The Blaze

by ArdentTly

 

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.

Disclaimer: There is harsh language, scenes of hurt comfort and some rather graphic depictions of the victims and aftermath of a fire. Violence is inferred as is a scene of rape. As children are involved, please don't read this if you are faint of heart.

Disclaimer: There is very little subtext in this story; it's all maintext. There is some nudity and graphic scenes of sexuality, although I did manage to leave my Gray's Book of Anatomy alone this time.

Acknowledgments: This has taken me the longest to write and it's been thru some pretty nice beta readers that I've managed to stay on task and not let RL run me down like a dog in the street. Thanks go to Kelley, Kat and Betty. Ladies, take a bow.

I own the copyright for this story under 1998ArdentTly. Please obtain permission before posting to a site. Thanks. You can send your comments and other burnt offerings to ArdentTly@yahoo.com


Chapter One

The crowd watched in horror as flames shot out of the top floor of the old two story brownstone. As the blaze spread from the back quarter of the building, a siren was heard as yet another fire hall in the area responded to the call to arms. Homeowners watched nervously, wondering whether the blaze would spread. It was an older part of Chicago and there had already been a dry hot Spring; each of the dilapidated apartment buildings firming up as tinderboxes as summer got under way.

People in various stages of undress wandered about, uncertain as to what to do, where to go; their lives, for most of them, going up in a black puff of smoke. Tear stained faces greeted loved ones that had been lost in the rush to flee the burning building and still the firemen went back for more. A scream filled the air as a form eased out of one of the top rooms, flames almost alive in their attempt to snatch at the hair and clothing of the victim. Standing hesitantly and silhouetted by the inferno behind it, the person searched hopelessly for another means of escape and then, finding none, jumped into the darkness of the night. A cry rose from the crowd as a few more followed suit. Curses rose and ebbed as the firefighters scurried from area to area, attempting to dissuade further jumpers, trying to ready equipment to catch those in immediate danger. A ladder truck was eased closer to the back of the building and a small child was helped to safety, the mother clinging onto the firefighter as he refused to leave her behind. She dangled precariously and people watched dumbfounded as the fireman repositioned himself, his torso completely out of the bucket, legs wrapped securely around the water gun, defying all the laws of gravity. Other firefighters milled about frantically trying to cover the area beneath the trio any way they could. A cheer rose from the crowd as the ladder slowly descended and mother and child were whisked away by Emergency Medical Techs. A few firefighters shook hands with the hero but soon the throng of survivors and rubber neckers lost sight as the team went back inside the building.

The building burned well past midnight but finally, the fire seemed to lose interest, having consumed its fill. Some of the firemen sat exhaustedly on the curb, their faces blackened by soot; weariness seeping from every pore. It had been a long night. Ambulances came and went and a truck was set up to dispense hot coffee to those who could rouse themselves from the destruction around them. Only two of the four water guns were still on duty, the others in various stages of being disassembled and packed away. A woman raised her face skyward and watched the fine mist as it made halos around the streetlights.

She wasn't sure what had drawn her to that part of the city but Abby found herself unable to leave, just waiting.... Waiting for something she knew would happen. She found herself staring at one of the firemen, his back towards her. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to approach him but hesitated, uncertain of her own motives.

As Abby watched the fireman from the road, she wondered what kind of person took up that line of work. She watched as the reflection of the flames danced across his helmet, casting his face in shadows. She noticed the slump of his shoulders, the weariness in his body language. There was a sense the man believed he'd fallen short somehow; couldn't contain the blaze, halt the destruction, beat the beast back to its lair.

'l feel somehow like I'm intruding', she thought. She looked away, trying to avoid his gaze, knowing the pain she'd see there. The shock on Abby's face must have been visible as her eyes fell into a sea of blue. The fireman removed her helmet, giving her short hair a toss, beads of sweat rolling down the tanned cheeks. She wiped a dirt-smudged hand across her brow and came to stand by Abby. After removing her coat, she let it drop by the rest of her equipment. As she took in the sight before her, Abby felt her heart stop. The woman stood like a goddess of fire...her tanned skin seemed to glow with the reflection from the blaze. Abby swallowed deeply and found it hard to concentrate on anything but the woman's profile, her shoulders, the strong line of her jaw...

"You live here?", said the firefighter in a rich and sultry voice. Abby felt her mouth go dry. Something about the voice made her feel both safe yet frightened. Part of her wanted to get lost in the arms of this total stranger, and then Abby looked away as the firefighters began to bring out one body bag after another. She cringed, thinking of what lay within.

She was momentarily hit by a wave of deja vu. Something about seeing the dead bodies made her think of some sort of hospital. Visions of injured people floated calmly by and then settled on a sword being slowly passed through a flame. She watched with dismay as the man's face screwed up with anticipation then found she couldn't take her eyes away as the sword descended on his ruined flesh and the man screamed and screamed and...

Suddenly, her hand was being held by this incredibly warm and strong firefighter. "Hey, hey...it's okay." Abby blinked slowly, bringing herself out of wherever she had disappeared to and looked down. She frowned, trying to figure out how both of her hands got so bold. One was on the fireman's forearm and the other nestled safely, comfortably, lovingly in the woman's large rather strong hands. She took a shuddering breath and tried to will the images away from her mind. Her vision centered on the blade as it was brought slowly back up. The strong hand, muscular arm, broad shoulders...

As Abby raised her eyes slowly, she took in the entire woman before her...Those strong arms and shoulders...such a sleek neck...what a nice chin.... Such an expressive mouth.... Those lips...the bone structure...and oh, gods...those eyes...She swayed a little, having forgotten to breath, to swallow...There was something familiar about the woman. Abby had this fleeting image of someone dressed in dark leathers.

"Breathe...it's okay. You might wanna sit down. Are you feeling faint? Must be the shock, that's all...you wanna go for some coffee?" 'Funny how my usually witty repartee has left me; I can't find a single word to say.', Abby thought as she found herself being led away. Suddenly, her knees felt weak and she stumbled, almost falling. When the fireman leaned in to ask if she was all right, Abby knew it was already too late: she'd already fallen. A slow burn had begun behind the smoke that was already being created. How could she keep the fires of desire from consuming her completely? How would this woman respond if....

"Hey, c'mere..." When the woman put her arm around Abby's shoulders and hugged her close, the smaller woman was lost. As she wiped an errant tear from Abby's cheek, her eyes questioned why there was a smile when she was crying. The blonde smiled even larger...a smile only for the firefighter. A nice crooked grin began to spread over the taller woman's lips and she dipped her head, her short brown hair falling into her eyes.

"Name's Zeen...so, you come here often?"

 

Chapter Two

 

Zeen put her two fingers to her mouth and whistled sharply, bringing a couple of heads up from the nearby fire truck. "Hey Pete! Cover for me, will ya? We got a lady here might have smoke inhalation...I think she needs a breath of air. Be back in ten, okay?" The man referred to as Pete smiled toothily. Didn't matter how long they'd worked together, Zeen just wouldn't call him by his rank. Didn't matter to him, tho; it was just Zeen's way. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out a stubby end of a well chewed cigar and set it on the hood of the truck...for later. "Prolly give her mouth to mouth, too, huh Dave." Lieutenant Pete Melrose clicked his teeth and the stations' mascot ambled over. He scratched the dalmatians ear and threw down a bit of his cold meat sandwich. Zeen sure was honey to the bees but as far as he knew, she only flirted. It'd been a while since she'd talked about some woman in her life. He shook his head, knowing he was in the same leaky boat. Been there, done that. "That Zeen", he smirked. "Sure has an eye for the ladies. Mind you, she's nice eye candy, too. Too bad I can't even get to first base, huh?".

Dave, of course, was oblivious to the question and proceeded to wolf down a goodly sized chunk of hero sandwich. Pete chuckled as he watched the dog. He shook his head wistfully. There'd been a time when he'd thought there was a chance with Zeen but she'd adjusted his way of thinking right off the bat. His tongue probed the vacant area where a back molar used to be. She'd knocked him for a loop all right, just not the way he'd hoped.

She'd come to the station four years ago after getting her 'bugger all' in Fine Arts, as she termed it, thru correspondence school, had taken the extensive training and gotten over being a probie just fine. In fact, he mused, she was just about the best natural talent he'd seen. With a bit of encouragement, maybe she'd go for EMT.

He watched as the woman hitched up her protective pants, making the suspenders snap. Looking at the Zeen from the back, one would never guess it was a woman. The muscled broad shoulders, mannish hair cut and the swagger - well, it all added up to a very strange puzzle. Pete stroked the stubble on his smudged face. He watched the slight build of the pert blonde who was all but glued to the brunette's side. Just from her body language he could see it was game over. Well, had to give Zeen credit..she sure had good taste. He flicked a ragged thumbnail over the end of a safety match and held it to his stogie. 'Something about a fire', he mused.

The firefighter kept her arm about the shoulders of the young woman by her side. 'Something about this one', she thought. 'Makes me wanna protect her. Sure nice to look at and those green eyes! Makes me wanna jump right into em...'

"Say...I guess we could hit that little diner on the corner, huh? Looks like it's still open." Zeen reached down and took the hand of her new friend and giving it a squeeze, began to head across the street. "Say, who was that guy back there?" Zeen wiped a thumb across her black nose, spreading the smudge a bit more. "Pete? Oh, he's the Lieutenant at my fire hall. I've known him for about 4 years now. Nice guy. Kinda like a big brother, you know?" Abby hid the relief in her voice by just saying "Oh."

Zeen ambled up to the entrance and held the screen door open, noticing quite a bit of stale cigarette air wafting out. She wrinkled her nose at the stench and jumped as two fingers poked her while the petite 5'4" blonde walked under her outstretched arm. "Um, thanks stretch."

"Hey!", she chortled with mock indignity. "My brother used to call me that." At 6' 1" she'd heard them all but somehow the term didn't seem derogatory coming from the woman who was now gracing her with twinkling eyes. "Big brother or little brother?", Abby said with a smile. "Ha. At six foot, all my brothers are little, regardless of their age. Actually, I've got two; one older, one younger with me right smack dab in the middle. My brother's didn't know they had a sister 'til I was about 13." She paused, watching a rather wistful look come into the woman's face. "How about you?"

Abby made her way to the back and slouched into a grimy booth. Looking around, it was obvious most of the clientele were either commiserating with family and friends or the diner was a crappy place to eat. Her belly grumbled mournfully; the greasy odors wafting over her nose smelled like ambrosia.

She wasn't too sure what to say to the firefighter. After all, she hadn't been home in a good eight years. She had a younger sister, but...Her stomach growled again, reminding her she hadn't eaten since having rice pudding that morning. Food at the shelter was....interesting. She sighed audibly and looked up as her new-found friend plunked down two hot black javas. She eyed the woman's second hand, seeing a toasted cheese sandwich, it's aroma drifting through the air and settling right on the tip of Abby's tongue. She could feel her mouth positively run with saliva. God, how long had it been since she'd had more than reheated leftovers? Hell if she remembered.

"Here ya go....um, gee...what is your name anyway? Mine's Zeen Phipolis and before you laugh, it's Greek. Here," she passed over the plate and watched as the woman's eyes grew wide. "Ah...my name is...um, is that for me?" The brunette frowned, arching an eyebrow, "Yup." The firefighter wondered if woman was trying to avoid her questions. Not that she minded about the siblings but it would be nice to know her name. "And your name is...?" Abby looked across the table and blinked slowly. 'Oh, shit!', she thought, giving herself a mental wallop. "Um, my name's Abby Dean. I'm really sorry...wool gathering. I guess I'm a little tired." The brunette grinned, "Yup. And hungry. Dig in." She looked at her watch and motioned for the waitress. "Can we get the check here?" Zeen watched the woman in front of her; she looked pretty weary and underfed. The way she was polishing off the sandwich, it was clear she probably hadn't eaten all day.

"So. You live around here? I mean...you said you didn't know anybody from the building. You work out this way?" The taller woman felt rather uncomfortable asking such personal questions but she owed it to her own peace of mind to know that Abby was gonna have a place to stay after they left the cafe. There was just something about the woman that...Time and space seemed to just wink out at that moment and she found herself surrounded by funny looking trees that looked like they had olives on them. Zeen blinked a couple of times and then cleared her throat. She saw the blonde across from her saying something but there was a buzz in her ear and she could make sense of it. There was movement behind her friend and it was all Zeen could do NOT to jump up and draw her.... She watched in fascination as two men broke through the bushes into the clearing. They eyed the blonde and leered menacingly. Zeen dragged her eyes away and looked at her sweet companion, the woman she...

Abby was busy trying to make up some story about visiting a nonexistent friend around this area when the fire broke out. Then she noticed the firefighter go as white as a sheet. When the woman leaned forward, Abby thought she was going to say something so she leaned in as well. The plate of food was pushed a little forward as Abby moved in and this in turn began to push against the coffee saucer.

Zeen had the overwhelming feeling that she was no longer in Kansas anymore. In fact, it looked a helluva lot like Greece. She fought the urge to check under the table to see if she was wearing some godsawful ruby slippers. The waitress slowly went through her receipt book, made a few notations and then stuck the pencil back behind her ear. She whistled tunelessly as she made her way over to the table in the corner. Abby's eyes grew wide as she saw the emotions pass over Zeen's face. There was anger and strength of purpose and...like a turtle, she darted her head back and just stared. The emotion she'd seen on Zeen's face was so strong. It washed over her and she blinked a few times trying to get a handle on it. Her heart swelled and she suddenly felt dizzy.

Just as the figure of someone appeared behind Abby, Zeen pushed herself away from the table, reaching for her sword and faced the unknown danger head on. The waitress yelped in surprise as the firefighter's chair crashed to the floor and she stood menacingly over the slight blonde. Zeen held her fist tightly around the..."Sword? What goddamn sword?" Zeen blinked as Abby cried out in surprise, her coffee finally losing its battle with gravity and the law of averages, choosing that particular time to tip over onto her sandwich and liberally splash the front of her t-shirt.

"Yipes!", Abby shouted as she jumped up and franticly pulled at the sodden mess on her chest. She cringed as she felt a hot trickle of coffee wind its way down and soak into the waist band of her jeans. They both stood there, staring at each other. The waitress cocked an eyebrow and just smirked. What was it around here, a full moon? She plunked the receipt down on the table, turned on her heel and headed back to her sanctuary behind the cash register.

"Um, Zeena?", whispered Abby.

"Yeah, Gabrielle?", replied the dazed and confused firefighter.

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Chapter Three

 

"Huh?", they both said at the same time.

Zeen grabbed a fistful of loose change and plunked it down on the sodden mess covering the table then grabbed Abby's hand and headed out of the cafe. It was all Abby could do to choke down what remained of her gunky sandwich and drink what was left of her coffee before they both hit the screen door.

"Listen, I'm gettin kinda weirded out here, ya know? I dunno what the Sam Hill is goin on but....maybe this wasn't such a good idea." Zeen pulled the woman next to her down to sit on the curb and ran a shaky hand through her hair. Abby sat with both knees drawn up and just waited for the inevitable. She knew a brush off when she heard it.

She sighed and pushed herself up off the curb and stood awkwardly. "I wanna thank you for the coffee and...and the sandwich. I'm sorry about the mess inside..." Zeen looked up in surprise and then lumbered to her feet. They stood there just looking at each other, feeling something between them and afraid to burst the bubble surrounding them. Zeen stepped closer to the shorter woman and brought a hand up to cup her chin. Abby's lower lip trembled.

"You think I'm mad at you? For what? Coz I went spastic in there, thinking I had a godsbedamned sword in my hand and spilled coffee all over ya?" She snorted and looked at her right hand again, almost feeling the cold steel of the sword she was sure she'd held back in the diner. Zeen rubbed a hand over her face, almost expecting to somehow feel a difference. For some reason, she really felt like the person she'd been back in the diner...leather clad with sword in hand, defending the woman she...She scrunched her forehead and leaned in, searching Abby's eyes for...something, some sort of recognition, that she was feeling disoriented, too.

Watching the woman before her, Abby was struck by Zeen's natural beauty. Even with the soot across one cheekbone and rivulets of sweat running from her hairline, the firefighter was a vision to behold. She found herself becoming aroused once again. Abby swallowed hard, suddenly aware that her nipples must be visible thru her coffee stained t-shirt. She crossed her arms over her breasts and cleared her throat, looking away.

"I feel like I know you, Abby. No, like I've known you forever. Yeah, that's closer to this feeling coming over me. Like an old friend I haven't seen in....a life time or two. I know that sounds strange, but by the gods Abby, that's what I'm feeling." Abby felt as if her heart stopped. She swallowed and tried to dismiss what she was feeling; what, it was obvious, Zeen was feeling as well. Then true to form, the young woman from Portola, California, did what she always did when things were getting too intense: she left before they did.

"Are you, like, into some weird new religion or something, coz you are freakin me out with that 'godsbedamned', 'by the gods' stuff. I mean, I don't care what folks believe in but....sheesh!"

Zeen looked at the woman as if she'd just grown another head. She ran the words back over in her mind. They still didn't make any sense to her. What was Gabrielle talking about? Abby saw the look of bewilderment on Zeen's face and decided to just forget it. Regardless of what she...they were feeling, the emotions were just too raw, too disturbing. It really was getting late and perhaps there would be a bit of leftovers in the dining room over at the Salvation Army Shelter. Her encounter with this woman was getting too...real.

"Ya...listen, okay...sure. I should get back, too..." Zeen turned, her heart beating furiously. She didn't know what was happening but it was scaring the shit out of her. A strange woman's name echoed in her mind...Gabrielle..'Oh, this is just too frickin weird', thought the brunette, deciding to dismiss said weirdness. Retreat was in order. She cleared her throat and then said, "Can I...drop you somewhere? You live around here?" Abby's nicely fabricated story just disappeared from her mind when she saw the last of the ambulances leave the scene. It all seemed to hit her then and left her feeling rather foolish. What could she possibly say? She had no permanent address, that was true, but compared to the poor souls that lived in the destroyed building, well, she certainly had it better off.

Zeen opened her mouth to say something but jerked her head around when she heard her name being called. She started towards the Lieutenant when she saw the look on his face. "Yo, Zeen! Shit, there ya are. Listen, we got a coupla kids missing in one of the back apartments. Ted and I are going in and I want you to act as point. You comin?" He nodded his head once at Abby and then he and Zeen began to talk over just what the deal was. Abby jumped as she felt something cold and wet rub at her left knee. She smiled as she looked down at the dalmatian. She squatted down to rub the dog's ears and get acquainted and was rewarded by a very demonstrative show of affection. Before she knew it, she as on her behind and the dog was doing its best to clean what little coffee she'd spilled on her chest and neck area.

"Ack!"

"Oh, fer cryin in yer milk, Dave! C'mere, you foolish dog." Zeen grabbed the dog by his collar and tried to get him off her new friend. She ended up straddling the dog and looking down into the face of a laughing Abby. Something about this woman wrestling with a dog who was trying to make a meal out of the front of her t-shirt suddenly struck Abby as being very funny. Arching an eyebrow, Zeen looked down into the woman's eyes of iridescent green and new beyond a shadow of a doubt, they had a bond. Somehow..somewhere, they'd known each other. She felt it as clearly as the wind that moved against her skin, ruffling her hair.

As she watched the rather hysterical laughter bubble out of Abby, Zeen was struck by a couple of things that hadn't registered before. The woman's shoes were evidently second hand and didn't fit well; Abby's heels were covered with band aids. The jeans and t-shirt were clean but very worn. Dragging her eyes away from those of her new friend, the firefighter was struck by how terribly tired the woman looked. She had applied a wee bit of makeup that partially hid the ravages of sleepless nights. Many sleepless nights.

Seeing Zeen's glance turn quite serious, Abby tried to clear her throat and just get up, thereby breaking whatever spell they seemed to be under. For whether she liked it or not, Abby was beginning to feel a rather strange response to the firefighter, one that went beyond merely a sexual attraction. Oh, that was there alright. It had been a good eight months since she'd even slept with someone. She knew all those warning signs by heart. She wasn't sure what it was about tall, dark and dangerous types but they certainly seemed to attract her undivided attention. Hell, she thought ruefully, all of the women in her life had fit that description to a 'T'. Or was that a 'Z'?

Zeen saw the look a deer gets when caught in the headlights and knew, as she registered Pete's hand on her shoulder, that if she let this moment pass without doing something, anything to keep the woman in her life, well, she'd most probably never see her again. A cold fist seemed to envelope her heart at the mere thought and she quickly pushed it away.

Pete watched the electricity between the two women and knew this wasn't the best time for him to be butting in, but...well, she was on duty and the missing kids weren't going to wait forever; small pockets of the blaze could still flare up. Sure, the flames were mostly out but hell, that smoke could be a killer.

"Look, Zeen? C'mon, babe. We gotta.." He snapped his mouth shut as a pair of cerulean blue eyes pinned him where he stood and he dropped his hand. She blinked a couple of times and then helped the woman to her feet. Another firefighter came running up and whispered something into the Lieutenant's ear. Zeen slowly swiveled her focus back to Abby and shut the world out once more. She could almost smell the tangy scent of a nitrogen rich forest, its soil dark and damp and clean. Even the scent of leather and horseflesh was almost palpable to her. She jumped as a soft warm hand reached out and touched her forearm. It was almost electrically charged. "Zeen? I've gotta go...anyway. My friend, um, well, she...um.." The lie died on her lips as she saw the firefighter wasn't going to buy it. 'The truth, Abby. Tell her the truth.'

She sighed and opened her mouth to speak but was stopped as a set of keys were pressed into her hands. Zeen quickly scribbled down an address on a gum wrapper and smiled. "Look. I live three blocks from here, okay? You wanna go there and use my couch? I prolly won't be back tonight...my shift doesn't end 'til 6:00 tomorrow morning so the apartment is yours...if you want it." Zeen felt herself being dragged away as the two guys from her squad began urgently pulling her back towards the partially demolished building. "Later!", she shouted as she bent and retrieved her coat and helmet, struggling to get back into her gear. Abby walked a little ways as she watched Pete and, she assumed, Ted go thru a mental check off list. Then each of the three checked the other out, making sure the gear was in place and functional. At last, Zeen smiled at Abby and propped her mask securely on top of her head. She turned and looked at Ted and then Pete, waiting until each man had given her the thumbs up before turning and jogging towards the burned out apartment building.

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Chapter Four

Zeen flexed her fingers around the cannon of the flashlight, gaining a sort of comfort from its reliable weight. She fought the urge to toy with the toggle switch, instead focusing on the task at hand. Pete had taken point position, axe in hand, as they made their way past the smoldering timbers. Ted brought up the rear, dragging a hose, its nozzle oozing a bit of water at every step he took.

Removing her heavy gloves, Zeen placed a tentative hand on the inner metal door and nodded. It was warm but not scorching to the touch. Pete gave her a nod and they both put their shoulders to the door and pushed. It gave in with an anguished scream as the metal bent and warped. Their vision was immediately filled with an eerie luminescence; the visibility was cut down to about fifteen feet, the ceiling all but lost to the billowing smoke.

"Ted!", she shouted, grabbing the tall man by his sleeve. The easy going southerner brought his face close to hers, their masks touching, eyes locked. "Look, you gotta stay right behind us and lay a light spray near the ceiling, k? This shit is gonna really play havoc with the vis not to mention the kids' lungs." Ted winked and clicked his teeth. Zeen caught Pete's eyes and then jerked her jaw forward.

The two of them began making their way down the darkening corridor, their bodies always in contact. Pete instinctively ducked as a loud groaning was heard from the floor above. 'It wasn't gonna take much', thought the firefighter as she adjusted her helmet and mask, her sweat making the seal incomplete. She fought the urge to scratch and knew she'd be wearing 'mask face' for hours afterwards. A smirk played on her face as she thought of the guys on her squad who had that permanent look because they constantly shaved. Slicking facial hair with vaseline every time they needed to wear their SCBA really put a crimp in any thoughts of having a fashionable beard.

They knew from their information that the missing kids were on the first floor, back rooms. The farther in they went the darker it became. Zeen kicked in a few doors, keeping to the side in case of back draft. Fire had a life all its own and had a nasty disposition at the best of times. It was strange but whenever kids were involved Zeen felt the fire's greed for consumption increase. She knew they had to get to the kids as soon as possible. Any chance of their survival dwindled as the minutes dragged by.

Finally making their way to the back of the building, Pete felt a tap on his shoulder and let Zeen take his position. The woman dragged her sleeve across her face plate and looked up. Ted had been slowly making his way behind them, laying on a steady stream of mist. It was helping and Zeen winked at the man, giving him the thumbs up.

Following her gut reaction, she motioned silently to Pete and pointed down to one end of the hallway taking the other for herself. She clipped the flashlight onto her safety clip and pushed a dark lock off her forehead. She felt along the wall and paused as she moved beyond one doorway. Steam was rising from the metal door and she knew there would be fire inside. She cautiously took the handle and gave it a quick jiggle. Locked. 'Well, chances are, the kids weren't in there.' She made a mental note of the numbers and location, deciding to have the room checked on their way out.

Zeen looked up and saw the faint light oscillate at the far end of the hallway. She signaled back and then pushed some debris out of the way and checked the last room. Nothing. Moving back to the locked apartment she removed her glove and quickly glanced at the time. Ten minutes already. This had to be it. 'Hell', she thought, 'kids did all sorts of strange things when it came to stressful situations.' An image of a small boy trying to hide behind furniture, thinking the fire couldn't find him, filled her thoughts. She swallowed convulsively, the bile rising in her throat. She pushed the image away and set herself to the task at hand. Cranking her arm she motioned for the two men to put their shoulders to the locked door.

"C'mon! Put your backs into it!", she yelled. Ted threw the hose down and began rocking steadily against the door, trying to break it down. The nozzle fell open and began dousing the trio. Pete groaned in relief as some of the cool water trickled down his neck. 'Just a little more, you bastard', he muttered to himself. Then he smiled, hearing the hinges begin to go.

Zeen, however, was finding it very hard to see now, the cascading water obscuring her vision and tweaking her already high frustration level. "Fuck! That's it. Get outta the way!" Both men stood back as Zeen stepped away and then, with a sturdy kick of her boot, sent the door off its hinges. The new supply of oxygen seemed to awaken the fiery beast within and both she and Pete darted back as flames shot forward. Both moved out of the way as Ted played the hose full force onto the blackening ceiling and watched as the flames retreated. They watched as the smoke began to settle at a lower level. Zeen pointed to the ceiling tiles and drew a finger across her throat. Both men nodded, knowing they were probably asbestos lined and would have been deadly had there not been enough ventilation. The walls ran with black rivelets of kitchen grease which was probably why the fire was still holding on tenaciously.

Pete made a quick check of the room and then pointed to the far window. "Look! Holy shit, c'mon!" Zeen dropped her flashlight and dodged around the blackened furniture, Tim close on her heels. There over by the screened window, crouched a lone figure of a little girl, a deep barking cough rattling her small frame. Her thumb was securely fastened to her mouth and her eyes had a vacant look. By the time Zeen got to the kid's side, Pete was scanning the rest of the room in search of the other child. At least the billowing smoke was at a higher level, the damage being minimal where the girl crouched.

"Hey." There was no response whatsoever. Zeen quickly took off her mask and gloves and brought her face close to that of the kids'. 'Looked to be about eight or nine.' She tipped the child's face up, trying to get eye contact but she could see...there just wasn't anyone home. She pressed the mask to the little face but the kid just wouldn't lose the thumb. Sighing, she placed the mask back over her own face and then, knowing it might scare the kid, propped it up on her forehead. She stood up and tried to get the girl to just settle into her arms but she wouldn't budge. Another cough shook the child's slender frame and the brunette hugged her close, starting to cough herself. The oily scent of the air seemed to make every breath laboured. They had to get her out...and now. Then Zeen noticed a doll. The kid's hand was firmly holding what appeared to be a well loved doll.

"Sure. A'course...we'll take little Bobby or Lucy or whatever this...." As she pulled on the doll, which was half buried under what was left of an overstuffed chair, Zeen felt her heart slow down and a strangled cry tried to escape her lips. Pete came over and began checking the girl out. Then he saw the look on his partner's face and bent down to help. There, under the chair, was the body of a beautiful little boy of about three. His hair had been burned almost clean off as had most of his clothing. The child's clear blue eyes stared vacantly up at her and it was all Zeen could do not to just...run away.

Pete saw the play of emotions on Zeen's face and gently pushed her out of the way, picking up the body of the small boy. "Zeen! Mask. Now!" Zeen started and then nodded, sliding her protection back down; the mixture of sweat, tears and acrid smoke covering her face. She blinked the mess out of her eyes and pulled the girl to her in a fierce hug, gently prying open the fingers that would not let go of the boy. She held the child tightly as the girl began to scream and struggle. She felt her neck and shoulders being hit and just closed her eyes tightly, riding the emotions until they slowly petered away.

Ted, meanwhile, was finding himself at the end of his rope, so to speak. Didn't matter how much he pulled on the hose, there just was no more slack to be had. He opened the nozzle wide and sprayed the room liberally. Hearing a terrible noise, Ted turned and watched in horror as parts of the second floor came crashing down just feet from where he stood. The hose was totally useless and seeing both his Lieutenant and Zeen carrying the kids, he tossed it and began looking for another exit. "Well, dagnabbit! You'all better stand back", he shouted. Taking his axe out, Ted began breaking the glass in the windows, knocking all the shards out so they could all make their escape safely.

Zeen walked out into the clear cold air of night, the child cradled in her arms, fast asleep. She felt numb. It all came back to her...the loss of her son five years ago had been hard to survive. But she had, finally being able to sleep without the nightmares of his burned and twisted body filling every corner of her mind and soul.

She barely registered the EMTs taking the child away or Ted leading her over to the pumper truck to sit on the tailgate. A cup of hot coffee was thrust into her hands and she sipped absently at it, lost once more in the hell that brought her into the world of the firefighters. The southerner patted her shoulder and then took pencil and paper and went over to the truck to fill out his report. He looked on Zeen as being a younger sister and knew a bit of her past. Heck, the whole crew did. 'There just aint nobody l want actin point but Zeen', he said to himself. He nodded once and then licked the pencil.

Pete sat nearby, filling out the report. He glanced at his watch and sighed. Three more furkin hours and then he could sleep in his own bed...then he sighed resignedly, the word 'sleep' being somewhat figurative, knowing the vision of that poor kid would haunt his dreams for quite a few weeks. He remembered the look on the father's face when he saw them coming out of the building. 'Yeah, that woulda killed me', he muttered to himself. He saw a tear slowly work its way down Zeen's sinewy jaw.

He remember as if it was yesterday...a dingy apartment building on the wrong side of the tracks. A fire trap just waiting to go, really. Middle of the night, someone fell asleep with a cigarette in their hand or mouth and that's all she wrote. The building had caught quickly and there had been twelve deaths all told when the blaze had finally been put under control. Most of them kids, too. Zeen's three and a half year old son had tried to hide behind the couch and had gotten stuck. Zeen never talked much about it but Pete'd read the report, seen the pictures. God, just the thought of those images stuck in his partner's head...well, he didn't know how she'd avoided having a full-blown breakdown. His respect for Zeen was evident as he watched her with a frank expression. Even when she took to drinking and got into trouble with the law, Zeen had retained that strength of character that he'd found so endearing.

Pete scratched his chin thinking about it. For a while he really thought the woman had lost it, though. While she was almost two years in county lock up it seemed Zeen had gone thru a fit of depression. She'd gotten a tattoo and gone thru a fairly intense time; making a name for herself as being a bad ass. The person she was becoming was just so far from who the woman really was that after her second time in isolation she'd reached out and accepted the help of a State psychiatrist.

After her time was up, Zeen had spent time in a rehab center for substance abuse and turned her life around. It was thru the jail's psych unit that the brunette learned of the fire hall's recruitment drive. It had taken a few strings being pulled but she was given a chance and had passed the written without even a hitch. Pete remembered the first time he'd gandered at the woman's file; there'd been far too many pros to just let a small chunk of misery label her for life.

Zeen had kept to herself mostly at first but it became apparent that she was a natural...the practical side of her training seemed almost too easy. Pete had found himself drawn to the dark beauty, seeing past the brooding exterior; regardless of just how hard she tried to hide the caring side to her nature. Their's had been a tentative friendship but one that had blossomed over time.

He'd admitted his feelings for her shortly after she'd survived the probation period. Working with her, seeing her strengths, her indomitable will, her giving personality; it had been an easy progression from friendship to wanting something more. He smirked ruefully. It was just too bad he had the wrong chromosomes. He didn't begrudge Zeen her choices, though. She was just this pure force of nature, something to be admired and protected.

Pete thru the dalmatian the remainder of his donut and finished up the report. Scratching his chin, he wondered about this Abby person. 'Don't kid yerself, Pete, old man...she's in Zeen's life, for sure. Big time.', he mused to himself. Then he stood and walked over to his partner and resettled her jacket around her shoulders. He gently squeezed her shoulder and smiled as he felt a hand come up and cover his own. Oh, how he missed that! The past few months had seen the easy banter they'd shared dwindle and then...nothing. Each time he'd reached out, she'd pulled away; erecting a very high seemingly impenetrable wall of indifference. He knew...he just knew it was a facade. Try as he might, he couldn't be the person she needed. Although he desperately wanted more, Pete knew that friendship was all that would ever be offered. And right now, if that's all he could ever expect from her, it was everything.

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Abby moved over onto her back and dodged yet another loaded spring. Edging to the side, she found herself woefully covered by the skimpy blankets once more. Sighing mightily, she shifted, adjusting her tank top once more then settled with her back against the lumpy couch. She smirked as she contemplated the age of the instrument of torture she was currently enjoying. 'Must be right off the ark', she thought lamentedly.

She lay there thinking about the owner of this rather sorry little apartment. One small bookcase, filled with paperbacks by Cussler, Ludlum, Barker, King, Mitchener and Burroughs were interspersed with those of Joyce, Shakespeare, Milton and the Norton Anthology of English Literature. The tables were the type commonly found at garage sales or thrift stores but the bed looked new and quite comfortable. Just thinking about the woman lying in that bed...so close..well, it made her aware once again of the attraction she was feeling for Zeen.

She reached over and grabbed the small note book again and began to read.

My heart yearns

For that which I cannot know

But feel with all my being

Is missing from my soul

That part of me

Completes the puzzle that I hold

And therefore without

Structure; enduring without form

Abby blinked as she read it again. "Wow...." Then she read the author...it was Zeen's. She shook her head at the depth of such a passage. The woman certainly was a puzzle, alright. She'd never felt so....unnerved by someone before. This woman seemed to bristle with sexuality, yes...but something more. It was like watching a fire; it was a force of nature, it was frightening in its intensity and had a great capacity for danger but also had warmth and was life giving. That pretty much summed up how she was feeling about the firefighter. She also felt this...deja vu with her. It was very unsettling. There were periods when she just zoned out; went troppo. Talking about 'gods' was beginning to weird her out. As comforting as this feeling of attraction was, Abby wasn't too sure she wanted to be swept up into some bizarre relationship with someone who thought she saw swords and things. No, she thought, as nice as it would be to wake up next to Zeen, well, the cons definitely outweighed the pros. Having settled that in her mind, she crossed her arms over her chest and tried to ignore the springs digging into her hip and buttocks and tried to sleep.

Zeen slowly closed the door, careful not to wake her sleeping guest. She rubbed a hand over her face and yawned, thinking only of the cozy bed that seemed to be calling to her. Kicking off her boots, she began to leave a trail of wrinkled clothing that lead to her haven. The sheets, although far from being clean, felt so nice against her naked skin and she snuggled down into the comforter and was soon fast asleep.

Abby knew she was dreaming. There just didn't seem to be anything she could do about waking herself up. She was a mere observer on the one hand but also a participant of sorts on the other. She watched as the receding figure of a woman ran through what looked to be a castle. She was grabbed by some horrible guy, Toxious by name, wearing a collection of assorted wounds. The woman's face was obscured as a wickedly sharp knife was poised at her throat and Abby screamed silently. She tried to move forward, to help, but was unable to do more than just witness the events as they played out before her.

A faceless figure off to the right strode forth, a woman, leather clad, armor of some description, holding a large dangerous looking sword. There was something familiar about the woman as she opened her mouth to speak. A strange feeling of helplessness washed over Abby as she heard someone call out the name of Xena...as she turned to look back at the captive she felt the ground wobble beneath her. Her last thought was of the woman's face, now clearly visible...Abby knew it was impossible and yet...it was her own face. The name 'Xena' resounded in her brain and she found herself back on the lumpy couch, covered in sweat and reeling from her dream.

Zeen's body was covered in sweat as her legs thrashed back and forth under the covers. She had to....couldn't let it happen...watched as her friend, her soulmate, was grabbed from behind, pulled into a deadly embraced and then watched in horror as a knife was placed at the woman's throat. "No!", she shouted...."Gabrielle!"

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Chapter Five

Zeen propped herself up against the headboard and lay there, chest heaving, eyes wild and throat dry. She was just getting herself under control when she saw Abby sit straight up in bed. In a flash she was out of bed and kneeling beside her friend. With a strangled cry Abby threw her self at the firefighter and buried her face in the woman's shoulder. Through the sobs Zeen was able to make out only one word: "Xena". 'Hadn't Abby called her that earlier?' She tasted the name on her lips and found it to be familiar and comforting.

"Abby, what's wrong? Have a dream? C'mon..I'm here...you're okay now." She brought the woman's tear stained face up and gave the woman a smile. Abby wiped at her leaking nose and returned a weak grin. "I'm sorry....I was having this dream, and...and there was this woman...someone was holding a.." She felt a hand on her lips and looked up into clear blue yet troubled eyes. She brushed a lock out of Zeen's eyes and frowned. "What?"

"You're dream was of a woman with a knife to her throat, wasn't it? Some guy was holding her captive..going to kill her." Zeen closed her eyes in confusion. 'What the fuck is going on!', she screamed inside her head. "How, how...did you know that?" Abby slipped out of the covers and sat on the side of the couch, her shirt barely covering her upper thighs. She put her head in her hands and just sat there, eyes closed, heart thumping wildly in her chest. "I..l dunno. I was kinda having the same dream...but, different", she stammered. Zeen stood up and rubbed her eyes with smudgy fingers. They shook as she tried to get herself under control, willing their tremor to stop. She looked over and saw Abby watching her and then looked down. The look in the blonde's eyes told Zeen she'd seen the scars, evidence of her indomitable work as a firefighter; the careless devil-may-care attitude that was sure to get her killed one day. They weren't terribly noticeable; the worst of them faint remnants of her attempt to save her son. The skin grafts had been the worst; the tendril like scars that radiated from her armpits down the inside of her upper arms were really the last evidence of what the doctor's had been convinced was permanent disfigurement and total loss of motor function. She'd worked very hard with the physical therapists to regain their use. Having the surgery done to repair the damage had been far worse than the initial burns.

She felt very uneasy about exposing what she considered a vulnerability. After the horrors of this latest fire, Zeen had simply been too tired and had let down her defences, sleeping in the nude as was her habit. "Ah, geez...um, sorry." She turned around quickly and reached for her shirt and boxers. She went back and sat beside the blonde, taking her hands and just waiting. Finally Abby cleared her throat and said, "You don't disgust me, Zeen; I've seen scars before." Then she lowered her eyes once more, fearing she'd said the wrong thing and offended the firefighter. Neither woman said anything for a bit and then Zeen began rubbing her thumbs back and forth in a circular motion over the backs of Abby's hands. "So soft. Such nice hands, Abby; long fingers, slim wrists." Abby watched in fascination as the strong hands began massaging her fingers and palms. It was so familiar, so...it made her feel safe, somehow. She didn't know what was going on, but she was confident this strange woman would never hurt her, never harm her. She sighed deeply and then squeezed Zeen's hands. "Hey, you." she smiled. "Such big strong hands, hardly any fingernails and filthy dirty. Didn't you have a shower when you got back to the station?"

The tall brunette smiled crookedly, her jaw askew. She looked at her dirty hands and then at the small well formed ones that held them. Such a contrast; light and dark, clean and dirty, big and small. And yet...when she held them within her own, they seemed to fit. She could almost feel a tingling whenever their fingers touched. Abby watched her new friend, completely lost in thought, looking at their hands as if they held the mysteries of life. 'The woman was so deep, so serious', Abby thought as she felt a great calm descent over her. 'Someone to ground me', she mused with a sigh.

Abby Dean was twenty-six years old and hadn't held one job in her whole life. Well, not a permanent one, anyway. She'd worked as a dishwasher, a waitress and even as a cashier but none seemed to hold her for long. There was something missing in her life but she just didn't know what it was. So, she went from place to place, job to job, just wandering the streets. Abby was presently staying at the shelter but knew it wasn't going to be forever. She was only gonna be able to dodge the men that seemed to prowl places like that for so long. She gave herself a mental shake and then looked over at her new friend and wondered where Zeen had zoned to. It was almost as if she disappeared, going into her own little world. Then the firefighter had turned, slowly gazing into her eyes...leveling a deep, penetrating look that seemed to take Abby's breath away.

Zeen was still amazed how something as inconsequential as holding another woman's hands could make her feel so.....peaceful. She turned to look at the blonde and found herself caught, literally caught, in a whirlpool of sea green and she just went with the feeling and tumbled...

Abby felt as if everything was just...slowing down, ceasing to be important. She was only aware of the most beautiful eyes in the world...and they were filled with such...her heart hammered dangerously in her chest as she felt the woman lean into her. 'Blink, goddamnit! Breathe!'

And then the blonde only had time to register two things: that she'd been fooling herself - this was all preordained from the moment she'd laid eyes on the firefighter; and there was just nothing to prepare her for that moment in time when she felt Zeen's lips moving gently against her own. It was total bliss, ineffable, undefinable....she closed her eyes and just enjoyed the sensation.

Zeen moved away from the young woman, blinking a couple of times. 'C'mon, Zeen....breathe, you can do it...don't wanna end up on your ass, passed out, right?' She took a big shuddering breath and just tried very hard to get her heart back under control. Her brain fleetingly processed the idea that maybe the woman didn't want to be kissed; that perhaps she hadn't enjoyed it and was now somewhat pissed off...and then the thought was forgotten as she took in the sight before her. There was the blonde, eyes still closed, half reclining on the sofa, a slight grin on her face...'Yeah, scratch that guilt trip. Not goin there.'

After about what seemed like forever, Zeen cleared her throat and watched in amusement as her new friend tried to swallow and then shake herself as if from a dream. She looked down and discovered she was still holding Abby's soft and warm hands. She patted one gently and then scratched the side of her chin.

"Say, you hungry? I think I could probably rustle us up something for breakfast. I think I went shopping this week. What day is it...um, Thursday, right. Yeah, did some Monday morning." She paused, hoping the woman wasn't going to feel awkward about the moment they'd just shared. Zeen felt really good about it herself and wanted that feeling to continue. Did Abby feel the same way? After the confrontation about her being some kind of a weirdo last night, Zeen wasn't too sure how the woman felt about her. She'd been aware of a physical attraction, sure. Kinda hard to miss that look in a woman's eye. She'd found it flattering, really. There the woman was, looking like this damsel in distress, waiting for a knight in shining armour. She mentally smirked, thinking about the sword she felt in her hands at the diner. 'Now that was a moment straight out of The Twilight Zone. For sure. Not to mention the shared dream. Yeah, something was going on. But what?'

Abby gulped and nodded, not trusting her voice. She slowly took her hands away from the brunette and looked away. 'God, what am I thinking? I should not be getting involved with this woman. Not now.'

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Chapter Six

Zeen dropped her raglan shorts by the hamper and slowly pulled her shirt up over her head. She glanced at herself in the mirror, grimaced and then leaned in to turn the faucet of the shower on. She went back to the sink and stuck her tongue out at her reflection. Bloody good thing she had the next four days off. Gods, what a night. Finding that kid was a fuckin miracle but her brother...she swallowed deeply, pushing the vision of the dead child away...images of her own son's death swirling around until both were entwined. A sob escaped her lips and both hands grasped the counter until the skin was white and taut. Her eyes looked blindly into the mirror, watching once more as her visions pulled her back to that night, that dark smoke filled night when she fought two men, breaking one's nose in her effort to get back into what remained of her apartment. She'd known it was a wasted effort; she knew enough about clapboard tenements to know hers was a tinderbox. As the hallway filled with black smoke and the other tenants were herded out into the clear cold air, Zeen knew by the look on the two men...she knew. And yet she'd fought like a wild cat, determined to see that which no parent should ever see...evidence of the death of a child. She could still see the bleak look on their faces, smell the acrid smoke filling her lungs; watching helplessly as the meager mementos of her life burst into flames, annihilating everything that she was and any future as a parent she could ever have.

So lost in her torment, the woman didn't even register Abby's presence in the room. Abby stopped by the bathroom door and took in the sight before her. Through the rising steam she could see the woman was totally rigid, her jaw tight and face expressionless. At first she thought perhaps the firefighter was angry...at what, she didn't know, but upset all the same. Abby turned to leave but stopped as she heard a small escape of breath. It was barely audible and yet the strangled quality to it drew her closer until she found herself directly behind the nude woman, her hands moving tentatively to the middle of Zeen's back.

The firefighter jerked around, placing both hands on Abby's wrists, eyes still somewhat glazed. The blonde watched as a somewhat haunted look came into the tall woman's eyes; she offered no resistance, knowing the woman could easily overpower her without a problem. She found herself looking at the firefighter's biceps as they bunched in barely controlled fury. 'What ever the woman had been thinking about was seriously upsetting her', thought Abby as she instinctively tried to step back. Zeen's eyes seem to focus a bit at the blonde's sudden movement and then she pulled the woman close. They stood there, the steam swirling around them, lost in their thoughts yet connected in a very powerful way.

It was as if time stopped; the familiar smell of the woman assaulted her senses, evoking a rapid array of images. Zeen wasn't sure why but she tucked the blonde head beneath her chin and began to gently rock back and forth, offering assurance to Abby. Slowly snaking her arms around the tall brunette's waist, Abby snuggled closer, feeling very safe and very comforted. Why Zeen felt she had to do it was a mystery to Abby; it was fairly obvious that the firefighter was the one in need of a shoulder to cry on. After giving the woman a quick hug, Abby leaned back and looked into the troubled eyes of her protector. It was funny, but that's exactly how she was beginning to think of Zeen...like she was this knight in shining armour...or a warrior of some kind. Visions of her dream popped back into her head and she smiled, no longer feeling afraid or worried. This Zeen was that Xena. She was sure of it. She wasn't too sure how...but it just felt right. Zeen frowned a little as she watched a slow contented smile etch across the shorter woman's face, lighting up her eyes even in the warm mist from the shower...

"Shit! The shower....by the gods....I'll be lucky if I get any hot water at all today. Man! How stupid can ya...." She stopped suddenly, both her vocal and thinking skills grinding to a halt as she felt two hands moving behind her neck, pulling her down...then her eyes closed as she felt the soft silkiness of Abby's lips as they moved against her own. She felt two hands softly moving up and down her ribcage and moaned at the contact, suddenly aware of her nakedness. 'I guess it's okay...she hasn't flinched or anything...maybe she can't see through the steam or some...' And then her world spun out of control as she felt the blonde's tongue slowly slip inside her mouth.

So many thoughts swirled inside her brain...Hell, it had been a good three and a half years since she'd been intimate with anyone. It was far easier to just close ranks and not get involved. People always saw what they wanted to, rarely venturing past the outer shell and that bothered her. She was more than just muscles on a six foot frame with blue eyes. Hell, she liked working out...kept her mind off what she didn't have. Funny, when all she had was her son, her dingy little apartment and dead end job, her life seemed so...desperate and unhappy. She didn't know how lucky she was. For what ever the reason, the Fates were giving her another chance. With Abby. She was not going to fuck it up. She just hoped the woman wasn't turned off by the occasional scar...or dozen.

All Abby knew was this was where she wanted to be and who she wanted to be with. She sensed the tall woman's hesitation but gave into the feelings that washed over her, going with the fire she felt spreading from her belly to points south. It made her knees weak, the flesh on her inner thighs tingle and quiver. Abby pressed herself closer to the woman, sighing as she felt the rigid body yielding. She took one step and then another, one hand behind the tall woman as she maneuvered them closer to the shower stall. Zeen felt the back of one heel hit the edge of the stall and put both hands out to steady herself. Her eyes momentarily flew open as she discovered what the blonde had in mind. Gently dipping down, she placed one hand under the woman's knees and then straightened back up, taking Abby with her. She felt her tongue being nibbled and every nerve in her body felt stretched tight. Then she stepped over the base and into the shower and slowly lowered the smaller woman back down to her feet.

Abby felt the hot water cascade down her back and pressed her body against Zeen's muscular torso. Both women groaned as the water trickled between them and Zeen let her hands wander down to the edge of Abby's shirt. Not certain just how to proceed, she broke the kiss and then began nibbling at the blonde's neck and clavicle. She'd let Abby determine where they were going next. She had no intentions of scaring this woman out of her life...if she could help it.

The only thing keeping Abby's hands on the woman's hips was uncertainty. She wanted to touch the firm breasts before her, taste the woman's skin...just the scent of Zeen's skin was enough to drive her crazy. It was the woman's hesitancy that played over and over in Abby's mind. Why was she unsure? Then she felt Zeen's hands drop to her sodden shirt and felt the hot flash of teeth on her neck. She tilted her head back and felt the water streaming down her face, a small river flowing between her breasts, running down the inside of her thighs. The ache she felt was so intense, so overwhelming. She knew what she wanted, had wanted ever since she'd seen the firefighter remove her helmet and look her way. There was something about those eyes...the earnest look on her face. And then...that smile. Yes, she'd felt something then. Like coming home.

"Yes, Zeen...I want you to touch me...", she said as she slowly moved her hands up to hold the woman's face. The taller woman gazed intently into the green eyes before her and saw...passion and need, yes, but something more. Zeen was fairly certain there was no place else she wanted to be than gazing into those eyes for the rest of her life. For eternity. She slowly leaned down and took Abby's mouth with her own once more, wrapping her arms around the woman's petite frame. That was all Abby needed as she reached up and yanked hard on her tank top, pulling it down until she heard a rip. A moan of frustration escaped her lips until she felt two strong hands encompass her own, ripping the last of the garment and then she heard a plop as it dropped to the floor of the stall. And then those same hands were moving slowly over her shoulders, her upper arms, finally painstakingly moving to her breasts.

Sometimes it's fairly evident the Fates have a sense of humour and consider mortals to be mere playthings, moving them about on the chessboard of life at their wim. They chose that particular moment to intervene and put a stop to something they'd set in motion centuries, eons ago. Both women jumped apart as the temperature of the water changed rapidly from hot and soothing to cold and painful.

"Shit!", yelled Zeen as she scrambled out of the stall, dragging the yelping blonde behind her. The firefighter got her feet tangled up in her haste to get out of the cold spray and ended up on her butt on the cold tiled floor. "Jesus, that's cold!" Zeen lifted her behind a few inches and then her feet slipped in the puddles rapidly spreading around the shower, sending her down once more. Abby stood there, hands clasped over her mouth, trying desperately not to laugh. It was a losing battle and soon she was bent over in mirth. With a growl, Zeen grabbed the woman around her knees and then it was Abby that was complaining about the temperature of the floor. The taller woman awkwardly made her way over the blonde's prone body and managed to inch her way up the side of the stall and turn off the water. Grimacing, she plucked the sodden remnants of Abby's shirt out of the drain, wrung it out and tossed it into the wastebasket.

"Ah, so that was pretty funny, huh? You wanna lie on that cold floor or get me a coupla those towels?" Zeen had both hands on her hips and indicated the location of the towel cupboard with her chin. Abbly smirked and got to her knees. She wasn't about to make a close encounter with the floor by trying to stand in the puddles decorating the bathroom floor. She could already see the beginnings of a bruise on Zeen's hip.

"Okay, okay...just gimme a few secs." Zeen smirked thinking of the double entendre as she watched the muscles move across the woman's shoulders, her eyes following the movement down to the base of Abby's tailbone; caught in the sight of the woman's shapely buttocks, Zeen found herself swallowing deeply, throat suddenly gone dry. She walked carefully over to where the woman crouched and just stood there. There was something about the way Abby was tilting her head, hanging over the pile of towels, golden tresses hanging down into her face...it was so damned familiar. And then the woman turned her head and everything seemed to be in slow motion.

Abby slowly raised her chin, caressing every part of the woman's body with eyes that shone like emeralds. It was the way Zeen was standing there, legs apart, her gaze intent on all before her. She looked both proud and melancholy at the same time. Both saw the desire, the passion rising in their eyes; goose flesh covering their sensitized and heated flesh less to do with their sudden exposure to frigid water than the realization that something inevitable was happening between them.

It was like someone had turned on a sun in Zeen's head...radiating over every part of her, illuminating every corner of her soul. Then Abby reached up and placed her hand on Zeen's thigh, making that dizzying connection once again and the brunette knew there was nothing she wouldn't do, hadn't done, for this woman. It was then, truly, that the firefighter knew the truth and gave over her heart and soul once more to the woman who had always held them; her soulmate.

Abby felt her hand encompassed and felt such emotions as her companion drew her up from the bathroom floor into her warm embrace. "Gods, I've missed you", said Zeen as she hugged the woman fiercely. She nodded silently as a deep sob wracked her body. The brunette simply held the woman fast as she felt Abby dissolve into tears. Part of her wondered if these were tears of joy or sorrow. She knew.... She wasn't sure how...but she just knew they were connected; that somehow they'd been together as lovers in another life, maybe even lives. Perhaps they still had unresolved issues and they were destined to repeat their mistakes until they got it right. Perhaps their shared past had been so painful, so sad that.... And then she felt soft lips tentatively kiss the base of her neck and all thoughts of uncertainty left her. She bent down and rubbed her nose along Abby's cheekbone and smiled at the contented sigh in response. Abby laughed a little self-consciously and wiped her tears away with the heel of her hands. She tried to move back but Zeen was having nothing of it and captured the womanís mouth once more. The smaller woman groaned and moved her hands up and down Zeen's torso, ceasing her movements as she felt the woman flinch. She pulled away from the kiss and looked up into the suddenly wary looking firefighter.

"What is it?", she asked uneasily. Zeen looked down and then slowly expelled the breath she'd been holding when the sensitive flesh of her inner arms was caressed. "I just.... Iím not really comfortable with anyone touching...there. It doesn't hurt...it just...brings back some bad memories." Zeen smiled weakly and dropped her gaze. Abby slowly moved her hands back up to touch the faint pink lines of the old burns. Zeen flinched again and Abby could tell it was taking all her willpower not to push away. "I told you; I've seen scars before and they don't bother me, okay? I think you have the most beautiful body I've ever seen in my life. Nothing could ever detract from that. 'Sides, these are a part of you and I wanna know all of you, Zeen. I don't know how to say this without sounding like some sort of...dork." She paused, biting her lip. Zeen arched an eyebrow and clenched her jaw. Perhaps she had fucked it up again. She signed resignedly and waited for the inevitable.

"I...well, I felt this connection between us the first time I saw you...but I thought it was your..." She cleared her throat, "...your shoulders and your smile...and...well there was some sexual attraction going on...at least I sure felt it." She saw the beginnings of a smile play over the decidedly luscious lips of her soon to be lover. Encouraged, she went on. "I don't know if you know it but you have this animal magnetism thing working...you just exude it from every pore. And so I thought, well, I wondered what making love to you would be like. But I was also a bit...um...my life is kinda complicated right now. I don't.... Iím not working, don't really have a place to stay and well...I didn't need someone feeling sorry for me...and getting involved didn't feel like the right thing to do...and...But when we were in that diner, something happened. I felt this connection that went beyond sexual. It felt so...familiar, you know?" She paused and smiled gratefully as the taller woman nodded. "I think I got scared...my emotions were really running high and it just weirded me out. When you started talking about swords and stuff...well, I thought, 'nope, don't wanna go there'...and I tried to push you away."

Zeen felt the woman's soft fingers tracing her lips and smiled crookedly in acknowledgement. "Yeah, I felt the connection, too. Kinda scary, huh? But nice, too." Abby nodded, somewhat side tracked at the soft feel of the woman's lips. "Scary, yeah. But kinda like coming home. I know it sounds strange...but well...it feels like I've found something I didn't even know was missing. Like I found.."

Zeen kissed the fingers covering her mouth and finished the sentence. "...The other side of your soul. Yes, Abby; that's just how I feel, too. Just like coming home." She watched, as Abby's face seemed to light up, then the petite woman hugged her close again and Zeen felt as if her heart was going to burst from her chest. This simple acknowledgement of their connection seemed to free them both from the last tendrils of uncertainty.

"Hey you", murmured the firefighter, "Your skin is getting blue. I'm sorry about the hot water. Maybe a bit later..." Abby smiled boldly and took the woman's hands, leading her back into the main room, towards the rumpled bed. "I think I have a way better idea for warming me up", she smirked brazenly.

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Chapter Seven

Zeen smiled wryly as she watched the petite form before her. It amazed the brunette that such a wisp of a woman could have such an affect on her. Although she was still rather awkward at having Abby see her...in all her glory, so to speak...well, the woman hadn't run screaming from the sight of so many scars. That was a plus. 'Yeah, definitely a plus, Zeen ole girl. It might mean she sticks around long enough to really get freaked.' She smiled ruefully and then felt a catch in her throat as the smaller woman lay back in the middle of the bed. Zeen could see the passion rising in the blonde's eyes, mirroring her own. It seemed as if all of her senses were heightened. She took in the film of moisture covering the woman's soft skin; the faint blush that covered the slightly tanned cheeks; the damp hair swept off the woman's face, the rest hanging in tendrils against the pillow. Her eyes wandered down the lovely torso and her breath caught tightly in her throat as Abby slowly bent her knees and opened her legs.

"I want you right here, Zeen..where you belong. I want to feel your body moving against mine, our breaths mingling as we share this moment. Come to me." Zeen's jaw fell as she experienced the words washing over her. She'd written many a piece of poetry/prose in her time but this woman just seemed to be a natural. The woman jerked back into the present when she felt two hands clasp around her wrists and wondered how her feet could have moved without her knowing it. She looked down into a veritable sea of green. She hadn't been aware of zoning out but it must have been for at least 30 or 40 seconds; the woman who'd been previously lounging rather seductively, striking an erotic pose, was now kneeling on the edge of the bed before her, her face inches away.

"Gods....I guess I zoned..out...ohhh", she said haltingly as her lips were enveloped once more. Abby pulled the woman forward, carefully tugging on her wrists until Zeen had no choice but to either fall on her face or join the woman on the bed. She chose the later and clumsily wondered just where to put her hands. While she was wondering, Abby took the opportunity to run her fingers softly over the reddened flesh of the woman's upper arms. She noticed there wasn't as much flinching this time and boldly began to massage the muscled biceps. Zeen groaned into her mouth, feeling the shivers move up and down her spine, making her nipples pucker and harden.

"Oh Zeen...I want you...so much", said Abby as she moved her hands around to the woman's lower back, pulling her close, closer still. With a slight growl the taller woman began leaning forward, forcing the blonde to lie back, neither one breaking off the kiss. Abby groaned with need as she felt her mouth investigated as Zeen settled her weight along the full length of her and she thought she'd die from want.

The firefighter felt as if she were at the epicenter of a raging inferno; every touch on her body left a trail of molten fire; each kiss elicited such a fiery response that she was certain critical mass would be achieved...and soon. Her breath came in quick and shallow and her motions became erratic. She wanted to feel all of Abby, to encompass all of her being, transcending even the physical. Zeen propped herself up on trembling arms, one thigh nestled at Abby's center and looked down into the carnal eyes of her lover. Leaning down once more, Zeen kissed the woman beneath her with such passion that both felt their hearts begin to beat in unison. She felt small hands searching and exploring, caressing over her heated skin, squeezing her swollen nipples and then sighed and closed her eyes in total bliss as Abby moved her mouth to the tender flesh of her shoulder as it met the base of her neck. Abby moved her hand lower, feeling the damp curls, opening the trembling thighs and then sank two fingers into the hot moist furnace that was Zeen.

Zeen gasped as she felt a hot tongue trail down and encircle one of her highly sensitized nipples and she raised her thigh so that it pressed hard against Abby's crotch. The smaller woman moaned in response, sucking harder as she felt the muscled thigh slicken against her, riding her faster and faster. The heat generated threatened to overwhelm her and she began to thrust deeply into the firefighter. Quickly moving her thumb into play, she rubbed the hard bundle of nerves, holding on as she felt the tendons stand out in the woman's neck and then bit down, causing Zeen to groan out her name in ecstasy.

Abby lay there, her skin feeling so very tight and responsive; every nerve in her body thrumming to an unknown beat. When at last the brunette lay still, Abby began a slow path of small kisses up to her jawbone and then kissed the gasping woman as she tried to regain her composure. "I want more, Zeen.... Give it all to me." Sliding her tongue deeply in and out of Abby's mouth, Zeen opened her legs and straddled her lover's hips. She pushed herself up on her hands and began to slowly undulate against the blonde's questing hand. Abby brought her hand down and placed her two fingers on either side of the woman's swollen nub, making small circles, pushing a little harder. "Yes, don't stop, don't stop!" It was almost like she was seeing the aurora borealis...no, being enveloped by it. Whatever it was, Zeen could feel the heat emanating from the other woman, building then cresting and building once more. The taller woman squeezed her eyes shut as she felt another powerful orgasm crash over her and then grabbed the woman's hands and held them away from her body.

"Gods, Abby....are you trying to kill me??", she groaned as she felt the last shudder leave her body. Zeen moved the woman's hands up to the pillow and then sank down, gratefully burying her face into Abby's golden tresses. The blonde chuckled and wrapped her legs around Zeen's buttocks. The two lay there, comfortable in each other's embrace while Zeen got her breath back.

"I've never had that strong of an orgasm, Abby. Gods, that was fantastic. I felt such a ...such a bond, you know? I've never experienced that before."

Abby kissed the woman's temple and sighed deeply. "You, too? I'm glad it's not just me. I've been feeling it since we met and it's only getting stronger."

Zeen nuzzled Abby's ear lobe, kissing just below it. "Yeah, you're right. By the way, I dunno what you were doing with your other hand but, wow!" She chuckled as a blush spread across the blonde's cheeks.

"Just something I learned....from a book, actually. I, um, frequent lesbian book stores and this one....well, it was all about the anatomy of lesbian love. Quite interesting, really." Replied the blonde.

Zeen smirked and then kissed the woman's nose. "Oh, I think l'm gonna like getting back into books. I've been away too long as it is."

The blonde cleared her throat. "About books...I don't mean to pry, Zeen, but...I read a few of your poems. They're really good."

Zeen scrunched her face up. "I took some classes at correspondence school is all..." She looked up and saw Abby was not going to buy it. "Okay...well, l got my Fine Arts...English major and creative writing.... Took me about six years."

"Wow, I am impressed. That's really something." Zeen shrugged depreciatingly. Abby stroked the woman's scars and then quietly said, "So, you gonna tell me about these?" The firefighter rolled off the woman and lay there with her arm over her eyes.

"I thought I'd make love to you, Abby. I want to share what you gave to me."

Abby propped herself up on one elbow and pushed a wisp of hair off the woman's forehead. She trailed the tip of a finger across the brow and then down the bridge of Zeen's nose. Abby smiled as she saw the well sculpted lips twitch. "I'd love nothing better, Zeen. But we have all night and really....l think you need to talk about this." She paused and then went on, "How come you always flinch when l touch your scars? Are they still painful? Most of them look a few years old now. Wanna tell me about it?"

The room was silent but for the occasional ticking of the pipes as other tenants went about their lives. The rays of the sun had begun to make their way across the wood floor, making everything old seem new again. Small motes of dust swirled and danced, giving the illusion of a well rehearsed ballet. The intermittent cacophony of horns and voices could be heard as the nearby market went into high gear now that mid afternoon had arrived. July was a heady month for merchants; the scent of tourists was balm, making them forget the slight tinge to the air; evidence of the fire that had gutted one apartment building and spread to the grocery store near by.

Zeen knew that smell. She'd spent years chasing the owner; tracking it, pursuing it, hunting it down. Only to have it disappear, like the puff of smoke it was; lying in wait once more to unleash its rage on the unsuspecting. She remembered, fleetingly, when there was no quickening of her pulse, no assault of images as the smell of fire filled the air; back to a time when an alarm meant very little, only something to briefly acknowledge and then dismiss. The days and nights that weren't filled with nightmarish images were few and far between. Images so harsh, so cruel that most times she had to hide away and just let the rage out. Those days seemed to be colder lately, more painful. Almost as cutting as they were right after the...incident.

Abby lay her head on her arm and watched as the battle was waged; each emotion fighting to be seen and yet quickly quelled and submerged once more. She wondered if the firefighter would ever be able to release these inner demons. They'd laid there quietly for what seemed to be hours but was more likely only minutes, neither speaking, bodies at rest yet waging war nevertheless. Abby wanted to take the woman and shake her, force her to confront things she only had the brief inklings of. Whatever was tormenting the woman was keeping her from getting inside, past the gates of hell. She seemed to know instinctively that where ever Zeen was, the real Zeen, there was fire. She'd seen a touch of it in their lovemaking and the way she'd looked at the other firefighters the night before. Had it only been last night? It seemed a life time had passed since then. Abby began thinking that her initial impression had been right on the money; this was the wrong time to get involved. Zeen was too complex, to tightly wound...and then, mouth agape, she watched as a single tear slowly made its way down the sharp planes of her lover's face. With a tentative hand, she reached out and touched the droplet. Her hand shook and she felt her own eyes filling.

"Oh god, Zeen....please, please let me in...I want to be here for you, l want to help you.." Both heels of Zeen's hands were pressed into her eyes as she tried vainly to block the flow of tears. A strangled cry emitted from her throat as she forced the vulnerability away. The woman's words flowed gently over her, soothing the rage, the sorrow, breaking the chains she felt herself bound with. If Abby were to see the firefighter as she was inside, she'd see a woman shackled with the heaviest of chains, bound from neck to foot and covered with bleeding wounds. Zeen rubbed the back of her scalp and knew this to be true, wondering if either of them could survive such knowledge. She steeled herself against the words she knew would come; the pleading, the endless questions. And then the tears and denial. It was just too damned painful to open her heart once more. The last woman she'd been with had insisted on knowing every part of her and had dredged up memories so painful that Zeen's only defence had been withdrawal. As much as she wanted, no needed, the petite woman in her life, Zeen wasn't sure she'd survive the complete baring of her soul. The beginnings of a plan was formulating in the back of her mind, one where both of them could get out of their close encounter with pride intact, and go on living their lives...apart. Such a feeling of sorrow overwhelmed her at that moment that it was as if her whole being was being shattered. The bond that she'd felt; the connection that seemed to grow stronger with every moment...lost forever? Lost again?

Zeen rolled over quickly and took the blonde into her arms, holding her very tightly as the tears coursed down her face. NO! She wouldn't push this woman out...she wouldn't barrackade her emotions anymore. If it meant tearing her battered heart open to let Abby in, then she'd do it. The overwhelming feeling of despair began to disipate as she felt small strong hands slowly moving over her face, her scalp, long tapered fingers running thru her unruly hair. She tucked the woman beneath her and just held on. Finally, she became aware of the soft voice in her ear, saying the words of love she had longed to hear.

"It's alright, Zeen...l'm here and I'm not going to leave...l promise. I feel like its taken me forever to find you and l'm not letting go...not this time...never again. I think l've known you and loved you forever. I want to share my life with you..." The brunette raised her head and looked down into the open and loving face of Abby and knew whatever horrors she had to tell her would be accepted and they'd work thru them together. "You....love me? How could you say that...if you only knew..."

"Knew what? That you're a woman who risks her life every day or maybe that you're a warm and caring human being that took a stray off the streets and let her into your home? That was you on that ladder truck, almost getting yourself killed, saving that woman and kid, wasn't it? I really hate to be flip, Zeen, but I don't see what you feel you have to warn me about. Why don't you explain it to me."

Zeen's hand went to the back of her head, absently stroking the tattoo hidden by the hair covering the upper nape of her neck. Images of the county jail swarmed over her and she clenched her teeth. "Let's just not go there, okay?" The tall brunette tried to get up and finding herself in a tighter embrace, gave up with a harsh sigh; her body rigid and jaw set. Abby began stroking the woman's sides and lower back very slowly, trying to tame the defiant look in Zeen's eyes.

"Now look, Zeen...don't be like that. I want to know stuff about you, okay? And why do you keep touching the back of your neck like that? You have a headache or....is it another scar?"

Zeen tore her willful hand away from the tat as if it had been on fire. "No....No. It's...nothing." She attempted to roll off the blonde but Abby was having none of it. She held on tightly and just began kissing the firefighter's cheek and jawline.

"You don't understand, Abby. My life....it's been so hard...so damned fucked up. There are things....things I could tell you...that would make you run screaming from my bed, Abby....never to return....and I don't...I don't want that...ever.." Her voice trailed off and her hand went back up to the back of her head. Abby's hand quickly shot up and encircled the woman's wrist. "That's it....whenever you get nervous your hand goes up there...now let me look." Zeen's neck was rigid, the tendons standing out like cords...and then, seeing the pleading look in her lover's eyes, she relented and turned her head. Abby wove her fingers thru the dark tresses, trying in vain to feel something...a knot, a scar...she didn't know what. She looked up into Zeen's face. "I don't feel anything. You don't have lice or something, do you?" Zeen grimaced and then then rolled off the woman and laid beside her on her belly. Parting her hair at the back, she waited while Abby propped herself up and gazed into the now visible tattoo. It was a green dragon of about 3 inches in diameter. It wasn't particularly intricate but it was well drawn. She frowned, wondering why Zeen would have a tattoo there and why she felt the need to touch it when she was upset.

Zeen's voice, muffled from the pillow, wafted up as she let her hands drop. Putting them beneath her chin, she began to talk. Slowly.

"I got the tat while in County. I was doing an 18 month stretch for drunk and disorderly, public mischief, damaging public property..." Abby interrupted her, "But that's not worth 18 months, Zeen. How come they.."

She was silenced by the penetrating gaze as the firefighter lifted her head to face her. Zeen's lips twitched, "Yeah, well....I got into a fight with the guys who held me back from....entering my apartment...l just...I couldn't let it go...it haunted me...I wasn't getting any rest...l began drinking. Then l decided....well, my addled brain figured these guys prevented me from saving my son...so I started following them....stalking them, really...found out where they lived..." She stopped, dragging the back of one hand across her suddenly greasy feeling mouth. She felt ill, remembering the fight...feeling the bones break under her fists. She'd jumped them both one night after they'd left the bar and had just unleashed all of her anger. It didn't matter to her they were cops...even off duty cops. She wanted them to pay for the life of her son. And so they had. In blood.

Zeen rolled over to a sitting position on the side of the bed, her back to Abby and was quiet. The blonde felt sorry she'd started it all but also knew it wasn't gonna do either one of them any good if she was selfish and allowed Zeen to hide. No...it had to come out now; the wound would reopen and drain...and she'd be there to help it heal. She approached the silent figure, kneeling behind her and stretched out a tentative hand. She was only inches away from the strong broad shoulders of her lover and then Zeen startled her by speaking. "Don't touch me, babe. Please...I don't think l can get this out if you do...and you need to hear this, don't you? You want to see me bleed, don't you?" She turned and looked at Abby over her right shoulder and it was all the blonde could do not to scream. The look of wild unbridled fury that she saw in Zeen's face took her breath away. Her lower lip trembled and she shook her head slowly..."No...no..."

Zeen wore a feral look as she turned and regarded Abby on the bed. "You have to understand where I was then, Abby. I'd been in this abusive relationship with the father of my son...I learned how to dodge his fists, keep out of the way. He broke my nose, my ribs..but I was determined he wasn't gonna touch Ian...my only child.........I'd broken free of that, had gotten a job, made a better life for the two of us. I only had him...no one else..just the two of us..." Her voice was strangely cold and distant and it tore gouges into Abby's heart, painting images so horrible that a tear began forming in her eye. She sniffed and blinked it back.

Zeen seemed lost in her reverie and her voice took on a dreamy quality, almost as if she were telling a faery story. "We did everything together, Abby...he was my little shadow. He didn't like sleeping alone in the apartment and I can't say l blamed him...some of the roaches there were as big as fucking mice..." A smirk made a brief appearance on her face as she remembered the two of them chasing the nasty bugs around with shoes. Ian had been quite good at chasing them under the sofa where he used to get...."I don't want to talk about this anymore, Abby....I won't.." She abruptly got to her feet and strode over to the window, pressing her forehead against the cool glass. She squeezed her eyes closed as a multitude of images came at her like the very hounds of hell, tearing and snapping, voracious in their attack.

"Zeen...you've got to lance this..."

"Don't wanna talk about it any more.."

"I'll help you.."

"Don't wanna talk any more l don't wanna talk about it any more...."

"...get thru this if.."

"Stop it! Shut the fuck up!! I don't wanna fucking talk about it any more do you not understand one fucking word I'm saying?" Zeen's face was almost purple in her rage.

Abby stood by the side of the bed, mouth hanging open, as white as a sheet. Then she sat down heavily, almost as if every bone in her body had simply melted away. She hadn't expected the violent outburst at all. Zeen's hand went back to absently massaging the tattoo....

A small voice in her head began to be heard...Zeen tried hard not to listen...she'd kept it at bay for so long...only coming to her in dreams, nightmares, when she drank too much...the voice of her son.

She could see his face clearly and she squeezed her eyes so tightly that motes of light danced behind her eyes like fireworks. Trying hard to still the insistent voice, she clenched her teeth, her hands bunched into claws and then fists as she brought them parallel to her head. She began hitting the wall softly at first but the ferocity of her pounding increased, making the pictures rattle and shake. Lost in her self-made hell, her vision was filled with red-hot images of the fire, the flames licking over her life, everything she'd held dear. Her rage was complete; all consuming like a rapacious beast; too long denied and at last, set free. She lifted her head and howled as she watched the image of her sweet son...the boy that would never be a man...the child with her eyes...her very heart.... Watched him burn...watched him writhe in agony...

But these images were not true but conjured up from her very own twisted and tormented imagination. She'd built quite a photo album of such facsimiles and they ran together, creating a never ending reel; reality and fantasy merging until the events that day faded and were replaced by false images, a story that had little basis in truth. It was these pictures that ran non-stop thru her head as she bellowed out her rage...

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

Zeen looked down at the woman beneath her and grinned horribly. "You want to see inside, girlie? There's a price, you know. You aren't gonna like what you see, Abby...no, no, no....not one bit. But you know what? You wanted this..." Abby tried to look away from the spectre before her, only to have her chin grasped harshly. "Uh uh....you asked for this, you live with it....like l have." She stopped and then, grinding her teeth, she closed her eyes and went on. "He was three, Abby. My little boy was three fucking years old. It was late at night and one of the apartment's fire alarms went off...the kids were always pulling them." The cruel voice that had seemed so strong and confident started to waver and Abby could hear the frightened and lost woman she had been given glimpses of previously. "I went out..leaving him behind...thinking I'd just be a second...I left him, Abby...my son..." Abby smiled bravely up into her lover's face and wiped some of the tears away, nodding that she understood when there was no way in hell she ever could. When Zeen spoke again, it was as her lover, not the apparition her rage and awakened. "I thought it was a prank, you see? That it was just some of the kids jerking around. But by the time I'd come back down the hall the smoke was everywhere...the apartment next to mine...I could feel the heat...I pushed open my door...I saw Ian ...his pj's, burned by the flames, were licking at....him....and...he..tried to...run from....hide..." Abby watched as the face before her finally crumbled. Zeen began to sob uncontrollably, fat tears pouring out from her wild eyes. "...crawled behind..the sofa...hiding from the...the flames....the drapes caught fire...the sofa.....rug....must have been newspaper around..." She cried harder, trying not to face the images; trying not to think; wishing her mouth would stop working so she didn't have to endure the pain...the horrible, gut wrenching, searing pain....that threatened to overwhelm her, killing her...little by little..

Abby brought her hands around the firefighter's neck and pulled Zeen into a fierce embrace..holding tightly as the woman cried and got out the rest of the story. Like a dam breaking, Abby knew she'd not stop until it was all out. She lay there, trying to be Zeen's safe harbour; the tears falling freely from her own eyes as she relived the horrible fire thru her lover's eyes. She wasn't even aware that she'd been stroking the nape of Zeen's neck, where the mysterious dragon held court; silent in his judgement.

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Chapter Eight

The hours ticked by and the two women fell into an uneasy sleep filled with images neither one could escape. Abby's dream had her trapped in a box, unable to get free, filling slowly with horribly insidious smoke. Zeen's, however, had her in an cloying darkness, unable to help herself let alone find her lover. It didn't seem to matter how much she tried, Zeen could just never find her friend...

Abby awoke with a start and then resettled her arms around her lover, who murmured piteously in her sleep, burying her face deeper into the smaller woman's shoulder. Lying there with the weight of the other almost totally trapping her, Abby watched as the shadows crept up the wall and across the ceiling. Soon, the shadows merged together and it was light that was creeping away. She glanced at the wall clock, happy that Zeen was getting the sleep she so obviously needed. Zeen moved and twitched, digging an elbow into Abby's side. It was then that Abby discovered how badly she needed to pee. Quietly easing herself from the taller woman's embrace, she grabbed her shirt and undies and made her way thru the dark to the bathroom.

The room was totally black when all of Zeen's senses came alive. Still befuddled with sleep, she wasn't sure just what had awakened her but her radar told her there was movement in her apartment. Everything was a haze...she wasn't sure why she was lying on the bed nude but she did half way remember stumbling in....Abby...her mind filled in the blank and Zeen brushed her hands over her face in an effort to shake out the cobwebs. "Abby?", she mumbled. Then she felt a cool hand on her thigh as her lover moved up to the head board and pulled her close in a loving embrace. "Hey, sleeping beauty. How do you feel, Zeen? I'm sorry I had to..." Zeen hugged the woman closer and shuddered a deep sigh. "I've never told someone all of that...some of it...but nev..." She paused as her voice caught. Abby reached up and caressed her tear soaked face in the darkness. She moved up against the headboard and Zeen lay her head on the woman's lower belly, arms wrapped tightly around Abby. "I wanted to....to hate you...but I couldn't...I can't. I didn't want you to see...that. Even after all this time..it's so raw, you know?" Abby smiled sadly. Here this woman was, afraid of looking vulnerable and all the while just the strongest person Abby had ever met. To live with those images...Abby squeezed her eyes tightly, trying vainly not to cry again.

Zeen nuzzled the top edge of the soft blonde curls and sighed deeply. The shakey hesitation to her voice was gone as she cleared her throat and continued. "I have such a propensity for violence, Abby. It's like this rage in me. When I found those two guys...I dunno what happened. One minute I was just watching them and the next...I remember looking down at one point and wondering why my hands were sticky with blood. One of the guys was in the corner moaning. He wasn't moving much and I thought, 'gee that guy needs a doctor'. I looked at my hands again and then....well, it was kinda like they were just...like they knew what they were doing and I was just there to witness it all. You know?" She felt the soft hands in her hair still, for just a split second, and then they continued to comb thru the disorder. She snorted quietly, thinking, 'oh yeah, she knows just what you mean...sure.'

Abby waited for the woman to go on but Zeen didn't. Frowning, she bent down and kissed the head before her. Hair so dark it couldn't be seen in the black of night. She thought about her lover and all the darkness in her life and knew, somehow, that she was the key. It wasn't going to be easy for Zeen to let go of her unhappy memories and she knew they would always be somewhere...lurking in the shadows. She cupped the woman's head and pulled her a little higher on her torso. "C'mon, Zeen...come up here." Zeen buried her face in the blonde's shoulder and just stayed there, quiet as a tomb. And then, all senses attuned, it seemed the night became alive with noise. The tic tic ticking from the wall clock could be heard; the raucous traffic announced to all those in the know that it was approaching 2:00am. Each stanza in the cacophonous concerto seemed to drill into her very soul that she was lost, unforgiven and forever damned. She was pondering the safe uncomplicated lives other's lived when Abby kissed her mouth. The warmth and acceptance in that kiss gave her the strength to go on, to get the rest of the story out.

"I didn't mean to scare you, Abby...it's just that..." She held her hands up, moving the fingers as if to prompt them to confess their sins. "These hands have done some pretty bad things, babe. I don't remember just how I got to be in jail. It was just like I woke up and there I was. But I hadn't been sleeping, you know? I was sitting there and then I just noticed my eyes and mouth were dry and gritty. Like I'd been in a blast furnace. I musta sat there for a while, just looking at these hands...wondering why they were bandaged and bleeding." The pounding in her temples grew, resembling an evil elf's attempt at escaping a small confined space, armed only with a pick and sledge hammer. The tight feeling of being trapped seemed to slowly ooze into her mind as images of her confinement assaulted her. "This guy comes into the room with an armed guard and it was then I knew I was in deep shit. He was a doctor and said I had two broken fingers, a fractured wrist and had dislocated my right thumb. At first, you know, I was trying to convince myself that I'd been in an accident. Maybe hit by a car or something? I tried to get outta bed and heard this funny noise. I was chained to the damned bed, Abby. My clothes were gone and I was in this stark little room...by myself. I learned later it was isolation at the jail's hospital." Abby hugged her closer and urged her to go on. "It's okay, baby...let it out. Tell me what happened?"

Zeen took a deep shuddering breath and then, happy for the blanket of darkness surrounding her, slowly let it out. "Seems I'd beaten those two guys pretty badly; broken ribs, noses, some facial bones; one had a fractured jaw. The doc said it was a damned good thing I'd stopped when I did as one of the cops had almost lost an eye. I remember thinking there must be a mistake. I'd never do that...He made me take some pills and told me I'd have a visit from some state directed lawyer. I don't remember too much about the rest of that day, Abby...the pills just kinda took it all out of me. It was a good six months before I was charged and sentenced. They took pity on me cos it was a small town and everyone knew about...about Ian. They knew about Brian...I guess the county doctor got a look at my files; saw the old x-rays and reports from when I was married. Anyway, I just sat there feeling really detached as the judge handed out the 18 months. I remember my lawyer hugging me with a pleased look on his face and wondered if he'd been so happy in my shoes. I guess I was lucky that the guy had access to my files...the judge let me off easy."

Abby brushed the hair out of the woman's face and kissed her gently. "But you didn't mean to hurt those guys, Zeen. It was kind of like a crime of passion, like temporary insanity..." Zeen nodded in agreement but secretly acknowledged that whatever it was, it was as if a linchpin had been released, allowing a cycle of rage and torment to engulf her.

Abby stroked the tat, lost in thought. Zeen shifted and lay back next to her against the headboard. Both hands went to her temples and she began to slowly work on the tension that was building. She pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering just how much she should reveal. Then she sighed heavily, knowing that altho it might not be the right time at least it was the right place. Never before had she been so happy for the darkness, knowing it would act as both a shield and a comforting embrace. 'Hides a multitude of sins.', a condemning voice in her subconscious muttered. 'And you have so many, Zeen.' She pushed the accusations back and took a deep cleansing breath. 'Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Too late to back out now.' She cleared her throat once more and laced her fingers over her tensed stomach. 'Now the hard part.', she thought, dismissing the horrendous scene that played out the night before. In some ways, it was true. It had been difficult to go thru that...all over again. To relive the fire, the aftermath. But somehow...altho control in her life had been taken away and she had seemed rudderless, what happened in jail was of her own making. Oh, maybe not in the beginning but very soon after.

"About the tat, if you still wanna know. Well, I ended up in county after being released from the hospital. I had a cast on my right hand for a couple of weeks which wasn't a good thing. Oh, it hurt plenty and shoulda been in a cast but it was kinda like a neon sign saying, 'Victim'. The first night I was there, I had a visit from some of the....well, more persuasive elements of the prison, shall we say. They were determining which 'house' the new meat belonged to." Shaking her head ruefully, lost in her thoughts, Zeen grew quiet again. Abby pulled the covers up around them and sat biting her lip, determined not to say anything but hoping the firefighter would go on. She knew by Zeen's tense breathing she had experienced the worst a woman could. Biting her lower lip so as not to cry out, she reached out a calm hand and entwined their fingers. 'My god, was there no end to what she'd endured?'

Zeen swallowed deeply and then raised her lover's hand and kissed it. "I think you know what happened. Late at night, about four women came in and held me down. I didn't even have a chance to yell out before a rag was shoved in my mouth. Two of them held me down while the other two took turns. You'd be surprised at just how strong a set of teeth can be; I think I actually took a finger off. Those bitches took me that night, Abby, but they paid dearly for it. It was horrible but you know, it didn't kill me...I guess it made me stronger." The blonde looked at her with surprise. Women had raped her? Abby closed her eyes tightly in the darkness, allowing a single tear to squeeze out. She swallowed deeply and brought the woman's hand up to her cheek. "I'm so sorry that happened to you, Zeen. It's totally inconceivable that women would...I don't...I don't think I'd have survived it." The firefighter leaned in and embraced her lover deeply, all but taking Abby's breath away in the process. "Yes you would," she said matter of factly. "You'd do what ever it took to survive. And that's exactly what I did. Only problem was, it didn't end there. I took it a up a notch; I became the predator."

She looked into her lover's face, barely illuminated by the faint daylight. "I'm not happy about what I became, Abby. I fell in with a group...it was kind of who the lesser of the evils was. I did some drugs, both taking and dealing; stupid stuff that allowed me to wallow in self pity. Then I met this woman...I'd never been with a woman before...not when it was my choice. Her name was Debbi Ma and she was a powerful force in the jail. She kinda took me under her wing and taught me how to defend myself...got me cleaned up." She paused and brought her knees up, resting her chin on them, quietly brooding, lost in the past.

"I'm really glad you could tell me all this, Zeen...I know how hard it must be..." She heard the woman release a deep sigh and tried to make a break for the bathroom. Zeen held her fast until she felt the unease leave the petite woman's frame. "Shhhh...it's alright, babe. I'm not angry with you..just caught up in some pretty nasty memories. I don't blame you; it's almost like this huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders." She planted a kiss on the blonde's crown and they just lay there held captive by dark thoughts. Then she spoke in low and measured tones. "She helped me in so many ways, Abby......taught me how to protect myself and that my heart wasn't dead after all...she did the tattoo. She said it was a sign of fortitude and wisdom. That it would protect me. But it didn't protect her. She was knifed one night before anyone could even perceive a threat. It was one of the guards. I found out later that one of the other tongs in the jail had paid him off...funny how he had a seriously fatal accident soon after." She looked at Abby and smiled coldly. "They never did find out who did it." Abby shuddered, lost in the implications of Zeen's admission.

Abby couldn't get over the cold quality of her lover's voice. Thru it all, she had spoken about the horrors as if she were totally detached from them. She peered over at Zeen in the semi-darkness and saw the truth in her words. Yes, Zeen had distanced herself completely, if only so she could survive.

A yawn escaped Zeen's mouth and Abby watched as the woman shook her head, trying to stay focused and awake. She reached out and brought her face close to the firefighter's. She kissed the full lips and then hugged the woman tightly. She wasn't too pleased about all she'd heard. It was frustrating the think of all the anguish Zeen had endured...but also what these experiences had done to her....violence, drugs and....murder. She dragged both of them down beneath the covers and thought about all she'd heard. It was a while before either woman's troubled mind relinquished control and let them sleep.

It was late morning when Zeen slowly came around to opening her eyes. Stretching out both arms and pointing her toes brought the sweet relief that comes from flexing and contracting the muscles around inactive joints. Zeen was the type of person who didn't laze around in bed; she was somewhat of an insomniac and got about four hours each night. She prefered to spend her evenings being productive; seems her poetic inspiration only occured between the wee small hours of midnight and 3:00 am.

Abby felt a hand stroking her belly and smiled like a cheshire cat. "You dozed the morning away, Zeen. Do you feel better?" The woman in question moved her face close and began nibbling on the soft breasts of her lover. "I'll take that as a yes", she purred, as she moved her hands around the dark crown, running her fingers thru the short unruly hair. Although it was thick, Zeen's hair was so soft and silky to the touch that Abby felt she could run her fingers thru it and never tire of the action.

She gasped as she felt the firefighter's hot mouth envelope her nipple and scooshed down lower, pulling the covers over them both. Zeen let the bud go with an auditory pop and nuzzled the woman's chin with her nose. "You still sleepy, sleepy head? Guess it's been a long night, huh?", murmured the brunette. Abby nodded and covered her mouth as she yawned. "I think we both needed the sleep. I'm...I'm sorry if I made you...say some things you weren't comfortable with, Zeen...I don't ever want you to feel...forced..." She looked deeply into her lover's eyes and noticed the dark shadows that had been there previously were gone. What she saw looking back at her were the beginnings of a quiet acceptance.

Zeen watched as the sun streamed thru the windows. It seemed brighter, somehow cleaner than she remembered. She locked eyes with her lover and with a bemused wonder asked, "How come you've done what three years of therapy couldn't? I've never been able to open up and tell someone all that...not really." Abby felt a truth forming and then grinned hugely. "I guess what they say is true: finding the other part of your soul is like having the key to it all." Zeen touched the woman's nose gently and then tweaked the end. "'They' say that, do they? Sounds...well, it sounds kinda like the stuff Debbi would say. She was always spouting some oriental mysticism at me. I don't really remember much except the part about everything being interconnected. It took me a long time before I got that, Abby. I guess I'm a 'hands on' kinda person; l have to experience things thru all my senses. I suppose that's why I...l do what l do. Wanting to do something about the horrors of life is one thing but I needed to really take part. I discovered my niche when I joined the local fire hall; it's like home to me. And I found myself thru the physical aspects of my job", she nodded knowingly and then went on. "I guess you tend to do that when you voluntarily enter a burning building."

Abby reached over a caressed the woman's cheek. "You are so beautiful, Zeen; inside and out." The firefighter tsked and was about to reply with a flippant comeback when the phone rang. Leaping up from the bed, she quickly padded over to the counter and answered it. Abby snuggled down beneath the covers and watched the play of muscles as her lover moved across the room. She thought of her own path to self discovery and drew in a heavy breath, remembering the tearful scene she'd had with her parents; her stubborn refusal to live the life they had planned for her had created a chasm so wide that leaving home at the tender age of 15 had seemed the only alternative.

Abby lay back against the pillows and began sorting out the information about her lover; it was remarkable that Zeen had gotten past any of it. The woman had not only survived it but had risen above it all and made a new life for herself. A feeling of pride washed over her as she watched Zeen standing there, all cocky and full of life. Then a small word formed in the back of her mind and her belly did a two and a half gainer before hitting her spine. 'Murder'. No matter how she tried to dismiss it the truth remained. By Zeen's own account she had murdered a man while in prison. Oh, it was in response to an equally evil deed, but...Abby just didn't believe in the 'eye for an eye' philosophy. Never had, never would. The taking of a life was just wrong; didn't matter in what context.

She rolled over onto her belly and rested her chin on her clasped hands. In all the time that Abby had been in and out of shelters, half way houses...even living on the street...she hadn't been able to condone the violence and refused to be party to it. Abby had always found it easy to resist peer pressure so making her way on the streets had been difficult; no one trusted a kid that didn't want to fit in. She had stuck to her own particular code of non-aggression, refusing to fall into a life of random violence and petty crime. This had resulted in a fair amount of beatings but other than blocking the blows, she did nothing in retaliation. Soon the people who seemed to get off on tormenting her faded away, leaving her alone to fend for herself. It had been okay by her; or so she thought. She'd built up this hard 'l don't need anyone' attitude by the time she was 19 and had convinced herself that it was true. It was only when she finally acknowledged her sexuality that Abby could admit she did need someone; wanted someone to share her life. It became a quest for her; knowing that she was missing something...that part of her soul was...absent. She had so much to give and at 24 had set about changing her ways. She'd previously gone from job to job, not really paying attention to anything but the meager paycheck at the end. It was a mystery to her why, yesterday of all days, she had found the initiative to finally go out in search of a new life. Abby glanced over her shoulder at the tall woman who was now a very important part of this new life. Then she noticed Zeen rubbing the back of her head and new something was up.

Zeen put the phone down and came to sit by the pensive looking blonde. "Shit....look, Abby...I've gotta get back up to the station...nothin serious but...well, it seems that I didn't quite dot all my dots or cross all my T's on my report about those two kids..." Abby cocked her head and frowned and it dawned on the firefighter that she hadn't mentioned a single word....she'd been so preoccupied with one thing and another...

"Um, well, Pete, Ted and I went into the building after the two missing kids and, well, we found em." She paused and then went on. "It was pretty bad but the girl's gonna be fine; it'll just take her some time to...get over things." Abby placed her hand on the woman's thigh and waited, knowing there was more. Zeen swallowed and gave the woman a weak smile but her mind was a jumble of images. Just how much info did Abby really need? Patting the small warm hand in her lap, Zeen went on. "Yeah, the other kid didn't make it. In my line of work, you come to expect that kinda thing. Hell, the fact that we found em at all was an amazing piece of luck; one out of two aint bad."

The brunette leaned down and planted a soft kiss on the blonde's forehead and then reached for her clothing. "If I'm lucky, I should be able to finish up the paperwork and be back in a few hours. Think you might be able to amuse yourself while I'm gone?" Abby smirked, "Oh, yeah....l think I hear Morpheus calling my name." Zeen blinked, wondering where the heck that came from. "You know Greek Mythology?" Abby scratched her chin and snuggled deeper into the covers. "Not really...l dunno...maybe." She yawned and curled herself around Zeen's seated form. The firefighter smiled indulgently and tossled the golden hair of her lover.

She paused by the door, grabbing her jean jacket and ball cap and sighed contentedly. Shaking her head, she wondered just how fast things had changed in the span of 36 hours.

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

Chapter Nine

Zeen removed her jacket and casually threw it in the direction of the coat rack. Pete didn't even bother to watch the trajectory, knowing it was going to be the same as it was every day; a bull's eye every time. He sat at his desk and watched as the woman stretched, working the kinks out of her shoulders and neck. 'She looks different', he thought to himself. 'Not really rested...but somehow more relaxed.' Then he thought of the blonde he'd seen her with the other night.

"So, Zeen...sorry to get you back in here on day's off but there's a coupla things I need to go over." He tapped the loose pages of the report, trying to get them into a neat pile. That was when Zeen knew there was more going on than just grammer and punctuation. She sighed and flipped the chair around, straddling it and waited. A silent game of 'blink' began as they fell into their normal ritual. It always seemed to occur just before some serious head to head discussion. Zeen wondered what it was this time. She went over the recent incident systematically from beginning to end, finding little fault on anyone's part. They'd been damned lucky the kid had stayed by the open window and then suddenly Zeen was experiencing a strong flashback...watching as she tried to pry the girl's hand away from the doll only to discover it was the other kid...or what was left of him. She shuddered and then blinked deeply.

Pete sat at the desk and watched as a strange look came over his friend's face; it was the same look she'd had when they'd found the dead kid under the chair. He sighed and shuffled the papers again. Finally, Zeen became aware that not only had she lost the game but that an air of awkwardness was wafting off her buddy. She frowned, wondering why Pete wasn't meeting her eye. She took in the fact that he had about a three day growth of stubble and looked like he'd been dragged threw a keyhole backwards. Whatever it was bugging the man, Zeen knew it must be something; Pete hated to shave, letting his beard grow out for a day, maybe two, but three? Nah, the itching drove him crazy.

She blew out a puff of air and crossed her arms over the back of the chair. "Okay, Pete....spill it. What's up?" She watched as his hand came up and scratched furiously at the hair that was threatening to join the bare space between neck and chest. Sometimes Zeen wondered why he even bothered to wear a shirt; Pete was walking reminder that man had come from the trees. Pete coughed and then cleared his throat.

"Listen, babe...it's about...ahem, well....you kinda...." Zeen slapped the table top and leaned forward. "What? C'mon, Pete...talk to me."

"Well, you kinda zoned out back in the building and....l know you're having flashbacks...about your kid..." Zeen stood up, pushing the chair roughly away. She walked over to the window and stared out, thinking of the long dialogue she'd had with Abby. The tightness in her shoulders eased a bit just thinking of the blonde woman and she turned and faced her friend. "Yeah. Wasn't the first time, prolly won't be the last either. But I'm handling it. I'm gonna be okay, Pete." The Lieutenant placed the report back on the desk and walked over to the window. "It coulda been bad, Zeen...what if you did that.." A firm hand went to his shoulder and he found himself lost in soft blue eyes. 'Funny how warm they are...not the usual cold shards of ice...' He chewed the inside of one cheek and searched the woman's face. She really did look more relaxed; almost as if she'd come to terms with things.

Zeen squeezed the man's shoulders and grinned. "Hey, Pete...stop being my Lieutenant slash nursemaid, will ya? I know l've been kinda distracted lately..." The cold reality of her life just a few days prior seemed so alien now. "I'm handling things, Pete. I've found someone I can talk to...someone to share...things with." Pete let an easy smile cover his face as he watched a slight pinkish tinge play across the sharp angles of his friend's high cheekbones. He nodded to himself, 'yeah, my friend....' Somehow that meant more than any pipe dream he'd had of them becoming more. It was a genuine pleasure to see how happy Zeen was, knowing she'd found someone she could really trust enough to unburden with. Regardless of how long they'd known each other or the shit they'd gone thru, Pete knew the woman had always held things back.

"You look tired, Zeen. You having nightmares again?" Pete thought she was going to deny it and was ready with a response. "Yeah, the nightmares don't completely go away...but that's not really anything different. I don't know why I'm tired; I think I slept most of yesterday." She rubbed her eyes and then expelled a breath. "I guess it's all this talking I'm doing lately. I'm not used to just letting it all hang out, you know? Like a heavy.."

"It's like a weight's being lifted off your shoulders, yeah, I kinda noticed that when you came in. I'm glad those road maps you have for eyeballs are due to too much sleep or I'd hafta give you another day to recoup." He grinned as he watched that thought slowly sink into her brain. "Well, come to think of it..." She yawned dramatically. "Done." Zeen smiled and then cleared her throat. "So....the report needs some fine tuning?" Pete smirked and picked at some non-existant lint on Zeen's shoulder. "Um, actually....", he murmured. Zeen poked him playfully in the belly. "Uh huh...I see." She walked over to the door and grabbed her jacket. "Do you know I haven't even had breakfast yet? I was in bed, you know." Pete suddenly had a clear image of just what that sentence entailed and it was all Zeen could do not to laugh as she watched a blush come up his collar. "I'm goin home, Pete...I'll see ya in...couple four days?" He nodded and scratched at his fur again.

"Oh, two things, bud. One, get the lawnmower out and ditch the 'missing link' look; and two, lay off those Hero sandwiches, will ya? I'm pretty sure my finger went in a good half inch when I poked ya. Body hair aside, that's just not you, you know?" The Lieutenant grinned and made a mental note to stop by the gym after work. They both had made a practice of doing Gold's three - four times a week but....well, Zeen had just kinda...and without her, there just didn't seem to be any incentive. "Ya, yer right. Buffalo belly...yup." He rubbed both hands over a slight paunch and then let his stomach muscles relax. "Holy shit! Forget I said anything! Man, the day you look like that and can't suck it back in....well, then I'll have something to complain about." Pete smiled, relaxing in the easy banter they used to share. "It's good to have you back, my friend. I....I missed ya, Zeen. I know it's been hard but I want you to know...I'm here for you. Any time." Zeen came back over to the man and surprised them both by hugging him fiercely. It wasn't very long in duration but both felt like they'd been hooked up to a battery recharger overnight.

A moment of awkward silence filled the room and then Zeen turned and left, leaving a slighly bemused Sergeant. He smiled crookedly and then, catching his reflection in the mirror, grimaced. "Lawnmower, huh? Weedwhacker's more like it."

Zeen held both coffee's under her chin and inserted her key into the door. A wave of giddiness that had begun to infuse her whole being the closer she got to home finally broke over her and it took every ounce of self-restraint not to go barging into the room, closing the distance from the door to the bed in one giant flying leap. She carefully put the paper cups down on the counter, gazed over at her lover and slowly took off her coat. Lying it on a nearby chair, Zeen then proceeded to slowly remove each shoe, her eyes never leaving the blonde's face. 'You wear such a lovely grin, watching me watch you, knowing how much I want you right now', Zeen mused to herself. 'Just what was it that made all the bells and whistles go off every time I look at you?' She sighed, leaving the easily answered question in her mind. Walking over to the side of the bed the brunette's hand slowly worked its way from Abby's bare toes to mid calf. "Such silky smooth skin. Wonder just how silky it is farther up?" Abby darted her tongue out as way of response. "Maybe I'll let you find out. Later", she purred. Grabbing Zeen's hand, she stilled the movement and looked into the firefighter's eyes. "Uh uh. No touching with fingers." Zeen tried to move her hand again and Abby smirked. "Noooo.....nope...just with your eye lashes. To start with."

Arching an eyebrow, Zeen returned the smirk. 'Ooookay. Wants to play, huh?' Removing her t- shirt and bra...standing there in nothing but jeans, she smiled wickedly as she caressed and fondled her own breasts. "Just my eyelashes? Are ya sure?" With a cocky grin, Abby nodded. Placing both palms flat on the bed, Zeen slowly moved up the woman's bare legs, her lashes barely whispering across ankles, calves and then knees. She relished the muscles dancing and quivering under the onslaught and wondered just how long the game would last. The urge to bring her tongue into play was strong but Zeen resisted, holding it tightly behind gritted teeth. Straddling Abby's lower thighs, the woman bend down and fluttered her eye lashes across the firm belly beneath her.

Hearing a gasp, Zeen looked up into Abby's face and smiled...."Oh, geez...you said ONLY lashes....sorry."....placing an arm across her pert breasts, offensive only in that they were dragged across ultra sensitive flesh. A smile played on her lips as she heard Abby gulp once and then twice. Deciding that perhaps this was a good thing, she continue her attack.

Slowly letting her breath caress the silky skin, unsettling the fine hairs that covered the blonde's luscious body, she continue to whisk her lashes up and across the bountiful breasts. A groan was slowly released as she watched the rosy nipple pucker and then harden...wanting only to taste it, savouring the flavour, feasting until sated.

Casually placing both arms on the bed, bracketing either side of Abby's shoulders, Zeen leaned in and this time both moan as the brunette's darker nipples graze over the slightly smaller breasts. She fluttered the lashes once and then twice on the Abby's cheek and then, unable to prolong the agony any further, dipped in and took the ruby lips before her, kissing the blonde resoundingly. Slowly lowering her body until it was mere inches away from full contact, she broke off the kiss, smiling down at her conquest. "Should I stick to lashes or have we....moved on?"

The blonde swallowed weakly and nodded. Zeen smirked and kissed the woman's pert nose. "Just let me put some music on, babe." The tall brunette sauntered over to the stereo and fumbled thru a rather wide selection of music. Abby watched as her lover held one up with a smile and then popped it into the player. Oblivious to anything else her eyes drank in the sight of the firefighter's shoulders and biceps as the rest of her clothing was slowly removed. It was as if her breath had caught somewhere between an intake and an exhale as Zeen turned and she saw the passion rising in the woman's eyes. As the brunette resumed her position astride the blonde, Zeen smirked and touched the tip of her tongue to the woman's eyebrows. "Now were were we....? I think we have some unfinished business." She shuddered feeling two soft hands on her buttocks. Abby looked up and attempted to pull the woman hard against her. "Moved on, have we?", Zeen asked again. "Eyelashes be damned, Zeen...I want to feel you..." And then she gasped as the firefighter's mouth latched onto her neck. "Not yet....not yet", she purred teasingly, holding the woman's wrists against the bed. Abby's throat constricted and she heard a snick as she forced down a swallow.

Funny, in the short few hours they'd been apart, Abby felt as if she were introducing a raw drug directly into her system. Her senses felt alive; her body already hotwired into responding to every nuance of Zeen's breathing. Her skin felt on fire, every cell vibrating from the delicate yet delicious torture she'd just been subjected to.

Zeen felt an urgency building within her as the blonde began to make small mewling noises. She let her hips sway which in turn caused her breasts to softly caress against the smaller ones beneath her. Releasing the tender skin, Zeen moved her mouth across to each clavicle, letting her tongue dance across the bone.

Abby moved her hands up and tangled her fingers in the soft ebony mass of hair. "Gods, I want to make love to you, Zeen....I want to hear you again, feel you..." Her mouth was taken with a searing kiss, leaving her breathless and trembling with need. Zeen slowly inserted her tongue and gently moved along the length of her lover's muscle, groaning with the contact. "But it's my turn now", she said around the tender flesh between her teeth.

Abby gasped and then closed her eyes as she felt her tongue sucked into Zeen's hot mouth. She felt the soft breath of her lover as Zeen moved her mouth slowly down the length of her body. It was exquisite; every follicle jumped to attention; each nerve ending tingled.

"I want you to just lie there, Abby...don't open your eyes, don't move a finger. I want to do it all, okay?" Zeen watched as the muscles twitched in the blonde's knees and thighs. A faint blush was creeping up from between the woman's breasts and the brunette delayed any further movement until Abby slowly nodded. Zeen pursed her lips and thought, 'Where to begin....' She slowly moved down to the foot of the bed, making sure that at no time had her skin touched Abby's. She lifted the woman's right hand and then slowly sucked in one digit at a time, paying each one the reverence it deserved before going on to the next. As she passed over the pelvic region, Zeen slowly blew out a soft breath of heated air, watching as the golden curls moved every so slightly. The twitch in Abby's legs intensified.

"I'm going to slowly make love to every inch of you, Abby....might as well relax; this might take a while." She said this with a sultry voice and was granted one of the most erotic responses she could have imagined; Abby slowly extended her tongue as far as it could go and then arched her back, presenting her breasts for further inspection.

Zeen's nostrils flared and she hissed out a long breath. "Not gonna play fair, huh? Just for that, I'm not going to do your other hand...I think I might just have some of that coffee." Abby felt the mattress shift and slowly peeked out from beneath her eyelashes. She watched as Zeen padded over to the counter. "You aren't really gonna leave me like this, are you?"

Zeen turned away suddenly, covering her mouth with her hand but Abby knew a stifled yawn when she saw one. "Hey, you.....why don't you come to bed and we'll do this later tonight?" The statuesque woman turned and threw the blonde a look that indicated her thoughts on that particular subject. "Look, you're tired, babe....it's not a problem..."

"No no....I'm loving every minute of it. Just let me pour some of this coffee into my eyes and I'll be right with ya."

Abby smirked, thinking of the image Zeen had just tossed into her head...Juan Valdez eye drops for those who just can't get their cafiene fix fast enough. Why bother with the stomach lining when you could gain quicker access elsewhere? Any thoughts of sharing this with her lover were forgotten as she watched the woman down the first cup and then go on to the next one. Zeen shuddered once and then dropped her chin to her chest before throwing her head back with a whoop.

"Hoohaaa! Starbucks high test: double deadly! Double cream, double sugar." Then she advanced on the bed once more, a crooked grin playing over her well defined lips. Abby was struck again at the sexual magnificence of the woman; it seemed to just exude from every pour.

"Now....where was I?", she purred. Abby held up her left hand, wiggling the fingers. Zeen shook her head slowly..."Nope...you lost that one, remember? Nah...I've got to change venues now...." Abby sucked a tooth and slowly arched one of her own eyebrows. Then she very slowly moved her dismissed hand across the pert flesh of her nipples, watching with some pride as some of the bravado left the firefighter. Zeen leaned over and watched as the skin puckered and pebbled, her throat suddenly dry. Steadying her raging pulse, she pushed herself away from the sight before her and bent to Abby's right foot.

Zeen noticed a slight tremor as her tongue was mere centimeters away from Abby's baby toe. She took a quick swipe and grinned. She looked up and saw a small worried look cross her lover's face before it was gone. 'Uh huh...' Eyes still locked with those of her prey, Zeen growled and descended once again. "Um, Zeen?........."

Zeen lowered her head and grinned, slowly extending her tongue. "No!....um, ahh..." Abby thought of something to delay the inevitable...anything...she held up her left hand..."You...you never...never did get around to this hand..Zeen..." Abby began turning up the charm, "come up and show me that wonderful mouth of yours." The dark crown hesitated briefly and then Abby clenched her teeth as her second baby toe was licked. 'Gods give me strength!', she intoned silently.

The firefighter was really enjoying this; none of her brothers had been the least bit ticklish. While she herself was slightly sensitive in that area, Zeen could tell Abby had a full blown case of it. She smirked again as she placed a hand on the woman's narrow ankle, pinning it to the bed. Then she raised her head and looked at Abby. No longer was the worried look brief and slight; Zeen could see that it was taking a lot of effort for the woman to maintain control. Suddenly, the game seemed cruel and she moved the other hand to the opposite ankle and then slowly caressed up and down the trembling flesh.

"Does it tickle here?", she asked. Suddenly, it became clear to the blonde that Zeen had known from the beginning and had toyed with her. 'Oh, you brat!', went through her mind. Abby hesitated and then nodded. Zeen moved her hands to just below Abby's knees. "How about here?" Seeing a negative response, she bent down and let her tongue dance over each knee and then began laying small kisses on Abby's inner thighs. Zeen smiled as the legs were parted voluntarily. She licked a slow trail closer and closer to Abby's golden curls and then popped her head up just before claiming her prize. "So....about that left hand...still feeling neglected, is it?"

Abby sat up and grabbed the woman's shoulders, pulling her up as she lay back down. "You brat....you rotten..." Their forehead's touched, "...little..." Zeen slowly lowered her body so they were belly to belly, "....brat..." And then their mouth's connected and as the kiss deepened, Abby wrapped her legs tightly around Zeen's middle. "By the gods, Xena, you drive me crazy." She said between kisses.

Zeen barely registered the name and then sank her teeth carefully into Abby's shoulder. Her hands came up to massage the sweet breasts and then Abby groaned as Zeen's hips began to rock against her. "Yes..."

A song began playing on the stereo, the volume down to the point where Zeen wasn't sure just what was playing. Then she heard a few words and it was if it were playing inside her head with the volume cranked to the max.

".....I close my eyes, I close my eyes. Do I know you from somewhere. Why do you leave me wanting more? Why do all the things I say sound like the stupid things I said before?"

Abby watched as a strange look came over Zeen's face...and then suddenly, it was if a curtain was being raised...words were filling her mind...words she seemed to know. Rather than scare her as it had previously, Abby found the experience of deja vu to be filled with love and understanding. Her heart beat faster and the words played louder...

"Touch me, I'm trying to see inside of your soul. I've got this thing....I want to make a connection. I'm not like this all the time. You've got this thing...you've got this thing..."

And then they locked eyes and it was as if the room was filled with the light of a billion stars. Tears began leaking from both sets of eyes and the women hugged each other tightly.

"Kiss me, I'm dying. Put your hand on my skin....I close my eyes. I need to have your protection. I close my eyes; I close your eyes...."

Abby held on as strong sobs wracked her lovers frame. She brushed the short hair back away from Zeen's face and used her soft voice to soothe them both. "It's okay.....it's gonna be fine....I see it clearly now, Zeen...you were....that warrior in my dreams....Xena...of Amphipolis."

Zeen wiped her eyes on the back of her arm and then cuddled closer. "I know...I guess I've known there must be something to them....it was just...overwhelming, you know? Gabrielle. Your name was Gabrielle and we were lovers, soul mates..somehow...we got lost...you died and I....I couldn't save.." A fresh torrent of tears overcame her again and she clutched at the woman tightly. "I tried to protect you, Abby....and I couldn't...l tried...but...you died."

Abby's mind was filled with an image so clear that she could actually experience the pain she felt as her life slowly dripped out from the wounds at her hands and feet. She looked over at Xena and saw that she, too, was tied upon a cross; her wrists raw and bleeding and yet...Xena was still straining, trying to break the ropes that held her so securely. Snow swirled around them and the cold granite cast to the sky seemed to fall upon her, crushing her very soul in its embrace. "I love you, Xena."

It was as if Abby's heart stopped. She couldn't breath...her vision was darkening...she clutched blindly at anything and then....nothing.

Time stood still as past and present merged and then...Abby was filled with a warmth she'd never known. She floated in an ethereal womb, both nurturing her and helping her to fuse the two pieces of who she was together. Suddenly aware of a heart beat that seemed to surround her, Abby slowly came back into herself. Her extremities tingled and then her eyes fluttered and she was looking up into the very worried face of her lover. "Hey...what....what happened?" Zeen released a heavy breath and sat back on her haunches. "Gods, but you scared me. You passed out, babe. You told me you...loved me...her...Xena, and then you passed out."

"I died, Zeen. I mean, I was right there...on the cross. With you. I felt it, Zeen; the pain, the regret, the sorrow. But also the love." Abby hid her face with both arms as it all came back to her. The only thing grounding her was the touch of the woman she had come to love. Zeen brushed the damp tendrils out of her eyes and then placed a soft kiss on Abby's forehead. "Gods, I tried so hard..." The blonde swallowed deeply as she saw the hot tears of her lover overflow. "I was so afraid...I remember seeing a figure in the background...l dunno who he was but he was laughing....I think he shouted.."

"Destiny....yes, I remem...ber. Gods..." Zeen covered her face with her hands and then moved so that she was lying along side the blonde. Taking Abby into her arms, she cradled her carefully. "It was Caesar. He and I...have a history, Gabrielle." Abby noticed the slight change in her lover's voice and watched with fascination as the warrior slowly emerged.

"I didn't die that day, although I wish I had. In fact, I think I have been...until now. Gods, I've missed you, Gabrielle...oh, so very much. You don't know how hard it was to go on...I don't even remember...not all of it...how I got away.." She touched her wrists, almost as if expecting to see the fresh wounds or scars...something. "I remember burying you, my love...I wanted to take you back to the Amazons...but.." Abby reached up and stroked the woman's troubled face. "Oh my darling..." All of the love their two soul's had felt washed over her, revitalizing her. "Your name is Zeen and you are still a warrior." She paused and closed her eyes. "You have to let go, Xena...you have to. I'm here, we found each other again..."

"....found each other again...

Looking deeply within your eyes

I feel the power of you

Sweep across the breadth of me,

Drawing out the cloistered warrior

I've tried to be.

The self imposed prison I've built,

Made up of past transgressions,

Present misdeeds,

Future possibilities,

Weighs heavily on my shoulders;

I can no longer stand as stoic

And untouched; the cracks now visible,

Making me vulnerable yet sound.

Knowing you share my strengths,

The belief we shall always walk together

Enriches me, allows me to release the pain

And learn to live again,

Thru your love,

Our bond.

Soulmates

....connected."

Abby rolled over to face her lover. "That was beautiful...Zeen?" The brunette smiled and kissed her softly. "Yes, it's me." She scrubbed her face with one shaking hand. "I guess she's always been in here with me...I think us meeting triggered something." She rubbed her eyes and thought of the ramifications of it all. They truly were soulmates...reaching across time and space to be together again....Just how many times had it happened? A million thoughts buzzed around inside her head like angry bees and she pushed them away, slamming the door firmly against them. They'd keep for another time. When Zeen refocused, she saw a pair of troubled eyes watching her. What had she said...? "Oh, the poetry? I wrote that bit of free verse...well, it seems eons ago. I've always felt there was something in me...something missing, Abby. It's been kinda like 'hurry up and wait', you know? Like I was waiting for something momentous to happen. And it did. That day when l saw you in front of the building...I want you to know...I haven't been in a relationship with someone...for a very long time. I'm not in the habit of just picking strange women up on the street...giving them my key..."

Abby pulled her into a heart stopping kiss. And then another and soon Zeen was back in the position that was rapidly becoming home to her...with Abby's legs firmly wrapped around her buttocks. "This is why you feel so good, Abby...I am home....at last." She sank her face into the neck of her soulmate and inhaled deeply. That smell...no wonder it had been so familiar; it had been imprinted a lifetime ago. She reached over and cupped Abby's face, looking deeply into the woman's eyes. "I'm so glad I've found you..." Then she began placing little kisses on Abby's jawline all the way up to the earlobe. Then she captured the soft flesh between her teeth and growled. Zeen chuckled as the blonde gasped.

"I guess we have some unfinished business, huh? Now, where was I?" Zeen picked up a small hand and began dancing her tongue along a finger. "No, I don't think that was quite where I was..."

"Nu huh..." Abby began pushing the woman's shoulders lower but stopped her efforts as one nipple was sucked slowly into Zeen's mouth. "Oh, by the gods!"

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

Poetry "Matrix" and "Soulmates" by ArdentTly

"Skin", by Madonna from her cd "Ray of Light". Used without permission. Infringement not intended.

I listened to quite a bit of music while writing this...most of it by the devine Sarah M. but I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Madonna for making her cd. I've never listened to a body of work that seemed to echo each and every Xena episode as does this. It brought me closer to the feelings I believe our heroine's share. And inspiration is everything.

Started November 1998

Completed April 1999

Continued in Inferno

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