Flashpoint

by ArdenTly


Disclaimers: This is the third installment on my Zeen/Abby series. It began with The Blaze and continued with Inferno so it would make the story flow a lot easier if you read those before continuing with this one. While my characters do have a few things in common with those belonging to RenPic, no infringement is intended.

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

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

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

ArdentTly@yahoo.com


Part 1

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Abby Dean."

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

Abby thought for a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hungry?"

Abby nodded and yawned.

"How long you been here, child?"

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

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

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

The nurse nodded and her fingers danced across the keyboard.

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

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

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

"Yeah, sure. It's Greek."

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

"P H IÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, my girlfriend. Oh forÉPete!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"WhoaÉwhat theÉ"

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

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

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

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

The doctor cleared his throat and walked over. "I'm glad you're here, Sergeant.

There isn't time to go through the usual protracted one-sided, extremely traumatic discussion with thisÉperson. I have no idea how she got in here but I don't particularly enjoy having her kind in my hospital. Firefighting 'girlfriend', indeed."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He pursed his lips and sighed deeply.

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

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

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

"Uh, noÉI'm just a friend. Abby hereÉshe's herÉ" A crease lined his brow as he mentally perused the typical labels and came up empty. Abby bumped into his back as he stopped walking. She looked up blankly and then her face was being touched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"These the kinds of symptoms you talking about?"

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

"HowÉhow long do youÉ?"

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

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

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

"Goddamned fucking cocksucking sonuvabitch!"

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

"I don't understand it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Now, c'mon, PhipolisÉleggoÉ.now!"

Abby's heart hammered loudly in her chest as she witnessed the vapid look on her lover's face. It was as if she was reveling in the pain she was inflicting. It was so very unlike the woman she knew and the blonde felt the first twinges of real fear seep into her heart. 'Who was thisÉthis stranger? Not her ZeenÉno way.'

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

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

"ZeenÉ.?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

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

It was as if each and every cell in her body was on fire. A tight band of iron appeared around her chest and Zeen began to thrash back and forth in an effort to escape. Bright motes of light flitted behind her closed eyes as she fought to drag oxygen into her burning lungs. Hands reached blindly out in an effort to find purchase and she gasped frantically. A wave of darkness pricked at her periphery vision threatening to overcome her and thenÉnothing.

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

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

The other nurse took the clipboard and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Phipolis."

"Huh?"

"My name's Phipolis, Zeen Phipolis."

GT nodded slowly and waited for the woman to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

"Greek."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"ThankÉ"

"Shut the fuck up!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'But they shouldn't have tried to interfereÉtry to keep her from the fire and her sonÉ'

"IanÉ"

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

"StoÉ.stopÉno more!" she cried, trying to tuck herself into as small a target as possible.

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

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

"I don't belong hereÉthere's been a mistakeÉI'm not a criminal!"

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

"Can't we talk aboutÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson smiled again and then stepped away from the door.

"I'll be back to see you tonight, okay? You think about what you need in here and I'll start making a list. Okay?" And then he was gone, leaving Zeen feeling very confused about their transaction. Although the man seemed genuinely interested in helping her, there was just somethingÉnot right.

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

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

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

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

"Jeez! Ya got hands like a sailor."

Abby arched an eyebrow and sighed.

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

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

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

"You gonna tell me about Zeen? What happened in there, Ab? IÉI heard some yellin butÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So, what are you thinking about?"

"AhÉhuh?"

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

"You nice folks mind if I join you?"

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

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

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

"SoÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby darted her face forward and gripped the tabletop.

"YesÉabout the blindnessÉHow longÉis it permanent? And when do you think the chemicals will be out of her system? What kind of rehab..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bubba hummed and stroked his chin.

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

"HehÉwell, if you could see her out of that uniformÉ" said Pete with a whistle.

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

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

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

"For a woman?" Abby finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"UmÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes? Go on."

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

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

"She was in therapy before. WhenÉwhen she was in jail."

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

"Zeen spent about 18 months in some sort of county jail for attacking some police officers. Her sonÉhe died in an apartment fire about six years ago. SheÉtried to save him. ButÉ"

Pete cleared his raspy throat.

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

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

"What? She neverÉpeopleÉkilled?" More than one?

"ButÉ" she stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What are you saying, Pete?"

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

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

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

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

Bubba's lips moved into a cruel smirk.

"Yeah, I'm just working on the outside of Ms. Phipolis but I gotta see the inside, too. Being a Psyche nurse, it really helps me see what's going on with my patient if I can see where they go when they hallucinate. Take your friend upstairs. She's in a world of pain right now, and most of it is self-induced. It goes beyond just the chemicals or the drugs administered. There is just no way she should have been even remotely conscious with everything going through her system like thatÉnot for these extended periods of time."

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

"So, who's going first?"

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'God, I must be a mess.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just leave me aloneÉplease."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll kill youÉfuckingÉkillÉyouÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

She knew, if only she could get her hands free, if only she could wrap them around the neck of the one over herÉshe could stop t°+ø ËØ!Ø!Exa¬@}!f„ã{êłµP¢xo°=” ¨À6P%0#9“J=€Ó-NB7EnNÊ¿_ÛÇx…#üÅ›ÍüšK«²äÖ!ê›÷ɽ*V3x¾ ü:*HY>`vý”Îýô L'ªZu\çhq BaR¯wo>¬›Þ8ÂLãàµÛl׶hö qV®?&žÑÒÎä]¨ÍĈ¥k Ãs¿ªbÄ0 ´²h ×V;LYÞUíûLD.öÏf oU¢sý€»ÖŸæ£ñŽäæ·Ò±Âgù ‚53 ®]år³ìW€¡['ÈÜÓ»6xÑɸ»`q•hX*Ã{azy3 OÐ.j+ö¯™˜ë¾_Ýö.lýu ï(°l€±EP©vû–VqoSnèãÇlè·¥(ï/0Qc’.W§/Ôi‰ ï¸ ÂL™R\yRªì\¦{AÉcŒãßÂL5¾ÁÆø@¢´ÄŠkŠäS €NOy@ryô(¬ûcȧ¶ÉĂrâòa;®bþE€ë&V—ڀÙÿ·àQ|Ó= ’Ìe>Ò€Ñ"|d÷_§bþ0}€šïĈf–Á7MÞ¬;3ŠM ™‡¦-ŒÅÑÚ ô/[Óà²1ü?a.Ȇ¹Y“)÷5.yUDûâ³ýÇ=ZöVƒÛ£C¬ÕhÑ­MM©:Md*~óÍtîU©c‚Í>ÿ›¤IØØØ©?šáØÁ·KQ¢fŒÌ¬÷"h«ˆbRßÄDhißÄ à÷ÊP ÄÄwäLYËóA08<˯lÁï nE ’ ÙX2a9 ]˜“$®‹!¢ÂÎ$ƒ‰([ à I¬¡NÜö¯Â_™NøHÒÓdž¥³Øžú¢Þè°UQÊט°æD=£k\›Þ`4n+ÚË2疚hߋ#êOÑܓþ˜x¨\DÊ|ç5Û£S®éðHù ZH;ª:'T”q5-k1E»RjwFèsBqZHª&Qu!¢µ$“ƒ^¥ÇZôL’G_ÐûµtoØØØÍعëàZ «ESFMÀ@ÓTtâÞʶ-¯o÷ê—\\N¼Ð\µ“>‘Ã[õI‘¨t†á.]˜ó³”_U·‚M‰`„»n<…tÂÙÝȑ²‰òò·—–§YDêÍ[LÆøŠ¯¹Ç,"³„`~Pݥ҈«o(,ß¿†v —BQÿéÂùâFwaÐ3u–SÎ|ÍUQkPÆi>®€ÊnÝ¥59›k"amned lights on. Where the hell was she?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not a nightmare, a truth." Zeen dragged her fingers through her mat of shaggy hair, and then poked the surface of both hands hesitantly. Why was she wearing what felt like a cast on one hand and some bandages on the other? A trembling hand quickly snaked up to touch the back of her head, and she cleared her throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Doesn't she know she'sÉ?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'BlindÉI can't be a firefighterÉI can'tÉ.what kind of life would I be able to live withÉ?'

"Did anyone bring me in? Was there someoneÉ?"

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

"Was there a womanÉ?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bubba grinned and winked at the nurse.

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

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

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

Continued in Part 2.

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