Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart’s vault:
You there are master, do your own desire;
What hinders? Are you beam-blind, yet to a fault
In a neighbour deft-handed? Are you that liar
And, cast by conscience out, spendsavour salt?
In the end, she couldn't do it.
All that planning, all the nights Victoria had spent in prison daydreaming about how she'd bring him down--when she was faced with the reality of betraying Benton Fraser, she couldn't do it.
Even though he'd betrayed her, all those years ago.
Standing there in Ben's apartment, she lowered the gun with shaking hands. The wolf was growling at her, deep in its throat. Damn. She hoped it wouldn't attack her.
"Look, I'm putting it away, all right?" she said, holding her hands up to show that she was now unarmed. Slowly, she wiped off the gun and put it back in Ben's chest.
The wolf subsided, but still kept its eyes on her. "Good dog, good wolf," she murmured, quickly wiping her fingerprints off the gun and putting it back, then stripping off her clothes and lying down under the covers again. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Ben would be back any minute, and if she didn't calm down, he was going to wonder what was going on. Damn. Damn it all to hell. She'd had a plan, and she'd been following it to the letter, but now?
She glanced up to check on the wolf again--lying down by the door, looking alert, but not like a threat, thank God. She held her breath, listening for Ben's footsteps outside.
God, Ben. That had been her downfall--seeing him again, sleeping with him, like they'd never done back then. She'd mostly felt the hate, back in prison. The love had been there, but almost eclipsed by the rankling frustration over what he'd done to her.
But seeing him again, it was as if she was back in those precious days they'd had together, hiking down from the pass. She hadn't wanted to think about what would happen when they got back from civilization. She'd been young, stupid, in love.
And now, all that love had came surging back, and all it took was looking at him, touching him. The way he touched her, the look in his eyes when he did it.
Victoria's fist tightened in the sheets. God, she was weak, and a part of her despised that weakness. But she just couldn't do it. So what now?
A sound at the door, and Victoria tensed. Ben came in, breathing hard like he'd been running, still with his clothes all awry from when he'd thrown them on earlier. She made herself relax, smile.
The wolf growled at Ben, like some sort of warning, and Victoria carefully didn't flinch. Ben frowned at it, looking puzzled, then he said, "Sorry, I just had to talk to Ray. He had a pool night yesterday, and I'd said I'd be there, but then I just--forgot." He smiled at her, a small smile that tugged at her heart.
"We were kind of...occupied last night," she said, just to see that blush steal up his neck.
"I know, but--" he shook his head. "I shouldn't have forgotten."
"Yeah," she said. "Come back to bed." He did, and for a while she could lose herself in him again.
He dozed again afterwards, naked and vulnerable in her arms, but she lay awake.
Victoria glanced at the window. From this angle she couldn't see it, but she was almost completely sure that Jolly was in a building on the other side of the street, watching her. Yesterday had been the first time she'd glimpsed him, and then again this morning. She'd thought she'd gotten him off her trail, back after he'd found her in Skagway, but no--here he was, staking her out. She could never forget that face, and knowing his eyes were on her, on them, felt like insects crawling down her spine.
But she couldn't let him know that she was on to him. He'd have no reason to hurry, so long as she didn't disappear. He'd stake them out until he was sure she was home alone, and then he'd come for her. For the money.
Victoria clenched her jaw. She had to get rid of him.
There was no other way, and it really would've been the perfect puzzle piece if she'd gone ahead with her plan: kill Jolly with Ben's gun, putting one more nail in the coffin of Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP. She let herself spin it out in her mind, then sighed.
She could've fooled him so easily, had done so already. Except she'd apparently fooled herself in the process.
Ben shifted in her arms. "Victoria?" he murmured.
"Yeah, I'm still here," she said, stroking her hand over his hair.
"Mmm," he said, relaxing against her again.
She wanted to keep this, and she was going to do her best to make sure she could.
When Ben left for work on Monday, Victoria left just after--she wasn't about to let Jolly corner her in Ben's apartment. Leaving the building, she was careful not to glance up towards Jolly's window.
She called a cab and got in, sure that Jolly would follow her.
In the cab, she mentally tallied what she'd need, and then asked the driver to let her off at a car rental service. She rented a car for a day, and stopped at a supermarket for supplies. Her shoulders and the back of her neck twitched, like she was being watched. She hoped she was, but she didn't turn to check.
Victoria headed for the lake, drove along it until she came to one of those abandoned industrial areas. Jolly might be suspicious, but she was willing to bet that he'd still come out after her. It was the perfect chance for him, after all. She glanced around--still no one in sight, and she hadn't seen anyone on the way in, either.
Sure enough, five minutes after she'd parked by a dilapidated pier, she heard a car approaching. Her heartbeat speeded up, her body gearing itself up for action. She felt for the knife in her sleeve.
Jolly got out of the car, strode towards her, grinning. "I thought you wanted to see me again."
The sight of him made bile rise in her throat. He grabbed hold of her, like she was still the teenage girl he'd known. "Don't tell me I thought wrong. Just tell me where the money is, love."
He wanted something from her. He needed to keep her alive until he got what he wanted. She, on the other hand, didn't need anything from him.
Victoria got home well before Ben was due home from work, and she took the shower she desperately wanted, soaping up her whole body and letting the hot water wash over her.
When Ben came home, she was lying on the bed, leafing through one of Ben's books.
"Hi," he said, and she thought there was a brief look of relief in his eyes.
"Hi," she returned, smiling.
He looked so clean-cut in his uniform, shining and clean. If he knew what she'd been doing while he was out...but no, she regretted nothing. Jolly would've killed her without a second thought, once he'd found out where the money was. And if not for him, she'd never have driven that get-away car in the first place.
Anyway, Ben was never going to find out, not if she could help it.
The wolf was growling at her again, and Ben shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't know what's gotten into him."
He held up a bag of groceries. "I bought some dinner for us. Or rather, I thought I'd cook us something."
"What did you get?" she asked, standing up.
"Venison. I thought it would remind you of home?"
And what makes you think I want to be reminded of home? But she just nodded.
He took a breath, let it out. "So. Still planning to head south?"
She was silent long enough for the look in his eyes to grow guarded. Then she shook her head. "No. I thought I'd stay a while."
Ben nodded, and just stood there and looked at her. She flushed under his gaze. If looks could strip you naked...
Then he was reaching out for her, and she for him. The bag of groceries fell to the floor, but neither of them cared. He was fisting his hands in her shirt, and she was trying to get in underneath his tunic while they kissed, fierce and hungry. Damn that belt! She grunted in frustration, then finally got it off.
This was her Ben under that straight-laced uniform, the Ben who had passion in him, who would meet her kiss for kiss, thrust for thrust. This was what had made her stay, the knowledge that she could ignite that fire in him, and he could ignite it in her. And in that moment, she was utterly happy.
She lay afterwards against his chest. They were both sweaty, both still breathing fast. God, she'd come so hard it felt like she was still coming down from it, her legs trembling a little. She tightened her arm around him, and he turned towards her and pulled her snug against him with a little noise of content.
Lying there in his arms, the scene of today's events kept running through her head. There were a thousand ways things could have gone wrong, and they still could. Still, a dead Jolly was safer than a live one.
God. All those things she'd done to make her plans watertight, they were suddenly acting against her. What else was going to come back and bite her in the ass? She could try to undo it all, but some of it wasn't anything you could ever undo. Fuck. Victoria tightened her fist in the sheets in frustration. Ben stirred against her, making an inquisitive little noise.
"Shhh," she said, smoothing her hand over his back, and he subsided. She matched her breathing to the rise and fall of his chest, tried to relax.
A knock on the door, and Ben jerked to his feet. He pulled on a pair of jeans and threw on a shirt. Another knock, then a muffled, "You there, Benny?" Ben's partner Vecchio, obviously.
"Coming!" Ben said, and then went to open the door. "Ah, hello," he said, obviously flustered.
"You got out of the 2-7 like your pants were on fire," Vecchio said. Meaning, Ben had rushed home to her. Victoria felt a warm glow of satisfaction. "Just thought I'd check on you."
"Yes, well," Ben said. "You could come in, if you like, just, er--"
"Let you get decent?" Yeah, it was probably glaringly obvious that Ben had just come from having sex.
Ben still looked a little red in the face when he came back to her. "Would you like to meet Ray Vecchio?" he asked. "He's my partner, and my best friend in Chicago."
"Sure," she said. She got up to dress while Ben looked in the mirror and smoothed down his ruffled hair.
Ben opened the door to let Vecchio in. "Victoria, this is Ray Vecchio, my partner. Ray, this is Victoria." He was smiling, looking happy and slightly nervous.
"Hi." Victoria put on a smile and sized Vecchio up. In his thirties, balding, wearing a pretty ridiculous shirt, looking at her with a cop's searching eyes.
"Hi. So, you're the mystery woman."
She shrugged. "Not so mysterious."
"How'd you two meet?"
"He arrested me," Victoria said, putting on a self-deprecating smile.
"Yeah. I bet he meets a lot of people that way."
Ben broke in. "That was more than ten years ago. She served her sentence, and now she's out."
Vecchio nodded slowly.
"So, do you want dinner? It's not cooked yet, but we could make it together." Ben said it so earnestly that it was obvious he wanted nothing more than for the two of them to get along and be friends.
Which is how she ended up chopping onions while Vecchio peeled potatoes and Fraser prepared the meat, in weird domestic harmony. Or, well, not exactly harmony. Victoria was feeling--territorial, was probably the word, and it was obvious that Vecchio was feeling something like that, too. But there was no reason to antagonize the guy, and every reason to at least try to get along with him, so she made small talk and made herself agreeable.
When Ben went to the bathroom, Vecchio leaned close and said, "Look. I'm happy for you guys, okay? But if you hurt him, I'm going to kill you."
Victoria quirked a smile. "Understood."
He looked surprised, then he laughed a little. "Right. Just wanted to make that clear."
She nodded. "Yeah, you've made yourself real clear."
Ben came back, and he looked between them and frowned a little, but Victoria just smiled at him, and the frown smoothed out again.
"Do you--well, there's space in my closet if you want to unpack your things," Ben said the next day after breakfast. It was Saturday, and they'd slept late.
She didn't say anything at first, and he flushed. "Not that I mean to presume..."
"No," she said. "No, that's a good idea." There was a warm glow in her chest, like happiness. Her first impulse was to hide it, to project whatever it was she needed for her advantage, but no, this was something she could show. She let it out, smiled at him.
"I know it's not much, this place," Ben was saying, "but you're welcome to stay with me. Certainly you're welcome to my closet space."
She unpacked her bags, shook her clothes out, folded them and put them on the shelves next to Ben's. There shouldn't be anything suspicious in the bags--she'd made sure of that before.
"Do you want to hang this up properly?" Ben said, taking her coat from the hook by the front door. "I have extra hangers."
Before she could reply, something slipped from the pocket, and Ben stooped to pick it up. Her wallet and driving licence, Victoria saw with a sick feeling that was almost relief. She could never have hid that in the long run anyway.
Ben frowned as he looked at it. Not suspicion, she thought, just puzzlement. "Catherine Mary Metcalf? That's..."
"Yeah," she said, not snatching the ID from him, even though she was itching to do it. Her pulse was rushing, and she fought not to show it. "That's...not me."
"Who is it, then?" He was staring at her as if she was actually someone else.
"My sister." Victoria took a deep breath. "She died, in a car accident. It was a while after I got out of prison. Mom had been dead for a while, and our dad...had not been there for a long time." Her lips twisted.
Benton was looking at her keenly, but didn't hurry her, even though she hadn't given anything like an explanation yet.
She held up her hand anyway. "I'll get to it, okay? Just...Cathy visited me in prison all those years. She was the only visitor I got, mostly, even though I probably didn't give her enough credit for it. And back when we grew up, she was always the good girl. She was responsible, tried to keep everything together even when Mom didn't, even when she--"
"Why wasn't your mother doing that?" Ben asked. She had him, she could see that. He'd come closer, but wasn't touching her.
"She was busy being drunk," Victoria said bluntly, and Ben nodded.
"Anyway. Cathy used to cook, try to make sure the bills were paid so they wouldn't shut off the gas for us. I used to wish I could be like her--" and this was the first lie. Victoria hadn't wished she could be like her. Victoria had been running wild with the wrong crowd, a scrawny little girl turning into a woman much too fast. She hadn't been in the mood to listen to Cathy's attempts to rein her in.
But the lie still felt true when she told it, a strange kind of double sensation, like she was acting, but not. "--I used to wish I could be like her, to be able to take care of things and always know the right thing to do, you know? She wasn't a fuck-up like me."
"Anyway, I went to her when I got out of prison, and she took me in. She wasn't in a good place herself right then. But she took me in. She was glad I'd gotten out. And...a couple of weeks after that, she was in a car accident."
It wasn't Victoria's fault that she'd died in that accident. It wasn't. Even if it felt like Victoria had brought bad luck down on her. The black crow of the family, come home to roost.
"She'd somehow forgotten her driving licence, which wasn't like her. So they called me in to identify the body. And I--I didn't plan it, okay? It just happened. We'd always looked alike, almost like twins. And here I was, with a prison record and pretty much nothing else, and there she was, with the life I'd always wanted." Another lie--she was pretty sure Cathy's life had been boring.
"I just--switched us. It's not like it was going to harm her or anything. She was already dead." Victoria made her voice break on the last words. It wasn't hard. And then she really was crying, and Ben was holding her, stroking her back. She turned her face into his neck, that smooth warm skin with his pulse beating underneath, and held onto him.
"I'm so sorry," he said, and she could hear his voice rumbling in his chest. She lifted her head. Her eyes and nose felt all swollen--god, she must look horrible.
"Are you going to turn me in?" she asked, with a kind of sick fascination. Here they were again. At the thought that he might turn her in, anger roiled in her gut. Why was she putting herself in this position? At the mercy of this man, again?
"No," he said, shaking his head slowly.
"No?" she asked. "I broke the law." She couldn't help prodding, even while she cursed herself for it.
"I know. But I--" he closed his mouth again, like he didn't know what to say, then shook his head, decisive this time. "I won't."
She nodded, swallowed and wiped at her nose. She wasn't going to thank him--she had too much pride for that. Instead, she leaned forward to kiss him, and he kissed her back until she had to break for air, with her nose all clogged up.
"Right," she said, "I'll just finish this." She dug into her bag for more things, put them in the closet.
He nodded. "Do you want to go out to the lake, after? Get some fresh air?"
"Yeah. Fresh air sounds good."
The next week, when Ben went to work again, Victoria slipped out of the apartment and wandered the streets of the city with no particular goal. She was completely anonymous here, and it was a strange feeling. Liberating, of course, after prison, but she was born a small-town girl, and Chicago was a bit overwhelming.
She ended up at a coffee shop, eating a sandwich and sipping at some sort of tall glass of coffee with milk and spices, and watching the people hurry by, endless streams of them, looking past each other to some distant goal.
After she got back to the apartment (unlocked, of course--Ben trusted everyone) her eyes were drawn to the chest Ben kept in the living room, the one where he'd kept his service revolver. There had been what looked like the layered artifacts of a whole life in there, and Victoria couldn't help wanting to get her hands on them, see what made Ben tick. She glanced at her watch--she had time still before Ben would be back--and then opened the chest. She started to rummage through it, carefully noting the way everything was stowed so that she'd be able to put it back again without him noticing.
There was the belt of what was probably his dress uniform, carefully pressed and folded, along with a pair of gloves. A large pile of journals, and she opened one of them. From the sixties, so not his. On the front page was the name Robert Fraser. His father, maybe, or some other relative? She read a few pages. A Mountie, obviously, and as obsessed with justice as Ben. Kind of pompous, too.
Victoria lost interest in the journal and began to rifle through the rest of the chest. There was a box of photos; one was of a young boy who looked out at her with serious eyes. He had Ben's straight nose and dark hair. Victoria stared back into his eyes, somehow feeling an affinity for him. There were other pictures, a slight smiling woman, sometimes bundled up in furs, once in a polka-dotted dress, holding a baby. Then her and a man, with their arms around each other. An old, stern-looking man and woman, with the boy (Ben?) between them, back straight, in front of a cabin. The remnants of lives passed by, none with names written on the back, because the names must all been known by those who took the photos.
There must've been some photos among the stuff her sister had left, but Victoria hadn't looked for them. It wasn't like she wanted to remember her childhood anyway.
She made as if to put the pictures back, then one of them caught her eye: this one was obviously Ben, in uniform and staring out into the distance. He looked young, even younger than he'd been when she'd first met him. Graduation, maybe? The straight, handsome lines of his face struck her as rigid and arrogant, as straight-laced as his uniform. This was the Ben who'd turned her in, and she clenched her teeth and shoved the picture in among the others.
Victoria glanced at the watch, and carefully put everything back the way it had been.
When Ben got home, they cooked dinner together, standing beside each other at the counter. She almost didn't know what to do with this domestic scene--it wasn't something she had ever had in her life before.
"How was your day?" she asked, feeling like a weird parody of a housewife.
"Oh, it was fine," Ben said, with a small sideways smile at her. "Although Ray wasn't as pleased--he fell into a dumpster while in search of evidence, and claimed it was my fault."
"And was it your fault?"
"I wouldn't say so. It was my idea to look in the dumpster, but I didn't say he had to fall into it."
"He'd do a lot for you, huh?"
Ben was silent, as if thinking back on something more serious than dumpster-diving. "Well, I'd do a lot for him. We're friends."
Victoria felt a stab of jealousy, but hid it and smiled at him instead while she stirred the soup. He'd do a lot for his friend, but for love? That hadn't mattered; he'd still turned her in. It was the one thing she couldn't understand about him, that kernel of bitterness that kept poisoning what lay between them.
As a teenager, she'd gone for the dangerous types, the rough and edgy kinds of men. Which is how she'd ended up in the bank robbery in the first place, of course. If she'd known then that she was going to fall for a clean-cut, uniformed Mountie, of all things, she'd have laughed herself silly.
But of course, that wasn't all he was.
She was still thinking about it as they ate the soup, sitting at Ben's bare table.
"Would you still have done it?" she blurted out, without planning to. "Do you regret it?"
"Regret what?" he said, but she could see in his suddenly still expression that he knew exactly what she was talking about.
"You know what I'm talking about," she said tightly.
Ben looked down at the table. "I suppose I do." He straightened and looked at her again, but seemed at a loss for words.
"It's a simple question, yes or no." There was an edge to her voice.
"You know that's not true." He rubbed at his eyebrow, worrying at it, then continued quietly. "I--I regret the consequences. I regret that ten years of your life were spent in prison. And I missed you. But that's not an answer, of course. So, no. I don't suppose I could have done any different back then."
She stared at him. "And now?"
He was silent, then went on. "I don't know. I think perhaps I've gotten a little better at seeing the circumstances in which crimes are committed. It's not as black and white as it once was. So yes, there are circumstances in which I'd let someone go. But I can't--" his voice grew a little rough, "just because I love you, I can't give you any advantage--I couldn't do for you what I wouldn't do for someone else. We have to be equal under the law. I believe that."
"All right," she said, suddenly furious. That fucking uprightness of his, never yielding, not for love, not for anything. But she'd made her choice, hadn't she? She could have had her revenge, and instead she was sitting here eating dinner with him.
She finished off the soup, then stood up to stand at the window over by the bed. Ben came up behind her, his steps hesitant.
"Victoria--" He touched her arm gently, but she didn't want gentle, and she spun around and grabbed his wrists. Surprised, he almost twisted them away, but then took a deep breath and let her. He stood there close to her, and she could feel the heat of him through his shirt. She tightened her grip, and he drew in a breath, startled.
She wanted him. She wanted him like this, wanted him helpless and held down.
Victoria tugged him toward the bed, pushed him down on it. She knew he was stronger than she was, probably by a lot, but he didn't resist or try to tug free.
"Stay," she told him, and he did. She got his lanyard from the uniform hanging in the closet. She looked at him, challenging, and he gave a nod. It was written all over his face, I owe you, and I'm sorry, all those apologies he didn't say out loud and probably didn't really mean, anyway, not in the way she wanted to hear, and it made her tie the knots tighter on his wrists than she probably should. But he didn't protest at that, either. And it was obvious that he was hard in his jeans, anyway.
Victoria unbuttoned his flannel shirt to expose his chest, pale and smooth, and leaned down to suck one of his nipples. It was small and flat, but tightened under her tongue. She sucked harder until she got a reaction, a small gasp, and got her hand on his cock, still trapped in his jeans. His hips bucked up, and she pressed down hard with her hand, bit a little at his nipple. That got a breathless moan out of him.
It was getting to her, too--she was wet, her cunt tightening on nothing. She raised her head to look at him. His lips were wet and red, like he'd been biting at them. She straddled him, then leaned down to kiss him, deep and wet. He was tied up already, of course, but she gripped his arms anyway, feeling his biceps flex under her hands as he tried to rise up and meet her.
And God, maybe she should make him wait, make him beg for it, but she wanted it now. So she slid off him and unbuttoned his jeans, tugged them off along with his boxers, and her own clothes too, and straddled him again. She took in his hard cock, almost too fast for her, almost a little painful. He was moving his hips, thrusting upwards into her, and she sat down on him, pinning his hips.
"Hold still," she said, and he did, panting a little.
She got her fingers between her legs, worked at her clit, her gaze locked on his. Then she raised up her hips and took him in again, setting the pace herself, steady, getting closer and closer to coming while he lay there, biting his lip and keeping still. And then she was there, chasing the bright pleasure over the edge, clenching around the hard length of him as she came and came.
She braced herself on his chest afterwards, panting, her head hanging down. He was still hard inside her, and she tightened around him in an aftershock. God.
Ben was looking up at her, his eyes dark and hungry. She slid off him, and he made a small noise of protest. Then she gripped the base of his cock, and returned to the nipple she'd been sucking on before.
"Please," he groaned, and yes, that was what she wanted to hear. She hummed in approval, and squeezed his cock.
It wasn't the last time he begged that night. She kept him there, on the edge, and when she finally let him come, he just lay there afterwards, his chest heaving. She stroked his sweaty hair from his forehead.
"Victoria?" he murmured.
"Yes?" she replied.
"Would you untie me?" He shifted on the bed.
"Mmm," she said, and got to work on the knots. She had to use her nails to pry them loose, and his wrists were red where he'd pulled against them. He winced when he brought his arms down, then shivered, and pulled the blanket up. Funny, he was never cold.
Victoria felt a slight twinge of remorse, but she couldn't quite bring herself to apologize. She kissed his wrist instead, then got down under the blankets with him, up against his back, and he leaned into her. She put her arms around him, stroking his chest. He fell asleep like that, like he was exhausted, but it took her some time.
When she'd almost drifted off, his words came back to her, floating in her mind. Just because I love you, I can't give you any advantage. It had enraged her at the time.
Because I love you.
I love you.
Time passed, and Victoria realized one day that she'd spent a month with Ben already.
They'd gone to dinner with the Vecchios last Sunday. Ben's partner seemed to have warmed to her at least a little, though it seemed like the invitation was really from his mom, who had seemed to approve of her. Or of Ben finding himself a girl, at least.
Ray's sister though, wow. If looks could kill, Victoria would be dead ten times over by now. She had to admit she'd enjoyed Frannie's jealousy, though she hadn't showed it when Ben could see. He probably wouldn't approve.
"So, Frannie Vecchio, huh?" she'd asked Ben on the way home.
"Ah, no, I'm afraid it was entirely on her side," he'd said.
Victoria couldn't help poking at it. "Really? She seemed like a nice girl."
"Oh, she is. It's just that I don't--I don't fall in love easily."
"Yeah? Just with criminals on the verge of freezing to death?"
She'd meant it to tease, but he'd stayed serious, only smiling a little. "Don't sell yourself short."
And that was the thing. Sometimes when Ben looked at her, she felt like she was so much more than she was. He saw things in her that no one else had ever seen.
And other times, all she could feel was that ingrained bitterness. It was hard to shed, and hard to tangle out from everything else.
Anyway, Ben was hers now--that Vecchio girl was never going to get her hands on him.
It was Monday today, and Victoria was home in Ben's apartment. She'd been out for some groceries, made herself a sandwich. Maybe she should be getting bored with spending the days alone like this, but she wasn't, at least not yet. She usually spent the morning sleeping late, then getting up for a long shower. The apartment felt like a safe cocoon, bare and plain as it was. She'd have to find a job soon, she supposed, but it felt like a distant and unreal thought.
She got up, browsed Ben's bookshelves. He had some interesting books, and she'd spent a couple of afternoons reading, curled up in the blankets on the bed. A slim volume caught her eye, and she drew it out.
Oh. The jolt she got from reading the title was almost physical. She stared at it for a moment, then took it to the bed and sat down, pulling the blankets around her. In the slanting light of the sun from the window, she opened it.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse...
She mouthed the words, so familiar, and wiped at the tears brimming in her eyes.
This had always been that deep, secret part of herself that she'd never shown to anyone, not until she'd whispered it to Benton Fraser, almost frozen to death and a stranger to her, even though it felt like she'd known him all her life. She'd had a couple of tattered books of poetry as a kid, that she'd hidden under the mattress like they were something shameful. She didn't even know what it was about the words and sounds that made her shiver, reached into her heart and laid it bare. It didn't seem like something that fit with the rest of her, a tough kid who didn't let anyone think she cared about anything, let alone something like poetry.
Ben found her like that when he came home. When he saw what she was reading, he sat down beside her on the bed and whispered in her ear:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there...
Victoria shivered, as much at the words as at his low voice in his ear. She turned towards him, remembering a cold mountainside, and put her hand up to pull him closer. He turned to catch her fingers, sucking them into his mouth.
"I got a phone call today," Ben said one day when he got home, and there was something about his tone that sent a jolt of alarm through her.
"Yeah?" she said cautiously.
"My cabin in the Yukon has burned down," he said slowly.
Of course, Victoria thought with a rising sense of dread. It wasn't that she'd forgotten about this--she'd done it herself, after all--but with the weeks passing, it had seemed so easy to think it would all be fine. She'd dealt with Jolly, she'd sneaked the bills out from Ben's wallet again, she'd convinced him about her identity change.
Her mouth was dry, and she said nothing while he went on. "They found bank notes in a box under the floorboards. From your robbery in Alaska."
The words hung there between them.
Victoria had always found it easy to get people around to her side--men especially. Well, this would be the final test of it. But Ben wasn't stupid, unlike some of the men she'd wrapped around her little finger. She swallowed, managed to get some moisture in her mouth. She was cold, sweating.
"Ben, I--" She looked up at him, and almost lost her nerve. Anger, she could have dealt with, but God, that terrible doubt in his eyes. She made herself go on. "I knew where the money was. I never told anyone, though--I told the court that Jolly knew where it was, and he said the same about me. And after--I thought, why not? I've suffered enough for it. And I thought, somehow, that you and I could--together--so I hid it there." She shook her head. "It was stupid, I know. I knew even then that you'd never--" Her voice broke, and she encouraged the tears that rose in her eyes. Best not to bring up the fire--let him think the place was struck by lightning or something.
She looked at him, but found it hard to read him. God, she needed something to go on here.
He shook his head, like he didn't want to hear it. "I thought I could trust you," he said in a low voice.
Oh, the irony. "You can trust me. I only wanted--but I shouldn't have, I know. God, it was stupid." Victoria leaned against him, into his arms. If she could only touch him, she could convince him. She believed that. "Ben, I love you," she whispered.
She'd never said it to him before, but it was utterly true. And she'd said it to manipulate him, to convince her to accept her lie.
His arms tightened around her. "And I, you. But--" he let out a breath. She could feel him shake his head, and then hold her even tighter.
It had been touch and go, Victoria thought the next day when she was alone, sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee. And God only knew how they were going to get through the questioning that was sure to follow. But he loved her, she knew he did, and she clung to that knowledge. It had to be enough. She could make him trust her again.
She rubbed at her eyes, still sleepy. They'd had sex last night, intense, wordless, and she still felt the ache of it in her body.
A knock on the door, and she tensed, although it might just be Mr. Mustafi, wanting to borrow something. She went to the door, opened it.
Ben's partner. "Hi?" she said guardedly. Had Ben told him about the cabin?
"Hi," he said, looking at her, his eyes cold. "So," he said slowly, searching her face. "Someone found a body in the lake yesterday."
Victoria felt like he'd punched her in the stomach, but didn't move, didn't betray anything. She frowned, puzzled. "Yeah?"
"We took his fingerprints, and got his identity--I think you'd recognize the name. Haven't told Ben yet. But I thought you should know." Vecchio leaned in, his voice low and intense. "Look, I warned you, okay? I warned you. If you hurt him..."
Victoria shook her head slowly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yeah. Just thought you should know." He turned and left, striding away down the hall.
She stood there motionless for a moment. Her mouth twisted. So Vecchio had won, after all.
Then she jolted into action, gathering up her things and stuffing them into her bag. God, she'd covered her tracks as well as she could--how had the body ever turned up?--but just the fact of Jolly's identity was enough to throw the suspicion on her. And if Ben had turned her in for driving the getaway car at a robbery, what wouldn't he do for a murder? God, he could never forgive that. And she couldn't bear to see that reflected in his eyes.
She looked around her--that was everything, wasn't it? Not like she had a lot of stuff. On impulse, she threw Ben's book of Hopkins poetry into her bag. Should she leave a note? She huffed out a breath. What would be the use? She couldn't say anything on a piece of paper that Ben didn't already know, or that she never wanted him to know.
Because that was the thing--she could stay here, beg, throw herself on the mercy of Ben and of the court where she was sure to end up. Claim she'd killed Jolly in self-defense. But there was a stubborn, proud part of her that refused to bend any further than she'd already done. Victoria clenched her jaw. She'd already let go of revenge for love--was she supposed to grovel for it, too? Fuck, no.
Besides, she didn't plan to spend another lifetime in jail.
Victoria slung the bag over her shoulder and closed the door of Ben's apartment behind her. She took a cab to the train station, where she still had most of the money. She could grab it on her way out. It was like some part of her had always kept it in mind, an exit strategy in case things blew up.
But the money was gone.
Victoria stared at the empty compartment. No time now to figure who had taken it, how, when--the important thing was to get out of here. She went to the ticket booth, keeping her head down. She had enough money for a ticket and enough to live on for a while.
As the train started moving and gathered speed, Victoria turned her face to the window, away from the passenger on her other side. She'd failed at revenge. She'd failed at love. So what now?
On the platform, a man in a Stetson hat and a leather jacket stopped running, breathing hard and staring after the departing train that had escaped him.
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist -- slack they may be -- these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?