Part the Fifteenth
Another couple weeks passed before Val and Zane were able to meet up for coffee again, and Val realized the time Ayida had given them was almost half-gone without any significant progress. It wasn’t for lack of trying really – it was just that the timing never seemed right. One or the other of them was just heading into work or they were coming off of work, and neither of them wanted to inflict the misery of end-of-shift on the other. Finally, though, they had a day off together, which they discovered when they ran into one another at the grocery store... again.
“Hey, Doc!” Zane called out as she pushed her buggy next to Val’s. Val gave her a dirty look and continued to sort through the fresh corn. Zane scratched the back of her neck and cleared her throat. “Sorry, um... Val. Hard to get used to that.”
Val smirked. “I’ll forgive you this time, Zane. You off today?”
“Yes, finally... thank God! I’m not sure why the Cap had us pulling so much overtime – usually that gets nixed faster than we can put in for it. I’m glad for three days off this week. I’m gonna need two of them just to catch up on my sleep.”
“So you’re not up for a cup of coffee then?”
“Coffee sounds great, actually. I’ve gotta go put this stuff away, but I can meet you somewhere in say... an hour?”
Val nodded. “An hour sounds good. That should give me time to take care of my own groceries. Same place as last time?”
“See you in an hour, Val.”
Val was already installed at a table and sipping on her coffee when Zane came running into the coffee house. Val rose from her place, but Zane just shook her head and motioned her back to her seat. In another minute, she’d caught her breath and was approaching the barista to make her order. Once it was done, she moved to claim the chair across from Val. Val just cocked an eyebrow at her and waited.
“Sorry. I got home and a water main had busted. I had to shut it off and clean up the mess before I could get here.”
“Good grief! Did you call someone?”
Zane took a swallow of coffee and then sucked in a breath. “Dammit! That’s hot!” She fanned her face ineffectually and Val covered her mouth to hide the smile that wanted to break out at the action. “Yeah – I called Rhonda. Her uncle’s a plumber. He and Paulie promised to come right over.”
“Good to have friends who know people, I guess.”
Zane shrugged. “I suppose. So what big plans you got for your weekend, Doc... Val? Sorry – I met you as Doc, and for whatever reason, my pea brain doesn’t seem to be able to get past that auspicious beginning.”
“We’ll keep practicing,” Val promised. “It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to get a little sleep either.”
Zane laughed. “Probably not.”
“So,” Val asked when the silence started to draw on for too long. “Did you give any thought to what I asked you before – about your dreams?”
Zane shrugged. “A little – you know, when I had time.” She sighed. “I dunno, Val. I don’t really have any. I’d like to get my gold shield... be a detective, but other than that.... I got nothing.”
“There’s not something you’d rather do or someone you’d rather be if you had the chance? Don’t you want to be famous... or rich... or have a family.... something?”
Zane slammed her cup on the table and looked at Val with anger burning bright in her blue eyes. “I told you, Doc,” the address scathing, “the only dream I ever had was to get out of the shit hole I was born into. It’s not good to dream of things that will never be – they only make you unsatisfied with the things you have. I’m sorry I’m not enough for you the way that I am.”
“That’s not what I....” But Valeria was talking to thin air. Zane was gone.
The next few days were miserable for Val. She didn’t have any real way to reach Zane short of going to her precinct, and she had no desire to put Zane on the spot like that. She was certain it would embarrass her and that was the last thing Val wanted to do. She was hoping that giving Zane a little while to cool down might make it easier for them to talk.
A week passed, and Val was considering what she could do to bring the impasse to an end. Then there was an unexpected knock at her door. She hesitated long enough for there to be a second, louder knock. When she looked through the peephole, though, what she found was not what she expected.
“Paulie?” she said as she opened the door slowly. Paulie uncrossed his arms and dropped them to his side as he offered Val a tentative smile.
“Hiya, Doc. You got a minute?”
“Um... sure, Paulie. Won’t you come in?” stepping back and opening the door wider. “I’m sorry – I just realized I don’t know your last name.”
Paulie chuckled. “Chianti, ma’am,” crossing the threshold.
Val laughed. “Like the wine?” closing the door and ushering him towards the couch.
“Exactly like the wine. My people were vinters for generations in the old country. Eventually we came to be called by what we were famous for.”
“That must make for some great party conversation.”
“You got no idea. Took the guys *months* to let it go.”
“Would you like to take a seat? Can I get you anything...?”
Paulie took a seat on the couch and motioned for Val to do the same. She did so with only the briefest hesitation and turned to face him. He looked at her with concern for a long moment before sighing aloud.
“Let me start by sayin’ that if Zane finds out I’ve come here, she’ll kill us both... just on general principle. She’s a very private person, and I’m crossin’ a line here.”
“Why are you crossing a line here, Paulie? She’s your partner and friend. You need to be able to trust each other. Why would you jeopardize that?”
He sighed again and rubbed a hand over his face. “Last week when Marco and I was fixin’ her water main – she came stormin’ back from coffee with you, all pissed off and upset. But she wouldn’t tell me what happened. And she’s been meaner than a mama bear with a sore paw and bee stings on her ass ever since. Now I ain’t a detective, Doc. That’s Zane’s dream, and more power to her on it; I’m happy walkin’ a beat. I am, however, a veteran police officer, and I know somethin’ happened while she was with you. I’m askin’ you to tell me what that somethin’ is.”
Val rubbed her forehead, hoping to make the suddenly full-blown headache go away. After a moment, she looked at Paulie, finding genuine concern in his gaze. She rose from her seat, and he slowly followed. “C’mon – this requires coffee and we can talk in the kitchen as well as we can here.”
“Has Zane ever talked to you about her dreams?” Val asked as she scurried around the small kitchen preparing coffee. Paulie frowned and folded his hands atop the bar.
“Doc, do you know any of Zane’s history?”
“Yes,” Val replied succinctly. “I know she was abused growing up, and she had a substance abuse problem because of her mother.”
“Yeah,” Paulie growled. “So her biggest dream was to get away from the hellhole where she lived as a kid and that worthless bitch she called ‘mom’ and make somethin’ of herself. And she’s done a damned fine job. She’s got a nice place to live, is a good cook, has a really great bike that she takes out for weekend trips.” He cleared his throat. “The only other thing she’s ever let herself hope for in this life is that detective’s shield, and office politics are keepin’ that from her,” unwilling to mention Zane’s desire to have someone to share her life with.
“No kiddin’. But it is what it is, ya know. And Zane does all right. The guys mostly respect her and treat her like one of us. The few that have issues....” He shrugged. “We try to stay out of each others’ way. Everybody’s happy.”
“So what are the politics involved with keeping Zane from getting that gold shield? I’d have thought it would be a shoo-in for a woman like Zane if she passed the tests.”
Paulie snorted. “Shoulda been, but because she was born hooked on drugs, the brass feel like she’d be too easily compromised. Become a loose cannon.”
“That’s a little biased.”
“Nah... that’s a lot biased. But it’s how the system works... or doesn’t in this case.” He cleared his throat. “So you wanna tell me what happened between you and her? Cuz I know it was you – she told me she was gonna meet you for coffee. It’s the reason I came over with Marco.”
Val sighed, then told Paulie word for word what had transpired between her and Zane. He glowered at her for several minutes. Then he finally sighed.
“I’m pretty sure you didn’t piss her off on purpose, but we’re gonna have to think about this to figure out the best way to fix it. If you want to, that is.”
“Yes!” Val said emphatically. “I like Zane – she’s one of the few friends I’ve made outside the hospital. And I think she could probably use a few more friends herself.”
“Couldn’t we all?” Paulie muttered. “All right, Doc. Let me call my wife and get her in on this. I have a feelin’ we can get this patched up with a little bit of work.”
Val nodded and poured another cup of coffee while Paulie made his call.
Part the Sixteenth
“Guess who I found loiterin’ around outside?” Rhonda said when Val opened the door to her knock a short time later. She had her hands clenched around Zane’s shirt despite the slapping motion Zane was making towards her grip and she pulled the woman inside behind her as soon as Val gestured for them to come in. Only once Val had shut and locked the door behind them did Rhonda relax her grip and extend her hand to Valeria.
“Hi. I’m Paulie’s wife Rhonda. You must be the Val I’ve been hearin’ so much about recently.”
Val tittered nervously, but accepted Rhonda’s hand and squeezed it lightly before releasing it. “I’m only *that* Val if you’ve been hearing good things. If all you’ve been hearing is bad, then no... it must be some *other* Val you’ve mistaken me for.”
Rhonda laughed heartily and turned to Zane. “I like her. Don’t screw this up.” Then she looked back at Val. “Could you point me in the direction of my husband, please?” ignoring Zane’s sudden glare. Val motioned to the back of the brownstone.
“There’s coffee on,” Val promised. “Zane and I won’t be but a minute.” Rhonda nodded and gave Zane a look, then turned on her heel and started towards the back of the house. Val took a deep breath and spun back to meet Zane’s angry gaze – except it wasn’t angry at all. It was sheepish and hurt, but any anger she’d felt had disappeared the moment Rhonda had left them alone.
“I’m sorry,” Val spluttered out before Zane could formulate her own apology. “I had no right to demand you be anything other than what and who you are. I’m sorry it came across that way, Zane. I like you just fine as my friend the police officer who wants to become a detective.”
Zane’s hand raised and covered Val’s mouth tenderly, cutting off her words without cutting off her air or leaving a mark. Val’s eyebrows went into her hair, but she got the message and stopped speaking. Zane gave her a small smile. “Can I talk now?”
Val nodded and Zane removed her hand slowly. “Would you like some coffee?” Val blurted uncertainly, hoping to help Zane relax a little. Zane glared at her for the interruption and Val flinched. Zane softened somewhat at her reaction and shook her head.
“No thank you. I’d like to get this out first. If you still want to after that....” She let her words trail off and sighed deeply. “I’m not good at this, you know... apologies, I mean. I tend to live my life and not worry too much about running roughshod over other people. Most people I know aren’t really in my life enough for me to worry too much about what they think, and those that are just kind of accept that I’m gruff and short-tempered and sometimes rude and they just go from there.” Zane shook her head. “You though, Doc? You’re different. I don’t really know why, but you’re different. You seem to really care, and I’m not really sure what to do with that. The last person to really care for me... well, it didn’t end very well. He’s still not speaking to me.”
“What about Paulie and Rhonda? They care.”
Zane nodded. “Yeah... but they’re family. They’re supposed to care.” She raised her voice and looked towards the kitchen where she knew Rhonda and Paulie were listening to the conversation unseen. “Just like they’re supposed to butt their noses in where they don’t belong and call it concern.”
“Hey!” Paulie yelled back. “I’m the one that’s had to listen to your bitchin’ and bellyachin’ all week, so don’t you start with me, missy.” Rhonda’s shushing noises were clear to both of them and Zane and Val couldn’t stop the laughter that rolled out between them, especially when they heard the smack followed by Paulie’s “OW!”
After a moment, they sobered and Zane met Val’s eyes for a moment before regarding the clean state of the floor. “Yeah,” she drawled slowly, scratching the back of her neck. “Anyway, I’m sorry for being such an ass. It’s not bad to have dreams, I guess. I just don’t know how. I’ve learned to be content with what I have.”
Val nodded slowly and suddenly realized that she wanted Zane to have more than contentment... even at the cost of what she had now. She reached out a hand for Zane’s thrilled when Zane not only took her hand, but seemed to cherish the touch. “Well, what do you say we join Rhonda and Paulie in the kitchen for some coffee, and sit down and figure out the rest later?”
“I’d be willing to try,” Zane said shyly.
“All I can ask for,” Val replied and led them down the hall to the kitchen.
“What do you think would make you happy, Zane?” Val asked when they were alone some time later. Paulie had wanted to stay, but Rhonda had convinced him to leave by pulling him out by his ear. He’d howled and protested, but Rhonda’d had her way and Val and Zane had managed to contain their laughter until the door had closed behind the married couple. Then all bets were off and for several minutes, they couldn’t even glance at one another without bursting into giggles again. Finally, though, the laughter died out and they were left catching their breaths. It was into this silence that Val had spoken and was now waiting for Zane to answer.
Zane cocked her head thoughtfully. “What makes you think I’m not?” holding Val’s gaze. Val could see the pain and confusion in the blue eyes that faced her and she wanted to reach out. But she knew Zane wasn’t ready to accept that sort of comfort from her. She offered a small smile instead.
“Part of my job requires me to be able to read people, Zane. People aren’t always honest, you know,” said with a smirk that garnered outright laughter from Zane.
“No kidding, Doc?” she said with sarcasm. “I did not know that – because you know people are always completely honest with police officers. I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
“You do that, Zane,” Val replied, sticking out her tongue. “Wise ass.”
“Better than a dumb ass, I always say.”
“Oh you do?”
“Of course. Do you know how often Paulie calls me ‘Smart ass’?”
“So are you going to answer my question or should we just continue our witty banter?”
Zane sighed. “I don’t suppose me opting for witty banter is going to get me off the hook?”
Val finally broke her gaze from Zane’s and focused on the cushions between them and sighed, twining her fingers together to keep her hands to herself. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable, Zane. Let me tell you a story – maybe that will help you be able to answer my question. Maybe it will answer some of yours.”
Part the Seventeenth
“So let me get this straight – I gave up everything... success, wealth, fame, phenomenal sex... just for a chance to find love in the matter of a few months?? And not just love with anyone, but with you... who I only met by accident?? You expect me to believe I was that stupid?!? My God! What kind of an idiot do you take me for? I know I’m not always the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m not stupid.”
“I don’t take you for an idiot at all Zane, nor have I ever said you were stupid. Do you really think I could make up something this preposterous?? If I was going to lie to you, I’d at least make it something credible so you’d believe me.”
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had sex?” Zane asked absently as though Val hadn’t even spoken. “We won’t even begin to discuss having phenomenal sex – I feel pretty confident in saying that hasn’t happened in this lifetime.” She turned to look at Valeria who was gazing at her with sadness in her eyes. “And why do you remember this and I don’t? Seems kind of unfair if you ask me.”
“I don’t know, Zane. Ayida wasn’t able to see the future – she didn’t know if either of us would remember. She said it was very unclear because it hasn’t actually happened – she can bear witness to possibilities, but that is all.”
“Uh huh,” Zane drawled, suspicion obvious in her tone. “And what do you get out of telling me this? C’mon, Val – by your own admission, your reality in that other timeline was suckage... kinda like mine is now actually. So why risk telling me? It would be in my best interests to walk away from you and just go back to this other life you’re talking about – because I certainly don’t have a reason to want to stay in this one. You say I chose this life for the chance to have love *with you* over everything, but I don’t and there’s no guarantee I’ll have it here... certainly not in someone else’s time frame. Because really – how do you dictate something like that? Or did you think that by telling me, it would eliminate any possibility of us ‘falling in love’? Because I have to be honest – I just don’t see you that way, and this isn’t helping strengthen any bonds of friendship here. So what’s your angle... really?”
Val sighed. She hadn’t considered all the conceivable ways this could play out. She’d expected skepticism and cynicism – it was part and parcel of Zane’s personality no matter the reality. But she hadn’t anticipated outright antagonism and suspicion.
“You won’t believe me if I told you there was no angle for me here would you?” seeing no change in the hard blue eyes concentrated so intently on her. Val rose and crossed to the window on the other side of the room, wrapping her arms around her middle as she focused her attention somewhere beyond the glass. “I debated for almost two months about sharing this with you, Zane – I am wildly successful in this life, and there is every likelihood that I could remain here.”
“Wait... you mean we don’t go back to our old lives if we don’t fall in love in this one??”
“Ayida didn’t know – she warned us of the risks. We have no way of knowing if we’ll get stuck here or go back to our old lives or perhaps get sent to something new. All she could see were possibilities... and the fact that we were made for each other. However, if we *don’t* succeed, the one guarantee we have is that our souls will belong to Urim and Abaddon and we will be tied to them eternally.”
“Well, if that ain’t just fan-fucking-tastic.” Zane scrubbed her hands through her hair, then stood and retrieved her bag from the spot by the door where she’d dropped it when Rhonda had dragged her into Val’s place. “Look, Doc – I don’t need this,” her voice harsh and slightly apologetic. “I may not be happy, but I’m content enough, and I’ve learned to make do with that.” She opened the door, and glanced back at Val whose focus remained on something beyond sight. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Val replied. “I never took you for a coward.”
Zane took special pains to close the door softly. She wasn’t going to give Val any more ammunition.
“Master?” The figure in the chair never turned from his contemplation of the screen that took up the entire wall in front of him, but he raised a hand and beckoned Urim closer. Urim crossed into the room, and stood in front of the massive desk. He had not been invited closer and with his news, he didn’t want to be within physical striking range. Not that the Master had to rely on that sort of punishment, but he did tend to find immense satisfaction from meting it out.
“Speak,” the Master invited.
Urim cleared his throat. “Master, I have searched everywhere – Zane is no longer on this plane of existence. It’s as though she never was – she has simply disappeared as has any indication she was ever alive.”
The Master sighed – he’d expected such news. He’d been searching for days as well... with no success. Which simply meant someone from the other side had learned of his interference and instituted some of their own to put things right. Now it was a race against the clock – he knew as well as the other side did that this Halloween was their deadline, and what was then would be what was always. There would be no second chances after that.
He kept the chair facing the wall, eyes unfocused on what was going on in front of him. He could feel Urim’s desire to fidget, but to his credit, Urim’s physical being remained completely still. His inner self, however.... the Master smirked. Sometimes it was nice to take joy in the little things.
“Where is Abaddon?” the Master asked when he finally swung the chair around to face Urim. Urim, kept his body stiffly at attention and his eyes somewhere on the screen above the Master’s head.
“I don’t know, Master. When we left here, we both returned first to their last known location - the resort in which Zane and Valeria had been ensconced. That was our first indication that something was truly amiss. There was nothing to show that they were there or ever had been. From there we split up, and I have not seen nor heard from him since. I can only presume that he had been equally unsuccessful in his search as I was in mine.”
“So you didn’t,” the Master gave Urim an evil smile, “lose the coin toss, as it were?”
The Master stared at Urim for a long moment. Urim was one of his best and brightest, and despite the cluster that this endeavor now was, he had always done well in his assignments and taking responsibility. It was his sense of responsibility that had gotten him promoted as rapidly as he had, so the Master was inclined to offer him the opportunity to redeem himself.
He nodded his acceptance of Urim’s words, and noticed the slightest hint of relaxation in his demeanor. “Very well, Urim. I believe you speak the truth; I’m going to give you the chance to put things right. I have managed to narrow down the likely possibilities to a mere dozen out of hundreds. It will be up to you to discover which option is correct and act accordingly.”
“Thank you, Master. You won’t regret your choice to trust me.”
“I hope not, Urim. We’re on a deadline, and if you fail... well, you’ll be the first to fall.”
“Understood, Master,” offering a bow. The Master graciously nodded his head, then waved Urim from the room. There was still work to be done.
Ayida flinched when she recognized Urim in her crystal ball. He wasn’t in the correct timeline... yet, but his presence somewhere other than where he *should* have been meant the other side had realized what she had done. They were actively searching for Zane and Valeria.
They needed to step things up. They were running out of time.
Part the Eighteenth
Another weekend had passed and Valeria was at a loss to find a way to approach Zane again. Not that she’d had an abundance of time to worry about it while she’d been working, but she was always peripherally aware of the situation in the back of her mind. She *really* didn’t want to go looking for her at the precinct – that was asking for even more complications and embarrassment than the trip would have caused the first time she’d contemplated it. But short of another accidental meeting in the grocery store, it was looking more and more like her best bet... because the likelihood of Zane coming to the hospital again for any reason were nil, and Val knew that.
She opened the door to her home after three days of hard shifts – they’d been so busy, she’d caught her sleep in the on-call room between emergencies. Val was determined to get some real sleep in her own bed and worry about Zane later. But when she’d pushed the door closed behind her and turned to lock it, a frisson of awareness traveled up her spine, and she turned to find Ayida sitting casually on her couch.
Val blinked rapidly and rubbed at her eyes, trying desperately to clear them. She knew she was sleep deprived, but until now, she hadn’t started hallucinating. Ayida smiled, white teeth shining in her dark face. Val shook her head in disbelief.
“Ayida? How did...? What are you...? Why are you here?”
“Hello, Ria – it’s good to see you too. Please... have a seat.”
Val sighed and let her shoulders slump. “Ayida? I’m exhausted and just want to go to bed for a while. What’s this all about?”
“Valeria,” Ayida commanded firmly. “Take a seat, and I’ll explain everything. Then you can sleep the rest of the day if you wish, but you need to be aware of what’s going on.”
“She’s fine,” Ayida offered with a small smile. “Sit.”
Val sighed again, letting her backpack hit the floor unceremoniously, then sort of collapsing onto the couch beside Ayida. She leaned her head against the back and closed her eyes. “Satisfied?”
“Quite,” Ayida assured her. “Let me get right to the point – Urim is looking for you and Zane.”
Nothing like a shot of adrenaline to jolt you awake, Valeria thought as her eyes snapped open and her head whipped around towards Ayida. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me, Ria. Urim is actively searching for you and Zane. He’s left your original timeline and has started looking for you in other realities. He’s not here yet, but it is only a matter of time.”
“That could be a problem,” Val replied wearily, dropping back against the cushions.
“Other than the fact that you aren’t a couple yet?”
“Yeah – about that? It’s worse.” Val sighed; Ayida cocked an eyebrow and waited. “Zane didn’t remember our other lives, so I told her about it - about who we were there and what we gave up... what she gave up to be put here.” Val closed her eyes again and released a deep breath. “I just wanted her to know.... Ayida, she’s miserable here. She *says* she’s content, but I can see the unhappiness she feels. I want her to be happy.”
Ayida ran a hand through her hair. “And how did she respond?”
“Not well. She accused me of having an angle – of wanting to manipulate her for my own good. Then she got angry and walked out and I haven’t spoken to her since.”
Ayida pursed her lips and frowned, sighing in frustration. “Do I want to know *why* you thought that was a good idea?”
“I told you, Ayida – I want her to be happy. I thought if she knew the entire situation....”
Ayida rolled her eyes. “That she’d just fall into your arms and declare her everlasting love to you? Obviously that didn’t work out so well,” she said dryly. “Have you tried to get in touch with her? Explain everything in detail or...?”
“Not really sure how that would help at this point. Besides, I don’t know how to reach her except....” Val stopped speaking and her gaze turned reflective. Ayida simply sat back and watched, waiting to hear where Val’s thought process was headed. After a moment, Val’s vision cleared and she turned back to Ayida. “I was her doctor twice – I could access her records and find out where she lives. That would probably be better in the long run than going into her police precinct.”
Ayida chuckled slightly. “Are you afraid she might arrest you?”
Val snorted. “I’m pretty sure she would, actually. Or serve me with a restraining order.”
“That would be a problem.”
“No... really?” Val retorted dryly. Ayida glared.
“Really not helping,” Ayida grumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. Val made an exaggerated motion of zipping her lips and tossing the key. Then she waited silently for Ayida to continue speaking. “Let me see if I can find her – perhaps if I speak to her, it will give her the understanding she needs.”
“Do you think that is wise?” Val asked when the silence went on too long.
“No. But I do believe it is necessary.” She rose from her place and moved to the door. Val stood as well, but Ayida directed her towards the bedroom. “Go,” she instructed. “Your bed awaits, and I can see how badly you need it,” cupping Val’s face and rubbing the darkness under her eyes with a gentle thumb. “I let myself in; I can see myself out,” Ayida assured with a smile. She leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Val’s forehead. “Go,” she repeated. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you, Ayida. I just want....”
“I know. Just be ready to do your part when the time comes.” And without another word, Ayida disappeared out the door. Val stood stunned for another moment longer, then turned and made her way to her bed. She’d be ready – after she got some sleep.
Paulie frowned as he watched Zane’s profile from the corner of his eye. Something had been off with her for the last few days, even though she had stubbornly denied anything was wrong. He was debating yet another way to bring up whatever was bothering her, but before he could open his mouth to speak, she turned and glared at him.
“Something on my face, Paulie?”
“What?? No – why would you ask that?”
“You keep staring at me and you’re giving me a complex. I figured there must be something on my face.”
“Nah – I was just wonderin’ why you keep frownin’ if nothin’ is wrong.”
“Drop it, Paulie. I’m not in the mood.”
“Then what are you in the mood for, Zane?” he asked, grabbing her arm and swinging her around to face him. Before he could continue, Zane jerked her arm from his grasp... only to find it caught by a beautiful, dark-skinned woman. She covered the other woman’s hand, searching for whatever had caused Ayida to latch onto her without warning.
“Ma’am?” she asked, catching Paulie’s eyes to see if he knew why the woman was in distress. He shook his head, but it didn’t matter. Ayida slumped to the ground in a pool of blood.
Part the Nineteenth
Val was just stepping from the shower when the pounding on her door jolted her senses. Her chin dropped to her chest as she sighed deeply, then she draped her robe over her still wet body and hurried to the door. A quick glance out the peephole caused her to drop the locks and jerk the door wide.
“Paulie?” instantly noting the blood on his hands.
“Doc, we need you to come quick.”
Paulie shook his head and Val nodded as she pulled him inside, directing him to the kitchen to wash up while she went to throw some clothes on. Regardless of the emergency, she couldn’t go outside undressed, and she needed to grab her black bag as well. But it only took a minute before they were running back the way Paulie had come. When they reached Zane, Val released a sigh of relief when she saw that Zane was the one holding onto another body. Despite Paulie’s assurance, she’d needed to see for herself. Then she recognized who Zane was clutching and she gasped.
Zane frowned and met Val’s eyes. “You know her?”
Val nodded. “She’s a friend. What happened?” kneeling down beside them and wrapping her fingers around Ayida’s wrist. “Lay her down so I can see,” Val ordered, hands moving swiftly over Ayida’s body in an attempt to find the issue. “What happened?” Val repeated, finding the bleeder and putting pressure on it with one hand while she searched her bag with the other. Without being called, Paulie came over and took over the job of applying pressure. Val gave him a nod of thanks and turned her attention to her bag while listening to Zane.
“We don’t know. She grabbed me by the arm, then just kind of collapsed before she could really say much of anything. Paulie ran for you, and I just held onto her.”
Val nodded her comprehension. “Did one of you call a bus?” seeing Zane nod her head. “Good. Okay, Paulie... when I count three, I need you to move your hand so I can slap on the bandage,” holding the pressure bandage ready to do just that. “Ready? One... two... three!”
She slapped the compress into place, wincing when Ayida flinched beneath the unexpected touch. “I’m sorry,” Val whispered, unsure if Ayida heard her over the blare of sirens as the ambulance pulled up. Val smiled when Alice jumped from the back of the vehicle, knowing she’d be able to ride along.
“Hey, Doc!” Alice greeted as she and Marty pulled a gurney from the back. “What’s the story?”
Val ran through what she knew and what she’d already done, then started barking orders for the treatment she wanted. Alice and Marty fell to work with a will and within mere moments, they were loading Ayida onto the gurney and into the ambulance.
“You riding along, Doc?” Alice asked. Val nodded.
“We’ll be behind you, Doc,” Paulie said. “We need to see if we can find out what happened, and she’s gonna be out of it a little while yet, right?”
“Yes. If she wakes earlier than expected….”
Paulie passed her a card. “Call us. We’ll be there.” Val took the card and nodded. Marty slammed the doors shut and raced to the driver’s seat. Then the ambulance disappeared and Zane and Paulie turned back to one another. “C’mon, Zane. Let’s see if we can figure out what happened to Doc’s friend.”
Two hours later, they hadn’t turned up anything significant – no one had seen anything. It wasn’t particularly surprising, but it was disheartening. So when Val finally called, they were glad to drop their investigation and head to the hospital to talk to their victim.
“It wasn’t as bad as we originally thought. It bled a lot, but there wasn’t much real damage because we caught it in time. Now she just needs rest while we replenish the fluids she lost,” Val said as she met them and led them to the small room Ayida was ensconced in. “Ayida,” she called softly as she pushed the door open. “There are a couple police officers here to talk to you,” entering the room when Ayida beckoned her forward. “Officers Rollins and Chianti need to ask you some questions.”
The dark-skinned woman nodded and offered Val a tired smile. “I understand, Ria,” seeing the nickname make Zane recoil slightly. “Go home – I know I’m keeping you from your rest again.”
Val stifled a yawn. “I was glad I could be there when you needed me, Ayida. Call me when they release you – you can come stay with me for a few days while you recover.”
“I’d like that,” Ayida acknowledged. “Now go. I need to talk to these officers and you need some sleep.” Val nodded and headed for the door....
... only to be stopped by Paulie’s hand on her arm. Val looked up in confused exhaustion. Paulie studied her in concern. “You gonna be okay getting home, Val?” The shock of being addressed by name stunned Valeria into silence and Paulie smiled gently. He took Val by the elbow and led her out to the nurse’s station with instructions for her to wait there until he and Zane could give her a ride home.
Meanwhile, Zane moved to stand by Ayida’s bedside, studying the other woman carefully. Ayida allowed the scrutiny, taking the opportunity to analyze Zane in return. Much about Zane had changed in this lifeline and it was apparent in the aged blue eyes currently examining her. She wondered if she’d be able to reach Zane before Urim was able to find her.
“So what’s your story...?” Zane broke off, leaving Ayida to fill in the blanks.
“You can call me Ayida, Zane,” keeping her expression neutral when Zane’s eyes jerked to her face when she called her by name.
“How do you know my name?” Zane demanded, her features hard and suspicious. Ayida smiled.
“I’m from old gypsy stock, Zane. I know many things. I can share them with you, if you’d like.”
“NO!” Zane roared. “No,” she repeated in a softer tone. “Just tell me what happened to you today.”
“Not much to tell, really. I had been visiting with my friend Ria and was on my way out of the neighborhood. I felt a sting....” Her words trailed off and Zane felt compelled to prod her.
“Were you attacked? Did you fall?”
Ayida shook her head slowly. “I don’t think so. I just remember seeing you and thinking I wanted to say hello. Then....” She shrugged. “I honestly don’t know.”
“Why did you want to say hello to me? You don’t even know me.”
“I do know you, Zane. You just don’t remember.”
“No!” Zane ground out, her face furious. “Don’t you say that! I don’t know you - you don’t get to play games like that with me.”
“Why not?” Ayida asked reasonably. “It’s not a game, Zane; it’s true. And when you’re ready, I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t wait too long – you don’t have much time left to change things, and Urim is looking for you. If he finds you before you and Ria become what you should have been....” Ayida broke off, but her look was more than telling. Zane shook her head and flipped her notepad closed with shaking hands. Ayida let her head fall back to the pillow in enervation.
“We’ll put this down as an accident for now,” Zane said without actually looking at Ayida. “If you think of anything else that would cause us to reclassify this incident as something more sinister, please don’t hesitate to let us know. We can reopen the investigation at any time.”
“Thank you, Zane.”
Zane nodded, letting her eyes run over Ayida’s face. “Get some rest. I’m thinking that even without something criminal being involved, today was kind of draining for you.”
Ayida gave a bare smile. “Maybe a little,” she agreed. “You’ll make sure Ria gets home safely?”
“Of course we will,” Paulie guaranteed from the doorway. He stepped forward and pressed his card into Ayida’s hand. “And if you’ll call me when you’re ready to leave this place, we’ll make sure you get back to Doc’s. Let’s go, Zane,” he said before she could offer a word of protest. Ayida clasped his hand and he stopped and looked back at her.
“Thank you, Paulie. You’re a good friend.”
His eyes widened, but he didn’t comment except to nod his acceptance. Then he and Zane were out the door, stopping long enough to shake Val awake so they could get her to the squad car and once more when they arrived at her brownstone. They made sure she was safely inside before pulling away, then returned to their regular patrol. The rest of their shift was relatively quiet – not much action, and not much talking either. They both had things to consider and Paulie was content to let things be for the moment. At least Zane’s brooding seemed to have purpose now. And with a little luck, he might get the chance to talk to the mystery woman who had caused the change.
Part the Twentieth
“You called, Master?” Urim said breathlessly from the doorway. He’d run when he’d gotten the call, knowing there had to be a good reason for the Master to interrupt his search. Urim still hadn’t seen Abaddon, and he wondered if something sinister had befallen him. It hadn’t been more than a passing thought, though - Urim didn’t have time to worry about Abaddon. He was too aware of the consequences of failing his current task. He waited for the Master to motion him forward, glad for the opportunity to catch his breath.
“I’ve found them, Urim,” turning to gesture towards a particular monitor. “The gypsy that I suspect had a hand in removing them from the course we set them upon took it upon herself to show up in one of the scenarios I was tracking, and in doing so has shown me where they are. You must hasten to their location – from what I can divine, Zane and Valeria are not yet together and the resistance seems to be coming from Zane. Therefore you can still intercept them and kept them from diverting back to their true path.”
“As you say, Master – will Abaddon be joining me on this quest?”
Something flickered in the Master’s burning eyes and Urim cringed in involuntary reaction. He wanted to retract the question, but the Master simply answered him calmly. “No. He has been removed from this assignment. This rests strictly on your shoulders, Urim.”
Urim sighed. He didn’t like the mission he’d just been handed, feeling that it was going to be far more difficult on his own than it would have been with assistance. However, the Master had spoken and there was nothing for it but to do the best he could – failure was not an option.
“As you say, Master,” Urim offered with a slight bow. “I shall depart immediately.”
The Master smirked. “I’d wish you Godspeed, but under the circumstances....”
Though he didn’t feel like it, Urim snickered, knowing it was expected of him. “I’ll settle for good luck, Master.”
The Master nodded. “As will I. Now go quickly. There isn’t much time.” He turned back to his monitoring wall and Urim escaped. There was still much to be done before the eve of All Saints’ Day.
Ayida had indeed taken Paulie up on his offer and two days after what they all now referred to as ‘the incident’ he and Rhonda were driving Ayida to Val’s brownstone. Bright green eyes greeted them at the door and invited them in, and Paulie grinned as he helped Ayida ease across the threshold. Val immediately took her arm and motioned the Chiantis towards the couch as she walked Ayida to the bathroom, knowing Ayida would appreciate a hot shower more than anything else at the moment. Once Val was certain Ayida was fine to be left alone for a few, she returned to the living room.
“Coffee?” she offered, and the other two nodded, following her to the kitchen. Val started the pot brewing, then turned back to her guests. “Thank you, Paulie. I would have picked her up.”
“We were glad to do it, Doc. She seems like good people and she was able to throw Zane for a loop.”
Val arched an eyebrow. “Is that a good thing?”
“It’s not a bad one,” Rhonda chimed in. “She needed shaking up, and between the two of you.... Do you have any idea what she said to Zane?”
“Me? I was falling asleep at the nurses’ station when Zane was talking to her. And Zane’s avoiding me like the plague these days.”
“Yeah... about that – what’d ya say to her, Doc? She’s been bitchier than... huh, I’m not sure I know of anything that’s been a bigger bitch than she has lately. What??” Paulie said defensively when he noticed the looks he was getting from both Val and Rhonda. “She told me I was breathin’ too loud the other day while we were patrollin’. I was waitin’ for her to complain about me blinkin’ too much.”
“I’m sorry, Paulie. I didn’t consider that she might take her mood out on you. Guess that’s part of the price you pay for being her best friend and partner.”
“So what’d you say?” Paulie persisted. “C’mon, Doc – help me out here. Maybe I could fix this if I knew what the issue was.”
“Have you asked Zane?”
Paulie gave Val a look of incredulity. “You’re kiddin’, right? It’s a wonder there aren’t marks on me from the bites she’s taken out of my ass lately. Last time, I nearly got my head handed to me, and despite not being the sharpest crayon in the box, I know when to stop askin’. Whatever you did or said, me findin’ out from her isn’t worth losing my partner over.”
“So you’re sure it’s me that caused this?”
“No offense, Doc, but yeah. She wasn’t this squirrely before you showed up, and she didn’t turn into a mega-bitch until Rhonda and I left you two alone here the other day. So what gives?” his tone growing frustrated and impatient.
Val sighed. She needed them on her side, but this wasn’t the way she’d envisioned sharing even part of their story with them. She turned and pulled three cups from the cupboard, pouring coffee and handing each of them a cup. She took a deep draught of hers, then nodded towards the living room. “Let’s go get comfortable. This could take a little while.”
“So you believe you and Zane are soulmates?” Paulie asked with disbelief clear in his voice. “I thought that was just a gimmick writers used in chick flicks,” wincing when Rhonda slapped him in the belly. “Ow, Rhon... what’d ya do that for? You don’t believe in that stuff, do ya?”
“Not really,” she agreed reluctantly. “But Val does – you shouldn’t mock her for it.”
“Sorry, Doc,” Paulie apologized. “I mean… I think it’s cool and everything. Zane deserves someone who feels that way about her. I’m just not sure you shoulda shared that whole ‘soulmates’ thing with her.” He paused, then sighed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but she’s been searchin’ for something... someone... to fill an empty place in her life for a long time. But she’s too realistic to be that much of a dreamer, and she’s never had a reason to believe somethin’ as far out as soulmates.”
“So I noticed,” Val commented dryly, glad she had only shared her feelings about Zane with them and not the reality of the situation.
“So you think she’s not capable of believing, Paulie? Or is she unwilling to believe because she’s afraid?” Ayida asked as she slowly stepped into the room. Paulie rose immediately and helped her to the couch while Val disappeared back into the kitchen for a bottle of Gatorade and some crackers. Rhonda helped Paulie get Ayida settled, and by the time Val returned with the coffee pot, they were all reseated. Only when she returned and resumed her place did the conversation recommence.
“I think,” Paulie replied slowly, urged on by Ayida’s raised eyebrow, “that it’s more the second than the first. Let’s face it – most people don’t believe in that whole ‘soulmates’ concept because it’s not somethin’ most of us ever see... much less experience. Much as Rhonda and I love each other, neither of us think we’re soulmates – we’re just two people who fell in love and are pretty happy together. Askin’ Zane to accept more than that…. Hell, askin’ Zane to accept love at this point is somethin’ of a stretch. I don’t think she knows how to....” Paulie trailed off and Val was compelled to prompt him.
“How to what, Paulie? How to love? How to be happy?”
“Yeah... exactly,” he confirmed. Val just sighed and dropped her head to her chest.
“Wonderful,” glancing up at Ayida through her lashes. “Now what?”
“I don’t know,” Ayida answered. “But we need to do something. Things cannot go on like this – we’re running out of time.”
Rhonda looked at her strangely, cocking her head as if to try and figure out a puzzle. “Why do you care? What’s your stake in all this?” ignoring Val’s gasp and Paulie’s admonishment. Ayida held Rhonda’s eyes, studying her intently before smiling softly.
“I like you,” Ayida started, causing Rhonda to frown in response. “You speak straightforwardly and are not afraid to show your affection for those for whom you care. That sort of forthrightness is entitled to an honest answer. Val is my friend – she was my friend when it was taboo for her to be such. For that reason alone, I want her to find her heart’s desire. As she has decided that is Zane... I guess you could say my stake is her happiness.”
“So you’re not concerned about Zane at all?”
“On the contrary, I am quite concerned for Zane. She’s destined for so much more than she’s allowing herself to be.” At Rhonda’s skeptical look, Ayida smiled slightly. “I come from old gypsy stock – it allows me to see many things. You’ll just have to accept that on faith... or not.”
“So you believe that Val and Zane are fated?”
“I believe they could make one another happy... if Zane will let it happen.”
Rhonda regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment, then nodded. “All right. How can we help?”
Part the Twenty-First
In the end, it was decided there was little the rest of them could really do. Zane already had her back up and Paulie and Rhonda knew further pushing on their parts would result in her cutting herself off from them. So they chose to continue to support her and Val and hope Val could make her see reason – sooner rather than later. Though Rhonda and Paulie didn’t know the reason for the haste, they could discern an urgency on Val’s part... sensing she had some sort of self-imposed deadline.
Ayida was out of things by default – she was bound by rules beyond those imposed on the Earthly plane, and had already skirted the edges of propriety by coming to this place... especially as she had been the one to send them here from their original life. She had to wait for Zane to come to her now.
So it was left up to Val – and for the moment, Zane was refusing to acknowledge her. She would have to wait for an opportunity... or make one of her own.
Zane had spent an inordinate amount of time thinking recently. Between the things Valeria had shared with her and the unexpected appearance of the woman who seemed to know her and everything about her... even things she herself was unaware of... she was driving herself crazy thinking.
Still, thinking on her own was preferable to talking to Paulie or Rhonda... or God forbid, Val. So after their run-in with Ayida, she and Paulie worked the rest of their week in relative silence. And when their weekend rolled around, she avoided making any plans and headed out of town for a few days.
When she returned to work, Paulie treated her almost the same way he always had - only he didn’t ask her any questions... not about anything that could be traced back to Val anyway. He asked nothing about what she was thinking or what was bothering her – they only talked about how they were doing or how work was going or what gossip was going around the precinct. And as much as she appreciated the respite, Zane was more than a little unnerved about it... especially since it was driving her to want to confide in him, keeping Val in the forefront of her thoughts.
Paulie could tell Zane was getting antsy, but he’d promised Rhonda he’d let Zane be the one to come to him. Besides, truth be told, he felt a little in over his head. As much as he wanted to see Zane happy, he wasn’t sure he was qualified to talk to her about this.
So they went through the next couple work weeks much like the last one had ended – with a slightly awkward silence between them. Strangely, it didn’t influence their work rhythm – only their personal interaction was off. It was only in the last hour of their last day before a three-day weekend, that Paulie felt compelled to break the truce.
“Zane?” squinting at her from the driver’s seat. She transferred her attention from something outside the passenger side window, tilting her head at him in question. It was one of the few times they’d actually made eye contact since her run-in with Val, and it was all Paulie could do not to reach out to comfort her. He’d never seen Zane look so lost and wondered if they had been right in waiting for her to come to them about the situation. He sighed. “Everything okay?”
Zane shifted in the seat, her eyes dropping to her lap before she spoke. “I’m fine, Paulie. Why do you ask?”
“Cuz I know somethin’s been bothering you for a while. I been waitin’ for you to come to me... hopin’ you’d talk to me about it.” She jerked her head up and opened her mouth, but didn’t speak when he held up his hand. “Rhon made me promise to give you a chance to do this on your own, Zane, but I been patient long enough. Talk to me.”
“Not sure what you want me to tell you, Paulie,” Zane replied softly.
“I want you to tell me what’s up with you lately. I know it has somethin’ to do with Doc,” gripping the steering wheel tighter when Zane snapped her head in his direction. “Or maybe that friend of hers. You’ve been different since you talked to her after she collapsed in your arms.”
“Leave it alone, Paulie,” Zane’s voice pled with something akin to exhaustion.
“I’m not gonna push, Zane. I promised Rhonda I wouldn’t. But you need to know that we know there’s somethin’ goin’ on. And we’d like to help if we can.” He heard her sigh but kept his attention on the road. “And for the record,” he added, “I think Doc would be perfect for you... soulmate crap not withstanding.”
“Paulie,” the growl sending shivers up his spine, though he shrugged as nonchalantly as he could.
“What? I’m just sayin’....”
“Yeah? Well, don’t... all right? Just drop it.”
“Consider it dropped, Zane. You know where to find me... and Val.”
She growled at him again. Paulie simply reached forward and turned the radio up slightly, keeping his attention fixed squarely out the windshield of the vehicle.
Zane changed out of her uniform as soon as Paulie dropped her at home. She looked around at her austere apartment, recognizing she didn’t really want for anything, but knowing she had very little she wanted as well. The place seemed to mock her in its emptiness, and she snatched up her purse as soon as she was dressed in comfortable, casual clothing. It was time to get some answers.
She went directly to Val’s place, but hesitated as she reached the door. Despite her desire for knowledge, she really wasn’t ready to run into Val. What she wanted was to talk to the mystery woman Ayida, but Zane wasn’t even sure she was still staying with Val at this point.
So she walked by the brownstone and headed down to the coffee shop. Maybe she’d get lucky... for a change. She had no way of knowing what was headed her way.
Urim was drained – in the vernacular of the humans he disdained so much, he’d been rode hard and put away wet. It was a crude, but apt description and he was glad for the opportunity to sit down and catch his breath. It had been a long couple of weeks and he had yet to actually come across either Zane or Val. He wondered why the Master had been less than forthcoming with information on their whereabouts, but assumed that He’d had nothing concrete to share. Thus Urim had spent his time searching endlessly with no result.
A cute hostess led him to an outdoor table and he’d given the waitress a tired smile when she’d brought his coffee. He didn’t particularly care for the stuff, but it helped him to blend in here and had the added bonus of boosting his alertness.
He saw her before she saw him, and he held his breath when her eyes passed over him without a hint of recognition. He felt a frisson of frustration zip along his nerve endings, then decided he could use the situation to his advantage. Urim dropped a few dollars on the table to cover his tab, then picked up his coffee and walked to stand beside Zane’s table. She looked at him in annoyance, but he simply smiled and held out a hand.
“Hello, Zane,” he intoned. “It’s been a long time.”
She frowned at his familiar greeting. “Do I know you?”
“You did... once,” he replied with confidence. “My name is Urim. May I sit down?”
Zane blinked, knowing the name was familiar without realizing why. She nodded and Urim smiled as he pulled out a chair. This would be like taking candy from a baby... again.
Part the Twenty-Second
Ayida had stayed as long as she dared – well past her time of healing – and Zane had refused to concede her need for answers. So Ayida was forced to return home to maintain watch over Val and Zane and hope that Zane called on her for any reason. It would be the only way she would be allowed to intercede again. Until then, things would have to play out without interference.
It had nearly killed her to leave. She’d seen Val grow thinner and thinner as worry and frustration over Zane’s disregard of her ate away at Val. Val had been out into the neighborhood numerous times searching for any sign of Zane, venturing so far as to go into the precinct one day – but every effort had been met by a stone wall of silence. Even stopping by Zane’s apartment had garnered her little more than bruised knuckles from repeated knocking, and Val wondered in passing if Paulie had warned Zane off after giving Val her address.
Then Val chastised herself for even having the thought. She knew for a fact Zane’s irrational behavior was driving Paulie crazy, and she and Rhonda kept in touch daily to share news and information. It didn’t lessen her frustration about the whole situation, though.
And although knowing Ayida would be keeping an eye out on them, it had been hard to let her go. Val had needed the love and support Ayida offered, and missed it greatly now that it was no longer physically present in her life. She only hoped Zane would come to her senses soon – it would give Ayida the opportunity to return, and Val needed the comfort of the only friend who understood the true reality of the entire situation.
It had been a hell of a day, and all Val could think of at the moment was how much she wanted to soak in a warm bath. The toll of losing two trauma patients – one of them a child – was wearing, and she just wanted to lose herself in oblivion for a while.
She scuffed her feet along the sidewalk, glad her brownstone was within walking distance of the hospital. She didn’t think she could manage the close confines of a car on a day like today, and the chance to breathe non-sterilized, non-medicated air was liberating in and of itself. Even the fact that it was coming on dark did little to dispel the feeling of peace that settled over her being as she relaxed into the sounds and smells of her neighborhood.
The scent of food made Val’s stomach grumble in protest, and it occurred to her to wonder exactly when she’d last eaten. The smell of coffee grabbed her attention, and she decided to take care of the immediate need – she didn’t really feel like cooking and she did want to stay awake long enough so as not to drown in the bathtub while she soaked the aches of the day away.
Val let her eyes wander over the patrons seated at the outdoor café as she waited for the light to change so she could cross the street. She recognized Zane instantly, and felt a pang hit her in the gut. Even though she wasn’t in love with Zane, she clearly remembered the feelings Ayida had shared with her that Zane had felt. And she remembered the fond regard she’d had for Zane, and those things alone made her want more for Zane than she had now.
Val blinked when she realized Zane was not alone at the table – then blinked again as she recognized the individual sharing Zane’s space. She didn’t even wait for the light to turn, but rushed headlong into the street, dodging vehicle and pedestrian traffic with equal aplomb.
The ensuing cacophony made heads turn, and Zane rose with a curse when she recognized the blonde head weaving its way through the chaos it was causing. Without thought, she jumped the rail separating the restaurant from the sidewalk, catching Val by both arms as she stepped off the street.
“Val?? What the hell were you thinking??” her fear making her furious. “You coulda been killed pulling a crazy, irresponsible stunt like that! I oughtta arrest you for reckless endangerment....” trailing off though her eyes still blazed. “Why’d you do that? What the hell were you thinking??” Zane repeated, her voice noticeably softer while her grasp continued digging into the tender skin on Val’s arms.
Val reached up and covered Zane’s hands with her own as best as she could, peeling the tight grip from her skin, but maintaining a hold on Zane’s hands. “I was thinking that this is the first time I’ve seen you in weeks, and I wanted the chance to talk to you before you could disappear on me again.”
“And for that you risked your life?? Are you stupid, Doc?” holding on when Val would have pulled away. “Uh uh – you wanted to talk? C’mon then... let’s go talk,” tugging her towards the table at which Urim was still seated, regarding them with a sneer on his face when his eyes met Val’s.
“No,” she replied stubbornly. “You’re sharing a table with someone I don’t like and don’t trust. Let’s go somewhere else... my place?”
Zane studied Val for a long moment, seeing true distaste for her current companion. She sighed. She’d known this was coming eventually – she’d just hoped eventually had been farther away. She still hadn’t settled anything in her own heart and mind. But knowing that things needed to be settled between them, she simply nodded.
“All right. Let me go drop a few bucks on the table to cover my coffee and we’ll go. I don’t actually know him, though he swears he knows me.”
Zane had expected Val to release her hand, and was more than a little startled when the clasp tightened and Val followed so closely she was almost in her hip pocket. She arched an eyebrow, and Val didn’t bother to smother the smile the expression caused. Only when Zane tugged on their still joined hands did she grow serious again.
“I told you – I don’t like or trust him. I’m not leaving you alone with him... not now that you’re finally talking to me again.”
Zane sensed not only sadness and anger, but more than a hint of genuine fear. But before she could contemplate it further, she felt Urim come up behind her and saw Val stiffen in front of her. Zane turned, slipping around to stand beside Valeria so they were facing Urim side by side. Urim noticed they never released their clutch on one another, but he never let his awareness show in his expression. Instead, he offered a mocking grin to Val as he turned to focus his attention to Zane.
“I see you have company now, so I’ll leave you to it. If you decide you’d like to know more of what we were discussing earlier....” He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a card, pressing it into Zane’s free hand before turning away from them. He took and step, then paused and faced them once again. “I nearly forgot,” Urim said, the smile on his face sending shivers up both their spines. “One more thing....” He extended his arm and grabbed Zane’s shoulder, sending a shockwave of memories through her body. Val reacted almost instantly, knocking his touch away and standing protectively in front of Zane’s frozen body.
“Get your filthy hands off of her,” she growled.
Urim snorted. “Too little, too late, my dear. She remembers now... just like you. Soon she’ll be mine again, and this time, there won’t be any loopholes for her to wiggle her way out of.”
Val growled, but a whimper of pain from behind her kept her from retaliation. Instead, she spun on her heel, clasping Zane’s face between her unexpectedly free hands. “Zane? Zane, I want you to listen to me, all right? I want you to listen to the sound of my voice and do what I tell you – can you do that for me?” Val got no response, and she blew a breath into Zane’s face, forcing her to take a breath instinctually. The shuddering action caused Zane’s eyes to focus on Val’s and Val spoke again. “Are you with me, Zane?” seeing recognition slowly dawn in the blue eyes gazing at her. “Good – now put your hands on my hips,” feeling the warmth seep through the light sweater she wore. “Good,” Val repeated, nodding in approval as the awareness in Zane’s body became more pronounced. “Now... are you okay? How do you feel?”
Zane shook her head, still too overwhelmed to speak. Val sighed. Obviously their talk was going to have to wait just a little while longer. “My place?”
“Home,” Zane whispered, senses still on overload from the images and feelings Urim had sent crashing through her system. “Please,” she added when Val hesitated. “I need to be alone for a little while.”
“You’re sure?” feeling Zane’s confusion as her own. “All right,” Val finally agreed reluctantly. “But you have to promise me that we’ll talk soon – as soon as you’re able.”
“Promise,” Zane agreed. It didn’t even occur to her to wonder how Val knew exactly where to go... though she would think about that later. For now, she allowed Val to tuck her in, asleep before her head hit the pillow. Val considered staying, her exhaustion acute when the adrenaline rush wore off. But she knew this was something Zane had to choose for herself... or not. So she headed to the brownstone, skipping the soak she’d planned and falling into a deep sleep the instant she fell into bed. Her last thought was a prayer for Zane to return to her before it was too late.
Part the Twenty-Third
Zane woke up groggy and disoriented, looking around carefully as she tried to determine what was real and what qualified as freakish dreams. She sighed when she recognized her modest apartment and the bits of her police uniform that didn’t require laundry services. She fell back against the pillows and dropped an arm over her eyes – her body physically ached from the sensory overload Urim had forced it into the previous day. A glance at the clock and a look at the blinds showed she’d been asleep at least fifteen hours, and it made her wonder why she still felt so sapped of energy.
With a groan, Zane threw the covers from her body and stretched, wincing at the number of bones that popped back into place with the motion. One more good stretch and she pushed herself up and out of the bed and padded to the shower. The first order of business was to kick-start her brain into gear, then she and Val needed to talk. She’d promised, and Zane prided herself on being a woman of her word.
After an extra-long, extra-hot shower and a very strong cup of coffee, Zane felt almost human again, and she headed out of her apartment, hoping to find Val home. Since she’d dropped all contact, she had no idea of Val’s schedule, so she had her fingers crossed. Despite her misgivings the previous evening, she realized that the sooner she talked to Val, the sooner this would all be behind her. Maybe then, she could get back to what normal had been before Val had stepped into her life.
After a few minutes spent knocking at the door of the brownstone, however, she realized that either Val wasn’t home or she was still sleeping. She turned to walk back down the steps when a voice from the bottom of the steps stopped her in her tracks.
“Hello there, young lady! Is there something I could do for you?”
Zane shook her head, wondering why the man’s bright green eyes seemed so familiar. “No, sir. I was looking for the woman who lives here, but obviously she’s not available at the moment. I’ll just come back later.”
“Your name wouldn’t be Zane, by any chance?”
“By birth, actually. How did you...?” The man smiled and Zane knew immediately why he seemed so memorable – he was Val made over... a little older and a little taller, but otherwise they were the spitting image of one another. Zane stepped forward and extended her hand, smiling when he walked more than halfway to meet her. “You’re the grandfather she spoke of, aren’t you?”
Gramps chuckled and nodded his head. “Yep... that’d be me. Just call me Gramps – everyone does ‘round here. May I call you Zane?”
“Of course, sir. It’s lovely to meet you. When Val mentioned her grandparents keeping an eye on her, I didn’t believe she meant it literally.”
The old man’s smile stiffened, though he didn’t let it slide from his face completely. “She’s all we have left, Zane. We’d do just about anything to make sure she was safe and happy.”
Zane felt as though she’d had her worth measured and been found lacking in some way. Still, she kept a smile on her face as she released the hand that held hers. “She’s very lucky, sir,” offering him a nod as she took the rest of the steps to the sidewalk, neatly skirting around him. Before her feet could touch the sidewalk, however, Gramps called out to her. Instinct engrained in her psyche at the Academy caused her to halt on the bottom step just out of his reach.
“She’s at work, Zane. But she’ll be home later.”
“Thank you, sir,” Zane replied, but continued walking away from the brownstone without a backwards glance. Gramps watched her go and his shoulders slumped. He didn’t know if he’d done more harm than good, but there was little he could do to change it now. Maybe she’d go find Val and they could work out whatever was between them. He continued up the steps and unlocked the door, determined to let Val know that her friend had stopped by. It was all he could do for now.
Zane wandered through the neighborhood, returning greetings and waves almost absently. It took a few minutes to realize that she was truly a part of the community, being greeted like an old friend by people she actually recognized because of her daily interaction with them. It made her smile as she understood she was actually very lucky to be surrounded by people who cared enough to say hello and ask after her. So it was with a lighter heart that she turned her steps towards the hospital. Maybe she could catch Val on a break.
She hit the main drag and the scent of coffee drew her attention. Despite the cup she’d already had at home, Zane found her footsteps turning towards the shop she frequented. The barista greeted her by name and inquired as to her preferences for the usual or one of the special seasonal blends. Surprise made Zane choose one of the new brews and she was pleasantly amazed by how well it seemed to fit her mood. She dropped a tip in the kid’s jar and returned the smile it garnered her. Then she headed back towards the door....
... only to be stopped by a light touch on her arm. It wasn’t painful, as the one the night before had been, but it was still unsettling and Zane pulled away as quickly as she could without spilling her coffee everywhere. She looked up, perturbed to see an amused expression in the eyes regarding her. She took a step back, relieved when Urim didn’t follow her.
“Are you quite all right, my dear?” he asked in a solicitous voice, though his obvious entertainment at her reaction kept her from believing in the sincerity of his tone.
“Fine... thanks,” Zane replied curtly, taking another step away from Urim, and sighing when he mimicked her motion. “Is there something I can do for you, Urim?”
He cleared his throat and gestured towards the veranda. “Would you care to share a cup of coffee with me? I would like to continue our conversation from last night.”
Zane glared. “Are you kidding me?” she asked with a hint of surliness. “After what you did....”
“Zane, I apologize for the unexpectedness of my actions – it hadn’t been my intention to share that with you without preparing you first. I’m sorry that events dictated otherwise, but you certainly had the right to know the truth, don’t you think? Please,” taking her elbow and guiding her gently out of the path of traffic coming and going through the door. “I’m only asking for the length of time it will take to finish your coffee. If you are still uninterested in what I have to say by the time you’re done, I promise I won’t interfere again.”
Zane studied Urim carefully. Truth be told, she didn’t trust him either – there was something about his eyes that just made her skin crawl. On the other hand, her curiosity about the things he’d shown her was almost overwhelming, and since Val appeared to be unavailable at the moment....
She blinked and nodded. “All right – but just one cup. Then you and I are done unless I come to you. Got it?”
“I got it,” signaling the hostess over to seat them, subtly indicating his desire for privacy. He smiled when they were seated – he would be able to see anyone approaching them, but otherwise, they were well-hidden by the young trees that had been planted for shade. “So I suppose I should first ask if you have any questions.”
Zane gave him a disbelieving stare. “Seriously? Of course I have questions! I got so much information rolling around in my head now, I can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. But first, I really wanna know what’s in this for you. Why is it so important that I remember this other life you claim I had?”
“Unlike certain other parties involved in this debacle, I believe you’re entitled to the truth. And to be fair, I was successful with your success. I certainly preferred that to what I am here.”
“And that is...?”
“Nothing... nothing at all.”
Zane looked at her watch and picked up her cup. “Better start talking.”