In Greek mythology, there was a power that ruled supreme to mortal humans, supreme even to the numerous immortal gods and goddesses. A power revered by one and all. A power, known as The Fates. It was these Three Sisters who created the destiny for each living being, and in whose hands rested the life threads of all mankind. Clotho would spin each thread, Lachesis would measure it, and Atropos would cut it. There was no escape from their power, and there was rarely any challenge to their decisions. I say rarely because there is only a single documented account from Ancient Greek times - and only one single occurrence which presented itself in modern times, half a world away, in Palm Beach, Florida.

It just so happens with this latter case, that Clotho was exceptionally proud of two particular life lines she had weaved. Her sister, Lachesis, was also truly fond of these two mortals, and while she introduced various tragedies, trials, and tribulations into their destinies, she also installed in them an inner strength which survived all hardships, a capacity to love unconditionally, and a bond that would link them together for all eternity. A bond whose strength would end up surprising even The Fates themselves.

And so it came time for Lachesis to measure the end of Christopher Lorenzo's life thread. She had envisioned a bullet from a crazed, female Deputy District Attorney, and so she was forced to act accordingly. She marked the place, and with much dismay, handed the line to Atropos.

Atropos had cut innumerable lives, but few times had she experienced such grief as now with Christopher's. Her mighty, gleaming sheers trembled at the spot Lachesis had marked, and she began to cut the line. Only at the pleading outcry of her sisters did she halt her task. Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos looked at the thread in astonishment.

The life thread of Rita Lee Lance had interwoven itself with Christopher's, blurring all distinction between the two.

Lachesis had created many a bond between two souls... but never had one manifested itself in such a fashion. No, this was truly a first for The Sisters who predated even time itself. It was then that they came to the powerful epiphany: to sever Christopher Lorenzo's life line would inevitably evoke the severance of Rita Lee Lance's.

Their decision was simple, once a new vision inspired them and they foresaw all the wonderful possibilities Chris and Rita could share as they grew old together. The young mortals would be rewarded with the opportunity to express their soul-binding love for each other. The line had not been completely cut, so all hope was not lost. Each Fate laid a hand on the special thread, and in unison they exclaimed, "all is restored."

When it came to mortals, Christopher Lorenzo and Rita Lee Lance had always acclaimed the prestigious and rare title of Favorite of The Fates, and after the day where they proved just how united their destinies should be, they became The Sisters' definition and standard for soul mates. Who better than these favored ones to complete the unthinkable, unheard of act of motivating Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos into actually resetting a plan of destiny...

And so entered a new chapter in the combined life thread and destiny of The Sams... one that began with a simple, "unplanned" confession...

Timeframe: In my second solo fan-fic, I dare to ask the question "what if." What if Chris had actually heard Rita's "I love you" in the beginning of Natural Selection I????

The Three Faces of Fate
By: D of The DA's Office

The deep reds and fiery oranges of the dawn splashed across the sky, painting the beginning of a new day with a technique like no human artist could ever master. In the east the Florida sun had just peaked over the horizon, ready to wake Palm Beach and bathe the city in its radiating heat.

A solemn, solitary figure occupied the private beach of the 400 block of East Palm Drive. Seeking solace and an escape from the crushing weight of her thoughts, the woman had been irrevocably drawn as always to the ocean, and was now gazing out at the blinding gleam of the waves as they were illuminated by the sun's rays. She sat with her legs bent toward her chest, and her arms folded across her knees. Every now and then she would lift her chin off her arms, only to lower it back down a few minutes later. It was strikingly obvious to the occasional jogger who happened to pass her by that the woman who seemed to be staring out to sea was actually a million miles away from her place in the sand.

And this observation wasn't far from the truth. Sergeant Rita Lee Lance was drifting back and forth in her awareness of the thundering water that spanned her entire view and the city in transition behind her, the hum of its notorious nightlife being replaced wi th the frantic buzz of the new working day. She had witnessed the breathtaking sunrise, and its awe-inspiring effect on her beloved ocean, but her current frame of mind kept her immune to its beauty.

Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning...

A haunting echo of a time long ago. The stirring memory of a father and daughter memorizing rhymes over breakfast filtered through Rita's cyclone of thoughts.

"Talk about a storm brewing," she muttered to herself. She briefly closed her eyes and gave her head a quick shake in an effort to make the memory - the entire world in general - just disappear. "What a mess."

But Rita was unsuccessful in wishing the world away, and she cringed as a tidal wave of inwardly directed anger and embarrassment washed over her. Closing her eyes tight, she lowered her forehead onto her arms, and succumbed once more to the opposing voices of her heart and her mind, as they remained locked in a battle she was powerless to halt:

"Okay. So I told Chris that I love him. It's no big deal. We say 'I love you' all the time; he probably didn't even notice the difference. It just came out... I mean, he had been shot, for crying out loud! I thought I was going to lose him... Jeez, it's a miracle I lasted four years before slipping up!"

"Actually, I'm an idiot. He' s my best friend! He's my partner. And I just ruined the single most important relationship in my life."

"Maybe he didn't even hear me."

"No. I saw it in his eyes.... he heard me. He knew.... I just don't know how he'll break it to me."

"Maybe he feels the same way...."

"Yeah, and maybe I should go rub a lamp. God.... how could I have been so stupid...."

It was that song Rita realized, seething with contempt and snapping her head up as she opened her eyes. That one blasted song she had allowed to truly capture her heart and soul. Three weeks had passed since the morning she had last heard it....

 

******FLASH******

 

Attired in her favorite turquoise blazer and skirt, Rita descended the stairs of her stuccoed apartment building with a bounce in her high-heeled step and a glint in her sea-green eyes. No doubt this was going to be a great day. It wasn't even 9am, yet she had already completed an eight mile jog along her favorite strip of beach, her incentive sparked by an absolutely spectacular sunrise; had cleaned up and taken a leisurely coffee break facing the beach on her third story lanai; and was now on her way into "the shop" and the job she loved. Life was good.

As she reached her powder blue LeBaron convertible, Rita tossed her leather organizer onto the passenger seat, and secured her gold shield to her waist. The vehicle started right up - an act which brought a wicked smirk to Rita's face as she envisioned her partner entering the Palm Beach Police Department, late yet again, with his hands covered in car oil.

Sergeant Christopher Lorenzo would defend to his death that his 1966 Charger was a classic, no matter how many times it left him stranded on the side of the road, and no matter how many times Rita would tease him.

And Rita derived so much joy from teasing him.

As she pulled out onto East Palm Drive, her mocking simper unconsciously softened to a loving grin, as her thoughts remained focused on her best friend. Rita was closer to Chris than she was to anyone on this earth. He was her rock. Her confidant. Her ally on the force and in every aspect of her life. His mere presence brightened her world; his treasured friendship safeguarded her soul. How many people could say that they entrusted their very life to someone? And how many people would gladly give their life for that someone without a second thought? Sure, as partners Chris and Rita's willingness went with the territory, but it also represented so much more. To the Sams and to all who saw them, this precious reliance symbolized a bond that no power in the universe could sever.

Rita frowned suddenly in disappointment, remembering that her Captain would be debriefing her on her undercover assignment with Sergeant Derek McNeill as soon as she set foot in the station.

It wasn't that Rita doubted Derek's abilities as a cop in any way - he was, after all, Chris' ex-partner and it's not like she didn't know him - it was just, well, he just wasn't...Chris.

With Chris, Rita had an almost psychic connection. Out on the line they seemed to work with a single mind, instinctively and silently communicating in potentially fatal situations where timing and skill were of the essence to ensure survival. Their coworkers called it uncanny, said they were the perfect team. But when either Lance or Lorenzo was given a solo loan-out assignment, the partners didn't view it as "messing with perfection" - they viewed it as separation from a best friend, anxiety in having new backup, sadness and fear in not being able to watch each other's back.

Rita snapped out of her sullen train of thought, and reminded herself that the case would only take a couple of days. She'd simply resolve to the fact that it would be a fun change of pace, as she wasn't willing to let anything dampen her fantastic mood. Shrugging off her residual melancholy she turned on the radio to clear her head.

The familiar guitar chords began, immediately stirring Rita's soul as she sharply inhaled. God, how she loved this song... Mere words set to music, yet they rendered her logical mind incapable of denying the existence of true love. It was a rare occasion that Rita actually permitted herself to lower her guard down long enough to focus on such emotions...what was it about this song? Maybe the answer was as simple as the fact that it heralded the truth...

One word. That's all he said.
Something in his voice caused me to turn my head.
His smile just captured me, and he was in my future
As far as I could see.
I don't know how it happened, but it happened still.

He had me from hello, and I felt our love start to grow.
The moment that I looked into his eyes. I knew that
It was over from the start; he completely stole my heart.
Now he won't let go.
I never even had a chance, you know...
He had me from hello.

A flawless dictation, if there ever was one. Precisely the scene which had transpired years ago between two young, hotshot detectives as they strode side by side into Palm Beach's Homicide Division for the very first time.

There was no mistaking the truth. There it was, its existence melodically disguised in hypnotic, ballad form. In the safety of the solitude of her car, Rita could allow herself to acknowledge the truth that she had always loved Chris.

But now I'm scared.
So afraid to show I care.
Will he think me weak, if I tremble when I speak?
I'd feel like a fool...
Life can be so cruel; I don't know what to do...

I've been there, with my heart out in my hand.
But what you must understand,
You can't let the chance to love him pass you by.

I love him...of that much I can be sure.
I don't think I could endure
If I let him walk away, when I have so much to say.

Tell him, tell him that the sun and moon rise in his eyes.
Reach out to him,
And whisper tender words so soft and sweet.
Hold him close to feel his heart beat;
Love will be the gift you give yourself.

Tell him?! The suggestion made Rita scoff out loud. God no, she could never do that. Dodging bullets seemed safer than potentially losing Chris by opening up that portion of her heart to him. She was his best friend, that was true, but no... The thought of telling him how she felt was as terrifying as it was inconceivable.

Touch him...with all the gentleness you feel inside.
Your love can't be denied - the truth will set you free.
You'll have what's meant to be...all in time you'll see.

Would the truth really set her free? For the most part, she barely even acknowledged it's existence. Rita heaved a heavy sigh: one second the magic of this song scared her to death, and in the next second it dared her to conjure up a plethora of exhilarating and inspiring "what ifs." Well, if nothing else, it was right about one thing - life definitely seemed cruel on this matter.

Love is light that surely glows,
In the hearts of those who know.
Feed the fire with all the passion you can show.
Tonight love will assume its place...
This memory time cannot erase.
Your faith will lead love where it has to go.

Rita was on pure auto-pilot as she reached the light at Ocean Boulevard. When a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention and brought her back in touch with her surroundings, she found that she had traveled more than half of her morning commute without even realizing it. The sigh which accompanied this sudden insight was backed up with a self-conscious squirm, however irrational and Rita knew it, directed at the illusionary threat that the drivers around her could see exactly who and what had diverted her attention. Thank God it wasn't too much farther to the station.

Tell him, tell him that the sun and moon rise in his eyes.
Reach out to him,
And whisper tender words so soft and sweet.
Hold him close to feel his heart beat;
Love will be the gift you give yourself.

Palm Beach Police Department gleamed in the morning sun, its beautiful blue-glassed exterior beckoning the anxious sergeant with the promise of a safe haven from her conflicting emotions.

Rita gratefully pulled into her assigned parking spot, turning off the radio and with it her heart. Keys in hand, she got out.

"Five, four, three, two, one."

The mental countdown ended and she grinned mischievously as the garage was filled with the furious rumbling of an obviously ill car. She sauntered around to the passenger side of her own vehicle, leaning against it as she folded her arms across her chest, waiting.

Rita's face lit up as the man who had occupied her thoughts the entire way in, pulled up next to her. The feelings brought on by her special song were long gone now, a testament to Rita's stunning ability to switch gears with lightning speed and completely bury her love for her best friend.

Said best friend had dropped his head onto his steering wheel, thankful to have made the entire trip without stalling. Now if only he could open the driver's side door...

"Let's see, 'Beau' was the blonde one so I guess that'd make you 'Luke Duke,' now wouldn't it?" Rita teased, patting Chris on the head as he attempted to contort his well-chiseled fr ame through the small, open window.

"Hah!" was the only response Chris could manage, as he smirked at Rita and grimaced in discomfort.

"I see the Detroit Magic turned on you again," Rita continued, smiling sweetly while Chris triumphantly placed his feet on the ground and straightened his bright purple jacket with a true macho-like flair. "You're in an abusive relationship, Christopher."

"Funny, Sam, very funny," he commented, mimicking her innocent tone. Content that his appearance was back in order, Chris whipped his head toward Rita's direction, his deep blue eyes flashing with a predatory gleam.

Rita could see exactly where this was going. She offered Chris a Cheshire-cat grin in response, and matched his challenging gaze with an equally determined look of her own. Never breaking the unintimidated eye contact, she began slowly walking backwards as Chris inched his way near her. He suddenly made his move and pounced for her, but she pivoted at the last second and raced off toward the station.

High heels and laughter echoed throughout the cement parking garage, and when Chris finally caught up with Rita he picked her up from behind and spun her around. Setting her back on her feet they dissolved into hysterical laughter, and agreed to walk the rest of the way like civilized people.

The few officers lingering outside the building exchanged knowing glances and merely shook their heads as they were greeted by the radiant duo, who strolled by them arm in arm. They were entertained as always by the couple's playful antics, but in no way surprised: Lance and Lorenzo were made for each other. It was common knowledge that they were inseparable - and blind to what everyone else could see.

Upon entering the swinging, palm tree stenciled doors of the Homicide Division, the two detectives set about their daily rituals: Rita taking a seat at her desk, Chris forgetting how to make the coffee, Rita getting up to instruct him, both of them rolling their eyes when Captain Lipschitz bellowed the summon to get into his office.

On this particular morning though, Rita was unaware of the song that was still silently casting its spell in the back of her mind.....

 

******FLASH******

 

"Oh I 'told him' all right," Rita murmured in a harsh whisper, her anger mounting. The wind picked up its pace, stinging the eyes which were trying so desperately to keep their tears from falling. The angrier Rita became, the stronger the wind seemed to whip around her, as if her emotions were in command of the elements.

If only Chris hadn't been shot...

The harsh reality that Rita simply couldn't ignore was that she had come close - way too close - to losing him. Given any other circumstance, she would never have slipped and confessed anything.

Too many close calls...

In the span of just a few short days, she herself could have been killed, George Donovan, Assistant District Attorney and friend, had been critically wounded, and then Chris had almost died.

And everything had revolved around a single person. Debra Bouchard.

The mere thought of the deranged woman left Rita dizzy with fury. Hindsight is 20/20 vision as they say, and she suddenly realized that the same psychopath who had almost taken her best friend's life could very well have also stolen his heart - and that thought left her feeling physically ill.

 

******FLASH*****

 

The cold reception Rita had received from the Deputy District Attorney handling the Denton case, Debra Bouchard, left the Sams fairly puzzled. But as they strolled from the hallway into the Homicide Division, their confusion was instantly lifted, replaced with Rita's mocking amusement and Chris' whining distress. One look at Chris' desk and it didn't take a detective to figure out that his secret admirer had struck again.

The flower arrangement was huge, the balloon was heart-shaped, and the teddy bear was named Cozy.

Chris grumbled his plea to be the first to read the card, but Rita wouldn't hear of it.

"Her name is Cozy. She'll keep your bed warm until I'm in your arms."

Her laughter barely held in check, Rita gave a stellar performance in her recitation. She simply couldn't pass up this perfect opportunity to taunt her partner, and yet somehow, somewhere deep inside her - secretly and almost unconsciously - this admirer situation was just one more dig at her...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The parking garage had been quiet that night. Rita and George discussed the blown undercover operation as they trudged to their vehicles, exhausted from the long day and anxious to get home. A red van passed them by, barely registering with the sergeant and the ADA...until George suddenly yelled "GUN!".

Before Rita could react, the ear-shattering blasts of a shotgun split the night and George hurled her to the ground. Just as abruptly as it had begun, the sound of exploding bombs was silenced, and Rita's world went black.

She awakened to red and white flashing lights, as a pair of ambulances illuminated her cement surroundings with a dizzying, eerie glow. The forceful coupling of her head with the solid garage floor had created a fierce, pounding reply from her brain as it voiced its discontent. But it was the only pain Rita could locate, and it was soon accompanied by an incredible sinking feeling in her stomach as she realized George had been hit. Rita watched helplessly as he was transported swiftly away in the first ambulance and she was forced to follow suit in the second.

After a tedious examination at the hospital, Rita was reaching the constraints of her politeness. She had never really cared for doctors in the first place, plus she had never liked people fussing over her. Her energy supply had been taxed to its limit, she was worried about George, and she just wanted to find Chris.

Chris.

Rita spotted her best friend waiting in the hallway, and her entire world narrowed in on this precious focus. She made a beeline for his arms, taking notice of nothing but her Sam, and the mirage of emotions that flashed across his face as he rushed to meet her halfway. No doubt she had given him a terrible scare, and knowing Chris as well as she did, she knew in her heart that he was filled with rage at someone harming her and probably blaming Derek or himself. Locked in each other's arms, though, they found the solace that no medicine in the world could administer.

"You okay?"

Rita nodded. "George is hurt bad, Chris."

"Yeah, I know. Let's sit you down."

It wasn't until they moved toward a row of chairs that Rita became aware of Derek and the Captain's presence. She explained her diagnosis, recited what she could remember about the shooting, and didn't hide the fact that she was angry at herself for getting knocked unconscious. Her willingness to stay at the hospital for George fell upon deaf ears, as the Captain soothingly refused, ready to make it an order if necessary.

The order never came, as Rita didn't have the strength to protest as much as she normally would have. She reluctantly stood up, and drifted right back into Chris' arms. Walking out to the car she just couldn't break the contact with him.

"I'm going to take her home."

"Ah come on, Lorenzo. The woman's got a head injury, you're gonna put her in that heap?!"

"Don't worry, Captain, it probably won't start."

Nothing like a potshot at Chris' car to initiate her first smile of the evening, and as the Sams made eye contact, Rita held back a giggle.

"I don't know why I take this abuse!"

Once in the car, Rita briefly leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes, waiting for her equilibrium to rebalance.

"You need anything, you call me, okay?" Derek offered.

Was there a polite way to tell him that she just wanted to be with Chris? Rita doubted it, so she simply nodded and said, "Thanks."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Snuggled up in her favorite gray nightshirt, Rita sat stretched out alongside Chris on the couch in her apartment, her slender back leaning up against his strong chest. Feeling his arm wrapped around her, there was no place in the world she would rather be.

Chris had come home with her. He had stayed. He had even swiped the security video from the garage.

His quick call to Carl at the switchboard resulted in her knowledge of all the info on a red van the surveillance footage caught leaving the garage at 22:33, and Rita listened silently as Chris ordered the all points bulletin.

She patted his leg after he closed up his cell phone. "Listen, I'm going to go to bed, okay? Turn off the lights when you leave?"

"Uh, you know, I think I'm going to park it on the couch tonight. Come on, you never know."

Rita's initial surprised reaction quickly softened. He had done it again: he offered to stay. His constant protectiveness never ceased to amaze her, and she rewarded him for his efforts with a kiss, relishing in his embracing response. "Sleep well."

"You sleep well, too."

Despite the unpleasant events of the evening, Rita would sleep soundly, knowing her best friend was on guard downstairs. Her last waking thought, wishing that he was upstairs with her, she quickly attributed to the painkillers

 

******FLASH******

 

It was all the work of Debra. The secret admirer, the shooting at the garage, everything.

Everything...

"Oh, God," Rita cringed.

She realized that the next remembrance in this logically sequenced, haunting progression could quite possibly break her. Never, in all the nearly fatal predicaments she had survived as a cop, had Rita's instinct of self-preservation been as powerful as it was at this moment. She leapt to her feet and raced off down the beach, frantic to outrun the heart wrenching flashback she knew was just a thought away, as well as the gripping fear and blinding rage she knew would accompany it.

 

******FLASH******

 

Rita, Derek, and Chris stood outside a low-rent strip club deciding their next move in tracking Boo Maxwell, the man whose fingerprints were found all over the red van involved in the garage shooting.

Chris made his exit to complete a trial prep at Debra Bouchard's apartment, while Rita and Derek followed their latest lead to the next bar along the line.

When they found their suspect, Maxwell was anything but cooperative, though he quickly changed his tune after receiving Rita's rather...debilitating...persuasion.

Maxwell's tale was in no way what they had expected.

"There was a Deputy DA handling my case. Said I'd walk my charges if I took you out."

"What's his name?"

"It's a woman, lady. She wants you dead real bad. Said you stole her man - the only man she's ever loved, ain't that tragic?"

"You give me a name, damn it," Rita spat, not in the mood for any more games.

"Debra Bouchard."

"Debra Bouchard?" Rita looked to Derek in astonishment. "I hardly even know her."

"Really? Well, your partner, he knew her real good."

A knife of sheer terror impaled straight through Rita's heart as she realized the repercussions of the statement. It took her several tries to find her voice. "He just went to her apartment," she managed to choke out breathlessly before sprinting to the car, leaving Derek to toss Maxwell at a uniformed officer and rush after her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The silence in the plush apartment was deafening, but the pounding of Rita's heart threatened to drown out all sounds anyway.

"Chris?"

No answer.

God, why didn't he answer...

Rita's instincts kicked in and her panic began to rise.

A sound came from another room, guiding Rita and Derek to Debra's bedroom. Entering the doorway, their view was obscured by one of many billowy curtains that gave the room an eerie, surreal ambiance.

Moving the curtain aside, the officers unconsciously catalogued the scene: Debra murmuring to Chris as they lay in her bed, her arm wrapped around him. Chris curled up on his side.

Not moving.

"Chris?" Rita tried again.

Debra sucked in her breath, agitated at the presence of intruders. "Just get out of here. You leave us alone. We're together now, forever." She closed her eyes.

Rita and Derek both jumped as a muffled gunshot rang out. Rita made a mad dash for Chris, throwing the blanket away from him and moving him off of Debra. Her nightmare began.

"Oh, God!"

Blood.

So much blood.

The dark red of Chris' life essence, staining in stark contrast to the white of his shirt.

Rita cradled Chris' head in her arms, leaning her face down close to his. "He's not breathing!" she cried to Derek, immediately starting CPR. Derek grabbed the phone next to the bed, declaring the police emergency to the operator and ordering for an ambulance.

"Come on, Chris, come on," Rita pleaded, her love, her prayers, her breath of life the only weapons she possessed to keep him alive.

With the arrival of the paramedics came a slew of activity. Rita let go of Chris' gurney and his IV bag of saline only long enough to hop up into the back of the ambulance. It wasn't until they were lights-and-sirens en route to Bayside Hospital that she had the opportunity to stop and focus on the situation, fighting her fear to no avail. Tears streaming, and heart breaking, she couldn't lose him. "Christopher, don 't you leave me!" Rita commanded, gently caressing his face as if the loving gesture would somehow transfer a portion of her own life force to him, and give him the strength he needed to survive.

She kept talking to him, even after they reached the hospital. "You hang on, Chris. You hear me? Everything's going to be fine." It was then that she was wrenched from his side as he was whisked off to the operating room, left standing alone in the quiet hallway.

Thankfully, she wouldn't be alone for long. The Captain rushed to Bayside to be with his best homicide team, the children he never had, worrying more about the officer who hadn't been shot than the one who had.

The wait for news on Chris' condition was pure agony, but the end was in sight and Rita touched Harry's shoulder to get his attention as the doctor approached them.

"Is he..." Rita wasn't even sure what she was asking.

"The bullet did a lot of damage to his upper chest and nicked his liver. There was a lot of internal bleeding. But he's hanging on. If he can just make it through the next couple of hours he's got a good chance."

"Oh, God...please don't take him away from me," Rita silently prayed as the diagnosis and prognosis assaulted her soul.

"Are you his wife?"

His wife?

The question was as effective and as painful as a body blow, each word cutting Rita like a knife. She realized she had two options: either stay standing and collapse, or take a seat and admit the truth. "His partner," she corrected, sinking down onto a chair.

"Has his family been notified?"

His wife... Rita, having not recovered enough, made no move to answer, and was grateful to Cap for stepping in.

"His mother's in Europe, his father's out of the state. We're all the family he's got."

"Well, if you'll leave me your phone numbers, I'll call you if there's any change."

That got Rita's attention. "I don't think we'll be going anywhere."

"I figured that. If you need anything, please have me paged. I'm Dr. Dupree." And with that, she walked away.

Rita never even heard her leave. Anguish like none she had ever experienced washed over her, her mind replaying the moment when the foundation to her entire world came crashing down. Her fašade cracked yet again. "I thought I lost him, Cap, " she confessed earnestly. "I mean, I really thought he was dead!" Rita became almost childlike in appearance as she turned to sob uncontrollably in the arms of the father figure who was sharing in her pain, holding on to him for dear life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For three days Rita paced Chris' room like a caged animal, uncertain if the bottom would be dropping out of her sanity and her life. If he died, she would have no one to watch her back, no one to run to when her soul needed shelter from the world. What would she do without her Sam? She couldn't lose him. Not like this - not before she...

No, that didn't matter right now. All Rita wanted was for Chris to live. Nothing else mattered... or did it?

She sighed heavily, fighting between her alternating states of anger, despair, and hope.

Yes, hope.

Rita realized that as helpless as she felt, Chris needed all the positive energy she could give him. She stopped her anxious pacing and looked to him before moving to sit beside him on the bed. A lifetime of dealing with deaths had taught her the dangers of relying on other people, of needing them and giving them her heart and her love. But Chris... Chris had taken the fortress she so solidly and almost proudly built around her heart and detonated it s destruction, first with a single smile, then with the strongest friendship she had ever known. Would her love in return be strong enough to help bring him back?

Rita gently took his hand in hers, and brought it up to her lips while smoothing his hair off his face, longing for him to open his eyes. "Chris, you listen to me," she exclaimed in a soft tone. "You are my Sam. We could always read each other's thoughts. Can you read mine now? Do you know how much I need you? I want you to fight! Do you hear me, Christopher?! Don't you let her win!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Rita."

The raspy sound of her name being called easily broke through the light sleep that enveloped Rita, and she opened her eyes.

Elation and fear flooded her senses. Was this real? Was she really looking into the crystal blue eyes and smiling face of her best friend? Rita froze, hesitant that the slightest movement would cause this precious vision to disappear from sight forever.

"Good morning, Sunshine."

Pure joy raced through Rita's system, replacing her blood with a wave of relief that renewed her spirit. Chris was alive! Alive... and awake!

She tossed her blanket aside and crossed over to his bedside, smiling in disbelief. "Hi," she exclaimed credulously, gladly accepting his outstretched hand.

"Hey."

With her other hand, Rita ran her fingers through Chris'hair. "Hi!" she beamed again, seemingly caught in the loop of pleasantries, though her tone the second time around was filled with far less shock and infinitely more gratitude.

"Hey."

Rita tucked a leg underneath herself alongside Chris on the bed, giving her the height advantage to kiss him long and hard on the forehead, and slowly slide her face down his.

She rubbed his chest and played with his chin, silently thanking God that he had pulled through, that she had reached him in time. "I love you," she declared in a heartfelt whisper before she could catch herself.

Rita felt the world instantaneously grind to a halt.

Was it her imaginat ion, or had she actually heard the needle being scratched across a record, like in all the movies? In her next fraction-of-a-second thought she realized that being draped over Chris in her current fashion, it was safe to assume that he could feel her hear t was no longer beating. With the remaining portions of this single second, Rita steeled herself into concentrating on the fact that Chris was alive. She would deal with her outburst later - right now it was essential to call upon the acting skills which m ade her a decorated, veteran undercover officer, ascertaining that her life was on the line, and this would have to be her greatest performance. Chosen tactic: humor.

"If you ever do that to me again... I will kill you." The change in subject would bar Chris from responding to the previous comment - if he had indeed heard her slip - and Rita knew he wouldn't pass up a battle of banter.

"You look like hell," he teased, true to form.

"Mmm, well, sleeping three nights in a chair will do that to you." Confession of love or not, Chris was Rita's best friend, and she wasn't about to resist adding, "I would hug you, but I don't want to pull out the I.V."

Chris chuckled. "Three nights. Been out all that time?"

"Uh, yeah, kinda. The drugs had you even goofier than usual."

Just then, Dr. Dupree opened the door.

"I really hope you're not in the wrong room," came Chris' elicited response.

"She's your doctor," Rita told him.

"It's true. I was on ER duty the night you were brought in. I did your surgery."

Rita listened as Chris became his normal, harmless flirting self with Jillian. It gave her the time to take a deep, centering breath. She knew Chris could read her mind... and she wondered if he was simply humoring her.

She watched his expression change drastically as Dr. Dupree gave him the specifics on his injury and his long recovery time. She could tell, in no uncertain terms: he was mad. He tightened his hold on her hand, as if to draw strength from their interlaced grip.

"Great, just frickin' terrific," he muttered belligerently.

Rita was quick to counter with the perspective that had tormented her throughout his entire ordeal, powerless to stop the hitch in her voice at speaking the words. She used his full first name to indicate just how serious she was. "We're not talking some flesh wound here, Christopher. You almost died... "

 

******FLASH******

 

Rita fell to her knees, her lungs burning for the oxygen forbidden to her during her long, shoreline sprint. If she concentrated hard enough on this physical pain, perhaps the mental pain wouldn't seem so crushing.

"You almost died..."

The chilling echo of the past continued to haunt her, coming to the forefront of her mind time and time again. Her love for her best friend waged war with her hatred toward his attacker, competing for Rita's full attention.

Years of being in shape led for a quick recovery from the effects of her run, her breathing and heart rate easily returning to normal. As Rita pulled herself upright, she concentrated on calming her mind.

Chris hadn't died.

She repeated the words over and over again to herself. Yes, it had been a very close call, but he had survived, thereby ensuring her own survival. Her fear became altered, as the question remained: would she still lose him? Chris now knew the secret of her heart...the damage could be irreparable. Her tears mixed with the saltwater already lapping over her feet, as the query still loomed on her mind: what would she do without her Sam?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rita entered her apartment feeling more lost and defeated than ever. She was no closer now to solving her dilemma than she had been when she left, and she couldn't remember a time when the beach had provided her no comfort. She absentmindedly tossed her keys onto the counter, but glanced back over at them as the metal skidded across the lime Formica surface and bounced off glass.

"Sorry 'bout that, guys," Rita murmured to her beloved Alfred and his gold- and angelfish posse, trailing a hand down the side of the fish tank. "I bet you'd like some breakfast, huh?"

As she set down the yellow and red canister of fish flakes, Rita braced herself against the counter and hung her head. "This has to stop!" she whispered fiercely, reinforcing the severity and necessity of the words by speaking them aloud.

A flicker of Rita's rational side, the sense of logic and collectedness she always considered so valuable, sparked for the first time all morning. She brought her head up with conviction, and her determined gaze came to rest on the clock across the room. She gasped.

10:44

Rita had been gone for over four and a half hours.

"What the hell am I doing?!" This time it was a tone rarely used outside an interrogation room. She cursed at allowing herself to wallow in self pity for as long as she had, and the mere glimmer of her familiar self suddenly ignited into a blazing, reckoning force that informed her it was high time to act human again and quit sulking.

Rita moved into the living room and flopped down on the couch, more anxious than ever to complete her recomposure. It proved to be a short-lived process though, as it wasn't long before a persistent knocking at the door broke her concentration. Not fully convinced she was ready to deal with company yet, Rita made no effort to move from her place on the couch, and curbed the temptation to just yell "go away! ".

The knocking stopped and a muffled question came from the hallway. "Rita, honey, are you home?"

It was Frannie, the Captain's wife. Rita knew she couldn't send her dear friend away, and she suddenly realized that Fran's motherly ways were exactly what she needed right then. For the first time in a long time, Rita smiled.

"Hi'ya, Fran, come - "

"Rita, doll! I just had to come over and see how you were doing! I brought you some leftover soup I made for Christopher, and I have to tell you all about the palm reading class I'm taking!"

Rita burst into laughter and allowed Fran to drag her into the kitchen, welcoming the mile-a-minute conversation on palms that was already in full motion. Just the sound of Frannie's voice had her feeling better.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Maybe it was Rita's weakened condition, or maybe it was just that Frannie made Rita feel like somebody's daughter again, but soon the entire story came spilling out. Fran shrieked with delight as she and Rita went to sit in the living room

"Honey, I can't tell you what to do here. All I can tell you is what I see - what everyone sees. Have you ever noticed the way Christopher looks at you, Rita? Do you honestly think he doesn't feel the same way as you?"

"Yes. No...I don't know," Rita stammered, squirming as she was greeted with the long-since buried memories of the Soul Search, the Soul Kiss, and the night spent as Mrs. Jack Wellman.

Fran gently laid her hand on Rita's arm, waiting for the young detective to make eye contact with her. "As far as Chris is concerned, Rita, you hung the moon and the stars."

Fran's sincere opinion offered hope and promised happiness, but Rita's instinct of \par self-preservation fought desperately to guard her against the inherent danger of putting faith in her friend's logic.

Frannie easily sensed Rita's conflicting emotions. If only she could make her understand... Ever so gently she inquired, "Rita, honey, this may have been the first time you actually told Christopher how you felt... but when have you not loved him?"

He had me from hello

Rita pushed the lyric back and dropped her gaze to stare at her hands in her lap. It was a question she did not want to be asked. In all the countless times she had asked it of herself, she had never liked her answer.

Minutes passed, yet Fran patiently awaited the response, fully confident in Rita's ability to finally admit to herself the truth.

Rita's eyes took on a far-away expression as she lost herself to innumerable, treasured memories, which stretched years into the past. "There never has been a time, Fran," she finally conceded. "I mean... four years ...and there has never been a single time."

"In all the years I've known you, you have never backed away from a challenge, Rita. You of all people, doll, should know that everything we take on in life involves risk. Look at the career you and Chris and my Heschy have chosen. It revolves around risk."

Fran hesitated. Should she continue? Rita was like a daughter to her, and she knew how deeply she was hurting. But she also discerned that Rita was beating herself up over predicaments in which she had no control. The sooner Rita came to terms with the circumstances surrounding her profession of love, the sooner she would come to welcome her destiny with Christopher. Choosing her words very carefully, Fran took a deep breath and delicately prodded, "and you know the real reason why you told Chris that you love him."

Again Rita focused on her hands. This was Fran's subtle way of letting her know it was imperative for her to face her fears. Rita's face contorted with pain. But these fears had rocked her entire existence like nothing she had ever experienced - which was saying a lot - threatening to consume her and send all remnants of her sense of control careening irretrievably into a hopeless abyss. No, Rita decided with a fervor born from a lifetime of surviving, she would not permit herself to be lost to any fear, no matter how overwhelming it may seem. She drew strength from this vow and from the motherly figure seated beside her, and slowly began the journey to healing and acceptance.

"I really thought he was going to die, Frannie," she whispered. Rita drew in a ragged breath and slowly let it out. A little louder, she explained, "we both have been wounded before... but this time... God, I have never been that scared in my entire life!"

"Oh, Rita..." Fran fought back her tears as she was overcome by the sheer veracity in Rita's voice. There was no mistaking the painful truth behind the young woman's words. Frannie was aware of just how much Rita had been through in her short life, so she couldn't even begin to fathom the devastation that would cause her to rank Chris' injury as the foremost. Moreover, it was a very grave and solemn reminder to Fran that she had just been added to the elite few who had actually witnessed Rita Lee Lance admit she was afraid.

Rita's tears were now flowing hard, one more rare occurrence in the presence of another human being. "When Derek and I found Chris, he wasn't breathing. I didn't know how long he had been down, I didn't know how badly he was hurt, all I knew...was that I couldn't let him die. Derek called for an ambulance and I did CPR until the paramedics arrived. The ride to the hospital... .God, it took forever! I was telling Chris over and over again that he was going to make it. That he was a fighter. And I ordered him - I begged him not to leave me. Not when there was so much left unsaid between us. Then he was in surgery for so long... I don't know which hurt me more: the waiting, the doctor's diagnosis when she finally came out of the OR, or the fact that she asked me if I was Chris' wife."

At her final remark, Rita turned her head so she could catch Frannie's reaction, unconsciously nodding as the powerful memory replayed itself inside her. "His wife, Fran! Do you have any idea what I would have given for the chance to have screamed 'yes'?! I mean, there I was, on the verge of losing my best friend - wishing I had told him how I really felt - and the doctor asks me if I'm his wife. It took every ounce of strength I had to correct her and tell her I was just his partner."

Fran vigorously shook her head in opposition. "No, you see, that's where you're wrong, Rita. You have never been 'just his partner,' and you know that. You mean everything to him - and don't think for a minute that he wouldn't have felt the same agony if he had been in your position and the doctor had asked him if the two of you were married.

"Do you remember when you went to Sanibel and that woman was murdered in your apartment? We all assumed it was you... With Chris' shooting, you could cling to the hope that he would live, but he didn't have that luxury, Rita. For nearly twenty-four hours he thought you were already dead. It destroyed him. It absolutely destroyed him. Don't you ever doubt how much you mean to him."

"I know, I know," Rita quietly consented with a sniffle, recognizing the similar yet compounded torment her dear Sam had endured, though offering a weak smile at the memory of the moment he realized she was alive.

"I knew you'd encourage me," Rita softly accused.

"Of course I would! I'm telling you, Rita, this is fate!" Fran beamed.

Love will be the gift you give yourself...

Rita leaned her head against the back of the couch, and fixated her attention on the ceiling. Quoting her favorite author, she sighed, "'my heart does not wish to be in a mending situation. Love is heart-breaking and I am in love!'" With a rueful laugh she rolled her head back toward Fran's direction, though her misting green eyes twinkled now.

Frannie stood up to leave, but offered an elated cry and exclaimed, "My work here is done! Oh, Rita, I'm so happy for you, hon!"

Rising up herself, Rita couldn't help but to laugh at Fran's enthusiasm and certainty. At least somebody was confident of how things would turn out. She found herself drawing not only amusement in knowing that she and Chris were the subjects of Frannie's latest crusade, but comfort as well. And this peace of mind was most welcomed.

Rita stuffed her hands into the front pockets of her jeans, hoping the elevation of her shoulders would alleviate some of the tension across her back, and walked Fran to the door. She was dumbfounded in realizing just how much of her soul she had bared throughout the course of the visit.

Rita offered Fran a tight, grateful embrace, silently communicating her heartfelt appreciation to her cherished friend. She had a lot to think about now..

"Do you believe in destiny, Rita?"

There was a slight pause. "Yeah," Rita breathed dreamily and almost reverently.

As Fran stepped out of the warm embrace, she took Rita's right hand and turned it, tracing a line on the palm and grinning mischievously at her young friend who had burst into laughter.

"Frannie..." Rita began in response to the gesture, cocking her head and smirking in her inimitable trademark fashion.

Fran smiled innocently yet seriously as she clasped Rita's hand with both of hers, and gazed directly into impish, defiant green eyes. "I see a beautiful woman with a good heart...who only needs to open her mind to realize that everything she has ever wanted...has been by her side all along. Remember, Rita, you were blessed with a second chance to tell Chris that you love him, and you made the most of it - even though you hadn't planned to. There's no tragedy there. The only tragedy would have come if Chris had not lived long enough to hear you speak the words. Take care, doll."

"Bye, Fran."

Oh yes, she had a lot to think about.

Frannie's arguments echoed through Rita's mind as she closed the front door and trudged back to the couch. She stretched out across the brightly colored cushions, lacking the strength to sit upright. The day was leaving her emotionally and overall mentally spent, and with an elbow braced against the back of the couch, Rita massaged her forehead. Her thoughts raced with hopeful possibilities for the future, but alas, they still mingled with lingering fears of the recent past. Gradually, though, her conscious mind began to finally vanquish the tight control it had held over her for weeks. Rita slowly succumbed to the power of her exhaustion, entering the infinite realms of sleep, unfamiliar as of late, which had eluded her since she'd awakened in Chris' hospital room. Realms which could prove as unsafe as they were uncertain.....

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Unbeknownst to Rita and Fran as they ate lunch and explored Rita's heart, across town Chris was in his hospital bed, slowly going out of his mind.

God, he needed to get out of this place. Forget the physical injuries that could have killed him, they were well on their way to healing. No, Chris was certain it was the cabin fever that would eventually sink him. A distraction - anything but yet another connect-the-dots game with the speckled ceiling tiles - that's what he needed. So, as he had done so many times over the past few weeks, he turned his thoughts to the woman who represented the most treasured part of his soul.

Rita.

A whirlwind of hidden strength, unfaltering wit, irrefutable intelligence, and regal beauty. Like the blood to his heart, and the air to his lungs, Rita was Chris' life. His best friend in the truest sense of the words. She backed him up and humbled him down. She could read his mind, his silences, his heart. With her by his side, Chris felt complete. He would die for her without hesitation, just as she would do the same for him. He loved her...and she loved him...

Rita had told him that she loved him.

He had waited four years, possibly even his whole life, to hear those words - and to tell her. But she never gave him the chance to say them back. Was that because she didn't mean them? On second thought, Chris knew Rita would never use those words if she didn't believe in them. Maybe he had just misinterpreted what she meant, but no, that didn't seem right either. No, this was his Rita, his Sam... he never misread her feelings, spoken or unspoken, and between the look on her face and the thrill that had raced through his heart at her words, Chris had proof of the truth

 

******FLASH******

 

Chris blinked as the sleep-induced haze lifted, trying to get his bearings. It didn't take too long. Hospital ceilings all looked alike. Turning his head, his gaze came to rest on the slumbering form of his best friend, curled up in a chair. A warmth settled over him, and he quietly called out to her, "Rita?"

Rita shifted positions and opened her eyes.

Chris watched her freeze as she realized he was awake, and flashed a patented grin at her. "Good morning, Sunshine." He could tell the exact moment it sank in. As Rita stood up, he held out his hand to her.

"Hi."

"Hey."

"Hi," Rita said again, giving him a radiant smile as she raked her fingers through his hair and kissed his forehead.

"Hey." Nothing in this world was as soothing to Chris as Rita's gentle touch. He closed his eyes and basked in the feeling of her tiny frame barely touching his chest as she leaned over him, caressing his face with her own.

"I love you."

What?

Amazing how many thoughts could dash across his mind in a mere second, and Chris' first one went along the lines of rationalization. "Okay, I was shot. That means I'm on drugs. So, I probably just heard what I wanted to hear."

Was it his heart or Rita's that seemed to be racing? "God, Rita, I love you, too. Wait - what do you mean you're gonna kill me? I haven't had the chance to say 'I love you' back!"

Chris could read Rita like a book, and her look screamed "please don't discuss what just happened." As much as he wanted to talk about it, he could never be insensitive to her needs.

"You look like hell," he playfully countered to the mock threat against his life.

Her reply came with the ease and grace that made her Rita, not missing a beat. Chris was enthralled by her skill, as frustrating as it was at this particular time.

They were interrupted as the door to his room opened. "I really hope you're not in the wrong room," Chris told the woman who walked in.

"She's your doctor," Rita supplied.

"It's true, I was on ER duty the night you were brought in. I did your surgery."

"I hear 'doctor' I think Marcus Welby, but he'd look horrible in that dress." Chris knew it would seem suspicious if he didn't turn on the charm. Out of respect for his best friend he was willing to play things like he hadn't heard her, and flirting with his doctor provided the perfect ploy, not to mention the perfect defense mechanism. Funny, though, how his perception of beauty was now altered for life... Up until fifty seconds ago, he would have considered the shapely physician to be beautiful. But with three special words from Rita Lee Lance, he realized what his heart had secretly known all along: no one would ever compare to his Sam. "So, how bad am I, Doc?"

"Very bad. You said some very suggestive things to me while you were under Pentothal."

Rita jumped in, "the nurses called you The Dirty Mouthed Kid. You asked most of them out."

Chris' caught-in-the-act grimace brightened. "Any of them say yes? Did you say yes?" he asked Jillian in jest, having already noticed the diamond and gold bands displayed on her left hand.

Jillian laughed good-naturedly before slipping into doctor mode. "You were hit with a .25 caliber slug that bounced around the inside of your chest like a ping pong ball. It nicked your liver and did some damage to your pectorals."

"I can't lift my right arm."

"That side was the most damaged. You had some deltoid involvement there. With physical therapy you should recover full movement."

Chris looked to Rita, fear and uncertainty etching his features as he instinctively tightened his grip on her hand. "Should?" he croaked. "That's not good enough - I need it definitely. I'm a cop. I shoot rig ht-handed."

"You're out of action for awhile, Sergeant Lorenzo."

"How long?"

"For as long as it takes. Your recovery will depend on how committed you are."

Chris' anxiety continued to rise, and he couldn't mask his agitation. "Give me a ballpark, here. Are we talking weeks or are we talking months?"

"You should be home in a couple of weeks, back to work in four. But you won't be a 100% for another month or two beyond that."

Being a cop wasn't simply what Chris did for a living, it was who he was, and this debilitating blow to his existence had him seeing red. "Great," he hissed. "Just frickin' terrific."

This time, Chris felt Rita initiate the clenching of their intertwined grasp.

"We're not talking some flesh wound here, Christopher, you almost died."

 

******FLASH******

 

He had almost died.

Yet, somehow, the gravity and shock of that realization failed to affect him as profoundly as the incredible pain he knew it had caused Rita. The expression on her face as the reality of her own statement had struck her...it brought tears to Chris' eyes.

Of course Rita had confessed that she loved him. With every near-death experience either of them faced, the key that unlocked their hearts had been turned farther and farther, placing them in direct jeopardy of expressing their safely hidden, well-guarded emotions. Rita's limit had been reached.

Chris sighed heavily, certain only of the fact that he himself had almost slipped so many times in the past. Life is a gamble where it's pay to play. Life as a police o fficer meant raising the stakes, with the prospects of death often outweighing the prospects of life, and the odds for he and Rita denying their feelings forever were hardly in their favor. The game was becoming more and more dangerous all the time, and o n numerous occasions in the last few weeks, the bets placed on their lives had almost been collected, starting with the shooting in the garage.

Chris couldn't even remember the drive to the hospital. His first memory after the Cap's heart-stopping phone ca ll was setting his sights on Derek, lunging full force at him to pick him up off of his chair and throw him against the wall. All rational thought had left him, leaving only the mindset that his friend should have been watching his partner's back, and that he himself should have been there for her. It was the Captain who had sternly calmed him down, using the words that Rita hadn't been hit, but Chris didn't truly believe his commanding officer until he watched his reason for living walk out of the examining room on her own accord and deposit herself in his arms.

The moment their eyes locked, a pull greater than that of the strongest magnet had drawn them together. Cap, Derek, the hospital, they all ceased to exist, leaving only the Sams and the mingling re sonance of their heartbeats. Chris had been amazed at the relief that flooded through him as he held his Rita, never wanting to let her go.

When the rest of the world had resurfaced into their consciousness, they finally separated from each other. Chris was left deeply moved as always at Rita's never-ending sense of honor and loyalty to her friends, as the first words she spoke dealt with George's condition. She had been so upset with herself for getting knocked out.

The Captain had once again showed his authority, this time with no objection from Chris, as he had gently informed Rita that she was to go home and rest. Chris smirked proudly at the remembrance of Rita's initial refusal, and wondered if the Cap had really expected his Sam to comply without a fight. His grin turned into a laugh as he realized that his partner's Rita-defining, teasing tone had resurfaced for the first time since the shooting when she made a crack about his car. It had made her smile, Chris recalled, and the memory of that simple expression made his heart swell, just as it had that night.

And thankfully, Rita had gone on smiling - especially when she found out that he had pilfered the videotape from the security camera in the garage. Chris closed his eyes and remembered the feeli ng of holding her as they sat on her couch, his arm draped protectively around her, thanking their Creator that she was okay. Oh it had felt good to hold her... Their bodies fit so well up against each other, and when he told her that he was going to stay, she had kissed him on the cheek. Chris could still feel the electricity on his skin, and just as he had on that night... he wished that she had kissed him on the lips instead. He had almost told her that he loved her. But at the time, he had cleared the thought from his mind by teasing her to take care of her "big head."

In the playful times and quiet moments of their friendship, it was always so difficult not to slip and express how he felt. The memories of similar occasions were countless, bringing a smile to Chris' face and a warmth to his heart, serving so much more than simply passing his time.

But while hiding or denying his feelings in times of laughter was one thing, hiding or denying them in times of near-death was something completely different. He and Rita had acquired the addition of more tender memories, but Chris knew that if the preceding events of that night had varied only a fraction, those new memories would never have occurred - never to occur again. His thoughts came full circle, ending b ack where they had originally begun: Rita had told him that she loved him because she had almost lost him...and Chris knew with the utmost certainty that if the bullet ordered by Debra Bouchard had actually hit its target in Rita, he wouldn't have been able to hide his feelings either.

Chris moved his right arm, and winced at the stiffness he encountered. His mood instantly darkened as his mind shifted its focus to the person responsible for his pain and Rita's, not to mention their brush with death. In time he might come to terms with what Debra had done to him, but for now he was simply numb. He had lived. His emotion was now centered on what she had done to Rita, and anger greater than any he had ever experienced consumed him. What was it they said about hindsight? Oh yes, that it was 20/20 vision. Chris was convinced he would never forget the moment where Debra's sick game had become clear to him...

 

******FLASH******

 

Finished up with a trial preparation, Chris was standing in Debra Bouchard's apartment, waiting for her to prepare a "surprise."

"Okay, Chris. Your surprise is ready."

As Chris entered the bedroom he inherently knew he should keep his guard up. He was pretty positive that he had never set in foot in a more bizarre room. From the candelabra s to the wispy curtains, it all seemed very weird. In the midst of it all, stood Debra, dressed in a red teddy with matching lipstick that Chris could only describe as being psychotically applied.

"You are surprised, aren't you, darling? I wanted it to be perfect for us. And it is...it is perfect. Just as I always imagined, just as I always dreamed."

Feeling definitely out of the realm of sane reality, Chris figured this was the perfect time to bow out, before things got any stranger. "Debra, I gotta - I gotta go." He turned around, only to stop dead in his tracks as his gaze fell upon a candlelit shrine adorned with pictures.

Pictures of him.

Chris could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, echoing a dormant, primal instinct of feeling hun ted. It would seem he had found the lair of his secret admirer. With an eerie, creepy feeling flooding his senses, he scanned through the photos.

Debra had been following him for months.

And he hadn't even realized it.

His attention focused in on one picture in particular, providing another grisly shock. Half of it had been burned away, so that only his image remained, save a few brunette locks that could only belong to one person.

Chris' eyes widened.

In a flash that stopped his heart, it came to him: Debra's pretending not to recognize him in the bar... "when you stopped talking to me, you went back to her - you were in love with someone" ... she had asked him if he had ever slept with Rita...she refused to shake Rita's hand when they met, refused to acknowledge her existence.........

Rita had been the target.

The shooting in the garage... Debra had ordered - Rita had been the target!

Chris' instincts screamed of impending danger, and he whipped back around to face Debra. Sure enough, she was holding a gun on him.

"Don't, don't."

Chris kept his hands up, knowing it was imperative for Debra to remain calm. "Let's talk about this."

"Just tell me you love me, alright? Tell me that you've always loved me. Look at me, dressed up in my little whore suit and you don't even want me!" Despite Chris' best efforts, Debra was becoming more and more disturbed. "It's her, isn't it? It's Rita!"

Not wanting to provoke her further, Chris sternly ventured, "Debra, you need help."

"No, I need you. I need...and you need me, too. I know you do. You always loved me. We're together now. There's no one who's going to come between us." Her tone was shrill, psychotic, and frantic.

"Give me the gun, Debra."

"Make love to me, Chris. Make love to me, Chris."

"Give me the gun," Chris ordered again, more forcefully this time.

"I need you to love me!"

Debra pulled the trigger, and the split second flare of the gunshot illuminated the room.

Excruciating pain wrenched through Chris'chest, instantly knocking him to the ground. His last co nscious thought before the black void completely engulfed him, was of Rita. He would never get to tell her how he felt, how much she meant to him. How much he loved her...

 

******FLASH******

 

Chris realized he had been given a precious second chance, one that he wasn't about to take for granted. He loved Rita, she loved him...life was too fragile to waste on fighting their feelings. They had no reason to fight. Nothing could ever turn them away from one another. The answer had been there all along, hidden in the undertone of a decorated partnership and a flawless friendship: destiny.

Now if only he could get out of this bloody hospital and talk with Rita.

Chris looked to the clock on the opposite wall and groaned. One o'clock and all was not well. Sheer boredom was placing him on the brink of a temper tantrum, and if he didn't find something to do soon, he would be committed to a different ward.

Two hours until his afternoon session of rehabilitation.

Ah, blessed relief. Twice a day Chris was allowed to go play with Bayside's finest physical and occupational therapists. Granted, that usually meant pain, but it also meant being wheeled away from his god-forsaken room, going down a hall, riding an elevator, going down another hall, and ending up in a huge ther apy room. Simple amusements, yet sheer merriment for the hospital-restricted.

Chris laughed at the thought of his two therapist friends. They were quite the trip. Their personalities kept him sane, their professional skill had him well on the road to complete recovery. He owed them a lot...

 

******FLASH******

 

"Mr. Lorenzo, my name is Amy. Welcome to the Physical and Occupational Therapy Department. I can't guarantee you'll enjoy your time here, but I'll bet you're loving the change of scenery."

"Hah!" Chris' spirits were instantly lifted by Amy's double dose of empathy: not only had she picked up on his sheer jubilation in having four new walls to look at, but she had also extended her left hand to greet him - a respectful gesture that he did not take lightly. "It's Chris, and it's...Queens?" he inquired, referring to her accent.

This earned him a radiant smile from the stunning therapist. "Queens, born and raised. I'm impressed!"

"My dad lives in Brooklyn," Chris explained with a shrug and a grin.

Amy was still laughing as she reached over the service counter for her clipboard and a new evaluation sheet. "Okay, Chris, let me give you the rundown. Today I'll just be taking an initial assessment. I'll be asking a lot of questions, and recording various measurements like the range of motion you have in your shoulder. Together, you and I will come up with a therapy plan and a reasonable set of goals. When we finish up, I'll trade off with Val, our occupational therapist, and she'll take you through her evaluation. Starting tomorrow, you'll have a morning and afternoon session with us, which will consist of roughly fifteen minutes of PT and fifteen minutes of OT each time. We'll do our best to help you get outta this place as quickly as possible. So come on, Brooklyn, let's get this eval done."

The evaluation began with Amy listening intently as Chris half-whined, half-pouted the recitation of his prognosis. She was careful not to patronize him on the therapy and hard work that lay ahead of him, and was instantly impressed at Chris' attitude and willingness to do whatever it would take to get him back to work and back to his partner. Chris in turn, was equally impressed with Amy's thoroughness and skill, and already trusted her ability. He would achieve the de finite improvement the doctors doubted, of that he was certain.

They had completed the criteria for the eval and Chris was giving Amy further background information on being a cop, when the door to the department opened.

"Hey, Val," Amy called to her friend who strode cheerfully past them, nodding her greeting as she went to deposit her armful of files in her office.

"Hel-lo!" Tossing her small backpack-purse onto her chair, Val downed the last sip of her frappucino and in one fluid motion, tossed the cup into a far-away wastebasket and grabbed her clipboard. She was jogging back into the main therapy room when she realized that her scrubs and lab coat were still topped off with the U of M cap that she wore backwards. No matter, she simply pivoted, jogge d in reverse, and frisbeed the hat toward her office. It ricocheted off the doorjamb and landed dead set in the middle of her desk. The petite therapist turned back to her audience and gave a dramatic bow, her deep mahogany, shoulder-length hair cascading in waves around her face.

Amy just shook her head. "This is Val...this is Val on caffeine."

"That was quite a show," Chris complimented, shaking hands with the beautiful occupational therapist who, like her colleague, had also offered her left hand.

"She nevah misses!" Amy announced, giving Val a high-five and the stool in front of Chris.

"It's all those shoe-throwing contests, Ame," Val called as Amy headed off for the front office.

"So you like U of M, huh?" Chris asked.

"Well, since I got my B.S and Master's from there, I should think so. Rosebowls are great and all, but the Frozen Four and the Final Four are more my style. For any sport though, ugh, do you have any idea how annoying it is trying to get around Ann Arbor on a game day?"

Chris was in shock. "Yeah! It takes ten years to turn onto Main Street, and people keep taking your assigned parking place, and you have to park blocks away from your apartment - it's maddening, ain't it? I can't believe you went there, too!"

The questions and procedu res for the OT evaluation were separated by reliving college days, trading Michigan-winter horror stories, and talking basketball. Chris suddenly found himself at the end of his first session of therapy, more than a little surprised at the pleasant outcom e, and certainly fascinated by the two characters who had treated him

"Did you call for transport, Val?" Amy asked, reemerging into the main room.

"Yeah, they're on their way - despite Chris' whining."

"Well there's nothing wrong with my legs!" Chris pointed out, mockingly insulted.

"Sorry, Brooklyn, hospital policy," Amy soothed, just as Transport arrived to escort Chris back to his overly familiar, small room. "Rest up now, and stay out of trouble. I'll see you tomorrow morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - or in my case, bleary-eyed and draggin'-tail. Just be ready to work!"

"Same time, same place. See ya' Val, see ya'.... Queens!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris became fast friends with Amy and Val, hounding them each morning on the effects that hot pink (supposedly "strawberry" ) scrubs, white hospital lab coats, and fluorescent lighting had on patients at eight in the morning.

During one particular afternoon session, Amy had already giving him his daily dose of torture and Val had taken her turn, but it wasn't until his massage that Chris' joking demeanor took a temporary retirement.

"I need to make a change in my therapy goals, Amy," he suddenly interjected with a somber tone, interrupting a rare silence between them.

"Okay, call it."

Chris hesitated, but remained serious. "Forget about all the strengthening and everything I need to raise and fire a gun. My partner stands anywhere from 5 foot 3 to 5 foot 5 depending on her shoes. You get me so I can walk o ut of here and hug her with both arms and I'll call it good."

Amy just shook her in head in fascination and smiled. Chris never ceased to amaze her. She had only known him for a short time, yet the sense of devotion and dedication he showed toward his best friend was truly awe-inspiring. "You really love Rita, don't you?" she asked rhetorically, simply matter-of-factly voicing her observation. She laughed as Chris threw a stunned look over his shoulder at her, seemingly surprised that she could have realized that. "Oh come on, Chris! Here you are hawking me day in and day out about my scrubs and this lighting, but it's never occurred to you that I might need sunglasses to shield me from the glint in your eye and the smile on your face every time you even mention Rita's name?! Val and I haven't had the privilege of meeting your best friend, Chris, but we sure feel like we know her. News flash, bud, she's all you talk about." Patting Chris lightly on the shoulder, Amy softly added, "Sorry, Brooklyn, if you're foolin' anybody, it's only yourself."

 

******FLASH******

 

Amy was right. Much as Chris hated to admit it, she was right. For four years he and Rita hadn't convinced a single soul - except their own. He let his mind wander back to every instance of denial he could remember, but soon... soon the memories failed to resurface, his thoughts interrupted by a nagging uneasiness that slowly settled upon him and gained in intensity.

Something wasn't right.

Rita.

She needed him.

A sixth sense beacon in the form of an adrenaline rush made his heart skip a beat; God help him, Chris knew he had to get to her.

A plan was quickly forming in his mind. He knew what he needed to do, and he knew who could help. Chris grabbed for the phone on the rail guard of his bed and frantically dialed.

"Physical Therapy, this is Amy."

"Queens, I need your help. You gotta get me outta here."

"Woah, slow down, Chris. You are getting out of here - 10am tomorrow morning, not a second later, remember?"

"Listen, Amy, I can't explain it...but I've got to get to Rita. I don't know why. But please, you have to help me."

Amy called out to her accomplice, "hey Val, Chris wants an early d/c so he can go play with Rita, what'cha think?" Addressing Chris again, "Val's thinking, Brooklyn. No, I'm just messing with you. You're serious, aren't you? Okay, no promises here, but I'll see what I can do. Who's your doctor again?"

"Dr. Dupree."

"Jillian or Jay?"

"Jillian."

"Great, I've got rounds with her in...ten minutes. Give me a half an hour's time beyond that, and I'll get back with you. Can you promise me you'll sit tight till then? Don't be skipping out on me, Sergeant, you copy that?"

"You're a lifesaver, Amy, thank you. I promise I won't bail until I hear back from you. One more thing...can I borrow the CD that Cardiac Rehab always has playing?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Exactly forty minutes later, Chris was standing in the Physical Therapy Department, finally dressed in his own clothes again, with a taxi on the way, and a carryout order called in to Wan Loo's.

"Ladies, it's been real, but see ya', got-ta go!" He embraced his two favorite hospital personnel, winking at Val as he tried to knock off her famous U of M cap.

"You take care, Brooklyn," Amy exclaimed, already missing her favorite client - and all the harassment that would go with him. "Stop by sometime and let us know how you're doing. Bring Rita so we can finally meet her."

"I will, I will. Thank you both...for everything. Now, give me twenty-two minutes exactly, then call this number. If all goes right, I can keep Rita from picking up the phone - though it usually doesn't work, so wish me luck. Then, play that song into her answering machine."

The therapists threw a sideways smirk at each other and broke into mock salutes. "10-4," they responded in unison. Amy continued, "good luck, Chris. Now, you sir, are discharged...get out of our department!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rita's heart was pounding. She struggled to breathe, feeling as if she were trapped underwater. The nightmare consumed her in a raging sea of swirling images and echoing voices - some the product of her memory, some simply the product of her fears.

Rita.......... He's not breathing! .......... Christopher, don't you leave me!.......... Are you his wife?.......... I thought I lost him... ....... Rita.......... I'm sorry, we couldn't save him.......... I love you.......... Oh, God!.......... Are you his wife?.......... Mrs. Lorenzo, I'm sorry, we did everything we could.......... Christopher, don't you leave me!.......... I love you.......... I thought I lost him.......... I love you.......... I love you.......... I love you.........

The voices suddenly faded and the images metamorphosed into a more familiar yet equally haunting picture.

A little girl, her head bent low, standing with a policewoman in front of a white casket.

The loss of her father always factored into Rita's nightmares in some form or fashion, but this time, not even those memories remained for very long.

The casket changed, the little girl changed. What was previously a gleaming wh ite casket, was now polished black and draped with the American flag. A grown up version of the little girl stood beside it, hanging her head, alone this time. She herself was now the policewoman.

With a flash, Rita's surroundings transformed yet again. Now she was in her bedroom, taking in the scene through the eyes of an observer. She watched a robot-like shell of herself go through the motions of opening the closet and pulling out the dress uniform that hung in the back. In the blink of an eye, this s toic other-self was dressed and standing in front of the mirror, her emotionless gaze captured in the reflection. Rita gasped in horror as she watched herself look to the small object cupped in her hands and run a shaky thumb over the black band that stretched across the gold shield.

Still the onlooker, Rita's illusionary world began changing wildly, as if set on fast forward.

The cemetery.

The stream of Palm Beach Police squad cars and motorcycles. The Missing Man Formation, symbolized by one lone cruiser continuing on as the others halted.

The flag-draped casket.

The officers standing at attention as it passed.

The unseen bagpiper. The seven member honor guard releasing three volleys from their rifles.

The white-gloved Captain Lipschitz moving down the front row of officers, presenting the triangular flag to his spirit-broken Sergeant Lance and saluting her.

This final series of scenes was simply too much for Rita to bear, and she let out a \par heart wrenching scream, fighting with all her might to break the nightmare's hold on her.

Chris came bounding through the front door of the apartment just as Rita's cry jolted her body into a conscious, upright position. With a speed rivaling that of light, he dropped the Chinese food he was carrying and slipped in behind his precious friend, holding her tight as she twisted around, buried her face in his chest, and sobbed uncontrollably

"You're alive..." Rita chanted over and over again, affirming the nightmare as just that. The terror that wracked her petite body with violent tremors caused her breath to catch in small gasps, making speech erratic and nearly impossible. Still, she managed to share an accelerated version of her horrific ordeal, not once lifting her tear-stained face from its position above Chris' pounding heart, or loosening her grasp on him as she kept one hand fisted into a death grip on his black T-shirt, and the other wrapped securely around the back of his muscular neck.

Chris in turn, splayed a strong hand across the middle of Rita's back, holding her tightly to him, and gently stroked her silky hair with his other - silently thanking Amy and Val for the ease in the action.

And it was in this tangled display of consolation that they remained, even after Rita's sobs had subsided and her body relaxed. The Sams were oblivious to the distant ringing of a telephone, with Chris murmuring his encouragement and comfort in hushed tones, and Rita hanging on every word as she struggled to calm down and believe them. Only the louder beep of the answering machine was able to finally penetrate through their private world. Chris smiled in foreknowledge, and Rita prayed in hopes that it wasn't the Captain.

Music.

"What..."

"Just listen, Sam." Chris succeeded in stopping Rita before she fully stood up, and he pulled her into their long-since-familiar position where he wrapped his arms around her from behind and she leaned back against his chest.

With the music came words.

You are my home, you are the one that I come to
You are the shelter I run to, to keep me safe from the cold
You are my home, you are the love that completes me
You are the touch that has freed me. I look in your eyes and I know
You're my home

You're always strong - always got a hand to lend to someone else
Don't need no one else
What about those times when that heart inside is crying out for love
For someone, baby. Someone to lean on when the tears start to fall
Lean on me, I'll see you through it all
Just hold on, hold on

When you cry, I will dry your eyes
When you fall, I'll lift you up high
You just reach for these arms of mine - I promise they won't let you go
And I'll make you smile, when you cry

Because you are my home, and all of my life I've been searching
For someone to find me
I have been lonely, waiting for your arms to hold me
You took me in from the cold and out of the dark
You have taken me into your heart
So hold on to me when you cry...you are my home

The healing Latin tempo faded just as the answering machine reached the end of its tape, and beeped again before rewinding. The song was mesmerizing, and Rita was completely caught up in its power.

For a moment, no words were necessary. The enchanting, silent spell which enraptured the Sams spoke volumes, much more than mere words could ever hope to accomplish.

It was Chris who first decided to add volume and English to their magic. "You gotta hear this, Sam. There's something I need you to understand."

Rita's heart skipped a beat.

In all the years she had known him, in all the years she had stood by his side as his best friend, Rita had never heard Chris'voice hold such an enduring and dreamy quality. She reveled in the realization that she was the recipient, and gazed up with wonder into his stunning blue eyes, which were dancing with a nostalgia that obviously pleased him.

"Rita, I need you to know just how many times I could have told you that I love you - that I'm in love with you."

"Chris..."

"No, no, Sam. Just listen. You need to hear this." With the added emphasis of a poke to her side, Chris made sure he had Rita's full attention. The desired effect of courage to continue his confession came in the form of listening to Rita's whimsical giggle and feeling her tiny frame snuggle closer to his chest.

"I could have slipped every time I knew you had a headache, Sam. Every time I watched you go to bat for some kid with a hard luck story, or every time the Department had it in for you and you wanted to quit the force. I could have told you every time we hung out and watched old movies together or just walked along the beach - or every time you'd give me 'the look' for being jealous when you went out on all your dates. Honestly, Rita? I could have told you how much I love you...every time I saw you."

He held her closer, and rested his head on her shoulder to aid in organizing his thoughts. "If you need specifics, Sam, I can give you specifics," he stated anxiously, his innate humor mixing with notable vulnerability. "The first time I almost said that I loved you, was the second I laid eyes on you. But how cool would that have been, huh? When you told me about the aneurysm...it was all I could do not to slip and say it. When I found out about your dad, and watched you deal with Harlan Cameron again, all I wanted to do was keep you in my arms, tell you how much I love you, and protect you from the memories. And do you remember our very first kiss?"

"Of course I do," Rita murmured softly, closing her eyes and leaning her head back into him.

"And what about when Captain Bob wanted to haul you off to San Diego? I gotta tell ya', Sam, I never liked that guy."

His last comment was whispered secretly into her ear, making her giggle not just from the sensation, but from the words as well. "I remember," she assured him.

"If you had decided to go with him, Rita, I know I wouldn't have been able to let you leave without telling you how I feel. And Brent... Brent took advantage of your love and he tried to kill you, Sam...well, don't even get me started on Brent. Just know that I was dying to tell you that I could treat you the way you deserve to be treated."

Chris paused for a moment, remembering the heartbreaking investigation of Rita's "murder." "When Trisha Veil was killed in your apartment, and we all thought it was you, I felt like I was gonna die. Then you walked in the door. I realized you were alive, and...God, Rita, you will never know how incredible I felt."

"Yes, I do..."

The whisper was so faint that Chris heard it more with his soul than he did with his ears, and he responded with his characteristic, cocked-head nod.

"Rita, it took every ounce of strength I had not to say 'I love you' over and over and over again - I had to settle for just spinning you around and around and around, instead."

Chris hesitated once again. "And if you remember, Sam, there was one time when I didn't have the strength to hold back. Well, not until half of the words slipped out. You had been having another bout of insomnia, and you let me read your Suzy Pratt book to you. Then I was the one who couldn't sleep. You agreed to read to me... and before I knew what I was doing, I said 'Sammy, I -' and then I stopped. But you knew what I was going to say, didn't you, Sam? Do you remember what you said?"

"I told you to pipe down and close your eyes." The precious memory brought Rita even closer to tears than she already was, and she struggled to find her voice. "And I told you that I knew..."

"Yeah," Chris purred dreamily, he himself also lost in the recollection. But the scene inside his mind suddenly changed. "Aw, Rita... The night of the shooting in the garage... If you had been hit, you wouldn't have had to worry about being the one who slipped the 'I love you' out first. If you had been shot...I would have beat you to it."

Chris turned Rita around in his arms and grasped both of her hands with his own, bringing them up to his lips. "Can you believe me, Rita? I love you, Sam. Heart and soul I love you. I always have, and I always will."

Rita answered with the sob that had been building within her since Chris had begun to speak. Only this time, the tears that were released from the depths of her soul were filled with wonder and love, instead of pain and fear. She slowly released a hand from his loving grip, and let it rest on his cheek, closing her eyes and leaning her forehead against his as she committed to memory every last detail of what had just transpired between them. Finally, she pulled back, allowing her glistening, emerald green gaze to penetrate through the crystal blue windows of Chris' soul.

"I love you so much, Chris."

And this time her affirmation held no more fear.

Their moment had come. No more denying, no more running, no more hiding. They allowed themselves to finally push into the link that bound their souls together, accepting the truth that had been present all along. A truth of their love, a truth of their foolishness in doubting the survival of their friendship. Theirs was a rock solid companionship, an intense connection so completely indefinable in spoken or written word. Yearned for by the greatest of poets, hunted for by the gr eatest of scholars, it was a bond revealed only to the greatest of soul mates, who had deemed its essence as Sam. It was indestructible.

Every fit of hysterical laughter, every quiet time spent basking in the balm of each other's company, converged at this moment with a look, a touch. Unspoken desire and devotion, awe and adoration. Heartbeats quickened, hinting at a passion too long ignored and a love too long denied. Four years of suppressed emotion unleashed and burning brightly. A rhapsody of urgency stoked their fire with every kiss and caress they exchanged, as they mirrored each other's actions in perfect give and take. They had always been united in mind, heart, and soul. This final union of body was inevitable. Love assumed its place, as Rita's special song had prophesied, healing her heart and completing her soul.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The deep reds and fiery oranges of the sunset splashed across the sky, trumpeting the imminent onset of that magical interval known as twilight, and declaring the wake-up call for the flip side of Palm Beach's working day.

Two lone figures walked off their Chinese dinner along the shoreline of a private beach, holding hands until the small contact just wasn't enough, and they wrapped their arms around each other to lessen the gap between them

"I have a fortune cookie," Sergeant Christopher Lorenzo announced to his partner, his best friend, his lover, Sergeant Rita Lee Lance. Not breaking their embrace, he opened the small package and handed her the wrapper and half a cookie, making her chuckle. Suddenly, he stopped their stroll mid-step.

"What?"

"Ah... 'Destiny is right under your nose.'"

"Does it really say that?"

"Yeah..." Chris' widened his eyes mischievously, and bent his head down to touch his nose to the top of Rita's head. This literal interpretation of the fortune set them both off into a fit of hysterical laughter, but the deeper meaning then lulled them into a calming aftermath. Cool blue eyes locked lovingly with iridescent green, until with one accord their owners broke the trance to pick a spot to sit on the beach.

"You know, Sam," Rita began, tenderly trailing her fingertips down the length of a muscular arm which encircled her waist, "there was a time when we talked freely about all this."

"'The nearest motel'..."

"You remember!" she beamed.

"I believe your other phrase was 'give me a schooner and a stiff wind any day'" Chris teased, adding a playful, sexy growl into Rita's ear that made her giggle and squirm in his arms.

"It's amazing, isn't it? It was so easy to joke about how we felt - and what's funny, is that back then we never denied it. And it's not like we weren't already the best of friends, I mean, we were instant best friends and we knew that. But over time... something changed. You became the most important person in my life, Chris. The risk of losing you if we became involved was just too great to take. Soon, it seemed that if we even mentioned how we felt, we would somehow be jeopardizing our friendship. I just... I just couldn't lose you, Sam... So, enter in the art of burying and denying the other feelings. All of a sudden, it was like they had never existed at all. We got quite skilled in word games, you know? 'I love you' somehow being different from 'I'm in love with you'?"

Chris chuckled softly, the warm release of his breath across Rita's neck compelling her to close her eyes and lean her head back, seeking contact with his smiling lips. "Yeah," he concurred in a drawn out whisper against her smooth skin. He laughed again. "Damn defense mechanisms."

It was Rita's turn to chuckle, and she replied with a faint "mmm."

"Man, we wrote the book on rationalization. We couldn't help saying 'I love you' to each other, but admit it actually meant we were in love? Nah, no way." He stopped for a moment. "But I 'll tell you one thing, Rita. I love you with everything..." He turned his beautiful best friend in his arms so he could gaze into her stunning eyes.

"I love you," she murmured in unconscious interruption as their lips brushed.

"...I have. And I mean really love you. I've loved you from the moment I saw you. I've been completely lost in it."

"From the minute I met you, I knew. I just knew."

"But, you're my best friend, Sam...and I couldn't risk losing you either." Chris suddenly flashed his famous Lorenzo grin. "And forget having to deny our feelings to ourselves or to our friends...do you realize just how many psychopaths we've dealt with who have picked up on the vibes? Monica Cameron, Charles Lampman..."

Rita shook with laughter and nodded vigorously in agreement as she joined in the game. "Rafael Santana."

"The always-fun Plasmeyers."

"Jack Fellman."

"The ever-observant George Bingham"

Rita's infectious laugh slowly diminished, as if extinguished by the reality that one name remained absent from their list. Her expression sobered, and she dropped her gaze to the sandy beach below her. "Debra Bouchard," she mumbled almost inaudibly. A whirlwind of emotions raced through Rita as she titled aloud the evil who had come so close to taking away her soul mate, taking away the man who was synonymous with her very existence.

Chris lifted Rita's chin and cupped the side of her face with his palm, in an unspoken gesture of comfort. His gentle touch sought to chase away the demons that haunted her; his loving gaze served to sooth her troubled one.

But while Rita immediately leaned into his hand, she was only able to hold this intense eye contact for the briefest of moments. The closing of her eyes was her only defense against the imminent release of liquid pain. "If she had succeeded in killing you, Sam, I never would have been able to forgive myself."

There, she finally said it.

"What?! No, Rita... God, you can't -" Chris struggled with the words. His heart immediately plummeted at the thought of Rita blaming herself if he hadn't lived.

Rita was emphatically shaking her head in protest. "Don't you see, Sam? I could have lost you... You are my partner. I'm supposed to watch your back. If I hadn't reached you in tim e, I would have failed you. Same with the CPR. Your life was in my hands..."

"I never did thank you, Sam, for saving my life." Chris voiced this interjection with a tone as warm as the setting sun, his eyes radiating his gratitude and love. "Thank you."

Rita stopped dead in her tracks as she was overpowered by the impact of his simple statement. She didn't mean for him to thank her, but still her heart melted and all she could do was blush and drop her head.

"Rita, you don't need to worry about the 'what ifs.' All that matters is the actual outcome. You did get to me in time, and you did keep me alive. I mean, I owe you one, Sam. And think of it this way, alright? If you had been shot in the garage that night, would you have let me take the rap for Debra? Would you let me come to you and say that it was my fault I wasn't there to protect you?"

"Of course not, Chris, but -"

"Rita, there are no 'buts.' It was all Debra's doing. She was insane, and now she's gone. We don't have to worry about what might have been."

Rita closed her eyes and took a deep breath before reopening them. "Every logical fiber of my being tells me you're right, Sam -"

"Well then, that's about all of them - ow!" A small yet strong fist made contact with his leg.

Rita also shot Chris 'the look,' but softened both it and the blow to his limb with a giggle before growing serious again.

"It's just that this has really knocked me sideways, Sam. You weren't moving...you didn't answer me. Seeing your blood..." Rita gave her head a quick shake, clearing the frightful sight from her mind's eye. "Debra wanted to take you away from me forever," she attested, her tone icy. The chill then melted, giving rise to a warm, triumphant conviction. "But she didn't."

"No, she didn't, Sunshine. She tried twice to separate us and to bring us down with her, but she failed. She failed and she brought us even closer together. I think that fate had other plans for us. This, for instance. " Chris cupped the back of Rita's head and pulled her closer for a searing kiss. "If Debra hadn't gone psycho on me, we nevah would have had the courage to fess up to how we feel about each other."

This slanted revelation sent Rita laughing hysterically. "You had courage, Sam. Me? I spent three days wearing out the tiles around your bed, praying for the opportunity to tell you how I felt. Then you wake up, I slip, and spend the next few weeks wishing I hadn't said anything."

Chris joined in, laughing until his side hurt, and attempted to tell Rita to just chalk it up as part of destiny.

Rita waved her hand out in front of her to aid in bringing herself back under control, and to signal to Chris that she had something meaningful to tell him. "I've gotta say," she paused to deeply inhale some greatly needed oxygen and tried not to giggle, "that I've learned that when you suddenly lose or almost lose someone you love, it makes you very aware of your own mortality. All the things you've left undone or unsaid, all the unfinished business, I guess."

"It's amazing how much thinking you can get done when you don't waste that same time sleeping," Chris concurred in understanding.

"Oh yeah," Rita responded, knowing that he had no idea just how right he was. "And Chris?"

"Hmm?"

"This afternoon I stopped regretting what I said to you. I'll never regret it again, and I'll never get tired of telling you that I love you."

"Rita..." His reciprocal declaration of love was muffled as he brushed his lips softly across hers.

The starry-eyed couple gazed out once more at the majestic ocean, watching the tide play its perpetual game of tag with the shore.

"'Red skies at night, sailors delight,'" Chris recited.

Rita whipped her head to the side, staring at him in disbelief.

"What?"

"Nothing," she murmured softly with an almost-hidden smile. But of course she didn't really mean 'nothing':

Chris knew the second half to her precious rhyme.

A rhyme she herself had just recently remembered, and almost at this very spot on the beach. A rhyme which at the beginning of this day had manifested her pain, and at its end now symbolized her joy. It amazed Rita, and moved her, that Chris' knowledge of the simple phrase would mean so much to her. Her secretive smile turned a shade sweeter, and she rewarded her soul mate with a kiss on the cheek before returning h er glance back to the sea. In the span of just twelve hours, everything had come full circle; every pain had been soothed.

"It's not scary," Rita mumbled tenderly.

"What's not?"

Rita turned around, her face emanating a glow that would put the numberless, still-hidden stars to shame. "A long time ago I told you that to love someone - as much as I love you - would be fantastic and scary. It's not scary."

"I love you, Rita."

"And I love you."

"Race you back to your place?"

"Catch me if you can!"

And with that, Rita sped like lightning from Chris' arms. A laughter, unique to two people truly in love, added to the song of the sea, as the duo playfully pushed each other toward the advancing and retreating waves at their feet. The Sams raced along the shore, side by side, hand in hand, both with a humble, grateful heart, offering their soul mate and lifelong dreams to the protection of the Keeper of the stars. They had received a priceless gift of clarity in recognizing that time is precious, and this in sight had sparked a confession and completion of fate. A spellbinding medium of music had offered a ring of prophecy, foretelling of a love that couldn't be denied and a truth that would set them free. They knew this was always meant to be.........

"For it was their destiny... and they were lost to it."

The End

Author's note: I'm not sure how this little change in Natural Selection would fit with the Seaside Strangler case..... but I can guarantee that ol' Eric won't be calling Rita ANYTHING but Sgt. Lance ;>

RLLLxray9@yahoo.com

I wish to dedicate this story to everyone who inspired me, supported me, threatened me, dungeon-ed me, and encouraged me throughout its completion. I could never have finished it without you.

Givin' credit where credit is due:
This latest trip down Silk memory lane has been brought to you today by the letters "C" and "R," and by the number "9" (as in Xray-9;). Silk Stalkings is a production of the Children's Television Workshop - wait, a production of Stu Segall and is written by Stephen J. Cannell. The writer Rita quotes (on love being heart breaking), is English author Rachel Billington. Fran's palm reading speech is a revised scene from "The Preacher's Wife." Finally, various lines of four songs were used in this story: "You Had Me From Hello" is sung by Kenny Chesney. "Tell Him" is sung by Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand, and is written by L. Thompson, W. Afanasieff, and D. Foster. "When You Cry" is performed by Faith Hill and "You Are My Home" is a duet between Vanessa L. Williams and Chayanne, and both phenomenal songs are written by the incomparable Diane Warren.

I have nothing against Papa Bear's "Jillian #1"... so to avoid her involvement with our dear Mr. Lorenzo, I simply created Jay Dupree. Jillian's Silk existence has now been reduced to a harmless married one - y'all didn't know that "Dupree" was her married name, now did ya'? Chris' therapist friends were also created by me, but they serve as tributes to two of my dearest friends. The PT/OT Department is based on the hospital's where I used to work - and yes, I still have my fluorescent magenta scrubs ;>

Dani/D of The DA's Office wishes to thank:
Mitzi Kapture and Rob Estes: once again... They provided life, laughter, style, and strength into two characters who are the very definition of soul mates. Without them, I wouldn't be writing fan-fic.

Axa, Kris, Lisa, and Linda: for givin' my stories a home - your hard work is greatly appreciated.

Chris Lanza: for letting me borrow the brilliant idea of the PBPD using the Air Force's Missing Man Formation.

DJ and posse: I appreciated your houndin' more than you'll evah know! ;>

Lia: The evah-awesome Resauthor... Nevah forget you are the reigning Queen of Silk Fan-Fiction :) I was honored to receive your insight and support, and above all, I thank you for your friendship.

Wanda and Lia: LOL, ladies... if you hadn't mentioned a couple years ago that Rita says "I love you" in the beginning of NS-I, I nevah would have known and I wouldn't have had a story premise!

Val: mi mejor amiga... te quiero, chica! Thank you for letting me use your name and U of M status - and for letting me change you into a basketball-lovin' OT to play with Chris... hope you enjoyed it! ;>

A of DA: mi querida hermanita and partner. Always my Muse and always my inspiration. You are Erato incarnate; never forget how much you and all your help have meant to me. My gift to you... massaging Chris! ;>

 

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