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She'd had ten years. Ten years with nothing to do but worry over that moment like she was telling a poisoned rosary. Ten years of iron bars, cold concrete walls, of pushing and shoving to make a place for herself in a harsh, gray, closed-up world. Ten years to decide exactly how she was going to give that poison back to him, back to the man who gave it to her.

Late at night, lying awake listening to the hollow sounds of the sleeping prison, her mind was irresistibly drawn to him.

***

That day, on the pass, she'd known she was going to die. She'd faced the thought down with a kind of grim satisfaction, glad to be alone and free. And she hadn't seen her life flash before her; her mind hadn't sheered off like a bird on wing, into fantasies, away from the reality of her body. She had watched every miserable minute of the day creep by, heard the wind whipping the snow around her and over her and into her clothes and skin. Like needles, people said, but it felt more like a thousand razor-sharp blades, cutting her everywhere they hit. She wouldn't have been surprised to open her eyes to find herself lying in a pool of her own blood. But even worse was when she stopped feeling the cut of it, when the numbness began to set in, stealing her life right from her.

Her world had narrowed down to almost nothing: her heart, which she could feel beating, slower, slower; her breath, so cold on the inhale that it tore at her; her eyes, locked shut by her frozen lashes. She nursed these details, focusing on them with all her will, as if she could draw out her life by experiencing these last moments as fiercely as her weakness would allow. She so hypnotized herself with those sensations, that she didn't immediately register a new one: warmth. Just a little bit more warmth than there was before, and she wondered if the storm had passed, but then she felt a second new thing: hands, grasping at her. Her dying brain couldn't work out whose hands these were, and she wanted to struggle, but couldn't do more than think it. She was pulled against a warm—warm!—chest, and a hoarse, low voice began murmuring in her ear. Nothing profound, no prayers for the dead, just, "Miss, can you hear me? You must try to stay awake."

He was trying to save her. Save her. She wanted to laugh. If this man knew who she really was, he wouldn't be so quick to risk his life for hers. The only things she had that were worth a damn were her face and her body, or so they seemed to think back home. Fat lot of good that would do him, out here on the mountain.

She wondered if he'd leave her if he knew what she'd done. She almost wished he would. She'd prepared for death, and now she was just going to have to face the world again. Face what had happened.

Ed was dead, and maybe by now, so was Jolly. She was the only one left, a fugitive. Fugitive. It sounded so romantic when they said it in movies, but the reality was anything but. Always looking behind you for your hunters, paying extra for silence, being left here to die. She hadn't wanted anything to do with their plan in the first place, but never in all her fearful imaginings had she thought that she would be the only one to survive it.

She'd known that something had gone very, very wrong when she'd heard gunfire. She'd had the car outside the bank with its engine idling, just like they'd told her to do. She didn't know what the hell they did in there, and she didn't want to know. She'd shut her ears and her mind up tight when they talked about their plans; if she didn't hear them, she could pretend for a while that she wasn't going to be trapped into taking part. All she knew was her job, which was to wait—heart pounding like it was trying to escape her chest altogether—and keep the car running. Oh, and she knew the basic timetable, which was already shot to hell before she even heard the gun firing. The minutes had ticked by so slowly that she felt as if she'd be waiting in the car forever, like it was some crazy punishment for her sins, but then everything sped up alarmingly. The crack of the shot, and then—before she had time to get her head around that—a cop car, sirens wailing, screeched to a stop in front of the bank. And next, so close on the heels of the cops it was like they'd choreographed it, Ed came bursting out on to the street. When he saw the police, he skidded to a halt so fast it was almost comical. He made to turn back into the bank, but when they shouted at him, he wheeled around again, curled his hand behind him and pulled out the gun she'd watched him tuck into his waistband this morning. And time slowed down again, because, without so much as a warning, both officers raised their guns, fired—were they supposed to do that? She didn't think cops were supposed to do that—and hit Ed square in the chest. The sound from this distance was like two firecrackers, a trivial thing, but she could see the blood blooming out of his shirt. It was momentarily beautiful, rising up like water around a dropped stone. Then, the force of the bullets pushed him back, shook him, and—right before her eyes—he'd crumpled to the ground like a rag doll and lain still.

Everything had gone still for her, too. Her first thought was, stupidly, Is that all it takes? She could have done that years ago, turned him into a rag doll and walked right out the door. She shook her head, and the more immediate reality came crashing in on her. She was waiting outside a robbed bank in the getaway car while two police officers leaned over the body of her boyfriend. This was it, her worst fears perfectly realized. This was her life, destroyed for good by the miserable fuck bleeding out on the sidewalk not ten yards away from her. Her vision started to blur at the horror of her predicament, her head reeling and her breath coming in harsh pants. But, no. No. She couldn't help herself if she spun off into hysteria. She pinched her own thigh so hard she pierced the skin, trying to keep herself focused on the moment. She wasn't in cuffs yet. In fact, no one seemed to have noticed her sitting here. There was only the one police car on the scene, and the two officers who had come with it were so busy fussing over Ed that they hadn't had time to make a cordon around the building. The last few seconds had seemed to take over the entire world with their dramatic power, but in reality the day was continuing around her. There was traffic on the street. People were walking right past her car without a glance. Granted, many of them were heading over to gawk at the spectacle, but as far as they were concerned, she wasn't part of it.

However she'd lucked into this little window, it wasn't going to stay open forever. She had to decide what to do about it, and soon. She couldn't imagine being able to calmly drive past the front of the bank, not with the police car right there, red and blue lights still flashing. So, that meant walking. That meant leaving the little bubble she was in and hoping that no one noticed her. She could do this. It wasn't as if she had any choice. It was do it or, well, she didn't want to think about "or." She took a few deep, slow breaths, calmed her face as much as she could, grabbed her bag, opened the door and stepped out on to the sidewalk. No one even glanced in her direction. She was unable to stop herself from looking over to where Ed was lying crumpled up on the ground. And he was dead, all right. The cops weren't even looking at him any longer, but dealing with the small stream of people that had started trickling its way out of the bank once things had calmed down. They walked past the body with shocked faces, stepping gingerly around the spreading pool of blood that surrounded him. His face was slightly turned away from her, but she could see that it was slack and clean of expression. His mouth was open, and—if she ignored the holes that had torn up his chest—he looked just as he had last night, sleeping beside her in their bed. She didn't have time to deal with what, if anything, she felt about that, so she turned—very deliberately putting her back to the scene—and walked away. No one followed her.

She'd been so close to getting away clean. So close.

She snapped out of her reverie. Her mysterious savior was shaking her—not gently—and calling for her. He sounded as if he'd been at it a while. His voice was worried, maybe even a little desperate-sounding. "Miss! Miss, please!" She batted weakly at him, murmuring a wordless acknowledgment to his calls, and he slowly subsided against her back. "Try to stay with me. Do you understand?" Yes, she understood. The snow was closing around the both. Right now, the wind and the cold was, yes, still cutting into her, but soon enough that same snow would come to feel like an embrace of warmth and comfort. And that was where the real danger rested. She could already feel herself sinking into comfortable haziness. And in that illusion, she'd find only death. "Miss! Please pay attention." If he'd just let her go there, but again, she nodded slowly at his words. Yes, yes, she thought, half-hysterically, if it means so much to you.

He kept talking to her, trying to keep her mind from slipping away. As she drifted in and out of awareness, she heard him speak of rivers and burning trees; of lying wrapped in furs, reading; of wolves and hockey and shamans. They were odd stories, almost laughable in their strangeness, even the sad ones. And all of them were clean, almost pure, untouched by resentment or hatred or greed. Or maybe that was just him. She found herself wanting to truly hear what he was saying, so she pushed herself up and out of her exhaustion to meet him. She began to murmur at him, filling his pauses with the acknowledgment that she heard him, keeping him going with her attention. As the storm wore on, and he began to weaken, it was as if he was peeling away the layers of himself and giving them to her. The amusing stories gave way to confessions of pain and sorrow, of loneliness. Half delirious, he recounted his dreams, his wants, and his disappointments, both petty and grand.

It was as if he'd handed her something delicate and sharp, something that lodged in her chest, and pricked her with new feeling. She didn't think anyone had ever let her see inside like that, and when his voice began to waver and then went still, she was determined suddenly that this wouldn't, couldn't become his last confession. She didn't want to sully the moment with any of her own stories, but she suddenly remembered something she could give to him. It was a poem. She'd seen it in a book—back when she still went to school—and it had been as if the poet was telling a secret just for her. She didn't understand every line, but she could feel them. The words in the poem were birds soaring above the trees, and her body ached with the desire to follow. Ever since she could remember, she'd wanted to fly away, and so even though the poem wasn't hers, it was as if she was giving him something of herself when she began to recite it. She stumbled over the words the first time, and she wasn't sure if she'd gotten them right, so she said them again.

And when he pulled her hand to himself, and put her fingers in his mouth, it was as if he was responding to her, as if he understood what she was telling him, and was reassuring her that they would keep each other alive. It was such a strange thing to do. She could feel the wet warmth of his tongue moving against the pads of her fingers, the hard press of his teeth. The shock of it kept her tethered in her body, made her intensely aware of him pressed close to her. Not knowing what else to do, she began to chant her poem over and over again. It was a spell that would drive the cold away, keep their hearts beating. At first, she felt every line of it; she was the bird off forth on swing, but soon the words ceased to mean anything, became simply the cadence of her will to survive.

It worked. Though in her worst moments, she sometimes wished it hadn't.

It wasn't until after the sky had cleared, after they'd crawled weakly out of their hiding place, stumbled down the mountain, and gorged themselves on the food he'd brought with him, that she had the attention to spare for the man who'd saved her and been saved. What she saw stunned her. She'd known he was young from the stories he had told, but somehow she hadn't expected this. His pale face wasn't devoid of care, but—like his strange stories—it carried no trace of avarice or cynicism. She felt, in her exhaustion, a strange desire to just keep looking in to him, the way one peers in to the depths of a glacier lake, feasting on its pristine stillness.

As he let her look, she saw that he carried some sorrow or regret in that face, and she wondered about it until he opened his mouth and said, "Victoria Metcalf."

From the way he was intently holding her gaze, she understood that was trying to tell her something, but he seemed unable to continue. He didn't have to. With her name came the realization of who he was, and what it meant. She understood then that he wouldn't have walked right past her on the ridge, that he had been looking for her, tracking her. Something she had done had led him right to her, and he in turn would lead her right to that cell she couldn't even bear to think about. She lifted her eyes to his in complete horror, and they simply stared at one another, an entire, silent conversation taking place between them. She had a moment to wonder why they could see into one another like this. It shouldn't have been possible. This was, after all, their first glimpse of one another, but it was like something had happened to them up on the mountain, and she could hear everything he was trying to tell her as if he was whispering it in her ear. She saw, with some consternation, that he was reading her understanding just as easily.

He didn't say another word. He made no attempt to restrain her, or read her her rights, even though she could see that this went against everything he was. In fact, he seemed to be wrestling with himself right before her very eyes. She watched the flickering conflict as it passed across his face, but then abruptly, he came to a decision. "Benton Fraser," he said. She saw his mouth open on another word, but he simply shut it again, and held his mittened hand out to her.

She peered into his eyes and saw, or thought she saw, that this pretense—that they were two ordinary people who'd met by chance—wasn't entirely for her benefit. He looked like a child who'd decided he'd spent enough time with his nose pressed to the window of the candy-store, and who was going to grab some sweetness for himself. He looked like a man who'd decided to give himself one little thing, even if it was against his own better judgment. She guessed that thing was her, but she really couldn't tell what that meant. She gave a little internal shrug at the thought. What did it matter? She'd given herself away before, and for much less. So she just offered him her hand, not knowing what he wanted with it. He grasped it firmly, shook it once, and dropped it again, just as if they were being introduced for the first time at a party. Then he hoisted up his pack, hitched his shoulder at her in a kind of "follow me" gesture, and began to walk. After a second of pure bemusement, she picked up her feet to follow him.

They walked for a quite a while in silence. It was hard going, trudging through the snow, and picking over uncertain ground; even if she'd known what to say to him, she wouldn't have had the breath for it. It wasn't awkward. It was just a good, working quiet. They helped one another over the rough patches, taking turns bracing or pulling or steadying.

Finally, they reached level ground, and he turned his attention back to her, "Miss Metcalf," he began, and then stopped. She must have made a sound, of pure disbelief, most likely. Was he really going to call her that? He'd had her fingers in his mouth, she suddenly remembered; surely they were beyond formalities at this point.

"Victoria," he amended. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had called her that, either. He said the name carefully, slowly, with crisp, determined consonants, and then he paused again. With the air of someone who is jumping off a cliff, and is uncertain about the sharpness of the rocks below, he stopped, turned fully to face her and said, "And you may call me Ben."

"Ben," she agreed. She couldn't quite work out why he seemed so disconcerted, but she guessed it had something to do with the yellow stripe that ran down the legs of his trousers. He was otherwise bundled in furs, but she was willing to bet there was a uniform under all those skins. They were apparently not talking about it, but she figured him for RCMP. And if that were true, his self-created fiction that they were just Victoria and Ben, out here hiking in the snow together, had more serious implications for him than he was letting on. She was fired with curiosity about his reasons, but too hungry for the reprieve to break their compact of silence. It had been a long few days for her, one shock piling on top of the other, and she was grateful for the pocket of calm he seemed determined to give her. On the other hand, it frustrated her. What did it mean? What would he do? Were they really just hiking in the snow? Would he go after her if she were to turn and walk away from him? Would he hand her over? She had no weapon, and looking at him, she could see that he would have no trouble overpowering her if he chose to do it. Even if she could get away, how could she survive out here without him? She had no idea where she was. She wouldn't survive the winter nights alone, even supposing something worse didn't happen to her.

And then there were those glacier lake eyes, and the way he'd cracked himself open for her, when he thought they were dying. She didn't know why or how she had the energy to care, but she wanted to see more, was hungry for him in a way that seemed to have nothing to do with the desperate situation in which she now found herself.

So she didn't confront him, or say anything at all. Just watched and waited for him to say whatever it was he'd started out with in the first place.

"We'll have to stop soon," he said.

Dozens of questions flickered in her head, but she just nodded.

"We can camp in the shelter of that rise, over there," he continued, pointing to what looked like a dune of snow, off in the middle distance.

It wasn't anything profound, this pragmatic suggestion, but it broke their silence somehow. They began to talk as they picked their way across the snow. Not about anything in particular. They just exchanged the small coinage of new acquaintances.

They were four days out hiking in the snow, and that first day set the pattern for all the rest. They spent the days on the move. It was clear that he had a destination in mind, but he didn't see fit to tell her what it was, and she never asked. As each evening approached, they would find some place to set up camp, and he would disappear for a few minutes or an hour, and come back carrying skinned hares or a handful of berries or a small fish. Once they'd licked the juice of dinner from their fingers, they took shelter in his tiny tent, huddled together under his only sleeping bag.

She'd half expected him to push for something more from her—kiss her, touch her, draw her to him—once they were safe, and in such close quarters. It was clear that he wanted her. She'd caught his eyes on her more than once when they didn't really have to be. She would have given him whatever he asked for—it was nothing to her—but he didn't ask.

The first night they lay down together, she should have been exhausted. She should have been desperate to sleep, after everything that had happened, but instead she was wide awake, and watching him. As they curled to face one another, their knees brushed together, and she found herself—without thinking about it—tangling up their fingers, too.

There was just enough light in the tent for her to see the white of his teeth, his glittering eyes. She'd been absolutely correct: there was a uniform under those furs. It was brown, with belts and buckles and gold emblems on it, and it made him look like a cub scout, young and squeaky-clean. He was studying her face with the same fascinated concentration she gave to his, and for a long time, they lay in wakeful silence.

She wanted to break that silence, but questions were somehow dangerous. The reality of what they were, and where they were headed was a minefield they both seemed reluctant to navigate.

"It's cold like this where I grew up," she found herself saying.

She stopped, wondering if this was the right thing to do, but the look on his face was positively hungry, as if he wanted to pull the words out of her, so she continued.

"No mountains, though. From the ridge behind our house, you could see forever."

"It sounds very beautiful."

The kid in the candy store look was still on his face, for some reason she couldn't figure. It discomfited her, and so she kept talking, not knowing what else to do, and studiously not thinking of their tangled knees and fingers while she did it.

"I always felt trapped in the city. I never could get used to not seeing the horizon."

It wasn't until the words were out of her mouth that she realized what she was telling him. She was straying dangerously close to that minefield, and—from the way he suddenly went very still—he seemed to know it.

He gave a little sigh, and she realized all at once, that—close as they were—she could actually feel his breath on her face.

Instead of responding directly to her, he said, "When I was very young, my parents had a cabin out here."

"Really?" She tried to imagine what that would have been like. Even the small Alaskan town she'd grown up in hadn't been this isolated. There had been a school; she'd had friends. Who had he played with out here?

"Yes. My father was away much of the time. I don't really recall him being there, just my mother and the sled dogs." He paused here, apparently considering what he'd said. He looked almost startled at what had come out of his mouth.

"Sounds lonely."

"I don't think it was. It must have been, for her, but I...I don't remember it that way." He was very far away now, and even in the dark, even as a near stranger, she could see the flicker of pain that crossed his face. He was struggling again, with some new decision, and so she didn't say anything, just watched and waited to see what he would do.

"I don't know how she died." His voice wavered and scratched on this, but didn't break. "There's just a blank space where it should be. One day she was teaching me to make snow angels, and the next thing I remember is my father holding my hand at her grave. He never talked about it. My grandparents took care of me after that."

She didn't really know what to say to that, so she didn't say anything. Her fingers tightened instinctively on his. He hesitated for just a moment, and then she felt him gripping at her—so hard, it almost hurt.

He didn't continue his story, just closed his eyes and held onto her. They must have slept like that, because the next thing she knew, it was morning, and when she raised her head, he was holding a cup of tea out to her.

They had turned some corner during the night, and were no longer strangers with one another, if they ever were. During the day, they walked and stopped, spoke and fell silent in the easy rhythm of old partners. It was a heady distraction, and an almost physical pleasure, though they rarely touched. This call and response so mesmerized her that she found herself, for long moments, honestly forgetting why they were out on the snow.

At night, Ben continued to speak to her as he had during the worst of the storm. It was as if, once he'd taken off that mask, he found it impossible to put back on again. What an odd creature he was. She occasionally found herself wanting to smile at his stories, but she didn't. He seemed to have such a hard time digging down for them that she greeted them with the solemn gratitude the effort seemed to deserve.

Because Ben had told her about his mother dying, she found herself telling him about her father. How he used to read to her every night. The way he laughed, and swung her up on his shoulders when she asked to touch the Northern Lights. She told him about her parents, how they bickered across the dinner table, always smiling. How they'd gone to bed every night holding hands.

"I was eleven," she whispered.

"Eleven?"

Her voice wanted to quaver a little, but she kept it even, "Yes. When he died. That's how old I was."

Ben's hand grasped hers, just as hers had done for him the night before. He watched her carefully, but she was steady as she told him the story.

It seemed like one minute her father had been there, and the next: gone. After the funeral, her mother couldn't even look at her. Her blue eyes and dark curls, so like his, seemed to cut at her mother, whose eyes slid off Victoria with something that was almost like hatred. It got so that her little sister was the only one who would touch or talk to her, but she couldn't stand to lean on someone so much younger than her. By the time she was 13, she'd found new people to lean on, trading her beauty for the miserable little scraps of affection the local boys were willing to give to someone so easy. By age 17, she found that her mother was perfectly willing to look at her long enough to call her a whore and put her out in the cold.

She couldn't quite bring herself to give Ben the details. It would have been like dumping a gallon of oil right in the center of that lake of clarity he carried around with him, but she told him how she loved her father, how she was so alone after, and how it came to be that she was on her own so young.

And finally she found herself telling him about Ed. What was the point in hiding it from him, when it was easy enough to find out? So she told him how Ed had taken her in when she was 17. How she'd thought it was love, but soon learned different. How she'd learned to take a punch and come up snarling; his fists had taught her so well. How he'd used her for his plans, his little schemes that kept getting bigger and bigger.

Ben hadn't said anything, only listened, his eyes focused on her, and solemn. And then he'd reached out very slowly, and very gently put his fingers to her face, stroked her cheek with his cold hand. She never cried, but in that moment, she wanted to. Her eyes felt hot and scratchy, and she was almost shaking with some emotion she couldn't even name. They fell asleep like that, their only connection his fingertips to her cheek.

She woke with his hand still to her face and—when they stepped out of the tent—a small town visible in the far distance. Still without a word of explanation, Ben began to lead them directly towards it. She felt a momentary, white-hot flash of frustration with him: didn't he realize this was her life they were toying with? What would he do? But she found herself unable to hold on to her anger.

That evening, they seemed to have run out of stories. They were silent, as they had been on that first night, but the air between them was charged in a new way. Her fingers and knees prickled with sensitivity where they were touching his.

Following an impulse she barely understood, she reached up—mirroring his gesture from the night before—and laid her hand on his face. She felt the scrape of his beard in her palm, and the skin of his cheek was cold and soft against the pads of her fingers.

He'd gone very still at her touch, like a woodland creature in the path of a hunter, and his breath came so quick, he was almost panting.

Neither of them moved for a long moment. They both appeared to be waiting for something, and then she realized: he wasn't going to reach for her. Not after what she had told him.

She didn't think her heart had been pounding so hard when she'd turned her back on the bank that day, and begun to walk away. With the same deliberate—and entirely illusory—calm, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to Ben's. They were chapped and cracked from cold, less soft than they looked, and she could feel them catching against her own. She could also feel the rolling tremors that had begun to shake his body the moment her lips touched his, as if he were struggling against the desire to move. Her fluttering heart leapt into her throat at the thought of it, with something that felt almost like fear. She didn't pull away, however, but pressed closer to him, sliding her hand behind his neck and tilting her head so that she could deepen the kiss. When her tongue touched him, he made the softest, helpless little noise. His arms came around her, and he rolled, pulling her down on top of him, and anchoring her there with his hands. His mouth opened under hers, and he was kissing her, wild and desperate.

She felt something strange and almost unpleasant unfurl in her belly—something sharp that made her gasp. She was so used to being in control in this moment. She had thought she knew every trick that men and women could play on one another, but this was a new game entirely. She didn't have anything like control. The intensity of his desire for her, the almost painful grip of his hands made her feel dizzy, as if she was going to fall off the world. She grabbed back at him, hoping that would steady her, but it only made the feeling worse. She couldn't catch her breath, or anything else but him.

Hysterically, she thought to herself that if she could just make him lose all control, she would somehow get hers back. She pulled her mouth away from his, leaned down, and began fumbling in his clothes, trying to get to him, but her fingers were shaking. She couldn't find the cool observer that always came to bed with her, the part of herself that calculated all the angles and felt very little. She was too ravenous for his skin, his mouth, and the prickle of his hairs under her fingers. He had tucked his face in the crook of her neck, and his stubble tickled and scratched at her there, making her shiver.

When she reached for the button at his waist, he let out an almost pained gasp, and his body pushed helplessly against her palm. Then his hand grasped hers, and pulled it away.

"We can't. We can't, Victoria," he panted into her neck, visibly struggling for stillness.

She pulled against his grip for a moment, suddenly feeling reckless where she'd been afraid. He didn't let go.

"It's not right. We can't."

This time, he let go of her hand and rolled again, turning her so that he was curled up against her back. He held her, his strong arms wrapped so tightly around her she could hear her ribs creak. He buried his face in her hair and began to murmur a constant stream of near-incoherent endearments in that low, husky voice. Her body was still chiming with unresolved tension, but her mind felt suddenly clear. As his heart beat fast and strong against her back, she felt herself letting go of some tightness that had imprisoned her forever. It felt like the spring thaw had come to her, the ice just breaking up and drifting away. She sank back into him, and thought, I could, I could, I could. I could leap and he would catch me, she meant. I could lead or follow him. I could stay here forever.

And his murmurs echoed her, "I won't leave you, I will always be here, I will follow you all the way. No matter what happens tomorrow, we will face it together. I will help you, I won't let you go through this alone."

No matter what happens tomorrow. She turned in his arms, until she could see his face. "Ben? Tomorrow?" was all she said. She didn't need to say anything else. Just as it was on that first day, she could see every question and every answer clearly written in his eyes. That town she'd been so studiously ignoring was the end of the line. After everything, he was going to hand her over to be cuffed, fingerprinted, processed, locked in. More than that, he thought she'd understood. She could see that he was shocked at her surprise. He had assumed she would realize that his choice was already made.

If she hadn't realized, it was because she had been spending the last four days in a dream world. She had made her mind as cloudy as she could, pushed Ed and the bank away from her, and toddled after Ben just as if they were taking a turn around the park. She had opened up the carapace of her life and let him in, but she hadn't been brave enough to confront him about this one desperately important thing. She had been grateful to him, but now she wished she'd rejected his delicacy.

She couldn't afford delicacy now.

"Ben, you've got to know what will happen to me if you do this," she began.

"I will help you," he repeated, "I will do everything in my power to help you."

"It won't be enough! You know that. Someone died in that robbery. I listened to them plan it and told no one. I was sitting right there. You know that they won't let me go. You know it."

"Victoria," he sounded suddenly afraid, and he stopped there.

"Ben, please. I could just walk away right now, and no one would ever have to know."

"You don't know what you're asking me, Victoria."

"You know I won't do it again. Please, Ben, oh please. I'll disappear. I'll walk away. No one will ever hear from me again."

She could hear her voice rising and cracking in her panic. She felt as if she was clawing her way up an ice crevasse with her bare hands, trying to win her freedom. And she could see that she was failing, that he just couldn't hear what she was saying, couldn't turn her way on this one thing.

She knew she was right when he said, "I'm so sorry." And then, "I'm afraid I can't do that."

It sounded as if it was shredding his heart to say those words, but she couldn't bring herself to care. The ice was back, and it only left room for rage, fear, helplessness. Compassion was utterly beyond her at that moment.

She pulled abruptly and deliberately away from him, found his handcuffs and held them out to him, a whirlwind of emotions destroying everything inside her, while her body felt as heavy and lifeless as a stone.

"Then you might as well cuff me now, Constable," she hissed. "No point in continuing to pretend that I'm free, that you care what I think." He shrank back from her, from the wildness on her face, and she advanced toward him on her knees, hands held out. "Do it. What, are you afraid? You should be. Now, do it."

She shoved the cuffs in his hands, but he wouldn't take them. They dropped to the floor of the tent with a hollow rattle. "Come on, Constable. I have the right to remain silent, don't I? Don't I, Ben?"

"Please, Victoria," his voice was cracking wide open now, and he still hadn't moved.

"No? Then if I'm not a prisoner, I can just leave, is that right?" She turned, opened the tent flap, and began to hoist herself out into the cold.

In a flash, he was up, grabbing her arm and pulling her back down with him.

"I can't let you do that," were his only words, and oh, this was just killing him, but he kept her arm in his grip. She'd been right the first time. He would have no trouble overpowering her. God, he was strong!

She began to struggle, twisting her body violently, and hitting out at him with her free arm. When she cracked her fist across his jaw, he grabbed that arm too, holding her in a grotesque parody of their earlier embrace. She refused to make this easy for him and continued to pull at him, reaching as far as she could with her nails, and kicking out with her feet. She felt wild, completely out of control, and her passion gave her a kind of strength. He had to struggle to keep hold of her; she could see it on his devastated face. She nearly wrenched her arm out of its socket trying to get at him, and then he did something with his body, and—in a lightning-fast confusion of motion—she found herself on her belly, face pressed to the floor of the tent. Her arms were behind her back, and she went very still as he did what she'd told him to do, and closed the cuffs over her wrists, click, click.

And then, in a voice as cold and dead as she felt, he began to recite, "You need not say anything. You have nothing to hope from any promise or favour and nothing to fear from any threat whether or not you say anything. Anything you do say may be used against you as evidence."

***

They didn't speak after that, barely touched. He'd handed her off the next morning. She refused to look at him as they took her off to be processed, though she could feel his eyes on her, silently pleading with her to let him back in, to let him help, willing her to understand why. She was glad of the cuffs at that moment. They stopped her from tearing into that prim face of his, shredding it with her ragged nails. The desire was so strong that she could feel her fingers curling in a useless pantomime.

She didn't know if he'd watched the trial, though what she knew of him told her that he had been there. She took a sick satisfaction in the notion that he was punishing himself witnessing her downfall, but she never saw him.

Just as she'd told Ben, they didn't let her go. She'd watched ten years pass her over, with his name the curse on her lips every single day.

He had been with her, every single moment. There was nothing to distract her from it, nothing to see here, only him. When she lay in her cot, shivering in the winter cold, with every bite of miserable food, every clang of iron bars, every key turning in a lock, she was saying to herself, Ben, Ben, Ben. What she meant was, How could you, Ben? I hate you, Ben. Be afraid, Ben.

She pictured him, as if he was standing before her out on the snow, his hair glossy and tousled, his eyes crystal-blue, his posture straight and proud, and she would square her shoulders as if about to do battle with the ghost of him and tell it, I will show you what you've done.

At first, her imaginings were full of blood and tears. She lingered over fantasies of fighting with him, of scratching at him until she drew blood, of the satisfying crack of her fist on his face. In her mind, she pointed a gun at him, and saw the stunned horror on his face as she pulled the trigger. She replayed their last night together, reliving the frenzy, the loss of control. She imagined that he joined her in her fury, and that they rolled, kicking and biting and scratching until they couldn't anymore, and had to lie back, panting helplessly together in to the cold air. Lying in her cell, she bared her teeth at the thought, and her breath came quick and harsh.

Sometimes, on the coldest nights, she remembered his arms, so strong around her, and his whiskey-soft voice in her ear. It made her shiver just thinking about it—stabbed her with something that didn't know whether it wanted to be hatred or desire. She would curl around herself and fall asleep to the memory of that voice, pleading with her, begging her to understand.

These fantasies kept her warm for a little while, but ten years is a long time, and the stories she told herself began to spin themselves out and out like spider-silk. She told the rosary of their last moment together, but that wasn't all she did. She was determined to give her own desperation right back to him, to tear up his calm certainty. And as the years passed, she'd worked out in loving detail all the ways she could do that. They became their own sort of rosary. She whispered her warnings to him, over and over, knowing he would never hear.

She wondered sometimes why she couldn't get him out of her head. Why was he with her? She'd spent three years in Ed's bed, and he hardly ever crossed her mind. She had never been anything more to Ed than a beautiful convenience, but Ben had seen her. He had seemed to see simply and only her, which should have been impossible, given how little they'd known one another. Yet, it was as if he had seen clear down to the root of her, where the good and bad things got tangled up, and still he hadn't judged her. And he'd given her up anyway. She wished to God he'd just fucked her instead. He'd known exactly what going to prison would do to her, and he'd still chosen his principles over her freedom. She remembered his voice breaking with sorrow as he did it, but that just made her hate it more. If he knew enough to cry for her, then he knew enough to let her go. Ed never knew anything.

Ed was dead. He wasn't ever going to learn anything again. Not Ben, though—there was plenty she could still teach him.

She would go to him when this was over. What would he say? Would he be glad to see her? Horrified?

She'd imagined slapping him, hitting and kicking, but every time, she could see his face as she did it: mournful, apologetic and disappointed. He would never rise to her ire, only take it, let it sink into him and away. She wouldn't be able to bear that, she didn't think.

She'd thought of seducing him, forcing him to cheapen the connection that still tugged at her, until it dissolved in carnality, but this fantasy frightened her. She had the whispering feeling that it would turn on her, that he would burn her clear through, leaving nothing behind but what tied her to him.

Anyway, these were petty, schoolyard retaliations. She'd scratch him? Take away his candy, while he watched her with pitying eyes?

No.

She wanted him to feel the same loss of control that she had, the same powerlessness, the same fear. He saw her? He understood her? She wanted him to be her, to live her, to take her place.

Now here she was.

Maybe Ben had given her something after all. She could see that her rage had polished her, kept her apart. Where she watched those around her go gray, turn sullen and petty, she'd burned with a kind of enlivening fire of hatred. Looking in the mirror, she saw that she was regal as a queen in her drab prison jumper.

In a few minutes, they would take that costume from her, and she would be herself again. They would stamp her file and unlock the door, and she would be free to take her queenly rage to the man who lit it up inside of her. And she would, soon.

Where Ed had used intimidation, she preferred subtlety: she would wrap him up tight before he ever knew what hit him. Maybe if he knew what it felt like to lose everything, to have your life crumble underneath you, he wouldn't shine so brightly. Maybe then she would stop seeing his pained and pleading face in her dreams.

She'd learned a surprising amount about him, just from the local news. His father had died earlier this year, in some sort of scandal, and even the Alaskan papers had carried the story. There'd been a picture of him, a grainy black-and-white taken on the steps of what looked like a government building. He hadn't been looking at the photographer, who had caught him in motion, with his face turned slightly away from the camera. Her heart had clenched when she'd seen it. He was all dressed up in a fancy Mountie uniform, his hair was short and neat, and his face was smooth, clean-shaven. He looked nothing like the mountain man who had skinned rabbits for her. The earnest, determined expression she remembered so well was still intact on that clean face, but there was something new underneath it, something lonely and hard. He looked tired, worn out somehow.

If he looked lonely—striding straight-backed and stiff among clerks and lawyers—it was only because he was. His father was dead, and according to the article, he had never married. All these years, she'd been picturing him meeting some polite, sturdy woods-woman, coming home to her every night, sinking his hands into her clean hair while they kissed hello, and leaning down to tousle the dark head of a little son or daughter. She'd writhed on her sheets in pure agony at the thought of it, full of rage at him for living his life while hers was slipping away. That fantasy image had dissolved the moment she saw the look on his turned-away face. It wasn't even a sad look, really. More like the look of someone who knows that no one else is going to comfort him. There was a fine, barely perceptible edge of desperation to it. She could almost hear him telling himself that he was good and strong and could handle what the world threw at him. Staring into the grainy smudge of his eyes in the picture, she knew—before she even read a word—that he was just as alone as she'd ever been.

She'd wanted to feel satisfaction at that, and in the bright light of day, she'd told herself that she did. But later, she'd lain staring at the grimy picture as night closed around the sleeping prison, and she'd wondered if he ever thought of her. What did he think of when he did: did he remember her clawing for him, frantic with terror, or did he think about what the back of her neck smelled like under his nose? Would he ever sink his hands into her clean hair as he kissed her?

At that, she'd crumpled the paper angrily up in her fist, breathing heavily and frightened into the cold air. Then she'd curled her body around her clenched fist with the picture still inside it. She'd slept that way, restless with dreams. In the morning, the paper was creased, and stained with her sweat, but instead of throwing it away she had carefully straightened it, and put it under her pillow.

She still had it with her—the picture—and the article attached to it said that he had been posted to the Canadian Consulate in Chicago soon after his father's murder. She couldn't imagine the fur-clad man who'd led her down the mountainside sitting at a desk, filing papers, and answering the questions of tourists from Edmonton. She would never have believed it if she hadn't heard it for herself. She called the consulate, expecting to get a receptionist that she could deceive in to telling her what she needed. She nearly dropped the phone when she heard his warm-toffee voice primly saying, "Canadian Consulate," right in her ear. He switched to French, and she should have hung up right then. She had what she needed, but instead she stayed on the line to hear him carefully rattle off his name and title, leaning her forehead against the cold wall of the phone booth while that voice washed over her.

Benton Fraser, he'd said, and held his mittened hand out to her. How could she have stopped herself from taking it? Standing there by the side of a dusty highway, with the phone pressed to her ear, she could see him so clearly: backlit by snow, his eyes nervous and determined over cold-reddened cheeks.

"How may I assist you?" his voice on the phone said, and she shook her head to clear it. My sister's dead, she thought at him. I think Jolly is going to kill me. I don't have anywhere to go.

She almost opened her mouth to tell him, suddenly certain that he would understand, that he would be glad to hear her voice, but then he repeated his question, and something about his cool, official tone slammed her back ten years. In a great rush, she was face down, cheek pressed to rough canvas, and metal cuffs still cold around her wrists, as he intoned, You have nothing to hope from any promise or favour and nothing to fear from any threat.

Her heart beating so hard that it shook her hands, she cracked the phone down into its cradle. Once it was safely out of her hands, she turned and smacked them into the wall of the phone booth until the sharp sting in her palms calmed her enough that she could walk out into the sunshine.

Her pulse finally slowed, but she couldn't shake the jittery feeling of unease that his voice had set up in her body. It followed her as she got into her sister's car, and it followed her as she pulled out and onto the road, heading south.

She was remembering his hoarse whisper in her ear, I won't leave you, I will always be here. She'd made that into a lie, or they both had, but hearing his voice—both like and unlike the voice that had kept her alive in the snow—she found herself wondering for the first time if it had to be that way. Her sympathy for him, and her hatred and that one other thing were getting tangled up in her, making her skin feel like it wasn't hers, making her shiver and fidget.

She wasn't going to Chicago to cry on his shoulder, she was going to free herself from him and what he did to her, once and for all. It was simple enough. She'd been working it out for years. All that she needed to do was take it step-by-step, piece by piece. She wouldn't have to care what he thought of her if she just focused on what it would take to show him what he'd done. Step-by-step. That thought calmed her, finally, allowed her to close off all of the other ones, and just focus on which step was next.

She could pretend that she was working her way through the instructions on a complicated machine. That way, she didn't have to think about where each action was really leading her.

Step by step, she told herself. She very carefully didn't look in delighted awe at the vista that lay before his cabin door, and she studiously stopped her hands from reaching to touch the faded quilt on the bed inside it. There was only one thing she needed to do here, and so she did it, shutting her mind to every other impulse. And when she was done and on her way again? She didn't stare longingly out the window at the clean, crisp, splendid isolation of the valley behind her.

And when she saw the Chicago skyline for the first time, she willed herself not to marvel at the city before her. She resolutely refused to make comparisons between this jumble of steel with its millions of inhabitants, and the lonely valley she'd seen so briefly. She was so busy protecting herself from thinking about what it must have been like for him to come to this place that she almost forgot to be overwhelmed herself.

Anyway, the crowds and the noise and the steel towers were none of her concern.

It was only when she caught the first glimpse of her intended quarry that she realized the flaw in her list, in her studious avoidance of anything that wasn't on it: she'd forgotten to prepare herself for it, for this moment.

She'd decided that it would be prudent not to barge right in to his life; that she would hang back, see what she could find or use by watching him. To that end, she had the address to the consulate, and to an apartment on Racine—both easily acquired from the phone book—carefully written on a piece of paper in her purse. She had a room, under her sister's useful name, in a hotel not far from either of those places. She had drab, unremarkable clothes, and a few weeks' leeway built in to her other schemes.

What she didn't have, what it turned out she really needed, was something to insulate her from what it felt like to peer from a shadowed doorway as he stepped out from the consulate and directly into the cold morning sun.

She'd thought about him too much. She hadn't meant to, but she had. They'd been four days out on the snow, and as much as he'd startled her by tugging her interest and attention to him, truly, she'd spent a great deal of that time focusing on the snow, the cold, the next step. Flashes of his almost-too-fine features in the sun, and the whisper of his voice in the tent at night, that's what she'd had when she stepped into prison. That was ten years ago.

She had remembered that his hair was dark and his eyes were blue, that—in fact—he was almost too much like her to make thinking about the way he looked a truly comfortable thing. She'd remembered his voice, which was clear and deep, his words carefully chosen and crisply spoken. She'd remembered his competence, the way he never once seemed to be at a loss out on the snow. And it wasn't as if these details had faded, so much as they'd been polished too often. He'd hardened into something less than real in her head, something harshly and frighteningly perfect and rigidly upstanding, a boy scout or a toy. And that clear-eyed regard he'd given her, she'd convinced herself that it was a sham. She had made him into just another of the men in her life, guys like Ed who'd only pretended to be Princes until she'd given them what they wanted.

When he stepped through the consulate doors, all pressed and shined and straight-backed, buckled into his uniform, she almost sneered at the sight. He was a toy, a little Mountie doll. How had he ever had any power over her? But then, he held the door open for a moment so that a large, white wolf could follow him out into the day. She seemed to have come in on the middle of an intense conversation between the two: Ben leaned attentively toward the animal, and spoke earnestly and perhaps—was it?—a little petulantly to him. His face was lit up with exasperated affection and intensity, and he was gesticulating with those blunt hands as he talked. The plastic mask she'd given him dropped away, and just like before, she was helplessly drawn to him, enthralled by this evidence that he was just as odd, just as genuine, just as singularly himself as he'd been ten years ago.

It rattled her. Of course it did! She was disconcerted by the delight she took in seeing him, by the fact that—though she was here for a purpose, ostensibly to find information to use against him—she found herself simply staring, marveling at his face and his gestures and his strange ways.

She watched him for days, found herself gazing at him for hours while he stood—never even twitching an eyebrow—in front of the consulate, tailing him as he walked around the park with the wolf, catching scraps of arguments between him and the lanky police detective—Raymond Vecchio—who seemed to be his only human friend. She was as careful as she knew how to be, and she didn't think he noticed the ghost that followed him to his every appointment.

There was something a little off about him, wasn't there? He sometimes talked to himself, long involved conversations, where he paused for answers that never came. He gestured and grimaced as if actually speaking to someone invisible to the rest of the world, and people stared at him on the street. She felt a stab of irrational protectiveness for him. He'd been her invisible companion for so long, and she wondered who was his.

She'd seen his apartment—such as it was—which had a strip club across the street, and a dozen languages audible in the hallways. She'd found out about his work with the Chicago PD, and that he really was stapling forms and answering the phones inside that consulate. She knew what his favorite restaurants were, who he always stopped to greet on his walk home, where he took the wolf to run.

She knew, in fact, far more than she needed for her purpose. Days ago, she'd had all the information she'd ever require for her plans. Now, she was just watching him, spending every day with him, waking when he did, going to work with him, straining to hear his conversations with cops and wolves and phantoms. She was being ridiculous, in other words, just putting off the inevitable moment when she would set everything in motion. The moment when she would have to collect herself, would have to pretend surprise and ordinary gladness, would have to speak to him.

She had already decided to let him see her, to spook him a little before she confronted him. She didn't need to do it, but she wanted to tilt his mind a little, make him think about her. And it worked as if he and she had been choreographed, just as she'd planned it, but when his eyes went to her—quick as a hawk—and he sped his steps to catch her, she felt a sudden terror, as if she was not in truth the hunter. She'd never planned for him to catch up with her in that moment, but she felt adrenaline rushing right to her feet, speeding them up almost hysterically, and when she ducked out of sight, her heart was pounding.

From her vantage point, she could see him scanning the crowd for her. He remembered her; that was clear. There was a look on his face she hadn't seen once in all the days she'd shadowed him.

So the next day, with a feeling in the pit of her stomach that made her think—briefly but intensely—of the moment she'd stepped out of her car in front of the bank, she pulled open the glass door of his little diner, and there he was.

~fin

 

The poem Victoria quotes is The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Extrapolated from Fraser's mutterings at the end of the episode.