choice. Loving him would soften her, sway her from her purpose, make her incapable of doing what she'd come here to do. And God knew, her task was hard enough already. She'd never been meant for this, had always found loving easier than hating.
She still did. Only now, hatred was necessary. Hatred was what kept her going. So she'd pushed Benny away, let him leave thinking his kiss had been a mistake, that she didn't want him.
She had no choice. She couldn't become his lover and commit murder, too.
About a week after his breakfast with Ray, Fraser was heading home one night on foot. He was tired. He'd been burying himself in work lately, in an effort to take his mind off Elanna, whom he hadn't seen for days. It was late, almost ten o'clock as he turned his tired feet down West Racine towards his apartment.
It was then that he saw her. She was far ahead of him, but moving slowly in the same direction, and her slender figure was unmistakable.
Elanna! What was she doing out so late, all alone? In this neighborhood, that wasn't safe. He opened his mouth to call to her, then shut it again. She'd been avoiding him with such determination lately that if she knew he was behind her, she would probably run inside before he even had a chance to talk to her.
And he wanted very much to talk to her. He'd never had the chance to tell her how sorry he was for ruining things between them.
On silent, stealthy feet, he ran towards her.
Elanna moved slowly towards her apartment building. She felt lower than she'd ever felt before; and lately, that was saying something, she reflected ruefully. She fingered her sore cheek. It was already swelling. She'd have an ugly bruise there tomorrow, and her hip ached where she'd fallen. Other than that, she was intact.
It could've been worse. She'd known something like this might happen when she set out to do this.
A mugger had jumped her when she was on her way home. He'd grabbed her from behind, dragged her into an alley and hit her across the face before she could even cry out. She'd hit the ground hard, so hard that for a moment, the world had spun around her. Then while she lay dazed on the dirty concrete, waiting for the pain in her head to go away so she could think, he'd bent over her and rifled her pockets. She hadn't tried to fight him, had just laid there until he finished and took off with her wallet. She couldn't see well enough to tell if her attacker was armed, and wouldn't risk her life for the meager amount of money she had on her. She wasn't stupid enough to carry a full wallet around when she was out on the street asking questions, so she'd only lost a few bucks.
She'd known better than to go to the awful part of town where she'd just been, but she'd had no choice. The street people had told her there was only one man around here who was selling what she needed to buy, and he lived on a drug-infested, decaying street lined with crack houses, about thirty minutes from her apartment. So she'd gone.
She'd found him without incident, and bought what she needed without any trouble. The trouble had only started when she'd walked back to her car. That was when the mugger had jumped her.
Still, she tried to tell herself that she'd been lucky. She could've been knocked out, had bones broken, or worse--she could've lost the precious, illegal item she'd just bought. It was a wonder her mugger hadn't stolen it, too. But fate had been kind on that score. When the mugger hit her, it had flown out of her purse. He never saw it. Later, when she'd fumbled around in the dirty alley trying to gather its scattered contents, she'd seen where it had slid beneath a dumpster, and retrieved it.
But she didn't feel lucky. She felt hurt and scared, and dirtier than she'd been since this whole sorry business began. She drew her coat closer around her and shivered, though it wasn't really cold.
Then she heard footsteps behind her. Before she could stop herself, she broke into a run. She wasn't far from the front door of her apartment building, and she'd had enough for one night. She sprinted blindly for home and safety.
Such as it was.
Despite Fraser's attempt at stealth, Elanna evidently heard him coming, because she bolted like a deer when he was still ten feet away from her. He called her name then, belatedly, to reassure her. But she tore inside their apartment building without a word, without so much as a backward glance.
That seemed strange. Elanna had been elusive lately, but it wasn't like her to ignore him completely when he called to her. He frowned and sped after her.
She was halfway up the first flight of stairs before he caught her arm.
She shrank away from him.
"Elanna! It's me!" he said.
She stood staring at him, wide-eyed, her back against the wall. His sharp eyes catalogued disturbing details: her right cheek was bruised and scraped, her face was deathly pale, and her purse strap had nearly been severed. Her green eyes were wide with what looked like shock--or terror. Instantly, every protective instinct he had was aroused. His intent to apologize was forgotten in his concern for her.
"Elanna?" he repeated gently. "What happened to you?" She'd frozen, and he wasn't sure if she'd even heard him.
"Ben," she said faintly at last. "I'm sorry, I...didn't know it was you."
Her voice sounded as shaky as she looked, and he drew closer to her instinctively. "Are you all right?"
She blinked rapidly, looked away from him. "Yes. I'm... fine," she said mechanically. "I was just... on my way home."
It was very quiet in the stairwell, so quiet that he could hear her rapid breathing. He was so close he could see the dirt that was ground into the rapidly darkening bruise on her cheek. She'd obviously been hit in the face--probably knocked down. And God only knew what else. The damage to her purse suggested at least an attempt at theft. But had it been worse than that? He fought down a thread of panic that coiled deep inside him. Why didn't she want to tell him what had happened? Had she been raped?
He reached out and touched her chin very gently, below the abrasion. He felt her trembling slightly. "You're hurt. Who did this, Elanna?" he asked, keeping his voice low and quiet so as not to frighten her any more than she already was.
She just shook her head silently, lowered her face so that her dark hair swung forward, hiding her expression. Hiding whatever had caused the pain he felt radiating from her. It struck him with sudden force that he'd seen that expression before, felt this silence in her before. And in someone else... He had a terrible, bone-chilling feeling of déjà vu. In that instant, she reminded him of Victoria. He felt a surge of awful, familiar anger. Despite her apparent honesty, she was hiding something--had been for some time. Something more than the identity of whoever had hit her.
Then she lifted her head a little, and he saw tears streaking her cheeks. "I can't tell you," she said shakily. "I don't know. It's nothing major. I was out...shopping, and someone jumped me...stole my wallet. That's all. I didn't see his face. I don't have any broken bones or anything. I'm...not really hurt."
Good God. I was right. She was mugged! She was so small, so slender--it was a minor miracle she hadn't been seriously injured. The disturbing conviction he'd had that she was lying faded away. Maybe he'd been wrong. She was just shaken because she'd been attacked. His anger at her changed to fury for her, at the thought that someone had laid violent hands on his beautiful, gentle musician. His heart went out to her, and he stepped even closer. Close enough to smell the faintly sweet scent of her. Close enough to taste her tears, if he'd been brave enough. Just inches away now. One small movement, one little stretch of his arms, and she'd be in his embrace. He ached to do it, but held himself back.
"I think you are hurt," he whispered, trusting himself only enough to touch her with one finger. He used it to smooth a single lock of hair off her forehead tenderly. "Elanna... Let me help you."
Somehow, his words melted her. As if she'd only been waiting for him to offer, she dropped her purse and sagged forward, her head drooping. Her eyes closed, and her face twisted with a sadness that wrenched him. She laid her head on his chest, and he slid his arms around her, glad that she'd trusted him enough to reach for him. Gently, gratefully, he drew her against his heart.
"Are you all right?" he asked softly.
"Yes. He didn't... touch me," she whispered, shaking a little in delayed reaction.
He tightened his arms around her a little, tremendously grateful for that.
"But I was scared, Ben," he heard her sigh softly. "So scared!" She shuddered against him, holding him tightly, her hands digging into his back almost painfully. But he didn't care. The feeling of her body against his was indescribable: she was small and slender and perfect. He wanted to protect her. He never wanted to let her go.
"It's all right," he said softly, rocking her in his arms like a child. "It's all right now. I'm here. I won't let anyone hurt you."
She raised her head then, stared at him, her lips parted, her green eyes wide and wet with tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
And before he had time to wonder what she meant by that, she wrapped her slender hands around his neck, pressed her lips to his and kissed him. Fraser froze, shaken by the sudden gesture, by her unexpected passion. Their previous kiss, arousing though it had been, was tame by comparison. Then, she'd been passive, surprised, unresponsive. Now she was eager, sensual, her mouth moving breathlessly against his.
It was like being hit by lightning.
She clung to him, trembled as she sought his tongue, arched against him, slid her fingers into his hair. He felt her heart beating frantically, felt the need implicit in the way she surged upwards against him. He moaned deep in his throat. He knew he shouldn't respond, that she was probably just confused in the aftermath of her attack, but his body didn't understand the difference. She clung to him, her heart beating wildly, and her kisses were almost feverish in their intensity.
Something's wrong, a little voice whispered at the back of his mind. But his heart was pounding so loudly that he could hardly hear it. He tried to dry away so he could think rationally, but she tightened her arms around his neck with a little moan of protest. His heart pounded, and blood rushed to his head. She was deliciously soft in his arms, the salt of her tears was on his tongue, and he'd wanted her so much, for so long...
Hunger finally overwhelmed him. With a helpless groan, he gave in and for a long, endless moment, they kissed passionately. But even in his desire, he was careful to be gentle, tried not to hold her too hard. She'd been hurt so much already, and not just by her mugger...
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the magic, white-hot moment was over. She let him go. Pushed him away, as she had before. They both stood staring at each other, heated and shaken, breathless and confused.
"Elanna!" He felt like a swimmer who'd been suddenly jerked out of a warm sea of pleasure into cold, bitter, lonely air; the abrupt change was shocking. He swayed a little on his feet, as if he were drunk. He had been--drunk with the sweetness of her kiss, and the taste, the feel of her under his hands. But the slight distance she'd put between them felt like miles, a distance he couldn't cross. He felt, suddenly and irrationally, as if she stood on the step of a train that was about to pull out of a station, bound for parts unknown. He felt somehow as if he was losing her.
"Wait!" he pleaded thickly. Don't leave me, he wanted to say. The plea trembled in his throat, but he caught himself. He'd pursued Victoria past all hope, past reason. He'd promised himself he would never do that again, would never give up his pride and self respect in pursuit of a woman. He wasn't going to make the same mistakes with Elanna that he had with her. So he forced himself to stay silent as she picked up her purse and moved away from him, up the stairs. He didn't try to stop her, though he longed to.
But he saw that she was crying again, and it alarmed him. "Elanna, what's wrong?"
She just shook her head blindly and kept moving up the stairs, away from him.
"I just want to help you, if you'll let me," he said hoarsely.
Her mouth twisted in a small, very sad smile. "Sweet Ben," she said tenderly, as if to herself. "I'm sorry, but you can't." Then she turned away from him, almost ran up the stairs. He let her go because he knew it was what she wanted. But his sharp ears picked up words she hadn't meant for him to hear.
"No one can help me," she whispered, her voice ancient. "No one."
She sounded as lonely as he felt.
Fraser let a day go by, then he couldn't stand it any longer. He had to know what was going on with Elanna. He couldn't get her whispered words out of his head: No one can help me. No one.
What the devil had she meant by that? The words were ambiguous at best. He supposed they could've referred to her mugging, but somehow, he didn't think they did. He sensed that she was in some kind of trouble. He'd felt it all along, on an unconscious level, but he'd ignored it because he hadn't wanted to believe it--because it made Elanna seem too much like Victoria.
Frustration tightened his jaw. Was he doomed always to love women with dark sides?
Then he shrugged. If that was his destiny, then so be it. He hadn't meant to, but he had fallen in love with Elanna. So no matter what was happening in her life, he had to try and help her with it.
Besides, it was partly his fault. He'd felt that something was wrong in her life, but though they were friends, he'd ignored it because it was easier to do so. So if anything happened to her, it would be partly his responsibility. Because after Victoria, he'd been selfish. He hadn't wanted to get involved with another attractive woman's problems. He'd been afraid to.
But fear was no excuse. It never had been.
He went to her door early that morning, before he left for work. He knocked impatiently.
To his dismay, it swung inward at the slight pressure. Creaked protestingly as it opened wide. "Elanna?" he called, every hair on the back of his neck suddenly raised and quivering. He could see her guitar from where he stood. It lay propped up against a chair not far from the door. But he couldn't see her, and her apartment was appallingly silent.
His heart turned over and began to thump a painful, erratic beat. He stepped inside the room, glanced around anxiously. Nothing seemed disturbed. A colorful afghan he'd seen before lay across the back of her couch; a pile of mail on her kitchen table. But Elanna herself wasn't here, he knew it. He frowned. Why on earth would she have gone away and left her apartment unlocked, with her guitar inside it? She'd told him once that the instrument was her most precious possession. Why would she leave it unguarded, where someone could steal it?
Unbidden, a memory of her heated, almost desperate kisses in the stairwell swept over him. Suddenly, he understood.
Oh God. Dear God, he thought. His heart sank. He'd been right. Elanna had been standing in the doorway of a train the other night, after all. And it'd already left the station.
She's not coming back.
The knowledge came from deep inside him, and it turned him cold.
But what he found once he started to look around her apartment turned him even colder.
Fraser thought about the problem all day. By the time evening came, he decided that he had to get help. This wasn't his jurisdiction, and he knew how determined Elanna must be. He suspected that nothing short of armed intervention would sway her from her course. So there was only one thing to do: contact Ray.
He called him from the Consulate at the end of his shift.
"Thanks for coming, Ray," he said when the detective met him at his office some thirty minutes later. He clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. He hadn't told him any details, just that he needed his help to prevent a crime, but Ray had rushed right over to help him anyway, as usual.
It's good, Fraser thought, to have friends.
Ray shrugged, as he always did, uncomfortable with gratitude. "This better be good, Benny," he said, growling (as he always did) to divert attention from his kindness. "This is the first night I've gotten off before eleven in weeks, and I was lookin' forward to relaxing, maybe goin' out to dinner, ya' know?"
He does look a little tired, Benny thought with a pang. "I'm sorry, Ray, but this is very important."
Ray sighed. "Well, what is it? You got a moose loose in the building? Has Dief eaten one of your neighbor's poodles? What?"
Fraser blinked at the image. "No. This is serious, Ray. I've found out who the Avenger is. The female assassin your informant, Parnell, told you about--the one who's been looking for Lafferty. It's Elanna."
Ray gave him a look that hovered between disbelief and outright amusement. "What? You mean the guitar player who lives upstairs from you? The one you have the hots for?"
"Yes," he replied, ignoring the innuendo.
Ray laughed out loud. "That's crazy, Benny! How many musicians do you know who moonlight as hired killers? Besides, Parnell said the Avenger's a blonde--and you told me Elanna's got dark hair."
He didn't let Ray's reaction faze him. He'd been prepared for disbelief. He knew this was going to sound ludicrous, and he didn't blame his friend for saying so. "She's not a hired killer, Ray," he answered calmly. "I suspect that she just invented the persona because she wanted the people she questioned to think so, so they'd answer her questions more readily. It was actually quite a clever ruse. And she wore a blonde wig while she gathered her information because she knew that word of her search would probably get back to Lafferty, and she didn't want him to be able to trace her. She knows what kind of man he is, and she's far from stupid--she knew he'd come after her if he thought a professional killer was looking for him."
"Okay, but how do you know that it's her? I mean, that she's the Avenger. Even Parnell didn't know her real name. No one does."
Ray's casual question stabbed him. His lips thinned. "Neither did I, apparently."
"Alastrina isn't Elanna's real last name," he explained. "Her real name is Elanna Keely."
Ray looked even more confused. "Is that supposed to mean somethin' to me?"
"Keely, as in Kevin Keely. She's his sister," he explained.
Ray's eyes widened. He got the connection instantly. "Kevin Keely, the junkie who Lafferty had iced a while back?"
"Yes." Suddenly impatient with all these words, he grabbed the Italian as he digested that stunning information, and dragged him towards the front door of the Consulate. "Come on. There's no time to lose."
"Hey, hey! Careful with the suit, Fraser!" Ray complained as he was forced out the door. "And what's with you? Where are we going?"
"To Helen Van Allen's charity ball," Fraser said, tugging his reluctant friend rapidly toward the Riv. He was so grateful that it wasn't far away that he ignored the fact that it was also parked illegally, as usual. Ray had a habit of doing that, though he'd asked him not to. But he knew better than to mention it at the moment, since he needed his help.
"Wait a minute!" Ray brushed his hands away and planted his feet, stubbornly refusing to go any further. "What is it with you lately, Benny? This is just like that thing with Dr. Carter at the hospital a few months ago!" he protested. "Ever since Victoria, you think every dark-haired woman you meet's some kinda psycho!"
"Not every one, Ray," he said mildly. "But I was right about Dr. Henderson, wasn't I?" He grabbed Ray's shoulder again in an apparently friendly gesture. The fact that his fingers happened to close on the same spot where the doctor had shot Ray was purely accidental, though it did help to underscore his point.
"Okay, okay! Don't remind me," Ray groused, fingering his shoulder as if the wound still pained him.
"And I'm right about this, too," he continued, using that convenient, friendly hold to resume dragging Ray relentlessly towards his car. He didn't mean to be pushy, but he'd learned from experience that it was sometimes necessary to be firm with Ray, or else he'd start whining and they wouldn't get anything done.
"About what, Fraser? What are you talking about? Why do we have to go to this ball?" the Italian whined, on cue.
Fraser deposited Ray by the driver's door, then ran around to the other side as he opened it. "Because Elanna will be there. I just found out that she's working for the catering company Ms. Van Allen hired for the occasion," he explained. "And Lafferty will be there too. He's dating Ms. Van Allen."
"And?" Ray prompted impatiently as they climbed inside.
"Elanna's gone there to kill him."
Ray rested his hands on the wheel, and swiveled his head to stare at him. His expression had crossed the line into utter disbelief. "What?"
"Please, Ray, you have to believe me!" he said earnestly. "We have to go there and stop her! I would've gone alone, but she's armed, and as you know, I'm not allowed to carry a gun. So I need your help. Please, Ray! There isn't a moment to spare!"
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Ray shook his head, but started the car. "Okay, Benny, we'll go to the ball," he said. "But you still haven't told me how you even know for sure that Elanna's the Avenger. You better explain the whole thing to me on the way, 'cuz you've come up with some wild ideas in your time, but this has got to be the wildest!"
"You drive," Fraser pleaded. "I'll explain everything."
Elanna watched Lafferty unobtrusively all evening. Studied his every move as she circulated among Ms. Van Allen's guests with trays of hors' deouvres, smiling sweetly. I'm being so polite, she thought with black humor, I could pass for Canadian.
The thought reminded her of Ben. A wave of regret swept over her, so strong that for a second, she felt physically ill. Now she would never know what might've been between them. After tonight, she would never see him again. And after he heard what she'd done, he would hate her.
She forced his memory down deep inside and slammed the door on it, on her past and all she had been. Otherwise she couldn't go on, couldn't do what she'd come here to do.
That's over, she told herself fiercely. Elanna didn't exist anymore. There was only now, and what she had become. There was only Lafferty and the Avenger. She just had to wait for the moment when she could get him alone, so she could kill him.
"So Elanna is Kevin Keely's sister. That doesn't prove anything," Ray said stubbornly as they drove towards Helen Van Allen's ball.
"Doesn't it strike you as odd that she concealed that fact from me?" Fraser said. "Though we're friends, and we talked about her brother more than once, she never told me who he was. And isn't it strange that she moved into an apartment only a few blocks from where he was murdered? And that she was using an assumed name?"
Ray shot him a look. "Okay, so it's strange. You know as well as I do, strange ain't proof, Benny. How d'you know she means to ice Lafferty?"
It was a reasonable question, one any cop was bound to ask, but it only increased Fraser's frustration. His certainty about her purpose was partly based on personal knowledge of Elanna, which Ray didn't have, so he wasn't sure how to convince him of it. But he knew he was right. He felt it in his bones. He'd seen her grief, seen the shadows in her eyes when she spoke of her brother; and he knew how easily pain like that could translate into a thirst for vengeance. He'd felt the same way himself after his father was murdered.
And he couldn't tell Ray this, but he'd also tasted the desperation in Elanna's kisses. He'd put her strange behavior that night in the stairwell down to shock in the wake of her mugging, but it had been more than that. She'd been planning to kill Lafferty even then. She'd been saying goodbye to him, if he'd only known. But how could he explain that? How could he put shadows into words?
Perhaps if he began with the facts..."I've sensed for some time that something was haunting Elanna. Then I saw some mail in her apartment. Letters addressed to an Elanna Keely, not Alastrina. Since she'd already opened them, I knew they must be hers. I read part of one of them, and it confirmed that Alastrina isn't her real name, that she's using an alias. It was from her father, and he signed it John Keely."
"Wait a minute! You read her mail?" Ray interrupted, shaking his head in amazement. "You, Dudley Do Right? I don't believe it! Don't you know that's a federal offense, Benny?"
"Actually, I believe that under American federal statutes, opening someone else's mail is an offense, Ray, not reading mail they've already opened," he said impatiently. "Besides, I didn't mean to do it. But I hadn't seen Elanna for some time, and I was concerned. When I went to her door to check on her, I found it unlocked. That seemed curious, so I knocked, then went inside looking for her--"
"And found the letters."
"Yes. And not just them. She'd left everything behind; her guitar, her clothes, all her possessions."
Ray frowned. "That's a bad sign. And you're sure that she's Kevin Keely's sister?"
"Positive. She showed me a picture of him once. His face seemed familiar, but I couldn't think why. But when I saw the name Keely on her letter, it all came back. I remembered where I'd seen Kevin before: in an article in the Tribune months ago, about his murder. It was then that I realized what she was planning to do."
Ray shook his head, still a little doubtful. "I dunno, Benny. It's a bit of a stretch. Even if she is his sister, how would she know that Lafferty's the one who had her brother iced? Stefano over at the 26th has been workin' on that case for months, but he never could prove it."
Fraser shrugged. "I don't think she has any proof either, Ray. But she mentioned that Kevin wrote her a lot of letters from Chicago. She knew that he became a junkie, and that he was murdered because he got too deeply in debt with his dealer. Maybe he mentioned his dealer's name in those letters, and she found out who his supplier was by asking questions on the street."
"It's possible," Ray admitted grudgingly. "But how do you know she's plannin' to kill Lafferty? The fact that he's gonna be at the party she's workin' could be a coincidence."
He shook his head. "It isn't. When I searched her apartment, I found notes she's been keeping; records of her search for her brother's murderer. She wrote down everything she found out about Lafferty, even kept copies of articles she'd found on him in newspaper archives. She was very methodical, very focused. She not only had his address written down, but the names of his associates, his habits, his known likes and dislikes..."
"Okay, so she would've made a good detective," Ray interrupted. "That doesn't prove anything, either."
Fraser gritted his teeth. He was getting tired of hearing that. He had to make Ray believe him, had to make him see how much danger Elanna was in. "She'd circled a recent article in the society column that mentioned his involvement with Ms. Van Allen," he said. "That article was dated two weeks prior to the date Elanna began working for the catering company Ms. Van Allen regularly uses. Rather too much of a coincidence under the circumstances, don't you think?"
Ray pursed his lips, frowning. That had gotten to him, Fraser could tell. "Okay. Say she was trackin' Lafferty, and she had a motive to kill him," he admitted reluctantly. "That still doesn't necessarily mean she'd actually do it."
"I think that's exactly what it means, Ray. I also found an empty case of bullets in her apartment, but no gun."
Ray grimaced. "Uh oh."
"Yes. Add to that the fact that she loved her brother deeply, and is still grieving for his loss."
"Yeah, that does speak to motive and intent," Ray agreed.
"And tonight, she'll have the opportunity," he finished grimly.
"You could still be misreading this, ya' know, Benny," Ray said. "Let's say she does have a gun. You two don't exactly live in the safest neighborhood, and unlike you, Elanna doesn't keep a wolf under her bed. Maybe she bought it for protection."
Fraser shook his head. "No, there's more to it than that," he explained. "You asked me how I knew Elanna was the Avenger. Well, she told me once that names were very important, that they had meaning. Once I realized she'd chosen a rather unusual alias for herself, I wondered if she did so because it had some personal meaning for her. So I contacted the library, and had a librarian look up her last name in an Irish sourcebook: Alastrina is a female variant of the name Alistair."
"In Irish, that means 'Avenger'."
Their eyes met. Ray's had gone wide and very still. "Holy shit!" he breathed.
Fraser was so on edge that for once, he didn't remember to reprimand his friend for his bad language. "Exactly," was all he said. Every thought he had was focused on Elanna. He knew Ray was driving as fast as he could, but he was so frantic for her that it felt like they were standing still.
"You're right. She's gonna kill him," Ray said grimly. Without another word, he pushed the gas petal to the floor.
To Elanna's delight, Lafferty drank quite a bit at the ball. From what she'd read, that wasn't really typical of him. She supposed he probably felt safe as long as his two goons were with him.
That thought made her smile. It wasn't a kindly smile.
Drinking dulled people's senses. For her purposes, that was a good thing. So was the other inevitable consequence of heavy drinking: the loud call of Nature. And one thing men don't do, she thought, is go to the bathroom together. He'll go alone.
It was perfect. Still, she checked it out, needing to be sure. She watched out of the corner of her eyes as Lafferty disappeared down the hall leading to the bathroom early in the evening. She felt a quick stab of elation. She must've been right about the fact that he felt completely safe here, because he didn't take his bodyguards along.
When he came back, she busied herself circulating among the guests again. She didn't go near Lafferty, though. No sense pushing her luck. She could feel the gun she'd strapped to her calf earlier that night. It was small, but it would do the trick. Everything was in place.
All she had to do was wait a little longer, and it would all be over.
An hour and a half later, Elanna got her chance. Lafferty planted an overenthusiastic kiss on Helen Van Allen's cheek, then winked at her and headed down the hallway towards the bathroom again. His bodyguards watched for a minute, then turned their attention back on the crowd. Elanna worked her way quickly to the edge of it, distributing the last glasses of champagne she was carrying, then took her tray and ducked down the hall after Lafferty, when no one was looking. But just in case someone had noticed her departure, she headed for the women's restroom first. There, she stowed her empty tray in a trash can, hiding it under a pile of discarded paper towels so that no one would find it and wonder what had happened to the person carrying it.
No loose ends, she thought with satisfaction. And this was a large event, with almost two hundred people in attendance, and a big catering crew. She estimated that she had at least fifteen minutes before anyone on the catering staff would notice she was gone. That was more than enough time.
She peeped cautiously into the hallway. It was empty.
She slipped silently into the men's bathroom, her heart racing. Lafferty stood a few feet away from her, zipping up his pants. He was tanned, she noted, and wearing lots of gold; a heavy gold chain around his neck, gold rings on his fingers. All she could think of was the old saw, "You can't take it with you when you go."
Because Lafferty's fate was sealed. He was alone, and she'd moved so silently that he didn't even knew she was there. She locked the door behind her, to make sure that no one interrupted them. She was exultant. Everything was going perfectly!
Lafferty heard her lock the door, and lifted his head. But she bent and pulled her gun before he could do more than blink. She smiled as she pointed it at him. "I wouldn't yell for your guards, if I were you," she said clearly as a flicker of alarm crossed his face. "If you try, if you even move, I'll blow your head off." That would take care of any attempts to reach for a gun if he's armed himself, she thought, as she kept hers pointed squarely at his head.
She'd practiced this a hundred times, practiced until she was expert with the gun, and until she could hold its heavy weight for a long time without the slightest strain. Her wrists were already strong from playing musical instruments, so it hadn't been too hard. Her aim was good, and her hand was steady.
Lafferty knew she meant business. He paled a little, but he didn't move, or call out for help. "You must be the Avenger," was all he said.
"Nice to meet you." She smiled again, even wider. Lafferty's coolness in the face of her gun didn't impress her. She knew, better than anyone, what masks people wore, and what hid beneath them. Lafferty was Mafia scum, up to his neck in vice of every kind. No doubt he'd had guns pulled on him before. He probably hadn't blinked an eye when he'd ordered her brother's murder, either.
But this time, no matter how cool he looked, she knew he was scared. She hoped he'd been scared for some time. She hoped the Avenger had been haunting his dreams, hoped he'd had nightmares about that name and its unknown owner. She hoped he'd sweated, thinking a trained professional killer was on his trail, instead of a slender little nobody musician from Springfield, Illinois.
And somewhere, she hoped Kevin was watching. Because all of this, everything she'd done, was for him. Only for him.
She stared down the barrel, over the silencer, and just watched Lafferty silently. She was about to make all of his nightmares come true.
Elanna though she heard something behind her, a faint scratching sound, but she put it down to nerves. She kept the gun trained unwaveringly on Lafferty's head. She didn't take her eyes off him, not for a second. He was not only evil, he was also extremely dangerous. She couldn't afford to make a mistake now, not when she was so close.
"Put the gun down, Elanna!" Fraser's voice rang out behind her suddenly, loud and clear in the tense silence of the elegantly appointed rest room. She jumped, her heart racing.
What the hell is he doing here? How did he know about my plan? How the hell did he get in here?
His presence shook her, but she held the gun steady through force of will as she tried desperately to figure out what had happened.
He must've gone to my apartment. Must've found Kevin's letters and my notes... He figured out that I was after Lafferty, and where we'd both be. So he followed me here and picked the lock on the bathroom door! That was the little scratching sound I heard...
This was the moment she'd been dreading ever since they met. The moment when Fraser stopped being her friend. His voice suddenly sounded different: clear, commanding, sharp as the blade of a knife. She realized with a tiny, sinking feeling that it was his Mountie voice. Ben was gone. In his place stood Benton Fraser, RCMP. It hurt, but it didn't sway her. She didn't move, didn't even turn to face him, just kept her gun pointed at Lafferty in the steady, two-handed grip she'd spent hours perfecting at a firing range.
"No, Ben. This isn't your jurisdiction, remember? I know you're not carrying a gun. You can't stop me. If you try to jump me, I'll shoot him."
It ran through her mind, rather insanely, that Fraser should understand this if anyone could. Wasn't that what everyone said about Mounties, that they "always get their man"?
Well, now I have, too. Nothing short of a bullet could sway her now.
Fraser fell silent, as if he realized that. "Elanna, I love you. I know how you feel, but I'm asking you not to do this," he said. "I'm begging you. Please put the gun down! Let the law handle this." He spoke quietly this time, in his own voice, the voice of the man she loved.
He'd begged her--openly, without shame, and as a man, not a cop. It touched her deeply. She wished she could've closed her eyes to block out the pain that ripped through her at his words. She knew what it must've cost him to say them in front of Lafferty, too. It tore at her heart to deny him, to ignore them. But she had to. She'd come this far, it was too late to back out now.
She didn't turn around, kept her eyes focused on Lafferty's ugly face. "I'm sorry. But the law had its chance. Now I'm taking mine. He was my brother," she said. She wasn't sure who she was explaining things to--Ben, Lafferty, or herself. Maybe it didn't matter. "You don't even remember his name, do you?" she asked Lafferty. Her voice was calm, almost conversational. But she suspected that her eyes weren't, that they radiated some of the burning hatred she felt, because he turned a little whiter.
"Do you? You bastard! " Her voice rose to a scream suddenly, and her finger tightened on the trigger. Lafferty flinched, backing away from her.
She still didn't turn, but she felt Fraser coming up behind her, as clearly as if she could see him. Her breath came faster. She couldn't let him touch her. He was so much bigger and stronger that he'd overpower her in a second; and she had to take care of Lafferty first. "Don't come a step closer, Fraser, or I'll shoot him," she warned, trying to contain her fear and anger, to sound as cold and sure as he had. She didn't entirely succeed. A faint quiver in her voice revealed her tension.
She tightened her finger on the trigger again. Lafferty made a small sound, a gasp of pure terror that stopped Fraser in his tracks. "His name was Kevin Keely," she whispered, staring at Lafferty as tears scalded her eyes for a second. "Say it!"
"Drop that gun, Miss Keely!" a second voice called out from behind her suddenly. It came from the doorway where Fraser was standing, and she recognized it instantly: Ray Vecchio. He'd probably been there all along; he must've come here with Fraser, to stop her. And he knew her real name. Now they both knew everything.
She tried not to think about how they must despise her.
Ray locked the door behind her again, to prevent anyone else from happening on the scene and getting involved in this messy situation. She approved of that. She had no desire to see anyone else get hurt, either. "Drop your weapon!" he repeated, his voice even steadier and colder than Fraser's, "or I'll have to shoot."
Fraser didn't object, didn't even try to argue with him. It didn't surprise her. She knew he'd brought him here to stop her. Unlike him, Ray carried a gun; and this was his jurisdiction. She didn't blame either of them; they were just doing their jobs. But she wasn't going to let them interfere. "No. If either of you moves, he'll die, I promise you. If you shoot me, I'll shoot him too," she warned.
They must've believed her, because they didn't move. Her fingers tightened dangerously on the trigger again. "Say it! " she hissed again at Lafferty, venomous, unyielding.
"K-Kevin Keely," Lafferty stammered desperately, his pleading eyes fixed on a point above and behind her where she knew Fraser and Vecchio stood. Her lip curled at his obvious delusion that they could save him. "Lady, please!" he whined, sweat beading on his brow. "Can't we make some kind of a deal here? What do you want? I've got money, I can get you anything you want--"
He babbled on, desperately trying to bribe her.
"I'll tell you one last time, Elanna," Vecchio warned from behind her. "Give me your gun, on the count o' three."
Elanna just smiled slightly, coldly. Though she knew he meant it, that he would shoot her if she didn't obey, she didn't care. She hardly even heard him. Her whole being was now focused on Lafferty. He didn't know it, but he'd already given her one of the few things she wanted anymore: he'd begged her for his worthless life. She'd been dreaming of that for months.
"One!" Ray called out.
Lafferty begged for his life.
She waited for satisfaction, for a rush of elation that didn't come. He begged me. Why doesn't it take away the pain?
Her gun wavered minutely as shock cut through her. This was all she'd been living for, all she'd ate, slept and breathed for nine months: revenge. Why didn't it make her feel better? She had Lafferty at last, had him trembling and begging for mercy. She should've felt happy, should've felt close to Kevin. Instead, she felt sick.
"Two!" Vecchio chanted sternly, somewhere far away.
"Elanna!" Fraser cried.
"Don't!" Lafferty grated, sweating.
Maybe if I kill him, it'll be all right, Elanna thought. More frightened by the emptiness inside her than the eminent threat of Vecchio's bullet in her back, she tried to steady the gun.
Then for an instant, past Lafferty's shoulder, she saw Kevin's face. You lost the key, silly, he said, shaking his head. Her hands trembled convulsively, and the gun wobbled visibly.
Kevin smiled at her. A sad, sweet smile that pierced her to the heart. It's love, Lanny. Love is the only thing that'll bring me back. Not this. You know that.
"Three! Put it down!" Ray yelled. She knew he was about to shoot her.
She lowered the gun with a sob.
Instantly, two things happened. Fraser grabbed her from behind, reaching for the gun--but Lafferty got there first. With a desperate leap, he pulled her away from Ben and against him. "Bitch!" He grabbed for her gun.
Ray's gun went off, the sound so close and loud it thundered, hurting her ears. Heart pounding, Elanna heard the bullet whine past, felt Lafferty buck and cry out behind her. She knew he'd been hit, expected that he would let go of her. But he must've only been grazed by the shot, because he somehow tightened his grip on her instead.
Her heart sank. She tried to pull away from him, but he was far too strong. He held her easily. Putting her in front of him as a shield, he wrenched the gun out of her hand and shoved it against her temple, so hard it cut into her skin. "Back off!" he yelled hoarsely, dragging her away from Fraser and Ray. "Back off, or I'll kill the bitch!"
Fraser and Ray both believed him. They held their hands up and backed away instantly. Ray's eyes were hard and cold. Fraser's were hotter than she'd ever seen them, bright with a rage that amazed her. "Hurt her and I'll kill you, Lafferty," he said.
Lafferty tightened his arm around her until she could hardly breathe, but beneath her fear, Elanna felt a sense of wonder. She'd been wrong about Fraser, completely wrong. She'd thought he would hate her once he knew she meant to kill Lafferty. But he knew now, yet there he was, standing there with fire in his eyes, trying to defend her at the risk of his own life. He loves me, she thought, incredulous. He really does! Oh, Kevin -- you were right.
"Shut up, Mountie!" Lafferty spat. "Keep your hands in the air! Both o' you!"
Something cold dripped onto the bare skin of Elanna's shoulder. She looked down. It was blood. Lafferty's blood. Though she'd meant to spill it herself, having it on her made her skin crawl.
Someone tried the locked bathroom door, knocked hesitantly. Not one of Lafferty's guards, she guessed; the knock had been too polite for that. Still, it gave her hope. Someone must've heard Ray's gun go off. Someone would help them--
"You okay in there?" a man called.
"Fine. But it's occupied! Go away!" Lafferty called back loudly. Ben and Ray exchanged a swift glance that chilled her. They knew what Lafferty was up to, and they didn't like it. She didn't understand, but she had no time to wonder about it, because as soon as the footsteps outside faded away, he jerked his head at the two men. "Both of you, move over there. Now!"
Silently, reluctantly, the two cops moved to the right side of the room, clearing a path to the door. "Okay. Now, you--put your gun on the floor," he ordered.
Ray swallowed, his eyes narrowing to slits, and Elanna felt a scream rising in her throat. Suddenly, she realized what Ben and Ray already knew. When Ray put down his gun, Lafferty could kill both of them. What's more, he would. That was why he hadn't yelled for his bodyguards once he'd grabbed her gun. That would've attracted the attention of the other guests, and he wanted to kill them, and then kill her, without any witnesses around.
Vecchio started to lower his gun reluctantly. Elanna couldn't stand it. This was horrible, monstrous! They were both going to die, and it would be her fault! She'd never meant for this to happen--
"Ray, don't!" she cried out, terrified as his hand sank even lower.
"Shut up!" Lafferty growled, pressing the gun even harder into her head, until it broke the skin. She hardly even felt the pain. Her eyes were focused desperately on Fraser. "Get that fuckin' piece on the floor, asshole! And kick it over here!" Lafferty growled. "Or I'll blow her brains out!"
No! she tried to tell him. But Ray wasn't listening. He bent even lower, determined to surrender. Her terror soared. He was going to kill both of them. Two brave men, one of whom she loved and both of whom had tried to save her, were going to die because of her. She couldn't let it happen. Elanna sought Ben's eyes frantically, tried to tell him without words how much she loved him. Their gazes met and held, and something flashed between them, in between pain and a promise.
Then Ray laid his gun on the floor.
"That's better. Now kick it over here," Lafferty repeated. She felt the pressure of the gun pushing into her skull ease a bit, as he started to lift it. But she knew what that meant, knew what he was going to do. She couldn't let him. She moved suddenly. Drove her arm backwards, with all of the desperate force of her love for Fraser, into Lafferty's ribs.
Noooo! Ben cried out, his voice hoarse with fear as he leapt forward.
Then the gun went off with a roar that filled the world, and Elanna died.
Being dead felt strange, was Elanna's next thought. It was quiet, for one thing. Too quiet. She felt really disappointed. She'd always hoped heaven would be filled with music. And she didn't see Kevin anywhere, either. What good was being dead if they couldn't be together again? And her head hurt terribly. But weren't all earthly pains supposed to be left behind in heaven?
A sudden chill of fear shot down her spine. What if--
After all, she'd done an evil thing. She'd tried to kill a man. She'd lost the key, as surely as Kevin had.
That seemed far away now, like another life. Like it had happened to someone else. But that wasn't true. She was the one who'd bought the gun, tracked down the man who'd ordered her brother's death, lied to Fraser while she was doing it, then tried to murder the wiseguy for revenge. A big, black stain of guilt lay on her soul.
So maybe this wasn't heaven at all.
Despite the pain in her head, she fought to open her eyes, to see where her actions had sent her. As she did, she realized something else. She wanted to see Kevin again, of course, but she wanted to see Fraser even more. But she couldn't. She'd lost him.
That in itself was a taste of hell.
"Well. It's about time! I was afraid you were going to sleep the day away."
A familiar voice sounded beside her, a warm, husky baritone that flowed over her like cool water, welcome, even beloved. But utterly impossible. She turned her head, tried to get her eyes to focus, blinking because the bright light hurt them. "Ben?"
He sat in a chair beside her, smiling. He was still wearing his uniform, and he looked impossibly handsome. How was it possible? She wondered dizzily if he'd been shot too, if Lafferty had killed both of them, and they'd been sent--Wherever, without even having time to change. God. Maybe Ray is here, too! Her eyes filled with tears at the thought of it.
"I'm... so sorry," she whispered, her mouth as dry as her eyes were wet. "I never meant for you to die, too."
He blinked at her, a tiny frown forming between his dark brows. "What?"
"I tried... to save you," she whispered, sad because it hadn't been enough. A tear rolled down her cheek.
He smiled all at once, very sweetly. Bent over and stroked her brow gently, brushed away the tear. "You did, Elanna. Don't cry! We're not dead, we're in a hospital. You were hurt, but you're not dead."
She stared at him. "Really?"
"Yes! Lafferty's shot just nicked you. The bullet creased your head. You've been unconscious for awhile, but you're going to be all right."
He smiled again. "He's fine too. He was here earlier, but he had to go back on duty. He'll be back to see you later."
Relief washed over her, filled her so she could hardly speak. She had to clear her throat and swallow, to summon words. "How long have I been out?"
"A day and a night," he said. Something in his face told her that he'd been with her all that time, watching over her. Worrying about her.
It made her happy, though she knew she didn't deserve it after the way she'd lied to him, and endangered all of them. Joy, fear and relief surged through her all at once. She bit her lip, trying not to lose control and make more of a fool of herself than she already had. She reached up to touch her own head, found it encircled by a thick bandage. Then she reached shakily for Fraser's hand, needing to feel his warmth. "I thought you were dead," she whispered. "I thought it was my fault."
"No." His fingers enfolded hers, warm, strong and very much alive, and she knew it was true. He was real. Against all odds, they were both still alive. He bent his head, placed a gentle kiss on her brow. "You were very brave, Elanna," he whispered. "You saved all of us."
His voice was soft, his words kind, but she felt a wave of remorse. She shook her head. "What you mean is, I almost got us all killed," she whispered, ashamed.
"Wellll... going after Lafferty all alone the way you did wasn't exactly wise," he said. He was a cop again suddenly, his eyes stern, almost piercing. She looked away, embarrassed. "But it took great courage."
She raised wondering eyes to his. Could it be possible? Even though he was a cop, did he actually understand what she'd gone through? Why she'd been driven to do it?
As if he'd read her mind, he said quietly, "I know how you felt. I know why you did it. I tracked my father's murderer and brought him to justice, too. I had to."
Her eyes widened. "You did? You never told me that."
He lifted an amused eyebrow. "It seems there were a few things you neglected to tell me as well," he said wryly.
"I'm sorry I lied to you about my name, and all the rest of it," she said. She closed her eyes, felt herself flushing. That's putting it mildly. Then a terrible shadow fell over her, as she thought of the likely consequences of what she'd done. Maybe that's why he's here, wearing his uniform, she thought. She swallowed hard, forced her eyes up to his again.
"Are you here in an official capacity? Am I... under arrest?" she croaked, already knowing the answer.
He blinked. "No."
"It's okay, I'll take the punishment," she said, not hearing him. "I deserve it. I tried to kill Lafferty."
"I'll plead guilty," she went on bravely. "I did it."
Fraser grimaced, midway between amusement and exasperation. "Well, that would be rather hard to prove at this point," he said.
She looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Lafferty won't be filing charges against you," he said quietly. "He can't. He's dead."
She stared at him as the room whirled around her, and a wind roared in her ears. She struggled for breath. For a minute, she thought she would pass out again. It was strange. Lafferty had been the focus of her whole life for so long that knowing he was dead made her feel curiously empty. Purposeless. She wasn't sure she knew how to live life for its own sake again, rather than for vengeance.
Fraser's eyes filled with concern. He tightened his grip on her hand, stroked the backs of her fingers gently with his thumb. She clung to his big, strong fingers like a lifeline, until the storm of emotions receded. When she could speak again, she whispered, "Dead? How?"
His eyes lowered, his long lashes sweeping down to cover his expression. "It doesn't matter, does it?"
She frowned. Such evasiveness was unusual for him. It unnerved her enough that she sat up a little. "It does to me," she said, meaning it. She saw him swallow, his eyes on their entwined hands.
Then he sighed. "I killed him," he said flatly.
She fell back onto her pillows, the blood draining away from her head. For the second time in as many minutes, she felt faint. "You?"
His grip on her hand tightened until it was almost painful, but he still didn't meet her eyes. "We don't have to talk about this now. I don't want to upset you," he grated.
But it was too late for that. Upset was too mild a word for what Elanna was feeling. She'd never meant her crazy quest for vengeance to touch Ben. What had she done to him? Strong, dark emotions were surfacing here, things that he usually buried so deep even he couldn't see them, and they frightened her. "No, tell me," she insisted. "I need to know. What happened?"
"It was an accident," Fraser said tightly. "He shot you, then resisted arrest. While Ray and I were trying to subdue him, he tried to shoot him too. I had to do it."
She stared at him. Her chest felt tight. "Is that all of it?"
For a long moment, Fraser didn't move, hardly even seemed to breathe. Then he finally lifted his head, and his blue eyes blazed with remembered fury. "No," he admitted. "Well... not entirely. Lafferty did try to shoot Ray, and I was forced to defend him with my knife. But if he hadn't already shot you, I might not have put it through his heart," he said hoarsely.
Dear God. Her eyes filled with tears. It was what she'd meant to do, but somehow, the fact that this gentle man had killed Lafferty instead of her, because of her, shook Elanna to the core. Their gazes caught and held, and in the silence between them, she felt her own heart beating painfully fast. She remembered wondering once, because of Ben's polite restraint, if he was capable of risking anything for love. Now that she knew what incredible lengths he would go to for that emotion, and what a brave heart beat under his red uniform, it shamed her. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, knowing it wasn't enough, that no words could ever be enough to make up for this, for what she'd made him do.
Fraser shook his head. "I'm not," he said. "He was a criminal, a drug lord who had your brother and several others murdered. And he hurt you," he said. His voice had gotten husky again, and his fingers moved over hers unsteadily, as if he needed to reassure himself once more that she was still alive. "I thought he'd killed you. Given the same circumstances, I'd do it again."
His face tightened, cleared then grew taut again, as he if were close to breaking. More emotions, she guessed, surging up from inside him: massive, powerful, rising like leviathans, beyond his control.
She knew what that felt like. God, did she know. And she knew somehow that it was even worse for him than it had been for her, that he feared few things as much as he feared losing emotional control. And she didn't want him to have to face it alone, or to be ashamed of any of it.
"Come here, Ben." She drew his dark head down to hers. Remembering the shocking moment at Lafferty's place when he'd said he loved her, she kissed him very gently. She'd known beyond doubt that it was true even then, but she shook as she realized what it meant. What that love had done to him--what love had done to them both. "I'm sorry," she whispered against his lips. "I'm so sorry, Ben."
"It's all right."
Fraser lowered himself onto the bed beside her. He put his arms around her silently, and gathered her close. There was nothing sexual about his embrace. It was tender, meant to console; and she sensed that he needed it as much as she did.
She moved a little, so that his head lay on her shoulder. They lay together in silence for awhile. His hands made small, gentle movements around her waist, and she stroked his hair, the curve of his cheek. Complex feelings moved in her: regret, tenderness, an almost maternal desire to ease his pain. Regret most of all. After a time, tears stung her eyes. "When you're a kid," she whispered, "they tell you that love will make you happy. That love makes everything all right."
She'd long since learned better. When she'd lost her mother, love had filled her with grief. But when Kevin had been murdered, when her beloved brother's life was taken away from him, it was infinitely worse. Love had nearly driven her mad. She'd become obsessed with vengeance, had almost killed a man. All for love.
She knew what terrible things love could do to people. But the lesson had never seemed so bitter before. For a moment, she couldn't speak. She just held Ben, taking comfort from the warmth of his big, solid body, and the simple, regular rhythm of his heartbeat. Thump, thump, thump... It seemed the only steady thing in an unsteady world.
Then Ben lifted his head, and propped himself up on one elbow beside her. The remembered anger had died away from his clear blue eyes, and they were shining quietly. "It can," he said simply, his eyes looking deep into hers. "I put your gun back in your apartment, and there's nothing else to tie you to Lafferty. You'll have to give the police a statement, but after that, you're free."
Free to go; or free to love him, if she chose. He didn't say it, but the hope shone out of his eyes. She shook her head. He was the only good thing that had come out of this whole mess, but she didn't feel worthy of him. She'd never told him what she was doing, had never been honest with him. She'd betrayed his trust. She didn't deserve his love. "It was wrong," she whispered. "What I did was wrong. I see that now. I loved Kevin so much, it made me do crazy things. I'm just sorry you got mixed up in it at all."
"I'm not," he said again, very quietly. "Elanna... I know what love can drive a person to. Do you remember that woman I told you about in my past?"
He nodded and looked down at the bed for a moment, his face twisting with an old pain. "I told you that I loved her, that I put her in prison for robbery, and that she came back eight years later, then left me again. But I didn't tell you everything," he said, his voice strained. "The truth was, Victoria learned to hate me while she was in prison. As much, I think, as she ever loved me. When she came back, she framed me for murder, then tried to flee on a train with some stolen diamonds. I went after her. She asked me to go away with her. And--" he caught his breath, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "I almost did. She was a criminal, but I almost gave up everything for her. Almost ran away with her, even though Ray had mortgaged his house to post my bail. So you see..." He lifted pain-filled eyes to hers. "I really do understand how you felt. I do."
She tightened her fingers around his, squeezed them gently. "Oh, Ben, I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know."
For a moment, he didn't answer. When he did, he said hoarsely, "No one does. I've never told anyone else that except Ray. It was the worst time of my life."
She touched his hair very gently. "I'm glad you told me," she said. "But what kept you from going?"
He smiled ruefully. "Ray. He shot me."
He hastened to reassure her. "It was an accident. He thought Victoria was pointing a gun at me. He shot at her to save me, and just at that moment, I stepped in the way."
"My God, Ben," she said softly, feeling for both of them. "How awful!"
This time, it was Fraser who gave her fingers a comforting squeeze. "Actually, now I'm glad it turned out that way," he said. "Ray kept me from making the biggest mistake of my life--though I didn't see it that way at the time." He stopped for a moment, then looked deep into her eyes. "What I'm trying to say is, we've both done things we're ashamed of," he said thickly. "We've both... made mistakes in the name of love. But I don't think that means that we should give up on it. That would be a disservice to Ray, and to your brother. We have to learn from the past, not let it destroy us."
Elanna lowered her eyes. She wanted to believe him, but she wasn't sure she could. She'd changed so much, done so many things she'd once thought were repugnant, even impossible, that she wasn't sure she was redeemable any longer.
"Love isn't all bad, Elanna," Ben pointed out gently. "It isn't all pain and grief. After all, it made you come here looking for Lafferty. And if it weren't for that, I never would've met you. I never would've heard your music. I would've missed out on two of the most beautiful things I've ever known."
Her eyes filled with tears at his sweetness, his loyalty, freely offered though she'd done nothing to deserve it. She was deeply touched yet just as deeply ashamed. "It's just that I--hated him so much," she confessed. "So much..."
He rubbed her shoulder in wordless sympathy, then tilted her chin up so she had to look at him. "I know. But you have to forgive yourself for that, Elanna. For hating Lafferty. Otherwise, you'll be as trapped by guilt as you were by hatred."
She shook her head blindly. "I can't." How could she tell him that what bothered her the most, what shamed her the most, was that her blind pursuit of vengeance had forced him to kill?
"Elanna, listen to me. Ray forgave me for everything I did to him. He cares that much for me. And now I forgive you for trying to kill Lafferty."
"Did you hear me?" he asked. "I forgive you. And I love you."
Ben had never looked more beautiful; and Elanna had never heard anything so sweet in her life. Beauty has a power all its own, and it made her catch her breath. He made it sound so simple, and his words carried weight, for he'd been through the same thing she had. But it wasn't just his good looks, or even their shared pain, that swayed her. It was the depth of his understanding. No one else would've seen deeply enough inside of her to know that forgiveness was what she needed more than anything else. No one else could've held out the promise of it to her in that moment, and been believed.
But Ben's blue eyes were calm and steadfast, and as she looked into them, she knew that if he could forgive her when he was the one she'd wronged the most, then things would be all right. Somehow. Maybe together, they could make them all right.
I found the key again, Kevin, she told him in the silence of her heart.
"Ben," she whispered, as a smile touched her lips. "My sweet Ben." She took his face in her hands and kissed him then. Sweetly, with all her masks gone, and her heart open. "I love you, too."
"Ahem." Ray Vecchio cleared his throat politely. Waited a couple of seconds, then tried it again. "Ahem!"
But the couple entwined on the bed didn't hear him. Fraser had Elanna in his arms, and though he was still in full uniform and she had blankets wrapped around her legs, they were kissing so passionately that Ray didn't know whether to laugh, or get the hell out of there before clothes started hitting the floor. He'd promised to stop by and visit Elanna, but it was obvious that she'd come out of her coma just fine. In fact, from the way Fraser was moaning, he guessed her recovery must be pretty close to miraculous.
He considered leaving quietly, then rejected the idea. This was just too good to miss; Mr. Prim and Proper losing control in a hospital bed, of all places! The urge to tease him was irresistible. "Uhh, Fraser?" he said loudly, tugging on a boot to get his attention.
The Mountie groaned in protest, but finally lifted his head enough to peer over his shoulder. His eyes were glazed, his face flushed. But he froze with gratifying suddenness at the sight of Ray.
"Hi." Ray waggled his fingers innocently in greeting, grinning widely as Elanna kept on kissing his best friend's neck.
Benny's blue eyes went wide with shock. He turned a very bright shade of red. His mouth worked silently for a moment, as if he were trying desperately to think of some polite way to explain what they were doing. Ray watched in gleeful fascination, wondering what even the Canadian could possibly dream up to cover this. He doubted even his beloved Inuit tales could save him now.
Finally, Fraser managed to catch Elanna's roving hands in his. He sat up, jerking his head at her in a panicky "cease and desist, we have company" gesture. Elanna pouted prettily at him, and snuck another quick, mischievous kiss anyway. "Uh, hi, Ray," Benny said weakly at last, forcing a smile. "We were just..."
Evidently, his powers of invention failed him, because a long silence fell. Fraser just sat beside Elanna turning even redder, while he tried desperately to think of an explanation.
After a long moment, Ray took pity on him. "You were just celebrating Elanna's recovery," he finished wryly for him. "I can see that."
Elanna sat up a bit too, and turning Benny's head towards hers again, she kissed him firmly on the lips. "Actually, we were kissing, Ray," she said, smiling happily. "We're in love."
Ray blinked, a bit surprised. I like her, he thought. She's something, this girl! Benny'd better watch out, or she'll have him eating out of her hand. Then he remembered the way Fraser had looked when Lafferty shot her, and realized that she already did. He'd never, in his wildest dreams, imagined that the cool, polite Canadian could look--could be--so utterly ferocious. He'd driven his knife into Lafferty's heart with his teeth gleaming in a snarl as feral as a wolf's.
He thanked God silently that she'd survived the wiseguy's bullet. If she hadn't, he wasn't sure Fraser would've, either. And Victoria had been enough tragedy for both of them. They didn't need any more.
"Yeah, well, I can see that, too," he grinned. "Congratulations. You got yourself quite a woman there, Fraser."
Benny's face broke into a bemused grin. "I know, Ray."
Elanna dimpled at him, then grew serious. "Ray, can you come here for a second?"
He moved obligingly to the opposite side of the bed.
"Closer," she said.
He bent over obligingly, wondering what this was all about. To his surprise, she kissed him gently on the cheek. "Thanks, Ray," she breathed. "For coming to try and stop me, and for not arresting me. Thank you."
He straightened up quickly, embarrassed but immensely touched by her gesture. He understood what it was Benny saw in her. Yeah, she was definitely something! He thanked God for his olive-toned skin, otherwise he knew he'd be turning as red as Benny had a minute ago. He coughed and looked away, to cover his reaction. "Yeah, well... You're lucky, Alastrina," he said gruffly. "I probly shoulda' busted you for that. It was damn stupid, ya' know, tryin' to take down a guy like that all by yourself."
"The name's Keely," she corrected gently. "Elanna Keely."
So. She'd given up her quest for vengeance. Maybe it was only because Fraser had told her Lafferty was dead. But whatever the reason, Ray breathed a quiet sigh of relief. God save him and Fraser from any more women with vengeance on their minds!
"You'll have to give a statement, you know," he told her honestly. "But Benny and I already explained to them that this is our favorite charity. So, imagine our surprise when, while attending the ball, we observed Mr. Lafferty snortin' coke in the john! That kinda' stuff can give charities a bad name. But when I tried to arrest him, he pulled an illegal handgun which he was wearing concealed on his person, grabbed the first person passing by the restroom--which was you--as a hostage, and tried to bluff his way out. But thanks to the way you elbowed him in the gut, Benny and I were able to free you. It's just a shame that Mr. Lafferty then tried to shoot me, which forced Constable Fraser to pull his knife and kill him in my defense."
Ray finally stopped for breath, and winked at her. "Since the Chicago PD already knows all that, you shouldn't have any problem."
For a moment, Elanna was speechless. She hadn't imagined that Ray would invent a story to cover what she'd done, that he'd go to such lengths to protect her. "Thank you," she said again. "I owe you one. And I know that you're right about Lafferty. What I did was wrong. I see that now." She had the grace to look embarrassed. But then she raised her eyes to his again, and she was smiling. "But I wasn't really alone, was I?" she breathed. "I had you guys."
He and Ben both smiled at her. No words needed.
"And Kevin," she added softly.
They both shot questioning looks at her, but she didn't explain. She just smiled, and squeezed Benny's hand. "He's okay now," was all she would say.
Ray shrugged. Some things, he guessed, were best left unexplained. "I guess we all are." For a minute, silence fell. Benny and Elanna smiled into each other's eyes, and Ray sighed to himself. "Okay. Well, it's been a long day, so I guess I'm gonna go," he said.
Neither Fraser nor Elanna objected; they were too busy making cow eyes at each other. No big surprise there, but he wasn't about to leave Fraser here, after what he'd just been doing.
"Uh, Benny?" he prompted. Fraser managed to tear his eyes away from Elanna's long enough to glance sideways at him.
"Aren't you comin'?" he asked pointedly.
Fraser looked back at Elanna, and shook his head dreamily. "No, I think I'll just stay here for awhile, and--"
"Oh, no you don't!" he said firmly. Stepping around the bed, he put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Elanna here needs some rest, and so do you. You've been up for what--" he glanced at his watch. "Almost forty hours straight now? You need some sleep. So you're comin' home with me. I'll make sure you get some."
Fraser looked alarmed. "But I can rest here--"
"Yeah. When pigs fly, Benny," he snorted, hauling the unwilling Mountie bodily to his feet.
"Now, that's just silly, Ray! They do not!"
Elanna stifled a giggle.
"Get some sleep," Ray advised her, barely holding back a grin of his own as Fraser tried to pull away from him. He grabbed his collar and frog-marched him toward the door. "Sergeant Preston here will be back to see you in a few hours."
"Ray, this is ridiculous!" Benny blurted, protesting. "I'm fully capable of--"
"I think I just got a good look at what you're capable of where Elanna's concerned, Benny!" he hissed in his ear, dragging him to the door. "That's why I'm takin' you home!"
"Oh." Fraser suddenly quit fighting him, and they made it to the door as he smiled sheepishly. "Well, you see, we were just--"
He shook his head. "Say goodnight, Gracie," he grinned at his friend.
Fraser's brows drew together in total confusion, but Elanna waved goodbye. "Goodnight, Gracie!" she laughed.
She has a very nice laugh, Ray thought. Fraser evidently thought so too, because he forgot himself at the sound of it, and started back into her room. Ray grabbed his belt and pulled him down the hall.
"Really, Ray!" Fraser protested. "Is this necessary? You're being shamelessly dictatorial, you know."
"Just call me 'Il Duce'," he grinned, totally unrepentant as they headed for the hospital exit. Fraser finally fell into step beside him. Ray let him go, knowing Benny must've realized he was right about their need for rest. Fraser was really strong--and stubborn as a mule. If he'd really chosen to resist, Ray wasn't sure he could've forced him to leave.
"Mmm. Well, can I at least ask a question, 'Il Duce'?"
"Sure, Fraser. Shoot," he said, generous in victory.
"Who in the world is Gracie?" the Canadian asked plaintively.
Ray grinned. "I'll explain it to ya' later, Benny," he said, patting his shoulder as they walked out of the hospital into the night. "After you get some sleep."
"Oh. Understood, Ray."