Author: ArdentTly
Story Title: Flashpoint
Characters: Zeen/Abby, Zeen/various f
Rating: R
Summary: Uber. The after-effects of a chemical fire, and the wrenching truths that come out as a result, test Zeen and Abby's relationship. Sequel to The Blaze and Inferno.

While my characters do have a few things in common with those belonging to RenPic, no infringement is intended.

This story hints at the sexual relationship between consenting adults of the same gender who happen to love each other dearly. There are some rather nasty cusses throughout along with a few hurt/comfort situations. It must be noted that a scene of rape is alluded to in this story. While not described in any great detail, please be mindful that it could, and probably will, be quite upsetting for some. Should any of this be offensive to you, please feel free to read elsewhere. Rated R because of sexual violence and graphic scenes of a fire and its aftermath.

Research Disclaimer: I don't profess to be learned in the area of chemical fires or their side effects so I'd like to acknowledge the help of a couple of individuals. One is a firefighter named Joe who's seen a burn unit up close and very personally and was very gracious to point me in the right direction with regards to the psychological aspects of burn survivors. The others are Rohan, Terri and Betty, who have been a great help in the research department. Thanks to you all.

Final Acknowledgement: I want to thank my kids for putting up with Mom's addiction to her computer in general, and writing in particular. I'm grateful for your continued love and understanding. Thanks also to my girlfriend who has always been very supportive of me even when I just had to write, chained to my cold basement dungeon, when I really should have been with her where it's nice and warm and . . . well, you know. Thanks, babe.

This is the third installment on my Zeen/Abby series. It began with The Blaze and continued with Inferno, so it would make the story flow a lot easier if you read those before continuing with this one.

You can also find stories by Ardently at MaryD's The Bard's Corner

You can send your comments and other burnt offerings to


by ArdentTly

Chapter One

Abby Dean watched as the car pulled away from the curb. Even though she was assured they had arrived only ten minutes behind the ambulance, she felt the need to hurry, almost as if she could hear Zeen calling to her. Her friend Lt. Pete Melrose had emphatically stated that although Zeen had been unconscious, the firefighter was alive when the EMTs had loaded her into the ambulance.

Try as she might, she just couldn't get any further information on what Pete thought her injuries might be. How had he found her? What condition had she been in? These were questions she desperately needed answers to, but ones Melrose was trying just as desperately not to think too much about.

They quickly walked into the crowded hospital, and Pete immediately made a beeline for the pop machine, guzzling down two cans of Dr. Pepper in seconds flat. Abby shuddered, being a Coca-Cola fan herself. She took a step back and watched in stunned silence as Pete proceeded to wolf down half a dozen chocolate bars, and then winced as he made sad little sounds as each morsel was passed painfully down his throat. Abby patted his arm and then got into one of the lines.

"Why don't you just sit, Pete? If you keep poking the groceries back like that, and you my friend, are going to pay for it . . . big time."

The Lieutenant grimaced as his fingers lightly played over the bandage covering the burned flesh under his chin. "Heh, haven't eaten all day and the heat of that damned fire all but sucked me dry. Wonder how Zeen's doing?" he croaked and then his belly gave a strange rumble. Pressing his hand against his mouth, he released a large burp. "Oh, pardon me." Pete rubbed his belly, and wondered if the bars had been a good idea.

"Looks kinda busy in here . . . wonder how long it'll take to get through the red tape." he continued, trying to keep his hands away from the bandage at his throat.

"You should be getting yourself taken care of, Pete. I'll be fine."

Abby's eyebrows went up as the Lieutenant's belly groaned dangerously and gave the man an 'I told you' sort of look. He smiled weakly.

"Oh, don't worry about me. I'm as strong as an ox. You . . . you look pretty beat, Ab. You sure you don't want me to stick around, and flash my badge?"

Abby winced with every syllable the man spoke. It sounded like he had a mouthful of broken glass. "Pete, should you be talking? You really don't look very well. Maybe you should . . . "

"I'll be just . . . fine." He said, swallowing back the bile that was rising in the back of his throat.

"So. You want me to divide and conquer that line over there?" He mopped a line of sweat from his forehead and tried to still his shaking hands. 'Must be shock', he thought to himself. And then his stomach lurched one way, and his equilibrium wobbled the other. He needed to . . . get away . . .

"Listen Abby, I've gotta go see the doc in In-Patients. I promised that paramedic and . . . " The blonde grabbed his arm, as the Lieutenant suddenly groaned through clenched lips.

"I'm suddenly not feelin too good." A sudden pasty look had begun creeping up the man's chest until his face looked more the colour of the Pillsbury Dough Boy than a native New Yorker with Italian somewhere in his family tree.

Abby helped him through a set of double doors, and tried hard not to shake her head knowingly as he'd rushed to the bathroom. What he'd been thinking of when he'd snarfed back all that stuff was a mystery to her.

A strangled cry emitted from the bathroom as the Lieutenant lost what little sustenance he'd forced down his raw throat. It was even worse coming back up, and coupled with the onset of mild shock, it was a good thing the nurses had returned with Abby when they did. She watched as they helped her friend onto a gurney, and then shoed her away.

Making her way back to the waiting room, Abby found herself looking at two impossibly long lines of people either wanting to be admitted or, like her, trying to find out about loved ones who were already patients of the hospital. 'Why do I have this sudden urge to 'moo'? Should have taken up Pete's offer', she grumbled under her breath, and picked a line.

It seemed like forever before Abby found herself looking across at a tired but agreeable-looking admitting nurse. She'd gotten all the information down, and had shown her health insurance card, etc. The woman had worked at the computer for a while and then had left, giving her a rather strange look.

When the nurse hadn't come back straight away, Abby had pushed a couple of chairs together over by the wall and then scrunched herself down into them to wait.

And wait.

While the drive to the hospital was somewhat of a blur, Abby was becoming only too conscious of the long hours alone in her little corner of hell with only a very vivid imagination to keep her company. Hours had ticked by and no one seemed to be able to answer her inquiries. It was suggested that perhaps the computer was down, and that's why they couldn't access the correct information.

Abby sighed as yet another orderly went in search of help. She hadn't been able to sleep even when the hustle and bustle of the emergency room finally slowed to a trickle. By that time, her nerves were wearing very thin. Finally, in the wee small hours of the morning, she dragged herself into the bathroom and was stunned by the image that greeted her. No wonder everyone had looked at her that way. She tried to pull her fingers through her hair but all she managed to do was tangle the mess even more.

The cold water felt wonderful on her face as she tried to wash some of the grime away. Try as she might, she just couldn't find any soap in the room.

Abby stood just outside the door and stretched her spine, groaning as a few vertebrae moved back into line. Hearing a pair of squeaking shoes coming down the hall, she all but tackled some frazzled looking nurse for information.

"Excuse me? I'm looking for my friend. She was brought in at about 7:30 from the warehouse fire. I really need to know how she's doing." Abby followed the woman to the front desk.

The middle-aged woman nodded tiredly, having already been on shift in the burn unit for six hours. The nurse groaned thankfully as she eased herself into the chair in front of the monitor.

"Uh, huh. Well, first of all, we need a name."

"Abby Dean."

"Okay, just a sec. Hmmm . . . you sure she was brought in around 7:00, huh? We don't have anyone by that name on our computer."

Abby thought for a minute.

"Oh. You mean, what's my friend's name? Zeen Phipolis. She's the one brought in. I was . . . confused. When you asked me for a name, I thought you meant mine but I'm not a patient here, she is. Though I feel like a car hit me, Zeen's the one I'm . . . Heh, sorry." Abby bit her lip subconsciously. She always babbled when she was tired or overwrought.

The nurse looked up and pursed her lips. "I see."

David Harrington peeked his head out of the staff lounge and sighed gratefully. 'No one around.' He pulled back a nicely starched cuff to glance at his wristwatch and then a tiny smile came over his face.

"Thank the Lord, my shift's almost up." His smile broadened as he heard the new shift of nurses coming in. Smoothing his hair, the resident ran a finger over his teeth and then checked his breath. Harrington moved quickly over to the nurse's staff room and waited patiently, a smug grin on his face.

The resident knew he was a catch in anyone's book. He subconsciously fiddled with his tie and then forced both hands down into his pockets. He was a graduate of Harvard Medical School after all, and when his residency was up . . .

Harrington sighed as one by one, the nurses exited the room and passed him by without even a second glance. 'I really need to get laid', he mumbled dejectedly to himself. 'Perhaps I'll get lucky . . . even a quickie would be good enough right now.' He jingled the contents of his pockets and then pushed himself away from the wall and headed down the corridor.

There was such a feeling of relief wash over Abby as a doctor walked into the room with a big smile on his face.

"Good evening, nurse. And who have we here?" His crocodile leer took in the vibrant green eyes of the blonde before him, and suddenly his horrible day didn't seem that bad after all. She was young, and fairly pretty, and might just be the ticket to keep his interest during a well-deserved break. If she played her cards right, well, he might throw some of his wild animal magnetism her way.

"She's looking for a victim of the fire, over in the Industrial Park area."

"A firefighter, named . . . ", said Abby looking expectantly at the young doctor.

"Fireman, eh?", he interrupted, grabbing the roster from the nurse. He ran his finger down the clipboard. "Yes, here we are. Well, I suppose it could have been worse." He smiled smugly. "There are some rather nasty burns on one hand and what looks to be a puncture wound or two from a dog on the other. The lungs are in pretty bad shape but all in all the prognosis is good for a full recovery."

The young blonde stood there with a smile spreading over her face. 'Prognosis is good . . . full recovery' was all she heard. Then she was asked if she'd like to see her husband, and Abby found herself totally flummoxed. "Who me? I don't . . . I'm not married."

The doctor had flipped his chart over and then smiled. "Oh, you must be related to the Lieutenant then? I think he's still in Out Patients." Abby shook her head and he pursed his lips. "Hmm . . . well, I don't see . . . "

"Her name's Zeen Phipolis. Tall, brunette, wide shoulders?"

The nurse manipulated the screen once more as Abby pushed by the doctor and peered over the woman's shoulder. Abby's stomach growled ominously and the nurse gave her a look.


Abby nodded and yawned.

"How long you been here, child?"

Abby squinted at her wristwatch and shrugged, unable to read the numbers.

"I'll see what I can do in a little while, honey. Admitted around 8:00, you say?"

Abby yawned again. "Seven-thirty or so, yeah."

The nurse nodded and her fingers danced across the keyboard.

Not used to being just pushed aside and dismissed out of hand, the doctor dusted off his lab coat, and gave both women a sour look. He knew the nurse. She'd probably been at the hospital since its opening. 'Old bag. She ought to know her place and treat me with more respect.' He humphed and then narrowed his eyes as he took a closer look at the blonde, and winced. He could just make out a whiff of some undoubtedly cheap perfume, under the stale scent of body odour.

'What the hell was I thinking? She's a mess.'

"Hell, I can't find that name. You wanna spell that for me?" sighed the nurse as she made room for the petite blonde.

"Yeah, sure. It's Greek."

He heard the two women conversing as if he wasn't even in the room. The blonde's belly growled again and he watched as the young woman scratched her head absent-mindedly. 'Lice, no doubt', he thought and cringed.

"P H I . . . "

"How many firefighters were brought in today, nurse?" interrupted the doctor rudely as he stepped away from the obviously transient blonde. 'Probably right off the streets, mooching a handout and there isn't any Zeena Whatsit at all.' He arched his eyebrow and gave the woman a quick up and down. She was wearing ratty jeans, and tennys, and had a full head of scraggly long blonde hair. Her face was smudged in areas, no doubt from the motorcycle she rode on. 'No, even properly cleaned up, she'd still be a sewer rat'. He knew her type: never had a job, or couldn't keep one, and went from place to place just doing enough to get by. Thank heavens his father had some pull, and he hadn't had to do the mandatory stint in one of the seedier public hospitals. He really didn't think he had the stomach to deal with The Great Unwashed all day long. No, if he played his cards close enough to his vest, he'd be on at the John Hopkins when he finished his residency. There really was something to be said about having 'old money'.

The nurse's jaw twitched but she squinted at the screen for a minute.

"Well, at least 12 have come in requiring serious attention, five have been treated and released, and one is being kept for observation. Then there's the Lieutenant in OP and two in the burn unit."

Abby hadn't gone to college or anything past grade ten for that matter but she knew how to add and that left three people unaccounted for.

"Alright, just as I thought. Now if you please, go and sit down." He said gruffly to Abby.

"Nurse, I'll have a word with you now." The doctor looked at the rather disheveled Abby Dean and was barely able to conceal a curled lip of disdain.

"Look, I don't wanna sit down, I want to see Zeen." She wasn't too sure just what was going through the man's head right now, but she didn't like his tone of voice.

"Now, now. I understand. You look quite tired, dear. Perhaps if you asked nicely at the front desk on your way out, one of the nurses will get you a voucher for some coffee. You should go home. There's nothing for you here. Nurse . . . " He made a point of peering at the woman's nametag. " . . . Winchell, will you show this . . . woman . . . the way out?"

Abby looked from one face to the other. The nurse looked at Abby and then back at the doctor. "But doctor, she's been waiting for almost seven hours. She seems quite certain her friend is here . . . I can't seem to find anything on the list but I'm certain . . . "

"Just do it, nurse. I don't have any more time to waste on this foolishness. I've been on rounds for the last six hours and I'm tired."

Abby blinked. "Foolishness? Look, my girlfriend is a firefighter and she was at that chemical warehouse fire." She saw nothing but cold indifference from the doctor so she shifted her gaze to the nurse, hoping that she wasn't as narrow minded.

"Couldn't she be . . . " A snort brought Abby's gaze back to the doctor and her jaw clenched as she recognized the look.

"Girlfriend? Oh, I see." The doctor's lip curled again and this time Abby caught the look.

"Yes, my girlfriend. Oh for . . . Pete!"

Pete Melrose, acting Captain of Chicago Firehouse #72, came trudging down the hall from the treatment room with his coat over one arm, and carrying a sheaf of papers in the other. He looked remarkably better than the last time she'd seen him.

"Try and have me admitted, will they? Ha!" Pete rubbed his hand where they'd stuck in an IV and grumbled. "Dehydrated, my ass. So I was a little shocky . . . nothing serious, it'll pass. Nothing keeps me away from my crew . . . ever."

Even though he'd tried to be as gruff as possible with the nurses treating him . . . or trying to . . . he was grateful for the medication given for his throat. He could almost swallow without tears coming to his eyes. The anesthetic throat spray had done wonders, and he had a fist full of prescriptions to be filled.

'Later', he thought as images of Ted and Zeen filled his mind again. He'd badgered the nurses for information about the two but had only gotten an update on Ted. He wasn't pleased about that. No, not at all. Well, at least Ted was doing better than when they'd first brought him in. The nurses said the man had been damned lucky he'd been able to keep his mask on, thereby avoiding dangerous smoke inhalation. However, he did have some chem burns, severe back pain and a greenstick fracture on one of his legs. They'd keep him for a few days. Melrose mentally added another two or three of home convalescence even though he knew Ted would balk.

'Tough shit, buddy. You saved Zeen's ass and if I could, you'd be lying on the beaches of Waikiki.' He sighed, wishing each man could take off at least a week after working on one of the bigger fires but with cutbacks and a lack of candidates for the program, well, it just wasn't going to happen.

'It was no damned wonder firefighters got burned out so quickly'. Pete snorted as he thought about what he'd just been thinking.

"Hey, that's not half bad. There's a joke in there somewhere."

Pete had just pushed open the double doors when he was almost knocked to the ground as Abby all but flung herself into his arms.

"Whoa . . . what the . . . "

Abby clutched at him fiercely and he moved them both over to the waiting area.

"S'okay, Ab . . . just sit for a minute. Now . . . What seems to be the problem? How's Zeen? You seen her yet? Is she okay?" He asked as he tried to keep his hands from mucking with the ointment on his face.

"They say she's not here, Pete."

Pete clenched his jaw as Abby went on. "There are three firefighters not listed on that roster. I don't know what they're trying to tell me, but . . . "

The doctor cleared his throat and walked over. "I'm glad you're here, Sergeant. There isn't time to go through the usual protracted one-sided, extremely traumatic discussion with this . . . person. I have no idea how she got in here but I don't particularly enjoy having her kind in my hospital. Firefighting 'girlfriend', indeed."

Pete's jaw turned to granite and then he slowly put the articles he was holding on the table. Abby saw the warning look in his eye and pulled at his sleeve.

"Pete, it's not worth it, really. We both know that Zeen's gotta be here. Just a matter of where they put her. We've waited this long . . . "

The doctor smoothed his tie a little and addressed the Fire Marshall, or whatever position this little man held, with blatant condescension. "If this Zeen person is on your payroll, and she was in that fire, then you've both been waiting a long time for someone who's quite obviously dead. We have three bodies in the morgue right now and . . . "

The bespectacled doctor found himself propelled across the room and up against the nearest wall before he had much time to do more than merely gurgle a response.

"Listen here, you sonuvabitch," said the Lieutenant in a low, menacing voice, "I don't know who the fuck you think you are and quite frankly, I don't care. You ever treat someone like this again and I'm gonna show you my limited knowledge on how to do a rectal examination, you got it? And for your information, it's Lieutenant." He poked the man in the chest for emphasis. "And Zeen Phipolis is one of the best damned firefighters we have in this fuckin city . . . and she ain't dead, understand."

Then he released the man's lab coat and waved him away, as if he was just so much garbage. "C'mon, Abby . . . if we hafta look through every room, we'll find her."

Chapter Two

The nurse gave the stunned resident a wry look and then caught the eye of the two civvies, motioning them to follow her.

It took them a while to ascertain just where a certain tall, dark firefighter had been put. Seeing the worried look on Abby's face had the nurse checking the computer records with a fine tooth comb, ruling out the morgue straight away.

"I knew that." She said as Pete gripped her shoulder gently. She gave him a half smile in return and then stuffed her hands deeper into her pockets. Her fingers closed over the truck keys and a tightness settled in her chest. Thoughts of Zeen's crumpled form being loaded into the ambulance had her blinking back fresh tears.

The grizzled looking Lieutenant glanced sideways at the blonde. To be honest, he was amazed that there were any tears left for her to cry at this point.

They talked briefly while the nurse delved deeper in the computer files. Abby told him how she had found a quiet corner outside the ICU and had battled her fear and uncertainty while he'd been 'indisposed'. Things would have gone so much smoother if he hadn't all but collapsed in the Outpatient ward but well, shit happened. Pete gave his friend a nice big hug and then kissed her forehead. He could feel her body shaking against his. How much longer would she be able to hold together? To his trained eye, Pete could see Abby was just short of having a meltdown. He scratched his grizzled chin and wondered whether he shouldn't just leave her with the nurse and go find Zeen himself.

In the end, it was the nurse that decided for them. She led them down through the maze of warrens that made up the emergency room, through the ICU and finally into the burn unit.

"Hey, Kretchyk? We've got some people looking for somebody. Came in from that fire down in the industrial sector. You have a Phipolis, Zeen Phipolis?" Ms. Winchell asked a rather imposing individual who seemed to bear the dubious distinction of being the head nurse. He stood about 6'5", had the darkest skin Abby had ever seen, and seemed to be constantly pushing a pair of greasy glasses up the bridge of his nose.

He pursed his lips and sighed deeply.

"You be talkin 'bout that hard case we had to put in isolation? Yeah, we got her. Had to tie her ass down cos she came to and freaked. Wasn't doin any good screamin and fightin and just being a bad ass. Nu uh. You girls wanna walk down this way . . . " He smiled at Pete and patted his shoulder. "You, too, Mr. Man."

Pete rolled his eyes at Abby in mock disdain but automatically felt a kinship with the large man.

"You her husband or what? Cos I got to tell you, she's really in no shape to be gawked at, ya know?"

"Uh, no . . . I'm just a friend. Abby here . . . she's her . . . " A crease lined his brow as he mentally perused the typical labels and came up empty. Abby bumped into his back as he stopped walking. She looked up blankly and then her face was being touched.

"I know she ain't your sister, honey. You just a friend, too?" Abby tilted her head a little. "Yes. I'm a friend." The mountain of black flesh hunkered down a bit so they were eye level and waited until the smaller woman's eyes cleared.

"I can't let you just see my patient lessen you be family. Mr. Man here, he has to wait in the hallway but you, you be special. I can tell."

Abby felt a tear seep out of the corner of her left eye and pushed it away with trembling fingertips.

"I'm not gonna lie to you, girlie. This isn't gonna be a pretty sight so you better be someone what loves her a whole lot. She's gonna need whatever strength she has left and all that you have to get through this. I ain't askin cos I have any axe to grind, you know? I'm askin cos she been calling out someone's name and I need to know if you're that someone." Abby nodded and gripped the man's large hand tightly.

Pete placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "It's Abby, trust me. There's nobody in the world loves Zeen more than her. Me included." Melrose felt his hand being squeezed tightly and swallowed back a lump. The nurse watched as the blonde seemed to grow in stature before him. Her eyes spoke volumes and he could see more than friendship there.

"If she's been calling out a name, chances are it's mine. I'm Abby."

He stood to his full height, stroking his chin. "You two got a connection, I can see that, plain as day."

Nurse Kretchyk pushed his glasses up and smiled softly, finally getting the confirmation he knew all along. He needed to be sure before letting just anyone see his patient, mainly because of protocol but also for the greater good. It would do no good to have someone walk in, take one look at the mess some burn victim was in, and freak out. No, that would never do. His unit would be reduced to a howling mess if that Zeen woman ever took it into her head to be a bad ass again. Hell, he'd already put enough Demerol into her to stop a large horse.

He patted the blonde's hand and then began his trek down the hall once more. "Well then, come along. She's been waiting for you."

Pete tried hard not to look at the faces of the patients as he and the others meandered through the unit. Some of them wore plastic masks that allowed the delicate skin of their face to heal up with little scarring. Others lay curled up, their skin red and raw, looking for all intents and purposes like human sacrifices to some twisted god who had flayed them alive. He found himself fingering a small area at the front of his hip as the old scar tissue began tingling in memory.

His head rose sharply as a faint string of curses became discernable. Pete's jaw clenched, then he felt Abby's soft small hand in his and then slowly hissed his breath out between tight lips.

"I don't know how she knows when we're comin to give her more meds, but she does. And being so destructive and all . . . "

Both faces must have registered shock because the black nurse turned and then pulled the older woman to the side. "Danielle, don't tell me that skinny assed intern didn't tell them anything about her condition?"

Danielle Winchell sighed. She'd been dealing with the usual horrors of the emergency ward all week. The new intern she'd been saddled with the last two days was, quite frankly, a waste of good skin and brain tissue – one being decidedly pinched and the other tremendously underemployed. She'd been rather shocked, but nevertheless pleased, when the good Lieutenant had sorted the little candy-ass out, but that did leave her with the task of bringing both he, and the petite blonde, up to speed on their patient.

"Now, Herman . . . " She began picking some nonexistent lint off one drooping lapel. "The doctor decided to go home early tonight, his shift was almost up anyway, so he didn't quite get around to even looking at your charge. In fact, he didn't even know she was here. Well, neither did I, actually. Found her by mistake while looking through the computer. Did you know she's not even listed by name? Had this poor woman thinking she was in the morgue or something."

Bubba Kretchyk moved his glasses up to their rightful position and frowned. He was in his late thirties and had been working at Memorial for a good fifteen years. He'd seen his fair share of moron doctors and nurses, but that new intern, well he did take the prize. There had already been a few run-ins regarding hospital pecking order, the good doctor being the top of the food chain, and the nursing personnel being far below. Him being black only made things worse. He shook his head wondering whether someone could really be that well heeled that he'd figure a big black dude wouldn't rearrange his face because of some fairly blatant racial slurs. Surely no one could be that rich, or that dumb? Herman had left the man alone for the most part because the last couple of days had been sheer hell. This latest disaster over in the industrial zone had made keeping records haphazard at best.

Ms. Phipolis had been logged in as being John Doe until a few surprises had turned up during the initial examination. That 'John' had been turned into 'Jane' and she'd been taken down to the burn unit. There had been quite a scene when the mystery woman had come to.

Bubba blinked a few times, thinking of the striking blue eyes that had seemed to bore right through him. He'd tried to gentle the woman down so the rest of the team could treat the burns but Phipolis wasn't having any of it. She yelled and grabbed at anything within reach, biting and snapping like some wild animal and filling the air with epithets even he hadn't heard.

It had taken two orderlies, and a nurse, in addition to himself, to hold the woman down. It was only after she was checked for possible drug use that it was discovered her pupils were unresponsive. Her erratic behavior led Herman to ask for lab work to be done, ASAP. If she hadn't been in her uniform, there would have been no way they'd have screened for possible chem poisoning.

He sighed and then walked back to two very agitated people. "Well, I'm sorry for lettin you hear about your fireman . . . fire-person . . . like this."

Pete could see the genuine concern in the larger man's eyes and felt a kinship towards him. He was only doing his job but there was more to it . . . he really cared. It did his heart good to think that his best friend was in the very large and capable hands of this medical professional. "We're firefighters, sir. Name's Melrose, Pete Melrose. This is Abby Dean. I . . . we know you've been doing your best for our friend."

Kretchyk found himself smiling at the man. "Well sir, yourself. My name's Bubba, but it sure isn't the name I was born to. I'm in charge of the burn unit these days." He walked them over to the station and grabbed up a clipboard.

"Ms. Phipolis came in about four hours ago. She was in pretty bad shape, and we all but had to cut her outta that firema . . . " He glanced at Pete. " . . . firefightin gear. Now, I've got some things to say to you two before you see her, and none of em is whatcha call easy on the ears." Bubba walked over and placed a hand on Abby's shoulder, giving it a good tight squeeze.

"Didn't seem to matter how carefully we tied her down, she'd manage to not only wheedle her way out of it, but do herself more harm in the doin. I think we had to reset her fingers twice, and she broke her own nose flailing about when we tried to cast her. Blood everywhere," he said shaking his head.

Nurse Winchell hugged the distraught young woman to her, knowing there would be more to come. Herman always started out easy with information before lowering the boom. She gave the man a warning look, and he smiled back reassuringly.

"Oh, don't you worry none, she'll be fine. We pumped her ass full of Demerol just a while ago. If that stuff don't knock it outta her, nothing will. She should be out of it for a few more hours at least. The prelim lab work showed some high levels of toxins in her blood so that explains her psychotic behavior."

He peered over the rim of his glasses and shook his head. "That woman is a hellfire, isn't she? She's good and quiet now so we got a chance to do our job and this is what we found." The glasses went back up the man's nose and then he proceeded. "She's got three broken ribs right side, a fracture of her right radius, and three broken fingers right hand. She's also got second degree burns to her left hand, and third degree burns to her upper chest, and throat areas. And we haven't even begun to do tests on her lungs yet. By the rasp of her voice, and the wheezing she does, it's pretty bad."

Pete brushed his face with the sleeve of his shirt and then swallowed deeply.

"Okay, she's been burned before. This ain't no big deal for Zeen. The chemical poisoning explains why ya had to restrain her on a permanent basis in the isolation ward but c'mon, Bubba . . . what aren't you telling us?"

Nurse Winchell looked at her associate and then down at the clipboard. "These levels are very high, Lieutenant Melrose. They've done some fairly extensive damage to her nervous system, and there's no telling how long the effects will last."

Abby finally found her voice and put a shaky hand on Pete's arm. "Effects? Pete, you said she's been in some pretty bad fires . . . has she been exposed to chemical poison before?"

Pete rubbed his face in thought. "Well, she's been in some pretty wicked ones, for sure, but no chem fires." He was quiet for a moment and then cleared his throat. "But I have. Hits everyone a bit differently, I guess. I had some pretty weird nightmares . . . paranoiac episodes, really. Musta dropped fifteen, twenty pounds cos I just couldn't keep anything down for over a month. Had some pretty fierce headaches, too." He looked over at the tall black man.

"These the kinds of symptoms you talking about?"

Bubba sighed. "Well. She's had some episodes, that's for damned sure, but it's the blindness that has us worried."

Chapter Three

"Blindness?" Abby felt the room tilt, and tried desperately to remain focused.

Kretchyk fingered a few of his back teeth before pushing his glasses up once again.

"Eeeyeah, but I'm bettin it's the temporary type, myself. I checked her face for flash burns and such. The eyes themselves seem fine, and without any apparent damage. That leaves chemical poisoning. Now . . . "

A gasp left the blonde as the words 'blindness' were accompanied by 'poisoning' and 'chemicals'. She wasn't too sure about the types of chemicals involved but poisoning wasn't a good word to have associated with them.

"How . . . how long do you . . . ?"

Pete wrapped the woman in a gentle but forceful bear hug.

"We'll handle it, babe. Zeen's strong. She's been through hell and back, darlin. Ain't nothin gonna hold her down for long. Why, hell . . . she might even . . . "

A crash was heard down the hall from them and Bubba winced. He'd hoped the patient would be out for at least another few hours.

"Goddamned fucking cocksucking sonuvabitch!"

Both visitors stood in stunned horror as the barrage of epithets continued unabated. Bubba smoothed the front of his uniform and glanced worriedly at his watch.

"I don't understand it."

Abby seemed to move in slow motion as she crept closer to the isolation room. She stood with her head against the metal door, trying to get past the verbal garbage coming from her lover. It just didn't seem possible. Abby opened her eyes and peered in through the safety glass window and felt like screaming.

Zeen lay in a narrow bed equipped with restraints, most of which were totally ineffectual, biting and clawing at the cast on her right arm. She'd torn her general issue hospital gown off, and trashed everything within reach.

Nurse Kretchyk sighed and elbowed the blonde gently out of the way.

"Goddamnit, she's at it again. For crying out loud, what is it gonna take to knock you out . . . Zena. You said her first name was Zena, right?"

Abby opened her mouth to respond, and yelped as the tall nurse opened the door, and was immediately hit with a bedpan.

"Haha . . . didn't miss you this time, did I Johnson?" The brunette croaked. "You can run, but you can't hide! Come on a little bit closer . . . I got something for ya."

Bubba rubbed his shoulder and then gave both Nurse Winchell, and Abby a look before closing the door behind him.

"Okay, missy girlfriend. I don't know who Johnson is, but you and me, we gonna have a talk. There's some people here to see ya but you gotta be good or I'm not letting em in." He reached out, carefully snagging a leg restraint and buckling it before Zeen had a chance to grab him.

"You sonuvabitch . . . c'mon . . . fair fight, okay? You just come close enough, leg tied or not, and I'll fuckin beat you three ways til Thursday. Whatcha say? Just you and me? Could be fun. I bet a man like you is into pain, right Scroggins? You like to hold women down so they feel defenseless, huh? Don't like em to fight back, do ya? Well, tough shit. I got outta these straps once and I'll do it again, so let's get it over with, once and for all, right? Just come a little bit closer."

Abby shook her head, her jaw agape, as the big man adroitly avoided the curled claws of her lover, and managed to get both legs back into the restraints. The blonde watched as Zeen's biceps bulged and a thin sweat covered her bruised body. Bubba would dart in and out, just beyond the woman's reach, and snag little would-be missiles from the heap at Zeen's lap. Her lover thrashed back and forth in a mad effort to catch hold of her tormentor, and her rage escalated with each handful of air purchased.

"Godamn you to hell!" Zeen bellowed hoarsely as she mashed her cast down on the side rail of her bed.

"Now, now . . . Phipolis, is it? Just calm down. Like I said, I ain't here to make your life miserable. I don't wanna tie you down, woman. You gots visitors, an I wanna make sure you ain't gonna hurt them or yourself. Now c'mon, Zena . . . play nice." He held his hands up in supplication, moving slowly towards the bed once more.

With a roar of sheer malice, Zeen launched herself at the man, her legs straining horribly. Abby was sure her lover's legs would break so she pushed her way into the room. She wasn't sure just what she was going to do but she couldn't stand to see Zeen in such torment.

Bubba cast a look over his shoulder, silently pleading for the blonde to just leave until he had things under control. Nurse Winchell darted forward, a hypo in hand, and poised ready to do battle.

"I'm not a goddamned victim! I'm not, I tell you! Never again! Never . . . " Abby stepped closer as the nurse emptied the last of the tranquilizer into the firefighter's hip and both she and Bubba carefully pushed the woman back down on the bed.

It was as if all the air had slowly but surely been removed from the room as Abby looked down at the contorted face of her lover. A snarl painted Zeen's sculpted lips and an angry welt framed her face where the SCBA mask had been. Her usually sparkling blue eyes were glassy and somehow alien, as if they belonged to someone else.

Abby moved even closer to the bed as Zeen began thrashing once more. She watched as the blank look her lover wore was replaced by a look of unbridled fury.

"Get your stinking hands off me, you lowlife scum sucking bacchae!" she growled in a low raspy voice.

Bubba frowned and looked at the nurse. "Buckeye? I'm from the south side of Chicago, myself. What is she raving about now?"

Nurse Winchell shrugged. "I dunno . . . maybe I'd best take missy here outside 'til the patient gets settled down. I don't know why that hypo hasn't kicked in yet."

"Beats hell outta me but yeah, ain't no time for her to be seein this hellion in action." The nurse reached over to take the blonde's sleeve and then screamed as she felt Zeen's jaws close over the tender flesh of her forearm.

Bubba stood momentarily paralyzed as a trickle of blood seeped down onto the bed sheets. And then he grabbed Zeen in a headlock and began to squeeze.

"Now, c'mon, Phipolis . . . leggo . . . .now!"

Abby's heart hammered loudly in her chest as she witnessed the vapid look on her lover's face. It was as if she was reveling in the pain she was inflicting. It was so very unlike the woman she knew and the blonde felt the first twinges of real fear seep into her heart. 'Who was this . . . this stranger? Not her Zeen . . . no way.'

The woman seemed charged with electricity and Abby felt herself drawn closer. Her eyes saw the bunching of muscles, the curled talons clenching and unclenching as if to some unheard pagan melody, but her heart saw something else. It was as if she were observing some wild animal caught in a snare and Abby felt herself unable to resist the urge to soothe the beast before her.

Her hand moved as if in slow motion and she found herself looking into the raging blue eyes of a familiar stranger. Abby tried to pull her hand away as her peripheral vision took in the crimson spread across a field of white, but found herself unable to, unwilling to. And then, for just one split second, the lined on her face smoothed out and it was Zeen, lost and helpless, unable to help herself, who was caught in some terrible space where she was alone. And terrified.

"Zeen . . . ?"

Bubba watched as Abby's touch seemed to gentle his patient. He began talking in soothing tones as the woman's jaw slowly relaxed and then dragged the nurse out of harm's way as Zeen's eyes rolled back into her head.

"What the fuck was that all about!?" He grabbed Nurse Winchell and the woman's knees began to buckle.

"Okay, Danielle, let's get you sorted out some. Looks like you gonna be sporting stitches in that arm of yours." He looked over at Abby and shook his head. She was oblivious to the commotion her friend had caused and seemed to be totally focused on his very wild and unpredictable patient. Friend or not, the poison was making Phipolis act completely out of the realm of 'normal behavior'. There didn't seem to be a rhyme nor reason for why she was going off like she did. He sighed, supposing he should have taken a hint when the hypo didn't kick in right away or last for the duration expected.

He checked the nurse's wounds again and then made sure all restraints were nicely in place on his patient before admonishing the blonde to keep her distance.

Abby ignored the warning and moved in closer, smoothing her lover's purpled features, and watched as Zeen's chest heaved in great quantities of air. There was still a look to the brunette that was very unlike her firefighter. She couldn't put her finger on it but something . . . some haunted look seemed to permeate every inch of her noble features, until there was very little resemblance to the woman she knew and loved.

"Oh baby, where did you go?" she crooned softly.

Zeen's closed eyes moved back and forth rapidly as her laboured breath began to even out and her harsh features relaxed into a drug-induced slumber.

Bubba held the nurse closely to him and pushed the buzzer just outside the door, waiting momentarily as two orderlies came to take the injured woman away. She was going to need stitches and a tetanus shot to boot, but if nothing else, the nurse got to sit down for awhile. He knew she had another six hours on her shift yet, as did he. 'No rest for the wicked.'

He hurried back into the room and then stopped dead in his tracks. The young woman had removed all the restraints and was in the midst of climbing up beside someone who had just recently taken a goodly sized chunk out of a person's arm. In fact, Phipolis' lips and chin still wore the bloody remnants of said exchange.

"What the . . . ? No way, little girl. You can't be thinking of climbin in with that . . . wild child. And even if you was, no way am I letting ya."

Abby brushed the short dark hair from her lover's eyes and then used a corner of the sheet to wipe a bit of pink drool forming at the corner of Zeen's mouth. She locked eyes with the taller man and spoke in a very calm matter-of-fact voice.

"I don't think I'm in any danger whatsoever, Mr. Kretchyk. And I don't much like you referring to my girlfriend as a 'wild child' either. She's a human being first and foremost, and a patient second. If you are correct in your diagnosis, then you know she isn't acting like this because she wants to. And just how much Demerol did you give her? All told, I mean?"

The nurse pulled his eyes away from the purity of the open and frank look of the small woman. Her words cut deep and he felt a twinge of guilt. He was supposed to be a professional. He was supposed to keep personal opinions to himself. Hell, this whole scene was beginning to weird him out completely. First she was a guy, then a woman, and far too badly burned to really pose a threat to anyone. Then she comes to, freaks out, seems to have the strength of an ox, and takes a bite outta one of his nurses. And if that don't beat all, then there's this blonde chickie. Here he figured she was going to fall apart and be totally unable to grasp the situation and then she becomes a momma lion protecting her cub.

"Okay, I'm sorry. That didn't come out just like I wanted it to. Let's start again."

He cleared his throat. "First off, you ain't getting into that bed without restraints on her, no way. It's against the rules for one thing and just plain foolishness for the other."

Abby opened her mouth but closed it with a weary sigh as Bubba's hand went up.

"Second of all, I gave her enough to pull down a bull moose, and that's the God's honest truth. But well within the acceptable range for her size and what not. I don't rightly know why it didn't pull her down and have her out for the count. Might have somethin' to do with the chemicals in her system right now. I don't know."

Abby snorted. "What you're saying is you gave her a knock out punch and don't know if it's helping or hindering her? What the hell . . . ?"

Bubba sighed. "We don't know enough about the chemicals, or the mixture of em, to really say what kind of effect they might be having on her. What would you have had me do, missy? I could've just strapped her down and let her rave. I suppose I could have just dumped her in the padded room and waited 'til she passed out. Yeah, I could have. But I didn't. I like to take care of my patients. Don't judge me by this, okay? It's been a hairy time with our Ms. Phipolis, trust me."

Abby sat back a little, her hand still touching Zeen's face. It wasn't going to do either of them any good if she and the nurse were at each other's throats. Having witnessed the attack on the other nurse, Abby knew just how crazy the last four or five hours must have been.

The blonde looked down at the puffy eyes and the spread of blue and purple across Zeen's nose and cheekbones. Yes, no doubt it was quite a harrowing experience. She remembered just how afraid she'd been back in their apartment that first night. Just the look in Zeen's eyes, how terribly cold they were, as she had recounted the horrible circumstances in the death of her son. It had taken Abby's breath away. She looked down as her lover exhaled a raspy breath and could almost feel herself transported back to that moment when the image she'd had of this pristine hero had begun to splinter and fracture. Reality was never more real than that instant.

Abby stood directly behind her, wanting and needing to touch Zeen . . . to show her that she wasn't alone; that they could brave the storm and emerge both healthy and strong. Reaching out her hand, she could almost feel the deadly fevered heat radiating off Zeen's body. In that split second, that hesitation, Zeen turned to face her. Not a tear graced her face, only a hard and callous look of someone who had seen all the levels of hell and had been lost there for a very long time. Abby had barely enough time to think before she was propelled across the room, onto the bed once more; where they'd made love just previously; where they had shared their knowledge of the bond they felt.

Zeen looked down at the woman beneath her and grinned horribly. "You want to see inside, girlie? There's a price, you know. You aren't gonna like what you see, Abby . . . no, no, no . . . not one bit. But you know what? You wanted this . . . "

"'Trust me', indeed". She tried to smile up at the nurse as he held out his impossibly large hand.

"Why don't you climb down from there and we'll set to getting her all cleaned up. I'm sorry, but we're gonna have to put them restraints on her, okay? It really is for the greater good. After all, we don't want another of our nurses bit up and . . . jeez, looks like that cast of hers is gonna need replacing. Again."

Abby bit the inside of her cheek and then quickly bent down and brushed Zeen's lips with her own. 'Come back to me, babe,' she prayed and then climbed back over the bed railing.

Two other nurses came into the room and the taller of the two spoke quietly with Kretchyk and then both turned and looked at Abby. The taller one put his arm on Abby's shoulder and waited until she gave him eye contact.

"You'll come with me, okay? Bubba's got some work to do with our patient and by the looks of ya, you could prolly use some down time at the cafeteria. 'Sides, there's a big guy just outside wants ta speak with ya."

Pete took that moment to poke his head from around the corner.

"Hey Abby, you okay?" He wore a tentative smile, which quickly left his face, as he caught sight of Kretchyk lifting the nude form of his friend carefully out of the bed. He tried not to look at the damage done to the beautiful body he'd only seen in his dreams but felt himself unable to. Pete found his breath trapped in a cold fist as he took in the angry burns that seemed to radiate from just under her chin down to the area between her breasts. One eyebrow looked patchy in places, though Pete couldn't tell whether it was by fire or chemicals. Her face wore pit marks and red slashes, testaments to the trouble the medical team had gone to in removing the congealed mess her SCBA seal had been reduced to. The Lieutenant closed his eyes tightly. Didn't matter what the doctor's said, a person was never ready for the realities of a burn unit.

He remembered the vacation the three of them had taken and how carefree the days were on the beaches of Henderson Point. Swallowing convulsively as he thought about the pain Zeen must be enduring, he tried to focus on anything to keep from screaming. The other nurse began to strip the linen off the bed and Melrose found a small hand grasping his as they were both led out of the room.

Chapter Four

Zeen felt as if her legs were being wrapped in barbed wire . . . razor sharp barbed wire. She pushed Ted ahead of her and found herself crying . . . the pain in her side so intense that each breath was a little death in itself. Somewhere along the way she had lost a glove . . . she could feel the temperature of the surrounding air and it felt like touching the surface of the sun. Zeen remembered trying to get back into her apartment, the flames licking up her arms, as she desperately tried to reach her son. Ignoring the pain as her shirt caught fire; mindlessly trying to get past the two cops that tried to keep her away . . . .

A crack filled her ears as Zeen heard a nearby timber begin to give way and she rolled, dragging the other firefighter with her. Ted shouted in surprise and then he was up and moving them both, the burning wood somehow illuminating a narrow path through the cloying darkness, allowing him to see just a little more clearly. He took hold of her sleeve and yanked, pulling her a little more and then, stopping to place her over his shoulder carefully, and took off again. Zeen grunted as her damaged ribs came into contact with Ted's shoulder with every step that he took. She closed her eyes tightly, fighting against the black silence that threatened her, and then a dark cloak of noise rushed up to meet her.

It was as if each and every cell in her body was on fire. A tight band of iron appeared around her chest and Zeen began to thrash back and forth in an effort to escape. Bright motes of light flitted behind her closed eyes as she fought to drag oxygen into her burning lungs. Hands reached blindly out in an effort to find purchase and she gasped frantically. A wave of darkness pricked at her periphery vision threatening to overcome her and then . . . nothing.

The nurse flashed a light into her patient's eyes and shook her head slowly. Although the woman thrashed feebly and looked to be awake, her eyes were totally unresponsive. After a quick examination, the nurse wrote a few things down on her clipboard and then pulled the side rails back up into position.

"Such a damned shame, a pretty girl like her. Gonna have scaring fersure on that nice face of hers. Tsk tsk. She might lose one of her eyebrows, too, and I'll bet dollars to donuts those fingers are broken."

The other nurse took the clipboard and nodded.

"Yeah, she's pretty banged up, all right. But I've seen worse, and so've you. You gonna get the stuff or should I?" They played a short game of rock-paper-scissors and the woman left with a sigh. The man smiled and checked the chart, his large fingers going up and down the figures as he tried to get a handle on just what was making his patient so restless. The other nurse came back with the x-rays and casting supplies.

"Yep, just as I thought. Broken in two places on the one finger and a greenstick fracture on the other one. I'll just bet she's right handed, too. Murphy's Law, and all that." The male nurse checked the x-ray and noticed previous trauma to the same hand.

"Yeah, with this kind of repeated injury, chances are you'd win that bet, too."

"Easy money." She smiled and then went about her business.

Bubba had been the first one to notice the unresponsive pupils and had initially thought it might be from a head injury. However, after checking her scalp and finding nothing but a few lacerations, the team began to look into other avenues.

He moved his fingers up and down the back of her neck, feeling for any abnormalities but found nothing. A slight discolouration caught his eye and he parted the woman's hair to get a better look.

"Now that's what I call a tattoo," he whistled. The man grimaced as he thought about all those little needles puncturing the skill covering his patient's skull. No way was he into that much pain, ever. He peeked at the design again, noticing the fine intricate workmanship.

Zeen's hand came up and pawed at the empty air, as if fending something or someone off. 'Almost looks like she's hallucinating or something. Weird.' He decided to ask his supervisor about it later. Surely Bubba would know. The man's brow furrowed in thought as he settled into the chair by the bed and proceeded to go about setting his patient's wrist and fingers.

"A dragon. Why would someone want a dragon on their head?"

The brunette's head was filled with a million thoughts, each rushing past before they could be fully investigated. Clear memories began forming just beyond her grasp and then she was hit full force with a past trauma that felt so real that rather than only dreaming about it, she was reliving it. Totally.

It had been a long early morning drive from the local jailhouse to the prison hospital. Zeen Phipolis might have been present in body but she certainly wasn't present in mind.

The guard sitting by the back door of the van watched as the pretty but vacant brunette picked listlessly at her cast. She wondered idly just how long it would be before the locals had this one measured up and devoured. GT Swanson sucked a tooth and shook her head. It was a good thing she'd been transferred to County and only had to make the milk runs to the prison now. Ulcers really could be a blessing.

The van lurched to a stop and the guard put a hand out to settle the prisoner as the woman's body continued the vehicle's momentum. She watched as the young woman's eyes cleared and then nodded to herself. She saw something in those blue eyes. A strength, maybe? Although there were tears visibly standing in the woman's blue eyes, she could see the battle being waged to keep them from falling. Yeah, this one might last a bit longer than some of the others.

GT snugged her nightstick down and then checked her holster. She was only 5'6" but she made every inch count. She had to. In her line of business there were no second chances. One misstep was usually all it took and you were either down for the count or in the basement cooling down on some slab. Neither prospect held any interest for the guard. Although this newest prisoner looked like Bambi caught in the headlights, people did strange things when reality struck.

"Alright . . . let's go. Step outta the van, hands at your sides and eyes forward." She went through the usual motions of checking the prisoner's name off the list, checking the ID picture, and getting the correct answer when asked her name. That chore completed, GT stood there waiting for the prison guards to finish doing the paperwork. It always took them a good twenty minutes to get their asses in gear and GT usually took that time to work in a pep talk with the new prisoners.

"Look . . . Phip . . . Phil . . . .whatever your name is. Keep your nose clean and don't take no shit and you should manage to do your time without too much trouble."



"My name's Phipolis, Zeen Phipolis."

GT nodded slowly and waited for the woman to continue.

"I won't be here long, will I?"

The guard had given up all pretense of lying to the prisoners long ago, finding she couldn't sleep at night or look herself rightly in the mirror after doing so.

"Well, it says here 18 months, Phipolis. Say, what kinda name is that?"

Zeen's chest constricted as the number slammed into her with the force of a hammer. County lock-up is pretty much where her lawyer had said she'd end up but she was sure he'd said 12 months for good behavior. She assumed that would automatically be taken off the top. Given her record . . . before . . .

Zeen swallowed as the gates swung open and she was presented with the dismal view of a very large compound. At the center of this area was a very cold looking grey building.


GT's head swiveled back to the other woman and she smiled.

"I knew a broad from Greece one time. Tough as nails, she was. You tough, Phipolis? You'd better be cos no one here's gonna cut you any slack."

"I'm supposed to be in County . . . that's what my lawyer said."

The guard frowned and checked the clipboard again. There was no notation made as to this being a temporary stop. Suddenly, the gate mechanism began to crank and she moved the prisoner forward.

"I don't know nothin 'bout that, Phipolis, but . . . " She thought of saying something more but hesitated. There was something about this woman. She felt the need to somehow arm her . . . prime her for the ordeal ahead.

Zeen felt a warm hand on her elbow and looked back at the other woman. 'She has grey eyes', thought Zeen. 'Like the building.' And then a warmth came into that coldness and she felt some strength begin to radiate up her arm.

"You'd do well to watch your back, babe." Zeen nodded and tried to stand a little bit taller. She opened her mouth to thank the guard but felt a hand roughly shoving her forward.

"Keep moving or I'll kick yer sorry ass!"

"Thank . . . "

"Shut the fuck up!"

GT sighed as her prisoner was led away and dragged her fingers through her dirty blonde hair. "Good luck, my friend."

As soon as the words had left her mouth, the guard wondered why she'd said them. Last time she'd felt such an easy bond with a prisoner, it had ended badly. She tongued the partial upper plate she wore, a constant reminder that you couldn't judge a book by its cover.

Swanson made a show of checking out her fingernails while surreptitiously watching Phipolis's trek into the twilight zone. As she climbed back into the van, she made a mental note to do a little checking on her prisoner. She had some time off next week . . . might just come on back for a look see.

Zeen blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the interior light of the building and then she was being pushed down the corridor again. Glancing sideways, Zeen could see this guard was not as friendly as the other. This one was a rather large muscle-bound woman with rage-filled eyes.

"What're you lookin at, fresh meat! You just move yer sorry ass! Now!"

"I'm walking as fast as I can, can't you see? Maybe if I didn't have these . . . "

' . . . Leg irons?' Zeen felt her world wobble as she took in her surroundings. 'I'm in a prison.' The thought had barely enough time to solidify within her brain before she found her vision filled by a sizeable fist heading her way . . . and then she was down, striking the back of her head painfully against the concrete floor. Zeen's vision doubled and blackness threatened to overcome her and she wondered why they'd put her in such a place.

Then it all came back to her. She had attacked two policemen and had beaten them almost to death. They put criminals in prison and Zeen guessed they figured she qualified.

'But they shouldn't have tried to interfere . . . try to keep her from the fire and her son . . . '

"Ian . . . "

A sob arose from her throat and then a boot hit her squarely in the right side. Try as she might, the chore of getting back on her feet was impossible. Her shoes were tangled in the chains and she was far too busy trying to fend off the guard's heavy boots to do much else. Her head snapped back painfully as the boot hit her a glancing blow squarely between the eyes.

"Sto . . . .stop . . . no more!" she cried, trying to tuck herself into as small a target as possible.

The heavyset woman just stood there, boot poised for another blow, and waited until the prisoner had stopped rolling around in an effort to defend herself. 'Pitiful little bitch. Tryin to keep me from having my fun. Well, I'll teach her.'

Zeen tried to look up at the guard but found her vision obscured. Reaching a hand to her face, she found one eye swelling shut.

"I don't belong here . . . there's been a mistake . . . I'm not a criminal!"

The guard growled menacingly and dragged the brunette off the floor.

"Can't we talk about . . . "

Holding her with one large paw, she drew back her other meaty fist and then screamed in Zeen's face. "No!" And then the punch was thrown.

The brutality she'd endured in the past few minutes had caught Zeen so totally flatfooted that she just stood there, mouth agape, and then was surprised when the blow didn't land. Instead, the meaty fist was being held at bay, with very little effort, inches away from her face.

Her opponent's face purpled with effort and frustration and then she yanked her hand out of the other guard's grip. The man stood about 6'2" and probably outweighed her by 50lbs.

"Ah, you think you're so strong! C'mon, you sonuvabitch, and show me what you got. Sorry piece of shit if I ever saw one. You ain't nothin but Scroggins' bum boy. C'mon, Johnson, gimme your best shot."

Zeen watched as a muscular arm came up, fist clenched, and threw itself into the face of the angry woman. She tried to protest as another hand shot forward and grasped the back of the woman's head as the fist reined down blow after agonizing blow.

Zeen Phipolis found herself unable to move as the overpowering urge sprang forth to interfere with the battle before her. She tried to turn and enlist the help of the folks behind her. Surely, they wouldn't be content to just stand by and let this happen. As she turned to do just that, her hand reaching out before her, Zeen recoiled in horror as blood dripped from her own clenched fist.

In shocked disbelief, she shrank away from the scene in fear as the two guards continued their brawl. Suddenly, a shrill whistle could be heard and then the area was flooded with armed guards, bristling with weapons, who began to herd the inmates back into a holding pen. Zeen found herself yanked to her feet by the tall guard she was coming to think of as a hero. Although nearly as tall as the guard, Zeen felt like a child as she was urged forward through the crowd. Some sneered as they went by and she flinched as wayward hands fondled and caressed parts of her body in passing. As the blush rose in her cheeks, the ability to hear the jeers and sexual innuendoes diminished. Zeen had always been able to just shut the rest of the world out. Had gotten better at it the last few months, in fact, to where the secret place she went to hide was becoming something akin to home.

After removing her leg and wrist irons, the guard ushered Zeen into a cell. A cold feeling of abandonment hit her as the guard stepped back and the door slid electronically into place.

"I'll be back later, after lunch", he said reassuringly. She nodded thankfully and went to sit on her cot. It was hard and lumpy but right then it seemed to call to Zeen as a great wave of weariness overtook her.

It was a few hours before the prison finally settled down. Zeen removed the pillow, such as it was, from her head and sighed. It was hard to tell what time it was but the brunette made a mental guess of around 2:00pm. She supposed everyone must be out doing . . . she wasn't sure exactly. Did they have chores that needed to be done? She sighed. It was all so damned alien to her. All she wanted was to be back . . . but there was no home. No Ian, no Brian . . .

Zeen wiped an errant tear from her cheek. As empty as it seemed, there were still noises to be heard in the jail. Although she had initially tried to blot out the constant din, Zeen slowly began extending her auditory senses until she was aware of even the smallest tinkle.

Someone down the hall was playing a small transistor radio and Zeen could catch bits and pieces of some old western song being played. She was unable to hear exactly what it was so she just swept it away and listened harder to her surroundings. She picked morosely at her cast as a small, weakened voice was heard pleading with God to come and save her. Zeen felt sorry for the faceless stranger only a few cells away and a small sigh escaped her lips as she wished she could do the same. Ever since the death of her son it had been impossible for her to pray. Clutching the threadbare sheets closer under her chin, Zeen Phipolis almost prayed for the strength to pray.

The faint murmured voices of two women squabbling pushed through the muted silence and then Zeen was aware of footsteps coming down the hall.

She lay there trapped in the gauze of panic, half of her wanting it to be word she'd been released, that there had been a mistake, and the other half knowing it was only false hope that was sure to kill her inch by inch if she thought about it too much.

The partially silhouetted form of the tall guard stood in front of her cell holding a small package. Zeen sat up and waited, uncertain as to how she should respond. If he were offering something to her, would he expect something in return?

"Hey, s'okay. Here. I thought you might like these." He held the package out through the bars and waited. Biting her lower lip, Zeen finally got to her feet and then stepped closer.

"You are a skittish one, ain't ya? Well, that's all right. Name's Johnson. You need something in here, I'm the man to see, okay? I make things a lot easier for the folks I like."

Zeen searched his craggy face for some sort of hint as to what was expected of her. Seeing none, she crept slowly forward. Other than some scraped knuckles, he wore no evidence of the earlier fight. She wondered about the other guard. Did this happen often? She shuddered as she remembered just how brutal this man had been.

She reached her hand out at his urging and then the transport guard's warning whispered through her consciousness and she stilled her hand.

Johnson watched almost nonchalantly, carefully hiding the smirk that tried to find its normal place on his rather well sculpted lips. She was a looker, even with a shiner and split lip. Something as minor as all that wasn't enough to dissuade him from seeing the beauty beneath it all. No, she had potential.

Swallowing a bubble of fear, Zeen quickly grabbed the bag and stepped back out of reach. Her past with an abusive ex-husband had taught her well as to the two faced nature of mankind.

Johnson smiled again and then stepped away from the door.

"I'll be back to see you tonight, okay? You think about what you need in here and I'll start making a list. Okay?" And then he was gone, leaving Zeen feeling very confused about their transaction. Although the man seemed genuinely interested in helping her, there was just something . . . not right.

Zeen dumped the contents of the paper bag on her cot and went through each item. There was a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a small box of tampons, a comb/brush combination and a small bar of soap.

After laying each item out by the sink near the back of her cell, Zeen wrapped herself under the covers once more and tried to sleep. So many things were going through her mind. Had her lawyer lied? Surely, if he'd said she was going to County, then she would be transferred. Maybe tomorrow? And what of the tall, dark guard? She wanted to trust him. But . . .

Overcome by the morning's events, Zeen finally uncoiled all of her tight muscles and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Five

Bubba nodded as his patient seemed to slip into a more settled state. He watched as her eyes moved rapidly beneath her lids and wondered just where Zeen Phipolis was right then. By the jerky movements she'd made during another nurse's aborted attempts at casting her, there was no doubt in his mind that she was still hallucinating. He'd finally taken over the job and got it done.

He stood up and admired his handiwork. His patient now wore a modified cast that covered the area from the third knuckles of her right hand up to just below the elbow.

Glancing at his watch, the nurse decided he might as well take his break now, when things were relatively quiet. Checking the restraints and the patient's pulse once more, he noted his findings on the chart and went in search of a nice, rich, dark roasted cup of coffee.

The Lieutenant sat with his back against the wall of the hospital cafeteria and sighed as the petite blonde went through the articles he'd been prescribed. 'Just like a mother hen', he thought to himself. She reached over a hand and poked his neck gingerly. He briefly wondered how a person like Zeen stood it. Zeen was no more demonstrative than he was and the idea of anyone, including a good friend like Abby, touching him in such a personal way in broad daylight . . . in front of people, was really . . . well, irritating. He knew she meant well . . . thoughts of the nice paramedic floated past his eyes and he wished she'd been available for the date he had proposed the following evening. However, she had a full shift as did he.

Pete winced as more lotion was smeared across the front of his neck.

"Jeez! Ya got hands like a sailor."

Abby arched an eyebrow and sighed.

"Don't move around so much and I won't have to hold you still then. Stop being such a baby."

She dabbed the last part onto the inflamed skin and then carefully worked it through the course hair of her friend's upper chest.

"Not a baby . . . " she bit her inside cheek but said nothing, choosing to focus on the task at hand instead.

"You gonna tell me about Zeen? What happened in there, Ab? I . . . I heard some yellin but . . . "

Abby swallowed deeply and shook her head. She had to process what had happened first. Then maybe she could talk about it. Briefly. The condensed version, sanitized just for Pete's sake, would be the best all the way around.

She frowned as the texture of Pete's wire-like hair and tough skin contrasted with her memories of Zeen. While her lover had a remarkable assortment of scars and such, they couldn't hide the golden/bronze colour or velvety overall feeling of the woman's skin. She'd never been with a man and had no interest in doing so. Oh, Pete was a nice enough guy, no question, but the package was something that just didn't appeal to her.

Abby looked down at the man's hands and sighed. They were so big and hairy and . . . so very unlike Zeen's. Oh, Zeen had large hands, too, but they were like pieces of art. They were so well sculpted, and the way they flitted about when Zeen was trying to express something important . . .

Visions of the burns radiating off Zeen's chest, lower right arm and hand hit Abby and she inwardly cringed. They wouldn't be permanent, surely?

Pete watched a rather blank look come into Abby's eyes and knew instinctively that her thoughts were of Zeen. That was a given. His eyebrows furrowed as he thought of just how fast their bond had been. 'Yeah, they sure had something special going on.' He sighed and pushed his depression away. Going over his feelings for Zeen was akin to picking at a wound you had no intentions of healing. It just nagged and festered until it became so much a part of you in its raw state that you forgot what life was like before, when your surface was unmarred and whole.

Melrose shook his head quickly. What had she been saying?

"So, what are you thinking about?"

"Ah . . . huh?"

Bubba chose that time to come over to their table and Pete sighed in relief. He just wasn't prepared to go into his feelings at that moment . . . if ever.

"You nice folks mind if I join you?"

Pete stood up suddenly, all but knocking his chair to the floor.

"Sure! No problem. Love to have you. Sit . . . "

The silence was deafening. The nurse shrugged his shoulders and took a seat, placing his cup squarely in front of him. It was his second cup and he was determined to get this one down before the first one could do much complaining. His tongue felt furry and he was glad for the Tums in his pocket.

"So . . . "

Kretchyk looked over the brim of his coffee at the drama unfolding in front of him and wondered if it had been such a good idea to join them. Something was going on but he had no intentions of getting into it right at that moment. His soft-shoulder 'tell me all about it' hat was conspicuously missing, and he was not in any mood for fun and games. He was more concerned about the woman lying in the bed upstairs. If these two could help him figure out just what the hell was going on in Phipolis' head, well and good, if not . . . He'd rather sit and watch Jerry Springer or Judge Judy. Something he could just shut off. Real life drama was just something he was not into. Having to deal with an ongoing soap opera with the daily happenings at Memorial was more than enough . . . his quota was filled in that particular department.

He took a sip and looked over the blonde in front of him. She was totally incongruous. There she was, just some slip of a girl who looked almost as if she should have her long hair either braided or in pigtails and she'd not only defied him but had simply and calmly just taken charge of the whole scene. He just couldn't figure her out.

Her tanned skin and compact body marked her as an outdoors type of person, leading him to believe there was more strength behind the petite frame than one would expect but where the hell did that titanium backbone come from?

"So. Um . . . " Abby moved her chair closer to the table and looked at the nurse expectantly. The nurse continued to sip at his coffee and just looked back at both she and Pete.

What was he thinking? The blonde grabbed a napkin to wipe the ointment from her fingers and then just looked back at the nurse with an open gaze.

Pete cleared his painful throat, "Bwaaah . . . yeah, Mr. Kretchyk. You have any more news for us? About Zeen?"

Abby darted her face forward and gripped the tabletop.

"Yes . . . about the blindness . . . How long . . . is it permanent? And when do you think the chemicals will be out of her system? What kind of rehab . . . "

Bubba downed the rest of his coffee and placed it carefully on his tray. Steepling his fingers, he sighed deeply and then settled his gaze on the Lieutenant.

"First off, I guess you better tell me a bit about our mysterious Zeen Phipolis."

Abby opened her mouth but closed it as the nurse pointed one finger at Pete.

"You start, if you don't mind. I think I've got a pretty good picture from you already, Miss Dean."

Abby widened her eyes and sat back. "Miss Dean, huh? I don't think so. The name's Abby, just plain old Abby Dean. And there is so much more to Zeen than . . . "

"Yes, I'm sure. Lieutenant?" Bubba wanted to get into that description right then and there but decided jocularity was best employed at a later date. Right now, he was very focused in finding a key to unlock the mysterious Zeen.

He smiled over at the Lieutenant and waited. Pete took a long swig of his ice tea and then settled back in his chair.

"Ah . . . well, lessee. She's been a firefighter for about four years now. Zeen's pretty much been at the top of her class in both written and practical. She does point real well and is one helluva fireman."

"Firefighter," said the nurse as he removed a small scratch pad from his front vest pocket and began to make notes.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah, thanks. It's taken me a while to get used to that term, cos I guess I don't think of it as being particularly labeling. Besides, I don't think anyone could ever mistake Zeen for a guy."

Bubba hummed and stroked his chin.

"I must say, I certainly did when she first came in. Mind you, it was an honest mistake on my part. She had that damned mask glued to her face and was . . . well, a mess."

"Heh . . . well, if you could see her out of that uniform . . . " said Pete with a whistle.

"Well, I've done that, too. And you're right, there ain't no way you could say Ms. Phipolis was a man." Pete nodded slowly, having forgotten he'd walked in on the guy carrying Zeen while the bed was being made. And she'd been . . . naked. He swallowed as her injuries hit him all over again.

"Even though she's just as strong and capable as any other male firefighter." Abby piped up rather defensively.

"Of course. Yes, her musculature certainly indicates she's in above average shape for . . . "

"For a woman?" Abby finished.

"No, I wasn't going to say that. I was gonna say, 'for a woman her age.'"

Pete frowned. "Whatcha mean 'a woman her age'. Hell, Zeen's only 29 years old."

Bubba grunted. "Really. I'd have guessed, by her injuries alone, that she'd seen far more life than a mere 29 years. According to the x-rays we did, she's had almost every bone in her body broken at least once. I'd wager she's been in more than one bad scrape."

Both friends nodded and Bubba relaxed, feeling he was finally getting down to the nitty gritty of things.

"Has she had any counseling? I'd imagine that was a regular requirement in this field?"

Pete nodded but said nothing. Abby looked across at the man and then Pete felt the tip of her shoe bump against his calf.

"Um . . . "

Kretchyk pursed his lips and watched a puzzled look come over Abby Dean.

"So, no therapy?" He placed the pad and pen on the table and pressed the tips of his fingers together under his chin.

"And why is that, Lieutenant? With her history and all?"

Abby suddenly felt totally out of her element. She was there as Zeen's protector, her friend and lover but was finding herself ineffectual at almost every turn. She was trying to stand up for Zeen and while she had made her views known with regards to how her lover was being treated it all seemed a moot point now. There sat the man in charge of everything, regardless of how in charge she'd felt, giving she and Pete the scrutinized look-over and was already finding them wanting.

Abby began feeling quite defensive, and kicked the Lieutenant under the table again.

Bubba arched both eyebrows as the Lieutenant gave the blonde a sideways glance, managing to look both guilty and petulant. If the blonde was his patient's girlfriend, he wondered just what this Pete fellow was to her or the blonde, for that matter. Just good friends? The more questions he asked, the more questions there seemed to be, sprouting up like fields of ripe wheat and he without a thresher. He moved his forefinger up to the bridge of his glasses and resettled the frames.

Pete bit his lip and then sighed. "Well see, it's like this. Yeah, she's been in a coupla really big fires. She's had her share of mishaps in that area . . . things falling on her, trapped in warehouse fires, that kinda thing."

He saw the look on Abby's face and cleared his throat.

"There have been time when she was unable to save kids, had folks jumping out of windows before she could save em . . . stuff. But she's handled it, ya know? She's been in therapy. She has." He finished rather lamely.

"Yes? Go on."

Melrose was beginning to feel he had to justify himself and it wasn't a good feeling. Why should he have to stick up for his friend or his job as her supervisor? He'd done the very best he could for Zeen, always had . . . hadn't he?

Kretchyk leaned forward, waiting for the Lieutenant to at least answer his direct questions and was rather surprised as the blonde began to speak.

"She was in therapy before. When . . . when she was in jail."

The nurse picked up his pen again and jotted down a few points. He looked up and nodded towards Abby, indicating she should continue. Pete leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

"Zeen spent about 18 months in some sort of county jail for attacking some police officers. Her son . . . he died in an apartment fire about six years ago. She . . . tried to save him. But . . . "

Pete cleared his raspy throat.

"Actually, it wasn't county it was . . . it was a regular prison. The initial jail term was for 18 months, I think, but she got 24 for inciting a riot. There was an . . . accident, and some people were killed . . . . Ended up getting reduced again once she entered therapy and the Outreach Program, though."

Abby's mouth hung open and Melrose felt like shrinking into his chair. It was becoming very clear that Zeen hadn't said much if anything about her past to Abby and it was now up to him. 'Shit.'

"What? She never . . . people . . . killed?" More than one? "But . . . " she stammered.

Pete cleared his throat and began picking at the cuticles on his left hand.

Kretchyk puffed his lips out and then closed his note pad. He waited until he had Pete's undivided attention and then began.

"All right. Let's see if I got things right here. She's been in a number of really intense situations and therefore has come close to death a few times. Ms. Phipolis is very much a risk taker if she usually takes the front position when a team is sent in. That indicates a sense of recklessness to me." He pursed his lips and then looked directly at the blonde.

"She has a penchant for extreme violence but has had therapy. Apparently, she's paid her debt or never would have made it to the ORP. She's obviously made some positive choices in her life and tried to move past the pain. I wouldn't say she's been entirely successful in that area."

He stroked his chin thoughtfully and then pushed his glasses back up. "You say she lost a son. Where's her husband or ex-husband in this?"

Pete rolled his eyes. "Oh, please," he croaked. "She was well rid of the sonuvabitch six years ago. Why, who knows where she'd be today if that asshole hadn't taken off. He'd been using her as a pu . . . "

He glanced quickly at Abby as the cloth on the side of his trousers was bunched in her fist.

"What are you saying, Pete?"

The Lieutenant sighed deeply and gave Kretchyk a very dirty look. It was, after all, his fault any of this had to come out. 'Why did he have to start asking these questions . . . if anyone should be telling Abby, it should be Zeen. And what the hell does this guy need this for anyway?'

"Zeen was married for two years, Abby. The guy was an asshole and treated her like shit. He used to drink and beat the . . . "

Pete bit the inside of his cheek and then stared belligerently at the head nurse.

"Look, why d'you have to know this anyway? You're treating her injuries, right? What does any of this have to do with that?"

Bubba's lips moved into a cruel smirk.

"Yeah, I'm just working on the outside of Ms. Phipolis but I gotta see the inside, too. Being a Psyche nurse, it really helps me see what's going on with my patient if I can see where they go when they hallucinate. Take your friend upstairs. She's in a world of pain right now, and most of it is self-induced. It goes beyond just the chemicals or the drugs administered. There is just no way she should have been even remotely conscious with everything going through her system like that . . . not for these extended periods of time."

The nurse pursed his lips and removed his glasses, wiping them on the sleeve of his uniform.

"So, who's going first?"

Chapter Six

The night nurse yawned as she flipped the chart closed. Stretching her arms high above her head, she groaned and then checked her watch again.

She was pulling a double shift, something that went against everything she'd been taught but with two kids and living alone . . . well, she needed the dough.

The machines beeped, drawing her attention back to her patient. Respiration was slightly elevated. She pursed her lips and wondered, for the eleventeeth time, just what was going on with this patient. She'd been warned not to release the restraints ever without an additional nurse nearby. Apparently Danielle hadn't been able to handle the woman. She snorted, thinking about the smaller nurse. She'd been here forever, it seemed, and to her mind, looked way beyond the point where she should have retired. 'Stupid system,' she thought shaking her head. 'Why would they keep her on?'

Nurse Taylor, lost in her own thoughts, didn't hear the slight creaking as the leather restraints twisted.

Zeen spent a relatively quiet afternoon in the prison. She passed the afternoon and evening meals in silence and had almost blanked out the covetous looks she was getting from some of the other prisoners.

There were butterflies tramping around with hobnailed boots in her belly as she checked the mess hall's clock once more. Carefully placing her tray and garbage in the receptacles provided, Zeen decided to just go back to her cell and wait for the guard's return.

The next two hours passed very slowly and just when Zeen was beginning to think he wasn't coming, Johnson ambled around the corner.

"I've gotta make rounds, but I'll be back in about an hour, okay?" He arched an eyebrow at the prisoner's crestfallen look and ticked another point off on his mental scorecard.

"Oh, and here's some ice . . . thought you might find a use for it." He tossed a small bag through the doorway and then waved. "Put it on your eye, lip . . . it'll even help your ribs, I'll bet."

Seeing the brunette's depressed state, he sighed. "Look, I know you feel out of your element here, okay? You'll get used to it. You have to make sure you don't look like a victim . . . the ice will help bring the swelling down."

Zeen still made no motion towards the ice so he played his trump card. "Okay by me, but I know there's a real looker under all those black and blue marks. Pretty girl like you should look her best at all times, right?"

He watched as a tentative finger moved up to touch the split lip and swollen eye and knew he had her.

"Who knows, I might even find some lipstick sometime."

Zeen frowned. She never wore that stuff. Not even for her husband . . . ex-husband. Although he'd taken his own turns on pounding her body, the man had never subjected Zeen to the pain of this kind of beating, ever. No, Brian was very careful. She winced as her fingers moved along the bridge of her nose. Not having access to a mirror, she wondered just how serious things really were. It must have been pretty bad or this man certainly wouldn't have commented.

'God, I must be a mess.'

Zeen had a sudden urge to sit taller and tried a weak smile as she smoothed the front of her shirt down. "Hey, that's my girl." Said the guard and then he was gone.

'My girl.' Zeen bit her lower lip as a twinge of hope began moving up her spine. Maybe he could help her, maybe . . .

She grabbed the ice and began pressing it gingerly against her lip. Her swollen eye was next and then finally her ribcage. She could hear the guard's voice a few cells down and wondered whom he was talking to. He seemed so nice . . . she almost felt jealous as she heard a woman laugh and then there came a deep male chuckle she supposed was from her guard. Her guard.

Zeen sighed as the man left the area and decided that perhaps she'd use the time in a more productive manner. After all, her eyes had already roamed over every inch of her cell, she'd counted all the bars, all the lines on the ceiling . . . yes, it was time to get out for a nice shower. Perhaps she could wash away some of the grime and maybe her face wouldn't look too bad afterwards. She briefly wondered whether the jail had medical facilities. Zeen fingered the frayed edges of her cast and then wiggled it back and forth, trying to ease a growing itch.

She wanted the damned thing off. She wanted her life back. She wanted . . .

She grabbed her new articles and noticed her hands shook. Taking a deep breath, Zeen tried to visualize herself anywhere but there. Maybe the guard had some information about that? Peering carefully down the hall, she exited her cell and made for the ablution area.

"Oh, god . . . I am a mess. No wonder the guard gave me ice." She fingered the swelling on her face and winced at her reflection in the mirror. While she didn't think her nose was broken, it was really hard to tell until the swelling went down. She splashed some cold water onto her face and checked the cuts and bruises to her mouth. At least she hadn't lost any teeth.

Zeen waited until the other two people had finished using the showers before setting out her toiletries. If she just closed her eyes, she could imagine herself back in the apartment. If she just reached out her right hand it would come into contact with her radio and she could listen to her favorite station. She could forget any of this ever happened. If only . . .

She sniffed and blinked back an errant tear. Feeling sorry for herself was not going to get her anywhere.

Zeen had just finished wrapping her cast in a plastic bag and was stepping out of her bra and panties when she heard a snort behind her. A small startled cry left her lips causing her to drop things in an effort to cover herself. Zeen blushed a deep red as two leering women came towards her.

"Whatda we got here, Doris, fresh meat. Hey, and it's a pretty one. I like em tall, too. Oh, and this one's wounded . . . tsk tsk." The rather overweight woman with scraggly blonde hair elbowed her companion and they both snickered in Zeen's direction.

"You must be new, huh? Well, we're the welcoming committee, see?"

Zeen backed herself against the wall and watched as her undies gently floated towards the drain. She swallowed deeply and tried to will herself invisible. The two strangers had a dangerous look in their eye that made her skin crawl. And here she stood, naked to the world and . . . helpless. What could she do? Where was that guard, any guard? 'Oh god,' she thought as images of further brutality entered her mind.

The blonde rubbed her hands together and motioned for her friend to approach their quarry from the opposite side. Neither one of them heard the other women walk into the room until Zeen gasped. Both women turned, ready to do battle to protect what they intended to claim but stopped short as they noticed who it was.

Fearing that her two assailants had gotten reinforcements, Zeen gritted her teeth and took a shuddering breath, tearing the plastic off her cast. She had no intentions of going down without a fight. Her mind screamed as she thought of the bruises and cuts that already dotted the surface of her body. She truly didn't know how much more she could take. Although her eye was still somewhat puffy, she was glad for the ice she'd taken from the guard earlier. Where was he now?

She watched warily as the two oriental women stepped a bit closer. She could feel the taller of the two checking her over but Zeen had no intentions of taking her eyes off the large blonde woman who stood only a few feet from her. She moved slightly to the right, avoiding the deepest of the puddles and readied herself to do battle.

'Battle?' Zeen swallowed as she looked down at her cut hands. In the three years she been married to Brian, through all the terrible beatings she'd endured, she'd never fought back . . . never done anything but try and live through it. What the hell did she know about defending herself? Well, not much but she wasn't going to just give up either.

She stood ready and then watched, open mouthed, as the first two muttered something, almost bowed, and then exited the room. Oh, this was not good. If those horrible wretches were somehow giving in to these two, then these women were the real ones to be afraid of.

Zeen's eyes moved quickly over each woman's face, trying to read some compassion, some weakness and found none. They were totally . . . 'Inscrutable.' Her mind offered.

Debbie Ma stood silently watching the tall newcomer as the woman tried to gather her wits about her. She was trying very hard not to cry, Debbie could see.

Zeen stood there, her arms crossed over her bosom and glared at the other two women who were as naked as she was. Feeling the anger rising up from within, she planted her feet a little farther apart and placed both hands on her hips.

"What are you looking at?" she said defiantly. While her mouth had often been what got her into trouble with Brian, it was almost impossible for her to rein in what he had termed was her bad habit. And if she was in for another beating, well, then she had nothing to lose.

There was no reply from the other women, only silence.

Finally, a gentle smile edged its way onto what Zeen perceived to be the leader's fine features.

"What do I see? Why, a thing of great beauty, of course. I see a woman of strength, of great promise, and of great fear. I also see a woman touched by life but not a party to it."

The Oriental's words buzzed inside her head like angry bees and while Zeen could make neither head nor tail of their meaning, her false bravado seemed to evaporate as the heat from the scars beneath her upper arms seemed to radiate outwards. She could almost see ribbons of flame torching out towards this enigmatic stranger. Suddenly, it mattered very much what this woman thought of her.

"Don't . . . don't look at me . . . please." She turned away with her chin tucked in and clutched herself tightly around her upper torso in an effort to hide her ugliness.

Already flinching from the expected blow, Zeen's strangled cry at the woman's soft touch surprised them both. Debbie slowly withdrew her hand and then stepped back.

"You must choose your way. Life within these prison walls is cold and can be all too short."

Zeen felt hot tears on her face. She didn't want to choose a way, she didn't want to be there at all!

"You must decide whether you wish to continue as a spectator or become the game itself."

"Just leave me alone . . . please."

Debbie watched as the woman pressed her body against the cold tiles, trying to fold herself into as small a space as possible, and sighed.

She could almost feel destiny's will pulling at her from this one. While the potential for terrible violence and death hung like a pall over the woman, Ma could see such strength and purpose as well. There were choices to be made. Although the tall woman had seen such pain in her past, she would do so again. Soon.

With eyes filled with wisdom far beyond her years, the Green Dragon bowed and she and companion quietly left the room.

Zeen had very little time to bathe in self-pity as another gaggle of women came in to use the showers. Although a guard was now present, Zeen had no intention of sharing what had just happened. She hated feeling weak and reaching out for help was . . . a flaw. Why she felt comfortable enough to ignore her instincts and just trust Johnson worried her. If she reached out and he stepped away . . . but he seemed like he really cared. Why would anyone care?

Keeping her eyes tightly closed, she turned the spray towards her face and just stood there as the warmth eased past her cold feelings of self-loathing and fear to help settle her. No one else bothered her and she found herself lost in the memories of easier times.

Life had been hard when she was first married but shortly thereafter her son came along. He was the only bright thing in her life then. Images of her son pulling his wagon down the aisles at the shopping center, tucking him into bed at night, and playing with Lego caressed her soul. He was so beautiful, so perfect in every way, and now he was gone. All the things she'd wished they'd done together . . . a future gone up in smoke.

She wasn't aware of anything, not time nor her surroundings, until the cold needles of water began working past the cocoon she'd insulated herself in. With effort, Zeen opened her eyes and then bent to the task of retrieving her things. She passed the mirrors without even a second glance.

She wasn't aware of feeling anything in particular as she trudged back to her cell. Did she feel cleaner? Was her appearance any better now than before she went for the shower? She didn't know. Nor did she care, at that point in time. She felt as numb as the blue skin she wore like a hair shirt. Zeen could see now that her life from this point onward was just to be endured. How she kept on living was beyond her. She just wanted to endure her current hell so she could go back to her past hell. Just to be left alone. Perhaps a broken heart was exactly what the doctor ordered. Maybe if she just lay down . . . maybe she wouldn't wake up. Her shoulder length hair fell into her face, obscuring her vision, and it wasn't until she was almost back inside her cell that she noticed it wasn't empty.

Herman Kretchyk yawned as he twirled the combination on his locker. It had been one helluva shift but finally it was time to go home. He scratched his prickly chin and cheeks absently and then removed his glasses. Pinching the bridge of his nose and then rubbing the exhaustion from his eyes, Bubba sighed as he tried to process all the new information on his not-so-run-of-the-mill patient. He wondered if such an animal existed. If it did, Zeen surely wasn't going to be representative of such.

The nurse shrugged into his coat and then headed towards the exit. He'd done enough thinking this day. There was always tomorrow.

Zeen fought down panic as she finally noticed there were others in her cell. She kept her head down and tried to look as innocuous as possible. Maybe she was getting another roommate? It had been hard enough for her to get used to the cell by herself let alone sharing it.

She moved to the back of the room and placed her things on the rickety shelf. Her hands gripped the stainless steel sink as she thought of something, anything, to say.

The warning horn went off, making her jump and spilling some of the articles into the toilet bowl. Zeen watched as her soap sank to the bottom along with her toothbrush and that was it. The events of the day tallied up and were found to be one straw more than she could stand. As she opened her mouth to voice her frustration, a fat meaty hand was clamped quickly over her mouth.

The lights in the prison dimmed and Zeen could hear the doors sliding shut.

Kretchyk yawned painfully as he passed the front desk and fumbled in his pants pocket for his car keys. Mumbling a curse under his breath, he slapped his forehead as his search came up empty and then turned on his heels and headed back towards the Burn Unit.

Nurse Taylor was still musing on what the hell was wrong with the system when her patient began to choke.

Zeen could feel the hands moving roughly over her body, cupping and squeezing her breasts, and then the front of her shirt was pulled open. She struggled madly which only caused her assailants to grip tighter, forcing her over against the wall as they manhandled her.

Tears of shame spilled from her eyes as her pants were pulled down.

'Why, what had she done? Who were these people that they felt they could do this? How in God's name . . . why . . . .oh God!' Her mind screamed in anguish as she felt herself picked up and moved over to her cot. Zeen was thrown in against the wall and for one split moment was free. She kicked her legs out and one of them was instantly taken into a vice-like fist and held down. Now both arms were restrained and whatever fear she was experiencing blossomed into full-blown mindless hysteria as her body convulsed with the rage and torment of it all. Had she survived life thus far only to have to endure something as monstrous as . . .

Words just couldn't form as she thought of just what was occurring. Men took what they wanted like this. It wasn't an act of sexual gratification, it was an act of power and control. Women didn't do this. Women couldn't . . .

The nurse jumped and then leaned forward with her flashlight as the patient's eyes flew open. The woman's pupils were still unresponsive and yet the nurse could see by her patient's rapid eye movement that she was seeing something, if only in her mind.

Nurse Taylor was tall for a woman by any standards, hitting 5'9" in her stocking feet, and tipping the scales at about 170 pounds. She was also in pretty good shape and in her early thirties. Running after two kids as well as doing shift work at the hospital had made her body hard and her responses quick.

"Now, now . . . it's okay. Just settle down, now . . . " Nurse Taylor cringed as the sound of straining leather filled the air. Leaning down onto her patient as quickly as she could, the nurse tried vainly to keep her charge from ripping the leather restraints off the sidebar. Her biceps bulged in effort and she gritted her teeth as she felt the body beneath her pulse forward. With her face inches from the woman, Taylor knew exactly why she'd been warned and why she'd been advised to report any movements to the nurse's station.

It was all a moot point, however, as the ringer usually clipped to the patient's pillow slipped off the bed and out of reach. Small snippets of things she'd heard earlier about Danielle came to the fore and in that split second she would have given anything to have that weak kneed over the hill nurse right by her side.

Taylor grunted with effort as the leather snapped and her patient's large left hand began forcing her off and to the side.

"I'll kill you . . . fucking . . . kill . . . you . . . "

'Oh my god, where is she getting this strength from?' wondered the nurse as she threw her weight back over onto the one free hand.

Muscles bunched and strained as the two levered for better position and then the nurse gasped as she watched the last restraint buckle begin to give. There was a brief popping noise as the brass rivet sprang its connection between the two pieces of leather and then Taylor found herself in an all out, no holds barred, war with a woman who's both hands were now free and inching towards her throat.

Her feet thrashed back and forth and panic infused the nurse as she tried to find some purchase, some way she could just separate herself from . . .

The hands closed around her throat and all thought ceased as blackness seeped into her peripheral vision.

Zeen fought with tooth and claw as the women took their cruel pleasures from her. She felt totally violated, totally immersed in all the levels of hell, and even the coppery taste that filled her mouth as she bit down on her attackers couldn't assuage the grief she felt.

She knew, if only she could get her hands free, if only she could wrap them around the neck of the one over her . . . she could stop this . . . she wouldn't be a victim again. Not . . . again!

Total blackness threatened Nurse Taylor as her fingers grasped and clawed at the hands denying her breath and her throat burned red hot as her lungs fought for just one more breath.


Zeen sat bolt up in bed, holding the nurse by the neck as all the pain and torment of her rape screamed through her mind, the memories as fresh as when they'd occurred four years previously.

A small, tiny voice penetrated through the blackness that was enveloping Zeen's heart and she was suddenly aware that her hands were shaking. She'd been dreaming . . . what was it? Something about . . . prison? She tried to focus on the dream but it faded into wisps, and was gone.

Then she felt the skin beneath her fingers, felt the soft flesh giving way, and drew her hands away quickly.

"Wha . . . who . . . " She reached forward blindly, trying to find out who it was that was making that rasping noise in front of her. If only she could get the damned lights on. Where the hell was she?

Nurse Taylor fell back onto the bed gasping and crying as she tried to draw in a burning breath. Her eyes flew open as she felt a warm hand gentling her leg, and she stared in disbelief at the patient sitting calmly in front of her.

She blinked back in total confusion as her mind tried to grasp just what had happened. She'd been manhandled and shaken as if she were nothing more than a child's rag doll by someone who by all rights should have been unable to even strain against her restraints let alone break them. The nurse knew by reading the woman's chart the extent of her injuries, and wondered just what kind of powerhouse the woman was when healthy.

'Sedation . . . she should have been . . . ' The nurse swallowed painfully as she tried hard to remember what the chart had indicated. Wasn't she supposed to have been given Demerol during the last shift? She wiped the tears from her eyes and peered closer at her patient. She didn't look drugged at all. In fact, she looked quiet lucid.

"Where . . . where am I?" Zeen asked as she attempted to clear the fuzzy wool from her throat. She tried to take a deep breath but the ensuing pain had her gasping and clutching her side.

"What the . . . ?" Zeen's fingertips played over the bandages securing her broken ribs, and then her mouth hung open.

"A fire . . . I was in the warehouse . . . and . . . gods, where's Ted? And Pete . . . .? Did they . . . ?" Zeen flinched as her raspy voice pierced her hearing and she wondered just how bad off she was this time. Goddamned Beast had almost got her this time. She shuddered in memory and swallowed painfully.

The nurse leaned in and patted the woman's arm. "It's all right now . . . I don't know anything about the other firemen, but . . . "

"Firefighters." Bubba stood in the doorway. He arched an eyebrow at the nurse sitting on the patient's bed and watched as she crawled slowly to the side and grabbed the clipboard. His eyebrows knit together as he caught sight of the reddening flesh around the woman's neck. And then he noticed the broken leather restraints.

"Oh, my god!" Bubba mentally went through just how much he could up Zeen's dose without causing permanent injury. There had to be a way to keep her from these random acts of violence . . . something . . .

The nurse smiled weakly. "It seems someone on the last shift neglected to sedate the patient. It says here in the chart that she was exposed to some chemical poisoning. Maybe the Demerol was reacting with the poison, causing hallucinations? I don't know but, well she seems fine now."

"I'm gonna string up who ever is responsible! Goddamnit, what the hell went on in here? Nurse Taylor, page Dr. Harrington immediately!" Any exhaustion Bubba had been feeling evaporated, as his brain tried to wrap around the strength needed to break the restraints.

The nurse rubbed her neck and swallowed painfully. "Yes, Bubba. We . . . experienced a nightmare." She left the room quickly and appeared only minutes later with the doctor in tow.

"What . . . What's going on in here?" He huffed in a very no-nonsense tone of voice.

Kretchyk opened his mouth and then snapped it closed again as his patient began to talk, slowly and painfully at first, but with gathering strength.

"Not a nightmare, a truth." She dragged her fingers through her hair, pausing to touch the back of her head, and then looked down at her hands. Why was she wearing a cast on one hand and some bandages on the other?

"Will someone turn on the lights in here? It's fucking dark."

Dr. Harrington narrowed his eyes at the foul language and straightened his lab coat, barely concealing his distaste.

"So, this is the infamous Zeen Phipolis? I'm the doctor in charge here and . . . "

Harrington grumbled as the large man walked to the side of the bed, and seemed to assume control of the situation. 'Damned Kretchyk. Doesn't give a fig about protocol. Well, he'd see about that . . . ' He grabbed the chart from the other nurse and glowered petulantly.

Bubba smiled, and reached a hand out tentatively, touching the brunette's forearm.

"Hello, Zeen. Name's Bubba Kretchyk. I'm the supervisor here in the burn unit at Chicago's Memorial Hospital. You were in a warehouse fire and . . . "

"Yeah, yeah . . . I got that part. What, you guys have a power outage or something?"

"A power outage? I say, Kretchyk, what the devil is she going on about? And why hasn't she been sedated?" He checked the chart again.

"Doesn't she know she's . . . ?"

Bubba rolled his eyes and grimaced. He put his hand on the doctor's shoulder and gave him a warning look. 'Man, this is gonna be harder than I thought.' He looked at the clear blue eyes of the woman and thought he'd never seen anything as arresting. Now that she was awake, he could look past the damage done to her face and fully appreciate the beauty of the woman. Her eyes seemed to radiate strength and purpose. What if the blindness was permanent?

The doctor shrugged off the large man's hands and approached the patient.

"The lights are on, Ms. Phipolis. It's your eyes. There seems to be a side effect from the chemicals you were exposed to.

"But it should only be temporary," piped up Nurse Taylor as she tried to soften the blow. She wondered how the man had gotten anywhere with his current bedside manner.

Zeen blinked, her mouth still open. "My eyes? I'm . . . blind?"

Bubba watched as a solitary tear slipped from its mooring at the corner of her eye and slowly made its way down the woman's chiseled cheekbone. Relieved to have been granted a momentary reprieve, he sighed deeply and then nodded to himself.

"Yes, your sight has been affected, Zeen. I've noted no response from either pupil, but as Nurse Taylor said, it could well be temporary. We won't know the extent of your injuries until we get the complete lab work back."

"My injuries." Zeen swallowed and tried hard to focus on what the man was saying instead of the terror that threatened to overtake her. Her hand strayed over the tattooed flesh at the back of her neck and Zeen felt her belly lurch.

'Blind . . . I can't be a firefighter . . . I can't . . . .what kind of life would I be able to live with . . . ?'

"Did anyone bring me in? Was there someone . . . ?"

Bubba nodded again. "Yes, you and another fellah came via an ambulance and your friends came a few minutes later."

"Was there a woman . . . ?"

Harrington rolled his eyes thinking of the altercation he'd had earlier with a pair of rather undesirable individuals and decided it was time for a coffee break.

"Right. I think everything's under control now." Harrington gritted his teeth as he watched the nurse pick up the chart and hand it to the black man. He just hoped Kretchyk wouldn't go poking his nose into anything and discover it had been his rounds when the Phipolis woman was supposed to have been sedated. He'd been far too busy chatting up the nurse for either one of them to remember about a small thing like sedation. After all, the patient was restrained. Well, it was just a minor oversight on the nurse's part, surely nothing he'd have to worry about. But just in case . . .

He graced them all with a toothy smile. "Other than her eyes, the patient seems well on the way to recovery, yes? Good. I think we can reduce her sedation. I think I did that earlier, as a matter of fact. Have to check with the other nurse." He smiled faintly, thinking himself so very clever, and then gulped as he eyed bits of leather on the bed. 'Oh dear, this is not good . . . not good at all.' Bubba arched an eyebrow at Taylor as Harrington avoided eye contact and left the room hurriedly.

Bubba sighed in relief as the resident left the room. The man was a time bomb and it was really only a matter of time before disaster struck. The supervisor only hoped that it wouldn't be a big disaster, only enough to show the good 'doctor' was a menace and have him shipped out. Daddy could always find his boy work in a pharmaceutical company.

Nurse Taylor cleared her throat and smiled, giving the woman's shoulder a reassuring pat. Zeen jumped a little at the woman's touch, having been too preoccupied with thoughts of Abby to notice her close proximity.

"It might take a while before you get your senses back, Ms. Phipolis. Your body is too used to relying on sight but that'll change and you won't get surprised very often. Just takes time and practice.

Zeen felt a wave of nausea hit, and it seemed as if her head were slowly being immersed in a bath of molten syrup. What had the doctor said? She couldn't concentrate.

Bubba watched as the patient swallowed hard, and then gave her a few minutes to collect herself before going on.

"Your friend Ms. Dean came in shortly after the ambulance arrived. She was with a Lieutenant. I've been in touch with em both."

"Pete Melrose, yes . . . and . . . you said Abby?" she croaked. Zeen was feeling awfully warm. She tried to brush a line of sweat from her brow and only succeeded in scratching the cast across her flush skin. She winced and tried not to notice the tightening of the flesh around her neck and face. It was a sure indication that she'd gotten burned there, too.

He cleared his throat, and nodded towards the door. Taylor sighed, and still rubbing her throat, left for a well needed break. She stopped at the door, and gave them both a tired smile.

"I'm going to go now but I'll be back later. I have the rest of my shift to complete. Oh, and Bubba? I'll get Harrington to note on the files that the patient's sedation should be reduced. He said that, right?"

Bubba grinned and winked at the nurse.

"That's what the man said. Now, you go on and have yourself a long break, Taylor. I'll be here for a little while longer. And save some of that nice hot coffee for the rest of us."

She closed the door quietly behind her, and Bubba noted down a few more vitals before replacing the chart.

Zeen nodded absently as she tried to concentrate on the conversation going on around her. She was very aware that the male nurse had something to say and didn't want this woman to hear. Where was Abby? And what about Ted and Pete?

Chapter Seven

Kretchyk waited until the nurse was gone before taking a chair beside the bed.

"Your girlfriend is asleep in the nurse's lounge right now and the Lieutenant was called back into work. I expect he'll be back sometime this afternoon. As for the fellah brought in with you? Well, we'll just kept him for observation for another day or two. He'll got a leg fracture, and will be sporting a pretty good rash, plus some wrinkly red skin for a while . . . much like the Lieutenant, I figure. His wife came in a couple of hours ago sayin' she could do a better job. That woman's a caution, and know what? I believe her."

Zeen breathed a sigh of relief, nodded and began to pick at her cast. Bubba pushed his glasses back up and just sat quietly. He had hoped for at least a shadow of a smile. Finally, Zeen cleared her throat and then smiled gratefully as he placed a paper cup of water into her hands. He watched as the woman's fingers began to worry what remained of the leather straps around her wrist.

"Here, let me get those off you. You are gonna behave, right?" She nodded painfully as he worked each wrist free of the restraints, and then moved down to the ones on her ankles.

"You mind telling me why I was tied down?" she said between painful swallows.

Bubba shook his head slowly. "I don't mind at all, Zeen. Oh, do you mind if I refer to you as Zeen or do you prefer . . . "

"Zeen is good. And you're Bubba, right?"

He sat back and placed a foot against the bar near the bottom of the bed. "Yep, that's me. And you're right, she is. From what I've heard, Zeen's very good. A tad twisted, and definitely dark, but good all the same."

Zeen's forehead scrunched as she tried to figure out just what the man was trying to say. Who had he been talking to, and just what had been said? If Pete had been said one thing about . . .

"What do you remember about the fire, Zeen?"

The firefighter eased back self consciously as the nurse adjusted her pillow, and Bubba thought she might just avoid the question all together.

"Look, if it's too painful . . . "

Zeen shook her head, and then rolled a little to face him.

"Broken ribs, huh? How many, and what are the other injuries?"

"Look, why don't you just rest awhile. Sitting up like that, expending all that energy fighting with one of my nurses . . . well, you are gonna find you pay for such things when you're dealing with lung injuries. Trust me."

He watched as the woman's cold, frank look was aimed in his general direction.

He sighed. This was always the tricky part. Sometimes it was best if the patient didn't know the extent of their injuries because the knowledge hampered their recovery rate. However, judging by her manner, Zeen seemed to be the type of patient that rose to the challenge. He couldn't imagine anything keeping the woman down for long so he began rifling off each injury on the fingers of both hands. When he was done, Bubba noticed that Zeen had slid a little farther down in her bed.

"Now look, I know it sounds bad, but it isn't . . . not really. You're a strong woman, Zeen, God knows every nurse on this damned floor has seen you in action at one time or another. You can rally and beat this thing. The ribs and burns will heal, you know that. As for the blindness, well, these things take time . . . "

"Look Doc, just cut the crap and shoot me the bottom line, will ya?"

Bubba scratched his chin and then removed his glasses. He was getting way too old for this, and it was way past his bedtime.

"First off, I am not a doctor. What I am is the supervisor of the Burn Unit. A Dr. Harrington is the current resident of this unit. He was the doctor on call here earlier. He should be back around midnight tonight so you can ask him all your questions then, okay?"

Zeen sighed. The doctor who had just been there sounded like one of those high and mighty twits that probably wouldn't give her a straight answer even if she did ask. No, this Bubba guy sounded like he was okay.

"Supervisor, huh? Is that a fancy way of saying you're a glorified charge nurse?"

Bubba smiled. "Yup, that it is."

"So fine, you know more than him anyway," she took a deep wheezing breath, and then went on. "So spill it. I can take it, you know."

The nurse winced with every word spoken, but despite what looked to be a painful ordeal, the woman kept talking. It sounded as if she'd had her throat cut and he suspected that was pretty much what it felt like, too. Bubba could see his patient needed answers to some questions not formed yet. That was a good sign, and once he was back on shift, he intended to get her to open up as much as possible. Although he could see she'd be a hard nut to crack, it was only a matter of time. However, he'd moved slowly at first, just to test the waters.

"Well, it might not be something you really want to hear . . . at least not quite yet."

"Hey, I'm a firefighter . . . I can take the heat, okay?"

Zeen's honesty and forthrightness was like a breath of fresh air. Kretchyk was beginning to like this woman more and more. He was fond of folks who didn't like to beat around the bush and said what they meant, and more importantly, meant what they said.

"All right. Well, it's been my experience that more damage is caused by what we can't see, rather than what we can. Take fire, for instance. As I've said, you might incur some scarring on your hand and neck, but I think the damage done to your face will be minimal." He paused, noting a quick intake of air.

"Shall I go on?"

Zeen nodded, finding her throat dry, making swallowing all but impossible. Her vision began to waver, and then double, as a twitch began at the corner of her left eye.

"You might have some involuntary movements due to your nervous system being ravaged by the chemicals. That might continue for awhile."

Bubba pursed his lips and then glanced quickly at his patient. She was quiet and rather pale, but that was to be expected. After all, no one really wanted to hear the truth. They may think they do, but . . .

"We won't know anything concrete about the damage to the rest of your system for awhile. That could take days . . . or weeks. We just don't know enough about phosphorus, and the other chemical agents it came in contact with."

Fear gripped the brunette as she thought of the worst case scenarios. She could be rendered incapacitated for brief periods of time, or completely destroyed as the effects of the poisons continued to ravage her body. Would it be permanent? She wasn't too sure whether she'd just want to go out in a blaze in glory, rather than waste away in some ward . . . Abby watching her die, inch by bloody inch . . .

Zeen blinked deeply as a fuzzy feeling seemed to spread throughout her body. Her breath became somewhat laboured as she tried to find another comfortable position. Every muscle seemed to protest as she tried to roll over. And then she felt a tickle in her throat that rapidly became a rattle.

"Oh, gods."


The nurse became somewhat alarmed as his patient turned a dusky colour as she fought the urge to cough. He took hold of her hand, and quietly monitored the patient's pulse.

Tears sprang to Zeen's eyes as she felt a warmth spreading between her legs, and then begin to soak the sheets beneath her.

Bubba gripped her shoulder as a painful bout of coughing ensued. Zeen clutched at her damaged throat, forgetting the pain, and just focused on keeping the airway clear as panic threatened to swell it shut. She fought the feeling of drowning as her coughing dislodged what seemed to be a river of thick fluid.

"Don't fight it . . . just go with it . . . that's right. Don't fight your body's response to the gathering fluid in your lungs. I'll see about getting a bronchodilator prescribed in just a minute." He rushed back to the bedside just in time to place the emesis basin beneath Zeen's chin before she threw up.

He watched as the brunette lay there gasping, then she curled up into a tight ball, and he felt his heart breaking. All the information Pete had told him had fleshed out the woman to the point that he felt he knew her, and what was more, respected her.

"I can help that. Give me two seconds, and I'll give you a shot of Demerol."

"No . . . ." Zeen gasped. "No painkillers . . . "

Kretchyk stood totally immobilized as he fought with his instinct to just give the injection, or give in to his patient's wishes.

"Why? It'll help . . . you'll relax, and be able to get rid of more of that phlegm. You will have to, Zeen, sooner or later. It's part of the side effect of those chemicals. The really good part is that the increase of saliva will help soothe your throat some." He said, pushing her dark hair away from the basin, and off her face. He reached back to the nightstand, and grabbed a face cloth from the drawer. Quickly making his way over to the sink, Bubba soaked it, and then draped it over the back of the woman's neck.

"You are getting way too hot, Zeen. Gotta cool you down. These temp fluctuations are bound to happen for awhile, too. You're really gonna be a mess for the next 48 hours, so you might just want to have that injection, and wait out the storm."

Zeen shook her head, and then another shudder rattled through her body as her lungs continued to spasm.

Finally, she lay gasping and only barely released a groan from tight lips as the nurse took the basin away and rolled her onto her back.

It hurt the man to watch something as wasteful as this. Why was she being so goddamned stubborn? What was the use of this? There was nothing noble about pain, or the endurance of it. What did she hope to gain by resisting his medical expertise?

"Can't . . . .oh gods . . . take painkillers . . . "

Bubba thought back to exactly how much Demerol he'd given his patient in the past 24 hours and could have kicked himself around the room.

"Shit . . . don't tell me: you're allergic to Demerol?"

Zeen nodded, her lips frothy with excessive saliva. He leaned down and pulled the face cloth away from her neck and carefully wiped Zeen's forehead, cheeks and mouth with it.

"God damn it! Does anyone know about this? We didn't have anything to go on when you came in. It's not what you'd call a common allergy. Shit, that would explain a lot of things. The wilder you became, the more Demerol we gave ya. The more we gave ya, well you get the picture. Why the fuck couldn't I see that? Damn me." Bubba felt the fatigue settling onto his shoulders and then apologized for his coarse language.

Zeen snaked a shaky hand through the railing and briefly touched the man's wrist. She shook her head, unable to muster up anything more from her store of energy.

He sighed deeply and then patted her hand.

"I'll be right back. You just hang tight, Zeen."

A few shudders ran through the firefighter as she briefly thought just where she might go in the nurses' absence. It certainly wasn't as if she'd be going anywhere soon. Another deep coughing spell seized her, and left her gasping from weakness.

Bubba returned with another nurse and some equipment in tow.

"We'll fix you right up, Zeen. You being a firefighter, you won't have any problem wearin' this ventilator mask, will you?"

He careful placed the elastic around the woman's head, eased the mask down over her nose and mouth, and then turned the valve, which released a fine medicated mist as the patient breathed. While the response wasn't always immediate, the effects would be felt within the next ten minutes. He and Taylor had talked at length about the probabilities of inflammation to Zeen's pleural cavity. While the amount of exposure to toxic chemicals the patient had incurred was unknown when she was admitted, evidence of just how badly her body was being ravaged by them was becoming painfully apparent.

Wishing he could do more, he pulled the chair closer, and just sat holding her hand until Zeen's breath evened out, and she slept.


It had taken all of Abby's nerve to just stand there, and listen to the night nurse, as she rattled off the improvements first, and then the warnings afterwards, before being allowed into Zeen's room. She wasn't to hug the patient, because it might cause one of the broken ribs to graze the already irritated lung tissue. She wasn't to get the IV tangled, either. It seemed the Dr. had decided to do some electrolyte therapy with Ringer's Lactate to try and counteract the effects of the patient's vomiting. She was also cautioned not to make the patient talk too much, as it would cause irritation of the raw tissues in her throat, not to mention bringing on another painful bout of coughing. That in turn would make Zeen throw up, and the cycle would continue.

'Yeah, yeah . . . whatever . . . just . . . get the hell out of my way!' she wanted to scream. She was pleased when Pete hadn't insisted on accompanying her for the first real visit since the adverse effects of the Demerol. She was being selfish, and she knew it, but figured the Lieutenant would understand.

Abby stood in the doorway with Pete at her elbow. There were no restraints this time, and her lover lay huddled in a ball on her left side.

"You go ahead . . . I'll see ya later."

Abby nodded, and gave her friend a quick hug before closing the door. There was only one small light overhead, bathing Zeen in its soft yellow warmth. Bubba sat hunched in the chair, snoring away, and Abby smiled gently. She'd heard from the other nurse on duty, that although Mr. Kretchyk was officially off duty, he'd decided to stay close by and help get Zeen over the rough spots.

Climbing up carefully onto the end of the bed, Abby settled herself so that her head rested just by her lover's tailbone, and began the arduous task of settling her nerves.

It had been a long night, and there was just so much information to process, both from Pete and the doctor, who had finally decided to meet with Abby. The blonde figured Bubba had had a lot to do with that. Watching the man squirm like some worm on a hook hadn't been nearly as satisfying as she'd thought it would be. Yes, he was a little pissant jerk who was a legend in his own mind, but she supposed he must have been good to get on as intern in the burn unit of a large hospital like Memorial, so she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So, Zeen had been in prison, not County like she'd told her. Abby wondered why Zeen would have lied about that. She supposed it didn't really matter but still . . .

Her lover, her soul mate, had lied not only about the place she'd been sent to, but the duration of her stay, and the number of lives she'd taken. Abby swallowed as the tears began to flow.

'Why? Why would you lie to me, Zeen? Couldn't you trust me? I thought we had the type of bond where we could tell each other anything.' A small weed of doubt had been planted, and Abby wondered just what else Zeen had lied about. Did she really love her, or was it just pity? Maybe all she'd ever be to Zeen was a homeless person she gave shelter to in a moment of weakness.

She sniffed, and stifled a small sob as the self-confidence began to seep out onto the sheets below her cheek.

Zeen woke to a presence just behind her and knew instinctively that it was Abby. She lay there, feeling the bond they shared, and thanked whoever it was that had allowed her to survive the fire.

'The fire . . . ' Fear gripped the firefighter as the list of her injuries sprang to mind. Bubba said Abby had been asleep in the nurse's lounge. Perhaps she hadn't seen . . . the damage.

Zeen felt a slight movement behind her and self consciously brought her arms up to shield her face. Every other breath was punctuated with sharp pains that seemed to sap every bit of her waning strength.

"Don't . . . don't move, Abby . . . please. Just stay there."

Abby winced as her lover's gravelly voice grated against her nerves, and wiped her nose with a trembling hand.

"What's wrong, Zeen? Are you in pain?" Zeen seemed so weak, and so very pale.

Abby watched as a slight tremor ran through her lover's body and then a gurgling began in the back of Zeen's throat.

Ignoring the brunette's request, Abby moved up off the bed, and over to where Bubba was still sleeping, giving the man a gentle nudge, and waking him instantly.

"Wha . . . ?" Was all the nurse had time to get out before bounding to his feet half awake, his heart firmly entrenched in his throat.

He could see Zeen lying in the shadows with her arms all but covering her face and took a few minutes to collect himself. Reading Zeen's body language, he immediately knew what was going on. Being blind had magnified any injures she'd been told of and her wild imagination had done the rest.

"It's okay, Zeen. It's just us." He moved closer to the bed and heard the telltale sign of an on-coming coughing bout.

'Oh shit, not now.' Should he just let Abby handle it, see it first hand, or should he just step in and spare everyone the embarrassment of Abby feeling unable to cope?

In between indecision and action lay the strength of Abby Dean. She took one look at her lover, and then gave the nurse a pleading look. Bubba pointed to the sink and was relieved when Abby put two and two together, quickly retrieving the basin and cloth.

'Good girl. Jeez, she's a natural.'

Abby quickly placed the chrome beneath Zeen's chin and put a hand out to pull the woman's damp hair out of her eyes.

"Don't . . . ." Zeen's body was racked with spasms as she fought the urge to vomit. 'Not with Abby there . . . no . . . '

Bubba watched as silent tears coursed down the blonde's face. He knew just exactly how she felt . . . frustrated because she couldn't do anything to ease Zeen's pain, and vulnerable because she was only human, and not some god who could make everything just . . . go away.

His jaw relaxed as Zeen began to cough and then Abby was taking the basin away, leaving him to mop his patient's face. He looked down as a bandaged hand closed around his wrist.

"She can't stay . . . make her go . . . "

"What are you saying? You can't possibly mean that, not after what Abby's gone through just to be with you. Don't be so damned insensitive and selfish, Zeen Phipolis. She's been here from the beginning, and already seen you at your worst, trust me."

A few tears were blinked back as the brunette fought with her weakened state. She glared defiantly at the nurse.

"You have to understand," he said in a weary voice, "that you've just survived something most people wouldn't have. You've got a price to pay for that, Zeen. In your case, I think you got off lightly. Sure, you have some injuries but . . . "

"Not like this . . ." Zeen ground the words out through clenched teeth as she willed Abby away . . . just to leave . . . until she was better, and not some fucking freak show.

"Go . . . away . . ."

Her head felt as if it were on fire and Zeen felt herself falling, falling . . .

Bubba watched in horror as his patient's eyes rolled up in her skull. He checked her vital signs, and then swore as he ran for the door.

"Code Blue, Code Blue, goddamn it!"

Abby stood there, totally dumbfounded, as her lover's words sunk in. 'Make her go.' What?

And then Kretchyk was propelling her out of the room, away from Zeen, and away from the scene that would plague her for days.

Two orderlies and a nurse rushed into the room, and then another came in with a trolley. Abby listened as they shouted back and forth.

"Take her to 200 joules! Clear!"

Bubba gave the blonde a worried look, as the hum of electricity filled the air.

"C'mon, let's get you some coffee. This ain't no place to be right now, Abby."

Abby barely registered a thing Kretchyk was saying. She felt her knees weaken as the voltage was adjusted again, and the defibrillator shot massive amounts of electricity through Zeen's body. Then she found herself being rushed down the hall, and back into the somewhat sterilized environment of the nurse's lounge.

Chapter Eight

Nurse Taylor looked up from the computer as they entered, and could see by Abby's ashen colour that something was not right.

A volume of information was silently exchanged between she and Bubba as the blonde was hurriedly placed in her care and then the charge nurse was gone. Taylor's heart jumped as the alarm sounded again and she held the petite woman against her in a tight embrace.

"She said . . . "

"Oh, honey. Please don't take whatever your friend said to heart. She doesn't mean it. Really."

Abby sniffed, and made a quick nod.

Taylor rubbed the small of the woman's back, and then eased Abby into a chair.

"Your friend is a very strong woman, Abby. She's got a lot of pride I think, and it has to be hard for her to be seen like this. Do you understand?"

"She's been through fires before, and she's always been . . . okay. This time . . . "

"You've seen her like this before then? Has she been this extensively burned and traumatized before?"

Abby shook her head. "I don't know about the injuries part but she has some scars, some . . . " She motioned with her hands up the inside of her arms and a few spots on her wrists, upper thighs and forearms. "Here and there but nothing really . . . "

"Well, how did she react last time?"

Abby shook her head. "I don't know. It was before we . . . "

Taylor nodded her head knowingly.

"I see. Well, I think your friend is afraid of how you'll react. My guess is she thinks you'll bolt because she's not this big old strong fireman-type. I know this type, they feel they have to hunt down and kill anyone that might actually see the truth of who and what they really are, human beings, just like the rest of us."

She patted the blonde's shoulder.

"Don't you worry, she'll come around. But you are gonna have to be really strong, and not take any guff from her. If she senses any hesitation on your part, well, it'll be all over. She needs to know you'll stand by her . . . "

" . . . For better or for worse." Abby completed the woman's sentence and then nodded, gratefully accepting a Kleenex.

"She's my girlfriend, Nurse Taylor. We've been together for almost seven months."

The nurse walked to the counter, and poured two steaming cups of coffee. It was going to be a bitter brew, but short of vodka, would do the trick as a pick me up.

"I figured that was the case, you two being together and all. That kind of love is hard to hide."

"Hard to find, too. It seems like I've been waiting all my life for Zeen. And now that I've found her . . . I almost lost her to that damned fire. I don't think I can handle this kind of thing, I really don't. What if it happens again?"

Taylor took a seat next to the woman, and moved close enough to have their elbows touch.

"Well, chances are, it will. I mean, this is her chosen profession, right? She's been a firem . . . firefighter, I mean, for a couple of years so she's well acquainted with the dangers associated with it. You'd better realize that if you're gonna stick around. Unless you think you can change her."

Abby shook her head quickly. "No, I don't want to change her. I love her for who she is right now. What she does for a living is very much who the person she is. I could never expect her to just . . . give that up. Not for anything. Not for me."

The nurse smiled and then took another sip of her coffee.

"Bleck. This stuff is horrible. You want some sugar with that? I think ten or eleven spoonfuls oughta do the trick."

Abby uttered a short laugh and then placed her hand over that of the nurse's.

"Thank you. You're very kind."

Taylor shook her head.

"Naw, just doing my job. Just like everybody else. Just like you're gonna do, too. Oh, don't you worry, Zeen's in good hands. Bubba is the best Psych nurse we have around here and a real stand up guy, too. He'll be working closely with Zeen for the next little while and then she'll be moved out into the burn ward where a Doctor Matheson will attend her. He's a pretty stand up guy, too."

She looked closely at the blonde and decided not to pull any punches.

"Look, I've seen the patient's chart, and while it's not as bad as I've seen, it's pretty serious. Zeen's gonna be a basket case for the first little while. She's going to have some pretty fierce mood swings, and her body is going to betray her on more than one occasion. Are you ready for that? You're going to have to forget the role you played in her life before, and move into position as a teacher, a wet nurse, and a confidant. It's gonna be hard, make no mistake about that."

Abby nodded, and wiped the tears from her face. While she'd felt out of control and useless before, there was a fire burning in her belly now. Zeen needed her, and she was not going to let her down.


The next few weeks passed in a blur as each woman was pushed to the limit of her endurance. The attending psychologist had begun sessions that left Zeen feeling as if she were in free fall. The rehash of her miserable marriage had been difficult, resulting in at least half a dozen meetings before the brunette would even begin the sordid tale. When the floodgates had been opened, however, Zeen went from angry and defiant, to morose and silent. Between the rigors of physiotherapy and daily sessions with Dr. Matheson, Abby was left wondering whether she were coming or going.

By the fourth week, Zeen's sight had gradually improved and returned to normal, apparently none the worse for wear. While both Abby and Bubba had expected this to better the brunette's frame of mind, it seemed to have the opposite effect. The nightmares she'd been having continued unabated, and Zeen became sullen and withdrawn.

Bubba Kretchyk groaned aloud as he all but threw himself into the chair behind his desk. It had been a long afternoon of rounds, emergencies and Zeen. Try as he might, he was getting nowhere with the firefighter, and had decided the time had come to ease off a little. Although the woman was now ambulatory, her body mass was way down. He figured Zeen's weight was off by about 20 pounds. Judging by how the jeans and t-shirt were fitting, he figured most of it was muscle. He sighed, remembering just how buff the woman had looked when she'd first been brought in. He could tell she worked out some. 'That must be killing her, too.'

Bubba made a few notes on Zeen's file and decided to ask the doctor in charge if they could muster up some dietary supplements. After all, if Zeen felt better about herself, maybe she'd be more inclined to co-operate.

The subject of plastic surgery entered his mind again, and he tapped the pen against his teeth. There had to be some way to convince her to have the work done. Oh, Zeen didn't have a vain bone in her body but he also knew her self-image had suffered a terrible blow. She was just being so damned stubborn.

He began to place the papers back into the file as voices could be heard just down the hall.

Nurse Taylor entered the office trailing Abby Dean behind her. Their faces both wore the grim evidence of yet another encounter with Zeen Phipolis.

'Oh, shit, Zeen. Now what?', he thought wearily.

"Wow, I didn't know someone could yell that loud with broken ribs."

Abby rolled her eyes as the nurse went on about the latest tirade.

"Man, she was all over you like a cheap suit."

Abby pursed her lips together and tried not to think about the encounter. However, the wounds were still fresh and it all played out again as she walked over to the bookshelves.

The scene changed slowly. At first, she was just fingering the spine of one some medical volume or other, and Taylor was going on about Zeen's refusal to co-operate. Then Abby could hear her lover's voice, vacillating between stubborn anger and childish petulance.

"You had no right. You knew the bike wasn't road worthy. Hell, how many fucking nights did I spend down there in that fucking parkade?"

Abby had tried to reason with her, make Zeen understand that when the truck hadn't started, and the feeling of danger had welled up inside her, she had to take the bike.

"There was nothing wrong with the truck. I'd just given the fucking thing a goddamned tune-up, for Christ's sake," she said, her voice scratching like barbed wire down a long, lonely road. Abby could see the veins and tendons standing out in the woman's neck as Zeen fought to keep herself under control.

Everything had happened so quickly in response to Taylor's comment about a ride on her Honda 550. Zeen's head had lifted with interest and the two had begun a lively conversation about motor bikes in general and Harley's in particular. It was only when Abby had mentioned that she'd had to use the bike to get to the warehouse fire that the proverbial shit had hit the fan. Abby could almost feel the dip in temperature as Zeen's demeanor changed. So could the nurse, who proceeded to go for meds.

"What made you think you could just jump on my bike and go for a joy ride? Who gave you the fucking right?"

"But Zeen . . . the truck wouldn't . . . "

Zeen had clutched her arms tightly around her middle and Abby could see the pain clearly written on the woman's face. How could she stop this from blowing up? What could she do to calm her down?

Part of her was afraid of this new Zeen. She'd never seen the woman flip flop so quickly, going from mood swing to mood swing. And although Bubba and the psychologist had tried to prepare her for just this kind of manic behaviour, Abby was not handling it well. It was almost as if she were walking on a tight rope, a dizzy height above the ground, with no hope of a safety net below.

"Honey? I was just worried . . . I'd had this horrible feeling when I was listening to the police scanner, and . . . "

"You jumped to conclusions and then jumped on my Harley." Zeen's face had twisted with rage and any pretense she'd had of keeping a grip on her temper vanished.

"Goddamnit, Abby! You might have fucking wrecked my bike! You could have blown the motor! The fucking pet cock was jamming and the whole engine coulda ceased up! If you don't know anything about a motor cycle, then you have no business being on one!"

"I'm sorry . . . I'm . . . "

Taylor had walked in carrying Zeen's medication and the brunette had hit the roof.

"I'm not taking that so why don't you just take a walk? I don't need that shit."

Taylor had glanced at her watch and announced that, whether or not Zeen wanted it was beside the point, it was time for her meds. If Zeen had any plans on leaving the hospital any time soon via any other mode of transportation other than a stretcher, she'd better wise-up and take her medication as it was prescribed.

"Look, it's been four hours since you had your last dose, so it's time." Taylor had frowned at the look the brunette was giving her and then her mouth hung open.

"You didn't take them, did you? God, that means you've been . . . your pain must be horrendous, Zeen. It's really bad for your system to endure high levels of pain without relief."

"I can take whatever it can dish out."

Taylor had been on the verge of arguing with the firefighter when she noticed Abby in tears.

"Oh, what have you been saying to Abby? Why is she crying like that?"

"It's none of your goddamned business what I say to Abby, is it? She's my girlfriend and . . . "

"Oh, nice way to treat your girlfriends. Big old butch like you? You get your jollies out of pushing Abby around, treating her like garbage?"

"I never touched her . . . "

"No, you'd rather destroy her with your cutting remarks and charming manner. What is it with you? She's been here through thick and thin, right from the beginning. She's the one that stood by you, even after you took a chunk out of Winchell. If it weren't for Abby, hell, Bubba would have strapped you down in a good old-fashioned straights jacket and waited out your reaction to the meds."

"Oh stop it . . . " Zeen had pulled away as Abby stretched out her hand.

"And who do you think sat in a cold, hard chair all night long, every night for a bloody week in the ICU after you'd had a mild infarction? She could have gone home anytime and no one would have held it against her. She's put up with your ranting and raving . . . "

"Are you finished, 'cos this story is getting old. Every fucking time little Abby gets a cross word said to her, you all jump on me and make me feel like shit. Did I ask her to tend me? Did I ask any of you for your goddamned help? No, I didn't. I don't need anybody's help, see? I'm just fine . . . I can handle things myself."

Zeen had tried not to cough but both women could see just how this stressful situation was affecting her.

"Can't you stupid people get it through your thick heads . . . oh, forget it!"

Taylor had pushed her hand forward, the meds in plain sight and Zeen had shoved the woman back, scattering the pills in every direction.

"I'm not gonna take em," she rasped between coughs. Abby had felt her heart all but freeze solid as cobalt blue eyes pinned her where she stood, making her feel worthless. It was almost like that wild child back in the ICU Burn Unit was back, in full force. The only difference this time was that Zeen was not only fully conscious but could see exactly whom she was glaring at.

'Gods, I can't take this any more.' Abby had stumbled back in shock and the only thing that had saved her from just running away was the pained look that immediately replaced the dead one in Zeen's eyes.

"Abby . . . "

"Look, just take your meds the easy way or I'll have to get help and we can do it the hard way."

"Get the fuck away from me! I don't need any goddamned meds, any goddamned nurses, any goddamned keepers!" She glared at the nurse and then let her gaze settle on Abby.

"I'm only trying to help, Zeen . . . "

"I don't need help, can't you get that? What I need is silence . . . to be left alone." She had punctuated the sentence by pushing over a chair.

"What I need is someone not taking my stuff, wrecking something she shouldn't have been touching in the first place!" She kicked another chair and watched with satisfaction as it collapsed against the wall.

"That's it, Zeen. This ends right now!" The nurse had pressed her beeper and then began dragging Abby away. It was clear that Zeen was past listening to reason. Taylor had no idea just what had set the woman off and could see by Abby's shocked face that she didn't either. Taking the woman's motor bike without asking was a minor infraction in anyone's book. Zeen was blowing things all out of proportion.

The two orderlies were summoned as soon as Zeen had started to throw the furniture around. Even in Zeen's wounded state, Taylor could see just where this encounter was leading. Abby was gently, but firmly, pushed from the room as the nurse and the two men began to corral Zeen into a corner.

Abby remembered hearing the coughing fit begin, then arguing, and finally, the embarrassed silence as Zeen's body betrayed her again. Hot tears had run down her cheeks as she fought the urge to go and calm her friend down. She knew Zeen needed her, despite that cold hateful look. Why was she being so . . . ?

"Okay, so what happened this time?" Bubba took the corner of one sleeve and proceeded to clean his glasses before pushing them back onto his face. He watched the two women exchange glances and then propped his chin up with both hands and waited. It was always along the same lines, with very little variation. Zeen didn't want to co-operate any more. The physio caused her lungs to spasm, which in turn caused intense bouts of coughing, further aggravating the broken ribs. Matheson's reports indicated the man felt he'd gone as far as he could with Zeen. While his findings didn't indicate any serious psychological problems, he had noted the 'subject' had a volatile temper and bouts of minor depression. He was recommending a leave of absence and although Bubba had to agree with the findings, it was going to be hard to explain to Zeen the need for such a drastic step. And just how long could the woman stay away from her life as a firefighter? More importantly, could she and Abby survive the ordeal intact?

"Did she have the new cast put on?"

Taylor nodded and gave Bubba a look. "Yeah, we did that early this morning but I think she's going to need another one by end of this week."

The nurse gave Abby a sidelong glance and then walked over to the desk.

"Look, I think maybe it's time Abby takes a break for a few days. It'll do her good to get away."

Bubba rubbed his eyes, stretched and then lumbered to his feet.

"Yeah," he yawned. "That's a fine idea, Taylor. 'K, Abby. You go back to your apartment and just veg for a couple of days, put your feet up, relax, and get some much needed sleep."

Abby opened her mouth to protest but Taylor patted her arm, and she sighed, listening to what the nurse had to say. The nurse had become somewhat more than an acquaintance, a confidant really, and Abby was finding herself paying more attention to the advice given by the woman.

"Look, Abby. It's been a month with you being at Zeen's beck and call. She's snapping at you because she can. If you aren't here to kick around, well, maybe Zeen will realize just how important you are and stop taking you for granted."

"What'dya mean, 'kick around'? Just what went on, Taylor?"

The nurse sighed and then walked over to the window. It was a few minutes before she turned to face them.

"Well, I made the mistake of asking Abby is she wanted to go for a ride on my cycle this afternoon."

Bubba frowned and looked at Abby. "Say, didn't you mention that Zeen had one, too? I woulda thought . . . "

"It's all my fault," groaned Abby, hiding her face.

"See, I took her motor bike getting to the warehouse fire . . . She didn't know I'd taken it."

Bubba's brow creased. "You borrowed her bike? Well, it's not like you trashed it . . . you didn't, did you?" Images of someone borrowing his '76 Camaro without permission had his back up, but if they'd crashed it, too . . . Well, it was just too horrible to think about.

"No, I didn't 'trash it'. Sheesh. I know how important that bike is to her. And it's not my fault that the pet thingy got wrecked . . . "

Bubba's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Wha?" His mouth immediately dried up. She had wrecked Zeen's bike.

"Well, the gas tank had some stuff in it. I think it was stopping up that other thingy. You know, the pet . . . "


"'Scuse me?"

"You ran her bike to the point that it jammed the petcock? Who boy, I sure wouldn't wanna be in your shoes."

"Oh, for crying out loud." Taylor gave the big man a whack on his arm. "It's not like she's a stranger, after all. And it was an emergency." The last line didn't sound particularly convincing, and Abby could see hesitation in the woman's eye. She sighed again. Yes, she had blown it. If these two were upset . . .

Bubba snorted. "Oh, and like you'd just let me take your bike for a spin without asking . . . Yeah, right."

"Well, she shoulda got over it by now. I mean, it's been awhile, right?" Taylor's smile faded as Abby avoided her eyes and the scene back in physio all began to make sense.

"You never told her until today?" she asked incredulously.

Abby swallowed and began to realize exactly why Zeen had gotten upset. Yes, she had to take the bike because the truck wouldn't start, but still she should have told Zeen right away, and not four weeks after the fact. But it's not as if there weren't extenuating circumstances. She was in ICU . . . twice, and . . .

"Oh, brother. Well, now you have to go away for a few days, just to let her cool off. Maybe go and spend some time polishing the chrome or something. She lets you do that, right?"

Abby gave him a hurt look.

"You can't touch her bike? Ever?" Taylor was beginning to wonder just what kind of relationship these two women had.

Abby avoided the pointed gaze both nurses were giving her and picked at a loose thread on her sleeve.

"Well, no, actually. She lets me watch her work on it, and we've been out on it a few times but she's pretty much made it clear that it's her baby, and off limits to me. And really, I'm not that into it, you know?"

"And I thought Zeen Phipolis was a control freak before! Well, this takes the cake. So fine, just leave the damned bike alone and get some sleep."

Abby cleared her throat nervously.

"Well, actually . . . the bike isn't back yet. See, I stopped to get gas at this station and the guy there was really nice and offered to fix it, so . . . "

She stopped talking as she noticed two sets of wide eyes looking her way.


"First off," said Bubba swallowing deeply. "Please tell me it wasn't a Harley Indian Scout?"

"It was a Harley. I don't know what type, though, why?"

Both nurses cringed as they thought of some stranger working on an antique like an Indian V twin. Taylor cleared her throat.

"Whoa, no wonder Zeen went off on you like that. Man, do you know how hard those things are to work on? I mean, you really get attached to something you pour your heart into, ya know? Was it in good shape . . . before . . . ?" Abby looked from Taylor to Bubba.

"I fucked up, right?" Neither one of the nurses had to say anything, their awkward glances said it all.

"I have to go see Zeen . . . make this right. I didn't know. She was right, I had no business just taking her motorcycle."

Taylor grabbed the woman's elbow as Abby tried to leave.

"Now look, missy. Zeen's gonna be out for awhile with the sedative I gave her. Why don't you just relax for a bit and then in two or three hours, we can see about talking to her. Okay?"

Abby had only nodded and then quietly left the room.

"Besides, all it takes with one of them troublesome pet-cocks is a new gas tank. I'll bet the liner was eroding."

Bubba snorted and gave the nurse an appraising look. "Say, you're cute and smart, huh?"

"Yep, the full meal deal, pal. Say, wanna take a look at my kids' pictures again? Or how about that story when my son decided to help clean the car and used the BBQ brush?" Bubba held his hands up in surrender.

"Okay, okay . . . I know . . . you aren't in the market for a new husband. Fine. I was just askin . . . "

"Couldn't hardly wait to get rid of the old one. C'mon, sit."

Taylor smiled and pushed the chair out for the man. Bubba sat down heavily and the two of them began making a report Doctor Matheson was certain to want to look at.

Chapter Nine

Abby Dean walked carefully through the cafeteria and over to the pay phones. A search through her pockets had come up with nothing. She couldn't even remember the man's name but had a fairly good idea just where the gas station had been. Running her finger up and down the yellow pages, Abby sighed in relief and then proceeded to dial the number.

It had been a brief conversation but when Abby had finally hung up the receiver, she was feeling a lot better than she had in days. Not only had the mechanic remembered her, but had said he'd been leaving messages on her answering machine for a good week.

Yes, the bike had been fixed. It had been a relatively easy procedure to just replace the gas tank. Everything had run smoothly, in fact, with the delivery of the new tank arriving only a week after it had been ordered. The man had been amazed while retelling that part of the story. Harley parts for old Shovelheads were really hard to find. As luck would have it, the contact had been able to locate one the same afternoon.

Abby had listened carefully, trying to memorize each bit of information so that she could relay it all to Zeen. She wanted all the facts and figures when she went in to apologize.

Bubba noted the patient's vitals and then motioned for Abby to come in.

"She's gonna be groggy for a bit. You know the routine. You might want to . . . "

"Yeah, I know." Abby retrieved the basin and cloth from the nearby sink and took her place in the chair by the bed.

"You sure you don't want me to stick around?"

"For what?" came a gravelly voice as Zeen fought to keep both eyes from remaining shut.

Abby shook her head quickly and waited until the nurse had left.

"Hi, honey." She hesitated, and then went on.

"Zeen, I'm really sorry about taking your bike."

She watched as the firefighter dragged a weary hand over her face. "And a howdy do to you, too." Zeen repositioned herself a bit higher on the pillow, and then gave the blonde a weak smile.

"I shouldn't have torn your head off, Abby. I guess . . . the pain was getting away from me. I don't like to take all the meds, babe. They really fuck with my mind. I don't like the way . . . "

"They make you feel like you have no control, huh? I contributed to that and I'm sorry if I made you feel . . . "

"Stop it."

Abby's eyebrows shot up quizzically. What had she done now?

Zeen settled herself over onto her left side and just looked at Abby.

"You do it all the time now. I hate it."

When she didn't get a response other than stunned silence, the firefighter went on.

"Between you and that asshole Masterson, I feel like I have 'fragile' written on my forehead. I hate it. I'm not some baby, or some mental case either. I can take care of myself, Abby. I have been for years. Way before you entered onto the scene."

"But I'm only trying to help you. I love you."

Abby blinked as her lover snorted. "Yeah, I know you love me, Ab. There's never been any doubt in my mind. It's just . . . well, I don't need you to love me to death, ya know? I can do things by myself. And even though you don't believe me, I will ask for help when I need it."

Abby nodded, but inwardly cringed at Zeen's condescending tone, and then reached for a Kleenex. "I guess I'm trying too hard. But I see you in pain and, well, I want to take it all away."

Phipolis sighed, and tried to push off the lingering effects of the drugs. They must have given her Amytal, judging by the way the room was spinning. Thanks gods she was off the Demerol. She just hated that shit. If she were in better shape, one of Taylor's goons would have been out like a fucking light for five or six hours, and not her.

Zeen winced as the fingers of her right hand moved over her hip. Taylor had been just a bit too aggressive with the hypo. She could remember feeling this terrible rage, feeling like some observer as she watched the whole scene play out. Well, it would pass, along with the pain. Part of her was taking a perverse pleasure in baiting the other nurses, Taylor included.

She cleared her throat and grimaced. 'Gods, not another attack!'

"Can you hand me that basin on your way out? Thanks."

"But I wanted to apologize for taking your motorcycle. I know you were right. I didn't realize just how important that thing is to you . . . "

"Thing?" she croaked. "That 'thing' is a '74 Custom Shovelhead, low rider. It's a piece of precision machinery, Abby, not just some toy to go toodling around in. Did you at least remember to put the tarp on it? Pete help you get it home?"

Abby bit her lip, knowing full well the wrath awaiting her.

"Um, actually, it's not due to come back from the shop until next week."

Dangerous silence filled the room as Zeen's jaw all but hit the floor.

"What?" she sputtered.

"There was a problem . . . "

"What the fuck did you do to my bike! Where is it? What fucking shop? Goddamn it, Abby! What the hell did you think you were doing? I work on my bike. Me. No one else, just me!"

And then the coughing started.

"How could you? I've worked so hard . . . I've built that engine from the spark plugs up. I've put my whole heart and soul into that . . . and it's all destroyed . . . "

"No, Zeen . . . no, wait."

But it was no use. The coughing fit began in earnest as Zeen tried desperately to position the basin under her chin, and keep Abby at arm's length, all while trying very hard not to fall out of bed.

Abby knew she wasn't wanted at that particular moment but she was damned if she was just going to leave Zeen all curled up in pain. And she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that there was no way her lover was going to ask for help. So, being the stubborn woman she was, she just pushed Zeen down, rolled her over to the side and held the basin until the spasms settled and then died down completely.

She flinched as the blue eyes of her lover looked up accusingly. Abby sighed and then set about cleaning Zeen up and disposing of the basin.

"It's probably the meds that are making you sick right now. You've had some coughing but that's due to you lying on your back when you were asleep. If you can stay rolled over on your left side . . . "

Zeen's nostrils flared as she fought to keep her mouth shut.

"If you'd work with the nurses, then we'd be able to go home, go back to our lives and get on with things."

'Our lives. What fucking lives? Everything's changed now.'

"And just what do you expect me to do? The goddamned physio is killing me, my body's already so damned wasted I can hardly recognize myself in the mirror any more. I just wanna be left alone, left to heal."

Abby had just about had enough. 'Leave me alone. I don't need anyone.' Well, she might not but did she ever stop to think that maybe Abby did? Zeen was the one who'd gone through the physical hoops of flame, but she was the one who'd struggled with the mental ones. Why couldn't Zeen see that?

Without a second glance, the blonde just nodded, turned on her heel, and left the room. The nurses were right: she needed to go home. They both needed time apart.

She'd tossed and turned most of the night, their large bed a very lonely thing indeed. Abby held her lover's pillow close to her all night, thinking that perhaps the scent might be enough to allay some of her fears, and keep her mounting depression at bay. She couldn't afford to wallow in self-pity. Not only was it counter productive but a few of their friends were coming to see Zeen in the morning, and she had to keep her focus.

The clock ticked morosely as Abby watched the dawn come up through the blinds. She sipped at her coffee, not really tasting it, but needing its warmth nonetheless. The short wave radio sat on the kitchen table, and Abby remembered hearing bits and pieces of Pete's conversation at the warehouse fire. She was still not sure how she knew Zeen was in danger. 'Just a feeling, I suppose.'

Pete and Ted had come by shortly afterwards to give her a lift to the hospital, with the promise that the Lieutenant would see to Zeen's truck. Abby hadn't wanted to worsen things by even getting into the vehicle, preferring to either walk or get a taxi.

She waited in the nurse's lounge, not trusting herself to be subjected to the cold set to her lover's eyes, and let the two men follow Bubba down the hall. However, both men had returned, downcast, when Zeen had refused to see them. The brunette had told the nurses she was too tired, but Abby could tell Zeen's current physical appearance was eating at the woman.

Both Matheson and Kretchyk, unbeknownst to Zeen, had made arrangements to have a transplant team look at her case. The leaps and bounds in skin grafts technologies had Abby very excited. Now, the only hurtle left was getting the recalcitrant firefighter to accept the help offered.

Two days had passed very slowly for the blonde, and she found herself filled with frustration. If Zeen could just get past things, then they could move forward, and get back to their life.

Their life. Bubba had suggested she take some night classes on psychology, and behavioral sciences, stating the woman was a natural in her dealings with people struggling with painful issues. While Abby had snorted and rolled her eyes, there was a tingle in her belly, too. Perhaps the reason she couldn't get a fix on how to help Zeen was because she was too close? Thinking objectively in this case was impossible, and she resigned herself to just let things find their own rhythm and path. Things were bound to sort themselves out soon.


Abby checked the rearview mirror and then changed lanes, taking the exit into the city. It was late afternoon, Zeen was in pain, and it had been a long day. Having gotten lost a few times trying to find the hotel suggested the last time they'd gassed up, any place at that point looked good. She sighed with relief as the bold neon sign, Travel Lodge, appeared on the right hand side of the road.

"Why are we staying at this place, Ab? It's a dive. Let's just drive some more." Abby glanced sideways, taking in the painful movements of her lover and catching just a small groan as it pushed its way through clenched teeth.

Zeen swallowed slowly and then found herself caught by worried eyes. "Let's keep driving. It can't be too much farther til we get home. Unless the drive is too much for you." Abby saw the hard set to the woman's mouth and closed her eyes wearily. They'd been over the same area at least twice. It was time to stop before they both said things they didn't mean.

"Zeen, you know you're tired. You need your meds . . . "

"Fuck my meds. Look, if you can't take the simple job of driving, just say the word and I'll . . . "

Abby's face clouded over and she clenched her teeth. 'You'll what, sweetheart? Drive with one hand, your body all bent over the steering wheel, rasping each breath because of the pain?'

"No. We're staying here for the night."

She removed the keys and slid out of the cab, groaning as her feet hit the ground. It had been a long four-hour drive with only two stops for food and gas along the way. She hated to admit it but she was getting more than a little frustrated. Fighting the traffic all afternoon had been one thing but listening to Zeen complain most the way had been worse. The doctors had told her to expect some moodiness and even days when all Zeen did was sleep. The combination of medication and what the psychologist termed as Post-Traumatic Syndrome was taking its toll on the normally stoic firefighter. The physicians had been quite amazed that the woman hadn't had a breakdown after coming out of her comatose state. Although Zeen had only been a firefighter for roughly four years, the death of her son combined with the escalating exposure to life threatening situations had made her a prime candidate for some sort of event. The flashbacks had been precursors, sign posts that Zeen had done her best to down play and/or ignore. Now the damage was done, and feelings of anger, frustration, and self-pity, were all that held the woman together.

Abby feared her lover would continue the spiral she'd begun even before coming around in the ICU ward for the second time. She'd been present when Zeen had thrashed around in her delirium, ranting about flames and death; lost in hopelessness and despair. The other nurses had told her the gist of the other 'spells' during her sojourn with delusia that dominated most of the ten weeks she'd been in the Memorial Hospital.

Despite daily visits with psychologists, Zeen hadn't been able to really talk about any of that time where she'd been locked in her own world of pain and torment. Although Abby knew the information was confidential, she could see from Bubba's face that the doctor was having a hell of a time. And Zeen was certainly not going to share any more information with her. Not until they both got the trust back, anyway.

The blonde stood and arched her back, easing some of the weariness from her body. Abby didn't have to even look in Zeen's direction to know the woman was shooting daggers at her. She grabbed her purse and walked over to check in, leaving the recalcitrant firefighter behind.

Zeen sat seething, her mind filled with anger and spite. Why couldn't Abby see she needed to be home? Couldn't the foolish woman understand that all she wanted was to blow the stink of that damned hospital off her body? Why couldn't she? Was she so wrapped up in being a fucking nursemaid that she couldn't see what her 'charge' so desperately needed?

The more Zeen thought about things the angrier she got. Soon, she was breathing heavily and muttering curses under her breath.

"Godsfuckingdamnitalltohell!" She yelled and then gasped as the pain from her yet unhealed ribs shot through her. Grabbing her side with her left arm, she shut her eyes tightly.

"Goddamnit!" A rattling noise bubbled up from her throat and Zeen found herself wracked with a painful coughing fit. Hot tears of frustration began coursing down her checks as she quickly grabbed a container and disgorged a lump of mucus.

Abby watched from the foyer as Zeen raged her battle and then pressed her hands tightly over her mouth as her lover went stiff with pain. It took every inch of her strength not to go the car; not to wrench the bloody door open, grab Zeen, and shake some sense into her; not to take the woman in her arms and hold her tight enough to somehow get through the barriers. Couldn't Zeen see that the distance she was putting between them was killing her? Couldn't she see that all Abby wanted was to make her well, take care of things, and finally get back to what they had? Why couldn't she? Was she so wrapped up in feelings of self-pity and . . .

Abby felt her knees buckle and she sat down heavily. The hotel manager rushed over and helped her into a nearby chair.

Thoughts of how Zeen had constantly fought with the doctors and nurses, complaining about the lack of medical care, and skill they displayed, filled her mind. With sudden insight, Abby could see that by constantly pushing everyone away Zeen was protecting herself from admitting just how vulnerable she really was. 'No,' Abby corrected herself, 'facing just how vulnerable she really was.' She wasn't mad at everyone around her, she was mad at herself.

The more she tried to help, the worse things seemed to be. As much as Abby needed to go to her, she knew it was precisely the wrong thing to do. As hard as it was going to be for Zeen to ask for help, she was going to have to. That way, she'd be in control of exactly what was offered and what would be accepted.

Abby nodded thankfully as she accepted another Kleenex and mopped her face dry. A plan of action began formulating in her mind as she squared her shoulders and then pushed the door open. Suddenly, the air wasn't so stifling and the sky wasn't so dark. She'd been so wrapped up in the pain issue that she hadn't been able to see the whole picture. Well, that was going to change. Pain be damned, they'd both get through this.

Zeen picked at the cast on her right arm as she saw Abby approaching the vehicle. "Don't come to the front, just go away, don't see me like this, please . . . just . . . don't . . . " she intoned as she hunched forward and tried to hide the mess she'd made.

Abby's steps faltered and she changed direction, going to the back of the car.

"I'll . . . I'll just get a couple of bags, okay Zeen? We're . . . we're in room 107, just over there. I think I'm going to grab us some take-out from across the street. Okay? I . . . "

She swallowed and then slammed the trunk lid and hurried over to their room. ' . . . Won't be too long, please be okay and not have injured your lung further. Please let the room be close enough so you don't fall down, let what I'm doing be right, and don't hate me, please not that . . . ' The tears began falling again and Abby pushed the shaking key into the lock.

Zeen sighed with relief as the blonde exited their room, leaving the door ajar. Her heart raced frantically as Abby glanced in her direction. 'Not now . . . so close . . . just keep walking.' She prayed. And then the petite woman was out of sight.

The brunette got slowly out of the car and then winced as she glanced down at herself. "Bad enough I can't stop coughing my lungs out but puke all over myself, too? Shit." She pulled her t-shirt away from her body with disgust and then absently wiped her hand on her jeans. "A shower, that's what I need." Grabbing the container in the front seat, Zeen tried to stand tall, rising to her full height, but found that just induced another bout of pain and coughing. Clutching the bucket to her, she measured each step and sighed thankfully as she rested her forehead against the door. It swung open and she made her way to the bathroom.

After flushing the toilet, Zeen bent carefully and turned the faucets until the temperature was just right. The mirror began clouding over with steam and that was just fine with the firefighter. She had no desire to see how her body had been ravaged in her latest encounter with The Beast. A shudder ran through her body as she recalled the image of the flames closing in on her and how they reached out, all but beckoned her home within their deadly embrace.

She struggled, as the T-shirt finally came off, but not before rubbing painfully against the red raw flesh of her neck and upper chest area. Zeen breathed slow steady breaths, trying to calm the rage that threatened to overtake her again. When she was able, Zeen took a few agonizing moments to unwrap the special tensor bandage from around her ribs and then groaned as the pressure was released. The room tilted crazily as the firefighter bent over to fix a plastic bag over her cast, causing her to knock a bottle of lotion to the floor. Feelings of frustration welled up hotly as even the easiest of tasks seemed impossible to master.

"Godsdamnittohell!" she shouted as she sent the contents of the counter flying. Clenching her jaw tightly, Zeen began counting slowly until her heart rate had calmed. It seemed as if everything . . . everyone close by, was conspiring against her. Even the button to her jeans was being recalcitrant, and Zeen winced as she began to employ her mending fingers.

Tears of hopelessness threatened to fall but the firefighter blinked them savagely away, determined not to let the situation get to her.

She decided to just pull the pants down and be done with it, worrying about the button later.

"Can't . . . even . . . get my damned pants off . . . for . . . cryin out loud! Gods . . . leave off!" She wrenched the pants one way while her torso went the other, causing her sense of balance to shift. Before she knew it, Zeen was looking up at the stained ceiling of the bathroom, both elbows and backside screaming their reminders that she was not able to care for herself.

It was then that the tears began to fall.

Abby thanked the woman at the counter and then began to carry her purchases back across the street.

She hoped her lover was lying on the bed, fast asleep, but knew that was a remote possibility. For one, Zeen hadn't had her medication and would be in a great deal of pain before too long. For another, she'd seen the state the woman was in and knew a nice hot bath . . . or shower . . .

Her head popped up sharply as she thought of Zeen trying to get undressed without her help.

"Oh, gods . . . shit, shit, shit! I'm such a . . . "

A horn blasted and Abby jumped back, clutching the small boxes of Chinese food to her as her heart hammered painfully in her chest. Carefully peering up and down the street in the fading light, the blonde finally saw a break in the traffic and quickly made her way back to their room.

She stood at the door wondering if she should knock first and then, biting her lower lip, just pushed the key into the lock and walked in.

Abby wasn't too sure what she expected to see but it wasn't the calm woman sitting in the chair before her.

Their bags lay exactly where the blonde had placed them but their jackets had been hung up and both kits lay on the counter in the bathroom. Abby could just see a corner of the T-shirt Zeen had been wearing draped over the shower curtain bar.

"I . . . I see you've been busy, sweetheart. You could have waited for . . . " Blue eyes pierced her heart where she stood.

"I don't need a nursemaid, Abby. I am an adult who's capable of taking care of herself, okay? Despite what the friggin doctors would have you believe."

Abby felt a hot flush creep up her face. "No . . . I know that, Zeen. What . . . what I meant was . . . I could have done this, you didn't need to bother . . . "

"Don't patronize me, woman. I'm not a fucking invalid." Zeen spat through gritted teeth. The shorter woman blinked slowly at the coldness in the woman's voice. She swallowed deeply again and then noticed the tremor in the other woman's hands as they gripped the armrest.

Abby began noticing a few other things as well, things that were minute and easily missed. She could tell that Zeen hadn't had a shower, despite the towel that lay on the floor in the bathroom. And her pants were slightly damp on the side and looked to be unbuttoned at the top.

She suddenly had a clear idea of just what had happened in her absence. She bit her lip again and then took a deep breath.

"Okay, I get it. I know you aren't an invalid, Zeen, and that you aren't a happy camper, either. I also know you're not comfortable with asking for help . . . "

"I don't need anyone's help, Ab. Can't you get that? I didn't need anyone's help before you came into my life and I sure as hell don't need it now. Nothing's changed."

"But . . . " Abby snapped her jaws shut and then placed their food on the table. 'Fine. If that's what you want, fine. We've been through this before, over and over again. You just wanna argue and I'm not going there, so forget it.'

Zeen felt a bead of sweat start to trickle down from her temple and gripped the chair harder. It had taken her every bit of strength she possessed to pick things up in the bathroom and get her clothes back to where they looked semi normal. The pain inside her was like a raging inferno that had been birthed from the very depths of hell. Every second was a torment and she could feel the icy cold grip of fear welling up, her valiant efforts to keep the pain at bay crumbling before its onslaught. She was damned if she'd give in to it! Just a little bit of time alone, to get back the control she felt slipping away, was all she needed. How to get the woman out of the room so she could really clean herself up?

"Getting tired. Gonna have a nap. I'm not hungry and you can eat later." It wasn't a request, and Abby knew, judging by the set of Zeen's jaw, that the woman needed to save face right now; her battle to hide the pain was tenuous at best.

"Yeah, I could go for a walk. I think there's a bookstore just around the corner. How about if I . . . ""

"Whatever. Just . . . go."

Abby pushed away the hurt that sat like a large grinning beast on her chest. She refused to let it gain purchase within her heart, eroding all they had built together.

She went over to her shaving kit and removed a small vial of pills. Extracting three, she set them aside, then grabbed a jacket, and moved to the door. It took all her willpower not to stop and hug her lover. It killed her that Zeen had shut her out once again but in the shape she was currently in, that action might have proved to be a total embarrassment for both of them.

"I've set out your meds, Zeen. I'll be back in about an hour. Okay?"

"'K . . . " was her response. Feeling hurt and bewildered, Abby tried hard to focus on what the psychologist had said. Dr. Masterson had dealt with firefighters before and had cautioned Abby not to confront Zeen because the woman's emotions were all so close to the surface. He'd gone over the firefighter's past in as much detail as Zeen would allow, and each incident, as small and isolated as it may have seemed, was bringing Zeen closer and closer to a meltdown. Zeen, he said, was like a flammable substance, and just needed the right catalyst to achieve flashpoint. Abby didn't want to be that catalyst.

But it was getting so hard to just let things continue, just be some observer, instead of a life partner. How long had it been since they'd even shared a warm embrace? Couldn't Zeen see how much Abby needed to help her, to become part of their lives together, and get past this?

She picked up the motel room key, and carefully walked to the door. Abby opened her mouth to say something, anything, but took a trembling breath instead, and eased the door shut behind her.

' . . . six, seven, eight, nine . . . ten!'

Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, Zeen finally let the moan escape from behind lips that were drawn into a thin line by the almost unbearable pain. Her head felt like someone had used it to play a rousing game of soccer, and then had left it, partially deflated, out in the rain for a few days. Everything felt too close, too tight, in her body; even her skin felt that it was being stretched beyond its normal elasticity, and that at any moment, she'd either fold in upon herself like some black hole, or blow apart in a supernova. Either way, she felt out of control, and very afraid.

Terrible thoughts began seeping into her brain, binding with the fear, and feeding the voracious pain that grew steadily. Gasping with the effort to regain some bit of control, if only over her trembling hands, Zeen began to inch herself forward out of the chair.

Sweating profusely, she tried to ease her weight onto her uninjured side, thereby avoiding the coughing spasm that was bound to occur at any moment. If she could just keep her body at a certain angle . . . She blinked a few times and drew in a shuddering breath. Still no spasm. Her pulse thumped loudly between her ears, and her mouth felt as if it were filled with bitter ashes. Maybe she had just a little more strength left . . . perhaps she could just ease forward now, and catch her breath, before getting to her feet.

Every second crept slowly by, despite her fervent prayers, and it was all Zeen could do to just focus on the bathroom door, and not pass out. Her hair and body were drenched with perspiration, and the impossibly heavy clothes she wore clung to her, making it feel as if she were submerged, and working her way back towards the surface.

'Almost there . . . just a little more . . . ' Zeen could feel the edge of the chair against her tailbone, and wept with relief, knowing that the battle to get back on her feet was almost over. And then one of the mending ribs began to painfully announce its presence, pushing against the still swollen tissues of her diaphragm. Every breath she took pulled at the injured intercostal muscles of her right rib cage, tempting her to give in to the pain, and just give up.

The very idea seemed to revitalize her, and with a sob, Zeen pushed herself up onto shaky legs and there she stood, swaying until the sparkles behind her eyes went away. Tentatively pulling her arm away from her ribs, Zeen could see that her earlier stint in the bathroom had done far more damage than she'd anticipated. If only she hadn't gone off half cocked and tossed the john!

"Goddamned temper. Supposed to get that under control, Phipolis. Control. Don't have it, gotta get it back, can't let this thing get to me. Gods, what I wouldn't give for a double, double grande mocha."

She walked into the bathroom, and barely made it to the sink before throwing up again. It was a good five minutes before she could straighten up, and begin the arduous job of getting her clothes off, for real this time. While the pain of having her ribs unbound had been almost unbearable, she took solace from the fact that at least she didn't have to go through its removal again. No, she was in a hurry – she needed a shower badly, if for no other reason than to wash the stink of the hospital off her body.

After two months of being confined either to the Burn Unit or the Rehab Center, she was more than happy to just kiss the whole field of medicine off. Zeen cringed, thinking back on the sessions she'd had with the unit's psychologist. She was of the opinion that people just needed enough information not to cause the shit to hit the fan.

Finally standing in front of the mirror, the firefighter lifted a shaky hand to the front of her bangs, checking to see how her face looked now that some of the scabs had fallen off, and her eyebrow had grown back in, and cringed.

To her mind's eye, she was a monster. She had ceased to be anything but a freak once her vision had come back, and she could see, up close and personal, just why the conversation seemed to falter, and dry up altogether, whenever she was around. Bubba had been right, and her other senses had taken up the slack, allowing her hearing to improve to the point where it was almost ultra sensitive. Actually seeing people flinch when she walked by had made her physically sick on more than one occasion.

Zeen hadn't wanted to admit it, but it had hurt her pride deeply to think that losing something as superficial as beauty had impacted on her in any way. She had never paid much attention to what genetics had given her in the area of physical beauty. Now that the outward image she had of herself was damaged, Zeen felt divorced from who she was on the inside, and what the rest of the world saw on the outside.

Although Dr. Masterson had suggested that in order to get over the scarring done on the inside, Zeen would have to do something about the scarring on the outside, she couldn't face that yet. The fire hall had generously offered to pick up the tab not covered by insurance but there was no way that she was going to be beholden to anyone. Ever.

A sharp gasp was wrenched from her throat as the spray hit her skin. The temp had to be somewhat tepid, as the burns were still raw in some places. Zeen felt her right biceps strain as she tried to keep her cast from getting wet.

She pressed her face against the tile as another ripping jolt of pain went through, leaving her feeling weak kneed and wondering whether she'd make it back out to the bed before falling on her ass again.

Switching the water off, Zeen quickly grabbed a towel and did her best, one handed on the mat of tangles her hair had become. She sighed, wondering just when the luster had disappeared, leaving the dull thing she now wore.

As she stood there dripping, the firefighter had a good look at just how ravaged her body had become. Oh, scars and burns aside, she was in pretty good shape. A little under weight perhaps, but she could build that back up. What concerned her most was just how long it was going to take to get back into shape and then convince Pete she could come back to work sooner than Matheson was proposing.

If that dumb jerk had his way, why she'd be out on the dole for a good five or six months. That would kill her, she just knew it. Even taking the two weeks off last summer had been a damned chore. What the hell was she going to do with half a year?

"Gods, and what the hell do I do with Abby? She's not gonna want to stick around with me looking this way. Not for long." She pointed a shaky finger at her reflection.

A wave of nausea hit her as the scent of Chinese food wafted in her direction and it took three or four shuddering breaths before she was able to tamp down the feeling.

Carefully weaving her way back towards the bed, Zeen dragged what she considered to be a damned corset behind her, and sat gingerly on the side of the bed. Gasping from the pain as her ribs were cinched back into place, the brunette got the last piece of Velcro adjusted and pulled a sheet over her trembling body. It was a long while before she slept.

Zeen resettled the seal on her mask after pushing out a few strands of hair. She tapped Ted on the shoulder and then tried the door. It wouldn't give. The air woofed out of her lungs as the door threatened to shatter the bones in her shoulder and she muttered under her breath.

"Fucking door must have warped in the heat."

Ted nodded and then motioned the woman to stand back. Taking a moment to line up his sights, the man smiled darkly and then swung his axe, hitting the handle dead on.

"All right! Let's go."

"Lead on, MacDuff," he said bowing.

Zeen could feel the heat from the metal through her gloves and hunched her chin down in preparation. Sure enough, there was a backdraft that pulled on her, almost as if the blaze were inviting her in.

"Okay, Ted . . . you stick close, okay?" Zeen turned around but the man was gone.

"Ted?" She spun around in every direction, trying to catch sight of where her partner had gone. Flames licked up the walls and began rolling across the ceiling.

"Shit! Ted! Goddamnit! Ted!" Black smoke rose up, obscuring the firefighter's vision, and then Zeen watched in horror as one of the wooden beams began toppling in her direction. The butt end started an upward swing and Zeen knew she wouldn't be able to dodge the blow. Moving as far back as she dared, the flames all but licking her coat, Zeen braced herself for the brutality she was expecting.

Then, at the last minute, the pillar seemed to roll in mid air, and then crashed down not four feet from where she was standing. Zeen got to her feet quickly and then, seeing herself surrounded by pockets of flame, hesitated as she thought about her next move.

'Where the hell is Ted?' she wondered. 'The guy couldn't have just disappeared . . . '

And then, through the smoke, the firefighter could see an image. It was dark, and hard to make out, the outline shimmering in the heat waves, but Zeen could see it was a person.


There was no answer, and Zeen moved closer, mindful of the flames, but trying to gauge just how to get to the man unharmed.

Was he hurt? It made no sense, and a million and one things went through the woman's head, as the silhouetted form remained obscured by the smoke. The brunette waited, calculating the seemingly random pattern of the flames. Right before the next flare occurred, she rushed forward, shielding her face with her heavily protective sleeves, and rolled through the fire to safety.

"Ted . . . are ya hurt?" She walked forward, hand outstretched, and then the smoke parted and it wasn't her partner standing there, but her lover, Abby Dean.

"But . . . how . . . ?"

Abby stood there, her face bathed in a soft light that seemed almost iridescent. Almost as if the woman was lit from within.

A crash sounded just off to the right, and Zeen watched in horror as the ceiling began to fall in. It was as if the air surrounding her was being sucked out, leaving her gasping and disoriented.

"Where's Ted? We gotta get outta here, babe. If we don't leave now . . . we might not be able to." A patch of the roof yawned dangerously, and then the area exploded as an influx of air whooshed into the building. A roar of flames rushed towards them as the backdraft created fed on the influx. Zeen found herself tumbling head over heels, her body coming into contact with hard blunt surfaces as she was battered by the raging beast bend on her destruction.

"Abby!" she shouted, images of the unprotected woman causing her imagination to run wild.

Finally coming to a halt, her right shoulder jutting out at a wrong angle, Zeen lay dazed, trying to reorient herself. Pushing herself forward, she found her legs trapped under what remained of a back wall.

"Gotta get up . . . get Abby . . . Ted . . . " She burned with every breath as the heated air scorched her unprotected lungs. A bitter taste threatened to overwhelm the firefighter, and she wondered just when she'd lost her mask. She tried to push the rubble from her lower torso, and watched in horror as the exposed skin on her hands began to blister and peel. Instead of the strong vibrant body that had been her right all of her life, she saw herself reduced to a withered and scarred husk.

"Oh gods . . . " She moaned as her hands moved quickly over her face. Her helmet fell off and Zeen lay there, gasping.

"You're nothing but a stupid, good for nothing bitch, Phipolis. You never were no good. Your behavior caused a lot of lives to be taken in that riot. And you are the reason that Oriental woman was killed. It was your fault."

Zeen shook her head slowly as the form morphed into Johnson, the prison guard. He stood there, hitting the palm of his hand with a baton. She watched in shock as the man lifted his chin to adjust the tie he always wore, exposing a narrow gaping wound that extended from ear to ear. She flinched back as the wound began to seep small rivulets of crimson, and then Johnson laughed, releasing a torrent of gore from his throat.

"No . . . no . . . oh my god, no!" Pinned to the ground, and helpless, Zeen covered her face and then shrank from her own alien touch.

The laughter faded and was replaced by a calming voice that all at once soothed her soul. Peering from behind her thick soot covered sleeves, Zeen moaned as the image of Johnson shimmered and then became Debbie Ma.

Her lip quivered as she remembered the woman's soft touch, how very intricate had the patterns been upon her body. She remembered the day, so long ago, when they had spent the afternoon in each other's embrace, only to be interrupted by Scroggins' orders that she report to him immediately. It was only after she'd gotten back that Zeen discovered it had been a ruse.

Zeen screamed her torment and rage as the image twisted in agony, and then Debbie reached out to her, silently begging for help. She hadn't been there, and hadn't been able to save her lover, the first person that had ever truly loved her unconditionally. Debbie Ma had offered everything and had received nothing in return . . . nothing but total fealty, freely given by someone who had very little to lose.

Hot tears etched through the grime covering Zeen's face as wave upon wave of self-pity and torment rushed through her. A small girl, eyes blank with horror, appeared before her, and the firefighter sobbed uncontrollably as the child embraced the burnt remains of her younger brother. The figure of the small boy morphed and it was Zeen's own son lying there, eyes open and filled with pain.

Every failure in her life became magnified, effectively blotting out any heroic deed she'd ever done, and Zeen felt her heart begin to whither.

Images of her life at the hospital flitted past her eyes in a never-ending parade of spiteful words, shameful actions, and petty fury. All aimed at the one person she had ever loved: Abby.

Zeen felt ripped in two as she viewed each scene. There was Abby, reaching out to her, only to be slapped down with hateful words calculated to hurt and maim. Another showed her standing in the hospital, watching in horror and tears, as two orderlies held her down while she screamed obscenities at everyone around her. When had things gone so terribly wrong?

The form changed again and it was her reflection staring back at her, in all its twisted glory. Her bottom lip trembled as she saw exactly what others did . . . the cold and distant woman she'd become coupled with the true evidence of the monster that lay just beneath the layers of her skin. Now she looked just as horrific as she felt deep inside, and that truth hit her with such a terrible blow that all she wanted was an end to her misery.

"Go away, Abby . . . please. Just . . . go away!'

Abby quietly closed the door behind her and slipped her coat off on the back of a chair. She stretched and then made her way into the bathroom.

"Oh, gods. Zeen, you can't do this. You just can't continue like this, babe. You have to have your meds . . . gods, why does she do this? Now I have to wake her up and . . . "

Abby cringed as she thought of the fight she knew would ensue. It was a never-ending battle. She checked her watch. It had been six hours between doses. Gods.

Pulling a chair close to the bed, the blonde sat down and propped her feet up on the mattress. She watched her lover sleep, and wished there was some way to reach the woman. If only she knew what Zeen needed . . .

"Zeen. I love you. You're the best thing in my life, darling. I'll always love you."

Quickly pulling her coat up over her face, Zeen moaned aloud. No, she couldn't have Abby see her as she truly was! All the hate, the violence she'd inflicted and endured, hung like the webs of some malignant spider around her shoulders, and Zeen tried to curl up into a tight ball. Anything to keep the truth hidden . . .

Zeen groaned as her ribs ground against each other, shooting a bolt of knife-hot pain through her. Abby sat forward, hand inches away from the woman's upper arm. Should she wake her up? Was it just a dream, or was she in pain?

'Of course she's in pain, idiot! Gods . . . you should have made her take those damned pills before you left!'

Abby reached out her hand, beckoning Zeen forward, and although every fibre of her body told her to accept the love being offered, the firefighter shrank from the woman's touch. She was so damned undeserving! Abby deserved more that she could ever offer. All she'd know would be a life filled with tormented nightmares, and periods of intense moodiness. And then finally, cold silence, as she ruined their relationship, too.

Finally unable to endure the painful wheezing any more, Abby placed her hand upon the pallid skin of her lover. Even knowing that verbal abuse was probably her reward, she couldn't shirk her duty, as a lover or as a friend.

Zeen started awake, feeling afraid and disoriented. There, in the semi-darkness, was the form in her dream. Was it Debbie, or Johnson, or her son, or . . .

Abby smiled weakly, her face filled with concern.

"I'm sorry to wake you, Zeen . . . but . . . "

"Oh, gods . . . don't . . . don't look at me. I'm a monster, just a fucking monster. How can you . . . Abby, how can you even bear to look at me?" She covered her face with both hands.

Abby bit her lip, choking back the sob that threatened to burst forth from her throat. Did Zeen have to endure these terrible nightmares for the rest of her life? When would it ever stop?

She wiped the corners of her eyes with the heel of her hand, and blinked furiously as she refused to break down. It certainly wasn't what Zeen needed right then. No, she needed a rock, something to ground her.

"You were just having a nightmare, honey. That's all, just a nightmare." She reached over and picked up the pills, offering them and a glass of water.

"No, no . . . it was my life . . . my whole fucking, sordid, hate filled life. Oh gods, Abby . . . I want to die." Zeen pulled farther away from the blonde, as if trying to escape some horrible punishment.

Abby smoothed Zeen's hair away from eyes that were filled with a haunting sorrow and wanted to rage at the heavens. Why did life have to be so damned hard! Hadn't Zeen been through enough? Did she have to relive every heartbreaking moment of her life over and over again?

And then the red colour obscuring her vision lifted, and Abby could see clearly. These incidents in Zeen's life weren't punishment. They weren't acts of petulance meted out by an angry or vengeful god. They were just lessons to be learned.


The firefighter watched as a single perfect tear fell from her lover's eye and quietly made its way down until finally slipping off the woman's chin.

"I love you. Do you get that? In any way shape or form, I'll take you. Lock stock and barrel, Zeen Phipolis. I didn't fall in love with your blue eyes, or your shock of unruly black hair, or even your fine Grecian heritage. I fell in love with you."

Zeen's eyes filled with tears as she recognized the look of unconditional love. She'd only seen it twice before . . . once in Debbie and again in her son. And she'd failed them both.

Abby offered the water and pills again, and felt absolute relief wash over her as Zeen reached out a hand, and finally accepted her pain.

"It hurts, Ab . . . so bad."

Tears dripped unnoticed onto the bedspread as Abby nodded her head, unable to speak.

A couple of minutes passed and then Abby tried again.

"I know you don't want to, Zeen, but we have to talk about this. We have to get past it, or . . . "

Zeen sipped a bit more of the water and then handed it back. She nodded, then lay back gingerly on the bed, and wrapped a protective arm around her mending ribs.

"It's so hard . . . "

Easing herself down beside the firefighter, Abby carefully lay her head on the woman's right shoulder. Zeen drew her legs up, easing the small of her back, and then moved her other hand slowly to caress her lover's tear stained face.

"I'm sorry I've been such a bitch, Abby."

Abby squeezed her eyes shut and began to cry quietly.

Tears began to seep from between the firefighter's eyes, too, as she thought of just how far apart they'd grown. The life they shared before the accident seemed a lifetime away.

"I'm sorry." She said again, and then opened her eyes as a pair of soft lips brushed against her own.

"I've always loved you, from the first moment I met you. I always will."

Zeen uttered a shuddering sob and willed her lungs to just go to sleep and not spasm.

"But why . . . how can you stand being anywhere near me? If I'm not this miserable bitch, then I'm a big old cry baby."

"Because I always have, silly. You think you're weak, that somehow asking for help makes you less of who you are. Can't you see how strong it is to reach out and admit defeat? I know how hard it is for you to appear vulnerable, I do, but . . . "

Abby stopped talking and just kissed her lover's forehead.

"What has this whole experience taught you?"

Zeen snorted and then moved into a more comfortable position.

"Lessee . . . what did I learn? Well, fire is not something you play with and that you should always do what medigods want you to because they know best . . . "

"Zeen, why do you have to be so sarcastic?" She sighed as Zeen looked the other way.

"Look, I know what you're doing. Push me away and you don't have to deal with things. We did that, remember?"

She sighed again as Zeen's chin stiffened.

"You must think I'm treating you like a child right now. Well, I'm not. I just want you to stop for a moment, and see the bigger picture. What this life lesson has taught you."

"Life lesson, huh? You mean this whole ordeal wasn't just the Fates having fun at my expense? Listen, I'm used to being in hell, honey, it just never ends."

Abby could sense a cold rigidity come over the woman's body and carefully pulled Zeen's chin to face her, forcing her to re-connect.

"But you don't have to live in hell, Zeen. You don't. You've paid your dues, and the sooner you realize that, and accept it, the better off you'll be. We'll be. You can't save everyone, you can't be Superman, or the hero who can always be counted on to do the right thing. You can't, Zeen."

Zeen's jaw clenched and her breath was held just behind tight lips as the words stabbed at her.

'Why can't I? If I just try harder . . . '

Abby watched anger roll across her lover's face and a steel blue tint emerge as Zeen brought her eyes up and their gaze locked.

"I can do anything, Abby. I've done more things that anyone should be able to. I've always been able to jump farther, run faster, climb higher, fight harder . . . always. The strength I discovered in . . . jail . . . made me see that. I have a gift, Abby, and if I just try harder and no one gets in my way, then I can . . . "

"No, you can't, Zeen. How can you possibly? You're human, just like the rest of us."

"But . . . " The firefighter eased herself up higher on the pillow and then began to gesticulate each point with her strong, large hands. Abby found herself almost mesmerized, as if she were watching the birth of some intricate opera.

"Don't you see, Ab? Everything that's ever happened to me, every minute of the . . . the bullshit . . . that I've had to endure, it's all prepared me to be the person I am. Right here, and right now. You can call it karma, or fundamentalism, whatever, it doesn't matter. All I know is I'm the sum of my past. I have a purpose, Abby, I know it."

Abby dragged her eyes away from the play of her lover's hands and sat up.

"We all have a purpose, Zeen. I don't think most of us discover what that is, no matter how long they live, but just struggle along doing the best they can." Abby pulled her legs under her and sat with her hands resting gently on her knees.

Zeen expelled a breath but said nothing.

"What is your purpose, Zeen, and how do you know that it won't change somewhere down the line?"

Zeen's face creased with momentary pain as she eased herself back down onto the pillows. She was beginning to feel quite light-headed. 'Must be those damned pills', she thought.

"So many people, Abby, have tried to make me stray from my course. I was never sure of the path, only the final destination. Some people climb mountains because they're there and because they can. Others tempt Fate by putting themselves in really stupid situations, totally unmindful of the outcome. Kinda like standing on the railroad tracks. You've looked for em all your life, thinking they were the way to go. You stand there feeling invincible, like it's a destiny kinda thing, until you see the oncoming truth barreling down on ya. Only you don't get off, you just stand there, blinded by the light."

A jolt of uneasiness swept through the blonde as Zeen's voice changed, making her seem much older than she really was. Somehow . . . inscrutable. She'd never heard the woman talking like this. Part of her knew it must be the painkillers. It had to be, but still . . . she found herself leaning forward as Zeen's voice dropped an octave.

"Like the light is the answer they've been looking for. They get wrapped up in the intricacies of the light, the truth, and forget what's behind it, the machinery, pushing it forward. Before they know it, well, it's too late."

Zeen's face began to smooth out and her hands dropped slowly to her sides. Abby watched as the woman's eyes began to close and she thought sleep was just moments away.

"But see, the light isn't the answer, it isn't even the damned tracks that mean anything. You gotta . . . you gotta learn all the stuff along the way before finding the tracks. Like some sleuth, ya know? Putting the pieces together. Bit by bit, Ab. So tired, ya know? My side doesn't hurt anymore, so I guess that's good. But this stuff is fuzzing me out, baby. You should go away, Abby. I don't wanna get goofy, ya know?"

Abby smiled and then placed a gentle kiss on the worried brow of her lover.

"You go to sleep, baby. Maybe I'll go out for another walk but I'll be here when you wake up."

Zeen slowly shook her head.

"No . . . don't wanna sleep. And I want you here, baby. I do. But . . . "

Abby could see how the woman was struggling against letting go or just sucking it up and burying all the emotions once more. No matter what they'd gone through together, Zeen just never felt comfortable enough to let down all the barriers. 'Maybe some day.'

She smiled and moved to the side of the bed. It was clear that Zeen needed sleep and Abby only hoped it would be a good seven or eight hours. Just as she pulled the covers up over Zeen's chest, the woman's hand closed around hers.

"Don't go, baby, cos when I close my eyes, Abby, he's there, just waiting for me. He wants to get even, Ab. I took something from him and he wants it back. He wants it now."

"What . . . who, Zeen? Who do you mean? Who's waiting for you?" Abby wondered if the higher dose was causing more hallucinations. She was sure of the dosage . . .

A small frown appeared on the sculpted lips and then air was pushed through them as Zeen struggled to say more.

"There was this guy, babe, back in prison." Abby moved closer as Zeen's voice began to slur.

"He had it all, all the fear, the torment, the lonely despair. He was Ruler of the Damned and I took it all away. All away. Dark place, prison. Either makes ya or it breaks ya."

'Prison.' A small spark of anger welled up in the blonde, and although she knew it was neither the time nor the place, she couldn't stop the emotions from pushing her onwards.

"You never said you were in prison, Zeen. Why did you . . . why did you say jail?"

Zeen tried to drag her impossibly heavy hand up to touch her lover's face.

"Oh, baby . . . I may be fucked up, but I ain't that fucked up. You woulda run screaming into the night, Abby, you know it and so did I. Wasn't no way you were ready for that truth. Even now . . . so sleepy . . . gods, I wanna be with you . . . I wanna kiss that mouth . . . ease those crinkles . . . "

Abby snorted softly, the anger easing back a little. Zeen was certainly in no shape to 'be with' anyone, and it was going to be awhile before she was.

'Crinkles.' A smile graced her mouth as she thought about that word. Worry lines were always 'crinkles' to Zeen. She'd tried to joke about the ones that seemed to sprout around the woman's baby blues lately, but it had gone over like a lead balloon. The whole time that Zeen had been in the hospital, not one moment had she given in to the pain and let herself really go. Getting her to take painkillers was almost impossible. After discovering Demerol was causing a severe reaction, Bubba had nixed morphine and another couple of analgesics before settling on Leritine. Even then, she'd fought every single step of the way until Bubba had suggested Abby just go for quiet times so Zeen could actually reap the benefits of the drug.

Abby had never really seen the woman even get drunk, really. Oh, Zeen liked her Ouzo, and even partook of the grape every now and again, but in very limited quantities. A lack of control was just not something Zeen enjoyed, in any form.

The grip on her wrist lessened as she eased carefully back down beside her lover.

"Okay, hon. I'll admit that the idea of you actually spending time in prison does worry me, but you've had plenty of time to tell me about . . . things."

Zeen's eyebrows moved in response. "Yeah, 'spose so, but I'm a chicken at heart, ya know? Don't like to go tiltin' at windmills."

'Avoid confrontation at all costs: Zeen the original Don Quixote?' Abby shook her head, thinking about the short shrift the firefighter always gave herself. 'Chicken, my ass, you just don't like to lose control and go ape shit on someone anymore than you have to. Just another skill I'm sure you learned in prison.'

"I'll let that one go right now, Zeen, but we're gonna talk about things, just so you know."

"Just wanna cuddle with ya . . . for a bit . . . k?"

"What about this man, Zeen? Can you tell me anything about what happened then? How you took his control?"

Zeen rolled carefully over to face her and then put both fists under her chin and snuggled down into the covers. She blinked once or twice but remained conscious. Abby sighed, waiting for an answer that wasn't forthcoming, and then kicked herself for letting a golden opportunity fall through her fingers. She wondered just who this guy was and how he figured in the riot that resulted in death and destruction.

"I love you, Abby. I always have, and I always will. I know together . . . together we can . . . do anything. Toge . . . ther." Zeen slurred, and then noticed just how heavy her eyelids were becoming, and thought, if she just closed them for a little while, if she rested for only a few minutes . . . She remembered the calming methods of Debbie Ma, and felt herself disentangled from the pain, and fear, and just floated.

Abby hadn't realized just how much she'd needed to hear those words right then. Saying those three little words was sometimes hard for Zeen, even though Abby was certain of the love they both had. A tear squeezed past her dark lashes as the blonde pondered the rest of Zeen's words. It meant the firefighter could still see a future for them, and right now that meant everything.

Abby stroked the woman's cheekbones and jaw before kissing the strong nose before her. The break had healed nicely. She ran her finger carefully up and down the slight bump and smiled. Zeen couldn't be Superman. If she were lucky, she might just have a chance at being Zeen Phipolis, and that would be a good thing. The bond that had been stretched but never broken, began to ease back into its original shape, wrapping them tightly together once more.

"You sleep, babe." She kissed her lover's brow again and then pulled the bedspread up to cover them.

"We have things to talk about, and specialist to see, Zeen. And we will. You are going to have to trust that we know what's best for you."

She smiled as Zeen snuggled closer.

"I know just how hard it's going to be for you to be honest with me, and tell me the truth, all of it, but you are going to."

Crickets began their serenade just outside the window and Abby thought about getting up, and at least eating some of the congealing Chinese food she'd ordered.

'I really ought to get up', she mentally prodded herself. The bathroom was a mess and a slightly sour smell was noted coming from that area. Further proof that even someone as self-efficient as Zeen needed help when nausea overwhelmed her.

Well, it wouldn't hurt to just lie here, snuggled as close as she dared to the woman she'd given her heart to, for better or worse. It felt so right to be lying like this, and it always had, really. They seemed to fit, like pieces of the same puzzle.

And then she slept, one hand tangled in the dark hair at the back of Zeen's head, almost as if drawn there by some unseen force. Zeen smiled contentedly, as thoughts of the Green Dragon settled warmly around her.

The End.

Started December 6, 1999

Finished April 11, 2000

Return to Summaries by Pairing A - J Return to Summaries by Pairing K - Z

Return to Listings by Author Return to Listings by Title

Return to the Main Page