Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Part Two

Vanessa couldn't believe it could take one dog so long to take a dump. Especially today. She led Bruce, sniffing, around a tree one more time, hoping he'd hurry it up. She really hated it when he did this. That damn doggie door in the master was the problem...somehow he'd gotten the message he could just go out on the balcony and do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted to.

Finally, Bruce relieved himself, and she felt herself exhale at about the same time. Maybe she'd get to the office on time after all.

She cleaned up the mess and walked back to her condo, leading Bruce up to her place, then snapping off his leash before washing up. "You," she said to him, shaking a finger in mock scolding, "need to hurry it up, old man." He wagged his tail and settled down next to the couch as she slipped into her heels. Checking herself in the mirror once more, she grabbed her bag and left.


Bobby made it up to the eleventh floor balancing the three cups of coffee precariously in one hand, his brown portfolio in the other. She had made him swear to treat today as any other day. That meant he wasn't allowed to stay over, couldn't pick her up on the way in to work, wasn't even allowed to call and check on her this morning, a habit he had gotten into since she'd had her own place. He enjoyed their phone calls immensely and was pretty displeased when she had announced to him on Sunday that their routine was going to be shifted.

"What the hell do you mean I can't even call you?" he had asked. They were eating a lunch that she had made, some fancy salad thing. She was really into stuff you could put in a bowl.

"Goren," she said, in that matter-of-fact tone she used when people got all emotional on her, "I really just want tomorrow to be a normal day...I have to do this for me. It's my first day back and I want to be able to see myself as a big girl. Does that make any sense at all to you?"

He knew it did, knew it resonated with him because he would want the same thing. But his protective nature of her, of them, had made it insanely difficult to admit.

It was hard living apart. He wondered, in retrospect, if he should have ever invited her into his place, his space, but realized if he hadn't they wouldn't have this closeness. He missed her when she wasn't there, and the feeling of missing anyone didn't sit well with him at all. He wasn't sure if she felt the same. Sometimes he wondered if she humored him, knowing how much he was attached to her; other times he heard the relief in her voice when he picked up the phone or when she answered his call. Mostly he saw the pleasure in her eyes whenever they spent time together, so he chose to focus on that.

Their phone calls were usually early morning ones; he would call her before he left for work to wake her up. Sitting with his coffee, he'd dial her number and listen to her sleepily answer her phone. He would always accuse her of sleeping and she would deny it; sometimes he would tell her he could hear her snoring through the phone and she would laugh. They would chat about everything or nothing before time got away from them and he had to go, promising her a phone call or a visit in the evening.

He approached his desk and deposited the cup carrier on it. Glancing up, he saw her office was still empty. Eames wasn't waiting for him, though. "Which one's mine?" she asked, reaching for a cup.

"Slow down," he said, a little snippy, before handing her a cup. She looked at him, surprised. It wasn't like him to be flat out rude to her.

"Are you okay?" she asked, taking a sip of the cup he provided. "You know, I never plan to piss you off this early in the day."

He immediately felt ashamed. "Sorry. Everything's fine." He settled down at his desk. "What have we got?"

He smelled her before he saw her. It was that perfume she wore, the one that was all floral. She smiled at both of them, and for a moment it was as though she had never left, as though the last five months had been completely erased. Then his mind--dammit-- ran through its rolodex to last Friday night, and that little thing she had shown him. That thing should have been bleeped off the radar, but was still dangerously rolling around in his head, waiting patiently, or not so patiently, for another turn to appear. He felt himself grin foolishly, and handed her the cup of coffee. "For you," he said casually, despite his expression, and she laughed. Eames looked at the two of them as though they'd lost it, shook her head, and turned back to the file in front of her.

Vanessa had wondered if it would be weird to work together now. She had pushed the concern aside, along with fraternization policies, by arguing with herself that he wasn't her partner; she was merely a member of the squad and it wasn't as if they worked closely every day. She worked with lots of detectives, she had told herself, so this shouldn't be a problem.

She headed into Deakins' office. He was behind his desk, filling out paperwork. "Hey, Captain," she teased, "I'm a bad nightmare or something."

He glanced up at her and smiled. "How about a fantastic dream?" He stood, walked around the desk. She saw him struggle mentally as to whether he should hug her or not. She chose to ignore his struggle but didn't reach out to invite his touch. After a moment he sighed, deciding against it, and motioned to a chair. "You look great," he said. "Really well-rested."

She smiled. "I'm ready to get back to work," she said. "You got the report from Lydia?"

He nodded. "You're good to go. In fact, you can ride along today with Turner and Little. They've caught a case downtown. Multiple homicide. Turner will fill you in, give you the file. See what you can pull out of this mess." He turned back around, heading to his desk, before stopping and regarding her once more. "Just so you know--security is up on Forrester downstairs. What's your plan for when you're out of the office?"

She looked at him, unsure of what to say. Truth was, all the time off had given her a lot of opportunity to practice at the gun range. She carried her own, a ladies' special, and she was good with it. Since they were living apart now, Goren had insisted she practice regularly and keep it with her. She took a deep breath. "I think I can protect myself. I know what to look for."

Deakins wasn't crazy about her answer, but didn't want to push. "Any leads we get are followed up on. I want you to know we're still chasing this."

She stood. "I appreciate that," she told him. "I guess I'll go catch up with Turner and Little."

He cleared his throat. "Your issued piece is in your gun locker. Keep it on you until you get home each evening, okay?"

"Yep. Got it." She smiled again. "Can I go now?"

He waved his hand toward the door. "Okay, okay. Out. Welcome back."

She tried not to look as giddy as she felt. "Thanks, Captain," she said, as she exited his office, seeing Turner across the bullpen. Yeah baby, she thought, back in the saddle again.


By seven that night, the saddle was seeming a bit more daunting than she had remembered. The ride along with Turner and Little had been frustrating at best. The newly teamed partners were still working out their roles and spent most of the time in the car trying to one-up the other. She felt like somebody's mom, refereeing the ridiculous machismo bullshit these two were throwing at each other. By the time they got to the crime scene, she was already pissed off.

The homicides were brutal. A family, shot in their apartment. The child appeared to have had his head covered by a pillow before the murderer had shot him, point blank, in the forehead. The father had been shot at close range in the head as well. The mother had been sexually assaulted before taking three rounds in the chest.

She stood in the master bedroom, surveying the scene. It was pretty clear that whoever had been here had issues with the woman. She guessed the child had been killed first, then the husband, before his wife was attacked. She was nude, lying in the middle of the floor, whereas her husband was still lying in the bed.

Little came up behind her. "So whatd'ya think?" he asked. "Looks like a rape/murder to me. You think the creep knew her?"

She didn't know. It was possible. "Maybe," she responded. "Have we found how he got in?"

Turner approached then. "No obvious break-in." He flipped through a small pad of paper he had been writing on. "No broken windows, no doors showing any sign of damage." He looked at her expectantly, as though he had done his job and now it was for her to put the pieces together.

She sighed, glancing at the woman and her husband. "When you get the autopsy reports in, let me take a look at all you have, and I'll see what I can put together."

Turner and Little looked at each other. "Uh, no disrespect, Rayden," Little said, "but what was the point of you coming out here then?"

Biting the response of 'you're the detective, you tell me' that had flown through her brain, she replied, "Once I get the reports I'll have crime scene info to go off of. Just trust me on this."

Little glanced sideways at his partner, who shrugged. "Righty-o," he said. "Who's ready for lunch?"

They had stopped off at a diner in midtown, near the office. Turner and Little ate with the gusto she related to all cops. She remembered her first ride-along as a profiler, several years before, and how her stomach had turned at the bodies. She didn't understand how cops could compartmentalize like that, look at a brutal crime scene and then go eat a three course meal as though it were nothing. Over time she came to understand the need for it. It was a survival skill. Without it, every cop in the city would be jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Turner and Little were still bickering back and forth over their theories of the crime scene. She poked at her sandwich but didn't really eat it. It bothered her--annoyed her, really--that the images of that family were still so vivid in her brain. So much that she had no appetite. She wondered if she should have lifted the pillow to see the little boy's face. She hadn't. She knew it wasn't necessary for her job.

After lunch they had headed back to the office. Turner and Little returned to their desks, still arguing, and she returned to hers. Her coffee from the morning was cold and she debated about heating it up, but then decided to just drink it the way it was. She worked her way through a cold case file, read the information, began developing a profile. At seven, she put the file down, turned off her computer, and gathered her stuff. She was tired straight to her bones.

As she rounded the corner to the elevator, she saw him; perched against the corner and smiling at her. She smiled at him wryly, pressing the down button. They both got in without saying anything and traveled the eleven floors to the lobby. Once they were out in the street, he said, "Don't tell me I'm not allowed to come over tonight."

She laughed tiredly. "If you want, but just know I'm about to fall over right now."

He nodded. "It takes a lot out of you. I can walk Bruce and put something together for dinner."

She hailed a taxi and they climbed in. "I hope Trish remembered to walk Bruce today," she commented. She had hired the teenager, who lived one floor down, to walk Bruce after she got home from school.

Bobby didn't say anything, but watched out the window. The city was lit, as usual, and it was dark. "It's supposed to snow this weekend," he remembered out loud. "Are you going to Ava's for Thanksgiving?"

She sighed. "I love snow. It's so beautiful. Relaxing." She turned to look at him. "Can we talk about Ava and holidays another time?"

He smiled at her. "Yeah. We can focus on the snow instead. Maybe we'll go for a walk." They were at her condo. He handed the driver payment, despite her protest, then entered the building.

"If I weren't so exhausted," she said, leaning her head against the wall next to the elevator, "I'd kick your ass for that. I told you this is supposed to be a normal day."

The elevator opened and they entered. "I'm sorry," he said, teasing. "I didn't realize I was breaking the rules by being thoughtful."

She rolled her eyes at him. "You're something else," she said.

They exited the elevator and she slid her key into the lock, then turned off the alarm system. Bruce pulled himself up to greet them, and Vanessa rubbed his ears. Bobby put his binder down and then turned back to her. "So, I'll take him go get ready for bed. I'll meet you in there with something to eat in a little bit."

She laughed. "You're all plans, aren't you?"

"Not usually," he confessed. "You know that by now."

She did. One of the things she loved so much about him was his improvisation. So many times he had approached her with a "Let's explore today" type of attitude. She never knew what to expect.

"Okay," she agreed, and headed toward the master.

Ten minutes later she was in the bed, turning on the TV and wanting to tune out to whatever she could find. Whatever could keep her mind off those bodies for a little bit. She ended up watching cartoons.

"Better?" he asked, bringing in two plates of pasta. She nodded as he pulled his suit off and hung it in the closet. He had a couple extra in there, thank God. He didn't particularly care for the idea of going home tonight. He climbed in the bed next to her, then noticed the television. "Superfriends, huh?"

She was poking at her noodles. "I always wanted to be Wonder Woman."

"Heh. Maybe you achieved the dream."

She smiled cynically. "Right. I'm the modern version."

He watched her moving the noodles around on her plate but not eating them. Finally, he said, "Rough ride-along, huh?"

She sighed. "I'm not hungry. I'd forgotten how that stuff can ruin your appetite but fast."

He took her plate from her and placed it on the bedside table. He slid further down, and she lay her head on his chest. They lay there for several minutes watching Aquaman communicate with the dolphins.

"He was my favorite, you know," she said. "I thought he was cute and very cool."

Bobby chuckled. "Yeah...cute and cool...that's Aquaman. How'd you go so far off track...from Aquaman to a forty-something cop?" He paused, watching the cartoon character, before commenting, "I'm not even blonde...and i certainly don't have that body."

She looked at him, chin on his chest. She ran her hand over his ribs. "I grew up. And I like you just how you are" After a moment, she said, "I never thanked you for the coffee this morning. And for giving me the chance to try it the old way."

"No problem."

She pressed her face into his naked chest, breathing him in, trying to dispel the images from early in the day. "Three of them...a family...the kid had a pillow over his head and was shot...the father shot in bed too...the mother was sexually assaulted and took three rounds to the chest. A hole, straight through her. And Turner and Little, looking at me, like I'm supposed to psychically envision all they need to solve the case."

He ran his hand across her shoulders. "They're new, Ness. They'll get it soon."

She gulped heavily. "If I cry, are you going to rat me out?"

His hand stayed steady on her, the way it always did, and his voice was logical when he spoke. "Well, I don't tell other people about anything else that goes on in here," he reasoned. "I don't see why I should start if you cried over something that was tragic and stressful."

She looked at his face, trying to find some image of pity that she could get angry with, but there wasn't any. He meant it. She settled her head back down against him, turning to the TV again. After several minutes, he said, "Batman was always my favorite."

"You just liked his car," she said, "and his ability to make Robin do whatever he said."

He smiled. "Yeah, maybe that's what it was. I like to be in charge."

She didn't say any more. A few minutes later, when he was sure she had drifted into sleep, he turned off the TV and wrapped his arm around her. He closed his eyes, glad that today was over. First days fucking sucked.


"So how's work?" Lydia handed Vanessa a cup of coffee and sat back down in her chair.

"Intense," she replied immediately, then regretted such a quick response.

Lydia took a sip of her coffee. "You want to talk about it?"

Did she? She didn't know. She was still seeing the family in her mind from earlier in the week. "I've been having nightmares," she confessed. She hadn't expected the words to come out of her mouth until they did. "I went on a ride-along the first day to a homicide scene and I keep seeing the family. The little boy. The mother. She had a hole shot right through her chest."

"That sounds like something that would stick with most people."

"Maybe." She sounded doubtful. "Most cops are able to compartmentalize. I used to."

"You sound frustrated with yourself."

Vanessa shrugged. "Yeah, maybe. I wish I was as sharp as before."

"Do you remember what you told me a few months ago? That you thought this experience would make you a better profiler?"

She smiled. "I was full of shit." She crossed her arms. "You called me on it, remember?"

"No," Lydia corrected her. "I called you on your ability to manage this intensity so early. It's hard now...can you imagine what would have happened three months ago?"

Vanessa snorted. "I don't want to think about it."

"So what are you doing to handle it now?"

She became quiet, thinking about the choices she was making in her personal life; her insistence that Bobby stay two steps away, that she try to be independent, and her realization that her independence was possibly overrated. She had never admitted to Lydia that she had lived with Goren, much less that they had a relationship. After several moments, she finally said, "I've been leaning on friends for support."

Lydia was watching her closely. She had sensed there was a good deal Vanessa wasn't revealing to her and she wondered why. Vanessa wasn't big on trust, she knew, and it had taken them this long to be able to have relatively open conversations about Vanessa's concerns and fears. "Leaning on anyone in particular?"

Vanessa shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "Maybe," she said. "A good friend. He's pretty responsive."

"He sounds special."

Vanessa suddenly felt defensive, wanting to protect the privacy of her relationship with Goren. Nobody knew about it, with the exception of Ava and his mother. Hell, he hadn't even told Eames. This was none of Lydia's business, she thought defensively. There are some things that don't need to be shared, even in the therapy room.

"Yeah," she replied. "He's a good friend." Changing the subject was the best way to avoid this one, she decided. "So any tips on getting this dead kid and his mother out of my head?"

Lydia smiled. "Give it time. The old skills will come back, and they'll be even better than before. But it won't happen immediately." She put her coffee mug down. "You're a master deflector, I'll give you that much."

"Well," Vanessa responded, "when I feel like telling you I will. And I don't."

"Fair enough." Lydia stood up. "Same time next week?"

Vanessa stretched her legs, then reached for her bag. "You bet."


They were laying on her bed, watching a cooking show and eating fruit. He didn't remember ever being so conscious of fruit before the last few months. Bananas and apples, with the occasional orange, had been just fine. But here he was, eating kiwi and starfruit and mangoes with her. Mangoes, for chrissakes. He chuckled.

"What's so funny?" she asked him, dipping a grape into some yogurt.

"This," he said. "It's kind of...well, girly."

She laughed. "Are you feeling like I've emasculated you or something? By introducing you to the world of fruit?"

He took a piece of mango off the plate and held it to her lips. "Eat," he said. "And actually, I'm pretty comfortable in my masculinity with you, thanks."

She took the mango from him and caught his hand. After swallowing the fruit, she kissed his fingers, then sucked on them. "You should be. God knows you exercise it frequently enough."

He grinned, then kissed her, nipping her lips with his teeth. "You're sexy when you eat mangoes," he told her. "I bet you'd be even sexier eating them naked."

"Heh. That's an interesting thought."

He ran a finger under her bra strap. "What do you think? We could test it out. You could get naked and eat mangoes, and I can tell you if you're sexier that way or with your clothes on."

She took a piece of starfruit. "You have a one track mind."

"I didn't used to. It's you."

"Yeah, blame me!"

"Well," he reasoned, "it's not my fault you're so damn beautiful."

She picked at the piece of fruit in her hand, tearing it apart, making more of a mess than anything else. "Why do you always say that?" she finally asked him.

He was confused. "What do you mean?"

"You alway say about how beautiful I am. We both know that's not true...I'm average." She was silent for a moment, then said softly, "You always pretend the scars aren't there."

"I've never pretended that," he objected. "I've always seen it all. And it's just part of where you've been. I don't think it detracts from your beauty."

She eyed him skeptically. "Right. Those boot scars all over my abdomen are really attractive. I bet they'll look terrific in a bikini."

Goren took the mushed piece of starfruit out of her hand. "You don't get it, do you?"

"Apparently not." She felt embarrassed and frustrated. She knew he had to notice and refused to believe it didn't disgust him as much as it did her. It was a constant reminder of Forrester and what he had done to her. She didn't understand how he could look at her, see the reminders, and not be turned off.

He sighed. "You do know that those are just a mark, right? That for whatever reason, everybody has them?"

She turned to him, fully facing him, angry. "You know what he did to me. You know why they're there. How can you not be disgusted when you see that? How can you be okay with it? It's not like I'm in the same league as your old girlfriends anyway, like I'm some Amazon goddess, but Jesus. You act like I should just embrace it, celebrate it. Terrific! I'm sure I look even better than I did a year ago."

Bobby watched her tirade. When she finished, he said, "You're not being logical."

"What the hell does that mean? And since when is sex logical?"

He sighed again. "You make it sound like I have sex with you as a favor or something. Like I put up with it because I love you. Has it occurred to you that I actually like it? Enjoy it? Want to do it?"

She had curled up again, in that damn fetal ball, shaking her head. "I can't for the life of me figure out why."

He cupped her chin. She tried to pull away, but he didn't let go. "Stop," he said. "Look at me." She raised her eyes to his defiantly,as if challenging him to proceed. "Don't tell me what I should be attracted to. God forbid you have lived a life. God forbid you're not perfect. God forbid it shows." He paused, feeling his own anger and frustration. "I hate what he did. You know that. I'd like nothing more than to get my hands on him and tear him to pieces. But none of that changes how I feel about you. Don't tell me I don't think you're beautiful. Of course I'm more attracted to you because I think you're an amazing woman. But goddammit, what do you want me to do to prove it to you? And why do I have to?"

She didn't know. "At least admit they're ugly."


"You're lying."

"No I'm not. There's not an inch of skin on your body that I find less than appealing." He was staring her down. "And there's nothing you can do to make me say anything different."

She stood up and pulled off her shirt. Standing next to him, she pulled his hand to a particularly deep, curved scar on her abdomen, the result of a kick from Forrester's boot. "So explain to me how this is beautiful," she demanded.

His fingers spanned over the length of it, tracing the shape. "Tell me about when it happened," he said, softer. He didn't know if she would, but was hopeful.

She was silent for a moment. "He kicked me. He had steel-toed boots on. It cut through the skin. It bled like a motherfucker. Eighteen stitches."

His fingers traced backwards slowly. "You're a survivor and that's incredibly beautiful. You survived it and you're here with me. Your bravery humbles me. It's a reminder of how amazing you strong you are. You really are like Wonder Woman, you know that?"

She watched him as he lowered his lips and kissed the scar gently. His tongue traced over the line, then he looked up at her. "I have scars all over my body," he told her for the umpteenth time. "But mine didn't come from bravery...from survival, like yours...they just came from the job."

He pulled his shirt off, and motioned to a scar on his left shoulder. "You've never asked," he said. "Bullet from when I was in narcotics. Straight through. Physical therapy for three months. Now that you've had a good look, I'm sure you won't want to continue this-" he motioned to the bed "-intimacy we've been enjoying. I'm sure I'm repulsive to you."

"Shut up," she mumbled, then straddled his lap. She was quiet for a few minutes, then leaned forward and put her head on his shoulder. "I want to stop hating parts of myself. i want to be able to think about it like you. But every time I see it, I think..."she shuddered. "I'm lying on the floor again getting the shit kicked out of me."

He ran his hand up her bare back, kissing her ear. "You're safe now," he whispered.

"I hate the dreams. I want them to stop."

"I know. Me too."

She pulled back from him, looking into his eyes, trying to read his face. "You put up with a lot from me," she said. "Sometimes I don't know why."

"I love you. More than anyone I've ever known." It was a whisper, a broken confession that he hadn't intended to make but somehow, like most of his thoughts, it released itself to her.

She stroked his face. "Then stay. I'll try to believe what you say to me if you try to understand why I feel like I do."

He kissed her forehead. "Deal."

She rested her head back against his shoulder, relaxing against his hands running up and down her back. "Will you stay this weekend?"

"Yeah," he said softly. "As long as you want me to."

She smiled against his shoulder. "I love you too. And I'll try to understand what you said."

He pressed his lips to the back of her head. "Good...because I'm right, and one day you'll know it too."


It was breathtakingly cold.

The snow had started early in the morning, pure and white and absolutely lovely.

Bobby had been loathe to get out of bed. It was warm and comfortable next to her, and when she tried to sit up he had pulled her back down. "It's snowing," she explained, as though that were an incredibly logical reason to get up so early on a Saturday.

"Hmph," he had responded, curling up closer against her. "It'll still be snowing in another couple of hours."

She kissed him on the forehead. "You don't know that, lazy. Besides, you promised me time in the snow...remember?"

He thought about that, cursing his words from the other evening. "We have all weekend...we could stay right here and have lots of time know, quality will snow again..." he kissed her neck, the spot behind her ear that almost always elicited a soft moan.

She wasn't buying it though. "Get up. I'll buy you some coffee down the street. And it's freezing outside, so dress appropriately."

She was already pulling on sweats and grabbing Bruce's leash. "I'll be back in a few...and you better be ready, Mr.Quality Time."

After she left the room, he flopped flat on his back, staring out her ceiling. He knew he was acting like a typical man. Walk in the snow or mind blowing sex? Gee, hard call. Apparently she had a different value system. He wasn't foolish enough, though, to believe that his cooperation now wouldn't pay off later. If she wanted to walk, they would walk. Through blizzards or deserts or whatever. Hell, he'd climb a damn mountain if that's what she wanted. Suddenly he realized he was whipped, and shook his head. A second later came the realization that he didn't care. She didn't take advantage of him. He knew she wouldn't. So maybe it was okay to be in this deep. He kept breathing, reminding himself he could trust her.

When she came back he was in his jeans and a sweater, pulling on his boots. She grinned. "I wasn't really sure you'd do it," she confessed. "But I appreciate it."

He smiled. "I did promise you a walk in the snow. And I am greatly looking forward to that coffee you mentioned."

Ten minutes later they were on the street, fighting the piercing wind until they could enter the coffee shop. He touched her back. "I'll go find a spot to sit...preferably away from the door."

She grinned at him. "You really hate the cold, don't you?"

"Yeah. It's not my favorite."

She found a tiny corner with a small loveseat at a table away from the door, and picked up the paper. A minute later Bobby handed her a steaming cup and sat down next to her. "Anything interesting in there?"

"Nope." She put the paper down and scooted closer to him. "Are you still cold?"

"I think I'll survive," he said sarcastically, but moved his arm so she could press herself against him. His coat was damp from the snow and his face was flushed. She reached inside his coat and rested her hand on his thigh.

Looking up at him, she smiled. "Thanks for doing this for me."

"You're welcome." He took another sip of his coffee, then turned to look at her. Her face was flushed as well from the cold but her body was warm against his. She was sliding her hand up and down his thigh. He kissed the top of her head, and she turned to kiss him on the mouth. Softly, before turning back to her coffee. After a minute, he asked, "So how long have you had this penchant for snow?"

She chuckled. "Since my childhood. It didn't snow a lot where I lived, so I always kind of thought it was magical. It's just one of those simple pleasures, you know? I don't want to stay out in it all day but it's beautiful to see. I can just sit at a window for hours, watching it fall."

"Well," he noted, "keep in mind you have a great view of the window from your bed." He grinned and pulled back as she tried to tickle him.

He was looking out the front window of the shop, watching the large flakes falling softly to the ground. She was right, it was beautiful. Cold, but beautiful. HIs thoughts were interrupted by her. "You ready?"

"Sure." He stood, grabbed his cup and tossed it in the trash. She followed him back out to the street and they headed toward the park.

Apparently plenty of people had the same idea as Vanessa. Families were playing together in the snow, building snowmen, sliding down hills, and engaging in snowball fights. She smiled to herself, thinking of her childhood friends and the time they had had a huge snowball fight after one unusual snowstorm. Suddenly, she heard him: "Hey Rayden, heads up!"

The snowball hit her in the back. What the fuck? She turned around to see him laughing at her, and she grabbed a handful of snow. "You're going to pay for that, Goren," she promised, sending one sailing in his direction. He was so large it was hard not to hit him. She was definitely at an advantage here.

A minute later the snow was flying. She found a tree to duck behind and he was trying to hide behind a park bench unsuccessfully. "Come out from behind that tree!" he laughed as he ducked yet another snowball. "You're not playing fair!"

"Oh, because your 'heads up Rayden' was so reasonable, right?" She threw another one, hitting him in the middle of his back.

He laughed again. "Well, I tried to warn you." His ball barely missed her, hitting the trunk of the tree.

She threw another one, hitting him right on the collar. "For someone who didn't grow up with snow," he called, "you're pretty good at this." He sent another one flying and actually hit her on the arm.

"Well, I've practiced every chance I've had!" She threw one more that smacked him square in the ass.

"Hey!" He was looking around to see if anyone was watching. He could hear her laughing hysterically behind the tree. "Enough already! That was sexual harrassment!"

She came out from behind the tree, clearly trying to contain her laughter but doing a pretty poor job of it. "Sorry," she gasped. "It was just the perfect a bullseye..." she collapsed into hysterical peals of laughter again.

He laughed at her laughing. "You're gonna owe me for that," he chuckled. "Now I'm all cold."

"Poor baby," she said, pulling him closer. "You ready to go home and warm up?"

He kissed her, smiling. "Now that's the best idea you've had all morning."


She lay next to him, warm and naked and smiling. "Are you more comfortable now?"

"Hmmm," he murmured. "I'd have to go with a yes on that." He opened his eyes and turned toward her. "I have a great idea. Want to hear it?"

She perched her head on her hand, elbow on the bed. "Sure."

He ran a finger over her shoulder, down to her breast, then to her nipple. "I think we should stay here all weekend. Just like this." He softly ran his finger in circles around her nipple until he got the response he was looking for, the beautiful flush and tight, hardened tip. "At least until late tomorrow afternoon. I have to see my mom or you know...she gets confused."

Vanessa leaned forward and kissed him. He was so amazing. She was never less than enthralled at his gentleness, his understanding of her and her body. Sometimes she wondered if he had studied female anatomy. He probably had books on it in that library of his. Pulling away from his lips with a smile, she asked him, "So does this mean we spend the whole weekend having sex, or just hanging out naked and watching bad TV while we eat in bed?"

He pondered that. "How about a combination of both? Sex for you, bad TV for me..."

She laughed. "I love you, Bobby."

He kissed her fully, tongue softly swirling against hers before moving on to her jaw. "So is that a yes?"


"Mmm," he moaned softly, sliding his hands up and down her body. It reminded him of how they had just made love a few minutes ago, how she had cried out his name, how it fed his ego even as much as he hated to admit it. He would never tire of her.

She kissed him again softly. "It's your job to keep me entertained, you know," she told him. Despite their recent tryst, she could feel herself responding to him again. The thought of spending an entire weekend in bed with him, naked and warm with the cold and snow outside, was incredibly sexy to her.

He smiled. "Don't worry. I have plans." He was nipping her neck, her chest, her belly with his teeth.

She giggled. "Already?"

"Yes." His hands were tracing slow circles over her body while his tongue laved her navel. "I'm going to bring you again."

"No," she protested, giggling at the tickle from his stubble as his hand moved toward her thigh, lips following with gentle nips and nibbles. "Seriously Bobby, it's too soon..."

He didn't answer her, but continued his slow assault on the lower half of her, kissing and nibbling on her hip before positioning his body between her legs. She sighed, and his lips moved behind her knee, sucking and laving. Slowly he made his way up to her inner thigh.

She knew where this was going, what he was planning, and in spite of the incredible pleasure he was bringing her, her conscious mind was screaming for him to stop. She couldn't repay this. Despite her desperate attempts to drive it out, her memories of Forrester were too close to the surface. The thought of loving Bobby this way, doing the same to him, was impossible to even consider. She felt guilty, ashamed. She couldn't respond in kind. He had to know that. "Bobby," she choked in a whisper, "Come back up here."

He continued to suck on her thigh. "No," he whispered.

"I can't do this."

"Yes," he whispered. "You can. We can. I love you." She could feel him dangerously close and her heart was pumping out of her chest. The mix of emotions, of want and shame, were pressing on her, as though she couldn't breathe.

"No," she said more firmly, making a conscious decision to stop this. "I can't...I can't do this to you."

She felt him shift on the bed. Then his tongue traced a circle on her thigh. "I'm not asking you to." He nipped her softly again. "I don't have any expectations beyond this moment..."

She pressed his head back with her hand. "You don't understand."

"Yes I do," he corrected her. "You think this is quid pro quo. That you'll owe me. You're the one who's not understanding...not getting that this is something I want to do, for both of us. Something we both would enjoy. You don't owe me anything." His fingers were grazing her abdomen now. "If you really want me to stop I will, but I wish you would trust what I say."

She didn't say anything, and after a moment he ran his tongue back over her inner thigh, and when his tongue touched her, reached its goal, she shuddered and clutched his hair.

All of her rational thinking left her, and all that was left was Bobby and Vanessa. She was stripped down to her base, her primal self, to her need to respond to his lips and his fingers and her love and need for him. She clutched at him fiercely, her whole body shaking underneath him.

He took his time, pulling back as he felt her shudders and sighs intensify, teasing and tasting and wanting her, feeling somewhat voyeuristic in enjoying watching her responses. She was so goddamn beautiful. He didn't know how she couldn't see that about herself.

She finally clutched him, whispering "please", and he complied, doing all he could to bring her to orgasm. She cried out his name again as though he were the most incredible lover she'd ever known. That was, selfishly, what he had wanted as much as anything else. Hearing her cry his name out in pleasure was almost as satisfying as the pleasure he gave her.

She lay quietly, and he moved up the bed against her. "You're beautiful," he whispered. "And I love it when you cry out my name like that."

She looked at him and he could see a hint of pain in her eyes. "I can't do this for you."

He touched her face. "I heard you. I don't expect you to. I love you and whatever you can give me is enough."

He continued to watch her face, and after several moments she began to smile. "I love you too," she whispered. "You're incredible."

"Yeah," he teased. "I'm a sex god."

"Huh," she replied, "I'm glad we agree on something."


"So," she contemplated, laying on what had become his pillow that weekend, "when do I get to go?"

Bobby was pulling a turtleneck over his wet hair. "You want to go see my mom?" he asked, more than a little perplexed. "Why?"

Vanessa rolled over, wrapped in the comforter, watching him. He had kept his word and stayed all weekend. They had talked and laughed and cried, drank coffee and wine and watched the snow fall. They had even watched Superfriends again, nicknaming different colleagues for each superhero and cracking each other up, especially when Bobby had referred to Turner and Little as the Wonder Twins, stating that clearly Turner would be Zan and Little, Jana. She had seriously thought for a moment that she was going to wet the bed if she couldn't catch her breath from laughing so hard.

But now it was mid-afternoon Sunday, time to head upstate for his weekly visit. He was protective of his mother and she knew he felt an intense commitment to her.

She dragged a finger over the sheet. Answering his question, she said, "Because she's your mother, Bobby."

He was combing his hair, trying to get the wayward curls to tame themselves. He sighed. "I need to get a haircut this week."

She laughed. "As Lydia would say, you're a master deflector."

Bobby chuckled. "I see Lydia has your number, huh?"

"Well, she thinks she does. And I am good at deflecting...I learned it early. I'm sure you did too."

He turned to her, sat on the edge of the bed. Taking her wandering hand in his, he said, "Have you ever been around a paranoid schizophrenic? Do you know what to expect? She's not like most mothers."

Vanessa sat up, keeping the covers wrapped around her naked body. "Actually, I've studied paranoid schizophrenia. Keep in mind I have a Ph.D. in psychology."

"Forensic psychology," he corrected her.

"That doesn't make me devoid of knowledge from the DSM-IV," she replied. "I did a rotation at Bellevue. I've seen it, I know it. I can imagine what it was like for you as a kid. And keep in mind, my mom wasn't exactly Mrs. Cleaver either." She looked at his hand, holding hers, and then said, "I want to know her so I can know you better. If she's important to you, she's important to me."

He continued to hold her hand. "I have to go up there on Thursday morning...for Thanksgiving...are you going to Ava's?"

"Ava isn't serving until after five. Wine and all that stuff. She's all into the Martha Stewart thing. We could go eat with your mom and then go to Ava's." She grinned. "Wouldn't that be a fantastic way to spend the day? Institutional food followed by some weird gourmet turducken thing. I'm getting excited just thinking about it. And the wine...Ava always serves the most excellent wines. We'll take a cab."

He cracked a smile. "Well, I do like the idea of ending it with alcohol. Something tells me I might need a glass by that point."

She laughed. "Yeah, I kind of like that too. Besides, you could meet my nephew Justin. He's a lot nicer than is my brother in law. He loves cars, so you all will have something to talk about."

His smile faded for a moment. "My mom knows about you. She wants to meet you. Says you make me happy."

Vanessa was profoundly touched. She didn't realize he had talked at any length with his mother about her, other than to let her know he was seeing someone. "I didn't realize you all had discussed me, really."

"She likes to know what's going on in my life...she sensed it before we really officially got together."

Vanessa smiled at him. "I hear moms are like that. Most, anyway."

"I can tell her today that you're coming," he said,"but that doesn't mean she'll remember or even be cognizant on Thursday."

"Hey." She touched his face and he looked at her, seeing the sincerity in her eyes. "If she isn't okay on Thursday, I'll bring a book and wait for you. It'll be all right. I'm not afraid of mental illness. I grew up around it, remember?"

Where did she come from? His gut was torn between letting her see this part of his life he had protected for years and hiding it from her as he did from everyone else. His logical side said she was right, but there was a part of him that was afraid. His mother was still so unpredictable. When he was a child, kids never came to his house. Their parents didn't let them. He remembered clearly the looks of the adults in the neighborhood when they would see him--a mix of pity and sympathy--and their looks of disgust at his mother. Sometimes fear, sometimes pity also, but always disgust for her. To this day he couldn't stand to see pity on the face of anyone who looked at him, and the fear of seeing disgust on another person's face had kept him from allowing anyone in to this facet of his life. He couldn't risk that look toward his mother. She was a victim of her illness and deserved better.

He didn't want to share that. He didn't want to think about the possibility of Vanessa regarding his mother--or him--the same way as the neighbors, his friends in the past. He thought about Vanessa's statement after they had made love the first time--"trust and love and all that shit". He supposed this fell into that category.

"Okay," he concurred, rising off the bed. Glancing in the mirror, he tried one more time to direct his hair before turning back to her. He smiled looking at her, and had a brief desire to strip back down and climb in the bed with her. Instead, he kissed her gently. "I love you and I'll call you tonight."

"Hey," she said, grabbing his arm. "Only call if you want to..if you're not too tired. I know it's exhausting for you. If you don't call I'll see you tomorrow at work."

"Fair enough," he replied. Reaching the bedroom door, he turned back to her. "You know, you're really acting low maintenance."

She grinned. "Oh please. You know I'm high maintenance in other areas...I'll give you every break I can. I love you."

He smiled at her, then closed the door.


Vanessa flipped through the autopsy reports. The perp had left fingerprints on the woman, while leaving nothing on either the father or the boy. He, in all likelihood, had never touched them. She had a feeling that this perp hadn't cared that he was leaving evidence behind. He wasn't worried about covering his tracks when it came to this woman. He was personally involved. This was punitive, hateful, meant to send a message to her.

Deakins knocked on her door. "What have you got?"

She closed the file. "He knew her. Quite possibly knew the father and son...probably friend or relative of the family. He never touched the boy or the father--they just got in the way, or more likely he took pleasure in letting her know that her son and husband were killed. He tortured her and didn't try to hide it--the medical examiner got fingerprints and semen off the body. This was personal."

Deakins crossed his arms. "Who are we looking for?"

She pressed her lips together for a moment before continuing. "Close friend or relative. I don't think she was having an affair--nothing Turner or Little has found points to that. Male, quite likely in his forties, with an axe to grind with her. He's not going to be a repeat offender. This was specific. She did something that pissed him off, and he made sure she payed for it."

Deakins nodded. "Put the report together and get it to Turner and Little, asap."

"The sexual was also punitive. To teach her a lesson. The M.E. should run a DNA test on fluids from her and from the perp...see if there's any crossover. If it's from her family. It's more likely to be her family than his; otherwise, I'd look at close friends."

He gave her a firm nod and a smile before tapping on her door. "Good work, Rayden." He looked back at her for a moment. "I know this was a hard one to start back with, especially with the boy and the assault. But you've done a good job of it."

"Thanks. I'll be glad when they bust this guy, but at least you don't need to worry about a repeat offender on this one."

Deakins tapped her door once more before he left.

Vanessa continued writing her report, glad to be finishing her immediate role in the case. Once they grabbed a suspect, she would assist in interrogation if necessary, but the feeling of putting puzzle pieces together was like a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. Only Goren knew about the dreams she had every night, seeing the boy and his mother being brutalized and killed. Although she had mentioned it to Lydia, she knew she had made it sound less violent and scary than it actually was. Maybe now, that she was finishing this part of the case, she would sleep again.

Bobby hadn't called her the other night. He and Eames had caught a case and had been chasing their tails for three days. Every once in awhile she would catch a glimpse of one of them, meeting with Deakins or making a phone call, before leaving again to follow up on a lead. The day before, he had left her a cup of coffee on her desk with a short note saying he missed her and would call as soon as things settled down.

So she had taken the time to focus on her work. She was pleased with her progress on this profile. Lydia had been right, it was coming back to her as though she had never left. For the first time in months, she felt the thrill of her job again--the fact that she knew what she was doing and was going to help catch the son of a bitch who did this. She would help there be justice for that child and his parents.

As she finished typing, she found herself wondering if she and Bobby were still planning to go to visit his mother tomorrow. The few texts they had managed to send one another had been too short to address their original plans. She didn't even know if he'd be able to get away tomorrow, considering the case he was on. She gathered it was a big one, the way they had been working it, and obviously there was a time crunch.

She had called Ava the night before and told her Bobby would be accompanying her on Thursday. Ava had sighed in her melodramatic way before saying, "I figured as much, so I planned for him. Does he eat a lot? I planned for that too, given his size...he's roughly the size of a MAC truck."

Vanessa had tried not to be too defensive. "He can't help the fact he's tall, Ava...we all get the genes we get. And no, he won't eat you out of house and home. Would you like us to bring anything?"

After much discussion, they had agreed that Vanessa and Bobby would bring a bottle of wine to add to Ava's collection. Vanessa hoped now that she wouldn't be going stag. She could only imagine Ava's opinion on being stood up due to a case.

Suddenly she saw two uniforms escorting a man into interrogation. Bobby and Alex headed to Deakins' office. Maybe this was the guy they were chasing. She hoped so.

The three headed to interrogation quickly. Vanessa sat in her seat, watching and thinking. She had always hated to be left out of the fray. There was something inherently fascinating and exciting about being part of an interrogation. As Goren had said before, it's the thrill of the chase.

She debated about whether to be a good girl and stay in her office or talk her way into the observation room. It wasn't a difficult choice. She printed out her report, saved it, and closed her computer out. Heading over to Turner, she handed him the report. "This is what you're looking for," she told him. "Any questions, grab me." He looked up briefly at her and nodded before turning back to his work.

She entered the observation room. Deakins was standing by the window, watching, and Carver, the ADA, was next to him. "Dr. Rayden," Carver acknowledged her. "Good to see you again."

Deakins smiled. "Come to see the show?"

She grinned. "You bet. They finally catch him?"

"Looks that way."

They were silent, watching the two detectives work their magic. Eames was patient, poised, traditional with her questions and meticulous in her reasoning. Goren paced the room, moved into the suspect's face, identified with him and his thought processes. To listen to Bobby, the perp's actions almost sounded reasonable. She suddenly could envison him goading Forrester into a she had teased him into the attack and deserved everything she got. The thought unsettled her and she dismissed it, focusing again on the dance between detective and perp in the interrogation room.

The man was confessing now, pouring his soul out to the one person he felt identified with his predicament. Goren nodded, expression full of sincerity, as the man finished describing how he had planned and executed the murder of his boss. As he finished his confession, Goren and Eames both stood and began to leave the room. Vanessa heard the man's voice, full of shock and surprise. "Wait-" he called to Bobby"-what will happen to me now?"

Goren faced him, his expression now one of cynicism and disgust. "Now," he replied, "you go to prison."

The man's reaction was one of being visibly shaken. Goren had turned and followed Eames out of the room, and both entered the interrogation room. As Carver and Deakins congratulated the two, Vanessa stayed focused on the man's demeanor, which had changed quickly from shock to complete defeat.

She interrupted their conversation. "Does he have a history of depression?"

All four looked at her as though they had just seen her there. "Yes," Eames replied. "He was being treated for it prior to this."

Vanessa continued to watch him, as the uniforms cuffed him and led him out of the room. "You need to put him on a suicide watch. He's depressed, it's a holiday weekend, and he's just been busted for murder. He's going to try to kill himself."

There was silence for a moment before Carver cleared his throat. "I'll take your advice under consideration, doctor," he replied politely. Something in his tone led her believe that he was humoring her, and it made her angry.

"Good," she replied as courteously as she could manage. "I would hate for the DA's office to look as though they didn't take every step possible for this man to see justice, especially knowing he has a mental illness." With that, she smiled and excused herself from the room.


"Rayden!" She was on the street, hailing a cab, when she heard him calling her. Sometimes it made her laugh that he still called her Rayden. But then again, she still called him Goren, so whatever.

He caught up to her. "Mind if I ride with you?"

"I didn't know you were going uptown...I thought you lived in Brooklyn." She was surprised by her own hostility. It's not like it was his fault that this case had taken all week.

He was silent for a moment, then said, "It's okay. I'll take the subway." He began to turn away from her.

"Wait." She grabbed his coat lapel. "I'm sorry. It's not you. Of course you can come over."

He was feeling the exhaustion that followed the high of a case like this. Her anger had surprised him, and he didn't know where it was coming from. All he had wanted was to reconnect with her--eat some dinner, watch some tv, go to bed. Lay next to her, smell her scent. Now he wasn't sure. "It's okay," he said again. "We can get together another time."

She held on to his coat collar. "Bobby." Her voice was calmer now, the edge missing. "If you don't come over then I'll be forced to follow you on the subway. My place is closer which means we eat and rest sooner. Your choice."

The cabbie leaned out the window and called, "You guys gettin in or what?"

She continued to watch him until finally he reached for the cab door and opened it. He followed her inside.

Once they got to her condo, he hung his coat in the closet and toed off his shoes. She had entered the kitchen, and he followed her.

"Hey," she said, "why don't you go rest and I'll cook tonight? I promise I won't cook something that fits in a bowl." She expected to hear his chuckle, but he was quiet.

"You're angry with me," he stated.

"No," she corrected. "I'm angry with Carver. And I'm sorry I snapped at you. I shouldn't have."

"You're right," he concurred. "You shouldn't have. I can't control what Carver does. He's an ass and of all people, I don't want to be held responsible for what he chooses to do."

She turned to face him, and was surprised to see the hurt and defensiveness in his face. She couldn't recall him looking at her like that before.

"Bobby." She leaned against the counter. "I'm really sorry. I would take it back if I could. I've missed you and am so sorry that I jumped on you like that."

He stood still, but after a minute his face softened. "I wasn't expecting it...your irritation."

She nodded. "I know. It was stupid of me." She took a step toward him, then stopped, unsure if he would actually be comfortable with her being closer. "Look, you've had a crazy week. You're exhausted. Let me take care of things tonight for once. Go take a shower. Relax. I'll bring you some dinner in a bit. And we can talk if you want, or not talk. Whatever you want."

He thought about that. He had very few memories of anyone caring for him. His friend's mom had helped him once when he had fallen off his bike when he was ten. A girlfriend had taken him to the ER for an emergency appendectomy once. Nobody ever did stuff like this. It made him uncomfortable. But she was right--he'd hardly slept in three days and was godawful tired. "Okay." He tried to smile, but it seemed forced. "I don't care if dinner's in a bowl. I'm sure it will be fine."

She smiled at him, then impulsively stepped closer to him. "I know you're angry with me and I get that. I don't blame you--I shouldn't have snapped at you." She took a shaky breath, trying not to fear the words coming out of her mouth. "But I want you to know I love you immensely. I love you." She had felt the need to repeat herself.

He stared at her, seeing the nervousness on her. She thought he would reject her, he realized. Suddenly he needed her, needed to know that she wasn't going to leave, to run, that she would really cook dinner in a bowl and come and laugh at cartoons and crime dramas and kiss him. He grabbed her forcefully and pulled her into a tight hug, clinging to her body.

Her initial shock was overridden as soon as she felt his tears, hot against her cheek. His body was shaking as he wept quietly. No sound at all. She wondered how many times as a small child he had been forced to cry quietly to stay safe in his home. She held him tightly, then whispered, "I'm here. You're okay. I"ll make sure you're okay tonight."

He was embarrassed. This never happened. He had never allowed another person to see him like this. Part of him was screaming to pull himself together, to demonstrate his strength. He was supposed to be the strong one. But here she was, holding him, demonstrating no fear at all of his emotional display, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And the core of him found it incredibly comforting. He held on, and she continued to stroke his back up and down, as though he were a child.

After several minutes, he pulled away from her, not making eye contact, but said, "I'll go take a shower."

"Okay. I'll get dinner ready."

He left the kitchen and she poked through the refrigerator, reminding herself that she needed to run to the market. She had cheese and tomatoes. Grinning, she settled on grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.

When she entered the bedroom twenty minutes later, he was standing in front of her dresser, damp and in a clean pair of boxers, looking lost.

"Hey," she said softly, "you okay?"

He sighed. "I'm just so fucking exhausted. I think I've slept maybe three hours in as many days." He climbed into the bed and she handed him a plate. Suddenly he smiled. Her choice had surprised him, for sure. Definitely not dinner in a bowl.

'You like it." It was a statement, and he could hear her smile in it.

"Yes." He took a bite. "Thank you. It's great."

They ate in silence. She was still wondering about their plans but didn't feel this was the right time to ask. He was overwhelmed--she could see it on him--and she had already pushed him once tonight. After he finished, she took the plate from him.

He automatically reached for the remote for the television, but she said, "" She had laid down next to him and motioned to her chest. More than willingly, he pressed his head against her breasts, feeling immediately comforted and sleepy. She smelled of grilled cheese and a touch of that floral perfume she loved so much. Pleasant and comforting. His hand wandered over her side. He never had felt so safe and comforted in his life as he did with her. He wondered if there were something almost perverse about his feelings in moments like these, but convinced himself quickly that maybe it was part of loving someone he'd never known before. He knew, without asking, that she would tell him that.

"Sleep," she whispered. "I'll get you up in time to go see your mom."

He closed his eyes for a moment, and then whispered, "You're still coming, aren't you?"

"Yes," she replied softly. "Now sleep. I love you." She kissed his head, went to stroke his hair, but she could feel his breath against her, and knew he had already drifted off.


They were in his mustang on the highway, and she was sipping her iced mocha.

"I still can't believe you wanted something iced when it's thirty degrees out today," he said, shaking his head. He was still bundled in his coat.

She took another sip. "You don't understand the draw of the iced mocha," she explained. "There's something inherently amazing about the mix of chocolate, coffee, milk, and ice--"

"Stop," he protested. "You're making me colder!"

She laughed. "You have to be the most cold-natured person I've ever run into. Maybe it's because you're so tall...your head is in a different atmosphere than your feet!"

"Very funny," he replied. After a minute, he said, "How's your profile coming along?"

"I finished it. The ball is in Zan and Jana's court now."

He laughed. "Well, hopefully they'll figure out how to work the Wonder Twin powers together to catch the guy." He paused for a moment, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. She was watching out the window. "You glad it's over?"

"Yeah. It was a difficult one, but I'm pretty sure I gave them what they need." She watched the traffic for a moment. "Did you know I get motion sickness if I read in a car?"

"No," he replied. "I had no idea."

"I do. I always have. It's horrible. My mom and dad would try to make me read in the car when I was a kid and the next thing you know, I'm yacking all over at a rest stop. Gross."

He smirked. "That's an interesting thing to share, Ness."

"Well, it was on my mind...I don't usually take a lot of road trips. I haven't been out of the city in God knows how long."

"Don't get too's just to see my mom."

"How much farther?"

"About an hour."

She leaned back in the seat and continued to watch the countryside, thinking about last night and this morning. "Hey," she finally said, "thanks for trusting me last night."

As soon as she said it, she wished it back. It sounded awkward and weird to her. Hey buddy, thanks for trusting me enough to cry on my shoulder. Thanks for trusting me to hold you like a child. Like I'm sure you want to be reminded of that.

Bobby didn't say anything for a minute. Then, "When I was a kid, I took care of myself. My brother sometimes helped, but mainly it was me. He would go off with his friends, or sometimes my dad, and it was just me and my mom. She was pretty bad off then...before the meds and the doctors. I took care of everything. I guess I still do." He stopped talking, seemingly reflective. She decided to stay quiet.

"All my life I've learned that the safest way to survive is to shut people out. You let them in, you risk a lot, but the worst is disappointment. I understand my mom. I understand her limitations and I get where she's at. Her delusions and her needs, I've lived with them for so long that I can predict them and respond. If I didn't have to work, she'd be at home with me. But I couldn't watch her around the clock, and I couldn't pay for home care. I had to do this. I don't know if I've ever really forgiven myself for it."

There was silence for a moment, and then he said, "Honestly, you scare the shit out of me sometimes."

She considered that. "Yeah," she responded. "I really pushed you last night. But I'm not sorry. Just like I'm not sorry for the times you've pushed me. You know, to give up transient housing or to face my boss when I wasn't ready to work?"

He smiled, then cleared his throat. "Last night gave me a reminder of how much you've trusted me over the last eight months."

"Heh." She was still looking out the window. "You remember the first time we had sex? That was a killer. I'm sure you were thinking of some hot sex interlude and I couldn't even let you take off my bra. Very trusting."

He shook his head. "You were fine once you had control. And it turned out to be a wonderful evening."

She stopped the dance. "Admit it," she confronted him, "it's not what you wanted or expected."

He glanced at her again. This time she was looking at him instead of the countryside. "You do realize," he said slowly, "that all I wanted was to be with you, right?"

She turned her head away, unable to look at him, afraid of the tears in her eyes. He continued, watching the road straight ahead, and said, "This has never been about sex. Both of us have had plenty of that. I don't take my sex buddies to see my mom. I don't tell my lovers about my childhood." He stopped for a moment before continuing. "You want to know what I think about sex with you? It's the best I've ever had. Period. And you can go on about whatever you want...your imperfections or shyness or even your shame and your rage. I get that. But nothing makes me feel more at peace than holding you against me." He took a breath. "And that's the damn truth."

She sighed. "Sometimes I think you really are as crazy as I am."

He laughed. "I thought that was a given." He glanced at her again. "Are you sorry we've become involved like this?"

"No." She hesitated, then let it go. "I've never loved anyone as much as you before. Sometimes it scares me too."

"Well, good," he said, reaching over to touch her hand. "We can be scared and in love and horny together. Beats the hell out of being all that alone, anyway."

"Yeah," she laughed. "We're total masters of our souls."

He grinned. "I wasn't sure I still even had one of those, before you. But I guess there's no denying it any more, huh?"

She shook her head. "Guess not." Then she turned to watch the scenery once more.


Goren turned the ignition off. "Well," he sighed, "this is it."

They were sitting in front of a small brick building, well kept and almost homey. The sign read, "Transitions Residential and Assisted Living Facility". For some reason, that sign always made Bobby want to laugh because of the irony. Transitions, he thought. Transitions that require you to go in but never leave. It should have said "Hotel California".

Vanessa tried to think of something supportive to say. "It looks very...comfortable."

He shot her a look of skepticism.

"Stop," she told him. "I'm here to be supportive, remember? I want to meet your mom."

He pulled the keys out of the ignition and leaned back in the seat, exhaling heavily. "You know you don't have to do this," he told her. "I can run in, eat, and we can leave. You could even wait in the lobby--it's nice, they have birds." He glanced at her puzzled expression. "In a cage, I mean. The birds, they're in a cage."

She looked out the front window of the car again. "If you don't want me to meet your mom, then say so, Bobby."

"It's not that," he hesitated. "It's just-"

"It's exactly that," she interrupted. "I don't have a problem with meeting her, and she apparently has no problem with meeting me. You're the one with the problem regarding this." She turned to face him. "So do I need my book or not?"

He jiggled the keys nervously in his hands. "Nobody has met my mom in years. Not even Eames." When she didn't say anything, he opened the door. "All right...I guess it won't get easier."

She opened her own door, muttering under her breath, "No, it won't."

Vanessa followed Bobby inside, into the pleasant lobby. There was plenty of seating, and he was right--a large cage with cockatiels. The nurse at the desk recognized him right away.

"Hello, Mr. Goren! Your mother is waiting for you. Just check in with Sheila at the nurse's station."

"Thanks," he replied, after signing them in. Vanessa smiled at the receptionist and followed Bobby down a long hallway.

The facility was similar to that of a hospital. The smells reminded Vanessa of her last hospital visit and she swallowed hard. She hadn't thought about the smell. Disinfectant, medicinal. She felt a tad squeamish.

They approached the nurse's station, and she heard Bobby address Sheila by her first name and say hello."

Sheila turned out to be a not-so-shabby looking twenty-something nurse with an accent from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon. "Hi there, Detective," she responded to his greeting. "Your mama's been waiting for you all morning--she's very excited to see you. Said you're bringing someone special with you-" she suddenly looked at Vanessa. Vanessa knew that look, knew the young nurse had recognized her from her previous fame. Fortunately, she said nothing of it, and instead finished, "Miss Frances will be so excited to see you," she nodded at Vanessa. "She's always talking about her sons and wanting to know who's in their lives."

Bobby smiled awkwardly at Vanessa, as if to say, "I swear I didn't plan this." She touched his hand for just a moment, then nodded for him to follow Sheila into the day room. As he entered, she heard an older woman's voice cry out, "Bobby! Thank God! I was starting to think you'd forgotten today!"

He made his way over to his mother, who was looking particularly alert and attuned this morning. "Hey Mom," he said, giving her a hug and responding to the requisite kiss she placed on his cheek. "You doing okay today?"

"Are you kidding?" she asked him, as though she'd never felt anything but 100% in all her life. "I'm terrific. It's Thanksgiving and you're here, so I've got something to be thankful for." She turned her eyes to Vanessa. "And who's this?"

" remember...I told you I was going to bring Vanessa to visit..."

His mother smacked him in the side. "Of course I remember...I was giving you a chance to introduce us, Robert!"

"Well," he replied, rubbing his side, "this is Vanessa."

His mother narrowed her eyes, that same look Vanessa had seen on Bobby's face a million times. "Does she speak?"

Vanessa laughed. "Of course I speak. It's nice to meet you." She extended a hand and Frances took it, shaking it firmly.

"I wasn't sure," Frances replied. "Around here, if somebody isn't speaking, it's usually because they can't."

" know Vanessa works with me...she's not from around here."

"Right...right," his mother pulled at her shirt hem for a moment. "I think you mentioned that once before. Bobby, you know today is Thanksgiving? Carol says they've been cooking the turkey all morning. Remember when we used to do that? You and Frankie and me?" She turned to Vanessa for a moment. "We used to cook Thanksgiving together. I'd do the turkey, Frank would mash the potatoes and Bobby here--" she pointed at Bobby's shirt"--he always had to mix the stuffing. That was his thing, growing up. He learned it from my mother." She laughed, reminiscing over the fond memory. "Not many italians make a good stuffing...but Mama's was the best. Wasn't it, Bobby?" her smile glowed as she regarded her son.

"Yeah," he said, smiling. "It was really good."

"You ready for dinner, Frances?" A large older woman approached them, then nodded to Bobby. "See you got your handsome son up here. And a friend, too." She winked at Bobby, who smiled at her.

"Vanessa, this is Carol," Bobby introduced them. "Carol, this is Vanessa...a good friend of mine."

"Well, nice to meet you," Carol pumped her hand vigorously. "We heard you were coming today...and the table's all set. You ready, Frances?"

"Not yet. Frank isn't here." Frances pursed her lips.

"Mom...remember, he's not coming...we don't know where he is..."

"It's a holiday," Frances persisted. "Frankie will be here...he always makes the potatoes."

Bobby sat next to her and tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it away. "Stop it!" Frances swatted at him, angry. "You always do this! Why do you always do this?" Another swat at his chest, and Vanessa slipped her hands under herself, to keep from physically stepping in. "You always try to make me believe he's not coming--"

"Bobby," Vanessa interrupted quietly, "didn't Frank call you earlier...about his work--"

He knew what she was trying to do, but it bothered him. He didn't like to lie to his mother when it came to Frank.

Frances looked at him, full attention. "What? What's she saying?"

Vanessa saw the look on Bobby's face and realized she had probably crossed a line but now she was determined to run with it. She wasn't about to just sit here while Frances kept hitting him. Bobby still looked like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, so she continued. "Oh, he called when we were on the way up here," she said, as though lying to this woman was the most natural thing in the world. "He said he couldn't get away right now--you know, it's his job--but that he had told Carol the secret to the mashed potatoes and he wanted you to enjoy them. Right?" She looked up at Carol's face, whose jaw was hanging slightly open, praying that she would back this story up.

Carol snapped her jaw shut. "That's right, Frances...he did. I mashed 'em twice just to give extra flavor, just like he told me to."

"Well then." Frances stood up, and Bobby stood, holding her arm. "I guess we all might as well enjoy the potatoes."


"Why did you do that?"

She had been waiting for the question. They had left his mother's place almost a half-hour ago and driven in silence. She couldn't tell if Bobby was angry, tired, relieved, or a combination of that and more. But he hadn't said anything to her, and she didn't feel it was her place to bring it up.

She didn't know if she was going to need to defend her actions or if she could relax and just explain them. She decided to start off with the truth of explanation and take it from there. "She was only going to keep escalating if you had stuck with the truth. You know paranoid schizophrenics have a tenuous grasp on reality. Giving her that string of hope let her have a comfortable day."

HIs voice was bitter. "Giving her that string of hope was a lie."

"She was hitting you."

"I can handle myself."

She didn't answer him. She knew what she had told Frances was a lie, just as she knew it hadn't been her place to make that call. She didn't know why she responded the way she did other than something in her just wanted to make things more comfortable for all of them. That and watching Frances swatting at Bobby made her upset. They rode along in silence for several more miles.

"I'm sorry," she finally said. She wasn't sure if she was sorry that she had handled the situation as she had, but she was sorry that Bobby was upset about it. She hadn't meant to hurt him.

Suddenly, he pulled the car over to the side of the road and killed the engine. He looked at her, his brown eyes hot and angry, and for a moment she was afraid. Her hand fumbled with the door handle before the anger was replaced by curiosity and he said, "What are you doing?"

She felt caught, embarrassed. She had gone on autopilot with the one person whom she trusted more than anyone else. How do you explain that?

"I...uh...I thought we might be...getting out."

He kept looking at her, hand on the door, and suddenly started to laugh. She didn't move, unsure of what to do next, before he put his head on the steering wheel and the laughter subsided, turning into soft gasps and barely audible sobs.

After a minute, she let go of the door and said softly, "Are you okay?"

He didn't lift his head, but the sobs quieted, and he whispered, "You thought I was going to hurt you."

"Not really," she lied. "I'm just jumpy. You know that."

He didn't say anything, didn't move, and neither did she, for a long time. Finally he whispered, "I can never bring myself to lie to her about him. It's what they say will make her comfortable but I can't do it. He never comes. He doesn't care. And he's the one she wants. Not me. No matter what...not me."

She heard his gasps begin again and knew he was crying, knew he was crying over rejection by his mother and the helplessness he felt watching her and the unfairness of it all.

She remembered the day that she had cried into her pillow at the Wyndham, and he hadn't touched her or told her some big fat lie that everything would all be okay. That was one of the defining moments in their relationship, she thought, because she realized he had the capacity to be honest with her. Even when nobody else would.

"You deserved better," she finally said quietly, barely over his weeping. She wanted to hold him, wanted to take it away, but knew it was impossible. The scars were too deep, the pain was too palpable. "You deserve better now. You deserve someone who wants to see you. Who appreciates you and all you do and respects you as a man and a son. There's nothing wrong with wanting that." She listened to him trying to softly choke down a sob. "I want you and appreciate you, Bobby. You and I, we can't get new parents...but we can be each other's family."

He rested his head to the side, on the steering wheel, looking out of the window. After he had calmed down, he said, "I would never hurt you, matter how angry I got. You have to know that." He turned to face her, eyes pleading. He needed her to know he wasn't his father.

She touched the back of his neck, right under his shirt collar. "I know," she said in her most rational voice. "Now let me drive to Ava's."

He didn't answer but handed her the keys and they switched seats.Once she started the car and eased it back onto the highway, she glanced at him. "You might want to take a's already been a long day," she said, and he lay back and closed his eyes.

"That's probably a good idea," he murmured. "I have a feeling I'm going to need all the energy I can get before this is over." He paused for a moment. "And I guess you should know," he said, "I've never made stuffing in my life. I don't even eat it."

She smiled. "Too bad," she said with a twinge of regret in her voice, "I was already planning Christmas dinner."

He kept his eyes closed, but his mouth turned into a slight grin.


"Hey," she said, pushing into his arm gently. "We're here."

Bobby opened his eyes and looked out the car window. It was dark and starting to snow. They were parked in a lot in front of a bar. "Where's here?" he asked, confused. "Ava lives in a bar?"

Vanessa laughed. "Ava texted me. She isn't having her little party until after seven. It's only five-thirty right now. I know the guy who owns this place--old friend. I thought we could go, maybe...loosen up."

He was still squinting, taking in what she was saying to him. "You mean," he clarified, "get drunk before we go to your sister's?"

She grinned. "Exactly." Vanessa opened the driver's door on the mustang and climbed out, then turned and stuck her face back in the car. "You coming?"

He stretched a little, then opened his door and climbed out, following her into the bar. It was surprisingly busy. A typical neighborhood haunt. He wondered how far away from Ava's house this little detour had taken them.

Vanessa had ordered them a couple of tequila shots and two beers. He sat next to her on the stool, still blinking the sleep from his eyes. "Ness," he said, a bit under his breath, "are you sure this is a good idea?"

She passed him a beer and a shot glass. "Personally, I think it's the best idea I've had all day. Heads up!" She downed the tequila in one hearty swallow, then chased it with the beer. "Don't worry--we can call a cab from here to get to wherever we need to go...and your mustang will be fine."

He copied her, gulping the burning liquid and following it with the beer. "That's nasty," he commented.

She laughed. "Better than that stuffing at your mom's." He shook his head as she poked him in the side with her elbow. "Too bad they didn't have you back there mixing it up."

He laughed in spite of himself. "That's really not funny, Vanessa. She can't help that she thinks I make stuffing."

"Of course she can't help it," Vanessa responded logically. "That doesn't mean it isn't funny. Look, my grandmother died of Alzheimer's. Six months before she died, we found a pair of her underwear in her bible. We called them the holy panties." She grinned as he choked on his beer. "If that isn't damn well funny then I don't know what is."

He shook his head. "There's something really wrong with that."

"What?" she questioned him. "Putting your panties in the bible or your family laughing about it?"

"Both." He motioned for another shot from the bartender, who filled their two glasses once more.

"Well," she reasoned, "it was either laugh or cry. And it's the same for you. You can either laugh that you're the Italian stuffing master or you can cry that she doesn't remember you've never eaten it. Me? I choose to laugh." She finished the second shot with a relish. "And I like to think my grandmother would have approved of that choice, before the Alzheimer's."

He watched her for a moment. "You better slow down or you're going to be spending an awful lot of time in Ava's bathroom." He started to sip his tequila, then stopped. "Didn't you say she has a three-year old?"

"Yeah, Justin. He'll be in bed."

"What if he's not? Do you really want him to see us this way?" Bobby had returned the shot glass to the table. The thought of somebody's kid seeing him drunk and out of sorts made him feel extremely uncomfortable. He thought of his own father, stumbling home, smelling of sex and scotch. Not something he wanted to repeat.

Vanessa was watching him. "Bobby," she said slowly, "are you really up to going to Ava's? Because honestly? Holidays suck and I'd just as soon spend it here in the bar with you."

He looked at her, shook his head. "Your sister is expecting you."

"My sister," she returned, "hasn't invited me to Thanksgiving dinner in eight years. The only reason I got an invitation this year is because of her need to outdo you and whatever we would do together." She was quiet for a moment, and when she spoke again, there was a bitterness to her voice that hadn't been there before. "She feels sorry for me. She wants to fix me. When I needed her, she wasn't there. If you hadn't been there, she wouldn't have been there either." She pushed the shot glass forward, and the bartender complied, but she didn't drink it. "When it happened--when my mom died, I waited outside for Ava, kept her from going in the house so she wouldn't see it. My dad came home and wanted to know why I didn't send her to the neighbor's. I had walked in and seen my mother's dead body and he wanted to know why Ava wasn't being comforted by the neighbor." She twirled the shot glass around. "Ava needed protection; she needed love and caring. She was always so delicate, you know. I guess I just somehow knew how to deal with life. At least according to my father."

Bobby stilled her hand with his. "You know that's not Ava's fault."

She didn't respond, but sat quietly. He wondered what she was thinking, if she was blaming him for not taking her side or thinking that he didn't understand her, or if she was just thinking that the world was spinning fast after all that tequila.

After a bit, she looked at him. "I know what it's like to be nobody's favorite."

He half smiled at her. "You're my favorite," he said softly. Then, more certainly, "Give me your phone." She dug through her bag and handed the cell to him, watched him scroll through the numbers in her address book before settling on one. He pressed call, held the phone to his ear, and winked at her. "Ava," he said, voice clear. "This is Bobby. Goren, the detective?" He paused. "You know, I'm the one dating your sister?" Another pause. Vanessa could only imagine what Ava was saying on her side of the conversation. "Listen...Vanessa and I have gotten tied up and won't be able to make it over to your place tonight." He paused, smiling, before continuing. "I'm sorry it's an inconvenience. I understand. Yes, I'm sure she'll call you soon." Another pause. "Thanks for understanding. Have a good holiday."

She was still staring at him when he handed her the cell again. "Well," he said, "problem solved."

"What did she say to you?"

He picked up his beer, smiling to himself. "Does it matter?"

"I didn't say we shouldn't go...I thought we were still discussing."

"And I think," he said firmly, "that we should spend some time today with the people we're really thankful for...regardless of why we feel the way we do."

She smiled at him again. God, she loved this man. "Agreed...cheers!" and she downed the third shot, then reached for a lemon. "Just know that I'm expecting some of that fantastic Italian stuffing your grandmother made when we get home."

"Ha," he replied, rolling his eyes. "Maybe you'll be funnier if I drink more," he said, and motioned for one more shot.


He woke up, sweaty and panting, before realizing she was thrashing against him. The arm flailing next to him hit his face, and he sat up quickly.

"Ness," he said softly, "wake up. It's okay, wake up."

She was fighting an unseen force with great energy, as her body writhed in the bed and the sounds leaving her mouth were a mix of anger and fear.

She never spoke in these episodes, but always flailed, always formed unrecognizable words, sounds that came from somewhere deep inside her. Sounds that reminded him of the army, of the tortured and dying. He hated the sounds the most. They were the most frightening. It was those moments that he felt he most understood her fear, could relate to it. He had once been a visitor inside a foreign prison. He had heard those sounds before, sounds of death and dying and pain. Those memories of so long ago came flooding back in moments like this, along with the memory of her nude body, splayed on the floor and covered in blood and vomit. The memory of thankfulness that she was alive and recognition that she would never be the same. The memory of wiping her face with his shirt because nobody else had.

She was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and he wondered briefly how long this one had been lasting. How much he had slept through. Sometimes he was able to wake her quickly, suddenly; in those moments she seemed nearly as frightened to wake as she had been asleep. Other times, like tonight, it seemed impossible to wake her, as though Forrester had her in her dream and refused to let her be released.

He spoke her name again, this time a little more loudly, touching her hair. He was always afraid of touching her arms. He knew how terrified she was of being held down, even when awake. They never talked about it, her fear, but he always avoided holding her arms when they made love for fear of the memories it would bring back. He knew Forrester had tortured her. That was enough.

After a moment her eyes opened, large and frightened, then regained focus on him and the room. Her arms slowly settled by her side but her breathing remained labored.

"It's okay," he whispered again. "I'm're okay."

He wondered if something about today had made her think of Forrester. Usually when she had these episodes, something triggered them. Sometimes she told him about it and sometimes she didn't. Most nights he didn't press her. He figured she would tell him when she was ready, when she wanted to. And he knew she told Lydia. That was most important.

She pressed her body against his, lying still, trying to breathe. She could smell the disinfectant, the hospital equipment. She could hear the doctor again, asking her questions about time and place, trying to assess her concussion--the date, her name, the president. He had ordered a rape kit. She had said no. No. And Deakins had tried to convince her it was a good idea...but she kept saying no...

She could feel Goren's eyes now, almost drilling a hole into her head. She felt as though they were playing a game, pretending she was normal and could be a normal girlfriend. Like playing house or something as a kid. She would put on her girlfriend clothes and they would go to places together and just when they almost had everyone fooled, including each other, reality would spring and remind her of who she was.

These were her innermost thoughts. The ones she never shared with him.

He was stroking her hair softly, wishing he could clean out the cobwebs in her psyche and give her a peaceful night. "Are you okay?" he finally asked, feeling as though he should say something.

She didn't answer him but moved her head from his side to his chest, pressing her face against him. He settled with her there, arm around her protectively. They had slept like this many times.

Sleep was about to overtake him when he heard her. "I'm sorry."

He began to move his hand against her head again, before whispering, "You have nothing to be sorry for."

She was silent, then replied, "I'm sorry you aren't sleeping well tonight." She suddenly realized the irony in what she had said and started to laugh.

He smiled in the darkness. As long as she had the ability to laugh, maybe there was hope for all of this.

"Hospitals suck," she whispered, realizing she was speaking code and that she didn't know if he could descramble her meaning or not. Part of her didn't care; it was a statement and she just felt the need to say it out loud.

But he understood, as he usually did; she was referring to the nature of the facility his mother was at. He had noticed the look on her face when he had turned away from Sheila earlier, seen the expression of distaste and, well, fear. And although his paranoia made him wonder if the fear was due to meeting his mom, his gut told him otherwise. He just hadn't put it together until now.

And then the incident in the car. He guessed he didn't have to wonder very much about this particular nightmare.

"I'm sorry I scared you," he said again, feeling guilty and anxious over his role in what he very much considered a debacle. Taking her to see his mother had been a huge mistake; he hadn't prepared any of them well enough to handle the day.

She moved up next to him, off of his chest, lying on her own pillow. "I'm not scared of you," she reiterated again. "I overreacted...I think it was everything...I didn't think about the smells." Then, "I really like your mom."

That caught him off guard. How could you like a paranoid schizophrenic who was disoriented to time and place half of her life? He tried to laugh, to sound friendly, but it came out sounding forced. "What do you mean?"

Now she lay on her side, facing him, looking into his eyes. "I mean I like her. She's got a huge personality and she reminds me of you in a lot of ways. I can imagine what she must have been like before the schizophrenia."

He smiled then, a sad smile. "She was beautiful," he remembered, and she could hear the wist and love in his voice for the memory. "And so smart...I thought she was incredible."

She ran a finger over his lips. "That's how it is with kids," she said softly. "Parents are everything." She watched his eyes blur slightly with tears as he pushed them back. "Maybe she wants Frank because she knows she already has you. You'll never let her down. You won't leave."

A chuckle caught in his throat. "Punished for being reliable."

"She loves you. She never took her eyes off of you the entire time we were there. She trusts you."

He considered that. "I wish it were enough."

She sighed. "Me too. For you and for her." She pulled on the front of his tee shirt a little, then wrapped her hand in his. "I'm sorry it affected me like this. I hate that I still have these dreams...but I'm so glad you took me to meet her."

Her eyes were sincere. He decided to believe her, and suddenly he was glad he had taken her too. "Did I tell you," he whispered, "that I'm so thankful for you?"

She leaned over and kissed him softly, staying close to his face for a moment, breathing in his scent. "Me too. I love you, Goren. I don't know what I would do without you."

He held her hand tightly in his and closed his eyes again. "Rayden," he whispered, "I can't chase them away, but I can be here when you wake up. And I will be." He relaxed, feeling her snuggle closer to him, and knew sleep would come soon.


She was flipping through her newest case file when Little knocked on the door frame of her office. Fighting the urge to call him Jana, she told him to come in.

He entered, hesitating by her desk. "I just wanted to let you know that we got him, thanks to your profile."

Vanessa looked up, curious. "Who was it?"

Little fiddled with his belt. "Her sister's husband. He was apparently looking to have an affair with her. Everything you said was right on the money."

She smiled at him. "I'm glad it helped."

"Yeah," he said, still catching one of his belt loops with his finger. "Look, Rayden, I wanted to apologize to you. I know Turner and I gave you a hard time on that ride along, and it was your first coming back to the squad. We're still figuring out what we're doing as partners, and I guess we both didn't really understand your job. I didn't really believe you knew what you were doing...and, well, I was wrong." He looked at her directly. "When I'm wrong, I admit it. So I'm admitting it."

She sat back in her chair, crossing her arms. "I appreciate it, Little. No're not the first person who thought I practice some weird psycho quack science."

He grinned at that. "Well, I don't know if I would have put it quite like that." He cleared his throat. "I, uh, know it's been a rough time for you this year, but I was wondering if you might want to go get some dinner one treat..."

Vanessa was thrown off guard, taken aback. Everyone on the squad knew she didn't date...hadn't dated for years. And especially after being assaulted. It had been so long since a man had asked her out she hardly knew how to respond. Suddenly she reminded herself that she was currently involved with a detective in the next room.

"I'm flattered, Little," she said, trying not to stammer or blush. The stammer seemed conquered but she could feel her cheeks changing color, and mentally chastised herself for being so embarrassed. "I'm just not dating right now." There. That wasn't a lie, was it?

Little smiled and nodded. "I had heard you don't mix business with pleasure anyway," he said, trying to soften the blow for himself. "I just...well, you're a very..." he cleared his throat again. "You seem like a nice gal. I enjoyed working with you."

She smiled back at him. "Thanks...I'm sure we'll be teamed again, probably sooner than we realize," she said, and internally wondered if this would make things awkward. Maybe not though, since he was admitting there was actually some value to her profiling. "I appreciate the offer, though."

"No problem," he told her. She watched him walk back into the bullpen, then turned back to her case file. For a moment she sat staring at the file but thinking of Little's offer. How was it that she had effectively managed to avoid a single date offer for five years? She must send some pretty strong signals, she thought. Maybe she'd ask Goren later. He might be able to shed some light on why nobody ever asked her out. For five years.

She finally turned her attention back to the file in her hand, taking a closer look. The evidence was of a poisoning; a teenage girl who had died of high levels of GHB in her system. She had been found on a side street in midtown Manhattan near a teen nightclub, clothing partially removed but no sexual assault.

The MO sounded similar to another case that had been picked up by a different set of detectives...she flipped through three or four case files before finding one of a second young woman, age eighteen, who had also died of a GHB overdose. This one was found on a side street, two blocks from a different club. She was also partially clothed, but the ME had found evidence of sexual assault.

Vanessa flipped through the second case file slowly. The girl had been enrolled in her freshman year at NYU. Too young to be at the club she was found near...but old enough to attend the club near the side street the second victim was found at. A club for sixteen- to twenty-one-year olds. Quickly she flipped back to the first file, checking on the age of the other vic. Sixteen.

Rayden grabbed both the files and made her way to Deakins' office. She paused to knock but he motioned her in as he finished up a call. Hanging up the phone, he asked, "What have you got?"

"A serial, I think," she told him. "Assigned to two different sets of detectives...look." She pulled the files and compared the evidence.

"It's interesting, but not compelling," he told her. "One was a sex assault and one wasn't--"

"I think," she replied quickly, "the one who wasn't sexually assaulted died before he had the chance."

Deakins considered her carefully for a moment. "You want to work these two together."


"Baxter and Finnagin had the most recent vic. Get them up to speed. We'll put both vics together for now." He handed her the files again. "Do you want them to take you to the crime scene?"

"Probably," she replied. "I can get a better feel for what might have happened if they go over it with me there. They're going to need to canvas the teen club again for the other victim."

He nodded. She was about to leave his office when he said her name. "Vanessa."

She turned around, surprised. He hadn't used her first name since she'd been back to work. "Carver took your advice on the Walker case." At her confusion, he clarified, "The case Goren and Eames were working...the guy who killed his boss." At her sudden look of recognition, he continued. "You were right--he tried to hang himself Thursday morning. They got him. Carver wanted me to extend a thank you."

She couldn't help but feel vaguely smug. The way Carver had dismissed her that day had pissed her off. Not that she was pleased about this Walker guy, but at least they had kept him alive, and Carver had to eat crow. She smiled, then said, "Please tell Mr. Carver I'm happy to do my job whenever he'll let me."

Deakins grinned at her. "I'll be sure to pass on that message."

"Good...and if you can, do it with a smile."


"You won't believe this," she told him that night over dinner," but Little asked me out."

His eyes shot up, left eyebrow raised, and he said, "Really?"

"Yes." She put her fork down and handed a torn piece of her bread to Bruce, who was sitting patiently next to her. "He asked me out to dinner."

Bobby snorted and went back to eating.

"What?" she demanded. "You're acting like he's crazy to ask me out."

Bobby finished chewing his chicken, swallowed, and said, "Isn't he?"

Vanessa watched him eating. He had stopped for just a moment to respond to her, but had returned to eating his chicken. He always ate with such relish. It made her think of Ava's relationship with food and how she barely ate at all. She shook her head. "Why is it crazy to ask me out?"

He smirked at her. "Other than the fact that we're together?"

"I'm serious, Bobby. Why does no one ever ask me out?"

He shook his head. "Because you didn't want them to. It came out in everything you did. I mean, feeding me humble pie in front of the entire squad room didn't exactly win you confidence with the male population, know what I mean?"

"Yeah, but that was almost three years ago!"

"People still talk about it." He pushed around his asparagus. "No guy likes to think he can have his balls handed to him like that in front of everyone."

"Oh," she said irritably, "but it's okay to hand me my ovaries, so to speak?"

He chuckled, cutting through the asparagus. "I didn't say it was fair or logical. I just said it was."

She felt pissed. He was still eating as though this conversation meant nothing to him. "Maybe I should go with him," she said, more to get a response from him than anything else. In all reality, she had no desire to spend any extra time with Little in any setting.

He looked up at her, surprised. "Why are you mad at me?"

She crossed her arms. "You just said that basically I ruined my dating pool for putting your cocky ass in its place."

He held his fork out. "So you're going to kill the messenger?"

"That is so wrong. You just have no idea. It makes me really angry."

Now he put his fork down. "I see that." He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do next. He felt like he had been honest, and now she was angry with him. "Look," he said soothingly, "you've said yourself that you had no desire to date at that time. You're beautiful and smart, and that can be intimidating for a lot of guys. Maybe that whole combination made it difficult for men to approach you."

She looked at him skeptically. "Right." She watched him as he picked up his fork and began eating his asparagus again. "So what made you decide to take the jump?"

He looked at her and smiled. "I fell in love with you. After that, it was an easy decision." He finished his dinner, then put his silverware on the plate. "You know, I just got to a point where I couldn't imagine my world without you in it. Nobody promised us easy...but I think we'll be okay, don't you?"

She still felt frustrated, trying to figure out exactly how she sent out such strong signals when she wasn't even aware of it. "Maybe," she muttered.

He pushed his chair back. "Come here," he motioned to his lap.

She stood up, her face still hostile. "You realize I'm not your can't put me in your lap and placate me."

He laughed softly, burying his face in her hair. "I have no desire to placate you like a child," he murmured, finding her neck under the thick hair. He pressed his lips against her neck and began to suckle gently, then nipped her with his teeth.

"You're such a man," she grumbled. "Always horny."

He laughed. "The last time I defended myself you got mad at me because I said you were beautiful. So maybe I should just continue without speaking."

"Yes," she told him. "Maybe you should." As much as she wanted to feel irritated with him, she had to admit he was stripping her of her mood, bit by bit, with each kiss and touch of his tongue. He was now sucking on her neck avidly, and she knew she'd be wearing her hair down for several days. She hated that--her neck got all sweaty, even in the winter--but she really didn't want to tell him to stop. Really.

After another minute she heard herself sigh, and felt his tongue softly running over the spot he had just suckled, then moved on to her ear, nibbling and teasing. Not wanting to be passive any longer, she began to run her hands over his chest and found the buttons of his shirt. She ran her hands up to his tie, and quickly undid the knot. The tie hit the floor.

His mouth was now moving from her ear, across her cheek, to her mouth, tasting her softly, exploring with his tongue. She swore the man's tongue was like an eleventh finger. She'd never known a man who could use his tongue the way Goren did. Her fingers worked their way down his shirt, unbuttoning as she went, then pulling it out of his pants.

"Mmm," he moaned in her mouth softly. "Does this mean you're not mad any more?"

"No, I'm still mad. I'm just going to take it out on you," she told him, running her hands down his chest and settling on his zipper.

"Heh." He slid his hands over her breasts. "Promises, promises..." He ran his hands back up to catch her face. He cupped her jaws in his hands and whispered, "We have all night, you know..."

His cell rang.

"You cursed it," she said as he checked the number and sighed.

"I have to call in," he said as she stood up and picked up the dinner plates. "I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "It happens."

He went into the other room to take the call, and returned a couple of minutes later, buttoning his shirt and grabbing his tie. "We've caught a case downtown...I don't know how late I'll be. Do you want me to go home tonight?"

She pressed her back against the sink. "Which home?" she asked. "When's the last time you actually spent the night at your place anyway?"

He had to admit he wasn't sure. Adjusting his tie, he said, "I'll be back as soon as I can. I love you."

She watched him grab his jacket and start to head out of the kitchen. Suddenly, she called him back. "Bobby!"

He turned around, surprised. "Yeah?"

She moved toward him quickly, wrapping her arms around him. The fear she felt was deep for a moment. She wanted to stay there with him, keep him safe and away from the crazies outside her door. "I love you too," she murmured into his shirt, mainly because she wasn't tall enough to reach his neck without help.

He kissed her gently, seeming to understand her reaction. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said again, running his hand along her back. "Promise."

"See you," she said as he left, and then turned back to the sink to wash the dishes.


She was moving down a long hallway, the lights above nearly blinding her eyes. A man and a woman in uniform were flanked on either side of her, and she suddenly realized she was laying on her back on a gurney. Her gut screamed in pain and she could see Deakins, standing next to her, telling her it would all be okay. She didn't know what had happened. Couldn't remember, only could focus on the pain in her abdomen and the incredible headache she had. For a moment she wondered if she'd been shot, since Deakins was there, but she dismissed the thought. She realized she had vomited. It was on her. The smell of disinfectant, vomit, and medical equipment rose through the air and filled her nostrils. She felt nauseous from the smell and an urgent need to bathe to get it off her.

She could feel herself being wheeled in to a small area and a curtain being pulled around her bed. Jimmy had stepped outside. It wasn't cold but she shuddered anyway. Something had happened to cause this pain but she couldn't remember what. It was all so fuzzy. The EMT had given her a shot of something...was that why it was fuzzy? God it hurt. Her whole gut. Her head. She reached up and touched it, then brought her hand down. Blood and glass. What the hell happened? She saw monitors to the side of her gurney and suddenly realized where she was. A hospital. She was in a hospital.

Just then a man entered her room and closed the curtain. The doctor, she thought, noticing his lab jacket. Maybe he had answers. God, her head was killing her. "Hey," she demanded, "where the hell am I?"

Forrester turned around, smiling a crooked smile at her. "You don't know?" he asked, approaching the bed. "You're in hell, where all the bad girls go."

She recognized him immediately, felt the panic rise from her belly into her throat. Almost instinctively she surveyed the room looking for an escape. She tried to move but found she couldn't--somebody had restrained her to the bed. Desperately she pulled at the restraints, tugging to get away as he moved closer to her.

He was almost to her bed now. "No," she gasped. "Please...look, I know you know don't want to do this...we were friends, Keith, for years...please..."

He chuckled and she felt him grab her calf, yanking her leg aside. "Friends don't lead one another on, Vanessa," he said, pulling the sheet off of her, displaying her nude body. She felt humiliated but was paralyzed with fear. Her legs weren't working and her mind was racing frantically. "Friends are nice to one another." His face contorted into an ugly smile. "You owe me," he said slowly, dragging a finger from her chin down her body. "And now you're going to pay up." His finger paused on her hip, then pinched her, hard. "Play nice, Nessie."

She heard herself crying, felt the tears wetting her face. One more try. Please God, one more..."Please, Keith...please don't hurt me..." She yanked her wrists forcefully against the restraints but got nowhere.

"Fucking little bitch," he said, and she heard him unzip his pants. "Ugly fucking cunt."

Somebody grabbed her hand. Was it him? She heard her name from the other room, getting closer...maybe if she cried out...

Her eyes flew open wide, and Bobby was sitting by her side, still in his suit, looking worried and stroking her hair.

She buried her head in the pillow and cried.


"I've been holding out on you," she said, putting her coffee cup down. "I haven't been honest about a big part of my life."

Lydia nodded and took another sip of her coffee. "Do you want to talk about that today?"

Vanessa took a deep breath. She had been weighing this back and forth in her mind for weeks. "I've been seeing someone. For awhile. I think it's kind of serious."

"So you care about him."


It was quiet, and Vanessa once again focused on the clock as it ticked on the wall. After several minutes, she spoke. "Bobby Goren. He's a detective on the squad. After I was assaulted, he started visiting me...took me to appointments. He's the one who let me move in. He took care of me when nobody else would even talk about it."

"You feel safe with him."

"Yes." She turned her attention to her pinky finger, examining the nail closely. She needed a nail file. "He's always listened to me...always accepted me just how I am. He's always saying I need to accept myself, even with the scars Forrester left on me. I really get annoyed when he says that." She laughed softly, recalling their arguments over her supposed beauty.

"What do you think about that?"

She sighed. "Sometimes I think he's right..and sometimes I think he doesn't understand."

Lydia didn't say anything, just sat and sipped her coffee. Vanessa wasn't sure if she was supposed to say more or not. Lydia didn't seem in a rush with this conversation at all. Suddenly, Vanessa blurted out, "I love him and we've been sleeping together for two months."

Lydia looked at her. "You sound as though you feel like you're confessing something shameful."

Vanessa thought about that. "Sometimes I feel that way. I mean, what's the proper amount of time to refrain from sex after you've been assaulted? I wonder what people will think. Sometimes the silence is overwhelming. But I'm so scared to bring it into being by speaking it. What if all these people know and then it collapses, or they put pressure on us, or they say things about how I couldn't have really been assaulted because I"m in a relationship now?"

Lydia put her coffee mug down. "You worry about people questioning your reality."

"What is my reality?" she responded, feeling confused and frustrated. "I have nightmares all the time. I have scars on my body. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what he did to me. And yet if it hadn't been for what happened, I would still be rolling merrily through life alone. I would have never thought of Goren as more than a coworker." She paused. "Do you know that man sits with me through every goddamn nightmare? Every single one. I think I've hit him in my sleep and he still just wakes up and talks with me and acts as though I'm completely normal. How the hell is that possible?"

Lydia leaned forward. "Good things can come out of bad experiences. That doesn't mean that the experience itself was any less traumatic."

Vanessa sat still, mulling over thoughts and feelings about her, Forrester, Bobby. This relationship. "I didn't want to tell you," she finally admitted. "I was afraid of anyone knowing. I didn't want it to go away."

"Has it?"

"No," she replied. "I never said my fears were rational."

"Having people who care about you is a good thing, isn't it?"

"I suppose." Vanessa went back to picking at her nail. "He took care of Bruce when I was in the hospital. And after I got out. That's my dog," she clarified.

"It sounds like he's taken care of both of you. And how are you helping him?"

She shrugged. "Let's just say we're both similar in the family department. I get him." She stared off for a moment, thinking of Thanksgiving. "I went with him to visit his mother over the holiday...she's a was a hard visit for him."

"So this is a relationship where both of you contribute, right?"

Vanessa nodded. "You're already thinking that I think I'm not worth it. And you're right. I've thought that."

"Is it true?"

She leaned back against the couch, staring at the ceiling. "I guess not. Maybe not."

"Maybe you're worth it. Maybe you're worth risking that safety for happiness."

Vanessa sat back up, reached for her bag. "I'll think about it."


"I can't believe you talked me into this," she said, nudging him in the side. "I so don't like sports."

He pointed toward their seats. "Give it a shot," he encouraged her. "Your opinion may change, now that you're here with me."

"You're pretty full of yourself, aren't you?" She took a sip of her diet coke and followed him to the seats. Thank God they were on the end--she hated the idea of crawling over all those people.

Five minutes later she realized why inner seats were more comfortable, as the seventh person climbed over her to get out. "Couldn't we just go to a museum or something? You like intellectual stimulation."

He tossed a piece of popcorn in his mouth. "It's a great day for a game, Ness. You're gonna love it. There's something to be said for a soldout crowd, the energy of the game, the food-"

She rolled her eyes. "You sound like a kid at the circus."

He laughed. "Yeah, I guess so." He held out a package. "Peanut?"

She took it from him and began to pick at the shell. "Go Knicks," she mumbled sarcastically as she freed the nut and popped it in her mouth.

Ten minutes into the game and she had a brand new perspective on her boyfriend. She had never seen him this worked up over anything, with the exception of catching a perp. He was a true fan, jumping out of the seat and screaming about the game as though it were a matter of life and death. He'd worked himself through a bag each of popcorn and peanuts as well as a hotdog, and was now nursing a beer. Somewhere toward the end of the first half she had started mimicking him to pass the time. Also because it was funny. He hadn't noticed. He seemed to think she really liked the game. He would jump up and scream, "Yeah!" and she would follow him, a second "Yeah!" echoing from her mouth before the two of them sat back down. He looked at her several times with that goofy grin of his, finally wrapping his arm around her and giving her a snug squeeze. She knew he was tipsy and she was trying not to laugh.

Somewhere in the second half he caught on to her. Probably when he stood up and yelled, "Come on, man! Where'd you learn to throw?" and she jumped up right after him and yelled, "Yeah! Where'd you learn to throw? Boston???" He turned and looked at her funny and she smiled at him, deer caught in the headlights. They both sat back down and a minute later he said, "You're kind of mean sometimes."

She felt bad then. He had just wanted to share this with her. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I'm just trying to entertain myself. I'll be nice for the rest of the game."

He flagged down the cotton candy guy and bought a cone, then passed it to her. "You realize," he said to her, "they play really good ball in Boston. You pretty much told him he rocked the house."

"Well," she reasoned, "I told you I'm not into this much...but keep feeding me and I'll hang out with you."

He turned back to the game, and after a couple more plays, he said, "You should make it up to me. That was a nasty little thing you did, Ness, making fun of me like that."

She was still pulling pieces of cotton candy off the cone, feeling it harden in her fingers and dissolve pleasantly in her mouth. "I already apologized, Goren," she told him. "Get over it."

"No. You need to make it up to me in front of all these people."

"You're kidding, right?"

"Uh, no." He pulled a piece of cotton candy off the cone. "You can make it up to me by kissing me at the end of the game. In public. In front of all these people."

She looked at him, surprised. It hadn't occurred to her that they had never been affectionate, beyond holding hands, in public. She pulled another piece of cotton candy off, pressed it to his mouth. "You're so bossy," she told him as he opened his mouth for the candy. "I told you that's why you wanted to be Batman."

Before he could answer her, she leaned over and kissed him firmly on the lips. He tasted of cotton candy and beer, and she ran her tongue across his lips until he gently opened them. They kissed for several seconds, and she felt a satisfying sense of control at his surprise. When she pulled back from him, he stared at her, and finally said, "It's not the end of the game."

"I know," she said, taking another bite of cotton candy. "I just figured, why wait?"

He shook his head. A million years wouldn't be enough to make sense of her, he knew. He'd known that going in, and it hadn't stopped him, hadn't even slowed him down. There was something inherently, well...exciting, about the fact that she was so complex and such a mystery to him. No other woman had ever held his attention like she did. Even at a basketball game. Even at a Knicks game.

Two more minutes and the Knicks won, 73-65, and Vanessa started gathering their trash. Bobby finished his beer, and then said, "You owe me a kiss, remember?"

"Oh, that. Actually I don't owe you anything, but if it makes you happy..." she leaned over and he kissed her, the way he had always thought he would, from the time he was a kid. He would bring his girlfriend to a Knicks game--a winning game--and when the game was over they would kiss. Juvenile, he thought now. What was he, thirteen, when he had this fantasy?

But she was willing and had put the trash down, let him wrap his arms around her and followed his lead. He was vaguely aware of people crawling past them, trying to leave the stadium, but she didn't move from him, and he continued to kiss her and think about how much he loved the Knicks and winning and Vanessa, but not necessarily in that order. And he liked this fantasy, even if it bordered on being extremely silly and naive.

Finally he came up for air and she smiled at him, then kissed him once more gently before pulling back. "Just so you know," she remarked, picking up the trash again, "you can kiss me anywhere, anytime. It's not like we have to hide anything."

He stood up and stretched for a moment before responding. "I thought we were keeping this private. You know how people talk."

She followed him out of the stands and dumped the trash. "I think I ate too much."

"It was the cotton candy. You were fine until that."

Wandering into the parking lot, they found his mustang. She didn't know if it was the alcohol or just his roaming mind, but he suddenly asked her why she didn't own a car. Random, she thought, and gave him a cynical look.

"In New York? Because I can take cabs and subways and not pay for parking." She buckled her seatbelt. "Besides, we all know that your relationship with this car isn't one of's more of a love affair. I"m impressed you let me drive."

"Better safe than sorry."


The ride back to her place was quiet, and when they reached her parking garage, she pulled into her assigned spot. "So," she said, more casually than she felt, "are we keeping this private?"

He looked at her, one of those looks that made her heart beat faster and feel all melty at the same time. Ridiculously sappy. She only remembered feeling that way once before. That was with her rocker boyfriend when they first got together. He had this way of looking into her eyes that made her feel special. Unfortunately, it turned out that he had that skill with a lot of women. Not Bobby, though. She had never seen this look on his face with anyone but her. His eyes were large and deep and dark, and his expression was a mixture of curiosity and love and protection; one that always reminded her of how empathic and sweet he could be. "I don't know. What do you want to do?"

She thought for a minute. Thought about how anyone they knew could have seen them kissing at the game. Thought of Eames and Deakins and the whole squad knowing the truth. Thought of her own fears and what loving him meant about herself. She heard herself say, "Maybe it's time."

He leaned back in the seat again. "We could have a coming out party. You know, at Christmas or something...invite everyone over and spring it on them!" He chuckled to himself, trying to imagine the reaction they would receive.

She didn't laugh, but drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "The Christmas party is in two weeks...we could just go together and let that be the announcement itself."

"You wanna go to the Christmas party with me?" he asked, amused. "I thought you might be going with Little."

"That's not funny!"

"Oh, come on," he replied, running a finger down her forearm. "It's kind of funny. It's funny that he thinks you would go out with him."

"Now you're just being mean." She made a face and looked at him. "I mean, you thought I would go out with you!"

"No, I didn't," he corrected. "I never thought that. Even when you were living with me." His face, tone, had turned serious. "I loved you, but I never thought you would feel the same."

She touched his jaw, feeling the stubble beneath her fingers. He always had that five o'clock shadow. "I'm really glad you were wrong on that one. Really glad."

He smiled softly at her. "Me too."


Goren and Eames entered the diner and grabbed a table. "So what's your take on Elliot?" she asked as the waitress tossed two menus on the table. Eames picked one up immediately and began thumbing through it.

Goren was watching out the window restlessly, but replied, "Worth looking into...I think we need to check his whereabouts on Thursday."

She nodded before looking up and realizing he wasn't paying any attention to her at all. "Hello?" she poked him on the wrist. "Are you looking for crime out that window or what?"

"Actually," he replied, "I was waiting for Vanessa...she had said she would meet us here."

Eames was confused. "I thought we just decided to come here fifteen minutes ago. Did I miss something?"

His face relaxed. "There she is." He stood up as Vanessa approached the table and pulled out a chair for her. "Hey."

"Hi," she said, unbuttoning her coat. "Hey Alex."

Eames closed her menu and laid it on the table. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded.

Before anyone could respond, the waitress returned to the table with a third menu. "Here ya go, honey," she said, handing it to Vanessa. She was an older woman, seemingly efficient and all business. "You folks decided what you want to drink?"

A minute later, drink orders taken, Eames turned her attention back to Goren and Rayden. "So what's the setup about?"

Bobby started to protest, but Vanessa interrupted him. "We wanted to talk to you. First, before anyone else."


The waitress returned with the drinks. Vanessa felt almost annoyed by her efficiency. "What can I get for ya?" she asked, cracking her gum. She wrote the orders down quickly, read them back. "I'll have it out in a minute, officers."

Vanessa looked surprised until Eames said, "He has on his badge," and pointed to Bobby. "So what's this big conversation we need to have?"

Goren cleared his throat. In the past his love life was no business of his partner's or anyone else's. When they had decided to tell Eames before the party on Friday, it had been out of respect for her. He couldn't stand the thought that she would think he was hiding things from her, much less possibly setting her up to look like some sort of fool in front of the rest of their squad. Partners were supposed to look out for each other, not spring big surprises on each other at Christmas parties.

Vanessa had assured him that it would go smoothly, that Eames already had her suspicions, and that she wouldn't think worse about them. He didn't worry about Eames thinking worse about Vanessa. He worried about her thinking worse about him. After all, Vanessa had been through hell when they got together. Eames had pegged his feelings for her months ago. He knew Alex had a strong moral and ethical code, just like he did, and he couldn't help but wonder if she would think he had taken advantage of the situation. Unfortunately, there was no way to find out short of telling her what was going on.

Both women were now looking at him expectantly. Vanessa had agreed to take the back seat on this one but insisted on being part of the conversation. After all, Eames was her friend, she reasoned, and if Alex somehow mistook Bobby's intentions she could clarify things quickly.

"Well," he began, "Vanessa and I wanted to talk with you about the Christmas party on Friday."

Eames looked from Bobby back to Vanessa, and then to Bobby again. "I don't understand. It's a party. What could we possibly need to discuss? Coordinating outfits?"

"Yes," Vanessa replied sarcastically. "Goren and I are going in red and green plaid and we want you to do it too. Make sure you put bells on your shoes for the courtesy jingle." Seeing Bobby's mouth half open, she closed her own. "Uh, sorry."

He was flexing his fingers together and apart. Vanessa found herself wondering how he ever told anyone anything that was uncomfortable. Suddenly he said, quickly, "Vanessa and I are going together to the party."

Eames took a long sip of her tea. "Yeah?"

The waitress arrived with their food. "Pastrami on rye, grilled chicken salad, and chicken noodle soup," she said, placing their food on the table. "Need anything else?"

"Maybe an interpreter," Vanessa mumbled, but waved the waitress on after seeing her confused expression.

"So," Eames said, taking a bite of her salad, "it took two of you to come here and tell me you're going to the Christmas party?"

"Together," Bobby clarified, and Vanessa did her best to keep her eyes from rolling around. "We're going together."

Eames looked at him, then at Rayden. "You two feel like one of my parents trying to tell me they've hooked up with a significant other. This is beyond pathetic."

Vanessa, feeling annoyed, put her soup spoon down. "Okay, Alex. Bobby and I are in a relationship. We're involved and have been for almost two months, intimately. You want details or do you have enough information now?"

Eames didn't look up but waved a hand dismissively. "Please," she said, "if you launch into details of your sex life together you both are going to pay for it."

"Fine then," Vanessa continued. "You get the picture. Your partner here didn't want you to feel caught off guard when we show up at the party together on Friday."

Now Alex put her fork down. "I appreciate that. I really do." She looked at Goren's relieved face, then to Vanessa's irritated one. "But do you two really think no one in the squad has noticed what's going on? I'd have to have my eyes poked right out of my head not to have figured out you were together by now."

"What do you mean?" Goren could feel his anxiety rising. He thought they had been private with this; it was unnerving to think everyone would know.

"You come in together most days. You leave together most days. You look at each other like the other hung the moon. It'd be nauseating if it wasn't so...well, good, I guess...for both of you." She went back to eating her salad. "You're good people and deserve to be happy. Honestly, it's none of my business who you're involved with." She finished her bite, and then, seeing Bobby's expression of anxiety, said, "Don't worry about it, Goren. Nobody thinks badly of you. Nobody thinks you took advantage."

There was silence at the table, before he said, "I think that. Sometimes."


Bobby and Alex looked at Vanessa, slowly eating her soup. She didn't look up, but said softly, "We both went in with eyes wide open. Don't insult either of us by saying anything different."

The three of them finished their lunches quietly. Goren paid the bill while Eames and Rayden got their coats on. "You going back to the office?" he asked Vanessa as he buttoned up his own coat.

"Yeah," she replied. "I have a profile I'm finishing."

They walked out of the diner onto the street. "We're still running some leads," he said, as Eames walked over to the driver's side of the SUV. "You want a ride back?"

"'s only two blocks. I"ll walk."

"Okay...fine...I'm glad we did that." He leaned over and kissed her gently on the mouth. "I guess I'll see you later."

"Yeah," she said, and watched him get into the car before turning and walking back to the office.


"Why do you do that, Goren?" Eames was driving through the traffic, heading to their next destination. They were interviewing witnesses for a homicide case.

"Do what?" He was jiggling his left leg. Nervous habit. He had a feeling he knew what she was referring to, but sometimes feigning ignorance with Eames would get her to drop a subject. And this was one he really didn't want to talk about with her.

It didn't work this time, though. "Question everything you do with people. You're one of the most moral and ethical people I know. Do you really think that other people will believe you swooped in and carried Rayden off while she was so desperately in pain?"

He didn't answer her. Sometimes he felt like that was exactly what he had done. He had become aware of his feelings for her shortly after she had moved in with him. He had talked himself into believing that it was okay because he would never push her. That he would accept any outcome, so it would be all right. But she had been fragile and isolated, and he had been her only connection to work and the world. Was it any surprise they had ended up falling for one another?

"Oh, I see," she said sarcastically. "We're going to sit and contemplate all the ways that we've fucked up this situation."

"I never said that. I'm not sorry for it. I just didn't want you to be surprised is all."

"You know that's not what I'm talking about." She parked on the street and turned the car off. Looked at him. Softening her voice, she said, "Bobby, I've known both of you for a long time. You were a friend for her when nobody else was. Even me...I couldn't do it. You did. You both deserve to be happy and there's nothing wrong with being happy together." She leaned forward, trying to catch his eyes, but he continued to avoid her gaze by looking out the window. "Not everything that happens in this world is because you fucked up."

He shook his head. "You knew how I felt before I did. I talked myself into thinking my feelings wouldn't matter, wouldn't affect things. How could I do that? She was in an incredibly fragile spot. You don't even know."

"No, I don't, and I didn't want to. So what kind of friend does that make me?" Eames looked at the windshield now, watching the snow falling lightly onto the car. "At least you cared. You stepped up and did what no one else was willing to do. If it weren't for you, I don't know if she would have made it through this the way she has. And you want to blame yourself for loving her too much." Her eyes felt heavy with emotion. "You can never love too much. Trust me on that one."

He thought about Eames' dead husband. How she had lost him so early in their marriage, how she rarely talked about him so many years later, but how he had always sensed that connection in her to the loss. He knew that in no way could he identify with her feelings, the intensity of pain she must have felt when he died. He tried to relate it for a moment to the panic and fear he felt about Forrester finding Vanessa again, but knew it wasn't the same.

He cleared his throat. "I'm really bad at this relationship stuff. I never learned how."

"Well, it's hard even if you had good models." She pressed her fingers to her temples and rubbed them back and forth. "All I'm saying is don't let your overactive conscience ruin a good thing."

He looked at her then, sympathetic, and asked, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she replied. "Good. I'm good." She turned to face him. "You really need to stop hiding, and to stop blaming yourself for everything. You do realize that when you act like you took advantage of her you're basically saying she's helpless, right? That she's unable to make her own educated decisions?"

That thought made him extremely uncomfortable. "I'm not saying that..I've never tried to imply that..."

"I know you're not," she argued, "but that's exactly what you're saying. Through your implications that you've been fully conscious and she hasn't. That she's somehow extremely fragile and damaged. You know that's the worst message to send to a sexual assault victim."

He glanced over at her, stilling his leg from its incessant shaking. "I'll think about what you said," he promised, opening his door. "Thanks."

"No problem." She pulled the keys into her pocket and followed him to the witness' porch.


"Okay," she said. "Just don't stare and make me feel self-conscious. Or else I'm going to have to change."

He adjusted his tie. "I'll do my best," he promised, standing beside the bed. She had been in the bathroom for the last forty-five minutes getting dressed for the party. It was hard for him to imagine what she could need to do for so long to get ready. She was beautiful enough doing nothing, and he told her so.

"Well, I guess I'm just humoring myself," she had said sarcastically. "With the hair and makeup and stuff." And with that, she had shut the door on him.

She had bought a dress. In the nine months since she had been assaulted, he had hardly ever seen her in a skirt, much less a dress, and he had never seen her dressed to go out anywhere fancier than a casual restaurant. She had shown the dress to him and he had tried to sound appreciative. He hated to admit it, but he didn't get was red and silky and other than that, there wasn't much to say. But for some reason she seemed nervous about it, as though the dress was special for her.

When she stepped out of the bathroom, he suddenly realized why she had been nervous, why this was a big deal for her. As beautiful as she was on any given day to him, she truly took his breath away tonight. The dress was red silk and clung to every curve. It ended just above the knee. The jewel neckline draped into a low cut back, ending just above her waistline. She had curled and pinned her hair up, and random tiny curls hung down around her face. Her lips were a flaming Christmas red, a shade darker than the dress. He suddenly remembered his promise not to stare and tried to smile.

Her arms hung by her sides and she was biting her lip. "It's too much, isn't it?" she finally asked.

"No!" he returned quickly. God, the only way she was getting out of this thing was when he took it off of her, he thought to himself. "It's really amazing on you...seeing it in the box didn't do it justice. You look...lovely." He settled on the last word, hoping it would please her without adding to her anxiety.

Apparently it worked, because she smiled at him and slipped into her heels. Four inchers. How she walked in them, he had no idea, but at least tonight he wouldn't have to work so hard to lean down to kiss her. With her shoes on, she looked in the full-length mirror. He saw doubt cast a shadow across her face, followed by something else that he couldn't quite put a finger on. He sensed she was battling internally, uncomfortable with what she saw in the mirror. He stood next to her and said softly, "Are you ready?"

She looked at him and expelled a shaky breath. "Maybe I should change...I don't want to send a message..."

"Vanessa." He said her name firmly. "You didn't send any message to Forrester that caused this to happen. The only message that you're sending tonight is 'I'm beautiful and have a Merry Fucking Christmas.'" He touched her shoulder gently. "Nothing wrong with either of those."

She looked at herself one more time. "Merry Fucking Christmas, huh?" she echoed. "Okay, smart ass, let's go."

They took a cab to the party hall. The crowd was huge, and Vanessa found herself hoping they would blend in. With every employee of the NYPD invited to this thing, it was possible they could avoid everyone from their squad the whole night. Bobby checked their coats and they headed into the main hall.

The plan for anonymity quickly disappeared, though, when they received a warm greeting from their captain shortly after their arrival. "Goren! Rayden!" he had called, motioning to them. Bobby looked at her and shrugged, then headed toward Deakins and she followed. Deakins, his wife, Eames and her date, and a few other officers and their spouses were gathered at a large table. "Why don't you all join us?"

"Sounds good, "Bobby said loudly, to be heard over the music. Deakins' wife, Angie, moved her glass out of the way to make room for Vanessa.

"You look wonderful, Vanessa," Angie said warmly. "It's so good to see you again."

"Thank you." Vanessa had always liked Angie. She was a sweet, caring woman and Vanessa had never forgotten how Angie had sent her many dinners when she was staying at the Wyndham. "It's good to see you too."

"So Goren, where's your date? I figured you'd be here with one of those girls from downstairs," Deakins teased.

Vanessa's head shot up. They hadn't been at the table but fifteen minutes and already this? Silently she cursed herself for this idea. She wanted to crawl into the smallest hole she could find and wait for the all clear.

But Goren took her hand in his, to her surprise, and without stuttering or clearing his throat, he said, "Vanessa and I are here together. She's my date."

Deakins looked from one to the other and back, clearly surprised. Briefly, Vanessa wondered if he was reviewing the rule book on fraternization policies in his head. Then Deakins reached over and clapped Bobby on the shoulder. "Well hell," he said, "it's about damn time. Congratulations!"

Bobby grinned. He felt like the kid who won the best prize at the carnival.

Vanessa, however, was mortified. "Thanks, captain," she said sarcastically. "Why do I feel like I"m in fifth grade?"

Angie chuckled. "Don't be so self-conscious, Vanessa...the rest of us knew, even if Jimmy didn't." She stood. "I'm going to go try out some of those hors d'oevres now. You coming, Jimmy?" Deakins followed her and Vanessa found herself incredibly thankful that the moment had passed.

Eames reached over and tapped her on the hand. "See? That was easy enough."

"I guess."

Suddenly Bobby turned to her. "Do you want to dance?" he asked. "I'd like to dance with you."

She followed him onto the dance floor. He took her hand in his, pulling her close. "You know I don't do all those real dances like you," she told him. "I do the rock and roll writhe around dance."

He chuckled. "I like that dance too...but for this one, just follow my lead..." She did. He led her forward and back, side to side. She found herself enjoying the rhythm of the dance, of letting him guide and control her on the dance floor. Their bodies were apart but seemed to move as shadows of one another. It was clear that he loved to dance and was very good at it. She found herself wondering why they had never done this before. Just then, he spun her around and dipped her, and she found herself laughing. "I'm pretty sure that wasn't part of the dance," she informed him.

"Creative liberties," he responded, laughing with her. The music changed, slowed, and she pulled her hand out of his. "No more?" he asked, tilting his head. "I thought you might be up for one more."

"It's slow," she said, as though that were a reason to avoid dancing. He reached a hand out for hers, and after a moment of hesitation she let her hand slide back into his. He pulled her close, into his embrace, and rested his hands on her hips. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck. Wearing her heels, his neck was strangely closer than it usually was. Suddenly she could envision herself in these heels way more often.

He guided her body closer to his. "You know," he said quietly, "I"m glad we did this. Honestly, I would be glad to do anything just to see you in this dress."

She felt herself blushing, but couldn't help but feel pleased at his response. When she had chosen it, he had been first and foremost on her mind. She wanted him to see her in it. She wanted him to think about it. But she only said, "I'm glad you like it."

He pressed his face closer to her ear. "I do like it. I like you in it." One of his hands wandered to her lower back, touching the skin just inside of the drape. "I'm curious in the world have you worn a bra with this thing?"

Now she pulled back from him and grinned. "It's learn these things as a girl."

He pulled her closer again. "Maybe you can demonstrate later." Softly, he pressed his lips to her temple. The song was ending but he was loathe to let her go. Not having to hide was liberating. He wanted every man in the room to know that he, the quirky, eccentric detective was chosen by this beautiful woman. That she loved him. Not Little or anyone else. Him.

She was pulling away and he let her go this time. "Buffet?" she asked.

"Sounds good," he answered, and they headed over to eat.

He was buried inside her, lost in the sensation of being surrounded by her, in her.

The dress hadn't made it to the bedroom. She had shown him, shortly after their arrival back at the condo, where the zipper was located, and that adjustable bra had been quick to follow. His jacket, tie and shirt lay on the floor nearby.

He had always tried to take his time with her, not to rush her, to make sure she was ready for him and sure of what they were doing. But tonight had been hurried, rushed, needy. She had cried out when he entered her, but when he hesitated she had grabbed his hips and whispered, "Please Bobby.."

And he wanted her. More than ever before. He didn't know how it was possible to improve upon perfection but it seemed every time they made love that's exactly what happened--somehow it was better than before. He was tasting her skin, her mouth, her breast, when she whispered, "I want to be on top."

She was going to kill him. He was absolutely positive if it were possible to die from pleasure, he would. If not tonight then some night in the future, with her. His cop buddies would show up and he'd be laying there buck naked, dead, with a huge smile on his face.

He held her hips and quickly rolled over so she was on top of him. He'd fantasized about this for months but never even suggested it, too afraid she would feel compelled to do something she was uncomfortable with. Clearly now, though, she was quite comfortable, as she moved against him quickly and firmly.

He lay watching her body, her face, responding to the intense erotic feelings coursing through him. He found himself thinking the same thing he always did--how beautiful she was, how incredibly sexy and amazing she was. Memories of their previous encounters, intense and incredibly precious to him. He thought again about every man in that room tonight knowing she was with him. Knowing that she was loving him. He knew it was an incredibly sexist and primal want but he didn't care. He closed his eyes as she moved faster, as her fingers tangled in his chest hair and scratched at his skin, and he clutched her hips until she cried out his name as she always did, sounding sweetly tortured. He held her tightly and let his body give way to its own rhythm until all he was aware of was the intensity, the pleasure, of the feeling roaring through him and how softly pliant she was against him.

She was laying on his chest, trying to catch her breath. He was so beautiful. She had wondered if he would like the dress. She knew he had as soon as she had seen his expression when she stepped out of the bathroom. He had tried to cover it, but the lust in his eyes was deep and she knew if she had offered for them to skip the party, his "yes" would have been immediate.

She had to hand it to him--he had gotten it off of her in about two minutes flat, including that insane bra she had bought to go under it. For some reason he seemed to think that she was conflicted about the idea of making love with him; he always seemed to approach her so slowly and carefully, as though she would have somehow reconsidered. Tonight she did everything she could to make it clear that she wanted him, wanted him now. She had never had such an attentive lover. Even when he had rolled her on top of him, she knew he was waiting for her. He almost never climaxed before her. Sometimes it bothered her but she understood his thinking. She also understood that at this point there was probably very little chance that she could convince him to move along without her.

He was resting a hand on her lower back, catching his breath. Usually, afterward, he was incredibly affectionate and they both reassured the other they were loved. This time, though, was different. This time just felt so incredibly good. "You should know," he finally said, "I'm a total dog...I wanted every man in that room to know you were mine."

She lifted her head off his chest and grinned. "Am I supposed to act shocked or something? That's so stereotypically male."

He started to pull the pins out of her hair. "I know. Like I said, total dog."

She laughed, face down, kissing his chest. "It's okay...don't think I wasn't enjoying the fact that Angie was staring at us."

"Huh. I didn't notice."

"I just don't understand what went wrong between the two of God, she's insane."

He pulled another pin out and smiled. "You're kind to say so."

"I'm not being kind. I'm being honest." She rolled off of him, onto her pillow. "Maybe you and I are just well-matched." She exhaled deeply. "Do you think you could do me a favor?"

He leaned over, kissed her deeply, and for a moment the want and need sparked back up in both of them and his fingers slid slowly down her body. "Anything," he whispered. "What is it you want me to do?"

She caught one of his hands in hers, held it, tangled her fingers in his. "I want you to stop treating me like I'm fragile. Like I don't want this as much as you do." He looked surprised, so she continued. "You act like you need to give me plenty of time to change my mind. Initially, that was a good thing...but trust me, I'm not changing it now."

He watched her fingers playing with his for a moment, then said, "I just want to make sure it's what you really want."

"Bobby," she said, with a hint of sarcasm, "Do you know what I wanted tonight?" When he didn't answer, continued stroking her fingers with his own, she said, "I wanted you to get that damn dress off me and fuck me."

She had expected him to laugh at her boldness, but instead he sighed.

After a moment, feeling irritated, she said, "When you treat me like I'm fragile I feel like a victim all over again. I feel like that's how you see me. And I don't want you to see me that way...I don't want to see myself that way."

Now he looked at her, and she could see the pain in his eyes. She wondered if she had put it there. "I'm sorry," he said. "I just want you to feel safe...sure." He sighed again.

She laid on her back and closed her eyes, needing to ask but not wanting to hear the answer. "You think about him. You think about what he did to me. Every time. Don't you?"

He didn't want to do this. He didn't want tonight to end like this. He wanted to think about that red dress and her heels and their dancing and their lovemaking. But he couldn't lie to her. Softly, he felt himself cut her with the admission, and it shamed him. "Yes," he whispered.

She turned away from him, curling up silently. He hated being shut out like this, so he pressed closer to her until they were cradled together and he willed the goddamned memories and pain away from her, until she finally spoke. "Me too," she said. "I think about it too. Every time."

And then, silently, he cried.


He woke up alone.

It surprised him that she had gotten up, left the bedroom without him waking. His sleep was always so light. Usually he woke whenever she even shifted in the bed.

He lay there, thinking about the night before. How beautiful she was, in and out of that dress, how fragile he saw her and treated her. How his protectiveness of her was haunting them, holding them hostage. How neither of them could let it go. How there was a third person in the room every time they were together, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Forrester was an invisible, uninvited guest.

If he were half as good of a detective as everyone believed, Forrester would be in jail by now. Convicted and out of their lives. As much as he wanted to pretend it wasn't there, it haunted him. The guilt that he couldn't protect her from Forrester. He had missed it the first time--had even met the bastard at lunch the day he attacked her. Vanessa had introduced him as an old friend and it was clear that she thought fondly of him. He remembered a fleeting feeling of annoyance upon meeting him--perhaps it was a hint of jealousy--as he noted how good looking and wealthy the guy seemed to be. In all fairness, though, he had seemed like a nice guy, friendly and respectful of Vanessa. Most of them seem like nice guys, Bobby thought bitterly.

As much as he had tried they had never been able to catch a lead that went anywhere. He remembered the frustration of having to go home each night to his apartment, knowing she was there, and not being able to tell her anything. That they were being outsmarted by an animal. He always felt as though he were letting her down, and so he had compensated by taking care of her--making sure she was safe and comfortable and cared for. And he had fallen in love with her.

None of it made him feel good about himself. He was supposed to be the gifted one, the brilliant detective of the squad, and Forrester just slipped through his fingers like sand. Every once in awhile they would get a lead--someone had seen him in Tempe, Arizona, a few weeks before, supposedly--but by the time they checked it out he was gone. Bobby wondered how many times in the last nine months Forrester had been in New York. How close he had been to Vanessa, when they hadn't seen. If Forrester knew they were together. As much as he tried not to, he felt constantly vigilant. Even at the Knicks game he had scanned the crowd, almost sensing in his gut that he was there, watching.

The door opened, interrupting his self-flagellation. "Hey, sleepyhead," she said, climbing onto the bed and putting a cup of coffee on the nightstand. "I was starting to think you were going to sleep all day." She ruffled his hair. "I guess you wore yourself out last night, huh?" Her tone was teasing and he knew she was referring to the sex, not after.

He caught her hand and pulled it to his chest. Her face went from a smile to a brief look of confusion, then worry. "Bobby, what's going on?"

He pressed her hand to his chest, flat, stroking her fingers. "I'm going to get him," he said firmly.


"No." His voice was quiet but still held that firm tone, and somehow she sensed this was about more than Forrester being held accountable. "I'm going to find him. I told you before, if it's the last thing I do. I'll get him."

She set her coffee down next to his. "This is about last night, isn't it?"

He shook his head. "This is about every night," he responded. "You deserve to be safe and secure in your life. He deserves to pay for his crime." He ran his hand up her arm, then caught her other hand. Softly, he said, "I've let you down. He should be locked up by now."

"Goren, listen to have NOT let me down. Keith has more resources than I do...than the NYPD...he could be anywhere..."

"He was in Tempe two weeks ago."

She was caught off guard. "Are you sure?"

He shrugged. "We had two eyewitness reports that came in on the tip line. By the time the cops got there he was gone. But he's still here...he hasn't left the country."

She sighed and crawled over him, to the other side of the bed. "He won't. He'll come back. I've always known that and you have too. You've done everything you can to protect me, Bobby. I'm in a place with top security, I carry a concealed weapon, I know how to fire it...I'm trained in self defense...Deakins hasn't given up on that tip line. There's nothing else anyone else could do..."

"I can up the ante. I can track these down myself."

She stifled a laugh. "Like a bounty hunter? Are you serious?"

He looked at her. "Aren't you tired of this? Tired of him being in every room, in every conversation? Tired of him being in our bed?"

She pulled back from him. His intensity was palpable and she knew he meant every word he said. "Yes," she replied. "I'm tired of it...tired of all of it. I hate that it is part of my life. But it is, Bobby. It's part of me now. It's part of who I am." She threw her legs over the opposite side of the bed, away from him and stood up, crossing her arms. "Maybe it's too much for you. Maybe you're having second thoughts about being attached to someone like me." Her voice was crackly and high, and he could tell she was trying desperately to keep it even. "I can understand that. I'm not sure that I could date someone like me. But the answer isn't you going rogue. It's either accepting it how it is and working with it, or moving on to someone who you can accept."


She turned to face him, feeling her heart pounding in her chest and wanting more than anything for this entire conversation to have never happened. "You deserve to be happy, Bobby. If you're not happy here, then you should find someone you can be happy with. But even if Forrester is in prison, I will never be who I was before. And I don't know who I'll be in the future. I only know who I am now." She opened the bedroom door. "I'm sorry."

He watched her leave the room, wanting more than anything to stop her, correct her. But he didn't know what to say.

He lay in the bed for several more minutes, feeling sorry for himself, before he realized what he was doing. He thought about what Eames had said to him last week. About not losing something good. Not ruining it with all of his own guilt and pain and ramifications.

He pulled on a pair of boxers, then sweats, and stretched a tee shirt over his head. With purpose, he walked out of the bedroom and into the living area, promptly tripping over Bruce, who yelped.

"Damn!" he grunted, catching himself on the chair. "Sorry, Bruce."

She was putting ornaments on a Christmas tree, had stopped to look at the two of them. "Are you okay?" Her face and tone were worried as her eyes scanned back and forth between the dog and Bobby.

Bruce slowly stood and ambled over toward her before laying down again.

"I guess he's okay," she remarked. "How about you?"

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Okay..." she was confused.

"Stop that and listen to me " he demanded, motioning to the tree ornaments. She turned around and looked at him, holding one ornament in her hand. "I'm an idiot. I'm pissed. I'm pissed that I haven't caught that bastard. My expectations are about me, not about you. I can't speak for who you were before other than a funny, sexy coworker that I didn't dare to look twice at. Now? You're my lover and my best friend. And as much as I wish i could take away all of the pain you've felt, you're's part of who you are. But not only that, it's part of who we are. I don't want to look for anyone else because I love you. Just you, who you are, everything about you. But don't tell me that I shouldn't still want to get this guy. It's my job and I swore to you, from the beginning, that I would get him. And I will."

She sighed, put the ornament on the tree, then turned back around. He was still standing by the armchair, looking determined. She stepped up to him and pressed her index finger into his chest. "You're always telling me none of this is my fault," she began. "Well, it's not your fault either. I don't know how long you and I will have those memories in the back of our minds. Maybe forever. But put the blame where it belongs. Nobody is blaming you for anything except yourself. I don't want to lose you to that."

He caught her finger in his hand. "I need to keep you safe."

"I'm as safe as possible," she reiterated firmly. "Maybe he's plotting some grand return or maybe he's not. Maybe he's near or maybe he's in Hawaii or Tempe or San Diego. Maybe he's down at the coffee shop. I don't know and I really don't care. What I care about is you and me finding a way to work through this."

"Fine," he responded. "You know what? I love you, Beth. I love you more than anyone I've ever known. I'm not going to sacrifice us for him. There's no question about that. But I'm going to continue to hunt that son of a bitch until he's sitting in an eight by eight cell."

She stepped back, pulled her index finger away from him. Crossing her arms, she said, "I guess I can live with that." She turned away from him. "You gonna help me decorate this tree?"

He felt shaky, as though he had just survived a massive storm. "I haven't decorated a tree since..." he paused. "For a long time."

She looked at him, smiled. "Well," she replied, "it's like riding a will come back to you. That's what I learned a few years ago when I started doing it."

He reached down and took an ornament out of the box. It was crafted from paper and glitter. He must have looked confused because she laughed and said, "It's really old...I made it when I was, like, six."

"Oh." He found a place on the tree for it and hung it gently from a branch.

They continued quietly for awhile. She had turned on some Christmas music and occasionally hummed along. He was focused on decorating the tree, finding the perfect spot for each ornament. As they finished, he stood back as she turned the lights on.

"That's beautiful," he said reverently, as he admired their handiwork. The white lights were sparkling softly, and the ornaments each told a story from Vanessa's life. It was like a biography hung on branches. Suddenly the holidays seemed a little less shitty. He hadn't had a Christmas tree since he was a kid.

She put an arm around his waist. "Yeah," she replied. "It's a nice thing." After a minute, she continued. "When I was in school and spent Christmases by myself, I started decorating a tree again. It was something that my mom had always made sure we had as kids. One of the few things she did--keeping all those ornaments for us. It helps me remember that not everything sucked all the time, you know?" She leaned her head against his shoulder. "It helped me have something concrete to love her for."

He thought of his own mother, expecting a visit tomorrow from him, and the craziness of holidays in his house after his dad left. How he clung to the memories of reading with her, visits to the beach with her, the times that she was coherent and would look at him with her beautiful large dark eyes and tell him he was her boy, her wonderful son. He reached out and touched one of the ornaments on the tree gently, then said, "I understand what you mean."

"I knew you would." They stood there for a couple more minutes before she asked him, "You wanna order pizza?"

He grinned, relaxing after the crazy morning and early afternoon. "Yeah. That would be great. Make sure you get italian sausage," he reminded her as she picked up the phone.

"Spinach pizza it is," she teased him, and dialed.


"I thought you said Bobby was joining us." Ava poured herself a second glass of wine and offered the bottle to her husband. David held up his hand and she placed it back on the table.

Vanessa took a sip from her own glass. "He will. He was finishing up some work on a case...there he is." She motioned to Bobby through the crowded dining room. He approached the table quickly.

"Sorry I'm late," he apologized, hanging his coat on the rack and taking the seat next to Vanessa. He kissed her lightly on the cheek, more because he felt it was expected by Ava than anything else; then he turned his attention to Vanessa's little sister. "It's good to see you again, Ava." Looking next to Ava, he acknowledge David and extended a hand. "You must be David. Nice to meet you."

David half stood and shook his hand. "Same here...glad you could make it."

"Wine, Bobby?" Ava offered.

"No, thank you." He picked up the menu in front of him but turned to Vanessa. "Have you all been here long?"

She shook her head, "Maybe fifteen minutes."

David smiled at him. "Don't worry about it--Ava and I were late too. Vanessa was the first one here."

"So," Ava said, "have you ever been here before, Bobby?"

He knew what Ava was getting at. This was way beyond what she would consider his usual type of eatery. "No," he replied, then looked at her with a friendly expression. "What would you recommend?"

"I suppose it depends on what you're used to eating. I typically eat vegetarian but I would imagine you're more of a meat and potatoes kind of person."

"Nothing wrong with that," David piped up, perusing his menu. "Personally, I enjoy the steak au poivre here, but the salmon is always excellent, regardless of how they prepare it."

Vanessa was running her fingertips over his thigh. She commented, "It's all good, Bobby. I always have the prix fixe meal--then I get to try whatever they're messing around with in the kitchen."

He put his menu down and smiled with more confidence than he felt. "Well, that sounds interesting. I'll leave it up to the chef, then."

"We were sorry not to see you at Thanksgiving," David said, taking a sip of his wine. "Hopefully we'll be able to get together over the holidays at some point."

Bobby nodded. "That was really my fault. We just planned too much for one day, trying to get up to see my mother and back in time to your house."

"Well," Vanessa interrupted, "your mother really needed us there. She's not been well, and your brother couldn't make it..."

"God," David said, waving a hand in the air, "don't apologize! You needed to be with your mom. Maybe Christmas will work better."

Ava shook her head. "We're going to David's parents' house for Christmas, so that's a no-go," she said firmly, and Vanessa felt herself secretly sigh with relief. The absolute last thing she wanted to do was spend Christmas with Ava, despite Justin and David.

"Sweetie," David touched Ava's hair as though she were precious. Vanessa's hand stilled for a moment on Bobby's thigh, then continued moving back and forth. "Isn't your dad coming for New Year's? Maybe we could all get together then."

Just then, the server approached the table. "How are we all tonight?" he asked, refilling their water glasses and introducing himself as Peter. "Do you have any questions about our menu choices this evening?"

David took the lead and ordered for himself and Ava before looking at Bobby. Despite Ava's assumptions, Bobby had spent plenty of time in places such as these; in fact, before Vanessa, these were the kinds of restaurants he typically took his dates to. He ordered effortlessly, then handed the menus to Peter.

Turning back to their original conversation, Vanessa said, "I just don't know about New Year's...we haven't talked that far in advance. I don't even know if I'll be on call or what that night."

"Oh Nessie," Ava dismissed her, "can't you just tell them you'll be seeing Daddy? I mean, how long has it been?"

How long HAD it been? She knew her dad had come to one of her concerts before she had gotten clean; he took the opportunity to tell her she was every disappointment that she had imagined he would think she was. She hadn't seen him since then. She received exactly two cards from him every year. Birthday and Christmas, each containing a check for fifty dollars. She had been reduced to a hundred bucks and two Hallmark cards a year. She wasn't exactly dying to see the man again.

Her discomfort didn't go unnoticed. Bobby had caught her hand on his leg and was squeezing it gently. "It's been a pretty long time,' Vanessa responded finally. "I'm not sure that Daddy is all that anxious to see me, Ava."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're his daughter and he loves you. I've told him what you're up to and he said he couldn't be happier. He's so glad you're out of the music business. He was so proud when I told him you had gone to school and gotten a degree."

"A doctoral degree." Vanessa's eyes shot to Bobby. He was looking at Ava, correcting her. "Those take a lot more time and effort."

Ava shrugged. "Whatever...Daddy is just happy that Vanessa is finally doing something with her life that's worthwhile." She looked back at her sister. "You know that's all he ever wanted. Maybe it's time you cut him a little slack."

Peter arrived with appetizers for Vanessa and Bobby; a fruit and cheese plate with crackers. Vanessa found herself suddenly looking at the food in distaste and wanting to be just about anywhere but in this restaurant at this moment.

David looked across the table at her. "You know," he said casually, "it was just an idea. Justin would love to see you anytime. Maybe some weekend soon we could all just meet at the park. Or at a museum."

"Oh please," Ava scoffed. "Justin is three. You can't take him to a museum, David. Don't be ridiculous. And stop trying to rescue Vanessa...she's a big girl and she can say no if she wants to. Although why she would turn away from her own father, I have no idea."

Bobby felt his face flushing with anger and frustration. He could feel the tension in Vanessa radiating off of her body and he knew Ava could feel it too; she just didn't care. He felt stuck. If he got up and pulled her out of there, he would look once again like her protector, like he didn't trust her. If he did nothing, he felt as though he were party to Ava's ridiculous demands and emotional insensitivity.

But Vanessa surprised him. "Peter?" she called to the server, who was adjusting silverware one table over. "i'm afraid my companion and I are going to have to leave early. Could you please box our dinners to go and bring our ticket?"

"Absolutely," Peter replied. "I'll get that right to you."

"Is this what you're going to do?" Ava snapped. "Run away again? This is what you do whenever I say anything you don't like. Pick up and run. It's the same thing you did when you left home, isn't it? You left me and ran."

Vanessa could see Bobby fighting internally to stay quiet, and she willed him to continue to keep his mouth shut despite his anger. "I'm not running," she replied firmly. "I'm ending this conversation with you. It's not the same thing."

"And this conversation needs to end because you don't like it. You're so predictable, Vanessa...even after all these years..."

David tried to touch Ava's hand, rein her back in. "Ava, stop," he said softly, and he looked at Vanessa with embarrassment and regret.

Vanessa stood up. "I refuse to have a conversation with you that's insensitive and disrespectful to either of us. And this conversation definitely falls into that category."

"How? Because Daddy's name came up?"

Vanessa lowered her voice, but leaned forward on the table. "Our father as much as disowned me over ten years ago. I've no desire to be emotionally abused by that man again. And as for us...I"m not a pet project, Ava. You can either appreciate and love me for who I am, or you can go back to how things were before. I don't want to be saved and I don't want to be conformed. Make your choice. When you decide, you let me know."

Peter had brought their meals over. Bobby pulled out his credit card, but David stood up.

"Please, " he said, motioning to the table, "let me take care of it." His eyes passed over his wife, who was now finishing her glass of wine, then he said, "It's really the least I can do."

Vanessa was digging through her purse and her hand came up with several twenties. She tossed them on the table. "No offense, David, but I won't be indebted to anyone over this."

He nodded at her, and Vanessa and Bobby turned to go.

Outside, he hailed a cab and once they were inside, he said, "I"m proud of you."

"Yeah, me too."

"Are you going to cry?"

"Hell no," she said firmly, then smiled at him. "We're going to go home and eat this damn fine food."

He ran a hand over her arm. "It does smell good."

"Yeah. And you know how I love fruit and cheese."

"I think there's dessert in there too."

"Well shit," she said. "Fruit and cheese and dessert...I'm set for the night."

He laughed.

Twenty minutes later they were curled up in her bed, passing the containers back and forth. He had changed into his sweats and a tee, and she was wearing one of his old tee shirts. Fruit, cheese, and crackers; roasted cornish hen with garlic smashed potatoes and green bean almandine; and a trio of tiny desserts--some sort of mousse, a cooky, and a cannoli for each of them.

As he switched on the tv, Bobby commented, "You're right...this is way better."

She grinned. "Told you. Prix fixe menus rock...and eating in bed is the best. And you were worried you'd miss out on something with my sister."

He laughed. "Yeah, I can assure you that was first and foremost on my mind."

After passing her a bite of green beans, he asked, "So we've got this great tree...what are we going to do about Christmas?"

She nibbled on a bean. "I dunno. What do you usually do?"

"Work," he replied. "Then go see my mom. But I had them keep me off the schedule this year...I thought in case we wanted to do something together..."

She mulled the thought over before a slow smile crossed her face. "Well..." she began. "How long has it been since you went to church?"

"A long time."

"I think we should do something unusual for dinner...go eat Indian or fondue or something...then go to church. On Christmas Eve.

He considered that. "I'm not good at the church thing, but I like to eat."

"Well, maybe we could go to one of those churches that accepts everyone, you know? A lot of churches have services around eleven...we could have a late dinner and go." She seemed thoughtful. "I'm really feeling the need to connect to that."

"Fondue sounds better than indian...I'd hate for that to go wrong in a church, with all those spices..." He made a face.

She choked on her bean. "Don't be gross," she elbowed him. "Especially when we're talking about God and stuff!"

"Sorry," he said, smiling to himself. "Anything else we're adding to this party?"

"Yes." She was poking at the cornish hen, seemingly involved in the dinner but he knew she was actively not looking at him. "It's something I've always wanted to do but never done before. In my life. And I want to do it with you, after church, on Christmas Eve." She pulled a piece of chicken from the bone. "Actually, technically, I guess it would be Christmas day."

Now he was intrigued. "Oh yeah? What is it?"

She finished chewing her piece of chicken, then said casually, "I want to make love with you under the Christmas tree."

He was a little surprised. "Well we could do that right now..."

"No." She went back to pulling chicken off the bone. "Christmas Eve, after church. You asked, and that's what I'm telling you." She stabbed the piece of chicken with her fork. "Now I've planned Christmas get to plan Christmas day. I'm assuming it will include a visit with your mom."

He watched her for a moment, before replying, "Well...we'll go visit my mom, come back and get naked, and have mad, hot, panting sex until the next day."

She shook her head. "I'm glad you've put a lot of time into planning that. It is Christmas, after all."

"Well, I just want us to do our part to spread peace, joy, and love into the world. Isn't that what Christmas is about?"


"You ready?" Finnigan stuck his head into her office. A third girl's body had shown up this morning and she had asked to to ride with the two detectives to the scene. She needed to see it for herself, especially with three different crime scenes having emerged.

"Yeah," she replied, following him out to the bullpen. Baxter led the way to the elevator and down to the car. Once settled, Rayden said, "So tell me what you know from this morning."

Finnigan turned to look at her in the back seat. "Sixteen year old, outside Club Verve. Three blocks west of the last one. It's an over-21 club. Found in the alley, strangled. The ME should be on scene when we get there."

Vanessa flipped through her case file. "Has she been identified yet?"

He shook his head. "The ME will type her when she gets back...I'm sure we'll know by the end of the day."

She nodded as Baxter pulled up in front of the club. The three stepped out of the sedan and walked up the street to the alley, marked off by crime tape. There were several uniformed officers there as well as the medical examiner. A tiny figure, blonde hair obscuring most of her face, lay crumpled on the pavement.

"What do you think?" Baxter asked the ME as Vanessa walked slowly around the body.

"Strangulation is the probably cause of death." She moved the hair, revealing deep bruising around the neck. "Sexual assault...we'll run a test for semen and blood tests for GHB, but I'm pretty certain this is another one."

"How long ago did she die?" Finnigan asked, kneeling down next to the body.

"My guess? Eight, ten hours ago. We'll know more when we get her back."

Vanessa paced back and forth, near the body, then glanced at the girl's shoes. "Baxter," she said, pointing to the victim's feet. "She was dragged...look at her heels. She was out before she got here."

The detective looked closely at her shoes, noting the scuff marks on the back of the heels. "What are you thinking?"

She sighed. "Same as the others...he drugged her, dragged her back here. Sexually assaulted her. The question is, did he mean to give her enough GHB for her to be revived or not? He's never strangulated a victim before." She looked at the ME. "Her hair...was it over her face when you got here?"

"Yes...her eyes were closed and the hair was over her face."

She looked at Baxter. "She woke up on him. He panicked."

Baxter watched her carefully. He had the sudden feeling that Rayden was a lot better than traditional cops gave her credit for. "Check for fingerprints...see if you can get anything from her neck...DNA from her face," he said. Calling to CSU, he told them, "Check this dumpster...dust it down. This guy has left something here. He panicked."

Rayden followed Baxter and Finnigan back up to the street. "You need to canvas Verve," she told them, "but it's more likely he's getting them from a club other than here. Doubtful they've come from any of the three clubs. It's somewhere else in the vicinity...if we plot it out, we'll find his source."

They entered the club and were immediately met by the manager. "Lou Cobb," he introduced himself, shaking their hands. "I can't believe this...we never have anything like this go on around here. I understand she's a minor too...there's no way she was in here...we card everybody..."

"Slow down," Baxter told him, and Cobb took a breath. He seemed visibly shaken. "Nobody's accusing anyone of anything. I just want you to take a look at her photo and tell me if you recognize her." He paused. "From anywhere."

Finnigan passed the polaroid of the victim's face to Cobb. He looked at Finnigan, then at the polaroid, and shook his head. "She doesn't look familiar to me," he said softly. "God, she's just a kid."

Finnigan to the photo back. "You ever have kids try to get in here? Fake IDs or anything like that?"

Cobb nodded. "It happens, but we're really can check our license. We have a good track record."

"I'm sure you do," Baxter replied. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Cobb. If you think of anything else, please give us a call." He handed Cobb his business card.

Sitting in the car on the way back, Vanessa pulled out her phone and looked up the club on her GPS. She stared at the map, noting the location of the first victim, about a half mile away, and the second, within a few blocks. Two located near adult clubs and one near an under-21 club. One dead without sexual assault, one dead after a sexual assault, and a third strangled after a sexual assault. All of them victims of GHB poisoning. Their perp wasn't very experienced or sophisticated, she thought, reflecting on his poor estimations on the GHB usage. She suddenly wondered if this guy had meant to kill these girls at all. Maybe these had been an accident. If so, who knew how many victims they could be looking at, and where they might be.

"Guys." She kept staring at her screen, thinking. "What if these murders were accidental...if his primary purpose was rape? What if the first two died from too high of a dosage of GHB, and the third woke up during the attack and he freaked and strangled her?"

Finnigan and Baxter looked at each other. After a moment, Finnigan said, "You know, it's unlikely that's the case..."

She pulled her head up. "Look. This perp isn't particularly sophisticated or experienced. My guess is he's young. No priors, or else he's only had misdemeanors. The first murder happened two months ago. The second, three weeks ago and now this. This guy doesn't know what he's doing. I'm telling you, he's got other victims out there. Possibly even victims who don't know they've been raped."

Baxter sighed. "This means ERs and high schools, doesn't it?"

She gave a curt nod. "If you want to find him."

"Great," Finnigan grumbled. "I've been dying to go back to high school ever since I left."


Bobby shook the snow off of him as Bruce did the same. They had been out for Bruce's afternoon walk. Vanessa couldn't help but laugh at the two of them. "That's awesome," she commented. "You two look like twins."

"Ha ha," Bobby said sarcastically, unfastening Bruce's leash and then taking off his coat. "It's cold out there."

Vanessa had disappeared into the kitchen and was now reappearing with a steamy mug. "Here." She handed the drink to him. "Apple cider."

He took the mug and sat on the couch, sipping the warm drink and listening to the soft christmas music playing in the background. "You're really into this Christmas stuff this year," he noted. "What time are we going to dinner?"

She smiled. "Eight. That should give us plenty of time. The church is just a couple blocks from the restaurant--it's all nearby."

"I'm impressed," he told her. "You're very organized with this."

She sat down next to him with another mug. "I always liked Christmas Eve. it's like the promise of all good things to come."

He reached over and twirled her hair with his fingers. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think you're right."

After a moment, she said, "I made you want some? Gingerbread or rugelach..."

"It all sounds good." He watched her rise and enter the kitchen. The cider smelled homey, and he had to admit that it had been a long time since he felt this peaceful.

"Here you go," she said, handing him a plate covered with cookies. The rugelach looked delicious but the gingerbread people were hardly recognizable. "Hey," she warned. "They taste better than they look...I've tried them out!"

He grinned at her and just to show support, picked the ugliest gingerbread man in the bunch. "Mmm," he said, stuffing half the cookie in his mouth. "Thish ish amathing!"

She laughed. "I'm so glad you approve," she teased. "I know they're not the most beautiful, but they still taste good, don't they?"

He kissed her temple. "Absolutely." They curled up together on the couch, and Bruce settled down by coffee table. "We have time for a nap," he said softly, stroking her hair back from her face.

"Mmhmm," she murmured. He snuggled closer to her, and he closed his eyes, drifting off to the scent of the holidays and Vanessa in his arms.


Bobby held Vanessa's coat open for her. "We should make it to the church just in time," he said confidently.

They had just finished their meal at the fondue restaurant down the street from Vanessa's place. He hadn't ever eaten fondue before, and she took great delight in teaching him how to cook each of the items, laughing at his struggles to spear certain foods, and passing her favorites over to him. He found himself thinking about what a perfect first date place this restaurant would have been, although it was pretty damn fine, right here, right now.

She was amazingly happy tonight, giggling and pretty, with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes. She was dressed beautifully, in a cashmere red sweater and a long black skirt with boots and her leather jacket. Formal enough for church but not so formal it was stiff or uncomfortable. Looking at her tonight, he realized how grateful he was. How there must be a God, because that was the only possible reason someone like her could be in his life.

She took his hand and they walked down the street, through the light snow, laughing as they joked about Santa Claus and sleeping children. They reached the church after only a few minutes, and he held her hand as she walked up the steps. They were greeted warmly by an older gentleman who handed them a program for the evening. She led the way into the church, and after shooting a questioning look at Bobby, she slid into one of the pews. He followed her.

The church was older, a small United Methodist church with stained glass windows. A Chrismon tree was at the front, and they sat quietly watching people wander in from the cold. Someone handed them a pair of unlit candles.

The service began, and Vanessa felt herself entranced immediately with the music as the small choir began to sing. She listened to the minister as he read the scriptures, watched as Bobby found it in the bible and read along silently. She closed her eyes and felt the peace of this place enter into her, and she felt more at rest than she had in over a year. The minister spoke of God's love, of His ultimate gift. Vanessa became acutely aware of Bobby's hand holding hers, and wondered what he was thinking about this entire experience.

As the lights dimmed and the candles lit, the congregation began to sing "Silent Night". Bobby held his candle close to hers and she watched the flame on her own candle spring to life before passing it on to the woman standing next to her. She immersed herself in the hymn she had known since her childhood, took comfort in it. For a moment, she could hear her mother's voice echoed in her own, a sweet sound she had blocked from her memory for fifteen years. She could feel the tears coming to her eyes but blinked them back, taking in the warmth of the candlelight throughout the church, being bathed in the peace she felt. She glanced at Bobby, seeing him standing quietly, silent tears in his eyes as well, and wondered what memories were going through his mind right now. She wrapped her free arm around his and leaned against his side.

As the hymn finished and the minister blessed them, they extinguished the candles and stood still as the lights slowly came back on. Without speaking, Bobby gently took the candle from her and returned them to the box. They left the church after shaking the minister's hand and wishing him a Merry Christmas. They walked quietly down the street in the snow, holding hands but not speaking, until they arrived home. She followed him inside and turned on the Christmas tree, then turned around.

He had hung his coat up and stood, watching her quietly. "You were right," he said, without moving. "That was a good place to be tonight."

She took of her jacket and tossed it onto the chair. "Yes," she said. "It was where I needed to be."

He walked across the room, glancing at her briefly, before reaching down under the tree. He picked up a small box, then motioned for her to sit down on the couch. She did, and he took a seat next to her.

He reached over and touched her hair, smoothing it back behind her ear, then leaned forward to kiss her softly. He felt so at peace with her in that moment; he never wanted this to go away. "I have something for you," he said softly, handing her the box. "It's a little something...I just wanted you to have it tonight. I love you, Ness. Merry Christmas."

She smiled at him, then said, "I thought we were exchanging gifts tomorrow..."

He interrupted her. "This one, I wanted you to have it tonight."

She looked at him curiously, then began to open the box. It was small, wrapped in shiny red paper and gold ribbon. She untied the ribbon, gently parted the paper, and opened the box.

Inside was a small ruby, mounted on a gold hook and attached to a gold chain. Ruby was her birthstone. She was truly surprised and very touched. "It's beautiful," she breathed.

"It came from your mother's jewelry case...I had the ruby redone and mounted for you. I hope that's okay."

She stared at him. "You did that...for me?" She looked at it again, touched it reverently. She remembered how protective her mother had been of that ruby, how she had promised Vanessa that one day it would be hers. When Vanessa had been moving, Bobby had found the jewelry case and she had told him the story, and how the ruby had stayed unmounted to this day.

She felt the tears come to her eyes. Nobody had ever put so much thought into a present for her before. "I don't know what to say," she finally admitted, fingering the jewel in the box.

"Well," he began, "you could say you like it..."

Her tears choked the laugh that sprang from her throat. "Will you put it on me?"

He smiled, then gently removed it from the box and hooked it around her neck. "It looks really beautiful on you...I'm sure your mom would think so too."

She met his eyes, and suddenly wanted more than anything to be joined with him, wrapped in him, to show him how much she needed him to live, to breathe, to survive. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him deeply, passionately, not wanting to be parted from him for a second. Her hands slid to his tie, untying and pulling it off of him quickly, then pushing at his jacket until Bobby wriggled out of it. He started to pull back from her but she pushed forward, unbuttoning the top of his dress shirt, then pulling and tugging until the shirt was somehow shed and lying on the couch with the jacket.

Bobby's hands ran over her sweater, trying to slow things down, but she wouldn't have it. She pulled back and yanked the sweater over her head, unhooking her bra, then standing up and slipping out of her skirt. His eyes took in the expanse of her skin and he stood up, pulling her closer to him. He kissed her again until she pulled her face away, pressing her forehead to his chest and removing his pants.

"I want you," she whispered, kissing him over and over again. She kept repeating the phrase: "I want you" until everything was melting together and the lights from the Christmas tree were twinkling above them.

He felt as though this entire night had been like a dream; from the restaurant to the church to her gift to this moment. His passion was as ignited as hers and they clutched at each other desperately, needing the love and comfort and warmth of one another. She gripped him and whispered in his ear how he made her feel alive, how nobody but him had ever made her feel this alive and beautiful and loved. And he let himself go, let go of the fear and the worry and the patience he always exercised with her when they did this and just reveled in her existence, in their ability to be joined and one and perfect.

His head finally rested still on her breasts, listening to her racing heart and thinking of how perfect this night had been and how he didn't want anything to touch its perfection. Her hand was tracing his spine, up and down softly. His body was beside hers, one leg entangled between her own. Neither of them moved.

After several minutes, she whispered, "Thank you...for trusting me to know myself."

He kissed her chin, her jaw, her mouth. "Merry Christmas, Beth."

"I love you, Bobby." He laid his head back down on her chest, and they fell asleep beneath the twinkling lights of the tree.


"Merry Christmas, Detective," Sheila greeted him the next morning. Vanessa stood nearby, an awkward smile on her face, holding a bag full of gifts.

They had driven up that morning, taking their time. He had originally thought they would be there by eleven, but it was now going on one and they were just arriving. Neither had been in a huge hurry that morning. They had showered together and dressed, somehow restraining themselves from a repeat performance of the night before. He had made some toast and coffee while Vanessa had put the finishing touches on gifts for his mother.

She had asked him what they were doing when they got back from his mother's. Bobby grinned and said, "I thought we already covered that...bed, naked, hot sex..." She had snorted.

Sheila walked around the corner of the desk and approached Bobby more closely. "Detective," she said quietly, "I'm afraid she's a little...out of sorts this morning..."

Bobby flexed on his feet and sunk his hands in his pockets. "Is she...delusional? Paranoid?"

"Extremely paranoid...I don't know that it would be a good idea to take your...friend..."

Bobby and Vanessa looked at each other. After a minute, Vanessa said, "Can I ask what she's talking about?"

Sheila looked from Vanessa to Bobby, who nodded. "She thinks...she's talking about the FBI...that they are after you and your brother..."

Bobby winced. This delusion wasn't an unfamiliar one. For as long as he could remember, his mother had been convinced the FBI was bugging her house, tapping her phone. What they wanted varied, depending on the day. "Has she had a complete break?"

Sheila hesitated. "No...but I can't guarantee it won't happen...

Vanessa looked at him, seeing him visibly struggle trying to decide what to do. "I can wait," she told him. "Whatever you want."

He looked down at her, remembering how she had talked his mother down at Thanksgiving. How she seemed, in some way, to connect better with his mother than he did. "Let's try it," he said finally. "If she starts to escalate, you can leave."

She nodded and began to follow him down the hall, then stopped. He turned around to see her hanging back, looking at him questioningly. "Are you going to expect me to be completely honest with her?"

He paused for a moment, and then shook his head. "We'll do whatever makes her most comfortable. I'll say I make stuffing and you can make excuses for my brother."

She smiled at him and followed him to his mother's room.

The room itself was small, and Frances was laying in her bed, eyes closed. There was a flower arrangement in the window and the second bed was empty. As they moved closer to her bed, Frances' eyes flew open. "Bobby! Thank God!" she cried, reaching for him. Her eyes were wide and frightened. "I was so afraid they had gotten to you...thank God you're safe." Her eyes reached Vanessa and she demanded suspiciously, "Who is she?"

"Mom, it's Vanessa, remember...I work with her..."

"Bullshit--she's FBI--"

"No," Vanessa moved closer to the bed and sat in the chair next to Frances, who visibly moved away from her. "I'm NYPD. I'm here to protect him. Security."

"Show me your badge."

Vanessa pulled out her badge, thanking God she had forgotten to remove it from her purse earlier.

Frances examined it closely, then handed it back to her. "You're keeping him safe? Keeping them away? They've been trying to bug this room..."

"No," Vanessa said firmly. "We swept it before the visit. When you were in the shower. Nothing in here, but we can't go in the day never know who's had access in there."

Frances nodded, then reached for Bobby's hand. Looking at him, tears filled her eyes. "I was so afraid they got you."

"I'm fine, Mom. I promise." He reached down and hugged her, holding her frail body against his and wishing with all his might that he could calm her into a pleasant visit.

"Don't worry, Mrs. Goren," Vanessa said formally. "It's my job to keep him safe. He's very valuable to the NYPD, and I will make sure he is fine."

Frances nodded again, then whispered, "Thank you," as she wrapped her arms around her son again.

"Ma," he said, tone lighter, "it's Christmas today. Did you remember? I brought you some presents."

His mother's expression relaxed. "I love Christmas," she replied. "Damn! I never get a chance to leave this shithole...I don't have anything for you, baby."

"That's okay," he smiled. "I just wanted to see you anyway. Look at what we brought in...Vanessa checked it all, so it's safe." He looked at her and winked.

"Shit," his mother said, looking at the bag full of gifts. "It's like Santa Claus himself landed on the roof of this place."

Bobby laughed. "You gonna open them?"

Frances laughed in response. "Hell yes! Hand 'em over here...what's your name again?" she asked Vanessa.

" you go..."

Twenty minutes later they were all laughing as Frances opened the last present amongst stories of Christmas memories. She was vividly recalling a Christmas when Bobby and Frank had tried to make her a flower garden, even though they didn't have any flowers. They had drawn the flowers on the wall with markers and crayons. Their father had been none too happy, but Frances said she had kept it on her wall for years and smiled every time she saw it.

"Grab that picture up there, Bobby, and show her. She needs to see what sweet boys I had." Frances motioned to a faded photo in a picture frame on top of her dresser.

Bobby picked it up and gave it to his mother. She looked at it longingly, then said to Vanessa, "Do you see? See what my boys did for me? Only my boys could make flowers grow during winter in Canarsie."

The photo showed two young boys sitting together, seemingly happy; only upon close inspection did Vanessa notice that there were indeed flowers drawn on the wall in the background.

"You're a lucky mother, Mrs. Goren," she said sincerely, handing the photo back to Frances.

She sighed. "Don't I know it. I have schizophrenia, you know," she told Vanessa matter-of-factly. "But my boys come visit me every chance they get. Bobby here comes every weekend and Frankie comes whenever he can."

"I know they love you. I bet it makes them just as happy to see you."

Frances beamed. "It sure does make this one happy." She patted Bobby on the back firmly. "He's a momma's boy...always has been. When he was little, that was his battle cry--'Where's Mama?'"

Bobby smiled at her. "It's because I had the best mom in the world," he told her. "I just wanted to be with you."

The rest of their visit was peaceful. Frances seemed at ease and able to sustain a conversation. She and Bobby reminisced about his childhood and her family's beach business. Vanessa listened to them, watching the love in Bobby's eyes as his mother spoke avidly.

When it was time to go, Bobby gave his mother a kiss and she hugged him fiercely, and for a moment Vanessa saw fear fleeting across her face. Frances turned to her again and said, "You know they're out there, right?"

"I'm trained, Mrs. Goren," she responded. "I promise I'll keep him safe."

"And you'll come with him again?"

Vanessa nodded. "As long as I need to."

"Bobby," his mother said, "take yourself twenty bucks out of my account and buy yourself something for Christmas."

He smiled at her. "I love you, Mom, and I'll see you on Sunday."

Once they were in the car, he found himself grinning and unable to stop.

"What's so funny?" she asked, digging through her purse for a stick of gum.

"You," he replied. "I had no idea that cops visiting their moms on Christmas warranted security."

She laughed. "Hey, don't knock it. I had to get my people out there on Christmas Eve to sweep her room for bugs!"

He shook his head. "You're unbelievable." She handed him a piece of gum and he took it and popped it in his mouth. "You know, that's the best visit I've had with her in God knows how long."

"I love that she cusses. She cusses more than I do. That rocks."

Bobby chuckled. "I made the mistake of saying shit one time when I was about twelve...she washed my mouth out with soap for about fifteen minutes."

Vanessa smiled at him, then looked out the window, chewing her gum. "My mom never cared about stuff like that. Her favorite phrase was 'holy shit'."


"Yeah." She paused. "My dad was always saying that she was a bad role model, that we would turn out low class. He was a great guy."

Bobby didn't say anything for a minute. "Were you ever close to your dad?"

She shook her head. "Not that I remember." She was quiet for a minute. "Ava was his baby. I don't know why. I was quiet, more removed, more bonded to my mother. Ava would light up whenever he walked in the room. He always called her his baby girl. I remember one time asking my mom why Daddy didn't love me. She said he did, but Ava was just more snuggly." She smacked her gum. "I guess that was about when I started realizing that Ava was way prettier than I was."

"Well, you're wrong in that assumption."

"It's subjective."

"If I had kids," Bobby said thoughtfully, "I might appreciate different things about them, but I don't think I would love one more than another...and i don't think i would think one of my daughters was more beautiful than the other. I would just be so grateful to know each of them."

Vanessa laughed cynically. "That's what a normal person would do...but we're talking about my dad."

They were quiet for awhile, before he finally said, "I think you're beautiful. Inside and out. Physically and mentally and emotionally. I've never met anyone more beautiful."

She didn't respond, but he could see her smile from the corner of his eye.

"It's okay," he continued. "We have big plans when we get home, remember? Hot naked sex? I only do that with beautiful women."

"Right," she responded. "I'm going to forget this conversation started about my dad...and I'm also going to try to forget that you're talking about all the women you've done this with."

"Actually," he confessed, "I've never done this with any woman before."

"Hot naked sex with you on Christmas day," she mused. "God is good."


She was laying on her back, trying to catch her breath. He was leaning over her, stroking her breast. He had to admit, he was a total breast man. If he hadn't been before, he was a convert now.

They had taken their time after getting home. Kissing, snuggling, enjoying one another's warmth and softness. Inside jokes and teasing. Intimacy and passion. Nobody ignited him like she did. It was as though she read him as thoroughly as he read her. He knew it was true each time and this was no exception.

"Merry Christmas," he murmured, kissing her nipple. "Feliz Navidad". Kiss. "Joyeux Noel." Kiss.

She sighed. She could spend her entire life like this. She stroked his hair slowly, lazily. "This is the best Christmas ever."

He smiled against her, running his hands over her abdomen, then her hips. "You're telling me." His hands wandered downward until she caught her breath and he chuckled softly. "You're easy to please."

"You're the one always saying how I'm low maintenance," she responded, shifting against him. After a moment she caught both his hands and brought them up in hers, kissing him. "You wear me out," she told him, watching him grin as he pressed his lips against her breast again. He nipped her softly and she giggled, then pushed him off of her.

He sighed. "I love you. Have i told you today that I love you?"

"Heh. I think I got the picture."

He laughed and reached for her, but she pulled away from him, climbing out of the bed. "Come back," he said teasingly. "It's cold in here!"

She yanked a shirt over her head. "Hush," she told him. "It's for you anyway."

He lay back in the bed, reflecting on how lucky he was. He watched her move across the room to the dresser. He noted her legs, her body covered under his shirt, and closed his eyes, remembering her body moving over his a few minutes before. How beautiful she was, how intensely he felt about her, how she had-

"Here," she said, jumping on the bed and handing him a present. "It's kind of lame and definitely not as cool as what you got me, but I was hoping you might like it."

He grinned at her. "If it's wrapped in a box, it's good by me," he told her, then started to shake it, but she stopped him.

"Don't!" she said quickly. "It's not meant to be shaken...what are you, three years old?"

They both laughed as he tore open the paper and took off the lid. It was an MP3 player.

He picked it up. He already had one and she knew it, so he was a little confused. "Thanks," he told her. "It's great to have a new one."

She snickered. "The gift isn't the MP3 player," she told him. "It's what's on it."

Curious, he put on the headphones and started the music. He heard the acoustic guitar first, then her voice, clear and lovely. A song. She had written and recorded a song for him.

She watched his face as the recognition of the gift dawned, as he listened to what she was singing. Her love, her he had brought her back to life. The same words she had murmured to him under the tree the night before, cleaned up and put to music. When his eyes finally met hers, she smiled self-consciously. Finally he turned off the player and took off the headphones.

"And I thought all you said last night was original," he joked.

She was biting her lip.

"You were wrong," he told her softly. "This gift is way better than yours."

"No...maybe we're even."

He pulled her down against him, then put one of the earphones up to her ear. "Listen," he said, then played the song again. They lay together, listening to the song she had recorded. She felt warm and comfortable and sleepy against him. This was by far the best holiday she had ever had.

When the song finished, neither of them moved. Bobby kept his arm wrapped around her and after a bit, she snuggled more closely to him. "Merry Christmas, Ness," he whispered.

"Merry Christmas."


"Morning." Deakins greeted her as she stepped off the elevator. She didn't take that as a good sign.

"Morning...what's going on?"

"We caught a live one."

"What?" He had her full attention now. "Where?"

"From a canvas. PS 121. She's in interrogation 2 with Baxter and her parents, but she's holding out quite a bit."

"Thanks, Captain." She set her coffee and her bag in her office and quickly headed to the interrogation room.

It didn't take Vanessa long to figure out why the girl wasn't talking. Her parents were flanking her on either side, and Baxter was sitting across from them, looking frustrated, to say the least.

"I realize this is hard to remember," he said exasperatedly, "but Tina, this is important...I need you to focus..."

"She already has!" her father said angrily. "She's told you everything she remembers!"

"Good morning." Vanessa held her hand out to the father. "My name is Vanessa Rayden and I'm a psychologist with the department. I've been working with Officer Baxter on this case. I was wondering if it might be all right for me to visit with Tina alone for a few minutes."

Tina's mother moved closer to her. "She's been through enough already," she began.

Vanessa took a seat next to the mother and nodded. "I know that she has. I don't want to make this any harder on her. It may make her feel better if we talk...I promise I won't push her." Turning her attention to the girl, she said, "Tina? Would that be okay? You don't have to answer anything you don't want to."

Tina was a tiny, average-looking teenager. Her blonde hair was combed away from her face and clipped back with a barette. She wore no makeup and her eyes were large and frightened.

Hesitantly, Tina said, "My mom and dad...will they be nearby?"

Vanessa nodded. "Right outside. Whenever you're done talking, they can come back in."

Tina looked at her father. "Daddy, it's okay...I"ll talk to her...just for a few minutes."

"Honey, you don't have to do this...especially alone..."

"It's okay," the girl reiterated. "I'll talk to her."

Baxter stood up, giving Vanessa a grateful glance. "Mr. and Mrs. Schule, we can wait right out here."

Vanessa watched them exit the room and Baxter close the door. She smiled at Tina.

"This must be really uncomfortable for you," she said softly. Tina nodded, looking at the table.

Vanessa leaned forward slightly. "Can you tell me what happened?"

Tina didn't look up. "It was two weeks ago...a couple of friends and me, we decided to go hang out at this new club, Azure. You know, in midtown? A lot of kids at my school go." She glanced up at Vanessa, who continued to watch her carefully, holding her expression still. "It's for kids in high music and stuff. They have virgin drinks." She said this as though it were important information, and Vanessa nodded. "My friend Cailey said they were great--she'd been a couple times before--and she said the music was hot." She paused, then said earnestly, "I told my parents where I was going. i wouldn't lie...they know they can trust me. And they trust Cailey and Tim. We've been friends for forever."

Vanessa nodded again. "I'm sure they do, Tina." She paused, resting her face in her hand. "What happened when you got to the club?"

"Well," Tina began slowly, "we were dancing. We got hot and ordered drinks...I had always wanted to try a pina colada so that's what I ordered. They make it without alcohol, you know? After I drank some of it everything started to get fuzzy. I didn't see Cailey anymore but Tim was still there. He helped me sit back down. I was about to fall down...everything was moving around and I couldn't seem to get the world to stand still. I guess somebody put alcohol in my drink after all. Tim helped me...he got me in a cab and took me home to my parents. When I woke up I got really sick...I was so dizzy and throwing up." She twisted her fingers together. "My mom thought I had a virus...I stayed home a couple of days but now I'm fine."

Vanessa didn't say anything. Tina glanced up at her, then back at the table. After another minute, Vanessa cleared her throat. "Tina, is there anything else? Maybe something you haven't told your parents?"

Tina started to speak, then stopped.

"I know this is scary," Vanessa told her. "We want to protect you. If you can tell me, I can help."

Tina wiped away a random tear, then shakily said, "The next morning there was blood in my panties...I thought it was my period but I was sore and I didn't bleed any more..." She closed her eyes and shuddered, the tears overtaking her.

The boot cut into her abdomen. Cunt, he hissed at her. Fucking bitch. Another kick to her hip.

Vanessa reached over and held Tina's hand. "Tina," she said evenly, "do you still have those panties? Or did you wash them?"

"I saved them," she sobbed. "I hid them in my drawer...I didn't want my mom and dad to know."

"Oh my God." She could hear Eames near her, to her left. Goren leaned down, trying to reassure her. "You're going to be okay...we're getting you help...hang on, Vanessa..."

"It's going to be okay," Vanessa reassured her. "You've been a huge help, Tina. I'm going to have Officer Manning come in here with you while I go talk with your parents. Is that okay?"

She looked up at Vanessa. "I can't tell them. Will you tell them?"

"If you want me to."

Tina nodded, then pressed her head in her hands on the table.

"Her vitals are stable...keep pressure on that wound." She could hear the EMT giving directions but she couldn't see anything. Everything was blurry, confusing. She heard Goren saying, "Wait-" then felt his shirt wipe across her face softly. "You're going to be okay," he told her gently. "Deakins is here and he's riding with you. It will all be okay."

Vanessa stepped out of the interrogation room and motioned to Tina's parents and Baxter to join her in the observation room. She closed the door behind them.

"Did Officer Baxter explain to you what we're looking for?" she asked them.

Mr. Schule nodded. "But Tina can't help you. Whoever drugged her drink, if that's what happened--she didn't see them. She went to the club with Cailey and Tim, and she's known them for years."

Vanessa looked down at the floor for a moment, then up to the parents, and Mrs. Schule started to cry.

"I'm sorry," she began. "She didn't know how to tell you. The underwear is in her nightstand drawer. We will need a crime scene unit to retrieve it for evidence."

A high, desperate wail escaped Mrs. Schule as Mr. Schule grabbed his wife and pressed her closely. "God no...God no...God no..." she moaned desperately into her husband's chest, as though her words could make it disappear.

Baxter slipped out of the room, leaving Vanessa alone with Tina's parents clinging to one another.

After another moment, she said softly, "I'm so sorry."

Mr. Schule was clutching his wife, sobbing, but turned to her. "Who could do this?" he gasped, barely able to catch his breath. "She's a good girl. We've always protected her. We only allowed her to go with her friends...Tim said he was with her the whole night and...oh, God." An almost feral cry came from him as he wrenched his wife's body away from his own. "I'll kill him...I'll kill that fucking bastard."

"No," Vanessa's voice was low but firm. "Mr. Schule, Tina needs you...please...she's right in the next room and she needs the two of you right now. More than ever before." She touched his sleeve and he caught his breath. "Please...let my colleagues do their jobs. You do yours--be there for your daughter."

Mrs. Schule was gulping sobs, trying to calm herself, and Mr. Schule stroked her hair gently. Softly he whispered, "How could a boy do this to my girl? She's just a baby..."

Vanessa shook her head. "I don't know. But we'll get him. Tina needs you," she repeated.

Jimmy was walking quickly next to the gurney. She could see the overhead lights and smelled disinfectant. "It's going to be okay, Vanessa, " he said to her, but she could read the worry and fear in his face. "Don't worry...I'm here and I'm not leaving. You won't be alone." She could hear the doctor and Deakins talking and the words "rape" and "sexual assault", along with "concussion" and "internal injuries". It was blurry and her mind didn't cooperate with her mouth. She couldn't remember why her head hurt. Her mouth tasted like blood and vomit.

Mr. Schule nodded to her. "Thank you," he whispered, then he and his wife went into the interrogation room, leaving Vanessa alone with her memories.


Vanessa entered the ME's office with Baxter and Finnigan.

She looked up from the body she was working on, turned around, and handed Baxter a file. "We got DNA. It matches Tina and our suspect. Whoever attacked her is your killer."

"What's the match?" asked Baxter, flipping through the report.

"Ten point. Good enough for a conviction at trial. You bring me the guy's DNA, and you'll be set."

The three of them took the elevator back up to the squadroom. Vanessa started toward her office before hearing Baxter call her name.

She turned around. He was waving the file toward her. "You need this?"

"No." She paused. "I'm assuming you're going to pick up Tim Levine."

He was putting on his coat. "Going right now. You coming?"

"No...I have some things to finish up here," she told him. He nodded.

She watched Finnigan and Baxter take off, then entered the women's restroom and locked herself in a stall. She felt the bile rise to the back of her throat. She vomited repeatedly before catching her breath and flushing the toilet.

She stepped out of the stall and turned on the water in the sink. Splashing her face, she stared at herself for several minutes. She tried to imagine, for a moment, what Tina had ahead of her and how she would manage it. What she wouldn't have given to have a parent there for her. Any relative there for her. Even at twenty-nine.

The door opened and she found herself face to face with Eames. Too late to hide. For a millisecond, she wished she had been able to curl up on top of one of the toilets and hang out until Eames was out of there.

Alex stared at her, taking her in. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Fine."

"You look sick...are you sure you're okay?"


Alex stood next to her and crossed her arms. "I heard you got a witness on your serial murderer."

Vanessa pulled out a couple of paper towels. "Yes...she was very helpful. Baxter and Finnigan have gone to pick up the suspect."

There was silence before Alex said, "Was she a rape victim?"

Vanessa looked at her, raised an eyebrow. "Does it matter?"

"It might." Alex sighed. "You know, there's nothing wrong with calling it a day and taking a break. Especially if you're puking in the women's restroom."

Vanessa shook her head. "I can do this...I can finish this case."

"I know you can. But you're a profiler. Your part right now is over for all intents and purposes. Let Baxter and Finnegan and the ME finish it."

"Thanks, captain." Alex ignored Vanessa's sarcasm but continued to stand there, watching her. Vanessa held on to the countertop and looked at herself in the mirror. "What did you think?" she asked Eames.

Eames looked confused. "What do you mean?"

Vanessa watched her in the mirror. "When you saw me my house."

Alex stood still, looking at her feet. "I was scared," she said finally. "I didn't know at first if you were going to make it. There was a lot of blood."

"Why did you stay away?"

Alex swallowed hard. " didn't know what to say to you. I didn't know how to make it any better. I was afraid...of your intensity...and the fear...and letting you down. Never catching him. Like it is now," she admitted.

"That girl is only sixteen," Vanessa said. "Sixteen years old and one of her best friends raped her."

Alex was silent and Vanessa sighed.

"She has a family," Vanessa finally said. "A family that loves her so maybe she'll be okay."

Alex stood quietly, not knowing what to say. She was ashamed, ashamed of her silence and lack of action for the last nine months. Ashamed that she didn't help someone who needed it, who was alone. Alex thought of her family, her parents and brothers and sisters and in-laws and nieces and nephews. Vanessa had none of that. Vanessa had Ava, who hardly qualified as a sister most days. And the most she, Alex, had been able to do was take Vanessa from the hospital to a hotel. Fill a couple of prescriptions. Take her out for a drink months after the attack and actively avoid the pink elephant in the room.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I let you down. You had nobody and I should have been there. And I wasn't. I can tell you the reasons why but at the end of the day it all still sounds like excuses." She shook her head, "I'm sorry," she said again.

Vanessa turned around, looking at Alex's eyes. She suddenly felt angry, immensely angry. Alex had hidden from her for months--someone she thought she could count on more than her own family, and she had split. Left. "I think I will go home," she said. She couldn't think of anything else to say...nothing that wouldn't completely destroy their friendship.

She stepped toward the door and Alex moved out of her way. Exiting the restroom, Vanessa made her way to Deakins' office. He was on the phone but motioned for her to come in. She waited for a moment until he hung up, then said, "I'm going to go home...not feeling well."

He nodded. "I understand. I hear you did good work this morning."

"Yeah," she said, "tell that to her parents."

"You did all you could do. You know that."

She felt the bile rise in the back of her throat again. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Vanessa." He stood, pushed his hands in his pockets. "Are you okay to go home?"

"Yes," she told him, and smiling the best she could, she left his office.

She buttoned her coat in the elevator, heading into the street, and hailed a cab. The wind was whipping furiously and she pulled her coat tighter as she climbed into the cab. Giving the cabbie directions, she sat back and thought about the day. By tomorrow, they should have arrested this kid and have a confession. If not, she would go in and talk with him. He was a kid--she was pretty sure if she needed to that she could get a confession out of him.

She found herself wondering if they would ever find Forrester, if he would ever confess to what he did. He'd probably tell them she liked it rough.. That would explain the beating she took, she laughed to herself. She liked bleeding profusely, enjoyed being scarred. And that concussion? Foreplay.

That kid was just a baby, like her dad had said. She wondered for a moment what her own dad would have said...if he would have held her hand and told her it wasn't her fault. But she already knew the answer--he would have told her she deserved it. She was asking for it, in the way she dressed, talked, acted. She brought it upon herself. And if she was completely honest, there was a tiny part of her that thought it was true. If she hadn't lived the life she had, this never would have happened.

She paid the cabbie and entered her building, going up to her condo. Bruce greeted her shortly after entering. She sat in the big armchair that Bobby was so fond of and called Bruce to her. He jumped up and laid his head on her lap, and she petted him, calling him good and sweet boy. Even after all this time, and as much as she loved Bobby, Bruce was her closest confidante. He was so precious to her. She pressed her face into his fur and thought of how lucky she was to have him.

She remembered that night, when Keith had first started to kiss and touch her, and how Bruce had jumped on him and growled. She had naively agreed to put Bruce in another room. She had shut the door on him. She had wondered a million times if the outcome would have been different had she never locked Bruce up. Bruce knew when she didn't. He knew.

Vanessa had vowed never to make that mistake again. Bruce was her loyal companion, and ironically, had never shown any aggression toward Bobby. She didn't know if that was out of luck or because Bruce knew things about people she didn't. She tended to believe the latter, that he could sense things that were foreign to her, that got past her because she wanted to believe the best in people.

They stayed snuggled like that, for a long time, and she felt the anger from earlier melting out of her. Alex did the best she could, Vanessa told herself. It was incredibly difficult to handle the idea of a sexual assault involving someone you cared about. She had been honest. She hadn't known what to do other than to work the case, so she had tried...and failed. And avoided.

She was sleepy, and moved over to the couch. Bruce automatically lay down next to her. Her hand reached down to tangle in his fur, and he tolerated her, licking her hand before laying his head on the floor. She closed her eyes, reassuring herself that everything would be okay. She would wake up in a couple of hours and everything would be fine.

And it was.


"Wake up, sweetie." Bobby had heard she had left work early but had been surprised just the same. It wasn't like her to leave before her day was over. When he got home and saw her asleep on the couch, Bruce next to her on the floor, he had smiled to himself. At least she looked peaceful. He ran a hand over her forehead, and like magic, her eyes opened.

"Hey," she yawned. "It smells good in here."

"Chinese," he explained. "I know it's not a girl thing but I was jonesing for some lo mein."

She laughed. "Jonesing, huh?"

"Yep," he replied, grinning at her and pulling the containers out. "I brought you some wonton soup."

"Of course you did." She watched him stand and enter the kitchen and return with a couple plates and bowls, silverware and two bottles of water.

He spread the food out. She ate from her spot on the couch, and he sat on the floor next to her. She was halfway through her soup when he said, 'I heard you had words with Eames today."

Her spoon hung precariously over her soup for a moment before taking another sip. "I guess it depends how you would define 'having words'."

He continued to turn his fork into his noodles, wrapping them in a tight coil. "Eames said you were upset with her...with her not being there for you."

"I never said that."

"She said you were throwing up in the bathroom."

Vanessa put her spoon down. "What, am I five now?"

He raised his eyes to her, eyebrows arched. "No," he stated patiently, "I was just concerned about you because it's unusual for you to come home early. I mentioned it to Eames and she said she had seen you in the bathroom. She thought you were sick and said the two of you had words, and that she had apologized to you for not being there when you needed her." He began to twist his noodles again. "I don't think you're five, but I don't like playing semantical games with you either. It'd be a hell of a lot easier on both of us if you were straight with me."

She stabbed her egg roll with a fork. "I'll keep that in mind."

"You have every right to be mad, you know...I think she understands that...she just doesn't deal well with people walking away."

Vanessa kept eating her egg roll. "You gonna finish that lo mein?"

He pushed the box toward her. "Avoidance. Classic."

She snorted. "Funny coming from you, Goren...isn't avoidance your middle name?"

He didn't bite. "You could just tell her, you know. Tell her you're pissed at the way she just walked away from this."

Vanessa stared at him as though he had just suggested she beat the snot out of Eames. "So how exactly do I put that? 'Hey Alex, I thought you were my friend and in my hour of need you sucked shit'?"

He couldn't help but smile. "Something like that."

She shook her head. "You're so naive," she told him. "If I said that, Alex would probably never speak to me again."

Now he shook his head. "I think you're selling her short. She knows you're angry, and she knows you have every right to be. She's angry with herself. Maybe it would be good for both of you to clear the air."

Just then Bruce burped, and both of them began to laugh. "So much for clearing the air," Bobby said, making a face.

"Eh...just make sure he doesn't get any of your dinner, or we'll both be paying for it later."


Alex was sitting at the bar, stirring her bourbon. Like there was something to stir, she told herself sarcastically.

Vanessa was supposed to be meeting her here. She had sent her a text saying it would be around seven, and it was now seven- twenty. She was nervous because she knew what this was going to be about. But she owed it to her, to hear her out, to face what she had, or more specifically hadn't, done.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't notice Vanessa approach until she sat next to her and ordered a diet coke.

"Oh yeah, make me the lush," she said half-jokingly. She knew her goal wasn't to was to feel Vanessa out, see how angry she was. If she joked back, maybe they'd have a chance at a decent exchange tonight.

But she didn't. Instead, she turned to Eames and said, "Why don't we get a table?" Then she stood with her drink and walked toward a table in the corner. Eames followed her, not knowing what else to do, and sat down across from her.

"So," Alex began, "I'm guessing you want to talk about the other day..."

Vanessa laughed for a second into her drink, then put it down. "Goren said I should tell you that you sucked shit."

Alex put her head down and swished her bourbon around, then took a long drink. "Well, that would be pretty accurate."

Vanessa watched her, swishing and drinking and loathing herself. She wondered if this is how she had looked to other people. "What happened, Alex? What was it that made it so hard that you had to cut me off?"

Eames didn't answer her. She didn't know what to say.

Vanessa continued. "When Joe died, I did everything I could to support you. I even programmed my number in your cell, remember? I showed up and brought you dinner and took you to movies and even went to the cemetery with you. I sat with you when your family was too overwhelming and drove you home when you got drunk. So yeah, I'm pissed. I expected more from you, Alex. I thought you were my friend. I thought you would have my back. And you didn't. You left me there to drown. To drown by myself, in my own pain."

Eames met her eyes, watching Vanessa's pain and anger wearing so blatantly on her face. She hated herself for this. Hated that she had chosen cowardice over courage. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I just couldn't do it."

Vanessa leaned back in the chair. "What the hell does that mean, Alex? You couldn't do it?" She felt her anger growing, surging in her. "Couldn't do it, huh? After all I did for you? Did it ever occur to you that it wasn't easy for me when Joe died? That I have buried people I loved before? That I've suffered in my life too? Or did you even think about that, Alex?"

"I thought about it," she returned bitterly. "I've thought about it ever since March 21st, when we were called to your apartment. I've thought about how I should be there. I should be listening. I owed you. But the debt was too damn big." Tears came to Eames' eyes. She winced, brought her hand to her mouth, before continuing. "No matter what I would do, it wouldn't be enough. Don't you see that? And every minute I spent with you, when you were in that pain, reminded me of the pain I felt with Joe, and I couldn't get away from it. I was afraid of it. I'm not saying it was right. I'm just saying it was." The tears were flowing now, but Alex didn't make a move to wipe them away. "I let you down. I'm not as good of a friend as you, Vanessa. I don't have the strength you do. I wish I did but I don't...I couldn't sit with the pain again."

Vanessa sat still, watching Eames gasping for breath, trying to catch her tears. She felt empty watching her. The tears Eames was crying were gone in her, had been cried out for months. She couldn't bond over this pain. There was nothing left but anger now. That and exhaustion.

Finally Alex's emotions calmed, and she took another drink. "There's no way back from this, is there?"

Vanessa shook her head. "Can't go back," she said slowly. "Only forward."

Alex brought her eyes up to Vanessa's and nodded. "I don't know what that means."

"Me either." Vanessa shrugged her shoulders. "But I guess we'll figure it out." She took a long drink of her diet coke, then stirring her ice, said, "I just thought maybe Goren was right. That I would feel better if I told you that you really sucked shit on this one."

Eames chuckled and hiccuped. "Well, he's right."

Vanessa chewed on a piece of ice. "He usually is."


"You ready?" Vanessa stood by the door, slipping on her leather jacket. Bobby was putting on his shoes, shooting her a teasing look.

"Well, this is a switch," he noted as he pulled on his left shoe. "Usually I'm the one standing there, waiting for you." He stood up. "So, how do I look?"

"Very funny," she said, tossing him his jacket. "I was just hoping to make it to Times Square before midnight is all. Call me crazy!"

Now he chuckled. "Well, if the shoe fits..." He pulled back as she tried to punch his arm.

Once on the street, they headed toward the theater district. "So where are we meeting Eames and what's his name?"

"His name is Sam, and I know where we're going. So just stick close and you'll be fine."

"What if I get lost?"

"You know the way home, don't you?"

He grunted. "God, you keep too many secrets."

"Are you gonna babble all day or keep walking? It's not like you have to put a ton of effort into it...I have to take two steps for each one of yours."

"I'm having fun already. It's not every night I get to have such fresh and fun banter with you." He caught up with her and grabbed her hand, squeezing it. She looked at him cynically, but he made a face and she laughed.

They were surrounded by people now, and Vanessa hung on to Bobby's hand to keep from getting separated. After a minute, she said, "There! Alex and Sam are right there."

Bobby caught sight of his partner and they headed over to the front of one of the theaters.

"Hey," Vanessa said, as they approached.

Alex smiled and returned the greeting, then said, "Rayden, Goren...this is Sam Barnes...he's a friend of mine."

"Great to meet you Sam," Bobby said, extending a hand. Sam shook it, smiling.

"Good to meet you too...Alex has told me all about you, what a great partner you are." He turned to Vanessa. "I've heard you're an amazing profiler and a great friend."

Vanessa's eyes caught Alex's. Her eyes were steady, looking back at Vanessa. "Alex is pretty good herself, "Vanessa said, shaking Sam's hand. Turning to Bobby, she said, "So how much time do we have?"

He checked his watch. "Twenty minutes, can you believe it?"

Sam motioned toward the crowd. "Should we move closer?"

Alex laughed. "Why not?" She stepped off the curb and began to meander into the crowd. Sam grinned and followed her. Vanessa grabbed Bobby's hand and they headed after Alex and Sam.

The music was blaring and the crowd was throbbing. The excitement in the air was palpable. Bobby pulled Vanessa toward an empty spot in the street and began to dance with her, spinning her in circles until she laughed delightedly. A moment later Sam had pulled Alex next to him and they joined Bobby and Vanessa and tons of other couples, dancing and moving in the street.

Watching Vanessa's face thrilled Bobby. She was twirling next to him, laughing openly. He didn't know when he had seen her so joyous, so full of life. He pulled her close, kissing her fully, feeling her excitement and life flood through his body. After a moment, she pulled back from him and laughed. "You're supposed to save that for midnight!" she told him.

"So I rushed it by..." he checked the clock above them..."four minutes and fifty-two seconds."

She grinned and spun away from him, moving her body to the music pounding through the street.

"Hey-" Sam interrupted Bobby's reverie. "Have you seen Alex? She was right here a minute ago..."

Bobby glanced around. All he could see were other New Yorkers flooding the street, dancing much like his girlfriend a few feet away. "No," he replied, feeling a little nervous. Not that he didn't trust Eames, but he'd never known her to just take off, especially on a date, or on him. He looked back at Vanessa, now dancing with a group of people, swaying her hips and laughing.


Eames was standing next to Sam when she saw him.

Bobby and Vanessa were dancing, laughing, and that had caught her attention initially. Seeing their happiness. Until she saw behind them, about ten feet back.

He was there, watching. Milling. He looked as though he were there alone. Eames thought briefly about grabbing her partner, but realized if she did, Forrester would run. Unless Bobby got to him first. Then he'd kill him.

She moved through the crowd slowly, feeling for her gun in her pocket. She could see him, wandering through the crowd, never moving more than ten or fifteen feet away from Vanessa. He was touching and smiling several women as he moved past them. Watching him, she recognized this--it was stalking behavior. God knows how long he had been doing it, how close he had been to Vanessa for the last several months. He was like a predator, never moving close enough to be detected but always on the fringes, looking for his in. She knew it excited him, and wondered briefly if he got off on it.

Eames moved closer to him in the street. He was watching Vanessa, who had now moved into the middle of the street, laughing and dancing. His eyes were focused on her, as though he couldn't look away. She thought briefly of her conversation with Vanessa the other day. Of her fear in being supportive, her fear of Vanessa's pain. She thought about the night she and Goren had arrived on scene at the assault. How her first thought had been that Vanessa was dead. Then Vanessa had moved, moaned, and Eames had realized that yes, even your closest friends could be victims of horrible crimes. Just like your husband.

Eames stood back, watching Forrester, and called him in. The clock caught her attention as she realized it was almost midnight. Forty-five seconds. If he was going to make his move, it would be soon.


Sam was worried. Against his better judgment, Bobby pulled his eyes away from Vanessa to reassure him. "I'm sure she'll be back in a minute, "he told Sam. "Alex is pretty independent--I'm sure she's okay--maybe she just went to find a restroom or something." He glanced back at Vanessa, who was making her way to him.

"Hey," she said, wrapping her arms around him. "What's wrong?"

"Alex has disappeared...about five minutes ago."

"Well, I hope she finds her way back," she commented. "Poor Sam deserves a kiss in...twenty...nineteen..eighteen..." she grinned.

Bobby laughed. "Eames would be very happy to know you're so worried about her about you worry about me for once?"

"" She kissed him.

"Slow down," he laughed. "!"

Their lips collided at the same time, and she wrapped her entire body around his. In public no less, he thought, and kissed her as ferociously as he dared in a crowd of thousands.

"Happy New Year!" she laughed after pulling back, and he tickled her side.

"Happy New Year," he told her, before nibbling on her ear and pulling her closer.


Eames saw the uniform to her left, and motioned to Forrester's still form in the crowd. The uniform nodded, ready to provide backup. She noted two more on the other side of her, to the back, and prayed to God that Forrester didn't see them coming. In a crowd like this, it would take him two seconds to grab a hostage and turn this night into a nightmare.

She worked her way up behind him. Twenty seconds. They needed to get him before the ball fell.

He was fixated. Eames could see now that he was focused not only on Vanessa, but on Goren as well, watching them intensely. She wondered for just a second if he was armed, and decided that chances were that he was.

The crowd was chanting now, counting down from ten.

She got in position behind him, seeing the uniforms flanking her on either side, ready to take him down.


He sensed her, started to turn, but it was too late. She pressed the gun to his temple and said loudly, "Keith Forrester, you're under arrest for the sexual battery and assault of a representative of the New York Police Department."

She saw him start to reach for his pocket, but the uniforms were on him, fast, pulling his arms back and cuffing him while another checked his pockets. Gun. Knife. Papers. He was down on the ground and the crowd was laughing, screaming happy new year as confetti fell all over them.

Alex leaned down next to him, close. "Consider yourself lucky," she hissed at him. "Starting my year off with a bullet in your head would have been better than an orgasm."


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