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.


Part 2

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sat back and placed a foot against the bar near the bottom of the bed.

"Yep, that's me. And you're right, she is. From what I've heard, Zeen's very good. A tad twisted, and definitely dark, but good all the same."

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

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

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

"Look, if it's too painfulÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

"Now look, I know it sounds bad, but it isn'tÉnot really. You're a strong woman, Zeen, God knows every nurse on this damned floor has seen you in action at one time or another. You can rally and beat this thing. The ribs and burns will heal, you know that. As for the blindness, well, these things take timeÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

Bubba smiled. "Yup, that it is."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Shall I go on?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, gods."


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

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

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

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

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

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

"NoÉ." Zeen gasped. "No painkillersÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can'tÉ.oh godsÉtake painkillersÉ"

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

"ShitÉdon't tell me: you're allergic to Demerol?"

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

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

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

He sighed deeply and then patted her hand.

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

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

Bubba returned with another nurse and some equipment in tow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You go aheadÉI'll see ya later."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don'tÉdon't move, AbbyÉplease. Just stay there."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don'tÉ." Zeen's body was racked with spasms as she fought the urge to vomit. 'Not with Abby thereÉnoÉ'

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

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

"She can't stayÉmake her goÉ"

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

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

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

"Not like thisÉ" Zeen ground the words out through clenched teeth as she willed Abby awayÉjust to leaveÉuntil she was better, and not some fucking freak show.


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

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

"Code Blue, Code Blue, goddamn it!"

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

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

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

"Take her to 200 joules! Clear!"

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

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

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

Chapter Eight

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

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

"She saidÉ"

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

Abby sniffed, and made a quick nod.

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

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

"She's been through fires before, and she's always beenÉokay. This timeÉ"

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

Abby shook her head. "I don't know about the injuries part but she has some scars, someÉ" She motioned with her hands up the inside of her arms and a few spots on her wrists, upper thighs and forearms.

"Here and there but nothing reallyÉ"

"Well, how did she react last time?"

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

Taylor nodded her head knowingly.

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

She patted the blonde's shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you. You're very kind."

Taylor shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But ZeenÉthe truck wouldn'tÉ"

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

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

"Honey? I was just worriedÉI'd had this horrible feeling when I was listening to the police scanner, andÉ"

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

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

"I'm sorryÉI'mÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

"I can take whatever it can dish out."

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

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

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

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

"I never touched herÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

"Can't you stupid people get it through your thick headsÉoh, forget it!"

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

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

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


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

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

"I'm only trying to help, ZeenÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did she have the new cast put on?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"'Scuse me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby gave him a hurt look.

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

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

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

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

Abby cleared her throat nervously.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby had only nodded and then quietly left the room.

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

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

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

"Okay, okayÉI knowÉyou aren't in the market for a new husband. Fine. I was just askinÉ"

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

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

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stop it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?" she sputtered.

"There was a problemÉ"

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

And then the coughing started.

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

"No, ZeenÉno, wait."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was then that the tears began to fall.

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

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

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

"Oh, godsÉshit, shit, shit! I'm such aÉ"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby felt a hot flush creep up her face. "NoÉI know that, Zeen. WhatÉwhat I meant wasÉI could have done this, you didn't need to botherÉ"

"Don't patronize me, woman. I'm not a fucking invalid." Zeen spat through gritted teeth. The shorter woman blinked slowly at the coldness in the woman's voice. She swallowed deeply again and then noticed the tremor in the other woman's hands as they gripped the armrest.

Abby began noticing a few other things as well, things that were minute and easily missed. She could tell that Zeen hadn't had a shower, despite the towel that lay on the floor in the bathroom. And her pants were slightly damp on the side and looked to be unbuttoned at the top.

She suddenly had a clear idea of just what had happened in her absence. She bit her lip again and then took a deep breath.

"Okay, I get it. I know you aren't an invalid, Zeen, and that you aren't a happy camper, either. I also know you're not comfortable with asking for helpÉ"

"I don't need anyone's help, Ab. Can't you get that? I didn't need anyone's help before you came into my life and I sure as hell don't need it now. Nothing's changed."

"ButÉ" Abby snapped her jaws shut and then placed their food on the table. 'Fine. If that's what you want, fine. We've been through this before, over and over again. You just wanna argue and I'm not going there, so forget it.'

Zeen felt a bead of sweat start to trickle down from her temple and gripped the chair harder. It had taken her every bit of strength she possessed to pick things up in the bathroom and get her clothes back to where they looked semi normal. The pain inside her was like a raging inferno that had been birthed from the very depths of hell. Every second was a torment and she could feel the icy cold grip of fear welling up, her valiant efforts to keep the pain at bay crumbling before its onslaught. She was damned if she'd give in to it! Just a little bit of time alone, to get back the control she felt slipping away, was all she needed. How to get the woman out of the room so she could really clean herself up?

"Getting tired. Gonna have a nap. I'm not hungry and you can eat later." It wasn't a request, and Abby knew, judging by the set of Zeen's jaw, that the woman needed to save face right now; her battle to hide the pain was tenuous at best.

"Yeah, I could go for a walk. I think there's a bookstore just around the corner. How about if I...""

"Whatever. JustÉgo."

Abby pushed away the hurt that sat like a large grinning beast on her chest. She refused to let it gain purchase within her heart, eroding all they had built together.

She went over to her shaving kit and removed a small vial of pills. Extracting three, she set them aside, then grabbed a jacket, and moved to the door. It took all her willpower not to stop and hug her lover. It killed her that Zeen had shut her out once again but in the shape she was currently in, that action might have proved to be a total embarrassment for both of them.

"I've set out your meds, Zeen. I'll be back in about an hour. Okay?"

"'KÉ" was her response. Feeling hurt and bewildered, Abby tried hard to focus on what the psychologist had said. Dr. Masterson had dealt with firefighters before and had cautioned Abby not to confront Zeen because the woman's emotions were all so close to the surface. He'd gone over the firefighter's past in as much detail as Zeen would allow, and each incident, as small and isolated as it may have seemed, was bringing Zeen closer and closer to a meltdown. Zeen, he said, was like a flammable substance, and just needed the right catalyst to achieve flashpoint. Abby didn't want to be that catalyst.

But it was getting so hard to just let things continue, just be some observer, instead of a life partner. How long had it been since they'd even shared a warm embrace? Couldn't Zeen see how much Abby needed to help her, to become part of their lives together, and get past this?

She picked up the motel room key, and carefully walked to the door. Abby opened her mouth to say something, anything, but took a trembling breath instead, and eased the door shut behind her.

'Ésix, seven, eight, nineÉten!'

Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, Zeen finally let the moan escape from behind lips that were drawn into a thin line by the almost unbearable pain. Her head felt like someone had used it to play a rousing game of soccer, and then had left it, partially deflated, out in the rain for a few days. Everything felt too close, too tight, in her body; even her skin felt that it was being stretched beyond its normal elasticity, and that at any moment, she'd either fold in upon herself like some black hole, or blow apart in a supernova. Either way, she felt out of control, and very afraid.

Terrible thoughts began seeping into her brain, binding with the fear, and feeding the voracious pain that grew steadily. Gasping with the effort to regain some bit of control, if only over her trembling hands, Zeen began to inch herself forward out of the chair.

Sweating profusely, she tried to ease her weight onto her uninjured side, thereby avoiding the coughing spasm that was bound to occur at any moment. If she could just keep her body at a certain angleÉShe blinked a few times and drew in a shuddering breath. Still no spasm. Her pulse thumped loudly between her ears, and her mouth felt as if it were filled with bitter ashes. Maybe she had just a little more strength leftÉperhaps she could just ease forward now, and catch her breath, before getting to her feet.

Every second crept slowly by, despite her fervent prayers, and it was all Zeen could do to just focus on the bathroom door, and not pass out. Her hair and body were drenched with perspiration, and the impossibly heavy clothes she wore clung to her, making it feel as if she were submerged, and working her way back towards the surface.

'Almost thereÉjust a little moreÉ' Zeen could feel the edge of the chair against her tailbone, and wept with relief, knowing that the battle to get back on her feet was almost over. And then one of the mending ribs began to painfully announce its presence, pushing against the still swollen tissues of her diaphragm. Every breath she took pulled at the injured intercostal muscles of her right rib cage, tempting her to give in to the pain, and just give up.

The very idea seemed to revitalize her, and with a sob, Zeen pushed herself up onto shaky legs and there she stood, swaying until the sparkles behind her eyes went away. Tentatively pulling her arm away from her ribs, Zeen could see that her earlier stint in the bathroom had done far more damage than she'd anticipated. If only she hadn't gone off half cocked and tossed the john!

"Goddamned temper. Supposed to get that under control, Phipolis. Control. Don't have it, gotta get it back, can't let this thing get to me. Gods, what I wouldn't give for a double, double grande mocha."

She walked into the bathroom, and barely made it to the sink before throwing up again. It was a good five minutes before she could straighten up, and begin the arduous job of getting her clothes off, for real this time. While the pain of having her ribs unbound had been almost unbearable, she took solace from the fact that at least she didn't have to go through its removal again. No, she was in a hurry - she needed a shower badly, if for no other reason than to wash the stink of the hospital off her body.

After two months of being confined either to the Burn Unit or the Rehab Center, she was more than happy to just kiss the whole field of medicine off. Zeen cringed, thinking back on the sessions she'd had with the unit's psychologist. She was of the opinion that people just needed enough information not to cause the shit to hit the fan.

Finally standing in front of the mirror, the firefighter lifted a shaky hand to the front of her bangs, checking to see how her face looked now that some of the scabs had fallen off, and her eyebrow had grown back in, and cringed.

To her mind's eye, she was a monster. She had ceased to be anything but a freak once her vision had come back, and she could see, up close and personal, just why the conversation seemed to falter, and dry up altogether, whenever she was around. Bubba had been right, and her other senses had taken up the slack, allowing her hearing to improve to the point where it was almost ultra sensitive. Actually seeing people flinch when she walked by had made her physically sick on more than one occasion.

Zeen hadn't wanted to admit it, but it had hurt her pride deeply to think that losing something as superficial as beauty had impacted on her in any way. She had never paid much attention to what genetics had given her in the area of physical beauty. Now that the outward image she had of herself was damaged, Zeen felt divorced from who she was on the inside, and what the rest of the world saw on the outside.

Although Dr. Masterson had suggested that in order to get over the scarring done on the inside, Zeen would have to do something about the scarring on the outside, she couldn't face that yet. The fire hall had generously offered to pick up the tab not covered by insurance but there was no way that she was going to be beholden to anyone. Ever.

A sharp gasp was wrenched from her throat as the spray hit her skin. The temp had to be somewhat tepid, as the burns were still raw in some places. Zeen felt her right biceps strain as she tried to keep her cast from getting wet.

She pressed her face against the tile as another ripping jolt of pain went through, leaving her feeling weak kneed and wondering whether she'd make it back out to the bed before falling on her ass again.

Switching the water off, Zeen quickly grabbed a towel and did her best, one handed on the mat of tangles her hair had become. She sighed, wondering just when the luster had disappeared, leaving the dull thing she now wore.

As she stood there dripping, the firefighter had a good look at just how ravaged her body had become. Oh, scars and burns aside, she was in pretty good shape. A little under weight perhaps, but she could build that back up. What concerned her most was just how long it was going to take to get back into shape and then convince Pete she could come back to work sooner than Matheson was proposing.

If that dumb jerk had his way, why she'd be out on the dole for a good five or six months. That would kill her, she just knew it. Even taking the two weeks off last summer had been a damned chore. What the hell was she going to do with half a year?

"Gods, and what the hell do I do with Abby? She's not gonna want to stick around with me looking this way. Not for long." She pointed a shaky finger at her reflection.

A wave of nausea hit her as the scent of Chinese food wafted in her direction and it took three or four shuddering breaths before she was able to tamp down the feeling.

Carefully weaving her way back towards the bed, Zeen dragged what she considered to be a damned corset behind her, and sat gingerly on the side of the bed. Gasping from the pain as her ribs were cinched back into place, the brunette got the last piece of Velcro adjusted and pulled a sheet over her trembling body. It was a long while before she slept.

Zeen resettled the seal on her mask after pushing out a few strands of hair. She tapped Ted on the shoulder and then tried the door. It wouldn't give. The air woofed out of her lungs as the door threatened to shatter the bones her shoulder and she muttered under her breath.

"Fucking door must have warped in the heat."

Ted nodded and then motioned the woman to stand back. Taking a moment to line up his sights, the man smiled darkly and then swung his axe, hitting the handle dead on.

"All right! Let's go."

"Lead on, MacDuff," he said bowing.

Zeen could feel the heat from the metal through her gloves and hunched her chin down in preparation. Sure enough, there was a backdraft that pulled on her, almost as if the blaze were inviting her in.

"Okay, TedÉyou stick close, okay?" Zeen turned around but the man was gone.

"Ted?" She spun around in every direction, trying to catch sight of where her partner had gone. Flames licked up the walls and began rolling across the ceiling.

"Shit! Ted! Goddamnit! Ted!" Black smoke rose up, obscuring the firefighter's vision, and then Zeen watched in horror as one of the wooden beams began toppling in her direction. The butt end started an upward swing and Zeen knew she wouldn't be able to dodge the blow. Moving as far back as she dared, the flames all but licking her coat, Zeen braced herself for the brutality she was expecting.

Then, at the last minute, the pillar seemed to roll in mid air, and then crashed down not four feet from where she was standing. Zeen got to her feet quickly and then, seeing herself surrounded by pockets of flame, hesitated as she thought about her next move.

'Where the hell is Ted?' she wondered. 'The guy couldn't have just disappearedÉ'

And then, through the smoke, the firefighter could see an image. It was dark, and hard to make out, the outline shimmering in the heat waves, but Zeen could see it was a person.


There was no answer, and Zeen moved closer, mindful of the flames, but trying to gauge just how to get to the man unharmed.

Was he hurt? It made no sense, and a million and one things went through the woman's head, as the silhouetted form remained obscured by the smoke. The brunette waited, calculating the seemingly random pattern of the flames. Right before the next flare occurred, she rushed forward, shielding her face with her heavily protective sleeves, and rolled through the fire to safety.

"TedÉare ya hurt?" She walked forward, hand outstretched, and then the smoke parted and it wasn't her partner standing there, but her lover, Abby Dean.


Abby stood there, her face bathed in a soft light that seemed almost iridescent. Almost as if the woman was lit from within.

A crash sounded just off to the right, and Zeen watched in horror as the ceiling began to fall in. It was as if the air surrounding her was being sucked out, leaving her gasping and disoriented.

"Where's Ted? We gotta get outta here, babe. If we don't leave nowÉwe might not be able to." A patch of the roof yawned dangerously, and then the area exploded as an influx of air whooshed into the building. A roar of flames rushed towards them as the backdraft created fed on the influx. Zeen found herself tumbling head over heels, her body coming into contact with hard blunt surfaces as she was battered by the raging beast bend on her destruction.

"Abby!" she shouted, images of the unprotected woman causing her imagination to run wild.

Finally coming to a halt, her right shoulder jutting out at a wrong angle, Zeen lay dazed, trying to reorient herself. Pushing herself forward, she found her legs trapped under what remained of a back wall.

"Gotta get upÉget AbbyÉTedÉ" She burned with every breath as the heated air scorched her unprotected lungs. A bitter taste threatened to overwhelm the firefighter, and she wondered just when she'd lost her mask. She tried to push the rubble from her lower torso, and watched in horror as the exposed skin on her hands began to blister and peel. Instead of the strong vibrant body that had been her right all of her life, she saw herself reduced to a withered and scarred husk.

"Oh godsÉ" She moaned as her hands moved quickly over her face. Her helmet fell off and Zeen lay there, gasping.

"You're nothing but a stupid, good for nothing bitch, Phipolis. You never were no good. Your behavior caused a lot of lives to be taken in that riot. And you are the reason that Oriental woman was killed. It was your fault."

Zeen shook her head slowly as the form morphed into Johnson, the prison guard. He stood there, hitting the palm of his hand with a baton. She watched in shock as the man lifted his chin to adjust the tie he always wore, exposing a narrow gaping wound that extended from ear to ear. She flinched back as the wound began to seep small rivulets of crimson, and then Johnson laughed, releasing a torrent of gore from his throat.

"NoÉnoÉoh my god, no!" Pinned to the ground, and helpless, Zeen covered her face and then shrank from her own alien touch.

The laughter faded and was replaced by a calming voice that all at once soothed her soul. Peering from behind her thick soot covered sleeves, Zeen moaned as the image of Johnson shimmered and then became Debbie Ma.

Her lip quivered as she remembered the woman's soft touch, how very intricate had the patterns been upon her body. She remembered the day, so long ago, when they had spent the afternoon in each other's embrace, only to be interrupted by Scroggins' orders that she report to him immediately. It was only after she'd gotten back that Zeen discovered it had been a ruse.

Zeen screamed her torment and rage as the image twisted in agony, and then Debbie reached out to her, silently begging for help. She hadn't been there, and hadn't been able to save her lover, the first person that had ever truly loved her unconditionally. Debbie Ma had offered everything and had received nothing in returnÉnothing but total fealty, freely given by someone who had very little to lose.

Hot tears etched through the grime covering Zeen's face as wave upon wave of self-pity and torment rushed through her. A small girl, eyes blank with horror, appeared before her, and the firefighter sobbed uncontrollably as the child embraced the burnt remains of her younger brother. The figure of the small boy morphed and it was Zeen's own son lying there, eyes open and filled with pain.

Every failure in her life became magnified, effectively blotting out any heroic deed she'd ever done, and Zeen felt her heart begin to whither.

Images of her life at the hospital flitted past her eyes in a never-ending parade of spiteful words, shameful actions, and petty fury. All aimed at the one person she had ever loved: Abby.

Zeen felt ripped in two as she viewed each scene. There was Abby, reaching out to her, only to be slapped down with hateful words calculated to hurt and maim. Another showed her standing in the hospital, watching in horror and tears, as two orderlies held her down while she screamed obscenities at everyone around her. When had things gone so terribly wrong?

The form changed again and it was her reflection staring back at her, in all its twisted glory. Her bottom lip trembled as she saw exactly what others didÉthe cold and distant woman she'd become coupled with the true evidence of the monster that lay just beneath the layers of her skin. Now she looked just as horrific as she felt deep inside, and that truth hit her with such a terrible blow that all she wanted was an end to her misery.

"Go away, AbbyÉplease. JustÉgo away!'

Abby quietly closed the door behind her and slipped her coat off on the back of a chair. She stretched and then made her way into the bathroom.

"Oh, gods. Zeen, you can't do this. You just can't continue like this, babe. You have to have your medsÉgods, why does she do this? Now I have to wake her up andÉ"

Abby cringed as she thought of the fight she knew would ensue. It was a never-ending battle. She checked her watch. It had been six hours between doses. Gods.

Pulling a chair close to the bed, the blonde sat down and propped her feet up on the mattress. She watched her lover sleep, and wished there was some way to reach the woman. If only she knew what Zeen neededÉ

"Zeen. I love you. You're the best thing in my life, darling. I'll always love you."

Quickly pulling her coat up over her face, Zeen moaned aloud. No, she couldn't have Abby see her as she truly was! All the hate, the violence she'd inflicted and endured, hung like the webs of some malignant spider around her shoulders, and Zeen tried to curl up into a tight ball. Anything to keep the truth hiddenÉ

Zeen groaned as her ribs ground against each other, shooting a bolt of knife-hot pain through her. Abby sat forward, hand inches away from the woman's upper arm. Should she wake her up? Was it just a dream, or was she in pain?

'Of course she's in pain, idiot! GodsÉyou should have made her take those damned pills before you left!'

Abby reached out her hand, beckoning Zeen forward, and although every fibre of her body told her to accept the love being offered, the firefighter shrank from the woman's touch. She was so damned undeserving! Abby deserved more that she could ever offer. All she'd know would be a life filled with tormented nightmares, and periods of intense moodiness. And then finally, cold silence, as she ruined their relationship, too.

Finally unable to endure the painful wheezing any more, Abby placed her hand upon the pallid skin of her lover. Even knowing that verbal abuse was probably her reward, she couldn't shirk her duty, as a lover or as a friend.

Zeen started awake, feeling afraid and disoriented. There, in the semi-darkness, was the form in her dream. Was it Debbie, or Johnson, or her son, orÉ

Abby smiled weakly, her face filled with concern.

"I'm sorry to wake you, ZeenÉbutÉ"

"Oh, godsÉdon'tÉdon't look at me. I'm a monster, just a fucking monster. How can youÉAbby, how can you even bear to look at me?" She covered her face with both hands.

Abby bit her lip, choking back the sob that threatened to burst forth from her throat. Did Zeen have to endure these terrible nightmares for the rest of her life? When would it ever stop?

She wiped the corners of her eyes with the heel of her hand, and blinked furiously as she refused to break down. It certainly wasn't what Zeen needed right then. No, she needed a rock, something to ground her.

"You were just having a nightmare, honey. That's all, just a nightmare." She reached over and picked up the pills, offering them and a glass of water.

"No, noÉit was my lifeÉmy whole fucking, sordid, hate filled life. Oh gods, AbbyÉI want to die." Zeen pulled farther away from the blonde, as if trying to escape some horrible punishment.

Abby smoothed Zeen's hair away from eyes that were filled with a haunting sorrow and wanted to rage at the heavens. Why did life have to be so damned hard! Hadn't Zeen been through enough? Did she have to relive every heartbreaking moment of her life over and over again?

And then the red colour obscuring her vision lifted, and Abby could see clearly. These incidents in Zeen's life weren't punishment. They weren't acts of petulance meted out by an angry or vengeful god. They were just lessons to be learned.


The firefighter watched as a single perfect tear fell from her lover's eye and quietly made its way down until finally slipping off the woman's chin.

"I love you. Do you get that? In any way shape or form, I'll take you. Lock stock and barrel, Zeen Phipolis. I didn't fall in love with your blue eyes, or your shock of unruly black hair, or even your fine Grecian heritage. I fell in love with you."

Zeen's eyes filled with tears as she recognized the look of unconditional love. She'd only seen it twice beforeÉonce in Debbie and again in her son. And she'd failed them both.

Abby offered the water and pills again, and felt absolute relief wash over her as Zeen reached out a hand, and finally accepted her pain.

"It hurts, AbÉso bad."

Tears dripped unnoticed onto the bedspread as Abby nodded her head, unable to speak.

A couple of minutes passed and then Abby tried again.

"I know you don't want to, Zeen, but we have to talk about this. We have to get past it, orÉ"

Zeen sipped a bit more of the water and then handed it back. She nodded, then lay back gingerly on the bed, and wrapped a protective arm around her mending ribs.

"It's so hardÉ"

Easing herself down beside the firefighter, Abby carefully lay her head on the woman's right shoulder. Zeen drew her legs up, easing the small of her back, and then moved her other hand slowly to caress her lover's tear stained face.

"I'm sorry I've been such a bitch, Abby."

Abby squeezed her eyes shut and began to cry quietly.

Tears began to seep from between the firefighter's eyes, too, as she thought of just how far apart they'd grown. The life they shared before the accident seemed a lifetime away.

"I'm sorry." She said again, and then opened her eyes as a pair of soft lips brushed against her own.

"I've always loved you, from the first moment I met you. I always will."

Zeen uttered a shuddering sob and willed her lungs to just go to sleep and not spasm.

"But whyÉhow can you stand being anywhere near me? If I'm not this miserable bitch, then I'm a big old cry baby."

"Because I always have, silly. You think you're weak, that somehow asking for help makes you less of who you are. Can't you see how strong it is to reach out and admit defeat? I know how hard it is for you to appear vulnerable, I do, butÉ"

Abby stopped talking and just kissed her lover's forehead.

"What has this whole experience taught you?"

Zeen snorted and then moved into a more comfortable position.

"LesseeÉwhat did I learn? Well, fire is not something you play with, and that you should always do what medigods want you to, because they know bestÉ"

"Zeen, why do you have to be so sarcastic?" She sighed as Zeen looked the other way.

"Look, I know what you're doing. Push me away and you don't have to deal with things. We did that, remember?"

She sighed again as Zeen's chin stiffened.

"You must think I'm treating you like a child right now. Well, I'm not. I just want you to stop for a moment, and see the bigger picture. What this life lesson has taught you."

"Life lesson, huh? You mean this whole ordeal wasn't just the Fates having fun at my expense? Listen, I'm used to being in hell, honey, it just never ends."

Abby could sense a cold rigidity come over the woman's body and carefully pulled Zeen's chin to face her, forcing her to re-connect.

"But you don't have to live in hell, Zeen. You don't. You've paid your dues, and the sooner you realize that, and accept it, the better off you'll be. We'll be. You can't save everyone, you can't be Superman, or the hero who can always be counted on to do the right thing. You can't, Zeen."

Zeen's jaw clenched and her breath was held just behind tight lips as the words stabbed at her.

'Why can't I? If I just try harderÉ'

Abby watched anger roll across her lover's face and a steel blue tint emerge as Zeen brought her eyes up and their gaze locked.

"I can do anything, Abby. I've done more things that anyone should be able to. I've always been able to jump farther, run faster, climb higher, fight harderÉalways. The strength I discovered inÉjailÉmade me see that. I have a gift, Abby, and if I just try harder, and no one gets in my way, then I canÉ"

"No, you can't, Zeen. How can you possibly? You're human, just like the rest of us."

"ButÉ" The firefighter eased herself up higher on the pillow and then began to gesticulate each point with her strong, large hands. Abby found herself almost mesmerized, as if she were watching the birth of some intricate opera.

"Don't you see, Ab? Everything that's ever happened to me, every minute of theÉthe bullshitÉthat I've had to endure, it's all prepared me to be the person I am. Right here, and right now. You can call it karma, or fundamentalism, whatever, it doesn't matter. All I know is I'm the sum of my past. I have a purpose, Abby, I know it."

Abby dragged her eyes away from the play of her lover's hands and sat up.

"We all have a purpose, Zeen. I don't think most of us discover what that is, no matter how long they live, but just struggle along doing the best they can." Abby pulled her legs under her and sat with her hands resting gently on her knees.

Zeen expelled a breath but said nothing.

"What is your purpose, Zeen, and how do you know that it won't change somewhere down the line?"

Zeen's face creased with momentary pain as she eased herself back down onto the pillows. She was beginning to feel quite light-headed. 'Must be those damned pills', she thought.

"So many people, Abby, have tried to make me stray from my course. I was never sure of the path, only the final destination. Some people climb mountains because they're there and because they can. Others tempt Fate by putting themselves in really stupid situations, totally unmindful of the outcome. Kinda like standing on the railroad tracks. You've looked for em all your life, thinking they were the way to go. You stand there feeling invincible, like it's a destiny kinda thing, until you see the oncoming truth barreling down on ya. Only you don't get off, you just stand there, blinded by the light."

A jolt of uneasiness swept through the blonde as Zeen's voice changed, making her seem much older than she really was. SomehowÉinscrutable. She'd never heard the woman talking like this. Part of her knew it must be the painkillers. It had to be, but stillÉshe found herself leaning forward as Zeen's voice dropped an octave.

"Like the light is the answer they've been looking for. They get wrapped up in the intricacies of the light, the truth, and forget what's behind it, the machinery, pushing it forward. Before they know it, well, it's too late."

Zeen's face began to smooth out and her hands dropped slowly to her sides. Abby watched as the woman's eyes began to close and she thought sleep was just moments away.

"But see, the light isn't the answer, it isn't even the damned tracks that mean anything. You gottaÉyou gotta learn all the stuff along the way before finding the tracks. Like some sleuth, ya know? Putting the pieces together. Bit by bit, Ab. So tired, ya know? My side doesn't hurt anymore, so I guess that's good. But this stuff is fuzzing me out, baby. You should go away, Abby. I don't wanna get goofy, ya know?"

Abby smiled and then placed a gentle kiss on the worried brow of her lover.

"You go to sleep, baby. Maybe I'll go out for another walk but I'll be here when you wake up."

Zeen slowly shook her head.

"NoÉdon't wanna sleep. And I want you here, baby. I do. ButÉ"

Abby could see how the woman was struggling against letting go or just sucking it up and burying all the emotions once more. No matter what they'd gone through together, Zeen just never felt comfortable enough to let down all the barriers. 'Maybe some day.'

She smiled and moved to the side of the bed. It was clear that Zeen needed sleep and Abby only hoped it would be a good seven or eight hours. Just as she pulled the covers up over Zeen's chest, the woman's hand closed around hers.

"Don't go, baby, cos when I close my eyes, Abby, he's there, just waiting for me. He wants to get even, Ab. I took something from him and he wants it back. He wants it now."

"WhatÉwho, Zeen? Who do you mean? Who's waiting for you?" Abby wondered if the higher dose was causing more hallucinations. She was sure of the dosageÉ

A small frown appeared on the sculpted lips and then air was pushed through them as Zeen struggled to say more.

"There was this guy, babe, back in prison." Abby moved closer as Zeen's voice began to slur.

"He had it all, all the fear, the torment, the lonely despair. He was Ruler of the Damned and I took it all away. All away. Dark place, prison. Either makes ya or it breaks ya."

'Prison.' A small spark of anger welled up in the blonde, and although she knew it was neither the time nor the place, she couldn't stop the emotions from pushing her onwards.

"You never said you were in prison, Zeen. Why did youÉwhy did you say jail?"

Zeen tried to drag her impossibly heavy hand up to touch her lover's face.

"Oh, babyÉI may be fucked up, but I ain't that fucked up. You woulda run screaming into the night, Abby, you know it and so did I. Wasn't no way you were ready for that truth. Even nowÉso sleepyÉgods, I wanna be with youÉI wanna kiss that mouthÉease those crinklesÉ"

Abby snorted softly, the anger easing back a little. Zeen was certainly in no shape to 'be with' anyone, and it was going to be awhile before she was.

'Crinkles.' A smile graced her mouth as she thought about that word. Worry lines were always 'crinkles' to Zeen. She'd tried to joke about the ones that seemed to sprout around the woman's baby blues lately, but it had gone over like a lead balloon. The whole time that Zeen had been in the hospital, not one moment had she given in to the pain and let herself really go. Getting her to take painkillers was almost impossible. After discovering Demerol was causing a severe reaction, Bubba had nixed morphine and another couple of analgesics before settling on Leritine. Even then, she'd fought every single step of the way until Bubba had suggested Abby just go for quiet times so Zeen could actually reap the benefits of the drug.

Abby had never really seen the woman even get drunk, really. Oh, Zeen liked her Ouzo, and even partook of the grape every now and again, but in very limited quantities. A lack of control was just not something Zeen enjoyed, in any form.

The grip on her wrist lessened as she eased carefully back down beside her lover.

"Okay, hon. I'll admit that the idea of you actually spending time in prison does worry me, but you've had plenty of time to tell me aboutÉthings."

Zeen's eyebrows moved in response. "Yeah, 'spose so, but I'm a chicken at heart, ya know? Don't like to go tiltin' at windmills."

'Avoid confrontation at all costs: Zeen the original Don Quixote?' Abby shook her head, thinking about the short shrift the firefighter always gave herself. 'Chicken, my ass, you just don't like to lose control and go ape shit on someone anymore than you have to. Just another skill I'm sure you learned in prison.'

"I'll let that one go right now, Zeen, but we're gonna talk about things, just so you know."

"Just wanna cuddle with yaÉfor a bitÉk?"

"What about this man, Zeen? Can you tell me anything about what happened then? How you took his control?"

Zeen rolled carefully over to face her and then put both fists under her chin and snuggled down into the covers. She blinked once or twice but remained conscious. Abby sighed, waiting for an answer that wasn't forthcoming, and then kicked herself for letting a golden opportunity fall through her fingers. She wondered just who this guy was and how he figured in the riot that resulted in death and destruction.

"I love you, Abby. I always have, and I always will. I know togetherÉtogether we canÉdo anything. TogeÉther." Zeen slurred, and then noticed just how heavy her eyelids were becoming, and thought, if she just closed them for a little while, if she rested for only a few minutesÉShe remembered the calming methods of Debbie Ma, and felt herself disentangled from the pain, and fear, and just floated.

Abby hadn't realized just how much she'd needed to hear those words right then. Saying those three little words was sometimes hard for Zeen, even though Abby was certain of the love they both had. A tear squeezed past her dark lashes as the blonde pondered the rest of Zeen's words. It meant the firefighter could still see a future for them, and right now that meant everything.

Abby stroked the woman's cheekbones and jaw before kissing the strong nose before her. The break had healed nicely. She ran her finger carefully up and down the slight bump and smiled. Zeen couldn't be Superman. If she were lucky, she might just have a chance at being Zeen Phipolis, and that would be a good thing. The bond that had been stretched but never broken, began to ease back into its original shape, wrapping them tightly together once more.

"You sleep, babe." She kissed her lover's brow again and then pulled the bedspread up to cover them.

"We have things to talk about, and specialists to see, Zeen. And we will. You are going to have to trust that we know what's best for you."

She smiled as Zeen snuggled closer.

"I know just how hard it's going to be for you to be honest with me, and tell me the truth, all of it, but you are going to."

Crickets began their serenade just outside the window and Abby thought about getting up, and at least eating some of the congealing Chinese food she'd ordered.

'I really ought to get up', she mentally prodded herself. The bathroom was a mess and a slightly sour smell was noted coming from that area. Further proof that even someone as self-efficient as Zeen needed help when nausea overwhelmed her.

Well, it wouldn't hurt to just lie here, snuggled as close as she dared to the woman she'd given her heart to, for better or worse. It felt so right to be lying like this, and it always had, really. They seemed to fit, like pieces of the same puzzle.

And then she slept, one hand tangled in the dark hair at the back of Zeen's head, almost as if drawn there by some unseen force. Zeen smiled contentedly, as thoughts of the Green Dragon settled warmly around her.

Started December 6, 1999

Finished April 11, 2000

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