Maelstrom

Part IIIa: Alone in the Dark

by M.D. Bloemker

 


Benedek peered around the door and rolled his eyes heavenward. "Arenít you finished yet?" he groaned, pulling the door adjoining their respective rooms shut behind him. "What are you doing, folding the dirty socks, too?"

"And I suppose youíve got your belongings crammed into the trunk of the car already," MacKensie retorted, meticulously refolding a dress shirt. "With or without benefit of suitcase."

"Hey, some people are just more efficient than others." He snuck a peek into the bathroom. "Donít forget your shaving kit."

"I hadnít planned to. Benedek!" He swatted away a T-shirt that came flying from the direction of the bathroom. "When I want your help, Iíll ask for it, all right?"

"This is a real waste of time, Jocko," he said, pulling open the dresser drawers. "Whose stupid idea was it to get separate motel rooms, anyway?"

"Yours. You said you couldnít stand waiting for the shower."

He nudged a drawer closed with a resounding slam. "Oh, yeah. You got a sock that matches this one?"

MacKensie snatched it out of his hand. "Do me a favor and go annoy the desk clerk."

"No can do." Benny flopped down into the chair by the window, settling out with a comfortable sigh. "They want your gold card, not mine. Business expense, you know."

"Hm," Jonathan muttered, tucking another shirt into place. "Dr. Moorhouse isnít going to thank us for this one."

"Hey, I got no complaints. We wrapped up this investigation in record time, and in our own inimitable style. Not bad for our first time back in harness."

"Youíre still going to have to cough up half damages for what we did to the local jail. Iím not facing Dr. Moorhouse with that one alone."

Benny laughed, warmed by the memory. "Did you see the sheriffís face when youó?"

MacKensie cleared his throat. "One word to Dr. Moorhouse about that, and I shall personally expose your film," he growled menacingly.

"Whoa, touchy," he crooned. "Hey, you were the hero of the hour, donít sweat it. So I get a story about the drug bust of the year instead of the Phantom Hitchhiker of Oriskany, nothing to cry in my beer about. Except I heard that ghost was supposed to be a real looker, boy. Wouldnít have minded a bit giving her a lift to nowhere...."

Jonathan looked up at the unexpected silence to see Benny, eyes squeezed shut, pressing a hand to his head. "Benedek? Are you all right?"

"Yeah." He blinked, waving off MacKensieís concern. "You got any aspirin over there?"

"Buffered?" Jonathan asked, reaching into the pocket of his suitcase.

"Whatever." His hand went to his forehead again, massaging hard.

Rummaging, MacKensie frowned his concern. "Youíve been getting a lot of these headaches lately."

"Yeah? So?" He pushed to his feet, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Iíll buy you a case of Excedrin when we get back, will that make you happy?"

He straightened, holding out the bottle. "That wasnít what I meant," he said quietly.

Benny glanced at him, but winced away with an irritated sigh. Snatching the bottle, he brushed by Jonathan without a word, retreating to the bathroom.

Weakness staggered him; he caught himself on the sink, leaning heavily until the spasm of enervating pain faded back into the pervading dull ache. Lifting his head, he squinted into the mirror. Maybe his color was a little off; maybe the circles under his eyes were darkeróhe couldnít really tell. He rubbed the knotted muscles of his neck before fumbling the cap off the plastic bottle.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion; his hands felt numb and lifeless, and their lack of cooperation frustrated him. With a low growl, he popped off the cap, sending tablets flying. His hand flew out to scoop them up, and stopped, trembling with the flare of pain stabbing into the space between his eyes. Drawing a deep breath, he nudged on the faucet and shoved a glass under the running stream.

Halfway to his lips, the water-slicked glass tumbled from nerveless fingers. The sudden clatter beat at his ears and he recoiled with a hiss, doubling over in agony.

He used slow respiration as a last-ditch weapon to unfurl the knots inside him. The pain released him, slowly, until he could straighten up, then open his eyes, then clear his vision of the swirling red haze enough to see Jonathan in the mirror. MacKensie stood in the doorway behind him, regarding him with a strange, pensive expression.

Their eyes met in the mirror, and Benny froze, suddenly unsure of what MacKensie would say and even more uncertain of whether he wanted the man to say anything at all, given that odd look in his eye. But Jonathan, without a word, turned and disappeared from the doorway.

Lost in a haze of pain and confusion, Benny fumbled through the rest of his task, finally getting everything in the right place with an effort that caused him that much more consternation. Whatís happening? Where did this headache come from, why did it resist his best efforts to deal with it, and why was it giving him so much grief now? This strange condition had started a week after heíd been talked into another Paranormal Research Unit assignment for Georgetown Institute. That had been more than two weeks ago, and what heíd originally put down to stress now totally escaped his understanding as well as every attempt he made to put this chronic headache to rest. Heíd stalled a week on this Oriskany jaunt, performing every relaxation technique and concocting every home remedy in his repertoire, even resorting to half-baked advice from half-baked quasi-experts, all to no avail. When Jonathan refused to be put off any longer, heíd packed his bags and met the man at the Newark airport and did his best to downplay the crashing waves of pain bringing sudden and noticeable frowns to his forehead at the most inopportune moments.

He managed to function, somehow, but didnít kid himself that MacKensie hadnít noticed that his reflexes and mental acuity were affected. Getting the goods on the local Colombian franchise could be laid entirely at Jonathanís doorstep. Benny couldnít recall a single instance where he had done anything useful, but could think of at least three where his diminished capacity to think had nearly cost them their lives at the hands of very irritated drug dealers. MacKensie had managed to pull the fat from the fire each time, even if the last instance meant a rather unexpected redecoration of the local jail. If he noticed that the threats to their lives were the consequences of some ill-considered moves on Bennyís part, he said nothing and made no recriminations and allowed Benny to share in the glow of their success at the end.

So. This unrelenting thing in his head made him a danger to himself and others. Wonderful, just wonderful. And his good humor was being stolen, along with his ability to cope with relatively minor setbacks. His stomach twisted to realize how close to a blinding rage heíd come when the car rental desk misplaced his original reservation. Only Jonathanís deft intervention bought him enough space to calm down, allowing him to brush off the manís tentative overture of concern minutes later. And the raw anger that had swelled in him when aspirin tablets went flying over the sink....

Whatís happening to me?

Gathering a deep breath, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, mindful of the strange weakness in his muscles. Bent over his suitcase, Jonathan was reshuffling a pile of shirts. His head moved slightly, then stopped, as though heíd thought better of looking up. He continued packing in silence.

Benny made his way to a chair, only noticing that it held MacKensieís open briefcase a moment before he began to ease down. He glared at the offending object, then froze, staring down at the top folder.

Jonathan looked up as Benny grabbed the folder, paging through. A half-formed protest withered under the wild-eyed glare Benny gave him. "I need to explain," MacKensie stammered, pointing weakly.

"When? When were you going to explain?" Benny hurled the folder against the bedspread. "Dammit, you promised. You promised!"

"Yes," he agreed, holding his hands up apologetically. "Yes, I realize that I promised not to pursue those theories yetówith you. And Iíve respected that promise."

"Oh, right." His anger was in control, throbbing in strange harmony with the pain in his temples. "You kept your fingers crossed behind your back and went skipping off toó" He snagged the folder back, glaring at the first page of notes. "óAngela? Angela Taylor? What the hellís she got to do with this? Sheís an exorcist, not an exterminator, for peteís sake. This stuffís way out of her leagueówhat the hell right do you have dragging her into this? Or maybe you like working with her betteróthe extracurricular fringe benefits are a little more to your liking, huh?"

Jonathan stood, unmoving and expressionless as Benny advanced on him. "So what did you tell her? Did you tell her everything? Did you tell her about Harmon and Lon and the hoops they had you jumping through? Did she cry and pat you on the head and call you Ďpoor little Jonnyí and swear sheíd do everything she can for you? Is that how you suckered her into doing thisóthis research for you?"

"Benedek, you were the one who suggested I contact her," Jonathan informed him stiffly.

"When the hell did I do something stupid like that?"

"When I first brought the subject up two weeks ago. Remember?"

He swiped angrily at the papers, scattering them to the floor. "Youíre the one with the memory problem, Jocko. Nothing matters except what you want, what you think is important, does it? You didnít hear a word I said before, did you? Well, let me shout it in your ear again. Leave it. Dammit, leave it! Youíve got no business going after something like this with a big stick and some high-minded self righteousness. I shoulda cut my tongue out before I told you there were other venues out there. All of a sudden, Don Quixote lives, only these ainít windmills weíre talking here. Weíre not even talking human."

"I know."

The two words came with soft force, sending Benny reeling back with his hands clasped to his pounding head. He turned away, struggling for control. "You know," he said hoarsely. "Yeah, you know. I know. Hell, Angela knows. Shout it from the rooftops, I donít care anymore. Go hunt down your venues. You and Angela, you can go hand and hand into the sunset together. Better yet, you can go to hell together. I donít really give a damn."

He whirled, evading the hand Jonathan raised to stop him, and stalked out of the motel room.

The strange emotion propelling him faded as he reached the rental car, and with it his strength deserted him. He sagged, steadying himself with both hands against the carís frame. The world tilted crazily, and when he closed his eyes, the darkness spun maddeningly as well. His head throbbed, but not just with physical pain. The words, harsh and bitter, echoed as clearly as if someone taunted him with a tape recording. My god. Why did I say those things? I didnít mean them ...did I? I didnít, I....

Cradling his head on crossed arms, he lost himself in the seductive pulsing of oddly exquisite pain. It wasnít as if Jonathan had really lied to him. MacKensie had only promised to postpone his idea of tracking down other venues after Benny protested the inherent danger. But heíd turned to Angela Taylor, of all people. It was true that Benny had suggested Angela as a likely consultant. She was a trained exorcist; while Harmon and his ilk represented something well beyond her ken, she would at least be able to steer the search toward those situations and resulting disturbances most likely to point the way toward other venue.

But Jonathan had no right involving her. Not now, not this way. And certainly not without Bennyís knowledge. For that matter, MacKensie had no right pursuing the matter at all. Why couldnít he have been content with surviving? Why couldnít he accept the reprieve without question? Why did he feel he had to meddle in things better left alone, and feel it so strongly he went ahead with his plan over Bennyís protest?

And why couldnít he have asked MacKensie those same questions in a calm, reasonable voice instead of splattering himself on the walls of the motel room?

He knew he should go back, abjectly apologetic, and try again. Calmly, this time. But no...his headache pounded its protest at that thought. Maybe...maybe a walk first, or a drive. Fumbling the car keys out of his pocket, he managed to fit the right one in the lock on the fourth try. Maybe walking is the more sensible choice, he thought, staring down at his trembling hand.

"Benedek."

He started slightly at the voice that came only a few feet from his right elbow and cursed himself for not having heard Jonathanís approach across the gravel parking lot. But another spasm distracted him, and he bit his lip raw against it. Tears stung the back of his eyes as the renewed pressure crushed his resolve to remain calm and reasonable.

"You feel strongly about this," Jonathan said from the place toward which Bennyís tortured head wouldnít turn allow him to turn. "I understand that. And I do respect how you feel. But I feel just as strongly about it myself, and I canít... I wonít apologize for it."

"You move me to tears, you really do," he bit out, the words coming from a place beyond his control. "So what else did you come running out here to tell me? Donít tell me, let me guess. You have to do this. Thereís something inside you that refuses to let you leave well enough alone. I donít want to know what you call itóchivalry, nobility, whatever. I got one word for it: stupid."

"Benny...."

"Or maybe you came out here to throw the word Ďcowardí in my face." He yanked the car door open, using it as a barrier between them. "Bigwheel Benedek squares off against phantom hitchhikers or Uzi toting Colombian entrepreneurs, but he runs away squealing when Jonathan MacKensie wants him to hunt down a few of Lon and Harmonís close personal friends." Biting sarcasm flashed into towering fury. "Let me tell you something, Jocko. You donít get away with the Ďhow much I have sufferedí routine with me. Iím the one who had to look Lon in the eye and Iím the one who has the dental bills to prove it."

Jonathan gave up his attempt to speak; he stared, betraying nothing of any effect Bennyís invective inflicted on him.

"And we wonít get into that interesting little dance he put all of us throughówhen was it? Only three weeks ago? My, how times flies from a pleasant memory. But you know, itís funny. Compared to you, Lon was easy to figure outóand a hell of a lot easier to deal with. And right now, Iím kinda sorry heís gone."

My god. What did I just say?

He dived into the car, slammed the door shut and yanked the lock switch. In a dull haze of panic and pain, he managed to fumble the right key into the ignition and roared off, with only a brief glance in the rearview mirror to see a lone figure, unmoving, watching him go. 


Dr. Moorhouse sighed, shaking her head wearily. "I knew this was a mistake."

"I donít believe that," Jonathan told her stubbornly. "And even if it is, I want to know just what kind of a mistake it turned out to be." To her puzzled glance he continued, "He wonít return my calls. He refuses to give me any kind of explanation for his bizarre behavior."

"Perhaps...." She stopped, reconsidering her words. "Perhaps not so bizarre, given the circumstances."

His jaw tightened. "Yes, I understand what youíre saying, but...."

"But?" she prompted when he broke off with an exasperated sigh.

"Dr. Moorhouse, he wanted to be talked into continuing. I didnít twist his arm."

"And no one is suggesting you did. Iím merely saying that Edgar Benedek may be suffering some sort of emotional backlash engendered by an ordeal with which he never completely came to terms."

Jonathan settled back in his chair, sagging under the weight of stark memories. He glanced up at the woman seated on the other side of the desk, and quirked a smile acknowledging the sympathetic light in her eyes. "Yes," he admitted reluctantly. "Iíve considered that as a...possibility."

"You mustnít feel that his hostility is a reflection of anything other than unresolved emotional trauma."

"I know, I knowódonít take it personally." He drew a deep breath, nodding. "I know."

"Good." With a wan smile, she leaned forward, folding her hands against her desk. "With luck, all he needs is distanceóand time."

"He needs something." Frustration boiled over, lifting him from his chair to pace Dr. Moorhouseís office restlessly. "My personal feeling is that he needs to talk, butó" He emitted a bitter laugh. "He certainly doesnít want to hear anything I have to say."

"Perhaps I can try."

Jonathan started, embarrassed at having forgotten that Liz was in the room, quietly occupied at the far bank of filing cabinets. The woman straightened, nudging a drawer closed with her knee before approaching Dr. Moorhouseís desk. "I could fly to New York tomorrow morning."

"New York?" Jonathan blinked. "Surely a phone call...?"

"He wonít talk to me, either," she informed him, faint anguish in her eyes. "I tried several times after you first called from Oriskany."

He darted a suspicious look from Liz to Dr. Moorhouse and saw the silent conspiracy. His brief phone call telling them that Benedek had for some mysterious reason stranded him in Oriskany was what provoked the fear lurking behind their eyes, not his passionate recital of only moments before. Judging from the color creeping into Dr. Moorhouseís face under the intensity of his continued scrutiny, she had made a few futile attempts of her own to contact the recalcitrant writer.

Jonathan let his openly suspicious gaze linger on them. "Youíre both determined, arenít you?"

Dr. Moorhouse blinked, serene. "Did you ever doubt it? But to what specifically do you refer?"

"Youíre determined to pull us through this, even if you have to pick us both up by the scruff of the neck and give a good shake."

She had difficulty controlling a smile provoked by the mental image. "What an interesting way to state the obvious," she mused. "And to answer your questionóyes. If thatís what it takes."

Giving in to a small, heartfelt laugh, he flopped back down into his chair. "WellóI suppose Iím stuck with it, then."

"If I were you, I wouldnít doubt that, either," Liz informed him, giving him an affectionate smile.

An attempt to wipe the grin from his face failed miserably; the hand he lifted to his mouth tilted up, a small gesture of surrender. "I suppose there are worse things than to be in the thrall of two virulent maternalistic instincts."

Liz raised a warning finger. "Hold that thought," she said with a mischievous twinkle.

"Okay," he sighed. "He may not greet you with open arms, but...." On impulse, he reached over to grasp Lizís hand, and her fingers tightened around his. "Show him no mercy," he told her with mock ferocity. "Give him both barrels. Mother him within an inch of his life." He tugged lightly on her hand and sighed. "At the very least, get him to talk, okay?"

"Okay. Count on it," she assured him, giving his hand one more squeeze before releasing it. "I wonít let him get away with this. Edgar Benedek has run away from us for the last time." 


"Why do you keep giving me this stuff?" Jordan Kerner casually crumpled the top sheet of paper, tossing it over his shoulder. "Crap, Tom, pure crap. How many times I gotta tell you, save the Freudian insights for the Times. I donít wanna know why this guy chops up whores, I wanna know his modus operandi and how many swings he takes per hooker. You get what Iím saying here? I wanna know the intimate personal details of this guyís screwed-up sex life, and throw in his mother, father, sister, brother, and pet cocker spanielís sex lives while youíre at it. I wanna know, Tom. The readers wanna know. Hey, donít ask me where you gonna dig this stuff up, thatís your problem, okay? Use what little imagination you got. Ask somebody. Ask Wick, the kidís got the complete works of the Marquis de Sade stashed in his desk somewhere. You donít find something there, you might as well give it all up and do something youíre really suited for, like washing windows." He straightened, giving the manís fallen face a light tap. "Come on. You can do it, Tom. Just remember what I always sayólook for the lowest common denominator, heavy emphasis on the low. Right? Right. Hey, Sunshine! Where the hellís my decaf?"

Jordy Kerner lumbered back into the mainstream, mindlessly plowing through the crowded aisle as he scowled at the printout someone from Circulation had shoved into his hand somewhere along the line. The previous weekís issue was still moldering in the supermarkets. That settled it; that was the last time heíd let Joey the Geek talk him into splashing Brooke Shieldsí midterm grades on the front page. Back to Joan Collins and any Hollywood male type person of whom Research could come up with a decent color photo; a little deft grafting, and the issue would swoosh off the stands in a hot minute. He chuckled, warming himself with the thought. "Sunshine, dammit! Whereísóyowtch!"

A bright red blur whizzed by, shoving a Styrofoam cup into his hands in passing, and he hissed as hot coffee splashed over his hand. He stifled an impulse to send the cup flying after her, but sheíd already roller-skated to safety. Grumbling, he balanced the cup in his already crowded right hand long enough to shake out his left, sending a shower of coffee driblets over the Humor editorís desk.

"Aw, geez...!" came the immediate and explosive protest. "Canít you use your shirt like a normal person, for crying out loud?"

Jordanís head snapped up. The person glaring down at the coffee stains making inroads on a colorful shirt was by no stretch of the imagination Barbie Dahl, vacuous Humor editor of the National Register. "Hey," Jordy barked. "I thought you said you had a lunch date."

Edgar Benedek, swiping furiously at the recalcitrant stains, glared back. "I ate. I came back. Big deal."

Jordy leaned in, squinting at the man, who did his best to ignore the scrutiny. "Last time I checked, pal, you werenít on the time clock. What the hell you doing here pulling oars with the rest of the slaves?"

Benny shot him a look. "I like the peace and quiet, okay?"

Jordy accorded the remark the derisive snort it deserved. "Look, if youíve decided to camp out here, youíd better pick another desk to invade. When it comes to territorial rights, Barbie ainít exactly famous for her sense of humor."

"Get off my case, Jordy," Benny snarled. With his head down, ostensibly buried in a half-finished manuscript, he missed the suspicion in Jordyís narrowed eyes. "Sure thing. Iíll get off your case," he agreed ominously. "That my new feature?"

Benny snatched it from Jordyís reaching hand. "Itís not finished yet."

"Like it wasnít finished yesterday or the day before that, or the week before that?"

Anger flushed Benedekís face, sending sparks into the glare he fixed on Jordy. "You got a problem with that?"

"Looks like youíre the one with the problem," Jordy growled. "Thatís the same page you were on last week."

"And thatís none of your damned business, is it?"

Jordy lifted his head, staring down at the man in silence, a mute reprimand for the uncalled-for shout that brought several puzzled looks from those within hearing range. Benny settled back into his chair, head down, grumbling what might have been an apology.

Jordy let him stew a few moments longer before offering a dignified exit. "Hey, youíve probably got too many distractions going. Why donít you use my office? With the door closed, the noise goes down at least twenty-five decibels."

Benny waved him off, but Jordy persisted. "Naw, go ahead. I need to pow-wow with the jerkheads in Composition, you got the place to yourself. Go."

He saw the intense, irritated look Benny gave him and knew that the man read the true meaning in his words. Meeting or not, Jordy meant to trap him in the privacy of the editorís office and either cajole or outright strangle an explanation out of him. To Jordyís relief, Benny sighed, nodding. "Yeah. Yeah, okay, thatís...that sounds like a good idea."

"Great. Hey, listen, if you find Ralph catching forty under the desk, invite him to leave with the toe of your shoe, okay? And if my ex-wife calls, tell her the kid is either at Little League or ScoutsóI forget which. Sheíll find him eventually. Now, where...?" He flipped to the back of the sheaf in his hand. "Oh, for cryiní...Luigi! Luigi, you idiot. Reagan, not Begin!"

Benny watched Jordy, gesticulating wildly, disappear around the corner. His thoughts for the man werenít kind, and he had to fight them back to a reasonable level. He had to fight a lot these days, and not as successfully as he would have liked.

Headache. He cupped a hand to his throbbing head, and let the red-hued kaleidoscope do its slow dance on the inside of his eyelids. If this was due to ongoing tension, he sure wasnít doing a whole hell of a lot toward defusing it. Snapping at Jordy; now that was an exercise in futility if ever there was one. Sitting at home staring at the blank piece of paper in his typewriter only worsened the dull ache; sitting in crowded bars took his mind from the pain only a little while, and the constant flow of lemon-spiked ginger ale got expensive after a while, not to mention what damage it was doing to his kidneys in the long run. Huddling in the midst of the bustling National Register office became a last ditch effort to supplant the distracting pain. This isnít right; this isnít normal. I should be seeing a doctor, not hiding in a crowd. A doctor...make an appointment....

You donít need a doctor. All you need to do is relax. Thatís all. Just relax. Accept the pain, and it will go away. Accept.

He shook himself, a mistake he paid for with a hiss of pain. Accept? What the hell is that, accept? A brain scan, a complete physical, not acceptance. At the very least, more aspirin. No, heíd already popped four tablets in the last hour and a half, no more hope of relief in that direction. But a doctorís prescription....

Forget the damned doctor, already. Relax. Accept.

With a low groan, he buried his burning face in his hands, pressing hard to push the persistent, biting voice out of his mind. Go away with your Ďacceptí crap, dammit. I want to get rid of the pain, not learn to live with it.

But youíre stuck with it. All you can do is accept it and it will go away, it will go away, it will go away....

Go away.

He forced himself back to the ongoing effort Jordy had interrupted with his coffee shower. Again he reached out, biting his lip raw with the sheer physical strain it cost him to put his trembling hand on the telephone receiver. Several lines blinked on hold, chiding his cowardice. Cowardice? Was that the word for this peculiar lack of strength preventing him from picking up the phone and dialing a few, well-remembered numbers? No, that wasnít what pulled his muscles taut; it was the anticipation of what would be said after the connection went through and an accented voice said hello. Of their own volition, his fingers retracted, leaving him to curse himself silently. Why canít I do it? Why canít I call and try to explain? Why canít I find anything to say?

Thereís nothing to say. Nothing to say.

He squeezed his eyes shut against the sharp thought. Of course thereís something to say. I could explain, I could....

He doesnít deserve an explanation. Forget him, heís a fool. You did him a favor; you told him the truth.

No. He growled out loud, pushing down the sickening thought. Where was this...this seductive whisper coming from? Was his psyche even more scrambled than heíd originally feared? At his most callous and insensitive, he could never bring himself to think half the things heíd thrown in Jonathanís face could be true.

But they are. Theyíre true. Theyíre true....

"Benny?"

The quiet voice cut like a knife through his mental turmoil, snapping his head up. He stared up at Liz, and his heart leaped in unexpected joy, wanting him to grab her hand and kiss it. How glad he was to see her; now he could explain to someone, make them understand....

"What the hell are you doing here?" he exploded, mentally cringing at the blazing anger in his voice.

She blinked, but remained unfazed, her jaw tightening as she regarded him steadily. "Iím here to see you," she told him coolly.

Liz, Iím sorry, I didnít mean....

"How did you find me?" God, why am I doing this?

Because she deserves it, the meddling snoop.

"It wasnít easy," she said, bristling at his snarling tone. "I finally got your friend Wick to admit he was lying to cover for you."

Damn Wick. Weíll get him for this.

He choked, all warmth draining from his limbs. We? What the...?

"Benny, weíre going to talk. Now."

"Iím busy," he growled, twisting away to dismiss her.

"That wasnít a request, Benedek."

He stared at her, dimly aware that he wore a scowl that in no way reflected the bewilderment echoing in his mind. How far had Liz been pushed to turn her easy-going manner into this fierce lioness stance? And was he the one whoíd pushed her that far?

Who cares? Tell her to go to hell.

"Liz, do me a favor. Go...."

He snapped his mouth closed, trapping the words, strangling them to a slow death. Whatís happening to me? Whatísó?

Come on. Tell her. Do it.

No. No.

She stared at him with a deepening frown and he realized only then that his bizarre internal struggle reflected on his face.

"Come on," she said, thin-lipped. "Sardiís, my treat. You wonít talk to us on the phone, now you pay the piper."

"Look, sweetheart. Read my lips. Iím busy."

"Read mine, pal," she hissed. "Up and outónow."

Are you gonna put up with this? Tell her off. Bounce her out. Hit her, yeah, hit her, donít let her get away with this, come on, come on....

He jolted, eyes widening as he finally saw, with horrifying clarity, the inner place from where the soft voices issued. Not manifestations of a mind cracking under pressure; not unfettered emotions set free by an incomprehensible ordeal. Not part of him at all, yet everything he was, wriggling like a new-born from a widening fissure whose existence heíd tried desperately to deny.

Hey, he sees us. Hi, dad.

Revulsion shot up, twisting his stomach, closing his throat. Not one...two, two amorphous shadows floating up from their hiding place in the deepest corners of his mind, ruthlessly invading the farthest reaches of his private soul. Two dark things, two individual manifestations of purest evil.

Reality abruptly swirled from his senses, and somewhere in the wild spin he saw Liz reach out to him, her shattered visage fraught with open concern. Her voice pounded at him with its discordant echo. "Benny?"

Donít let her touch!

He jerked back in his chair and the tinny voices sighed their relief. Sheís no good, she knows, sheís been warned, sheíll taste bad because she knows, she knows....

Behind eyes squeezed shut against a surge of nausea, he saw them: black monsters clothed in darkness, infant malevolency. Hungry. Waiting.

Send her away. Tell her to go away. Tell her.

"Liz...." His voice forced from a distant place, coarse and grating. "Go...away. Go...no!" He jumped out of the chair, backing away from her extended hand. "Iím...Iím busy, I canít go to...I canít...."

Do it! Send her away crying. Call her names, insult her, scream at her, hit her, give us her pain, just a little bit, just a tiny taste, just a little....

"I...canít." He swallowed, focusing on her bewildered face. "Go...back to Georgetown. I donít neeóI donít want your help. I donít....

Say it! They swelled indignantly, trying to force the words into his mouth. Say it, say it, say it, say it....

Nausea flooded him, sending air exploding out of his lungs. Somehow he forced himself to move, to flee from her, and blindly he stumbled down the crowded aisle, his stomach wrenching every time one of the things inside tried to lance out at those he inadvertently brushed in his flight.

No! they wailed each time he fought them back. Hungry, weíre hungry, let us go!

And then Liz appeared from nowhere, blocking his path, fire in her eyes. He couldnít stop fast enough. She grabbed his arm, jerking him to a halt.

They hissed at her burning touch. Weíll show her.

No! But they eluded his desperate effort to stop them, springing with talons extended.

Reality stabilized, centered on Lizís eyes; he watched, helpless, as her flashing anger disintegrated into sudden, wrenching horror.

Stop it! Damn you, stop it!

They clung tenaciously against his desperate pull, stubbornly shredding with their sharpened claws. Lizís fingers on his arms tightened as her body reacted to the vicious internal assault; her eyes glazed over as they gleefully robbed her of all sight, all sound, all senses.

Stop it! Liz, let go, please, let go, let go....

His hand closed on her wrist, and he pushed every last bit of strength he had into breaking her grip. She fell away, crumpling senseless to the floor, and he stumbled back, watching her fall, seeing everything blur and retract as though he were viewing the scene from a distant place, detached and remote; no feeling, no emotion, nothing left except the cacophonous voices ringing in his ears. Thatíll show her.

Was he breathing? Was his heart still beating? He wasnít sure. He wasnít sure of anything anymore. Liz. I did that to her. I did.

We did.

Faint, fuzzy images danced before eyes that no longer responded to his will; shifting colors and shapes, unidentifiable save for the pulsing sensation beating at his fevered mind. Bright life, tangible emotions of people, many people, crowding him, sending their fear and confusion to touch the hungry things cavorting inside him. They lapped eagerly at the thin tendrils, dancing with joy. More, more, give us more, touch them, give us more.

No.

He recoiled from the suddenly clear vision of hands reaching for him, of fear-filled faces leaning in, of strained voices calling his name. Stumbling back, he sought the escape of isolation. Daring to touch reality only long enough to get his bearings, he dove into the editorís office, slamming the door shut behind him.

The ecstatic hiss inside his head jolted him a split second before a bellowing voice cut through his dazed senses. "What theó? You ever come into a room like a normal person, fer chrissakes?"

We want him. Weíre hungry, we want him.

Benny pressed against the door, holding them back with his breath and sheer force of will, leaving just enough behind to say, almost normally, "Jordy, thereís some trouble outside. Maybe you wanna go check it out?"

"Trouble?" Jordy jumped to his feet, pausing when Benny skittered out of his path. Studying the man with narrowed eyes, he demanded, "What kinda trouble?"

Want him, want him, want him! Touch him, give him to us, please, please, weíre hungry, feed us, feed us....

Outside the door, the confused tumult peaked, and above it rose cries of "Jordy!" and "Mr. Kerner?"

Distracted, Jordy yanked the door open, peering out. Benny seized his chance. Steeling himself, he slammed his weight against the door, shoving Jordy out into the main newsroom. With a yelp, Jordy twisted mid-stumble, managing to brace his arm against the door Benny tried desperately to close.

In a pitched battle, Jordy could have won hands down, but he took one look through the opening and froze in blank astonishment. Never in his life had he seen what he saw now; Benny, pale and distraught, his face splashed by sudden, violent tears of desperation.

"Jordy." Even his voice was unnaturally hoarse, as though squeezed dry by some relentless force. "Jordy, listen to me. Stay away from me. Keep everybody away. Donít let anyone in here. Jordy...."

No, no, no, no, donít warn him, donít, heíll taste bad, donít warn him!

Benny closed his eyes, forcing out the last word between clenched teeth. "Please...."

For Jordy, confusion became a costly distraction. Benny slammed and locked the door before Kerner had time to blink.

Jordy stumbled back, sudden unreasoning panic pounding in his chest; not for what he had heard, but for what he had seen. And what heíd seen....

He snapped his mouth closed, becoming aware that members of his staff were crowding around in silent, questioning fear. From the corner of his eye, Jordy spotted Wick and snagged the young manís arm. "Make a call for me."

"The police?"

The police? Sure, that would be the sane, logical thing to do. Only...logic didnít feel quite right, not after what heíd just seen burning in the depths of an old friendís eyes.

"Nah." His head felt heavy as he shook it in denial. "G.I. Thereís somebody there I want to talk toónow."


Semester curriculum specs for the upcoming registration seminars refused to hold his attention; he found himself staring at the silent telephone instead. The few calls forwarded into the office by the grad student covering Lizís desk had been unimportant, even frivolous. And frustrating. He glanced at his watch again, recalculating. Liz had called from Kennedy over four hours ago. Even with traffic, that gave her enough time to either find Benedek or pick up some leads on his whereabouts, and sheíd promised to check in regularly to report her progress. So far nothing.

Shoving the specs aside as a lost cause, he retrieved another folder from his open briefcase. Heíd never bothered putting the page order to rights after Benny had violently strewn the contents over the motel room floor. This was the first time in two days heíd even dared think about it.

"What is that?"

Dr. Moorhouseís voice startled him out of his pensive mood. She stood behind him, leaning into his field of vision to address him, and it was obvious from her searching look that her curiosity was more for his bleak expression than it was for the folder in his hand.

He cleared his throat, embarrassed at not having heard her come into the office. "The project I told you about."

She nodded, settling into a chair across the corner of the conference table from him. "This is what you indicated to be the major bone of contention between the two of you?"

He sighed, pressing his lips together tightly in troubled thought. "Thatís the really confusing part," he said quietly. "When I first approached him with the idea of locating other venues, he seemed ...well, not enthusiastic, certainly, but I did get the impression that he was at least receptive. I put his initial reluctance down to exhaustion. But every time I tried to broach the subject, heíd ask me to leave it for another time. The only time I can remember him showing any kind of anger or irritation was when I asked to see the notes heíd made during his search for Harmonís Carnival."

He lowered his head in mild chagrin for being unable to keep his voice from cracking. Dr. Moorhouse let the moment pass without comment, saying instead, "He gave you no previous indication of his true depth of feeling on the subject?"

"Iím not so sure he was reacting to the subject. I think he was reacting to me."

"Jonathan, weíve been over this before...."

"Yes, we have. And I think what weíve skirted is the fact that Bennyís ordeal came at the hands of someone who looked exactly like me."

She grabbed his hand, tightening her grip with the jolt his words sent through her. "Iíll tell you this as many times as I have to. All he needs is time."

"How much time is enough?" Jonathan stared down at the folder in front of him. "Dr. Moorhouse, we should have gone into this project together."

"Why didnít you?"

Startled, he began to protest that heíd just told her why, but stopped short when he realized what her question really meant.

Her intense scrutiny discomfited him and it was a moment before he could make a coherent reply. "Because this is important to me."

"So important that you couldnít wait." A flat, faintly accusative statement, not a question.

"Dr. Moorhouse, that isnít the point...."

"Perhaps it is." She tugged the folder from his hand, and flipped through the first few pages. "How has the work progressed?"

He stared at her warily, but could read nothing on her closed expression. "Angela has actually been very helpful despite her admittedly limited experience with the...situation I described. Apparently the existence of the venues was something of which sheíd heard only vague rumors. In her words, there are no case histories of anyone coming in contact with these venuesóand surviving to tell about it."

"Until now."

A grateful smile edged onto his face for her emphatic words. "Yes. Until now. Angela was quite intrigued by the story, although she expressed reservations about her effectiveness in actually tracking down the venues. In the course of her work as an exorcist, the demonic beings she encounters are without exception individual manifestations. The venues represent a much larger tapestry of evil, totally insular and self-supporting, and completely outside her experience."

"But not outside yours."

Her incisive understanding and lack of overt criticism fueled his resolve. "Dr. Moorhouse, I lived inside a venue for three months. I survived it, I survived its destruction. And, having survived all that, how can I in good conscience turn my back knowing full well this...this thing still exists in other guises? How can I possibly live my life in peace knowing that the lures are out, and that other people...other...."

Pressure in his chest choked off his words, bowed his head into his hand. Dr. Moorhouse reached over to place her hand softly on his arm. "I understand how deeply you feel about this," she told him. "But I do think you should take some time to think about other things as well."

Something inside him rebelled at her tacit accusation. Nothing was more important than this project. Not even....

Not even Benedek.

He started, staring at Dr. Moorhouse as if fearful that she could read his disturbing thought. But she only regarded him intently, expecting him to respond to her comment.

Had Benedek been right after all? Was what Jonathan MacKensie wanted more important than anything else, including the opinions and feelings of a man who had risked both life and sanity to save him?

The intercom buzzed, stemming his steady rise of anxiety. "National Register office on Line 1," the grad studentís puzzled voice reported.

Dr. Moorhouse blinked in open surprise, pushing out of her chair to stride over to her desk. Jonathan half-listened to her conversation, his eyes straying back to the folder and his thoughts to the soft accusations echoing in his mind. Why had their proclivity for healthy argument turned bitter and violent? Everything had gone so smoothly in Oriskany, save for Bennyís frequent headaches and his own bouts of sleeplessness. Theyíd been back on the track; what had derailed them without warning? The more he struggled with the question, the more certain he was that Bennyís reason for the argument had been superfluous. And after all, how much consideration did he really owe Edgar Benedek?

He flinched, vaguely unsettled by the resurgence of a feeling heíd thought successfully suppressed after its first appearance in a motel parking lot as heíd watched a car peel out in a shower of gravel. The feeling that it didnít matter. Edgar Benedek didnít matter. Nothing mattered except....

What?

He inhaled sharply, drowning the disquieting thought. More sleep; thatís all he needed, and this oddness would undoubtedly pass. It was all just a matter of time, and everything would be right again. Soon. Very soon. 


After a while, the banging stopped and the shrill, questioning voices faded away. Once or twice Jordy tested the knob, calling his name, once threatening, once cajoling, and then he too left him alone. The bleak silence combined with soft darkness to blanket him in stark solitude.

Heíd drawn the heavy curtain on the observation window, tossed the blinking phone and LCD-faced digital clock into drawers, turned the lights off and then thrown himself into Jordyís overstuffed desk chair, huddling in its depths. Wrapping his arms tightly around himself, he withdrew, shunting aside the reality heíd just masked in darkness, focusing his strength, every last shred of his awareness, into the struggle against his two new...companions.

Donít fight us, daddy, daddy, daddy....

They persisted because he resisted, laughed when he tried to oust them, pouted when he cursed them.

He fought them with weapons of the mind; he clung to the agonizing memory of what theyíd done to Liz, using it as a barrier between him and...and Them. Oh, god. Liz. No. No.

We did her good. Why didnít you let us do more? She deserved it, we couldíve done more before it started tasting read bad, why didnít you let us?

Mischievous children begging for his attention, wheedling for his approval, growing petulant and demanding when he pulled from their reach.

We want more. Give us more. Weíre hungry, daddy. Feed me. Feed us.

His strength was fading. It was no longer the fight that drained him; they did. They siphoned from him, drawing their bright life from his soul, growing stronger as he grew weaker. They in turn offered to share their new lives with him, but he knew what that meant. To accept them, to accept any part of them, was to accept what they were, and they were....

It was impossible, it couldnít be true. But no matter how desperately he tried to deny it, there it was and every time it dragged him back from futile retreat and forced him to stare the truth in the face. He couldnít remember what heíd decided Harmon actually was; whether human or otherwise, in the long run it actually hadnít mattered. Until now. Now that he was becoming...Harmon.

No, not Harmonóa focus. This was how Harmon must have embraced his destiny. Heíd been human, perhaps no better or worse a soul than any other. Perhaps heíd been lured to a venue, maybe heíd been approached or made an offer by someoneósomethingórecognizing inner potential; did it matter how? Only where it might give Benny some clue how heíd come to be Ďtouchedí in the same way, but he already knew the answer. Heíd been touched, all right. Lon had ruthlessly invaded his soul on their first meeting; and in their last battle, fought on Lonís ground, Benny had nearly been crushed in Lonís malevolent grip. Not just a touch; contamination. Infection. And this was the disease: two whispering, seductive voices, offering him power, perfidious and insidious. Had Harmon resisted the first infant advances or had he leapt into their welcome embrace? No, Harmon had been too good at his part to have been a reluctant player; he savored his role, wielded power as his natural right. Had Lon been one of his first-born and best-loved? Harmon had cherished his children, coddled and nurtured them, gave them strength. More than enough, excess allowing Lon to survive his progenitorís destruction, albeit crippled by the severed link.

This was how evil grew, soft and seductive. Evil born of evil, feeding evil, doing evil, spawning evil....

Liz. Iím sorry.

They shrieked, stomping their displeasure, and the keening pain of their furious tantrum etched cooling streaks of tears down his burning face. Daddy, daddy, come to us, daddy, you wonít hurt anymore if youíll come to us, feed us, daddy, feed us....

Two of them. Two voices, raucous and insistent, two childish entities tugging at his soul. Them. Twin shadows, pulsing with growing impatience. Voices raised in ceaseless clamor, sometimes in chorus, sometimes in disharmony. One voice he fancied pitched slightly higher than the other: Her. And Her companion: Him. Her and Him...the devilment twins.

Part of him, begging for his soul.

Feed us!

Leave me alone!

They trembled in mild consternation before laughing softly, whispering over and over again, We canít do that. We are you. 


Jordy looked up when a sudden tumult erupted from the opposite side of the nearly deserted main office. A man he recognized as Prof. Jonathan MacKensie burst in, followed close behind by a young woman who, under better circumstances, would have straightened his spine with a snap. As it was, he barely had enough time to appreciate the profís taste in traveling companions before Jonathan rounded the corner desk, demanding breathlessly, "Where is he?"

"Right where he was when I called you, holed up in my office."

"Liz. Howís Liz?"

"Take it easy," he soothed, unwilling to let the manís agitation set off another anxiety attack of his own. "Geez, you look like you ran the whole way from D.C."

"Damn it, Jordy, howís Liz?"

"Look, I called the hospital about thirty minutes ago. They say sheís doing okay, resting comfortablyówhatever the hell that means. Theyíre asking me all kinds of questions, because they canít find anything wrong with her other than the fact that she donít wake up. They wanna know what happened, so you tell meówhat am I supposed to tell them?"

"Nothing." He drew a breath, recovering his composure. "At least, nothing until you tell me, okay? You said he was acting strangely."

But Jordyís attention was elsewhere. "Whoís your friend?" he asked, giving her a slow once-over. The willowy blonde greeted his leer with a tolerant smile, obviously used to the attention she gathered in her parti-colored leotard and tights, fluorescent aerobic shoes and loose cotton jacket.

Jonathan grimaced, irritated by the necessity of social amenities. "Angela, this is Jordan Kerner. Jordy, Angela Taylor."

"How do you do?" the woman greeted him with a grave nod. "Mr. Kerner, please. We need to know precisely what happened."

"Precisely? Who the hell knows? Mr. Personality camps out in the city room, has half the staff for lunch, next thing I know your friend Liz there drops like a rock and Benny turns my office into the last stand at the Alamo."

Jonathan looked over his shoulder at the office on the far side of the room, ignoring the curious stares of the few staffers Jordy hadnít managed to clear out. He made a move that Jordy stopped dead. "Just hang on one minute, pal. Bennyís not going anywhere in a hurry and you owe me a big explanation. I did what you asked. I didnít call the police and now youíre gonna tell me why that isnít the biggest mistake of my life."

Jonathan studied him, eyes narrowed. "Why didnít you call the police? Why did you trust me enough to hold off just because I asked you to?"

Jordy gestured to emphasize words that died in a splutter. Then, with a sigh, he shrugged. "I dunno. I...." He paused, rubbing his neck tiredly. "This is gonna sound really weird, butóI saw something. Likeóin his eyes, yíknow? Heís not crazy, heís not strung out, hellóheís scared. I mean, really scared, like a kid under first fire, but more...I dunno. I tellya, I never seen anything like it, and I canít describe it except to say itís the kind of scared you just canít describe. You maybe understand what Iím saying?"

His voice trailed off, his interest focused on MacKensieís reaction. The other man looked at him, but saw nothing except whatever dread memory the words had somehow loosed. His strange introspection was obvious enough for Angela to react by putting her hand lightly on his arm. Jonathan started, mustering up a wan smile. "Yes," he said, clearing his throat. "I think I do understandóa little."

"Yeah." Jordy nodded slowly, pursing his lips. "I guess maybe you do." He paused just long enough for common sense to make a jarring re-entry, pushing out the undefined insight in favor of the more immediate problem. "Look, you think you can pry him out of there? This is playing hell with my deadline, and the last thing I need is to explain this to four trade unions, know what I mean?"

Jonathan nodded, the brief light in his eye telling Jordy he knew exactly what he meant, and it had nothing to do with deadlines or union trouble. "Iíll get him out. Angela, see if Jordy can remember anything else that might help."

"All right," she agreed, adding quietly as he turned away, "Be careful."

Only a few staffers remained in the usually bustling office, having stubbornly ignored Jordyís peremptory dismissal hours before. Several people were genuinely busy at their desks while others pretended industriousness to cover their burning curiosity. Only one was neither occupied nor concerned with appearances; he stood by a desk nearest the locked office door and made a jerky, aborted move toward Jonathan as he approached.

It took MacKensie a moment to place the young man in his memory, finally remembering a high-decibel conversation during one of Bennyís raucous shindigs, months ago. Benny had introduced them, throwing his arm around the youthís shoulders as though he were showing off his newest pet project. An unusual nameóWick, or Wicksie, as Benny had cheekily addressed him. Leery as always of Edgar Benedekís friends, Jonathan recalled being pleasantly surprised by the personable young man, even impressed by his forth-right optimism and carefully balanced cynicism. It hadnít taken long for him to figure the reason behind Bennyís breezy paternalism; Wick was obviously an up-and-comer in the Edgar Benedek mold, perhaps heir apparent to the flash-and-dazzle journalism crown if and when Benny chose to move on to greener, or at least more erudite pastures.

And it was obvious from the open anxiety on the young manís face now that he held Benny in a greater light than just some static role model. Jonathan felt a small stab of regret at having once disparaged Edgar Benedekís capacity to gather true and loyal friendships. No one could ask for a stauncher ally than Jordan Kerner; another man would have called the police or the hospital instead of Georgetown Institute and a lesser man certainly wouldnít have obeyed Jonathanís strange and unexplained request to hold off any further action until his arrival. And now this young man, holding vigil at the door. Confused and frightened, his concern was palpable; he didnít know what was happening and so had no idea whether he could do anything to help, yet here he stood, when others would have retreated. Ready, waitingóand scared to death.

Jonathan paused at the office door, debating the advisability of acknowledging Wickís presence. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the young man hovering, himself indecisive about daring to intrude.

Angelaís approach distracted him from the decision. "Jordy gave me this," she said, holding out a small bunch of keys.

Taking them, Jonathan glanced questioningly over his shoulder at Jordy, who had followed Angela a few steps behind. "The gold one with the green cap," he said, feigning nonchalance under MacKensieís searching stare.

Locating the right key gave Jonathan time to recover from his moment of shock. Jordy had had a way into the office the entire time. Yet heíd held off. Was it because what heíd seen in Bennyís eyes frightened him so badly that heíd feared for his own safetyóor for Bennyís?

He fitted the key into the lock, hesitating. "Jordy, get everyone out of here, okay?" Meeting Angelaís eyes, he searched for any sign of doubt or unease. She nodded, serene.

Behind them rose a mild tumult; Wickís troubled voice said, "But Mr. Kerner...."

"You wanna help, yeah, I know. You can help me clear the rest of these ghouls outta here, okay? Awright, folks, showís over...."

Jonathan stared at the hand holding the key, wondering why he couldnít seem to turn it. Certainly he didnít have any fears for his personal safetyódid he? In fact, he had no idea what waited for him on the other side of the door. Jordyís semi-hysterical phone call hinted only at some kind of violent freak-out, although that didnít explain Lizís mysterious collapse. It was just as well that heíd persuaded Dr. Moorhouse to proceed directly to the hospital upon their arrival at Kennedy Airport. He had a strong suspicion that sheíd do a lot more good there than here; this arena he was about to enter could well prove dangerous. Why he thought that still confused him, as did the impulse directing him to phone Angela and ask her to meet them at National for the next shuttle to New York. Everything he did lately seemed to be directed by instinct, and the curious thing was that he accepted all his actions and decisions with such serenity. And the more he questioned the oddness, the less inclined he was to consider it worth worrying about.

His hand trembled on the key, suddenly unsure why he was here and what he thought he was doing. For some reason, he was losing that sense of urgency that had sent him to the airport within minutes of Jordyís phone call. Something happened to Benny, that was all he knew. But...do I really care?

The thought staggered him. Of course he caredówhy would he doubt it? What was holding him back? Some sort of residual anger for the bitterness Benny had thrown in his face two days ago? No, not that. The words had cut, yes, but not so deeply that he couldnít shunt them aside to deal with the more immediate problem. The simple truth was that he felt nothing. No panic, no concern. Nothing. Benny hid behind a locked door, and Jonathan didnít care what happened to him.

"Jonathan?"

Angelaís soft voice snapped him out of his reverie. Her narrowed eyes studied his reaction, but she said nothing. Aware of her intense gaze on him, he shook himself mentally, suddenly frightened by this odd malaise that wouldnít permit him to open the door. Of course he cared about what happened to Benny. He had to. And, if he had to, he would force himself to care, and deal with the roots of this strangeness later.


He jerked awake, gasping for the breath his pounding heart denied him. A soft murmur of voices from a distant place had nudged him back from the brink; he panicked to realize how close heíd come to falling asleep. Him and Her had cannily subsided, giving him peace, and with that Ďgiftí lulled him into their trap; once asleep, he would have been vulnerable to their swift attack, destroying what little control he had left over them.

They cooed, restraining their disappointment to again tug at him, renewing soft, seductive promises. A new venue, Her whispered. This building, Him enjoined. This office, the red tent: center of a new lure. Evil and madness, exquisitely masked by the already bizarre behavior of the National Register employees and their respective work habits. And Benny would sit at its center, receiving and conducting and dispensing and he would nod benevolently as his children fed on the morsels he threw them. And they would raise burning eyes and blood-soaked faces and beseech him for his blessing....

No.

Their irritation grew anew and they let their hunger blaze up, made him feel their pangs. And they grew, despite the famine his stubbornness forced on them, because they scavenged nourishment from him. They taunted him with the inescapable truth: they were strong enough now to seek their own sustenance, and they had weakened him to a point where he could no longer stop them. Their infant wings were dry. No longer did they need him to make contact with their prey.

Donít fight. Let us go. Help us, be with us. Feed us, and we will feed you, and youíll grow strong with us.

Continue to fight, and they would take everything he had until there was nothing left and they would be free to fly, free to....

He choked, squeezing out the few tears left in him. Those were his only choices now: agonizing death or an honored throne in hell, presiding over slavish minions, children spawned of his own twisted soul. He would have power, such power as no manóno mortal manócould even hope to dream. For such power, such immortality, all he had to do was willingly embrace an unacceptable choice.

If no one breached the office door, he could hold out until they tired of dragging him back from oblivion. Then at least he would have peace, and he wouldnít have to know, wouldnít have to care what mayhem and carnage his orphans wreaked in the aftermath. Either way, they won. The only difference was whether he stuck around to watch the show.

A sound in the silence; a key scraped gently in the lock.

He tried to scream a warning, but Him stole his voice while Her gathered to spring.

No. Donít come in here, donít, donít....

A growing sliver of slight revealed a silhouette, a dark form leaning in....

Her recoiled, hissing. Enemy. Him joined the chorus as they huddled, muttering darkly. Enemy. Enemy.

Jonathan?

The figure in the doorway was only a light-described outline, blurred by his unfocused vision; his eyes were useless guides and recognition hadnít come from there. Instead, something impinged on his battered senses, a kind of growing awareness that gave him Jonathanís name as clearly as if someone had spoken it aloud. A peculiar sensation, like sight without eyes; he could feel the manís presence in the room, could feel the strange burning emanation from which Him and Her retreated. He became so absorbed in the incomprehensible sensation that he failed to register the second presence, partially obscured by Jonathan.

But Her caught the scent, and ravenous hunger pushed all fear of her self-described Enemy aside. She sprang, easily shunting aside his feeble attempt to hold her back. And her shrill cry of triumph dissolved into an outraged wail as she hurled back, dazed and furious. Her tantrum raged, doubling him over in helpless agony, and in the shattered remnants of his mind her barely coherent screams raged. ...barrier...warned....

Her had impacted and rebounded off a wall of suspicion. The person with Jonathan had been warned, and specifically so; merely being aware of something being wrong wasnít enough. He knew that; Him and Her sullenly acknowledged their fatal limitations. But it wasnít merely suspicion: it was awareness. Awareness of something existing beyond the constraints of the mortal world, something dark, something hungry. However nebulous, awareness kept them at bay. Lady Carmenís cryptic clues had given him his armor, an eternity ago; heíd survived the red tent because of her warning.

Who stood behind Jonathan? Not Dr. Moorhouse; her aura would have been all too familiar, all too welcome to that part of him still unbowed by Him and Herís relentless torture. Not Randy, not...Liz.

The door closed, cutting off the light. A moment of darkness, then a rustle; the overheads flickered on, and the excruciating assault on his eyes sent him cringing deeper into the chair.

Him and Her muttered, pulsing their anger in his throbbing head, and above them he heard a voice filled with soft anguish.

"Oh, my god."

A familiar voice, a familiar aura...Angela. Angela Taylor. Jonathan brought her here? Why? What could she do? What did Jonathan think she could do? Had the man known or suspected something like this would happen? How? How could either of them have suspected that Harmonís destruction would leave a void demanding to be filled? And for that matter, the touch of corruption had lain on Jonathan for months longer than Bennyís brief tastes of living hellówhy was MacKensie unaffected?

Or was he?

That aura, that burning which identified Jonathanís presence pulsed differently from Angelaís. And it was more than just disparate individuality. Angela was solid, rooted to the earth and all mortal concerns; brief and bright flares were the manifestations of her awareness of things beyond normal ken. But Jonathan burned as a solid mass of those flares, and seemed only tenuously tied to the living reality around him; as though he were straining against the bonds of mortality, yearning for a higher place, and his tethers weakened with each wrenching pull.

Benny forced his eyes open, his mind away from the strangely unsettling thought. Through blurred vision, he saw Jonathan and Angela, standing near the door, staring at him in silent horror. And he knew what they saw, seeing himself reflected through their wide, anguished eyes: face colorless, etched with a thousand lines of strain; arms scratched and bleeding; eyes swollen and red-rimmed, wide and staring.

Jonathan approached warily, reaching out to him. "Benny?" His voice sounded muffled, surreal; Benny tried to answer, but Him and Her pressed against him, clinging like frightened children and stealing his voice.

They didnít speak, not even a whisper as Jonathan, their Enemy, stepped closer. No fear, no agitation, only expectant silence. They waited. And waited, waiting for....

No. No!

Giggling, they tightened their clawed grip, strangling even the slightest reflexive movement. No, let him touch you, they crooned. Youíll be free and heíll never hurt you again. No more pain. Just you and me and me and all the others to come. Let him touch you. No more pain. No more pain.

They wouldnít even let him close his eyes. He stared at the hand Jonathan reached toward him, and saw the fire, sinuous, beckoning fingers of flame promising him release, promising the end of pain. He could neither deny or accept the promise; he could only watch the hand of death approach.

A blur and a sharp cry, "Donít!" sent Him and Her into a blind, hissing rage. Released from their grip, Benny fell back with a gasp, barely aware of the solid presence throwing itself into the path of the fire: Angela. Sheíd sprung between them, turning Jonathan aside. How did she know? How could she have known?

She gave her answer to Jonathan, her voice like an echo from a distant place. "Your auras changed. Iíve never seen anything quite like it, and I canít really explain the feeling, but...I donít think you should touch him."

Him and Her disagreed violently, wracking him with their tantrum. Jonathanís touch would have sent that strange golden fire slicing through the last of Bennyís resistance, giving him into Him and Herís eager embrace. Angela had saved Benny without knowing how or why, and they seethed with fury at having been denied.

Something moved; Benny struggled to focus the vague blurs swimming before his eyes. Angela crouched by the chair, barely an armís length away. Him and Her held him fast, allowing him no sound or reflex, so that he could do no more than stare mutely at her. Her voice, soft and soothing, barely reached him past the dark imprecations they murmured.

"Benny? Can you hear me?"

They left him nothing he could use to respond. He couldnít even flinch away when she passed her hand slowly near the side of his head.

Her fingers caressed air, but he felt her touch nudge them. Her squealed and Him cowered from the gentle probe, swatting back with unsheathed claws. Angela started, eyes widening; whether she saw or merely sensed, Benny wasnít sure of anything save that she knew something was there.

Eyes flashing, she tentatively reached out for his hand where it clutched his own arm. He watched, immobilized as Him and Her danced in gleeful anticipation. Her barrier would be useless if she made physical contact and they salivated at the prospect. Bitter fare, perhaps, but they had more than ravenous hunger in mind; Her in particular wanted revenge.

Angelaís hand came to rest, feather-soft, on his bloodless fingers, and Her leapt across the bridge with a demonic, ululating cry of triumph. But Angela was ready for Her, locking her will like a solid wall against Herís slashing assault. Him flew to Herís aid, and, howling their frustration, they battered the obstacle that stood between them and a feast.

Numb, Benny watched the womanís face contort in agony, reflecting the nightmare battle raging within her soul. If she broke the contact before they ripped her shield to shreds, sheíd still have a chance. They couldnít kill her; theyíd choke on the bitterness long before they could cut to the place where her life force glowed. But the damage they could inflict on her before being forced to retreat would scar, even cripple her emotionally for the rest of her life. And he was helpless to save her.

But he was free of Himís paralyzing grip, enough to attempt to pull his hand from Angelaís, but the woman held on. "No," Benny managed to croak. "Let go. Please...."

Eyes shut, she shook her head stubbornly, wrapping her other hand around his. But the internal struggle intensified, erupting as an audible, pain-filled gasp as her weakening barricade quavered under the relentless attack.

"Let go," he begged, but his voice was gone and he recoiled with a ragged moan when Her ripped a gaping breach in Angelaís defenses.

A triumphant shriek from Her; a cry of agony from Angela as talons flashed; both mingled and rose like bile in his throat, bursting out like the third note in an evil chord.

Then Her froze, rearing up to catch a new scent. Him sniffed, pulsing excitedly at the new intrusive presence. Angela gasped at the unexpected reprieve, coalescing her shattered defenses into a new wall. But she was forgotten as Her speared out toward the beckoning source of pure sustenance.

Bennyís eyes flew open as Angela shouted a warning. He saw Wick in the doorway and felt Her fly straight at the young man.

The frantic concern on Wickís face became, in a blinding instant, stark terror. Benny shut his eyes but he still saw what Wick saw: a swiftly moving shadow, a demon of the minds-eye sweeping down to rip at his mind and his soul. But barely had her claws scraped him than Jonathan leaped, throwing himself against the paralyzed man.

Her screamed, unable to turn aside in time; she impacted against the burning shield with which Jonathan covered Wick and blazed, her cry abruptly cut with her fiery destruction.

Him exploded in a howl of outraged grief, doubling Benny over with a shuddering moan. Herís death echoed in the pain spearing through every fiber of his being and Himís fury stoked the flames of agony, giving pain for pain. But just as violently, the attack subsided. Dazed, Benny slumped in the chair, gasping air into his strained lungs. He felt nothing save the tight grip Angela maintained on his hand and only then knew the reason for his release. Weakened by his twinís death, Him fluttered feebly behind a wall formed by Angelaís will.

Tears he thought long exhausted slipped from his closed eyes, but the small spasms promising more faded away under Angelaís comforting touch.

With Himís grip loosened, Bennyís senses began to clear; he opened his eyes to the mild chaos surrounding him.

Wick pressed against the wall, eyes wide and glazed, oblivious to Jonathanís supportive grip on his shoulders. Jordy stood in the doorway, the picture of terrified incredulity. He inflated to make a sharp demand, then looked at each of them in turn before making a helpless gesture. "What the hellís going on here? Wick? Whatís wrong with Benny, what theó?"

Angela feathered her fingers across Bennyís sweat-drenched forehead, coaxing open the eyes heíd squeezed shut at the sight of Wickís torment. "Itís all right," she crooned, cupping his tear-streaked face. "Let me take the burden for a while."

He tried to refuse, but his drained soul greedily soaked up her gentle warmth. With Him safely fettered by Angela, he didnít have to fight; his taut muscles slowly un-furled, but with relaxation came enervation. It was all he could do to keep from spinning into unconsciousness once desperation edged away from him. He couldnít allow himself that respite; Himís debilitation wouldnít last that long. Angela couldnít hold Him forever, and if Benny let go, heíd be unable to stop Him from renewing the attack. That one thought gave him the jolt needed to snap his sagging resolution back into place. A bitter thought rose, choking him. At what cost, this small respite? He was only regaining strength that Him would again sap; it would start all over. This time more would generate, taking their dead sisterís place, and they would destroy anyone who tried to stop them. There was just one way to stop them. It meant freeing Him, but there were no more easy choices anymore; only less revolting alternatives.

Himís intensifying blows told in the strain on Angelaís face. Itís going to happen again. He drew a sharp breath, holding back a cry of anguish. "Let go," he pleaded, a hoarse whisper. "Go away and lock the door. Give me five minutes and it wonít matter any more."

"No," she hissed between clenched teeth. "If thereís a way, weíll find it. Just give yourself and us a chance and let us help you."

"I canít," he insisted, voice fading with his resolve. "I canít go through this again, I canít...."

Her glare softened to realize that the more she fought to save him, the more that fight traumatized him; a vicious circle she had no idea how to break. But Him chose that moment to begin a new attack and she sucked in her breath to firm her defenses, bowing her head over the hands she clutched over his.

Somehow she managed to keep the battle from touching him, but he realized too late the effort it cost her. His body was numb, unresponsive; he could only watch helplessly as she convulsed, a grating moan growing in her throat. The burning sensation returned, hovering near; Jonathan, reacting to Angelaís distress, had ventured closer. But he hesitated, held back by the memory of her strong injunction.

Suddenly, Angelaís arm shot out, her hand seeking. With an explosive gasp, she managed, "Jonathan. Quickly!"

Himís talons burrowed into her crumbling defenses and Benny cried out a voiceless warning. At that moment, Jonathan responded to Angelaís desperate plea and grabbed her trembling hand.

Him shrieked, cowering before the blast of golden fire Angela gathered into a shining spear and hurled at Him in his hiding place.

Benny gasped, pitching forward as his mind rent asunder with Himís fiery death. Angela caught him, enfolding him in her embrace as he heaved with wrenching sobs.

She met Jonathanís eyes over Bennyís bowed head and saw that they both had seen; they both understood.

Denied understanding, Jordy stared open-mouthed at them from where he stood vigil by Wickís side. His head moved slightly, then stopped. "Jesus," he muttered.

For a time, there was no sound in the room save that of Bennyís fading gasps; when at last he was still in her arms, Angela eased him back, maintaining her tenacious grip on one hand while she soothed his flushed face with her other hand. He looked at her with glazed, watery eyes and she searched them for any sign of cognizance. "Benny?" she probed. "Can you hear me?"

He moved, a slight ripple of muscles under the sharp intake of breath he made. A half-formed word drifted out with the sigh; his attempt to speak defeated, he settled for a small, terse nod.

"Just relax," she told him. "Donít push yourself."

Benny wasnít listening; his refocused eyes tracked Jonathanís presence nearby. MacKensie had gone into a crouch by the other side of the chair, and pressed clasped hands against his mouth for a moment before letting them fall away, averting his eyes from Bennyís intent stare to gaze down at the fingers he twisted together. One word came out with his long sigh. "Damn."

A short, bitter laugh spasmed up in Bennyís throat, startling them. "Always did have a knack for understatement, Jack," he rasped, coughing as his weakened muscles contracted on the effort.

"Benny, donít try to talk," Angela enjoined. "Save your strength, please."

"Save my strength for what? For when it starts again?" He shook his head. "Itís not over."

But she knew that already, staring at a point just above his head. "Your aura," she said, eyes narrowing. "Itís still...." With a gasp, she glanced over at Jonathan and horror creased her face. "Both of you. Your auras are still antithetical."

Jonathan lifted his head, but his gaze shied from meeting either of theirs. "I just donít understand."

"What donít you understand?" Benny challenged without rancor. "Whatís happening?"

He shook his head. "Why itís happening."

"Come to the source for that one, pal." The odd note in Bennyís colorless voice brought Jonathanís eyes up unwillingly. "Looks like Lon got his focus after all."

"Thatís impossible," Jonathan protested numbly. "He couldnít force it on youóI know that."

"He didnít have to." Closing his eyes, Benny gathered the strength and the courage to continue, aided by the bitterness welling up inside him. "As long as we stayed on my ground, all he could do was back me to the wall. But I ended up going to him, remember? When he dragged me down, when he...."

Unable to get the words past the choking in his throat, he closed his fingers tightly, pressing until his entire body shook. Angela grabbed his wrist, holding fast to both of his hands. After a while, his ragged breathing eased enough for him to continue brokenly, "Thatís when he did whatever he had to do to turn me into a proper focus. Maybe he thought he was going to win, or maybe this was his idea of a parting giftóI donít know. All I know is that itís done."

Jonathanís hand pressed tightly to his forehead, covering his eyes. "This canít be happening," he murmured, shaking his head. "It just canít be happening."

"Canít hide from it anymore, Jack. The cards have been on the table for a long time. We keep trying to end this thing and all we do is turn our backs on the inevitable. I got headaches and temper tantrumsówhat were you trying to pass off as nothing?"

A subtle change flickered over his troubled face as he answered softly, "Insomnia."

Benny closed his eyes. "Figures. Wonít need sleep where youíre heading."

Jonathan sank his head into his hands. "No," he groaned. "This canít be happening."

"Makes a weird kind of sense, though." Benny cracked his eyes open again. "Think about it. Iím getting sucked into being a new focus. Youíre what the lady saidóantithetical." His eyelids slid closed once more. "Give my love to Augusta, wonít you?"

"No." A broken cry, muffled by his hands. "Itís not possible, it canít be...."

Again Bennyís eyes opened, reacting to the genuine note of anguish in Jonathanís voice. "Glad to see thereís still some of you left in there, Jack," he said, swallowing the quaver in his soft voice. "Hate to think youíd left without at least saying goodbye."

Jonathan gave up trying to hide his filling eyes, finally forcing his hands still, clasped tightly before him. On his second try, he managed, "Did you know?"

"If Iíd known, Liz and Wick wouldnít be in Never-Never Land." Benny faded, strength stolen by his flash of irritation. "If anything, I shouldíve gotten my clue from you. All during that Oriskany thing óyou were too calm, too unflapped. Almost bored, like it was all unworthy of your attention. I shoulda realized something was off, but I had my own headaches to deal with. You know, I almost envy you. I get heavy-duty migraines and whispering voices in my head, and all you get is no sleep and a sense of a higher purpose in your life. I almost wish it was funny; I could use a good laugh right now."

Jonathan reacted silently to the bitterness in Bennyís thin voice, refusing to meet Angelaís questioning eyes. After a moment, Benedek drew a deep breath. "So. There it is, Jack. Lonís got the last laugh on us after all. We can sit here and hash it out until I go into labor again and the new kids on the block finish the job on meóand by association, you. Of course, we donít have to wait that long. One handshake, and we get a one-way ticket to our new careers. Iíd suggest clearing the room, though; once thereís nothing left of Jonathan MacKensie in whatever you become, all youíll be able to do is stand around and watch whatever I become do its thing. Or we can end this our way, here and now. We can get Jordy to say I flipped out and iced myself with my own penknife...."

"Benny!" Angela cried.

"Stop it." Jonathanís hands trembled midair before folding over his face again. "Just stop. There has to be another way. There has to be."

"Wishful thinking," Benny sighed. "Probably symptomatic. Come on, Jack. Time for some down and dirty pragmatism. Do I have to hit you where it hurts? Look at Wick. Go on, look at him. Tell me what you see."

Jonathan stared at the young man, who only now seemed to be blinking out of a heavy trance. Jordy stood guard over him, completely demoralized by the strange drama being acted out around him.

"You saved him, sure," Benedek said as Jonathan regarded Wick bleakly. "And you knew what you were saving him from, didnít you? You saw that thing going at him, and you knew what was going to happen. You knew from intimate personal experience. Only there was no one to save you, was there?"

"Benny." A desperate plea. "Stop."

"Thatís what Iím becoming. Thatís what Iím am. And itís not as if you can stick around and zap those bastards as fast as I spit them out. In a while, weíll both be over the border. Maybe somewhere down the line youíll get lucky and find some poor schmuck one of my kids couldnít quite suck dry and maybe youíll find some way to get them to pull a Lady Carmen on me. But how many do I chew up and swallow in the meantime, while all you can do is sit on your cloud and watch?"

Tears flowed freely down Jonathanís face as he listened, trembling before the remorseless assault of truth.

"Iím tired," Benny whispered. "Iím sick, I...you make the decision. I canít think anymore. I canít...." He paused, drawing a deep breath. "The Swiss Army specialís in my pocket. If you get it open for me, I can do the rest."

"No." Jonathan defied him with flashing eyes. "Youíre not supposed to give up until I do, remember? We made a deal, Benedek."

"Back when we were relatively human, yeah. But all bets are off now, Jack." His brief attempt at humor backslid sharply. "Donít do this to me. Please. Donít make me hang on, I canít...I canít go through this again. I canít. Please."

"Stop it," Angela hissed angrily. "Iím not going to let you give up either. Now you listen to me. Jonathanís told me everything, including what happened to you three weeks ago. You extemporized a solution on the spot using only your instincts and thatís what weíre going to do now. Weíre going to think and weíre going to figure this thing out." She shifted her grip, her palm crossing his. "Is there a specific place where these...these things form within you?"

He stared at her, not understanding. Then he remembered the fissure from which Him and Her had been born; even now he could feel the faint vibrations heralding new life. He nodded mutely, bringing a gleam of hope to her eyes. "Fine. Jonathanógive me your hand again."

"No!" Benny snatched her wrist away from the hand Jonathan extended toward her. "You canít do that again, you canít...I wonít...."

She managed to flip the grip so that her hand covered his. "Itís a risk; I realize that," she soothed him. "I had a taste of it already, remember? If I can control your opposing life energies, refocus and direct them, thereís a good chance I can burn out the mutation without affecting either your physical bodies or your individual psychesósomething like a short circuit. It could work."

"And if it doesnít, youíll get caught in the middle," Jonathan told her uneasily. "Bennyís rightóthe risk to you is enormous, and completely unacceptable."

"Remind me someday to tell you what you can do with your macho bravado," she snapped, holding out her hand impatiently. When Jonathan silently refused her, she reminded him, "Itís your only chance. I wonít stand by and allow either of you to submit to a completely unacceptable alternative. Nowóplease."

Benny was too drained for further protest save a weak shake of his head. Reluctantly, Jonathan bowed to the steel in her voice and gave her his hand.

The effect was immediate. Benny slammed back in the chair, instinctively recoiling from fire burling toward him like a hungry fountain of gold. But the tide of bright death lurched to an abrupt halt, tongues of flame leaping angrily around the barrier that had sprung up in its path.

Unfolding from his cower, Benny watched fearfully as something happened to the imprisoned inferno. Subtly at first, then faster and faster, the flames stirred. A practiced hand forced the brilliant gold into spinning whorls, which suddenly detached, springing free as a blazing torch.

The strange fireball floated toward him. He stood guard by the fissure, and for some reason found it harder and harder to remember that he was here to guide Angela in her mission. Something resisted that thought, tried to pull him away from it, and was becoming more and more insistent.

The torch stopped, waiting for him to move aside. He couldnít.

Tiny clawed hands reached from the depths of the fissure, wrapping around his legs, his arms, his neck. No, daddy, donít let them, daddy, save us, daddy, save us.

Trembling impatiently, the torch urged him aside. The New Ones squealed, begging for their lives. Donít let it hurt us, daddy, please, daddy, please.

Their talons pierced him, shooting cold poison into his soul, numbing him. He reached up, letting the New Ones nuzzle his hand as they purred, Please, daddy. Donít let it hurt us.

A voice vaguely like his own screamed in despair, but it was too faint, too inconsequential. There were more important things to consider, and one of them was saving his children from their enemies.

He shoved the torch away. With a shrill feminine cry, it spun into the darkness, falling with a shower of sparks to lie, nearly extinguished, near its parent inferno.

The New Ones gibbered and chattered, hugging him fiercely. Destroy the wall, touch the fire, free us, daddy, free us!

He nodded, accepting their embrace with a smile. They were his children. He would protect them; he would destroy those who threatened harm.

Without full awareness, he moved to the black wall behind which the fire raged. Simplicity itself: the barrier was malleable and he could easily rip it apart with his bare hands. His children, gathered around him, whispered pleas to be allowed to help and he smiled, nodded and lifted his fisted hand.

Benny.

Neither anger nor desperation; merely a soft, anguish-filled cry. His head turned; the voice was familiar, the name it called vaguely so. From the corner of his eye, he saw a womanís silhouette formed by the crackling sparks of the dying torch. Her hand was held out beseechingly toward him.

He shook his head, but she only renewed her plea. What did she want? It didnít matter; she was the enemy, she threatened his children. Destroying the barrier would destroy her and that was the only thing that mattered now.

But his fist uncurled. He touched the barrier tentatively, trembling with confusion. Something reverberated through the contact; another voice, deeper this time, calling that maddeningly familiar name. Insistent, almost irresistible. The New Ones sensed the tug on his soul and clung to him.

The torch flickered, nearly gone. Growing fainter, the womanís voice called him, burrowing into him, anchoring deeply. She pulled him toward her with it, and the New Ones clawed him in desperation, trying to regain their slipping hold.

He stared at the darkness within the outline of light, at the black-on-gold form of a hand held out for his. Please, the New Ones begged tearfully. Please donít kill us, daddy, please, daddy. We wonít hurt you, we wonít ever give you pain, please, please, please....

Benny. Please.

Her soft, dying voice was a command he could no longer refuse. He put his hand in hers.

He exploded. A thousand fiery darts shot out, hurling the New Ones away. Held fast by her burning hand, he stumbled to his knees, only dimly aware that she wove a net of fire around him. The fierce warmth beat at him, defeating every escape attempt. Flames poured in a controlled stream from the place beyond the wall, and she bound him with it, sending spears of searing heat into the frozen wounds the New Ones had left behind.

He heard the tortured cries of his children dying in the inferno and wept.

And then silence. No screams, no roaring flames, only the muffled sound of his heaving sobs. His children were dead, but he no longer cried for them. His tears were for having mourned for them at all. Heíd succumbed, accepted their evil and by doing, nearly destroyed himself and....

He flinched from her touch, but she defied him, lifting his head up. The fissure was still open, though blackened by the firestorm. He groaned, recoiling from the promise of more pain, but she held him fast. Help me, her voice whispered in his ear.

With her help, he guided her to the fissure and watched her probe it with deft fingers. He could see the extent of contagion; Lonís work had been like a touch of rot, left to eat away bit by bit until the disease could grow and feed itself and grow again....

Reaching back, she drew from the stream of fire, reforming and redirecting. Thin blades of flame cut into the heart of the diseased place and he doubled over in white-hot agony. Relentless, she continued; needles darted, pulling closed the opening, cauterizing and fusing until he howled. Then the pain eased suddenly; he collapsed with a tortured gasp.

Warmth pressed around him, urging his contracted muscles to relax. But he pulled away, the memory of his defeat searing his mind. Heíd given in; heíd gone into their waiting arms. Sheíd risked her life for him and heíd tried to destroy her. Sensing his distress, she tightened her hold on him, and although he resisted fiercely, her soft solace finally worked its will on him, dragging him back from the dark place in which he tried so desperately to hide.

Itís over, she whispered. Benny, itís over.

He strained against her grip, unwilling to hear or believe or accept. Leave me alone. Let me go, he pleaded tearfully, but she kept whispering the same words, over and over again until he had no more strength to fight. Her arms pulled him from the darkness; her fingers stroked his face, urging him awake.

A sheer effort of will got his eyes open; he found himself staring at the ceiling of Jordyís office. Everything was curiously still and silent, only the faint drumming of his pulse in his ears telling him that he was still alive. He felt detached, fuzzy as though awakened from a heavily drugged sleep. As though only part of him had survived the battle. He frowned to remember a slight sensation heíd felt as Angela dragged him back. A sharp tug, as though a tether had separated under the strain. Perhaps thatís why he felt so numb. Nothing a good solid sleep wouldnít cure, and he ached for sleep.

He heard voices, but they were little more than a gentle murmur against his ear and he couldnít make out what they were saying. And for some reason he couldnít move his head to track their source. Then something warm and soft cradled his neck, moving his head until he found himself staring up at Angela. She said something he couldnít hear. Puzzled, he concentrated until he made some sense of the way her lips formed. Benny. Thatís what she was saying, and each time she said it, the frown on her face deepened.

Jonathan stared at him over Angelaís shoulder, looking as though something were drastically wrong. Benny opened his mouth, intending to ask the reason for their consternation.

But his mouth was already open, and the words he wanted to speak werenít there. Other words crowded them out, words he finally managed to hear. The same word: "No." Over and over again.


The two men stared at each other warily over their closely held cards, each daring the otherís poker face to crumble. Between them lay the coveted pot; winner take all. Spectators hovered, expectant, holding their collective breaths for the final showdown heralding defeat for one, triumph for the other.

Jaw squared, Edgar Benedek fixed his opponent with his best piercing glare. "Got any eights?"

Robertís eyes glinted. "Go fish."

He turned up an eight. With a triumphant cackle, he slapped the new pair down, emptying his hand. "My pot again!" he crowed, sweeping the popcorn kernels into his already brimming bowl.

Scowling, Robert threw his cards onto the table. "Damned luck," he grumbled, looking forlornly at his own empty bowl. "Wanna play pretzel sticks, double or nothing?"

But Benny had spied the entrance of a newcomer into the dayroom. "Sorry, Wyatt, gonna rest on my laurels for now. Maybe Jesseíll play you for salted peanuts?" One of the observers nodded eagerly and slipped into the chair Benny vacated.

Turning, Benny offered his bowl to a young woman, giving her a gracious bow. "My compliments, maíam."

Ducking her giggle of thanks, he made his way across the room to where the new arrival stood in conversation with an older woman. "Hey, Doc! Got a minute?"

Dr. Edwards looked up with a surprised smile. "Ah, Mr. Benedek. Youíre looking well today."

"Yeah, feel okay, too," he shrugged casually. "Can I, uhótalk to you a minute?"

"Yes, certainly." Excusing himself, Edwards moved to a nearby chair while Benny took the end of the couch facing him, with an apologetic smile for the man forced move his teddy bear out of the way.

"Listen, Doc," he began hesitantly. "Iíve been running into a little problem Iím kinda hoping you can straighten out for me."

"Problem?" Edwards leaned forward in concern. "What sort of problem?"

"I canít get anybody to talk to me."

"Iím afraid I donít understand," Edwards replied warily. "You seem to be getting along quite well with the other patients."

"No, not them. Iím talking about the staff. Specifically the ward nurses and the other doctors."

"Ah." Edwards nodded, his expression closing. "What precisely seems to be the problem?"

"Look, I wonít kid you here. Iím a little fuzzy on a few things, in particular how I got here in the first place."

Edwards studied him, openly curious. "Youíre not questioning why? Just how?"

Benny stared at him for the few moments it took him to gather enough courage to speak. "No, Iím ...Iím okay on the why part," he said, clearing his throat. "I mean, I remember...enough. What I canít get anybody to tell me is, well...little things, like how long? Or how bad?"

"What do you remember?" Edwards said carefully.

"Nothing earlier than three days ago when I woke up in the solarium."

The doctorís eyebrows flicked up, telling Benny that his subsequent panic in the solarium had already passed into Whitewood legend. "Look, Doc. Iím not asking much here. I just want some idea of how long I was out for the count."

"Mr. Benedek," Edwards sighed, looking down at his clasped hands. "Iím certainly pleased that the past three days have seen a remarkable improvement in your condition."

"And you dance as well as everyone else around here," Benny grimaced. "Come on, Doc. Whatís the big secret? I feel okay nowóyou can hit me with the truth, I can take it."

"Iím sorry, Mr. Benedek, youíll have to excuse me. Iím late for an appointment. Weíll continue this discussion at a later date, all right?"

Benny let the hand he raised to stop the doctorís departure drop to his side with a dispirited groan. He threw himself back into the depths of the sofa cushions, surrendering to bleak, confusing thoughts. Edwards had smiled and skittered away just as every other member of the Whitewood staff did under questioning. He was beginning to feel...what was the word? Persecuted? No, not quite thatópatronized, perhaps. Patted on the head like some dumb animal, spared the burden of understanding.

Three days ago heíd awakened from what he remembered only as a sojourn in darkness. Staffers in the solarium had quickly soothed his agitation, telling him only that he was a resident of the Whitewood Sanitarium and that he was in safe hands. As heíd assured Dr. Edwards, he had no problem accepting the why of his situation. He remembered enough bitter fragments of his descent into hell to put his mind at rest on that count. But why he found himself in an asylum in Mississippi instead of Bellevue or some posh upstate New York funny farm continued to confuse him. This particular institution held no fond memories for him, although heíd overcome his wariness of Robert quickly enough considering that at their last meeting, the man had nearly ended Bennyís career with a .45 caliber slug. Still, he had to admit that waking to familiar faces had been oddly comforting. Amelia and Kathy had been particularly pleased to see him again, and Elvis performed a welcoming serenade for his first appearance in the dayroom.

Benny felt his frown deepen even before he identified the cause. Familiar faces. There were a few of those conspicuous by their absence.

Twice heíd asked the ward nurse if there were messages for him. Twice sheíd answered with a terse shake of her head. Twice heíd felt like something twisted sharply in his stomach, a pain so intense that he decided to spare himself by not asking that particular question again.

It was an easy guess whoíd picked the Whitewood for him, but why they made that decision was a question whose answer continued to elude him. Perhaps it was only because Dr. Edwards could be persuaded not to pry into the origins of his newest patientís condition. But that didnít explain their failure to communicate with him. If for some reason theyíd felt he was completely lost, why wouldnít Dr. Edwards have informed them otherwise after the altercation in the solarium? And why wouldnít any of the staff answer a straight question?

Benedek picked up a discarded magazine, idly flipping the pages. The bright colors ultimately failed to distract him from his rapidly sinking mood.

They didnít care. Some part of him protested the absurdity of that thought, but the little voice died for lack of substantive evidence. If they cared, they would have made it known. A phone call, or even a simple postcard. Something.

Anything.

His knuckles whitened, crumpling the thin paper in his hand. He hadnít let the doctors in Lannerton ship Jonathan MacKensie off to a loony bin. Was this so different? Had they stood over him as he drowned in darkness and decided that he wasnít worth their time and effort?

Well, heíd pulled himself free from that darkness and without their help. He clung fiercely to what comfort he could take from that thought, but inequity still burned within him. In time, heíd leave this place with nothing except safely buried memories. Memories of a life that had sent him straight to hell. And to hell with them all.

He forced himself to relax his grip on the magazine he was verge of mutilating, and set himself the task of making sense of an article he really had no interest in reading.

Someone approached, cutting his light source from the nearby lamp. He muttered under his breath, unwilling to be disturbed by someone who probably only wanted to borrow his shoes.

"Benedek."

The magazine nearly ripped apart in his grasp. He stared, frozen and unseeing at the words dancing wildly on the page in odd concert with his pounding heart. Maybe he wasnít as well as he thought. Maybe he was hallucinating. The idea was actually comforting in its own way, and he snuck a sidelong look to confirm it. All he could see without moving his head was a pair of dark-trousered legs and black leather shoes. Not a patient. He had little hope that it was another doctor. Damn. Iím not hallucinating.

Swallowing with difficulty, he seized on his sudden paralysis as a chance to think. Speak of the devil and in he walks? Maybe Grandma was right after all. Maybe heíd actually wished Jonathan MacKensie here with his bitter thoughts. Maybe he could even wish him right back to wherever heíd come from.

It didnít work. The voice came again, more questioningly. "Benedek?"

He tried to lift his head, but his bitterness refused to release his paralyzed muscles. He continued to stare, silent and unmoving, at the tattered magazine he still held in whitened hands.

A scraping sound accompanied movement. Jonathan pulled up a chair, seating himself in Bennyís line of vision.

Benny studied him covertly, unwilling to acknowledge the manís presence in any way. MacKensie regarded him in turn, searching his friendís face carefully. His hand lifted, then folded over his other hand as if heíd changed his mind about what heíd been about to say and the gesture accompanying it. Softly, he ventured, "Benny?"

MacKensie rarely used the familiar form of his name, and in this instance, it was totally uncalled for. The strange paralysis snapped away. Benny tossed the magazine aside, lifting his head to fix Jonathan with a hard, mirthless smile. "Hey, Jack," he said tautly. "Long time no see, eh? Been keeping yourself busy? How about those Yankees? Pennant for sure, right?"

Jonathan stiffened, his mouth falling open. Bennyís smile grew with bitter satisfaction. "Hey, listen," he continued with feigned nonchalance. "You shouldíve told me you were coming by. I couldíve arranged to be elsewhere."

MacKensieís eyes narrowed incredulously.

"Matter of fact, Iím late for my fencing lesson," Benny said, jumping to his feet. "I really appreciate the visit, really I do. And the next time you feel like dropping by, do me a favoródonít."

"Wait." Jonathan held up a hand. "Just...wait a minute."

"Wait?" Benny sneered. "Funny you should mention it. I donít do Ďwaití anymore. But Iíll tell you what. You got something to say to me, call my agent. Now, if youíll excuse me, DíArtagnanís warming up even as we speak."

Jonathan stood abruptly, blocking Bennyís path. "Fine," he said, eyes blazing from an otherwise expressionless face. "Go take your fencing lesson. If youíre open to a word of advice, you tend to thrust when you should parry. Try taking the defensive more often and maybe you wonít always end up on your duff with Barryís rubber foil at your throat."

Spinning on his heel, Jonathan strode angrily out of the dayroom.

Benny watched him go, mouth agape. How did he know how my fencing sessions with Barry always seem to end? How did he know about Barry in the first place, or the rubber foils, or....

He pressed his hand to his aching head. Something didnít fit. There was a piece missing altogether, and he had a sneaking feeling that it was the one close-mouthed staffers consistently denied him. He also had a feeling that the dryness in his throat was his foot firmly wedged in his mouth.

He shoved confusion aside, grabbing a new thought. A mystery lurked here, and nothing put the spring into his step more than setting off on the trail of a new mystery. Heíd rested long enough. Time to get back into harness.


The door to Bungalow 7 stood ajar, despite the sharp autumn chill in the air. Benedek moved silently to stand in the doorway, looking in.

Jonathan sprawled in a chair near the bookcase, clasped hands pressed against his chin. In profile, Benny had difficulty discerning the pensive expression on the manís face as he stared blankly ahead.

Letting his eyes roam, he nodded to have his suspicions confirmed. The small room bore signs of long-term occupation.

He rapped his knuckles against the doorframe. "Excuse me, sir? Iím working my way through college selling magazine subscriptions. Can I interest you in ĎCIA Todayí?"

Jonathan stared at him as he sauntered into the room, closing the door behind him. "Cozy," Benny decided, bending down to check out a small collection of record albums. "Brought along some friends for company, I see. Stravinsky? Yeah, you always did know how to boogie down, didnít you?"

Settling back in his chair, Jonathan rubbed his forehead tiredly. "If youíve come to comment on my taste in music, then perhaps itís best just to admit we have nothing to discuss."

Benny considered, then nodded. "Okay, fine." He pulled out another album, eyeing it critically. "How long have you been here?"

"Two and a half weeks."

"Funny." Another record sleeve came under intense inspection. "I get the strangest feeling thatís how long Iíve been here, too." He glanced up. "Not exactly the dress of the day you have on there, buds. I guess I can take that to mean you donít have permanent resident statusólike me."

He let the silence grow, flipping casually through the remainder of the albums. "I really just have one question for you. Then I promise Iíll go away and leave you to the hot sounds of Arthur Rubenstein." He paused, feigning interest in liner notes before continuing in a lowered voice. "Why? Why all this sneaking around? Why didnít you let me know you were here?"

"I tried." Jonathan stared at the ar wall with unfocused eyes. "Twice. Both times...." He inhaled sharply, almost swallowing his words. "Both times they had to put you under heavy sedation."

The record album slipped from nerveless fingers back into the stack.

"Dr. Edwards asked me to keep my distance until you showed signs of recovery."

His hands shook as Jonathanís words echoed dully in his ears. Heavy sedation. And here heíd thought his lost weeks were spent in some kind of comfortable drowse.

His legs threatened to give out under him as the trembling spread through his entire body. Stumbling over to one of the beds, he eased down barely in time. He didnít remember; he just didnít remember anything except...vague, unformed fragments. Lonís face, haunting the darkness, his laugh echoing triumphantly in the emptiness....

"Iím sorry," he said to the bleak anguish he saw on MacKensieís face. "I didnít know. Iím sorry."

Grimacing, Jonathan irritably waved him off. "The last thing I need is for you to start apologizing for things that arenít your fault."

Pushing out of the chair, he began to pace. Benny watched him, gathering the courage to speak. "By the way," he ventured quietly. "Howís Wick?"

Jonathan stopped, head lowered. "Heís fine. Doesnít remember much, which is just as well." Turning at the silence that greeted his reply, he considered the doubtful look Benny gave him. "Iím not sugar-coating anything. Wick is fine."

"And Liz?"

The difficulty with which he asked the question didnít pass MacKensie unnoticed. A sympathetic light softened his drawn features. "I think Iíll let her tell you herself when she gets here tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Astonishment nearly shot him to his feet, but his strange lack of strength kept him down. "Wait a minuteósheís coming here?"

Jonathan nodded, searching for a hint of the manís true emotion past the stunned look on his face. "I spoke to her on the phone after I left you in the dayroom. She and Dr. Moorhouse are booking the first flight out of National tomorrow. Randy wanted to come, but she has two finals this week. But she sends her love. Which reminds meó"

He removed a small packet from the nightstand drawer. "These are for you. We decided it was best I hold onto them until Dr. Edwards gave the go-ahead."

Taking the stack of letters, he stared at the accusing evidence of his blind lack of faith as his stomach twisting into knots of guilt.

"Damn." He brushed his fingers along the edge of the pile, fanning out the return addresses. Jordy. Wick. Angela. Randy. Even Twinkle-Toes. "What did you tell Brad, anyway?"

"Brad? Ohóyour publisher? I think Jordy took care of that." Jonathan settled back down in his chair, looking a little less strained. "As far as Brad and the casual observer are concerned, youíre doing a follow-up story on the Whitewood. Jordy knows pretty much everything, though."

"Swell." Benny laughed shortly. "I always wanted to be feature story of the week. My name in thirty-point; my life is complete."

Jonathan scowled at him. "If that was a facetious remark, it was uncalled for, and if it wasnít, then you donít deserve the friends you have, Benedek."

He looked down at the thick bundle in his hands with a rueful smile. "I know," he said softly. "Believe me, I know."

MacKensie groaned. "Benny, Iím sorry. I didnít mean...."

"No, thatís okay." He forced his head up, giving Jonathan a confident look. "Matter of fact, Iím flattered. Wasnít it you who complained about getting treated like a Dresden doll? If you tried to pull that stunt on me, Iíd...." He shrugged. "Hell, I donít know what Iíd do, but it wouldnít be reasonable, thatís for sure."

"I still shouldnít have jumped on you so hard. That was a perfectly normal remark for you."

"And that was a perfectly normal comeback for you." He shrugged again, and the smile almost felt right. "There you go. Normal again. That was easy, wasnít it?"

But the smile slid off his face even as he spoke. "Maybe not as easy as I thought," he said with a sigh. Shaking his head, he muttered, "Normal. Has a strange sound to it for some reason. Like Iíve forgotten what it means." His eyes flicked up. "Been getting any sleep lately, Jonny?"

MacKensie blinked at him in confusion for a moment before making an enigmatic gesture with one hand. "Enough."

"Enough. Whatís enough?"

He deflated under Bennyís sharp tone. "Enough so that I feel the effects when I donít get enough. Iím all right. My problem seemed to solve itself once we got your, uh...problem settled."

Benny snorted. "Problem? Talk about your polite euphemisms. So, all Ďproblemsí neatly squared away, situation normal, eh, Jack? Oh, wowóthereís that word again. What do you think? What does that word mean? Got any ideas?"

Jonathan reacted to the bitter sarcasm with silence that broke under Bennyís penetrating stare. "All right," he sighed. "You want the truth? I donít know what normal is anymore, either. A whole chunk of my life is gone, and it hurts. It hurts a lot. Every time we try to find Ďnormalí again, we get our feet kicked out from under us."

Benny nodded solemnly when MacKensie broke off in a long, exasperated sigh. "So. There it is, I guess. Is this where we shake hands like gentlemen and agree to jump ship together?"

Jonathan jerked as though physically struck. "No," he said sharply, more a reprimand to himself than to Benny. "I didnít mean...."

"I heard you." Bennyís steady gaze melted Jonathanís protest. "Hell, I couldíve wrote that speech myself. Itís not so bad here, you know. Theyíre used to dealing with people whoíve given up. Iím sure theyíd let you sign up for a long-term hitch too."

Jonathan slowly settled back in his chair. "Is that what you want to do? Do you want to stay here?"

The simple question floored him. Speaking empty words was one thing; facing the truth was quite another.

So what did he have waiting for him outside the gates of this haven? A struggle to pick up pieces of a life he barely remembered? That life had perished, drowned and swept away in two weeks of darkness. It was only a memory now, captured in brief flashes like so many photographs, captioned and filed and put away on a shelf. A name blazoned in gold on the cover: The Life and Times of Edgar Benedek. Very pretty, very neat. The only problem was that he wasnít even sure who Edgar Benedek was anymore.

The bleak realization brought with it anguish, tugging insistently at him. He shook his head, trying to stall the unwelcome emotion. "That wasnít the question," he complained.

"It is now. Benny, Iíve spent two and a half weeks waiting for you to come back. The least you can do is give me some straight answers."

He spoke slowly, allowing the words to float up from the lingering vestiges of darkness in his mind. "Answers I havenít got, but Iíll give you what I do have. The one thing I know, the one thing Iím absolutely, positively sure about. I spent years looking for the weird and the strange and five months ago, it foound me. ĎYouíve been milking us dry for your bread and butter, Benny, and youíve been getting it all wrong. Time to pay the piper.í Bang. There goes the rug out from under my feet. Not once, not twice, but three times. Three times I got my teeth kicked in." He paused, staring bleakly at the far wall. "I canít do it anymore. I just canít set myself up for another fall."

The heavy silence was broken at length by Jonathanís quiet sigh. "And I canít pat you on the head and tell you everything will be all right. I canít even tell you that weíve faced the worst. But I can tell you this. Weíre not going to hide from maybes. If this thing catches up to us again, damn it, itís going to find us on our feet, face forward and braced for the fight."

"Whoa. Rocky Balboa lives," Benny laughed softly. "Only trouble is, I already fell flat on my face. I was out for the full count. You understand what Iím saying here? I lost, buds. I fought and I lost."

He pressed on, firmly overriding Jonathanís protest. "You were there. You know that Angela had to drag me back. I was gone, completely gone. I gave in, and damn it, I almost took you and Angela down with me. Now you tell me how Iím supposed to handle that. Tell me how Iím supposed to look you in the eye knowing that I folded and you didnít."

"I didnít?"

Benny blinked. Abandoning his protest, Jonathan regarded him with an odd, searching look. "Let me understand this," MacKensie said, voice deceptively soft. "Youíre comparing apples and oranges to make some kind of point about how far either of us can get pushed before cracking?"

"Why are you bringing fruit into this conversation?" Benny said suspiciously.

"Just shut up and listen to me, all right? I want to make a point, specifically the moment when you told me to look at Wick. You forced me to face what had happened to him but you also forced me to realize what was happening to you... and to me. No, wait, pleaseólet me finish." He paused, drawing a long breath and courage with it. "All those months, all that time I spent not giving in, as you call it óI was still me. I was still Jonathan MacKensie, even if that part was no longer in control. That was the only thing I had to hang onto. But when I saw Wick, and finally had to face what you were becoming, I also had to admit the truth about myself, too. I was changing, too. And I was scared to death. The only reason I didnít fold like a house of cards myself was because there was no time to think about it. Benny...." He sighed, letting his hands drop to the arms of his chair. "The whole thing was out of our hands from word go. Iím not sure why we were both affected by Lonís little going away present. Maybe it had something to do with a very strange tie-clip linkup, I donít know. What I do know is that by the time we realized what was happening, there wasnít that much of us left to fight back. Both of us are damned lucky Angela managed to pull this one out of the fire for us because there is just no way we could have done this ourselves. You know that, donít you?"

He nodded without conviction, and Jonathan sighed, closing his eyes in defeat. Silently, Benny considered the slight wetness rimming the manís eyes. At length he nodded, his chin coming to rest on his chest. "Thanks for not saying that it doesnít matter."

"I know it matters," he said quietly. "All I can do give you some perspective, but in the long run, itís entirely up to you how much it does matter."

Neither broke the silence for a time, lost in their own thoughts. Then Benny chuckled softly. "Okay. This round to you, buds."

"No more fight allusions, please," Jonathan groaned, rubbing his temples. "Iím not trying to win points."

"No, but youíre racking them up like crazy." He clicked his tongue appreciatively. "Maybe youíre in the wrong line of work. Maybe you shouldíve been Mary Poppins."

Jonathan stared at him until he was sure the words carried no bitterness or rancor, only the teasing note reflected in Bennyís half-suppressed smile. Arching his eyebrows, he gave the man a long, challenging look as he softly suggested, "Go fly a kite."

"Whoa, stop the presses." Benny rocked back, chuckling. "Jonathan ĎI Worship At Felliniís Feetí MacKensie admits to major cinematic indiscretion."

Jonathan grudgingly returned his smile. "I was young once, you know," he complained mildly.

Benny snorted. "Donít kid me pal, you caught it on cable last week, didnít you?"

"All right, all right." Jonathan held up his hands in mock surrender. "It was on a double bill with ĎThe Shaggy DogíóI couldnít resist. Okay? Does that make you feel better?"

His laughter trailed off, but the amused light in his eyes lingered. "Matter of factóyeah. It does. Thanks."

Jonathan accepted with a nod. "Just donít embarrass me in front of Dr. Moorhouse tomorrow, please? As far as sheís concerned, I was glued to ĎKagemushaí, all right?"

Bennyís smile wobbled and faded. "Tomorrow. Whoa. Nearly forgot."

"Whatís wrong?" Jonathan asked, tensing.

"Nothing," he said, too quickly. "I mean...maybe we should talk about this little party first."

MacKensie leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. "What about it?"

He shugged uneasily. "Itís just that...Iím not so sure itís such a great idea, them coming here."

Silence greeted his reluctant words; he kept his head down, sure that he didnít want to see whatever look was in MacKensieís eyes.

"Benny, they want to see you."

He sighed, hurting. "And I want to see them, too. All Iím saying is that, well...maybe itís too soon."

"Too soon for them? Or too soon for you?"

"For making decisions."

"Iím sorry, I donít understand what that has to do with them coming here tomorrow."

Benny regarded him bleakly, his good humor vanished. "You would if you thought about it for a minute. Theyíre going to ask me a real tough question, and I just donít have an answer for them."

"I still donít understand. What question?"

"Theyíre going to ask me...." He broke off, grimacing at his inability to speak without marked hesitation. "Theyíre going to ask if Iím ready to leave, and I just donít have an answer for that. Not yet. Not this soon."

Jonathan shook his head slowly. "You just told me the answer. Whatís bothering you is that you know it isnít the answer they want to hear." He made a small gesture to emphasize his words, spoken quietly and carefully. "No one is trying to push you into doing anything you donít feel ready for. Theyíll understand. They just want to see you. Thatís all. No pressure."

"I know, I know," he muttered. "I wasnít even being fair. Itís not them Iím worried about. Itís me. Iím not used to coming up empty in the answer department. Itís a little...scary."

Reacting to the strain in his friendís voice, Jonathan replied, "If it helps, I can assure you from intimate personal experience that itís only a temporary condition."

Benny flinched, mentally shying away from the memory of Jonathanís emotional debilitation, not so long ago. But his own internal torment refused to loosen its grip. "And what if it isnít temporary? What if I told you that Iím not even sure whether Iíll ever be ready to leave?"

"Are you asking for my permission to give up?"

Stung, he dropped his gaze to his hands clenched tightly against either knee. "I donít know what Iím asking," he muttered bleakly. "I donít know anything anymore."

"All right," Jonathan sighed after a taut silence. "One more try at forcing some perspective down your throat. I really shouldnít mention this, but I think itís important for you to know something about the past two and a half weeks. Dr. Edwards did us an enormous service by agreeing to take you in, and only after Dr. Moorhouse did a not-so-subtle number on him for our part in resolving the Cooper fiasco here last year. He agreed to accept you as a patient without making any attempts at treatment. In other words, we asked him to let you rest. Without therapy, without questions. But we couldnít ask him to refrain from making observations, and he repeatedly warned us that based on what he observed of your condition upon arrival, he didnít see much hope for short-term recovery. You astonished him when you started climbing the solarium walls. Thatís why he held me off for three days. He wanted to make sure you hadnít entered a new and more dangerous phase of your...illness. He was also afraid that seeing me might set you off again. Actually, he still wasnít sure about that, but I finally managed to talk my way around him."

"Then I bit your nose off," Benny murmured with a short, derisive laugh. "At least my timing is as lousy as ever."

"Shut up, Iím not finished," Jonathan growled, not unkindly. "Do you understand what this means? Do you? Benny, you fought back on your own. Okay, so that fight took a lot out of you. God knows youíre entitled to a rest, and no one is begrudging you that. For two weeks you were down, but something inside you wouldnít stay down, and you canít tell me itís going to sit on its duff now that itís almost home. Just give yourself time. When youíre ready to leave, then that will be the time to leave."

Benny brightened, lifting a finger to his lips. "I see now. I donít want to leave, so that means I need to stay here because Iím nuts, but when this place starts making me nuts, thatís when Iím sane enough to fly, right?"

Jonathan held his breath for the time it took him to make sense of Bennyís crack. He nodded, saying, "Uh...yeah. Right," on the crest of his still-confused sigh. "I think."

"Does this mean Iím holding my own keys?"

"In a sense," Jonathan demurred. "Youíll have to impress Dr. Edwards, of course, but in the long run, since you technically signed yourself in, you have every right to sign yourself out."

"Whenever Iím ready," Benny said, affirming more to himself than to MacKensie, who nodded anyway. "Well, that sounds pretty straightforward to me. But you got me a little confused on a couple of points. I signed myself in? Come again?"

"Technically," Jonathan hastened to reassure him. "One of the many not-so-subtly-made arrangements of your stay here."

Benny smiled appreciatively. "Dr. Mís in the wrong business. The U.N. is aching for a woman of her talents."

"You can tell her yourself tomorrow," Jonathan challenged pointedly.

It was more of a question, and Benny opted to stall it for the moment. "After you clear something up for me, Jon-boy. Why did you stick around if Dr. Edwards was filling your ears with gloomy prognoses?"

Jonathan regarded him steadily, an odd look softening his gaze. "Dr. Edwards is a very good psychiatrist," he said quietly. "One of the best in his field, Iím told. The man knows his stuff cold, but he doesnít know beans about Edgar Benedek. I knew youíd fight back eventually. And I knew it was only a matter of time. I could afford to wait."

"So what youíre trying to tell me is that you have more faith in me than I do."

"Itís never been a matter of faithóonly survival. Basic survival, pure and simple. And you wrote the book on that. Where do you think I took my lessons from?"

Despite his best efforts, a smile split through the grayness clouding his face. "Pretty fast learner, too," he murmured, half-grudgingly. "So what does this all come down to in the final reel? Sit back and let my gut instincts lead the way?"

"That depends. Where are your gut instincts leading you?"

He thought about it, brow furrowing with the effort. "Lunch," he decided.

"Now thatís a promising start," Jonathan said, visibly relaxing. "Chow down and shelve the philosophy lesson for another day."

Benny congratulated him with a waggle of eyebrows. "Yeah, Iím tired of thinking. Weíll let the gut take over for a while."

"And youíll greet Dr. Moorhouse and Liz tomorrow with a smile on your face?"

He laughed, feeling better by the moment. "Hell, Iíll do a Don Juan number on them thatíll have them humming for weeks."

Jonathanís chiding look dissolved in a burst of laughter. "Then weíre agreed. No more thinking until we eat."

"Agreed." His smile faded abruptly into pensiveness as he glanced down at his hand, and then back up to Jonathan, who reacted to the change by stiffening slightly. "Shall we shake on it?" Benny asked quietly.

MacKensie opened his mouth to speak, but the words died without sound as he realized what the other man was saying. Benny smiled dryly at the brief flash of panic memory brought to Jonathanís eyes. "Too bad Angelaís not here to call it for us. Guess weíll have to rely on our gut instincts."

He extended his hand toward Jonathan.

And without hesitation, MacKensie reached out, enfolding it in a warm, firm handshake.

Their smiles broke through simultaneously. "Well," Benny said quietly. "If thereís one good thing to come out of this, at least I know that when all else fails, thereís one thing that wonít. Thanks, Jack. Lunch is on me this time."


© M.D. Bloemker. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.


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