Clay bellowed out that it was time for everyone to get on the RV, and the next several minutes were a flurry of hugs, I love yous, and call mes. When the Atlanta-bound crowd finally left Brenda and Fritz's house, Brenda went over to the couch and grabbed her brown chenille throw blanket and wrapped herself in it. Fritz started the dishwasher and joined her in the living room, a second cup of coffee in his hand. He sat down next to Brenda on the couch and turned to look at her.

"It's Boxin' Day," she said, so tightly wrapped in the throw blanket that part of her face was covered and her words were muffled.

"It's what, honey?"

"I said it's Boxin' Day. December 26."

"Brenda, I don't think our talk is going to require the use of boxing gloves and nunchucks, do you?" he said, trying to joke with her. "Because there's no one to referee around here besides Kitty."

Brenda didn't smile. "No, goofy, Boxin' day is a British holiday, when the rich would put gifts of food and gold into boxes and give it to their servants. Back in medieval times. Now it's a national holiday there. I just always thought the name was kinda funny."

"Do you think the FBI has some nice box of treats waiting for me on my desk?"

"That's about as possible as the LAPD givin' me somethin' else besides a black eye for Christmas," she said, playing with the fringe on the blanket. "Will is furious with me for this whole mess, so I'm not exactly holdin' my breath waitin' for a box of goodies."

"I don't care about Will," Fritz said, a little too harshly. "He praises you when you make him look good and yells at you when you don't. It kills me to watch it."

Brenda ran her hands through her curly hair. "I can take care of myself with Will," she said. "And besides, I don't want to talk about Will, he's not part of"—she waved her hand in the air—"all this mess we have to discuss."

I don't want to talk about him either, thought Fritz, remembering the numerous fights they have had about Will Pope, many of them borne from his own insecurities. "You're right, there's other things to talk about. I don't want to end this day feeling angry with you, Brenda. As much as you hate it when I get mad at you, I hate the feeling even more. Hey, look at me," he said, touching her shoulder, and watched as she reluctantly turned and pressed her back into arm of the couch, so she was facing him at last. "Brenda, we're getting married, and we have to learn to talk to each other." She nodded.

"I don't even know where to start, Fritz. This last week has been, well, so confusin.' I may be bad at interpersonal stuff, I admit, but I'm good at my job. And now I'm wonderin' if I'm bad at my job too, or at least made wrong decisions in this case. And that makes me feel, well, so confused, that I really don't know what you want me to start talkin' about."

"Start at the beginning, Fritz said, and paused. "No, before the beginning."

"Before?"

"Yea, way before, because there is something I am curious about, Brenda. Your whole family made planned to spend Christmas together in Florida, and I am assuming you were invited, right?

"Yeah, of course I was," she said. "Why?"

"Brenda, why didn't you tell me about it? I've been saying how much I would love to meet your brothers and their families. Why didn't you ask me if I wanted to go? Why didn't you want to go?" He looked at her, an eyebrow raised.

She seemed surprised by his question. "Well, I, I just didn't think I'd be able to take time off work," she said. "It sounded like fun and all, but you know how hard it is for me to get away from work, so I just told Momma no." She chewed on her lip. "Why are you asking me about this, Fritz? It's my family, it's my decision to go these things."

"Brenda, yes, it's mostly your decision, but would it have killed you to talk to me about it? Just ask me what I thought, and would I want to go? Like every year when I ask you to come out to Vermont for Thanksgiving with my family and every year you say no? You know I would never clip your wings, Brenda, you know that, but we are a couple, soon to be a married couple. That means your family becomes my family, and vice versa. Your decisions become our decisions, don't you see?"

"But-" she started, but he held up his hand. "I don't want to belabor the point, but when is the last time you even saw your brothers and your nieces and nephews?"

"I flew to Georgia for that family reunion two summers ago," she said defensively. "I saw everyone then."

"You were there for what, three days?" She didn't answer. "Brenda, do you know how fast kids grow up? You have three nieces and two nephews, right, and they aren't even going to remember their Aunt Brenda. My brother has kids, and if I didn't make an effort to keep in touch, visit when I can, send birthday cards, I can tell you, he would really be hurt. And I'm sure your brothers are too. And I heard what your dad said about you never coming home to visit. Honey, that's got to change. Your parents aren't going to be around forever, and you need to make an effort to spend more time with them. And the rest of your family. And expect me to lean on you about that in the future, okay?"

He noticed her eyes were filling. "Are you trying to make me feel guilty?" she said accusingly.

"Yes and no," he answered. "I can't make you feel anything, one way or another. I am just trying to get you to see that you have responsibility to the people who love you, to your family, and to me, and we all get terribly neglected, and I am using this time to call you on the carpet for it."

"We?" she said.

"We. I'll get to me in a minute. So, besides you not even considering joining your family for Christmas in Florida, you came home at the last minute to ruin your parent's trip to Florida."

"I didn't ruin—"

He interrupted her again. "The hell you didn't, Brenda," he said, feeling the simmering spark of anger in his stomach grow larger. He took a slow, calming breath before he continued. "You gave them one day's notice you were coming out, under the pretense of spending Christmas with them, so they cancelled their trip to Florida to welcome you home. You didn't even tell me about their plans until we were on the plane, until it was too late."

"Too late for what?"

"Too late to lock you in the house and make you realize how unfair you were being."

"Unfair? Unfair how? It seemed perfect, two birds with one stone, I could pick up Wesley and get to see my parents at the same time. I don't see what was so wrong with that, Fritz."

"It's wrong because you lied, Brenda. To your parents, and to me. And you didn't think for one second about the ramifications of your lie to your parents, did you? That they would cancel their Christmas plans, and you would turn around and leave with your suspect one day after you arrived."

Brenda, said nothing, just looked at her hands in her lap.

"I'm sorry, Brenda, if this is hard for you to hear, because this is hard for me to say. I love you and I hate to hurt you, but I have to be honest. This is it, Brenda, this is the crux of all your problems, and that is your complete inability to be anything but single-minded to the point of obsession when you are involved in a case. You don't care about who you ignore, who you hurt, as long as you close your case. Nothing or no one else matters to you, you are like a tornado, leaving a path of hurt feelings in your wake." He paused again to calm himself, because he could tell his voice was getting louder and louder. He said softly, "I don't mean to yell, but it's the root of so many of your problems, Brenda, with me, with your family. And it's hard enough for me to deal with, and I knew what I was getting into when I started dating you, but to see how it hurts your parents, who are good people and clearly love you, well, it honestly wants me to shake you until you wake up and notice there are other people in the world. To use your own analogy, Brenda, you have burned your hand over and over again, why can't you feel it?" He felt his face get hot, and it dawned on him that that he had waited a long time to tell her this. All of a sudden he knew he had to say it, because his resentment toward her for her casual neglect had been festering for a long time, and had come to head within the past week. He had to let her know this, to lance the boil, or the resentment was threatening to poison him.

There was silence in the room, except for the sounds of Kitty batting around a Christmas ornament. Brenda was chewing her thumb nail and not looking at him, her eyes full of tears that threatened to overflow at any second. She looked like a small child who had just been punished. She said nothing.

"Brenda, it's your turn to say something," he said, in the most soothing voice he could muster. "Discussions go both ways."

She looked at him then, and the child changed into the woman so rapidly that Fritz didn't have a chance to blink. She sat up straighter, and the interrogator's mask slipped over her face.

"What exactly do you expect me to say?" she said through clenched jaws. "Am I supposed to apologize for bein' Deputy Chief, for bein' dedicated to my job? Do you want me to say I'm sorry that I'm not the perfect daughter or sister or fiancée because I'm not runnin' around taking care of everybody? Because I won't, Fritz, I won't apologize for that, because no one ever makes men feel guilty for havin' busy careers."

"Brenda, this isn't about just your job, don't make it about that, it's too easy. This is about you, about your behavior, and the choices you make."

"Thanks Fritz, for makin' that crystal clear," she said, the sarcasm he had asked her to avoid creeping into her voice. "Since I'm obviously this horribly selfish career-obsessed woman who doesn't give a damn about anyone else and has the insight of a shoe box, I ask you again, what do you want me to say? What exactly to you want me to do to make you happy?" Her voice was getting louder, her anger eclipsing his own.

"This isn't about making me happy, Brenda, don't simplify this so you can make it all about me and not about you. Your behavior this week was horrible, and you have got to see the effect that had on your parents and me. And for that matter, members of your squad."

She stood up quickly and threw the blanket off of her. She looked down and slipped her feet into her slippers, and then looked at him, her face stony. "You know what, Fritz? I do have choices, and I choose not to sit here and have you tell me what a terrible person I am. I'm leavin'." She started walking toward the door, reaching down at the end of the couch to grab her purse.

Fritz grabbed her wrist before her hand could touch her bag. He pulled her up, as gently as possible. "No," he said simply.

Brenda struggled against his grasp. "What the hell do you mean, 'no?' I'll damn well leave if I want to. Let me go, Fritz, now!" She was furious, and got even angrier when he reached over and grabbed her other wrist.

"You are not walking out of this conversation, Brenda, I won't let you. Not this time." His eyes flashed with anger, but he kept his voice soft and level, with great effort. "Now, sit down, Brenda."

"You're hurting me!" she whined. "Fritz, stop, really, I'm gonna bruise!"

"If you would calm down and promise to sit back down, I will let you go," Fritz said, his voice rising. "You know I would never hurt you, Brenda, but this has got to stop, and it has got to stop NOW." He had given up trying to be in control. This shift in mood caught Brenda's attention.

She looked at him, almost afraid. "What stops now?"

"This, this incredibly juvenile way we fight. And it isn't just you, I've stormed out of this house during arguments many times too. We both have to figure out a way to argue that doesn't regress us to teenagers." He was breathing heavily. "Like I said, Brenda, we are going to be married. Is this how you want us to communicate the rest of our lives together? One of us storming off when the conversation gets too painful, leaving the other to worry and wait? We might have a kid, Brenda, if we're lucky, and there is no way in hell I'll let he or she watch us fight like this." He was almost panting. "That's how my family was like when I was little. I'd hear my mom and real father fighting, and one of them would storm off and slam the door, and I was sure it was somehow my fault. I'll be damned if I am going to let our child feel that way in our house." He could feel his blood pressure rise, angry at Brenda, angry at the unwanted memories that he couldn't force down.

Fritz felt Brenda stop struggling, her arms going limp. Still, he held on and looked at her. Her face had changed again, not a little girl nor the tough interrogator, but just a woman, a vulnerable woman, who wore a mixture of sadness and regret on her troubled face.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, so softly that Fritz barely heard her. "I'm really sorry, Fritz. You're right, I know I run away a lot…" she looked away. "I'm sitting back down, OK? Not going anywhere." She nodded with her head in the direction of her wrists, which still had his hands wrapped tightly around them. He let her go and backed away. She turned around and walked back to the couch, rubbing her wrists as she went. Fritz felt a pang of guilt. He hoped he hadn't hurt her.

He followed and sat back down next to her on the couch. She turned to face him again, and he could tell by the way she kept opening and closing her mouth that she wanted to say something, and was desperately trying to find the words.

"I know that I do become, well, very focused on my job when I have a case," she started slowly. "But I don't know how to be anythin' else. I mean, I am good at my job, and I'm good at my job because I'm so focused. I don't miss details, I can drag anything out of anyone, and I solve cases no one else can solve. And that's who I am, what I am." She looked up at him. "I decided a long time ago, after my divorce from Hart, that the marriage and kids things wasn't for me, I'm just hopeless in relationships and didn't want to go through life gettin' my heart smashed. So I decided to stick to what I do best, what makes me feel confident and secure in my abilities. Stick to what you're good at, you know?" She laughed bitterly. "So I just threw myself into my work, and I was happier with that, bein' in a zone where I felt I knew what I was doing, forget this romance stuff. And then you came along and completely took me by surprise. I had no intention of getting involved with anyone in LA, especially not right when I really had to prove myself at the LAPD, and the next thing I know, you're shakin' my hand and I'm pullin' you into a big sloppy kiss." She smiled for a second at the memory. "And now I'm gettin' married, something I definitely swore off forever. So I don't know how to be great at my job and be a good wife and all that. The work stuff comes so easily, and the relationship stuff, with you, and my parents, and anyone else for that matter, well, it's just so hard. And those things, work and relationships, came crashin' together this week, and the results were a disaster." She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the back of the couch, looking tired, as if opening up this much had drained her.

"Brenda, first of all, you are more than your job, as good at it as you are," Fritz said softly, relieved that she was finally starting to open up. "It makes me sad to hear you say that the only thing you are good at, the only thing that makes you who you are, is your work. You are so much more than that." She opened her eyes and looked at him, questioning. "It pains me to know you can't see that. Brenda, you are one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. You are beautiful, eccentric, funny, and, even though you don't like people to see it, incredibly kind and compassionate. I didn't fall madly in love with you because you are good at your job, although that certainly impressed me in DC. I fell in love with you for all those other reasons. And even though I know I come second to your work, and I'm trying to learn to live with that."

Brenda's head shot up. "Wait a minute, Fritz, you think you come second to my job, is that what you just said?" She looked confused.

"Yea, I did say that, and yea, that's how I feel, without a doubt. It is what I was trying to tell you earlier, about how you ignore everything and everyone when you are on a case. It hurts, Brenda, but like I said, I knew what I was getting into when we started dating. 'Assumption of the risk,' I do believe lawyers call it. Not that I like it, Brenda. You are my whole world, you come before everything else, and I wish you felt that way about me. But I know how important your work is, so I just try to accept it."

Brenda was clearly flustered. "But Fritz, it's apples and oranges, how can you compare our relationship and my job? They're two different things." She started waving her hands in the air again. "How can you say you come in second, I mean, where do you get that? How can you rank somethin' like that, or are you just trying to make me feel guilty again? I know I spend a lot of time away from home, but I have to, it's not my fault that people are gettin' killed in LA all the time, and I try to get home as soon as I can…" she was starting to rant, and Fritz had to stop her.

"Shhh," she said, grabbing her hand. "You're rambling, Brenda. I'm sorry that was hard for you to hear."

"Hard for me to hear? You basically just told me I'm a horrible and neglectful partner. Well, maybe I am. Maybe I should have stuck with my original plan and just stayed celibate. I didn't know you felt so neglected, Fritz," she said sarcastically.

"You would know if you paid any attention, Brenda. Like I said, when you are on a case, nothing else matters to you. Including me."

She shook her head. "That's not true, Fritzy. It's not."

"Do you want an example, Brenda? A time you clearly chose your work over my feelings?"

"Not particularly, but go ahead, you are gonna tell me anyways."

He ignored her disdain. "On the way home from Atlanta, when you couldn't get Wesley to talk, after you told him the lie about Grady being murdered. Your dad whips out a bottle of scotch and hands it to you to get Wesley drunk." Fritz closed his eyes as he felt a wave a nausea reminiscent of how he felt as Brenda poured booze down Wesley's willing throat. "Besides it being completely unethical on a million levels, and his confession would be inadmissible, and hearing you did that to a suspect could damage your reputation..."

"Yea, I get the point, Fritz, now go on," she said icily.

"I told you Wesley had a drug and alcohol problem, but you got him drunk anyways. And you know I'm in AA. Yet I had to sit there and watch you hand drink after drink to a substance abuser so you could get the answers you needed. Do you have any idea how awful that was for me to see? And I know, Brenda, that you knew it was wrong, what you were doing, because you couldn't even look me in the eye." He rubbed his face. "Just once, just once, Brenda, I would have liked you to have chosen me over getting a confession. You could have told your father to put the scotch away, knowing how hard it would be for me to watch you get Wesley drunk. How cruel it was."

"Cruel…for him or for you?"

"For both of us. But I'm talking about me now. And honestly, as bad as last week was, as poor as some of your choices were, I think I am most upset with you about you using alcohol to get Wesley to confess. It felt like a slap in the face, to be honest, like I, and my past, meant nothing to you. It hurt, Brenda."

"You mean, the past you didn't bother to tell me about until three months ago, and only told me because I found out about it? You mean that past?" She was angry.

"Fair enough, Brenda. Like I said, we need to work on our communication, and you certainly aren't the only culprit. But I told you how bad things were, how much I hated myself and my life back then, what alcohol did to me. And then to see you ignore all that because of the possibility of getting a confession out of someone? How could I not feel like I come in a distant second?"

"Well, what else was I supposed to do?" she said defensively. "It wasn't a game, I was tryin' to stop more guards from bein' killed."

"What else could you have done?" he asked incredulously. "You are Brenda Lee Johnson, the best interrogator in the LAPD. You could have found another way."

"Fritz, I wasn't in my element. I didn't have the resources I do at work, like a squad, and an interrogation room, and I didn't have the ability to find out the answers before I interviewed the suspect, like I normally do. And when I interrogate someone, I'm playin' a role, based on whosever sittin' in front of me. I walk in, do what I need to do and be who I need to be, and then I get to walk out, confession in hand. In this case, I was locked up in an RV for four days with a suspect with an attitude, and I wasn't able to just walk away from him. As much as I tried to stay remote, in character, for Goodness sake, the man was with my parents, my fiancé! It's a little tough to have the kind of boundaries I need to deal with a suspect when I'm cooped up with him for four days. And we were gettin' closer and closer to California without an expedition warrant, so I was gettin' closer and closer to bein' a kidnapper. I did what I had to do. That's my job." Brenda crossed her arms and frowned at Fritz.

"So the end justifies the means?" he said softly.

"I didn't say that, Fritz. I just said that I did the best I could under very difficult conditions. I'm sorry your feelin's got hurt, that wasn't my intention. I was just gettin' a little desperate, was all. I thought you would understand."

"Understand? Understand what? That it's OK to be unethical when you are desperate? To treat suspects like the way you treated Wesley? I know you have issues with the FBI, Brenda, but I have never seen an agent be as mean to a suspect as you were to Wesley. How could I possibly understand, or condone, what you did? That's certainly not the way I do my job. I know you are used to me backing you up, Brenda, and I did. Did it ever occur to you who told your parents that Grady was alive?" He looked at her, and she shook her head. "Well, it was me, right after we dropped you off at work. And as you know from talking to your mother, they were very upset, and I had to smooth things over as best I could. But I shouldn't have been put in that position in the first place."

"I never asked you to cover for me, Fritz. That was your choice."

"Oh, so I suppose I should have just let them walk through the door and introduce them to Grady and let them figure it out for themselves? Or risk your parents slipping up and saying something about thinking he was dead? I couldn't do that, Brenda, come on. I had to cover for you. You left me no choice. I'm sure it never even crossed your mind that your parents would have to be told the truth once you got home, did it? You were too focused on the case to be concerned with small details like that." Fritz heard the sarcasm creeping in his voice and knew he should stop talking, but he was on a role.

"And I have another question for you, Brenda. This robbery case was taken away from Taylor and given to you, right?" She nodded slightly. "I wonder if some of your tactics were so ruthless because you were so desperate to solve this case to one up Taylor." Fritz knew immediately that he hit a nerve.

Brenda glared at Fritz. "You have got to be kiddin' me. In the laundry list of things I did wrong, how horrible I am and all, you put me in the same category as Taylor? Like I would sink to his level and play his little competitive games to impress Will? Is that who you think I am?" Brenda's face got red. "Ruthless, huh? Well, I guess this whole thing has really brought out how you really feel about me, Fritz. I thought you respected my work, but I guess not. Seems like as far as you are concerned, I'm just shoven' bamboo shoots up people's fingernails for a livin'." She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, laying her check on her thigh, refusing to look at Fritz.

"I am honestly not sure, Brenda," Fritz said, trying to slow his breathing as each word came out, "that there is a hell of a lot of difference between bamboo shoots and telling a man he was responsible for his brother's death."

"Go to Hell, Fritz," Brenda said in a low voice, still staring down at the floor. "Just go to Hell." He said nothing, watching her, knowing that they were getting close to the heart of the matter.

Brenda was silent for several minutes, as she slowly rocked herself back and forth on the couch, balled up as tightly as possible. She finally spoke. "I had no choice. It was his hurt feelin's or more dead guards. You have no right to accuse me of torture. I did what I had to do. And you know what, Fritz? As 'ruthless' as you think I am, it worked. As did gettin' Wesley drunk. I'm havin' a hard time regrettin' either one of those ideas, since we saved two guards."

"And Wesley ended up dead, Brenda. I ask you again, does the end justify the means?"

She looked at him finally, her face pale, her eyes cold. "Since you are all about tellin' me where I get off today, then you might as well unload on this one, though I'm already pretty sure of your answer." Her voice wavered. "You think I got Wesley killed, don't you? That he's dead because of me." She stared at him, her pupils so big it was as if her eyes were black. Her breathing quickened, waiting for his response.

"I don't know, Brenda," he said slowly. "I really don't know."

She turned and buried her face in her knees again, pulling the throw blanket around her as if swaddling herself. She was quiet again, but after a few minutes, Fritz noticed her thin shoulders shaking, and could hear small, desperate gasps emanating from deep within her. He scooted closer. "Brenda?" he asked softly. "Hey, Brenda, look at me."

But she wouldn't. Soon her whole body was shaking, and her muffled wails became louder. She began to rock herself on the couch again, like a child trying to comfort herself. She was sobbing, the sounds she was making out of sync with how strongly her body was shaking. He had no doubt she was trying to hold it in, that she didn't want him to see her break down like this.

He had only seen Brenda cry a few times before. Just a couple tears here or there, like Christmas Eve night out on the porch, or else he caught her crying in the bedroom and she pretended that nothing was wrong as she quickly dried off her face. But he had never seen her sob before, never seen her rip her soul open and let sadness flow freely. It almost frightened him to witness coming from his Brenda, his girl, the strongest person he knew. He put his arm around her and she tried to pull away, but he wouldn't let go. He tried to get her to sit up and breathe deeply, but she wouldn't straighten. Finally, he picked her up and sat her on his lap. At first, she remained in a tight ball, refusing to relax at all in his arms. After several minutes of muffled sobs, she finally came up for air, and Fritz got a look at her face. Tears and mucus had run down to her chin, her red eyes blood red. She gasped for breath and let out short, sharp shuttering moans that cut through him and pierced his heart. Before she could bundle herself back into a ball, Fritz gently guided her head to lay against his chest, under his chin, and wrapped his harms around her. She grasped at his shirt and continued to cry, and he could feel her hot tears through the thin layer of his cotton shirt. He slowly stroked her back and whispered calming words to her, but didn't try to stop her tears. He knew this was catharsis, very long overdue, and Brenda was finally feeling the pain from her burnt hand. He wasn't going to interfere with this process until the last bit of blackness had been spewed from her heart.

After a long time, her sobs slowed down, and her iron grip on his shirt relaxed a bit. Fritz could hear her fighting to slow her hitching breath by inhaling slowly. Her body's slackness against him didn't stiffen, and Fritz took this as a good sign, that she was starting to let go…of something. He wasn't sure what, but he was hopeful now she could talk to him about it, without her usual defensiveness.

When she had been quiet for several minutes, Fritz leaned down and whispered in her ear, "honey, I'm going to set you down for just a minute so I can get you some Kleenex and a glass of water, OK?" Her grip on his shirt tightened, and he felt her shake her head no. He kissed the top of her head and said in a soothing voice, "Brenda, I'll only be gone for 30 seconds, I promise. I will be right back, and I will wrap you in my arms again. But right now, you are getting snot on my shirt." His small joke brought a spasm of breath from her, which could have been an attempt at laughter. She let his shirt go, and he gingerly lay her on her side on the couch, covering her with the throw blanket. She quickly hid her face, burying it between her hands, so he didn't get a good look at her.

Fritz went into the bathroom and got a towel and a washcloth. He soaked the washcloth with warm water, and grabbed the box of Kleenex that sat on the back of the toilet. He then went to the kitchen and poured a large glass of ice water. When he returned to the living room, Brenda had not moved. He sat on the floor next to her, and began to rub her back again. "Honey, I need you to sit up for a second, OK?" he said softy. "Come on Brenda, sit up for me, please." After sighing deeply, she slowly pushed herself up on one arm into a sitting position. Fritz was shocked at how bad she looked. Her face was right red and puffy, her eyes almost swollen shut. There were still some tears forcing themselves out of her bloated eyes, and he noticed that her shirt was wet with tears and mucus, as were the edges of her hair. He silently handed her the warm washcloth, and she silently took it, rubbing her face and neck with it. When Fritz felt that she was relatively clean, he held his hand out for it, and she gave it back, not looking at him. He then placed the box of Kleenex on her knee. She took a stack and began blowing her nose, and Fritz quickly lost count of how many Kleenexes she used, but she created an impressive pile next to the couch. When she finished with that, her nose bright red now, he handed her the glass of water, which she downed without pausing. Fritz busied himself cleaning up, in order to give her another minute or two to collect herself. When he returned from the kitchen and bathroom, she was still seated, which seemed like a good sign, and he couldn't detect any fresh tears. Still, she didn't look at him.

"Thank you," she said to the floor. Her voice was thick and gravelly.

"Feeling any better?" he asked, as he sat next to her on the couch.

"I don't know," she answered. "And…and I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what, Brenda?"

"For this," she waived her hand in the general direction of her face. "For fallin' apart. I don't like to get that way, and it's a hundred times worse when someone has to see it. It's humiliatin.'" She started to play with the fringe on the throw blanket again.

"Brenda, look at me," he said. She did, reluctantly. "Do I look upset?" She shook her head. "Good, because I'm not upset, I'm relieved. Relieved that you needed to get some stuff out, and you did, so it's not going to sit inside you and fester. And relieved that hopefully, your defenses are down enough now that we can talk a little more honestly."

She closed her eyes. "Oh Fritz, I am so tired of talkin'. It doesn't change things in the end, you know?"

"It does when there are important things to be said."

She bit her lower lip. "OK, you are right, I just always feel like things come out worse than what I really mean to say. Somehow, from the time the words get from my head to my mouth, they get all turned around, and no one understands what I'm tryin' to say."

"Try me," Fritz said.

"OK." She wiped her swollen eyes with the back of her hand, looking away from him again. "I know there are so many things to apologize to you about, Fritz. I am so sorry I dragged you out to Atlanta to become a part of this whole mess. I am so sorry…" her voice caught, and she had to swallow a few times before she could continue… "so sorry that I got Wesley drunk in front of you, ignorin' how mean that was. And I'm sorry that I went runnin' off, leaving you to explain things to my parents." She winced. "God, I really an a bitch, aren't I? A piece of work, as my daddy would say."

Fritz reached and grabbed her hand. "You aren't a bitch, Brenda, and don't let me ever hear you call yourself that. I know you hate that word above all others, and I am not going to let you use it on yourself, ever. OK?" She hung her head. "And Brenda…" he took her chin in her hand and turned her face toward his… "I forgive you." He caressed the side of her face with his hand, and fresh tears sprung into her overworked eyes. He had the foresight of leaving the Kleenex box near the couch, and he took one and dabbed the tears away. "No more of that, now," he said gently.

"Thank you, Fritzy, for acceptin' my apology. Some day I will have to figure out whatever I did in a past life to deserve you, 'cuz it certainly wasn't anything I did in this one." She forced a smile. "But the big one, Fritz, the thing I never realized…I didn't know that you felt you came in second…to my job, I mean. And it, well, it makes me sad," she paused for control, "that you think that. And that I've been too dense, or wrapped up in my work, or in myself, to realize that you felt that way. I am so, so sorry for that, Fritz, so sorry." She pulled her hand away from his and again wrapped her arms tightly around her legs, making herself small again. "What can I do to make it up to you?" she said, almost in a child's voice, barely above a whisper. "Tell me, and I swear, I'll do it."

He put his hand on her hunched shoulder and lightly massaged it. "I know this is a hard one, Brenda, for you, because your life is your job. And I'm not sure I can give you tangible examples of how to make things different, it's so much more complicated than that."

"Please try," she said. "I'm a concrete thinker, you know that."

He leaned back and thought, where to start? Three years of clearly being forgotten, alone in the house, no idea where Brenda was or what she was up to, or when she might come home. The ever-present knot in his stomach when they were together enjoying themselves that the phone would ring and she would have to go running off, never bothering to apologize for ruining their fun, nary a backwards glance at him. She reminded him of Kitty, who would be perfectly content to sit in his lap until he saw Brenda walk in, and then it was as if Fritz meant nothing. No wonder Brenda and Kitty get along so well, he thought wryly.

"OK, here are a couple of things I would love for you to do, that would make me feel a little less second string. First, call me. Even in the middle of an intense case, I would love it if you would take five minutes and just call to say hello, tell me how the case is going, and that you love me. And call me when you are going to be late, and try and sound sad about it."

"But I am sad about it!" she said

"OK, than tell me that, that you are sorry you won't be able to see me because you are coming home so late, or not at all. Let me know that you care that I am by myself, missing you. And let me know that even in the middle of a crazy case, you miss me too." Tall order, he thought.

"But I do miss you, Fritzy. I do. I wish you were by my side during these cases, to talk to, to run things by and get your opinion. And even more important, I wish you were there so I could shut the shades in my office and you could hold me for a minute, and I would have a brief reprieve from havin' to be the boss and havin' to always have all the answers. I wish that so much, during all these long investigations. I should have told you, but I'm so bad at sayin' these things."

He looked at her with surprise. He never knew that she gave a second thought to him during a case, except for the times she did actually remember to call him and tell him not to make dinner. Usually, he had to track her down to find out what her plans were.

"I didn't know that, Brenda," he said tenderly, continuing to caress her shoulder. "I didn't know that I could give you reprieve from what was going on around you." He leaned closer, forcing her to look at him again. "Brenda, don't you know that all you need to do is call me, and I'll make time to come over to your office and give you that hug? That it would mean the world to me to be able to take you away from all your pressures for a few minutes? And that you actually need me on that level?" He felt tears sting his own eyes. "I wish you told me this before. And more importantly, I wish you asked for this before. Brenda, if there is one thing you should know by now, is that I will always be there for you, always." He caressed his face, and she gently rubbed her cheek against his hand.

"I'm sorry I never told you this before. It just felt so…incredibly needy."

"I think it sounds incredibly human."

She nodded mutely. "What else, Fritzy, can I do that makes you feel like I value you more? Give me somethin' else I can work on." She was almost pleading with him.

Fritz thought to the long list he had in his head, all the things he wished Brenda would do, like delegate to her squad so her hours would be shorter, take real vacations with him in which she would be completely unreachable, demand that when there are weekends when her squad is not on call that murders go to Robbery/homicide, tell Will Pope to stop treating her like she's worthless unless she gets a confession, give a case to Taylor now and again, since she gladly takes them from him…the list was endless. He thought, in her fragile state, starting a discussion about Taylor and Pope, and how dealing with them differently might result in her hours being closer to sane, was not be the best of ideas. He needed something simple, concrete, not too intimidating, and then they could slowly work from there.

"You stay late at work to do paperwork a lot," he finally said. "Is there any way you can lug a few boxes home and work from here, in the evenings? I can cook you dinner and then leave you alone, being extra quiet, so you can get your work done without disruption. But you would be with me in the house, I wouldn't be alone, and that would mean a lot to me." He know he probably sounded a little desperate, but he didn't care. He was tired being in the small house in the evenings with no one to talk to except Kitty. If she brought her paperwork home, he could feed her dinner, watch her with her glasses perched on the end of her nose and admire her beauty, and know she was safe with him.

Brenda nodded. "I can do that, Fritz," she said softly. After awhile, she said, "you certainly don't ask for much, do you?"

"Oh, there's more, Brenda, let's just start with these, OK?" He kissed her head again, and she leaned it on his shoulder, closing her eyes. He took her hand and threaded it through his. They sat like that for a long time, both lost in their thoughts.

After awhile, she raised her head and looked at him. "I need to talk to you about Wesley," she said sadly. "What I've been thinkin' about, since that night on the porch, what I've been tryin' to figure out is if I, if I killed him. I mean, if tellin' him about Grady is what got him killed. It certainly made him shoot his partners, since he was afraid they would go after Grady. But what I don't understand…" she started to chew her lip again.

"What?" Fritz prompted her.

"He knew that Grady was alive when he dumped his wire," she said. "He knew that I had lied to him. And yet, he wasn't mad at me, and I don't know why."

Fritz frowned. "How do you know he wasn't mad at you?" he asked.

"When he dumped his wire, he recorded a message for me which we downloaded back at Parker Center," she said. "He told me that he knew from lookin' at the fake crime scene I had Lieutenant Tao put together that we were lyin.' We made it look like Grady was killed by Wesley's accomplices because they were lookin' for Wesley's money, but Wesley said in his message to me that they knew exactly where they kept his money, so he knew right away that the crime scene couldn't be real."

Fritz looked at her. "You had Tao fake a crime of Grady's death, and then made Wesley watch it? Jeez, Brenda, that was a little over the top."

"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time," she retorted. "Anyways, Wesley said that Thumps and RJ would figure out pretty quickly that is was Grady who gave their names to the cops, and he said…" she stopped, her throat closing up. She cleared her voice. "He said that if anything should happen to him, to take care of his little brother." Her face tightened, and fine lines formed around the corners of his mouth. "But he wasn't mad at me lyin' to him, and for him to ask me to make sure Grady would be cared for…" Brenda stopped in midsentence, as if saying any more would threaten to steal her voice forever.

"He trusted you," Fritz said softly. "As strange as it sounds, as acrimonious as your relationship was, especially in the beginning, he saw something in you that allowed him to trust you. I think, maybe, the alcohol just gave him an excuse to open up. And Brenda, I think you saw something in him besides just a criminal. Maybe it was both of you being from Atlanta, or something else, but I know you cared about him, cared very much what happened to him." Brenda nodded mutely.

"And I know you roll your eyes when I talk about anything metaphysical, but maybe in some way, this was meant to be."

"What, I was meant to get him killed? Please, Fritz, I feel bad enough."

"That's not what I meant. But think about what he said to you, about caring for Grady. And what ended up happening, that Grady got taken in by your parents. Because of that, because of having the stability of your parents' love, he isn't going to end up like his brother."

Brenda looked at him, her brow furrowed. "In the message, he also told me to thank Momma and Daddy for being so kind to him. He really liked my parents. He told me how lucky I was to grow up with a mom and dad that loved me and took good care of me. Hell, they're still takin' care of me." She smiled ruefully.

"Is that what you were thanking them for this morning, Brenda?" She nodded.

"I thanked my Daddy yesterday, when he told me that they were taking Grady back with them. I thanked him for being such a good father, still puttin' up with my outrageous behavior at 41. And I wanted to thank my Momma too, and I did. I realize that I have been takin' them for granted, just like I do you." She sighed, a long, deep sigh, and he could tell she was fighting tears again.

"So maybe you are right, Fritz, some good came out of this. I feel closer to my Momma and Daddy now, because so many of the secrets I've kept, like livin' with you, are all out in the open. And they saw me at my most, well, to use your words, 'ruthless,' and they still love me, that's pretty amazin.' I should have thanked them years ago, Fritz. And you are right, I have to spend more time with them before it's too late. Consider that a New Year's resolution."

Brenda was silent for a moment. "I've turned it over and over in my head, and I just can't reach an answer, Fritz, and it's killin' me." Her voice became soft, so soft Fritz could barely hear her. "Am I the reason Wesley's dead? And I can't come up with an answer. I have rearranged the scenario a billion times, tried different tactics in my head, and I still don't know." More silence, and Fritz waited for her to continue. "My gut tells me this is all my fault." She looked up at him, and he could see in her eyes that she was desperate for him to contradict her, but he couldn't. She needed to know the truth.

"Brenda, you and I have both been in law enforcement for a long time," he said. "And from talking to some of the older guys I work with, after they've had a few drinks and their tongues loosened, they talk about that 'one case.' The one case they couldn't solve, the victim they couldn't save, the perp who died but might have been innocent. And they always say the same thing: they are haunted by this case. It follows them around for years, always in the back of their minds, casting a shadow on their current cases." He paused, looking at her, to see if she understood what he was saying.

Brenda nodded, "yea, I've heard older cops say the same thing, about that one unresolved case that keeps them up at night, 20 years later."

"Brenda, I think Wesley is your ghost," Fritz said. "I think this case is going to haunt you, and I don't mean in a destructive, horrible way. I think that Wesley's death will, in some ways, make you better at what you do, make you question the rightness of your methods. I think it will keep you awake at nights, but I'm not sure you are ever going to figure out, like I know you want to, if your actions led to your death. Brenda, I don't think you will find the absolution you are looking for."

She looked like she was going to be sick. He put his hand on his lower back and rubbed as she stared out into nowhere. "You aren't making me feel any better, Fritz, just so you know," she said.

"I didn't know the purpose of this conversation was for you to feel better. I thought it was for us to be honest with each other."

"I know it is," she said, still blankly staring at nothing. "It's just the idea of havin' a ghost, as you call it, like those old, burned out cops I knew in DC and Atlanta, well, I find that pretty upsettin."

"OK then," Fritz said. I have another way you can look at things. Wesley's ghost can be something besides the memory of a case gone bad."

"What?"

"He can be your conscience."

At this, comprehension dawned in Brenda's dark, bloodshot eyes. She lay her head down on her knees again, and Fritz pulled her closer to him. "My conscience. I like that better. My tactic is to never look back, no matter what happens, as long as I close my case. And I don't think I can do that anymore. Not since Wesley's death." She sighed. "I guess I can live with him bein' my conscience. I probably needed to get one of those some day anyway." She smiled slightly.

They were silent for awhile, Fritz slowly rubbing Brenda's back while she resumed staring, but this time, he could tell she was lost in thought. Ten minutes went by with nothing but the sound of their combined breathing to break the stillness. Fritz finally said, "honey, what are you thinking about?"

"Christmas presents," she answered.

He smiled. "What about Christmas presents, Brenda?"

She stuck out her lower lip. "About how I never got any. Not that I was probably on Santa's 'good list' this year."

Fritz laughed. Even in the middle of heartwrenching personal crisis, Brenda could still think about presents. That's so my girl, he thought.

He stood up. "Well, I can't speak for Santa, but you were on my 'good list.'" He walked over the tree and lifted up the tree skirt and pulled out a small box out from under it. "I thought I'd wait until we were alone and were in a better space before I gave this to you." Before she could hand her the box, she had jumped up. "Oh Fritzy, I have presents for you too, just a second!" She ran to the bedroom and came back with two presents, both about the size of books but flatter, wrapped in the hideous pink Santa paper.

They both sat down on the couch. "You first," Fritz said. Brenda didn't need to be asked twice. She pulled off the bow and ripped off the wrapping in a matter of seconds, revealing a small, blue velvet jewelry box. She held it in her hand, excitement in her eyes.

"Go ahead, open it," he prodded.

She did. Inside the box were pearl and diamond earrings. A small diamond set in gold rested on top of each sizable pearl. They were striking; large enough to be noticed, but still elegant. "Oh Fritzy," Brenda gasped. "They are so beautiful."

"I thought you could wear them for our wedding," he said softly, caressing her cheek. "I wanted to get you something suitable for the stunning bride I know you are going to be."

She looked at him, fresh tears in her eyes. She reached out and grabbed him in a rib-crushing hug. "I love them so much, Fritz, they are gorgeous. And I will wear them on our weddin' day." She released him and pulled back, looking him in the eye. "And I need to say thank you too, Fritz. For bein' there for me, always. For lovin' me no matter what. And for having the courage to tell me hard things I don't want to hear, knowin' it's not gonna be easy." She put her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear, "I love you so much, Fritzy, so much." He put his hand in her hair and cupped her skull, pulling her closer. "I love you too. Brenda, with all of my heart."

She grinned and pulled back. "Now, before you get any ideas that require the sheddin' of clothes, you need to open your gifts." She released Fritz and sat back down. Just as he started to pick one of the presents, she got a distressed look on her face and said, "Oh."

"What's up?" Fritz asked. "Everything OK?"

Brenda chewed her lower lip. "Well, I'm a little embarrassed here. You got me these gorgeous earrings and all, which must have cost a bundle, and I didn't get you anything very expensive. I feel bad."

Fritz laughed. "Oh Brenda, with the amount of money you blew this past week, I am thrilled that you didn't spend much on me for Christmas! That's a gift in and of itself!"

Brenda looked at him abashedly. "Yea, right. OK then, go ahead and open the one with the red bow."

Fritz did as he was told. He unwrapped what turned out to be a box for a 5"x7" picture frame. He raised an eyebrow at Brenda. "Open the box,' she instructed.

Fritz slid out of the thin box a picture frame wrapped in tissue paper. When she removed the paper and got a good look at his present, he gasped.

"But Brenda, how did you…you told me…I thought this was gone!" Fritz was so stunned he couldn't finish his thought.

Brenda smiled smugly. "I lied!" She said proudly. "Oh, I know we had a big conversation about me lying and all, but this was all before that. Plus, I really wanted to surprise you, and it looks like I did." She looked very pleased with herself.

The picture was of her. Four months ago, Fritz took Brenda to Corona del Mar for the day. Brenda loved the ocean; not so much to swim in, but to walk along the edge and watch the waves. The only times he has ever seen Brenda sit quiet and still was when he took her to a beautiful coastline, and she would sit on the shore for long periods of time, silently watching the tide come in and out, as if mesmerized. At Corona del Mar, she took off her sandals and handed her oversized purse to Fritz, and waded ankle deep into the cool water. She looked so beautiful that Fritz asked her to stand still for a second so he could take a picture. He reached into her purse and quickly found her phone, which took better pictures than his. "Smile!" he said, and she did, one of her rare, stunning, knock-the-earth-off-its-axis smiles. Even from the small screen of the phone, he could tell he just snapped a masterpiece. She was wearing a pink sundress, which complemented the line of cool orange in the sky from the evening sun, making her soft creamy skin glow. Her curly hair was blowing in the wind, and her perfect body was outlined by the azure ocean. He had never seen a more beautiful picture of her; Botticelli's "Venus Rising" paled in comparison.

He couldn't stop looking at the picture on her phone the rest of the day, until she ripped it out of his hands, saying, "oh for Heaven's sake Fritz, why are you staring at that picture when you have the real thing right here?"

"I want to download that when we get home," he told her. "It is just the most amazing picture of you I've ever seen." Brenda rolled her eyes.

That night, she made excuses about why he couldn't mess around with her phone to retrieve the picture, and he didn't see her to ask again until a few days later. She looked down at her feet. "Well, see, Fritz, there's a bit of a problem, not a big one really, it's just that, I kinda lost the picture." She chewed her lip.

"You lost it?" he asked incredulously.

"Yea, I deleted it. By accident, I swear! I went to go look at it, and I hit the wrong button, and poof, it just disappeared." Brenda looked embarrassed.

"Let me see," Fritz said angrily, grabbing the phone out of her purse. Sure enough, the picture was gone. "Brenda, why is it that someone as brilliant as you can't even operate a simple cell phone? It just amazes me to no end. I loved that picture. Couldn't you have been a little more careful?" Brenda mumbled, "sorry" as he stormed off. He was so angry he didn't talk to her for the rest of the day.

Staring at the picture, enlarged so that all he found stunning about it on the cell phone screen was amplified one hundred fold, he stared at her. "You lied? So you didn't really delete it?"

"Nope," she said happily. You loved it so much I decided to give it to you for Christmas. So I asked Lieutenant Tao to help me download it and burn it on a disk, then I went to this real nice photo store near work and had it enlarged. And got the frame." The frame was simple, almost art deco in its casual elegance but was made of real silver, which seemed to call forth the sparkles on the water in the photo. Looking at Brenda in the picture almost stole Fritz's breath away.

"Thank you so much, Brenda," he said, reaching out to kiss her. "I couldn't have asked for a better present. This is definitely going on my office at work. I want everyone to see how beautiful you are."

She snorted. "Yea, so those colleagues of yours who just think I'm a bitch on wheels can see the softer side of me, huh?" They both laughed.

Fritz picked up his second gift, which was identical in size and weight as the first. He smiled. "I think I might know what this one is."

Right after he had snapped the picture of Brenda wading on the water's edge, an older couple walked by. "Would you like me to take a picture of both of you?" the man asked.

"That would be great!" answered Fritz, who quickly took off his sandals, put Brenda's bag down, and waded out to meet her. He stood behind Brenda and wrapped his arms around her waist, and she leaned back against him. Fritz felt happier than he could remember as the man snapped the picture of the two of them. The sun was caressing his back, the wind kissed his face, and he was holding his beloved in his arms. His happiness came through in the picture, too, as he stared at it with almost as much amazement as he did with the one of just Brenda. He looked younger and softer, and Brenda was radiating beauty. "You two are the loveliest couple I have ever seen," the older woman said. "I think you are meant to be together." She smiled at them, and she and her husband continued their walk on the beach. Fritz waded back out to Brenda and grabbed her in an embrace and kissed her long and hard. "You are my everything," he whispered in her ear, as she lay her head against his chest.

He was equally angry when he thought that picture had been deleted by Brenda's electronic incompetence too, but here it was, also more exquisite in a much larger form, and was in a slightly different silver frame. Fritz noticed that there was engraving at the bottom. "Brenda and Fritz" it read, in elegant cursive. He was grinning so broadly his face hurt. "I love it, Brenda, so much. And I am so surprised. Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said, putting his arm around her, pulling her close.

She looked down at the picture of the two of them. "I liked this one so much I made two copies, so I could put one in my office," she said.

"So, your colleagues who think I'm an a$$hole can see the softer side of me?" he smirked.

They kissed again, slowly, a kiss full of promise. He was amazed how much he had missed her lips, the soft sighs she made whenever she kissed him, the sweetness of her tongue. Being angry at her was awful, he thought, because it deprived him of her, and he felt like he could live without oxygen easier than he could live without Brenda's touch. She pulled away and gently kissed his forehead.

"Merry Christmas, Brenda," he said tenderly.

Happy Boxin' Day, Fritz," she replied.