Part the Twenty-Fourth
“So all I have to do is agree to go back with you. And things will return to normal.”
“Exactly. And normal for you is fame and fortune and success – it’s what you were meant to be, Zane. Not this,” waving in her direction. “Not as a police officer held back by a strung-out, junkie mother who will never be permitted to be more than she is right now. And I can put it back... for a price.”
“What about Val?”
Urim’s brow furrowed. “What about Val?” he repeated. “I don’t understand what you’re asking, Zane. What do you want to know?”
“If I go back with you – what happens to Val? Does she stay here? Does she go back with me? What?”
“What would you like to happen to Val, Zane? I’m sure I can work something out if it would guarantee your return. Perhaps we could arrange to leave her here – she’s quite successful and she seems happy.” He nodded satisfactorily. “I believe that would be an excellent idea, if it appeals to you. Then you could rest assured she’d be all right. Perhaps we should go draw up some papers – make this completely legal and aboveboard and ensure you get the terms you desire.”
“NO,” came a hard, unexpected voice as Val stepped between them, effectively blocking Zane from his view. Urim looked into blazing green eyes, his own growing cold at Val’s continued interference.
“This is not your business,” he growled low, but not so quietly that Zane couldn’t make out his words clearly. “Why don’t you stay out of things that don’t concern you and leave the decisions to those who should be making them?”
“Don’t concern me!?!” Val practically shrilled, though she kept her voice down to keep from attracting unwanted attention. She’d caused enough of a stir jumping the fence to stop Zane when she overheard Urim’s proposal – between that and her previous episode, Val was well on her way to becoming notorious. “You’re making decisions about my future without including me; I’m pretty sure that concerns me.” She turned to Zane. “I thought we were supposed to talk,” her tone a mixture of hurt and anger.
Zane nodded though she avoided eye contact. “We were. I went by your place, but Gramps told me you weren’t at home. So I headed to the hospital to see if you could take a break or something for a few minutes. But I ran into Urim here and....” Zane scratched the back of her neck and shrugged.
“How convenient,” Val sneered in Urim’s direction before turning her back on him completely and focusing solely on Zane. “Zane, if you really want to do this... with him, I mean... I won’t stop you. But don’t do it for me. I won’t be responsible for you damning yourself.”
Zane blinked. “How much did you overhear?”
Now it was Val’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I came into the conversation when you asked about me. It was only when he decided we should be separated for my benefit,” lip curling again, “that I knew I had to jump in. I couldn’t let you sacrifice yourself like that, Zane.”
“So what would you do? What do you want?”
“Honestly?” watching Zane’s eyes and seeing the truth in them. “I’d like to have the time we have left in this timeline – if Ayida was telling the truth, that’s almost four weeks – to just be together. To spend time talking and learning about each other. Who knows? It could be the start of something beautiful.”
Urim smirked. Surely they didn’t believe they could fall in love in so short a period of time. He managed to keep his snort to himself, and had his face composed before he spoke. “Why?” he asked reasonably. “You’re simply delaying the inevitable, and it will certainly go worse for you both if I do not have a signed contract within the next month. Shouldn’t each of you take the opportunity to have the life that makes you happy? There are no guarantees in this life, you know. It is entirely possible that if you wait too long, I will not be able to provide such generous terms. ”
“If that was true,” Val hissed as she turned around to face him, “then you wouldn’t be pushing her so desperately hard to get it taken care of now.”
This time Urim did snort aloud and looked at Val with swiftly hidden contempt, though his manner was pitched to convey kindliness and compassion. “Do you seriously believe you will fall in love with one another in less than a month’s time, Valeria... especially given your history together in this time and place? Do you understand the likelihood of you falling in love with each other *at all*? You’re too dissimilar. And the fact remains that while you are happy and successful here, Zane is not – she knew those things in the life that was hers before. I can give her that again.” He paused and gave Val a sympathetic glance. “She wanted to do right by you – to allow you to maintain the life here that she felt you deserved to have. Can you refuse to do the same in kind?”
“I already said I wouldn’t stand in her way, Urim. If she believes consenting to your proposal is what’s best for her, then she should accept it. But *she* needs to do what is best for *her* – not for you and not for me... for HER.” Val glared at him for a moment before she turned back to meet sad blue eyes. “However,” she added, softening her voice, “that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like her to choose to be with me in the meantime.”
Zane held Val’s gaze for a full sixty heartbeats, then let her attention shift to Urim. It was all she could do to contain the shudder she felt run through her when blue met the dead cold of black. “I want the time we were given, Urim. I need to sort things out in my mind.”
His face became a momentary thundercloud, then he stiffened his jaw and rose from his seat. “Understand that I will not be nearly as forgiving when we meet again, Zane. So I suggest you enjoy the time you have left.” Without another word, he spun abruptly on his heel and stormed out of the café. Zane and Val watched him go, then turned to each other.
“Was he a drama queen is your other life too?” Val asked, more for levity than because she needed an answer. She was pleased when Zane snorted and allowed a smirk to cross her face briefly. Then it fell and the silence drew out awkwardly. Finally Zane cleared her throat.
“So now what?”
Val shrugged. “I think that depends on us. I told you what I wanted to do; I was quite serious. I’d really like the opportunity to spend a little time with you... to get to know one another.”
“To what end, though, Val?” Zane’s use of her name slipped out unbidden and caught Val by surprise. “Do you really think we can find ‘true love’ – whatever the hell that is – with each other in just a few weeks? We’ve already had a few months and are barely just friends. And knowing we HAVE to do this or be eternally damned – can we even get past that? Will it be real or something we force ourselves to do?” Zane glanced up and saw the sadness and despair in Val’s eyes. “I’m not trying to be an asshole about the situation, Doc. I just think... I’m not sure what I think, to tell you the truth. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution no matter how you look at it.”
Val studied Zane, seeing the same emotions she felt echoed back to her. “Would it bother you to spend time with me, Zane? Wait,” holding up a hand. “Forget about Urim and Ayida and other timelines and deals with the devil. If none of that was a factor, would we be friends? Would you want to spend time with me?”
Zane considered the question. “I think so... as long as hospitals weren’t involved,” giving Val a sly grin which made Val smile in return. “But the fact is....”
“The fact is I’d like to try the friendship thing. I’d like to have some good memories of our time here together... regardless of what happens – or doesn’t – on Halloween.”
“All right,” Zane agreed. “I’d like that too.” She motioned around the café. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Doc?”
Val twitched an eyebrow. “Only if you call me Val.”
Zane smirked. “Deal.” And she waved their server over as they relaxed back in their chairs, allowing the conversation to flow around them comfortably.
Part the Twenty-Fifth
The Master was more than a little frustrated with the turn of events. He had hoped that once Zane regained her memories of her other life that she would jump at the chance to return to it. However, he knew better than most how important it was for Zane to *choose* the path that would bring her back into his fold. Forcing her back was of course a last resort, but they would still have to coax her into resigning her papers again. And that could get very messy. So it would be much better for all concerned if they could get her to agree to come home, as it were, before time ran out.
He regarded Urim as Urim watched them, hoping it would be sufficient to keep them off balance for just long enough. Still, the Master mused as he stroked his chin, he was going to have to decide what to do with Urim when this was all over. Though he had been faithful for years in keeping Zane in line, Urim had completely dropped the ball when he’d allowed Val into Zane’s life. The fact that he didn’t know who Val was was an error that could have been rectified if he’d simply done a little research. And allowing Val and Zane to be moved from the timeline where Urim had already obtained control.... The Master growled. To be so close and yet not able to seal the deal....
But he knew that Urim was his best chance. Abaddon had been an abject failure and had already been dealt with. The Master smiled grimly. It hadn’t been a pretty ending, but it had been somewhat satisfying. Now if they could just get this settled, they could move on to the next part of the plan. There was a much greater objective at stake here than two irritating humans.
The Master leaned back in his chair, pursing his lips thoughtfully as his eyes narrowed. Perhaps there was something else he could do to encourage things right along. It would bear further contemplation.
Ayida was equally frustrated, though for different reasons. Almost two weeks had already passed since Val’s showdown with Urim, and she had yet to see any real progress between Val and Zane. True, they were actually making an effort to spend time together and a friendship was trying to slowly blossom, but it was still a little awkward. Knowing they HAD to fall in love was putting all kinds of crimps in them making significant headway in becoming close friends... much less anything beyond that. And worse, neither of them had called on her, so her hands were effectively tied.
It didn’t help that Urim was there at every turn. Though he did not approach them, he remained in their periphery – which kept him at the forefront of their awareness. Ayida was certain his presence only exacerbated the discomfort they felt, but as he had not approached them, they had decided to ignore him instead of acknowledge him – a tactic that would have been all well and good if they could have simply forgotten he was there.
As it was, they were entirely too aware of his presence and it was inhibiting their attempts to establish more than acquaintanceship. They were trying too hard, and they were running out of time.
Ayida continued to keep watch, hoping for a miracle... before it was too late.
Urim sat at a back table on the terrace of the coffee shop, waiting for Zane and Val to walk by. Since his encounter with them two weeks prior, he’d stayed in their sphere while remaining out of reach. They’d been together for at least a few minutes every day since Val had interfered in his conversation with Zane, and he’d made it a point to be around as much as he could when they were.
Of course, some times were easier to manage than others, and he’d found if he was patient enough, they would eventually venture to or past the coffee shop. So instead of seeking them out, he simply waited for them to come to him.
He glanced at his watch. If he was correct, someone should be coming by in the next few minutes. He still hadn’t quite clued in to their schedules, but enough to know that at least one of them would be making a coffee run soon. And if he was lucky, it would be a day off, and they would be here together.
Urim sat back and took a sip of his coffee. He didn’t wince like he had when he’d first been forced to drink it, but it still wasn’t his preferred beverage of choice. Oh well – it was only two more weeks at the most. Then he could go back to the life he and Zane had known before. Another glance at his watch told him his wait should be over shortly. He sighed and let his eyes scan the area, hoping they wouldn’t be late. He didn’t want to draw unwanted attention to himself by staying here too long, but it was his best opportunity to unnerve them.
So he waited, knowing he wouldn’t have to do so for much longer.
But Zane and Val wouldn’t be coming by that day. A patient at the hospital had become disruptive to the point that security had been called, and as soon as the bulletin had gone out, Paulie had taken one look at Zane’s pallor and gotten them there quickly. They hadn’t been the first, however, and it was all over but the shouting by the time they arrived.
Paulie went to check in with the other officers while Zane immediately headed towards the trauma area to check on Val. In the two weeks she and Val had been spending more time together, she’d been by a few times to say hi or bring coffee. So Zane was well-acquainted with how to get around the non-sanctioned areas of the emergency ward.
A few of the hospital personnel recognized her and waved, but no one stopped long enough to chat. They were all too busy trying to recover themselves and the emergency room area before the next crisis rolled into the ambulance bay.
Zane stuck her head into each room cautiously, finally finding Val ensconced in her little cubby of an office. She looked around in surprise – she’d never seen Val’s office... mostly because she rarely stayed at the hospital long enough to get invited into the relatively private space. Val watched her in amusement, her smile growing when Zane met her eyes.
“Wow, Doc... I’m impressed,” stepping inside and leaning over the back of the single visitor’s chair.
“That’s okay, Zane... I’m pleasantly surprised you descended so far into the bowels of this institution,” chuckling when Zane snorted. “What brings you to my humble home away from home?”
Val’s question brought into sharp relief the reason Zane had come searching. “Are you all right?” she asked seriously, coming around the side of the desk until she was close enough to touch Val’s shoulder. “That lunatic didn’t touch you, did he?”
Val covered the hand that rested on her shoulder, thankful for the warmth of Zane’s skin. She shook her head. “He didn’t have the chance. Dave took him down like a champ and Markham popped his ass so full of clonidine, he’s going to be out for the next day or so. Interesting adrenaline rush though. I understand now why you weren’t feeling any pain right after that prick broke your ribs the first time.”
“Yeah, but what a spectacular crash afterwards,” Zane replied grimly. “How much longer you got left on this shift?”
Val looked at her watch. “Another three and a half hours.”
Zane nodded. “I’m done in two. What say if I come pick you up when you’re done and we go for a ride somewhere? I’ll bring a picnic lunch and we go somewhere and just BE for a little while.”
Val smiled. “I like the sound of that. I’ll shower and change here – maybe we can avoid seeing Urim today.”
“That’d be a bonus,” Zane agreed. “So I’ll see you in a few hours, Val,” squeezing the shoulder she held before slipping out from beneath Val’s now warm hand.
“I’ll look forward to it. Now go – before Paulie comes looking for you. We wouldn’t want him to think you like it here, would we?”
Zane laughed lightly and shrugged. “There are way worse things he could think, Doc.” Her radio squawked to life before Val could correct her address. Zane titled her head, then brought her eyes back to Val’s. “Gotta go. See ya later, Val.” She was out the door before Val could say goodbye. She waited until the door was closed, then turned her attention back to her paperwork. She had things to finish if she planned to get out of the hospital on time.
Paulie studied Zane as she came scampering around the corner, and nodded to himself in satisfaction. Her color had returned and she seemed much calmer. “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s good. Thanks, Paulie.” Zane didn’t elaborate, but she didn’t need to. Paulie understood. With a nod, they headed back to their patrol car. They had a shift to finish before anything else could happen.
Part the Twenty-Sixth
Of course, things didn’t work out exactly like Zane had planned for them to. Once Val had finished protesting the dangers of riding a motorcycle, she’d allowed Zane to put the helmet on her head and seat her before wrapping her arms around Zane’s waist and holding on for dear life. By the time they reached their destination, all the piss and vinegar she’d been imbued with had fled and the adrenaline rush she’d experienced was long gone.
So Zane had to practically lift Val from the seat and lean her against a tree long enough to spread the blanket she’d brought for them to sit on. She remembered to snag the bag of food she’d brought along, setting it beside her before sitting down and pulling Val down beside her.
Val blinked slowly, trying to form words to apologize. Even in her half-awake state, she recognized that Zane had gone to a little bit of effort to make things nice for them. She was just SO tired….
... then a finger on her lips caused her to freeze. The unexpected touch was soft and it brought her eyes up to meet Zane’s. Zane smiled and Val couldn’t stop the reflex action that creased her lips into a grin of her own.
“Shh,” Zane instructed. “You’re crashing – it’s okay. I understand, remember?” She shifted her hand and eased Val into a more comfortable position, resting her head on Zane’s thigh. “Sleep. I’ll still be here when you wake up.”
“An’ th’food?” Val inquired through a yawn.
“No promises,” Zane replied with a chuckle. Val slapped weakly at the leg jiggling beneath her head. Zane let one hand rest on Val’s ribcage while the other gently combed through the blonde hair spread over her leg. “Go to sleep, Val.” Her only answer was the soft snores as her breathing deepened.
Zane watched her for a while, letting her mind flit from subject to subject without settling on anything particular. Finally, however, she sighed. Despite how relaxed she felt at the moment, her mind insisted on returning to the situation she and Val found themselves in.
According to people whom she didn’t really know, the life she remembered living here wasn’t hers. And the life she had lived in the other timeline wasn’t the one she’d been destined for. And to top it off, she and Val were expected to fall in love to straighten everything out. She couldn’t help but think that they had been manipulated to suit someone’s purpose almost from the moment they’d been conceived.
Zane idly wondered what would happen when the clock rolled over from Halloween to All Saint’s Day in less than two weeks. Though Urim had given her the memories of her other life, she felt like it wasn’t really real – as though something was missing. She glanced down at the woman in her lap.
“I wonder what we would have been if we’d been left alone.”
“Hmm?” came the murmured response from the sleepy woman whose eyes remained closed as she rested her head on Zane’s leg. Zane looked down at Val fondly, realizing that without Urim’s intrusive presence, things were much less awkward between them... even knowing what they did.
“How ya feeling?” her fingers continuing to rake through Val’s hair and across her scalp.
“Still tired, but not so drained. You can keep doing that for a while though,” she added with a smile. “Feels nice.” She stretched as much as she could manage without really moving at all. “Did you leave me anything to eat?”
“I’ll have you know I didn’t touch anything,” Zane said, sticking out her tongue.
“That would explain the grumbling I hear going on,” Val replied with a smile. “So let’s eat.”
“You gonna sit up first or you expect me to feed you?”
“Well, depending on what you brought I can stay here and feed myself. But I’m too comfortable to move right now.”
“Hedonist,” Zane accused good-naturedly, but reached over and pulled the lunch bag closer.
“It’s one reason you love me,” Val said without thinking, causing all movement between them to stop. “I mean....”
“I know what you mean, Val. Maybe if things had been different....”
“Is that what you were thinking about earlier – when you were talking to yourself?”
“Yeah. I mean... if Urim hadn’t interfered with my life and whatshisname hadn’t messed with yours, who would we have been? What would we have done with our lives? Would we have grown up together or would our paths have never crossed?” Val chewed thoughtfully as Zane’s words trailed off, not really sure how to respond. “This is nice,” Zane continued after a few moments of comfortable silence. “Being here without Urim hawking over us – reminding us of....” Her words stopped flowing when Val reached up and covered her lips.
“He’s not here physically – let’s not invite him any other way.” Silence fell again, except for the rumbling purr Val was emitting. Zane’s chuckle turned into a full-fledged laugh when Val scrunched up her face in displeasure even as she sighed contentedly. Val cracked one eye open far enough to glare in Zane’s direction. Zane held up a hand in surrender.
“Sorry. You were purring. It was cute.”
“Glad I could amuse,” Val replied dryly. “Thank you for this, by the way. You’re right – it is nice... not having to worry about anything. We should do this more often.”
“You think we’ll get the chance?”
“I think our future is what we make of it.”
“I hope so. I feel like this entire experience has been one cluster after another.”
“What makes you say that?” Val asked, altering her position so she could see Zane clearly. Zane bit her lip and looked away, shrugging her shoulders. Val covered the hand that had slid to her hip when she turned. “Zane?” watching the blue eyes slowly track back to hers.
“None of this feels real, ya know? I mean... not really. I remember my whole life here, but according to you and Urim and Ayida... hell, judging by the memories Urim gave me, none of this is real. What I remember as truth never actually happened. And yet, despite the memories he shared... *forced* on me... that life seems no more real than this one. I know I was wildly successful – like Midas, you know? Everything I touched turned to gold. But it feels like so much bullshit... all of it.”
Val nodded slowly, seeing that Zane truly believed what she was saying. “So if this is bullshit and your other life was bullshit, what do you think is real? What would you want your life to be if you could choose?”
Zane gave Val a wry smile. “Back to that again are we?” Val shrugged lightly, careful not to dig any bones into Zane’s soft tissue.
“It’s something to consider... now more than ever.”
“Maybe. Do you think I could talk to Ayida before I answer it?”
Val didn’t answer – she merely rolled to her feet and offered a hand to Zane, who accepted it with a question in her eyes. “No signal,” Val replied succinctly. “Let’s go to my place and call from there. We know she knows where to find me.”
Without another word, Zane allowed herself to be pulled up, and together they repacked their picnic and headed for home.
Part the Twenty-Seventh
“Zane,” Ayida greeted as she walked past the woman who held open the door of Val’s brownstone. “Val indicated you wished to speak to me. She felt it was a matter of some urgency.”
Zane gestured her towards the living room, completing the motion by running her hand through her hair as she followed Ayida into the room. Val stepped in from the kitchen with a tray of coffee and Zane relieved her of it without a word. Ayida observed their interaction, but didn’t comment. Instead, she took a seat and waited for one of them to speak. It wasn’t until Val had served out coffee that Zane cleared her throat.
“Ayida, Val told me that you told her that this was one of a number of possibilities of what could have been for us.” It was a statement, but Zane waited for Ayida to nod her acknowledgment before she continued. “Are you able to tell if this is the right life – is this where we would have been had we been left to grow up as we should have been?”
“I don’t know, Zane. As I told you before, I can only see possibilities.”
“And did you choose this particular future when you moved us from the life Urim and whatshisname shifted us into with their actions?”
“No. I wasn’t given a choice. This is where you ended up by chance.”
Zane nodded but became silent, biting her lip in thought as her gaze went inward. Ayida and Val watched and sipped their coffee, keeping their own counsel, not wanting to distract Zane from her contemplation. Finally Zane returned her attention back to her present company and shook her head in embarrassment.
“Sorry. Can you still see the possibilities – can you see the other futures we might have shared?”
“I don’t know. I could try, I suppose. What are you looking for?”
“I want you to move us again – to hide us from Urim until after Halloween.”
“C’mon, Ayida – if we only have a few days left, I’d like to have a little peace without Urim always around trying to intimidate me into something.”
“Zane, it’s not that I don’t want to – I CAN’T. I called in every favor I had to get you away from him the first time. I don’t have the power to do it again. Trust me... if I could, I would. There is so much more at stake than the two of you.”
“Yeah... we know,” Zane ground out harshly. “The whole fucking human race is depending on us to fall in love so we can save the world or some such shit. No pressure there!” crossing her arms over her chest turning away as she huffed in frustration. Val put a hand on Ayida’s arm and shook her head before rising and putting a hand on Zane’s back. She felt her relax into the touch and lowered her voice to keep the conversation between them.
“Zane – it’s not her fault,” wincing when Zane glared in her direction but refusing to back down. “It’s not our fault either – it just is what it is. If we had more time....”
“... or if we just didn’t know,” Zane’s whisper was fierce in her frustration. “I think that’s the worst. Knowing there’s an expectation... knowing there’s a responsibility.... I dunno. I wonder if that knowledge hasn’t caused most of our problems.”
Val tilted her head. “You think so?”
Val nodded. “Yes. But I’m not sure what we can do about it now.”
“May I ask a question?” Ayida cut in, bringing their attention back to the fact that they weren’t alone. They turned together and Ayida noted that Val didn’t lose contact with Zane even as Zane stepped further into Val’s personal space. They may not realize it, but Ayida could see that there was more between them than awkward, new friendship. The problem was going to be getting them to acknowledge it before it was too late. When she saw them looking at her expectantly, she blushed, knowing she’d been caught staring.
“My apologies,” she mumbled. “I was thinking. It takes me that way some times,” smiling when they chuckled. Anyway,” she continued before they could interrupt. “I might be able to help with part of the problem you seem to be having. But I need to know something first. If you didn’t know about the caveat concerning the two of you - if you didn’t know about what was riding on this... the two of you - do you think you might have had a chance? Even for a casual hook-up?” stumbling slightly over the unfamiliar term. She watched as Val and Zane blushed at the unexpected question, then turned to study one another carefully. Finally, they seemed to come to a consensus, and focused on Ayida once more.
“I think so, yes,” Zane spoke. “If we’d met like any other two people in the world, I think there’s a good likelihood that we would have hooked up, as you put it.”
“We probably would have been more than just casual,” Val added, smiling at Zane when she whipped her head around to meet Val’s eyes.
Ayida held her tongue, knowing instinctively that snapping at Val for wasting so much time would accomplish nothing but putting their backs up. And there just wasn’t time for that anymore. Instead, she drew a breath and waited for them to look at her again. It took a few moments, but when she was confident she had their attention, she spoke.
“There might be something I can do for you. It wouldn’t be much – certainly not like moving you to another life or giving you more time or relieving you from the roles of responsibility you were thrust into by no choice of your own. But it might make the rest of your time together more enjoyable and less stressful.”
“What’s the catch?” Zane asked suspiciously.
“C’mon, Ayida – there’s always a catch... or an angle. Is that it? You’ve got an angle, right? It’s okay,” Zane reassured her when she saw the color rising in Ayida’s face. “Everybody does. I’m just curious to know what yours is.”
Ayida took a deep breath, silently counting to herself to calm her anger. She shouldn’t have been surprised at Zane’s attitude – after all, it was what she knew in both timelines. “My angle,” she said quietly, “is that the good guys win for a change. You didn’t ask for this... any of it – so if I can give you a few days to just enjoy together without any pressure, I’ll consider that a victory of sorts.”
“Because you’re not going to get the big prize are you? Us, I mean... falling in love and saving the world.”
Ayida shook her head sadly. “Probably not. And I’m not sure it was ever fair to put that burden on you,” she added. “Just because two people are made for one another doesn’t guarantee they will always get the faery tale, happy-ever-after ending.”
“Why do you think that – that Val and I are made for each other?”
“I don’t think it, Zane... I know. Don’t ask me how – just accept that I do.”
“Okay,” Zane agreed after seeing the truth in Ayida’s dark brown eyes. “So what’s your plan? I mean how are you going to make this whole situation better?”
Now Ayida smiled, her teeth gleaming white in her dark skin. “I’m going to make you forget. Not each other or your friendship – I’m going to make you forget about what’s at stake and who you were before. Until Halloween, you won’t remember anything but the friendship you have in this life.”
Val blinked. “If you can do that, why didn’t you do it earlier?”
“I told you – my hands are tied. I had to wait for you to come to me.”
Zane and Val exchanged glances, then nodded in tandem. “All right. Let’s do this.”
Ayida extended both hands, palms up. “Give me your hands. I’ll do the rest.” They placed their hands in hers and waited.
Part the Twenty-Eighth
“So Urim,” the Master began slowly, absently brushing at a fleck of imaginary lint on his Armani suit while crossing a Prada booted foot over his knee. “Would you like to explain to me what is going on? We have less than a week left and yet you are suddenly persona non grata as far as Zane and Valeria are concerned. Can you tell me why your presence no longer makes them uncomfortable?”
“I don’t understand it myself, Master. I’ve changed nothing about my routine or my attitude. It is as if they can no longer see me.”
The Master leaned back in his chair and regarded his man carefully. Urim wasn’t trying to deceive him – whatever had happened had nothing to do with Urim’s actions. “When did you notice the change?”
“I think it was a few days ago, Master. I was waiting for them at the coffee shop but they never came by. I didn’t think too much of it – after all, it was clearly keeping them off balance. I assumed....”
“You assumed...?” Urim shivered at the chill that skittered down his back at the icy words.
“In hindsight, I realize that might not have been the best choice, Master. But at the time....”
“So, if they no longer consider you a threat, why have you not approached them?” The Master waited only a moment, then resumed his discourse – this time, however, his words were so hot they burned a trail across Urim’s skin. “You cannot relax your efforts now, Urim. We are too close to claiming victory. Do not allow your pride to destroy the investment of years. You cannot possibly pay the price it would cost.”
“Do not test me on this, Urim. If you fail me, I will extract my price.”
The Master turned his attention back to the sharp crease of his pants, pinching it gently between his thumb and forefinger. Without another word, he spun his chair away from the desk, allowing his focus to return to the myriad of monitors on the wall. Urim took the hint and the opportunity and escaped out the door. He had work to do.
Paulie bit his lips together to keep the laughter from escaping. He didn’t know what had happened between Zane and Val, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that *something* had. For the past few days, Zane had been... happy. In fact, if she’d been anyone else, Paulie would have described her as giddy. Even now, sitting in the seat beside him, he could feel a vibe radiating off of her, and he finally decided to call her on it... just to see what she would say.
“So what’s gotten into you lately, Zane? You’re like... twitchin’ or somethin’.”
Zane turned to regard him and despite the fierce expression on her face, there was a twinkle in her eye that made Paulie smile. “You’re imagining things, Paulie. I’m just sitting here minding my own - looking out the window while you drive... again.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Wasn’t it supposed to have been my turn?”
Paulie snorted. “Given the fact it took you until halfway through the shift to notice, I’m thinkin’ it’s a good thing you’re not behind the wheel. So what gives? You seem... happy.”
She cocked a dark brow at him and smirked. “You say that like it’s an anomaly or something, Paulie.” He gave her the look right back as if to say, You’re kiddin’ me right? She snorted and he grinned and she shook her head.
“I am happy, Paulie. I just... I dunno.” Zane looked out the window and shrugged. “It’s been a good week.”
“How’s Val?” She snapped her head back around at him so fast he half-expected it to fly off.
“Why do you ask?” He just smirked at her and waited. She huffed out an impatient breath. “Fine – she’s good.” He waited and she rolled her eyes, but she was unable to keep the smile from crossing her lips. “We’re good,” she said plainly, gratified when he accepted her word with a nod. “It’s like... I dunno, Paulie. Something finally clicked with us. Like we were trying too hard before, you know.”
“So when ya taking her out?”
“Paulie, we make it a point to try and see each other every day for at least a few minutes. And I’m supposed to go to dinner with her Sunday – to meet her grandparents. Well, her Granny; I already met Gramps, but I don’t think he liked me much. Let’s face it – a beat cop isn’t really in the same class as a trauma surgeon.”
“So why are you goin’?”
“Val asked,” Zane replied with a diffident shrug. “She said her Granny insisted she wanted to meet me. I said okay.”
“Even though Gramps doesn’t approve?”
“Even though. I’m not doing it for him – I’m doing it for her.”
Paulie nodded, understanding everything Zane was saying and even more what she wasn’t. “So when ya gonna take her out?”
“Paulie....” the tone almost a whine.
“Zane, she takin’ you home to meet what counts as her folks – folks who want to meet you because of what Val has told them about you. Don’t you think you should be doin’ somethin’ too?”
“What? You want me to bring her over to your place, Paulie? She’d already met you and Rhonda.”
Paulie slammed on the brakes to the displeasure of those traveling behind him, but he didn’t let the honking horns distract him. Instead, he turned to look Zane squarely in the face. “Zane, I know this is movin’ a lot quicker than you’re used to and you’re probably terrified about the whole thing. But if you’re serious about Val bein’ in your life long-term, ya may wanna be thinkin’ a little more long term than coffee dates and casual hellos.”
“Did Rhonda put you up to this?” Zane asked, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring. Paulie held her eyes for another moment, then turned back to the steering wheel and put the vehicle in motion again.
“No, Smart ass. I was able to figure this one out all on my own.” He stuck his tongue out at her and Zane snorted. “I’ll have you know that aside from being a decorated police officer – which makes me a student of human nature, I’ll have you know - I managed to woo and wed Rhonda on my own and keep her happy for fifteen years. You could learn a thing or two from the old man, Junior.”
“In your dreams, Paulie,” Zane retorted with a laugh.
“In yours too... if you’re real lucky, Zane.” He glanced at her a moment, then returned his attention to the road. “I like seein’ you happy. I’d like it to stay that way.”
Zane nodded and looked back out her window. “Me too, Paulie. Me too.”
“You think Granny will like her?” Val asked Gramps as they tended to the small flowerbeds outside the brownstone. Gramps pulled off a glove and ran a hand through his hair, taking a seat on the step and waiting for Val to join him before passing her a glass of lemonade.
“You’re Granny’s gonna love her, Pumpkin. I liked her just in the few minutes I met her – though I’m not sure she liked me.”
“How could someone not like you, Gramps? You’re the nicest person in the world.”
“Perhaps I misspoke. I believe she was uncomfortable around me, but it may have been what I represented instead of me personally.” He took a swallow of his drink. “That’s good stuff,” he said with a smile. “However, I guess we’ll see Sunday. I do know I’ve heard enough about her to respect Zane for who she is and what she’s done with her life.”
“Good – maybe things will go smoothly then.”
“She important to you?”
“She’s my friend, Gramps – but she could be more in time. So yes... she’s important to me.”
“Well then,” Gramps replied with a sly smile. “Sunday should prove to be quite an interesting day.”
Val didn’t say anything, but the look she gave him was very telling. Gramps had all he could do to keep from laughing aloud.
Part the Twenty-Ninth
Sunday was considered quite a success after an initial rocky start. Zane had been uncomfortable, not really sure what Granny and Gramps expected of her. Truthfully, she wasn’t sure what Val expected of her – in the nearly two weeks they’d shared together since their impromptu picnic, they had seen each other for a little while every day. Coffee, a couple lunches... even dinner once, but mostly it was just time spent at one place or another where they could talk for a while – learning about each other.
It was a little bizarre if Zane stopped to think about it – something she tried not to do if it could be avoided. But she knew things between her and Val were more than a little weird. Just a few months ago, they had been strangers, and that had morphed into an awkward friendship. She still couldn’t pinpoint what had happened to remove the awkwardness, but she was glad it was gone. She was discovering that Val was someone she wanted to have in her life on a more permanent basis.
It had been one reason she’d agreed to come to dinner with Val and her grandparents – and one reason she felt so out of place. She and Val still hadn’t defined what they were to each other, and this seemed like a HUGE step – especially since Zane was convinced she didn’t measure up in Gramps’ eyes.
It wasn’t until Gramps invited her into his study – which was in fact the tool room area in the garage – that Zane finally understood that she was projecting her own insecurities. Gramps thought very highly of her and didn’t hesitate to assure her of that fact. Then he leaned against the tool bench and crossed his arms over his chest, his manner serious, though not intimidating.
“Valeria has always been shy about making friends. She was always too engrossed in her studies to bother. So she hasn’t brought anyone home in a long time, Zane. I don’t know what’s between the two of you – I don’t want to know unless there’s a reason I need to be consulted about something,” giving Zane a pointed look. She nodded her understanding rapidly and Gramp’s eyes twinkled... just a little. Then he sobered. “I’m just asking that you take care not to hurt her... even if all you ever are is friends. She really is all we have left in the world, Zane.”
“I’ll do my best, sir. She is very lucky to have you. I hope she knows that.”
“I suspect she thinks as you do, Zane, but we’re the lucky ones. One day when the wife’s not waiting to talk to you, we’ll sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.”
The day had gotten easier from there. Granny accepted Zane as if she’d always been a part of Val’s life. And Val was glad to see Zane relax and enjoy spending time with two of the most important people in her life.
On the way back to Zane’s place, Val had taken Zane’s hand in hers and squeezed it lightly. Zane gave her a slight smile and arched her brow in question. “Thank you for coming with me today, Zane. I know you were kind of uncomfortable for a while.”
Zane shrugged. “I was to start,” she admitted, “but I’m glad I went. You’ve got good folks, Val. I was happy to meet them.”
“Well, Granny told me to make sure I brought you back often,” her words garnering her a chuckle from Zane. Val tilted her head curiously. “What?”
“She told me the same thing,” making Val frown, then shake her head in exasperation.
“She really liked you then.”
“Of course – what’s not to love?” Zane asked cockily, then blushed at the implications of her words. She cleared her throat and Val glanced at her. “Speaking of,” Zane said softly, “would you like to get together tomorrow? We’re both off, and I’d rather be doing something with you than handing out candy to the neighborhood kids.”
“You just want to keep all the chocolate to yourself!” Val accused with a grin.
“Well, yeah,” Zane responded with a DUH tone in her voice. “Though I might be persuaded to share with you if you ask nicely.”
“I can do nice.” Val paused a beat. “But I do naughty better.”
“Is that so? Well, well – I just might need to investigate this little turn of events.”
“Then I suggest you pick me up for lunch at noon tomorrow, and we’ll see how things progress from there. Who knows?” Val added impishly as she slid her hand from Zane’s and strode up the stairs of the brownstone. “You might get lucky enough to see naughty before the night’s over.” She was inside with the door closed behind her before Zane regained her senses. Before she could knock on the door until Val was forced to open it, Zane turned on her heel and headed home.
“This was nice,” Val said as they walked back down the street towards the brownstone in the early evening. There were children dressed in all manner of costumes; she and Zane chuckled as they subtlely pointed out different favorites to one another. When they reached the brownstone, Val pulled Zane up the steps by the hands and turned, leaning back against the door as she looked up into Zane’s blue eyes. “Would you like to come in?”
“Depends,” Zane replied, loosening the fingers of one hand to prop it against the doorframe, bringing her face into closer proximity of Val’s. She gave a rakish grin, and Val’s lips creased in reflex.
“Does it? On what?”
“Am I lucky enough to see naughty?”
Val’s nostrils flared and she grasped Zane hair in her hand, pulling her down until their lips were a hairsbreadth apart. “You sure you’re up to it?”
For answer, Zane leaned down and captured Val’s lips, snaking their joined hands around the slim waist. “I dunno – what do you think?” Zane queried as she moved her lips away slightly.
Val smirked and kissed Zane again, recovering her other hand and tangling it with the first. Only when they were both breathless did she pull away. “I think,” she said unevenly, slipping the key from her pocket, “you’re about to get very lucky.”
Zane snagged the key from her fingers and shoved it in the lock, groaning in frustration when it stuck. Val giggled and turned, covering Zane’s hands and jiggling it until the door swung open. Her giggles turned to outright laughter when Zane growled. Then the laughter turned to moans when Zane let her hands trail over Val’s body. Mindful of the children still out and about in the neighborhood, they pushed inside the house and slammed the door behind them. This trick or treating was an adults only activity and promised to go on well into the night.
“So what are we now?” Zane asked as she propped her head on her hand some hours later. It wasn’t quite midnight, but it was close enough that Val had insisted she stay to avoid the ghosts and goblins that wreaked their havoc at the witching hour. “I mean – we’re friends, right?” waiting for Val to nod her head. “Right. But this,” motioning between their naked bodies. “Are we fuck buddies or friends with benefits or...?”
Val shifted until her position mirrored Zane’s, and she tucked the sheet up under her arms to preserve her sense of modesty. “I think we’re way beyond,” she grimaced a little, “fuck buddies, and I think we’re more than friends with benefits. I wouldn’t classify us as lovers yet – I don’t think I love you yet, and I’m pretty sure you don’t love me either. But I think it’s something we could work towards if we’re both willing.”
“It’s a shame you’ll never have the opportunity,” an unknown voice said from a corner of the room, causing both of them to whirl to find the source of the intrusion. Zane frowned when she recognized Urim leaning casually against the wall, and she sat up, heedless of her nakedness.
“Urim?? What the hell??”
“What a very apt question, my dear,” Urim smiled as he pushed himself away from the wall. “I’m here to take you home, and hell is going to seem like a pleasant experience compared to what’s waiting for you there.”
“What are you...?”
“No,” Val cut in. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, Urim, but we’re not going anywhere with you. Not now – not ever.”
“Oh,” Urim assured them as he stepped closer. “This is no game.” He gestured to the wall he had been leaning against, smiling when a whirlpool opened up behind him. “Game’s over – I win.” He turned to Zane and extended his hand. “Come, my dear. Time to go home.”
Of its own volition, Zane’s body began to strain towards the vortex, the force of the pressure causing her to scream in anguish as she clenched both fists into the mattress and held on for dear life. Without thought, Val wrapped her arms around Zane’s waist to anchor her. Her touch absorbed enough of the pain that Zane was able to breathe past it. Then she looked at Val who had tears in her eyes from the agony she felt.
“Let me go, Val! I won’t let you suffer for me.”
“And I won’t let you go without me,” shouting to be heard above the wind as the whirlpool grew bigger and the swirl pulled harder. “If we do this – we do this together.”
“No, Zane. No matter what we do or don’t feel for each other right now, I’m not letting go. Friends stick together, all right? So just get over it!”
Zane turned enough to cup Val’s face in her hands and pulled their lips together in a brief kiss. “I could have loved you, you know… given enough time.”
“I know. In another time and place, I could have loved you too.” She held blue eyes with green. “Let go of the bed, Zane. I won’t let go of you.”
They forgot about Urim and the possibility of what lay beyond the current they could feel washing over them in waves. Instead, they looked at each other, and let go.
Part the Thirtieth
“Master?” Urim called out, unsure why he had returned to the Master’s office instead of the life he’d share with Zane for years. Surely he would be allowed to monitor her – to torment her in return for restoring her to the fold. Winning should have some kind of benefits... right? He looked back at the Master who was glaring at him through blazing eyes and shrunk back. “Master?” he repeated in a pleading tone, wondering what had gone so wrong that he was here.
The Master leaned back in his chair, fury radiating off him like a tangible thing, even as he stroked his chin calmly while regarding his lackey. He couldn’t completely fault, Urim – he too had assumed they had everything in the bag... especially when both Zane and Val had been unable to acknowledge any sort of love between them. Even now the Master had people looking into what exactly had gone wrong – to determine if they had any recourse in claiming Zane or Val.
For the moment, however, he was more concerned about releasing some of the pent-up anger the felt bubbling up, and Urim was his primary target. Because the fact remained, despite everything else, Urim had cost them their victory due to his lack of diligence. And the Master was going to exact payment for that mistake. It would take them decades to recover from this setback.
“Tell me, Urim – how is it you managed to destroy years of work with your incompetence?”
“Do you know why you’re here, Urim? Do you know how you ended up in this place instead of back in Zane’s old life... keeping an eye on her until the day she came to us on a more permanent basis?” This time Urim remained silent, sensing he was much closer to the edge than he’d ever imagined. The Master was content to let him stay quiet as he continued thinking aloud. “I am very disappointed in you Urim. You assured me this was in the bag; you were certain you had things with Zane wrapped and bound in an unbreakable contract. And yet she did not return to the life we provided her with nor is she here with us. Why do you suppose that is, Urim? The Master asked calmly, fingers steepled together in front of his lips.
“I do not understand, Master. We had the contracts. And they admitted that they didn’t love one another....”
“Why did you not continue to be a presence in their lives, Urim?”
“Master, I did – you must know I did,” gesturing to the multitude of monitors along the wall. “It was like they couldn’t see me... as if I had no bearing on their interaction.”
“And you didn’t approach them because...? Make them aware of your presence in a more tangible way?” Before Urim could formulate an answer, the Master waved off his explanations. “It doesn’t really matter at this point, Urim. There is no excuse. We had them and we lost. And now it is time to pay the piper,” the smiling expression sending chills up Urim’s spine. But there was no time for words as the Master flicked a wrist and Urim’s world was nothing more than blinding pain. “That’s all.”
The Master watched for a moment longer, then turned his attention back to the monitors with a sigh. They would be years trying to recover from this fiasco. The sooner he got started, the sooner there would be a equitable resolution in his favor. So he buckled down to work, looking for his next great break.
Ayida looked around in approval. They couldn’t see her of course, but she could see them tangled up in bed together. Finally, Zane and Val were in the life that had been destined for since birth. With one last glance in their direction she shed her persona, blue eyes twinkling as she shimmered out of sight.
Zane slowly stretched as she blinked her eyes open, smiling at the warmth that covered her naked body. She wrapped her arms around the body resting on hers, chuckling when Val began nuzzling into her neck. A light slapping motion caused her laughter to grow, until Val sat up enough to glare at her.
“I was sleeping, you know. Why is my body pillow moving?”
“Sorry, baby. I was just thinking how lucky I am,” squeezing Val’s body into her own. “Then you started tickling me.”
“Me? I was just laying here minding my own business....”
“... nuzzling into my neck, tickling me.”
Val sat up, the sheet slipping down to expose her nakedness. Zane leered at the skin on display before her, meeting Val’s amused eyes with unabashed adoration. “See something you like?”
Zane tightened her grip, pulling Val back down into her body. “See someone I love, actually,” smiling at the blush that crawled up Val’s face. It amazed her that after their years together, she could still cause such a reaction. Val leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose.
“So do I,” she acknowledged with a smile, then yawned. “Sorry... long night.”
“Busy in the trauma unit?” Zane asked, shifting them around until she could spoon Val from behind. She ran gentle patterns over Val’s stomach, smiling when Val yawned again and snuggled deeper into Zane’s embrace.
“Hmm... you know how it is on nights with a full moon. And since last night was Halloween....” letting her words trail off. “When is your next book signing trip?”
“Not for a while. I told Ayida I needed some time off. I’m tired of being without you.”
“No buts. We took vows to stick together through thick and thin, and I feel like I’m missing too much of our life together. I can write anywhere. I don’t need to go here, there and everywhere to sign books.”
Val shifted in Zane’s arms until they were face to face. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
“Not this morning, no.”
“How remiss of me – I love you, Zane... heart and soul.”
“I love you, Val – to hell and back. Now c’mon. Back to sleep with you for a little while, sweetheart. And when you wake up, we’ll see what we can see.”
“As long as I’m with you, love, it’s all good. Stay with me?”
“For as long as you want.”
“The rest of our lives, then. Who knows? Maybe together we will change the world.”