Author: ArdentTly
Story Title: Inferno
Characters: Zeen/Abby
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Uber. Zeen and Abby continue to work things out, finding that both of them have much healing to do yet. Sequel to The Blaze.
This rating is for explicit f/f sex.

Infringement Disclaimer: The following is some uber Xena fiction. However, only the characterizations of a certain warrior and her bard are used...any resemblance to actual fictional characters by Universal/MCA/Renaissance Pictures is purely coincidental and any infringement is unintended. This is for adult audiences, over the age of 18.

There is harsh language, scenes of hurt comfort and some rather graphic depictions of the victims and aftermath of a fire.

This story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting women and contains scenes of nudity and graphic sexuality.  If you find this kind of subject matter objectionable then please don't read it.  My purpose is to entertain, not offend.

Acknowledgments:  This is a continuation of my story, The Blaze, and should be read in sequence for it to make any sense.  I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my beta readers Betty and Kat.  I thank you once again, ladies.

I own the copyright for this story under 1998ArdentTly. Please obtain permission before posting to a site. Thanks.

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

Leaning against the wall looking very dangerous, she waited.  Having an air of arrogance about her, it was almost as if she knew the aura surrounding her commanded attention.  Her sleek lines, her blatant sexuality...the power that exuded from her very presence electrified the air in the basement work area of Zeen's apartment building.

Long tapered fingers twitched as they moved through dark ebony hair.  The woman's fierce gaze moved over the dark form and felt the familiar rush of hedonistic desires.  It had taken the firefighter the better part of four years getting the object of so much of her attention to the point where she felt comfortable about taking it for a nice long humming ride. Zeen had anticipated that moment ever since she'd spied the cool lines of what remained on her stripped frame at an out of the way junk dealer.

Zeen had diligently used every hour of every day off cleaning her up, making her respectable and filled out like she might have been, twenty-five years ago.  Looking at the motorcycle with cold objective eyes, Zeen could see that it had all been worth it.
She was black and gold with purple trim and was totally chromed out; her three-inch extended forks, superglide tank and drag pipes positively gleamed under the florescent lighting.  She was a 1974 Custom Shovelhead, low rider, Paughco softail frame with STD engine cases, four speed tranny, single disc front-end, 3 ½ gallon fatbobs, tombstone speedo 5 stud clutch, primo belt drive, manual and electric kick-start and was the closest thing to heaven Zeen had ever been.  Zeen sighed as she ran her hands lovingly over her prized bike.  Images of her lover as she lay sleeping in their bed upstairs filled her vision and she smiled.  Arching an eyebrow... until Abby.
'Abby'.  Zeen tasted the name on her lips again.  Didn't seem to matter how many times she said the woman's name, it always made her feel like she'd come home. The brunette found herself running a hand lovingly over the cold metal of the bike's handlebars and snapped back to the present and the task at hand.  "Damned petcock", she muttered and dragged greasy fingers through her hair.  She pushed the Harley onto its kickstand and walked slowly around it, rolling her shoulders as she did so.  It had been a long five-hour job and the damned petcock was still leaking.  Both it and the carb had made Zeen feel like pulling her hair out on several occasions.

"...Fuel lines, sparks, ignition and carb." She finished checking each item off mentally and then stretched her hands above her head. A nice satisfying pop made Abby wince as she watched unseen from the doorway. The blonde knew her lover had been in the basement parking lot for quite awhile and could see the frustration in the woman's rigid stance.  She knew Zeen had gotten up at 5:00am, as per usual, and had been working on her beloved motorcycle since then.  By the looks of it, the leaky carburetor had finally been replaced.

She watched as her lover bent over the manual, checking the specs and then going over to her bike again.  Zeen scratched her chin, deep in thought, totally oblivious to Abby's presence.

"Goddamn it.... I ran the 38mm QuickSilver on a FTLCU with a Crane 316-2b and Thunder header.  Not a problem.  Okay.... Throttle response is good.  Adjusted the plugs, running her at 2000 rpm...been there, done that.  Set the idle speed...yeah, that was fun.... Goddamned idle screw was so frippin temperamental.... Man!  Okay, so why the fuck is the petcock still leaking?"
Abby arched an eyebrow as the woman muttered, going from workbench to bike and back again.  She'd given up trying to help Zeen; it only got them into arguments as Abby hadn't a clue as to why the bike was called a shovelhead let alone what the devil a petcock was.  So, she just stood back and let the woman rant and rave, preferring to give her the love and attention she needed after the tirade and shower.

The blonde's eyes roamed over the broad back and shoulders as the tall brunette bent over the cycle once more. The loose fitting jeans couldn't hide the narrow waist or muscular thighs and the shortie Harley-Davidson T-shirt really accentuated the firm muscles of her lower back. It had taken Abby at least a month just to get the woman to wear something without long sleeves, even around the house.  Zeen was always very aware of her scars; both internal and external.  Abby closed her eyes and remembered the first time she'd placed a kiss on the red flesh and how Zeen had jumped.  She wasn't sure why at first but gradually began to understand just how very sensitive the burns were.  Even after all the skin grafts. Images of the look on Zeen's face as that part of her body was bathed in wet hot kisses filled her mind.  Feeling bolder, Abby had used her tongue along the ruined flesh and had been gifted with the most exquisite series of moans.  It seemed the firefighter had never let anyone touch her there; sure that the nerve endings were so damaged as to render the area numb. Watching the scene play in her mind; Zeen's head thrown back in ecstasy as they moved together; her hands grasping the brass headboard; her mouth sucking and nibbling on the flesh of the woman's inner arms; Abby felt overcome with such intense passion that her body shook with desire.

Abby blinked a few times and swallowed. Gods, how she wanted her! She slowly walked over to where the Zeen was working, molding herself tightly against the woman and slipped her hands around to caress the smooth flat abs of her lover.  "Hey, babe....", she whispered as she kissed the nape of Zeen's neck.  Abby could hear just a small sharp intake of breath, indicating she'd caught the woman slightly off guard.

"Hmmm?", Zeen smirked around the screwdriver she held in her teeth but continued on with her work. Bending over to inspect the other side of the gas tank, Zeen lifted her other leg off the floor and Abby could feel the tight buttocks against her belly. She moved one hand around and slowly  outlined the woman's ass with her fingers. Zeen closed her eyes and a small sigh escaped her mouth. The blonde could see the reaction she was having and moved her hand slowly up and down the inside seam of the jeans. The heat radiating from the woman's crotch was almost scorching with its intensity. She watched with fascination as a bead of sweat slowly made its way down the furrow in Zeen's back. Abby pulled back a little and touched her tongue to the droplet, tasting the saltiness; it's familiarity filling her senses.

Zeen's fingers continued securing the connections, each wire just where it was supposed to be, belying the rapid beating of her heart, the quickness of her breath, the tremble of her knees. She couldn't get over it; it never failed to surprise her what the mere proximity of the woman did to her. She leaned her forehead onto the cool contours of the bike, her breath condensing on the cool metal of the gas tank. She slowly lowered her foot and leaned back into Abby, who in turn, encircled her lover's waist and pulled Zeen hard against her. Then the blonde felt the torso beneath her shudder as she moved her hands slowly under the T-shirt, running her delicate fingers along the strong rib cage. Abby moved her mouth to the inside of her lover's arm and slid her tongue across the tender flesh, eliciting a rapid intake of breath.  A silent promise was made; one Zeen knew the blonde intended on keeping.

"You've been down here for a long time, ready for some breakfast?" Zeen dropped her chin down as she felt the soft mouth on her neck.  "Oh, I'm hungry, alright.... Can we wait until after a shower?"  Abby moved her hands higher, cupping her lover's breasts, her fingers making slow, maddening circles closer and closer to Zeen's stiffening nipples. She smiled as her hungry mouth trailed kisses across one shoulder and her fingers claimed their prize.  "I can wait.... Can you?"

Any thoughts regarding the further adventures of a leaking petcock flew out of Zeen's head and were replaced by hot images fanned by the closeness of Abby's breasts as the taut points brushed against her back.

Water cascaded down her chiseled face, washing the grime away and Zeen thought about how good Abby's hands had felt on her body and how excited she became when attention was paid to certain previously off limit areas.

She lathered her torso and then proceeded to slowly drag the cloth over the taut muscles of her belly and then, lost in thought, began moving her hands over her breasts, moving towards the sensitive area of her inner arms.  She gasped as her touch gentled and she imagined Abby's fingers and mouth there. A shudder ran through her frame and she tilted her face back into the hot spray of the shower nozzle.

Humming softly to the music playing on the CD, Abby finished cutting up the raw veggies and scraped them onto a platter.  Madonna's heart felt voice rolled over the woman and she closed her eyes in response.

"...When your heart's not open. If I could melt your heart we'd never be apart.  Give yourself to me, you hold the key.  Now there's no point in placing the blame and you should know I suffer the same.  If l lose you, my heart will be broken...."

She thought about the words and about how they seemed to speak of her life with Zeen. "If I lose you...", she whispered and then had this overwhelming need to be with her lover.  Abby crossed quickly over to the other end of the apartment and stood in the doorway, watching as the woman ran her hands lazily over her body.  Abby moved closer and then disrobed and sat cross-legged on the floor and just took in the scene before her.  She loved the play of muscles just below the
surface of her lover's bronzed skin; the way Zeen moved - totally unaware of the affect she had on those around her. She watched as the woman's strong hands moved down to caress the curls between her legs and swallowed hard.  She moaned as one of Zeen's hands plucked at the delicate tissue there while the other traced the outline of one very erect nipple; her own hands sliding easily into her lap, fingering the dampness there.

"Oh, gods Zeen..." The blonde refocused and brought her hand up, the smell was intoxicating.  Closing her eyes, Abby could just imagine her own hands being those of her lover and moved them to cup her breasts.  The thought of Zeen's tongue encircling her nipples brought goose bumps to her skin, despite the warmth and humidity in the surrounding air, charged her with electrifying desire.

Totally oblivious to what was happening outside the curtain, the firefighter went on with the business of making sure each bit of grease and grime was removed from her skin. Running a hand through her dark tresses, she pinched a few strands between her fingertips until they squeaked.  Zeen sighed audibly and then turned the water off.  Inspecting her nails once more, she nodded and then pulled the curtain open.  Her heart leapt into her throat as she stepped out of the stall.

She stood there, legs apart and looked down into her lover's smirking face.  She felt a torrential downpour of desire hit her full force, making her skin feel tight and hard and ultra sensitive as she watched Abby pleasure herself.

"See something you like?", Abby said, running the tip of her finger up the back of Zeen's hard calves, the other still buried in her crotch. The taller woman's nostrils flared as she reached down and pulled the blonde against her. "I like everything I see and I want it all.... Now."

Abby moved her hands up behind the woman's knees and gently caressed the skin there.... She could see the lust plain in Zeen's eyes but wanted to take things slow...and easy. "Gods, I want you, Abby...right now..." The blonde swallowed and nodded..."I know.... But l want it to go slow, Zeen..."
Zeen tangled her fingers in the long hair of her lover and shook her head slowly. "Oh, no babe...not slow.... Cos I want you now and...." She pulled the woman up and moved them both against the tiled wall.  "...Fast. Face forward, Abby...yes, like that." She cupped the shorter woman's buttocks, watching with satisfaction as Abby's breathing changed...She began laying a trail of hot fire across the petite woman's shoulder and neck with her mouth and tongue and when the blonde arched back into her, moved her hand down to caress the swollen flesh of Abby's labia. The response was immediate as Zeen heard a moan from her lover. Her free hand was covered and brought up to cover one of her lover's rosy nipples and Zeen complied, roughly massaging them.

"Oh, gods Zeen....", Abby moaned.  The brunette smirked, "Oh, was that too fast? Should l slow down?", she purred, all the while her fingers continued to play homage, dipping and caressing until they were soaked with the woman's essence.

Abby grit her teeth as she fought to stay upright and Zeen, feeling the trembling body of her lover, pressed her harder against the wall.  "S'okay, Abby...I'm here...l won't let you fall."  The blonde groaned, squeezing her lover's hand.  "It's far too late for that, Zeen...just don't stop...what your...doing...oh, gods."  The firefighter smirked, removing her fingers and pushing her knee firmly between the thighs of her lover. "But l thought I was going too fact, yes...l think I'll just slow down a bit...more..." She slowly ground her knee up into the tender moist flesh and moved her hand up to caress and massage the other breast.  Zeen began a slow rhythmic movement against Abby, who in turn ground herself against the surface of the cold tiles, trying to build a little friction.

Zeen nibbled a path across one shoulder, finally settling on the sensitive skin near Abby's right ear.  The blonde moaned as sharp teeth nipped her neck but it was the combination of Zeen hungry mouth sucking hard there along with the pulling and pinching action of her hands that drove Abby's need up another notch.

"Oh gods, Now..." Abby strained hard against each thrust of her lover's pelvis but it still wasn't enough.  She wanted to feel Zeen.... "Inside...", she gasped.  Zeen growled deeply. "Gods, you taste so good.... Smell so right...You want me to go fast?", the brunette teased, trying to keep her own ragged breathing under control. Abby panted heavily and shook her head as Zeen picked up her pace.  One hand came up and pulled Abby's long hair into a knot and the blonde found her neck fully exposed to her lover's hot mouth.  "You're sure?"  She sank her teeth into the tender flesh just over Abby's pulse point, closing her eyes to the groans of ecstasy coming from her lover.  Abby was barely able to nod her answer as she felt the pressure of Zeen's knee lessen and then stop altogether.  "Well now."  Abby's eyes fluttered as she felt herself entered.  ".... I think I might be able to..." The brunette groaned as she felt a flow of hot juices run down her hand.  Abby leaned her head back and whispered, "I love you, Zeen", and then the brunette fell against her, grinding hard and panting as an orgasm hit her.  "Oh gods.... Abby...", she called out, clutching the woman against her.  Abby felt her knees begin to buckle as the fingers twitched spasmodically within her and it was all she could do not to pass out as her own orgasm slammed into her, full force.

Both women slowly sank to the floor, grateful for its cool surface.  Zeen cradled the woman against her breasts as she slowly regained control of her breathing.  "How do you do that?  With just the sound of your voice.... Just a certain can make me fall to pieces."  Zeen tried to swallow and grinned lopsidedly as Abby pursed her lips.  "I have many skills, oh warrior mine."  The firefighter nodded and swallowed again.  "Yes...yes, you do."  She leaned heavily against the wall and gathered Abby to her.  "Gods, I'm glad I found you again, Abby.  My life's been so..." A slim hand came up to cover her mouth.  "I'm here.... We did find each other...and I'm glad l can make you let go like that.  It's good for my ego", she smiled smugly.  "I love how responsive we are to each other, Zeen."  The brunette smiled in agreement.  She'd never had such intense love making with anyone else.  Ever.  She leaned down and kissed Abby passionately and then tilted the woman's neck.  "Oops; now you have a matching set, Abby.  They don't quite line up, but..."

Abby felt the swollen flesh and sighed.  "Another one?"  Zeen shrugged, "Oh well."  Abby narrowed her eyes and then drew the dark head down into a fierce kiss.  "Oh well this, fireman...."  She pulled the woman down to lie on the floor and smirked as the cold tiles came in contact with the small of Zeen's back, a startled cry being forced from her mouth.  "Oh,'ll warm up...given time."  The firefighter brought up both her hands and cupped the blonde's face.  "We have all the time in the world, Abby."  She brought her legs up suddenly as Abby pounced upon her.  "Oooof!  Hey, wa....", and then she felt a small wet mouth envelope one of her nipples and Zeen just lay her head back and smiled, the cold hard floor forgotten.

The two lay in bed, the blonde sprawled across the larger woman's torso, but for all that, was as light as a feather and caused little discomfort to the firefighter.  Zeen leaned down and planted yet another kiss on the blonde crown and smiled.  Two things that Abby did really well: sleeping and eating.  Abby moved her legs and Zeen felt a familiar twinge.  Well, three then.

Their lovemaking was so unpretentious to both of them; the usual dance of hesitation and doubt nicely sidestepped. Zeen couldn't get over just how natural and easy it was.  She thought back to their first night, wondering where she'd gotten the strength to just blurt out her past.

It had been a good couple of months and although she still had the occasional nightmare, her life with Abby was helping tone them down.  No longer was she falling into a fitful sleep, afraid of waking up in a pool of sweat, her sheets tied in knots around her.  Oh, the images were still just as strong but now...well, now she got out of the burning buildings and there was always someone there to save her from herself.  She hunkered down a bit lower and pulled the single sheet up over them both.  Although it was already coming on 4:00 PM, it was a nice lazy day when neither one of them had anything to do but lie in the comfort of each other's arms.  And that was just perfectly fine.  Zeen found her eyes drifting closed and decided not to fight it.  She'd been up the night before with a dream, had taken forever to work it through her head and ended up penning a few pieces of prose before slumber finally claimed her. Not certain just why melancholy had a hold on her; Zeen tried to keep the demons at bay.  She sighed and kissed the blonde again.  'Poetry:  cheap therapy, fersure.', she mused.  Stroking the blonde tresses softly, Zeen briefly opened her eyes and then recited from memory, her voice at first soft and hesitant but soon became strong and clear.

The clear bright twinkle of her eyes
Stabs through the gloom enveloping my heart
And I am left speechless,
Unable to wallow in the darkness
That surrounds me.
Her hands caress my stern and serious face,
Calming the lines that grow there
Until I am finally at peace.
Her smile shines through to touch each
Shadowy corner of my being,
Making me smile in spite of myself.
And then I am home, back in the
Comfort of her embrace;
Able to let go of the harsh realities
Of Life and drown in the tranquility
That is she.

Zeen's voice wavered on the last word and she took a deep shuddering breath.  It was hard...hard to look within yourself and see you weren't an island; self sufficient and completely independent.  She knew she'd been kidding herself, just waiting for that one moment in time when Abby would walk back into her life.  She started as she felt a soft fingertip trace her cheek.  "Hey, sweetie.  Penny for your thoughts?"  A pair of bright green eyes looked up at her and Zeen felt her doldrums partially dissipate under the onslaught of a very bewitching gaze.  'There was just something about those emerald orbs', she thought.  'So very hard to deny her anything.  I wonder if she knows just the kind of power that she holds over me?'  Curiously, she found the thought comforting; neither was it daunting nor terrifying in the least.  She pondered this briefly until her mouth was occupied with a pair of very soft and sensuous lips.  "Oh, it was nothing, really", she whispered between kisses.  "Just thinking about you...about us."  Abby stopped to nibble a little on the firefighter's nose before speaking again.  "Yeah, I heard your poem...very nice.  Is that what you were doing in the wee small hours of the morning?"  She'd become accustomed to her lover's insomnia; there were too many past demons to battle for Zeen to have a good night's sleep on a regular basis.  Zeen smiled lazily, yawned and then sighed.  "Yeah, being around you has helped my poetry a lot; I think it's cos you've got this aura of tranquility."

Abby smiled and kissed her lover sweetly. "I've been called a few things in my life but 'tranquil' was never one of em.  Pest, irritant, brat..." Zeen scrunched her forehead in mock horror at that.  "You don't see yourself as peaceful and serene and a brat?  Hell, I sure do."  She yelped as even sharp teeth nipped the tip of her nose, pushing aside all thoughts of a nap.  It was playtime now.

"But seriously, ground me, Abby."

The blonde dropped her jaw and just stared at her lover.  "But...but you ground me.  I'm this vagabond, Zeen; haven't held a steady job to speak of since forever...I just kinda wander around.  With, I want to make things more permanent in my life."

Zeen rolled over, tucking the blonde comfortably beneath her, setting herself up on elbows.  "You are the most grounded person I know, Ab.  You just seem to have this...way about you.  Hard to just seem so confident."  She watched as a smirk played across Abby's lips.  "Boy, have I got you fooled.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I'm just this...This..."

".... This free spirit who loves life and tries her best to make those around her appreciate it.  You once told me I was the strongest person you knew.  Well...I think you are."  She paused as tried to organize her thoughts.  "You said you left home at, what, fifteen?  Man, that had to be fucking hard, babe.  I can't imagine it.  That takes guts, Abby.  You must have done something survived with sanity intact."

Abby pushed a dark lock out of her lover's eyes and leaned up, capturing Zeen's mouth briefly before going on.  "That, my dear woman, is open to conjecture."  The brunette rolled over, pulling the smaller woman into the crook of her arm.  "I wanna hear about it.  Tell me your story, Abby.  All of it."  She snuggled the woman closer and began rubbing small circles over the blonde's lower back.

"My story...Well, there isn't really much to tell."  She paused, biting her lower lip.  She was hesitant to whine about her past; it was nothing compared to what Zeen had endured and just seemed so...inconsequential.  She began making lazy circles around one of her lover's nipples in an attempt to distract her lover.  "Won't work, babe.  Although that feels real good...I wanna hear about you.... Who Abby Dean is.  You pretty much dragged all the dirty laundry out of my closet..." Abby reached up and covered Zeen's lips and sighed.  "Oh, I'm sorry, love.  I know it was a bit much the first night we were together...but...I wanted...god, why can't I explain this..." She flopped back on the pillow, easing out of her lover's embrace.  "I know it was rough...I know it was really painful but I also know...we wouldn't be here...wouldn't have gotten past the 'stuff' in your past if..." She propped herself up on one elbow and looked down into the serious face of her lover.  "There was no way you could've opened yourself to 'us' or even the possibility of a future together before that night, Zeen.  No way."

Zeen reached up and tugged on the blonde's ear.  "Yeah, I know it.  I thought I was okay up until I.... No, I wanted to believe I was okay.  No, that isn't it either.  Lessee...I guess it boils down to not knowing I was so fucked up.  I knew there were parts of me damaged, Ab...but I didn't know...I thought the inferno in my heart, my soul...I thought it was normal.  I thought, well, this was my life; like it or leave it.  As fucked up as I was, I wasn't bailing.  But getting up every day...trying hard not to look too deeply into the mirror...It was so hard, babe.  I swam quite deeply and often in that damn river in Egypt."  She tapped the pert nose before her.  "Bottom line...yer right, I guess there was no way I could begin to open up to someone unless I was open to myself.  And certainly no way I could love someone if I couldn't find enough love for me amongst the ruins.  No way.  Yeah, it was painful, it was hard to do and while l wanted to lash out...well, part of me rejoiced.  Part of me was set free and l love you for it, Abby. You've had the patience of Job these past months."

A faint blush covered the blonde's cheekbones and Abby ducked her head.  What could she say?  It had been a labour of love.  Although Zeen fancied herself hard to read and even harder to decipher, Abby wasn't about to tell her just how easily she'd seen into the dark woman's heart and soul.  After the initial discovery that Zeen wasn't a homicidal lunatic, that is, but a woman who harboured the lion's heart of a warrior.  She was constantly amazed at the depth of the woman but even from the start could see just how special Zeen was.

"Jeez, I love you woman.  C'mere.", Abby murmured.  Zeen chuckled and snuggled the woman back into her position on top.  "Hey, I get any closer...'woman'...and I'll be inside you."

Abby sniggled a leg between the strong muscular ones of her lover and smirked.  Wearing that 'come hither' look Zeen knew oh so well, she slowly leaned in and kissed the woman deeply.  "Just what I had in mind."

Zeen chortled as she dragged the sheet up over their heads.  "You are so good at getting me side tracked, Ab.  You win this time...again...But we are going to talk about it.  Right?"  She gasped as the blonde avoided yet another question, her mouth otherwise occupied.

Chapter Two

It had taken the trio better part of a week to drive out to the west coast and after settling their gear in a fairly decent hotel, they'd made their way across the ferry to Vancouver Island and the nice sleepy town of Mill Bay. They'd poured over the dive books and while the dive at Ten Mile Point had looked the best, Zeen and Pete decided Henderson Point would be the best dive site for the day.

"So, you did your check out dives and what, about thirty dives total?  That about right?"  Abby nodded as she pulled her long hair into a ponytail.  "When was your last dive, babe?" asked the Lieutenant.  The blonde briefly closed her eyes, calculated, and then spoke.  "Almost ten months ago, give or take. The Florida Keys is where I took my dive training. Most of them were at about 80 feet."

Pete smiled and nodded reassuringly.  "Good, good...this should just be a refresher then.  Sorry I couldn't rent a boat; shore divers are okay, though.  Kinda hard dragging your gear back up the beach but hey, you look strong enough."  Abby smirked and made a muscle.  "I am woman!"

Zeen walked over with two tanks, one over each shoulder.  "Yeah, my woman."  She gave the blonde a quick kiss.  "Here ya go.  I'll be right back; gotta get the rest of it."  She plunked the tanks down in the sand and then lay them side by side.  Pete stroked his chin, idly scratching on the stubble he seemed to wear permanently; never any longer than a day's growth, but always present. He watched as Zeen walked back up the beach, her aqua coloured suit clinging in all the right places.  He jumped as he felt Abby's hand on his shoulder.  "Jeez...sorry.  Wool gathering..." Abby smiled her eyes taking in the very same sight the Lieutenant was.  "Yeah, nice wool, huh?"  Pete wiped his hand across his mouth, barely concealing the smile on his lips.  "Aha.... Yeah, well. You know."  He stammered.  And Abby did, truly understand; Zeen Phipolis was a thing of beauty, a living breathing goddess of fire.  She watched the play of tanned muscles as the tall brunette walked towards her, the weight belts over one shoulder, BC's looped through one arm and a large dive bag on her back.  She was truly a walking ad for better living through exercise.

Zeen watched the two people by the water, her feelings so very mixed when she thought of them both.  Pete was a good friend, a damned good fireman, too, but she could never have the kind of relationship he wanted.  They'd been through a lot and probably would go through more before their time together was over.  She didn't have any illusions on the normal life span of a fireman.  They usually developed heart problems due to the stress...those that didn't die in fires, that is.  Abby was Zeen's fail safe; there was no way she was going to let either one befall her.

She walked closer, openly admiring the luscious blonde waiting for her. While her suit was a Speedo one piece, Abby's was a nice amber coloured bikini.  She held her eyes on the admiring gaze of her lover, not certain just where Pete's eyes would be.  Abby watched the muscles clenching slightly in her lover's jaw and went to greet her, throwing both arms around Zeen's waist.  "S'okay, babe...I think you look lovely...and his eyes are on your boobs, not your scars.", she said, planting a brief kiss on the woman's neck.  "Yeah?  Well...I still wish I'd brought that damned wind breaker...", she whispered back while Abby rolled her eyes.  "Not!  It's firkin 90 degrees out here, Zeen...besides, you look so damned sexy..."  Zeen sighed as she felt her lover's tongue outline her lower lip.  Acting decisively, she held the muscle between her teeth and then slowly sucked it into her mouth.  Abby groaned as she felt a strong hand cup her ass.


Zeen arched her eyebrows towards the man while Abby pulled away from their embrace, her eyes wide and cheeks crimson.  "Oh...I, um...forgot you were there, Pete; I'm sorry."  Holding both hands up, Pete shook his head, giving them both his version of a leach.  "No, no...don't mind me...lovin every minute of it..." Abby narrowed her eyes, a mischievous look on her face, "...two luscious babes..." he began backing up, ". Hanging all over each other...", Abby launched herself, knocking into him, "Ooof...and I get to spend the whole day...ooohhhh....", then he stumbled back on the tanks and went down hard, Abby falling squarely on his belly.  He began laughing as two fingers dug into his side.  "Ahhhh.... Stop...stop..." Abby pursed her lips and looked over at her lover.  "Whatcha think, Stretch.... Should I make him holler 'Uncle'?

Pete grabbed the woman's wrists and sat up.  "What?  I'm crushed.  I was just gonna say that I get to spend the whole day with two people in love...two very nice people...that I consider good friends."  He glanced over at Abby, seeing what her reaction was.  Zeen rolled her eyes, knowing full well what was coming.  Abby was too busy being conned to notice anything, buying his puppy dog look, hook, line and sinker.  Pete watched as her face softened and then pushed her back into the sound and grinned.  "Now it's my turn."  He lowered his face and began softly rubbing his stubble across her cheeks.  "Ack....stop...stop...Zeeeeeen!"  The brunette bend down and softly tapped her buddy on the shoulder.  "All done?  I think we'd better get goin if we wanna make this tide."

"Aw, Zeen...what a spoil sport...okay, okay..." He slowly got to his feet, dusting himself off and then watching as Zeen drew the woman up, paying close attention to just how much sand the blonde seemed to be covered in, if the brunette's attentions were any indication, before busying himself with regs, bottom timers and compasses.  He snuck a quick look and found the two kissing and grinned to himself.  'Yup, life is good.  Now, if I can just fi....'   His mind locked as a small dog went barreling past him.  He looked up and had a few seconds to register Dave's grinning face before he was knocked down, his vision filled with black and white.  "Jeez.... Get off...get..." Pete gave up and just succumbed to the wet attentions of the firehall's mascot.  The Dalmatian made a thorough inspection of the man's face and then started in on Pete's neck area.  "Ack!  That tickles...."  Dave whined as his collar was grabbed and Zeen pulled the dog away.

"What have you been up to, ya silly mutt?  Bet there was some female...yeah, love in the air, alright."  Reaching over, Pete found a piece of driftwood and heaved it over his shoulder.  "Go on, boy...fetch!"  Dave bounded off and the Lieutenant got to his feet. Abby smiled and patted the man on his shoulder.  "Oh you know you love it...all that nice unconditional love...not to mention face cleaning..." She snickered as she felt a wet tongue behind her right ear.  "Abby...C'mon, time's a wasting."  Zeen opened her dive bag and dragged out two wet suits.  Both were blue quarter inch neoprene; plenty of protection for the waters in the area.  Pete had scoped out the dive shops before they'd left Chicago so all their gear was nicely set aside, awaiting their arrival.

Abby held the suit up against her chest.  "You think this is gonna fit?  Zeen.... It's too big."  The taller woman tugged hard on her Johnny, wiggling her butt as the groin area snugged in tighter.  "Do me a favour, will ya?  Just try it on."  Zeen knew the woman had only previously worn a shortie since she'd done all of her diving in warm water. She eased the Velcro straps down and then reached for the boots.  A few minutes later, she stood all suited up and Pete helped to check her gauges.  Abby grumbled with exasperation.  "Zeen?  Could you..." Dropping her mask/snorkel, Zeen smirked and came up behind the woman, grabbing the material at Abby's waist and pulled, hard, grinning as the woman's feet left the sand.  "Whoa...give a girl some warning, will ya?"

"There ya you with anything else?"  She smirked, moving her hands to the front of the Johnny, smoothing the neoprene up before fastening the Velcro.  Abby arched an eyebrow and wondered just how long their dive would be and how long it would take to ditch Pete and Dave, leaving them alone on the deserted beach....

Within another five minutes, they were both suited up and walking slowly backwards into the waters of the Saanich Inlet.  Pete shoved his hands into his pockets and smiled at Dave's antics; the dog leapt high into the air and then landed with legs straight, looking very much like a springbok antelope. As he watched, both women adjusted their masks, gave him the thumbs up and then jackknifed into the water, their fins only briefly visible before the surface of the water  closed over them and was calm again.

Zeen had told her about the joys of West Coast diving; the area was rich in marine life, a veritable smorgasbord.  They descended slowly, pausing every now and again to equalize.  At one point, Abby found her mask flooding and entertained her companion with facial expressions as she removed it, crossed her eyes, replaced the object and then blew a steady stream of bubbles up under it, forcing the air out of the small space.  Zeen found herself wanting to take the silly woman into her arms; so she did.  They floated at about 40 feet, adjusting their BC's and then Abby smiled around her reg as Zeen removed hers and mouthed the words 'l love you'.  Mask to mask, Zeen took another breath and let her reg fall.  Abby copied the action and they watched each other, slowly moving so their lips touched.  The blonde wrinkled her nose as small bubbles made their way between them and then felt her mouth covered.  The kiss deepened and she felt lightheaded as her body began starving for oxygen.  Opening her eyes, she found blue ones somberly gazing back at her and then air was being pushed into her mouth.  She inhaled slowly and then her body felt aflame as Zeen's tongue made a brief appearance.  As the kiss ended, Abby reached down and placed her reg near her lover's mouth and pressed the purge button.   Zeen smiled as she inhaled carefully; there was such a feeling of trust between them.  Then both women replaced their regs and just floated, eyes locked.  Zeen brought her hands up, making a heart sign while Abby moved her legs up to wrap around the backs of Zeen's calves and they just basked in the total feeling of contentment.

The brunette tapped her shoulder and pointed to the gauge.  Abby's 3000lb tank was now down a third and they'd only been underwater for 15 minutes.  Zeen wanted to show Abby the bounty that awaited them and indicated further descent.  Nodding happily, the smaller woman let some air out of her buoyancy compensator and began heading for the bottom.  Zeen was pleased with the woman's enthusiasm and slowly kicked after her.  Checking her own gauge, she saw they were at almost 50 feet and the bottom was within sight.  Vis was very clear; between 15 and 20 feet.  They hit a thermocline at about 40 feet but it was almost imperceptible; the one they hit at 60 feet, however, wasn't. Abby came up short, hugging herself tightly as Zeen came behind her and briskly rubbed her arms.  The temp had just dropped from 50 degrees down to 43.  Not a big change but certainly noticeable to someone who'd been out of diving for awhile.  She gained eye contact and then put thumbs up.  Abby nodded and they were off again.  They followed the sandy bottom to the right and there before them was the sea wall at Thomson Cove.  Zeen watched as Abby's eyes grew wide at the spectacle of marine life.  Standing at about 60 feet, the wall looked to be at least another 30 or 40 feet down.

She pointed to Abby's eyes, then to her own and pointed out over the precipice, nodding when she got the thumbs up.  Placing her arms out and parallel to her shoulders, the taller woman closed her eyes and then just fell.  Abby watched as Zeen assumed the free fall position, admiring the clear lines on the woman's body.  It seemed like a long way down as Abby watched and then finally, Zeen flipped over quickly and just lay there on the ocean bed.  Abby hesitated, added a bit to her BC and then jumped off, doing an admirable job at the beginnings of a swan dive in slow motion.  The added air made her fall very slowly and so she had time to watch as she fell towards the waiting arms of her lover.  Zeen reached up and caught the woman by her fins as she overcompensated, almost missing her mark.  Pulling her down into her arms, Zeen felt so alive. Abby removed her reg and kissed her lover's cheek, grinning as she felt her legs lifted and wrapped around her lover's thighs. Zeen took a breath from her reg, let it fall and just smiled as she felt small even teeth nibbling at her jawline.  'This', she thought wistfully, 'is almost as good as sex.  Almost.'

Abby pulled slightly away and replaced her reg, looking deeply into the eyes of her lover; their connection was so strong.  She could feel the total love, knowing that Zeen would be there for her in every way, shape and form.  She smiled around her reg as the larger woman rolled her carefully over.  Zeen tapped the woman's facemask and then gestured outwardly.  Abby followed Zeen's hand and saw a veritable garden before her.  They made there way over to the sea wall and the blonde watched as Zeen picked up two alabaster nudibranch, offering them for inspection.  She took the small sea slugs and turned them over, watching as they twisted and turned, their tentacle-like appendages waving in the current.  Zeen reached over and took one of the small creatures and lifted it high, letting it fall as if in slow motion.  Both watched with total fascination as the creature's body undulated back and forth, looking like a small leaf caught in a whirlwind.  Zeen pointed out further marine life and Abby watched as the sea pens gently rocked in the slight current and the tall stalks of white and pink sea anemones stood proud, looking for all intents and purposes like bunches of cauliflower.  They'd seen the occasional rockfish but Zeen pointed at a long black lingcod and Abby nodded vigorously.  The fish darted in amongst some of the larger rocks and both women followed it with their eyes.  It looked to be a good two feet at least.  Zeen unhooked the spear gun at her belt and made sure the line was untangled before she pulled back on the rubber band, fully arming it.  They moved a bit closer and the cod darted quickly away.  Abby shook her head and stopped.  She was feeling frustrated until she felt a hand on her shoulder.  Crouching down so they were parallel to the ocean floor, Zeen motioned forward and they slowly made their way closer to the fish.  The cod, meanwhile, had decided that staying perfectly still might dissuade any predators from guessing it was food.  It was sadly mistaken.

Zeen brought the gun up to chest level, inhaled quickly and then squeezed the trigger.  Abby watched as the spear cut threw the water and then imbedded itself in the fish's body.  It began to thrash and the line grew taut.  Abby watched as her lover's biceps bulged, and then Zeen was off after the fish before it could pull free.  It was only a matter of minutes as Abby lay there watching her lover but she was hit with such a sense of deja vu...she could truly see the proud warrior, cunning and determined, stalking her prey.

Knowing her lover to be the caring and loving woman she was didn't quite mesh with the dark past she'd been shown. It was hard for Abby to wrap her head around the violence in Zeen's past.  The blonde wondered if the look on Zeen's face as she wrestled with the ling cod was the same one she wore when attacking the two men she held responsible for her son's death.  As the woman grabbed and twisted the spear, wrenching it from the body of the fish Abby also wondered about the prison guard and just how Zeen had killed him. She found her breathing laboured and slowly got it back under control.  She shook her head, casting the dark thoughts away and watched as her buddy held the fish under one arm and made her way back; her strong strokes ate the distance up easily.  There was such power and grace in the woman's movements and Abby was struck again by the animal magnetism of her lover.

As she swam closer, the taller woman could see something was bothering the woman; she had a small worried look on her face and Zeen couldn't help but wonder just was going on behind those emerald green eyes.  Filing the questions away for another time, she picked up her gauge and nodded to herself and then glanced quickly at Abby's console and noted with some alarm that her tank was now down to just above 800lbs.  They still had at least another 15 minutes of strenuous traveling time unless they wanted to do an arduous surface swim and even given Abby's good shape, well, it just didn't seem a viable option.  Tapping Abby's lenses and then the gauge, she pointed back the way they'd come and cocked her head.  Zeen waited as the woman registered the amount left in her tank and then grinned around her mouthpiece as Abby slowly nodded her head and then took a shuddering breath.

Zeen put her hand around the smaller woman's waist and they slowly kicked their way back to the edge of the wall and then upwards, leaving the cod for the decorator crabs and other opportunistic denizens of the deep.  The firefighter was worried; she'd lost track of time and although she had plenty of air left in her own tank, hadn't taken into consideration that Abby might be an air hog.  She kept checking the woman's instrument and then stopped, pulling the woman close. Abby responded by lacing their fingers together and Zeen felt a lump in her throat as she saw the total faith in her lover's eyes.  She checked her compass and altered their course a bit.  Abby's gauge was now down to the red mark, making the airflow slower, wearing the woman down as she fought to drag what remained out of the tank.  This part was going to be interesting, Zeen knew, for although she'd seen Abby's dive log and was aware of her past experience, it was the first dive they'd make as buddies and Zeen wasn't too sure how Abby would react.  Reaching down, Zeen brought up her orange octopus second stage and held it up between them.  Abby just watched, her face serious as she tried to understand what Zeen wanted her to see.  Pressing the purge button, a silvery flow of bubbles leaked out and she watched as the taller woman offered it to her.  She tilted her head as if to say 'huh?' and watched as Zeen's eyebrow movement made her mask wiggle.  Then it dawned on her and she grabbed her gauge; it was well past the red mark.  Panic enveloped her and she looked up at the lighted surface, so near yet so far away.  It was 60 feet...she could do a swimming ascent...she could be back...

Zeen watched the look of cold panic hit Abby's eyes and grabbed hold of her waist.  Abby made the signal across her throat as the air got harder and harder to suck on.  Zeen held up the safety second again and took her own reg out, replacing it with the orange one.  Abby reluctantly removed her own reg as Zeen passed hers over.  Waiting a few breaths, Zeen then put her mask against her lover's and held a thumb up.  This time there was an almost immediate response and she sighed with great relief.  She really didn't want to fight about it and end up dragging Abby to the surface and then a long swim back...that would be not only physically challenging but also mentally demoralizing.  Although Abby was classified as an Open Water Diver by PADI, Zeen was sure, with a little prodding that she could go for her Advanced Open Water Diver classification.  She had all the skills but none of the confidence, it seemed.

Once Abby was somewhat settled, Zeen removed her orange reg and indicated they should trade.  Abby hesitated briefly but then nodded.  Zeen used hand language to show the hose on the octopus was much longer and she wouldn't have to be clinging onto Zeen the whole way.  Then they set off, Zeen's one hand looped through the back of her buddy's weight belt.

Chapter Three

Pete threw the stick again and checked his watch.  Scanning the horizon, he snorted.  'Must be havin a great time at that wall.'  Dave returned, the roughly munged driftwood clenched loosely in his jaws.  His chest heaved with the exertion yet his tail was still wagging madly.  The Lieutenant made his way over to the rocks and started to drag fixings out of the backpack.  Lunch would be a simple fare but he figured the girls wouldn't care.  He remember the last time he and Zeen had been diving...a while ago...she was well aware of just how stupid it was to go diving alone, but it hadn't stopped her.  He opened her dive log and scanned the past five or six entries; at least she'd limited her dives to shore entries and a depth ranging from 40 to 60 feet.  Zeen was a very experienced diver, having gotten her Specialty Diver certificate.  Hell, she'd done it all; everything but go for Diving Instructor.  She wasn't into that but had at least taken the course on Master Diver; easy for her since she loved the organized way of things.  And the control.  He smiled at that, knowing it to be oh so very true.  She was spontaneous but didn't much like the characteristic in those around her. Structure.... She thrived on it and yet it was a love/hate relationship, causing her to rebel whenever the mood struck her.

He glanced at his watch again.  'Shoulda been up a good ten minutes ago.' He frowned and looked at the Dalmatian who'd walked over to water's edge and sat looking out into the distance.  'Hmmm....' He set his jaw and then began repackaging the picnic.  He wasn't too sure exactly what he had planned but began taking his sneaks and socks off, rummaging through the dive bag for extra mask, fins and snorkel.  "Goddamnit...where's that pony bottle?  There's the extra reg. Okay... first stage hose connected...Yup..." He wiped a forearm across his forehead and tried to formulate a plan.

His head came up as he heard Dave barking wildly and he stared intently, trying to see something.... Anything.  There!  Two dark heads bobbing at the surface...thank god!  Dropping his equipment he ran forward, wading out about mid chest before stopping.  "Zeen!", he yelled in a worried voice, waving his hand frantically over his head.  He let out the breath he wasn't even aware he'd been holding when he saw one hand wave back.  Pete closed his eyes briefly, saying a very fervent prayer. It was as if a great load was lifted off his heart as he saw a smaller hand also waved in his direction.

The two women made their way to shore and plunked themselves down in the shallow water.  Abby removed her mask and pulled her hood off, lying back in the sand with a contented sigh.  Pete squatted next to his partner and cocked an eyebrow in her direction.  Zeen smiled weakly.  "Ah, the joys of buddy breathing.  I kinda got carried away, showing Abby the Thomson Cove sea wall; time got away from me."  He said nothing as he noted the worry lines around Zeen's mouth.  "Sumpin happen out there, babe?"  Abby cleared her throat and sat up.  "No...No, not really.  Abby just went through her air supply kinda quick, is all.  I wasn't expecting it."  The blonde reached over and hugged her companion.  "I got a bit rattled, Pete.  I let myself get distracted and well, kinda inhaled most of my air at one sitting."  Pete nodded slowly.  "Hey, it happens. So, you guys enjoy your dive, other than that?"

Zeen began removing her fins and weight belt and then turned to help Abby with hers.  "Yeah, actually.  It was an okay dive."  Abby scoffed as she pushed her lover's shoulder.  "Oh brother, if that was just an okay dive..." Pete watched as the blonde animatedly described how they'd come upon the wall and all of the rich marine life they had encountered.  "Yeah, it was a blast right up until my gauge went into the red", she said wistfully.  "I want to do another one.  Can we?"  She looked imploringly over at the other woman who was slowly peeling the wet suit from her body.  Pete noted the tension in Zeen's shoulders and got up.  "Hey, I'll just take the gear and stow it in the truck, okay?  It might take me a while..." His voice trailed off unnoticed as he watched Abby come up behind his friend and hug her closely.  Just then, Dave came bounding down the beach with the remains of what appeared to be a good-sized crab.  He dropped it at his master's feet and wagged his tail fiercely.  "Oh, for me...why, Dave you shouldna."  He turned and began making his way back to where the truck was parked, then whistled sharply; nodding with satisfaction as the dog dropped his prize and heeled immediately.

Zeen turned and embraced the smaller woman.  "I'm sorry I..." Abby shook her head and buried her face in the front of her lover's suit.  "No, Zeen.... I got wasn't you..." Blowing her lips out, the taller woman lifted the smaller chin and gazed into her eyes.  "Wanna talk about it?  I know something was bothering you, Ab..."

Abby thought briefly about telling the woman it had been a momentary lapse that she'd let her mind wander.  While it was true, she didn't want to start lying just when they were getting so very close.  She took a breath and stepped back, pulling the last of the Johnny off before she went on.  "I was thinking about...stuff.  Things you told me about your life...before." she began hesitatingly.  Abby watched her lover's eyes darken and then Zeen turned and looked out on the horizon.  Abby sat down in the sand and waited for her lover to do something or say something...anything.

"Zeen...I'm just having trouble getting used to...the information you gave me..." She heard a sharp snort from her lover and then Zeen turned and walked over to where she was.  "You mean my propensity for violence; my fiery" Abby leapt up and took her lover's arms.  "No...That's who you were, not who you are now,'s just that the woman I see here before me...the woman I wake up to, that holds me close, making sweet love to me...and the image of you in prison, being.... Taken and then the..."

"Killing...", Zeen finished in a low voice.  Her hand moved up to her damp hair and slowly fingered the hidden tat.  "Yeah, I have a pretty dark past, babe; l won't lie to you."  She sat down heavily in the sand and gingerly took one of her lover's smaller hands into her own.  "How can I explain this?  I had a choice, Ab.  I had to do what I did to survive...but more than that...I had to become stronger or I'd be lost.  It was so damned hard in that jail...surrounded by those who wanted to eat me alive.  I tried to resist, Abby, really I did.  But it got easier to give in to the shit around me, becoming just like they were.... Worse than they were."  Abby shook her head quickly and swallowed the lump that was forming in the back of her throat.  She blinked back the tears that threatened to fall and found herself pondering what her lover was saying.  "I'm not proud of what I did, just giving into the rage..."; Zeen went on, in a voice filled with self-hatred.

Abby could almost see the woman enveloped with a dark and mournful cloud; the silence was almost deafening.  Letting her damp suit fall, Abby quickly pulled on a pair of shorts and an oversized T-shirt and waited, her eyes never leaving the woman, watching the ritual Zeen performed, almost without knowing she did it.  Suddenly, as if her hand was on fire she pulled her it away from the back of her head and scowled.  "Gods, I hate that damned thing!  Why did I ever get it done?"  Her fingers came away with strands of hair and Abby watched as the woman stared at her own hands as if they belonged to another.  "These hands have done such damage, Ab..."

Abby wanted to rail at the world for causing such a wonderful person such pain, such torment.  She reached up and pulled the woman down beside her.  "These hands," she said, "are capable of such tenderness, such loving care, Zeen.  Don't ever forget that."  She turned the large rough hands over, admiring the well-formed and tapered fingers.  She traced the creases on each palm and then spoke.  "You are the strongest person I know, Zeen Phipolis.  You risk your life every day being a fireman; you pour your heart out in poetry and prose, making my heart ache with tenderness, love and yes, anguish too.  That tattoo that you say you despise...well, I've been thinking about that.  What you did in that prison...what you had to do...I can't condone it but I can understand why you had to act the way you did.  Maybe that dragon symbolizes your stand...your strength?  Why a dragon, anyway?"

Zeen put her face in her hands and just cradled her forehead for a moment.  Then she dragged a hand wearily over her features, almost as if she were trying to erase the images and emotions being evoked.  "Do we hafta talk about this now?  I mean, shit Abby...I just put your life in danger by being so fucking featherheaded..."

Abby hugged her tightly.  "Look, I understand that we both got kinda side tracked...being down there with you...well..." Zeen looked over, afraid she would see the disappointment in her lover's eyes...she couldn't bear that...

", found it to, very erotic."  Zeen watched as a faint blush came to the woman's fair cheeks.  " about that...I found it very nice, too, Abby.  But that doesn't mean I had to be some idiot and completely lose track of time.  What if..." The blonde snaked her hand around her lover's waist and hugged her close.  "How come you always 'what if'?  I know...Without a single solitary doubt that you could get us out of anything.  Truly, Zeen.  And besides...I have been diving before; I could have made that free ascent.  It wasn't that far."  Zeen pursed her lips, "Yeah, you coulda but you were also a bit freaked down there.  People can do things they know they shouldn't at times like that."  Abby took in the woman's furtive movements as Zeen stroked the inside of one upper arm, the fine blonde hairs almost standing to attention.

"Abby?  You gonna tell me that story?  I know you don't really wanna but...well, I'd like to hear about it."  The blonde squirmed a bit in the sand and then leaned back, propping herself up by the elbows.  Zeen reached over and pulled her Harley Davidson ball cap from the side pouch on her dive bag and placed it on Abby's head.  "There.  Now the sun won't bake your brain, you won't get sunburn and there won't be any more excuses.  Right?"  Abby bit her lower lip and then nodded quickly.  She knew it was just a matter of time.

"Well.... It's not much really.  I mean, it's just.... Well, my Dad and I never really got on.  He was always so very critical of me, Zeen.  Didn't matter what it was, my effort was just never good enough.  Mom tried..." Abby snorted at the image of her mother as the woman shook her head slowly, mouth zipped as usual, as her husband laid another verbal barrage on she and her sister.  She couldn't remember exactly how old she had been when the truth of her parent's 'good marriage' became crystal clear for her.

Zeen took the woman's small hands in her own and just began tracing each finger, waiting for her to continue.  Even though Abby was adamant her story was not worth the telling, Zeen was fairly sure by the way she changed the subject that whatever it was, it was serious and still bothering her.  "Go on," she said, giving the hands a squeeze.

"I don't think I was ever happy at home.  Not really.  I guess Lida and I learned at an early age that it was really just the two of us. My father ruled the house like a prison warden and if we were lucky, we got time off for good behavior.  I think he was always afraid of losing control of us girls.  Looking back, I see that's exactly what it was.  He spent quite a lot of time on the road drumming up business for Bruno's Auto Sales and Services.  He decided that since I was coming of age he'd market me.  I guess it was around my fifteenth birthday when he brought the owner by for supper.  It became a regular thing; Father thought it was a good career move.  I hated this guy being so close, the smarmy way he had while in front of my parents that changed when he'd take me out for a Coke.  He gave me the creeps and one day, well, something happened and...And I just lost it."

Zeen let her breath out slowly, her teeth tightly clenched thinking about a father who would put his young and innocent daughter in that kind of position...just for business favours.  She squeezed her eyes shut and then swallowed.  '' it didn't work. Images of some guy pawing this sweet and trusting made her blood boil.

Abby moved her hands to rub the raised goose bumps on her arms and Zeen snapped out of her haze, grabbing the dive bag and pulling it closer.  "Hey, you must be cold, huh?"  She began rummaging through things, looking for the heavy blanket she usually kept there.  Her head whipped around as she heard a cough.

"Um...sorry to interrupt...but it is gettin guys want to head back to the hotel?"  He jangled his keys from one hand to the other, looking very awkward.  Zeen finally found the towel and wrapped it around her lover before getting to her feet.  Abby pulled it close and then just sat, looking off into the distance.

"Look Pete...I think you should just go ahead and go back to the hotel, alright?  Me and Ab.... Well, we've got some things to work through and..."

Pete smiled, "...and I should take a hint and get going.  Okay, I can pick ya up tomorrow, maybe do another dive or two? Listen, I've got a coupla sleeping bags in the back.  You want em?  It might not get much cooler than this but that sand is gonna cool down once the sun really hits the water.  Sundown in....oh, about half hour, I'd say."

Abby registered them talking and even managed a weak smile when Zeen kissed her neck and said she'd be right back.  Then she was lost to her memories once more, oblivious to the glory of the fading sunset.

Chapter Four

Zeen gathered the last of the driftwood and perked an ear up as she heard Pete's truck misfire again and then sputter to life.  She raised herself to her full height and then took one step in his direction before smiling as the truck backfired and then took off.  Placing the wood by the fire pit Zeen felt the anger building up inside.  It was one thing to be raped as an adult...but a 15-year-old kid?  She placed each piece of the driftwood into the remains of the previous fire as if they were body parts...pieces of the sonuvabitch that had...

Abby blinked slowly, finally taking in her surroundings.  She noted the tense posture, the clenched jaws and the almost palpable feeling of rage coming off her lover.

"I wasn't.... I mean he tried...but he didn't, Zeen". The dark head rose, steely blue eyes locked onto green and then Abby watched with fascination, as the tension seemed to melt off the woman in waves. Zeen pulled some matches from her pocket and lit the fire with shaking hands.

It was like hanging over a precipice, seeing all the jagged shards you were gonna hit on the way down before finally smashing yourself against the rocks below; knowing you were gonna bleed and wish you were beyond the pain you knew awaited you; closing your eyes tight and gritting your teeth, trying to make the best of it only to find yourself whisked away at the last moment.  All the images of her lover being forced...being raped, blew away like wisps of smoke and as her vision cleared she looked across the fire and saw the worried, small face of a woman who had endured something that, while not being rape, was nonetheless harrowing in her own mind.

"You wanna tell me about it?" she said quietly.  Abby bit her lower lip and then held out her trembling hand.  "Come and sit with me?" Zeen could see in the red glow of sunset just how upset Abby was and felt her heart wrench at the small vulnerable voice of her lover. She dropped what remained of her match into the fire pit and slowly stood up, feeling her thighs and calves flex and contract after being so tense.

The blonde pushed at the tears that began to fall with the heel of her hand, blinking quickly and then smiled as Zeen snuggled in behind her, pulling her closely against her strong form.  Abby felt her lover's comforting arms stretch tightly around her and closed her eyes.  Zeen's hot breath at her neck, at her ear, made her shiver, a faint row of goose bumps covering her skin.

" know you can tell me anything.  I'm not here to stand in judgement, to offer criticism.  I'm here to listen and accept anything you have to say."  The blonde bobbed her head quickly and then grew silent.

Both women sat there in the sand watching as the impossibly large ball of fire dipped lower in the sky, finally kissing the cold waters of the Pacific.  Zeen pulled the blanket more closely around her lover as she felt the woman begin to shiver.

Many things filled Abby's mind as she sat in the haven of her lover's arms.  Images of her father who had begun to drink in celebration as he pushed his oldest daughter into the arms of his boss.  Abby remembered feeling like the sacrificial lamb, as she was lead out to the car, her mother standing stoically silent.  It was just a date but still...Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Abby knew her life would never be the same.  She'd tried to talk to her father about how the man made her feel but he hadn't listened.  Had said it was good for his career and that Abby was old enough to start contributing to the family.  By hooking up with Mr. Bruno there could only be prosperity for them in the near future.  'Be nice to the man, give him what he wants, do the family proud.'  She shivered as she remembered how meek and docile she'd been, steeling herself to do what her father had wanted while her insides twisted and turned at the mere thought.

Slowly, she began to tell of the drunken rage that her father had fallen into as the car screeched into the carport, dislodging a weeping fifteen-year-old.  Acrimonious words flew back and forth between the two men as her mother dragged her back into the house.  Zeen's chest felt tight and painful as she listened to the sordid scene painted in vivid Technicolor.

"He tried to...he wanted to seal the deal he and my father had.  I was to 'put out' for him whenever he wanted until l was old enough to be legally married and my father would get a partnership in the business."  She wiped her red nose on the handkerchief provided by her lover, smiling gratefully.  Abby tilted her head back and stared into the heavens and watched as small motes of light began to appear in the darkness.

"God, Zeen.  He was willing to sell I was chattel. That's what it was, really, for a junior partnership in a crummy automotive center."  She snorted derisively, gritting her teeth as her father's harsh words of condemnation filled her ears, hitting just as hard as they had the first time.

"He wanted to know why I hadn't...done anything with his boss.  Was I frigid?  Was I some sort of queer that didn't like men?  I couldn't believe it, Zeen; the hateful things he began spouting at me from the driveway, cursing the day I was ever conceived.  He ranted and raved about how selfish I was, how ungrateful I was being, unwilling to pull my own weight and do what was right for the family.  God..." Zeen tightened her embrace and began whispering small words of endearment against the cooling skin of her lover.

"You know, that was bad but it was nothing compared to the cold disappointing stare of my mother.  God, she just stood there, her eyes burning into the back of my neck.  I tried to talk to her, explain how it had been with Mr. Bruno but I could was a lost cause.  No matter what l said, it was going to fall on deaf ears."

"He was drunk, babe.  Maybe she didn't feel safe..." Zeen drew a heavy sigh and then shut her mouth with a snap.  What the hell was she doing, making up excuses for Abby's low life parents?  Abby turned in her embrace and stared into the brunette's eyes.

"Yes, he was drunk.  Yes, he said some things I don't suppose he would have ever voiced but you know what?  Right there and then I could see my future.  Lida and I were just 'things' to them.  Sure, I suppose they both loved their fashion.  But l could see my life if l stayed.  I ran to my room and slammed the door.  I can't remember too much about packing or hugging my sister and then darting out into the street but I do remember my father yelling obscenities, accusing me of being some lesbian, some dyke...betraying her family."

Zeen put her hands up to Abby's face and gently cupped it.  "Where did you go?  Did you have any money, any friends?  Gods, were a child.  How could you think you'd be able to survive on the streets?  When I think of you being out there, all alone and..." She hugged the blonde close to her, hooking her chin over the woman's shoulder.  What she could have the twinkling of an eye, Zeen could see just how the odds had been against them ever meeting.  It was a miracle that Abby had ever survived life on the street, avoiding gang pressure, drugs and crime.

She took a deep breath, inhaling the soft fragrance of her lover's hair.  "How did you ever survive?"

Abby rubbed her hands up and down her lover's back and snuggled closer, finally moving her cramping legs into a more comfortable position around Zeen's hips.  The brunette moved her hands slowly and pulled the blanket around the two of them and then slowly rocked back and forth, a silent lullaby playing in her head.

A few mournful cries floated down to them from the seagulls' overhead as Abby cleaned off her face and blew her nose.  "S'okay, Zeen.  I did survive.  I'm not too sure how, though.  I spent my first night in the park under some bushes.  I must have looked pretty sorry the next morning because a few people dropped coins into my jean jacket as I sat on one of the benches, trying to organize my next plan of attack.  I guess I made a few bucks there that day before the cops threatened to charge me with loitering.  I'd heard a few comments about a half way house throughout the day and that's where I spent my second night.  Things got easier after that."

The taller woman pondered the last statement, biting the inside of her cheek.  'Easier...yeah, like life on the streets, going from one half way house to the next, living from hand to mouth could be easy.'

"So, just how did you manage to avoid..."

Abby rested her cheek on the strong shoulder of her lover and sighed deeply, lost in her memories.  "Well, I've always been pretty much a loner, not fitting into any particular group.  Lida was pretty much my only friend growing up.  We sure did get into some trouble."  She laughed a little as Zeen's eyebrow shot up.  "Yes, trouble.  I might have looked like Sandra Dee but I felt like Natalie Wood...ready to stand up for what l believed.  You know, like in that movie with James Dean."

Zeen smiled and then drew her lover's face up for a sweet kiss.  "My little rebel without a clue?  And just how do you know about those old movie stars?  You, a babe in the woods?"  Abby smirked and kissed the taller woman's nose.  "Hey," she thwacked her companion's flat belly.  "I had to have some place l could call sanctuary, didn't l?  And yeah, I was a rebel."

Zeen tried hard not to roll her eyes and succeeded, for the time being.  "Man, Lida and I would while away the weekends watching the old movies that came on after midnight.  Our parents didn't really seem to care as long as we didn't make a mess and had our chores done without complaint.  I guess, come to think of it, we were pretty low maintenance kids.  Okay, so we never really did get into what you might call 'real trouble'.  I mean, we did do the usual pranks: toilet papering the neighbour's trees on Hallowe'en and soaping their car and stuff.  That was as mischievous as we got, I guess."

"Ah, so the truth comes out; you were lil Miss Goodie-Two-Shoes, huh?  Well, I gotta tell you a secret: l was pretty quiet when l was growing up, too.  In fact, I spent most of my time with my nose in one book or another.  Used to drive my mother crazy; she was sure I'd need coke bottle lenses before too long."

Abby settled herself a bit more.  "So.  Now you know about me, about stuff..." Zeen touched the woman's nose.  "Hmm.... Yeah, I guess we know more about each other now, huh?"  She paused and then cleared her throat.  "So, when did you know..."

"...That I was different?  Well, l guess my father pretty much gave me a clue about that."  Abby hooked her chin over her lover's shoulder.  "I started thinking about how uncomfortable l was around all the boys in school.  At first, l thought it was just because I knew my parents wouldn't approve of me dragging any friends home.  They really frowned on 'outsiders'.  When I was older and away from their control, well I began to think and do what l wanted.  I didn't like being around guys.  They just seemed so...crass and alien to me.  I remember an incident one night in the girl's dorm when I was about seventeen.  I suppose that particular hole in the wall could be called home as it was the first place up until then, on the streets anyway, that I'd stayed in the longest.  Anyway, there were two girls there that said they were sisters or cousins or something.  They used to spend a lot of time holding hands and hugging and such.  Folks pretty much gave them a wide berth.  I wasn't too sure why so I took it upon myself to make friends with them.  After hanging out with them for a couple of days, I realized they really weren't cousins or anything; just really close friends."  She stopped to push her hair from her face as the wind began changing direction.

"So, this one night I was just kinda lying in bed waiting for sleep and l saw them...Joly kinda crept into Moira's bed and at first, I didn't really think too much about it.  I couldn't see much because of the darkness but I could tell something was going on."

Zeen watched as a faint blush began up her lover's neck and throat.  "Oh, you could, huh?"  Abby smirked and replied, "Yeah...I could.  The kissing was fairly easy to figure out but it was really the terms of endearment, the words of love spoken between them that cinched it for me."  Zeen nodded a little.  "So, a pretty good way to discover how two women can be together, huh?"  She scrunched her forehead as she watched her lover dip her chin down.  "Yeah, they were really good to each other.  My folks...well, they were certainly not what you'd call loving towards each other.  No public displays of affection or anything.  I think Lida and I found out about sex on the Discovery Channel."

Zeen snorted, thinking of the documentaries that depicted animal sexuality and shuddered.  It was amazing this woman hadn't ended up on a therapist's couch for extended periods of time.  "So, a healthy sex life to you is...watching two dung beetles going at it?"  She yelped as two fingers were dug into her side.  "Stop...stop...okay, I give. Why do you keep trying to see if I'm ticklish?  I'm not, you know.  All you're doing is digging between my ribs."  She grabbed Abby's wrists and then leaned in for a smoldering kiss.  "So, little rebel mine, just how did you learn about human sexuality then?"

"Heh, well...they kinda took me aside and introduced me to kissing."  Zeen's eyebrows shot up.  "Both of em...taught you at the same time?  My oh are a wild one, huh?"  Abby got a hand free and swatted her again.  "No.  Jeez, Zeen.  I was curious and they...well, they helped me answer some questions.  I do have this really good imagination, you know.  And well, I began having some pretty good dreams, and fantasies and well...By the time l was twenty, I'd answered most of the questions l had on sex with women."

"Twenty, huh?  Slow learner, Abby?  Aw, that's okay.  I think l was like that with basket weaving."  Zeen smirked as a dangerous glint came into Abby's eyes.  She let herself be pushed back into the sand until the woman was stretched out on top of her.  "I might have been a slow learner, Zeen my love, but I sure made up for lost time.  A woman of many skills, am I."

That was it; the brunette just couldn't stop either the laughter bubbling up or the rolling of her eyes any more than she could have stopped the sun from sinking below the horizon.  Abby tried to keep a straight face but soon the two of them were rolling around in the sand, hooting with childish abandon.

"Gods, I'm sorry, Ab.  I just had this image of you...this wanton woman acting out what she'd seen on the fuckin Discovery Channel...oh, gods...sneaking up on some hapless woman, ready to pounce on her and drag her into the bushes!"  The images threw the taller woman into gales of laughter.  Abby watched in amusement until her lover drew quiet.  Tracing her fingertip along the planes of Zeen's face, Abby watched with fascination as a fine dusting of white sand seemed to highlight the woman's burnished skin, making Zeen look every inch a goddess.

"I love you, Zeen.  I love the way you can make me laugh, poke fun at myself and just not be so serious.  And I'm really glad that I told you about...Mr. Bruno."

Zeen pushed her long fingers through her lover's golden hair and gave Abby a very passionate kiss.  "I'm glad you did, too, babe.  Just remember, there isn't anything you can't tell me, okay?"  Abby nodded and their mouths brushed softly against each other again, their ardor rising.

"Well...there is one thing, but..." Zeen arched an eyebrow at the suddenly quiet blonde.  "Yes?"

Abby smiled gently and then propped herself up on either side of her lover's shoulders.  "'s like this.  You know how l feel about you, right?"  Zeen nodded.  "And you know that I'd do anything for you.  Any time and any place?"  The darker woman scrunched her forehead.  "Yah...that goes double for me."  The blonde moved a few errant wisps of hair out of her lover's eyes and then smirked.  "Well, I guess we know how we feel but I gotta tell ya...if I don't get into a sleeping bag or someplace warm I won't be able to put into action this good imagination I have cos l won't be able to feel anything pretty soon."

Zeen chuckled and then rolled the woman beneath her.  Getting to her hands and knees, she leaned down and kissed Abby and then quickly got to her feet and grabbed one of the bags.  "Well, that's easily rectified...hold on.  Lessee what Pete left us."  She fumbled with one duffel bag and pulled out two sleeping bags and a couple of poncho liners.  "This oughta do the job nicely.  Abby lay in the sand clutching the blanket to her.  The stars twinkled overhead and the wind made her eyes tear up.

Walking down the beach a little, Zeen picked up a few of the dryer pierces of driftwood and piled them close to the fire pit.  Abby watched her with loving eyes and wondered just how strange fate was.  As the brunette fed pieces of wood into the fire, the flames rose and both women watched as cinders floated up into the dark sky.  Zeen's thoughts went back to the night they had met and she glanced across at the wistful look on her lover's face.

Abby sighed contentedly as the taller woman began to set up a small lean to, using some of the larger, heavier pieces of timber that littered the beach.  She could close her eyes and see just how it must have been in that ancient forest eons ago in Greece.  Taking a slow breath Abby imagined the tangy smell of leather and horseflesh and snuggled deeper into her blanket.  It felt so right, so..."Home", she murmured.

Zeen stood silently, watching the emotions play over her lover's face as the flames danced in the darkness casting shadows, highlighting the glorious topography that she could see even with her eyes closed.  Every now and again she found herself feeling an overlap of past and present...the old emotions racing to the fore, overwhelming her.  It was times like that when Zeen had to overcome the urge to sit and sharpen...something.  She stopped the wayward hand that was making its way to the pocketknife in her front pocket.  'Stop it', she admonished herself.
Although it seemed a goodly amount of time had passed, she noticed Abby was still smiling up at the stars, lost in her own reverie.  Clearing her throat, she dragged the Black Ice bags into position by the fire.

"There ya go.  We shouldn't put the sleeping bags too close to the pit just in case but the lean to will help keep the wind off us and reflect some of the heat off the fire.  C'mon, you.  Let's get you into some heavier sweats and warm again."  Abby nodded her eyes twinkling and a grin just playing at the corners of her mouth.  "Well...I suppose we could get me warmed up like that but I thought we'd do it the old fashioned way."

Zeen began unzipping the other sleeping bag, a sly smile playing over her lips.  "I don't suppose we need this one then, huh?"  Abby watched as her lover draped the open material over the lean to and then grinned as her lover began to strip. "Oh, I'm feeling warmer already."  She could feel her arousal like a burning fever as she watched the play of light and shadows accentuate the curves of her lover.  Even the woman's ebony hair seemed to be interlaced with flames as gusts of wind made the short tresses dance and undulate, moving to some primal symphony.

Abby blinked slowly, the spell broken as Zeen rubbed her arms and threw another couple of logs on the fire.  "C'mere you."

Zeen stood and turned, her eyes flashing with desire.  Her hair framed her face with darkness, making the lighted angles of her stand out in contrast.  She slowly dropped to her knees, placing her large well-formed hands on flame painted thighs.

"Warm enough?"  A gentle smirk played on her lips as she felt the amber waves of desire roll off her lover.  Abby nodded slowly and reached out from under her blanket and pulled the woman closer.

"Uh huh...much warmer...but I still have this sense, this desire to be warmer still.  Think you can help me out, Stretch?"  Without waiting for a reply she grabbed Zeen's hands and placed them under her T-shirt against her firm breasts.  The large hands began tentative exploration, as if their owner was afraid to burst the bubble of trust that had been created.  Zeen knew just how much the encounter with Bruno had affected Abby...had he touched her this way?  Had he...She pushed the images away as two smaller hands moved her fingertips over the hardening flesh begging for her attention.  Abby groaned as each rosy bud was brushed and tantalized.

Abby made room as Zeen slid her large frame into the sleeping bag and settled between her lover's satiny smooth thighs.  Moving to entwine one of their hands, she opened her legs wider and then crossed them over her lover's taut buttocks.

"I want you, Zeen...I need to feel you."  A dark head nodded in response and Abby grunted as she felt the tender flesh of her shoulder taken between sharp teeth.  She felt herself sliding wetly against the fireman's belly, a jolt searing through her each time her clit came into contact.

Zeen felt the woman's need rising to a fevered pitch.  She looked into eyes darkened with lust and knew this would not be a night of lovemaking but one of primal lust, an encounter where both parties felt the need to excise demons.

"Do you feel me, Ab?  Do you feel what I do to you and what you creating within me?  Do you?"  Abby nodded and placed both hands on Zeen's biceps, holding on for dear life as she felt her lover begin to rock strongly against her.  Her vision was filled as the woman's mouth descended and began exploring every inch of her mouth with expert strokes and deepening kisses.  She felt her breath taken away as the waves of passion created between them began to roll back and forth, rising like a tidal wave.

Zeen gasped as she felt the liquid fire of her lover paint the surface of her lower abdomen; feeling her muscles clench and spasm as the volume increased.

"Gods, I love how wet you get for me, responsive..." She whispered as she trailed her tongue and lips up and down the blonde's exposed neck.  Her hands moved to cup the firm breasts against her, tweaking the nipples before moving her hands quickly over the woman's lower back, pulling the woman's buttocks hard against her.

Abby gasped as the first jolt of her building orgasm came on suddenly.  She felt the zipper give as Zeen locked her elbows and began thrusting against her.

"Oh gods...oh.... Oh gods, Zeeeeeen!"  She leaned in and buried her teeth in her lover's flexed forearm, muffling her scream against its quivering surface.

Zeen shuddered as she felt her flesh claimed, the pain mingling with intense pleasure and cried out as the teeth moved from forearm to breast.

Instead of relaxing against the sand in release, Abby tightened her legs, trapping her lover hard against her.  Zeen's arms gave out and then she found herself looking up with surprise as the stars glistened overhead.

"I know what you do to me, Zeen...I've always known...I see...what I do  All of it..." She panted between nips upon her lover's breasts and neck area, leaving small red welts in her wake.

Gritting her teeth, the firefighter tried to focus on what her lover was doing but found her mind wandering.  She never liked to be made love to in this fashion, finding it more enjoyable, much safer...the control always hers...."Oh gods....", she whimpered as digits were slowly pushed inside.

Abby began thrusting against her, placing her upper thigh behind her hand and picking up the pace.  She watched as Zeen's eyes fluttered closed and she bent to her task.  One of her hands came up and caressed her lover's face, the softness of the skin too difficult to resist.  She ran her fingers over Zeen's lower lip and then her throat went dry as her thumb was taken into the hot wet depths of her lover's mouth.

"What.... What you do to set me aflame, Ab.... You heal cauterize every wound..."

As a fine sheen reflected the dancing flames before them, Abby could see just how hard it was for her lover to just...let go.  Removing her fingers, she pressed her pelvis hard against her lover's groin and grabbed the woman's shoulders.  "I want to see what I do to you, Zeen...l want to look down into your eyes when you cum for me...knowing I did it...made you happy...set you free."

Zeen gasped as she felt herself give in.  "I...I can't let...go...Abby..."

"Yes you can. No one...should ever...hurt you, Zeen.... No one will again..." She kissed Zeen hard, gasping out each word as motes of light spiraled up before her eyes.

Zeen couldn't believe just how fast and close her orgasm was building.  She'd never been able to achieve orgasm without mouth and fingers and there she was...being up her control...While she found the experience a bit unnerving she was caught up in the throws of it all.  A compassionate look came into Abby's eyes and Zeen could have wept with joy at the total acceptance she found there. "I want it all, Zeen...I want your love, your desire, your total trust.... All of it.  Let me in, Zeen...all the way."

Grabbing her lover's hips, the blonde moved her upper thigh between Zeen's legs and began pounding against the tender heated flesh.  "Gods but I love you, Zeen...oh so very much.  Trust in me, Zeen....l won't let you fall."

Feeling like she was riding a sonic roller coaster Zeen opened her mouth and roared as she felt her heart dashed against her breast bone countless times before it just seemed to explode.

She gathered the blonde to her and buried her face in a curtain of gold as she fought to keep the tears at bay.  New areas were being discovered and walls were being breached each time they made love.  Zeen found herself simply overwhelmed with what she had given and yet...part of her wondered how worthy she truly was.  Why she was the object of Abby's unconditional love was a mystery.  Small teeth gnawed at her as she remembered the afternoon's events and just how stupid she'd been.  'I can't be trusted with this love...sooner or later, I'm going to fuck up.'

Abby frowned as she felt her lover shuddering briefly against her and then grow quiet.  She wasn't sure just what going on.  'Could l have asked too much of her...of us?'  Each woman retreated a little, trying to sort out the ramifications of Zeen's silence.

"I love you, Zeen."

The brunette pulled the blonde down beside her and snuggled her back into the sleeping bag.  "I know."

"I'm glad you do, babe, cos it's never going to change.  Thank you."

Zeen tilted her lover's face up.  "For what?"

"For letting me in.  I..."

Zeen bit her cheek and sighed.  "I'm okay with it, Abby...I've just...never let anyone do that to me before....I'm usually the fucker not the know?"

Abby nodded mutely.

"But...I'm okay, I am.  I guess l was a bit surprised at just how powerful and....liberating that experience was for me."

Abby slowly released the breath she was holding and then leaned in for a quick kiss.  "So....did l do okay?  I mean, I've never made love to anyone like that either...being totally dominant like was kinda...well, thrilling.  You know?"
Zeen smiled.  "Well, woman of many skills...don't get too used to it.  Wow..." She held her hand up and watched as the tremors slowly eased off and stopped all together.

Abby raised her brows as she saw her lover gain back all of the control she imposed on herself and then eased back down into the woman's shoulder.  They both gazed up at the clear western skies, pointing out one twinkling constellation after another and went over the events of the day.

"What the heck was that funny gross orange stuff I saw against the wall near the bottom?"  Zeen rubbed her chin in silence and then grinned.  "Oh, you mean the stuff that looked like snot?"

Abby made slow little circles over her lover's warm belly.  "Now there's an image.  Yeah, and that weird thing that looked like a walking branch...what was that?"

Zeen sighed contentedly and began rubbing the blonde's lower back.  She had three passions in life: Abby, her beloved Harley and scuba diving. She'd been an advanced diver for over five years and found marine life fascinating.

"Well, the first one was an egg sack from a Rockfish.  They get pretty territorial.  You didn't notice that reddish fish bumping your leg?"  Abby frowned trying to remember.  "Nope, I guess you didn't.  Well, we were kinda occupied, huh?"  Memories of their first underwater embrace and kiss made them both smile.  "The other one was a Clown Jellyfish.  And yeah, it does kinda look like a branch.  Good bloody thing that sucker isn't bigger.  Those creatures prey on shrimp and those branch like appendages could be really scary if they were any bigger.  I've watched them in action and man, they are tenacious...they just go for it, relentlessly tracking down their prey."

Abby watched in fascination as she felt a shudder run thru her companion's frame. "What is it?" Zeen held her breath and then Abby felt the woman's hand resume its methodic perusal of her willing and very responsive flesh.  "I guess I find it hard to wrap my head around...being so relentless."  The blonde smiled and leaned up for a kiss.  "Ah, but my dear warrior, I think that describes you to a 't'.  Face it, you are tenacious when it comes to your job...those kids are a case in point."  Zeen nodded slowly.  "Yeah, but that is my job.  I have to do that kinda thing."  Abby arched an eyebrow and smirked at the woman.  "Yeah, and hanging upside down on a ladder, suspended a hundred feet from the ground, holding on to this woman who would surely have fallen to her death was just doing your job and not above and beyond the call of duty?"

Zeen scratched her head, thinking back to the night they met.  She hadn't been sure why it was so important to get the ladder truck so damned close to the fire, endangering the crew and herself for some lone woman but it had been.  All she knew was the woman would have jumped and she just couldn't...

", I'm relentless at my job.  I'll grudgingly give you that one. And do you see me as this predator, relentlessly pursuing her victim like some creature from the black lagoon?"  Arching her frame forward, Zeen did a decent impersonation of Bella Lagosi, eye teeth exposed and nails curled.

"Eeek!  Oh, please...No.... Not the...dreaded Zeen the Fiend!  Have mercy!"  The brunette had a hard time suppressing a grin as she watched Abby fall into a swoon.  Hissing demonically, she slowly pushed the blonde's chin aside and bent in, teeth exposed.  Abby felt a shudder run through her as Zeen's hot mouth began sucking on her neck.  She could feel her toes positively curling and sighed deeply.  Her lover's eyes twinkled as Abby mentally compared their intensity to the stars that dotted the sky above them.  There really was no contest, none whatsoever.

"Zeen, you can be a predator all you want...just as long as you are my very own personal Dr. Jeckle."

The taller woman placed a hand over her heart, wounded to the quick.  "Gasp!  That was my best imitation of Bella Lagosi's Dracula, I'll have you know.  I can see you have a lot of edjumacatin in your future."

Abby smiled and pulled the woman down on top of her.  "Oh, I'm counting on it, lover."  The brunette leaned in, a lecherous grin on her face and then felt a fist gently poke her in the stomach.  "But first...well, it's not silver or a cross but maybe...just maybe this will get me in good with the head vampire."  Zeen looked down and saw the small brown jewelry box and quickly looked up into her lover's eyes.  "What..." Abby took her other hand and smoothed the frown lines blossoming in the woman's forehead.  "Oh,'s just a necklace, not a ring or anything."  Zeen wasn't sure whether she was disappointed or relieved.  Not that a ring wasn't a good idea but she'd kinda thought maybe the ring thing would be her idea.

The blonde smirked as a thoughtful look came into her lover's eyes.  'Ah ha.... So, she's thought about it, too.'  She cleared her throat, reminding herself that they'd only been together for six months, not a great span of time in itself but a benchmark for her when it came to long term relationships.  No, she decided, it was far too soon.  She knew Zeen was her destiny but...How many times had they gone through different lives before they'd ended up in this one?  She firmly believed that a soul had to pass through many lives before everything that needed to be learned, all the problems had been dealt with, before a state of inner peace was achieved and the soul was finally at rest was accomplished.  Abby didn't think they were that far along but didn't want to do anything without really thinking of all the ramifications, thus preventing them from making some sort of cosmic mistake.

What if they were supposed to be married and because Abby didn't feel she was ready they missed their chance and somehow changed their future? It hurt her head the more she thought about it.

"So, you gonna open it?"  She poked Zeen with the box again and then watched as a lovely gold chain was pulled from the case.  Dangling at the end was a St. George's medallion.  She held it up and watched as the flames seemed to make it come alive.

Abby's smile slipped a little and she wondered if she'd made a blunder.  "If...if you don't like the medallion..." Zeen shook her head and held it out to the blonde.  "No...l love it." Abby sighed as the necklace went back into the box.  She'd hoped to see the firefighter wearing that as a symbol of their bond and was disappointed that it seemed destined to remain in a box deep in some drawer.  Deciding this wasn't really the time to get into just why Zeen wasn't going to wear her present, she lifted the woman's chin with her forefinger and gazed deeply into endless blue.

"I got you St. George because he slays dragons and I think you do, too.  I thought about St. Christopher...him being the patron saint of travelers but I kinda like this one better.  We can exchange it if you want."  Zeen reached over and captured her lover's lips in a gentle kiss that seemed to last forever.  "Oh gods, I love you Abby" she said between kisses.  "I'll treasure it forever."


Both women sat sunning themselves on the beach, fingers entwined, when Pete appeared beside them.  He'd shaved and was wearing his swimming trunks.  Zeen turned her head briefly, noting he'd brought the dive gear back down to the beach.  They were to head back home in the next few days and she felt a little uneasy about doing another dive.

"Oh, come on, Zeen.  I know you want to.  Tell you what.  Why don't you and Pete just do this great dive you've been talking about...Hundred Mile Point...or whatever...and Dave and I'll hold down the fort.  Whataya say?"

She smirked as Pete's face lit up.  Zeen's fingers twitched and then the woman sat up and smiled.  Abby would be more than pleased to see that shining face every day of her life forever...and beyond.

Getting to her feet, Zeen punched her partner in the shoulder and smirked.  "Well, okay...if you insist.  It won't take us long.  Say, Pete...race ya to get all the equipment back in the truck."

Pete's eyes danced with merriment.  It was like old times.  "Well, you gotta deal, baby...but Dave's in the cab and the loser gets a face licking.  Deal?"

"How come he's stuck in the cab, Pete?"  Abby got to her feet and began dragging some of their camping equipment closer to the dive gear.  "Well, it's like this:  l spent almost all night picking little marine life outta that dogs fur, not to mention the sand fleas he now grants residence to.  Forget that. Had to buy some special flea powder from the local vet in Victoria and it cost me a goddamned fortune.  Regardless of the rate of exchange.  So, no...he ain't getting out on this beach for a while. He's gonna be a nice clean mutt for the drive back to Chicago."

Zeen shook her head sadly, her empathy rising at the plight Dave was enduring.  Nothing worse than denying your true self.  Dave was an animal that reveled in the freedom of racing up and down the beach.  She'd never seen a dog who took more readily to the sea.  Most dogs didn't like the taste of fish or other seafood delicacies but he sure did.  The crabs didn't scare him and after a close encounter with a stinging jellyfish, he knew enough to mind them.

It had taken them only five or ten minutes to get all the gear loaded back into the truck.  Although Pete carried the bulk of the heavier items it was Zeen's speed that enabled her to make more trips and have most of the gear packed away, thereby winning the contest.

They drove in companionable silence and then made their way over the rocks down to the entry point at Ten Mile Point.  Abby watched as the two went over the dive tables and factored in slack tide.  Although the Dalmatian was somewhat cowed after his close encounter with the vet, his spirits perked up as Abby urged him to explore the area.

She sat and smiled indulgently as each lure and bit of fishing tackle was brought to the surface and only expressed a keen interest when Zeen came up with a bit of branch coral.  Being divers, they all knew the cardinal rule of leaving the marine life and site pretty much as they found it.  Touching living coral was a no-no and to be avoided at all costs, thereby ensuring that other generations could reap the bounty much as they had.  Apparently, that small piece was found on the sea floor and although Abby found it very interesting and a definite treasure, she closed her eyes and kissed it before throwing it back into the ocean.

The two did back to back dives that day and Abby managed to con her companion into a brief shore dive at the breakwater in Victoria before the end of the day.  Abby found it rather sweet when her lover all but doted on her while diving but the romance of it soon paled and an uneasy truce was put into effect.  That lasted for all of about twenty minutes, until Abby pulled her lover into a heated embrace, kissing the woman soundly.  After replacing their regs, Abby held up her gauge and smiled.

A weight seemed to be lifted off of Zeen's shoulders after that dive and she began to mentally set the blonde up in some night courses in Advanced Diving given at the local university back home.

Chapter Five

It had been a nice couple of days on the West Coast but both Pete and Zeen seemed very keen to get back to work. The drive home was relatively uneventful, the three of them opting to drive straight through from Billings, Montana.  It was during Zeen's time at the wheel that he began to notice a sense of withdrawal coming from his partner, at first putting it down to a lack of sleep.  After all, three adults and a dog that preferred the company of humans to a lonely truck's bed certainly made for a cramped living space.  However, before too long, the woman's moodiness was more than apparent and Pete sat silently, his efforts to draw the woman out dwindling down to nothing.

It was funny how the woman could mirror the advent of an oncoming storm.  Her eyes seemed to take on the slate grey of the lowering ceiling and the Lieutenant could feel the tension rising, coming off the woman in waves.  Pete found it quite easy to get the woman to relinquish the wheel at the next gas station, hoping that perhaps she'd doze, sparing him the sight of her stony profile.  She seemed almost lost, somewhere beyond their side of the rainbow.

Zeen sat, cheek twitching as she absently stroked her lover's temple as the woman lay dozing on her lap.  Dave rumbled low in the back of his throat and seemed to be watching the woman with trepidation...almost as if she were the oncoming storm, bolts of electricity ready to fly from her blazing eyes.  His flanks quivered with anticipation and Pete kept glancing his way, offering a word or two to calm the dog.

Pete was almost drenched in sweat as they finally rolled up to Zeen's apartment building.  He offered to help get Abby upstairs but a curt shake of the head stopped him in his tracks.  While he'd been through Zeen's darker moods and lived to tell the tale, this one seemed deeper than the others and he couldn't help but wonder just what was going on inside the woman's head.

Abby had awakened enough to stumble up the stairs leading to the entranceway of their building but Pete could see she'd be asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.  Although there were dark circles under the woman's eyes, she'd gotten quite a bit of sun, bronzing up nicely beneath the clear western skies.

The man sat in his truck, scratching the tender area behind his dog's ears, wondering just what had transpired between the two women.  There had been some tension after the Henderson dive but things had seemed much better the past couple of days.

He shook his head, muttering nonsensically to his adoring companion who seemed more that willing to be soothed by his master's voice.  The sense of foreboding had lessened for the dog as soon as Zeen had left the cab.  The dog whined and Pete threw the stick into gear.  A couple of backfires later and they were on their way, Pete finding things to pick at absently in his growing neck fur as he tried to ponder things out.

Abby had stood mutely, eyes closed, as her lover removed all of the rumpled clothing she'd been wearing for the last 24 hours.  Even though they'd both gotten into bed it was a long while before the brunette's eyes fluttered closed and she dropped into an uneasy slumber.
Some time during the night, Zeen had gotten up and gone out to the balcony, pen and paper in hand.  Lightening began flashing in the distance across the darkened sky and the surrounding air became super charged with positive ions as the sometime poet began to write furiously.  Heaps of crumpled paper sat morosely under and around her lawn chair but Zeen remained undaunted as she squinted in the Coleman's glow and continued to write.

Abby slept soundly, oblivious to the approaching storm.

The next morning was dull and grey with the promise of rain and while the humidity index rose, it was kept at bay until late afternoon.  Thunder rolled across the horizon looking like a shell barrage in the distance.

Zeen stood looking out the window as the heavens finally opened up, splattering the panes with cold rivulets of rain.  Although it was now into Fall, the days were still comfortable with the heat of a late Indian Summer.  The rain was a welcomed respite and Zeen pressed her forehead against the cool glass gratefully. She started as a small hand moved up the small of her back.

"Hey, sweets.  You're a million miles away, huh?  Wanna talk?"  Zeen stilled her own hand as it moved up the back of her neck.   It was almost as if the green dragon called to her.

"Oh, just thinking, is all."  She said, dismissing any further talk on the subject.

Abby had been aware of her lover's moodiness but knew it would pass.  She seriously doubted whether Zeen had ever taken two weeks off for a vacation.  Pete had basked in the time away from their hazardous job but Zeen seemed preoccupied after the first three days.

"Think a storm is comin.  I can almost feel the rain on my skin."  The taller woman turned and pinned Abby with a fervent gaze.  "You can feel it, right?  The energy?  It feels like being underwater, caught in a rip tide."

Abby frowned and then placed both hands on Zeen's upper arms.  "What's the matter, baby?  You seem...really jumpy.  You having those nightmares again?"

Zeen dropped her gaze and turned back to the window.  Abby watched as the woman's shoulders dropped and then had to lean forward in an effort to hear the soft muttering of her lover.

"Yeah, but I don't want to talk about it, okay?  Not now."  Abby nodded once but wasn't willing to let the woman completely off the hook.  She knew something was bothering Zeen and decided then and there that if she didn't want the woman's mood to get any worse, she'd have to do some probing.

The same dream had plagued the firefighter for as long as she could remember.  Sometimes days, even weeks passing and Zeen would be nightmare free and then it would begin again.  Abby had gotten somewhat used to the midnight wanderings of her lover after the first few months but it still bothered her that Zeen didn't feel comfortable enough to talk about them.

"Are they the same dream or just change from night to night?"  Getting no reply, she turned and went to put the kettle on for another pot of tea.  "Hey, Zeen?  Why don't we have some of that Murchie's tea we got in Victoria?  You game for a little Lapsang Soochong?  I mean, what the heck, let's live dangerously."  Zeen didn't answer and continued to stare out at the gathering storm.

Abby sighed deeply and decided to just keep her distance for a while until Zeen gave her some sort of clue she was ready to resume their lives.  It was times like this that Abby felt the most vulnerable.  Zeen was the strong one, the protector with more than capable shoulders; her shelter from whatever life would throw at them.

A few hours went by and still Zeen stood by the window.  Abby had tried to entice the woman with a nice fresh salad, had even waved a hero sandwich nearby but Zeen was having nothing to do with either.  At least she'd said a few words.  The silence was making the blonde uneasy.  Finally, she'd put her half eaten supper away and had once more bared the lion in her den.

"C'mon, Zeen.... Talk to me.  Tell me what's going on.  You've been like this before...but never for so long.  Is there...have I done something..."

Zeen swiveled her eyes around, locking them on a worried sea of green.  "Hey....s'okay.  I'll be fine...just need some time alone, is all."  She frowned as Abby grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away from the fading daylight.  Sighing heavily, she allowed her lover to remove her sneakers and socks.  She lay back against the headboard, lost in thought, totally oblivious to the young woman who was quietly disrobing before her.

Abby ground her teeth a little and then pushed onward.  If she was going to help Zeen out of this funk she was in, well, it was going to take a lot of patience and even a seduction scene or two.

The brunette lay there, every fibre in her body seemed to be twitching.  She felt an overwhelming sense of foreboding settle on her chest, making it difficult to breathe.  It seemed as if an anvil were sitting there.

Slowly removing her shirt and pants, Abby added a wiggle here and a grind there, doing her best burlesque imitation.  She remembered watching a great old movie with Shirley Somebody or Other...doing the bump and grind.  She thought it was sexy and had filed the info away for another time.  Right now seemed perfect.  Hearing the squeak of the bed she zoned back in and watched in shock as the taller woman just got up off the bed and walked away. "Zeen?"  She stood there, mouth hanging open, as the woman grabbed her coveralls and tool box.

Zeen ducked once as the thunder crashed directly overhead.  She punched the elevator for the basement and stood impatiently, drumming her fingers against her thigh.

Abby appeared in the hallway wearing a short bathrobe.  "Honey?  What's wrong?"  Zeen looked up but found it hard to meet her lover's eyes.  Just what was up?  All she knew was there was something coming...something bad.  That little voice inside was all but screaming and had been since the last day of their vacation.  'Vacation...more like enforced exile', she thought in a fit of pique.  Oh, the first few days had been good; sleeping under the stars had been the best.  It had always been hard for her to sit still and just relaxe for long periods of time.  It made her antsy and moody, regardless of how much she loved being with Abby.  It was just hard to step away from the mindset that was needed to be a fireman and slow everything down.  While some of the guys really looked forward to 'vacation', neither she nor Pete were in their ranks, preferring the high tension and focus that the job required.

The brunette thought back to that night under the stars.  That wonderful moment when she'd truly felt happy, relaxed and at peace.  Learning that Abby had been strong enough to not only fend of that Bruno character but also flee a home where submission was doled out like mother's milk had clarified a few things for Zeen; she couldn't look at the young woman as being vulnerable or dependant any more.  It was one thing to exist on the streets; anyone could hide in the shelters and curry favours with the dominant gangs.  It didn't seem that was the case with Abby; she'd shunned that and had simply made a niche for herself, using good intuition to make friends that would help instead of use, refusing to get caught up in violence and crime.  That was really something and Zeen admired her all the more because of it.  She wasn't sure why but it was shortly thereafter when the nightmares started to come back.  This time, though, there was a different feel to them...almost as if Zeen could sense them reaching out to her.

Zeen shook her head slowly, pushing away the sinking feeling that something...

"Why are you pushing me away, Zeen?  Why are you...running?  Have you...I thought you were ...we were happy..." Suddenly, Abby felt disjointed, almost as if the world had just shifted.  She closed her eyes and could almost smell the salt air, the creak of a ship, the snap of unfurled sails.

Zeen watched as Abby reached a hand out to steady herself and rushed forward.  A cold feeling of fear and guilt hit her squarely and she suddenly had a glimpse into another place...another time.

She'd been saying goodbye to her lover and their parting had been awkward.  She could almost feel the uneasiness radiating off the other woman, her sea green eyes both troubled and accusing.  She could also feel the awkward emotions that.... Xena...had felt when having to make the decision and it was killing her.  She didn't want to leave but duty demanded it.  Intense feelings of guilt floated up within the warrior and Zeen felt almost swamped by them.

She stumbled and then embraced Abby, holding her very close.  "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, baby.  I...I haven't been honest with you...or myself.  Gods..."

Abby blinked up at the solemn expression on her lover's face and felt fear clutching at her belly.  She swallowed once and then again as the tears began to fall.  Then, turning away, she pulled Zeen back towards their apartment and then carefully closed the door.

The firefighter placed her equipment on the floor and then slowly stood up.  How was she going to explain something that she didn't understand herself?  She took a breath and then opened her mouth to speak.  Her jaw snapped closed as she noticed the pallor in Abby's face.  And then the blonde began to speak and she felt her guts twist into tight knots.

"When do you want me to...leave?  I guess everything was just too good to be true, Zeen...It won't..." She wiped her runny nose on the back of her trembling hand.  "...Take me long to pack up..."

Zeen watched Abby's face as it crumbled before her and felt hot tears spring from her own blind eyes.  How could she have been so stupid?  And how could she not see that Abby would take this on a personal level, thinking her...Her withdrawal, cold distance...were aimed at her...gods.

Abby closed her eyes tightly and then, unable to hold herself together any longer, buried her face in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.


The blonde had a sudden flash of memory and images of them making slow love beneath the stars on the beaches of Henderson Point.  The way Zeen's hair had felt clutched between her fingers as the woman moved against her lower torso, pressing her face hard against her...

"Oh, gods Abby, no.  Look at me."  It broke Zeen's heart to think she had caused her lover to question their love, their life together.  Cradling the woman's tearful face, Zeen locked eyes with her and then, in a trembling voice spoke from her heart.  "This isn't about 'us', about 'you'.  This is...yeah, the dream is back but it's something more this time.  I can't put my finger on it...gods."  She paused as a light went on inside her head.  "You never gave in, didn't kowtow to social pressures.  I did and I hate myself for it."

Abby watched as her lover's face crumpled and she wrapped her arms tightly around the woman's torso.  "You are the strongest person I know, are.  You did what you had survived any way you could.  There's no way you can go back and change any of that, don't you see?"

Suddenly Abby's fears about being rejected, about being parted from the only person she'd ever loved...they vanished and all she could see was that Zeen needed her right now.

She pulled the woman over to the couch and they sat holding each other close.  Abby placed her head over Zeen's heart and just stayed there, waiting for the staccato drums playing in the woman's chest to slow and even out.  Finally, she looked up and watched as two gloriously blue eyes met her own.

"Everything we've ever done, Zeen, in our past lives, in this life time, has brought us to this moment in time.  All the pain and horrors you've been through have helped shape who and what you are.  Right here and right now.  I couldn't imagine going through what you have and still have any hope I'd still be sane.  That takes strength of character.  Living on the streets was hard, yes, but I didn't have the temptation you did...I didn't have someone offering me power and a sense of family.  I'm not too sure just what kind of relationship Debbie Ma was offering but I think she gave you much more than you could give her.  Am I right?  She could sense your strengths, Zeen, and she utilized them but also fortified them, giving you a sense of your own worth."

Zeen looked at the blonde, her mouth hanging open.  "Where the heck did that come from?"  Abby bit her lower lip self-consciously and ran her hand along Zeen's arm.  "Well, I've had some time to think about this the past few days...I thought you might be comparing what we have to...I dunno, a woman in your past and found I didn't measure up.  Maybe you'd made a mistake and... we weren't destined to be together this time either."

The firefighter tilted her head back, blinking the hot tears that began forming and shut her eyes tightly.  "Gods,  Debbie was important and she made an impact on my life.  I think...I know l loved her..." She reached down and grabbed Abby's hands.  "I loved her the only way I could back then with what little I had in my heart.  She taught me how to love myself, Abby, and because of that I could begin to open my own heart and share something of myself with another human being.  I was so fucked up, babe...I didn't want to give myself to anyone, knowing that in a fraction of a second they could be taken away.  Love was an investment, something I felt had to be meted out carefully.  I gave her what I had but I can see now that it was just a small fragment of the bigger picture.  I think she sensed that, too.  Although we were rather close in age she always made me feel like a young punk, someone she had to nurture and care for...and I guess she was right."

"But don't you see, Zeen...she could see what you had inside.  I'm just glad she was there to offer that nurturing and that you were strong enough to accept it."

Zeen swallowed and then held the small hand against her lips.  "The nightmares...are pretty bad, Abby.  They are always pretty much the same.  I'm back in the prison and l'm walking down the corridor as if l owned the place.  Not many of the cons will meet my eye and some turn away.  I see a knowing look on some of their faces but brush it means nothing because I know there isn't one of them that would win in a fight against me.  Even the guards make themselves scarce as I go about collecting the money from those who need Ma protection.

I can hear the snickering, the bantering between some of the other gangs and I just let it wash over me.  As I enter a cell...and here's where it changes...sometimes there's a fight and I end up being attacked with a shiv...sometimes l get stuck with it and other times l just turn it on my attacker and then watch dispassionately as she lies bleeding on the floor, the blade sticking out of her guts and her life just seeping out of her.  That one is pretty bad.  But lately there's another twist."

Abby felt her hand squeezed a little and snuggled closer, entwining their legs and all but sitting on the woman's lap.  "S'okay, Zeen...we don't have to talk about this now."

Zeen nodded and then cleared her throat roughly.  "I think maybe I could use a little time...something to drink."  She looked down, seeing her lover's robe falling open.  "And why are you dressed like that?  Not that I'm complaining but you were just in clothes not two seconds ago, right?  And why is it so damned cloudy?  Wasn't it just nice and sunny a minute ago? I miss something?"

The blonde smiled and patted the firefighter's hand.  "You just stay right here and I'll put on a pot of coffee."  She got up and cinched the belt around her robe as she moved about the kitchen.  "You've been kinda preoccupied, Zeen.  You tend to zone out when something is bothering you and you've been gone most of the day.  You know?  Really gone.  I kinda thought if I distracted you a bit you'd relaxe and tell me what was going on.  Hence the robe."  She turned and loosened the belt, letting the robe fall open, revealing some of her many charms.

"I figured it must be pretty bad, whatever was bothering you, because you didn't even notice me.  I mean, Zeen...just where were you going with your stuff?"

Zeen looked over to the door and frowned.  There was her toolbox and covies.  Arching an eyebrow she gazed up at Abby and smiled.  "Ah...well, when I really get zonked I tend to go and work on my Harley.  That damned petcock has me all but spitting nickels.  I don't know what the fu.."

"Ah there is another female in your life.  You and that motorcycle..."

Zeen smirked at the woman's pretense at jealousy.  "Yeah, we do so many hot things together.  I love to get down and dirty with her whenever I can.  And she moves me, babe.  Like no one else can."

"Ha ha."  Abby reached down and swatted the woman's shoulder.  Zeen inhaled slowly as the apartment began filling up with fresh coffee.  "Ya know...I can't stand but a little bit of coffee with my cream but that sure does smell good.  I think I'll have me a cup."

"No tea?  Okay by me."

They sat snuggled on the sofa, sipping the java, lost in each other's eyes.  "You said something about a new your dreams, I mean.  Wanna elaborate?"  Abby gently stroked her lover's face, watching carefully for any signs that she was pushing again.

"Um...yeah, I guess I can talk about it now."  Her belly rumbled and Abby struck her forehead.  "Man!  I guess we're going for burger's tonight, huh?"

Zeen had just decided they'd go for Chinese when the phone rang.  Abby looked up at the clock on the wall - mid afternoon.  "I wonder who that is? If one more bill collector phones..." A pair of highly sensitive ears began to sift through the traffic noises and detected a siren, it's mournful wail barely discernable.  "Oh?", Zeen said absent mindedly.  "Yeah, just the usual...truck payments.  But I paid that the first of the month.  Zeen...?"   The brunette was over slipping on her boots, the phone cradled between her chin and shoulder, a frown on her face.

Chapter Six

"Look, I gotta go.  That was just Ted.  He seems kinda worried.  My Lieutenant and a couple of other squads went into this warehouse just before lunch today and...well, some of the others have been located but not Pete and his crew.  Hey, I know I'm officially on leave for another coupla days but..." She grabbed up her jacket and pulled the door open.  "I have to go down there, Abby.  Another pair of hands can't hurt and besides, it's my squad."

"Hey, don't you dare leave me behind.  Look, go start the truck and I'll be down in a jiffy.  No, really Zeen...I want to come.  I'll be dressed in no time, okay?"

Zeen saw the determined look on her lover's face and knew she'd be wasting her breath.  "Alright...but make it quick, huh?"

The brunette took the stairs two at a time and then raced to the underground lot.  Casting a brief look at her Harley, she jumped into the truck and and sat revving the engine, praying Pete would be okay, that Abby would get her ass in gear, that she'd be in time to help.  Blood red fire began coursing thru her veins as she felt her own motor begin to rev, higher and higher.  Just when she thought she couldn't possibly wait another second, the side door was thrown open and Abby all but threw herself into the cab.  "Let's go!"

It was a little after three in the afternoon when they arrived.  The cordons were already in place and both women could see throngs of police and firefighters working together to set up road blockades around the industrial park.

Zeen stepped out of the truck and climbed into the back.  Shielding her eyes she surveyed the destruction before her.  Two smaller buildings had already been reduced to blackened cinders and another larger one was slowly being consumed despite the efforts of the firemen. Zeen counted the pumper trucks and other vehicles and whistled.  The area was dense with billowing grey smoke and for a moment the woman wondered what all the fuss was about.  She felt Abby slip a hand around her waist and then tore her eyes away from the scene.

"Zeen?  There seems to be an awful lot of professionals here.  I mean, it seems the cops and firemen have everything under control."  The brunette bent down closer in order to hear over the roar of the fire, the wail of the sirens and the general roar of mankind.  "Maybe they don't..." Abby was cut off as she heard her partner gasp.

The wind shifted and there before them, sitting like a giant malignant spider, was a very large black building.  It almost seemed to pulse with energy and Zeen could feel something slowly creep over her heart.

"Abby, you gotta go home now, honey.  You can't stay here.  Look; see?  The fire Marshall is getting the area clear of folks who'll just be in the way."  She jumped down and then helped the blonde back into the cab.  She grabbed her gear and pressed her keys into the woman's hands, then stood back and began searching the crowd.  Abby could see the shift in her lover; she was already gone, her mind focusing on the task at hand.

A policeman came up and began yelling instructions.  Zeen removed her wallet and showed her ID and Abby watched him wildly gesticulating in her direction.  She watched the man's mouth and could almost hear his words out loud.

"You gotta get that fuckin truck outta here.  I don't care who you are.  And she's a fuckin civilian!  You know the damned rules so get her outta here and get that piece of shit moving.  Now!"

Zeen walked up to the man, invading his 'space', piercing him with her cold blue eyes and Abby watched the transformation from easy going albeit rather stoic woman to firebrand.  The cop shut his mouth with a snap and cast a worried yet apologetic look Abby's way and then turned and hurried away.

Zeen turned her gaze towards the truck and Abby felt a shiver of fear.  There was just no doubt that this woman was a force of nature.  Let no one stand in her way.  She turned the key and rolled down the window.

"Hey, babe...look, keep the scanner on the police" Zeen reached in and dialed in the correct bandwidth.  "You keep it on that one and it should keep you up to date, okay?  Now, you get going and I'll catch you later.  Can't say when, though."  She removed her Casio watch and then paused for a second before removing her necklace.  "Could be a little bit hot in there if I wear these.  You keep em for me, right?"

Abby looked at the items and nodded, swallowing back a sob.  Zeen never took off the necklace she had given her, even though the firemen were discouraged from wearing any jewelry whatsoever. She'd bought it for the firefighter because somehow it connected them.  A nice small box link chain, it just seemed to be the kind of thing Zeen would wear.  At first, the brunette had just kept it in a box, giving all sorts of reasons she couldn't wear it.  Then one night, after she'd all but forced the woman to wear it, Zeen had gotten many comments on just how good the gold looked against her bronzed skin.  Abby had told her this time and time again but it took a few double takes from some women at a particular bar they frequented before she actually took it to heart.  Abby didn't see that as a slight seeing that her lover's ego seemed so fragile at certain times.  She only smiled when they'd returned home and Zeen had kept it on during their lovemaking and beyond.  She knew that if Zeen was taking it off now something serious must be going on.  She searched her lover's face and saw past the façade the woman had erected and into the shadows just hinted at behind her eyes.

Zeen's attention was caught as she heard her name being yelled.  Both women studied the crowd and then Ted rushed over, helmet in hand.

"Thank god, Zeen.  I was a hoping you'd get down here quick.  Listen...oh, s'cuse me, hiya Abby.  Well, like I was sayin, we got us a problem with this here fire.  The Lieutenant, he was in one group and me and a coupla the others was in another.  One of the Lieutenants from another station that had gone in earlier but...the radio been patchy for awhile now, Zeen."  Abby sat, mouth open as Ted seemed to just ramble on and on in a nervous rush until he ran out of spit.  After a deep swallow, he continued.  "I was a headin the group what was doing the back exits and..." Ted began describing some grisly remains found and Zeen darted a quick look at her lover, elbowing the man before tugging at her chin.

Zeen waved her hands frantically.  "Okay, okay.  Jeez, Ted...just how many body bags we lookin at here?  And where's Pete?"  The blonde watched as the two firefighters began going into rather descriptive detail, her presence forgotten.  She felt her stomach flip once, the fluffy pancakes she'd made for breakfast turning into a cold wet block of cement.  The two tall forms only stopped their conversation when another policeman started yelling in their direction. "Look, take off Ab...see ya later."  The man coughed once and then rubbed his blackened nose in embarrassment.  "I do apologize for leavin so abruptly, Abby."  Said the southerner as he touched the brim of his helmet. Abby could see that very familiar far away look her lover got and knew she wasn't even really there anymore but inside the burning warehouse, figuring things out.  She opened her mouth to tell them both to be careful but Zeen turned and ran through the crowd, Ted hot on her heels.

Abby sat there gripping the steering wheel and watched the two of them disappear into the crowd.  Not a backward glance or any words of endearment before she'd left.  "I love you too, Zeen."  She angrily wiped an errant tear away and then put the truck in gear and sped out of the parking lot.


The two firefighters moved carefully forward, poking at any of the timbers as they went by in an effort to make a path for the two others bringing up the rear.  Johnson and Peters hefted the large hoses, checking to see that neither one of them got tangled and were still firmly secured to the hydrants outside.  They'd gone to the back of the warehouse but could see the flames licking through the doorframe, the metal door hot to the touch.  Dragging their equipment around to the side of the building, they found the office area still intact.  Pete took in some information about the building's structure, a combination of metal and wood, new material and old, and could see this fire wasn't going to be as straight forward as initially thought.  He quickly relayed the information on the small radio and then the four of them began to work the area.

The offices were empty, papers and books lying curled in drying puddles caused by the now defunct sprinklers. Pete and the other members were just beginning to think the fire might be confinable and there'd be a very low body count when Rodriguez had tried to push open the door leading to the other offices.  Putting their backs to it, they'd finally gotten the door opened only to find the hallway filled with smoke and half a dozen dead bodies.  It hadn't taken the Lieutenant long to realize the people had panicked and had become lost and disoriented in the smoke. In the mad crush to get away all had perished.

It had taken them a good ten minutes to move through the carnage into the main corridor of the office complex.  They'd split off into teams of two, one man carrying the fire axe and the other hefting the flame-retardant hose.

Pete Melrose was beginning to wonder just how many survivors they would come across.  The statement from the warehouse owner had the employee count at 24 working that day and the body count had already hit seven the other one radioed in by Lieutenant Rick Bobbec before he went silent.  The Lieutenant wondered what had befallen the other team, having split up a good forty minutes ago.  He'd given Rick a quick handshake and watched as the last man on the team had dragged the hose out of sight.

At this point, with a good chance of getting some survivors out, The Fire Marshall was reluctant to just contain the area and let the fire burn itself out. An uneasy ripple effect had hit the squad when Bobbec hadn't checked in. Usually, the team would consist of a leader and between six and eight firefighters. At this point, they had to assume the worst and add seven more bodies to the count.

Pete gave the thumbs up, watching as Rodriguez and Peters disappeared into the billowing smoke and fervently hoped they'd have better luck.  He blinked the sweat out of his eyes, noticing the temperature was beginning to climb.  He motioned to Johnson and watched as the man began dousing the area with a blast of water.  Both men grabbed the hose and pushed on.

Parts of the hallway were so thick with smoke that each man stood as close as he could to the other, moving in tandem.  The Lieutenant began noticing a slight itching to his wrist where the skin was exposed and wondered just what kind of shit was hanging in the air around them, bathing them in its cloying embrace.  He heard static and reached once more for the radio.

" o...fiv..." Pete increased the volume on the radio and tried to find another channel.  The garbled transmission ended in a hiss and then...nothing.  He'd recognized Mark Rogriguez' worried voice and figured they'd found another five bodies. He checked his wristband, noting they were still headed south.  He mentally thanked Casio once more for their Japanese ingenuity and tapped the compass once to make sure it wasn't a false reading.  The arrow moved a millimeter and then lazily came back to its previous setting. He felt a tug on his sleeve as they rounded a bend and nodded as the other fireman pointed at a few flames licking the ceiling.  Opening the hose in a few short controlled bursts, Matt Johnson grinned as he watched part of the beast die.

Both men proceeded carefully around the corner, having felt the increase in temperature and Johnson quickly opened the hose again.  This part of the rabbit warren was much closer to where the storage area was and Pete tried to figure out just what kind of chemicals they'd be dealing with.  Not that it mattered, as it was all toxic and highly flammable.  He prayed none of them would interact with each other to create a deadly combination that would eat through their protective gear.  Didn't matter how up to date their equipment was, the chemical industry was just leaps and bounds ahead of them.

They watched as black thick sludge dripped down the walls and stepped back as one area of drywall collapsed upon itself, part of the ceiling falling in as well.  Pete cast his partner a somber look as part of the room next door was exposed.

Making their way through the damaged wall, the Lieutenant stopped suddenly, their way blocked by the partially charred remains of what used to be human beings.  He closed his eyes tightly at the sight, feeling his belly turn over.  Not taking in too much of the grisly remains as they became visible, Johnson held up three fingers and cocked his head. Pete nodded and added them to the growing tally. It was apparent they'd tried to get out one of the small windows in the lavatory and had been overcome by fumes and then...He kicked what was left of the wooden door closed and poked Johnson with his axe handle.  "C'mon...let's keep moving", he yelled.

"Rodriguez?"  Silence greeted his transmission.  He gave the radio a hard shake and received a loud hiss for his efforts.  Johnson used the axe to make sure they were at the farthest firewall and then both men began walking back the way they had come.  They finally came to the juncture where the main group had split up and Pete tried to use the radio once more.  Nothing.  The Lieutenant scratched at his throat whiskers in worry and then switched to the main channel.

"Melrose here....we've lost contact with Rodriguez and Peters.  Say, Wally, can you raise them on your end?"  He paused and then pounded his thigh.  "Damnit.  Okay, out."  He returned the radio to its pouch and then took a deep breath.  "We gotta go find em, Matt. Main dispatch advises they won't be sending other teams in until we get to the central storage area and get a look see at just what kinda mess we're in for."  Matt Johnson nodded and then each man prepared himself for the gauntlet.  Walking through the bodies had been hard once; having to pick through and untangle the hose was going to be sheer hell.

Johnson tried not to pay close attention as he bent to untangle the hose but his mind picked out the things his eyes refused to see; each melted body part analyzed and catalogued for future use, the main attraction in the nightmares he'd have for months afterwards.

Pete steadied his breathing, repeatedly reminding himself to get a grip; he'd been in hundreds of fires and had seen this sort of thing before.  But still...he fought the urge to look closer and then reeled back in horror as parts of the bodies began to be recognizable in the lump of God's clay before them.  He fought the urge to vomit, as his subconscious took in the blistered bodies, the tight skin bursting in some areas as the coarse canvass hose dragged across like 80 grit sandpaper.

Matt made a move to take off his mask, his eyes wide as his panic rose.  Grabbing him firmly about the shoulders, Pete pressed his face against the man's mask, willing the man to meet his gaze.  Finally, Johnson nodded slowly and swallowed.  It was then that Pete noticed the small blisters forming on his left wrist where his glove hadn't quite covered the skin.  Then he reached up and pushed the other man's helmet up, noticing the chemical burn spreading across the man's forehead and temples.  He hadn't noticed Johnson wasn't wearing his insert and cursed.  Lifting a trembling hand, he noticed his own neck snaps had come undone, exposing a small rectangle of flesh.

He swallowed and noticed his tongue felt swollen.  Closing his eyes briefly, the Lieutenant dragged out the radio.

"Dispatch...we have an injured fireman here...I'm gonna get him over by the far firewall...there's a small bathroom window there..." He cleared his throat again.  "You'll have to get a coupla guys to start widening the frame.... Yeah, it's Johnson and it looks like he's showing some of the signs for chemical poisoning...yup.  No, I haven't been able to reach the others but l'm at the junction now so they can't be too much farther...yeah, yeah...I'm fine.  Hey, would I lie?  Aw, fuck you, Wally and just get the guys to that window, huh?  Take us five ten minutes.  Out."

The Lieutenant took the man by the shoulders and gave him a reassuring squeeze.  "Listen buddy...l'm gonna get you outta here, okay?  You're pretty well wasted got some chem burns, can't stay here any longer or l'll be draggin your sorry butt as well as the others...when I find em.  Ok?"  Matt tilted his head back against the wall and swore silently.  This was only his second year as a fireman and his first chem fire.  Even after all the preparations he discovered he had been woefully lacking in just what was going to be expected of him and the fire itself.  He took a few steps and then nodded, taking the Lieutenant's hand in his own.  A firm grip later, both men were on their way back through the carnage.  This time, the hose was left behind and they made better time than either expected.

They got to the last corner and Pete yanked the lavatory door open, easing both of them by the bodies.  Matt could see the window frame begin to splinter and then Pete held him back as they both watched cinder blocks being hammered out of the way. Both men felt the urge to hurry into the arms of safety but stood silently until two heavily gloved hands were reached through.

"I'm sorry but you can't go in.  Look here..." He paused until he could make out Ted's name and station number.  " can't just barge in here and go off half cocked.  I know you got crew in there and yes, two teams are not responding to radio hails but until we know what we're dealing with, we don't wanna send in any more crews."

Zeen elbowed her way around Ted and reached a friendly hand in to shake the Fire Marshall's hand.  The man frowned and then peered closely at the fireman before him.  Under all that equipment were two very blue and familiar eyes staring back at him.  "Zeen?  Nah, can't is!"  He pulled her into a bear hug and then stood back, gazing at her like a long lost daughter.

James Dougherty was a bull of a man and had been a fireman himself for almost fifteen years before being booted so far up the ladder that he'd had to take his present job or end up flying a desk.  He loved the life of a fireman; the danger, the excitement, the glory.  He'd been one of the trainers when an angry young spitfire had taken her basic training.  He knew quality when he saw it and took pride in taking the woman under his wing, couching her and teaching her after hours when all the rest of the recruits had gone to bed.  She'd been so keen...He'd lost track of her the last year but wasn't surprised at the reputation she was earning.  He was a little disappointed she hadn't gone for her paramedic's license, but...

"So.... You here as back up or what?"  He gave Ted the once over, noting the smudged face.  "Say, you from the other team?  With Bobbec?  Yeah.... You reported in, right?"

Zeen smiled winningly, distracting the man immediately.  "Well, know how it is?  Can't resist the call of the siren, now can I?  You know Pete's in there, right?  Well...I'm just off this course dealing primarily with chemical fires and I was supposed to be in there advising Pete but...well, duty calls...I'm here now and I've got no doubts I'll have all the info needed regarding the type, size, chemicals, etc., that you guys need in a jiffy.  Alright?"  She tapped Ted on the shoulder and pushed the man ahead of her, through the cordon.  She grabbed Dougherty's hand again and pumped it vigorously.  "Really nice to see ya, Jim...listen, you and Marilyn come over to my place for pasta one night this week, huh?  Losing a bit of weight, are ya?  Say, how is that lovely wife of yours, anyway?"  The man smiled and sucked in his gut, a faint blush coming up his collar and opened his mouth to reply, suddenly noticing that both firemen were moving quickly away through the crowd towards the building.

"Zeen!  Aw, shit...goddamnittohell...whyja do something so damned foolish, girl?  How do you do that?"  He muttered under his breath and then picked up his radio and spoke quickly into it.

All but running around the side of the building, the two firemen finally came to a halt and ran through equipment checks.  "Close yer mouth,'ll catch flies."  Monson blinked a couple of times and then shut his mouth.  "How 'n hell did we get past them cordons, Zeen?  One minute this guy's givin me grief and then," He chuckled knowingly.  "Why, you opened that pretty mouth of yors and sung like a bird, dincha?"

Zeen grinned briefly, the look on old Jim's face still fresh in her mind.  "Yeah, well whatever.  I'm gonna end up payin for that little song big time. Hell, l might even hafta get Abby to make vegetarian pasta and actually have them over to the apartment."  Ted grimaced at the mere thought of vegetarian anything.  Green squiggly noodles just didn't sit well with his southern upbringing. Give him turnip greens, collards cooked with ham and served with piping hot corn bread and he was happy.  And of course, don't forget the grits.

She spun the man around and checked his tank.  "And while l think Jim's a wonderful guy, his wife is just," she tapped him on the helmet and he took a couple of breaths, nodding once. "...not the kinda woman you wanna be around for too long...she gets her mind set about being a match maker and look out.  She's had me all but married to half a dozen guys...she just doesn't get it.  Hell, even Jim has an inkling of what's what and he can be pretty thick."

Ted put two thumbs up and chuckled.  He remembered the dinner party Jim had thrown last year when he got his raise.  "Yup...that woman could talk the leg off a mule and still have room for dessert.  Never saw so many guys lookin cornered in all yer born days.  No stayin up til the wee hours of the morn with that mother hen around."  Ted's voice sounded like it was coming out of a deep barrel and Zeen smacked the top of his helmet again.

"You sure you wanna go back in, Ted?  I mean..."

Ted looked at her.  "Wull, yeah...I mean, that's Pete in there, ain't it?  You'd do the same.  'Sides, I was only in long enough for that blaze to scare the fool outten me.  I figure I'll be just fine now...hehe."  Zeen smirked and rubbed a sooty cheek.  "How long is long enough, Ted?  You and Bobbec got split up and....then what?  When did you decide to get the hell out?"

Ted scratched his cheek where he could still feel the warmth of the woman's hand.  "Well.... l figure about fifteen minutes, Zeen.  Couldn't be more than that. The bunch of us kinda split up almost immediately, figuring we'd have better luck finding survivors.  We got kinda lost in there where the offices are coverin the back exit and Lieutenant Bobbec sent me out. .  I think he figured I'd find the others and join up with Pete somehow...but in that smoke we all got turned around and..." Ted swallowed a few times, remembering the panic that had gripped him tightly when he realized the other fireman he'd been paired with was no where to be found.  Guilt sat in his belly like some carnivorous beast, eating at him from inside.  There was no way he was NOT going back in there...he had to.

There had been many a night when Zeen had found herself caught in the throws of guilt over what she'd done or not done in a crisis situation.  Lives had been lost.  While it was a harsh reality, being a fireman had some truths that were undeniable; not being able to save a fellow fireman or not being at the right place at the right time to prevent a death were just a few of them.

Zeen snugged on her mask and took a few breaths.  Satisfied, she got a little closer to the man and said in a loud voice, "S'okay, Ted.  I know you did your best.  You always do.  Don't beat yourself up too much, buddy cos deep down, you know just how fucking lucky you are to have gotten out of there unscathed."  She gripped his shoulder hard.  "Right now, you're Pete's only chance. We'll find him. And with any luck, maybe some of the others, too."

He gave her a weak smile and two thumbs up. Zeen clicked her teeth and tried to think positively.  Things were never good when firemen got lost in a blaze.  It was probably some sort of miracle that Ted had found his way out in the first place let alone tempting the Fates and going back in.  However, she knew he was her best chance of retracing the path the others had taken.

"Ok, let's give me the once over and get movin."  Making sure everything was tight and secure, she did a few deep knee bends and then looked back towards the parking lot.  'Love you Abby', she said to herself and then they were off.

Chapter Seven

Abby sat in the truck fiddling with the keys and wondered just what Zeen was up to at that very moment.  She felt a blanket of tension settle around her shoulders and wished she'd kissed her lover or at least hugged her once more before letting the woman just walk away.  Her mind began playing the old 'If only' game as she detached the radio from the bracket and angrily pulled the keys from the steering column.

The ride up in the elevator was painful.  She just didn't want to go into the apartment alone.  She really felt she should have stayed back at the fire and even thought briefly about just going back to the truck and...She sighed, resigned to another lonely evening.

Oh, they weren't too bad, for the most part, and she was getting used to them but she really felt differently about this one.  Why had Zeen felt the need to take off that necklace?  What did she know and wasn't telling her?  She never even kissed her goodbye.

She wasn't sure how she got down the hall and opened the door let alone be standing in the kitchen without any memory of doing so. She placed the radio on the table and slipped into a chair, hands in her lap.

The clock ticked loudly as Abby sat and stared at the radio.  Finally, she got up and turned the coffee maker on, staring blankly off into space.  The hour chimed on the clock and she jumped a little. After fidgeting with the cup and spoon, her thoughts dragged her back over to the table where the radio sat like a fat beetle, all black and shiny.

She looked away and tried to concentrate on each drip that ran through the coffee filter.  Closing her eyes, she could almost hear Zeen lifting her weights in the other room.  Finally, the coffee forgotten, she crossed over to the table and switched the radio on.  At first there was a bit of static and then the voices became more distinct and recognizable as she tuned to the correct frequency.

She heard someone ask a question about the squad that just went in and she thought of Zeen and Ted.  Grabbing the radio and pulling it closer, Abby turned the volume up and sat with her mouth dry and heart pounding.  She squeezed her eyes shut as Pete said a fireman was injured.

"Oh, please no...don't make it be Zeen...anyone but her...please."  And then felt such a mixture of relief and guilt when she heard Johnson's name mentioned. She remembered seeing him at one of the station's barbecues...Matt was his first name.  She had brief images of a man of average height and weight, smiling and whistling at the Dalmatian...

Suddenly, she heard the words 'chemical poisoning' and felt the blood drain from her face.  "Zeen..."


Although it wasn't the first chemical fire she'd been in, Zeen felt an uneasy and foreboding feeling settle over her heart.  She wondered whether Rodriguez and his team had gotten out all right, having gone in way before them.  They'd gone quiet a good twenty-five minutes ago and Zeen put the radio to her ear, trying to ascertain any further info on either the missing firemen or the victims they'd gone in after.  She cursed under her breath, as she thought of the loss of life in this damned fire already; one fireman had been removed because of chem poisoning and almost a dozen bodies had been pulled from the blaze before the three missing workers were discovered.  Poor Ted.  He'd come across what was left of them.  They'd barricaded themselves, mistakenly thinking they could hold the beast at bay until help came.  'Things never worked out that way', Zeen thought sadly.

She moved her helmet flap aside and listened closely to the static and then heard Pete's voice, checking in.  His voice was somewhat garbled but she could make out the words.  Then silence.

"Melrose?  You hear anything from Bobbec, over.  Do you copy?"  Static was the only reply she got.  Zeen punched the send key and spoke quickly into the radio.

"Hey, Melrose.... Come back."  Silence.  She clicked the button again.  "Pete?  You there?"

Ted put the hose down and came over to listen.  "Y'all getting anything on that thing, Zeen?"  She shushed him and pressed the radio hard against her ear, the volume already up to its maximum setting.  "Something's wrong with this piece of shit."  She rattled it once and then sighed, putting it back in its case.  "They can't be too far but there's no tellin where they are, Ted.  I mean, they could be anywhere and without the frippen radio, we could be dancing in circles and never know it."  The tall southerner gave his usual 'yep' reply and then turned back for the hose.  Adjusting her equipment and axe, Zeen took another look at the plans and they walked deeper into the unknown.


Pete adjusted his SCBA, making sure the mask was right about where he felt the swelling was on his neck.  It wasn't as blistered as Matt's forehead or cheek area was but the Lieutenant knew, given time, it would be.  The sooner he found Rodriguez the better he'd feel.

He kicked a burning chair out of the way and took a firmer grip on the hose, dragging it farther into the office complex.  Wiping the soot and grime from his mask, Pete could see the two firemen had come this way.  He just prayed they weren't too far ahead.  He looked at his tank gauge and saw he'd have another twenty minutes, if lucky, providing he didn't have to do much in the way of strenuous activity.

The heat prickled his neck area and rivulets of sweat meandered down between his shoulder blades and lower back, causing him to shudder.  'God, what I wouldn't give for a nice cold brew.  With ice.  While sitting up to my ears in a cold bath.  Yeahhh.'

He was just starting to grin at the thought when the door handle he was grasping was yanked open.  He stared in surprise as another fireman stumbled through, falling hard against him.

"Shit!  Is that you, Bobbec?"  A shake of the head made his heart lurch.  All hopes of finding his comrade had faded long ago and yet Pete couldn't help but hope they'd find the man and his squad relatively intact.  Oh, there'd be damage, for certain.  No one ever got out of a bad fire like this one was turning out to be unscathed.

He pulled back the man's slumped shoulders and gazed into the black facemask.  "Rodriguez?  Well, thank god, man.  I was just comin to look for you and Peters...where is he?"  A look of horror came into the younger man's eyes and Melrose knew the body count had just risen by one more.

"Okay, buddy.  Look, you see any of the other firemen?  Bobbec's team?  Anybody?"  Rodriguez shook his head again and Pete could see the man was having trouble breathing.  "Is there an exit out that way?  What's the fire look like?  I need to know the status of the fire, Mark. Mark!"

Mark Rodriguez swallowed what little moisture was in his parched swollen throat and managed to croak out that no, there was no safe exit the way he'd come and that the fire was moving too quickly through the office area to be contained.  He'd had to abandon the hose when the wall had collapsed onPeters , almost killing him instantly.  'Almost', he thought, as he could still hear the strangled cries of the man as the flames engulfed him.  He'd tried...but it had happened so fast.

The man squeezed his eyes shut tightly and then a cough rattled through his frame.  "Peters...I tried to...he was... Oh, mi dios que... él fue quemado antes de mis mismos ojos... la bestia, él le consiguió... oh, mi Jesús dulce."  The man tried to wrench the mask from his face, his features twisted with remorse.  "Me intenté... intenté salvar..." Pete batted the man's hands away and hugged him briefly, all too familiar with the torment a person could feel, confronted with the voracious and unforgiving nature of a fire.
"C'mon, Mark...let's get you the hell out of here." There had to be another way around the office area.  Grabbing up the man's discarded axe and hefting the man by his waist, Pete half dragged the injured fireman back the way he'd come.


Abby raced down the stairs to the basement, her heart in her throat and her mind clouded over with images conjured up from the dispatch updates.  'Chem fire...chemical poisoning, a fireman already removed, firefighters missing, Zeen...goddamnit...did I bring the goddamn keys?'  She stopped dead and began searching her pockets...and then the tears came and it was all she could do not to just collapse on the floor and sob like a child.  Finally, her frantic fingers closed around Zeen's tangle of keys and she groaned with relief.

After all but ripping the door off its hinges, Abby sat in the truck and jammed the key into the ignition. The smell of her lover assaulted her senses as she settled into the cab, tapping the gas pedal twice and moving the seat forward.  She pumped the gas again as she rubbed the leather wheel cover with affection, thinking just how natural black leather and Zeen Phipolis seemed to go together and was lost in her memories.  Images of her lover seemed to surround her and Abby smiled softly, pumping the gas a bit more before turning the key,  Rrrr...rrr...Click.  She snapped out of her haze and peered closely at the gas tank.  Yup, enough gas.  Putting the truck back into neutral and then shifting it into first, Abby could see everything seemed right.

"Shit...c'mon you...."  The blonde gave it a quick few taps on the gas pedal and tried to turn it over.  There was nothing this time.  She banged the steering wheel in frustration.  The bright numbers on the dash screamed out at her...time was ticking.  Quickly removing the keys, checking all the dials and then taking a deep breath, Abby tried to just calm down and start the truck just like Zeen would but still the truck wouldn't start.  Stepping out and slamming the door in frustration, Abby wrestled the hood open and was immediately assaulted with the smell of gasoline fumes.

"Damn!"  She looked down the darkened parking lot to see if anyone was around...even if all she got was a lift back to the warehouse...or even just close to where it was, she'd be happy.  She couldn't even hear the distant rumble of a vehicle coming down the entranceway.  Abby walked in circles trying to formulate a plan and each time found herself back by the workbench.  She leaned against the soft leather of the Harley, putting her hands over her face and just cried.  How could she get down there? They'd had six wonderful months together and Abby was damned if she was just gonna sit at home and twiddle her thumbs while her lover, her soulmate, perished in some damned warehouse.  It was just NOT gonna happen.  But the hell could she get down there?  She slammed her fist against the saddle and the bike moved an inch.  Abby blinked and then looked down at the chrome and steel and smiled.

"I'm coming down there, Zeen...and you'd better be okay or I'll..." She thought briefly of her usual ending...'I'll kill you', and sniffed back a fresh batch of tears.


They came across a few pockets where the beast still had something to consume and both firefighters took their time methodically dousing every flame they ran across.  So far, they hadn't run across anyone, dead or alive, and Zeen was beginning to wonder if the fire was centrally located, this back exit being a good safe way to get any survivors out.  She mentally kept tally on exactly how many turns it had taken to get to where the back offices were. Although the building plans indicated a certain floor plan, much had been modified and they now ran like a rabbit warren throughout most of the building with the main area broken into two hanger-like warehouses.  It was the far right hand one that had so far sustained most of the damage, the fire spreading and consuming most of the office complex on that side of the building.

They came around the corner into an open area and Ted pointed up to a metal staircase, which led to a few more offices and supply rooms. The owner had mentioned to dispatch that the area was temporarily closed off due to renovations.  Zeen looked up the stairs and across the walkways.  "Renovations my ass.  This place hasn't seen an honest building inspector in a long time. Don't these people ever learn?"  Ted snorted once and they moved down into another area of the complex.

She and Ted worked through every room, making sure there were no last minute surprises when they heard the first evidence that the second story was going to come down around them if they weren't prudent with their time.

"C'mon, Ted...we have about another ten minutes tops before this section of the warehouse starts to come down...and that's if we're lucky.  Look...we're gonna hafta kick this fire door down leading to the main area and then get the hell outta Dodge, okay?"  Ted nodded, finding the image of Zeen as a later day gunslinger ringing true.  He suddenly knew just what it was that Pete found attractive about her.  And that was hard for him, as she was pretty much like a little sister to him...always in his face, asking questions, bossing him around.  He took it and liked it, too.  Yeah, there was just no one like Zeen.  They counted three and then slammed their heavy boots against the reinforced door.  Nothing.  Ted pivoted the head on his axe and then motioned the brunette to stand back.  Zeen smirked and with a flourish, indicated he should be her guest.  He brought the hard blunt end of the tool hard across the handle a few times and nodded with satisfaction as it fell to the floor.  Giving the thumbs up, Zeen began the count again, the outcome this time being much more favorable.

They both looked upon the area with a sense of awe; it was a scene right out of Dante's Inferno...deadly and yet beautiful all at once.  Zeen watched as the bright red flames danced across the ceiling, casting an almost iridescent glow on everything around them.  And then the smoke snaked around their ankles like tentacles and the woman was brought back from her brief artistic observations. She nodded once and they slowly made their way around the burning debris.


Abby settled the helmet on her head, after sweeping her long hair into a knot and held her breath as she inserted the key.  "Please, oh please...Just start for me?"  She blinked and expelled her breath in a rush as the motorcycle roared to life.  She revved the motor a few times, testing for a stall out and then breathed a sigh of relief.  'Well, at least that hurtle is over.'  She thought gratefully, knowing there were others ahead.  At only 125 lbs., Abby had serious doubts as to whether she could actually keep the bike upright after she kicked the stand.  Remembering just how Zeen used to lean over and put all the weight on her left leg, she slipped the clutch a bit and then felt the bike shudder forward.  The motor almost stalled before she gave it more gas and then, with both hands gripping the handle bars tightly, she inched the bike forward off the stand and up towards daylight.


They moved deeper into the darkness and Zeen could feel the heat of the blaze leeching the moisture from her body, making her vision blur with its intensity.  She poked the timber with the head of her axe and then stepped back as it creaked in protest.  Taking a breath of air, she lifted the axe and swung, catching the column halfway and then jumped to the side.  The butt end of the heavy timber popped up and hit her squarely in the side, pushing her hard over towards the fire.  She stumbled on the debris scattered around her and went down, holding her hands out in front of her.  Zeen stifled a cry as the bare flesh of her neck was exposed to the licking flames and began rolling out of harms way.  Ted ran to where she was and began pulling her to a safe distance as the roof slowly collapsed.   "Gotta get outta here, Zeen...She's gonna come down any minute..." Zeen winced and holding her side, she slowly got to her knees, resisting the urge to remove her gloves and feel the damage.  She could feel the skin tightening; the familiar sensation of live hornets just beneath her flesh grew with intensity and Zeen bit down hard on the inside of her mouth, trying to refocus on the task at hand.

Ted grabbed the axe and began pushing some of the burning debris out of the way.  When there was a small area finally cleared, he helped her to her feet and they worked their way forward, unmindful of the voracious flames.

The longer they stayed in the warehouse the denser the black smoke became; visibility was cut down to about 25% and both firefighters snugged their respirators down, ensuring a good seal around the mask.  They could feel the heat but because of the billowing smoke, neither one knew just where the hell they were.  Ted turned on his flashlight but gave up as the glare was bounced back ineffectually.  He turned and motioned to Zeen; two index fingers pushed together meant 'stick tight'.  Zeen nodded and gave the man a weak smile.  Ted frowned, suddenly aware of the woman's careful gait.  His heart began was gonna be hard enough getting through this with two uninjured firemen.  Another part of the upper catwalk came down with a crash, the twisted metal barring their way back. He bit his lip and then turned, grabbing the woman by the shoulders.

"Alright, woman.  You gotta tell me straight.  You injured?" he yelled, pressing his mask against hers, willing eye contact.  Zeen paused for a split second and then tried to take a deep breath.  'Yup, think you broke something, Zeen', she grumbled to herself.  She tried to keep a game face as he moved his hands over her rib cage.  Catching her wince, Ted nodded once and then grabbed her sleeve.  "Look.... We gotta get outta here, babe, and not the way we came through...We gotta stick together so I'm gonna lead and you're gonna folla me...nice an close, right?"  Zeen thought briefly of just pushing the man aside and taking point, thereby proving she was fine but decided against the machismo...he wasn't gonna buy it anyway; wasted effort.  She nodded once and they settled themselves into a slow but steady pace, inching forward carefully.


Abby felt like kicking the damn bike as she tried to will the Harley the last hundred yards into the gas station.  Everything had gone so right...up until there were a few sputters and the engine quit.  That was 45 minutes ago and the woman was just about beside herself with worry, frustration and panic.

The attendant, spying the Harley Davidson low rider, hurried out of one of the bays and wiped his hands clean of grease.  Mind you, to a grease monkey, 'clean' was a relative concept anyway.  The man was in his late twenties and had the look of someone who was far more at ease with mechanical objects than human beings. Abby's lip curled as she noticed bits of things, nuts and bolts, and wire ends in the man's hair.

"Hey there.  Can I h..." Abby cut him off with a raised hand and a dire look.  "Just...get me some gas.  I'm kinda in a hurry, okay?"  The crestfallen look on his eager face made her stop and then, "Look, I'm sorry...but I've gotta get some place fast and this damned..."

"...1976 Custom Shovelhead, softail...Yeah, nice bike.  Like, I mean, I'd kill just to sit on it, ya know?"  The man got down on his haunches and rattled off the specs on Zeen's bike and then just gazed lovingly at the chrome accents and tooled black leather saddlebags.  "Whoa...nice tranny and those saddlebags..." He said as he reached out a hand and then hesitated, silently pleading with his eyes.

Abby arched an eyebrow, fists on her hips.  "What the...?"  'What was it about this damn bike?'  "Um, look, I'm in a hurry.  Can you fill it with..." She took the helmet off, pulling her hair free and then continued in a rush.  "You know, I have absolutely no idea what goes into this thing."

The young man slowly got to his feet, jaw slack, and just stared at the goddess before him.  Needless to say, the Harley was all but forgotten.  Abby, totally unaware of her affect on the man, continued to run her fingers hastily through her long blonde hair and then pulled at her blouse in an effort to dislodge the sweaty material from her overheated body.  "God, it is hot!"  She fanned herself and tried not to give in to her frustration.  She could almost hear the ticking of some invisible clock as she the time seemed to slip away.  She had to get going...had to be there.

The guy started, coming out of his haze.  "Hot...yeah.  Oh shit...'scuse me, Ma'am..." A faint blush began creeping up his neck.  "Um, can I get you a soda?"

Abby nodded absently, drumming her fingers on the gas tank as the man eagerly went about granting her request.  'Stupid motor cycle.  I could be there by now.'   She looked over at the office in frustration, willing the man to return.  'C'mon, c'mon...' She ground her teeth as images of Zeen paraded across her eyes; of the woman taking off her helmet that first time, looking at her with the most intense blue eyes Abby had ever seen; of how she threw her head back and laughed whole heartedly when the mood struck her; of them making very slow love, Zeen's form rising and falling above her.  She glanced at the mechanic's bay once more, the few seconds the guy had been gone encompassing an hour in some alternate universe, and unscrewed the gas cap.  She peered in hoping that perhaps it was only gas that was needed after all.  Something shiny stuck to her finger as she gauged just how full the tank was.  "Now, what have we here?"

She jumped as the guy magically appeared at her elbow and saw his eyes glazed over as he ran his fingers over the surface of the Harley.  "Man, what I wouldn't give to work on this baby..." He dropped to his haunches again and checked out the Paughco softail frame with STD engine cases.  Abby grabbed the all but forgotten soda and guzzled half the bottle before sighing contentedly.  "Well, looks like you're gonna get your chance...If you can get me down to the industrial park area, I'll let you work on my girlfriend's bike.  Sound good?"  The man smiled toothily and nodded.  "You betcha, lady."  He ran back into his office, flipped the 'Closed' sign up in the window and grabbed a jangled set of keys.   "This here's my truck."  He said with some pride and Abby put on a brave face.  It was a 1988 Ford F10 and while the exterior was in fairly good shape, the interior looked like a cyclone had been through it.  It was apparent by the remnants of Taco Bell and Budweiser beer that the man was a connoisseur of fast food.   She arched an eyebrow at him and steeled herself for a ride that would certainly provide a test for her olfactory senses.  She gingerly worked her way through the debris and found a relatively clear spot to sit in.  "Look, I'll even throw in some money if you can get, your truck to fly.  Oh, and by the way, what's a leaky pet valve and how would paint chips get in the gas tank?"


The Lieutenant watched as the ambulance lights were turned on and the vehicle sped away, throwing loose gravel in its wake.  He began to take a deep cleansing breath, trying to ease the gnawing he felt inside.  He'd gone in to find Rick and his crew and had failed miserably, almost losing his own life in the process.  He was also responsible for the injuries both Zeen and Ted sustained going in after him...the missing workers..the loss of life horrendous...

He wiped his face unhappily.  In his current state, he completely glossed over the things he had achieved and centered on what he perceived to be major flaws in his skills as a fireman.

Pete let himself be led over to a brownish patch of neglected grass, lost in his own twisted maze of self doubt and recriminations.  He suddenly became aware of a bright light...All but blinding him.  Blinking a few times, he was surprised to see himself being tended to by a total stranger...a very nice looking total stranger.

The paramedic flashed the light into the Lieutenant's eyes again and sighed.  "Man, you are one lucky mother, know that, right?  Here, let me look at that arm."  She gently pushed up the man's shirt and gazed at the chemical burns that seemed to snake across his right wrist.  "Shit, you get splashed with something in there, or what?"  Pete shook his head and brought his hand up to scratch as his throat.  "No," he croaked.  "Something in the air."  He coughed and tried to clear his throat.  The woman reached across and handed him a bottle of water and then lifted his chin.  "Ah.... Well, you got another spot here...l can see where you had your mask...just a perfect line.  You are damned lucky that stuff only affected your skin."  The Lieutenant looked at her and took a deep drink, wincing as he swallowed.  "Yeah, I know you have a sore throat...that's usual with chemical fires.... And at least this stuff wasn't so toxic that it ate through your skin like phosphorus would."  Pete reached over and handed her both his mask and jacket, pointing to the seal on one and the sleeve on the other.

"Holy shit." She whistled.  "Fuck...that stuff is brutal.  How long were you exposed to it?"  Pete opened his mouth to talk and she put a hand to his lips.  "Shit...l'm sorry...don't bother to talk...give it a few hours, a few days.  I've checked your throat and it looks a bit inflamed but on the whole, not too bad.  I've listened to your chest and your lungs sound fairly clear but you might wanna check in with your physician by end of week.  Ok?"  He nodded and began to scratch at his neck again.  She grabbed his hand and gave him a look.  "No scratchin, got it?"  Pete grinned and then stuck his hand out.  "Pete Melrose", he said, his voice sounding like he'd gargled with straight razors.  The woman winced and pushed the bottle back to his lips.  He smiled and guzzled three quarters of the contents before sighing in relief.

"Rachel...Rachel Cummings.  Glad to meetcha."  She found herself gazing back into the man's eyes and wondered what it would be like to kiss him.  "Look...I could come by the station and take a look at that for ya."  She dipped her head down and studied her fingers.  Pete's brows knit together and his eyes widened in surprise.  Here he was, looking like shit, feeling like he'd been run over by a stampede of elephants and this nice woman actually wanted to see him again?  He smiled weakly, thinking that maybe he was her good deed for the day, and then nodded, patting her hand.  "Sure." He squeaked.

The woman lifted her chin and there was a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes.  "That'd be great, Lieutenant."  Pete immediately began rethinking his previous take on things and smiled toothily back at her.  His hand moved back up to his neck and he paused in mid scratch.  "Heh...and it's Pete." She grabbed his hand gently and began spreading a clear ointment over the blistered flesh.  The two sat silently as she finished wrapping his wrist.  She reached out and slowly lifted his chin and Pete thought for a moment that he could just lean in and kiss her...and get slapped.  He sighed, wondering what she'd really do and if he'd ever really find the guts to be so bold. Then the moment passed and she was all business, pushing his jaw to the side and gently prodding his reddened flesh.  "This one isn't too bad and shouldn't leave any scarring."  Pete looked up as the pause lengthened. "Like I said, you got off, Pete."

He watched as she packed up her case and headed back to the ambulance, giving him an over the shoulders look that said 'I'll be back.'  He snorted at the turn of events.  'All this time I've been fixin myself up and wearin smelly stuff to catch a dame and all I had to do is get fricasseed by a flame thrower.' He thought, shaking his head.  He looked at his watch and then back at the building.  "Where are ya, Zeen..."

Chapter Eight

As the fire rose at the rear of the warehouse, the paint on the outside of the drums began to peel and burn.  The metal containers creaked and groaned as their contents expanded.  A loud bang was heard and both heads turned as one of the barrels rose high in the air, spreading its toxic contents before bursting into flames.  As the loud crack reached them, both figures ducked, wincing against the sudden attack on their eardrums.  A bank of rolling black smoke edged ever closer.  Ted steadied his axe and picked up the pace.

Zeen felt her heart rate increase as a feeling of dread came over her and she put her hand in the middle of Ted's back, tapping twice.  She watched as his helmet dipped twice...and then they ran.

Zeen could feel the heat rushing towards them, she fell once, was dragged to her feet...and fell again.  Clutching her hand to her side, she knew she'd broken something for sure.  Not being able to see, she shut her eyes, blocking out the wispy tendrils of billowing smoke.  Somehow that made it bearable. While she had been in some pretty tough spots in her years as a fireman, there had never been such a feeling of...hopelessness before.   "Abby...", she whispered with a tinge of regret.  The idea of never seeing the petite blonde again was like a physical blow and she pushed the thought away.  Grabbing tightly to the coat in front of her, she ran, hoping Ted knew where the hell he was going...that perhaps, somehow, he could see a way out.  Suddenly, Ted went down and Zeen fell heavily on top...barely stifling a scream as she felt bones grind against each other.

Ted could feel his pulse racing...the sweat was coming down in rivers from his hairline and his hands felt as if the gloves had somehow become a second skin.  Running on instinct only, he tried to dart his eyes back and forth, hoping to see something, a glimpse of anything that would give him hope they might find a way out and survive. He squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out that thought.  'Negatively just weren't no good to anyone', he muttered to himself. 'Keep on task.... Keep on task...focus...' He saw something...a glimmer of something and then it was gone.  He steered them towards it and then went down.  He'd run hard into a heavy metal object at mid thigh level and ended up ass over teakettle, sprawled in the debris.  The air was pushed out of him as Zeen landed squarely on his chest.  He lay there momentarily dazed and then started to crawl...

Zeen opened her eyes, certain she'd see flames, and saw.... The air was thinner and there was light...and a possible way out of the hell that surrounded them. She grabbed Ted's arm and tugged in the opposite direction he was trying to take them.  The man resisted and then Zeen used all of her strength to tug on him hard.  He stopped then and put his face close to hers.  Barely able to take a deep breath, Zeen was no use and she just nodded her head in the direction she wanted them to go.  He shook his head and then...blinked deeply...and nodded.  She took a breath and smiled weakly.  Her intuition had gotten her and the others out of some pretty horrific situations.  He just hoped it was right now, too.


Pete sat on the grass, his helmet and mask lying forgotten beside him.  His eyes were glazed and he wheezed as he gulped down another pint of bottled water.  Dave lay beside him, head on paws, eyes openly adoring the human he considered to be both master and litter mate.  The man finally looked over and both locked eyes.  Pete reached out a bandaged, shaky hand and patted the Dalmatian's head.  Dave weakly wagged his tail, uncertain of the emotions rolling off his master.

"I got a bad feelin' about this one, Dave...Shoulda gone in teams bigger than four...."  He coughed and wiped his mouth with the back of a grimy hand.  He thought of Rodrigues lying in the ambulance, overcome by fumes.  It'd been a hard job dragging the man out the side entrance, barely making it before they both collapsed with exhaustion.  A pallet of barrels had suddenly begun to roll off as the wood caught fire and Pete knew they could be lying under it but for the grace of God.  He closed his eyes again and thanked the Lord for somehow sparing their lives.

A few of the other firemen wandered over and tried to get the dog to play with them.  Dave just looked at them morosely and whined.  "You can sense it, too, cancha boy?", muttered the Lieutenant as he softly patted the animal's side.

He jumped to his feet as he heard the first barrel explode, running back to the warehouse, gear in hand.  The Fire Marshall was telling each squadron to back off and a few were trying to get past as a cordon of men barricaded the way.

Pete ran over to Captain Dougherty, trying to talk him into letting he and a few of the others go back inside...they had crew still trapped in there.  The Captain grabbed him hard and refused straight out...the fire was chemical and the fumes highly toxic.  There was just no way he could, in all good conscious, let anyone go back in there.  It was certain death.  The Lieutenant banged his fists frustratingly against his hips and turned his back to the fire.  There had to be something....


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 lost a glove...she could feel the temperature of the surrounding air and it felt like touching the surface of the sun.  She remembered trying to get back into her apartment, the flames licking up her arms. 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 she heard a timber begin to give way...and she rolled, dragging the other fireman with her. Ted shouted in surprise and then he was up and moving them both, the burning wood somehow illuminating 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 before taking off again.  Zeen grunted as her damaged ribs came into contact with Ted's shoulder 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 and she knew no more.

Ted Monson felt as if the top of his head was going to blow off; the pressure of carrying Zeen combined with the pain in his legs and the fear that had taken hold of him was exhausting.  Finally, his knees just buckled and they went down.  He cried out in frustration, using words his Momma would have tanned his hide for.  He thought briefly of just giving up.... The inevitable just seconds away...he could almost feel the beast baring down on them.  And then he felt a sharp pain in his hand and turned to see Dave tugging at his glove.  He could have kissed the mutt; taking hold of the dog's collar, he swore there was a fat juicy steak in Dave's future.  He could barely make out shouting and followed the dog, dragging the inert form of his friend behind him.

"Now listen, Goddamnit!  I got crew still in there...I ain't leavin them to just die..." Pete ground his teeth and tried again. "Can't you just give me five minutes?  Just five measly minutes?  If we can't locate em then...well..." The Captain stroked his mustache in thought.   "Look, I know Zeen's in there, Melrose, and I'd do anything to go in myself and find her.  But we have to face the facts.  The chances of her or anyone surviving that inferno are..." He wiped a moist hand across his brow. Seeing the determined look on the Lieutenant's face he knew...beyond a shadow of a doubt that if anyone could find Zeen...well, it would be Pete Melrose.

"Okay, but you don't enter the building, right?  And you have to wear the masks the whole time.  No way am I losing any more men to that toxic death trap."  Pete nodded enthusiastically and turned to ask for volunteers.  What he saw before him was every person in his own squad plus quite a generous amount from the other halls.  He was impressed and wondered if they knew it was Zeen in there.  "Okay, well.... I'll take O'Brien and Matthews...the rest of you...well, I really appreciate it."  His throat tightened as he felt dozens of hands pat his back before he settled into the routine of check out.  No sooner had O'Brien been okayed good to go that Dave's head came up and he took off like a shot.

"Shit!  Dave.... DAVE! Get back he.... Shit, shit, shit."  He hurriedly put on his mask and waited two full seconds before slapping Matthews' hands away and making a dash in the same direction his dog had taken.  "What the fuck's gotten into that dog of yours, Lieutenant?  Don't he know he'll get hisself burned?" The man yelled. Pete muttered under his breath but said nothing out loud.

Approaching a section of the warehouse that had collapsed, the trio poked and prodded at the timbers, trying to widen the gaping hole they found.  Billowing smoke belched from the building and glass was blown out the top floor windows.  Pete ducked and then leaned into his task with a vengeance.  Both men watched their Lieutenant as the man began waging personal war on whatever stood in his way.  O'Brien began praying and Matthews tried to keep his hopes up.  He knew the chances were pretty slim that either one of the firemen would actually be pulled from the fire alive...but with Zeen.... You just never knew.

Pete stopped in midstroke, cocking an ear as he heard a sharp noise.  "Hold it!  Stop...stop! Dave?  C'mere, boy.... C'mon, Dave...."  He whistled once and waited.  Straining his ears, hoping against hope that he really had heard a noise, Pete leaned towards the dark gaping maw of the fire.  He jumped back as another explosion ripped through the building, the flames reflecting off his mask.  He watched in horror as part of the roof at the back began to fall in.  'Where are you, Zeen?', he muttered to himself.  He watched with unblinking eyes as another barrel flew up and exploded into the air, spreading arcs of liquid fire 50 feet from where they stood.  He felt a hand on his shoulder and then the Captain was trying to pull him away.  He half-heartedly tried to resist, tried to ignore what must be true - there was no way anything could survive those way.  He turned to look at the other two men and found neither one could look him in the eye.  He swallowed hard, letting out a slow painful breath.

He had to face facts...had to.  No way anyone could have..."What'll I tell Abby?  Oh, god Zeen..." He seemed to lose the ability to stand up right then, leaning into the taller man as the enormity of the situation hit him.  Ted and Zeen...and Dave...Rodriguez, Johnson, Peters...Bobbec...his whole team...gone.

James Dougherty tried very hard to keep his face as stoic as he could, knowing that it wouldn't help Melrose or the others in his hall by falling apart.  Inside, however, he was waging a losing battle as all the images of Zeen as a young brash recruit, full of vinegar and beans, alight with the pure knowledge that she alone could change the course of planets, dodge meteor strikes and ace a practical exam in the blink of an eye assaulted his senses, leaving him feeling as destroyed as the man he held.  'How am l ever gonna tell Marilyn?'

"Wroof!"  Pete's head whipped around and he broke away from the confining embrace of the older man and rushed forward.  There, out of the black smoke bounded his dog, sneezing and coughing as he strained on the crawling figure of a lone fireman.  'Oh, thank god.... Thank god.', murmured the Lieutenant, praying the firefighter wasn't injured too badly.  Reaching down, he grabbed the figure just under his armpits and pulled up.  Face to face, Pete recognized Ted and gave the man a brief hug.  Ted winced as he found his bare and badly burned hand trapped between them.  "'s Zeen...gotta get..." Pete thought the man was off his head, trying to go back into the flames.  Then he felt a hand weakly pulling on his leg and looked down.  There she was, lying curled up, hat askew and mask almost pulled down to her neck but he could see.... She was alive.  Alive!  Before he could say a word, the other two firemen grabbed the injured pair and the five of them quickly moved as far away from the fire as possible.  Two EMT's took over for the firefighters, leaving the three men to watch as the fire continued to burn out of control.


Abby grimaced as she dodged another stale piece of pizza that was migrating to the other side of the truck at each sharp turn they made.  "Can't you go any faster in this?"  The man grinned and pressed his foot to the floor.  "Oh, I can take this baby up to 150 mph.  She isn't pretty to look at but she sure can move.  Hold on!"

No sooner had the truck pulled into the back lot when Abby had the door wrenched open and was running pell mell through the crowds.  The driver sat in his truck scratching his chin.  Then he shrugged his shoulders and took out the piece of paper the blonde had given him.  "'Zeen Phipolis, 555-3459'.  Okay by me."  He put the truck in reverse and then drove back to the gas station, a smile on his face as visions of chrome and fat bobs danced in his head.


The blonde cried in frustration as the cordon was tightened and she was told in no uncertain terms to just go home and not get in the way.  'This here's a fire scene, Ma'am, and you've no business being here.'  She grabbed a uniformed man from behind and whirled him around to face her.  "Now look...I don't know who you are but you look like someone in charge.  I've gotta find out about..." She swallowed, thinking about just what Zeen meant to her.  She choked back a sob and squeezed her eyes shut as tears coursed down her flushed cheeks.  "I've got to find..."

The Captain could see just how upset the woman was and figured her husband or brother worked at the warehouse.  He wasn't too sure what to tell her as there had been a few body bags removed but identification was almost impossible.  The image of charred remains littering the morgue, the grisly task of performing post-mortums and the arduous task of informing the next of kin flashed across his eyes and he felt such a rush of sympathy for the blonde stranger.  "Now look here, Missy.  I'm sure...maybe whoever you're looking for, well, perhaps they weren't at work today.  Maybe they..." He swallowed, suddenly seeing the trusting look in Abby's eyes and he just couldn't continue lying to her.  "I'm sorry. Any survivors were pulled from the fire an hour ago."

Abby angrily wiped her face in defiance, annoyed that she was just simply falling apart in front of this stranger and thereby giving up all hope that her lover, her life, could still be alive.

"No!  No, I won't believe that...I can't.  I know she's alive; I would have felt something if she..." She buried her face into her hands again, crying bitter tears for all that had gone unsaid between them as the Captain held her.  Why hadn't she voiced aloud what was in her heart?  "I love you, Zeen.  With all my heart, I do." She whispered.

Captain Dougherty reared back with shock.  "'re looking for Zeen...Zeen Phipolis?  The firefighter...six feet of attitude?"

Abby sniffed and laughed weakly at the description.  Hope flooded her soul as she realized that chances were this man knew Zeen and perhaps could help her locate the woman.

"Yes, she's best friend.  Please, can't you help me?"

Before he could answer, Pete pushed through to her, croaking her name.  Both heads came up and Abby all but ran into the man's arms.  Captain Dougherty silently asked Pete for the skinny on the situation and was caught between feeling relieved that yes, Zeen had survived and doubtful as to the severity of her condition.  By the look in the Lieutenant's eyes, the news wasn't good.

He watched as the Lieutenant led the woman away and felt a cold hand grip his heart as the blonde stopped dead in her tracks and then screamed.  He hurried forward just as the woman slumped against the man and then slowly slid to the ground in a dead faint.

"Oh, my God...did Zeen...?"

Pete lifted the unconscious woman up and both men pushed through the crowd and then gently lowered her to an empty but trampled area of grass.

The Captain waited as he saw Melrose swallow painfully and then noticed the man's bandaged hand.  "Jeez, I'm sorry.  Look, I can find out about Phipolis from someone else...just nod 'yes' if she died in the ambulance."

Pete shook his head hard, waving his hands frantically before he could actually force himself to swallow.

", she's alive...or was when the EMT's took her away in the ambulance."  He croaked.  "She's been burned, Captain...and I dunno about her lungs.  She wasn't in as long as I was...but her mask..." He coughed painfully and smiled weakly as the Captain grabbed a nearby bottle of water and thrust it into his hands.  "Thanks."

"About those burns,'re gonna hafta take some time off and I want a full report on just what the doc says about it, okay?"

Pete nodded and then looked down at Abby's crumpled form.  The woman had curled into a somewhat fetal position and it just broke his heart to think what was going through her mind.

The Captain took his cap off and scratched his sparse grey hair.  "Just who is she to Phipolis?"

Pete pulled the blonde head into his lap and began stroking the woman's temples.  "She's...well, I think the easiest way I can put this is they're lovers.  But it's more than that, Captain.  I know you've heard all the rumours about Zeen...her many conquests.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  Well, none of em are true, sir.  Well, almost none of em.  Yeah, she's had a few girlfriends over the past coupla years but there's been no one...for a while.  Not until Abby.  Her name is Abby Dean and they've been together for, gee.... Must be just about six months now.  I don't think I've seen Zeen happier, Captain."

The Captain replaced his hat and then looked over at the frantic work of the fire brigade as they began spraying special foam and a deactivating chemical powder on what was left of the inferno.  He remembered the last time he'd seen Zeen happy, there had been a certain blonde in her life then, too.  He couldn't remember much only that it had ended badly.  For both of them.  He snorted, thinking about his wife's efforts to get the woman hitched to one of the many bachelors in the squad.  He turned and faced the two on the grassy knoll.

"Yeah, well I've known about Zeen since...well, since she started coming by my house as a probie on the course.  Those were the days when she used to confide in me...I know things were a little rough for her in the beginning and then there was that woman...well, I don't remember her name but I think things ended badly.  Been dating on and off since and then, what?  She just stopped, huh?  Until Ms. Dean. Yeah, that would make sense since it was about then that she stopped coming by the house.  Marilyn's been worried about her, too."  He sighed.  There was a time when their relationship with the spirited brunette could have been considered parent-like.  He missed that.  He and his wife had been married for twenty years and they had no children.  That had been by mutual consent.  It was now, when he could really look back and see what he didn't have that he missed being a father.

Pete nodded.  "She's a big part of my life, too.  Not like I want...but I'm glad this woman has entered her life.  I don't think I've seen Zeen so...relaxed and well, unburdened.  Abby says they talk...a lot.  If she's getting Zeen to open up and get some of that shit off her chest, well, I say 'more power to her' and she must be doin somethin right.  Yeah, she's a corker, is Abby Dean.  Doesn't take any guff either."  He stopped and kissed the blonde's forehead.  "You should see em together, Captain.  Almost like they've known each other forever."

Abby groaned and pushed the hand from her face.  "Zeen....?  Where is..."  She sat bolt up and then clutched her head.  "Oh, I did that too fast.  Shit."  Then she focused her eyes and smiled at Pete but frowned at the Captain who'd crouched down beside them.

"Well, hello little lady.  How are you feeling?  You kinda gave us a turn there, passing out like that."

The woman blushed and tried to stand.  "I've got to see her, Pete.  Please help me get to her?"

Both men helped her get up and then the Captain surprised them both by placing both fingers into his mouth and whistling shrilly.  The response was almost immediate as two firemen came running up.

"Hey, want somethin?"  The two men nodded as the older man detailed exactly what he wanted and then the crowd was worked so as to allow the five of them to move to the authorized vehicles.

Abby's eyes widened as she was helped into a four-door sedan complete with siren and flashing lights.  The way the Lieutenant eased into it, Abby knew the vehicle was the Fire Marshall's personal car.  Captain Dougherty gave Pete's shoulder a swat and winked at Abby.  The other two men jumped into the back seat and the vehicle slowly made its way around the barricades. Pete looked into the rear view mirror and saw the Captain heading back towards the mop-up job in progress.  He felt a little strange leaving the scene...feeling that he should be doing something...

Bobbec's face popped up into his head, as did those of Ted, Johnson, Peters and Rodriguez.  He bit the inside of one cheek and then thought about Zeen.  Yeah, he'd leave the scene for her...and Abby.

The two firefighters sat on either side of Abby and intermittently gave her a brave smile or squeezed her shoulder.  Neither said a word and the blonde strained her ears to pick up anything coming from the front seat.  Pete had tuned the frequency to the other band and as the car sped along the road, she could hear bits and pieces from the ambulance dispatch.  Try as she might, she just couldn't concentrate long enough to really discern exactly what they were saying and gave up when the tears began to sting her eyes once more.

Her head began to swim and she blinked a few times, pinching her forearm painfully.  She couldn't do anyone any good if she passed out again.

She watched as Pete raised his bandaged hand and carefully pulled his collar away from the reddened flesh of his neck.  She winced thinking of the condition her lover might be in.

Abby wanted to ask about that.  Wanted to get the exact information on just how Pete had found Zeen...wanted some assurances as to her condition when being placed in the ambulance.  Surely a woman of such skill and luck as Zeen would be sitting up and giving the attendants pointers on their jobs.  And surely a woman as indestructible as her lover would be able to take whatever life threw at her in stride, bracing herself for more.  She had in the past and there was no reason to believe this would be any different.


The End

Continue on to the sequel Flashpoint

Begun April 20, 1999
Finished July 30, 1999

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